Monthly Archives: November 2012

Trail Running, and why I keep doing it, even though I sort of hate it.

It’s that time of year again. The lights are twinkling on the Riverwalk. Around the country calendars are filling, credit cards are swiping and ovens are baking. Yes, it’s that time of year.

Training season. I feel it in my fingers…more though, I feel it in my toes.

I have learned a lot from marathons. People say, “it’s a marathon, not a sprint,” referring to the important things in life that require wisdom and endurance. That long, slow muscular burn of pushing forward through pain and monotony with eyes toward the far off goal. Marathons are supposed to be metaphors for life.

Last year, in a stroke of masochistic brilliance, Lewis and I signed up for the Big Bend Ultra Run 50K. Fifty kilometers across the Chihuahuan high desert. I’m never doing that again.

This is about the moment I vowed never to do this again.

This is me explaining to Lewis and our friend, Colin, how I’ve vowed never to do this again.

But apparently I’m still crazy enough to hazard the 25K, as though I was having a good time at the 25K mark in last year’s race.  I wasn’t. But this year I have a plan. I’m going to train on terrain that is tougher than the race course. (Cue dramatic music)

Which is how we found ourselves, the Saturday after Thanksgiving 8 miles into a 9 mile trail run at Government Canyon State Natural Area, with daylight light waning around us, and me…whining.

The reader should here note that Lewis was made for trail running. His ligaments are like something manufactured by Nickelodeon, and he’s built like a white-tail deer, also a good trail running species. Lewis didn’t complain once during the 50K.

To begin my first truly challenging day of technical trail training, we headed off on a broad, fairly solid trail, Joe Johnston Route, and started loping deeper into the park, passing hikers of various shapes and sizes, feeling confident and sure-footed. Nature! Fresh air! Glorious!

I’m about to start waxing poetic in my head when I heard it.

“Pllleeeeease, Daddddy!!! I’m sooooo tiiiiirrred! Pick me uuuupppp!”

Not far up the trail, we passed a father and his three daughters. Eldest daughter was happily tromping along, swinging her arms and bossing middle daughter who was skipping to keep up. About ten feet behind them was dad, with youngest daughter hanging from his arm, dragging her feet across the gravel. Wailing.

“Puh-lea-ea-ea-ease, pleeeease pleeease, Daddyyyyyy. I’m so ti-i-i-irrrred! Pleeeease, please can we stop?”

Dad had employed his masculine superpower of selective hearing and was staring blankly ahead at the trail while the 50 pound shrieking deadweight dangling from his right arm caused him to jerk sideways every few steps and limp a little. Clearly having the time of his life.

I knew I had just seen a premonition.

Soon we turned left onto Caroline’s Loop. For two and a half miles we alternated between swishy grass, steep rockslides, and a few yards here and there of basic mixed-media trail. No segment was longer than a tenth of a mile though, which meant that any hope of getting into a stride was gone.

I’m a big believer in zen running. I can run marathons for exactly the same reason that, as a child, I could play with my shoes for an hour. I’m just really good at doing the same thing for a long time.

But trail running is not doing the same thing for a long time. Part of its attraction to some—more active minds, I guess— is that it is engaging and challenging. It requires strategy, like Battleship and chess.

I cry when I play chess.

Caroline’s Loop ended and we had a choice. Unfortunately it ended on a lovely soft downhill, and I was feeling confident and determined to stick to the plan we’d laid out back at the beginning. Back at the car. Back at the pavement. So instead of prudently turning back onto Joe Johnston Route, as Lewis lobbied to do, we turned onto Little Windmill, and charged deeper into the thickness.

The reason I keep trying to trail run is because of images I have in my mind of the lithe and wile Native Americans dashing through the forest. Or a graceful doe darting through the trees.

Instead I am 90% certain that with each footfall, I felt my brain tissue come into contact with some part of my skull. Because of uneven topography and the general wobbliness of it all, whatever muscle control is usually devoted to stabilizing, say, my cervical vertebrae, was devoted to keeping my ankles from rolling out from under me.

On the pavement I’m so quiet, people often comment on it as I whisk past them. “Oh! You came out of nowhere!” one woman shouted.

On the trail, I’m like a dinosaur crashing through the Jurassic flora. I’m pretty sure my footprints will be studied by the archaeologists of future eons. Not that leaving tracks is all bad. We got lost at one point, and Lewis literally did have to go find a set of my tracks to figure out where we’d been.

The final push was down a long trail called Sendero Balcones. These were the final miles, and suddenly, as we began the same infuriating stop-start irregular gait of earlier stretches of trail, I felt my inner self begin to tug on my right hand.

“Bekah! I’m tired!” the little curly-headed fiend whined.

I ignored her. Press on. You’re strong. You’re fueled.

The trail moves into a climb, and I’m sending a shower of rocks behind me as I scrape my way up the hill.

“Beekaaaaah,” Inner Me stamps her little foot and yanks my hand, “Puh-leeease can we stoooop? Puh-lease? I’m tiiiiirrrrred.”

Shut up, kid. I’m a graceful doe!

All is well for about a quarter mile until the spine crunching descent down a limestone shelf. With each step the ground wobbles and the following maneuver looks more and more like I’m dodging bullets than moving in a forward direction.

Inner Me looks up with watery, pitiful eyes, draws a deep breath and lets out a psyche shattering wail.

The last mile I’m dragging Inner Me along by her sweaty little hand while she hangs from my arm like an octopus. My head hurts, my toenails feel like they are ripped from their beds, and my hips are on fire from the lateral motions.

As we reached the flat, wide final path back to the parking lot, we slowed to a walk and I completed my first full thought of the entire run.

Road racing is not a metaphor for life. Trail running is.

In a road race, it’s me and the goal. The focus is on form and speed and progress toward the goal. It’s neat and orderly and for miles at a time I can process thoughts through to their completion. But the reason that this is such a treat, why the zen of running is so precious, is that the rest of life is nothing like that. The rest of life is interruptions, stops, restarts, changes, uncertainty, adjustment, and stumbling. The rest of life is a trail run.

Just when one terrain starts to even out, we round the bend and a new challenge awaits. We have to be ready to leap forward from wobbly place to wobbly place without the footing we think we need. Life, at best, is a series of zen moments interrupted by all that is beautiful and hazardous in the world. People, passions, opportunities, mistakes.

I want to be good at that kind of messy life, just like I want to be able to nimbly skip across the most treacherous terrain of West Texas and the Hill Country.

So if nothing else, I am going to keep learning to trail run in hope that as my ankles, hips, and feet get more agile, that I will gain from trails a new kind of mental toughness, with the added ability to change gears more gracefully.

Either that, or Inner Me is in for a rough eight weeks.

GY 4?? Feminism in Current Pop Debate

Occasionally I like to construct an alternate course of events that my life could have taken. In today’s fantasy, I have become achingly famous and been asked to teach a class on contemporary women’s issues. Yes, that’s right. In my fantasy world (today) I’m a professor. What about it?

My class will be about feminist issues in contemporary discourse (media, mostly). Which means mostly mommy wars, body issues, and women in the workplace…if you even consider those to be separate issues.

I will not assign all of the books I found to be helpful. I remember grad school. I didn’t read whole books. I read articles and excerpts amounting to the length of War and Peace. I didn’t read whole books, however concise and helpful. Graduate school is like a scavenger hunt for research paper sources, and once a book has been cited, it’s use to the researcher diminishes by about 94%, and no one ever read a book they considered to be 6% useful. Enjoyability is not really a factor, I don’t think.

Instead of a small library of course texts, I will instead assign a course pack. I discovered coursepacks in gradschool and I think they are marvelous. For 50 quid ($100) I got the 800 pages we would actually be discussing in class, saving myself so much time mining journals and hauling books to and from the library. I still have the coursepacks too, because I actually think I may need to brush up on Postcolonial theory one day.

For my fictional class on contemporary gender issues, I would thus create a coursepack including the bits from contemporary non-fiction and feminist works that have had a particular impact on my thinking, or have simply made me say, “YES! That’s IT!”

Note: obviously this would be an elective in the Women’s Studies department and everyone in my class would have read the basic works of feminist writing. It will be one of those places where Steinem, Levy, and Greer are thrown about like they wrote something as practical and necessary as the OED and Cooks Illustrated, because in some ways they did.

In addition to all of this, my students are going to have to read some blogs and follow tabloids, news, etc. People are going to love my class, because much like my own media studies graduate degree, it’s basically a licence to do what I would be doing anyway, but to call it “research.”

This is what will be in the coursepack for my class, GY4?? Feminism in Current Pop Debate (I chose GY because that was the prefix for gender studies at LSE, where I went to school. Much of the fantasy school where I teach looks like LSE.).

  • Valenti, J. Why Have Kids? Houghton Mifflen, New York. 2012; Chapter 5: “The Hardest Job in the World”
  • Moran, C. How to be a Woman Harper Perennial, New York. 2011; Chapter 2: I Become Furry!; Chapter 4: I am a Feminist!; Chapter 5: I Need a Bra!; Chapter 7: I Encounter Some Sexism!; Chapter 11: I Get into Fashion!; Chapter 12: Why You Should Have Children; Chapter 13: Why You Shouldn’t Have Children; Chapter 14: Role Models and What We Do with Them; Chapter 16: Intervention.
  • Martin, C. Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters The Berkley Publishing Group, New York. 2007; Chapter 2: From Good to Perfect: Feminism’s Unintended Legacy; Chapter 3: The Male Mirror: Her Father’s Eyes; Chapter 5: Sex as a Cookie: Growing up Hungry; Chapter 6: The Revolution Still Will Not be Televised: Pop, Hip-Hop, Race and the Media; Chapter 11: The Real World Ain’t No MTV: How the Body Become the Punching Bag for Post-College Disappointment; Chapter 12: Spiritual Hunger.
  • Sessions-Stepp, L. Unhooked Riverhead Books, New York. 2007; Section 3: How We Got There; Section 4: Hooking-Up: Why It Matters.
  • Barger, L. Callas Eve’s Revenge Brazos Press Grand Rapids. 2003; Chapter 2: The Body is My Alter

I will also include one non-contemporary text, available as a complete book, though it is a collection of essays:

  • Sayers, D. Are Women Human? Wm. B. Eerdmens, Grand Rapids, 1971

Clearly, some days I just miss being in school.

Fleet Foxes and Growing Up

A while back, I went to a Fleet Foxes concert with my husband. We were smashed into the crowd with tons of other people, standing in a rain we were grateful to see during a horrific drought. The sky was lit with lightening and the Fleet Foxes were, as Lewis puts is, “otherworldly.” I felt super cool just being there.

Then, I looked up at the VIP box. Perched above the crowd with plenty of room to move and groove, was none other than the boy I’d had a crush on in middle school. He had married the most popular girl from middle school. She was there too, in the VIP box.

I had lived those tender years grasping at their heels. Every time I thought I’d gained some ground in the battle for “cool,” I’d look up and see those two just that far ahead of me. Now here we were again. I was enjoying a concert…they were enjoying it from the VIP box.

And everything about modern irony and poetic justice would dictate that it would be me in the VIP box. In the end, the coolest kids weren’t supposed to prevail in the long term. But life’s not like the movies, I mused to myself, sometimes the cool kids become the cool adults.

But wait.

I looked closer at the boy I’d been so mad for in middle school. Let’s just say this: I think I knew him at his peak, back in 6th grade.

I turned and looked at my husband, who was lost somewhere in another world with the Fleet Foxes. He had a few days-worth of stubble, his hair was at the perfect length, and he was wearing one of those fabulous Gap t-shirts that fit perfectly. He looked every inch an architect, the union of aesthetic and intelligence.

Call me petty, lame, or immature; but since I’d already reverted back to my catty middle school self, I thought, “Ha! I totally win.”

Happy Birthday, Lewis. Thanks for turning out hotter than all the guys I liked in middle school.

I get this look a lot.

Why don’t my friends let me yell at them?

A few weeks ago, I was watching an episode of New Girl, and my dog left the room. He got up from his comfy spot by my feet where he had been snoozing for almost an hour, and agonizingly plodded into the next room, casting a resentful glance over his shoulder as he left.

Wiley hates loud, angry sounds.

Much of the dialogue on many sitcoms— not just New Girl, but especially that one—takes place at a register usually reserved for lambasting unhelpful tech support representatives. Characters yell at each other as much as they talk. They storm out of the room constantly. They throw things at least every other episode. When was the last time you threw something across a room…in front of people?

I threw something once. I smashed it on the ground. I took a clay pot and I smashed it on the ground at our office. The word “smithereens” pretty much covers the aftermath. My office mate instantly dropped to the floor and began cleaning it. Other work mates stopped by to make sure we were okay, and I gave some paltry evasive explanation, while pleading with my co-worker to stop cleaning. The smashing did not have the desired effect, unless mild shame and general irritation was the desired effect, which it wasn’t.

A lifetime of cinemaphilia has given me unrealistic expectation in every realm. I expect my abs to be flat with no more exercise than hearty laughter and Sorkin-esque pedeconferencing. I expect tragedy to strike at any moment. I expect sex to be a soft lens montage of smooth thighs and candlelit backs, or else to be somehow weightlessly suspended against a wall without anything jamming into my back.

I expect my friends to be supporting characters.

Onscreen people are allowed to have very public meltdowns that increase our sympathy for them. They blow up at friends/family/strangers, and the explosion is somehow justified. Having hurt feelings imparts impunity. And no matter how long they retreat into their den of self-pity, they are guaranteed to waltz back into the sunlight and no one says, “You’ve got some ‘splaining to do.” (If only Ricky Ricardo could meet the trainwreck cast of New Girl.)

Onscreen friends are always ready to accept the self-analysis of the person who, not 24 hours earlier, was shouting at people in grocery store and throwing things.

Ultimately, the reason they don’t have to explain their epiphanies to their longsuffering friends, is because it would be redundant. The audience already watched the realization unfold on screen in the form of an angsty ballad or a comedic mishap, or some long walk through empty streets in the rain. Why would we want to be bored by a prosaic retelling of what was so obvious with the Weepies playing in the background.

If onscreen friends do hash it out, they do so in clever, logical one-liners. And there’s usually a winner. Someone ultimately concedes the point.

That’s not my life.

I live in a world where public meltdowns, water-throwing, pottery smashing, hyperbolic ranting (however witty), and self-imposed exile are met with pity and exasperation.

Off-screen friends say terribly inconvenient things like, “Do you understand that what you are saying is hurtful?” or, “I’ve thought about what you said, and I think you might be jumping to conclusions.” They are not witty, infuriating, or apologetic. But they are often correct. Cinema moment killed.

[Or they realize that you are CRAZY and carefully disappear. Or they get angry and hurt and the whole thing become far messier than anything that could ever be summed up in 22 minutes.]

The main difference is that off-screen friends are not the supporting cast in a show about me. They don’t conveniently go flat when I need to be dynamic and complicated. They are starring in their own sitcoms, and in that episode, my meltdown just ruined their day.

Here’s the catch though, onscreen friends don’t get protagonists through the drama, the director does. Off-screen where the repartee is nothing like Gilmore Girls, The West Wing or Sex and the City, I’ll keep my off-screen friends, because there are no empty streets, no rain on the horizon, and Leonard Cohen doesn’t pipe through the atmosphere like I wish he would. So the likelihood of me having an epiphany by myself is slim. As much as I thought I wanted onscreen friends who would give me carte blanche to behave as badly as I needed to, I need them more to keep me from devolving into someone who sends dogs fleeing from the room.

Satan Wants You Stupid- Reflection on the Election

Well, we’re all glad that’s over! And I’m allowing myself one quick moment to say this: it’s good to be in America, Bexar County, San Antonio, and Congressional District 35 this morning. But also, wow, Facebook “Friends.” Just because it’s instantly broadcast to all 1,500 of your “friends” doesn’t mean you should say it.

Now, on to reflecting.

My creative writing professor was one of the most quotable human beings ever to shout flamboyant aphorisms at trembling undergrads. As a Vietnam vet, a Fulbright Scholar, and a Baptist preacher, his reservoir of such ran deep and murky. One maxim in particular is forever branded into the mind of any student who survived his writing workshops: Satan wants you stupid. *shouted in a gravelly voice with an Expo marker hurled at the wall somewhere near a college student’s head*

His point is that ignorant people do damage rather than good.

Another withering wit would agree with him. Aaron Sorkin is on a one man campaign for a more intelligent America. Say what you want about his monochrome world of high-performing wise-asses (see The Social Network’s Jesse Eisenberg telling opposing counsel, “You have exactly half of my attention…”), the man is a crusader. Sorkin’s screenplays include A Few Good Men, The American President, and The Social Network. For television he wrote The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Sports Night, and now has a new series out on HBO called The Newsroom which just wrapped up its inaugural season.

Central to the plot of The Newsroom are classic Sorkinian protagonists Will McAvoy and Makenzie McHale. He is a moderate Republican who wakes up to smell the extremism in his own party. She is an bleeding-heart liberal who would die on her principals if anyone in the tough-skinned-but-tender-hearted news production room would let her. And of course, they have a romantic history, yielding enough painfully public workplace conduct infractions to make someone ask, “Where the hell is HR in this world?”

So yeah, it has its flaws.

But it, like Sorkin’s The West Wing, Charlie Wilson’s War, and even Studio 60, subscribes to a common belief: there are people in America who want to know the truth, and they are capable of taking a joke. There are citizens who want more than sensationalism and demagoguery, but who are willing and able to laugh at themselves. There are people willing to think before they throw stones.

In an election year, sometimes I doubt that. With each election we hear that this is the nastiest campaign season we’ve ever seen. That the candidates are throwing the lowest blows yet. That there’s more money going into manipulative television ads than ever before. And then there’s the steady roll of Facebook feed.  It’s enough to make you want to ask, “Where the hell is HR in this world?”

So what are the things that made America stupider during this election year?

The Straight Ticket: Blind Partisanship

Maury Maverick was a columnist for the Express News for 23 years until 1993. A member of the Texas Legislature during the Red Scare of the 1950’s, Maverick was the kind of legislator who was trying to save civil society from a medieval style witch hunt that would have jeopardized the academic integrity of the University of Texas and the peace and security of every private citizen in our state.

Maverick drew some fire, and I can understand why. He’s pretty crusty.  But as I’ve been reading through an anthology of his columns he sings the praises of brave public servants on both sides of the aisles. His opinions are founded in ideals, yes, but his arguments are built with logic. What if we subjected political stump campaigning to rigorous logical analysis?  What if cohesive statements, not soundbites/slip-ups/memes ruled the airwaves and internet?

I think the result would be that we would vote a mixed ballot, because there are great and not-so-great candidates on both sides. And the different levels and branches of government might not all benefit from the same political approach. And if our elected officials felt free to defy their party bosses, maybe we wouldn’t have so much gridlock during non-election years.

Campaign Speeches: Promises that don’t even make sense

When I was in sixth grade I ran for class president in a race  that really boiled down to me and one other kid. Our campaign speeches were broadcast over the school close-circuit television system. I promised to be fair and try to faithfully convey the desires of the entire student body to the teachers on issues of homework, school functions, and tests. My opponent promised to get a soda machine installed in the cafeteria. I asked a the principal if this was a realistic promise and she said, “no way.” But he still won. Guess what, still to this day there is no soda machine in that cafeteria.

I learned something during the 6th grade election. Campaigns are credit cards with no limit. You can charge and charge, but you’ll never pay them off.

But before we crucify our elected officials for not delivering, remember this: we would never elect the guy who made realistic promises. We’re the ones who keep demanding that our “tough questions” be answered in a campaign slogan. How many documents on economic policy did you read this campaign season?

Remember, it was the villain, not the hero of Sorkin’s A Few Good Men that said, “You can’t handle the truth.”

The Two-Party System: because there are exactly two kinds of people in this country?

I went to vote in the primary earlier this year, at the elementary school down the street from my house. As I approached the sign-in table, the cranky volunteer yelled out, while I was still at least 20 feet from the the table, “Republican or Democrat?” I stammered, stopped walking, but then decided not to run away with what was left of my independent sensibilities, and just did what I had come to do.

I know that there are third party candidates. I know that there are even some independents in Congress. But when you walk up to vote in a primary, you get two choices. Moderates and political amalgams weren’t viable (mostly) in 2012.  Log-Cabin Republicans and Democrats for Life are fringe elements of their party at best. A Latino Catholic has to choose between immigration and pro-life causes. A gay business owner has to choose between marriage equality and corporate tax breaks. The pressure to pick a team and drink their kool-aide is trickling down to the American people, and making public discourse a harrowing endeavor. Just try reading the comments on a news blog sometime.

The two-party system necessitates us vs. them thinking. Having only one aisle makes it too easy to point across it and say, “You’re what’s wrong with America!”

But this could change if we’d stop thinking on the back foot and start striving to understand why the intelligent people hold the opinions that they do. If we entered into discussion and widened the playing field. If we conceded a point every now and then and didn’t view changing our mind as political treason.

I think it’s dangerous to create a system wherein our leaders have to defy logic to get elected. I think it’s more dangerous that they have to maintain a 100% certainty that they and their party are correct, in spite of any evidence to the contrary. I think it’s dangerous to be stupid.

Luxury, poverty, and the stories we need to hear

It was 2006, and I was fidgety at the table in the Hilton Tower Hotel in Kampala, Uganda. Across from me was an MP’s daughter and a businessman who would, in the next few years, attempt a run at the presidency. As Elizabeth and David chattered on about politics, technical training, and cultural events, I ricocheted between excitement and anxiety. Excitement because Elizabeth and David were discussing ideas that were challenging and potentially vital for their country. Anxiety because they were both wealthy, educated, healthy people. They didn’t need me.

Later, I was expressing this anxiety to the clever Ugandan responsible for my Hilton cocktail hour. I told him that I wasn’t sure how I was going to tell people back to the USA that my time in “darkest Africa” had evolved into brainstorming over drinks instead of pounding the orphanage circuit. At the heart of the conflict, I realized, was my millennial generation obsession with feeling like a contributor. My generation wants to know they are making a difference.

“But that’s what we need from you,” he said, “There are people better suited to work in the slums: doctors, lawyers, contractors, etc. We want you to go home and tell about your experience that was different from the other stories they’ve heard. We want people to believe in the good things that are happening here.” His knowing look completed that last sentence as if to say, even if Americans are not the ones doing them.

Apparently I was not alone in my anxiety. In a recent interview on the TED radio hour on NPR, Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda said, “The rich countries are attracted to Africa’s poverty rather than its wealth, and in the process they end up subsidizing our failures rather than rewarding our accomplishments.” Find the full interview here.

The dots of life have a providential way of connecting sometimes. Moving home to San Antonio felt like a huge departure from the far-flung path I had chased in academic and philanthropic pursuits, but the pull was undeniable. I was sandwiched between another academic research trip to Kampala, Uganda and a genocide-scholar conference in Sarajevo, Bosnia, and I clearly remember the day walking over Blackfriars Bridge in London and saying to a friend: “I think I just need to move home.”

At that point I figured that development, postcolonial theory, and the political economy of representation would fade into my background like high school chemistry. But I was in for a refresher course.

The San Antonio I came home to was rippling with discussion on history, progress, race relations, and neighborhood identity. The city where my family has lived for generations is now continuing my education, even as I re-encounter Africa, this time from a whole new angle.

Flash forward to the office of the President of Ker and Downey, a luxury travel company that specializes in African safaris. Their itineraries are some of the most exclusive and luxurious in the world. After looking at my resume and quizzing me about my time in Africa on academic, missional, and philanthropic business, David Marek said, “Are you going to be able to handle the wealth of our clients and the way they want to experience Africa?”

An excellent question, Mr. Marek.

I’m an unlikely candidate for accommodating special dietary requests and VIP services. However, as a student of human nature I do know one thing: you cannot love what you do not know.

In graduate school we often talked about “compassion fatigue” generated by the countless adds for NGOs that show the sad eyes and protruding ribs of sub-Saharan children.  When a person sees one million hands reaching up for help and freezes knowing that they cannot help them all, that is compassion fatigue.

But how much more stamina does my compassion have for the places that I love? The poverty within the African continent is real, and it’s not something that we should ignore, choosing only to focus on the majesty and rarity of the Big Five or the South African winelands. But really, can you truly fall in love with a place and not be moved by its gaping wounds? Ker and Downey would say “no.” After 30 years of business on the continent, David Marek is a crusader for various philanthropies, even involving stateside networks in a campaign to provide mosquito nets and clothing to the people of Africa. Every Ker and Downey trip pays tangible homage to the great need accompanying the grandeur.

I feel the same way about San Antonio, a city of many resources and many needs. When we millennials move into town, we need to be fully aware of our place and time. We cannot just come to play, but we cannot just come to help either.  Living in a city requires give and take. Appreciation and generosity.

In the same TED radio hour on NPR, Chimamanda Adichie cautioned against only listening to one story. I would broaden that to one discourse, made up of thousands of stories with one message. We need to hear the diversity of stories. The safari story can bond a heart to Africa as can the medical relief story. It is at the intersection of these experiences that we begin to understand Africa as a real place, not a G8 line item or a safari photo montage.  Africans are people, not statistics, whether they are sitting at the Hilton or fleeing a famine.

When I think about my experiences in Kampala, Bosnia, Los Angeles, and London, I immediately think about my experience in San Antonio. I think about the shroud of mystery over the inner city when I was growing up . Then I think of the recent hype surrounding Dignowity Hill and the various neighborhoods south of downtown. I hear the voices from my academic career joining the critics of inner-city development, calling it gentrification.

San Antonio’s urban core is part of a global conversation on change. The discourses are diversifying. Areas are being shown off and sought after, sometimes for what was already there, and sometimes for what is changing. Voices of preservation are mingling with voices of progress. It’s not a perfect process. We can all think of at least one example of someone who has been overlooked or frustrated by the process.

We need to have these conversations. The people who have lived in the areas for generations and the people seeking to move in and be part of the neighborhood have a lot to offer each other. Perhaps the most valuable gift is that of their story and the way those stories draw us out of our ghettoes and into community. In the end, I think that it will be this multitude of stories that makes San Antonio stand out among the major American cities as an incredibly stimulating place to live.

Mitt and Billy prove that many evangelicals put their hope in POTUS*, not Jesus

*POTUS

Growing up as an evangelical, voting Republican was a moral responsibility. Democrats were baby-killing socialists whose ultimate agenda included flushing God from the public sphere and eventually outlawing the freedom of worship. Republicans, by contrast, carried on in the tradition of our forefathers: they wanted to bring this nation back to its Christian roots.

It’s tempting to launch into what a Christian nation would actually look like, with the division of property (Act 2:41) and hospitality to strangers (Hebrews 13:2). Or even to look at the one simple statement that Jesus actually made about civic government (the Roman Empire, not exactly the bastion of moral integrity), “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s (Mark 12:17)”, i.e. pay your taxes. But I won’t go there.

It is my suspicion that with a couple of exceptions evangelicals have been played for fools by candidates who realized that they could have the support of an entire voting block if they said the words “Christian nation.” Never mind that the founding fathers they tend to tout, and the ones who actually crafted our Constitution, espoused a sort of deist-Christian hybrid that historian Gregg Frazer calls “theistic rationalism” and were more concerned with the Magna Carta than with the Bible.

Nevertheless, the hardliners among the religious right have promoted whoever the outspoken Christian on the ballot is. Most famously, George W. Bush (who, once out of office, upset many fundamentalists by endorsing some of the more liberal positions on evolution and inerrancy of Scripture, per his Mainline Protestant affiliation).  Meanwhile they have taken a hard stance on the doctrines of Christian fundamentalism such as Creation and the deity of Christ, with their hallmark being unwillingness to compromise.

But now the choice is between a Mormon and Democrat. Regardless of Barak Obama’s religious beliefs, for many evangelicals his party platform means that, as I overheard at a Houston Chick-fil-a, “No man who calls himself a Christian could vote for Obama.” So, Mitt Romney is the default choice of most evangelicals. That’s actually not a big deal to me. He’s pro-life (today), he’s small government (ish), and he likes churches (and temples). All of this jives with the cherished beliefs of the religious right, and most evangelicals in general.

I’m even excited that my evangelical brothers and sisters are voting for a Mormon. I’m glad that they could recognize that personal beliefs about whether or not Jesus is the Son of God don’t have a huge bearing on one’s plans to stimulate the economy. They really don’t. So vote your values, vote your economic policy, vote for the candidate you like.

However, here’s what did finally disturb me. Rev. Billy Graham, like most hardline evangelicals, considers Mormonism a cult. Right or wrong, they’ve been teaching this for decades, I’ve heard it with my own ears. It was not until Mitt Romney’s campaign sought the endorsement of Graham that Mormonism came off the list of cults on Graham’s website.

Ken Barun, in a statement to the Charlotte observer said, “We removed the information from the website because we do not wish to participate in a theological debate about something that has become politicized during this campaign.”

Here’s why I don’t buy that: when Barak Obama came out in favor of gay marriage, the organization didn’t take down their page on homosexuality. In fact I’d argue that homosexuality is more politicized than Mormonism will ever be, unless Mitt tries to reinstate polygamy, which I doubt he will.

Do not be mistaken. Billy Graham did not have a change of heart on the subject of Mormonism. Nor has any hardline evangelical. What they have had is something far more profound: a change in savior. What the Graham crusade effectively said is NOT, “We’re willing to endorse this man, even though we disagree about religion.” Instead their action said that “truth” comes second to getting a conservative in the White House. Whether or not you believe that Mormonism is a cult is not the issue. Billy Graham’s organization does. And that would never have come down from his website if Joe and Sally Latter-Day-Saint had come to his door asking him to remove it. It wasn’t a display of tolerance, it was a display of faith in the conservative movement as the hope for America.

Rather than just coming out and endorsing Mitt in spite of the difference in faith, the organization decided to erase the difference. As Stephen Colbert so aptly put it, “All you have to do to be reclassified as a legitimate religion by Billy Graham is field a viable Republican candidate.”

If we Christians really believe what we say about Jesus’s love being the hope of the world, and not whoever sits in the White House, then we are free to vote for the best candidate regardless of his religion. We shouldn’t use religion as a campaign strategy, or edit our beliefs accordingly.

Nervous gulp…

I’ve toyed around with the idea of a blog for a while now, but I was terrified of how I might drift into public demonstrations of my worst habits:

Ranting.

Pseudo-philosophy.

Baseless claims.

Pretentious musings on things like broccoli, laundry, and marriage.

People use blogs as great ways to keep family and friends updated on life in a foreign land. My family all lives in San Antonio with me. People use blogs to document home renovations. I’m not responsible for most of our home renovations, and couldn’t give you any details as to how they happen. People use blogs to share hilarious elementary school journals. My elementary school journals would leave me a friendless paraiah.  Basically, there are a lot of great reasons to blog, and until now I haven’t had one.

But I’ve taken up writing for Talk Magazine and The Rivard Report, which has resulted in significant overflow of articles that have nowhere to live except my Documents folder.  While it may be that they would be better served staying there, I’m going to let them have some air.

If I start documenting the most inane details of my daily life (how long it took me to shower or the consistency of my mucous) you’ll know the project has gone off the rails. But hopefully I’ll remember that I’m not that exciting, and stick to writing things that are of interest.