With Nana and Papa

With Nana and Papa
Family Times at Flathead Lake

Friday, February 26, 2010

Winning Isn't Everything

"Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing."
-UCLA Bruins football coach Henry Russell ("Red") Sanders (also attributed to Vince Lombardi)

A simple quote, but I confess, I know it by heart. It may, in fact, be tattooed on my heart. I believed in this statement during my athletic career (undistinguished as it was) and my academic years of study, though I mouthed support of the counterpoint statement "it's not that you won or lost but how you played the game" (sports journalist Grantland Rice). I doubted that anyone could wholeheartedly espouse Rice's philosophy and looked for tears every time a top athlete achieved less than complete victory, less than the gold medal at an Olympic event, for example.

That is why this Olympics has been a true revelation to me. I see snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler fall in her half-pipe runs but give a glowing interview, saying that she threw her toughest trick and so she was happy, regardless of her low finish. Evan Lysacek and Bode Miller gave similar interviews saying that they put down their best performances and would have been happy regardless of the outcome. I admit to feeling cynically unsure that they meant it (after all, they did win medals), but if they were lying then they were darn good actors! Then yesterday in the Denver Post I read an article about women's figure skating. Rachael Flatt's coach, Tom Zakrajsek is quoted as saying " all the top athletes know that the key is not to focus on that (wanting to get a medal and getting on a podium). If you focus on the prize, you're easily distracted." Well - who knew? I must have been living with a lot of distractions.

I shared my exciting discovery with a close friend yesterday and added, "these athletes must be a new generation. Maybe they are all influenced by the snowboarding culture of having fun, shooting for the moon, and not worrying about results." She looked at me strangely and asked if I really thought the athletes had changed or if I was the one who had changed. She noted that perhaps the athletes had been saying it - and meaning it- all along and I just had not been paying attention or had not believed them. A scary thought, to be sure. Hopefully I am learning the right lessons now, in time to teach them to my children, and hopefully I will be convincing enough that my kids will learn this message - competing is about doing your best, practicing hard enough so that your performance is automatic even though variables may interfere. Regardless of how any experience turns out, you own it, and no one can take it away from you.

I am going to turn away from Russell and Lombardi and embrace Baron de Coubertin's message for Olympic athletes, ""The most important thing . . . is not winning but taking part.” Apparently I have lost some of my competitive edge, and that will make every experience a bit richer.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Homeless in Denver

“Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” - Mary Harris Jones (called "Mother Jones", 1837–1930

Yesterday I went on a brief tour of the spots in downtown Denver where homeless citizens often congregate. We walked by street corners, parks and alleys where folks look for work or a spot to practice basic life skills, as well as the amazing Stout Street Clinic which offers medical services for the homeless. The Cornerstone day center and the Urban Peak offices for homeless youth – all these locations are within a short distance of each other, seeking to offer services and help folks where they exist.

Our leader was the brilliant and passionate Randle Loeb, former homeless citizen, current board member of countless organizations and founder of the People’s Leadership Council. Randle introduced our group to numerous facts and figures, recalled stories and presented us with persons working hard to help those who are unsafe due to their lack of housing. He reminded us that each person on the streets has his or her own story, that each is a citizen who can vote, who has loved ones, who is a member of our community. Shockingly, each year 30% of the people on the street have never been homeless before.

The spot that touched me most on our walk was a memorial garden and oak tree surrounded by an oval of stone stools. The plaque in front of the oak tree reads “This garden is dedicated to those we loved who died on the streets.” Randle shared with us that one of the greatest fears of those on the streets is that they will die and no one will know. No one will be able to tell their parents, spouses, siblings, even children, what happened to them. How can this be in the middle of our city? Their fears are based in the reality that life expectancy for those on the streets is at least 20 years less than the standard American life expectancy and that often no one seems to care. The garden and plaque gives people a place to mourn for their lost friends who have no grave, who had no memorial service. It helps us remember that these deaths occur in our midst.

There are many wonderful people in Denver working to alleviate homelessness. The Mayor’s office has done good things and Randle noted that they hope for 5,000 units of housing to be built (though he noted we may need more like 50,000 units). In economic tough times the budget for services for those on the margins is often cut, and indeed the Stout Street Clinic had to take their Health Outreach Program vehicle off the roads due to cuts in funding. As we all struggle through changing fortunes let’s remember those who pass these winter nights on the street. As Mother Jones said, let us pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Pumpkin as Metaphor

“What would you rather have my friends

A chance to shine, or die here on the vine?

The better way seems very plain to me/

You will have eyes to see, and for that night, you’ll be

A bright lamp burning in the darkness”

- From “John’s Garden” Music and Lyrics by Peter Mayer

I took my eight-year-old daughter to her first real concert on Friday. Peter Mayer, a folksinger with incredible vocal and guitar skills, was the star and solo act. She and I sat enraptured while he worked his guitar-string magic, making cat’s cradles of the cat gut and tuning the instrument as finely as a mother might comb and braid her baby’s hair. Many of his songs are humorous and many contain moral queries and speculate on life’s big questions, such as “is it better to go big and flame out or slowly fade away?”

The song above, “John’s Garden” addresses this question in a pumpkin patch on the eve of Halloween, when farmer John comes to tell the pumpkins that their lives will soon change forever. The big moment, the climax of their existence, is at hand and though it may be unfamiliar it will be glorious. When John leaves the pumpkins call a meeting and most are confused, scared and reluctant to become the jack-o-lanterns John has planned. One boldly speaks out and calls the promised eyes and candlelight a lie, a trap that will not be worth the sacrifice. Another counters with the verse I included, saying that their moment of glory will encompass splendor and vision (maybe even starlight!) and be worth any sacrifice.

On the way home I asked my daughter which were her favorite songs. “John’s Garden” was at the top of her list, and I asked her what she would decide if she were a pumpkin at Halloween. She quickly and decisively replied that she would want to die on the vine. Hmmm. She did not ask which option I would choose and I held my counsel, pondering instead her perspective. I asked why, and she said, “I don’t want to be carved.” Perhaps I would have answered the same way when I was her age, withholding my promise and potential from the mere thought of endings, of fading away, of bruising and carving.

Now, at what I hope is the midpoint of life, I tend to favor the road of the jack-o-lantern. I know life will carve me up (there are a few slices already), and if either original or reflected light burns within me, I’d opt to have it shine through the cracks. Hopefully the candle within is long and slow-burning as opposed to the short and stubby blackened nubs that we usually place in our carved pumpkins, but I have no wish to die slowly and peacefully on the vine. Who knows, if my jack-o-lantern self is not too bruised and blackened at the end of the party I might even be used in a pumpkin pie.

We will attend more concerts in the future, as I’m finding music an amazing way to connect and grow with my children. Philosophy and religion can be encompassed in music, as in poetry or stories, in such a manner that unfolds within rather than attacks on the face. How delightful it is to discover hidden treasures and questions together and to while away a peaceful Friday evening with friends and live music. Thank you, Peter!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Community

As a transplanted Californian / East Coaster / Midwesterner I can honestly say that I love the West. I embrace the big sky and the culture of free-thinking, do-it-yourselfers ranging hale and hearty amongst the foothills. Of course, just as the Rockies rein in our view we Coloradans are occasionally constrained by our economic dependence on government energy and water projects, the barely bearable traffic conditions on I70 and the same economic and real estate downturns that affect our less fortunate neighbors in other states. These factors recall our mutual reliance on friends and neighbors and the fact that no one can really make it by him- or herself. A community is best suited to raise children, support families in times of illness, and provide a lift over the times of economic troubled waters.

In my cozy suburban square mile I see the same sort of barn-raising, quilting bee mentality that enabled settlers to survive their initial years past the reach of civilization; a circle-the-wagons attitude that embraces those of us trying to survive childrearing in the absence of parents, brothers, and sisters. Many of my Colorado friends are transplants who love Colorado but struggle to raise kids and survive budget or health hiccups without family members close by. In my five years here I’ve seen amazing generosity. Got a busted hip? Let’s bring the kids home from school for you, drop over a few meals, arrange a few playdates. New baby? How about a few meals a week for the next two months? Back surgery – no problem. Time and again I have gratified to receive a meal, a playdate, a pinch-hit school pickup and only too glad to respond in kind when my turn rolled around. We form new families and cling together when the life raft hits high water.

Of course this generosity cannot solely be attributed to a Rocky Mountain high, but I have lived many places in this country and have never seen this type of caring. On the East Coast you may find something similar due to the fact that 25 family members will live within a 4 – town radius of each other their entire lives, but never on the West Coast, the Midwest or varied spots in between have I been fortunate enough to find such open arms and such hard-working hands.

I wonder how people make it without such a support network. With unemployment rates high and costs holding steady or increasing how do those families scrape by? A New York Times editorial noted, “In the Long Island portion of the Feeding America study, researchers surveyed more than 600 food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters and interviewed people who had sought food at those places. The study concluded that about 280,000 Long Islanders needed help last year, a 21 percent increase from 2006. Only a small percentage of these clients were homeless or elderly. Thirty-nine percent were children under 18.

The study found that volunteers are central to the success of emergency feeding programs. On Long Island, 88 percent of food pantries and 92 percent of soup kitchens rely on volunteers. But the news conference revealed that many of the volunteers who collected and served food have become newly hungry and jobless.”(Feb. 9, 2010)

Surely those in Denver area experience a similar situation. Without relatives, communities and volunteers how will those in crisis make it through to the other side? I don’t believe that folks can always make it alone, and if they do strive to fight solo it can be soul-draining and discouraging. I am fortunate enough to benefit from a stable economic situation and a supportive community and I feel the need to give back. "For everyone to whom much is given, of him shall much be required." -- Luke 12:48 We can’t abandon those who did not get lucky, who have fallen outside of the social net. What to do? A question to ponder, keeping other folks in mind while we are looking out for those closest to us.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

God Does Not Hate

"I was promised donuts" read one of the irreverent signs held by a counter-protester last week in San Francisco where a large and varied group rallied to protest the protest of Fred Phelps' group from Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas. Phelps' people came out to picket the corporate offices of Twitter, for unknown reasons. Their signs largely read "God hates . . ." followed by "Obama, gays, Jews" and others. They were met by a quickly assembled rag-tag group which highlighted the absurdity of the protest with their own wackiness. Here is a description:

"Westboro Baptist Church showed up to protest in front of Twitter’s San Francisco office on Thursday, but found themselves severely outnumbered by a crowd of absurdist pranksters, including guest blogger EDW Lynch above. WBC’s hate-promoting signs were answered by multiple signs of randomness, nonsensical yelling, and even a unicorn." (http://laughingsquid.com/san-franciscos-answer-to-westboro-baptist-church/)

I laughed at the crazy signs: "God hates signs", "I'm tired", "God never gonna let you down" followed by "God never gonna give you up" followed by "God never gonna run around and desert you(!)", but felt an ache in my heart that any so-called Christian group would promote the idea that God hates. I emphatically disagree and cringe over the poisonous ideas being promoted by Phelps' group. I get angry that anyone would abuse the good name of God in such a way and though I admire the irreverent spirit of the protesters who calmly (and non-violently) point out the absurdity of such hate speech, I also wish for the chance to advertise a different view of God - one who only loves.

In any religion there are extremist factions who use the tenets of their religion to fuel hatred while mainstream followers only see and strive to follow the teachings of love. The words of every sacred text have been twisted to provide fuel for haters but look closely at the truth of the Bible, the Torah, the Bhagavad Gita, the Koran, and the essence of the teachings are love and justice. If you are a Christian and you need words to back up your logic, look no further than Jesus' one and only law "Love your God above all else and love your neighbor as yourself." That's it, that's the law. There are no corollaries for persons of different sexual orientation, different races and nationalities, different genders, professions or religions. Jesus did not discriminate against anyone nor did he advocate discrimination.

My home church has feared the ire of Phelps' group as we move ahead with becoming a reconciling congregation. This means that we will explicitly state our openness to gay and lesbian and transgendered persons, the groups that are most marginalized by Christianity today. If the congregation moves ahead and embraces the reconciling ministry, and we are picketed by Phelps' or any group, I will challenge myself to hold the sign which I most believe in, which is as true for Phelps' followers as it is for my family, "Jesus loves you." Not irreverent, hard to swallow perhaps, but the best rebuttal of all. And . . . at some point I promise I will find an opportunity to carry the sign: "I was promised donuts."