Mass Appeal

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If a church is God’s house, a cathedral is His mansion. Yesterday I attended Sunday Mass at the Cathedral of St. Paul, a magnificent edifice in the city of the same name. The church is a massive stone structure with a dome that dominates the skyline of St. Paul, the Twin City on the Mississippi River regarded as the little brother of Minneapolis.

There was quite a crowd assembled for 10 am Mass. I found a seat and gaped at the ornate marble altar, the stained glass windows, and the ceiling of the dome, adorned with gold-leafed paintings of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove along with its seven Heavenly gifts.

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What moved me the most, though, was when the Mass began and the sound of organ music and song soared up through the expanse of the cathedral. I experienced the otherworldly nature of a communion with God. As I joined the congregation in prayer and singing, I felt a sense of true and profound worship in this magnificent place  dedicated to glorifying the Creator.

The building of cathedrals in medieval times was truly a labor of love and devotion. With  virtually no machinery, thousands of men toiled to build these imposing stone structures. Thousands of artisans fashioned altars and shrines, frescoes and statues. While the Cathedral of St. Paul was built much later, in the early 1900s, the intentions were the same: to create a sanctuary worthy of the Lord and a place for believers to gather and worship.

As the Mass ended, I found myself wishing I could spend every Sunday morning at such a beautiful and spiritual house of God. But knowing that “wherever two or more of you gather in my name, there I am in the midst of you,” I will be content to give praise in my own humble home parish.

 

Planting Things

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IMG_1146I spent a recent afternoon strolling with some of my sisters through the University of Minnesota’s arboretum. It was a mild summer day: slightly overcast and on the cool side for the end of June in this northern Midwest locale. The Minneapolis-St. Paul area has been home for two of my sisters for many years, and a third recently moved to the area. That makes a visit to the Twin Cities even more of a draw for another Chicago-based sis and me. (I have eight sisters. Cue the oohs and ahs.)

Along with the majestic trees from which the arboretum derives its name, the park is home to numerous gardens growing everything from succulents to kitchen herbs to seemingly as many types of roses and lilies as you can name. As we wandered through the meticulously maintained grounds, stopping to admire fountains and sculptures and to take photos, I marveled at the time and care it takes to grow and maintain all these plants. I pictured gardeners lovingly tilling the soil, placing tender seedlings in it, watering and weeding.

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I myself am not much of a gardener, but when I was a child, I loved to spend time with my dad in his garden. If I helped weed, I would be allowed to place the tiny seeds for annuals gently in the soil and then water the plants as they miraculously went from seed to sprout to full grown flower. During our walk through the arboretum, my sisters and I reminisced about our father and his love for trees and flowers. We laughed and acted silly and forced passersby to take group photos of us in front of ponds or waterfalls.

Relationships are like plants. They must be lovingly tended. It takes time and attention to grow a close bond, time spent laughing, sharing confidences, building each other up and helping each other through difficult times. The inevitable weeds of conflict must be uprooted sometimes so that the lovely fruits of friendship and sisterhood can ripen.

Time spent in nature with my sisters was a beautiful gift this week. It reminds me that the roots developed in our families form the basis for who we will become. It encourages me to tend to those roots with my own children so that they too will carry on a meaningful and loving sibling relationship throughout their lives.

Long after the sun sets on the garden and the day lilies close their petals for the night, God’s gifts of nature abide in quiet magnificence until the dawning of the new day. May our lives mirror the beauty, tenacity, and strength of trees and flowers, granting joy and peace to those we encounter each and every day.

Smiling Faces

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Years ago when I lived in L.A., an Iranian-born friend of mine introduced me to the local Persian market. After countless lunches and dinners at her home, as well as my marriage  into an Iraqi-American family, I had developed an affinity for Middle Eastern cuisine and wanted to try my hand at cooking it.

My friend had warned me that the shopping experience would not be what I was used to in American culture. She was right. The market was small and cramped, and women were bulldozing their way through narrow aisles with grim determination. The people who worked there were brusque. But what struck me more than anything was that no one smiled.

My husband explained to me that in Middle Eastern culture, people who smile all the time are considered fools. There are expressions in his language that basically translate into “grinning idiot.” Someone smiling in public for no reason is not to be trusted. This same cultural belief, I recently learned, is true in Russia. An Invisibilia podcast described the difficulty in opening Russia’s first McDonald’s and training Russian workers to smile. In Russian culture, one only smiles at one’s friends and family members, not strangers.

Here in America, smiling is ubiquitous. When I am out in public and make eye contact with a person, I usually smile, and they usually smile back. Friendly, smiling service personnel are the expectation here. And smiling can have many positive effects. One day during my teaching years, I stood outside my classroom door between class periods and noticed that every kid I saw was smiling. Even students I knew to be on the shy or surly side had a bright smile for me. Was something in my teeth? I wondered. Did I have a scrap of toilet paper dangling from the hem of my dress? As the bell rang, I realized that the students were all smiling for one reason: I was smiling at them.

Smiles can be contagious and make others feel welcome. The men and women who worked at the first Russian McDonald’s discovered that the Russian people started flocking to the restaurant, not so much for the food, but for the warmth and friendliness they found there. Studies have even shown that if you force yourself to smile, you will start feeling happier inside.

There can be downsides to all this smiling, of course. A perusal of one’s Facebook feed, for instance, can make a person feel as if the whole world is happy except for them. It can be challenging and exhausting at times to “put on a happy face.” And in the world of customer service, the expectation of smiling subservience can have a dark side. As explained in Invisibilia, in Russia, servers at restaurants were traditionally unfriendly and not particularly inclined to make customers happy. They had access to the food the customer wanted, and therefore they had the upper hand. The balance of power in American culture definitely lies with the customer, who in our tradition is “always right.” This can lead customers to be inconsiderate and even downright abusive at times with the expectation that the server is at their beck and call.

Smiling and friendliness can also conceal bad intentions. As the Temptations sang, “Smiling faces, smiling faces sometimes, they don’t tell the truth.” I always think of glad-handing politicians when I hear that song. Lately the smiles of Paul Ryan and others on Capitol Hill have struck me as Cheshire-cat-like as they dismantle health care for the masses and hand out juicy tax breaks to the rich.

Yet I prefer to live in a culture where smiling is common. It can brighten someone’s day and make others around us just a little bit happier. Overall, I’d say that’s a good thing. As pop artist Sia sings, in America, “You’re never fully dressed without a smile.”

 

Defending Science

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Scores of independent scientific advisors to the EPA were recently told that their membership on the Board of Scientific Counselors would not be renewed in August. The move seems like part of the Trump Administration’s efforts to quash the dialogue on climate change, an unsurprising move given the nomination of Scott Pruitt to head the EPA along with Trump’s own rhetoric during the presidential campaign. Unsurprising, but alarming.

From the moment Donald Trump took office, the White House website removed information on climate change. Even though a consensus of scientists agrees that the Earth’s atmosphere is warming and that the warming is largely due to human activity, Republicans have stubbornly refused to address the issue. Recently, Energy Secretary Rick Perry (not exactly a rocket scientist) denied the correlation between global warming and human actions. It’s as if a group of Republicans were standing in the rain and insisting there was a drought.

The politicization of science is not new.  The season finale of Genius, the story of Albert Einstein, depicts Jewish scientists being dismissed from the prestigious Prussian Academy and books by Jewish scientists such as Einstein being burned in a massive fire by Nazi soldiers. The series also demonstrates Einstein’s outspoken objections to his discoveries being used to create weapons of mass destruction.

Throughout history, political powers have interfered with scientific discovery that did not advance their agenda, or that conflicted with their beliefs. Galileo is a perfect example of how politics (and, to a degree, religion) can affect the reception of new scientific ideas.

The ability of scientists to work independently of political agendas is vital to discovery and progress. Nowadays, the issue of the safety and efficacy of vaccines has become a political football. So has research on climate change. Meanwhile, an ice melt the size of Texas has been discovered in Antarctica. Sea levels are rising, and global weather patterns are being disrupted, with potential for devastating complications.

It’s time to allow scientific inquiry to inform our political decisions and not the reverse.

 

What’s Really Going on At College Campuses?

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3CC1A18D00000578-4182824-image-a-52_1486039078314Much is being made in the media about violent protests against conservative firebrands such as Milo Yiannopoulis and Ann Coulter being invited to speak at Berkeley and other college campuses. It is being billed as a growing intolerance of free speech on the part of college students.

But I believe something else is going on here. A recent Los Angeles Times article detailed how radical fringe groups on both the left and right converged on the UC Berkeley campus to take advantage of the protests occurring there. These groups show up at scheduled peaceful protests and marches in order to incite violence and get media coverage. (“For many at Berkeley rally, it wasn’t really about Trump or free speech: They came to make trouble,” Paige St. John, The Los Angeles Times, April 18, 2017)

Administrators are then forced to shut down events in order to protect the students, thus giving conservatives cause to cry foul on the grounds of free speech infringement. Similar skirmishes occurred shortly after the election of Donald Trump. These troublemakers notably cover their faces and wear black. And they give peaceful protesters, who also have free speech rights, a bad name.

I realize there have been cases of college students themselves shutting down speaking engagements, such as the appearance of Black Lives Matter critic Heather MacDonald at Claremont McKenna College. It should be noted that CMC President Hiram Chodosh stated in no uncertain terms that the college is a place for honest inquiry and exploration of ideas, and the blocking of campus buildings would not be tolerated. Furthermore, MacDonald’s speech did take place and was streamed so that those blocked from the venue could listen to her remarks.

I must confess that I’m disturbed by the types of speakers that conservative student groups have been inviting to their colleges and universities. With the exception of MacDonald, who does have some valid research to back up her opinions, the speakers that have been the focus of so much media attention are hate-spewing extremists such as the aforementioned Coulter and Yiannopoulis. Or alternatively, we have Charles Murray, whose dubious “scholarship” has posited that blacks have lower IQs than whites. If I were a college student, I would certainly protest the appearance of such figures on my campus.

Yet I do believe firmly in our First Amendment and the right of people to say what they wish, no matter how hateful, to their chosen audience. I am old enough to remember the famous 1977 case in which a small group of Neo-Nazis demanded the right to march through the largely Jewish enclave of Skokie, Illinois. The case ignited a national furor, and the Nazis’ rights were defended by the ACLU. Although the group was successful in gaining a permit to march through Skokie, they ultimately decided on a Chicago march instead. The positive thing to come out of the incident was the creation of the Holocaust Memorial Foundation of Illinois. (“Remembering the Nazis in Skokie,” Geoffrey R. Stone, Huffington Post, May 20, 2009, updated May 25, 2011)

But let’s not kid ourselves. College students are not becoming intolerant of “alternative viewpoints” so much as protesting the continued demeaning of people based on their race, gender, or sexual orientation. They have a right, on their own campuses where they are paying tuition, to express their disapproval of speakers to whom they object – if they do so in a peaceful manner that does not infringe on the rights of those who wish to hear the speaker. It is a challenge for college administrations to assure that these disagreements are allowed to play out peacefully and without outside interference from fringe elements. But it’s a challenge they must rise to for the safety and freedom of all.

 

No End to Partisan Warfare

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It didn’t take long for conservatives in the media to blame liberals for the horrific shooting of Republican Rep. Steve Scalise and others at an Alexandria, Virginia, park. Admittedly, there’s little doubt that the shootings were politically motivated. The shooter,  a Bernie Sanders supporter,  had been posting rants against Republicans and Trump for months. Furthermore, he asked a representative at the park, where Congressional personnel were practicing for a friendly game of baseball, whether those on the field were Democrats or Republicans.

Despite those facts, members of both parties on Capitol Hill, as well as President Trump himself, called for unity and prayers for the victims of the horrendous attack. There was a call for Democrats and Republicans to put aside their differences out of respect for Rep. Scalise, other government officials, and law enforcement officers injured in the shootout.

But in the news media, Sean Hannity immediately blamed the incident on the left for their hateful rhetoric against Trump and his Republican administration. Other media personalities and newspaper columnists echoed Hannity’s sentiments. All of them conveniently ignored the upsurge in racist violence that occurred after Donald Trump’s election in November.

My first reaction to news of the shooting was that this is how far partisan politics has descended. It was bad enough to see figures of Barack Obama being lynched or burned in effigy on the one side, a fake likeness of Donald Trump’s bloodied and severed head on the other. But partisanship has gotten so bad that it has incited people to actual violence and physical harm of others.

There has to be a way to get beyond the hatred and blame that has characterized American politics in the past decade. We can strongly, and even stridently, disagree with each other without resorting to name-calling, mockery, and outright assault.

But here’s the rub: Such flagrancy makes headlines. All the major news outlets and now the world wide web of sensationalism have a stake in encouraging anger and outrage. They make for good ratings. Early on in the Republican primaries, the media loved Donald Trump. His outrageous statements and behavior were constantly being covered by the likes of CNN, whose management admitted that their ratings skyrocketed with the Trump coverage. The American thirst for drama has brought out such horrible characters as Milo Yiannopoulos and Alex Jones, who spew their hate to an adoring audience. On the left are less famous characters who took to Twitter and actually celebrated the fact that Scalise, a supposed racist, was shot.

The Congressional baseball game, an event for charity, will go on as planned tonight, no doubt with enhanced security. The fact is that the Democrats and Republicans who work together on Capitol Hill are actually often good friends. Let’s hope their good example, as evidenced by their bipartisan remarks today and their coming together for America’s favorite pastime, can actually prevail and start to reduce the divisiveness that is making partisan politics not just unpleasant, but downright dangerous.

It’s All Relative

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I’m currently watching a fascinating show on the National Geographic channel entitled Genius, a biography of the great physicist Albert Einstein. Never having had a particularly scientific type of mind, I’ve been surprised at how much I enjoy learning about Einstein’s revolutionary discoveries. For instance, I enjoyed seeing how Einstein’s brain starts forming ideas about relativity while watching his time piece in a tedious math class.

Einstein proved that time is not absolute and that our perception of time moving forward is an illusion. I’m not sure I completely understand his ideas, but I do enjoy thinking about relativity in the simple terms in which he famously explained it. An hour spent with a pretty girl, he said, seems but a minute while a minute spent sitting on a hot stove would seem like an hour.

I was reminded of that idea on a recent walk in my neighborhood. Up ahead of me was a young woman pushing a stroller with a baby inside. The scene looked idyllic: a young mother with all the time in the world to care for and enjoy her child. But I know better. I was that young mother once. When my first child was born, I was beside myself with stress and worry. Every single task seemed difficult and new and challenging, and I was not sure I was doing any of it right. Had she had enough poops that day? Did she have a slight fever? Was she too warm, too cold, hungry, tired? And why would she not stop crying?

From my vantage point as the mother of four grown children, it seems so easy just to have one child, a child who can’t go anywhere or do much of anything without my say so, a child who can’t stay out past curfew or sass back or ask to do things I’m not ready to let her do. When my children were young, the days would crawl by at a snail’s pace. Even though they were perfectly clean, I would still give my kids a daily bath just to pass the time. Nowadays, I blink, and months have gone by while my teens and twenty somethings move ahead at the speed of light.

The one constant for me as a parent is how much I worry about my kids. I think that’s what makes grandparents so much more relaxed around their grandchildren. They have a slight distance that allows them to be calmer, more playful, and less stressed.

This idea was borne out for me recently when I listened to a fascinating NPR podcast called Invisibilia. The episode “The Problem With the Solution” describes the way mental illness is managed in a small Belgian town called Geel (pronounced “hail”). In Geel, people with severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia live with ordinary families and are considered “boarders.” While there is a hospital nearby and doctors help people manage their medications, no one in Geel tries to fix the mentally ill. They are simply allowed to be the way they are.

The reporters from Invisibilia discovered an important fact through learning about the town of Geel. These same victims of mental illness faired much worse when living with their own families. Indeed, one of Geel’s residents had a mentally ill son herself, and she described how hard it was to live with his behavior. What psychologists have discovered is that when people care too much, they are determined to fix the problems their loved ones have. On the other hand, non-related hosts or neighbors of the mentally ill have a detachment that allows them to accept these people the way the are. In this way, “it’s all relative” takes on a different meaning.

The great Albert Einstein certainly had his fair share of family drama, including a wife who suffered from depression and a son who attempted suicide. As a Jew, he was endangered by the rise of Nazism in Germany. He also objected to the use of scientific discovery to create weapons of mass destruction. But he looked at the world in such an endlessly fascinated way. He was convinced that observing nature was the way to solve all the mysteries of the universe. And he had a great determination to be the one to do so.

As the summer days go by, I will remind myself about the deceptive nature of time and do my best to slow it down and enjoy its passing.