Sunday, October 17, 2010

Detail Oriented - Or, When You Can't See The Forest for the Trees

I am going to speak my piece about something that shaped and molded a large part of my childhood. Hopefully I'll stay focused and balanced and on the subject. Yes, it's very relevant to today.


As a scrawny, skinny kid who was bused to a Catholic school, I was well acquainted with bullies and who they were. As kids in the school often referred to my home town as the one 'with the mental institution' (actually it separated the city from its southern neighbor), I got picked on and bullied from both sides. I was involved in my fair share of playground and street fights. I can't say I started any of them, I was just an easy target who took everything personally and (sometimes) literally. In all that time, I never considered the thought of removing the pain and suffering by taking my own life. Today, everything is different - to the point that forty-one states already have anti-bullying laws to one extent or another on their books; and at least three more as well as the federal government are considering them.

The game, as it were, has become more of an open thing. As a youth, I always had the relative sanctuary of my home as a 'bully-free' zone. I didn't get or make phone calls to friends until I was 14. What friends I had until then were generally a knock on the door of their house. There were no cell phones, no text messages, no Internet on which to blog or to announce personal updates (factual or fictitious) to anyone and everyone. Like any human advance, what started out as a useful and practical innovation limited to the privileged few was abused and taken to the extreme when put before the masses, especially when the masses happen to be children. Most kids do not understand the full extent of ramifications and consequences of misuse of anything; and it's impossible to assign a generic time stamp that essentially states that they do.

Now, just as it was then, if you didn't fit the uniform of the times, whatever it consists of, you are considered an outcast by your peers. But now, unlike then, there is generally no more sanctuary.

If you're openly anything - be it geeky, devout in your religious beliefs, wear your hair too long or too short, you might as well wear a target on your person. Bullies will find you. They will not leave you alone. They will accost you verbally. They will inundate you with text messages. They will converse amongst themselves about you on social networking websites.

It has been said that some of this is just the way kids sort out their pecking order and test newcomers to the fold, and that it generally means no harm. And I might have agreed back in my childhood, if I'd had the experience of an adult's mind in my childhood body. But it's simply not true anymore. Teachers who were once able to instill the fear of retribution into 'problem' students can't do that now. Parents are often eager to take matters before the courts - because whoever has the power ultimately welcomes someone into their midst who willfully abuses it.

Between the pressures of fitting in and the pressure to perform well academically and the pressures of looming decisions over college and career choices, there is also the mass-marketing toward children and adolescents. What a kid has today is outdated the following week when the next 'new' thing comes along. Add on top of this the physical changes the body is going through at the same time. As they pass through these years, there's so much change going on, that kids have enough to do just to figure out who they are, let alone what they're going to do for (most likely) the rest of their adult lives.

The latest of these concerns - at least the one that seems to draw so much media attention - is sexual orientation. So many teens are 'coming out' as openly gay. It is not mine to judge whether this is a lifestyle choice or a predestined genetic condition. It is uncertain whether those who claim to be gay are doing so to get on some kind of social or antisocial bandwagon. Whatever the real truth is, the fact remains that this has become the latest vehicle for bullying teens to hijack.

At least six recent teen suicides have been of young men who had stated they were openly gay. It is not known if their attackers among their peers are of fundamentalist or other conservative Christian denominations. It would not be out of line to suggest this to be a cause. Regardless, whoever laid the burdens upon the victims most likely do not understand the repercussions or consequences of what happens when someone takes something too far.

An Internet movement is urging students and supporters to wear purple this Wednesday to honor the lives of the six boys who took their own lives as they succumbed to the pressures around their young lives. I intend to wear purple that day - not just for these six, but for all those who have lost their lives in a place where this kind of thing should never have a chance to happen. I will do it for the victims at Columbine High School and other places like it where innocent lives were taken. I will do it for those who have lost the understanding of innocence, both personal and as a virtue, at the hands of another student. I will do it because I could have been one of them.

But know this - laws meant to get down to the nitty gritty, as it were, generally never do. If we're still looking for answers as to how malcontent gets a foothold in the world, we've never had to look all that far. That is indeed the sad truth, one that no amount of legislation will change. To live and love in the ideal manner expressed in religious ideologies demands that intimidation, threats, and bullying cease to exist. No church or religious ideology has been able to stop it because all have used it to some degree over the course of history.

Perhaps it is because, in our zeal, we fail to see the forest....for the Tree.
Lord, help us all.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

He Who Sings Prays Twice; But Pray for the Dead and the Dead Will Pray For You

Every once in a while, my dear wife lampoons me modestly with a truthful barb. She sometimes refers to me as a 'bardic whore.' And I have to agree. Sometimes I have had the urge to print 'Have Voice, Will Travel' on business cards I keep handy to pass out when it looks like I could become a potential soloist, especially for liturgical functions. I blend in well with the surroundings, and I am not the main guest of honor. After years of doing so, the job or ministry (take your pick) suits me.

The line "he who sings, prays twice" is attributed to (Saint) Augustine of Hippo, one of the ancient Church fathers. He was the living example of Luke's 'prodigal' or wayward son, but ultimately had a conversion experience and became the writer of his time. Augie was apparently used to the idea of music in liturgy, even if it moved in and out of favor over the course of Church history.

But I digress. Over the years, thanks to the friendship and collaboration with other good church musicians, I have roots, as it were, in several places. Perhaps the single person most responsible for spreading the seed that established those roots is my friend Mike.

I have not given Mike enough credit; neither for the extent of his musical accomplishments, nor the pain and endurance that comes with the territory. To that I will write here that in my mind he is one of the top five greatest people I will probably know and work with in my lifetime. Because of that, I would do just about anything for him. He's been very considerate of my own situation and doesn't ask as much as he might have otherwise.

Mike and I share one ideal. As Christians, and especially as Christian musicians, we are all brothers and sisters in Jesus. Denominational boundaries are occasionally discussed, and we recognize that there are differences, but we accept them rather than tear down each other in futile quests to determine whose spiritual path is better.

As a musician, Mike has given several recitals over the years to showcase his own talents. Still, he recognizes that there is more than that to showcase. For the last year or so he attempted to put together a choral festival of sorts, featuring choirs from three churches. It looked like it was going to happen. At the end of this past  summer a date had finally been set, actual pieces of music were being discussed, the location of the concert had been agreed to and consent given, and I looked forward to it. The event was supposed to have taken place this afternoon.

Unfortunately, the plans were scrubbed about three weeks ago. See, this is Columbus Day weekend, a 'holiday' for students and bankers, and about the same time the peak of fall color is in our area. It was the director of music at the church which was to host the event who pulled out, claiming too many people were going to be out of town this particular weekend. I'm of Italian descent and the only reason I have a holiday is because I arranged to use 2 days' vacation time to shove around priorities so I could be free to attend the dress rehearsal and the concert itself.

Now ordinarily if someone canceled plans I would go back and resume my normal weekend routine. But as I had scheduled time off, and (miracle of miracles!) the weather was cooperating, my dear wife and I agreed that this would be a good time for another mini-break.

Our last, the first week in July in the Smokies, did not turn out as recharging as hoped for. I describe some of the experience in a previous post here. But what I didn't say then (because it was unknown at the time) that has been bothering me since was something else I brought home as a souvenir. Chiggers.

In consideration for the comfort of my family, while parked at the old Methodist Church in Cades Cove, a few of the nasty insects decided to make the floor of my new car their new home. From the time we returned until now, I have been affected by chigger bites, and I've suffered worse than average allergic reactions to them. It took this long to understand the source of the trouble because we weren't completely certain it was a cause to consider.

But again I digress. There were some things we wanted to do over this time as well, things we do this time of year, things that have affected who I am and what I do.

As a church musician, and one who has flexible hours to boot, I often sing at funeral services. This has had some very interesting side effects, stuff I won't go into great detail. But as a result I have become a fan, as it were, of another of the ancient Church leaders: Saint Benedict.

What I originally knew of Benedict, a 6th Century priest, was that he was the founder of the monastic movement. What I didn't know until recently is that Benedict is the patron saint of a peaceful or 'happy' death. My wife recommended that I wear a St. Benedict medal when visiting my mom at the nursing home or when attending a wake or funeral, so one of the planned stops was at a Catholic shrine and gift shop to stock up.

Also this weekend was a visit to the gravesites of our family ancestors. This ritual began for me not long after I met my wife, nearly 30 years ago. Every spring we would take her grandmother out to weed and decorate the family graves. It was an elaborate ritual that included going to a nearby nursery to load the car with geraniums - so many of a specific color which had significance. When her grandmother died 23 years ago, my wife and I more or less inherited the role of gravekeepers. And it's not such a bad thing. Despite what Hollywood and the thriller writers hit you with, cemeteries are generally very peaceful places. There is energy there, reminders of the lives of those whose remains are buried or remembered there; but it's not there to scare you (unless, of course, you want to be scared).

On occasion I would drive through the cemetery - at those times I was in my dress clothes for Sunday Mass and I didn't have time to do much other than acknowledge that without their lives, I would not have mine. Today, though, was the opportunity to linger in the spirit of the coming All Saints Day - also known as All Hallows; and its vigil, All Hallows' Eve, known more colloquially as Halloween.

I had forgotten what happens in modern cemeteries, with flat headstones designed so that groundskeepers can mow grass more efficiently. The headstones get covered up; some of them sink ever so slightly. I had trouble finding the graves of my wife's grandparents; they had become victims of nature and the lawn mowing. My wife can't move as well as she used to, and we weren't necessarily prepared for what we encountered; so I got down on my hands and knees and began to rip clumps of grass and dirt from the earth, and dug with a dinner spoon in an attempt to clear away the headstones to the best of my ability. It was mine to do, and will be mine as long as I am able - after all, this is a prerequisite. One must join in the dance of the dead in order to effectively console the survivors among the living. As macabre as that might sound, it is really not so at all. It is extending a bond that you began when both were living, and I see it as an investment toward my own afterlife.
Catholics believe in the intercession of the community of saints, those who have gone before us. And I have recently been reminded in other ways just how much God can multiply the smallest of efforts. It has been routine, especially since my father-in-law and my grandmother died in recent years, to remember them in my prayer time.

So I beg forgiveness among the living who today were expecting to hear my singing voice. I was really needed elsewhere. Everything is fine, and will be fine.

And Now...Page Four

Cripes! Has it been THAT long since I was brave enough to make a post?

I suppose there have been reasons. Mainly, I thought -at least for that moment- I had simply run out of things to say. That period is over. Now the issue becomes finding the time and energy to put my thoughts in order and get them on paper (as it were).

I want to take a step about the end of July. At that point in time I had learned that Bill, an old friend of mine, was leaving the country to teach third grade in Kuwait. Yeah, I was a bit stunned by this. I had barely understood the fact that Bill was teaching at all, let alone that he'd taken a job half a world away, all but cutting himself off from those of us who knew him...or in some cases, thought they knew.

I came to understand some of his motivation, and I didn't want to discourage him. Every person has multiple opportunities in life to make a difference - not only in the life or lives of others, but in his or hers as well. Most of us struggle every day of our lives with this, myself included, even though we may not see it.

I learned two days ago that Bill has been unceremoniously dismissed from his teaching job in Kuwait. I say this because it does not seem to have the earmarkings of a firing a la Donald Trump on The Apprentice.

Bill had high but guarded hopes when he accepted the job. There was every indication that he had the tools and ability needed. But after the first few weeks, the posts back to us were fewer and a lot less verbose. There were concerns and discouragement. Finally, the word came back that he was dismissed because he couldn't control his students.

At this point I want to address the Anonymous poster who replied to my July post as late as September 13, and who apparently commented on Bill's own blog to the point he deleted it altogether. Are you satisfied? Did whatever you say accomplish the intent for which the posts were made? Does it matter that you've "kept copies of everything?" For what it's worth, I don't think you had anything to do with the entire situation except put additional stress on an already stressful situation. There are more real reasons that don't involve outside interference.

Bill went to a country where, despite our diplomatic ties and the facade of a nation that would appear to be an ally, the overwhelming majority of the culture doesn't understand to dislikes to outright hates American culture. That is a handicap from the very start. People know where you're from and you represent all those things they don't understand and dislike.

That being said, I think that what did Bill in even worse is that the American educational model has gone to hell in a handcar. Bill is not the only teacher who has been unable to control a bunch of eight-year-olds. I daresay there are many right here who have the same problem. The reason they don't get fired is that their positions are protected by contract. Plus, we've allowed legislation and lawsuits to push the system to the point where American eight-year-olds often learn more about life on the streets than they will ever learn in the classroom. Add to this the stresses placed on both student and teacher to 'perform' (as in test) well by cramming for standardized tests that were not given when I was that age.

When I was eight, part of my education - and my learning - was fostered by the fear of God. My teachers were able to teach - but they also had the authority of an overseer - they could do something when kids got out of line, as they did even then. Today, the answer is to send them someplace else until nobody else will take them, and then simply deny them the education they by law are supposed to receive. The trouble is, very few are really receiving that sort of education anymore. This is not the reality in the rest of the world. For better or worse, other countries are doing better at preparing youth for life than we are. Perhaps that is what Bill did not understand. It is hard to say.

Bill is moving on. He has apparently accepted a teaching job in another country in another part of the world. I won't say where he is going at the moment. I believe this will prove better for him, but only time and his own experience will tell.

It is hard to know when being compassionate means having to be firm about an issue. It is difficult to, as I have been reminded to do from my Catholic culture, "hate the sin yet love the sinner." Still, to do otherwise does nothing to improve our lot in life.