Thursday, December 30, 2010

Lessons from Hula

I'd be jumping for joy in my first hula lessons, but it wouldn't be graceful.  Learning steps whose names sound like a mouthful of vowels, and combining them with hand motions that tell a story is akin for me to patting my head while rubbing my stomach. But this substitute exercise is teaching lessons quite different from my usual Step and Pilates classes.

First of all, I see how seriously Hawaiians take this art form.  It's not just beautiful dance, but actually a means of oral history.  Before contact with Captain Cook in 1797, the Hawaiian people had no written language.  The particular hula I'm learning tells of a now-inaccessible waterfall on the island of Kaua'i, and one of the enacted lyrics admonishes listeners never to forget that place.  My hula teacher, whose name is Napualei, tells me to focus on conveying the meaning of the words, and that will help me with the proper hand motions and steps, which are like graceful Charades.

But it's not so easy.  Some of the steps require considerable agility.  One of them with a Hawaiian name that sounds to me like "oh-oo-oh-oo-ahh-ee," requires (with constantly bended knees) lifting a foot then quickly bending both knees further, shifting to the other foot, lifting, and bending both knees, in such rapid succession (with swaying hips), double time, that I feel like Klutz of the Year. But it sure is fun.

Then, there are the head moves.  Since you're an oral historian, you've got to be earnest about this. It's fact; hula's messages must be believed and preserved.  So you keep your eyes on the hands. You're stepping right, you look...left, because usually your hands are over there. Keep those knees bent. Sway those hips in the proper direction. Fingers together, thumbs in line! Elbows up, arms at mid-chest...this gets complicated.

So the lesson for me is humility. Not just because I'm so bad at this, feeling like an awkward little kid, but because I learned that the Hawaiian culture is disciplined.  I'd had a less-than-complimentary view, when observing the homeless' tarp-covered heaps, road improvements that take years, my local friend's ideas to solve community problems ignored, unions' impact on elections, and a laid-back, not-crisp attitude about time.  But the islanders who originally populated this region must have had incredible paddling skills, self-selected fom the hardiest and most inquisitive of their original populations.  They developed this detailed, precise means to communicate, with its own language far beyond the usual depictions of tribal chanting and jumping.

Now, hula changed after Europeans came to Hawaii.  Beforehand, it was used not only to praise kings but as a religious observance--and the natives had all sorts of animistic gods to appease. In fact, it's said that hula was invented by the goddess Laka, to please the big Volcano guy Pele.  Hawaiians had human sacrifice; at the Mo’okini Heiau on the Big Island, it's said thousands died to placate the god Ku.  In some cases, performing a hula for a ruler flawlessly could be a matter of life and death.

For me, an eager tourist embracing all the local color in this vibrantly brilliant place, hula is exercise, it's culture, it's something to study and learn and admire.

The other day, a friend born here on Oahu ("the gathering place") brought together many visiting friends for a lovely picnic.  Her 85-year-old mom played the ukulele and regaled us in a rich, melodious voice with traditional hula songs (she'd been a hula star in her younger years).  And as she sang, my friend, who had taken hula lessons since her early childhood, told the stories with her hands, singing harmonies, her body undulating rhythmically and effortlessly.

And what is the content of most modern hula songs ("mele")?  The inescapable beauty of the environment.  Lush forests, several types of rain, each with its own term and motion, stark mountains that jut upward like a dimetrodon dinosaur's spine, waterfalls, sunsets and rainbows.

That is the most salient lesson of hula for me:  Appreciation for the gifts of the senses surrounding me here in this God-blessed place.  Where plump pink guavas fall from trees overhanging highways; where the round orange sun setting into the sea produces the fabled "green flash" of life in the dying light. Where even strong rain feels like playful tickles because the air is so caressingly warm, day and night.  Where fish blaze with stunning colors and whimsical shapes and blithely ignore snorklers.  And where I can doff my thermal underwear and heavy boots to feel the silky sand of Waimanalo beach hugging my toes.  The surf is the sway of the hula. The cooing turtledoves in the morning the voice of Popo, my friend's mom, describing the scene in song.

In that sense, hula is still a religious experience, because the beauties of nature connect us most directly to God, their source.  Wading in the green and aqua water reminds us of our vulnerability, and watching North Shore surfers brings respect for the strength and power of the tides. Temperatures consistently comfortable let us enjoy and connect with each aspect of the natural world far better than huddling in parkas, or inside a well-heated house.

 Here in Hawaii, where car license plates feature the colorful arc, the Double Rainbow guy's comment holds: "it's so intense!" And to answer his question, "what does it MEAN?", it's a delightful and important reminder of our tiny place in this brilliant universe.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Homeless in Hawaii

Leave it to the homeless to dampen my enthusiasm for paradise.

I haven't blogged in awhile as I'm in Hawaii, the best new-empty-nesters gift my husband could have given me this winter.  I'd rather have a warm downpour than a frigid one, and the overcast skies punctuated by monsoon-style cloudbursts have offered enough intermittent sunshine to allow us some beachy afternoons and great tete-a-tetes with friends to create some fabulous photos and indelible memories.

Equally memorable were the "landed-homeless" whose blue-tarp-covered heaps of possessions pock the grass-strips between sidewalk and street, even in the most touristed areas of Waikiki. Their tents pitched under banyans in parks and their groaning shopping carts draped with plastic bags stationed along sidewalks remind us that hospitable liberal government would rather enable freeloading on public property than business to high per-square-foot rent-paying establishments.

I've seen matted-haired scavengers picking through trash bins along the beach, and even right in front of Kalakaua Avenue designer shops, searching for cans to redeem for pennies.  Last night my husband and I walked by a woman settled on a store stoop who appeared in her 50's, entreating passersby for their restaurant doggie bags.  On a drive around the island, we saw a public elementary school lawn food distribution, long tables of comestibles seemingly offered to anyone approaching.

If you've gotta be homeless, Hawaii's the place.  No huddling under freeway underpasses  when you can sleep unmolested to the sound of lapping waves in a green park on the Waikiki shore.  In doorways, in front of expensive shops, you can catch your zzz's.  On last night's walk, we saw a guy lying asleep on the Kalakaua thoroughfare sidewalk. Near his extended form he'd laid out a couple necklaces, ostensibly for sale. His fingers clutched some kind of rifle, even in his sleep.  His clothes and person were dark with dirt, in contrast to the white sidewalk.  What an appealing incentive to spend big bucks in Fendi, Coach, and the other glitzy stores a few feet away.

I think it's heartless to allow pitiable people to amass mountains of stuff inches from the street, rather than placing the sad souls with mental health providers or shelters, which they obviously need.  Peeking from under their tarps were all sorts of gleaned goods, including a baby car seat. Some of the piles were ten feet high--clear evidence of the problems these vagrants face.

We've been privileged to come to Honolulu, where my husband works during our stays, many times over the years. I've never seen so many and such conspicuous homeless encampments, just plopped down in the most desirable footage on the planet.

The graffiti seems to have increased, too.  Now, I'm not complaining, as my daughter in New York is stranded by a blizzard, and our friends back in the Great North-wet shiver under continuing wintry storms.  But you'd think that Hawaii would want to rely on more than just the weather to entice visitors. Their "shaka" attitude of casualness goes a little too far when tourists are forced to step around some pretty disgusting inhabitants, and doesn't serve those individuals or their neighbors at all.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Something comforting about...Holidays and "Hair"

Chanukah has just wrapped up for the year, Christmas is in its full carols-are-everywhere swing, candles are burning, lights are twinkling, and over the last week, I attended a revival of the 60's "tribal" paean, "Hair" and a new musical version of "A Christmas Story."

What do they have in common?  A nostalgia for happy times, a grounding that brings gratitude not only for survival, but for the many blessings we enjoy.  Why is this particularly crucial now, in 2010 (a year that as a child, I could never have fathomed experiencing)?  Because increasingly, politics and media and world events impress on us the fragility of life and the precariousness of our good fortune.

In 1967 when "Hair" opened, I was a young teenager who perhaps should have been forbidden from seeing the production at the Aquarius Theater on Sunset Strip in LA.  I don't think my parents really knew the content--there was no internet for them to google the synopsis and read reviews describing the nude scene and snubs at authority and the mounting Vietnam war.  I saved my money until I could afford the cheapest seat, which was labled "obstructed," meaning there was a thick post blocking half the stage. 

I doubt I'd ever attended a stage play before, but this was symbolic of the electricity this new generation was creating, the counter-cultural, self-serving morals that here found expression in a very much for-profit venue.  I recall the audacity of the music, with its non-rhyming lyrics, the tie-dye-style lighting, the characters who did stuff I'd never consider, like tripping out and burning draft cards and sleeping around, and of course, forever planted in my memory is a frozen view of the infamous nude scene.  Well, the half of it on the good side of the pole.

The theater was nearly dark, and a fabric scrim dropped down in front of the actors, who stood, motionless, without a sound.  People in the audience could barely make out silhouettes.  It was assumed the characters were nude, because, after all, that was the big promise, and the big affront to moral sensitivities--a demonstration of youthful rebellion.

Flash to last weekend, when a friend and I, decked out in tie-dye, joined a motley audience of Boomers (many similarly clad) and an assortment of others (including lots of same-sex couples).  "The nude scene" was incidental. No scrim, some brighter lights, moving actors (including one woman who did a cartwheel), the back-up band playing--not a big deal.  More surprising to me was the blatantly simulated sex and nearly constant sexual moves.  Reminded me that "tribal love" for 18-25-year-olds is more about physical drives than enduring connections, a legitimate point about all that faux-significant uniting.

The music in "Hair" transported me to the gazillion times I heard the Broadway soundtrack in the following year or two after the show.  Songs like "Sodomy" and "Hair" arrogantly blasted polite convention.  And now? The hippies morphed into "baby-on-board" parents who helicopter around their kids making sure they dot their i's on college applications and have the latest iPhones.  Where's the anti-materialist, anti-establishment rebellion now?

Just about nowhere, man.  With nearly every social experiment a fizzle, we're back to good old capitalistic, entrepreneurial striving, even as the crushed economy limps along.  And when the holidays approach, we don't like the modernistic snow branches at Seattle's airport, designed not to offend.  We want "The Christmas Story," which decks the classic film about the late radio storyteller Jean Shepherd's memories of boyhood in Indiana with lots of glitzy dancing and singing.  You know, the movie with little plot but sugary vignettes: a kid who wants an air rifle his mom insists will "shoot your eye out," a class bully who gets his come-uppance, an endearing sad-sack Dad who wins a lamp with a fishnet-stocking'd leg base, a devoted Mom, a kid brother, and a classmate who gets his tongue stuck to a flagpole.

We want traditions and nostalgia and connections across generations and eras, because the year is ending and the darkness is foreboding.  Even atheists are aware that this is a time of faith, as the chill and night remind us of our vulnerability and our need for each other.  Our human confidence lowers in the deep, dank of winter, when branches are bare and the light its weakest.

It's no coincidence that the candles of Chanuka illuminate the darkest month, with the holiday's history of resistance to assimilative forces that turn away from God.  Modern people desire Christmas light displays and the symbolism of the bright star followed by the wisest of men.

I enjoyed "Hair" because it erased age and time (though the superficial "tribe" linked only through sex, drugs and bucking convention now looks pretty bogus) and I appreciated the pleasure of the audience at "A Christmas Story" even when the musical numbers seemed a bit over-the-top. An older guy seated next to me guffawed, clapped and enthused identification with the anecdotes, condensing commonalities across time.

I'm not the only one marveling at seasonal light extravaganzas, or even delighting at the twinkling white LED strings up in my living room.  Carols may be played dozens of times, but we don't tire of them because they exude comfort and security. Familiar traditions let us endure the economy and the weather with the message that we can rely on families, friends and a grander power to get past the darkness and add light like each of the days following the winter solstice.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Time for new obscenities? Yawn.

When "F*** You" is a nominee for both the Grammy's record and song of the year, and the National Portrait Gallery hosts a Christmas season exhibit of "gay art" that included an image of Jesus on the cross with ants crawling into his wounds, you know there's very little left that can shock the public.

The problem is not with the outrageous terms and visuals themselves--or even that they get wide exposure.  Cee Lo's expletively-titled song remains an honoree with negligible reaction to its moniker. The "gay art" show continues. The problem only arose with the Gallery's "Hide/Seek" exhibit because taxpayers were footing the bill, which subjected it to greater scrutiny.  And when objections surfaced, the one item of removed "art" was soon displayed a few blocks away in a private gallery, where it receives little comment, other than from advocates who want the video featuring the disrespectful scenes reinstated in the show.

"F*** You" by Cee Lo Green, a catchy ditty that airs on radio with FCC acceptance in a moderated version, "Fuh-get You," hasn't become a cause celebre, nor does the song contain much controversial aside from two words.  Its message of frustration at rejection by a gold-digging girl is clever but wouldn't fly without its bouncy tune.  The music video has more than 28 million hits on YouTube, and its scenes in a diner of the child, teen and young adult Cee Lo enduring and then responding to being spurned, despite its punctuation with profanity, is lighthearted.  The Supremes-like girl back-up group adds to its ambiance. Actually, so many repetitions of the expletives serve to diminish any impact.

If anybody expected a huge outcry about how disgusting or upsetting the "art" or Cee Lo Green's lyrics are, he was sure to be disappointed.  Sure, we can lament the plummet of politeness, but the relaxation of language has rendered once-shocking words impotent.  If the best a really angry person can do to express his consternation is the f-word, well, it's more of a chuckle than an affront.  If someone wants to rattle the public by producing the most disgusting or institution-jabbing visual he can imagine, he can indulge his fantasy, and if some gallery owner thinks it will sell, it will be hung and viewed and maybe even called "art," but unless it does something to a Koran, it won't get much reaction.  We've all seen whatever-it-is before in movies, or after watching a flick's trailer, decided we'd rather not see it--but either way, ho-hum.

Remember when The Stones' "Satisfaction" and the Kingsmen's "Louie Louie" had their slurred lyrics interpreted as so nasty parents forbid teens from listening?  Well, nobody else does, either.

It'll take some pretty creative inventing to come up with swear words that provoke overwhelming shock and revulsion, ever again.  Do we need new obscenities to fill the lack?  I'd say no, but given today's cultural climate, somebody is bound to try.  Nobody's exempt from the influence of media; as my husband and I wrote in a book on childhood innocence years ago, avoiding popular culture is like trying to stop breathing.  Parents would do best to discuss the issue, to distinguish between words that elevate and those that cheapen and downgrade.  They'll do their kids a favor to set standards for speech in their own families that complement standards for behavior.

But ultimately, when confronted with harsh language, they'll all probably do what everyone else is doing anyway--shrug it off.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Power's Out--life's down

The northwest is blanketed by snow, with several inches falling last night.  Eager to avoid the mess that occurred a couple years ago when, out of environmental extremism, Seattle refused to salt its steep downtown streets, paralyzing the city, snowplowing, sanding and salting commenced immediately.  Our daughter, fearing difficulty getting to work in her teeny car, was set to sleep over at our house, which is much closer than hers to her job.

Needless to say, for a mom still afflicted with the dreaded Empty Nest Syndrome since our son went off to study abroad this September, I was thrilled to have an evening of girlie movies, Bananagrams and face time chat, rather than merely the online kind. 

With the wind whipping outside, my daughter commented as we sorted our Bananagrams tiles, that she was glad we still had electricity.  That's when the lights went off.  My next words: "Thanks, sweetie."

Thanksgiving gains a new item for gratitude when you realize just how dependent we are on electricity. And on a whole lot more.

I got out some candles, and the hand-crank emergency lantern.  My husband relished this opportunity to use his wind-up flashlight.  He brought in an armful of firewood since our furnace could no longer shield us from the 26-degree weather outside.  I was just thinking that this could be a fun adventure, when my daughter's boyfriend called.

He was at his parents' home, a few blocks away from us. "What? You've lost power? We've still got ours; why don't you come over here?" he suggested. His parents, too, were recent empty-nesters, and had plenty of spare bedrooms.

My husband would have none of it.  Give up his own bed? Abandon our home to darkness and snow?  Not under his macho watch.  I was welcome to join our daughter if I liked, but not him, Uh-unh.

The steep driveway at the parents' house precluded Boyfriend's driving to pick up our daughter, so my hunky husband insisted he walk her through the darkness to meet him.  "Stay home," he commanded me. "I don't want you out in this."

What if on his solo return, he slipped, fell and crushed his cell phone, and was left to be frostbitten in the snow?  After the usual male-female debate, the three of us set out in the hazy moonlight through a forest, our boots crunching the virgin snow.  Only meager flashlights lit our footsteps. The eerie stillness was punctuated by gusts whirring through firs.  The cold was invigorating, the snow brightening deep-laden boughs.  I sniffled with the chill; my husband's tree branch walking stick struck the earthen path in rhythmic accompaniment.

Poetic experience, 2010.  Daugher's cell phone nearly out of battery; need to guard the remaining charge in the others. Writing in progress lost to suddenly-dead computer. Cordless phones don't work unless plugged in.  How to arise on time tomorrow, when it's too dark to read a wristwatch, and the clock radio's blank?

Food's colder on the counter than in the fridge. Don't open the freezer, lest everything spoil.  Candle wax drips on floor and counter; can't read by its flickering light.  Sitting in near-dark in a down coat, gloves and high boots, watching breath form steam.

The phone company recording says power should be restored at 3 am.  Nothing to do but go to sleep.

On this Thanksgiving eve, I marvel at how spoiled we are.  It has not been that long since every nighttime brought the end to most productive activities.  It was as different as night and day; now both meld into 24-hour florescent-lit supermarkets where your choice of cereals spans four rows of products, thirty feet long.  Where we are reachable at all times, by phone, text, Skype, IM, and if we choose, our location anywhere on earth can be pinpointed and broadcast, moving here-to-there.

We can find out the value and sales history of any property instantly, and see its street view. We can watch any television program at any time, while in bed, at a coffee house, even while riding a bus.  We can take pictures and video and post them for the world to see, and replay, and distort, and put auto-tune to, each person with potential for fame gone viral.

What has this done?  Unfortunately, it's made us impatient and selfish.  If the internet's down, we get indignant.  If we have to wait in line, we fume and call a manager.

We no longer take responsibility for what befalls us.  Every accident is someone else's fault, and that someone will be sued and have to pay.  Every child deserves a hot lunch and dinner, not as a parent's duty but as an entitlement that taxpayers must provide.

All this causes stress and worry and makes us angry.  Anger is the opposite of happiness.  The antidote to anger is gratitude.

A Wall Street Journal article today explains how saying thank you and counting your blessings is associated with higher achievement, more energy, and greater well-being.  It mentions that researchers believe that half of what determines one's temperament, which translates generally into being a glass-is-half-full person or the glass-is-half-empty sort, is genetic.  The rest comes from learning and experience.  So even if your temperament bends toward the negative, you can practice, i.e. force yourself, to observe and state the positive, and to credit others for their roles in your successes.

You may think that's being dishonest with your feelings. No, it's a strategy, a purposeful means you choose to employ to replace negativity with optimism, blame with gratitude.  It takes self control: "gratitude is actually a demanding, complex emotion that requires 'self-reflection, the ability to admit that one is dependent upon the help of others, and the humility to realize one's own limitations,'" says UC Davis psych profesor Robert Emmonds in the WSJ story.

But it's not just a personal battle.  I do believe our culture pushes us toward arrogance, narcissism, instant gratification and materialism, as opposed to the abstracts of kindness and appreciation.  With an iPhone in your hand, you control the world; you're powerful.

That is, until the electricity goes out.  Without your charger, without battery, without light or heat, you realize your true size and true dependence. Not just on the electric company, but on the Power who determines your continued existence, and the people who make it worthwhile.

I was so thankful at 3 am, awakened by lights blazing in the house, clock numbers by my bed flashing, and the furnace whooshing on.

The thermometer outside reads 16 degrees at the moment, but I don't take for granted being warm. It's the perfect time to remember we're all vulnerable, interconnected, and small, with so many wonders and miracles to enjoy. And for which to give thanks.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Thanksgiving Turkeys--imbued with spirituality?

Presidential pardon, 2009
I was just sitting down with a freshly-brewed espresso and the newspaper, reminding myself to pick up the 15-lb. kosher turkey I'd ordered, when an article about slaughtering your own Thanksgiving bird nearly made me gag.

Not because it included a blood-tinged description, or the headline, "The Main Course Had an Unhappy Face."  Not because it described a chic trend to "know your food," which seems at times like a ploy aimed at bolstering niche farms whose products are pitched to the elite.  Not because it proclaimed that the $7/lb. Bourbon Red produced succulent results with only salt and pepper as condiments.

What grabbed me was that the writer, the New York Times' "city critic" Ariel Kaminer, chose to patronize Madani Halal in Queens, held up for "the slaughterhouse's commitment to minimizing animals' discomfort."  He noted that it "follows Islamic dietary strictures," and was not at all perturbed that, at the moment he and owner Imran Uddin jointly slit Red's throat, the butcher declared, "'Bismillah Allahu Akbar,' Arabic for 'In the name of Allah the great.'"

Ariel Kaminer enjoyed his Allah-blessed, $7/lb. free-range, self-slaughtered turkey with salt and pepper satisfied that the animal experienced a humane death.  Meanwhile, he neglected to mention that the Muslim ritual came about 1300 years after Jewish law required similar swift single-cut slaughter--first establishing reverence in the taking of life, minimizing pain, and draining of blood (out of a respect for the life-force that once coursed the animal's veins), among many, many other restrictions, tough enough that many practicing Muslims will eat kosher meat.

Contrary to popular belief, kosher doesn't mean "blessed by a rabbi," nor must a slaughterer be a rabbi, though he must receive rigorous instruction and be an observant Jew.  At the beginning of a butcher's shift, he says a blessing acknowledging God's commandments on how to do it. This contrasts with a halal slaughterer's declaring on each individual animal that its killing is in the name of Allah.

Kaminer's reaction to causing his bird's demise?  "I found it upsetting and, on some very basic level, gross."  For a description of a young woman's very different experience watching the kosher slaughter of a calf (caution: graphic photos!), check out this blog post.  Our home is vegetarian; Thanksgiving is the only time during the year I cook meat in the house.  Sometimes in the summer my hubby's male bar-b-que gene gets the better of him and he insists on grilling hamburgers on an outdoor hibachi, though he wouldn't eat them. 

The question remains: is there a spiritual impact to eating meat?

Jewish tradition teaches that before Noah and the flood, humans didn't consume any; it was only afterward, in a transition to a world where God was more removed, that we dominated other species in this way.  But lest we take this superiority for granted, God instituted rules about what to eat, and how to kill to remind Jews to respect other creatures and realize that taking, and consuming life changes us.

Meat is considered a delicacy, not only because it's expensive but because of its very life force.  In Temple times, there were lots of different types of sacrifices, including wheat and barley and turtle doves as well as oxen and sheep and goats.  That these were elevated and butchered in a strict, sanctified way (before they then fed people) served to infuse spirituality not only into one's dinner, but in the daily tasks of raising the animals or otherwise earning the money to purchase them.

Celebrations, including Shabbat, become festive because meat is served.  Yes, I said "because," as eating flesh killed under God's rules emphasizes humans' abilities to make choices and control our environments.  Another article I was reading today asserted, and I agree, that freedom is what creates happiness.  Humans, as omnivores, have choices about what we consume in a way animals, driven by instinct, do not.  We gain a recognition of that every time we ingest meat. Or choose not to.

And in these sanitary times when few have any connection to the squawking fowl they stuff with bread cubes and roast at 325 degrees for 20 minutes per pound, it's easy to lose the awareness that the creature taken for our celebration was granted life just as we were, from the same ultimate source we came from.  In that sense, I understand the desire to watch an animal change from standing, independent entity to drumstick, breast and wings.

But I'd rather not think about it.  Historically, our American forefathers probably did consume some turkey with other fowl.  The connection of feasting with closeness to God was evident from the start, when "less than twenty-four hours after Congress approved the First Amendment, they clearly indicated the way they understood its language by passing the following resolution: [calling for] '...a day of public thansgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the many signal favors of Almighty God...'" This is from Michael Medved's The 10 Big Lies About America (p. 83), which blasts the misnomer that "The founders intended a secular, not Christian nation."

Which brings us back to the Thanksgiving turkey.  Just as the colonists and founders did, we partake of God's bounty because it's a way of making that creation part of us, a way of internalizing the wonders of the world to appreciate it.  It may seem ironic that we savor the glories of life by killing and eating it, but at the same time, we see that humans are outside the food chain, above the green beans and the giblets, but can only strive to understand how close we are and can be, to God.

And that's why when I read about Ariel Kaminer's nonchalant acceptance of the dedication of his act to Allah, I cringed.  There is a definite relationship between the physical and the spiritual, between what you consume via your mouth and what goes with it into your soul.  I think that's what popularized the phrase "you are what you eat" for hippies, and why, in Massachusetts in 1621, the means of thanking God naturally centered around a meal.  Perhaps if he were Muslim, I'd better understand Kaminer's choosing to eat a halal turkey dinner, but in any case, we should all remember--even those chowing down on Tofurky--that gratitude to our Creator is the focus Thursday with every bite we eat.

By the way, apparently the first official Presidential pardon of a turkey was by George H.W. Bush in 1989.  (Makes you wonder the bird's crime.) And, while recalling fowl moments, few can forget Sarah Palin's 2008 gubernatorial turkey pardon and blithe TV interview while in the background a flannel-clad poultry worker waited for her, but finally gave up and stuffed a writhing turkey into the cut-its-head-off funnel, as Sarah cheerfully chirped, "I'm always in charge of preparing the turkey, so I'm where I need to be today, to take care of that!"

Happy Thanksgiving; may your family be together to enjoy--and appreciate--all the blessings of the season.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Surfing, Kelly Slater and Respect for the Sea

While looking for some newspaper to capture cooking splats, I grabbed today's New York Times sports section, something I was surely not going to read. Until I opened it to the back page and was captivated by a story about the undisputed surfing champion of all time, Kelly Slater.

Ten-time surfing world champ Kelly Slater
The piece described Slater's snagging his 10th world championship at the Rip Curl Pro Search, in Porta del Sol, Puerto Rico--and the somber mood cast upon the victory by the death, just four days earlier, of three-time-champ Andy Irons, 32.  Irons was found in a Dallas hotel room, there on a layover on his way home to his wife, expecting their baby in December, after falling too ill, ostensibly from Dengue fever, to make it to the Puerto Rico event.  Pill bottles were found near his body, leading officers to suspect a drug overdose, though cause of death won't be announced for weeks.

As one who has actually stood up while riding a surfboard maybe three times (other attempts left me too terrified and insecure), I have a profound respect for surfers, and have observed from afar the community they have forged.  Kelly Slater, like many kama'aina (Hawaii locals) who innately take to the waves in toddlerhood, mastered the surf so smoothly, he seems an organic part of it.

And yet, surfing doesn't command the respect given most sports, and despite Slater's record career, in which he won his first championship at age 20 in 1992, and his tenth now at age 38, fans have had to band together to urge recognition in a Sports Illustrated cover.  Slater's typically Hawaiian attitude is akin to a shrug, but his Puerto Rico prize of a 3% share of the Quicksilver surfwear company, said to be worth about $22 million, would make up for an awful lot.

The "Duke statue" on Waikiki
Why hasn't the surfing star received international acclaim?  The sport seems stuck to the romantic image of Duke Paoa Kahanamoku (August 24, 1890-January 22, 1968), who popularized surfing, was an Olympic swimming multi-medalist and sheriff of Honolulu for 29 years.  Tourists to Waikiki linger at the beachside restaurant honoring him, and pose next to the bronze statue that is usually festooned with leis. Surfing reminds people of their vacations, of impossibly clear, warm aqua water, and not real life.  Few Americans can watch surfing matches, other than on YouTube, where it seems unreal, like a travelogue.

Surfing is also a solitary sport, where an individual isn't playing on a team, and where the foe isn't other human beings.  Surfers don't represent a city or municipality, but, more often, market a product.

The sport's not like figure skating, where the setting remains still, and the athlete can hone a skill in solitary concentration.  Surfers contend with an unpredictable (and poorly viewable) "field," waves that can be treacherous or straightforward, powerful or meek, and the goal is not just form but conquering and yet adapting to circumstances that can shift instantly.  Beyond that, there's innovation and technique, a type of dance and originality that requires unity of surfer, surfboard and water--but not spectator.  Plus, there's a selfish side, a thrill, a sense of purpose and well-being that the sport provides its adherent, that can't be communicated to an audience on the shore.

Take a look at this illuminating video featuring the late Andy Irons explaining why he surfed. You'll see a confused though endearing person who seems to make surfing his great escape from reality. Eerily, the first background song opens with the lyric, "killed myself when I was young..."

I'm looking forward to a Hawaiian vacation in a few weeks, when the surf is at its peak on the North Shore of Oahu. There's something fierce about the crashing waves, rising up like some foaming dragon to ensnarl its prey.  The risk makes watching tense, but also provides a thrill, a roller-coaster-like breath-snatching fear that only resolves when the head of the downed rider emerges from the swirling froth.

In a sense, surfing is a reminder of our insignificance, our lack of control in the face of nature's dominance.  We as humans hope to tame and manipulate our environment, but unlike other sports, surfing is a constant reminder of God's power as superior to our own.

It's that aspect that makes surfing alien to mainline sports, and appropriately personal for those who live with the sea.  Surfers rely on nature for the basis of their sport, and mortality and awe might be concepts too heavy for sports fans when they're out for a nice afternoon's fun.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Canada, Oh, Canada!

Last weekend my husband was the scholar-in-residence for a Jewish Sabbath event in Vancouver, BC, hosted by a large synagogue.  We left Seattle about 6 am in the rainy darkness (sunup was about 8 am).  The only exciting part of our trek to the north was a freeway mishap in which we were snagged by a large, random piece of metal lying in our lane that drilled onto our front bumper, caught in its own hole, and dragged alongside us, etching the side doors, until we could exit the freeway and extricate it (thousands of dollars' bodywork).  The good news is that there was no line at the border crossing; with our passports and a couple of perfunctory questions, we were off.

The couple who invited us were congenial and intelligent, and as soon as we arrived, the husband presented us each with a red Remembrance Day poppy pin, worn the week before November 11, a national holiday honoring the country's war dead and military sacrifices.

Poppy in lapel, I went with the wife on a little tour of Granville Island, while my husband worked.  Toting her 6-month-old in a pouch, we explored the market stalls and quaint shops, and she told me about her life in Canada.  She was born in Vancouver, met her husband while at McGill University, completed law school and a year's practicum--and suffered plenty of frustrations and challenges living in a half-socialistic state.

Later, after services, I was seated next to a different young couple for the traditional Sabbath dinner.  The husband represented the third generation in his family's local business, though his wife had grown up in San Diego.  An upbeat and appealing pair, but they, too lapsed into a litany of difficulties with the system.

And the next day, we were delighted to be invited for lunch to the home of the congregation's assistant rabbi, with the head rabbi and his wife and many friends also in attendance.  On our walk from synagogue to our meal, as the food was assembled, and during our repast, we engaged in wide-ranging discussion--that somehow always returned to the vagaries of the Canadian experience.

We heard variants of these three complaints:  1) The health care system is tough to navigate, insensitive to individual needs, and even dangerous, given long waits for surgeries and selectivity about who's entitled to care.  2) Taxes are astronomical, with taxes on top of taxes, leaving people little left with which to enjoy life.  3) Compared with the United States, Canada offers less variety of all sorts of goods, and an insouciance about customer service that drives our new friends to make frequent trips to the US to shop.

Here are some of their stories.  One woman's brother, 21 years old, has a digestive problem causing constant discomfort and daily vomiting.  It took him three months to get an appointment with a doctor, another three for a specialist, and now he's waiting six more months for his needed surgery.  Another person I spoke with told me that while private, directly paid health care was recently approved, not everyone can afford such care on top of the taxes for basic services--the case for the 21-year-old brother, who suffers constantly. I found an interesting article describing a current court case where a for-profit hospital is claiming the Canadian law forbidding private docs from charging more than they'd charge the national health care system is unconstitutional, impinging on patients' rights to freedom of care.

A new mom told me of the rule that each obstetric patient must bring her own birth companion--because hospitals don't have the staff to watch over women in labor.

View from Granville Island
Taxes upon taxes.  The "Harmonized Sales Tax" went into effect July 1, shifting around sales taxes a bit, but resulting in a pretty-much-the-same 12% tax on Canadian goods.  Touted as a money-saver since certain low income earners can apply to get some of it refunded, and because it simplifies the taxes that previously kicked in at each step of manufacture (and pushed up the cost of goods), it's got a big thumbs up from the government.  But if you go to its website, you'll see a daunting list of what wage-earners must pay--consumer taxes (that Harmonized Sales Tax, Provincial Sales Tax, Hotel Room Tax, Tobacco Tax, Motor Fuel Tax / Carbon Tax, Tobacco Tax), Income taxes, (Personal Income Tax, Insurance Premium Tax, Logging Tax), Property Tax, and Natural Resources Tax (Forest Revenue, Mineral Tax, and Mineral Land Tax).

I saw the effect of taxing each stage of production when I ran into a market to grab some snacks for my toiling hubby.  A little pack of trail mix was $7.  A small box of Kashi crackers was $5.  Two large apples were $4. By the way, the exchange rate is now about 1:1.

Meanwhile, salaries in Canada are not too far from US wages. One of the big grouses I heard is that nearly every type of job is unionized, which means business is stuck paying what unions demand.  (In 2007, a third of all workers were unionized; government workers comprise the largest union in the country).  The new mother I spoke to said the shortage of obstetric nurses was due to the high wages they command, forcing hospitals to minimize staff. 

Housing, according to our host, who kindly drove us through the neighborhoods where he lives and grew up, seems at least as expensive as in our Seattle area.  The average price for a Vancouver residence as of September, 2010 is $679,000.  I consider that steep.

The final complaint, that retail shopping is limited and not that pleasant, links to the unions and governmental entitlement mentality, my dinner companion explained.  "Sales staff don't want to help you; they don't smile, or offer to get you anything," she noted, "because they think everything's taken care of by somebody else; they don't have to make an effort."  So she treks south to shop, her Nexus border pass smoothing her crossings.

She did recount the recent tale of her sister, who frequently visits from Seattle using her own Nexus membership.  The sister had made a Vancouver Costco run, bringing groceries back home to her sis as a favor.  However, she'd inadvertently stuck a pack of toilet tissue in her trunk with her things--it's strictly forbidden to buy anything Canadian and take it across to the US without paying duty on it.  She flashed her Nexus to cross the border, and somehow the patrol found the undeclared toilet paper.  She was detained two hours, while the officers decided whether or not to charge her--ultimately, her sister said, "they let her go with a slap on the wrist, and a stern warning that should she try to pass contraband, she would be jailed!"

Several of our lunch-mates said they make regular visits to Seattle to shop, especially for kosher food, of which there's far less in Canada.  I overheard them discussing the merits of one kosher-specializing Seattle market over another.  Most travel south for supplies at least monthly.  One lady said she prefers shopping in the US because Canadian stores are shabbier--even when they're the same chain.  "For instance, there's a world of difference shopping in WalMart in Canada versus WalMart in the US," she insisted.  "In Canada there's a lot less selection, and the store's dirty and dingy."  She too notices a difference in the way salesclerks treat customers.  A native of Vancouver, she scowled that if it weren't for her family, "I don't think I'd stay."

The reason I write about this is that I was completely surprised to hear so much spontaneous complaining about the Canadian system. The Economist this year ranks Vancouver as the most livable city on the entire globe, while Forbes lists it as the fourth-best city in the world.  The beautiful setting and quaint-plus-new combo gives it an urban rush with a charming British twist.  Certainly the people I met there were top-notch--affable, interested, opinionated, yes, but warm-as-toast.  And sincere. Quite sincere.

A two-day adventure, but after listening to our new friends describe their worlds, I was certainly glad to come home. ...Even though we idled for 45 minutes in line at the border at 10 pm on a Saturday night to do it.  When finally at the front of the slowly snaking queue of cars, two questions, show our passports...and we're on good old American soil, back in what even our new northern friends agree is the greatest nation on God's green earth.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Halloween: EEEEvil or Happy American Tradition?

Every year I debate my husband on the merits of Halloween.  He says it's a destructive excuse to get drunk, and teaches kids to beg.  I say it's family fun and brings communities together.

And I don't think the truth lies "somewhere in the middle:"  Halloween is definitely a positive thing.

From an financial standpoint alone, it's a shot in the arm to a tired economy--administered painlessly.  Seventy percent of Americans report they'll give out candy; half of the populace says they'll even decorate their home or yard, according to an annual survey by the National Retail Federation.  The 148 million of us who celebrate Halloween will spend $5.8 billion this year, with families cheerfully parting with an average $23 for costumes, $20 for candy and $19 for decorations.

Even supposedly selfish trick-or-treating can be for the good.  The owner of a candy company called into the radio show and said he lets kids trade in their less desirable loot, gives them their choice of what he makes, and then donates the take to our soldiers overseas.  A neighborhood where I live asks trick-or-treaters to bring canned goods for the local food bank.  Myriad parents trailing their eager little ones--including me when my kids were younger--take the opportunity to re-connect with neighbors, building community cohesion.

Those stories about nefarious householders lacing candy with poison and razor blades?  Never happened. At least two national articles this season cite the study proving it, arguing for less parental fear and more joy in the holiday.

Maybe in the 1940s things got nasty, with mean teens inventing the "trick or treat" theme, but by the '50s, the term became a single syllable little kids intone with a smile, as willing homeowners offer their individually-wrapped sweets.

Critics say Halloween has pagan beginnings, and the truth is, nobody really knows its origins.  Some claim it derived from the Roman festival for Pamona, a goddess of fruits and seeds; others insist it was a different Roman fest, "Feralia." Some trace it to a Celtic holiday, Samhain, that noted the coming of the darker part of the year, and was occasion to honor dead relatives.  In the 800s, Pope Boniface IV decreed November 1 as a day to honor martyrs, All Hallows Day, hence, All Hallows Eve.

In any case, there was no Halloween in America until the 1800s, when Irish immigrants started coming en masse, and it wasn't much at that.  Celebration only picked up speed in the 20th Century, and then only in its latter half, when boomer kids enjoyed little parties and neighbors started leaving their porch lights on and carving pumpkins into faces.

What would school classrooms look like in the fall without the Halloween decor of jack-o-lanterns and black cats?  Even the scarier symbols of skeletons and ghosts don't faze kids--most elementary schools have to warn them not to wear gory costumes, because otherwise fifth-grade boys want to.

Costumes are a creative, positive aspect of the holiday.  Making or buying them becomes a parent-and-child bonding activity.  It teaches kids that reality may be different from appearances, a subtle but useful lesson. And it gives kids an opportunity to indulge their imaginations, to become characters or change their looks beyond their normal selves.

This year, the top children's costume is--the same as the last six years--princess.  Next is Spider-Man, followed by witch (not Christine O'Donnell), pirate, Disney Princess, and "super-hero."  Doesn't sound so scary to me.

I had a great time surfing the web to find internet meme costumes.  Sad Keano is a tough one to duplicate, unless you're not planning on moving off a bench for the whole evening.  The Double Rainbow guy, however, is a possibility (see photo above).  My favorite is The Panda (you can't say no to Panda) because it's do-able and the cheese commercials are so hilarious.  Apparently there's a list of costumes people least want to see--with Sarah Palin the winner.  Personally, I think I'd be most frightened if Nancy Pelosi came to my door seeking a handout.

In any case, it's a beautiful day here in the Northwest. I'm going to go carve our pumpkin, look through our bags of costumes, and put our little packs of m-and-ms out on a tray.  If that's not your style, that's just fine--nobody has to celebrate, and any way you choose (or not) to acknowledge Halloween, from church harvest parties to herding the little ones to candy-proffering merchants at the mall, fits into the American tradition.  And of course, if you're a real curmudgeon, you can just turn off the porch light and go to bed.

Friday, October 29, 2010

"Excess" Money: The Super-Rich Don't Need It, right?

(Update as of Nov. 4: Voters in Washington State share the view in this post. Initiative 1098 was rejected, 66-34%.)

I just heard it again on my favorite talk radio show. A caller was denouncing a wealthy guy, somebody who he thought had made "corporate millions."  He thought it was just fine that the top tax rates should go up, because, "he's got plenty left, anyway."

People like this caller--and our President--think there's some magical level of income beyond which, you've got no worries.  That number seems to be $200,000 yearly.  Here in the state of Washington, we've got a ballot proposition (1098) that would impose an income tax, the state's first ever, "only on the super-rich."  That would mean any person earning $200,000 (double that for a couple) has to pay 5% of income up to $500,000 and NINE percent on anything over that.

Heck, the people making such astronomical incomes don't need it, right?  They should "pay their fair share," shouldn't they?

Is it fair that only those who do well--who tend to use that money to hire others and buy things--should have a state income tax while everyone else has none?

Well, that won't be the issue anyway in a couple years when the state legislature "needs" to extend the existing tax to a wider base.  The tax will soon hit the "rich" making more than $100,000.  Anyone can live on that, right?  Does anyone need more than $100,000 to live comfortably in Washington State?

People who make more than $100,000 should "pay their fair share," shouldn't they?

Actually, I know some really nice houses and apartments and cars that can be paid for with an income of $50,000.  You can certainly live comfortably in Washington State on $50,000.  Earners of that amount may not be filthy, but if you ask many people, they're rich.  Why, my daughter graduated college and got a teaching job, and makes $27,000 a year.  $50,000 would be a great salary.

On the other hand, even my daughter could live perfectly well without getting new clothes or eating in restaurants, couldn't she?

Where's the cut off where people "don't need" the money they earn?  Truth is, if "excess" money ends up going to taxes, rather than paying other people (for help or luxuries or whatever), why bother working so hard?  The little secret is that really successful people have the drive to work hard (those aspiring for success do, too).  But significant taxes make them direct some of that energy to keeping what they earn.

If you're a business person who through expertise and dedication has grown your company so that finally you're seeing some success, and you're looking to expand and relocate, will it be more or less attractive to move to Washington with this new tax?  And when it's expanded down the income scale, will you be more or less likely to attract good workers?

There's a book by the founder of Zappos, Tony Hsieh, called "Delivering Happiness."  It actually topped best-seller lists.  All tourists to the Zappos headquarters in Las Vegas get one, free.  It describes Hsieh's business life, and the development of his online shoe site's "culture." The company's a happy place, all right, and looks like a fun place to work, with perks and games and live-and-let-live style. 

The part of the book that caught my attention was the point at which the expanding company deliberated where to relocate from San Francisco. They had a handful of choices, but ultimately moved to the state without an income tax.  The book said the choice of Vegas was made because "we thought it would make our existing employees happiest."  Yeah, I'd be happy too, going from a state where everybody pays some state tax, and you pay 9.3% of any income over $40,000, to a state where there's no income tax at all.

But hey, how come the Nevada super rich aren't paying their fair share?  They don't need more than $100,000 to live, especially given Las Vegas' real estate bust.  It's really cheap to live there now.  Here's the deal, though--Nevada wants to keep the businesses, like Zappos, who chose to move there.  And there's no better way to gain allegiance than to let workers keep the money they earn.  That's the real way to employee happiness--give people control over their earnings, over their lives.

States need money. But better they get it from residents' volitional decisions--like buying gas, buying liquor, even buying candy.  We in Washington have ballot issues on those too.  Fees for services make sense, too, because people can control where they go and how much of each thing they buy.

But the chutzpah of a government deciding that somebody making $190,000 isn't "super rich" but somebody earning $10,000 more is--discourages initiative and positions the most productive people--who are also the greatest resources--as undeserving, greedy and untrustworthy.

Doesn't everybody aspire to financial success?  For the hardworking and fortunate few who achieve it, should the reward be for government to take it away?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Searching for Bright Light

Maples in my courtyard with blue sky, as I finish this post.
I often relate to the title of my blog, "searching for bright light." This morning, most of the neighborhood where I live was bathed in luscious autumn golden sunshine, but my particular block was enshrouded in the thickest of gray fog.

As we move to the time of year when sunrise occurs here long after the alarm rings, I become disheartened.  I have a craving for strong sunlight; I need its warmth and benevolence on my face. Is it just photophilia, an enjoyment and appreciation for brightness, or is there a deeper basis for my need?

When the 33 miners emerged from the Chilean mine in which they were entombed for 69 days, the world cheered not just their liberation from claustrophobic encasement. After all, the men had the run of long tunnels; Edison Pena, a triathlete, jogged 6 miles daily there for exercise.  The men's emergence, in sunglasses to guard their eyes from overexposure, symbolized the transition from despair to hope, from deathly interment to the nurturing sunlight of freedom.  Many said it was a rebirth, a complete emotional and spiritual overhaul, not just because they avoided death but because they emerged to the "brilliance" of insight.

Was it coincidence that yesterday I was reading Proverbs 4:18: "The path of the righteous is like the glow of sunlight, growing brighter until high noon, but the way of the wicked is like darkness, they know not upon what they stumble."  I'd been searching for a different reference, but that verse leaped out.

As Jews, we are to greet the day with boundless enthusiasm, opening our eyes with "modeh ani, lifanecha, melech chai vikayam...," Hebrew for "I thank You, right here before You, living King forever!"  The blessing continues to express gratitude for the faithfulness with which God gives us another day, another chance.

My enthusiasm takes a hit when I have to arise in total darkness.  And my mood sags in overcast and rain.  Seasonal affective disorder--depression from lack of sunshine--is so rampant here in the Northwest that soon after I moved here, I went to a busy store called "The Indoor Sun Shoppe" and bought the bright sun-simulator that sits about a foot away from me here on my desk. A friend gave me an alarm clock with a lamp that gradually brightens in the hour before the set time.

Happiness and insight metaphors always correspond to sunshine and light. "Never saw the sun shining so bright, never saw things going so right," are lyrics of a song two of my kids frequently sing, called, 'natch, "Blue Skies."  The Beatles' "Good Day, Sunshine" begins, "I need to laugh, and when the sun is out, I've got something I can laugh about."  The classic "You Are my Sunshine" croons, "You make me happy when skies are gray...please don't take my sunshine away!"

Do you ever see catalogs like Crate and Barrel or Pottery Barn showing furniture vignettes without sunlight pouring in?  And the pinnacle of God's Ten Plagues was to inflict on the Egyptians isolating, penetrating darkness.  Sunshine=good. Darkness=bad.  The Lone Ranger wore a white hat and rode a white horse, despite the constant dust and dirt of the trail (which is probablyhow his outfit got gray).  Darth Vader just couldn't be so evil dressed in pastels.  And if you ever saw the delightful film "The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit" (1998) you'll remember that when each of the five lovable schlubs who jointly bought the completely white ensemble puts it on, he's transformed into a better, more elegant, more respectable man.  The power of light to bring out the good.

Well, as I've written about my yearning for sunshine, the fog has dissipated and a cerulean sky contrasts with the red and orange maple in my courtyard.  'Scuse me as I step onto the patio for some life-giving Vitamin D and inspiration.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Does Your Perception of God Determine Your Politics?

The cover story of USA Today about ten days ago was "How America Sees God," and certainly if so august a journal elevates this to its main front-page feature, it must be factual and important.

The piece was basically a publicist's dream, touting America's Four Gods: What We Say About God--and What that Says about Us, a new book by two sociologists at Baylor University.  The authors, Paul Froese and Christopher Bader, have often mined Baylor's annual religion surveys, packaging the idea that how one sees God determines one's political and social positions. I actually read the survey from their 2006 report, which asks everything from belief science will find Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, to whether God is "a 'He,'" to agreement that "The U.S. must establish democratic order in the Middle East."

The survey shows a bias in its Christian-centric construction (as a Jew, I was confused by some terms and would be at a loss to answer some queries).  In 2005, Gallup contacted 3,702 potential participants, and got a 46% response rate. Once the results were in, the professors interpreted the material--by deciding that views of God fall into (only) one of four types, "Authoritative," "Benevolent," "Distant" or "Critical."  The first two include an active, engaged God; the latter two, a God who started it all, but now doesn't interfere.

According to the USA Today summary, the 24% of Americans whose God is "Distant" think since creating the world, He stands back and watches. The 21% whose God is dubbed "Critical" also think God "rarely acts on earth," but might judge in the afterlife.  This is the deity of "ethnic minorities, the poor and the exploited," says the article, mainly because their lives are so hard (and therefore God must be "critical").

The "Benevolent" God of 22% of the respondents see Him as mostly a "positive influence on the world."  These folk don't blame God for tragedies, but credit Him for the good stuff in life.  The final 28% of respondents see an "Authoritative" and judgmental God, who, while loving, "can become angry and is capable of meting out punishment to the unfaithful," such as natural disasters or illness.

Basically, Froese and Bader take James David Barber's four constructs describing Presidential character, and apply them to Americans' views of God.  Barber sees some presidents' personalities as active (like the Authoritative and Benevolent God) and others as passive (like the Distant and Critical God).  At the same time, some presidents have a "positive" affect (corresponding to the Benevolent and Distant God) and others a "negative" perspective (Authoritative and Critical God).  Barber uses these to categorize Presidents (or candidates) to predict how they'll perform in office.

Presidents like Thomas Jefferson, F.D. Roosevelt and John Kennedy are "active-positive" presidents, adaptive and self-confident.  John Adams, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon are "active-negatives" who compulsively but joylessly achieve.  James Madison, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton are "passive-positives" whose need to be loved makes them compliant and reactive, while George Washington, Calvin Coolidge and Dwight Eisenhower exemplify the "passive-negative" withdrawn style that acts out of principle.  Just as you'd expect, the best bet for president is active-positive, then passive-positive.  Active-negatives were termed "dangerous" choices by Barber.

So, who are USA Today's poster boys?  Glenn Beck is their Authoritative God icon (who prefers the "dangerous" active-negative God), with his "warnings about losing God's favor."  Their Benevolent God guy?  Why, Barack Obama.

And how does this play out in political views?  "People with an Authoritative God are about three times more likely to say homosexuality is a choice, not an inborn trait...affecting their views on gay rights, particularly marriage and adoption."  (Notice that reporter Cathy Lynn Grossman uses the word "rights" rather than "issues.") Yep, active-negative, all right.

Glenn Beck's Authoritative God, book author Bader says, likely caused tragedies like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, "directly punishing us for a society's sinful ways."  The Benevolent God fans, though, are relentlessly upbeat, and "focus on a fireman who escaped, or the people who rebuild homes..."

Says the newspaper piece, "When President Obama says he is driven to live out his Christian faith in public service, or political satirist Stephen Colbert mentions God while testifying to Congress in favor of changing immigration laws," they're expressing a deity author Froese says "cares for all people, weeps at all conflicts and will comfort all."  (How active! How positive!) But Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck represent those who "divide the world by good and evil," whose actively negative God "appeal(s) to people who are worried, concerned and scared."

I think I'll take care and comfort over worried and scared.  And active optimism over active negativity.

By the way, the Distant God (who's passive-positive, like Bill Clinton) gets good press too.  Quoted is Rabbi Jamie Korngold, since Distant is "the dominant view of Jews."  She says Distant appeals to her because "that gives me more personal responsibility. There's no one that can fix things if I mess them up. God's not telling me what I should do."  (Notwithstanding those pesky commandments in the Torah.)

So, Froese and Bader offer a paradigm where two views of God appear to be pessimistic, and two appear to be optimistic.  Two reflect the active vitality of self-determination, and two reflect passive powerlessness and resignation.  Authoritative and Critical views of God correlate with conservative (bad) political views; Benevolent and Distant views of God correlate with liberal/progressive (good) political views.  Surprise!

The research assumes--without evidence--that like one's character, shaped in childhood, views of and feelings about God are well-defined character traits, not subject to change.  That people don't hold conflicting and sometimes confused thoughts at the same time. That such variables as mood, weather and public or personal events don't influence connection or inspiration.

I'd speculate that even the most faithful have doubts, various levels of clarity, and frequent revision in their religious perspectives.  And those perspectives are a complex amalgam of views on all sorts of spiritually-related subjects--not a single concrete block of simple beliefs.  Similarly, political views cover a range of topics--and views on any given subject can change.  (Can a conservative be a tree-hugger or condone first-trimester abortion?  Can a liberal favor second-amendment rights or oppose the death tax?) And how does God-perception predict the political views of the third of the electorate self-identifying as "independent?"

Just look at Barack Obama's polling--the country was overwhelmingly supportive in January, 2008, when his approval rating was 69%; Gallup's ratings for this month (Oct. 2010) show his disapproval rate higher than his approval, 48-46%.  Does that mean the electorate changed its views of God?

Could it be that these academics have a political agenda?  Oh no, the pristine halls of ivy are populated only by seekers of truth, who would never overlay personal perspectives on research outcomes.  Maybe they're just hoping to copy James David Barber's literary success.  And perhaps if God is truly Benevolent, they will.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Living the Virtual Life, buying Virtual Goods

Help me here. What is it about "virtual goods"--imaginary own-ables in online community or commercial fake-world games--that leads Americans to shell out a projected $1.6 billion this year in our jobless economy?

The "I don't care about money" stance of Mark Zuckerberg as portrayed in the film Social Network has long ago been swept aside as Facebook hosts and profits from the virtual barnyard antics of FarmVille (75 million monthly active users) and a raft of other digital cosmos in which players pay real dollars for non-existent items that can get them ahead in play.  The lucrative commerce flourishing in the background behind FB profiles and friending has caused the crafty website to invent and promote its own monetary substitute, called Credits.  Facebook skims 30% off all transactions that use this virtual currency.

I read this in a NY Times blog reprinted in the actual, physical newspaper, cover price $2.00. I used scissors in my flesh-and-blood hand to cut out the article.  Just call me Stegosaurus.

One of the most popular virtual world games through Facebook is Sorority Life, explained in a post on eHow, "How to Play Facebook Sorority Life."  I could hear the syrupy everything's-a-question intonation of my newly-graduated daughter's cohort as I read the steps to success--picking your "glam" wardrobe to trot and have critiqued on the catwalk, throwing parties, shopping and picking catfights:

"Need money fast? Challenge a sister to a 'fight' and see if your skill levels are high enough to take her down. Winning a fight uses up your Stamina points, but gives you money and an increase in your Influence points, which works to make your fights and your socializing more successful."

Zynga's Mafia Wars has players forming groups of criminals who do "jobs" to get ahead, rob each other, and in one of several cities (Bangkok) can escalate (with enough energy, cash, health and stamina) to the highest level, Assassin. Actually, players can put a hit on others anyway...I was sucked into watching a half-dozen YouTube videos purporting to teach players sneaky means to increase their levels, some with 23,000 views and long threads of comments.  One blog that described Zynga's attempts to stop users from exploiting free points found even the techy author surprised at the amount of passion evoked by the glitch: " does help me understand that the science and psychology behind these games is very real. They are addictive money extraction machines."

Which brings me back to reality: Aren't we in a big recession?  The 9.6% unemployment rate should theoretically mean less cash to spend on tangible necessities, much less made-up stuff like fertilizer for friends' FarmVille crops. 

Virtual goods certainly make sense from game-makers' and sponsoring corporations' point of views--they get real money in trade for game advancement which costs them nothing.  This spring, 7-Eleven stores offered Farmville, YoVille and Mafia Wars points with certain fast-food purchases like Slurpees and iced coffee, points that would have cost players about $3 as virtual goods.  In June, Green Giant gave away FarmVille Farm Cash with purchases of its fresh produce.  Business-wise, it's a win-win.

But not such a boon for the players who, once addicted, are exploited.  Lured by ever-greater rewards for playing longer and, pyramid scheme-like, involving more players, victims of game addiction can become so embroiled in their virtual identities that they lose their jobs, marriages, and may even take their lives. A Korean case where parents' gaming caused them to neglect their 3-month-old baby, leading to the infant's death by starvation, received international attention.  Even Oprah-spinoff Dr. Phil has plenty on his website about game addiction, and offers a quiz to help viewers decide if they've got it.  Of course, real addicts won't be watching Dr. Phil.

Game addiction has escalated such that residential treatment facilities are cropping up, the first here in the Great Northwest.  A Nova Scotia psychologist has set up a website (with workbooks for sale) with resources for parents and adult addicts.

I'm biased on this topic. While compulsion to keep playing these games may have a physiological basis (providing dopamine highs), I have little sympathy for wasting the limited, precious moments we have on earth to embrace and appreciate the real world.  People harvesting from cartoon farms or evoking gun-barrel drawings by clicking mafia options are losing their souls to something ultimately worthless.  Even watching TV with family, while not directly engaging each other, at least involves some shared presence, some common experience.  Devoting attention--any at all!--to a virtual world simply pulls the individual away from life, from people who quickly understand they're second-priority.  Gamers know this, and like other true addicts, dismiss or rationalize it because they are compelled by the game.

Maybe it's not a physiological addiction. Maybe it's just a competitive drive gone wild.  But aggression and the need to compete are considered male characteristics, and women equal men in their devotion to online virtual-world games; one report says women spend even more time at them (averaging 29 hours per week, to men's 25).

Perhaps each gender is receiving differing types of fulfillment from its involvement, but in any case, the real and important things in life suffer.  I contend that even moderate time at  computer games could be better spent in reality-based pursuits.  Support for my view is that every self-test for game addiction I've seen includes a question about guilt over time spent online.

But when you combine lost time with lost money, you get a real problem. Virtual goods may bolster game-makers' profits, but what do they do for the purchaser, who has nothing to show for it beside a higher score?  You may say it's an investment in pleasure; we spend lots of money on vacations and concert tickets and fine wines and Disneyland, and when they're gone, they're gone, too.  But each of those experiences is real.

When your tombstone is laid, the vacations and concerts and dinners with delicious wine may add up to "he was a great family man."  But the hours spent in FarmVille or as El Cacique only compile to narcissism, mental and emotional masturbation, usually at the expense of those who long for you.

Maybe I just don't get it; if not, enlighten me. Otherwise, I'd rather pursue a virtuous life than a virtual one.