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Mob Kills Pakistani Christians

PakistaniChristians.600

A Pakistani Christian couple in the ruins outside their home. (Reuters)

The New York Times has original reporting today about an attack Saturday on a small enclave of Christians in Pakistan. A mob of 20,000 Muslims killed 8 people in one family, who happened to live in the first house they came to. The story is both grotesque and fascinating, and though it’s written with the usual Times understatement, the headline is strikingly honest: Hate Engulfs Christians in Pakistan.

It got me thinking about two examples of this kind of violence closer to home: the recent murder of Dr. George Tiller, in church no less; and the incredible (and sometimes threatening) invective on a hate website which seeks to destroy the Episcopal Church, called Stand Firm.

In Pakistan, the mob was incited by an outlawed group of Muslim terrorists, who then got enraged by a phony rumor that some Christians at a small wedding had burned the Koran. That was all they needed to spring into action. Besides the murders, 100 homes were looted and destroyed.

But it wasn’t just the terrorist group or even the mob itself that was responsible. The Times reports:

“We were afraid because the clerics had been railing against us in the mosques,” said Riaz Masih, a Christian and retired math teacher whose house was gutted. “They said, ‘Let’s teach them a lesson.’ ”

The clerics had been railing against us in the mosques. This is just like the Fox News rabble-rouser Bill O’Reilly, who gets ratings (and gets rich) by inciting hatred (“Tiller the Baby Killer” on 29 shows), and like the hate website, whose main reason for existing is to incite anti-Gay prejudice.

I’m happy to say that the Episcopal Church, with the recent departure of four anti-Gay bishops (and their dioceses, half their parishes and millions of dollars in property), has mostly put this crowd behind us. The recent church convention consistently voted 2-1 or even 3-1 for Gay, Lesbian and Transgender inclusion. (Bisexual folks really don’t make it onto the Church radar screen because, face it, we’re into committed relationships and monogamy.) Transgender advocates (that is, church members who are Trans) were shocked and thrilled by the votes; the Lesbian and Gay crowd mostly expected to win, I think, but still, we batted 1.000. That’s never happened before.

In recent days three openly-Gay people, two women and a man, have become finalists for elevation to bishop. Two of them are friends of mine. Bonnie Perry of Chicago is a rousingly successful priest who has “bishop” written all over her; I’ve been to her parish, which is kind of a fallen-down wreck, yet she’s made it vital and alive. John Kirkley is the rector of a parish in the Mission district in San Francisco, and if you know the city, that neighborhood’s not exactly posh either. He leads a lively congregation that’s plainly on a quest for God in their midst.

So how does Stand Firm, the online bigot convention, react to their possible elevation?

• A joke bishop for a joke church.

• It is not God that Kirkey worships.

• so-called priests in an insane church

• here is a man whose only relationships with other men are purely sexual in nature.

• Of course, he’s a pervert, so I suppose I should be more surprised

And that’s just five random comments on one blog post; they do a dozen posts a day, a fairly large and well-funded operation for a blog.

This is how the mob grows to 20,000: “We were afraid because the clerics had been railing against us…”

Gene Robinson, another friend who’s Gay, had to have a security detail and wear a bulletproof vest when he was consecrated bishop of New Hampshire in 2003—a fact the hate-site loves to mock.

Demonize people long enough (which is all the hate-site does) and sooner or later, someone will take matters into their own hands.

Dr. Tiller was ushering at a Lutheran church in Wichita when an Operation Rescue contributor (allegedly) showed up with a gun and shot him to death in the vestibule.

It was so important to “stop the killing” that the gunman did some killing himself. The anti-abortion industry has a long history of this kind of violence, from Eric Rudolph to Jon Brockhoeft. Brockhoeft was the most menacing guy I ever saw; he used to haunt the Cincinnati City Council (even though he didn’t live there) to damn everyone to hell if an LGBT rights bill passed. He had this long hair and beard (so he’d look like Moses, I suppose) and you could tell by one look in his eyes he was crazed with anger.

In Pakistan, Christians occupy the lowest rung in society, according to The Times. Half the mob stormed their village not just to kill and burn, but to loot their possessions. The criminal motive is clear; and the mullahs started it.

The Anglican archbishop of Nigeria does the same thing to Gay people, demonizing in order to hold onto power. Breakaway Episcopalians in Virginia (including Bush/Cheney neocons who gave us the Iraq war) are now publicly aligned with this man Peter Akinola, who claims it’s Christian to persecute and imprison Gay people.

The archbishop of Canterbury goes along with this in a convoluted appeasement strategy—but the Episcopal Church does not. That’s why our convention voted 2-1 to welcome us in the door, even up to the altar as chief pastor, and a special committee will now start compiling same-sex marriage rites for formal examination at the next convention.

Some “religious” people are scary, and they’ll kill ya. But what do you do if you still believe in God? What if you will always believe in the Greatest Story Ever Told, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ?

You turn into Bonnie Perry, John Kirkley and Gene Robinson; you do your best to fight hate with love, as Jesus did. It’s all we can do, but it’s enough.++

GreatestStoryEver

The Central Liturgy of Life

Blue Cheese.DavidFankhauserUCClermont

Dr. David Fankhauser, University of Cincinnati Clermont College.

The New York Times has a fantastic article today by Michael Pollan about the decline of cooking—fantastic in its wide range and the memories it conjures up. It’s called “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch,” and discusses Julia Child, the current movie “Julia and Julie,” the rise of the Food Network and the decline of the American diet. I do a lot of scratch cooking, and the article makes me aware of the peculiarities of my personal history, current lifestyle (counter cultural)—and of something he doesn’t mention but all Episcopalians know, the rise in importance since 1979 of the Holy Eucharist, the shared Christian meal, as the central act of worship. Read the article here.

Pollan’s observations help me know what to do with my writing; namely to incorporate more recipes in my fiction and my blogs.

Some of you know that I have struggled for years to produce a sequel to “Murder at Willow Slough.” Novel-writing is usually hard work (though my “University” series came to me in a nine-month ecstasy). In “Slough” I created two men who groove on each other; it ends when they finally get together. But what next?

They fuck, they work, they eat and they sleep. Just like your life, though not necessarily in that order.

The point of the next book is to describe the making of a Gay Christian marriage. One character is secretly in love with God but seldom goes to church, while the other character goes every Sunday but doesn’t have a clue.

What they have in common is The Meal, at home and in the sanctuary.

Do The Meal often enough, and it comes to occupy a central place in your life. As Kent might say, “Ain’t nothin’ better than a good supper.”

Christianity astonishes me in its perfection. Jesus was the smartest guy ever.

“Take, eat, do this in remembrance of me.”

I miss having friends on my porch this summer as I grill out. For the past few years, two of them came every few days; we’d cook and eat and have a great time. But last winter they broke up and we’re all suffering as a result. They are such good guys, but they couldn’t get along, so the breakup was right, but I sure do miss them.

A year or so ago at their house—they’re also good cooks—Scott made a blue cheese spread for our steaks. It was delicious, and I wrote down his recipe. Three nights ago I made my own version of it for a ribeye I cooked all alone. It tasted great but I missed my guys.

In fiction, Jamie can make this for Kent:

Blue Cheese Spread

3 T cream cheese
1 scallion, minced
1 1/2 T blue cheese
1 t lemon juice
1 t Worcestershire sauce
1 garlic clove, minced

Mix all but the blue cheese in a small bowl with a fork. Then add the cheese and stir with a spoon, incorporating but not mashing the blue crumbles. Spread on a medium-rare steak and Enjoy!

In the fictional version Kent’s so sexy that Jamie lets him do whatever he wants. But Kent is smart enough to realize that outside the bedroom, Jamie’s the one who knows how to live. They come up with a very nice way to balance their power, so that no one is diminished and each of them serves the other. That’s how they make their marriage.

Or, the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Jamie’s so good in the kitchen that Kent will follow him anywhere, do anything, for any reason.

A cop and a blondboy, a match made in heaven. But pray I can finally pull it off.++

Heartbeat

Episcopalians to End 40-Year Campout in Homophobic Wilderness?

Gene.closeup

The General Convention of The Episcopal Church is now in session in Anaheim, California, and the big issues are all Gay: Gay marriage; Gay bishops like Gene Robinson, above; Gay baptism—and one question that’s mostly Straight: can we finally talk to young people again about Jesus without the damning baggage of homophobia?

Forty years we’ve been wandering this wilderness; forty years later we’re still torn between those who want to go slowly into freedom, and won’t take a step forward unless everyone else comes too; and those who want to set foot in the Promised Land where God loves everyone in our own lifetimes.

Preliminary readings, based on nothing more reliable than how many folks showed up to argue each side in debate, indicate that we’re about to take a big step forward—though being Episcopalians, it will doubtless come with all kinds of ifs, buts, whereases, double-checking and backwards somersaults.

The stakes are not small. The fate of the worldwide Anglican Communion may hang in the balance, along with lots of ecumenical partnerships. Since the last convention three years ago, four U.S. dioceses have defected to join the anti-Gay forces in Argentina and Nigeria by way of Pittsburgh. (Don’t ask.) We’ve had to sue to get our churches back and it’s been ugly.

Several things are striking about the current scene.

• All over the world, GLBT Christians hurt massively about being in limbo all this time. I do too, and I don’t have nearly as much to lose as Gay Anglicans in Africa, China, Japan, India (which recently saw its first Gay-positive court ruling), much less Iran, where they publicly hang the queers to cheering crowds.

• Most of the really vicious anti-Gay Americans have already taken a hike to Buenos Aires or Lagos, and are likely to be marginalized for years to come. You’ve never seen vitriol like these people speak it; they make Fred Phelps look like a piker.

• Most of the remaining, go-slow Episcopalians are not Gay-haters. I disagree with them profoundly, but they don’t want TEC to get too far out front and break the valuable ties we have to Third World Anglican churches, most of whom embrace 19th century British colonialism, with its evangelical zeal and particular abhorrence over (male) homosexuality, which just happen to fit perfectly with native prejudices and male domination.

• But it’s important to listen to the anguish of these non-Gay-hating Americans. Some are parents of LGBTs. Most realize change is coming, like it or not. It’s not wrong for them to value relationships with the Old Guard in Britain, Central Africa and Australia; what’s wrong is that they elevate those relationships above those with their own GLBT parishioners—and generations of young Americans who judge Christianity as an immoral religion.

It must have been hell for Moses to talk the Israelites into setting out for the Promised Land. They procrastinated so long he never got to set foot there himself.

• A post yesterday on Episcopal Café by Otis Gaddis III, a young Washington lawyer and candidate for ordination, crystallized the moral argument better than I’ve ever seen it, and better than I’ve ever made it. (After a lifetime of Gay advocacy, I don’t give such praise lightly.)

There can be no evangelism, he writes, among young Americans or anyone else, if The Episcopal Church is simply one more Gay-bashing, hypocritical conglomerate.

He cites a recent Banta poll which found that two-thirds of young U.S. adults favor Gay marriage equality. He says it’s become a litmus test among young people deciding whether to trust a faith community with their own spiritual concerns. If a church isn’t safe for their Gay friends, it isn’t safe for them either. They don’t identify with an “immoral religion,” he says, and 90% of them believe Christianity is anti-Gay.

This is exactly where The Episcopal Church finds itself in crisis and opportunity—not in worrying about ancient relationships with England and Nigeria, which we will doubtless maintain no matter what.

Do we have anything to say to our own children?

If the “Church of the Presidents” (TEC) strikes a definitive blow for Gay rights in Anaheim, that will make news—and open up countless spiritual conversations among friends. “Jesus is not a bigot. Jesus is a radical lover.”

If we don’t—if we keep wandering this barren desert till every last communicant with an anxiety attack finally gets over it—we will miss the greatest opportunity for Good News-spreading in my lifetime.

“Mission” and “evangelism” are really nothing more than one friend telling another, “I’ve found this way to live that really helps me. Is there any chance it could help you too?”

If the Episcopal Church is safe for Gay people, it’s probably safe for anyone. Come, see what Jesus has to say, and how his followers lived once upon a time, and still try to.

No, you don’t have to sign on the bottom line. Just bring an open mind and open heart; “come and see.”

Questions allowed; opinions encouraged. Doubts expected; faith inspired.

“No greater love is this, but that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

(H/t Fr. Mychal Judge)

I have hopes for the current General Convention, but hopes tempered by skepticism. People always opt for the wilderness they know instead of the Promised Land they don’t. (How Moses endured is beyond me.)

Even our best foot forward will inevitably involve two steps back. One of those back-steps comes from gentle concern for the fearful, and one will be caused by the machinations of hateful schismatics.

At some point TEC has to choose. This may be the year. Six states have same-sex marriage now, and bishops in those states are asking why they can’t solemnize Gay weddings with the same ineffable joy as they do Straight weddings. The parishioners wonder too.

However, the Bishops and Deputies (as priests and lay delegates are called) are overwhelmingly middle-aged to elderly, mostly retired, able to afford two weeks in high-priced SoCal. It takes cash and lots of time to represent a diocese at General Convention; I admire the dedication of those who can manage it. Latino, Black, Asian, White (we’ve got them all), the dominant hair color is gray. Young adults are built-in and subsidized, I hope, but still, most voters have spent all their lives in the wilderness. Do they have the courage to set out for the Land of Promise? Or is Moses going to die before we finally get there?

Will I die before we finally get there, where we can credibly present Jesus Christ as the ultimate role model for how to live for this generation?

Breaking News: “Gray Ones Join Youth on Uncertain Trek.”

I think the gray-haired bunch steps off the fastest. The kids will race to catch up, then everyone will dance on the way to the new stomp grounds, where there will be singing and feasting and yes, real mourning for those left behind.

Church politicians may groan and fret, but a little child will lead them, and Grandma’s right on her heels, “Let’s race!”

O God, make it so, that my People, these extraordinary givers so dear to your heart, may feast in your agapé at last. Come Holy Spirit, incline our hearts to keep your law.

As Fr. Ben said, Sunday after Sunday for forty years:

“Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith.

“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it; Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

Love thy neighbor, even if she’s Gay.++

A Boy & His Dog

toy-fox-terrier

I continue to go through many after-effects of my recent trips with Peter to some favorite places in western Indiana, then to the Smoky Mountains, my all-time favorite destination. One is that I seem to be suddenly in the market for a dog. And not just any dog, but the kind we used to have when I was a kid, a fox terrier. One was named Tinker, another was Half-Pint. They’re cute little guys with sweet personalities, and they don’t bark much. I hate yippy dogs that go nuts every time the mailman walks by.

I’m also not that fond of bigger dogs, and it seems like everyone’s got a behemoth these days. Fox terriers are my size, not too little, not too big.

Turns out I have a lot of prejudices or preferences about dogs; I despise “designer dogs,” pure-breeds with genetic weaknesses, which is all you see in New York. I want a dog from the pound, a rescue dog, an abandoned one who needs a home. If you’ve got hundreds of dollars to spend on a dog, send that money to the human food pantry instead; go bail out an inmate in dog jail and you’ll have a friend for life. Animals are not your status symbol.

The dogs I grew up with, both in town and on the farm, were working dogs, respected as well as loved, and well taken care of for both reasons. Grandma Clara had a collie mix named Gypsy, an outside dog who was mostly a watcher and companion. She had the run of the place, a couple hundred acres, and she wasn’t always stuck at the house. But if she was close by and an unknown car pulled into the lane, she was there, barking and asking, “Who are you?” She wasn’t threatening the way some dogs can be, and she learned not to chase cars on the highway, but only to guard the house; she was better than a doorbell. And of course she always recognized us, so then her bark was saying, “Hi, you’re back!” We loved our Gypsy. She lived to a good old age.

Fox terriers were the dogs of choice on a lot of farms back then, because they’re smart, athletic, good hunters and great companions; now there are a lot fewer farms and foxies have fallen out of fashion. But they’re what my parents liked, and a couple of weeks ago I fell in love with one again.

Peter and I were visiting our photographer/cop friend Quentin in Lafayette. Mr. and Mrs. Q have a foxer, and oh man, is he sweet. He’s older, not as frisky as he once was, but he and I took an instant liking to each other. Quentin said that was unusual for the dog in his older years, he usually avoids the stimulation of meeting someone new; and it’s become unusual for me in adulthood to bond with an unknown pet. But somehow we hit it off the minute we met, and I can’t stop thinking about his breed. Terriers are ideal dogs.

In young adulthood before this phase in my life, I wasn’t fit to keep a dog; didn’t always make enough money for all his bills, I worked long hours, wasn’t home enough, and then I had a very sick lover to take care of. But now here I am, with time on my hands, six rooms and a yard to run around in; maybe adopting a dog makes sense.

Some other thought-streams are running in my head: I’ve seen the Smokies again, so my spirit is fulfilled. After two good trips I’m ready to stay at home a good while, and able to look after another creature. I’ve got a whole big house and no one else around, so maybe it’s time.

Fox terriers are not demanding; that’s the outstanding them about them compared to other dogs. And being pack animals, they love to bond with the leader. Besides, they’re impossibly cute.

So I think I could accomodate a foxy at this time in my life. He and I could grow old together. I probably have enough years left to see a puppy through his lifespan, which is no small consideration. Or I could take an older dog like Q’s; dogs need homes, people to be around, someone to buy the food and see the water dish is fresh. I could do that.

One other prejudice: I want a male dog. All our dogs were boys when I was a kid, and males are what I know. Their behavior isn’t that different from females’, and a girl who’s been fixed doesn’t turn into a yowling bitch in heat; but still, boys are what I know.

Maybe it’s time. Maybe I’m ready to retire and not do much but take the dog to the park and watch him run. Maybe I can teach him to catch a Frisbee; maybe my arm will get tired of throwing before he gets tired of jumping and catching.

Maybe I just want someone who’ll lick my face no matter what I look like. That’s probably it.

But there are two shelters now that know I’m on the lookout for a male fox terrier, and I wouldn’t be surprised to bring one home soon. Heaven is full of animals, you know; they go there direct without stopping at purgatory. This was one of God’s easier decisions, while the humans have to face elaborate vetting.

If you were St. Peter would you cross-examine this guy, or just wave him through and hold him while he licked your face?

If you can’t see the soul in this little boy, you’re going straight to hell.++

Fox_terrier_smooth

Summer Vacation: Nice to Be Home

porkchops

I’m home alone, after a great week in the Smoky Mountains with Peter from Amsterdam. I have a lot to clean up from his three-week visit, but the timetable is mine alone, to do as I feel like. It’s good to be home and in control of my life again, without any pressure to get him to O’Hare on time. Instead of spending Gay Pride Day “40” at the parade in Boyztown, we were stuck in traffic on the expressway. I suspect the Taste of Chicago is deliberately timed to compete with Gay Pride Day.

Today the weather is coolish and windy; thunderstorms are rumored but the radar is clear, so the cold front is treating us gently. I plan to grill a thick pork chop for dinner, then sit on my side porch watching the trees sway on my Street Without Any Traffic.

Coming home from vacation is a time to consolidate one’s gains. We had dozens of wonderful experiences that will live on in memory; the Roaring Fork Motor Tour through Great Smokies National Park was my favorite of all, plus we discovered a new-to-me town that would make a good destination in the future. It’s Sylva, North Carolina, which has a progressive flavor. We ate a great meal at 553 West Main, where Ross Lorenz is the chef and owner. He had a live band outdoors while we listened to jazz inside, and the food was worth every penny.

Over the years I’ve returned repeatedly to the Smokies, but each time I’ve stayed in a different town. Gatlinburg, the most famous one, is an overcrowded tourist trap; years ago I stayed in Pigeon Forge, which in those days was a sleepy little nothing. Then native daughter Dolly Parton decided it was a great place to make money. I greatly admire her business acumen; she was absolutely right to turn it into a gold mine, creating thousands of jobs in what formerly was a piss-poor place. But I have no interest in “family entertainment,” so Pigeon Forge is out.

dolly-parton

So is Sevierville; I stayed there once too, but that whole area on the Tennessee side is “so crowded, no one goes there anymore.” Hat tip, Yogi Berra.

Next time, Sylva. It doesn’t have a single T-shirt shop, fudge joint or wax museum, and you can actually get a fine meal there.

A few noteworthy things about Cherokee, NC:

• The casino has empowered The People, who finally voted in alcohol a couple of weeks ago to keep the cash flowing. Some are predicting increased crime and social problems, but that check the Nation sends to each enrolled member every six months does come in handy.

• Even though the Qualla Boundary is a reservation, real estate is privately owned; the American Way, imposed by the Federal government, is the opposite of the Cherokee Way, and their culture still suffers from capitalist exploitation by outsiders. I wish the tribe could bulldoze every last moccasin shop and two-bit wigwam in town. The Cherokees lived in proper houses when the White man arrived; thanks to Sequoyah, The People were soon more literate than their White neighbors. Casino-funded progress is obvious, but the spirit longs for The People to control their own place.

• We ran into something weird at the Best Western: internet censorship, like freakin’ China. Anything Gay is verboten; Peter couldn’t open half the e-mails on his Google account. I tried visiting Gay.com to see if news was allowed, but I got a censorship screen instead. I cannot recommend staying in Cherokee, though I do endorse the Museum, Oconaluftee Indian Village, “Unto These Hills” and especially the Qualla Mutual Arts and Crafts store. Visit Cherokee by all means, but don’t stay there unless giving your money to one-armed bandits is your idea of entertainment.

• This was personally important for my novels: I asked about the Cementation Ceremony at Talking Leaves Bookstore, and the owner had never heard of it. (I believe it was an annual Gay male wedding ceremony.) Artist and author Thomas E. Mails (The Cherokee People) described it in loving detail as one of the Nation’s principal feasts, but The People are now so Baptist-brainwashed that they’ve censored their own culture from themselves; though they love to complain that their losses are all someone else’s fault. It’s just human nature, I guess, but Gay Cherokees could use the reminder of their central place in the old religion.

I am glad we went to Cherokee, the Agency town; but I doubt I’ll ever visit there again. And we never did figure out what “rat cheese” might be.

Among the gains I’m consolidating along with the memories are some neat things we bought. I now own a communion set, a blue chalice and almost-matching plate I got from Teresa Cole, a potter in Berea, Kentucky showing at Gallery 103 on College Square. I set the chalice on the paten in the middle of my dining room table; I’m not a priest, so I don’t suppose I’ll ever host a Eucharist in my home, but if the chance ever arises I’m ready. They are already dear things to me, and I recommend something similar for every Christian home. Just the sight of them is a good reminder of what’s important.

At Qualla I bought something inexpensive but hand-carved, a little canoe and paddle with the artist’s initials on the bottom; I love being on the water, and I very much enjoyed the mini-demonstration of canoe-hollowing at Oconaluftee. (Besides, the kid was cute. Did I mention he was the Principal Dancer that night at the amphitheater? In a loincloth?)

I bought two things for my beloved side porch, which I’m gradually turning into a summer kitchen. I got a 3-bulb lamp in New Harmony, Indiana, an unusual piece of vertical, rectangular ironwork with stained glass tulip globes; it fits wonderfully in the space I had in mind, and we’ve already enjoyed its soft glow when the sun goes down. In Asheville, NC, I bought a 15-inch square metal sculpture to hang on the exterior brickwork of my living room fireplace. I looked at much more expensive sculpted pieces in another shop in the same arcade downtown, but then I got worried about whether my bricks were wide enough to hold them, only to discover once I got home that the chimney is six feet wide and I’m an idiot. I guess in all these past five years that I’ve owned this house, I’ve never really looked at that brickwork from the outside; I knew it needed some visual interest and sculpture would work well, but I always sit facing away from it, looking at the Street With No Traffic, and never staring directly at it to know it’s a big frickin’ chimney.

Even my little piece of stamped-out steel would give dinner guests something to touch and enjoy, but I’m amazed to be this dumb a blond.

Peter bought me an Indian serving tray, showing snow-capped mountains and horses; I wish he hadn’t, but I admired it, and before I knew it the saleswoman was wrapping it up. It’s probably Sioux, Navajo or Ute, not Cherokee, but I’ll enjoy carrying food on it for my porch guests.

Meanwhile my house and garage are intact, didn’t get blown apart by a tornado, and the garden is thriving; the tomato plants are a foot taller, the cherries are ready to go, the flowers are beaming and the herbs scent the air.

I have plenty of weeding to do—we got two inches of rain while I was gone—but life is good, happily predictable, everything’s under control. Do the laundry, throw out Peter’s junk he left behind, clean out the refrigerator; welcome back to normal life on a pretty porch, where pork chops sizzle.

Three weeks I think is too long a visit anymore for a guy who lives alone and is used to arranging the towels a certain way. Back when travel was difficult, family members visited for long stretches; I remember two weeks in Kokomo as a kid with my mother’s Aunts Leatha and Hazel. But now I’m too set in my ways, an odd discovery to make at 58. When did my way become the only way?

But in truth it always was; I’m the Gay son of a control-freak mother. Who’s kidding whom? (Randy, Eddie, Frankie, John, Avon, Jack and Steve, your snarks will be deleted!)

Peter is an often-thoughtful guest, a generous person who bought a total stranger in Cherokee a $50 gift certificate to Restaurant 553. We had a fantastic vacation. Still, the more I age, the more comforting routines become, so I’m glad to be Back Home Again where I belong. At 12 noon it’s time to do tomorrow’s Daily Office for our troops in Afghanistan, Korea and Iraq, but it’s hard to maintain the discipline at a Best Western. Without the daily prayers I’m pretty much adrift; and ditto without my Mythos Man.++

Cherokee Men

Baptized in the River

Smokies

Peter and I are now on the second and final leg of our “Best Of” tour, and I’m posting this from Cherokee, North Carolina. Last week we saw some of the best of Indiana, my home state, on our “U.S. 41 Cruise,” and now we’re in my all-time favorite place, the Great Smoky Mountains.

I believe in traveling slow. I’m not one of these people who gets up at dawn, then drives all night to get to a distant destination, only to spend the next day exhausted. I’d rather take two days and arrive in style. Our first night we aimed for Berea, Kentucky via Cincinnati, just so I could take Peter to Camp Washington Chili.

Camp Washington Chili

Peter allowed me to order for him: one cheese coney, no onions, heavy mustard, and a 3-way. Cincinnati-style chili, which is Greek in origin, is a local delicacy, and there are chili parlors “on every corner,” hundreds of them in the city. Camp Washington is my sentimental favorite, because I remember its original location, an all-night place 24/6, perfect after a night at the bars. The “new” restaurant is now old enough to look slightly seedy, which makes it perfect even at 3 in the afternoon. The late Charles Kuralt of CBS News once proclaimed Camp Washington’s “the best chili in the world,” and it’s won the James Beard Award as an American Regional Classic.

Here’s the most wholesome picture of a 3-way you’ll ever see.

3-Way

Peter’s always a good sport, and he pronounced it “a new experience. You saw how quickly the plate was empty.”

From The Camp we headed south via I-75 to Berea, a small town just south of Lexington, Ky., about two hours away. The town grew up around Berea College, which was founded by Christian abolitionists in 1853 to educate Blacks and Whites, men and women, according to the precept “Learning, Labor, Service.” It is world-renowned, the cultural capital of Appalachia, located in the foothills not far from the Cumberland Gap. The town is quite an arts colony; we both bought some pottery.

I mentioned Berea College in my novel “Andy’s Big Idea,” about the founding of the world’s first Gay and Lesbian university. Andy goes to Berea to find out how the college can avoid charging tuition; all the students work 10-12 hours a week, earning their keep. He ultimately decides against following that model, but leaves with great respect for the place. But I’d never visited, doing all my research online, so I was eager to see it.

We stayed at the historic (Daniel) Boone Tavern, which has previously hosted Eleanor Roosevelt and the Dalai Lama. We loved it there. We both compared it favorably to the French Lick Resort Hotel, which cost $250 a night.

Boone Tavern

We ate a light supper in the dining room; I had a salad with homegrown butter lettuce from the college farm, green peas and bacon, the prettiest arrangement I’ve ever seen.

The next day we went to Union Church right across the street. It’s very Protestant (Communion once a month, we got a hymn sing instead) but it’s still liberal; we enjoyed the organist and the pastor, who mentioned Episcopal priest Carter Heyward, a Lesbian and member of the “Philadelphia 11,” in his sermon. When we said goodbye at the door, I told him, “I’m a friend of Carter’s.” (True.) He looked surprised, then said, “Well, Amen!”

Union Church Berea

Then we headed down to visit The People in the most beautiful mountains on earth. Yes, there are taller ones, but the Smokies are close together, covered in trees and flowers, a temperate rain forest.

Our first day we immersed ourselves in Cherokee culture as best we could, visiting the Cherokee Museum, the Qualla Arts & Crafts Mutual, Inc., Oconoluftee Indian Village, run by the tribe, and “Unto These Hills,” the most successful outdoor drama (59 years, 6 million visitors) in the United States.

Officially this reservation is the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians; last year I visited the Western Band in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Both have casinos, which have greatly enhanced the tribal income and allowed for expanded community development. The People are doing well in both places and enjoy active cultural, historical, economic and social lives.

The Eastern Band, which kept a small portion of its ancient homeland in the mountains, has traditionally been more isolated, exploited by outsiders and ambivalent about White people. The Western Band, which suffered the quasi-genocidal Trail of Tears, is perhaps the stronger of the two by some measures. Certainly they have the better museum; the one here in North Carolina is cramped and dark, so they’re adding onto it. But both are worth seeing, especially if all you know about Indians comes from a John Wayne movie.

The Cherokees have always been a highly advanced culture, the leading member of the “Five Civilized Tribes,” and you can get a good feel for their history, religion and folkways in either place. For visitors, the comparison between East and West comes in part from how one is treated. The Western Band is friendly and optimistic for the most part, while the race-based resentment is more obvious here in the mountains.

The rap against Cherokee, NC has always been that it’s a tourist trap selling moccasins made in China, completely inauthentic. More recently, the Harrah’s-run casino has enabled the tribal government to take more control of its namesake town. The outsider-owned junk shops are still abundant, but the art scene is real, as visits to the Qualla Mutual and a private gallery called Great Smokies Fine Arts Gallery reveal. The Cherokees have always been magnificent weavers and potters, and you can find some fabulous works at Qualla. But I found myself most attracted to the woodworking, because the artists bring such unusual visions to the animal-spirits they depict. I wish I had a spare $800 to take home just one piece from Qualla; the art is worth every penny.

Oconaluftee Village features local enrolled members demonstrating the various crafts of everyday life in a beautiful wooded setting next to the outdoor amphitheater. We saw women weaving and asked about their methods. A man worked to craft projectile points (arrowheads), and I had to stop and watch for several minutes. My backyard in Indiana is filled with arrowheads – as kids we used to hunt them, because they’re all over my homeplace – but here I saw a guy chipping away at one using the old tools. A few days before Peter arrived in Indiana, I ran across an arrowhead while gardening and saved it to give him as a gift; now I’ve seen the patient work involved in shaping the stone. I was fascinated; the process is very logical, detail-oriented, peaceful. A good arrowhead could pull down a family’s dinner, and over time The People learned how to appreciate both the weapon and the prey. The demonstrator was pretty shy and close-lipped, but not hostile.

My best interaction at Oconoluftee was with a young man demonstrating canoe-making; the ancient Cherokees felled or found a tree trunk, hopefully close to the water’s edge so they didn’t have to drag it, then hollowed it out using controlled fire. The kid was friendly, eager to talk, a great ambassador. Imagine my surprise when later that night he turned out to be the Lead Dancer at the play. In a loincloth!!

“Unto These Hills,” like most historical plays, is both less and more than a good night at the theater; Peter and I saw the same problem last week at the world premiere of “Lincoln” at Honest Abe’s Boyhood Home in Indiana. You’re amazed that semi-professionals can pull them off at all. Both plays tried to tell an epic story in two hours, and as a writer I know that’s nearly impossible. The Cherokee play has to condense centuries, while the Lincoln play focused on the most famous American’s least known period. So “Unto These Hills” spends too much time on dancing and political arguing; it’s uplifting nevertheless, and that is why you go.

Today we headed for Great Smokies National Park, the nation’s second-oldest and by far its most popular.

Peter has some health problems and hiking the mountains is not an option, so we decided on a motor tour instead. Mountain driving definitely takes some getting used to, but by the end of the day I was feeling experienced.

We chose the Roaring Fork tour, which starts 40 miles from here on the other side of the park in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, a god-awful city which should be bulldozed and forgotten. (You cannot underestimate the taste of the American people.) But our drive through the park revealed many stop-worthy vistas, hundreds of wows; Roaring Fork was outstanding. It’s a one-lane paved loop up the mountain and down again, following a quintessential mountain stream; lots of whitewater rapids and gorgeous scenery, plus a well-preserved hardscrabble farm with a log cabin and numerous outbuildings, circa 1890, right on the raging creek. The land is so rocky you wonder how anyone could farm there, much less raise ten kids, but somehow they did it, till FDR bought them out to create the national park.

Rushing water; what the Cherokees call “living water,” which they incorporated in all their important religious festivals. To be alive, water has to move; static water in a plastic bottle or out of a pipe obviously is dead. At their major festivals, like the Cementation Ceremony, the People “went to water” seven times, bathing and changing into clean clothes in a ritual of purification and renewal.

(I believe, based on Mooney and Mails, that the Cementation Ceremony was a Gay wedding that united the whole Nation, but that’s the subject of an unpublished novel I may never bring to print. Today’s Cherokees are so Baptist they rewrite their history, no Gay people ever.)

At the old homestead, the waters rushed like mad through the forest in a place of incredible beauty; Peter took pictures from as close as he felt comfortable with, but I went down to the stream, climbed a few rocks and had to feel the water move over my fingers. It was suitably cold, and it just kept roaring down over the boulders, so clear and clean, I had to taste it.

Then I had to throw some over myself. And that reminded me of baptism. So I crouched down, dipped my hand in again, and made the sign of the cross on my forehead three times, In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit of these mountains and rocks, birds and trees, butterflies and lizards. And bears!

Episcopalians talk a lot about their Baptismal Covenant from the new (1979) Prayer Book, and we renew our baptismal vows several times a year; for me the most recent time was Easter Eve, when my parish had several baptisms. I’ve always found this very nice, but in fact I was baptized as a toddler under the old 1928 regime, and I don’t consider these newer vows binding in quite the same way. Yes, I believe in them and subscribe to them (in fact, they’re a theological improvement over the 1928 Prayer Book), but indeed my soul was first pledged, and still remains, under the old formula; a person gets baptized just once. But still, there I was in my beloved mountains, as close to God as a human being can get, renewing my baptism, because the water was alive.

Nobody gets Christianity quite as right as Episcopalians; and nobody understands our place in the cosmos like the Cherokees.++

Roaring Fork Falls

CNN & FOX: The Death Machine

cheney_baghdad_dick

This is in response to Frank Rich’s column, “Who Is to Blame in the Next Attack?” in the Sunday New York Times.

For my money Frank Rich is the best commentator in America, but today he didn’t go deep enough. He describes the ailment, but doesn’t diagnose it or prescribe any treatment.

So I, naturally, do. 🙂 See what you think.

The question Mr. Rich’s column raises (and doesn’t sufficiently answer, in my view) is why current members of Congress and the media are still intimidated by Darth Vader, the most repudiated American politician since Tricky Dick and even more despised; Nixon had an accomplishment or two, but Cheney, nothing.

It all has to do with the non-stop news cycle, or as I like to call it, Ted Turner’s Death Machine.

Television is all about filling up the time between commercials. That’s why non-events and phony ones get replayed endlessly; cable TV can’t think of anything else to say. And our scummy politicians have their eyeballs glued to it even in their sleep.

So the Death Machine takes on a life of its own, while newspapers, which actually take a whole day (and lots of shouting matches) to put together, are now seen as quaint antiques.

How many times do CNN and FOX have to be wrong before people stop paying attention? A thousand times, a hundred thousand, a million times? They passed that threshhold long ago. Remember Columbine and the “trenchcoat mafia”? It took the author Dave Cullen ten years to understand that horror and put it in perspective; ten years, not ten minutes.

But the audience’s eyes are as glued to TV as the politicians’ are, so tragic follies keep compounding. We can’t just blame Ted Turner anymore; try Pogo, “the enemy is us.”

The same ideology that’s ruined the entire world economy – American greed and its willing partner, consumptive materialism – is ruining our political system; and the fallout from that may be far worse than the Great Recession. If liberal democracy goes down, chaos is poised to follow.

There’s no other way to explain why Democratic senators refuse to shut down Gitmo; they’re terrified of criticism. If some whackjob on FOX says something, head for the hills! Never mind what the truth of the matter is; “the Limbaugh is coming! The Limbaugh is coming!” Senators are intimidated by him, instead of standing up to the British like we did in ’76.

Paper tigers, all of them. Limbaugh’s alleged power comes from being on low-tech AM radio, which skews elderly. Talk radio is the last dying gasp of an inferior, staticky technology, and it’s conservative because its core audience is too set in its ways to upgrade to FM. Granny grew up with WOWO or WLW and it’s the only thing she knows. If AM didn’t have Limbaugh and his imitators, the entire band would have long ago gone bankrupt. Station owners don’t care how lunatic he gets, as long as he makes profits.

The only leader I see resisting this madness is President Obama, and he caves in to the Death Machine more than he needs to.

Where, oh where, is Toto when we need him to yank back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz? Dick Cheney’s nothing but an old man with a microphone and a smoke machine. Show him for what he is and he shuffles offstage.

Cheney’s image:

Wizard-of-oz

The reality:

toto-exposes-oz

But emphasize his mic like cable news does, and he’s frightening indeed, at least in Washington, D.C. Nowhere else, but that’s the place where mics count.

Cheney had to give his speech at the American Greed Institute because no one else would have him. Let him come to conservative, rural Indiana and hell, no one would even show up.

None of my neighbors, most of whom voted for him twice, will ever trust that man again with their sons and daughters. The old draft-dodger doesn’t think twice about sending them off to their doom.

It takes a lot for Hoosiers to vote for a Black man; but we did it anyway, because we understood Obama’s the only one standing between us and total geopolitical meltdown. He ain’t no messiah but he’s the only hope we’ve got.

The Democrats in Congress are as worthless as the Republicans; but in the midst of it all Barack took Michelle to dinner and Broadway. Thank goodness someone’s still attuned to normal life.

Darth Cheney? Come and gone.++

JoeTurner'sCome&Gone