Religious Freedom?

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In the past two years, legislation and Supreme Court rulings have been made supposedly in the name of religious freedom. Hobby Lobby was freed from the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act because its owners have religious objections to providing contraceptive coverage. The state of Indiana just passed a law basically allowing discrimination against gays based on religious objections.

To me these actions signify not religious freedom, but rather the encroachment of right wing Evangelical Christianity into government. Far from separating church and state, these laws show a clear bias towards the religious beliefs of one segment of the population, albeit a powerful one.

And this seems to suit religious Christians just fine. I have heard many of them decry the secularization of society, bemoan the lack of prayer in public schools, and state outright that the separation between church and state is wrong. This is the antithesis of what the First Amendment is meant to protect.

For hundreds of years, the governments of Europe functioned in tandem with the Church. England still has an official state religion. Yet religious belief in Europe languishes. The churches go empty, and few people in these nations espouse fervent religious beliefs.

In other parts of the world, we are seeing the damage that a state run by extremist sharia law, also based in religion, can do. Women in these countries have few rights, and apostasy is often met with violence or death.

Here in America, religions flourish. Outside perhaps Latin America and the Philippines, the United States is one of the most religious nations on Earth. I would argue that it is precisely because of our strict separation between church and state that we are able to enjoy such religious freedom and practice our faith unhampered by government interference.

People say they want prayer in public places, but whose prayer? Baptists’? Catholics’? Jews’? Muslims’? If you have read my posts in the past, you know I am a pretty faithful Catholic. Religious freedom to me means being allowed to worship in a Catholic Church and live a life consistent with Catholic beliefs. It doesn’t mean I need you to live that way.

It also means that I try to see the big picture of Christian teaching, which centers on a humble man named Jesus, who exhorts us to feed the poor, clothe the naked, and visit prisoners. He dined with the biggest sinners in his day. He touched lepers. He told us to love our neighbors. He did not tell us to reject gays or refuse to allow people to live their own lives.

Indiana is experiencing a strong backlash since passing the anti-gay bill. This is heartening to me. In the past, the state would not even have felt the need to pass such a law since discrimination against the LGBT community was rampant. It is a measure of our tolerance (NOT a dirty word, by the way) as Americans that we have made such progress.

I have a prayer for our society, and it is that we learn to embrace our diversity, respect each other as human beings, and continue to be the bastion of freedom that has made America one of the best countries in the world.

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Bad Hair Day

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I have a confession to make. I once “unfriended” someone on Facebook who posted the gratuitous comment “Bad hair day?” in reference to my profile picture.

Now, I am not the thinnest-skinned person I know, but this comment struck me as mean-spirited and uncalled for. I wasn’t polling my FB friends on my new hairdo, for instance.

So I could really relate to an article from Sunday’s Chicago Tribune by family matters columnist Heidi Stevens. Like most columnists, Ms. Stevens has a small photo of herself that appears with her weekly column. In the article, she detailed all the nasty comments she receives from readers about her hair, which is thick and wavy.

I was appalled not only by the thoughtlessness and spite evident in the comments. I also agreed with the main point of her article, which is that as a professional woman, she should be judged by her ideas and writing, not her appearance.

Apparently, Heidi Stevens is in good company. She cited such high profile women as Hillary Clinton and Sheryl Sandberg as being plagued by regular criticism of their hair. Yet there are no snide comments made about men in the political or professional sphere. Can you imagine if people had said to Albert Einstein, “Interesting theories, but I just can’t take you seriously with that hair”?

Why do people get in such a tizzy over women’s hair? I think it has to do with the prominence of hair as a sign of health, vitality, and sexual attractiveness. Think of all the commercials and full-page, glossy magazine ads that tout hair products for women. In fact, women of certain cultures and religions cover their hair as a way to discourage men from viewing them as sexually attractive.

Yet, as Stevens points out in her article, she is not a model or actress whose looks are even tangentially a part of her profession. She is a journalist, and she would like people to focus on her words, not her looks.

Interestingly, Stevens focused on hair yet again in yesterday’s Tribune column. She wrote about a young mother whose two-year-old daughter was recently diagnosed with a brain tumor. The brave mother is collecting donations toward childhood cancer research by offering to have people see her either cut off her long ponytail or shave her head.

Since our society finds a woman’s hair so important to her identity, this act shows true courage and is sure to attract donations from many people who can’t resist the audacious idea of seeing a woman shorn.

I realize men care about their hair too, their main concern being the loss of it. But it just doesn’t impact their work life, and no one judges a man because he is bald. A woman goes gray, and she is an old crone. A man goes gray, and he is distinguished.

I have lived with hair issues my entire life. It is thick, curly, and often out of control. I would just like people to judge me for what I say and do, not how my hair looks. When it comes to a woman’s looks, I subscribe to that age old expression of many a mother, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

Kids Are Not Chickens

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I almost hit a little boy with my car this morning. Although I wasn’t speeding, I was driving purposefully down the street near my home on the way to my destination. Suddenly I noticed a blur of bright green and saw the boy, who could not have been more than 6 years old, dart into the street to meet his waiting friends on the other side. Rather than slam on the brakes, I swerved out of the way and stopped several feet ahead of his path.

I was incredibly shaken although the boy didn’t seem to realize he had just had a brush with death. Yesterday I had seen the same little boy in his green jacket, standing near the curb holding hands with a man I presumed to be his father. The man watched as the boy crossed the street. Today, however, I saw no adult outside watching.

There is a movement in this country called Free Range Kids that is meant to recapture the joyful, unbridled freedom many adults remember having as children. The argument is that we are too protective of our children, and they are growing up dependent and fearful. The incident today highlighted a discomfort I have felt with this growing attitude toward child-rearing.

I see a few problems with this free range movement. One is that neighborhoods are not as friendly anymore. There are not as many mothers at home on the block generally watching out for children, whether their own or their neighbors’. I knew, growing up, that if Mrs. Walsh or Mrs. Moore yelled at me, I had better listen to her. Nowadays, if an adult corrects a child not her own, she will be told to mind her own business.

Another problem is that neighborhoods themselves are busier, and people are more in a hurry. There are more cars on the road as well. When I was growing up, we had one family car, and often my father had to take it to work. These days, many families have two or more cars, and even in the middle of the day, people are regularly pulling out of driveways and hustling off to their chores and activities. This makes the simple act of walking or biking to school or a friend’s house more perilous.

I think we romanticize our childhoods. We had plenty of scrapes and scares and, in some instances, fatalities due to minimal supervision by our parents. There is a meme going around on Facebook that lists “Seven reasons everyone growing up in the Seventies should be dead.” It’s meant for laughs, but honestly, do we really want to go back to those days?

I am all for helping children gradually develop their independence. I also disagree with criminalizing such parental decisions as allowing a 6-year-old and 10-year-old to walk a mile home from the park by themselves. But I do think we should be careful as we help our kids navigate their childhoods.

I have been pretty cautious raising my own kids, and I don’t think they are any the worse for it. Certainly my 24-year-old, living in New York City, and my 21-year-old, who is a plane ride away at college, are more than capable of handling themselves. Yes, I walked them to school and followed them around the block as they were learning to ride a bike. I checked in with them regularly when they were out with friends. I would argue that the security they felt knowing I was always there looking out for them is what gave them their confidence.

After all, my children are not chickens.

Just for the Pun of It

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Most people would agree that it is essential to have a sense of humor, lest we take ourselves too seriously.

The other day my daughter was regaling me with Dead Baby jokes that are currently in vogue with the middle school set.

What’s the difference between a Lamborghini and a pile of dead babies?
I don’t have a Lamborghini in my garage.

Sick, I know. But I was reminded of the Mommy, Mommy jokes that were popular when I was a kid.

Mommy, Mommy, I don’t want to go to Europe.
Shut up and keep swimming.

Mommy, Mommy, what’s a vampire?
Shut up and eat your soup before it clots.

But my all time favorite form of humor is the much maligned pun. Maybe it’s because I love language so much, but I just find puns so clever and fun to create.

See this rock. I took it for granite.

My brother-in-law and I used to have conversations in which we would string out a series of puns on the same theme and see which one of us exhausted our arsenal first. This amused us hugely while leaving those around us mystified about our hilarity.

As much as I love hearing and telling jokes, though, I could never be a comedian. For one thing, I don’t have a thick skin, so any heckling or booing would get me rattled. For another thing, I crack myself up. The best comedians can be totally deadpan while going on hilarious riffs that make the audience hysterical. I, on the other hand, am like old-time comedian Red Skelton, who my mother complained would always laugh at his own jokes.

Still, I will always be fond of corny jokes, especially ones with those groan-worthy plays on words known as puns. So if you know any good ones, please share. I promise not to pun-ish you for it!

Am I Depressed Or Just Irish?

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Since I was old enough to understand the possible reasons behind family members’ strange behavior, I have realized that I may possess the genes for some type of mental illness, be it depression, bipolar disorder, or addiction. This has caused me a lot of worry over the years.

I’m pretty sure I don’t have bipolar disorder. In fact, I could use some of the energy from a manic phase or two. But depression is another story. I have lived my life with a sort of low level sadness. Whether this is due to the fact that my mother died when I was 13 months old or the biochemistry in my brain, I don’t know. But a friend once told me, “You’re not a very happy person, Mary.” I had to admit it was true.

I also come from a long line of pessimists. We are “glass half empty” sorts who expect the other shoe to drop at any time. (We are also corny and full of cliches, apparently.) This may derive from our Irish potato farmer ancestry. (Actually, I have no idea what my Irish ancestors did for a living – possibly tatted lace.) I realize this is a broad stereotype. Once my husband mentioned to a colleague that I was Irish and German. His response was, “Oh, a depressed perfectionist, eh?”

Yet I think there is a little grain of truth to stereotypes. Along with my gloomy outlook, I also love to laugh, love stories, and enjoy sentimental songs such as “Danny Boy” that make me weep into my beer. (I don’t actually drink beer, but wine didn’t sound right.)

The other reason I wonder whether I truly suffer from depression is that I have never had any devastatingly low points during which I couldn’t get out of bed or lost my will to live. Someone once described herself as a functioning depressed person, and if there is such a thing, that diagnosis fits me pretty well.

My husband likes to tease me about my morose temperament, but there have been times when my tendency toward gloom and self-pity has exasperated him. I also have to struggle not to lay my downbeat attitude on my children.

There are some benefits to my somewhat negative personality, however. When the inevitable bumps pop up in the road of our lives, I am prepared for the worst. And when things go well, I am happily surprised.

Being a functioning depressed person is not the worst thing in the world. How’s that for “glass half full” thinking?

Priorities

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Today on “Morning Joe” the pundits droned on and on about Hilary Clinton’s use of a private email account as Secretary of State. While I’m sure Republican hopefuls are praying for some dramatic smoking gun, we know not much will come of this investigation.

Meanwhile, a real gun and a real man were recently engaged in a standoff outside a public high school in Michigan, causing the school to go on lockdown. Two days later, police were called to a show choir concert at an Ann Arbor school, where an audience member was spotted carrying a firearm. Across the country, parents are fighting open carry laws that would allow guns in schools. Are lawmakers insane?

On the national front, 47 Republican senators sought to undermine the president’s negotiations with Iran on a nuclear deal by sending a letter to leaders in Iran explaining that a new administration might not honor such a pact. If this isn’t treason, it is most certainly an unpatriotic act for which the Republican response has been, “It was a dumb idea.” Really? That’s all you have to say for yourselves?

The more outrageous Republicans act, the more people just shrug and say, “That’s those crazy conservatives for you.” The more gun violence that occurs, the more gun rights advocates lobby for extreme laws that would permit gun-toters to go just about anywhere, even in the hallways of our children’s schools.

I feel as if I have slipped down the rabbit hole and landed in an unreal America, a place that more and more does not make sense to me. Where is enlightenment, reason, and even common sense? Even Glenn Beck has started to object to the open carry advocates’ demonstrations. You know we are in trouble when Glenn Beck is the voice of moderation.

So by all means, let’s go through Hilary’s emails with a fine-toothed comb. We clearly have nothing more important to do.

The Gift of Music

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Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.
– William Congreve

My childhood piano instructor was an exacting teacher. Under Mrs. Leonard’s tutelage, I learned correct posture and hand position (“like holding an egg in each hand”), keeping time (The metronome came in handy), and how to read music (Every good boy does fine). My younger sister and I were expected to be prompt and prepared each week for our lessons.

To that end, my mother enforced a strict 30-minute-per-day practice policy. Our piano was in the basement, and my mother was recently recalling how my sister and I would dawdle up and down the steps, checking the clock over and over again to see if our time was up.

Back then, I did not realize that my parents were giving my sister and me a timeless and treasured gift. None of my other siblings were afforded piano lessons, although my brother did take up guitar and saxophone for a time. Yet it wasn’t until years later when I resumed lessons that I appreciated the gift of music.

Studies have shown that learning to play an instrument enhances some neural connections in the brain and can lead to better aptitude at subjects such as math. Recently, I read about an elderly man with advanced Alzheimer’s disease. Bert Rose had been a professional pianist for more than 60 years before succumbing to this cruel disease. He can no longer remember much of anything, including his heyday performing with such stars as Debbie Reynolds and Brooke Shields. Yet when he sits down at the piano, he can still play all the old standards he once performed for audiences a bit larger than the residents at his nursing home. (Source: Chicago Tribune, March 8, 2015)

My current piano teacher talks about muscle memory and encourages me to stick with difficult pieces, knowing that eventually, playing them will become automatic. That same muscle memory must come into play for Bert Rose. And the gift is that it brings him out of his memory fog and uplifts the spirits of the other nursing home residents.

As I was growing up, I was surrounded by music – my mother’s singing, my father’s records playing on the “hi-fi,” my sisters’ harmonizing while washing dishes on Christmas Eve. My sister and I were called upon occasionally to play a duet on the piano for our family.

Each time I sit at my piano, I am so grateful for the gift of music and all the joy it brings to my life.