Wednesday, December 15, 2004

about that story...i got nothin'

i'll still have to write the second half of the Reply All story. i have the uncomfortable feeling it's not gonna be that good by the time i get it posted. well, then i'll just have to apologize for it when the time comes.

in the meantime, Jars of Clay asked me to write a little something about why anybody should care about social justice for the launch of their Blood:Water website (www.bloodwatermission.org). Blood:Water is deep in the fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa, doing as much as they can for as long as they can to put an end to death by HIV—especially as those deaths relate to water-borne illnesses.

It's not as complicated as it sounds. You can go to www.bloodwatermission.org to get the picture.

the day they hit the go button for the new Blood:Water website, i'll post my answer here to the question, "Why should anybody care about social justice?" to remind you to go there, where we can do some good for people who could really, truly stand to have some good done for them.

stand by for more in about a heart beat and a half.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

i know, i know

i left my last post hanging (not for dramatic effect so much as the fact that it was late and i was really tired).

since then i've been more than a little nutty…

• going to Atlanta for the National Youth Workers Convention (where i gave away 6,500 copies of The Boy Who Believed in Magic and had many relational adventures)

• launching a web site (www.westofthe101.com) with the kind assistance and generosity of my friend Will Leingang (www.iamwill.com)

• coping with the news that my friend Ralph is dying more quickly than he thought

• coping with the impending death of Dorothy Hoover, dear mother to my wife Susan
(Dorothy slipped quietly away this afternoon, leaving behind a small but devoted fan club).

so that's my lame excuse to the two people who want to know what happened after i hit Reply All in the last post.

please stand by a tiny bit longer. i can't promise you won't be disappointed, only that i'll try to entertain you as much as i was entertained by the goings-on in my in-box.

but right now i have to grieve.

Monday, November 15, 2004

well, this is grimly overdue...

I have almost nothing to say about in the aftermath of the election because i don't think i understand it .

The Evangelical friend whose question spurred me to write 'Why Not Bush' and 'Why Kerry' in this space was polite but unconvinced. This seems to have been the case with a great many people. Except for the politeness.

Another friend, less Evangelical in his convictions but no less conservative in his politics than my first correspondent, sent a fairly tasteless gag map of the new Iraq to me and about 40 of his other closest friends. He knew it was stupid and I knew he knew it was stupid. Then again, when tasteless, stupid jokes just lay out there at the expense of people who did nothing worse than wake up, say, female or Iraqi, I figure some white guy oughta stand up and say 'Hey! That's stupid and tasteless!"

So I did, in that passive agressive way people find so charming. My friend committed the faux pas of including all 40 of our addresses in the CC box (an unruly mob if you ask me and just asking for it), so i hit Reply All and and wrote,

If you think THAT'S funny, wait'll you get a load of THIS!

and attached a pdf of the first report of the Johns Hopkins/Lancet study on civilian casualties in Iraq--which i paste here with attribution and copyright notice and the sincere hope Reuters won't come take my trailer.

Study: 100,000 Excess Civilian Iraqi
Deaths Since War
By Patricia Reaney

LONDON (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed
in violence since the U.S.-led invasion last year, American public
health experts have calculated in a report that estimates there
were 100,000 "excess deaths" in 18 months.

The rise in the death rate was mainly due to violence and much of it
was caused by U.S. air strikes on towns and cities.

"Making conservative assumptions, we think that about 100,000 excess
deaths, or more have happened since the 2003 invasion of Iraq," said
Les Roberts of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
in a report published online by The Lancet medical journal.

"The use of air power in areas with lots of civilians appears to be killing
a lot of women and children," Roberts told Reuters.

The report came just days before the U.S. presidential election in which
the Iraq war has been a major issue.

Mortality was already high in Iraq before the war because of United
Nations sanctions blocking food and medical imports but the
researchers described what they found as shocking.

The new figures are based on surveys done by the researchers in Iraq
in September 2004. They compared Iraqi deaths during 14.6 months
before the invasion in March 2003 and the 17.8 months after it by
conducting household surveys in randomly selected neighborhoods.
Previous estimates based on think tank and media sources put the
Iraqi civilian death toll at up to 16,053 and military fatalities as high as
6,370.

By comparison about 849 U.S. military were killed in combat or attacks
and another 258 died in accidents or incidents not related to fighting,
according to the Pentagon.

VERY BAD FOR IRAQI CIVILIANS
The researchers blamed air strikes for many of the deaths.
"What we have evidence of is the use of air power in populated urban
areas and the bad consequences of it," Roberts said.
Gilbert Burnham, who collaborated on the research, said U.S. military
action in Iraq was "very bad for Iraqi civilians."

"We were not expecting the level of deaths from violence that we found
in this study and we hope this will lead to some serious discussions of
how military and political aims can be achieved in a way that is not so
detrimental to civilians populations," he told Reuters in an interview.

The researchers did 33 cluster surveys of 30 households each,
recording the date, circumstances and cause of deaths.

They found that the risk of death from violence in the period after the
invasion was 58 times higher than before the war.

Before the war the major causes of death were heart attacks, chronic
disorders and accidents. That changed after the war.

Two-thirds of violent deaths in the study were reported in Falluja, the
insurgent held city 50 km (32 miles) west of Baghdad which had been
repeatedly hit by U.S. air strikes.

"Our results need further verification and should lead to changes to
reduce non-combatant deaths from air strikes," Roberts added in the
study.

Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, said the research which was
submitted to the journal earlier this month had been peer-reviewed,
edited and fast-tracked for publication because of its importance in the
evolving security situation in Iraq.

"But these findings also raise questions for those far removed from Iraq
-- in the governments of the countries responsible for launching a preemptive
war," Horton said in an editorial.
10/28/04 14:57

© Copyright Reuters Ltd. All rights reserved. The information contained In
this news report may not be published, broadcast or otherwise distributed
without the prior written authority of Reuters Ltd.

NOW, the reason i ambushed all my friend's friends with this Reuters report (I feel sure HE sent the silly map in a fit post-election exuberance) was that in that moment i felt genuinely sad about the trend of America's foreign and military policy and the unveiled hubris of the thing from Main Street to Wall Street all the way out to my street. Just to be clear, had the study not been conducted and vetted under the Johns Hopkins umbrella and published by the Lancet, i would hardly have paid attention, let alone passing it along. But…it was, and I did.

So i sent the little email enticement with the clear implication that there might be something funny in the attachment, which of course there was not. What there was was a somewhat hazy report about a complicated statistical study of Iraqi civilian casualties that i pray is wrong but am afraid may be right...

Whatever the grim facts in Iraq, what happened in response to my Reply All was pretty darned interesting. More on that shortly...

Monday, October 18, 2004

Why Kerry?

A few weeks ago a dear friend of deep evangelical persuasion wrote:

"I am always interested when intelligent thoughtful, and insightful people think so differently in some areas than I do. And I am certainly not interested in big time political debate with friends, but was curious as to why...or maybe... if ...you would share your thoughts as to why you would consider voting for Mr. Kerry."

My answer falls in two parts, the first posted in this space under the title 'Why Not Bush?" Here's part two…

If my ballot this year is a vote of no confidence in George W. Bush, it is also a gesture of hope based on what I believe about John Kerry.

I say believe because it is impossible to do anything else. Beyond believing I’m stuck with the dilemma of proving the negative: “Prove you won’t screw this up.” This is part of what got us in trouble in Iraq. “Prove you don’t have the weapons and we don’t mean showing us empty warehouses and laboratories—we know you have them and nothing you say or do will convince us otherwise unless you prove you don’t.” This never had a prayer of working and I have trouble believing I’m the only one who thought so from the outset.

Mr. Bush is in the same quandary today. “Prove to us you won’t keep screwing this up.” This, of course, he cannot do. His line seems to be, “Trust me, this is complicated, I know things, we have to stay the course to change direction.”

David Puttnam told the Los Angeles Times, “There's a wonderful Chinese proverb--it really is a Chinese proverb, not one that I made up--that says if you continue down the road you've purposely taken, you're likely to end up where you seem to be heading.” (L.A. TIMES 12/3/89) Well, where we seem to be heading is crippling deficits, an unconscionable widening of the gap between the wealthiest Americans and all other Americans, steadily diminishing moral authority in the world, a crisis in the U.S. military, an increasingly divided citizenry, an increasingly united alliance of terrorist movements and the growing likelihood of being politically quarantined by nations who have stood shoulder to shoulder with us in the past.

These are trends I believe John Kerry can reverse.

I believe Mr. Kerry sees the world through a more finely ground lens than the President. I believe he understands diplomacy as something more than the art of letting people have your own way. I believe he understands the give and take of true alliances, not just the binary you’re-with-us-or-against-us bluster of the strongest kid on the playground.

I don’t believe John Kerry would ever have put the U.S. military in the position George Bush put them in—specifically in exposing how much thinner U.S. capability is than had been presumed. The sloppiness of that is inexcusable. Following the third debate Mr. Kerry wondered rhetorically, “is that all you have Mr. President?” I think that’s what America’s enemies have been saying for 18 months. “You call that shock and awe? We’ll show you shock and awe.” I believe this administration has emboldened America’s enemies to believe they can absorb more punishment than the U.S. military can dole out. And, since there appear to be no terms under which American allies will accept the deal offered by the Administration and no offer of help the Administration is willing accept from the Allies, we’re in this mostly on our own. The number of countries in the “Coalition of the Willing” is a misdirection. The actual number of troops and the actual dollar amount of their investment is a minute fraction of the investment from the allies in the 1991 action. In the spirit of full disclosure, I was against that one too. But I was in smallish minority on that occasion when, for better or worse, it worked. This intervention has not worked, nor is it likely to work along the lines currently drawn. The U.S. will keep muttering, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” until we end the pretense and put together a coalition capable of cleaning up the mess as well as it can be cleaned. I believe Mr. Kerry can do that. I’m convinced Mr. Bush cannot.

Of course one alternative is slowly bleeding to death a few hundred million dollars at a time. In the old days, aided by the ill-advised and ill-fated invasion of Afghanistan, this was a contributing factor to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Afghanis proved that, with a little help from friends in the West, they could absorb more punishment than the Soviets could afford to deliver. As indeed the U.S. proved it could keep spending on weapons of mass destruction long after it was too late for the Soviets to recast the conflict in more sustainable terms. This lesson was not lost on anyone except, perhaps, the neo-conservatives presently in control of the U.S. government. In fact the report from Mr. Bush’s Iraq Survey Group says the Iraqi’s war plan was based upon an assumption that a weeklong conventional phase of the conflict would give way to a long-term insurgency (pages 65 & 66 of the Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on
Iraq’s WMD). ''The basic idea of trying to decapitate the regime was still the right approach," Michael O'Hanlon, a military specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington said in a Boston Globe article on October 11, 04. ''But not having a serious plan to deal with insurgency was unconscionable to the point of being incompetent. Not having a backup plan if it failed was foolish."

I suppose you can guess I’m no fan of war as a concept let alone the bloody reality. But even I know that what we saw in Iraq in 2003 was a textbook fight against an overwhelming force. I remember saying as much to my neighbors as U.S. casualties mounted that Spring and suggesting that, at that very moment, someone might be saying, “We’ll give up the country and then kill one of them a day for as long as they can stand it.” Trust me when I say I felt sick at the thought that I might be right…and sicker still as evidence mounts that I was.

I think John Kerry believes peace is a possibility in the general sense of shalom (though I have no idea whether he would employ that language). Shalom is wholeness for everybody. If that seems too high-minded, forgive me for taking such matters so seriously and let’s settle on the notion of win/win solutions as superior to win/lose and most certainly better than lose/win or lose/lose.

I believe Mr. Kerry will stop the hemorrhaging from the U.S. Treasury. I think the Bush economic theory was discredited the last time it was attempted during the 80’s when the poor got poorer, the rich got richer and tens of thousands of mentally disabled people were summarily discharged from government-funded hospitals to become the problem of under-funded state, county and municipal law enforcement. Incidentally this is also the period of U.S. alliance with Saddam Hussein during which his regime was armed with the capacity to produce and deploy weapons of mass destruction—but I digress. Ten Nobel Prize-winning economists endorsed John Kerry in a joint letter saying the Bush Administration had “embarked on a reckless and extreme course that endangers the long-term economic health of our nation.” The 10 say the Bush tax cuts were “poorly designed” and that “fiscal irresponsibility threatens the long-term economic security and prosperity of our nation.” They say the differences between the candidates are “wider than in any other presidential election in our experience.” Kerry, the letter says, “will restore fiscal responsibility" and he "understands that sound economic policy requires a substantial change in direction, and we support him for president." (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/5818277/)

Part of Mr. Kerry’s soundness from my point of view is his regard for those who work as well as those whose capital provides jobs. I don’t think Kerry is hostile toward business at all. I think he sees a clear link between those who put capital at risk and those whose labor secures that risk. That means looking out for the solvency of well run companies along with the wellbeing of working Americans, including the swollen ranks of the working poor. That means dealing favorably with the 45 million American who have no health care whatsoever. Mr. Bush keeps returning to the impact of lawsuits on hospitals and I have little doubt he’s partly right. I suspect the far greater impact on hospitals comes from uninsured people who rely on Emergency Room care because they can’t afford office visits. Heck, I’ve been there. Uninsured, marginally employed sick people wait until they can’t wait another minute, then show up the one place that’s mandated by law to treat them whether they can pay or not. Actually, hospitals don’t have to treat poor sick people. They can and many have simply shut the doors to the emergency rooms, protecting profits by shifting the burden to others. It’s a familiar theme by now: Pay me now or pay me later. We have to do better. I believe John Kerry is committed to solving this crisis and I expect Congress to join him.

Of course the simplest course includes living wages for every worker. As I see it, one measure of a president’s term in office is how America’s poorest citizens fared under his Administration. “A rising tide,” the proverb says, “raises all boats.” When some boats are rising and others are being swamped, I generally conclude that what’s truly rising is something other than the tide. So if at the end of the term the wealthy are demonstrably better off and the poor are in demonstrably worse off, I consider the administration a failure in economic terms (I think there have been exceptions to this in my lifetime; I don’t think this is one of them). I think the present Administration has helped the owner at the expense of the worker. John Kerry is committed to helping the worker without unduly burdening the owner. The 10 Nobel Prize-winning economists see it too, noting Mr. Kerry’s commitment “to work with our allies and trading partners to promote global growth that lifts up workers around the world."

I believe John Kerry has access to great talent. In addition to one or more of the Nobel Prize-winners I want see the likes of William Cohen, Madeline Albright, Wesley Clark, Robert Reich, Richard Holbrook, Bob Kerry, Eliot Spitzer, George Mitchell and Robert Rubin in the next Administration.

I believe John Kerry has a healthy regard for the Constitution as a whole and the separation of powers in particular. It seems to me that should go without saying but that hasn’t been the case in this Administration, which has actually shut dissenting Members of Congress out of the White House. It doesn’t take much of a historian to know why we have three branches of government and how their balancing act contributes to the resilience of our political system. For a little head-shaking, track down a copy of Rumsfeld’s Rules, composed by Donald Rumsfeld in 1974 and revised by him in 2001. Had this Administration stuck to Rumsfeld’s Rules as they relate to governance we might not be in this mess.

Speaking of resilience, I believe Mr. Kerry’s principles of governance are resilient enough remain intact in the post 9/11 world. Mr. Bush changed his mind about many things following the attacks on America. Mr. Kerry had a broader, deeper view of things. Without diminishing the horror and evil of those attacks nor the great losses suffered, I don’t believe they changed everything at all. Due respect to Mr. Bush’s performance in the days immediately following 9/11, I think we need domestic and foreign policy that is decisive not impulsive, resolute, not stubborn, focused, not tunnel-visioned. Fixing what’s broken requires statesmanship, wisdom and sound philosophy. I believe Mr. Kerry is better suited to the ongoing task in every way.

Mr. Kerry does not complicate simple things nor oversimplify difficult things. The present administration seems extremely binary—totally on or totally off, with us 100% or dead set against us. The notion of complexity seems to escape them. Or perhaps they believe we’re too dumb to understand complexity. With the end of the debates I think it’s clear that Mr. Kerry is in personal command of the principles and facts underlying his policy positions. His capacity to state matters clearly does not diminish his frequent refusals to make speculative statements and promises about matters over which he has little control. I respect that degree of respect for the electorate. It is, to me, the kind of thing I expect from honest, clear-thinking parents who decline to say foolish things like “I will protect you; nothing bad will happen to you; you’ll always have what you need; I guarantee your safety” when they know full well these things are beyond their capacity to deliver. Far better to say, “I will do my best to make sure you are safe and secure and cared for.”

I believe Mr. Kerry views his life of privilege as a responsibility. Why else go to Viet Nam and extend his commitment to a second tour? Why else become a prosecutor? Why else choose government over business? I think tales of blind ambition fail to account for 20 years of service. The ambitious are seldom patient in my experience.

I believe Mr. Kerry values truth over loyalty. Though I didn’t know his name at the time I was deeply impressed by the work of Viet Nam Veterans Against the War. I thought if anyone had earned the right to criticize the prosecution of that war the VVAW were certainly at the front of the line, at least at the level of operations. It was costly to speak against the war in 1971—I remember it vividly. I believe John Kerry spoke unflinchingly and in good conscience. To those who say he broke the code I ask, Are you saying a priest who knows other priests are abusing children should keep the code? Are you saying a police officer who knows other cops are shaking down business people or killing the homeless should keep the code? Please.


I’ve said too much. It’s settled for me. I have no confidence in the Bush Administration and that alone is enough to move my vote to the other side. But it’s more than a vote of no confidence. I’m convinced my vote for John Kerry is the wisest exercise of my responsibility as a citizen in this election.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Raising Adults

I wrote a book called Raising Adults the premise of which was a simple word play. North Americans spend anywhere from 18 to 24 years raising children. The problem is, when we’re done, that’s often what we end up with: children. They’re adult children to be sure, but adults who are painfully under-prepared for the real world.

Most of us nurturers, when we’re not feeling angry or afraid about this, end up unhappy because things didn’t work out the way we hoped. After all, we’ve come to believe that the real world requires skilled, mature adults. And, God help us, we look around and that’s not who we’ve been raising.

All this is, of course, a cliché—no more accurate than “The Me Decade” a generation ago. The Me Decade started life as a 1976 Tom Wolfe essay in New York magazine—his entertaining, insightful take on postwar America and the emergence of my generation. The popular press loved Wolfe’s characterization, American preachers jumped all over it and, after a few months, The Me Decade became The Me Generation by which they meant us Baby Boomers. They said we were self-centered and unreliable. They said we were sex-obsessed, drug-addled and undisciplined. All we cared about, they said, was feeling good. Which made our mothers blink back tears and our fathers shake their heads gravely wondering where they went wrong.

The preachers and the press were partly right about us. And partly wrong. America was, and is, a cultural soup. We stew on a back burner, every generation adding unique flavors to the blend. Generalizations seldom reflect anybody’s reality. Some of us went to Vietnam; some to Canada. Most stayed put. Some of us smoked dope, a few of us were Jesus Freaks, a lot of us went to college, most of us went to work. We did not end western civilization. We blended into the soup. There were lots of us—76 million. So, in time, the cultural soup took on some of the distinctive flavors we brought.

The generation just behind us will do, more or less, the same. Most of our children and grandchildren are, or soon will be, competent, capable, productive, fun human beings. Kids have a way of doing that. They turn adult on us, whether we raise them that way or not.

Still, if we’re paying attention, we can’t help noticing that a sizable number of our offspring couldn’t care less about the real world. “Real to whom?” they mutter. They are—lots of them—Douglas Coupland’s “Generation X:” People who don’t fit in because they won’t fit in.

Demon seed is how they’ve been characterized by many of my peers. Inconsiderate. Spoiled brats.

If we lost our ideals in The Big Chill, well our kids are sorry for us, but, frankly, it has nothing to do with them. They don’t hate us; they don’t hold us in contempt. But they don’t admire us either, or feel obliged to listen to us. Still, they’re watching. For what, we’re not sure. They play by a different set of rules and they won’t tell us what they are. Non-rules most likely. Meant to make us crazy so they can cash in on all the loot we’re about to inherit from their grandparents—our parents. Well you can keep your un-game to yourselves you wicked brood of . . . Oh. Did I say that out loud? Sorry.

A lot of our kids seem to be doing fine. They’re not in jail nor do they seem likely to go there. They get to school or work most days. They don’t carry concealed weapons, traffic in drugs or consort with prostitutes. They seem to be turning out OK. Perhaps it’s benign neglect: We managed to not screw them up. Or Providence. Providence was very popular with the founding fathers and mothers. It’s in all the early writings; I see no reason we can’t invoke it now.

And maybe we didn’t do such a bad job. Maybe the kids are alright.

Except that some aren’t doing so well. Some days it seems like most aren’t doing so well.

Look, we all know Generation X and Y and whatever’s next are clichés synthesized from something observable. That observable something is a disturbing level of aimlessness, sadness, anger, fear, violence, and hopelessness. Many of our offspring reach adulthood with a serious deficit of life skills. They enter their adult years emotionally impotent, unable to cope with pressure, socially unskilled, scholastically under-prepared, spiritually undernourished.

I wish I could say these problems belong to someone else. I wish I could say they are urban issues. I’d like to point to out-of-touch rural communities and say Look these folk aren’t raising adults! I wish these were the challenges of single mothers, people of color, the poor. It would give me great satisfaction to say these difficulties afflict only the rich. I wish. But it’s not true. We’re all in the same boat, I and everyone on my wish list.

The problems long associated with our economic underclass are epidemic in the suburbs too. As early as 1981, someone called it “affluenza,” the same behaviors and attitudes slightly up scaled—martinis instead of 40s.

And so, urban, suburban, small town, rural; we feel sad. We hate to see kids get off on the wrong foot. They are, after all, our children, one way or another.

There are more than 20 million adolescents in North America. Including their parents, teenagers have the (admittedly divided) attention of 36 million adults give or take—including around a million middle- and high- school teachers, instructors and coaches, half a million church-based youth workers, 3 million employers and 16 million retailers, marketers, officers of the court and, of course, demographers.

As long as we’re counting, let’s add that only a fraction of global teens live in North America. Before long, 2 billion teenagers will live on this planet. Let me repeat that so you don’t have to reread the sentence: In the years just ahead 2 billion teenagers will call this world their home.

Is it just me or is that an awful lot of kids hanging out at the mall? Or fighting wars . . . Or spreading disease . . . Or building and buying things . . . Or solving planetary problems . . .

More counting: Depending on who’s numbers you like (if you like anybody’s numbers), there are somewhere around 45 million Generation X Americans, followed by about 70 million younger siblings—the ones some people refer to as Generation Y, for reasons that escape me. This assumes you’re willing to accept a purely demographic definition, which I’m not. I’m no happier with demographic definitions of Generations X and Y than I was with merely statistical descriptions of The Me Generation. Douglas Coupland was pretty unhappy about it too (his novel, Generation X, inadvertently ignited this silliness much as, back in the day, Tom Wolfe’s New Yorker article launched the Me Decade). More on that later.

Back to the counting. Included among all these youngish Americans is an emergent population of young adults living in extended adolescence. These young men and women are, in many ways, more like old boys and girls. They remain semi dependent on their parents or on public welfare systems. They may or may not be students, may or may not work. They don’t pay significant taxes because they don’t have significant incomes—at least on the table.

Men in this extended boyhood are inordinately responsible for teenage pregnancies—legally adult but functionally adolescent males making babies with underage women The time-honored American custom of senior boys dating freshman girls now extends into the decade of those boys’ twenties. The girls are still likely to be 15. One American president called it child abuse. Who can argue with that?

What we can argue is that those men—many of them—are products of parenting in a larger system that raises children.

That’s no excuse. But it may help us interpret otherwise baffling behavior. At the risk of being obvious, how surprised should we be when someone raised without a sense of responsibility, without an appreciation for cause and effect, acts irresponsibly and causes regrettable effects?


But enough already! The question is what are we to do about this, you and me? We feel sad and guilty for raising children when the assignment was to raise adults. Or we feel sad and guilty and pretty damn angry about being raised that way. More than sad. We feel embarrassed; we feel afraid of the consequences of this cultural (and perhaps personal) failure; we’re trying—hoping—to do better.

Fair enough. It’s a start.

What if we could begin—from right where we are—to raise adults or to finish the work our own parents started but didn’t complete? What if we moved beyond blame and beating each other up? What if all of us in the conversation declared a general amnesty; what if we agree to pick back up from where we are (not where we’re supposed to be) and get on with it?

I happen to believe we got where we are more or less by accident. This is not a theological declaration; I just don’t think anybody set out to screw up. I don’t think my parents or grandparents were particularly bad people. Broken, sure. But not bad.

My mother grew up in a family of displaced farm people. My grandfather left his job as a traveling sales agent to work the land my grandmother inherited when she was widowed. They lost the farm. Then, when they moved to depression-era Jacksonville, Florida, they simply lost their way. I know my grandfather worked hard but he never found a way back to where he knew which way was up. They were off balance and they never recovered, financially or otherwise. My grandmother was frustrated to death by the whole thing. Literally. She died too young. Afraid, angry, disappointed; she lost heart.

My father’s parents died before he was two years old and his older sisters and brothers raised him. They did the best they could.

Tell me. In what perfect world of yesterday did my parents learn parenting? Why would my father know the first thing about being a good father? At whose knee could my mother have learned the nurturing arts?

A psychologist might have predicted the adults my parents would become.

My dad was out of control. An attractive, intelligent, undisciplined, spendthrift, compulsive dreamer. He shot himself in the foot over and over until he didn’t have a leg to stand on. He neglected his children for the sake of his work. He neglected his wife for adventures with women he barely knew.

My mom grew up to live the life of a charming control freak. A lovely, personable, competent, hardworking, frightened, pragmatist. At a time when most women in her social set stayed at home, my mom worked to assure the mortgage and car payments. She wanted more time with her children, but she was busy ensuring our physical well-being. I don’t have a clue what kind of income my parents had. I’m pretty clear my father spent everything both of them made—and then some.

After a shocking divorce (no one knew anything was wrong), they remarried, my father and mother. Some people marry the “same person” again and again. Not my parents. The second time around, they married people who couldn’t have been more different.

When I was 19, my mother married an older man and built a lasting, respectful marriage. My father had already remarried because he had to. The young woman was pregnant.

My parents were ordinary folk: broken, needy, imperfect, human. Could they have tried harder? I have no idea. They gave it their best shot. My sister turned out well. The jury is still out in my case.

I can’t find the bad guys in my family. The inept, unskilled, foolish, shattered guys, yes—in abundance. That’s what I am. I suspect it’s what you are, too, (though you’ll have to vote for yourself). Eugene O’Neill wrote somewhere, “Man is born broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue.” I think that’s the starting point. From that baseline we can generate new perceptions and aptitudes, build new skills, mend the brokenness.

That’s what all this is about: Building and rebuilding relationships that nourish and nurture each other to full adulthood. It’s fired by the conviction that we can retrofit our relationships with deeper understanding and higher love. This is not purely theoretical; I believe I’m doing it bit by bit, and I’m certainly no prize. I’m grateful to Susan, my partner in marriage since 1972, and Kate, our daughter since 1976. They love me as if I were as good as the image I’ve projected outside our household. In fact I’m a bit cynical, a bit crass, a bit irreverent; plus I’m working my way through more than a little anger, more than a little fear and a whole lot of failure.

I’m just a reasonably capable man figuring out that—since it turns out the universe doesn’t revolve around me—maybe I can learn something about doing my job in the universe.


I was a youth worker for a long time—more than two decades all told. In the beginning when hurting, at-risk kids and parents came to me for help, I wanted to know—the “judge” in me wanted to know—Did she jump or was she pushed? Things like that matter to the judge. But after a while, broken and battered myself, compassion posed a new question: Does it matter? She’s broken. What now?

That’s my hope every day now: That I’ll be able to see things as they are and ask, What Now?

[Raising Adults is going out of print this month. I’m planning to revisit what’s worth remembering from those pages and post it in this space.]

Friday, September 10, 2004

Why Not Bush?

A dear friend of deep evangelical persuasion asked a sincere and sincerely interesting question the other day:

"Since our last conversation," he said, "i have thought about you a lot. Mainly because I am ...uhhh...intrigued...or curious. I am always interested when intelligent thoughtful, and insightful people think so differently in some areas than I do. And I am certainly not interested in big time political debate with friends, but was curious as to why...or maybe... if ...you would share your thoughts as to why you would consider voting for Mr. Kerry."

I have two answers.

The first answer is my vote for John Kerry and John Edwards is a vote of no confidence in President Bush and Vice President Cheney (and Mr. Rumsfeld, Mr. Wolfowitz, Gen. Powell (regrettably), Dr. Rice, Mr. Ashcroft, Mr. Rove, and the rest).

I have no confidence in the worldview they promote. I think of them as political fundamentalists lacking the capacity to see anything that’s not visible from the hill where they live. I bear witness to their zeal but I don’t believe it is informed by the world as I know it.

I have no confidence in their economic doctrine (which has contributed to turning a 4 trillion dollar surplus to a 4 trillion dollar deficit and which has accommodated an annual growth rate in the federal government three times greater than the growth rate of the eight years prior to their return to the White House (with less to show for that growth in terms of deliverables to the American people). Forget about the quality of the jobs created in the last four years; going into this fall we are still down nearly a million jobs, net, since they took office. Then add the quality of the new jobs as measured by pay and benefits and it’s not a pretty picture.

I have no confidence in their military doctrine which is the very definition of hubris and by which they have dragged America out of the circle of international law. Their actions in Iraq have exposed how thin our military strength is in fact. They have destabilized the world.

I have no confidence in their foreign doctrine. They have increased fear and diminished respect in the world, turning an amazing surplus of international good will on the fall of 2001 into an amazing deficit of good will in the fall of 2004.

I have no confidence in their domestic doctrine. Official government figures are clear that the benefit of the Bush tax cuts goes disproportionately to the wealthy and the burden of paying for those cuts falls disproportionately on small business owners and the working class. This administration has shifted the burden of paying for the results of federal environmental crimes away from the criminals and onto the backs of taxpayers. They have dismantled environmental protections on water, air and chemical ground waste. They have de-clawed law enforcement. The Federal Assault Weapons Ban will expire next Monday after proving its worth over ten years. Mr. Bush has shown zero leadership in calling for the extension of the ban on weapons needed by no one except soldiers. On Tuesday the National Rifle Association will endorse Bush/Cheney 04. I will hold Mr. Bush responsible for every assault-weapon death from Tuesday on.

I have no confidence in their legal doctrine. I see the Patriot Act as an assault on the Constitution of the United States that exposes any citizen to unlawful search and seizure and imprisonment without trial by Executive whim. No American is protected by law today and I pray that Congress will have the wisdom to reverse itself on this. I believe this administration has done more to attack and damage the Constitutional separation of powers than any in my lifetime.

I have no confidence in their commitment to truth telling. I’ve never seen an administration more secretive or more intolerant of honest questions, let alone open debate. Their actions against journalists, critics and the loyal opposition ranges from small minded (disenfranchising senior White House correspondent Helen Thomas because she asked objectionable questions at press briefings) to misguided (refusing to respond to questions from members of Congress unless they are Committee Chairs—all of whom currently are party loyalists) to criminal (leaking the name of an active CIA field agent after her husband debunked a key element in the case for the Iraq invasion—thus illegally placing her and her network in harms way and compromising a difficult-to-replace stream of intelligence). I would give them points for sneakiness if that were a virtue. Also foolishness.

I have no confidence in their integrity. They claim to be honest but I think they are merely blunt. They are quick to shift blame and slow to accept responsibility. Dr. Rice was on the Today program this morning to support the Vice President’s representation that what he meant when he said last Monday that, if we make a mistake at the polls in November we will more open to attack—what he meant was: whoever is elected in November faces the danger of further attacks. Katie Couric pushed back ever so gently saying those phrases don’t mean the same thing, to which Dr. Rice—demonstrating loyalty but not integrity—replied that the Vice President was clear about what he meant by those words. This makes my brain hurt. I think Dr. Rice believes we’re all stupid. I don’t understand why the Vice President didn’t say, “I misspoke. What I should have said is…” I think that’s the least that can be expected of him. This is the most recent example of this administration’s practice of calling green red and daring anyone to say different.

So. My first answer is my vote for Kerry/Edwards is a vote of no confidence in Bush/Cheney. I'll post my second answer shortly.

Friday, June 11, 2004

Focus on the Family Hates Good Sex


Or I could call it Good Sex: As Featured by Focus on the Family.

I'm having a little dustup with a group called Focus on the Family about Good Sex, a learning design I wrote with my friend, Kara Powell at Fuller Youth Institute. Their critical review covered quite a bit of ground that I'll post later on the www, along with the relevant pages from the book. For now, I'll just take a lift from the concluding section, which was titled 'Lack of True Teaching.'

But first, a little context.

A century ago John D. Rockefeller founded the General Education Board to reform education, especially in the American South. “We will organize children and teach them in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way,” the Board promised. To their credit, they pledged to operate “without distinction of race, sex or creed.” “In our dreams,” they said, not so much to their credit as far as I’m concerned; “people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hands.” Our molding hands…

OK, can I just say, YIKES! Am the only one who thinks docility is not an asset in learning?

Half a century ago, the Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, edited by Benjamin Bloom and a host of others, was devised as "a tool to classify the ways individuals are to act, think, or feel as the result of some unit of instruction."

OK, again: YIKES! I don’t think evaluating a student’s performance on whether she acts, thinks or feels according to plan is a particularly useful or reliable measure of learning. I’m not saying teachers shouldn’t engage students purposefully, I’m just saying My gosh! I’m not sure I trust teachers who believe they know how students are to act, think, or feel as the result of a unit of instruction. In fact, I’m pretty sure I don’t.

You probably know what a taxonomy is but just in case you forgot, a taxonomy is a classification of things (doesn’t matter what) into some sort of order. In biology, taxonomies are useful for sorting the beasties by type. So when we observe something soaring in the sky, the taxonomy of animals tells us it’s not a pig because we know pigs don’t fly. Major League Baseball employs taxonomies to sort players and teams from best to worst in categories that couldn’t possibly matter to any balanced person; things like:

“You know, Buzz, Oscar Campos has more base-on-balls versus left-handed pitchers than any Western Division player since Virgil ‘Walker’ Troy batted third for Milwaukee.”

“That’s right Scooter; and, of course you mean the Braves of Milwaukee, not the Milwaukee Brewers, who were not yet a twinkle in their daddy’s eye when Virgil Troy earned the nickname, ‘Walker.’”

My personal taxonomies include a class of friends who actually know and care whether Milwaukee was ever a Western Division club and who will bust my chops if I get it wrong. I can only say the people in that class prove my point about balanced persons.

The Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, on the other hand, suggests six categories of learning, beginning with simple knowledge and peaking with complex evaluation.

1. knowledge (e.g. remembering lists, definitions, facts and directions)
2. comprehension (e.g. interpreting what a list, fact or direction means)
3. application (e.g. using a list or fact to solve a problem)
4. analysis (e.g. finding patterns between lists, definitions or directions)
5. synthesis (e.g. making a list of lists, translating a definition in different words)
6. evaluation (e.g. judging whether a list was worth remembering in the first place).

Truth be told, when it comes to delivering "a tool to classify the ways individuals are to act, think, or feel as the result of some unit of instruction," I’m not convinced Bloom’s Taxonomy delivers, except maybe on the bottom end. If all that’s required is reporting back to the teacher what she said about who, what, when, where and why then, as long as the lesson was clear and correct, there’s not a lot of range in the actions, thoughts and emotions that are appropriate outcomes for that instruction. At that level of learning a thing is what it is and isn’t what it isn’t and that’s that.

But farther along in Bloom’s Taxonomy lots of personal factors come into play that make predicting outcomes difficult and in some matters impossible.

On one hand, there’s no explaining my friend Bob, who is fairly reliable in every way but one. Bob, you see—and understand I’m not saying he’s a bad person—but Bob does math at home, at night, on his own time, with no application in mind; for fun. He’s not a teacher and, other than indirectly in his work as a programmer, nobody pays Bob to solve math problems. Bob is as good an example as I know of what we call a mathematician. I feel safe in saying nobody taught him through a unit of instruction to think, behave and feel like a mathematician. That came from inside; it’s one of the things Bob is.

For the record, past a point of basic competence, Bob did not push his daughters to pursue his passion for math. Mathematician is not one of the things either of them is.

So that’s Bob. On the other hand are any number of friends in commerce to whom, apparently, it is irrelevant that one of every four working Americans is employed in a business owned by a woman (Tom Peters, Re-Imagine!, DK, 2003, page 174). Those businesses, more than ten million of them, provide more jobs in the U.S. than Fortune 500 companies provide on the whole planet. …Re-read that and let it sink in for a moment just how much economic power that represents, just how big a market I’m talking about for women who own their own companies. But, honestly, by the way most businesses run you’d think the only thing women bring to the table is dinner.

Now, having delivered that little instructional unit, I confess I have no idea how you’re likely to behave, think or feel. I can conceive of a great range of possibilities from seeing green in the form of an underserved market to seeing red at this brazen example of cultural decline to feeling blue because you are not one of those business owners or in the pink because you are. I could go on but I only have these four crayons so I'm pretty much out of ideas.

People think what they think, feel what they feel, learn what they learn and behave as they behave. And the farther up the learning ladder we go the more possible it is that even people who reach the same conclusion may reach it by different routes.

I have a friend whose responsibilities included training members of a national religious organization in how to communicate about their faith to others. For decades he labored under the unexamined assumption that people who put their trust in God all do so for the same reason (which, oddly enough, happened to be the reason he put his faith in God). In a grand display of one old dog learning new tricks, my friend did an anecdotal study of reasons for belief—by which I mean he started asking believers all over the globe what it was that convinced them to believe. After a few weeks he had a taxonomy of nine different reasons for believing. I suppose it goes without saying but I’m being paid by the word here so, what the heck: Finding eight more reasons to believe caused my friend’s mission to absolutely blow up! For all my white readers, blowing up is a good thing in this context. It means my friend was able to help people learn to talk compellingly about their faith instead of his.

If you’re a person of faith who’s read the alarming reports of college-bound kids forgetting to pack their beliefs when they head off to school, this may be very important to you. If a child grows up not believing for the reasons his family or church give him, then of course he’ll forget to pack those beliefs when he moves out of the house; if he doesn’t expect to use it, why take it? If, on the other hand, if he believes for a reason that’s persuasive to him, he won’t have to carry that his belief as baggage; he’ll be wearing it.

Now, about that fracas with Focus.

Here's the concluding section from the review (which, by the way has not, as far as I know, been published).

Lack of True Teaching

Webster defines a curriculum as “a fixed series of studies required for…qualification in a field of study." Good Sex does not fit that definition: It neither teaches nor instructs. Directive teaching clearly states facts; it differentiates between right and wrong. Although directive lessons include thought-provoking questions and encourage teachers and students to reflect on issues, they are merely tools used to complement all of the other program components.

Non-directive teaching is based on individual autonomy: "Let's discuss the issue so that you can decide what's right for you?' Good Sex is non-directive teaching.

Young students need facts about sexual issues. They need to know that the Bible is very clear on most human sexuality issues They need to see examples demonstrating the benefits of obeying God in our sexual behavior, Good Sex fails to fulfill those needs. Authors Jim Hancock and Kara Powell should have spent less time watching MTV reruns and studying Hugh Hefner and given more time and energy to researching the issues they included in their curriculum. Reading Good Sex will leave youth leaders and students confused and frustrated. Focus on the family cannot recommend the Good Sex curriculum to churches, parents, or youth groups. This is not a recommended Christian sexuality curriculum.


In a letter to our publisher, the manager of Focus on the Family’s Abstinence Department wrote, “I am offended for Christian families and youth who will be exposed to this nondirective and, I believe, non-Christian curriculum.” And “there is clearly no expression of right and wrong in the content…”

If you’re old enough, picture Jack Benny, right hand lightly touching his cheek, right elbow cupped in his left hand, in a display of mock indignation: “Well!” he's saying. If you don’t remember Jack Benny, try a young Steve Martin in that great white suit of his; knees together, feet spread, upper arms hugging his sides and forearms wildly askew; bellowing, “Well EXCUSE ME!” My attitude about this huffy critique of Good Sex falls somewhere in that range—someplace between mock indignation and mock outrage. Because, really, do they actually think the best way (and apparently the only way) to teach kids about sexual choices is to work the lowest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy?

I don’t. I think the elementary levels of learning are insufficient for teaching adolescents about sex. For children, sure—children are not yet equipped to make complex judgements—but sexually maturing adolescents require a more thorough engagement of mind and heart than simply taking our word for it. Since Good Sex is a biblically informed curriculum, that means asking students to address the biblical text directly rather than on the basis of hearsay. Somehow I don’t think, “Because my teacher said it’s in the Bible” is a very resilient argument should an adolescent ever encounter a serious challenge to her beliefs about sexuality. Not that that would ever happen…but it could.

The day after I saw the letter and review from Focus on the Family, my friend Jay directed me to a very different review by Tim Stafford in Christianity Today (June 2004, Vol. 48, No. 6, Page 36):

Hancock and Powell's Good Sex aims to bring the church into this struggle. It offers a packet of materials for youth groups—a leader's guide, a student journal, and a video of discussion starters. The material would enable a novice volunteer to lead a meeting, but Good Sex really aims at veteran youth leaders who want to cobble together their own approach from a variety of resources.

Hancock and Powell explain that they aim for a process, not a confrontation. In seven lessons they cover a lot of biblical ground. The Bible studies are bracketed by open-ended discussion, in which kids think for themselves and speak freely. The intent is to create a church context in which sexuality gets explored thoughtfully and biblically, and kids reach their own conclusions.


E.B. White is supposed to have said something like, “Who we think our audience is, is how we write” (this is one of those unsubstantiated quotations I usually avoid but this sounds like something he might and perhaps even should have said and I'm going with it). I have the distinct impression that a lot—maybe most—adults think kids are not merely young but a bit dumb. This is why they talk and write down to them; why they pander and then preach instead of inviting youngsters to stretch and grow. I’m here to tell you, if kids don’t get respect from their teachers, they will turn to—and learn from—those who give respect.

And that, for now, is that.

UPDATE | 07 July 2008: Kara Powell and I have delivered a thorough update and revision of Good Sex, including a new DVD. Street Date: January, 2009.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

The Dog's Dilemma

A dog of average (which is say almost no) intelligence lies in the dirt, gnawing a bone. The bone, once a vital part of some cow’s structural integrity, is now depleted of marrow and moisture, worthless for anything beyond stimulating the canine’s gums and exercising his jaws.

You approach the dog, hands behind your back; he eyes you, suspicious. You speak kindly; he wags his tail slowly, smiles a doggy smile and places a paw on top of the bone, sniffing the air uncertainly.

After a moment, he returns to the bone with a lick, and is about to resume gnawing when you bring your hands from behind your back, revealing half a pound of fresh-ground beef. This maneuver captures the dog’s attention and he wags his tail appreciatively while covering the bone again with his paw. You have to pay respects to a human with fresh beef — he knows this but can’t remember why.

You smile and straighten your arm a bit: the one with the meat piled on the end of it. The dog smiles back and licks his lips. You take half a tentative step forward, extending the meat as if to offer it to the dog and he, after a moment of frozen indecision, stands to his feet and picks up the bone, never taking his eyes off you.

You take another half step forward. Nothing has changed, you’re still smiling, still offering the burger, and you would think, since he is your dog, who sneaks into your bed after you fall asleep, who licks fried chicken grease right off your hand and drinks from your open toilet — you would think the beast would see your approach as nothing if not promising — but incredibly he backs away, his eyes mapping out an escape route lest he become cornered and you do something terrible. But this is not your intention at all. You seek only his good and offer half a pound of lean ground chuck as proof. And so what if there is the tiniest bit of doggy medicine mixed with the beef — that too, is for his good and you expect if he knows anything at all he would know this. And to be fair, he suspects it in a vague, dreamy way — you are the one who goes away and then comes back so marvelously and he has no idea how you do that but he is mightily impressed every time. And you are the one who appears on occasion with food or a ball or a piece of whadaya-call-it…rope! and what great fun that is until his gums bleed and you pin him to the floor and say “No more!” so sternly, and he’s not sure why you have to be so strict, but he loves you and gets excited when he hears that noise that means you’ll come through that wall opening that appears and then disappears so suddenly, and how in the world does that work, he wonder, and now here you are with meat! You have meat and boy does that look good and his nostrils flare as you wave that tasty treat in front of him, and he doesn’t really know why he’s backing up with that nasty bone when you’re right there with a huge chunk fresh USDA inspected beef and all he has to do — he knows this somehow as his tail drops, still wagging between his hind legs — all he has to do is let go of the bone, just drop the bone and you’ll almost certainly — he doesn’t know why you would, but it’s not his to question; he hasn’t, as far as he can remember, done anything to deserve it, but you’re so good that way; it’s part of why he loves you — you will almost certainly give him the meat and all he has to do is drop the bone and golly does that meat look good and boy is this bone ever dry, and he would, he would take the meat in a second because he trusts you and believes in you and you’re holding meat right out in front of him almost touching his nose and his tail is between his legs and hardly even wagging anymore — it’s just one too many operations under the circumstances — and the circumstances are that you have the beef and he’s pretty doggone sure you’ll give it to him if he’ll just drop the bone but you gotta understand, the beef is just a promise, and he knows it may not be much but he’s got the bone.

That’s the dog’s dilemma. You see his problem don’t you?

— from Posers, Fakers & Wannabes by Brennan Manning and me

The Dog's Dilemma is available as a video download (featuring the talented Brian Boyle).

jim hancock




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