On Civic Trust: “Teach Us (How) to Trust” | Comment Magazine

Wise words from one of my favorite authors:

When suspicion is the water in which we swim, then power, might, and tyranny start to look like lifeboats.

Closer to home, though, the source of mistrust might be more quotidian and bottom-up. In some ways, our distrust is the outcome of our own perceived cleverness. We’re so smart and “in the know” that we end up not trusting anyone who isn’t us. We see through everything, cultivating a knowing distance above the fray, deflating any manifestations of passion and sincerity as scams and facades. So the enlightened posture of the hipster has more social consequences than we might realize. The cause in this case is subjective: a corrosive individualism swells our self-interest, with ripple effects of suspicion. Our loneliness—”bowling alone”—is not a result of mistrust, but a cause. Where cynicism and irony are the last virtues, the web of trust is torn. It’s lonely in the cage of wink-and-nod “authenticity.”

Source: Editorial: Teach Us (How) to Trust | Comment Magazine

I played a parenting sim disguised as the best video game I’ve ever played [The Witcher 3]

Oh no. Here it is. One of those moments where you’ve got to make a snap decision, but you can feel in your heart that it’s a biggie.

Damn. If I let her go off and do this, she’s not ready. She’s going to get hurt. She doesn’t understand the risks. This could end badly – so badly. I’d be an idiot to let a teenage girl walk into that situation without her father.

But if I make the call for her, if I insist on shoving myself into her decision, then I’m also diminishing her as a person. I’m robbing her of the opportunity to become all the woman that she can be. And that’s starting to mean more to me than ‘keeping her safe.’  There’s going to come a day when I’m not there, when I can’t keep her safe. She’s got to be able to make it on her own.

I’ve spent the last week second-guessing my choices as a “parent,”worried that I could have chosen better … This wasn’t what I expected when I popped the game disk into my PS4 in December.

The Witcher 3 is a video game by a Polish studio based on a fantasy series popular there, one that is just now making its way into the American market. (You should immediately go buy the first book on Amazon, because if you like fantasy at all, you’ll enjoy it.) The books and games center on the story of Geralt the Witcher, one of the few remaining members of a guild founded in the book’s Middle Ages to fight monsters who prey on humans. As people began to populate the land (a clone of Eastern Europe) back in the day, witchers were created through mutation and strong drugs to be faster and more capable mutant humans, able to take down the terrifying creatures that the humans discovered in their land. But that was hundreds of years ago, and the witchers are a dying breed now, a relic of an older and less-enlightened age, and despised by most people as an aberration.

witcher-3-screenshot-4-840x473Geralt is a pretty hard man at the beginning of his story. Unlike many fantasy RPG’s which throw you into an open world to craft your own story, Geralt brings his own strong, established personality and a definite story arc. He reminds me of a 1930s noir detective. He speaks in short clipped sentences and sees the world in his own version of black and white. To a witcher, the politics of men matter little. His job is to kill the monsters that men can’t kill … though he wisely recognizes that many “monsters” are far better than the rich men and rulers who devour their subjects through greed and corruption. But he wasn’t created to deal with them.

***SPOILERS AHEAD*** YOU SHOULD STOP NOW IF YOU HAVEN’T PLAYED THE GAME
and you really should play this game! ….One of the best I’ve ever encountered. 

Into Geralt’s hard and lonely life comes a child, a Child of Destiny, a consequence of the Law of Surprise. (“As payment, give me something you have at home that you do not expect.” Or “Give me your first child, the one yet unborn.”) Geralt has little use for Destiny since he survives by hard training, fast reflexes, and avoiding the stupidity of a fight he cannot win. But Destiny has other plans, and inserts into his life a six year old, blond firebrand named Ciri. Geralt, when he has a home, lives with a couple other bachelor witchers in a drafty, crumbling castle. His idea of “fun” is either drinking or working out.

But suddenly, he’s a dad. And through the power of video gaming, now so are you.

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Ciri grows up, as children are wont to do. And so does Geralt (who’s 100 years old, by the way, when the story opens – witchers don’t really age thanks to their mutations). And so does Yenefer, Geralt’s on-again/off-again love interest, a woman who’s so polarizing, the Witcher fanbase sorts itself into #TeamYen and #TeamTriss. Yenefer is a hard woman to love. That’s a long story and I’ll leave it for the books or games to unravel for you, but it’s worth noting that I couldn’t stand her for the first several hours I played the game (or the first several hundred pages of the books).

But what makes the Witcher 3 a stunning masterpiece of storytelling is the way it thrusts you into the job of parent, so craftily that you don’t realize it’s happened. Geralt is on a mission to find Ciri #becauseplot and along the way you’re asked to make decisions, often in the heat of a moment, about how you’re going to respond to Ciri’s attitude or request or needs.

Do you coddle her? Encourage her? Forbid her? Protect her?

It matters. There are three endings to this game, and one of them is horrible. Gamers talk about how that ending crushed them. The other two endings are “good” but also bittersweet. Parents can’t keep their kids forever. It’s not what’s meant to be, no matter how much you enjoy their company. You’ve got to let go. The big question is, will you be able to live with yourself once you see the embodiment of all your parenting choices? #allthefeels

What struck me, once I finished the game, was how much Geralt and Yenefer (and I-as-Geralt) had changed because of parenting Ciri. You realize you’re making decisions differently. They’re sacrificing themselves for the sake of this girl they’re raising. And as Ciri becomes more and more their heart-child, a woman they will fight and die for because they love her that deeply, their sacrifice is redemptive. By sacrificing themselves, they save themselves – from a life of loneliness and bitterness and selfishness. “He who saves his life shall lose it; but he who sacrifices his life for My sake, shall find it,” said Christ in the Gospels. Learning to live and love sacrificially has consequences, primarily for the person who’s learning to love selflessly.

Please dive into this game if you have any inclination toward video games at all. I promise, you won’t be disappointed. In fact, I’ll probably find you bawling your eyes out at the ending, like I did…. because that’s what a great game does for you. It drives home its story so that you cannot escape it, so that you feel it and walk around in a daze for a bit afterward, wondering how you could have been a better parent…..

I recommend reading this lovely short piece on the quality of The Witcher 3‘s storytelling.

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Over 800 awards for this game. Nothing to sneeze at.

You might also enjoy this great analysis by the guys at Extra Credits on how The Witcher 3 uses choice and romantic dilemmas to force the player to confront his/her own character:

How to contact your Congressman … and be heard

From this Tweet:

Came these images, which outline how to contact your representatives and be heard (whatever party you side with):

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[the list each day]

I hate making phone calls like this…. but I think I’m going to start.

Engaging with “Can’t Even”

I wrote a post last week in an attempt to lay out what I think is a biblical response to the ridiculousness of a Trump presidency. I’ve had so many “can’t even” moments in the past week, I’ve run out of curse words and I’ll need to call my congressmen every day for a month just to discus one issue per day from the train wreck of Trump’s first 98 hours as President.

I’m worried that I’ll be weary of well-doing before I even get started. I’m a pretty chill person most of the time with politics and policy because I can see a lot of points of view and find elements that merit respect in them … but that is not this administration thus far.  I’ve seen bald-faced lies, “alternative facts,” and a head-long rush toward dismantling anything that would reign in the American gods of capitalism, individualism, profit, or plutocracy.

OK. So this is it, huh? This is the battlefield: Rejecting apathy. Refusing to disengage and let everything go to hell as it will.

I’m not rich, I have little power. But I am white, and I am educated. So I’m going to use what little position, what little “privilege” I have to speak up and speak out.  I fear that ‘the least of these’ will bear the brunt of nearly every change Trump has made via executive order in the past 72 hours.  Note I said ‘nearly’ – not everything has been a disaster. But mostly.

I’ve got this angry ball of ….anger…. sitting in the pit of my stomach. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt this. I don’t know if it’s ever been caused by political events. It’s going to be a weird 4 years.

My Action To-Do List:

  • Call both SC senators and my House rep in support of the ACA. It’s a flawed law, but handing control to the States simply means red states will continue to stomp on the poor. If Republicans wish to fix the law, great! Let them actually fix it without hurting more people in the process.
  • Call Senator Scott – SC to request that Betsy DeVos be rejected for DoE. No one who wants to destroy a system should be put in charge of it. Not when the data supporting charter schooling is inconclusive at best. Yes, we need to “fix” education. Start by scrapping the billions-a-year testing bullshit. Call your school board and work on that too.
  • Ditto for Tillerson as Secretary of State. Can’t Even. Absolutely Can’t Even with that one.
  • Contact SC reps in support of a gas tax to fix our damn roads. I mean, really. SC governs so poorly. Never any money for infrastructure.
  • Contact Congressmen to denounce Trump’s connections to Dakota Pipeline building companies, his refusal to release his tax returns because “no one cares” (Conway said), his gag order against scientists in multiple agencies
  • Contact Congressmen to express support for the Syrian refugee program Trump will likely end tomorrow, and to disagree with his impending ban on immigration from “Muslim” countries. If you, as a Christian, cannot stand up against this action against an entire religion while basking in American freedom of religion (which is how your church gets out of paying any taxes), you are a hypocrite.

That’s a start. I’m tired already. Mad as hell, still.

Approaching the “Can’t Even”

I’ve been largely silent for most of the past several months both here and in much of social media. One part of that reticence flows from my growing feeling that I don’t have anything to say that’s worth taking your time and attention to read. That’s a complex set of feelings and thoughts which I will not take time to unpack here.

But for the past 2 months or so, the pall of the 2016 election has hung over my mind and contributed to my unwillingness to write.

The last time I gave much of a damn about politics, it was 1988 and I was a middle schooler fascinated by the race between HW Bush and Dukakis. I wrote a fun ditty making fun of some of Dukakis’s positions and mailed it to Vice President Bush. Probably because I was a kid, his office nicely responded on official White House stationery to thank me for the letter, and I stored the signed letter in my photo album for safekeeping. I followed politics voraciously from 1987-1988, then dropped it. I’m not really sure if it was just adolescent ADD or a wise-beyond-my-years intuition that politics is primarily bullshit and power-mongering, two things I hate more than nearly anything else.

I grew up in a household of former Democrats who found themselves voting Republican due to social issues, where soft racism was de rigueur but not supported by an ideology of hate to give it root. The Gulf War was good, for it was a show of American might; Bill Clinton was a lying scoundrel. As I moved into college, where Republican policy was equivalent to God’s own morality, Bill Clinton advanced to the status of Anti-Christ and “God’s judgment on America.” I remember Dr Bob in chapel exhorting us on the eve of the 1996 election to beseech God to spare America from having to endure four more years of that heathen in charge. God apparently didn’t see fit to intervene, or maybe He too was bored to tears by Bob Dole and decided to just let things run their course. Either way, the economy prospered during Clinton’s second term, Clinton shocked everyone with brazen denial of oral sex in the Oval Office (I really hope they fumigate those rooms before the next President moves in, you know?), and America survived to endure the 2000 “hanging chad” election debacle. Regardless, I’d moved on.

I’ve spent my life in education, not politics, on purpose. I feel like i can get somewhere in education; maybe not in the realm of policy (who the hell thought this assessment-driven disaster was a good direction for public education?!) but at least in individual lives.

For years I’ve avoided the political news cycle other than to stay informed as a citizen. I’ve written the occasional email to my representatives, usually for local or state issues, and watched the national circus from the sidelines. If America were to follow Britain’s example and limit the campaign season to 3 months, I’d cry with joy. This circus is shameful, self-aggrandizing. It’s everything that’s the worst of America’s adolescent age.

But Trump? this is a new level of horror. To watch a boorish, rude, egocentric, power-hungry narcissist step into the office of President and thrash about with his base appeals to the lowest common denominator of American culture … I can’t even.

I literally. can’t. even.

How do we live in the era of “Can’t Even”? That’s been the thought simmering in the back of my mind these past several weeks. A friend on Facebook added me to his “Resist45” Facebook group for local community organization and resistance to destructive Trumpism. Other than standing on a corner with a sign, nobody there has brought forward a concrete plan for change, for taking those baby steps out of my comfortable house into my neighborhood to “work for change.”

But this posture of fear and disgust and indifference is ultimately a lack of faith on my part. I was thinking today, on this day when we celebrate the legacy of MLK Jr and his fearless pursuit of justice at a time when the prevailing culture had little stomach for it, that the people of God have usually lived in the Time Of Can’t Even. A remnant of godly Israelites wept by the shores of Babylon and sang David’s psalms with little hope of seeing their homeland again. The Romans, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Philistines all stomped through the land where the believers in Yahweh lived, and God’s counsel to them was never to despair. How dare I simmer in my own discontent?

Jesus came preaching that His Kingdom is not of this world. But understand: The heavenly reality of God’s rule does not absolve us from earthly work. Instead, it grounds us in a deeper foundation of Justice whose name is also Yahweh-Yireh, the God Who Provides. We serve El – Roi, the God Who Sees both Hagar, tormented and neglected by the man and woman who should have cared for her, as well as those whom we allow by our apathy to be eaten up by the powerful of this world in their pursuit of riches and glory.

There are no neutral decisions. Whether I get paper or plastic at BiLo affects the mountain of non-degradable trash sickening our planet. The choice forces me to consider the consequences of living in America’s “disposable” culture. I’m wasteful; I’m complacent. I buy more than I need. I buy clothes that could not be so cheap unless they were sewn in a sweatshop in Indonesia by people who’s lives are marked by misery and hunger and oppression.

And why am I even buying clothes? My closet is full, while my grandparents (and parents, when they were children) owned a mere handful of garments – so little that everything could fit in a “wardrobe” (if they owned one) with space for maybe 10 hangers and a few drawers. This consumption and capitalism of ours is foolishness, a chasing after wind. Go read Ecclesiastes. Even the king dies. What happens to everything he owns? A fool inherits it. It does him no good in Sheol, where he’s going.

I don’t know how I’m going to live in “Trump’s America.” The thought still turns my stomach, honestly. But to disengage, to indulge myself in the “can’t evens,” is faithless and cowardly.

A dear friend once commented that the Holy Spirit was challenging her on her addiction to peace, peace for herself at any cost. She was facing a difficult period with her sons and every day was a horrible battle of wills full of anger and fear and pain. In that context, no one could blame her for just trying to “keep the peace.” But that is where the Spirit pressed her. Doing what is best for others and for the Kingdom often requires sacrificing our peace, the longing we have to remain where things are comfortable and safe.

I do not know what it will look like for me to live in Trump’s America, but I’m confident that “loving my neighbor” will be more important than ever. And since “Grace always costs the giver,” I pray that I will have the courage to love. I invite you to challenge me, friends, to embody that sentiment in action, not mere words.

the-ultimate-measure-of-a-man

Contraction

My daily work has regressed over the past several years from working in tangible ways with dozens of people in meaningful ways, to working with far fewer people in ways that hold less meaning for me personally.

It might be an unfair comparison, given the narcotic doses of meaning present in a classroom. Yes, teaching is both mundane and hard and at times genuinely rather dull – but most of the time, I found it deeply engaging, meaningful work. My life (and heart) was full of faces and souls for whom I could care and work. Delivering English lessons was valuable in itself, but what I loved was building relationships and watching students grow into flourishing adults.

My work at Erskine was interesting and creative and pushed me to develop parts of myself that hadn’t received much attention. But the circle of souls inscribed by my daily engagements was much smaller. Yes, I knew some students and even taught a class. But most of my labor fit within a single building alongside a handful of people.

Now my circle seems to be scribed even smaller. My office sits in my home. My students are connected to me through a phone line; I hear only their voices. It’s a mediated relationship – perfectly appropriate given that these are graduate students and practicing educators; they are not looking for a life coach; they are trying to earn a master’s degree. But the world is still smaller.

I’m thankful for my vocational journey over the past 5 years, but I’m unhappy that my life has contracted rather than expanded. It probably didn’t help that we are sailing the seas of Christendom looking for a new church home, another shrinking of community and reduction in meaningful work.  I feel like a shadow of my former self.

I’m old enough to know that “this, too, shall pass.” We walk through narrow canyons as well as sunny fields.

But that doesn’t make the canyons any less narrow when you’re in them.

 

Accidental Culinary Adventures

This is how I cook: I open up the refrigerator or pantry and say, “What’s here?” If there are enough building blocks to create a meal along the lines of something I’ve cooked before and enjoyed, problem solved.

This approach leads to occasional accidental delights (but mostly just decent supper food). Here are two that happened in my kitchen in the past month. See if you’re similarly inspired to experiment. 😉

Chicken Orzo-tore

I’ve been making chicken cacciatore since I started cooking (a few days after I got married), but I learned the recipe by watching my dad make it countless times for supper. It was easy, relatively quick, and cheap – all qualities that my dad prized in his culinary endeavors

Recipe: Dad’s Chicken Cacciatore

But the other day, as I eyed a small bag of orzo pasta I’d picked up at Trader Joe’s, I had an epiphany: What If I swapped out the rice I usually serve alongside cacciatore, and used the orzo instead?

The verdict: Delicious! I cooked the orzo pasta on the side and then throw the cooked orzo into the pot of cacciatore once it came out of the oven. However, I’m wondering if I should have cooked the orzo straight into the cacciatore so it would pick up more of those flavors. Dunno. May try that next time.

Post Pork-Roast Beef Stew

So last month, I made the most incredible pork roast thanks to this recipe from an Upstate cook:

Balsamic Beer-Braised Pork Roast, from She Wears Many Hats

Photo by She Wears Many Hats, where I found the recipe. Just LOOK at that pork!
Photo by She Wears Many Hats, where I found the recipe. Just LOOK at that pork!

It’s an amazing recipe. So easy; so incredibly flavorful.

I make two changes from her recipe. The first, I use rendered bacon fat (cook a couple pieces, pull out the bacon, use it for something else) to sear the pork roast in the first step. The additional smokiness of a high quality bacon adds incomparable depth of flavor. Goes without saying that you need to be using a good bacon here; I keep Trader Joe’s applewood smoked bacon in the frig at all times.

Second, once the pork roast had been seared but before adding the cooking liquid (beer et al), I deglaze the pan with some bourbon or sherry. Sometimes a little of both, in succession. Scrape up the brown bits and let the meat soak up some of the alcohol before continuing. Again, it’s a layer of flavor that makes a difference in the end.

When you’re done (follow the recipe), you have pork that just falls apart and shreds with no effort at all. It’s incredible as pulled pork sandwiches; you need no additional BBQ sauce.

But then…. there’s more magic to be had in the pot! You’ll need your favorite beef stew recipe – look it up on the Internet and pick up some cheap “stew beef” at the store on your next grocery run, along with carrots, potatoes, onion, celery, a box of beef broth, and either rice or big noodles or barley or whatever.

Let the drippings cool until the fat congeals on top. Stop being squeamish; this is part of life when cooking with meat. Scrape off and discard as much of the solid fat as you can, leaving behind the beer-broth and bits of pork from the earlier recipe.

Heat what’s left on medium in your Dutch oven till it’s going pretty hard and throw in all your chopped vegetables. If you did too good a job of removing fat, you might need to add a wee bit of olive oil or butter here.  Meanwhile, brown your beef chunks in a skillet on the side and throw them in with the vegetables once they get brown on all sides. (The extra work is worth it – I promise.)  Add your broth and seasonings, and throw the whole pot into the oven for an hour or more, till the potatoes are completely done and the beef is tender.

If you’re going to add rice or noodles it might be easier to cook those on the stovetop and then add them at the end.

The result: Your beef stew will have this magical depth of flavor, a savory-ness that I can’t ever get when I just “make beef stew,” no matter what seasonings I add. The leftovers from the pork bring so many good flavors to the party, but nothing clashes with the traditional beef stew vibe.

I’m committed now to always making the pork recipe before I make a regular beef stew. I’m not sure I can go back to the old way…. 😉

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