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Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Requiem For Etiquette

etiquette | ˈedəkət, ˈedəˌket |


the customary code of polite behavior in society or among members of a particular profession or group.

The question, “Why does etiquette even matter?” often comes up via the teenagers in our house, especially since we have one who finds many social rules baffling. Until recently I’ve cited Amy Vanderbilt’s explanation, that etiquette rules were designed to help everyone feel comfortable and cared for in any given social situation.

But over the last few years, as standards of behavior in-person and online have devolved into screaming matches, ad hominem attacks, and all-around general boorishness, even among those from whom we once expected the highest of protocol standards, like politicians, journalists, and celebrities (yes, even movie stars used to practice dignity and decorum), another, more inherently compelling rationale has emerged:

We teach our children etiquette so they can do the right thing before they possess the experience, maturity, and wisdom to know what the right thing is and why it’s a better choice.

The thing our egos most want to do is rarely the thing that’s most beneficial for us. Who really wants to sit down and write thank-you notes on December 26? Does anyone intrinsically want to give up their comfortable seat on the metro to the elderly person, and spend the rest of the trip gripping a pole to keep from being thrown into someone else’s lap? When called an idiot by someone who seems to embody that description himself, what saint really wants to say, “Good day, I wish you well,” before exiting the conversation?

But when we’ve learned proper behavior we write the notes, we sacrifice for someone weaker, and we treat others with respect, even if we don’t think they really deserve it. Good manners make society a better place to live.

Not only that, our own lives are better for practicing good manners.

I once got a job instead of the three other finalists because I answered a loaded interview question with a polite answer rather than a self-aggrandizing one. I kept from making a jerk of myself and losing a friend by not saying what I thought about a situation before I learned all the details about it. (I would’ve been 100% wrong in my uninformed opinion.) I’ve won people over to my side of an argument not because I argued with and convinced them, but because they were spectators to a discussion where the other party behaved like a foul-mouthed child and I kept my words respectful.

But even more valuable than the extrinsic rewards are the character traits we cultivate when we practice good manners. I learn to be grateful when I write thank-you notes. I learn to be noble when I sacrifice for someone else’s benefit. I learn self-control when I bite my intractable tongue.

Aren’t those some of the very things we lack in our culture today? Gratitude, nobility, self-control?

Do we even value them anymore?

Our me-centered society seems to be grinding down to its logical conclusion: “Everything is about me, myself, and I, and the rest of the world can go to hell.”

Well, it certainly seems we are.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

White People: Ending Racism in America Is Our Responsibility

Because I’m from the midwest, it is ingrained deep in my rural-girl soul that a greeting is expected whenever one encounters another human being while out and about in the world. I now live in a very populous suburban county on the east coast, filled with people who mostly don’t share that impetus. When I say “Hello” to a stranger here and s/he actually responds to me (about once out of every twenty times), I’m fairly certain I’ve come across another foreigner.

A few years ago I was out for a morning run, and I passed an apartment complex where two Hispanic ladies in uniform were picking up trash on the front lawn. As I passed I said, “Good morning.” They returned my greeting, but before I’d gotten more than a few steps further I heard one say to the other, in Spanish, “That’s the first time a white girl ever said ‘hello’ to me.”

It felt like someone chucked a rock at the back of my head.

Was she serious? No other white woman had ever greeted her?

I wish I’d stopped. I wish I’d gone back. But I was on a timed run, and my Spanish skills are paltry, and I guess the truth is I’m just a coward. I kept going.

I have failed to combat racism -- my own and others’ -- too many times:

When I cashiered at Target in high school, an older lady came through my line with several outfits. She handed me one and said, “I don’t want this one. I was going to get it, but then I saw a darkie try the same outfit on.” She clucked her tongue at me conspiratorially. I was horrified at this racist old woman’s gall. But I put the outfit in the re-shelf bin, added up her purchases, and said nothing. I failed. I failed every black person in America.

At my college graduation dinner many of my relatives sat with me at one of the long tables in my residence hall. A Chinese family sat at the table to the left of us. One of my uncles behaved abominably all through the meal. He pulled on the corners of his eyes and said, “Ching, Chang, Chong!” and made loud, racist jokes about Asians. The Chinese family heard him. I was mortified. But I said nothing. No one in our family did anything. We just looked at each other with helpless embarrassment. But our discomfort deserves no comment compared to what my family inflicted on that poor family at the next table, who behaved with infinitely more respectfulness, dignity, and honor than we did. I failed. I failed every Asian person in America.

When my dear friend Miwa visited me from Japan, where we’d worked together as high school teachers, she came to church with my family on Sunday morning. The man handing out the bulletins gave me one. When Miwa reached for one, the man looked at me and said, loud enough for everyone in the narthex to hear, “Can she even read it?” Then he broke out laughing. I said nothing. I just took a bulletin and handed it to Miwa. I failed Miwa, and I failed every foreign national who has ever visited our country.

We don’t need more programs or studies on “equity”, “inclusion”, or “diversity”. We don’t need enlightenment or wokeness. We don’t need to investigate the historical underpinnings of race relations in America. We don’t need to put special frames on our Facebook profile pictures or post woke memes about combating racism.

We white people just need to start doing what’s right.

And we already know what that is. I knew what I should’ve done in each of the situations above. I was just too weak and cowardly to do it.

I should’ve said to that woman at Target, “I’m horrified to hear you say that. My black friends would be deeply wounded by your attitude. I hope you’ll reconsider how you view other people.” I might’ve lost my job over it. So what?

I should’ve told my uncle, “That’s enough. You’re being rude and you’re embarrassing me as well as ruining that family’s celebration. If you can’t be respectful, please go.” I might’ve irreconcilably damaged my relationship with an uncle I do love. But if that’s the cost of speaking the truth and standing up for what’s right, I ought to be willing to pay it.

I should’ve said to the usher at church, “Yes, she can read it. She’s fluent in three languages, actually. What would make you think otherwise?” I might’ve embarrassed him. I might’ve held up the line. I might’ve tarnished my reputation as a “nice girl” at church. But so what? That usher should’ve been embarrassed. He should’ve been made to think about why he said what he did. And if the highest praise I want from others is that I’m “nice” I may need to reevaluate what’s really important to me.

To every person who’s ever experienced racism in America, I want to personally apologize for how I’ve failed you. I may never have behaved with racism (although I probably have and didn’t even recognize it because no one else called me out), but I have most definitely failed to call out others for their racism when I witnessed it. And for that I am culpable for racism in America.

I vow to do better because it is my responsibility. My privilege as a part of the cultural majority gives me the power and the obligation to point a finger at racism and call it that wherever I see it, because that is the only right thing to do.

And God help me, I’m going to start.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Silence From Heaven

Image by Pete Linforth

Some years ago an important decision faced me. Three options, like three identical doors, stood in my path. Each offered a benefit; each came with a drawback. And whichever I chose had long-range, life-altering consequences.
I’d walked with God long enough to know that I could trust him to direct me in the path that was best, so I offered up my choices to him and thanked him in advance for whatever decision he made for me. 
Circumstances were such that one path lie open for the taking, no barrier in front of it. The other two required a request, either or both of which would likely be denied, as many people sought to take those two paths, and only a few empty positions waited. So I put in my appeals for the two paths that had wickets before them, and I waited to see which door God would open to me.
Both requests were granted, and all three doors swung wide open in front of me.
I was angry.
“All my life you’ve asked me to trust and obey you,” I complained to God. “I genuinely, sincerely, with no reservations gave my path up to you to direct, and look what you’ve done in return! Nothing!”
Heaven did not reply.
I got no guidance or counsel, and I had to choose for myself which path to take.
Two years later disaster struck on that road. I could not have foreseen it; I could not have prepared for it; it was the most painful and horrific thing I’d experienced in my life thus far.
“I’ve made a terrible decision,” I mourned. “What have I done?”
I accused God. “Why did you let me go that way? I trusted you! I asked you! I sought your will and you ignored me!”
I retraced my steps and went back to investigate the other paths. Maybe it wasn’t too late to alter my way. Maybe something could be salvaged of the situation, and this treasure I held so dear, which was threatened even to death, could be brought back to safety and sanity in some different environment.
But my interviews regarding the paths-not-taken revealed that the same disaster had struck others who took those paths as well. The three situations were equally dark and overshadowed by an evil I couldn’t have imagined.
This thing would’ve happened no matter which path I’d taken.
An evil had stationed itself in my way, waiting to devour, and I couldn’t have avoided it.
The problem of pain is a real one that philosophers and theologians have pondered for millenia. Why does a good God allow bad things, even in the lives of people who are as blameless as Job? The answer Job received was, “Are you God?” to which Job wisely answered, “No.”
Unlike Job, I am not blameless and I have not followed God perfectly. But like Job, the thing that assaulted me came straight from the hand of Satan.
And though I know little about the higher things of God, this I do know: What Satan means for destruction God will turn into deliverance, if we get out of the way and let him have his.
There is a purpose of God in what he allowed to come to me, either for my individual sanctification, or for his kingdom purposes, or both. His silence when I asked for direction, and his sovereignty in opening all three doors at once, did not come out of indifference or cruelty, but out of his deep, unfailing kindness. Because with the clarity of hindsight I can hear exactly what he said in answer to my prayers for guidance:
I am guiding you. What is coming is not your fault, and not because of your choice or your error.
And I will carry you through it, because I know you trust me.
Then Job replied to the LORD:
“I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know… My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.” (Job 42: 1-5)

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Get Woke, Fool

Image by 微博/微信:愚木混株 Instagram:cdd20 from Pixabay


over the black-hoofed and -hearted incubi
who plow the world over and under,
I asked my heart, “Why do you fight?
Why pave a way for peace
or arm the true for war?
Why dredge to clear a rivulet?
Why drudge to cultivate some small, good crop from a tiny acre?"
The priding-horde and its armies rape utterly,
their fingers grasping, groping, grabbing, garroting
the smallest of souls
the faintest of lights
the sweetest of breaths.
They gulp life-blood,
wipe their mouths on the backs of their unwashed hands,
and bellow, “I’ve done no wrong.”

And the people love it this way.

These gods' disciples hand over minds and wills
and the will to mind
in exchange for entrance to the abattoir--
because look how everyone marches:
happily they lemming
quietly-- mind your own business;
bottles fixed at their lips,
filled with hell’s animus-- tastes sweet, try it, little one.
So the killing house 
houses our children too.

Get woke,

I encountered a written account
from 900
And I heard the deep and omnipresent Truth
that all of human time
hinges on the volte-face
that links
& A.D.

Each trumpeted, brutal tweet,
and deceitful, snowballing, published lie,
all of the holocausts plotted on the politic calendars of the gods,
heaven and earth catalogue in one Holy, indelible chronology:
each time-stamp resonates according to His clock,
recalling in black and white numeric finality
the death and rebirth of Him--
the Son,
the Lion,
the Author,
the Alpha and Omega,
the KING of all the kings,
the LORD of all the lords--
to whom
will bow.

Their moment will come
because His moment came
and He comes again.
He will judge
and He will answer
and their cheeks and noses and lips are crushed against the Fact
announced 'Anno Domini'
with every lie they lodge
upon the time-fixed

My heart will not despair, for He will perform
every crusade and trifle
He said He would.
And He will sift
the yet-alive and the forever-dead.
He will restore
the brokenhearted
and bind up every scarring wound,
settle every cheated score,
remove the scourge of earth,
and heal His own.

Until he comes
time ticks.
Every second,
the thunderous clap
of a lightning bolt
etches into eternity:

Not one knows how many
or how few
breaths more
will tick tick tick away
until time

Get woke,

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Adolescence: You're Supposed to Be Ugly & Awkward

Puberty was not kind to me.
I got my height (5’7”) early. I was taller than most (all?) of the boys in my class until we hit high school. 
And I was skinny. I mean beanpole. Not a curve or whisper of fat on me anywhere. That may sound dreamy to people who struggle with their weight, but that kind of skinny brings its own problems. They didn’t make pants for 5’7” girls without hips. To get jeans that covered my ankles meant I had two floppy, swaying saddlebags of denim, filled with nothingness where my behind and hips were not.
Boobs? Ha. I resonated with Jess Bhamra in Bend It Like Beckham when her aunt referred to hers as mosquito bites. I was told by an older female family member that my shoulder blades stuck out in back farther than my girls did in front.
It was true.
But I did wonder, as I grew older and entered my middle age, if my memory of that time was harsher than reality warranted. Maybe I wasn’t actually as ugly and awkward as I recalled?
Heh. Heh. Heh.
A few years ago I reconnected with the mother of my best friend from junior high. Tragically, Penny died an untimely death, and I reached out to her mom after. Sherry sent me some pictures of Penny and me in junior high.
When I opened the envelope of photos I dropped them on the counter in horror.
Oh yes, it was just as bad as I’d remembered.
I had braces. I had acne. I had glasses too, but I took them off for photos in an attempt to improve the one thing that could be easily improved. My hair went bat-poo crazy during puberty too, and my curls became a no-kidding afro. Not exaggerating one little bit. I tried to grow it long, but it just got bigger and wider and more unruly.
At the particular school dance in the photo Sherry sent I wore a pink and white floral-print disaster of a prairie-fantasy frock. Its high lace collar further emphasized my scrawniness, as did the belted waistline and puffy Nellie Olson sleeves.
I was…
...not lovely.
I won’t even address the depth of my interpersonal backwardness.
Just for a reference point, when a popular high school junior who was the star of the varsity basketball team called to ask me out during my freshman year-- he’d seen me in the school play where someone else costumed me, did my hair, and loaded on my stage makeup, and where every word I said came off a script-- I begged my parents to tell me I wasn’t allowed to date yet. Why? I was frozen-stiff terrified that I’d make an enormous fool of myself (and I probably would have) if left alone with him and expected to maintain conversation.
You could not pay me enough to pass through adolescence again.
But those few years were a big part of what turned me into the person I am now. I learned empathy for those who feel less-than. I found out that there are more valuable parts to me than my physical attractiveness. I developed resilience in the face of others’ unkindness and often downright meanness. And for all that, I am grateful to have suffered through them.
Today, kids in the U.S. live in one of the most beauty-focused cultures that has ever existed. They’re bombarded with photoshopped and curated images of people who don’t actually exist, and they’re told that this is what they’re supposed to look like, and that if they don't there's something wrong with them.
We’ve also entered a phase in our national life where being disliked or insulted is considered “actual violence” and if someone turns you down when you ask them to dance they’re branded a bigot or bully. Today’s youth have been coddled into a lack of psychological fortitude at the same time they’re being told that anyone who doesn’t fall in line with their demands (whether it be for Likes or for an A+ on a paper or for the chance to date their crush) is violating their human rights and denying their very personhood.
Is it any surprise that the natural identity crises of adolescence have plunged into self-destructive death-spirals?
Kids don’t know what’s normal anymore because the people telling them how to get through adolescence are liars:
“If you don’t like the way you feel, you have to take something to feel better.”
“If you don’t like the way you look, you need to have surgery or you’ll kill yourself.”
“If you don’t feel comfortable inside your own skin, it’s because your body is wrong. Anyone who tells you differently is a hater, whatever-phobe, bigot, religious hypocrite.”
Here’s the bald-faced truth: adolescence sucks while you’re in it. You’re ugly. You’re awkward. Your body doesn’t fit you anymore because it’s changing faster now than it has since the very first year of your life. Hormones are ravaging you inside and out. You look in the mirror and you don’t even recognize that person. You hear yourself saying things and feel yourself doing things that you don’t even want to say or do, but you can’t seem to help it. You’re out of control.
And you know what else? You’re brain-underdeveloped. You really are. The gray matter hasn’t finished unfurling itself yet, and you don’t make good decisions all the time. Maybe a lot of the time.
We’re supposed to help you with that-- us, your parents, your teachers, your doctors, your therapists, your aunts and uncles and grandparents. We’ve all been through it, so we should know. We should guide you, encourage you, and redirect you.
But we’ve been led astray, deceived, and lied to.
Just like you.
We haven't done our jobs.
Sweet kid who’s going through years twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen-- hold on. Hang on white-knuckled if you have to. Ride these rapids and cling to your raft for all it’s worth. It’ll stop, I promise. You’re going to land in smoother waters sooner than you think.
Don’t believe it when people tell you you’re not right, or agree with you when you suggest there’s something wrong with you. That’s a load of lies. You’re in transition and that’s not a good look on anybody. Even the few people who go from being adorable kids to beautiful adults without seeming to pass through the gangly, pimply, awkward stage don’t feel beautiful. I promise. I’ve talked to many of them.
Everybody’s faking their way through.
I swore I’d never show anybody that photo of me at the dance in that dress when I was twelve. But here I go, about to show you. I want you to see it, because I want you to know that you’re not alone. That there’s truly nothing wrong with you. I want you to see this picture.

Oh, mercy. That was what an awkward twelve-year-old's photo looked like before digital cameras and Photoshop and Snapchat filters.
Now I want you to look at the one below, my business headshot. I paid $250 for a talented photographer to take it in her studio, with professional cameras and lights, and clothes and jewelry I borrowed from her set. She spruced up the final product with Photoshop as well.

I will never again look as awful as I did during junior high (fingers crossed, anyway), and the real me will never look as good as I do in the photo I had created.
That’s just reality.
Please stop hating yourself. What you’re going through is so normal, and it’s exactly what every one of us has gone through.
You’re going to be fine.
No. You're already fine.