Sunday, March 22, 2009

the haunting

I don't remember when I joined Facebook but since that time I've been being visited by ghosts. People I went to high school with, old friends, lovers, cohorts, work associates, acquaintances and even people I don't think I ever really liked when we were traveling in the same circles some twenty-odd years ago.

I currently have 277 friends and 50 pending friend requests and numerous friend suggestions. And this is after editing them down to only people I actually know. Several times!

277 friends? Really?

When something happens and I feel like I need to talk to someone there are about three or four people I think to call. When I'm lonely or bored or think it'd be a good day to go to a movie there are about three or four people I think to call.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word friend as one being attached to another by affection or a favored companion.

Ok, so maybe we've become a little lax with our modern use of this word friend. I don't believe there's anyone I've accepted as a friend on facebook with whom I feel hostility. That's something right?

I don't want to be rude and I certainly have no interest in hurting anyone's feelings by ignoring their friend request but just because I remember someone doesn't mean that we're friends.

Almost daily, more ancient spectres appear before me as I sit in front of my computer monitor, mouth agape, not sure what to think or do.

More perplexing still is how to properly respond to the messages I've received from some of these long past
friends. Again, it really doesn't serve me to be rude or hurtful or even dismissive to anybody but how, exactly, am I supposed respond to "What have you been up to all these years?" when my acquaintance with the person asking was so many years ago and peripheral at best?

It seems the rapid advancement of technological social networking has far excelled the speed with which the human psyche has advanced. Is there a standard, appropriate, contemporary response to such requests?

I usually end up writing something like:

"Wow. Thanks for saying hi. So good to see you on here. Things are really great. Thanks for the friend request. Later"

More evidence that being completely honest without hurting people's feelings in a modern world can be a very problematic undertaking.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Remember last year when the consensus seemed to be that Candidate Obama's wife Michelle would surely mean his demise? There was all that business of her never having been proud of her country and being a terrorist fist-jabber and then she was awarded the ultimate, inexcusable title of angry black woman. Oooh, scary.

Over the course of the last several months, specifically since her husbands' installation as leader of the free world, that scary, angry black woman has fast become America's sweetheart. Mrs. Obama is proving to be a new brand of First Lady.

I don't mean to imply that the accomplishments of previous First Ladies should appear petty or insignificant. Elenor Roosevelt transformed the role of First Lady and fought for the rights of underprivileged people of all races and all nations. Hillary Clinton certainly brought intelligence and competence as she tried to take on the national health care system with assurance and command, a refreshing respite after Barbara Bush's authoritarian, grandmotherly gaze from atop her three-tiered, pearl collar. Rosalind Carter, a charming southern woman, took a strong interest to promote programs to aid mental health and the elderly as well as championing the performing arts. Betty Ford did terrific things during her tenure as First Lady to promote awareness of breast cancer and substance abuse issues and even Laura Bush showed kindness, generosity and compassion, working to end literacy during the time her husband's administration was gutting our judicial system. Many previous First Ladies have accomplished great things in their chosen areas of charity and in the agendas they've championed.

Filling such an iconic role as the first black First Lady is no small feat but Michelle Obama seems to be pulling it off effortlessly. Her journey from the south side of Chicago to Princeton, Harvard Law School then into the role of lawyer, mom to two beautiful daughters, Sasha and Malia, while being a devoted daughter and loving wife seems almost super human. Add to all this the significance of the fact that she is a descendant of American slaves and she is living in the White House! Is it any wonder that this woman is on, seemingly, every magazine cover?

Voices from the GOP continue to bad mouth and trash the Obamas. Rush Limbaugh, with three divorces and a well documented prescription drug addiction history, continues to throw ugly verbal stones at the Obamas while they, seemingly unaffected by these accusations, appear to live in idyllic Eisenhower-esque married bliss.

Have we ever had a First Lady from an urban, middle class, blue-collar background? I don't know. We've certainly never seen a woman bring this level of education to the role of First Lady. Sure, Hillary was an educated woman with a law degree but her lack of softness and the almost twenty year age difference between them creates the contrast of one who is a feminist lioness and one who shrugs it off.

If carrying off the improbable roles of educated, modern woman, super-mom, devoted daughter, loving wife and American icon simultaneously wasn't enough, a couple of weeks ago Mrs. Obama served food to homeless people at a soup kitchen in Washington DC. Of course this was arranged as a press opportunity but Mrs. Obama possesses a certain amount of sincerity and down-to-earth-iness that simply cannot be manufactured. She wasn't only feeding homeless people because some public relations guy thought it would be a good idea she wanted to be there.

Just last week our First Lady left the capitol for Fort Bragg, North Carolina to commence her agenda of reaching out to military families. The news footage of her greeting these military families tugged on my heartstrings particularly hard and I'm not sure why. Maybe it's because of just how genuine and approachable she seemed as she was shaking hands and embracing these military men and women and their spouses. Maybe it's the still, surprisingly emotional punch the image of an African American First Lady has. Maybe it's just the simple authenticity and freedom from hypocrisy that emanates from her smiling face after these previous eight years of questionable, even nefarious government conduct.

Mrs. Obama seems to be striking a chord with her focus on the needs of military families. In her first television interview since her husband took office Mrs. Obama told ABC news, after
hearing about military families on food stamps:

"It hurts. It hurts. These are people who are willing to send their loved ones off to, perhaps, give their lives _ the ultimate sacrifice. But yet, they're living back at home on food stamps. It's not right, and it's not where we should be as a nation."

"I encourage everyone out there, within the sound of my voice, to reach out on your own _ through schools, PTA, Little Leagues, churches, workplaces _ and find out if there's a soldier or a soldier's family right there in the community who needs a little extra support," Mrs. Obama said in her speech to community leaders in nearby Fayetteville. "They're there. Something as simple as offering help with car pool duty can make the world of difference to a parent who's trying to hold the family together during a very stressful time."

"Our soldiers and their families have done their duty _ and they do it without complaint," Mrs. Obama said. "And we as a grateful nation must do ours _ do everything in our power to honor them by supporting them."

Topping off the news coverage of her Fort Bragg visit Michele Obama was shown reading "The Cat In The Hat" to children
ages 3 to 5, at a Fort Bragg child development center. Seated on the floor she said "I used to read this book to my daughters" a small boy ran up to her, hugged her around her neck and said,

"I know Sasha!"

"You know Sasha?" she replied.

And the two continued to hug as the other children sidled their way in for hugs of their own.

Mrs. Obama's iconic persona seems to have become a conduit for the message of this new era. This message is not just ringing true for military families or women or black people or even Americans (think back to the crowds gathered for then Candidate Obama's speech in Berlin or the celebrations in Kenya on election night). This administration's promise of authenticity, encouragement and inclusion, this message of hope, is being felt by everyone - even children.

Monday, March 9, 2009

give it up

Lent is the period in the liturgical year of Christendom, the forty days that lead from Ash Wednesday to Easter, that represent the time that, according to the Bible, Jesus spent in the desert enduring the temptation of Satan before he began his ministry.

Traditionally, Christians have used the forty days of Lent to prepare for Easter through fasting, both from foods and activities, and by other acts of penance, as a time to grow in their awareness of what it means to be a disciple of Christ and to be on a spiritual journey. It is not uncommon for some people to give up a vice or add something that might bring them closer to God. This is often done by giving time or money to a charitable organization.

Having explained all this, I have been trying to figure out what I might give up for lent. What could I remove from my daily life that would be a penance to remind me of my faith during this season? This season leading up to Easter; spring, a time of renewal and new life. "I've got it" I thought, "Fried food! That's it! I'll give up all fried foods". The truth is I've already, pretty much, given up all fried food and being more stringent about this dietary practice might only lead to more weight loss, more physical pride and more vanity which wouldn't be a very spiritual reminder of my faith at all.

So I've been seriously thinking about what to give up that would strengthen the awareness of my faith as I consciously abstain from it and the thought came to me that I might give up using the words hate and should. I find both of these words to be negative, accusatory and overused words that tend to be corrosive and hurtful.

The word hate is so overused that it really seems to have lost it's meaning. How many times a day does one hear "I hate when that happens" or "I hate when people do that"? If a word, which is meant to express the most intense dislike, is constantly used to describe inconveniences and bothersome situations then, in my view, it really ought to be given a rest. I also find it rather unattractive to be bringing attention to people, places or things which I dislike intensely so for these reasons I've decided to try to eliminate the word hate from my vocabulary. This has proved really not as hard as I imagined and only became difficult recently when Ann Coulter was being discussed. Spewing and inciting hate is, after all, what she seems to have made a career of.

The word should, however, is a little more difficult to avoid. It's so much a part of our daily vocabulary: "You should try this", "You should go this way instead of that way", "You should stop smoking", "You should eat more vegetables." All these things may be true but It has been brought to my attention that when I use the word should I am automatically making the other person wrong. "I know better. My suggestion is more valid. What you're doing is bad." If I'm using the word should then I'm judging and insinuating that
the other person is wrong even if I am trying to be helpful. Unsolicited advice is always heard as criticism. No one likes to be judged or told they are wrong. This makes people feel bad. So for this reason I've decided to try to eliminate the word should. So far so good.

This motivation of not wanting to make anyone feel bad brings me to the biggest decision I've made about what I want to try to give up: Speaking ill of anybody. Yep, you read that right. I don't want to say anything bad about anybody. This is the big leagues now. This is way more difficult than no meat on Fridays or not using specific words. Not speaking badly about anyone is proving to be very hard, indeed. Inevitably I find myself in situations that upset me. The challenge is to keep the focus on myself and my feelings instead of focusing on other people's choices and behaviors or what they are doing wrong. This is harder than it sounds. I can be upset with a situation and even express my feelings of displeasure about that. That is very different, however, than saying "That guy is a moron!"

Perhaps this idea of not speaking badly about others was brought on by the whole gossip thing. I don't know. I am going to try to keep this up, at least, till Easter. Who knows? It might even follow me into the next season and the next. Not making others feel bad is certainly a commendable step on a spiritual journey and could only lead to feeling better about myself. Even if I fail at eliminating this last indulgence I'll have cause to remember that I wanted to have it removed as an affirmation of my faith.