Monday, November 8, 2010

Haiku-tainment for the Prose-Weary

For those who value form over substance, I offer up for public ridicule some haiku musings of mine, reprinted (and slightly edited) from here.

On gay marriage:

Kekkon wa
Obama ni yoreba
Okama dame

As for marriage ways,
According to Obama
No way for the gays.

Lawrence v. Texas
Souter gone, will we lose all?
Soyomayor says…

On Mormon missionaries:

Mormons in haiku
demonstrate free agency,
pass the Turing test

Missionaries rap
Book of Mormon in haiku
Old wine in new skins.

LDS haiku,
yet not a one containing,
“And it came to pass…”

On McNaughton's painting One Nation Under God:

Token black complies
Clarence Thomas in disguise?
Reality belies…

Blacks still in the rear
Satan whispers in gay's ear
Such do WASPs hold dear

Franklin clutching chest
Justice cannot watch the rest
Lying at its best.

Jesus now reveals:
Constitution, not Bible,
Is the Word of God.

Boy is so confused:
“Church and State shall not be fused”
Jesus not amused

The Second Coming
Jesus judges living, dead
Who will make the cut?

Painting shows the way
sells better than truth.

No haiku attempt is complete without literary criticism. Here is my response to one who did not care for the use of rhyming in the above haiku:

Critics I address,
To some rhyming I confess
Cease with your distress

To those who contend
“Rhyming haiku sense offend!”
Let me now defend

As one who adores
Rhyme which haiku underscores
How the purist roars!

Give your rules a rest
Grating rhyme is rhythm's zest
Fusion food tastes best.

Wisdom in five feet?
Even coffins are longer.
There ain't no free lunch!

Like one thousand cranes
Haiku speaks not of what is,
but to what should be

Thursday, October 14, 2010

It gets better, really!

Joel Burns, currently on the Fort Worth TX City Council, was moved by the recent epidemic of gay teen suicide, to make his own video (and personal testimonial) for Dan Savage's It Gets Better project, encouraging gay teens to stick it out until, as it did for me, it does get better.

If you have not yet seen it, please watch it in its entirety (not quite 13 minutes, but if you must, you can skip to 4:20 for his personal story).

Joel Burns' story is also my story. What he so compellingly and tearfully recounts happened to me twice, once in my sophomore year of high school, and again in my sophomore year of college. Here too, as Joel did, I apologize that close friends and family are hearing this story for the first time. Some things are best said in public.

I was harrassed regularly before and after P.E. class, in ninth grade and especially in tenth. One of my teachers was an unsympathetic ex-Marine, the other a very unsympathetic coach who ironically had an openly gay son of his own. Both coaches were well flirted with by the girls, and neither seemed to mind this at all. I was physically assaulted (punching and shoving) maybe a dozen times or more, in and out of the locker room, a place of special dread I learned to avoid so assiduously that one girl remarked how my swimsuit stank. In fact, I was afraid to change out of it after swim class and it would mildew tucked safely in my book locker when I changed privately in a campus bathroom stall.

I was fired on by a boy at the top of our street using a pellet gun while I was walking home, and the pellet lodged in my knee. My mother stormed up there and banged on the door, threatening to return with the cops. I had never seen her so mad. Another time, while walking home, a thuglet from the high school football team stopped me, called me a fag, and punched me in the face. Or tried to, anyway. I raised my right forearm (to this day, I wish I had used the left instead!) to parry the blow, and heard a snap. My right ulna suffered a hairline fracture. I was too ashamed to tell my French teacher that my arm ached (lest she asked how it was hurt) and failed a French quiz that day. The school administration interrogated me at length seeking the identity of the assailant, but I yielded it not. The Vice-Principal and Head Guidance Counselor were both coaches on the side, and I knew deep down on where their inner loyalties lay. I did not trust them to protect me from the fallout, either further harrassment, or (far worse) total social isolation. I was not “out” to myself, much less my family, much much less to my peers, and I could not confide in anyone about this.

As it turns out, the broken arm was a golden ticket to Special Ed. P.E. Nominally for the physically disabled, it was filled with fellow misfits (read “gay” students). Long after the three weeks it took my arm to heal, I remained in this P.E. for Sexual Minorities where dear Miss Sensenbrenner (bless her soul) led us in gay-friendly sports like volleyball, swimming, softball, and non-competitive soccer while our straight brethren sweated and sweltered in the heat on the football, baseball, and basketball fields and running cross-country around the school. Miss S. and whatever other faculty members arranged this island of sanctuary for me may have saved my life, and I thank them.

In college, I lost my faith that this “phase” would ever end, and when my sister asked me point-blank if I were gay, I said No and hoped for the last time that it were true. Soon after, I confided in my closest friends and all but one was supportive. Unfortunately, that one was my closest friend and his rejection was devastating. We did not speak again for 30 years. It was ironic that he, a devout Christian, was the final catalyst in my abandonment of the myth of a benign Supreme Being, and after all who has use for a malign one?

I remain to this day a scarred optimist and devout atheist. Things did get better. I “dated” a few times (as in, I fell hopelessly in love, they never returned my call), I was Vice President of the UC Berkeley GLBA and put on their first major dance for gays, lesbians, and bisexuals. I joined the Peace Corps to save the world and earned my way into a non-existent heaven with chronic diarrhea. I fell in love and “married” another man for 8 1/2 years, until he passed away leaving me even without the strength to cry. Now I am very happily married to the man of my dreams, one wonderfully overlooking of my flaws. We got to drop the quotes around the word “married” two years ago, with family present, but we refuse to reset the clock and are soon approaching our tenth anniversary. I have a great job and have been able to travel to almost 30 countries. Life is good. I wish the boy I was could see me now, he would be so proud.

I am here today because of the people in my life, the tremendous support I had growing up, an incredibly tight-knit large extended family (including one gay cousin, who was there when I needed him!) that gave me the self-esteem and strength to work through these issues and seek out help from others. Too many young gays teens today do not have this support network of family or friends, and the result is tragic and pointless.

If you feel as grateful as I am to Joel for speaking up, despite the potential backslash, about this silent pandemic, a near right-of-passage for gay teenagers, you could do worse than go to his his website at and click on the Get Involved! button. While you're there, consider a monetary contribution to his campaign. Even heroes need to eat.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

No hierarchy of fiction

Recently, a friend of mine (raised fundamentalist Evangelical) railed against the “cultist superstition of Mormons”. It was a throwaway conversation filler, and I knew I was expected to conflate my frustration over LDS opposition to same-sex marriage with ridicule for their curious beliefs, then move on to more topical gossip. Instead, I fired back with some inconvenient truths: that the contributions were from members’ non-tax-exempt contributions and not from Church tithings, that even “evil” people have First Amendment rights in this country, that I have met some really warm and friendly Mormons online, at least one of whom I consider a friend (even though we have yet to meet in person), that though Mormons are arguably almost pathologically polite, they didn’t (and don’t) strike me as particularly “evil”.

My conscience thus appeased, I went on to swear, drink, and traffic in calumny of others not present. It was, all in all, a great afternoon.

Only later did I realize that my friend had mistaken my position entirely. It is not, as she had assumed, that the sins of the group are outweighed by the virtues of the few, or the one. I hope that I do not base my philosophy (or my bigotry) on mere anecdotalism.

Simply put, there is no hierarchy of fiction. Those who believe that an angel appeared to Joseph 200 years ago are no less right — which is to say, no less wrong — than those who believe that an angel appeared to Mary 2000 years ago, or those who believe in astrology or flying teapots. A deist who ridicules a Mormon’s beliefs has truly no sense of irony. A Jew who takes comfort in millennia-old prayers has no right to religious superiority over the new-age fusion beliefs of the Buddhist-Unitarian.

Extrapolating beyond the data is akin to guessing how the dice will land, and the guess does not get less difficult by shaking them seven times instead of seventy times seven times.

For the record: the LDS Church is manifestly wrong for opposing my marriage. But more wrong is the suburbanite liberal who adores gays at her cocktail party, but not in her child’s classroom. The Mormon who voted showed more (misguided) moral conviction than the hipster too hung over to bother. Those who content themselves with an avuncular supernatural “higher power” instead of Zeus and Poseidon are just as intellectually incoherent but lack creativity. There is a weird conceit among many of the credulous left to disdain the credulity of the right. In turn, those who cling to the Book of Genesis have no shame in scoffing at Native creation myths involving Crow, Beaver, Otter, and Whale.

Here are the facts: I do not know the facts. I do not know how I know this. Faced with this uncertainty, I am guided in my beliefs by empiricism, in my actions by utilitarianism and the Golden Rule, and resist the powerful, presumably Darwinian, instinct to yearn for a life after death with the modest antedote of resigning myself to extracting the most out of this one. If I live on in others’ memories, it is enough for me. Anything more is vanity.

Then again, if pressed to choose a supreme being, I do rather like the idea of a flying teapot. It is hard to imagine people killing each other to defend the honor of a such a crock.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Time for the Pope to Walk on Water

The Rev. James Martin, S.J., a faithful Catholic and Jesuit priest, has recently written an excellent essay titled “The Church's Easter: What Needs to Die in the Catholic Church so That it May Live”, outlining the way forward for the Church from priesthood sexual abuse. In short, for the Church to live the following must die:

  • A prideful clerical culture of power, privilege and secrecy.
  • Elevating concern for a priest's reputation above that of a child's welfare.
  • Having more zeal in investigating dissident theologians and American Catholic sisters than in investigating abusive priests.
  • Paralyzing fear of the consequences of confession.

Of these excellent points that Father Martin makes, the last is I believe the most important, for without confession, repentance is insincere and atonement is impossible. Too many good men in the Church hierarchy are paralyzed with fear of making things worse, of painting with too broad a brush which might slander and demoralize good priests.

But cancer requires both acute surgery and radiation at the site of pathology and systemic chemotherapy to prevent future outbreaks. Just so, the pathology of priestly paraphilia must be excised swiftly where it is found, but the abuse will recur unless structural changes — and here I mean specifically an end to clerical celibacy — are instituted.

The past deserves from the Catholic bishops a sincere act of contrition. The future requires that the Pope himself find that same courage to make a leap of faith towards Christ that Peter made (Matthew 14:28-31) in walking on water even at the risk of drowning:

Peter said to him in reply, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

He said, “Come.” Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus.

But when he saw how (strong) the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”

Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught him, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”

In the original Greek, the last verb doubt (διστάζω), which also means hesitate, implies that Peter's failure was not a lack of belief but rather a lack of faith: the courage to trust in and act on belief. Let us hope that the current Pontiff can find the same courage to reach out unselfconsciously towards righteousness in these troubled times. Salvation is ultimately in God's hands, but failure is fully within the power of man.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Good Friday from an ex-Catholic Perspective

What does Good Friday mean to me who do not believe that Jesus was God?

I think it is useful to place Jesus' atonement within the context of his time. The Jewish requirements of atonement include repentance, confession, restitution, punishment (by God or others or else undertaken voluntarily), and absolution (Yom Kippur for venal sins, death for mortal sins).

Note that to Jews, absolution was given by God, not man. And forgiveness is not in the list: if you gave adequate restitution to your neighbor, you were done: you did not need his forgiveness. Encouraging the forgiveness of sins was a Christian departure from Jewish tradition. And forgiveness by proxy is simply not possible for Jews.

Catholics (modern ones, at least) make much of Jesus having provided restitution, tribulation, and death, allowing us to close the deal merely with repentance, confession, and penance. Absolution can be granted (through a priest) by Jesus. In fact, we up the ante: mere repentance (forward-looking: go and sin no more) should be accompanied by sincere contrition (backward-looking: I wish I hadn't done it). Without regret, repentance is insincere.

The justification of these "more than strictly necessary" measures is that they are for the benefit of the sinner's psychology, not her soul. In practice (if not in theology), unless we attempt to actually try (and fail) to walk the walk of Jesus, and not just ride free on His shoulders, we will slip back into sin and become hypocrits. That's just how humans are wired (call this Original Sin if you are inclined to view the latter as mere metaphor). Catholics are raised to believe that suffering is good for the soul.

Evangelicals are so much more fortunate to have the psychological strength not to need to personally atone for their transgressions: “forgive me Lord”, and poof! Sins are erased like writing on a whiteboard. They treat sin like a soiled shirt: just Shout It Out™!

And indeed, to the believer, both Catholic and Evangelical positions are quite close in theory (if not in practice).

But to the unbeliever (like me), there is a vast difference between the discipline of the former and the lip service of the latter. I retain my Catholic moral structure more or less intact. Actions speak louder than words, and (pace St. Paul) Jesus' example of atonement offers great meaning even to me who do not believe that Jesus was God, and even more meaning to me when I came to not believe in a god at all.

Had I been raised Evangelical, I might well have fallen very far from grace. The strength of Catholic shame does not let go so easily, and for that I am blessed.

This is my testimony: through contrition, confession, restitution, and graceful acceptance of appropriate punishment, I too receive absolution in the form of self-forgiveness and psychological cleansing. Though Jesus may not have saved my soul for all eternity, his teachings and example have helped me to save my own soul in this life. Until such time as further revelation come to me, that will have to do.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Sometimes bad cases make good law

Most of you are well acquainted with the antics of professional scumbag Fred Phelps, whose mantra "God Hates Fags" now extends to anyone who dies in defense of our Constitution that defends the right of homosexuals to exist.

Now, adding insult to injury, the father of a fallen Marine, whose funeral Phelps' "church" picketed, has been ordered by the Fourth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals to pay court costs for that cockroach Phelps.

If there is a God, I am certain that Phelps will be writhing in the next life in some serious pain (of his own making) for being so loathsome in this life. But under the U.S. Constitution, it was Phelps who was wronged. His First Amendment freedom was infringed upon by a grieving father, and the most conservative Court of Appeals in the country upheld Phelps' right to speak evil.

I applaud the court for its principled stand. Freedom of speech is far too precious to deny even to a hate-filled homophobe whose own self-promoting celebrity status now makes him fair game for satirists and bloggers.

There is a well-known legal maxim that "bad cases make for bad law". No judge wants to have Fred Phelps for a poster child. But our Constitution is not a fair-weather friend, and a country that might censor a devil today would silence an angel tomorrow. Even in death, that Marine served in defense of our country and the values we hold dear, first among which is the right to speak freely. I salute both father and son for their sacrifice.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Sins of the Father

The Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic School in Boulder, CO recently expelled a preschooler because the child's parents are lesbians. The Archdiocese of Denver has released a statement justifying the expulsion:

“Parents living in open discord with Catholic teaching in areas of faith and morals unfortunately choose by their actions to disqualify their children from enrollment.”

The pastor of the school, Father Bill, has further explained his reasoning in his blog post titled What wisdom is at work in not having children of a gay marriage in a Catholic school?. Most commenters on his site have vehemently disagreed with his position in expelling the child, and small wonder: he misstated his position and thereby generated the very controversy he was trying to avoid:

“The core issue for us Catholics on this question is our freedom and our obligation to teach about marriage and family life as our Faith teaches.”

He is mistaken. This is an expression of Protestant belief. It invites the Catholic lay reader to misconstrue the meaning of "us". I suspect what the good pastor really meant was:

The core issue for the Catholic Church on this question (or any other) is the ability of the Magisterium to understand the will of God, the presumption that God will ensure that it does, and the freedom and obligation of the clergy thus enlightened to teach to others less attuned to God's wishes, in the hope that the faithful will not fall away in a misguided and self-deluding belief that they can more reliably intuit God's teachings without a reliable intermediary.

Some commenters wondered about the Church's tolerance of divorce (at least with respect to parochial school attendance), but this is a false analogy: no parishioner thinks that divorce is an objective good. Even non-Catholics understand divorce to be a failure.

In contrast, the understanding of the morality of sexuality is evolving in American society quite rationally, with increased understanding by scientists of its etiology and the apparent lack of negative societal impact.

The "moral relativism" here is not about sexuality, but about the increasing unease by Catholics (since Vatican II) with the proposition that the clergy is credible in matters of sexuality, even as it has simultaneously failed to understand the root causes of clerical paraphilia and failed to provide an understandable narrative that harmonizes recent genetic and social science on sexuality with the teachings of the Church.

When Jesus was asked, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”, he did not say "I am, trust me." He said (Mat 11:5-6), look around and believe what you see with your own eyes:

“The blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”

When deciding whether to trust the Catholic Church in matters of sexuality, my own eyes tell me that gays are clamoring not for the self-indulgence of "free love" but for the sacrament of marriage, that these lesbians are raising their children not as an atheist but believing in Christ, that sexuality is in fact not "ordered towards an intrinsic moral evil" but rather oriented towards a well-integrated psychological, social, and spiritual whole.

In short, my eyes tell me that Father Bill is not speaking for God on this issue. Perhaps it is time for the teacher to become the student.