Wednesday, April 25, 2012

6-Year-Olds Arrested At School

I recently got an email asking me to sign a petition protesting the arrest of a six year old girl for throwing a temper tantrum in the principal's office. When I searched Google to find out more about the story (decent article here), I found out another six year old was arrested this week, for kicking and saying he was going to kill the principal (he had previously been suspended by biting and hitting a staff member).

Obviously, calling in the police to arrest a six year old child is absurd--and little Salecia Johnson's parents are right to demand that the arrest be removed from her record. But as someone who has worked with "at risk" children, I appreciate the difficulty that the school officials face.

I worked one year at a YMCA summer day camp in the mid-Wilshire area of L.A. During the training, we were asked what we thought we should do if a child was screaming, throwing things, breaking things, etc. The correct answer was: call the child's parents, keep trying to calm the child down, but whatever you do, NEVER TOUCH THE CHILD. NEVER. Because the YMCA did not want to get sued.

I absolutely loved the kids I got to work with in that job, but I really hated the way the program was run, because there was no disciplinary system. If a kid was really acting out, you could threaten to "write them up" and if you wrote them up three times, they would be suspended. But the only behavior a child could be written up for was hitting someone.

I was charged with getting the children do all kinds of things--line up and stand quietly in order, come in from the playground, walk in two straight rows, etc.--but there was no incentive for them to do what I told them, and no disincentive for misbehaving. So all I could do was tell them to do something, and if they didn't do it, just tell them again.

The way the other counselors kept the children in line was by shouting at them in a very loud, angry, threating voice, thus inducing an irrational fear. I was not willing to do the same. I am opposed, in principle, to treating children that way. It strikes me as abusive.

I have never been in an elementary school classroom myself, but I would imagine they probably have the same basic problem: an inadequate disciplinary system. I would guess that in most cases, if a classroom is well-ordered, it's probably because the children are quiet and obedient. But what do you do when a child gets "mood swings"? Or is in danger of hurting themselves or others? The parents can be called, but even if they are reached, they will not arrive on the scene immediately.

When I worked at a group home for children with emotional and behavioral disturbances, we received special training in how safely to physically restrain a child who had become a danger to self or others. It was a very necessary tool for restoring order when a child was really out of control.

Should all school employees be given similar training so that they won't have to call in the police when they're afraid of violence? Would that necessitate parents signing waivers before their children can be enrolled?

There don't seem to be any easy answers here. Just another of the myriad ways in which the public school system is woefully broken ...

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


When I was a kid, there was a commercial (watch it here) about an elementary school lunch lady lifelessly doling out spoonfuls of mashed potatoes. "Potatoes ... potatoes ... potatoes ..." she intones with supreme boredom. Then she bites into a Nacho Cheese Dorito. "Hm." A slyly joyous little look steals across her face. "Potatoes!" she now says with pizzazz. Then she starts sculpting the potatoes--"Sumo Wrestler ... Arc de Triomphe ... Nefertiti ... Stonehenge." The possiblities are endless ...

It could be one of the greatest commercials ever made, considering I'm still thinking about it and have remembered the featured product all this time.

The reason I was thinking about it is I felt like blogging about potatoes. I love potatoes (Irish roots showing?). I love them so much I could make a diced potato fried in oil or a microwaved potato with butter or even a boiled potato with salt the centerpiece of my dinner (just add an egg and a vegetable)--and I'd still consider it an exciting and delicious meal!

Perhaps I have such simple tastes because I'm lazy and don't want to cook something elaborate. Or maybe because as a kid/teenager I so often had to eat foods I didn't care for. But I tend to have a very simple, "bachelor-style" approach to cooking dinner.

Poor Brandon has never been a fan of this. He does not get excited about having a plain boiled potato for dinner. (Go figure!) So--well, actually, most of the time, if he complains I just tell him he can cook something more elaborate himself. But more recently I've been trying to jazz things up. And, as the aforementioned lunch lady discovered, potatoes have vast potential!

A little while ago I boiled potatoes in broth, added spinach, pureed, added cream, and it made a most exquisite, Brandon-worthy soup. All you need for an excellent potato salad is to toss the boiled potatoes with mayo and add crumbled bacon and green onion. This week I was remembering that there exists a culinary entity called "potato skins"--when's the last time I had those?--I don't think I've ever made them myself--but they're just the kind of fatty, artery-clogging food that will put a smile on Brandon's face.

What is the point of this post? I don't know. I guess that people like Brandon, who can really enjoy a tasty simple meal, can inspire people like me, who can get an almost absurd amount of enjoyment from a very bare-bones meal, to raise their standards just slightly--and as a result--oh, what glorious heights of gustatory pleasure may daily be enjoyed! I marvel and am amazed that there could be even more delicious and exciting food to eat on a daily basis than even a boiled potato with salt! What a world of wonders we live in!

Now laugh at this funny video (and prepare some potatoes for eating yourself! Enjoy them thoroughly!):

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Sanctified Bermudas

Sign at the beach on the Sea of Galilee where it is said Jesus ate breakfast with the disciples after the resurrection.

When I visited Israel/Palestine last year as part of a seminary travel course on the ethics of peacemaking, I was one of the people in our group most informed and impassioned about the political situation, but also one of the least prepared for the pilgrimage element of the trip.

At first I had no appreciation of the supposed holiness of the sites we visited--the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, said to be built over Jesus’ tomb, comes particularly to mind. Not only does the very idea of the church seem to contradict the point of the angel’s message--“He is not here, he is risen!”--but control of the property has historically been a point of division and even violence among Christian factions. It seemed to me, any holiness that had been in that place was destroyed by centuries of pride and malice.

But I had a change of heart in the Church of the Nativity. At first, I had the same attitude as before--I felt nothing special--and I was disturbed by the people having their photo taken in “the Grotto” (supposedly the very place where Jesus was born)--so touristy and inappropriate.

But then we continued on, and our guide pointed to a staircase with a grate over the entrance and said “Down there is St. Jerome’s cell, where he composed the Vulgate.” And my jaw dropped to the floor.

“What??!? Jerome?!? Jerome was HERE?!??!? The Vulgate?! JEROME TRANSLATED THE VULGATE HERE?!?!?!!?

The guide was very amused by my reaction. I mean, seriously, I could barely stop myself from leaping up and down with excitement. I LOVE ST. JEROME! (He’s another of those impossible saints to find on a medal.) And from that moment, I understood what the whole pilgrimage thing was supposed to be about.

"St. Jerome, elder and doctor of the church, was here" in Latin.

On the last day of the trip, we visited the (so they said) beach where Jesus ate breakfast with some of the disciples after the resurrection. There is (thankfully) no huge cathedral there; only a small chapel. And no one really cared about the chapel, either. We all just wanted to stand on the rocky shore, to wade a little in the water, to look out on the sea. Someone said it “felt holy in a different way” from any of the other places we’d been. And it did.

We had laughed at the sign that said “HOLY PLACE / NO SHORTS,” even though by this time we were used to the Semitic expectations of modesty. It seems odd to prohibit wearing shorts at the beach. But more than that, the “different kind of holiness” that we were feeling was the holiness of Jesus that is so often talked about by pastors and theologians--the kind of holiness that, rather than needing to be kept pristine, to be protected from the stain of corruption, actually makes holy the profane, turns the unholy into the very dwelling place of God. It’s a kind of holiness that makes a simple breakfast of roasted fish into divine communion.

It is the meaning of the Incarnation and of the Resurrection: that God is not just “out there” and “beyond us”; that salvation is not entrance into a perfect heaven that exists apart from this world. No, indeed. God is here, in this very place, and God’s redemption is the redemption of this world.

It is quite a stunning thing to walk in the land where Jesus walked. It’s not just like some graffiti scratched on a wall saying, “God was here” (even though that would be pretty cool--like the words etched into the walls of Jerome’s cell!)--but moreover, God is here--words etched, as it were, in all those things that bear God’s glory. Even the people wearing shorts. (-;

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

but what a stranger gave

In addition to the thief crucified at Jesus’ side, another player in the crucifixion-burial-resurrection drama has been in my thoughts--the mysterious and touching figure, Joseph of Arimathea. All four Gospels record that he was a man of some influence in the Jewish community who asked permission from Pilate to take Jesus’ body, brought it down from the cross, wrapped it in linens and laid it in a tomb.

We know almost nothing about this Joseph--he is not mentioned anywhere else in scripture--he was not an apostle or an evangelist, not one of Jesus’ closest friends--apparently, he kept his distance to avoid scandal and stay out of trouble. But he loved Jesus. And he was watching and listening, from the sidelines, throughout the story.

I have never particularly identified with this Joseph myself, but he’s always felt like a very dear character--the way he just quietly steps out of the shadows to do this one act of tenderness and honor, for the great teacher he had admired from afar. It seems strange that it was not one of the Twelve, nor any of the women disciples in Jesus’ inner circle, but someone that a favorite old hymn even calls “a stranger”--who gently lifted the broken body, and wrapped it in a clean cloth, who bestowed this final loving care, and laid Jesus to rest.

There is something very dear and touching about the quiet tenderness and intimacy of Joseph’s part in the story--and a kind of pregnant peace as I picture him setting down the body of Jesus there in the garden among all the blooming spring flowers.

I’ve always liked the idea of medals of saints, but only ever wanted ones that are really hard (if not impossible) to find, like Thomas Aquinas and Anselm of Canterbury. I think I would like a Joseph of Arimathea medal, just to remind me of this little story of surprising devotion.

Here is that favorite old hymn, by the way:

My Song Is Love Unknown
(Samuel Crossman)

My song is love unknown,
My Savior’s love to me;
Love to the loveless shown,
That they might lovely be.
O who am I, that for my sake
My Lord should take
frail flesh and die?

He came from his blest throne
Salvation to bestow;
But all made strange, and none
The longed for Christ would know:
But O! my friend, my friend indeed,
Who at my need
his life did spend.

Sometimes they strew his way,
And his sweet praises sing;
Resounding all the day
Hosannas to their king:
Then “Crucify!” is all their breath,
And for his death
they thirst and cry.

Why, what hath my Lord done?
What makes this rage and spite?
He made the lame to run,
He gave the blind their sight,
Sweet injuries! Yet they at these
Themselves displease,
and ’gainst him rise.

They rise and needs will have
My dear Lord made away;
A murderer they save,
The Prince of Life they slay,
Yet steadfast he to suffering goes,
That he his foes
from thence might free.

In life, no house, no home
My Lord on earth might have;
In death no friendly tomb
But what a stranger gave.
What may I say? Heav’n was his home;
But mine the tomb
wherein he lay.

Here might I stay and sing,
No story so divine;
Never was love, dear king!
Never was grief like thine.
This is my friend, in whose sweet praise
I all my days
would gladly spend.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Good Friday Reflections: Today I Am The Thief

Today is Good Friday (for Protestants and Catholics), the day we remember the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and death.

Reading the stories, it’s not hard to get swept up in the drama--kind of like watching a good film--it’s easy to identify with so much of the emotion: the fear and confusion of the disciples, the self-righteous malice of the religious authorities, the scapegoating anger of the crowd, Pontius Pilate’s frustration and attempted detachment, Judas’s guilt and self-loathing.

In the past I’ve always identified most strongly with Pilate--his inner conflict between doing the right thing or the logical thing. He knows that Jesus is innocent, but he lacks the moral courage to set him free--so he hides behind a fa├žade of detached rationalism--“What is truth?” “I wash my hands of this matter.” He pretends that he’s done everything he can--but in fact, he has failed to do the one thing he knew he should have.

I’ve also identified with Peter, the other betrayer, the faithless coward. Peter, so impulsive, so embarrassingly but endearingly weak.

Remembering the story this year, for the first time I feel like the thief being crucified next to Jesus: suffering at his side, but for my own sins, as well as others’; knowing myself a sinner, and begging for mercy. It is strangely my honor to hang, condemned beside him. He shares my shame--and makes it into glory. He takes my guilt, my death, and turns them into triumph. Today I feel like that thief whom he promised would be with him in Paradise … that lucky bastard … it’s me.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Winter's Bone: Faux Realism

Brandon really liked Winter's Bone (2010) and so did most critics. You may enjoy it better if you don't read this review first.

It is a beautiful movie, with a great heroine, a decent story, well acted, emotionally affecting. So, what's the big problem? Faux realism. By that I mean, the film is intended to feel very real and raw, intended to give you a glimpse into the frightening world of meth heads in the Ozarks. But the filmmakers have never been part of that world, and they don't know what it's really like. And even though I've never been part of it, either, their guesses still strike me as way off-base.

The movie is about 17-year-old Ree, who struggles to take care of her two younger siblings and her mentally ill mother. She is forced to search for her absent, meth-cooking father lest he miss his court date and the bail bondsmen come to seize the family's home and land.

So, for one thing, the young siblings are completely unbelievable. Children who grow up in an impoverished, unstable home environment are not quiet, well-groomed, and obedient. They act out. They're desperate for attention. They often have mild cognitive impairements (real ADHD). They are not happy.

Secondly, as a writer, I know that one of the biggest challenges of crafting fiction is imagining and fleshing out different characters. It's an easy trap to make all the characters merely different aspects of oneself. And I don't know to what extent this is the fault of the director or the screenwriters, but the characters in Winter's Bone all have a kind of sameness that becomes ridiculous when you think about it.

I have no problem accepting that one girl, the heroine, would be a person of unusual inner strength who rises up to become more than what anyone could have expected, given her background. Sure, she can be a young woman of quiet determination. But if you stop and think about it, everyone in the movie is a person of quiet determination. And that's not right at all.

The impression one gets from all the meth cooking/dealing/using people whom Ree has to deal with is one of restraint and self-discipline. And I just somehow doubt that that's an accurate picture of what the world of drug addiction is really like. The film completely and utterly fails to depict the out-of-control nature of that world. (Why has the meth addict community not spoken out against this false portrayal of their ... oh ... wait ... )

So, anyway, that's my complaint. Winter's Bone seems to me a seriously sanitized, cleaned-up-beyond-recognition failure of an exposure trip. But other than that, it's a good movie.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

An Idea That Kept Me Awake At Night

This post is about the beginning of a movement I think anyone can get on board with. Actually, it's an idea that kept me up into the wee hours the night it came to me. It's something that could change the world. I feel like we have a real opportunity here--and either we could totally blow it--or we could start a revolution ... I say "we" because I know I'm not the only one starting to think in this direction--and because this is not about "my idea" to change the world--it's something that could be much, much bigger ...

Last month I read an article titled "I Was A Warehouse Wage Slave" by Mac McClelland, a journalist who "went undercover" as a temporary warehouse worker for a major online retailer. The article describes how poorly the company treats the employees--though without breaking any labor laws. McClelland's biggest complaint was that it's a very high pressure job--supervisors demand that everyone work as fast as they possibly can--indeed, faster than they possibly can--in order to meet personal production quotas that are set unreasonably high.

The most disturbing thing, though, is that the book section of the warehouse is charged with a shocking amount of static electricity--so, every time an employee retrieves a book from the shelf, he or she is given a painful electric jolt.

I found this article troubling because I love; it's my favorite place to shop. But I really don't like the idea that every time I order a book, some poor warehouse worker has to suffer an electric shock. And I don't like the idea that my patronage supports a miserable workplace environment.

I think a lot of people who read the article probably just shrugged and thought things like, "it's really not that bad," and "in this economy, those people should be grateful to have jobs, at all." And I think that is a sad, sad sign that so many people have a hard time imagining a better world, and believing things don't have to be the way they are now.

But change is a not a fantasy; it's a fact. The world is always changing--sometimes for the worse, sometimes for the better. And it's not at all silly to think that ordinary people can influence how their society changes. Popular movements have changed the world.

And there is a movement that could address McClelland's complaints which, really, has already started, but needs to gain a much wider scope: it's a movement of consumer awareness and responsibility. It's started with things like boycotts against companies that are mistreating their workers; and the creation of a market for organic and free-range agricultural products; and the popularity of "fair trade" wares; and companies like Target or Whole Foods or Starbucks advertising their responsible/ethical business practices.

Those things are great, of course, but what I would like to see, and what I am willing to try to make a reality, is for the basic idea to be expanded--so, for example, I would like to see all kinds of companies evaluated by an independent, third party organization, so that, as a consumer, I can easily find out which companies are practicing significant corporate responsiblity, and which are not, and spend my money accordingly.

It's not so far fetched--we already have the Charity Navigator, the organic certification system, the Ethisphere rankings of most ethical companies--and it's really easy to start fleshing the idea out--there are all kinds of things consumers like me would really like to know about companies--e.g. do they provide health benefits to their employees, how much do they pollute and what kind of plan do they have for going green, do they give their employees stock options, what percentage of their profits are donated to charities, what companies do they contract with, etc.? Research on these questions could be made public on a website with a nice, user-friendly design (we'll just get some of those Google geniuses to work on it ... ).

If people actually used a website of the kind I am imagining when deciding where to shop, and if Amazon got a lower score than Target in "employee treatment" and "workplace environment" because they use temporary workers and treat them like crap, then perhaps Amazon would decide it was worthwhile to spend the money on hiring more workers (the solution McClelland suggests) so they could bring their scores up.

Anyway, I am very excited about this idea because ... well, as I said, I know I'm not the only one who hates being part of an economic system that is exploiting vulnerable people and destroying the earth. I know that, as an American middle-class consumer, I am part of the problem, and this seems like a way to become part of a real solution. It even transcends the conservative-liberal divide, since it is libertarian in approach, but with a goal of social justice. Well ... time to start talking it up with everyone I can think of who might possibly be on board! (Please comment if you are!)