Over the years, I’ve changed my mind

If you’ve known me for any period of time, or from any distance, you probably know that 1) I’m opinionated, 2) I lean left, and 3) I lean left.  In these times it would be easy to assume that I was born this way.  Well, I was definitely born opinionated, but you might be surprised to hear that once upon a time…

…I was a Reagan Republican.

Yes, it’s true.  You see, I haven’t always been a raging liberal I am today.  There was a time, when I was much younger,  when I was a conservative.  And I changed.

I remember when I was in second- or third-grade writing “Nixon Now” on my notebook.  The year would have been 1972, and yes, my parents were pulling for Nixon, and therefore I was too.  I grew up in a good, Southern, conservative family.  As many were at that time, my parents were complex people.  In the summer of 1974, I remember watching the Watergate hearings on the family TV and my mom laying on her bed reading John Dean’s “Blind Ambition” along with the transcripts of the Nixon tapes.  I learned that critical thinking was a desirable activity.  As party-loyal as we were, we could still critique wrongdoing when we saw it.

In 1984, it was morning in America.  In the first Presidential election since I became of voting age, I proudly voted for Ronald Reagan.

In my economics classes in college, I learned of “trickle down economics,” and most notably of the Laffer Curve, the theory that said explained that taxes were too high to encourage investment and that if we lowered taxes, we would see higher growth.  I fell for it, even when I also knew that the boom of the 1980s was likely to have been caused by the high fiscal/deficit spending of Reagan years along the rise of consumer credit.  It all made sense to me: conservative values were the basis for my faith and my politics.

When I went to seminary in 1986, I was one of a handful of conservative evangelicals at Candler School of Theology, a part of Emory University.  There I met Dave, a personable guy who was as “liberal” as the day was long.  We had a lot in common.  We shared many of the same classes, as well as a love for Varsity chili dogs, which we would occasionally run off-campus to consume.  When I say Dave was “liberal,” I mean he was a yellow-dog, New York Times-reading Democrat.  And his religion was as liberal as his politics.  He hated Reagan, loved social justice, and was constantly frustrated by the Church which he saw as complicit in many social ills of the day.

Our favorite lunch was “wings and rings,” a healthy feast of Buffalo Chicken Wings and onion rings.  A beer might accompany (“sure we have class this afternoon!  Who cares?”).  But the main course was always the lecture we just heard in the last class before lunch.  We would viciously devour our professors, whom we vehemently agreed and disagreed with.  We would argue, insult, and cajole each other, and go away filled and fulfilled.

At the core of nearly every discussion was this exchange: I would say something that parrotted the evangelicalism of the day, and he would correct my position with, “But Steve- JESUS said…”

Over time, Dave’s daily reminders that the teachings of Jesus were at odds with Pat Robertson won out.  I became clearer and clearer that Christian faith boils down to the commandment to love God and neighbor, and that my love for the Sermon on the Mount that brought me into faith in the first place was still the place to focus my understandings.

I began to see many of the issues the so-called “liberal church (I have rarely, if ever, discovered a congregation that’s truly liberal)” as central to my own faith.  I came to see the death penalty as unjust, war as evil, poverty as immoral, the prison-industrial-complex as reprehensible, and racism as this nation’s original sin, not because they were liberal issues, but because the Bible says so.  It took time, but it happened.  And it’s important to note that I didn’t always see it that way.

What happened to Dave is one of the great puzzles of my life.  During seminary, he had developed an interest in guns, and as we graduated and went in separate directions, he joined the NRA and bought the whole narrative.  We reunited briefly in the Bush years, and after he sent me a couple of Ann Coulter books, we lost touch.  I just could not fathom how this guiding light of my seminary years, who was so instrumental in my change of mind and heart, renounced everything he had formerly believed and could so powerfully articulate.

Perhaps this is all evidence that we, as human beings, are victims of subjectivity.  It’s also evidence that we can change our minds, sometimes radically.

Oh, and I almost forgot: 1984 was the last time I voted for a Republican presidential candidate.  Yes, that means I voted for Dukakis and others.  I hang my head in simultaneous shame and pride when I think about it.

 

Post-Divorce Holidays

As long as I was a parish pastor, I knew one rule during the holidays: be aware that the holidays are difficult for a lot of people.  While the rest of the world is reveling in the joys of the holiday season, many people in the congregation are lonely, grieving, or suffering in other ways.

I seriously wonder if the world is reveling in the joys of the holiday season.  But that’s another matter.

Here’s MY particular problem: I’m divorced.  The basic nature of my family has fundamentally changed.  My former spouse and I co-parent wonderfully; there’s never been a problem there.  But the sense of family we once had has changed forever.  So the symptom I suffer from, as the world revels, is grief.

Last year we paid homage to the family that once was.  She made the offer to come to DC with all the kids.  We would share the meal together, take a walk up Capitol Hill, and then she would hop a Greyhound Bus back to Tennessee and I would continue on with the kids.  It worked pretty well: especially the part where I got to choose the menu.

We had beef.  Lots and lots of beautiful, slow-roasted, rosemary covered beef.

You see, I believe no one actually LIKES turkey.  If America did like turkey, then we would eat it regularly.  But we don’t.  Turkeys are found in the grocery stores only before Thanksgiving and Christmas.  There’s no tradition (that I know of) in which we have the Fourth of July Turkey, or that we cook up a big bird for the week at the beach.  Sales of Stove Top Stuffing plummet except for holidays, and cranberries are not to be found anywhere.

The reason is simple: we, collective America, do not like turkey dinners with all the trimmins.  Every rule has its exceptions, but I dare you to reasonably contest this one.

This would explain a lot of things, the sharp rise in alcohol sales prior to holidays being one.  This phenomenon has been explained as being due to the inability of extended families to coexist in the same house for more than a couple of minutes.  I disagree with that theory and blame it instead on America’s distaste of, and manufactured tolerance of, turkey.

So we had beef.  And no one could stop me from serving it.

Divorce is a terrible thing.  Don’t try it.  It is pain, hurt, financial ruin, and a lifetime of awkwardness and conflict.  Avoid it at all costs.

But if it must happen, I’m here to tell you that there are silver linings.  Divorce is the growth opportunity of a lifetime.  If you can afford a therapist, it’s a crucible in which you can uncover and finally address your demons.  You can buy a motorcycle if you like.  You can even search for and maybe find true love.

But the greatest silver lining is that you never again have to prepare, slice, and serve a turkey on the holidays.  If divorce is the cake, freedom from turkey is the icing.  And it’s appropriate to celebrate freedom on Thanksgiving, isn’t it?

Divorce is the bitch-slap in your face that following convention does not guarantee a happy life.  Having the big house in the suburbs and driving the Toyota Sienna does not signify that you have arrived.  Eating turkey, dressing, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and butternut squash with marshmallows artfully toasted on top will not provide satisfaction.  And since no one really likes it, why spend all day preparing a meal everyone is only tolerating?

But alas, I still grieve.  This year the kids are spending Thanksgiving with their mom, and I am staying in DC.  I will miss them terribly, along with all the laughs and energy that is always found at the dinner table.

To celebrate the holiday, and to take advantage of the freedom of knowing that no degree of convention-following will secure a happy, trouble-free existence, Meg and I will be preparing a meal that I believe will make you want to leave your turkey dinner behind.  It’s my way of remembering that there truly are silver linings.

Oh, and we are still having green bean casserole… because it’s good.

 

A tiny rant

I’m confused.

If someone leads an army that fights against the US, that person is the very definition of a traitor, right?  Maybe he should be called a revolutionary leader, or perhaps an insurrectionist, right?  But “traitor” seems to be the overarching category.  Am I missing something?

So let’s entertain a hypothetical scenario: let’s say a group of states disagrees with other states.  Shots are fired, and one group of states votes to peel off and start a whole new country, with a new president, new currency, a new constitution, etc.  That group of states puts an army together and then fights against the mother country… and appoints a general to lead that army.  Against the mother country.

Am I missing something, or is it obvious that said general, who leads an army that fights against and kills soldiers in the opposing army, is a traitor?

Good.  I thought so.

With all the talk around Robert E. Lee these days, about how he was an honorable man who did great things for our country, I thought maybe I was missing something.

The family I never knew

Isn’t it interesting that when you complete a stage of your life and think that your best, or perhaps most engaging, days are behind you?  I think many of us find it hard to believe that when we graduate from college, for example, that life could be nearly as much fun as the previous years had been.  When the years of child-rearing are almost over, one looks ahead to the empty nest and wonders how it could possibly be as wonderful as the previous years have been.

And then you get a big surprise.  Or two.  Or three.

No, I’m not talking about my move to DC and my divorce.  That’s a blog post for another time.  Today I’m going to tell you about a discovery that took place in the past year came as a complete surprise, one that redefines a person’s self-understanding, and unlocks what might be year upon year of discovery.  Pretty exciting stuff, huh?

The discovery (a revelation, really) of this year, 2017 is:  I am white only because one ancestor in my not-too-distant past decided I would be.

My mom is the last surviving child in her family: she had a twin sister and two brothers, all now deceased.  I remember traveling to Athens, Georgia, for holidays and family gatherings with cousins, aunts and uncles, and my grandmother who always greeted us with pound cake and ice cream.  I can still remember the smell of my grandmother’s house, and the sound of her attic fan, which was the only thing that kept her house from being miserably hot in the summertime.

There were no such family gatherings with my dad.  He was an only child; his father died when I was too young to remember him.  Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, was too far away to travel to very often.  When we visited we would see my grandmother, who lived a modest existence in a town full of friends, but very little family that I ever met or knew.

And I never thought that was odd or unusual.

My dad grew up with a few uncles, but not a lot of extended family.  On his mother’s side, there was a fairly comprehensive understanding that included names, stories, and locations.  But this was not true with his father’s side of the family.  He knew his grandfather, Robert Lee Martin, but had no knowledge of anyone beyond him: no great-grandfather, no earlier ancestors, nothing.  It was an almost complete mystery.

In 1997, when the internet brought genealogical resources within reach of more people, my dad discussed this unsolved mystery with a friend who set out to help him discover the identity of his great-grandfather and whatever generations might lie beyond.  After six months of looking, she came back with nothing.  “He must have done something reaaally bad,” she remarked.

My understanding for over ten years was that Robert Lee Martin’s father had done something so bad that subsequent generations wanted him forgotten.

Samuel Martin’s grave marker. An uncle.

Then, two or three years ago, my brother started looking into the question.  My brother is one of those people that doesn’t stop researching, learning, assimilating, and discovering until the entire truth is discovered.  He’s like a dog who smells a bone buried in the ground, and solving this mystery was his new pursuit.  It was not long before he discovered the name of Robert Lee Martin’s father, which led to the grand discovery that has launched an age of self-discovery likely to keep me learning and growing for the next phase of my life.

The details of one’s family — this one begat that one, who moved to this town, whose children are this, this, and that — can be bewildering to even the most interested reader, so I’ll spare you of all the interconnections.  I’ll just end this post with a question, one to be answered in a subsequent post (or series of posts):

What if, at age 53, you discovered that you had a big, loud, wonderful, loving family of hundreds of people, who have been holding family reunions every year since 1963?  What if you found out that there were dozens of relationships, both good and bad, that were your right to enjoy, but you never had the opportunity to pursue?

Robert Lee Martin was born into that family.  He was born in Alamance County, North Carolina.  He died in Roanoke Rapids, where my father’s story begins.  It appears that he severed all connections to the family he was born into because he passed as white.

And so every year a big family gathers in Alamance County and goes to Martin’s Chapel Baptist Church to celebrate a common ancestor. That’s my family too.  Sure, I have grown up with all the social and economic privilege that comes from being white.  I grew up with all the racism that comes with being the child of southern white families.  And how many laughs, hugs, and tears have I missed? How much richer might my life have been if Robert Lee Martin had stayed in Alamance County and had lived as a black man?

In today’s polarized, charged environment, I feel this is a risky, private, and very personal post.  I’m sharing this with you because I feel like I need to.  I hope you’ll treat this story with care and respect.

Almost three years without….

It’s been a dream of mine since the family spent the summer in Berlin in 2007. We lived in an apartment in what used to be East Berlin for about seven weeks.  During that time we lived, shopped, and toured many of the great cities of Europe.  Six of us.

We flew into Cologne and rented a van to get to Berlin.  Once we dropped it off when we arrived in Berlin, we went the rest of the summer without a car.

Seven weeks.  A family of six.  No car, no driving.

Berlin is a city where this is completely possible and practical.  The subway system is extensive: I recall that we were never more than about three blocks from a subway station.  Ride, walk, and boom!  And if you need to go to another city or even another country, the trains could get you there quickly, conveniently, and oh-so-comfortably.

When we got back to the States, getting in a car made me grumpy.  Anytime I had to drive, I was ragey.  It was just plain unfair to have to get in a car to travel anywhere.

I tried to ride my bike more, but that didn’t work. Distances were just too far, and the city was not laid out in a way that was conducive to bicycling.  Walking was definitely out of the question, as business would take me to neighboring towns nearly every day. It just wasn’t fair.

So when I moved to DC almost three years ago, I realized I had an opportunity. I haven’t owned a car in that amount of time.

At first, it was difficult.  I made a hobby out of figuring out how to do ordinary things.  One of the first things I realized is that a car is like a giant purse: it holds all the things you need either here or there.  Most of us carry an umbrella in our cars.  Why? Because if we’re at work when it starts to rain, and our umbrella is at home, we’re in trouble.  If it’s in the car, the problem doesn’t exist.

The grocery store was two blocks away from where I lived.  I would get off the metro from work and walk a block to the store, then two blocks home. My budget was not controlled by the money I had to spend, but rather by the weight of the things I would buy.  Liquids weigh more and are therefore more difficult to take home.  So I’d buy a half gallon of milk rather than a full gallon.  I would buy orange juice frozen in cans instead of in a gallon pitcher.  And I got used to wearing a backpack so I could carry groceries home more easily, even if it meant taking it empty to work and back.

One day I decided I’d go to Trader Joe’s after work.  I rented a Bikeshare bike, rode a mile to shop, packed up my groceries in a tight bundle that would fit in the basket, rode back, and felt as though I had conquered the world.

Little tasks started feeling like big accomplishments.  I was getting the hang of it.  Since then, I’ve discovered a few life lessons from living without a car:

  • My blood pressure is considerably lower because I spend no time asserting myself against other stressed-out drivers.
  • Driving everywhere in this city (Washington, DC) is more a failure of imagination than a necessity.  Yes, the Metro sucks and is practically unusable on weekends, but there are buses, bikes, and sidewalks.  And if one must, an hourly car rental like Car2Go or an Uber (I prefer Lyft) is cheaper than car payments, parking fees, and new tires.
  • If you’re able to live in the city, a car is optional.  If you have kids and need suburban amenities, I get it: a car is a necessity.
  • Not having a car forces me to think through the day.  I have to check the weather forecast, pack my lunch, dress for the meeting and have a plan for dinner.
  • Sometimes a weekend event will require me to rent a car.  Weekend rentals are $20/day from the airport and $35/day at Union Station.  When I have a car a trip to Costco or to IKEA is almost a requirement.
  • When the doctor looks at me chagrined and asks, “are you getting any exercise?”, I can say, “Yes, I walk to work and ride my bike.”  And he says, “Wow.  Ok, then.”

Alas, in the past three months I’ve motorized my life again.  I purchased a 50cc Yamaha scooter.  It is a lot of fun, but in some ways feels like I’ve taken a step backward.  I’m enduring traffic jams and having to exchange aggressive glances again with other drivers.  For now, I’m enjoying the cool fall air and humming “like a true nature’s child, we were born, born to be wild” while motoring through the streets of Capitol Hill.  It’s not wrong.

Last weekend I picked Elisabeth up at the airport in Baltimore.  I rented an economy car from Budget in Union Station.  Because it was the end of the day, they had run out of cars.  All they had left was a brand new red Camaro SS.  For a day I drove it as much as I could!  It was AWESOME.  But by the end of the day, I was relieved to return it to the garage and get back to my simple, familiar, low-stress existence of car-free living.

It’s been almost three years, and I’ve survived without owning a car.  Here’s to three more.

Hi everyone.

Greetings.

Well, here we go.  I’m starting this blog because two significant women in my life (you know who you are) are blogging.  One has been blogging for a long time, another just started and is doing a fine job.

It’s not that I just automatically do what they’re doing; I find their blogs to be brilliant, funny, quirky, and wonderful windows into their souls.

I’m also starting this because it’s NOT Facebook.  Don’t get me wrong; Facebook is fabulous, a revolutionary platform.  But lately, it has become tiresome, even soul-crushing to an extent.  It’s a reflection of the angst that’s so pervasive today, and since anxiety requires a feedback loop (read Murray Bowen to flesh that out), it might possibly be the cause of some of our society’s greatest ills at the moment.

So here’s my blog.  I’m starting it because:

  1. Few people are likely to read it
  2. I don’t have to worry about how it will be received by far-off acquaintances known as “friends” on Facebook
  3. I can write about the favorite topic of the day, or avoid it completely
  4. I might just feel like posting a picture here instead of writing anything

If you’re reading this, thanks.  I’ll promise to write with no consistency or regularity, no audience in mind, and a very thin filter.  Check back later, or don’t.  Whatever you like.  And thanks again.