Archive for March, 2009|Monthly archive page


In Money, Politics on March 23, 2009 at 11:18 am

The banking industry is protesting that it made contracts with the employees that received bonuses stating that they would be given the bonuses. Last time I checked, a bonus was “something given or paid in addition to what is usual or expected.” So how could a bonus be contractual? I always thought that bonuses were paid out for performance, and since the banking industry obviously did not perform well (or at all), then why should anyone receive bonuses?

My daughter works in the banking industry and used to get bonuses, until her bosses decided that they couldn’t afford to give them right now.  She works for a bank that received federal funds, but it isn’t one of the giants like AIG. I don’t know if any of her higher-ups are still getting their bonuses, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they are. Her bonuses were based on how many calls she made per month, which I can see. The bonuses were directly tied to work that can be quantified.

I have a problem with bosses getting bonuses anyway. All too often they get them based on someone else’s performance and those who did the work receive no bonuses at all. (It was that way when I worked for the U.S. Postal service in the ’80s and ’90s.) It could be argued that the bosses were responsible for getting good work out of their employees, but all too often what they do has nothing to do with the results. In fact, in my view, at least half the time (and I’m being generous here) the bosses made it harder for the workers to do a good job.

I’ve never been a boss; perhaps if I had, I would be singing a different tune. But I like to think that I would feel guilty receiving bonuses when those I supervised–who did the actual work–received nothing.

Another thing that bothers me about this whole “contractual” argument is that no one raises a stink when workers are asked to give up pay or hours or benefits because of tough economic times. This happens even when the workers’ unions had contracts with the employers that ensured them so much pay, hours and certain benefits. But it is seen as okay to “bust” the union or the workers–they’re making too much anyway, right?


Arabic Lesson

In International, Self Improvement on March 20, 2009 at 11:30 am

I had my first Arabic lesson the other day. I didn’t know what to expect. I guess I thought we would work on conversation, but instead my tutor started me out right at the beginning: with the alphabet. What did I think of it?

  • Some of it was easy to pronounce, especially those that correlate with letters and sounds we have in English.
  • Some of it was impossible to pronounce. I dread when these sounds will come up in conversation.
  • Some of the letters sounded exactly alike to me, so I know I’m not getting it. I don’t have an ear to hear the difference.
  • When you break the letters down one-by-one, most of them seem very easy to write. Until, that is…
  • I was overwhelmed by the fact that you have to learn three ways to write every letter, depending on whether or not it is at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of a sentence.

I can’t imagine ever being able to read Arabic, but I guess I’m going to give it a try.  I would love to learn to write it (it has a beautiful script), but I doubt that I’ll be able to do that any time soon. I’ll count myself lucky if I can learn to carry on a limited conversation.

So far I can say: Hello and good-bye (three different ways), How are you?, I’m fine, Thank you, Excuse me (or you’re welcome), Do you know English? (to a man or a woman), I don’t know Arabic, I know only a little Arabic, and I am an American (which ought to be obvious).

I think I’m a little crazy taking on this project. But it beats doing crossword puzzles (at least in my estimation).

The Islamist

In Book Reviews, Reading, Religion on March 19, 2009 at 11:43 am

The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left by Ed Husain

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is an excellent book for anyone confused about the rise of Islamism, or radical Islam. As we follow the journey taken by the author from moderate but uninvolved Muslim to Muslim anarchist to thoughtful Muslim in a post-9/11 world, we see some of the different threads of political and religious beliefs that have led to the various factions in the Arab world today. This is not an exhaustive study by any means, but it comes across as well-informed and heartfelt.

The author, Ed Husain, is a British Muslim and he has a lot to say about the Islamic community in Britain and how it has evolved into the forms that it takes today. He also describes his experiences in Syria and Saudi Arabia where he went to learn Arabic and to teach English through the British Council. He writes about the concept of “jihad”: its original significance and its distortion among modern Islamic fanatics. And he shares his personal faith-walk.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the history and the modern face of Islam.

View all my reviews.

The Emergent Church

In Religion on March 17, 2009 at 3:37 pm

I recently went to church at Crossroads Community Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. I had never been to a church like this before, although I’d heard about them. Cornerstone calls itself an “interdenominational” church. It has a website that is very informative and includes downloadable sermons and music. Take a look–I think you’ll be intrigued.

How did I personally respond to this experience? I liked it. It appealed to the side of me that has tired of old-hat worship services with out-dated hymns, strident organ music and worn-out liturgies. I loved how easy it was to go to church in jeans, grab a cup of coffee and find a seat in the dark auditorium (complete with cup-holders) where I could sing and pray in relative anonymity. I was impressed by the professionalism of the presentations: filmed interviews with church members spread out on the huge screens at the front of the auditorium and the original music and catchy lyrics performed by–of all things–a band! The minister himself was both dynamic and down-to-earth, sharing his innermost thoughts and personal stories and relating them to the life of Jesus as expressed in the Bible. I was relieved that his message didn’t include the claim that God will richly bless those who give  liberally, like some ministers and televangelists do. (Read a critique of “Seed Faith Giving” here.) I was also relieved to hear a strong emphasis on small groups for personal sharing and growth.

I’m not ready to give up on stained glass windows and my favorite hymns–or all liturgy, for that matter. But I can see why this new kind of church is popular–and it is: many of these churches draw worshippers in the thousands. (It took us 15 minutes to get out of the parking lot after the Saturday night service–I can’t imagine what it’s like on Sundays!)

Some people call churches like these, the emergent, or emerging, church. Here is a PBS video about this phenomenon:

A Touch of the Green

In Family, International, Writing on March 17, 2009 at 9:49 am

So today is Saint Patrick’s Day. I haven’t heard much about it this year, possibly because it’s on a Tuesday and that makes it hard to get blasted on green beer and still make it into work the next day. We obviously don’t celebrate  this day so that we can honor the Irish (unless you happen to be one). In fact, we pretty much ignore all the cultural gifts the Irish have given us. Most people have heard of Michael Collins (because he was the subject of a movie by the same name, starring Liam Neeson), although they may not have retained much of a sense of Irish history from it. And then there is the Irish conflict which few of us know anything about. And then of course there are the leprechauns and four-leaf clovers.

I am one quarter Irish–my grandmother’s maiden name was Breen (a name I used for one of my children’s middle name). As near as we can figure, her family came to America in the 1860s.  Actually, she is probably not pure Irish, because of some Welsh and Scotch ancestry in the mix. But like many people in this country, I have at least some Irish blood, just not enough so you’d notice it.

Unless you consider the term, “Shanty Irish.” According to my mother, my father was quintessential Shanty Irish, and I take after my father.

Here is an excerpt from an essay I wrote on being Shanty Irish:

“I am at least a quarter pure Irish—my paternal grandmother was full Irish and there may be other tendrils among my ancestral roots. But I am one hundred percent Shanty Irish, a fact I can’t deny: I take after my father. The two of us have felt the brunt of my mother’s frustration, she with her predominantly German and English ancestry. My father is half English himself, but he obviously did not inherit his father’s personality and views on life. He is his mother’s son, through and through, and I am my father’s daughter.

My mother called my father “Shanty Irish” quite regularly. She meant it to mean “half-assed,” as in doing things ass backwards. But Shanty Irish has much more to it than doing things in a “less than perfect” way. (If there is one thing that Shanty Irish is not about it is perfection) Obviously my mother didn’t mean it as a compliment. Nor did she when she would tell my father in disgust, “I swear, Bill, you’ll put up with any old thing.” As a matter of fact, I think it’s a positive trait, but it may take being Shanty Irish yourself to think so.”

More about being Shanty Irish in a future post…

The End of Reading and Writing?

In Reading, Time, Writing on March 16, 2009 at 7:23 pm

Michael Ridley, Chief Information Officer (CIO) and Chief Librarian at the University of Guelph (Guelph, Ontario, Canada) believes that literacy will eventually go the way of the oral tradition.  For the past three years he has taught a course called “Beyond Literacy: Are Reading and Writing Doomed?” in which he tries to get his students to imagine a world in which most of our communication takes place without the use of the tools of reading and writing. It will take a while for the transformation to take place, just like it took a long time for the oral tradition to lose its importance as a tool of communication.  Some would argue that the process has already begun.

On his web site, Post Literacy, Ridley writes:

Just as the powerful capabilities of literacy effectively displaced primary orality, so too is it not only likely but inevitable (?!) that literacy will be displaced by a more powerful tool, capability or capacity.

“Post Literacy” is the phrase used to capture the possibility of rich human communication that exceeds (and hence replaces) visible language (writing and reading) as the dominant means of the understanding and exchange of ideas.

Post Literacy, as explored here, is not a decline from literacy into some new dark age but rather the beginning of a transformational capacity as yet unimagined.

And, yes, the irony of having to use visible language to explore all this is not lost on me!

It’s not entirely clear what the new tools of communication will be. In his slide presentation, Ridley speculates about things like telepathy and genetic memory. We’re obviously not talking about changes that will occur in our lifetimes. But I can see signs of post-literacy even in my own life–and I’m a writer and avid reader. I can’t imagine doing without the printed word. And yet I have seen a subtle shift in my dependence on the written word. Writing posts for my blogs is an ephemeral activity: the words are “out there” somewhere on the Internet, but if the host I use shuts down, my words are lost forever. (Except that I’ve been having them sent to me–by using Feed My Inbox–and saving them in an email folder. Someday I will get around to saving them on a CD, but who’s to say that CDs will continue to be readable by  future technologies?) Even in my journal writing: I used to write my journals exclusively by hand, now I rarely do. They used to be on floppy disks but now I no longer use those and just write directly on my computer. If my computer crashes or I switch to a new one, I can easily lose what I’ve written. And yet I find that it doesn’t matter to me like it used to that I save every word that rolls off my fingers.

I find that what I am drawn to these days is what happens in interactions between individuals. The words we speak carry as much, if not more, weight that those we read or write.  I may write a brilliant essay (I wish), but if what I write about isn’t a part of me that lies outside the pages of my text, what does it really matter? Perhaps a post-literate society will be based more on human  interactions and less on words that are stored somewhere in libraries and computer files. There may be something to be said for not hoarding our words and instead flinging them to the skies.

Speaking in Tongues

In Friends, International, Self Improvement on March 15, 2009 at 12:05 pm

I practiced it a hundred times before I finally tried it on a real person.


Dr. Okash looked surprised.

“Did I say that right? Is that how you say hello?” I said quickly.

“Yes, but it sounds a little more like this.” He demonstrated. Then he asked, “Are you trying to learn Arabic?”

I’m not sure what I’m doing. I work peripherally with many students from other countries, the majority of them Arabic-speaking. Some of them have asked me how to say something in English or what an English word means, and it occurred to me that I should be making some effort to learn their language. Americans are so arrogant about learning other languages, figuring that it is the foreigner’s responsibility to learn English.  I figured that learning to say hello and goodbye was the least I could do.

I tried out my new phrases on a few more of the students and soon had them correcting my pronunciation and adding new words to my vocabulary list. The next thing I knew I had sent for a set of CDs for learning Arabic. I was surprised at how excited I was as I put them in my CD player and began practicing even more new phrases. If you would have asked me a few months ago if I would ever consider learning Arabic, I would have said you were nuts. What a difficult language that must be! And what would I ever use it for?

Sometimes you just have to follow your instincts. Since I learned how to say hello, goodbye, how are you, I’m fine and so on, the students I’ve practiced on have opened up more about  their countries and themselves. I’m not carrying on conversations in Arabic, but the fact that I’ve made the effort to learn a little of their language has broken the ice. I think they feel more welcome and I feel more connected to the larger world out there.

I had the same sensations and reactions when I started teaching myself German about ten years ago. The mere act of attempting to learn a new language is mind-expanding. And I found that the more I learned of the language, the more I got a sense of the people who speak it. I still can carry on only the most rudimentary conversations in German, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that I’ve tried. And in many ways I’ve succeeded. I can watch a German movie and understand a good deal of what’s being said without looking at the subtitles. I can eavesdrop on my husband when he’s speaking on the phone to his family members in Germany. I can tell my husband that I love him in his own language.

My husband’s English is so good and he is so used to speaking in me in English, I never get much of a chance to practice German with him. And I doubt that I will ever carry on long conversations in Arabic with the students I work with. But the fact that I’ve made steps in their direction means that I’ve tried to understand them and not just expected them to do all the work of understanding me.

I feel good about that.

Going Off Your Meds

In Health, Mood disorders, Religion, Self Improvement on March 10, 2009 at 5:36 am

I just read a short article by an Anglican priest who stopped taking his anti-depressants after six years because he didn’t like the way they shielded him from feeling bad. He writes: “I’m wary of the way [anti-depressants] can inure us to compassion, sorrow, guilt, and regret—emotions that are essential components of spiritual maturity.”

Oh, so it’s spiritually mature to feel suicidal, to feel your life spiraling out-of-control, to always be so down on yourself you can’t function, to be paralyzed by your fears and anxieties? Granted, the author emphasizes that anti-depressants can dramatically improve your life–if they are needed. But he seems to think that the Christian who suffers is more mature than the one who sails through life without trauma. What a crock!

I take several medications for my depression and anxiety and I admit that there are times when I worry that I’m too medicated. Sometimes it feels unnatural to be calm in the face of all the things that I used to worry obsessively about. But does it feel unnatural because it truly is, or because I had become used to the pattern of highs and lows that threatened my sanity? The thought of returning to that instability and uncertainty about how I was going to feel from one moment to the next fills me with horror. (See, I’m still capable of negative emotions.)

It seems to me irresponsible to suggest that you are somehow more in tune with the realities of life–and more in accordance with God’s will–when you are unmedicated. If the author felt himself becoming “cavalier and impatient, insensitive and spiritually complacent” when he was on his meds, perhaps that was his own moral shortcoming more than the result of being “enveloped in a pharmaceutical sphere of emotional impenetrability.” Maybe he needed to try a little harder to be involved and patient and sensitive. Isn’t it as much of a cop-out to say that his meds made him spiritually complacent?

The author seems to be saying that it is a false–and undesirable–condition to feel all right about ourselves most of the time. To be able to wake up in the morning ready to face what the day will bring us.  He insists that “antidepressants … are not a panacea for the human condition.” But would you advise a diabetic to discontinue his insulin because it’s somehow more natural to experience the consequences of his disease?

Let me say here that the author may have made the right decision for him. The weak point of his article is that he doesn’t describe what his mental state was after he discontinued his meds. If he found that he could in fact function after his time on medication, he may have been suffering clinical but not chronic depression. I would hope that he didn’t force himself back into a state of mind that he describes as feeling “overwhelmed or that God was nowhere to be found and experiencing “confusion and emotional paralysis to make vital life decisions.”  If he allowed himself to return to that way of interacting with God and the world, what did he accomplish?

To discontinue your meds because you think that you’re a better Christian without them is a travesty. To discontinue them because you no longer need them makes sense. But how do you know when you no longer need them? I think you have to be spiritually sensitive to God’s leading and medically sensitive to your condition. It’s not a decision to be made for the wrong reasons.

Afternoon at Starbucks

In Home, Neighborhood, Writing on March 3, 2009 at 3:02 pm

I’m staying with my daughter for a week and she doesn’t have wi-fi, or even DSL. I’m spoiled. I’m used to getting online whenever I feel like it and going anywhere I want, for as long as I want. Now my only recourse is to go to Starbucks and access their wi-fi. To do so, I had to get a Starbucks card with at least $5 on it and set up and sign in to an account at As long as I have a registered card with money on it, I can access wi-fi at any Starbucks.

I’m picking up my grandson after school and the Starbucks is, conveniently, right across the street from his school. So I can come here a couple of hours before his school is out and he can meet me here. It’s not a very big Starbucks and I feel kind of bad using one of their chairs and outlets for this long, but I’m not the only one doing so, so I’m not going to worry about it.

I’m not the only mother or grandmother who has the same idea. There are several little kids here with mom or grandma for their big brothers and sisters to get out of school. I thought that I would be able to do some writing, but it’s pretty noisy in here. There’s jazz playing, the coffee machines gushing hot milk and water, people talking, children squealing–how do people write in coffee shops anyway? You hear about so many writers who do, including J.K. Rowling, but I don’t know how they do it.

This Starbucks is in a little town center of an incorporated area on the east side of Cincinnati, Ohio. It has its own school district and library system. The schools are rated as excellent and are the main reason my daughter bought a house here.  If you can’t afford to send your kids to private schools, try to move into the neighborhoods that have the best schools, even if you have the cheapest house in the district. That way you piggy back on those who have more money. They say in real estate that location is everything and when it comes to schools that’s definitely true. At any rate, this area has a lot of charm and warmth. It’s the kind of neighborhood you feel safe taking your children trick-or-treating in.

Now the teens and pre-teens are showing up; they get out of school before the grade-schoolers do.

I do love the atmosphere of a coffee shop; it’s like a neighborhood gathering place. I just need to learn how to shut out the noise. But then that’s part of what makes it feel so homey. That and the smell of coffee. Yum.