Home, I Like to be Here When I Can

July 28, 2007

First, thank you all who have understood and supported my trip to the hometown. It was a messy affair as I knew it would be, and it’s good to be back in the Outlands, swatting the black flies from off their bites, smoking cigarettes in the dark shade of the front stoop. There were some good times on the seaboard, and my family is rocking along much the same as when I saw them last. My old friends were still there with a few exceptions–one is a real estate agent in South Carolina, another a graphics artist in NYC, and yet others are lost to who knows what and where. Which is how it should be, I suppose. For all they know, I’m face down in some roadside ditch. And for all I know, so are they.

I am not a sentimental man by any means and believe in the virtues of understatement and quietude, in a person’s right to reserve to themselves all counsel, all judgment, all emotion. It’s not to say I don’t feel, I just don’t do it on the outside. This, as you can imagine, has elicited all manner of choice descriptions: cold bastard, indifferent prick, and my all time favorite spewed by a very talented writer, an aloof robot low on batteries. None of these things are actually true, mind you, but the reality is more that I don’t see the benefits of hemming, hawing, or otherwise getting too worked up for good things or bad. 

Which brings me to this: back home I caught up with a friend who had recently gotten back from Baghdad, where he served 18 months kicking down doors, waving around his rifle, and driving in the back of an armored truck ducking potshots from militia fighters hidden in buildings, along the roadsides, and wherever else they could see and shoot without being seen and shot at. While his stories were horrific and terrifying, it was the digital pictures he took that continue to flash on my eyelids’ insides like sordid home videos, grainy and haunting in their refusal to fit into any sort of context, any sort of framework, I can understand. I saw a photo of a headless body, hands and feet bound with some sort of wire, and what struck me was the shoes. They were old Air Jordans. Basketball shoes. The kind we coveted as kids and cried for when our whines went unheeded. Needless to say, it’s a disarming juxtaposition to recognize shoes as an ancient status symbol from my past on the feet of a young man who has had his head forcibly removed from shoulders. And I wondered how he would have reacted should someone have told him when he was still whole what those shoes meant in the late 80’s. Would he have laughed? Cried? Would he have spit in the sand and broken glass and looked off into nowhere in particular?

These thoughts have brought on a real evaluation of where I am and what exactly I think I’m doing with my life. I’m not a true believer in that I’m off to join this that or the other cause. But I recognize current events as a series of fenceposts getting thinner the further we move down it. At it’s distant end, it’s razor thin, and there can be no straddling, no indecision, no nothing. In other words, right now we move in a world full of gray, and the choices between either all of this or all of that are largely false dichotomies. However, could it happen that something becomes truly this or that, and there are only these two choices? Throw good and bad, right and wrong out. Forget that stuff because they’re pointless designations for what we want to happen and what we don’t want to happen. So, I’m wondering what’s going to happen when we get to the thinning spots in the landscape, when we’ve exhausted all nuance and are left with a broken compass, an untrue astrolabe under a new and curious sky.

Ugh. Enough, Puddlehead! You’re scaring the children and boring the adults. The long and short of it, I’m grateful to be home, and there is a north wind, and the nights are chilly, and I’m glad for the thoughts you’ve all sent, and I’m off to read all that I have missed.



The Vatican Takes on Road Rage

June 20, 2007

One of the great challenges facing organized religion is how to remain viable in an increasingly secular and scientifically-oriented society. Toss this in with rampant materialism, church scandals (specifically those of the Catholic Church), and the fringe religious sects that–though the minority–get the majority of media coverage thus effectively tarnishing thoughtful and intellectually rigorous belief systems, and you’ve got a rough row to hoe if you’re set with the task of capturing people’s attention. In other words, there is a sense of organized religion’s failure to meet the contemporary needs in many societies. While Father This-and-That extols the virtues of piety, the eyes of the congregation will gloss over and minds will wander to the evening’s plans unless he can make it meaningful to a contemporary and impatient audience.

This is not like any other profession meant to instill learning on a sometimes resistant or potentially distracted group of people. If Buddha didn’t have awesome stories to get his points across, would he have been as widely admired? If Jesus couldn’t talk to followers in a way they could understand, in a way through which they could see the importance of his message in their own life, Christianity would have had a heck of a time getting off the ground.

So, any religious organization is also its own PR firm of sorts. They are charged not only with maintaining the tenants and doctrine of their specific set of beliefs but also with the daunting task of keeping the message pertinent to their adherents.

Enter Cardinal Retano Martino, head of the Vatican’s office for migrants and itinerents, who released this document which blends core Catholic beliefs with modern realities of driving:

The Vatican’s Ten Commandments for Drivers*

1. You shall not kill.

2. The road shall be for you a means of communion between people and not of mortal harm.

3. Courtesy, uprightness and prudence will help you deal with unforeseen events.

4. Be charitable and help your neighbor in need, especially victims of accidents.

5. Cars shall not be for you an expression of power and domination, and an occasion of sin.

6. Charitably convince the young and not so young not to drive when they are not in a fitting condition to do so.

7. Support the families of accident victims.

8. Bring guilty motorists and their victims together, at the appropriate time, so that they can undergo the liberating experience of forgiveness.

9. On the road, protect the more vulnerable party.

10. Feel responsible toward others.

  I think this is a great document. It’s good advice, it’s in a form people can relate to quickly and easily, and–most important–it speaks to contemporary issues while adhering to the tradition from which the list came. If Catholicism or any religion is to remain a force in our society (and I think all religions should have a voice in society), then it’s wise to package the message so it has value and meaning in our contemporary, material-driven culture.

Any faith’s main goal ought to be the spiritual, mental, and physical well being of its followers. All three should be addressed in fair measure, and it seems that Cardinal Martino understands this. 

Certainly, there are things we could nitpick here, such as, “What exactly does he mean by ‘occasion for sin'”? But that’s not the point just now. The point is that he made an effort to guide Catholics with a set of suggestions which will help them integrate their faith in their day-to-day lives. If a religion can be called as much, it ought to provide guidance in all facets of life, and not just those hot topic issues that cause so much conflict and argument.

*Original articles are from Yahoo!News and can be found here and here.