Saturday, March 23, 2013

An Open Letter To My Parents' Generation

I got recruited this morning to help explain the difference between a civil union and a marriage to a friend of a family member over Facebook. Unfortunately, it takes a Great Wall O' Text to do this; fortunately, I have a blog, and I'm in an opposite sex civil union. Challenge gladly accepted.

Dear Baby Boomers,

The biggest difference between a civil union and a marriage is psychological. The quotations around "husband" aren't always something you can hear when I say it (I'll alternate with "partner" sometimes if I feel like it's an extended conversation that might lead to an opportunity to explain our civil union) but the fact is, we're not married. *I* know it every time I call him my husband. We have a second class union, one which costs us money this time of year. The federal tax benefits reserved for marriage don't apply to us; we have to file the same way we did when we were single. It's also a constant reminder that society does not value our relationship the same way it would if we were married. We're not technically spouses, we're partners. There's a great deal of emotional weight behind the word "married", and the way I felt after I got married the first time was subtly different from the way I felt after I divorced and then formed a civil union, even though the love I share with my partner now is exponentially more healthy and mature than my first marriage ever was.

There's also the issue of spousal benefits. Not all companies offer them to civil union partners. No branches of the armed forces offer them, and no federal employees have them either. Think about that for just a second. The gay or lesbian soldier who dies for you dies knowing that the love of their life will receive no grief counseling, and no survivor's benefits. Our soldiers abroad, even the ones who live in states that allow civil unions or who traveled hundreds of miles to get to a state where gay marriage is allowed, put their lives at risk every day with that knowledge. Heck, as little as two years ago, they were dishonorably discharged if they were "discovered".

We think of that, in our civil unions. That even this second rate status is something that people have had to claw and fight for. That there are many adults living today who get hate mail from their grandparents and parents because of who they love. They have almost certainly lost friends, and some must still hide who they are in order to keep their jobs. There are people who are no longer with us today because they have been murdered, or driven to suicide by relentless bullying. All of that weight is the backing and the frame for our civil union certificates. It's emotional. It's heavy. We don't hang them on our walls, they hang on our hearts.

And I'd apologize for the novel, but I can't really, because I'm excited that you asked. It's so important that people whose lives aren't directly impacted by this issue understand why we march in the streets and what exactly the words "gay agenda" mean. It's not an effort to "turn kids gay" (if anyone understands how immoral and utterly disgusting that would be, it's people who are familiar with the methods used to try to "cure" homosexuality). It's an effort to make the world a better place for those kids, adolescents, and adults who have feelings that a frighteningly large portion of our society judges as evil. Civil unions are a stepping stone to the other side of the bank, but they aren't the same thing as standing on that far shore where love is seen as love and there is no resentment or bigotry attached to it by anyone.

I hope I live to see that day, and questions like yours help make my heart leap just a little.

So thank you for asking. Sincerely, thank you.


Thursday, December 20, 2012

"The Book Of Mormon", Theater For Young Adults

Restaurants in downtown Chicago have very close seating arrangements. The couple next to us at the sushi restaurant, who were kind enough to take our picture, mentioned that they were going to see "The Book Of Mormon" after dinner, and we smiled and said we had seen the afternoon showing. Their response was somewhat predictable.

Fellow Theater Goer (eyebrow slightly raised): "Oh, is it a good Mom and Daughter show?"
Me: "Maybe not for every mom and daughter, but it worked for us."
My daughter: "It was really good."

I should add that my daughter is in the 6th grade. 

She really likes Glee, and that show goes to some pretty dark places. From a parenting perspective, "inappropriate" shows give some good opportunities to pause the DVR and discuss. Still, before planning this trip, I desperately wanted some feedback from other parents who had taken their preteens to the show. I wasn't terribly concerned about the blasphemous parts of the show. (Although, to be sure, if you're raising your child with anything but a pluralist take on religion, this becomes a very big concern.) I just wanted some sense of how much of a challenge this was going to be for me as a parent when it came to the non-God related content. Unfortunately, the only article I could find was one from the New York Times. The reporter had been "uninvited" because his kids were... well... my daughter's age. Not exactly encouraging.

I called the theater to make sure I wasn't headed for the same scenario, and was reassured that if I felt she was mature enough to handle it, I wouldn't have any trouble at the door. Once again, I was given a strong warning that this show didn't just have "some adult themes", it was downright shocking.

Still, I'd also seen the interview where Matt Stone describes the show as their attempt to answer the question, "What would an atheist love letter to religion look like?" Good enough for me. Anything that helps me drive home the point that skepticism towards religious truth claims is healthy, but cynicism about the inherent worth, dignity, and intelligence of religious people can destroy what could otherwise be great friendships has some serious value to me as a secular mom. Tickets to premium seating in hand, I reassured her that I was open to talking about anything that didn't make sense to her or bothered her. I let her know I'd pay for the therapy if she didn't feel comfortable talking to me.

If you're not planning to see the show live (tickets can be tough to come by) or you've already seen it, feel free to watch the video below. If you haven't seen it live yet, and want to, wait for it. One of my least favorite parts of doing the research before the show was how difficult it was to avoid spoilers.

You know your kid best. The themes in this show concerning religion include its power to give people strength in the face of truly frightening odds, and the somewhat bittersweet notion that even clearly false beliefs can be used to cause positive change in the world. These go hand in hand with some other obvious truths; you can bend superstitions to say whatever you want them to say, people will embrace the things that speak to their own fears, and this isn't always a positive thing in society. The villain in this show has a superstitious fear of the power of the clitoris, and he has the guns. Enough said.

If conversations about the holocaust, gay marriage, racism, and Jerry Sandusky aren't unfamiliar territory in your home, this shouldn't be too much to handle. Really, how else are you going to get a chance to talk about the ancient practice of Chinese foot binding and relate that to the horrifying practice of female genital mutilation? Children are raped by HIV positive people in Africa, in the hopes that this will cure their condition. Do you want your teenagers completely oblivious to these facts about the human condition? If the answer to that question is yes, for you as a parent, then I'd take a pass. Even though you really do find yourself empathizing with these earnest young missionaries in their clean white shirts who are in way over their heads, you probably wouldn't be terribly comfortable with the discussions afterward. If, on the other hand, you enjoy laughing your ass off and don't mind finding creative ways to approach awkward conversations in a way that works for your teens and pre-teens, then by all means, go. The show is transcendent, and Katy Perry lyrics have much worse moral messages when it comes to sex.

For the record, coming out of the theater, my daughter let me know that she would not be needing therapy, and she sang along to a few of the songs when I popped the CD in on the way home. The worst consequence of taking her was our shared giggling over the fact that we will never, ever, be able to listen to the song "Jeremiah Was A Bullfrog" the same way again. Frogs. Hilarious.

Seriously, just go see it.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

One Size Does Not Fit All: Spiritual Fitness Training And The 33%

“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” 
― Lao Tzu

Military families have emotional needs that go far above and beyond what most of us will ever deal with; in a culture that is built around being "tough", depression is a silent killer. The top brass are taking notice, and this is a Good Thing. "Ask, Care, Escort?" Yes, yes, and oh hell yes. 

There are, however, some pretty serious problems with the way this push towards recognizing the psychological demands of military service and building resilience against things like PTSD and depression is being supplemented. Enter a whole new type of assessment: Spiritual Fitness. In this test, soldiers are asked to watch a series of video testimonials from "spiritually fit" leaders who say things like:
Well I believe that it doesn't necessarily have to be God or a Deity like that, I think it goes back to having something to... having something to believe in, you know, having purpose. Being driven... "I will see my family again." That is purpose, that motivates, that gives people the drive to accomplish their mission.
All well and good, except the token humanist (and I don't use those words lightly) who gave this testimony would have failed the actual test. Atheist soldiers, who put their one and only life on the line, are unlikely to respond positively to some of the other more overtly theistic "spiritual" testimonials.
You could do it alone... but it would be so much better to go with a higher power. I think that's very important.
A) I'm not alone. I have my friends, my family, and an entire world with new people to meet, new things to see, and new ideas to explore. 
B) I don't think it's very important to try to force a God into that picture. Been there, done that, and I have the t-shirt. It says "Reason Rally" on it. 
C) Bad coffee is the only thing the military should have in common with a 12-step program.
I remember not wanting to live... I was not motivated... my commander noticed that, too. He was like, hey, you need to bring your performance up... after about two to three weeks, I started coming around and using the church as the foundation and just believing that it was gonna get better, and it started to get better.
Good for her. Not good for me. Not good for atheists in foxholes who aren't at all conflicted about the position they take with respect to religion, or for agnostics who find very little worth exploring in religious beliefs. Lying to yourself and others for the sake of building a "spiritual community" is never healthy.

Nearly 1 in 3 Americans under the age of 30 are religiously unaffiliated. With those statistics in mind, there's an excellent bit on PBS that speaks directly to this topic.

Rock Beyond Belief was a great step forward. It was not, by any stretch of the imagination, the end of the road.

While the VA's website goes on and on about the positive benefits of spirituality in the healing process, the fact remains that roughly 33% of the people taking this test are going to be told that they are spiritually deficient, and recommended to counseling from someone who knows just what they should believe in order to become "healthy". The 800 number they are given to help them develop their spiritual health leads to a suicide hotline. 

Being told your apathy or outright opposition when it comes to religion makes you spiritually unfit for duty is not a morale booster. Arguably, it's doing more harm than good for a third of our troops, who have zero incentive to rock the boat and say something about it.

We need humanist chaplains who can provide insight into the fastest growing demographic in the country, people who can give empathy and support for soldiers who are forced to confront questions about the faith they were raised in that they may never have truly come face to face with before, and it's very unlikely to happen without civilian help. We owe the 33% within our military a debt of gratitude. Bumper stickers that say support our troops are fine. Actions that actually protect the career opportunities and emotional health of our soldiers are better.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Jesus Christ, This Rocks!

What's better than an incredibly well done arena rock tour of "Jesus Christ, Superstar?"

An American Tour! With Tim Minchin as Judas!

The arena production of Jesus Christ Superstar is to be filmed and US producers want the entire cast to tour America, Andrew Lloyd Webber said today. Lord Lloyd-Webber said: “I felt in a theatre it was in a straitjacket. In an arena you can have a proper rock band.” He added: “Tim  Minchin and Ben Forster are as good as any Judas and Jesus we’ve ever had, if not the best.” Negotiations are advanced to take the show to Australia and to America, where 6,000 cinemas have already signed up for an as-live relay.

I haven't been this excited about JC Superstar since I found the Amy Ray/Emily Sailers Resurrection CD, which I played so often that it now sounds odd to hear Jesus as a man, baby.

 Also. Squee!!! That is all.

Schadenfreude, Feminism, And The Battle Of Five Armies

On a blog on the net, there was a feminist. Not a nasty, slimy, filthy blog, filled with plots of castration and world domination, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy blog devoid of humor: it was a feminist blog, and I liked it. Then the trolls came smashing through the doors and that blogger had to step away from the angry people.

Suffice it to say, the internet doesn't always bring out the best in us, particularly when we go all Human Torch on each other. I miss Jen's writing. I recognize that not everyone does, and some people were just as elated when she quit as I was sad. I get why it happens, though. In a word, one simple and elegant word that should be taught early and explored often, it's schadenfreude. If you've never heard the term before, Scientific American has a great article on it that begins with an excellent description:
There is no English translation for the German word schadenfreude—that small, private rush of glee in response to someone else’s misfortune. But everyone recognizes the emotion, even if he or she might not have a word for it (or admit to feeling it). 

FLAME ON Pictures, Images and PhotosThere's nothing quite like a challenge over the rights to wear the Real Feminism™ label (and whether or not people who want to tear down anyone who isn't a Feminist™ do more harm than good) to bring out the angry in just about anyone. Jen threw down the gauntlet with Atheism Plus, and the secular community exploded. I don't particularly feel the need to go into the details of the latest flare up... if you're following it, you have your own opinions, I'm sure. Long story short, a guy got into a flame war that turned pretty ugly, and there are a lot of people who don't feel he deserves to have a position of leadership in the secular community because of it.

There's a petition out there right now to get Justin to step down, and it's dripping with Schadenfreude, and that's where I draw the line. I don't have to like the way a person behaves online or offline to acknowledge and appreciate a relentless pursuit of goals I care about.

Part of third wave feminism is the recognition that everyone has an opinion to share, and there is no monolithic best way forward. For some people, the notion that anyone should pull their punches and tread gently when egalitarian concerns are brought up is insulting. For some people, the entire idea of us vs. them infighting is, in and of itself, the problem. Call them "chill girls" or "privilege deniers", sure, but if you do it with scorn, you're missing the fucking point. Feminism isn't about what one person, or even what many people, want it to be. It's a constantly evolving reflection of the entire human effort to end sexist attitudes towards women altogether.

This means that we value the voices of the chill girls along with the voices of the shrill girls along with the voices of the somewhere-in-between girls (and boys) who are also individuals, each with flaws and strengths of their own that they bring to the table. Together, we make up the women and men of our community, all of whom are fighting very hard to advance a common goal.

I started this off with a riff on the opening of "The Hobbit" for a reason. The end of that book has a lovely bit where the good people of Middle Earth are getting ready to tear each other to shreds because they can't figure out how to compromise and work together. All the while, the real battle is waiting on the horizon, and it's a battle they can only win if they put their differences aside and work together. While Tolkien himself despised allegory, I'm a fan.

(Please note that my opinions are my own. I'm a secular woman, I'm not *the* Secular Woman. And really, that's kind of the point.)

Cutting down the lines of communication, shunning, and sniping are tactics that should only ever be employed as a very last resort. Communication is key. Even if we have to sacrifice our schadenfreude to do it well.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Marijuana Goes To Court: This Time, It's Federal

A major court case is coming soon to a courthouse near the White House. No, not that courthouse, but close. On October 16th, The United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has agreed to hear arguments that could force the DEA to re-examine the classification of marijuana in light of new studies-- studies that find therapeutic value in its use and examine whether or not we have enough data to consider it a safe and effective treatment for a variety of illnesses, both physical and mental.

It's going to make the news, right before the elections, and it will be interesting to see how the candidates react. My prediction:  Romney: "Ummm, pot is bad, mmkay?" Ryan: "It's an issue for the states, and marijuana should never be legal. I have a great power point about the economy, can we talk about that now?" Biden: "I think this is a very complicated question about public health and safety that requires a lot of careful analysis. At this point, the courts are looking into it." (Right answer, both politically and as a human being who cares about other human beings.) Obama: "I'm not in favor of legalizing marijuana. Can we talk about football and beer, now?"

I find Obama's stance on pot... frustrating, to say the least. This is the same guy who gave us a priceless moment of actual honesty from a politician. It was stunning. It was beautiful. It confused me and made me want to vote for him.
"When I was a kid, I inhaled, frequently. That was the point." -- Not-the-President Obama, October 2006
It might not have been the best message to send to the kids at home, but hopefully their parents were wise enough to point out that he didn't do so hot in college while he was toking it up. Good discussion topic.

Six years later, and a bit wiser, Obama is pretty much silent on the issue now. On the rare occasion that he does say something, it's a much less carefree guy who responds with things like this:
"What I specifically said was that we were not going to prioritize prosecutions of persons who are using medical marijuana," the president said. "I never made a commitment that somehow we were going to give carte blanche to large-scale producers and operators of marijuana." -- President Obama, March 2012
The problem, of course, is that marijuana is often used as self-medication to treat for depression, anxiety, chronic pain, insomnia... you name it. These are common illnesses, which means there's a very high demand for a safe and effective treatment. Make medical marijuana legal, and you get the not terribly surprising result that many, many people would rather smoke a joint than pop four or five pills every day. This means a lot of revenue in the big cities, which means a higher quality product in the businesses that are run well by people who care about their jobs. Not surprisingly, they make a lot of money, and then invest that money in delivering a better product more efficiently. They get taxed, schools get books, teachers get paid. It's pretty much the definition of a win-win scenario for everyone involved.

Except, of course, for when it isn't. The political reality of marijuana makes it a very risky business to be involved with.
For more than a year, the Obama Justice Department has been escalating its attacks in medical marijuana states, including dozens of new federal indictments and prosecutions. Though U.S. Attorneys often claim that the accused have violated state law in some way, defendants are prevented from using any medical evidence or a state law defense in federal court. If the rescheduling lawsuit is successful and marijuana is reclassified, federal defendants will then gain the basis for a medical necessity defense.

Our President (who, let's get very real here, would not be our President if his youthful dalliances with "pot, and maybe a little blow" had landed him in jail) has basically left it to the courts, and so far the courts still see marijuana as a Schedule 1 substance, on par with heroin. That may be changing, though. There's an awful lot of research out there, and it's getting harder to ignore. Put simply, "Reefer Madness" is not a documentary.*

*although it does make an excellent drinking game

This October will see some arguments that actually have the potential to do some measurable good for people who are suffering. It's about damn time.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Wake The Fuck Up!

I love Samuel L. Jackson. This may just be the best YouTube video, ever.