Archive for November, 2011


A bridge too far…

When I heard about the Occupy Wall Street folks (and those groups that have sprung up because of OWS) focusing attention on 1) America’s failing infrastructure, and especially its bridges, and 2) the jobs such efforts would create, but that the American Conference of Catholic Bishops has chosen not to take a position on the financial inequity and the detrimental effect such inequity has on a society, but rather to double down on the matters of abortion and birth control, I have to say I became rather peeved. The Vatican has been speaking out about the immorality of an economic system that leaves so many out and concentrates the money and power in the hands of a few, but the American bishops choose not to discuss the matter, but continue to hammer on matters of women’s reproductive rights, which positioning aligns them with the right wing of the Republican party, which has no interest in good jobs for most people, or in addressing the widening gap between rich and poor, and the gradual disappearance of anything resembling a middle class. In choosing not to come out forcefully against such economic inequality and iniquity, the bishops are tacitly condoning this system.  I know some in the Catholic hierarchy who  would say that their failure to condemn financial policies that put profit before people, and that take away the dignity of the working poor, does not indicate that they condone such practices.  But when they continue to harp on the one issue, and when bishops like Justin Rigali go out of the way to demonize pro-choice politicians like John Kerry, vowing to withhold communion, thereby sending a clear message — John Kerry bad, George Bush good — to the parishioners — well, then I think Catholics have a right to be angry with their hierarchy.  I will not address the morality of abortion rights here, though the failure of the Catholic Church to take any strong position on responsible birth control measures, especially in the poverty stricken third world does seem to me to be a failure of good leadership and a failure in moral terms.  The failure of business schools at Catholic universities to push hard for a fairer economic system, one that works for all of God’s children, rather than the greedy few seems such a failure as well.  I have known some people, especially during the Reagan years, preaching the gospel of supply side economics which turned out to be just a ponzi scheme to take money from the needy and give it to the greedy.  They would also suggest that there should be no legislative controls on business, that the marketplace would sort that all out.  Well, we’ve seen how de-regulation worked — companies grew bigger and bigger, becoming de facto monopolies with nothing to stop them.  And it angers me that the church and schools that bear the designation Catholic are preaching a gospel other than that of Jesus of Nazareth, which does not seem to be supply side economics, unless you interpret the line “The poor you shall always have with you” as “The poor are a bunch of losers, who deserve their sorry state.” 

At any rate, I found it interesting that when the Vatican (and this is not the soft Vatican II) is speaking out against economic injustice and arguing for a more equitable tax, when those moneys could go to rebuilding America’s infrastructure and putting people back to work in good-paying jobs, not just part-time no benefitts minimum wage jobs that offer no promise of a better future, the American bishops are silent on this matter, choosing instead to focus on reproductive rights again, like a broken record.  As most American women of an age when pregnancy is possible utilize birth control — the most common type being hormonal birth control — what happens if the Catholic Church wins on this issue, if the bishops convince enough politicians to head down the path of Mississippi?   Will American Catholic women thank the bishops for this intervention in their lives?  I’m guessing not.  I imagine that many women will take that as just one more thing the MEN in funny hats have done to them, and they’ll leave.  This is not to say that bishops should cave on matters of grave importance, but their failure to see many matters of grave importance (sexual abuse against children by priests, and the way many faithful Catholics live their lives) suggests to me an incredible deafness.  No one in the Catholic Church, no bishop, no priest, no pope can damn anyone;  if you believe in damnation, only God can do that.  Yes, they can expel you from the club, but no one should confuse the Catholic Church with the community of believers. 

When I heard this story the other day I found it ironic about the bridges and the failure of the Catholic Church to push vigorously for a program that would rebuild America’s bridges, among other things.  The Latin word for priest is pontifex, which means “bridge-maker” or “bridge-builder.”  The pope is called on official Vatican documents, Pontifex Maximus (“chief priest”).  And though the pope is talking about economic justice, his bishops in America are failing to be “bridge-builders.”  They are failing to build communities but are often erecting barriers.  They are failing to take to the streets in favor of economic justice (as they did during the time of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers) and building communities there.  They are failing to speak out against the injustice of burdensome legislation that will take the vote away from many poorer Americans.  To give them credit, the American bishops in Alabama and Arizona have been speaking out against the immigration policies proposed in those states.  But as the steel bridges crumble about us, there is a greater chasm between rich and poor in this country that is not right, not just, and not Christian in any meaningful sense of that term.  And where are the bridge-makers?  Well, they’re not on the job and my own disappointment with the Catholic Church will not abate until they live up to their title, and do right.


Bye, bye, bunkie!

On Friday, Veteran’s Day, 11-11-11, Carla and I had to put our oldest pet, 16 1/2 year old Otis, to sleep.  He had taken a sudden dramatic downturn on Wednesday, where he couldn’t stand for more than a minute and could barely walk — only a few steps and then a stop and collapse.  For a guy who liked to wander the yard, this was too much, and we knew it was the end of our time together.  A real Steady-Eddie, Otis was panting and clearly freaked out his last day with us — the one last thing that made his life worth living and worth celebrating was now gone, and it disturbed him profoundly. 

We got Otis about 5 years ago from Pug Rescue — he had been given up by his original owners who felt that he was too old and likely to need medical assitance at age 10.  He stayed with the Dresslers of Auburn, KS for some time before he came to us.  At the point that the Dresslers got him, he was blind in one eye, and almost deaf, but he could get along o.k., though he didn’t do steps well.  I was proud of the fact that, by the time the Dresslers next saw him, I had gotten him to tackle stairs again.  He still preferred the ramp, and the level ground, but he could climb stairs and was in excellent physical shape (other than his monocular and deaf status). 

There are things about Otis that I’ll always remember.  When we got him, until he lost sight in his good eye, he would always dart out his bed when we left in the morning to go to work.  He’d run in a circle and bark.  We never knew exactly what that was about, but it seemed to be his way of saying, “Don’t go!  Stay with me!”  I’m not sure if his original owners had taught him this behavior as a trick, but we looked forward to it.  When he lost the sight in his good eye, he no longer did this, barking only when we put him out on the porch as we prepared everyone’s breakfast.  All the other dogs would bark, and he would bark his own Otis bark, deep, regular and steady.  When I would pick him up to bring him to his breakfast, I’d always hug him and say, “Good Otis!  You’re letting the neighbors know — Otis lives here and is awake!”  Other than those two cases, Otis did not bark.  And except when someone was trying to hone in on his food, Otis did not snarl.  He was the most even-tempered dog I ever met.  Pugs are not known for great temper, though we have a couple who can get pretty agitated, but when the other dogs would get upset (because of the thundering in a storm, or because the dog next door was barking, or because a jogger or a cyclist was going by), Otis would remain steady.  None of our dogs enjoy having their nails clipped, but Otis always took it in stride, even when a nail was clipped to the quick.  It is Otis’ steadiness that I shall miss most of all.  I would often think of Garrison Keillor’s statements he attributed to fellow Minnesotans when things would get tough — “Could be worse!”  There was a Stoic acceptance in the little guy I found most inspiring.

I shall also miss the guy’s joie de vivre — of all our dogs, it has been the two guys, Marcel and Otis, who have shown the greatest joy in simply moving about the yard.  Marcel would trot about, even though he had bum back legs, and we could see something of the puppy he had been.  In Otis’ case, it was always a more determined gait — he always loved being outside, even in bad weather (so we got him a little yellow slicker), but more so once he lost his sight.  Inside the house, there were so many surfaces he could bump into, but outside, there was greater room where he could get together a good pace and keep it up.  And, though it sounds disgusting (let’s face it, it is pretty disgusting), Otis took great joy in finding poo in the yard.  It was not uncommon that when we found him, he’d have discovered some and would be chowing down, molto con brio!  I guess he’d always been a recycler — he had in the time we knew him.  And though thinking about what he was eating was rather distasteful, I always took delight in the joy he expressed in his eating (even poo). 

For the past few years we called Otis “Bunky.”  I first had called him “Chunky,” for we called Marcel “Bunky” as he was the only dog we let come upstairs with us.  “Chunky” came from a film about the Kennedy Assassination, but I started using it to give Otis a nickname like “Bunky” that was different.  When Otis first lost his sight, he’d have a tough time moving about the house, bumping into walls and furniture.  So for a time, I started calling Otis “bonkie,” as he’d bonk into things, but then “bonkie” became “bunky,” even though it meant we had two “bunkies” for a while. 

The next time something goes wrong for me, and I get ready to go ballistic about x, y or z, I hope I’ll think of Bunky, the guy who had a lot of bad things happen to him — through it all, he chose to accept his lot and find his joy.  Goodbye, Bunkmeister Fuller — we’ll miss you, little guy!


Slay the dragon…

I’ve been thinking a lot about dragons lately.  In teaching Greek myth, I often talk about dragons and serpents in Greek and Eastern Mediterranean thought.  There they are often associated with the Great Goddess, with rebirth and renewal, and with secret knowledge (the serpent goes underground, but can also slither about above ground, and so knows about this world and the Underworld).  As such they are often associated with trees, which have roots underground, trunk at ground level and branches in the sky, joining all three worlds.  And the Goddess who is associated with childbirth often has dragons/serpents/trees as symbols.  And when patriarchal civilizations came in, well, that just couldn’t continue — think of Eve and the serpent and the Tree of Knowledge — you know patriarchy looked at that and said we gotta break up that cabal!  Consequently, many of the heroes have an adventure where they slay a serpent or a dragon (and so put the Goddess and women in their place).

But it was a particular type of dragon and what it symbolizes that I’ve been thinking about lately, in connection with the Occupy Wall Street movement.  In Germanic lore, the dragon is a monster who is contrasted with the good king.  The good king is the Ring-Giver, the one who distributes the material wealth to his people and so keeps the medieval economy going.  The dragon, though hoards stuff, primarily material wealth and virgin women.  The dragon does not spend the gold or redistribute it, but holds it tight.  The dragon does not mate with the woman, or marry her, and so produce a family, but holds the woman prisoner, keeping her from producing children, or helping two warring kingdoms to make peace.  I don’t approve of the idea of treating women as commodities, but you get the idea — dragons in the medieval Germanic lore are monsters that keep the economy from working properly — they cut off the flow. 

For example, in the Beowulf poem, a poor man who has fallen afoul of his lord happens upon a cave where there is all this loot stored up.  He takes a single cup as an offering to his lord, as a means of making amends.  The dragon which guards the hoard is sound asleep, but once the cup is taken, the dragon wakes up (the guy didn’t make a racket taking the single cup, but was pretty quiet) and then terrorizes Beowulf’s kingdom, and the old king (Beowulf is about 70 years old) must suit up and deal with the problem.  SPOILER ALERT:  he does take care of the dragon, but not before the dragon mortally wounds him (he is after all 70 years old).  As a king for 50 years, he has kept the peace and kept his people safe.  Following his death, there is a fear of the total collapse of his kingdom, as there is no one with his skill set.  The dragon doesn’t care that his hoarding hurts the economy or people.  The dragon, once wounded, is perfectly willing to bring down the whole kingdom, and even court his own death — he’s running on pure instinct, with no emotions engaged except rage. 

But the dragon must be slain.  There is no dealing with the dragon.  Returning the cup would not placate the dragon now that someone has messed with his stuff, stuff he doesn’t use, and stuff that may help others.  There is no appeasing the dragon at that point — it’s mortal combat time.  And the Beowulf dragon is “too big to fail.”  It does, ultimately, fail, but only after killing Beowulf, the only hope for a better tomorrow. 

You can probably see where I’m going with this.  All of those banks and Wall Street investment firms were “too big to fail.”  They (and the 1%) are all about hoarding.  Further tax breaks and cuts for them does not result in more jobs.  It means more gold for the dragon to hoard.  Of course, Wall St. is a dragon with PR people who can spin a different story about job creation, and how government regulations keep companies from growing, while corporate profits and CEO/CFO salaries continue to outpace everyone else, even though most of the companies are busy tightening their belts, and putting more people out of work, or cutting them to part time.  And it seems that the Republican party has become a fully owned subsidiary of Wall Street and the richest, so there is no Independent voice acting for those not in the economic stratosphere.  There is no satisfying the Wall Street dragon, though some in government feel that so long as we feed the dragon, all will be well.  Well, a greedy, hoarding dragon can never have enough, and will bellyache about any sacrifices it must make (very egocentric is the dragon).  In fact, as we saw in the 2008 meltdown, the dragon cannot even see to self-preservation — just more, more, more, even when hoarding means that fewer people spend less money to fuel the economy.  Ultimately that will have an effect on Wall Street, but the dragon can’t think past “more, more, more,” even when it will ultimately lead to “less,  less, less.”

We can’t let the dragon make its own rules, which is what deregulation is all about.  The myth that the market will regulate itself is, ultimately, a false concept.  All the dragon wants is “more, more, more.”  Anything that gets in the way of “more, more, more” will be seen as an unnecessary burden.  It doesn’t matter that bloating doesn’t help the dragon, or the ecosystem that supports the dragon, because all the dragon understands is “more, more, more.”  As I see it, there is no way to reason with the dragon.  If reason worked, it would already have done so.  But the dragon cannot get past its mantras of “more, more, more” and “greed is good.”

The only solution is to slay the dragon, or contain it so it can’t do more damage to itself or to the society it inhabits.  I don’t see this happening anytime soon.  I do take some comfort in the Occupy Wall St. people and their movement.  If nothing else, they are putting a face on the suffering, and making politicians have to look at the victims of unregulated dragons and realize that profit for its own sake comes at a cost.  And perhaps some hearts will be touched, some minds will be changed, and We, the People may trump the dragon (at least keep it contained).  I can hope, and do hope that religious communities will begin to speak out, that business schools at Catholic Colleges will tear themselves away from preaching the gospel of Wall Street and realize that the dragon is not Christian and knows no God but “more, more, more.”  Maybe, this Christmas season coming up will result in a radical rethinking, will get us past coin to community, past personal greed to common wealth.  I have hopes, but that dragon, though teetering, will not give up easily, but keep to its mantra, even as it falls, and takes us along with it. Where’s St. George (and I’m not talking Bush) when you need him?