some thoughts on freedom

Tuesday 30 December 2008

So a few weeks ago, I read this syndicated opinion column by Thomas Sowell called “Freedom and the left” in my local paper.  It stirred me up a bit for various reasons, and it poses a lot of interesting thoughts from a point of view I usually don’t hear about that often (maybe a good reason I’m out of the liberal city life for a while), but it pushed me just enough to sit down and write a letter the editor.  From all I can tell, it was never published, so I thought I’d use this as a forum for my retort.  While I definitely hope you read opinion, I think Sowell’s, too, is necessary for a nice view on the different ways we all perceive freedom.

My response: Freedom is two-way street.

I was quite taken aback to read syndicated columnist Thomas Sowell’s take on “community service” (Freedom and the left, 19 December 2008) and his condemnation of those on the “left” who support and require such acts for our young people. While there were one or two points worth reading, I felt many of his attacks were half-truths or complete falsehoods that can’t be overlooked.

First, he calls people who are homeless vagrants, ignoring the fact that most homeless are mentally ill, have had their job cut by the employer (not for reasons the worker controlled), or workers who cannot find affordable housing at the meager wages they are paid. Then, using his logic of degrading the homeless, he argues “community service” in a homeless shelter aids vagrancy rather than honors and respects the humanity of those who are shut out of the housing process. He claims (without supporting facts) that the homeless seek food and shelter as “entitlements,” stereotyping the homeless as lazy rather than recognizing the separate root causes that put them in their situation.

However, I felt Sowell’s most egregious error was his one-sided condemnation of the “left” for their lack of supporting freedom by requiring community service by defining freedom as, “the right of other people to do things that you do not approve of.” If this is freedom, then what about the views of those on the “right” around issues like abortion and gay marriage – wouldn’t freedom allow those who wish to abort a fetus that ability and two men to marry, even if one may not approve of it?

Freedom is a two-way street, a fact that Sowell obviously does not recognize; I wonder how many others see freedom in a similar light.

O Little Town of Bethelehem…

Friday 26 December 2008

… How still we see thee lie!”

Or so the Christmas carol goes.  Unfortunately, Bethlehem is not the peaceful and quiet locale it likely was 2000 years ago.  To travel between Jerusalem to Bethlehem, you must pass through a checkpoint to get through “the separation/apartheid/annexation wall,” not the most peaceful experience in the world (especially if you’re a Palestinian entering Israel, which I might add, only a few lucky ones even have the ability to do so).  If you’re traveling from elsewhere in the West Bank, you’ll likely have your vehicle stopped at a checkpoint, too, and possibly stopped for hours, and if you’re truly unlucky, taken away to a jail somewhere.

The thought of Bethlehem, and thus Christmas, have had a different feeling for me this year since I traveled to the Holy Lands in the Spring.  When I sang the first hymn at our Christmas Eve service, I teared up to sing: “Oh, come, all ye faithful, Joyful and triumphant! Oh come ye, oh, come ye to Bethlehem.” Amidst the reality that is the Israeli occupation of Palestine, it’s hard to think about being joyful and triumphant when traveling in the region.  Even though (at least most of the time) there are no Israeli soldiers stationed in Bethlehem, that doesn’t mean the occupation still isn’t felt in Bethlehem, and similar towns in the area.

Many who live in Bethlehem and used to work in Israel are no longer able to travel to Jerusalem since the wall construction began in 2002.  The town is nearly completely surrounded by the wall, and artisans and others have signified such reality by adding the wall to nativity scenes people set out at Christmas time.

As the world turns to think this season about the birth of Christ and the little town of his birth some 2000 year ago, let’s not forget the current reality for Palestinians living there — and remember, too, that the little baby born would have been a Palestinian himself.

being “ready”

Tuesday 23 December 2008

Whether or not you’re Christian, I’m sure you’re aware that Thursday is Christmas.  In my house (and I’m sure in many houses around the world), that means lots of hustle and bustle of preparations to be “ready.”  This past weekend, my family (without me, thankfully) went shopping, with others, to be sure, to get the last minute gifts, and a friend of mine said yesterday she had picked the last item needed to make a certain gift and would be spending the next days until Christmas making it.  Even today, my Mom plans to stay at work to itemize her list of gifts and presents to make sure she’s prepared for the gift giving of Christmas day.

Many times we think about being ready as having the necessary i’s dottend and t’s crossed in preparation for some main event.  I think when we do that, we let ourselves down.  When we focus on the end product only, we miss the little things happening along the way.

Last night, my brother and I helped out our Mom finish compiling materials necessary to send out the family Christmas letter.  She was working to beat the clock of a pre-Christmas post-mark, but as we folded letters and stamped envelopes (and tried to delicately open some we decided needed letters), we allowed ourselves to enjoy the moment, laughing at the absurdness of it all (especially those who will say, “I wonder who opened this up before me?).  My Mom even said, “I don’t think I’ve had this much fun putting out the Christmas letter before.”

In my house, we’ve been having a lot of discussion about the Myers-Briggs taxonomy lately, particularly the last letter, whether one is a Judger (J) or a Perceiver (P).  These indicate how one prefers to live life in a more structured or spontaneous way and also how one relates to schedules and deadlines.  A “J” person usually feels most comfortable with structure and tends to be good with deadlines and schedules, while a “P” finds pleasure in spontaneity and views time as a renewable resource with deadlines as more elastic than immovable.  I think it’s good we have both of these, but there is something to be said about the P (which, as far as I can tell, I’m not) that allows one to be more present and embracing of the moment.  Who get’s to enjoy life more: one who works now and plays when (and if) the work is complete, or one who plays and enjoys things now, saving work to the last minute (and accepting the consequences if time ran out)?  There must be a balance in there somewhere, right?

In any case, I think being “ready” is overrated.  I’ve given myself the leeway of the “12 Days of Christmas” for some of my presents, and even longer than that if necessary.  I’ll also be wrapping up some “IOUs” or “in the coming months…” certificates, as well as at least one “certifate redeamable for…” Will any of my gift recipiants enjoy their gifts any less if they open it on 3 January instead of 25 December?  I doubt it (and I hope not!).

When we’re so zeroed in on checking off our “to do” list, we set ourselves up to miss way too much.  Is it more important to enjoy myself in the process of celebrating or to make sure I have all I think I need in order to celebrate?  Will I enjoy myself any less if there are no Christmas lights on the outside of the house?  (Our family is answering that question this year, and as of now, I think the answer is, surpring for some — no!)

We need to throw out our needs to be “ready” and replace them with desires to be “open” — open to the smiles and beauty that can pass us by when we’re looking the other way, open to the opportunities that we shirk because we decide we’re too busy with other things, open to the unknown and unforseeable opportunities that lie ahead.

Though I may not have my bags packed, that doesn’t mean I’m not open (and “ready”) for the journey ahead!

movies like the old days!

Monday 15 December 2008

Over the course of a 7 day span last week/weekend, I went to see two movies in very different kinds of theaters: one in theater being a new, “stadium” seating style, but probably allowing probably 150 viewers, and the other show in an old-school, true “theater” style, with likely upwards of 600 seats (including the balcony).  Seeing the second movie in the larger theater on a Tuesday afternoon, still with maybe 50 people, I got to thinking about the different benefits of each and wondering which, if either, I preferred.

You don’t hear many people complain about stadium seating.  Virtually every seat (well, except those first few rows — and last weekend I was in row 2) is a “good” seat, and because of the “stadium” quality, you don’t have to worry about being 5’3 3/4″ and someone like me (at 6’3 3/4″) sitting in front of you and obstructing your view.  A lot of the places I’ve been have the option to put down or up the arm rest, giving you some privacy or the chance to “cuddle” with your neighbor, and they also tend to have some type of nicely reclining back to provide extra comfort.

But sitting in the “theater” style theater, I decided I preferred that better.  Much of it probably has to do with that fact that I tend to be a “purist” when it comes to movies, and thus I feel movies in the theater were meant not only to be viewed large in size, but with a large group of people, as well.  Getting hundreds people packed together, maybe having to adjust your head so you can see around the one in front of you, sharing an armrest with your date and fighting for a comfortable way to hold hands — that’s a movie!  When you’re in a place like this, you know you’re not at home, sitting on a couch, and really, shouldn’t a movie feel like that?  I’m definitely at atmosphere guy — if I do view at home (where the intent is to watch the movie, not “socialize with a movie on,” which does happen sometimes), I like my lights off and no interruptions, usually without snacks (just like I how I do it in the theater), or with the popcorn almost gone by the time I hit play.

An while you’re here, I wanted to share two movie viewing locations that provide some unique and enjoyable experiences for those living in or visiting Chicago and Milwaukee.

I think the favorite place I’ve ever watched a movie is the Music Box Theatre in Chicago, IL.  The theatre has a great history, but what do I enjoy?  Well, it seats about 800, with a forward and a back section, which allows one tall like me to sit in the front row of the back section and have a great seat with virtually unlimited leg room.  Plus, if you attend the right weekend, evening showtime, you get to be serenaded by the fully functioning theatre organ!  You certainly don’t get that at your local cineplex!  And while the fact that it shows mainly independent fare is a turnoff to some, it’s a bonus to me — and midnight showings of things like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” make it a place for all living in or visiting Chicago to explore.

The other very unique, large group movie viewing location I want to highlight is the Rosebud Cinema Drafthouse in Wauwatosa, WI (just west of Milwaukee).  While it may only seat around 180, it’s worth mentioning for the exact reason you might think I wouldn’t like it — the seats aren’t “seats” at all, but instead sofas and love seats!  You can purchase beer and food and get the “at home” (as it says on their website) feel while still viewing your movie with a large group of strangers!  The uniqueness alone makes it notable.  (And on a side not, the Times Cinema, found through the same website, located not too far away just across the border in Milwaukee, is more “my kind of theater” — at least the last time I went in early 2007, as it has since been acquired by new owners seeking to give it a new feel.)

How about you?  I’d love to hear your take on movie viewing preference (both in a theater and/or other kind of location) or special places to see a movie around the country, or the world!  I didn’t even mention outdoor viewings or drive-in theaters, which could be a whole new topic in themselves.  Please share your thoughts!

big money sports

Sunday 7 December 2008

I was half watching the BCS and bowl game selection show coverage on ESPN, thinking about why Northwestern (my alma mater) got passed over by certain games and why Ohio State again gets to attend one of the lucrative BCS games while someone like Boise State, one of only two undefeated teams eligible for bowl games, will instead be playing in a bowl game sponsored by — get this — the San Diego County Credit Union!  It’s easy to see why, really, and most people, even those involved in the system, don’t try to hide the reason: it’s all ’bout the benjamins, baby (or the money, for those not up on their slang the past decade or so).

Bowl games, for the most part, have the right to choose who they will select to attend their games, so why not bring the teams to town that will sell the most amount of tickets and bring the most number of fans to the city to spend money and get excited.  Oh, and the TV stations, of course, want to get the most amount of people to watch the games to sell ads at higher prices.  Because Iowa would bring more fans than Northwestern, the Wildcats were passed over by a bowl with earlier pick of the crop to select Iowa, who had lost to Northwestern during the season.

It got me thinking about some words of Noam Chomsky shared, which can be viewed in the documentary movie “Manufacturing Consent,” which I highly recommend.  And while Chomsky’s words aren’t directly related to money, there is wrapped up in “big money sports,” be it college football or anything else, the idea of getting fans wrapped up in a frenzy and committing their time to sports instead of other things.  Here’s what he had to say:

“Now there are other media too whose basic social role is quite different: it’s diversion. There’s the real mass media-the kinds that are aimed at, you know, Joe Six Pack — that kind. The purpose of those media is just to dull people’s brains.  This is an oversimplification, but for the eighty percent or whatever they are, the main thing is to divert them… Get them away from things that matter. And for that it’s important to reduce their capacity to think.

Take, say, sports — that’s another crucial example of the indoctrination system, in my view. For one thing because it — you know, it offers people something to pay attention to that’s of no importance. [audience laughs] That keeps them from worrying about — [applause] keeps them from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea of doing something about. And in fact it’s striking to see the intelligence that’s used by ordinary people in [discussions of] sports [as opposed to political and social issues]. I mean, you listen to radio stations where people call in — they have the most exotic information [more laughter] and understanding about all kind of arcane issues. And the press undoubtedly does a lot with this.

You know, I remember in high school, already I was pretty old. I suddenly asked myself at one point, why do I care if my high school team wins the football game? [laugbter] I mean, I don’t know anybody on the team, you know? [audience roars] I mean, they have nothing to do with me, I mean, why I am cheering for my team? It doesn’t mean any — it doesn’t make sense. But the point is, it does make sense: it’s a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority, and group cohesion behind leadership elements — in fact, it’s training in irrational jingoism. That’s also a feature of competitive sports. I think if you look closely at these things, I think, typically, they do have functions, and that’s why energy is devoted to supporting them and creating a basis for them and advertisers are willing to pay for them and so on.”
(Excepted from, where commenters obviously don’t agree with Chomsky’s point.)

Now, I think there is likely some middle ground here to be had, but I do find Chomsky’s point intriguing and thought-provoking.  I’ll confess that I’ve played some fantasy baseball in the past few summers, spending time picking people for my team and assigning them to starting line-ups for certain days and such — and I think it’s important for all of us to have hobbies.  However (and now my point opens up to more than sports), when something begins to take up so much of our time and energy and interest that we allow ourselves to become oblivious to what’s going on in the worlds of government and economics and war and science and religion, areas that affect us whether we like it or not — when we forget about these areas to deal with things that have no personal relationship with us, we do ourselves and others a disservice.

It’s important that we prioritze our lives and recognize when things like sports or entertainment or other such areas of life can take over our time so much that we loose connection to the rest of the world around us.  We need to have the knowledge to make informed decisions about things like elections and investing our money, and if we spend too much of our time in other areas (even overwork can lead to this), it can become problematic for all involved.  So take some time to examine your time choices and make any adjustments you need to.  I’ll be doing the same for myself.

giving thanks (again)

Thursday 4 December 2008

I meant to post this last week (on Thanksgiving proper), but I guess I hit the wrong button.  So here it is:

I’m never quite sure why people read old blog posts or how people even find some of them (though the stats wordpress gives me tell me some of the more popular old posts are found through various kinds of searches).  So it was somewhat surprising to see last week someone had clicked on one of my posts from last November that, when I saw the title, I didn’t know what it was about.  It was good, though, because it got me to read my own post again and realize that the same feelings rang true, almost a year later.  The post was a reflection for Thanksgiving upon that which I was, and still now am, most thankful for.  So if you don’t mind, I wanted to just point you to that post again, encouraging you to give thanks for that which is most important to you as you read what is most important to me.

giving thanks

Happy Thanksgiving, wherever you might be.

bell choirs

Monday 1 December 2008

I’m really not a fan of bell choirs.  I’m not quite sure what it is, but I’ve just never found them or the music they provide very appealing.  I can stand them alright, I suppose, and when they work with a vocal choir and other instruments, they’re not really so bad, but they just aren’t for me.  However, as I listened to another performance by a bell choir this weekend (I don’t seek them out — they just happen), I actually was edified by their music, but not by the music itself but instead by the way in which they demonstrated the importance of working together.

So while I have witness on one occasion a song played by one person with a multitude of bells (and I must say, it was a sight to see), the standard setup is for each person to play between 2 and 4 bells on the right beats, together with a good number of others creating a tune as if one were playing the piano.  In the best of situations this can be totally spot on, but in the worst of cases it can end in a train wreck if one person plays on the wrong beat and things spiral from there.

In a bell choir, everyone’s actions affect the outcome of the whole piece.  In a band or choir, things can usually sound pretty good even if one person messes up or sings out of key, but in a bell choir, everything is magnified, and it’s pretty easy to recognize flubs.  As a member, you must let go of control of the outcome and allow others to do their part while you do yours and hope that it all turns out alright.

Such is life, too — we’re all connected in an interdependent web where my actions can ultimately affect a multitude of others around the world.  It can be as blatant as a few people’s greed and impatience (both the individuals and the store that took no precautions) that can cause the death of an innocent employee, or as seemingly disconnected as the choices one makes about buying or not buying items that provide a living wage for the worker, soon forcing them out of their job.

Sure, it’s easy to forget about the others we relate to, whether physically or abstractly, but if we forget about these connections, we’re eventually bound to hurt those we’re connected to.  As we approach the end of another year, let us think about the ways we’re all in this together and how we might need to change our actions and our lives out of honor and respect for the others living in this world with us.