Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A Sadistic Relationship to the Creatures of the Sea

After our family Christmas dinner and several days of leftovers, I'm going to offer you "Guide to Swedes #42: Seafood."

The first time I visited Fredrik, he asked me if I wanted caviar or paté for breakfast. Wow, Europeans don't mess around, I thought. It turns out the caviar in question was Kalles Kaviar, a light orange paste in a tube that's made from cod eggs, salt, sugar, and god knows what else. Kids like it. It has such a strong flavor that the latest TV commercials for it show a man standing in a little booth on the sidewalk in various other countries, offering people samples on crackers, and showing them react in disgust to this exotic Swedish tube-food.

In August, Swedes have crayfish parties. There's nothing particularly gross about how crayfish taste. The tail is small and rubberly, like a shrimp, and since they're always cooked the same way it tastes almost exclusively of salt and dill. But you don't just eat the tail; that defeats the purpose of the crayfish party. They are cooked whole and have to be dissected at the table. Think lobster, but miniature. You get your hands wet and slimey with salty dill juice, crayfish eggs, and a greasy blob of fat that they call "crayfish butter," and comments such as "sucking out the brain juice is my favorite" can be heard, uttered by 80-year old women.

Some people opt to have surströmming parties in August instead of crayfish parties. No one understands why.

Surströmming is fermented herring. It smells like biology class on dissection day. And that is not an exageration. Here are some rules about surströmming:

  • You are not allowed the pack it in your checked luggage on an airplane, because the can is under extreme pressure and might explode. But wait, they don't care if a bottle of wine breaks in my bag, so why care about the surströmming? Because they don't want you spreading the stank all over everyone else's lugage.
  • You are supposed to open the can wrapped in a towel and/or under water, because that way it won't squirt stinky juice all over you.
  • It is considered gauche to have a surströmming party indoors. Your house would stink for weeks.
All of the above is honestly, seriously true. As is the fact that people have parties where they eat the stuff. Seriously.

Surströmming isn't the only herring that Swedes have an unholy relationship with. There's pickled herring. And any holiday is an occasion for pickled herring. Pickled herring on Easter. Pickled herring on Midsommar. Pickled herring on Christmas. With onions, or dill, or tomato sauce, or mustard sauce, or apple curry sauce, or any other of a large varity of different flavors that can be purchased at the store in a delusional pact to pretend it doesn't just all taste like strongly fishy raw fish.

I saw a show about food history/trends where they got old Swedish ladies to try sushi, as a way of discussing how certain foods can be considered perfectly normal just a generation or two after they were considered exotic. The ladies weren't so into it. I suppose they prefer their raw fish to be soaked in vinegar and onions and taste like it's still alive.

On Christmas Eve, it's traditional to eat a buffet that contains almost exclusively pork products. The only non-mammal food on the table tends to be a dish called Janssons frestelse (Jansson's temptation). It's like au gratin potatoes, but with a very important twist.

Anchovy fillets and anchovy juice.

So you've got the potatoes, the cream, the butter, all that, but instead of the cheese that you would have in au gratin potatoes, you go "I know! Let's put scaley anchovy fillets in there instead. And then we wouldn't want to waste the juice in the anchovy can, so we'll pour that over."

And now, we come to my favorite. Another dish reserved for the festive Christmas season.


It's actually called lutfisk in Swedish (the word lutefisk that we've adopted in English is the Norwegian word). Lut is the Swedish word for lye. You know the stuff that they used as an example of an extremely high pH substance in chemistry class; the stuff that people used to use to clean clothes and very dirty stuff but that we always heard horror stories about some pour unsupervised kid drinking it and thereafter needing 37 surgeries and a lifelong need to be fed through a tube?

No surprise then that, if you soak cod in lye, it develops a Jell-o-like consistency. What is surprising is that someone decided that this was a good thing to produce and eat. It's one of those foods that makes you wonder "how many people died in the quest to discover just how many days of soaking and rinsing in water is required to make lye-soaked whitefish non-caustic?"

Now, I make it sound like I think all of this fishy fish is disgusting. Not at all; I love fish, and with the exception of the surströmming and lutefisk (because I'm not keen on food that requires supressing every instinct in my dry-heaving body), I eat and enjoy all of it.

All I'm saying is, for all my non-Swedish friends who might be curious about my adopted people, Swedes have a macabre knack for doing unspeakable things to seafood.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Sore Losers

Okay, can't take it anymore, must explode. 

To those of you thinking that "both Democrats and Republicans need to sit down and negotiate," I have a bone to pick with you. 

In some countries, when one party loses an election, they refuse to accept it. This is called "being a sore fricking loser."

Sometimes these sore losers violently overthrow the government. This is what we call "not democracy".

In some countries, instead of using violence to disrupt the democratic process, the above-mentioned "sore losers" (hereafter known as SLs) use passive-aggressive whining, money, 24-hour news networks that have nothing better to do and no journalistic integrity, the ignorance and gullibility of an easily-manipulated populace, and a hefty helping of lies and hypocrisy. 

The result is the same. The difference here is that the SLs in America have lost in a properly-executed, constitutional democratic process on the issue in question not once, but more than FOURTY-FOUR TIMES and still refuse to accept the verdict. 

A functioning election's job is to pick a leader or a representative. Your guy maybe doesn't win. GROW UP AND DEAL WITH IT. You are free to bitch and moan and complain, but not to blackmail them into a corner where they can't do the job they were democratically chosen to do. That is what we call "bullshit."

A functioning legislature's job is to pass laws. You maybe don't like the laws it passes. GROW UP AND DEAL WITH IT. You are free to bitch and moan and debate and even to try to get the laws changed by trying to change people's minds. But when you turn the body into a NON-functioning legislature by forcing it to vote on the bill 42 more times in the hopes that maybe everyone will see things your way this time, you are wasting everyone's time and money. That's called "being a douche."

A functioning U.S. Supreme Court's job is to judge the constitutionality of laws and set precedents. This is called judicial review. You might not like their decisions. GROW UP AND DEAL WITH IT. Just like Francis in Rome, the infallibility of SCOTUS on issues of constitutionality is a question of definition. You are free to bring a lawsuit to their desks and hope that they will see things the way you do, but if they refuse to hear your case or rule against you, that doesn't mean you "lost" or that they are being "activists."  It means they are "doing their fricking job" and that you, by definition, were "WRONG."

Negotiations have occurred in several national elections and in all three branches of government. The Republicans lost. They need to put on their big girl panties and move on. 

No matter how deeply they feel that Jesus wants sick poor people to die. 

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Hate the Sin, Love the Sinner

Neil deGrasse Tyson has apparently gotten a lot of attention in response to this video where he discusses why he doesn’t label himself as an atheist. I suppose I’m about to add to it, but not so much to talk about him and about atheism. It’s just a starting thought on the road towards talking about Christianity. Or rather, American Christianity, as all of the points I plan on taking up are, as far as I know from a bit of experience and extrapolation, fairly unique to the United States.

deGrasse Tyson says he wouldn’t call himself an atheist because “the moment when someone attaches you to a philosophy or a movement, then they they assign all the baggage and all the rest of the philosophy that goes with it to you. And when you want to have a conversation, they will assert that they already know everything important there is to know about you because of that association.” (0:19) Of course, then he himself goes on to talk about how he’s not an atheist because he’s not an activist, he doesn’t lobby Congress or want to change policies, he doesn’t meet other atheists in pubs and talk about how very much he doesn’t believe in God, etc. – so he seems to box things up as much as anyone else does, of course. Aside from the fact that I’m not convinced he’s telling the truth about not wanting to change policies (he is known for being miffed about the end of manned space travel, for instance), the sentences in his video that really stuck on me were the following:

It’s odd that the word atheist even exists. I don’t play golf; is there a word for non-golf-players? Do non-golf-players gather and strategize? Do non-skiers have a word and come together and talk about the fact that they don’t ski? I can’t do that; I can’t gather round and talk about how much everybody in the room doesn’t believe in God. (2:55)

Being an atheist is, perhaps, very different from all other spiritual views in that it is defined as a lack of subscription to any existing spiritual views. But whether or not it only consists of that lack is debatable. Many atheists would object strongly to deGrasse Tyson’s description of atheists as active, debating, gregarious folk simply because their atheism is a lack of belief in the prevailing religious system and nothing more. But if other atheists are meeting in pubs and discussing their life views, one has to admit that atheism, for those people, consists of more than just a lack of belief in something else. I consider myself an “active” atheist, but I don’t do nearly as much research into evolution and current thoughts on free will and the deterministic universe and the latest updates in the fossil records as other atheists, spurred on at least partially by a desire to deepen their own reflections on the questions “how did we get here?” or “what is morality?”

But rather than starting a possible fist fight over whether atheism is a religion or whether it’s a belief in something rather than a lack of a belief in something, I want to talk about why it’s perfectly logical that there is a word for it. In a way that is completely incomparable to being a non-golfer or a non-skier. The majority of the country does not golf, nor does the majority ski, at least not in a way that they claim it is the source of their morals. Whether or not a person golfs has miniscule to no impact on me. But what they believe about how other people should be treated does. It is not necessary for people who would like to lead our country to suddenly start playing golf once a week and make sure cameras follow them on their rounds, just so the rest of the country can see that they are faithful golfers. People don’t turn en masse to golf gurus, instead of just using their own mental faculties, in order to get advice about how to vote or how to treat their spouses or how to raise their children or what food to eat or who to hate or ask whether or not other people should be allowed to be married or whether or not it’s okay for people to have sex before marriage (or after) or whether or not a person is worth as much as another based on which golf course they prefer to play at. Whether or not abortion, birth control, marriage, slavery, women’s suffrage and equal status as citizens, segregation, etc., are legal, has never been affected by the golfing views of the country’s citizens. I have never had the experience of being called names, had my character denigrated, or being told that I deserved it when my child died or that I'm the reason someone has cancer because some insecure golfer is offended by my non-golfing status.

Need I go on?

Arguing that the label “atheist” is unnecessary is like arguing that we don’t need a word for “homosexual”. But that would only be possible in one or possibly two scenarios. Number one, if every single human being were heterosexual and there was no fathomable alternative. Number two, if homosexuality were so common as to actually be the norm, and/or we assigned absolutely no decreased worth to a person for being in the minority – this would be the reason we don’t have a word for non-golfer, or, say, non-murderer.

So people’s religious views affect others, and those of us who reject religion -- and are therefore in the minority in the United States -- feel the need to call ourselves something. Because we want to make it clear that we exist and that we’re not a part of any of the clubs that everyone else considers normal and necessary in life. Because we want to be able to identify ourselves to the few people who might share our views. And quite honestly, it’s not just because people’s religion has an effect on others, but because many of us believe it has a very negative affect on people that those of us who reject it feel the need to do so actively and openly.

But now I’ve come to the meat of my thoughts for the day. Isn’t that very fact – that the religion of one person has so much effect on another person – the thing that’s weird here? Isn’t it also the beginning of the explanation for how American Christianity is so very different than the flavor currently found in the otherwise much more de facto secular societies of the Western world?

Today I read this article at CNN about how the author, Stephen Prothero, thinks it’s important for realistic, nuanced Christians to be shown on television. He applauds the fact that the new Christian character on Glee, Joe Hart, goes through a struggle between his sexual desires and his Christianity. I agree with him on that point, as criticizing the show for showing a Christian boy as anything but a Flandersesque-eunuch is just silly. But I want to take it one step further.

Prothero’s blog post describes another dilemma that Joe has on the show. Their Christian singing group is raising money by performing singing telegrams for $10 a pop, but then they get a request from a lesbian to send a singing telegram to her girlfriend. Should they say no? Apparently the struggle is played out on the show by having Joe and another character argue about whether the Bible forbids homosexuality: 

Mercedes (Amber Riley) calculates that since “one out of every ten people are gay . . . one of the twelve apostles might have been gay.” Sam (Chord Overstreet) observes that “the Bible says it’s an abomination for a man to lay with another man,” prompting Quinn (Dianna Agron) go ask, “Do you know what else the Bible says is an abomination? Eating lobster, planting different crops in the same field, giving somebody a proud look. Not an abomination? Slavery. Jesus never said anything about gay people. That’s a fact.”

I’m a big fan of pointing out how hypocritically and dynamically people literalize the Bible for their own ends. But I actually don’t think any of that is the point here. Let’s all agree for a moment that the Bible does say that homosexuality is a sin. Let’s just assume that a person engaging in homosexual acts or a homosexual lifestyle is, in fact, going against God’s and Jesus’s will. My question becomes: so? Is that really what the dilemma should have been about?

The point of defining yourself as a Christian would, correct me if I’m wrong, imply that you derive your morality from the Bible and from Jesus’s teachings, and that you use that as guidance in your own decisions, actions and lifestyle. But it seems to be treated as a given in American society and politics that being a Christian also supposedly means being not only perfect and sin-free yourself (hence the criticism against Glee for showing Joe as a boy with hormones), but also being a person that rejects, condemns, and refuses to associate even in an everyday, operational, business-like manner with people who are not, according to your definition, perfect. But refresh my memory, where does the Bible – contradictorily or not – state that I’m supposed to keep a 100-meter distance from anyone whose shit stinks? If this is such an important aspect of Christianity, shouldn't the other Christian teens in the show shun Joe for having his own struggle with lust?

In fact, as anyone who has a simple 3-sentence understanding of what the basic philosophy of Christianity is supposed to be knows, neither the Bible nor Jesus says any such thing. Christianity presumes that we’ve all been sinners since the first two human beings to walk the earth; that our lives are a constant struggle to resist temptation; that we will often fail; and that Jesus is there for us to turn to and ask for forgiveness when we have made mistakes. The Gospels are verse after verse, chapter after chapter, of Jesus associating with the people that everyone else has rejected, and telling the hypocrites that the way into heaven is to accept that humans are flawed and treat each other with dignity, respect and kindness.

But this message doesn’t exist in American Christianity. Churches are an exclusive club into which only perfectly sin-free people (which according to Jesus don't exist!) are welcome, and the imperfect but perfectly human that Jesus created his church for are not allowed through the gate. I find it laughable that politicians on the Christian right are constantly being caught in scandals when they are shamed and condemned because their “un-Christian” behavior is uncovered. But not because their hypocrisy is uncovered; rather, because they are missing a golden opportunity! If they had a real understanding of what Christianity is about, they would embrace their foibles! Don’t try to pretend that your daughter didn’t get pregnant before she was married; proudly proclaim that she did and that that’s why we need Jesus and abstinence-only education! Don’t go around pretending to be the straightest fucking arrow in Congress and resign when you’re found playing doctor with a male intern; instead, tell us that it’s your personal experience with man-lust that drives you to make laws against homosexuality and that gives you first-hand knowledge of how homosexuals can be “cured” with the right “treatment”!

I’ve been affected by my culture’s false brand of Christianity enough in my life to have almost completely lost my ability to keep my mouth shut about my distaste for the church. Sometimes I’m sure I’m downright obnoxious. One day my colleague, the guy who teaches the world religions course at our school, teased me by saying something along the lines of “Yeah, a philosophy that teaches you to love your fellow man, I can see why you hate Christianity so much.”

Indeed, very funny, we both laughed, but in all seriousness he was missing the point. The version of Christianity in which loving your neighbor and accepting his flaws are considered the most fundamental has been beaten down and relegated to, at best, a few chapters in a very long book that people profess to live their lives by, but their actions never match their lip service. The verses about loving your neighbor -- or anything from the New Testament, for that matter! -- are hardly the ones that get quoted during election years. If they were, the hot-button issue about marriage would be making divorce (Matthew 19:3-9), not gay marriage (Leviticus 20:13), illegal*.

The irony is that I, despite my extremely firm belief that there is no God, would respect and admire Christianity anyway if the majority of Christians practiced what they (claim to) preach. But as it stands, the public and open practice of Christianity in America seems to be an exercise in doing the opposite of what Jesus taught as often as possible, and expecting everyone else (the president, your next-door neighbor, your kids' teacher, your kids, your friends, your employees, the rest of the world...) to fall in line and do the same.

So it sounds like Glee has given us a bit of nuance in portraying a Christian on TV by showing us that he is not free from lust but rather that he must actively make a decision about whether or not to act on it. That personal, private struggle against sin is, indeed, real Christianity! But the program falls short of giving us a full version of real Christianity.  That would have required showing us that Joe and his friends went and sang for the lesbian’s girlfriend without any moral struggle or discussion about whether or not homosexuality is a sin. They would have cited the Gospels** and treated her as a neighbor, despite her not being “one of them”.

*In fact, I'm disappointed with these Leviticus hounders. Forget the aforementioned fact that the same book forbids me to wear jeans; how can Santorum or Bachman look at themselves in the mirror when they're not advocating the death penalty for homosexuals? Why go half way?
**Here or here or here or here or...

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Moral Priorities

Our son Benjamin is learning new words at lightning speed, and in two languages no less. He's starting to get to that age where he can form a full enough sentence to make mistatements or out-loud ponderings that can embarrass Mommy and Daddy (i.e., ”wasn't Daddy in the bed!” shouted to the entire supermarket).

Sometimes the thing that slips out of a toddler's mouth and embarrasses Mom and Dad is a swear word, which are of course especially banished in my home country. But anyone who's been within 100 meters of Fredrik and I will know that we don't give a fuck if Benjamin says fuck. In fact, I'm not proud – though not embarrassed – to admit that we might actually have been encouraging it lately. My philosophy is that it's not the words, but the content, that is okay or not. If it's swear words that are bad, does that mean it's more taboo to say ”I'm so fucking tired” than to look a person in the face and say ”You're an ugly idiot”?

I feel we have no reason to actively discourage language we use ourselves – and since our son will never hear us use words, curse- or otherwise, to denegrate a human being, to hurt someone's feeling, to judge a person by anything other than their actions or statements, then we think he's going to turn out alright. This is a household where it's perfectly acceptable to say ”Ow, fuck!” when you stub your toe but not acceptable to say ”She's a fucking bitch.” The choice of vocabulary is completely irrelevant as a measurement of moral quality.

Anyone who's been within 100 meters of me lately also knows that I've fallen in love with Tim Minchin. A carrot-topped Australian piano virtuoso comedian with a Shakespearian vocabulary, a hard-on for rationality, Atheism, and both grammar and math jokes? I'd be hard-pressed to ask for more. His songs have been playing constantly around the Paulsson-Ceangailte household lately, and Benjamin has a favorite. The Pope Song. (The quality of that particular film is not the best, but the performance is as fabulous as ever and I WAS THERE! Ahem. I digress.) The lyrics consist of at least 40% ”fuck” if I'm forced to estimate. The chorus is, to make a long story short, ”fuck the mother-fucking pope.” Benjamin likes to dance to the song and, when it's over, cries ”again, again, more fucka fucka!” Am I now a hypocrite after saying that we don't teach him to use words to slander people? Not at all. Anyone with an ounce of listening comprehension will listen to the song and hear that it has two messages. It's not about mocking religion or a belief in God. The fact that the pope is a religious figure is at most indirectly related to Minchin's rancor. The first message: the pope has protected priests that have molested and raped children. The second message: we are a sad society if we are more offended by the word ”fuck” than the support and adoration of one billion Catholics for a man and an organization that protects child rapists. The song is as much a deceptively potty-mouthed masterpiece of social commentary as South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. ”Horrific, deplorable violence (and war) is okay, as long as people don't say any naughty words!”

DO we live in a world where people can somehow torture up a moral relativity where child rape isn't a big deal? The message this week is, depressingly, yes. The news from Penn State reads like something out of some dark and misanthropic cousin to the Onion.

For those of you who haven't read or heard the news and might still have some hope for humankind, here's the summary: assistant coach Jerry Sandusky of Penn State's football team is being charged with a long string of crimes involving molesting and raping children. The allegations state that he used his workplace – specifically, the showers in the locker room – as the scene of his crimes. Further, that his colleagues, including the head coach Joe Paterno, were aware of his crimes and did jack squat, allowing them to continue.

Now that Sandusky has been arrested, Paterno has been fired because of his role as an accomplice to Sandusky's crimes. Riots have ensued on the campus of Penn State. But sadly, the riots are not in outrage over the fact that their school was a shameful party to years unimaginably heinous acts. They're rioting in outrage over the firing of their beloved head coach, who has ”done so much for the university”.

In Jon Stewart's report over the incident on the Daily Show, we hear that among the allegations is an incident in which a 6'5” man walked into the showers and was an eyewitness to Sandusky raping a child, and that the man did NOTHING. The description of this incident is in no way graphic, but has upset me so much that I'm a bit off-kilter. We had friends visiting last night and the topic of these Penn State riots came up, so Fredrik wanted to show them the Daily Show video, but I told him that I couldn't stomach listening to the description again.

I'm aware of the fact that other voices have come out of Penn State this week, and that the upside is that most people are genuinely outraged over what has happened to child victims. But that the first voices we heard on the subject were from people who had so violently missed the point, and that there were enough of them to constitute RIOTS, leaves a person speechless.

As usual with my blog posts, I have no conclusion, no happy ending, no deep philosophical seed of wisdom to impart. I'm really just getting it off my chest: the idea that people can muster up collective moral outrage over a slight blow to their sports program instead of pondering the hideousness of human nature revealed by this case sickens me. The priority given to sports programs at American universities has always been outrageously inflated compared to the priority given to the universities' actual mission of educating people, but this takes it to tragicomic proportions.

So I will continue to be perfectly fine with Benjamin throwing the word ”fuck” around. I have sense and priorities enough to know that that's much better than him becoming a rapist.

Saturday, September 10, 2011


I'm proud of the fact that I speak Swedish with almost no noticeable accent. What little imperfections there are in my pronunciation and language only serve to make people wonder if I'm not from 'round here, but without them being able to guess where I am from. Every year when we get new students I ask each class to guess where I'm from. I do this at the end of the first lesson I have with them, so they've had plenty of time to hear me speak. Each class gets 20 guesses. None of them have ever won.

That's why I smile a bit when people say ”I DID hear that you had a bit of an American accent!” Without fail, a person has always said that AFTER finding out that I'm American. Again, forced to come up with it on their own, there are few that venture to ask if I'm foreign, and none that have managed to guess where I'm from. Their confidence that they could hear a characteristic American ”R” really only comes after I'm said where I'm from.

So I was a bit put out this morning when I was at the playground with Bennie and, after I'd exchanged about 3 sentences with her, another mom said ”Are you from the U.S.?”

But I was only crushed for a few seconds before realizing: 1) I'd been walking around the place speaking English with Bennie (or even yelling English AT Bennie) and 2) Bennie was wearing a t-shirt with a stars and stripes monkey on it.

Still, I feel the need to practice some vowels.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Jingoist Jingle

I have no idea what reminded of this today, but I've felt for a long time that the U.S. ought to change its national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner." A song about bombs and war doesn't seem like the best way to celebrate national spirit or start a baseball game.

I've always preferred the song "America the Beautiful." It was one of the songs we sang along with our teacher's guitar in kindergarten, so I suppose it's got a nostalgic air for me, but it also focuses on things that I think are better to be proud of. Instead of bombs, wheat fields and high mountains. Instead of victory in war, spacious skies and two vast oceans. It's a theme not unlike that of the Swedish national anthem, "Du Gamla Du Fria". Though there are apparently a lot of people who would like to change the Swedish national anthem to Ulf Lundell's "Öppna landskap," the theme is basically the same: focus on Sweden's natural beauty. (Since "Öppna landskap" mentions moonshining, though, I don't know if that change would jive with the officials...)

But whatever it was that reminded me of my distaste for "The Star-Spangled Banner" today, I decided to search Facebook to see if anyone agreed with me. There's always a group for these things, right? I can't say I put a huge amount of effort into finding a group, but nothing came up on the obvious search terms (except groups calling to change the U.K. and Canadian national anthems). I looked at the Wikipedia page for the national anthem and saw nothing mentioning a movement or campaign to get it changed. After a Google search, though, I did find this blog post by Amanda Marcotte. She argues that "America the Beautiful" is just as bombastic (pun intended, certainly) as "The Star-Spangled Banner," but personally I'm not PC enough to think a "hey, we're awesome!" attitude in a national anthem is wrong. She also says that it would be just as difficult to translate into Spanish as the current anthem -- translation into Spanish is the context in which she's brought up the issue -- but besides not agreeing with that (nothing says that the language in the Spanish version of either has to be as advanced as in the original in order to be beautiful), translatability is not necessarily my first priority here.

However, the suggestion that Amanda makes for our new national anthem, "This Land is Your Land," certainly has its appeal. Aside from echoing "America the Beautiful"'s spirit of America having a huge and varied landscape, by mentioning California, New York, the squares of the city, the shadow of the steeple -- I like the fact that it makes America not just a landscape, but a landscape with people in it. The main theme, "This land was made for you and me," a theme of inclusion that reminds us that we all came from other places, is much more worthy of celebration than superiorly bombing your enemy to smithereens. Just like with Emma Lazarus' "The New Colossus," there's a risk of feeling sarcastic when singing this song of inclusion and welcoming. But like Amanda mentions in her blog post, the last lines of "This Land is Your Land" are:

In the squares of the city - In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office - I see my people
And some are grumblin’ and some are wonderin’
If this land’s still made for you and me.

As Amanda writes, "Best part is the implied challenge at the end for this country to actually live up to its promise." At any rate, I'd rather sing "America the Beautiful" and feel a bit ashamed about us not quite living up to the spirit of caring for America's landscape, or sing "This Land is Your Land" and feel a bit ashamed about us not quite living up to the spirit of welcoming all types of people in our country, than to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" and feel ashamed that my country doesn't even strive towards these priorities and focuses pretty exclusively on "bombs are kewl."

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

My Name is Lori - Karma Lite

Tonight I managed to commit an act of charity, and also to lose my bank card.

About 13 years ago I had a summer job at the 3M tape factory. I worked the graveyard shift, 10 pm to 6 am, so my days were naturally turned around. Personally, I thought it was ideal; you get to sleep as late as you want and still have your evenings free. Can't they open a graveyard shift high school that I can work at? I doubt the students would complain...

One weekend morning at about 2 am I was grocery shopping at Cub Foods and was approached by a petite Hispanic girl in a Taco Bell uniform. She probably weighed 50 pounds soaking wet. She'd just finished work and was supposed to be picked up by a family member, but the family member never showed. She wondered if I could give her a ride home. I took a quick look around while the gears were whirring in my head -- what the hell, why are there so many elderly people shopping at Cub at 2 in the blinking morning -- and decided that the quotient of possible danger to logical explanation for why she asked specifically me multiplied by the unlikelihood of someone dressing up in a Taco Bell uniform in order to kidnap me seemed pretty okay. Her house was on my way home anyway, so I told her to hop in.

When we pulled up to her house, she pulled out a Taco Bell-stamped envelope of money (it was apparently payday, and I totally wondered at the time why Taco Bell paid her in cash) and gave me a $5 bill. I most certainly did not want her money and very much wanted to refuse it and explain that I was glad I could help her get home safe, but I've always had a shyness of the "avoid ANY kind of conflict AT ALL COSTS" type (don't worry, I'm mostly over that now), so I thanked her and took the money and went on my way.

And that bugs me to this day. I was actually thinking about it earlier today. I'm excellent at holding a grudge, especially against myself.

Now, 13 years later, I'd just put Benjamin to bed here at my parents' house and headed out to pick up some milk and OJ. I took a drive over to Byerly's, just because the place gives me the super warm fuzzies. When I was putting my groceries in the car, I remembered that I wanted to take out some cash, and while I was looking back at the store to see if they had an ATM, a woman approached me and asked for help.

She wasn't a tiny Hispanic girl, but rather, a kind-sounding middle-aged lady that happened to be missing a few teeth and was on the brink of tears.

Her explanation of what she needed was a bit fuzzy to me, given that she was visibly shaken and speaking quietly, but the gist of it seemed to be: she was visiting someone at St. John's hospital, her wallet was either lost or stolen, she needed to get home to Stillwater, and wondered if I had a few dollars for gas.

I answered, quite honestly, that I didn't have any cash.

Before I had even finished saying so, she excused herself for bothering me and walked away.

This is where I go back into the store to get the cash I needed anyway, and lose my bank card.

See, American cash machines have the unfortunate routine of spitting out your cash and THEN your card. I'd forgotten this and am once again grateful that Swedish cash machines work the other way around. I grabbed my cash from the machine, went over to a cashier to ask her to break up the bill for me, and walked back past the cash machine in time to wonder why it was beeping so loudly. Then I swore pretty loudly and lunged at the machine a split second too late to save my card from being sucked back in and shredded, and was greeted by the message "Your card has been destroyed for security purposes, please contact your financial institution." (And you have to admit that you, too, would have stood there pressing buttons and hoping to magically reverse that process, yes?)

Anyway, whatever.

I went back into the parking lot and saw the dejected lady sitting in a rather vintage-and-not-in-a-good-way vehicle with two equally dejected looking men. The window was down, and as I approached I could see that she was crying. When I asked if she was alright, she tried to brighten herself up and say that she was fine. I asked about who she'd been visiting -- her dad had had a heart attack but he was doing alright now -- and saw that her gas gauge read bone dry. I gave her $5 and said that I hope her dad will be alright. She thanked me and said she was going to sit and compose herself for a while, but as I buckled up and started my car, I saw one of her male companions on his way to the 76 station with a gas can in hand.

I hope 2 gallons of gas was enough to get that clunker home to Stillwater. Perhaps now I will let myself off the hook for not refusing that other girl's money. But mostly, I just think it's funny that I've added to the list of times that my mother thinks I've narrowly escaped a kidnapping attempt outside of a St. Paul grocery store.