Tuesday, June 30, 2009

What's Next?

It was a day of understated headlines and conflicting images, wouldn't you agree? Nothing ruins a party mood quite like a car bomb detonated in the middle of a busy food market. Thirty people were killed and 90 injured in the bombing in Kirkuk yesterday - the very day Iraqis had declared National Sovereignty Day to mark the withdrawal US combat troops from their cities. The Iraqi government designated it a national holiday, and there was - literally - dancing in the streets.
Iraqi police celebrating the departure of US troops
Only US "advisers" and "trainers" were left behind. Now, we are all to believe 130,000 American troops are hanging around on the outskirts of Iraq's towns just in case they are needed. Whatever that means. One Iraqi man described it as watching the disruptive guest you've had in your house leave, only to have him move into the house next door. It hurts my head a bit to try to figure out the politics of our baby-stepping in Iraq. What happens now if Sunnis and Shi'ites or Arabs and Kurds begin killing each other? To which side do we run? But I digress - as it is so easy to do when thinking about our six-years-and-counting presence in Iraq. What's really gnawing at me today is this photo from Kirkuk...
Scene of car bombing at food market in Kirkuk - 6/30/09
Imagine something like this happening at your neighborhood HEB or Albertsons or Kroger. Let's say it's this Saturday - the day we have set aside to celebrate our own nation's sovereignty. It's a holiday, and you are preparing for a family gathering filled with special summer foods, fireworks, and fun. I'm guessing there's a chance that you, or one of your family members, or one of your neighbors, would be among the injured or killed at the market. The party mood would vanish. And the day would be changed forever. You would no longer be able to let the 4th of July pass with patriotic flavored flag waving, parade watching, and watermelon eating. The day would, forevermore, hold the memory of untimely death, needless violence, and national uncertainty. This kind of day is now the day of National Sovereignty for Iraqis. They can show us parades and dancing and flag waving and smiles in front of our cameras, but I'm guessing they turned off their lights last night and worried about what comes next.
Patrolling and peacekeeping in their cities, on their streets, and outside their food markets is now their business, as it should be...
Iraqi policewoman
But I wonder - how long would it be before you felt safe sending your daughter to the grocery store for a bag of ice? It seems we are a long, long way from peace in Iraq.

Friday, June 26, 2009

We - The People

I am sitting at my desk this morning with a web page staring back at me - and something that feels like bared teeth and taunting seems to be growing in my gut the more I ponder the site... If you can't quite decipher the pasted image, this is a contact page for Iran's recently re-elected president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Iranian-Americans I've seen on television this week have urged US citizens - individuals, not the government - to contact Iranian leaders to put voice to our longing for sanity and justice and honest government processes in Iran. So, I decided to go looking for a way to the top. Much to my surprise, it's there. As easy as sending an email to Barack Obama, I can send a message to the president of Iran. All I have to do is enter my contact information. Gulp. Before I could take a breath, the images and stories from the streets of Iran stampeded my senses. Somehow I felt completely vulnerable sitting in the safety of my own home, under the protective laws of the United States of America, 8,000 miles on the other side of the world. Should I tell the Ahmadinejad regime where I live in a valiant attempt to tell the president what I think? If you read here very often or share a bottle of wine with me from time to time, you know I am not shy about contacting elected leaders. It has never, ever - not once - occurred to me to worry about letting anyone on Capitol Hill know who I am or where I live. (Frankly, I'd be more concerned about my neighbors - see "I Believe in Human Kindness" from 10/31/08.) But here I sit - wanting to tell President Ahmadinejad that Americans like me are not interested in imposing the US Constitution on the Islamic Republic of Iran. I want him to hear from a politically liberal suburban mom in Austin, Texas that peaceful protests are the very means by which would-be reformers maintain their patience and tolerance. I am eager to write a line to him about the richness of a culture that affords women the same opportunities it gives men. And, I want to wish him peace. I will stare at the mocking page a while longer - until my unrealistic fear subsides. Then I will write. I will write to the leader of the government that would not allow the family of Neda Soltan to grieve with friends; the government that is reportedly torturing its own citizens to make a point; to the president who has called my president out for the tone in his voice. Ahmedinejhad cannot harm me. I am a citizen of the United States of America. Land of the free. Home of the brave. Thank you to the brilliant thinkers who sat together for almost four months in 1787 to write four pages that begin:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Surely I am at least empowered enough to send an email from 8,000 miles away. Will you join me? In the name of peace?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

And Just Like That...

Of all the images that have been bootlegged out of Iran over the last eleven days, this is the one that has captured me. Haunted me. Begged for my attention... Not only is this unnamed woman beautiful, and a splash of striking color and unfettered passion on the landscape of what was - on this particular day last week - growing civil unrest on the streets of Tehran...not only is she all that, she is also wearing a bracelet that looks almost exactly like one I wear. And so, just like that - I am there. This is no longer the face an Iranian woman. This is simply a woman - one like me. A woman who shops for fresh vegetables, rocks crying babies, dreams of romantic evenings, ponders the best lipstick shade, devours political headlines, prays for peace, stands up for what she believes in...and wears silver bracelets. I am there. But I worry, as I begin to imagine myself in this woman's shoes, that I might not be brave enough to take to the streets of Iran, even if the outcome of the presidential election guarantees continuation of the religious capture of my rights as a citizen, a wife, and a human being. Am I courageous enough? This woman has already cast aside her chador - the formless black semi-circle of cloth that Iranian women must drape themselves in whenever they are in public. You can tell she has left the chador behind because her arm is wrapped in a sleeve. Chadors do not have sleeves. Could I be so bold? She has not uncovered her head, so she is not yet standing in complete defiance of the clerical law of the land, which requires all women—even Jewish, Baha'i, Zoroastrian and Christian women—to veil. If they do not, they are subject to imprisonment, flogging and even death. Good compromise to keep the head covered, I'm thinking...but throw on a bright color. Now, as I place myself there, I am feeling emboldened. I put on my bracelets. I grab my girlfriends who also participated in the One Million Signatures campaign over the last three years, and we show up on the streets of Tehran with a message for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: You may steal our election, but you cannot take away our hope and our spirit and our determination. We are here on behalf of all women - our mothers, our daughters, our nieces, our sisters, our granddaughters. Deal with us. And then the news of Neda Agha Soltan hits the internet Saturday. The video of her eyes turning upward toward the camera as she takes her last breath on the street we have just walked together kicks us in the stomach and brings us to our knees. Suddenly women become easy targets in the gathering of protesters, as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad begins to strictly enforce previously loosened dress restrictions. Thousands of women are arrested or intimidated because they do not adhere precisely to Islamic dress code on the streets. I am sure I stay inside now. My chador is hanging at the ready by the door, my bracelets are in the jewelry box. And I am certain that with every breath I am praying: Ahmadinejad must not be recognized. Because I am there. Peace.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

I Don't Know Why...

...he swatted that fly. Yes, I know I'm the last to show up to the party with this video clip. It opened The Daily Show last night, was featured quite prominently on Stephen Colbert's show (including time with the bereaved fly family), and has even made it to the BBC news this morning, under the headline: Ten Ways to Swat a Fly. Among those ways is "the old fashioned slap, now known as The Barack." Sigh. You'd think we didn't have anything more pressing to occupy our time with the President of the United States. We did learn a few things about the leader of the free world in the outtake from CNBC: 1. he has stealth reflexes; 2. he wastes no time taking care of business; 3. he takes pride in his accomplishments, no matter how small. It could also be argued that we now know this about Barack Obama: 1. he has no patience for small annoyances; 2. he spends very little time considering alternatives when he is annoyed; 3. he's not overly concerned about his reputation with Buddhists, 4. or PETA. Beyond all else we might learn from the clip, we know this to be certain - Barack Obama can't even swat a fly without creating an international buzz. This is now the literal truth. Given the pests currently swarming the president's head: cave-dwelling terrorists in Pakistan, power-brokering politicians in DC, fear-mongering pundits on TV, money-grubbing industrialists in the heartland, wild-eyed eccentrics with nuclear bombs in North Korea - it seems over-analysis of a fly swatting incident is almost inappropriate. Then again - perhaps it's his most telling interview yet. I'm pondering the path to peace today...and the flyswatter in my kitchen. Is it right to make quick work of the flies in order to save the picnic?

Friday, June 12, 2009

Who's In Charge Here?

You know those days you're sure God is punishing you? Oh, come on - even if you don't officially believe in the existence of God, I'm betting you've had a moment or two when you've looked skyward and said, "Man...what did I do?" I've had one of those mornings. Yesterday, I spent the entire day in my yard on Austin's first real 100-degree day. I decided, for some reason, to go beyond the routine mowing, trimming, and edging. I would prune, weed, and get the last of the Spring fall of live oak leaves bagged up. I worked for hours. At the end of the day, I had one very full bag of leaves, a picture perfect lawn, and a crystal clear pool. Ahhhhh...today was going to be for something else. Inside. But we had a hail storm last night. And so I woke up this morning to this: ...as far as the eye could see. And a muddy pool. I felt like a kid who'd proudly announced to her mother that her room was clean, only to find mom had gone back in and dumped the dresser drawers out in the middle of the floor. Not only was yesterday's work completely annihilated, the clean up today involved using my absolute least favorite yard tool - the blower. You know the blower, that great landscaping convenience that delivers a sound to the outdoors that nature never intended, drags the ever-tangling/swear inducing extension cord behind it, and provides a version of personal jet propulsion to the user's arm that makes the end result almost impossible to control? Really, God of Creation - maker of heaven and earth and hail storms (but, thankfully, not blowers) - why? Here's the picture of God I had in my head today: And here's what was so funny as I imagined a kind and happy and only slightly apologetic God talking to me as she wiped tears from her eyes: "You think you decide when the work is done?" "You think you determine when the last leaf is picked up?" "You think you are in control of the plan for tomorrow?" "Hahahahaha. I'm sorry. Get over yourself." So, I now have another two full bags of leaves at the curb, a very cloudy pool, and a day that's left me time to plan dinner. I hope we're having salmon. But I am not in control. Peace.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Ouch to 5K

It's actually billed as a "COUCH to 5K" program on coolrunning.com, but for me OUCH to 5K seems to do a better job of describing the work. The 9-week program is supposed to take me from dead-weight-can't-jog-to-the-corner, to a 3 mile jog finished in 30-minutes. I'm on week four. I can't even bear to look ahead to week five. Today I covered about 2 miles in 21 minutes - a 3 minute run followed by 1.5 minutes of walking followed by FIVE minutes of running, then a 2.5 minute walk, another 3-minute run, 1.5 minutes of walking, and a grand finale FIVE minute run. Except the last five minutes was more like a fizzled stop-the-madness-NOW four minute run/one minute walk. In fact, it was exactly like that. I called my mother. She said, "How's your marathon coming?" "5K, Mom," I said doubled over with laughter. "Whatever," she said. "It's all the same to me." Well, it is all running. And it IS - after a point - mostly an accomplishment of the mind. You know you can stop the feet, catch the breath, and walk any time you want to. There is no gun at the head, no lion pursuing, no prize money at the end of the street. After you establish a comfortable pace, it just becomes a study in defiance of your own will. And, this is not a natural activity for the human species. Will is strong and determined and, quite often, has a life of its own. From the urge for a cookie at midnight to the strong will to survive conditions of abject poverty, natural disaster, or war - human will stands like a seawall at the ocean. It says, "Wash over me, life. Hide me for moments or days at a time. When the mayhem recedes, I'll still be here." The human will. The strong will of a human being... I'm telling you, it hurts when you try to break it. Peace.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

On Being Average

It has been a humbling day. 25-million Americans are currently unemployed, underemployed, or have just given up looking for work. I am one of those Americans. This morning I decided to set myself up a clever little writing business and headed to Elance.com to start getting the news out that one of the world's most amazing word genies was available for hire. I began by perusing a few of the portfolios of my competition at the online freelancer's hub. That sort of slowed me down. At Elance, you don't just blow your horn about what you know and how well you know it. You prove it - by taking tests that, upon completion, bestow a grade upon your expertise. In addition to a grade, you receive what amounts to an Elance class ranking. This way, of course, people looking to hire freelance writers/programmers/web designers/etc. can tell at a glance whether they're considering someone from the top or the bottom of the class. I started with the creative writing/fiction test, and spent about 10 minutes with 40 questions that I had 40 minutes to answer. You either know it or you don't, I snickered, and finished with a score in the top 5% of the class. Whew. Then I went to the test for ad writing. Again, I zipped through the questions and scored well. Oh, the portfolio was headed for excellence. Then I went to the test for grant writing, then academic writing, and then a test of my knowledge about Microsoft WORD. Aaack! I passed each 40-question test, but that bright orange class ranking bar only went to the middle of the line. Average! Gulp. Average? I hit "do not post" three times. I will not admit to being average. In a funk of desperation, I went looking for the easiest test I could find, and settled on "Computer Aptitude" which I suppose I should have failed simply because I thought that meant it would be a test with questions like:
The right click button on your mouse:
  • orders coffee
  • opens a window of selectable operations
  • blows up your computer
  • turns on your TV
Imagine my surprise when the first question was more like:
Spider : web as...
  • car : tire
  • bird : nest
  • house : yard
  • love : hate
While I was still struggling to shift my brain from "whaaaaa?" to "I don't think that's a question about the world wide web" the clock was ticking: 45-minutes for 35 questions. Each one was more annoying than the one before:
Fill in the blanks in the following series: m_ntt_fzo_l_mpq_m
If A is B's mother and D is the father of C and E is D's cousin, what is the relationship between A and C?
So why didn't I just close the Elance window, pour another cup of coffee, and call my mother for a good dose of: "You are a fabulously accomplished human being?" Because you cannot stop these tests once you begin. You can only move through them or fail. And for some reason, I could not bear an outright failure. Of course, when the result of not giving up to failure came back too close to average for my liking, I hit "do not post." Sigh. I have spent the evening pondering what I learned about myself and our North American, success driven, over-stressed, out of work world today. That, and those magnificent portfolios. Are you familiar with this motivational phrase?
What would you do if you knew you could not fail?
How many of us face a more insidious lion at the gate than failure?
What would you do if you were willing to be average?
25-million Americans are flying in circles like buzzards around jobs they do not want, they are not qualified to do, and they will not like if they get. The competition is fierce. The stakes are high. And being average will not do.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Evilwishers and Evildoers

Alright...I confess. I've wished evil on a few people: The coach who wouldn't put my son in the basketball game in 10th grade. The guy who stole my parking space the night I was late for the ballet. The racist woman who hurt my young black friend's feelings while we stood in a roller coaster line at Six Flags. There may be a few more I'm forgetting, but I guarantee you I was muttering something like, "I hope you wake up with hives all over your body tomorrow," in the instances described above. And I'm pretty sure I ended the internally grumbled epithets with some hearty name-calling like, "Jerk!" So I hesitate to sit in judgment today - but I just can't resist a comment on this headline:
Former SBC officer prayed for abortion doctor’s death; now praying same for Obama
For the generally uninitiated, SBC is the acronym for the country's largest Protestant body, the Southern Baptist Convention. The SBC claims 16-million members in 42-thousand churches across the United States. There are many days I'm quite embarrassed to say I used to be one of those 16-million. Today would be one of those days. Wiley Drake is the pastor of First Southern Baptist Church in Buena Park, California. Three years ago, messengers to the annual national meeting of the SBC elected Wiley Drake Second Vice-President of the entire denomination.
Reverend Wylie Drake
On Monday of this week, Reverend Drake told his Crusade Radio program listeners that he was glad George Tiller, a controversial abortion doctor in Kansas, was dead. Later that day, he explained to Fox Radio News host Alan Colmes that he had prayed for God to deal with George Tiller and consequently believed Tiller's murder at his Wichita, Kansas Lutheran church last Sunday morning was an answer to prayer. He continued by admitting that he's praying the same for President Obama. Reverend Drake calls his prayers "imprecatory prayers." He says they're biblical. I've been in church my entire adult life. I've studied the Bible and prayed with some of Christianity's most brilliant thinkers, proclaimers, and mystics. I had to look up the term "imprecatory" today. It's an adjective used to describe something that invokes evil curses. So an imprecatory prayer is one that implores God to do something cursed or evil to the subject of the prayer. I have to say, I don't care for the idea. Christians praying a hit list (Reverend Drake's terminology, not mine) sounds about as right to me as a radical Sunni extremist shouting, "God curse America." It seems altogether frightening and crazy...not to mention unholy. Whisper your wishes for hives or baldness or sudden weight gain when you feel you must. End the incantation with jerk or loser or idiot if it makes you feel better. Can we save "amen" for our petitions for compassion, justice, understanding, love... ...and peace?

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Piece Be With You

Have you heard about this one yet...the church in Louisville, Kentucky that's planning an "Open Carry Church Service" later this month? What, you might wonder, is an "Open Carry Church Service?" Is it a service that encourages:
A. Open hearts and carrying Bibles? B. Opening the church's doors to all people, regardless of race, cultural background, or sexual preference while promising to carry these broken-hearted people to God within a supportive community? C. Open-minded believers carrying the burdens of the world's marginalized toward a high and holy calling for peace and justice? D. Wearing guns in holsters and listening to people talk about the Second Amendment right to bear arms?
I hope you chose B or C. But you'd be wrong. The answer is D. I'm not making it up: Pastor Ken Pagano of New Bethel Church in Louisville says he's "basically trying to think a little bit outside the box" to promote "responsible gun ownership and Second Amendment rights." It's something of a patriotic celebration - timed to coincide with the 4th of July - birthday of the land where all, I am aware, are free to worship as they choose. Pastor Pagano elaborates on his "outside the box" thinking with this historic/religious perspective on the birth of our nation: "We're not ashamed to say that there was a strong belief in God and firearms — without that this country wouldn't be here." So here we go, mixing our patriotism with our prayer life and strapping on a gun just to prove the depth of our faith in ... what? A country held together by a belief in God and Gun?
Blessed are the peacemakers. Those are words credited to Jesus.
Looking at a timeline, I don't think it's possible he was referring to a Colt single action revolver. Perhaps Jesus was speaking of the uphill path that leads toward the place where enemies are loved, cheeks are turned, and swords are hammered into plowshares. If Ken Pagano were my pastor, I'd be reminding him that it's not his job to protect my constitutional rights as a citizen of the United States of America. We have a Supreme Court for that. I'd tell him it's his job to encourage my right to stand before the Holy One each and every day with a heart longing for the courage to take the road less traveled. The one that suggests I be armed with truth, righteousness, and peace. May the PEACE of Christ be with you, my brothers and sisters in Louisville, Kentucky. You are free to leave the piece behind.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

While We Were Sleeping

What happened to the peace movement? From where I sit in the dawn's early light of Dreaming of a New Day, it's gone right back to panic mode. Consider the following information and gloomy fortune telling from one of my favorite peace advocacy groups, United for Peace and Justice:
- IRAQ. Will Obama keep his pledge to withdraw combat forces from Iraq on a 16-month timetable, and all forces by 2011? At this point, the pace is slowing, and the deadline being somewhat extended, under pressure from US commanders on the ground. Sunnis are threatening to resume their insurgency if the al-Maliki regime fails to incorporate them into the political and security structures. The President insists however, that he is only making adjustments to a timetable that is on track. Prognosis: precarious. - AFGHANISTAN. Will the Obama troop escalation deepen the quagmire or be a successful surge against the Taliban by next year? Another 21,000 troops and advisers are on their way to the battlefield. Civilian casualties are mounting, causing the besieged Karzai government to complain. Preventive detention of Afghans will only expand. US deaths, now over 600, are sure to increase this summer. Taliban may hold out and redeploy in order to stretch US forces thin. Prognosis: escalation into quagmire. - PAKISTAN. US policies have driven al Qaeda from Afganistan into Pakistan’s tribal areas, where US is attacking with Predators and turning Pakistan’s US-funded armed forces towards counterinsurgency. Public opinion is being inflamed against the US intervention. Prognosis: an expanding American war in Pakistan with greater threats to American security. - IRAN. With or without US complicity, Israel may attack Iran early next year, with unforeseeable consequences in Iraq and Afghanistan. Prognosis: crisis will intensify. - GLOBAL. US will fail to attract more combat troops to fight in Afghanistan and Pakistan from Europe or elsewhere, causing pressure to increase for a non-military negotiated solution. Prognosis: Obama still popular, US still isolated. - BUDGET PRIORITIES: Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan will deeply threaten the administration’s ability to succeed on the domestic front with stimulus spending, health care, education and alternative energy. Prognosis: false hope for “guns and butter” all over again.
Hopeless, hopeless, hopeless and more hopeless. I am so tired of recycled hopelessness and fear. Today, I choose to believe when the leader of the free world steps off a plane in Saudi Arabia to extend a hand of peace and an ear of understanding that we can dare to hope for peace on this earth. And don't drop your basket of optimism because the leader of a radical and violent group of Sunni fundamentalists has released a tape saying the United States is sowing "new seeds of hatred and revenge against America" by supporting Pakistan's fight against the Taliban in the Swat region in the hills of Pakistan. When we run for cover and quake in our political boots, and say "Oh no! We've nudged the angry beast," Osama bin Laden is powerful. He sets himself up as the New York Stock Exchange of fear and hopelessness. Let's not buy it. From him or from UFPJ or anyone else. Yes, all lovers of peace should keep all eyes on all balls. Yes, it is good and intelligent and our constitutional right to question everything. Yes, we should continue to demand a determined walk on a peaceful path. But let's not put the pot of No Hope Stew on to simmer again. The smell of it in the air makes me a little queasy. All I am saying...is give hope a chance. Peace.

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