Tuesday, June 30, 2009

There Won't Be a Disco Comeback Unless...

Think for a moment if you will about studio musicians - those men and women who toil in near obscurity, making their careers and eking out a living providing support to top-flight recording artists and bands. On rare occasions, those studio musicians - Jimmy Page, former session guitarist, and Boston, former session band, are perfect examples - are able to move out on their own and develop impressive careers, but for the most part the only reputation they develop is on the quality of their work out of the spotlight.

On rare occasions, you may actually hear about some of these folks: "Mr. X is a successful guitarist whose work can be found on albums by such bands as the Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, and Pink Floyd;" "Mr. Y played bass on albums for many of the most successful pop groups of the last thirty years." You probably even heard recently a brief mention of Bud Shank, a flutist who played the flute solo in the Mamas and the Papas' "California Dreamin'." Everyone at some point gets the credit they are due ...

... except for the disco string players. Not once have I heard anyone give a shout out to the gentleman who was first violin on Gloria Gaynor's remake of "Never Can Say Goodbye," or the lady who doubled on cello and second viola in the orchestra used in "A Fifth of Beethoven." At least Barry White, with "Love's Theme," had the decency to give blanket credit to the Love's Unlimited Orchestra. For all those children who take violin or cello lessons, hoping to one day be the next Anne Sophie Mutter or Yo Yo Ma, how can we in good conscience look at them and say, "Well, you've got a great dream; pursue it! But if you don't make it to the concert stage, there's always the recording studio" if there's no credit to be had?

Until we give proper respect to the folks who really made disco great - the backup string orchestras - then the comeback we've been hearing about for so long just won't happen...

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Can You Spare Five Minutes to Change Someone's Life?

During his weekly sermon at church this morning, our priest-in-charge made the point that all of the news this week about Michael Jackson and the other celebrities who have passed away has diverted attention - both of the news networks and of each of us - away from more important problems like the ongoing bloodshed in Iran. Yes, news is a fickle thing and changes rapidly, but the events of the past few days have given us a chance to turn away from the problems facing our neighbors overseas (and, more directly, the problems of our immediate neighbors here at home). Why? Quite simply, looking away allows us to prevent being put into the uncomfortable sport of trying to come up with solutions and ways to help these folks find a way out of the problems they are facing.

It was a powerful point. Rather than working to help our fellow man, we look for any and every reason to step aside or find a way around the difficult situations we find in front of us every day. I talked a bit about my feelings in this regard back in December 2007 (you can read that post here), and of course in the ensuing 18 months the problems of those I see here in the Washington area have not gotten any better - in many regards, they're even worse.

Everyone in our congregation has been challenged during the coming week to take just five minutes to listen to someone who may be having some sort of problem, to learn about them and to find out what their needs may be. We will then be writing their names on index cards and putting them into the collection plate next week, where they will be presented at the altar and we as a single body can begin praying about ways to help these folks find a way out of their problems.

Can you do that? Can you spare five minutes for one of your neighbors, five minutes that could make a huge difference in - and potentially change - their life?

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Michael Jackson and the Dance That Never Was

I suppose since everyone else is sharing their favorite Michael Jackson-themed story or their memories of the gloved one, I should do the same. However, my recollection doesn't involve the man but rather one of his songs.

I was in ninth grade, at one of the Friday night post-football game dances that the different clubs in my high school sponsored on a rotating basis. On this particular evening, the French Club was in charge of the event - refreshments, the deejay, tickets, the whole bit. At this point, I was still a horribly awkward teenage boy, not sure yet of who I was or what I was supposed to be doing in life, and as such it seemed really odd that I would be hanging around a big school dance. By and large, I was still painfully shy around most folks and really didn't like crowds and spent much of this particular evening standing on the gallery that circled the top of the gym - a place where folks would gather to watch what was going on on the floor below and plot their next move.

And then it happened. The school's most beautiful girl, who was a senior during this, my freshman year, walked out to the edge of the gym floor and stood there, talking to her friends. All I could do was stare; this was the girl who all the guys thought was unapproachable, someone who the year before I had asked to sign my yearbook only after summoning every bit of courage I could ever hope to find. I continued to stand and watch her in the glow of the lights illuminating the dance, and at that moment the song started: Michael Jackson's "Human Nature." The French teacher and sponsor of the club saw me standing there and asked me if I wanted to dance with the girl I was watching; I replied that I did - and she said, "So go ask her."

I was shocked! There was no way that I could ever hope to get this particular girl, the senior admired by all the guys, to dance with me, and I said as much in response. She said something to the effect that, "Well, if you notice, no one else has asked her to dance yet, so you've still got a chance to be the first." I pondered it for a moment, turned ...

... and walked to a spot further down the rail to continue watching. Before long, the song ended, the dance ended, and this senior that I had worshipped from afar was headed out the door - and a few months later, headed out of the school forever. However, to this day, I can still plainly hear Michael's voice - "If they say why, why? Tell them that it's human nature ... See that girl, she knows I'm watching..." - in that darkened, cavernous gymansium, lyrics bouncing of the walls and echoing around the vast room.

And I still see the shy, gawky teenager that I once was, standing high above the gym floor watching silently as he let the opportunity to dance with his ninth grade crush - that one magic moment - slip through his fingers.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A Prayer for the Children

Today, I'm thinking about the children.

No, not my children (though they're never far from my mind) or the children of my neighbors or friends. Today, I'm thinking about the children of Iran.

Over the past several days, the news coming out of the country has gone from a feeling of hope for a free election to the crushing pain of a fraudulent outcome. And things continue to get worse; although the reports cannot be verified, people inside Iran have been telling of men and women thrown off of bridges, attacked by secret police carrying axes, and dragged out of homes and hospitals to be taken to secret locations - in many instances, never to be seen again. I can't see their faces in the grainy images on television, and I can't picture what the people look like who are Twittering and Facebooking and using every tool imaginable to get the word out.

But for some reason, I can see children - and it hurts. Children who are seeing their loved ones, people who only wanted a better life for their families and a brighter future for their country, dragged out of homes before their very eyes. Children who are exposed to the brutality of a regime that will do anything (or almost anything, though the fear that worse actions are still just around the corner) to suppress a revolution and seeing people attacked and beaten and shot. Children who probably never had to worry about what the next day would bring and who now have to fear what will happen in the next few minutes or hours.

As I write this, my daughters are safe in their beds, and all is quiet in my neighborhood. On the other side of the world, though, there is no safety and no quiet, and children there are only experiencing fear and uncertainty. I - we - can't comfort them or hug them or tell them that things will be alright the way that we would our own children during a summer storm or after they've had a bad dream. But we can pray, and pray we should - for the end of the violence, yes, but most especially that these young boys and girls can again know peace rather than fear and quiet rather than chaos.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Father's Day Images

There are so many great blog posts and stories that have been published discussing the importance of Father's Day and sharing memories of this day - past and present - that I fear I can't come up with anything original that hasn't already been said. However, in thinking about the day thus far, there are little scenes and statements from my girls that taken collectively have amounted to a wonderful little day.

  • Being awakened by MB at about 8:00 this morning with a very loud whisper in my ear, "Daddy! It's time for Happy Father's Day!"
  • The excitement my oldest had as I opened her gift - not the gift that she had made in Sunday school class last week or the one that she had picked out with her sister and mother, but the pillowcase full of little plastic dinosaurs that she wanted me to see.
  • E. running up to me every ten minutes with a new book that she had pulled out of somewhere in her room, excitedly saying, "Tory-time! Tory-time!"
  • MB telling me as we went to pick up dinner tonight that she has decided that she doesn't want babies when she gets married. When I asked why, she said, "Because they hit you in the nose!" I reminded her that she and her sister had both done that, and she replied, "I know. I don't want them to do it to me!" (I didn't even ask her why she's considering marriage at age 5...)
  • MB deciding that E. had done enough to decorate her card to me, and taking it upon herself to add her own bit of flair.
  • E. determined to finish her dinner at the same time as her sister, and shoving nearly 1/4 of her quesadilla into her mouth while looking at me and giving a big, toothy grin.

I hope everyone's Father's Day has been full of such a collection of wonderful little moments as these - and that together they made for a great day for all of you.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Following the Trail of Carbon Footprints

(This was also posted on my "One Man's Politics" blog, but I felt like sharing it here as well.)

Carbon footprint.

Carbon offsets.

Green houses.

Green jobs.

Energy efficiency.

Global health.

If you haven’t had at least one of these phrases thrown at you – by television commentators, op-ed and editorial writers, or by someone with whom you’ve been having a conversation – during the past week, then you are one of the fortunate ones who must be isolated from the rest of civilization. (Side bar: If you are, please let me know how to get there so that my family and I can escape the insanity that resides inside the Beltway.) The cap-and-trade side of things has certainly been a big issue for my place of employment, and I can tell you that after having read all 900-plus pages of the Waxman-Markey bill (H.R. 2454 for all of you policy wonks out there), there’s some scary stuff on the horizon – and I hope folks take the time to educate themselves before it’s too late.

I finally caved and took some time today to use one of the multiple on-line tools to determine the level of environmental destruction that my family is thrusting upon the earth (or at least our little portion of Northern Virginia). The first one (http://www.carbonfootprint.com/) calculated, after I answered a series of questions on energy usage and recycling and shopping habits, that we are responsible for 6.44 tons of CO2 emissions per year. Based on the cool little “footprint” graph on the results page, that’s less than half of the national average and more than twice the world target.

Moving on, I tried a second calculator developed by the Nature Conservancy (http://www.nature.org/) and after answering very similar questions was told that we are responsible for 55 tons of emissions per year.

Say what? Well, which is it? My habits didn’t change between the first and second calculator (unless my wife burned down the George Washington National Forest during those four minutes), and yet the Conservancy holds us accountable for 49 more tons of emissions each year. This itself presents the first problem: how, if the government is going to try and restrict (sorry; “cap” – there you go, Chairman Waxman), will they calculate who is responsible for what? I can honestly say I don’t have much confidence at all in the scientific data that will be used o the methodology for gathering this information – particularly if an organization like the Nature Conservancy is going to blame me for nearly 400 percent more emissions than your average group.

Next, I was given the option of offsetting the natural disaster that my wife and kids and I have unleashed on an unsuspecting world. Yes, long before industry will be required to do so through auction, I can purchase my very own offset credits. Here are samples of what I can spend (just for my 6.44 tons; I didn’t bother looking for the 55 tons):

Certified Emission Reduction - fully verified by Kyoto/United Nations standards and used to support Clean Development Mechanism projects. Cost: $174.39

Clean Energy Portfolio – supports clean energy generation projects around the world. Cost: $90.20

Americas Portfolio – supports reforestation projects in Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico. Cost: $95.67

Reforestation in Kenya – supports “the planting of broad leaved trees in the Great Rift Valley” (sounds glamorous). Cost: $89.15 (for seven trees)

UK Tree Planting – does just what it says, although you get to pick the region of the UK that you’d like to reforest. Cost: $145.61 (for seven trees)

This brings up question two: who’s administering this money, and what guarantee is it that in our effort to mitigate our personal environmental destruction this money will actually even go to whom and what they claim it will? Here’s an interesting quote from Steve Milloy in Green Hell:

The CO2 offset marketplace is pretty shady. According to an August 2008 report by the General Accounting Office, carbon offsets have no uniform quality assurance mechanisms or standards of verification and monitoring. “Participants in the offset market face challenges ensuring credibility of offsets,” the GAO concluded. In other words, buyers have little idea whether the offsets they buy actually reduce CO2 emissions.
Milloy continues, “Former Clinton administration official Joseph Romm bluntly summed up the situation, writing that ‘the vast majority of offsets are, at some level, just rip-offsets.’”

So to review: we need to adjust our carbon footprint, but no one can accurately calculate our footprint; we need to buy personal offsets to mitigate our footprint, but no one can assure us the money is going to where it is intended – or how much of it is actually going anywhere other than the pockets of those administering the program.

Are the sorts of changes we would need to make even feasible? Milloy says, “Based on my carbon footprint profile, to meet this goal I’d have to driving, flying, using electricity, and heating and cooling my home.” All cases may not be as extreme, but how much will you have to scale back your life and habits to compensate?

Moreover, are you willing to do it?

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Shabbat Shalom! A First Experience with Judaism

Several years ago, A. and I completed a four-year program administered by the University of the South at Sewanee (Tennessee) entitled Education for Ministry (EFM). This program - which has been in existence for a number of years, since I can recall my father taking the course when I was a child - is designed to give members of the Episcopal Church a stronger knowledge of church history and theology, and to give them the tools to become more effective lay leaders within their congregations.

As important as it is to know about the development of one's own denomination and the history of their faith traditions, I think it's equally important to learn as much as you can about the development of other faiths - of Judaism and Islam and Buddhism, among many others. Just as learning what the other side of the political spectrum believes in order to make yourself better informed on the issues, I think that you make yourself a stronger and more effective Christian and citizen when you take the time to learn and experience what others believe. So for my own personal enrichment and for the benefit of my family, that's what I've decided to do.

Last night, A. and I attended our very first service with a Jewish congregation (MB was originally going to go with us, but at the last minute decided that it was more important for her to spend time with her grandparents than with us), and it was a magnificent event. I had emailed the rabbi of Temple Rodef Shalom here in Northern Virginia to inquire whether they would allow us to visit (I'm the sort of person who believes that you don't just show up somewhere without first asking if it's acceptable, particularly when visiting a different faith tradition; I like to be respectful of their practices and not just be the one "crashing the party"). Not only did we receive a positive response, but within a very few minutes of her return note I had gotten an email from a member of the congregation who graciously offered to meet us, give us a tour, and sit with and guide us through the service.

Our visit was in some ways a bookend of having watched Elie Wiesel's remarks at Buchenwald, moving from the solemnity of his visit to the joy of the family Shabbat service (which our host referred to as the "Shabbat Rocks" service, because of the upbeat music and band there, and the dancing which the kids and some adults did during the service). Before the service, we were given the privilege of looking at one of the congregation's Torah scrolls which is actually going to be used for the bar- and bat-mitzvah ceremony this weekend for some of the young people in the congregation. The scroll had been copied by hand from a previous scroll (something which I had read once is a way of passing the Torah from one generation to the next), and in fact there are certain instances when each member of the congregation is given the opportunity to contribute one letter to a new scroll as it is being copied. I can't really explain the emotion I felt as A. and I helped him remove the crowns and the covering from the scroll before he unrolled it; while I know the Bible is representative of my tradition as a Christian, I often make the mistake of viewing it in the context of its form as a book - with the Torah scroll, I felt as if what I was watching was in fact our host unrolling and opening the centuries of Jewish history before us.

Before sitting to chat for a few minutes, we were invited to go with him as he placed the Torah back into the ark of the covenant in the sanctuary, which is illuminated by a light which is never turned off - representative of the oil lamp in the original Temple in Jerusalem which was never extinguished. We then had an opportunity to talk for a bit before the service began - about some of what we would see in the service, a bit of the history of the congregation, and about the children who were about to be recognized and accepted as adults in their faith after their mitzvahs. He had mentioned that the recitation from the Torah was a very big event for these young men and women and that there are generally a lot of nerves - with them, hoping they do a good job, and for their parents, who view this as a tremendous source of pride for them.

As he was talking, I thought about my confirmation when I was 13 - a very different event, but really the only comparison that I could think of from my Episcopal background. I then began to wonder if these children felt any sort of pressure for what was about to happen in their lives. Let me explain - when I was confirmed, I knew it was a big deal, but I viewed really as a rite of passage where we were finally considered members of the congregation; nothing else really came to mind - no thought of the history of the church or anything along those lines. With bar- and bat-mitzvahs, however, these 13-year-old boys and girls are not only becoming adults, but they are inheriting the entire history of their people and will begin to shoulder the burden of that history, both the good and the tragedy. I asked if the kids understood the enormity of what they were about to take upon themselves, aside from being viewed as adults, and he replied simply, "Oh, yes."

The service was very good and alternated between joyous and solemn. Officially, it is know as the Kabbalat Shabbat, the service which is the time of welcoming the Sabbath. There was magnificent music, a great deal of participation from the congregation, and a point where every child in the room - and some of the adults - joined hands and danced their way among the aisles and past the ark (which A. and I thought MB would have absolutely loved had she been there). There was a pretty even mix between sung and spoken prayers, and thankfully - in addition to translations of each in English - there were spelled out pronunciations of the Hebrew so that we could try (as best we could) to sing and speak along with them.

Two of my favorites were one of the opening songs and the one sung at the end of the service, the words of which (in order) were:

Hallelu...Kok han'shama, t'haleil yah, halelu, haleluya! (Loosely translated, this means, "The breath of every living thing praises God," and comes from Psalm 150.)

Mi shebeirach imoteinu, m'kor hab'racha l'avoteinu. Bless those in need of healing with r'fua sh'leima, the renewal of body, the renewal of spirit and let us say: Amen.

One of the latter parts of the service was the very moving saying of the Kaddish in memory of all those who have died, whether it be in recent weeks or within the past year. The rabbi asks that everyone sit silently as the names of those individuals are read out loud, and as each name is read the family members of those men and women stand in silence. Others in the congregation are then given the opportunity to stand and offer the names of loved ones who have died. At the end, the entire congregation joins in a show of support for all of these family members by saying the prayer (the text of which I don't have in front of me, but an example of which can be heard here). I've often read of people saying the Kaddish for their loved ones, but it's very powerful to actually hear it being done.

The service ended and we were invited to join them at their reception before heading home. We didn't stay long, just enough time to thank the rabbi once again for allowing us to attend and to talk to our host a bit more (who was very kind and said we were welcome to visit at any time). I had hoped to have an opportunity to talk with one gentleman in particular, the Temple's founding rabbi and a survivor of Auschwitz, but it never worked out (I certainly hope to have a chance to do so in the future).

Much is made of the fact that the world's three great religions - Christianity, Judaism, and Islam - are all descended from Abraham. To truly understand the root of your faith, no matter which denomination or religion it may be, it would be well worth your time to try and make a visit similar to that A. and I made to Temple Rodef Shalom; you'll be moved, you'll be inspired, and you'll get a glimpse of what lies at the very heart of where we are today.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Elie Wiesel at Buchenwald

Elie Wiesel - someone who regular readers of this blog will know I hold in very high esteem - accompanied President Obama and German Chancellor Merkel to Buchenwald today to pay tribute to the tens of thousands of men, women and children murdered there during the Second World War. While Merkel and Obama presented very good remarks, I think Wiesel more than any other person there was able to put it all in perspective in very powerful and emotional terms. I don't see how anyone could listen to this, particularly the portion about his father, and not be moved.

In recent years, Wiesel has become more and more concerned that the world has learned nothing from the lessons we should have learned from the atrocities of the past. As a father, I think it is my duty to make sure my children know and understand what humans have done so tragically wrong throughout history and help them to know that they can be a part of ensuring it never happens again. As Wiesel has said, "Mankind must remember that peace is not God's gift to his creatures; peace is our gift to each other."

May our children and grandchildren, here and around the world, all learn to pass on the gift of peace and never forget the consequences of what happens when peace, fellowship and understanding are abandoned.