People have a love of categorizing, especially when it comes to religion and belief systems. Part of me has always felt that this is a bit of sociological phrenology: marking the borders between, say, Anabaptists and Pentecostalists. Or the difference between the various “Catholic” churches that don’t recognize the Pope (they usually term him the Bishop of Rome), or don’t believe in transubstantiation but believe in purgatory, and so on and so forth. As someone who was raised Catholic Christian, it’s second nature to know that there are “others” out there who don’t share your beliefs or have an incorrect or wrong belief, though similar to yours. I grew up with friends who went to the Church of God, and while we never had any major theological discussions, it always struck me as weird that I was going to heaven and they, emphatically, were not.
Part of me has always been worried that the moment you put an abstract label on a concrete someone or something, you stop thinking about it and considering it. It’s easier to simply mark this person as “gay” or this person as “absent-minded” or that particular person as “Christian” and that person as “atheist” and to draw conclusions from that. People don’t spend a lot of time to ask some of the perennial questions that should come up when you are considering the differences between people: what is estranging us, or uniting us here? What is the inherent difference between this person, a Christian, and this person, a Lutheran (hint: probably nothing related to eternal salvation or damnation)? What are the bigger, broader forces at work that are affecting or impacting these people? That are affecting my thinking about this? Who benefits? That last question in particular is important. Who benefits by saying that people from the Church of God won’t go to heaven, and people from the Catholic Church will?
A friend of mine recently posted this on Facebook:
Being a follower of Christ is not exclusive to being American. We are not better than other people and are not Gods favorite. If your church could not transplant into a different country and still have the same message (serve,love,give) you may want to check who you are serving and who you’ve put your faith in.
As someone who doesn’t believe in god, an afterlife, or any form of explainable supernatural phenomenon, I read her post and thought about it critically.
I feel the same call to serve, love, and give. Maybe “call” isn’t the right word, but I was raised to know that the talents I was born with are to be used for the betterment of mankind. I won’t toot my own horn and give examples, but stop and think during the day and determine if what you’re doing matters. To whom, and why? Is this something that the next generation will be pleased you did, or something that will help people everywhere? What did you contribute this year that will have a lasting, sustainable impact that’s positive to everyone?
Set up a compost in your yard. Start recycling. That drunk homeless guy on the street?–point him in the direction of a shelter. Participate in your city council, your school PTA, take jury duty with pride. Vote–and take time to read what candidates are saying and what they are thinking. Volunteer at the soup kitchen. Donate to Goodwill. Put stuff on Craigslist for free.
Just because I feel my beliefs are “right” doesn’t make me superior to others. I’ve thought long and hard about my beliefs, and the reason I strongly disassociate with “militant atheists” is that I don’t believe I should question other people’s personal choices on their belief systems. Do I think they’re wrong? Yes, I do, and I base it on my logical, empirical experience of the world. Do I have misconceptions, misunderstandings, mistakes about the world? I sure do, because my understanding (and man’s understanding) of the world we live in is very limited. Does religion offer all the answers to provide for a comfortable life? Yes, it does–just as much as I feel atheism does. If it gets you through the day, and permits you to serve, love, and give, then we’re on the same page and we serve the same masters.
But there are people who feel their beliefs are right, are superior to others, and do not serve, love, and give. They actively work to line their own pockets while espousing a credo of love. They do not seek to understand the people around them, and instead assign them unthinking categories like “sinner”, “gay”, “Muslim”, “pro-choice”, “illegal immigrant”. They work to limit the rights of other human beings around them, to prevent their voice from being heard, from helping them when they are at their absolute lowest. In all honesty, I think the most threatening thing to American Christians today is not Muslims, it’s not ex-KGB Orthodox Christians, it’s not drones, it’s not the IRS, it’s not gay marriage: it’s a friendly, helpful atheist who is willing to make people realize that doubts are OK, they are great to be explored, and that you can in some cases do just as much if not more good without organized religion.
Beware worshiping something–anything, really–beyond the ineffable human values. In the month of May, I am reminded of David Foster Wallace’s graduation speech “This is Water”, which describes how dangerous it is to unthinkingly worship something:
Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things – if they are where you tap real meaning in life – then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already – it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. Worship power – you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart – you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. (Emphasis mine. To see the full, wonderful speech, check it out here.).
Worship the people next to you. Worship their acts of selflessness, of giving, of helpfulness, of loving, serving, and giving. Mention them in your prayers, or if you’re like me, remember what they did and emulate it in their honor. Remove all the categories that you have from your thought–what else is this but the pantheon of ignorance?–and instead start treating people like people.
Taften recently threatened to watch the movie Eat, Pray, Love with me. I dislike this book because the person took their journey inwards, trying to find out who they were. If Taften were to vanish, if my family all disappeared today, I would do my best to put time into local and regional help. I personally don’t think I would find any better answers in Italy, Bali, Indonesia, anywhere. One can love, serve and give anywhere, but why not start with the places that are most familiar and most recognizable to you? You may have a harder job removing the thick, rose-colored lenses that you have in place with all the misconceptions you have about life around you…but once they are gone and you’ve initiated the habit of thinking critically about the world, they are usually gone for good.
Succinctly and easily summarizes why I, too, am voting NO for the marriage amendment as well as the voter ID law in the 2012 election. Also, check out his music–a favorite in my work and driving playlists.
While in Chicago I spent a day at the marvelous Art Institute and had a blast there. The works were simply stunning, and the Roy Lichtenstein exhibit was huge and overflowing with his works. It was fascinating to see nearly 40 years of art from a single artist, and see the growth and transition between his works.
It’s a fairly well-known fact that I speak German, and love all things German too: film, culture, food, beer, you name it, if it’s German, I’m there. The result of my learning and loving not only the language but also the culture of Germany is the result of one teacher’s intense drive and passion: Donald Kjar, my high school German teacher.
Don Kjar was known lovingly as “Herr Kjar” at my school (in German, this is pronounced as “hair care” (which is ironic, because hair care for him was a Flowbee)). As both a man and an educator he has impressive credentials: He was the teacher who single-handedly created a nearly 25-year exchange program with a school in Oldenburg, who taught countless students who passed through both Eden Valley, Watkins, and Kimball, Minnesota, and announced the high school football games as well. Despite being an obviously important figure in local society, this is the same man who would get in front of a whole classroom of 30 students (none of them ever slow to mock a teacher) and start to sing, dance, do whatever he could to explain the strange guttural language he was trying to teach them.
This last part is what I vividly remember. He would try his best to mimic or show exactly what he was saying–often exaggerating the movements to try and express his meaning. I doubt he thought his job would include sign language, but it was a critical part of trying to teach us (he avoided speaking English whenever he could in class). Walking slow versus walking fast, making ice cream, grilling and cooking, and everyone’s particular favorite, dancing–tanzen.
In showing us how to tanzen, he would stand in front of the class, point with both of his hands next to his head, and then shuffle his feet and move his hips around. It was a very, erm, distinctive move–as students, we at first flensed him mercilessly for dancing the way he did; but later on we’d come to both like his way of trying to transmit language information to us, and in fact think about it intensely to try to learn what he was showing us. It became a critical part of how he taught us, this shameless tanzen he did in front of us.
Our community is well known for having strong-backed German genes that let 16 year olds grow to heights typically above 6 feet. Herr Kjar defended his shorter height at least once a week, calling himself ‘normal’ (in German of course). He made (and I suspect he funded with his own money) spaghetti ice, ice cream pressed through a spaghetti maker and served with over-sugared toppings. Delicious on a hot summer afternoon when all you are thinking about is leaving high school. Herr Kjar was one of those teachers that took rough, unlettered students and taught them about a whole new world, thousands of miles away, even when the present world was shouting for your attention.
His classroom was an outward expression of himself. It was filled with memorabilia from Germany–including a brick from the Berlin wall–much of which he could instantly recall and tell a story about. He permitted students to paint on the walls–I did at one point, painting the Solar System and their German names (they weren’t so different from their English names). Student recreated pictures of posters of Broadway musicals, graffiti from the Berlin wall, and memorialized characters from German fiction all were on the normally whitewashed walls. The first time I walked into his classroom, as a young 8th grader, I was stunned to see such color and vibrancy, and this small man bouncing on his heels in front of the class.
When 9th grade rolled around and it was time for me to pick a language to learn, I immediately wanted Spanish. (What?) Yes, Spanish, as all of my friends were going to be taking Spanish. Historically I was the dividing line in the class between A students (above me) and B students (below me). But sadly, I was the odd number out–Spanish filled up with all the A students, and I was stuck in German. No amount of protesting to Larry Peterson, principle at the time, would work–German it was. My attitude changed almost entirely once I found that German was actually a lot of fun, and that I was surprisingly good at it. Though I strongly doubt the last part, as I think that it was purely his educational method that connected me to the language and the culture.
Through Herr Kjar I met Marlena, my German exchange sister who I am still good friends with, and who I consider my older sister. Her family in Germany (her father, mother and three sisters) were a joy to visit and I still love hearing from them as well. He also introduced me to Tobias, as well, the German student I stayed with when I visited Germany in high school. Herr Kjar brought me and likely hundreds of others to places we would never have imagined in our youth: Paris, concentration camps, the North Sea islands, Amsterdam, a small German high school. Through him I experience a different world than I would have otherwise.
Unexpectedly, I owe Herr Kjar thousands of dollars, as he also set up the College in the Schools program for EV-W. I was able to get nearly 36 credits of college course done, no cost to myself, and save myself more than a year’s worth of college. I graduated in three years primarily due to the work of this happy-go-lucky, expressive man. I never asked him about this, but I suspect he would have declined any sort of monetary offer, and instead have offered more spaghetti ice.
Herr Kjar was not afraid to speak his opinions, either, but in the times that he and I did talk in my senior year (when I started to get political and critical thinking was developing), he showed himself to be a rational, moderate man who would gladly put his brain to a topical political or social topic. In this he showed great wisdom; many teachers will speak wryly or hint at their opinions, but because his were so sensible, he had nothing to really skirt around. That helped a lot with the radicalism I was presented with in early college, from both sides, and showing me that the path of wisdom isn’t so narrow as some describe it.
Herr Kjar died this week, after a long fight with ALS. His wife, Nancy (also an educator) and their two sons will be people I will console and see today, as I haven’t done even a remotely good job of staying in touch with him or his family. In looking at his life, I just can’t imagine the effort involved–married for 40 years, two well-off sons, announcing every football game, teaching countless students a language and a whole other (often misunderstood) world–but in knowing Herr Kjar, I know that he would have thought there was still more to do, still another student to teach. He was not one to rest on his laurels, and he had many, many laurels.
I’m not one to give gradations to people around me–best friend, mentor, worst coworker, best style–but if I could give one to Herr Kjar it would be mentor. I want what he had–a family that was strong and well-to-do, loved in the community; respected and loved as a teacher; and most of all, he left an indelible impression of both education, moderation, and exploration that countless students will have experienced. Even as a grown man these days, I don’t have the gall to stand in front of a class of students, start speaking German, and then begin to mime and express my way through an hour’s worth of content. Some might say that he was able to do it just because he had been doing it for so long; but I think that every time he got in front of a classroom, he got just a little nervous. And then did it better than anyone else anyway.
Have I really not blogged since January? I feel as though I owe people an update as to why I haven’t written anything. Here it goes, in pictures.
Lots of content forthcoming. I’ve got some (admittedly, older) movie reviews forthcoming. Some of them will be…spiteful.
Foolishly, I offered to host Thanksgiving this year, and then remembered that I only have cursory cooking skills (not anywhere on par with my old roommate, Cody). But the family breathed a sigh of relief, and it’s at least easy to get to my house (as compared to my parents’ place).
Here’s the menu:
Turkey, purchased at Trader Joe’s, and pre-brined. I will probably brine it again
Gravy, made from the turkey drippings and scraps
Yam Casserole with pecans
Green Bean Casserole (the classic on the side of the fried onion cans)
Bread (cheating here, and buying it from Cub)
Pork tenderloin (they cut into nice, tasty medallions)
Pumpkin & mincemeat pie (made by Mom)
We’ll see how this goes. I’m cooking for 10 individuals, and this is going to be an adventure. Photos forthcoming!
On Friday I went in for a flexible sigmoidoscopy to determine why I continue to have significant bowel issues. This has been a long time coming (I’ve had symptoms for a year) and the initial colonoscopy revealed that I had two major bacterial infections, which may be continuing. At any rate, I was in my gown on the procedure table, getting an IV put into my hand for the sedation drugs. The nurse (I remember her name perfectly, though she shall remain nameless) struck up a conversation with me.
Nurse: Do you have any kids or critters?
Me: Ahh, no, not right now. I used to have a cat!
Nurse: I have two kitties right now, Max and Harry. I’ve had them for seven years!
Me: <simpering smile>
Nurse: I’m an animal communicator!
Me: Oh…what exactly is that?
Nurse: Well, Max came up to me the other day and goes, “Moooommm! Where are the birds? Are the birds OK?” And when Max was a kitty, he met my friend’s birds. My friend is a shaman in California, and I called him and asked him if his birds were OK. He mentioned that a storm came through the other day and had upset all his birds! I think they must have psychically reached out to Max to tell him this.
Me: <stunned silence>
Nurse: In a previous life, Max was mauled to death by a dog and he really enjoys to have creature comforts, and others around him to have creature comforts too. So I know that when the birds were upset it would have an impact on him.
Me: <using all my willpower to mention the word ‘anthropomorphization’>
After that last line, I almost wanted to stop this nurse from continuing to hook and IV into me. Animal psychics? Are you taking some of these drugs too?! Ridiculous.
I await the results of my test. Besides the biopsies they took, I believe this woman is also looking to sacrifice a rooster and read its entrails, toss some bones and burn some sage. I’m interested to hear what they come back with.
When I sat in 8th grade geography, barely listening to Mrs. Johnson discuss the farming and monetary educational game, and doodled this symbol before you, I had one of those weird vertiginous moments–where all of a sudden, you just know you’ve done something important or major in your life. This symbol that I doodled was immensely appealing to me–the interlocking circles, the harmony of it, just really spoke to me. But I didn’t do anything too fancy with it–if anything, it became one of a number of symbols that I drew during high school that my friends referred to as ‘cult symbols’.
I kept drawing this symbol for years, through college and my first few years in Minneapolis, and then the day came where sister Catie called me and told me she had gotten a tattoo. It was an image of a bird, holding a banner saying ‘Freedom’–shifted six inches up and to the left to avoid the tramp stamp stigma–and I knew I could one-up a tattoo like that easily.
So I sat down and started drawing this symbol over and over and over again. Magically, the opposite of semantic saturation occurred and vast new interpretations of this symbol started happening. I saw the tao symbol in it. The moons of Jupiter in perfect orbit. Binary good-and-evil themes expressed basically in the dark and light. The suns of Alpha Centauri and a planet in a temporary reprieve from its wobbly orbit. A space-y theme won the day and I named it the ‘Tetrakreis’, a Greek-German portmanteau of the word ‘four’ and ‘circle’.
The real kicker came when I got this tattooed on my right arm three-dimensionally, applying the image in a wrap around the cylinder of my arm, so that the largest circle connects back to itself. Someone I dated earlier this year, noting my continued zest for this symbol, said that I am still interpreting the symbol, and that the meaning is still evolving. I don’t know if it’s that complex…but that sure as hell sounds good.