Friday, December 16, 2011

Merry Whatever. Did I Offend You?

Around the debate of saying "Merry Christmas" versus "Happy Holidays," a lot of the grousing I hear from Christians and others who advocate saying "Merry Christmas" revolves around the assumption that people are trying not to offend someone, and that people might be or are offended when one wishes them a "Merry Christmas."

I usually say "Happy Holidays," not because I am afraid of offending someone, but because I want to be inclusive of all people celebrating this time of year, whether it's Christmas, Hanukkah, Yule, Winter Solstice, Festivus, or Other. I know no one is going to be offended if I say "Merry Christmas." Never in my life has any person of a different religion from my own expressed verbal or nonverbal discontent after I wished them a "Merry Christmas."

However, if you as a Christian are getting upset at the people wishing others "Happy Holidays," the message you are sending is, "You are not validating my particular religious holiday, and therefore I am offended."

If you think inclusivity is a bad thing, is it because it you enjoy getting special attention for your particular celebration, rather than being lumped into a group?

Yes, you have the right to wish someone a "Merry Christmas," and if that person gets offended, so be it. But in my observances lately, the only ones expressing offense are the Christians who believe it is somehow wrong, or at least less right, to invite believers of other faiths into the celebratory fold.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

In Memory of September 11: They Must Be Stopped

On this day of sadness and remembrance, my love for America must supersede my admiration for political correctness.

The only way to properly honor those whose lives were taken on September 11, 2001, especially those who gave their lives to help others, is to accept the truth, even if it makes me uncomfortable. I consider myself to be an educated and tolerant person, but my friends, my family, trusted members of the media, religious leaders, they have all taught me how important it is to know the know what evil looks like, so that it can be stopped.

For some of you it will be hard to swallow, but the fact is that there is a group of people who think that under certain circumstances, it is actually heroic to kill an innocent person. Usually those circumstances are formed in their own heads, or by some ancient religious teaching. They believe God told them to kill, so they kill. They murder out of a love for God, as messed up as that sounds.

They keep pointing to the purity of their basic religious tenets. They argue that just because some people of their faith are violent, doesn't make it a violent religion, that modern times have created splinter groups, extremists, etc. But the truth is that even the original writings glorify, in several places, killing innocent people, war, the oppression of women, the abuse of children, and doing away with entire societies thought to be antagonistic to their faith -- infidels.

In these certain circumstances, they don't even consider killing to be wrong or evil. They think they are preventing evil by killing someone who might do evil. They claim their religion is one of peace and love, but in reality it is exclusionary and rooted in fear and violence.

They say they want to be part of everyday society, but on a regular basis they gather with their similarly closed-minded brethren and plot ways to recruit, convert, intimidate, and regulate the rest of us into thinking like they think, or else. They claim to be patriotic Americans, but
they insist that theirs is the only religion that has any validity to it at all.

In some communities in which they are the majority, they have even warped and twisted the United States Constitution, which is supposed to be religiously objective and fair to all. They have used their political connections to pass laws that clearly favor their way of life. Some of these laws
mandate government officials to let them lead their prayers at public events, or require all citizens to honor their holy books. As horrific as this sounds, they have even pushed for laws that allow parents to withhold lifesaving medical treatment for their children when they are ill. This goes way beyond the arena of religious freedom and into the arena of amorality -- evil.

I'm not advocating that they should be deported or harmed. I do believe in the United States Constitution, and that means they have the right to believe whatever they want to believe. We have to be understanding, and we should be accepting and tolerant -- more so than they are. We can get along with them.

But we should still be vigilant, always on the lookout for danger, whether that danger is in the form of one of them plotting to bomb a building, or plotting to pass a law infringing on our constitutionally protected rights.

These religious fundamentalists threaten our families and our way of life. Their violent history, their passionate hold on the notion that only they are right, their hypocritical professions of peace...on this anniversary of September 11, 2001, and on every other day, we cannot allow their threats to continue. They must be stopped. So, keep alert and be on the lookout for them.

They're called Christians.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Viewing the Body

I mentally prepared myself for the worst. I'd heard the reports, and even seen some photos, but I had to see for myself, even though I knew it would be horrific, shocking, and painful. The closer I got, the more anxious I became, wanting the moment to come so I could get it over with. I had to view the remains.

No one came with me. There was no funeral director, supportive family member, or pastor to guide my grief. I was alone, driving in my car, up Highway 4 from San Ysidro, through Jemez Springs and on toward the Valles Caldera National Preserve, my favorite place on the planet (of those I've seen so far). My trip would take me past Bandelier National Monument, and to the outskirts of Los Alamos.

The Los Conchas Fire had been burning for almost four weeks, and was burning still even despite the steady rain falling as I drove through the mountains. Well contained by now, and on its way out, it had at one point threatened many of my family members and the sacred places I had spent with them. But the danger was over for most of the places relevant to my life, and it was time for me to go and assess the damage for myself. It wasn't enough to hear from my cousin which places were burned, or how extensively, or how close it had come to the Los Alamos National Laboratory site where he worked. Even the thousands of photographs and videos I saw online and on television weren't enough. I had to see it for myself.

Most psychologists and professionals in the funeral industry will tell you that it's important upon the death of a loved one, that you actually view the body of the deceased. Donald W. Steele, Ph.D., explains that viewing the body is more important now because of societal changes where people die more often in hospitals than in homes, attended to by medical personnel rather than by family members. Even after death, he explains, "when a person died it was left to the family to minister to the dead, or at least to spend time with the body, which was kept at home until the funeral. In
contrast today, the professional funeral director takes charge of the deceased's body and helps the family in planning for the funeral."

Some experts cite that it can be comforting to view the body after it has been prepared by a funeral professional, especially if the last view of that living person had been one after a ravaging illness or traumatic bodily injury. I'm not sure I can wrap my mind around the comfort aspect. In the only instances of bodies I've seen prepared for viewing, they didn't look beautiful, or "so lifelike," or "like they were sleeping." They looked dead. I still see Megan Bell, the 16-year-old cheerleader who'd been decapitated in the car accident that took her life, while hearing the people around me comment on how she looked so beautiful and natural. All I could focus on was the very obvious, makeup-caked scar across her neck.

Comfort aside, however, the main reason cited for the importance of viewing the body of the deceased is for reality testing. Most people are in some level of denial that a person has died, even if the person can intellectually acknowledge that the deceased is gone. While a viewing doesn't automatically fix emotional denial, it helps it resolve a little faster. In the desperation of crushing grief, the mind can manufacture almost any alternate reality to comfort itself that maybe that person isn't really dead.

I remember thinking once in a while that maybe my father wasn't really gone, but that the 13-year-old foster child with him at the time of his death, had manufactured the whole thing as a hoax to perpetrate a money-grab scam or to get attention. And, maybe my whole family was in on pretending that my mother had died, to punish me for arguing with her days before. During the months that my mother's ashes were in a box stored in my closet, waiting for a suitable time to scatter them, I can clearly recall several instances when I sort of expected her to walk out of my closet. Many times I've been grateful that I never had to see either of my parents after their deaths, but I acknowledge it probably would have helped me progress in my grief.

It was eerie driving through the forest on a warm summer Saturday, seeing the picnic grounds, camping areas, monuments, and hiking trails, normally crawling with tourists, now as abandoned as a ghost town. My hands gripped the wheel a little tighter as I got closer to the edge of the fire's wake of destruction, seeing more and more trees browned from dryness, then blackened from the flames, then felled and destroyed.

But most of it was in patches, not the complete, miles-wide sea of black I had been expecting to see. The Los Conchas picnic area, a favorite of mine for family memories, was mostly untouched, as was the area around Battleship Rock, and most of the Valle Grande. Spots of the valley's grasslands were blackened, but mostly I noticed how small a portion of it was destroyed, when it could have very easily shot across the entire prairie in a matter of seconds. Hundreds of elk were even grazing along the outer perimeter of the scorched patches of grass. While many parts of Bandelier were burned, the most sacred places, the ruins, the places I remember, were still healthy and alive.

What touched my emotions the most was seeing what was still left, what was still alive. How the fire got close, but didn't destroy what was really important. I didn't enjoy seeing the pain the land had endured, and I cried for how long it will take to recover. I know that 18 families lost their homes, thousands of animals lost their lives, and a lot of beauty is gone forever.

But the life behind the forest and the force that made it is still alive. What made it sacred to me is still there. Like the memories of my mother, and the lessons of my father, they are still alive. I understand what is gone, but I grasp what I still have and what will never die.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Etiquette Versus Tolerance

This morning I attended a funeral for a dear man in my church, George Darby. George always greeted me with a big bear hug and always remembered my name, even though I only managed to get to services about once every three months or so. He was a drummer, a husband, a father, a quilter (I just found out today -- that rocks!), and a man of joy and happiness, but despite that happiness, I donned a conservative black dress and went to pay my respects.

I didn't actually count, but I'd say less than ten percent of the attendees were in black or gray. That doesn't really bother me, because like I said, George was joyous, colorful and unconventional. He would at times wear an African robe and skull cap (crown) to church. So looking mournful was, in my opinion, optional at this funeral.

But the people wearing jeans and ratty t-shirts got my attention. So did the three or four men wearing hats who didn't even take them off during the prayers. Several women were in flip-flops. At least twice, despite a very clear announcement to silence them, cell phones rang.

I was livid, judgmental and bitter. I smiled at the parents whose children were properly dressed, and scowled at the parents whose kids looked like they'd just rolled out of bed.

I grew up on the East Coast, where if you're less than fifteen minutes early, you're late. Now I live in New Mexico, where if you show up five minutes before the end, you're on time. I grew up right at the end of the era when people used to dress up finely to get on an airplane. We stood up during the National Anthem, even if it was only playing on television (I still do this, even when I'm alone). I'm glad my parents raised me with this sense of etiquette and respect. It has served me in many other ways and I like the way I am.

But the more Pastor Si talked about George, and the more I heard from his friends and family about how loving he was, and how happily he met life, the more I began to soften and question my qualification to judge the other mourners with whom I sat.

The God I believe in is a "come as you are" kind of god. We don't have to pretty ourselves up and get right before we can approach Him. I believe he welcomes all of us into heaven (yes, even that guy) because whatever we have done in life, or whatever reasons we have for rejecting what He offers us, He knows the reasons behind it all. He knows the pain that causes our doubts. He knows how we were raised and what we were and weren't taught.

Times change, cultures shift, and fashions adapt. Which is more likely: that 90 percent of the people in that chapel were being offensive and disrespectful, or that one woman was wrong for judging how much they cared or respected George based on their outward appearances?

I am not God, and I don't know the heart of anyone in the chapel today. I don't know if the man sitting next to me had just one hour to spare to come to the funeral from his job at a construction site, and thus had no choice but to wear jeans.
A family member was wearing a Jimi Hendrix hat in George's honor - should I reprimand that person because it's always wrong to wear a hat in a religious service? There were a couple of "Harley guys" who played in a band with George, and I see now that they were wearing the clothes they always wore when they were with him -- the clothes they always wear because that's who they always are.

What a joy, and what a feeling of freedom, that we can be who we are, and how we are, not only before God, but with our friends and families.

When it is time for my funeral, you can wear whatever you want. The important thing is that you are there, because you were important to me.

But turn off your cell phone.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Tips to Make You Better at Scrabble

I love Scrabble, like a lot of people, and I've been playing it most of my life. I'm also pretty good with words, so I win a lot. The only people I've played with who really gave me a run for my money are my best friend who now lives two hours away, and the Scrabble buddy I met via Craigslist, who turned out to be a serial rapist. Oops! (He didn't do anything to me except beat me in Scrabble, by the way.) So in the interest of building your confidence and getting you to play with me, I decided to write some encouragement.

There are some people among my family and friends who think they stink at Scrabble or that they don't have a chance at winning because they think it's all about just being smart, or knowing lots of words, or the luck of the draw. But there are some specific things that everyone has access to. More than my level of intelligence or ability to spell, these are the things that help me win, and they will help you too:

1. Save your blanks.

If you draw a blank, don't just use it to make a decent word. Save it to make a bingo (a bingo is when you use all of your tiles in one play). Save it for two or three turns, or even more. Don't think of a bingo as something that just happens if you're lucky enough to get the right letters. Try to plan for it.

2. Try to make two words at once (or more).

One way to do this is to use an S - which you should also save for this purpose - to make two words, one vertical and one horizontal.

You can also make words parallel to each other, as long as each pair of adjoining letters forms a word. This technique can really multiply your score.

3. Get to know the two-letter-word list.

If you are using a regular dictionary or the official Scrabble-players' dictionary, there are several two-letter words, many obscure that you've probably never used. If you memorize these, you can use them to make multiple words in one play, placing words right next to each other, parallel to each other on the board. This is also a good way to dump a bunch of vowels. Did you know that AA, AI, and OE are acceptable Scrabble words?

4. Watch for word-lengthening combinations such as -ED, -ING, -ION, etc.

These will help you get a bigger score and up your chances of using all your tiles for one play.

5. Take your time.

Don't play right when you find a possible word. Take your time and find the best word you can make.

My mother and I used to have Scrabble games that would last for three days; we'd get up between turns to live life, leaving the board set up, and return to the game as we were able (note: not advised if your home contains a cat).

6. Pay attention to those premium squares.

If you have decent tiles and can make several words, try to make words that allow you to play your high-scoring letters on the double-letter or triple-letter squares.

If you are using an S or other letter to make two words, one vertically and one horizontally, it really adds up if you can find a premium square to place that adjoining letter on.

7. Try not to set up your opponent.

Even if you have a word that could earn you 20 points, it might not be worth it if you set up a great play for your opponent, such as giving them a place to use a triple-word premium square.

8. If you get a U, and the Q hasn't been played yet, save it.

If you use your U for a mediocre word, and then get stuck with the Q, you'll be sorry, especially if the game ends and you still have that Q, because your opponent gets the points from the tiles you couldn't use, and the Q is worth 10 points.

There are some words that can be spelled with a Q without a U, such as QAID and QOPH. It's worth memorizing these too, along with the two-letter word list.

9. Don't be afraid to challenge.

When your opponent plays a word that looks unfamiliar to you, especially if your opponent is a seasoned player or likely to be full of bull, don't be afraid to challenge the play. If you are wrong, you lose a turn, but remember that playing a completely made-up word is legal, and if it's not challenged, the points count. Watch for a "tell," just like in poker...and develop your own poker face so you can try it too, when you dare!

10. Practice!

Play online, via Facebook, with friends, on your smartphone, and anywhere else you can. You'll learn new words playing with different people, and it will sharpen your brain, not just for the game, but for life!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Whose fault is it, anyway?

Do you think it's easier to accept hardship when it's brought about by your own fault, or when it's brought about by sheer bad luck or someone else's harmful action? I used to think it was better to be at the mercy of life's terms, rather than a causative, because there would be no guilt associated with your pain. You wouldn't be ashamed or embarrassed to know, to have to tell people, that as terrible as things are, they're all your fault. But today I think maybe it's better to know that you caused your own misery, because at least it affords you some measure of control, or perceived control. I did this to myself, so at least I know I can prevent it in the future. Being traumatized because of some other person's decision to hurt you, or because of somebody else's mistake, or because of the bankrupt space on the wheel of fortune, you're just a victim. Your a pawn in God's game. You know that you cannot do a thing to prevent getting that ice cold punch in the stomach again...and again. The last couple years, I was suffering, but mostly because of my own actions. I was helped, then I found my own motivation, and life got better. I found a job, a job I loved, and I excelled at it. When I was clinging by my fingernails to the cliff, God helped me to my feet and dusted me off, then waited for me to gain some stability and confidence, even happiness. Then he laughed at me and then pushed me over the edge. I got fired on Friday for no ascertainable reason whatsoever.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Perfect F***ing Lives

First, I'll get a little whining out of the way. Brace yourself.

My family of origin was pretty messed up, like a lot of families. I don't think either of my parents ever wanted to get married or have kids, but they did because that's what people did back then. My dad wanted boys and got three girls, and he didn't do a very good job of hiding his disappointment. Mom was depressed and popped pills, so I was neglected and fled the house looking for nurturing. I got something else instead.

The 'rents divorced when I was nine, and Mom dragged two of us girls to New Mexico, leaving my bipolar, violent, alcoholic sister with Dad. I slogged through adolescence and young adulthood until I was 25, when both of my parents died in separate incidents 36 days apart. The next 15 years or so I basically adopted many of Mom's lesser habits and coping mechanisms, accompanied by health issues, frequent unemployment, and even a bout of homelessness.

It took a long time, but I am really happy now. I have a job I love, I am healthier than I have been in a long time, and I've made peace with most of my past.

I always thought a bad upbringing was pretty par for the course - everyone had a bad childhood, right? Everyone has baggage and trauma and all that.

But there is this one certain family that keeps popping into my head and filling me with resentment because they are so...damned...normal. Life is perfect for these people!

The head of this family makes six figures in the same job he's worked for 20 years. They live in an idyllic town in a huge house. They had several children, boys and girls, none of whom have any illnesses or special needs. To my knowledge they've experienced no untimely deaths. No one in this family has addiction issues or health problems or even bad habits. They're all thin and beautiful and when they want to take vacations or buy cars or whatever, they just do it. All the kids grew up and dated and got married and had beautiful, normal, healthy, perfect kids. Just like that.

Where is the freaking trauma in this family? It's not fair. I love these people and I don't wish bad things for them. But it seems so unbalanced.

This sounds embarrassingly whiny even as I'm writing it, even in my own head. How lucky I am that I was born in America, that I was born caucasian, that I can see and hear and walk...someone out there might be cursing MY name over how unfairly fortunate I am.

I'm just venting.

Am I a better person than the members of this family will ever be because I had to develop strength early on in my life? Who knows. I just know that I don't regret or curse who I am today, so I suppose being grateful for the crap that fertilized it is the best way to go.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

"I Am A Lonely Soul..."

Meant to post this yesterday. I wrote it almost four years ago.

April 25, 2007

"I Am A Lonely Soul..."

It's old news by now, but Brad Delp, lead singer of the classic rock band Boston, was found dead in his home on Friday, March 9, 2007. Brad was probably the most underrated vocalist in rock history. He brought class, discipline, and perfection to a world often blasted as messy and irresponsible.

Despite his accomplishments and full life, Brad committed suicide. In his note, he wrote (in French), "I am a lonely soul."

I keep wondering how someone with a wedding in the offing to a loving fiancee, two children, and many adoring fans, could say he was lonely. I know that is a very simplistic way to are not close friends, and you never know what's going on in someone's mind and heart.

Once, in college, I planned to commit suicide. I started writing my goodbye letters. After a couple hours, somewhere around letter number 17, I realized with a little chuckle that if I had at least 17 people in my life who would care that I had died, and who I knew would be sad and want an explanation from me, then what the hell was I killing myself for?

Of course, my suicidal ideation was borne of teen agnst and self-pity, not a serious mental illness. I guess that's why I lucked out and Brad did not.

Of all the gifts God gave to us, music is the one I treasure most. He could have just given us all angel choirs to lift our souls, but he decided instead to open the world of music to any taste, any mood, any imaginable instrument, any rhythm, and any volume. The deepest parts of my heart and soul are moved as much by songs like "Dust in the Wind" and "Highway to Hell" as they are by Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

One of the songs I always loved most, however, was "Don't Look Back" by Boston. On top of the usual amazing guitar work, precision drums, and Brad's gorgeous vocal harmonies, the lyrics shined:

I can see, it took so long just to realize
I'm much too strong not to compromise
Now I see what I am is holding me down...
I'll turn it around.

This song helps me celebrate my arrival out from the darkness of my past. Today when I hear it, I am heartbroken that the peace Brad sang about in these words, was lost to him for reasons I will never understand.

But I know that the joy of the music and the beauty of the voice who gave it to me will transcend the pain, and grief, and stand forever as a monument to Brad, and to the Creator who endowed us all with a gift to share with the world, whatever that gift may be.

Rest in peace, and thank you, Brad.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Coming Out of Poverty

After years of financial and emotional poverty, I started a new job two weeks ago that so far, I love. I opened a bank account. I filled my car with gas instead of getting five dollars' worth at a time. I've started saving money for my own apartment.

I'm worried that this pink cloud of normalcy won't last. I'm scared that I'll revert to my old ways of thinking. I am filled with hope, but not security. I feel like I'm wobbling on new roller skates.

In six months or so, when I start getting used to having a job and an income and things to do and all that stress that comes with this "regular" life, I want to remind myself what it was like without those things.

When I start complaining about having to get up in the morning, I want to remind myself what it felt like to lie in bed for 16 hours of every day watching reruns.

When I have a stressful day at work, and I'm sure I will, I'll be thankful that I am working at a desk, sitting at a computer, doing things I love to do like proofreading and helping important social causes -- not standing on my feet all day serving fast food, not digging holes on a cold day, not scrubbing toilets. I will pray for those people who are forced to do labor they hate, instead of working jobs they enjoy.

When I start to bitch about traffic to and from work, I want to remember that I was six days away from having my car repossessed.

When I moan about having to pay the electric bill, I want to remember what it was like when my landlord and friend shut off my electricity in a humiliating, yet effective, attempt to motivate me and save my life.

When I dread having to grocery shop, I want to make sure I recall what it was like to gather my records and wait for hours and hours at the food stamps office.

And I want to access the emotional memory of trying to figure out how to pay for things that food stamps do not buy, such as toilet paper and toothpaste. Should I sacrifice yet another piece of my dignity and ask for another handout from a church, a friend, a family member, a stranger? Or should I risk my self-respect, my freedom, and my clean criminal record to steal from a grocery store?

If my beloved kitten gets sick or injured, I will remember the fearful tears I shed knowing that without money to pay for a veterinarian, I might have had to give her away or put her to sleep. And I will remember the guilt over having to skip her vaccination last year.

When there's a line at the bank some Friday afternoon in the future, I'll be grateful that I don't have to pay another exorbitant fee to some seedy check-cashing store.

When my rent goes up, I need to picture in my mind the boxes piled in the spare room of my friend's house, and be grateful that I have a whole apartment to myself, no matter how small, in which to place my things.

The day the doctor bills come in the mail, I'll praise God for health insurance and for the privilege of waiting an hour for my doctor to be ready to see me. I'll remember sitting in the emergency room lobby at the public hospital for nine, ten, eleven hours, because there was nowhere else for me to go.

Next time I want to stop for an expensive cup of coffee, I'll recall that day I sat outside a Starbucks trying to sell a gift card I had gotten for Christmas for half-price, quietly crying the whole time out of shame.

When my friends want to see me, they won't have to sponsor my meal or pay for my movie ticket. I'll enjoy paying forward the gifts I was given, footing the bill for someone else's meal to help them out.

If I'm driving down the road and I see a police car in my rear-view mirror, sure, I might feel a little anxious, but then I'll remind myself that in my glove compartment I have proof that my car is insured and registered, that there are no warrants for my arrest, that I am not under the influence of drugs, and that I am driving in accordance with my love for traffic safety.

When I get a bad cold or when my back hurts, I'll go back to that summer of 2010 when my kidneys failed, my blood pressure dropped to 50 over 20, and the crash team came running into my hospital room as I lost consciousness.

I will thank God that I am alive, that I have to work, pay for things, wait in lines, suffer through stresses and setbacks, and even hurt.

Thank you.

Thank you.