Monday, May 13, 2013

Left, Right and Center

Some people have used “Right Coast” and “Left Coast” to refer to the cultures of the United States.  It’s a forced label, a way of slamming the folks on the West Coast for being lefties.  I say forced, because what’s the reason for calling the folks on the East Coast, splendid as they can be, “right?”

It’s one of those labels that masks as much as it reveals.  But I bring it up because I just heard that Minnesota has passed a same-sex marriage bill.  By a healthy margin (75 to 59) in the House and a pretty satisfying one in the Senate (37 to 30) as well.  I have this boxing image of knocking the opposition, left, right, and now center.  I know that does a serious disservice to Iowa, who got there first.  But people kept calling Iowa a fluke.  Now, with Minnesota also allowing gays and lesbians to marry, Iowa has shown it was more a trend-setter than a fluke. 

So close on the heels of the state senate vote in Rhode Island in April, extending the rights to all six New England states, and Delaware a month earlier, Minnesota seems like a much bigger deal, not just because of the fact it extends gay rights north from Iowa farther into the heartland of America but because Minnesota was one of those states where it clearly looked for a while like it was going to go to a constitutional ban.  It’s a really dramatic turn-around.   Minnesota, remember, is where that catshit crazy lady, Michele Bachmann, comes from, the wacko arguing now that 9/11 and the Boston Massacre are the punishment of an angry God on a sinful nation.  Following her logic, they need to dig up Tamerlan Tsunaev's grave in Virginia and put his remains wherever we put those folks who died serving the Lord's purpose.  Ms. B. also makes the argument  that what has just happened "denies religious liberty to people who believe in traditional marriage," a deliciously original way of using the English language, since no liberty has been taken away except the alleged liberty to take away other people's liberty, which liberty no one in this country has in the first place.  "How dare you take away "my right" to dictate what rights you should have?" she is saying – "You have no right to remove my right to stand on your toes."

What a relief Minnesotans with a brain must be feeling to see some evidence she doesn't speak for the whole state - even if they don't agree with the outcome.

Also significant is the speed of change.  It all started in Massachusetts in 2004, but it was four more years before California and Connecticut would follow suit in 2008.  Now we have three states approving it in very rapid succession and bringing the total to twelve.  (I should note that the "approval" dates vary depending on whether you count the days, like this one, when the second house of the legislature approves it, the date when the governor signs it, or the date it goes into effect.  Minnesota's law will go into effect on August 1, if the governor signs it - and he has promised he will.)

Twice in my life I have gotten involved in gay politics at a time when we faced a formidable opposition to gay rights.  The first was the Briggs Initiative, when Anita Bryant was on the verge of convincing Californians that if we allowed gay men to teach in the public schools they would abuse their children.  The second was when the Catholics and the Mormons teamed up to buy enough airtime to persuade the next generation of gullible Californians of something similar – gays are not people to be allowed near your children.  Because of those scare messages, the majority voted to take away the right of gays and lesbians to marry in a state referendum, the infamous Prop. 8, the constitutionality of which is now being debated in the Supreme Court.

We know exactly where that anti-gay message originates.  Ratzinger, who became Benedict XVI of the Roman Catholic Church, has referred to gay people as “intrinsically disordered.”   He had earlier referred to homosexuality as an “intrinsic moral evil.”   That message was passed on to American Catholics by their bishops in the fall of 2006, when Bishop Arthur Serratelli of Paterson, N.J., head of the committee on doctrine, declared: "Homosexual acts are never morally acceptable. Such acts never lead to happiness," he said, because they are "intrinsically disordered." 

Interestingly, American Catholics knew when to let things go in one ear and out the other.  Polls show Catholics are ahead of the average American voter in approving the rights of gays and lesbians to marry.   You’ve got to wonder about the intelligence of the likes of Serratelli, a grown man who claims millions of people cannot be happy because they do not share catholic hang-ups.

The other source of funds buying misinformation has been the Mormon Church.  There too, there has been an interesting development.  Thanks to the dogged efforts of Fred Karger, among others, the once hidden fact that the church had had 77 people working on the California debate over Prop. 8 in their headquarters in Salt Lake, has been exposed, and there has been a huge backlash.  So much so that the church is now apparently backing down.  It was effectively a no-show in the Rhode Island debate, for example. 

Possibly the most dramatic revelation, though, of how homophobes work may be in the latest tax return of the so-called “National Organization for Marriage.”   It turns out this group, which claims to be the voice of conservative America, is actually 90.5% funded by ten individuals.  70% funded by two individuals.   What once looked like it might be a serious grass roots effort turns out to be just another example of Americans trying to buy votes.   Not so much a story about homophobia as a story about how money talks in America.  

It’s like watching sand castles being washed away by the tide.

There’s still tons of work to do.  Best guess on the Supreme Court decision seems to be they are going to throw it back at the states to decide.  If that happens, we will have to go state by state through these expensive debates and discussions and votes to rescind the constitutional amendments prohibiting same-sex marriage.  That will take time.

But at least now we’re don’t have to compare ourselves to the former East and West Pakistan, a nation divided by a whole bunch of "not our kind" of people.  You can get married on the East Coast.  You can get married on the West Coast.  And you can get married in the Center.

Happy days.

 picture credit

Friday, May 10, 2013

One door closes, another opens

Just came across a great story from that wonderful city I went to on my very first adventure with bright lights and the big city – Munich, Germany.  It was in 1960 when I first discovered that “Millionendorf” (village of a million people) with its thirty-seven museums and its forty kinds of beer.  It was a treasure store of grand boulevards and rococo churches and its beautiful English Garden.  Still is.  It was my opening to the world after growing up in rural New England.  I’ve written about how rural New England is no longer a place I want to run from.  But it’s also true, once I had a taste of city life, which Munich gave me, I never looked back, and I’ve never been sorry.

With my North German background, there was a bit of distancing from Catholic Bavaria.  Not real prejudice, actually, but sort of a sense that “they’re not us.”  Not much different from what New Englanders feel about people from the Carolinas.  Or used to.  So much has changed since I was a kid.

It was in Munich that I left behind first organized religion and, soon after, religion altogether.  I had joined the Lutheran Church while I was in college, and since I had grown up associating the German Lutheran Church my family attended with Germany, I expected to find a home.  I deliberately sought out a Lutheran dormitory to live in.   Instead of the beer-drinking, singing, dancing, fun-loving Germans I grew up with I found a rather cold, rigid and somber folk.  Not bad people.  Just not a whole lot of fun.

For years I accepted the explanation that it was because Munich was so very Catholic that the Lutherans who lived there had become defensive about their faith, and that led to a kind of killer earnestness.  I doubt now that I had my finger on the pulse of religious differences, but I do remember how very strongly religious identity figured in my life in those days.  And how very conscious I was that I was living in an intensely Roman Catholic environment.

Then the years went by and I remember reading somewhere that by 2010 non-Catholics had come to outnumber Catholics in Munich.   Things change in fifty years.

All this by way of a very long introduction to another, totally unrelated story of a boy and his Catholic Church I read in a Munich paper just now.  It’s the tale of a guy named Markus who wanted to be a priest.

“No way,” said the church.  “You’re gay.”

Fine, he says.  I’ll just go and make babies, then.

Which he did.    Twenty-two so far, and counting.

Markus became a sperm donor.  Found him a bunch of lesbians who wanted to make babies with him, and together they followed the biblical instruction to be fruitful and multiply.

All this might not have happened if the state (don’t know whether it was Bavaria or the Federal Republic) had not determined that lesbians would not be eligible to apply for sperm donations.  Fine, says Markus.  If the state won't let you pay for sperm,  I’ll give you my stuff in a cup for nothing.  Come on over, bring your partner, we’ll do the thing, you stand on your head for a while and we’ll see what happens.  Turns out young Markus has some powerful stuff.  It almost always takes the first time.

What you see here is old-world Catholic Bavaria, like most Catholic regions, once a conservative and patriarchal place, giving way to a new Bavaria, more secular, more accepting, more "catholic" in the sense of all-embracing.   As the church's influence wanes (attendance dropped from 22% in 1990 to 13% in 2009), so do some of its tired ways.

There is irony all over this story.  The church, with all its talk of "family values," has become a dried-up increasingly irrelevant institution.   Religion, more often than not, is little more than a kind of "decayed spirituality" and the Roman Catholic Church illustrates that definition to a tee.   For years, gays and lesbians knocked at the church door appealing to be allowed in.  Increasingly they're learning the world can actually be a better place if they stop knocking.   No longer satisfied to be the spinster auntie or nice uncle Freddie who never found the right girl, they are making their own families now.  Oh, and Mr. Bishop person?  You can't fire me; I quit.

What you have here is one instance of women who are building families together.  Under the old rules, women had to marry men if they wanted children.  Under the new rules they can marry each other and illustrate the old feminist maxim that women need men the way a fish needs a bicycle. 

That’s way overstated, of course, because it does not, and never will, tell the story of most women  for whom the heterosexual model works just fine, thank you.  But here in the land of the three Ks, where Kinder (children) once went only with Küche (the kitchen) and Kirche (church), some women have found them a nice man named Markus to make babies with, and from all appearances things are working out just fine.

I say from all appearances because I know this guy Markus only from the newspaper story.  I don't know the real guy.  Unless I hear otherwise, though, I’m going to assume his motives are what he says they are.  He charges no money for his sperm.  He identifies himself to the children born with his genes, so if they have questions about where they came from, they will get answers.  He may one day come to think this was not the best way to go.  He’s already, apparently, having trouble finding a partner, because he is committed to the women he has worked with and the children he has spawned.  After all, would you get involved with a man who has twenty-two children to buy birthday presents for, twenty-two birthday cakes with candles to blow out?  And counting?  Then there's his mother.  "Stop, my darling child.  For the love of God, that's enough!"

The important part of this story, though, it seems to me, is that Markus and these lesbian mothers are bringing children into the world who are wanted and will be cared for.  They are being born into families who, from all appearances, will raise them in loving homes.  The parents, biological and chosen, are taking responsibility for their actions.  There are no accidental pregnancies here, and none of these children will ever doubt that their real parents (the women who raise them) wanted them and that their biological father was the very antithesis of a deadbeat dad.  A man who once wanted to be a priest, yet.

And – I don’t know about you – but I think it would be cool to know you have 21 half brothers and sisters and to be able to name them all.  Without being born in a harem or to polygamist Mormon fundamentalists, I mean.

The only part of the story that I think people might want to take issue with is Markus’ snide remark that he enjoys getting back at the church that rejected him.  Sounds a tad petty, I'll admit, but I think the church has that one coming.  And it doesn’t change the fact that he’s going about this with a high sense of responsibility, or so it seems to me.

Brave new world, this is.  New families.  New rules.  Lots of new things.

As for that old line the homophobes drag out every time there is a debate over same-sex marriage – God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, and gays and lesbians shouldn’t be allowed to get married because they can’t reproduce.

Well, by showing Markus the would-be priest the door, the Catholic Church in Munich
just fixed that, now didn’t they.

baby picture credit:  (Note:  The baby in this picture is not related to any of the babies in the story, as far as I know.  It's just a terribly cute baby named Otto, and I hope his parents, whose blog I found this picture on, won't mind if I use him to represent happy babies everywhere.)

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Know your stupas

Taku and I had a lovely pizza dinner at friend Jason's last night (salmon pizza, another with Italian sausage, a third with "white" vegetables - all in loving memory of Jason's partner, Anthony, whose pizza-making talents were legendary.

Taku is heading for Japan shortly for a memorial service for his grandmother and has been out buying a black suit and black tie so as not to stand out as an ugly American with a Hawaiian shirt for the occasion.  And the talk, over pizza, turned to death and dying and other things funereal.

"What are those slats you find at Japanese graves?" Jason asked.

"I don't know," Taku answered.  "Something written in Sanskrit."

And we sat there feeling real uninformed - which we were, of course - and in need of enlightenment.  It was something both of us - Taku with his twenty-four years spent in Japan and me with my twenty-four years spent in Japan (not all the same years) - felt we ought to have picked up somewhere, but hadn't.

The first thing I discovered, as I went digging this morning, was that those flat-faced wooden slats you find next to Japanese graves are called sotōba.   In Chinese characters, that’s: 卒塔婆.  And that strikes me as terribly curious, since sotōba  (actually the second o is a long o, so it’s pronounced so-toe-oh-ba, ((but say it real fast so nobody thinks you’re stressing the oh)) ) is actually the Japanese way of saying “stupa.”  And stupas, as you know, are those round things that look like an inverted tea cups.  So how did tea cups turn into flat sticks, Roseanne Rosannadanna wants to know…

All-knowing Wikipedia has this to say about stupas:

A stupa (from Sanskrit: m., स्तूप, stūpa, Sinhalese: දාගැබ, Pāli: थुप "thūpa", literally meaning "heap") is a mound-like or semi-hemispherical structure containing Buddhist relics, typically the ashes of Buddhist monks, used by Buddhists as a place of meditation.

Type 卒塔婆 into your Japanese-English Google translator and you’ll see it translates it as “stupa.”  Wikipedia makes mistakes, but Google is never wrong.

Here (above) is a picture taken by a blogger of a stupa in Gotemba, near Mt. Fuji:

And here are a couple of images of the sticks we're talking about, also known as stupa/sotōba.  

You’ll see the sotōba are written in Chinese characters in the top picture, not Sanskrit, although Taku insists he remembers them being in Sanskrit, like the ones in the bottom picture, and people complaining after paying the Buddhist temples all that money to get a dead ancestor a name, it’s a shame they can’t read what it says.  In Chinese characters, they could sound it out, at least.

And that brings us to the content written on these sticks/stupas/sotobas.  What’s written on those sticks/planks/pieces of wood (no offense intended) is the “kaimyou” 戒名.  The “kai” means “instructions, or “warnings”, the “myo” means “name.”  So the “name you use when you are on guard” is the posthumous Buddhist name you are given after you die.  For which you drop a little cash into the collection box.

According to one source, those crafty Buddhist caretakers have been gouging the bereaved of late:
Bereaved families throughout Japan have been shocked by the amounts of money charged by priests and temples. Bills totaling several million yen are not uncommon and have left many people feeling like victims of price-gouging.
… “Kaimyo is not a commodity to be traded for money,” says the Japan Buddhist Federation, comprised of 60 established Buddhist sects.  “Any money or gift you give to your priest or temple is strictly a donation you offer voluntarily.”
The same article says a kaimyou name is made up of only two characters, but you can beef it up by adding more characters to give the deceased a higher rank.  And why would you have poor gramps live his eternity as a corporal when you can make him at least a colonel?  Originally everybody got a kaimyou when they embraced the Buddhist faith.  Apparently now you only get one when you pop off, evidently because – in Japan, at least – that’s the first time you get really serious about your religion.

Kaimyou is also translated “precept name” – precepts as in rules for living: no harming living beings, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and intoxication, although why you should slap the rules for living on somebody just as he passes off his mortal coil remains a mystery to me – as was the reason a stick is called a stupa, which sent me off on this quest for answers.

In digging around, I kept coming back to the story of the “Sotoba Komachi,” which in Arthur Whaley’s account of the story, is about an old woman named Komachi who sits and rests on a “stupa” (Sotoba no Komachi = “Komachi of the stupa”), which is described now not as a teacup but as a “log carved into five parts, representing the ‘five elements’.  Komachi is apparently well-known to those up on Noh drama.  Ono no Komachi was a 9th century erotic poet known for her beauty.  She is courted by Fukakusa no Shosho.  She tells him if he will visit her continuously for one hundred nights, she will become his lover.  He almost makes it, but misses one night and she has to turn him down.  Whereupon he dies of a broken heart.  And then his death sends her into such grief that she dies.  Things were tough in the 9th Century.

Her story lives on in Noh Drama and in poetry.  Here she is, in her old age, sitting on a stupa (a highly irreverant act, we have to note).  Which leads to another question.  If she dies of grief, what the hell is she doing sitting on the stupa in her old age?  Answer one question and another just pops up.  Apparently she lived to a ripe old age and had plenty of time to "meditate on the arrogance and heartlessness she displayed to her suitors as a young beauty" (so this happened more than once?) before dying of a broken heart.

And you've got to love the poetry, (it's a waka, by the way) I think:

Original Japanese Text Roman characters         Approximate meaning
花の色は 移りにけりな
Hana no iro wa Utsurinikeri na
Itazura ni
Wa ga mi yo ni furu
Nagame seshi ma ni
          The flower colors           wilted and faded away
          while I meaninglessly
          existed in this world
          as the long lasting rain continued

top to bottom: sky, wind, fire, water, earth
What ties this all together, actually, is this thing called the gorintō, which means “five-ringed tower,”  also called a “gorinsotōba,” (五輪卒塔婆).  There you can see the link between the sotōba and the wooden log, which the stick has come to represent.  I won't go into it - you can read the explanation for yourself.  For more details on the gorintou than most people could possibly want, check here and here.

So much Google can teach you when you let your fingers do the walking.  This search took a while, but I got there.  The real fun part, though, were all the distractions along the way.

Like this, for example: 
The high prices of funeral plots, costing on average 2 million yen, have led to a new service of Grave Apartments (お墓のマンション ohaka no manshon?), where a locker-sized grave can be purchased for about 400,000 yen. Some of these may even include a touch screen showing a picture of the deceased, messages, a family tree, and other information. Due to the cost of land, a graveyard in Tokyo has recently been opened by a temple in floors 3 to 8 of a nine story building, where the lower floors are for funeral ceremonies.[citation
It would appear that, in Japan, at least, you can die and immediately “move upstairs.”

And, alas, Japan is not the crime-free paradise it once was.  Apparently you can get your ashes stolen for ransom.
There are a number of cases where the ashes of deceased persons have been stolen from graves. The ashes of famous cartoonist Machiko Hasegawa and of the wife of real estate chairman Takichi Hayasaka were stolen for ransom. The ashes of famous novelist Yukio Mishima (1925–1970) were stolen in 1971 and the ashes of novelist Naoya Shiga were stolen in 1980. The ashes of the wife of the baseball player Sadaharu Oh went missing in December 2002. (source).
The Mimizuka Stupa
Next time you're in Kyoto, you might want to visit the five-part stupa at Mimizuka.  Mimizuka, incidentally, means “Ear mound,” which is a take-off on the Hanazuka (“Nose-mound”) which is a monument to the noses of Korean soldiers removed from the corpses by Japanese soldiers when Toyotomi Hideyoshi invaded Korea between 1592 and 1598.  Originally they were supposed to bring the heads home, but no doubt somebody discovered along the way that less is more.

Anyway, you can see (left) how the stupa is now getting vertical.

And here you see (on the right) a close-up of a wooden stick divided into the five parts.

The search for the what these sticks were on all these Japanese graves, which led to the discovery that they were the same thing as stupas, is now solved.  Check out here, for example, where you read, just to sum up:
The stupa was originally a structure or other sacred building containing a relic of Buddha or of a saint,[5] then it was gradually stylized in various ways and its shape can change quite a bit according to the era and to the country where it is found.[3] Often offertory strips of wood with five subdivisions and covered with elaborate inscriptions also called sotoba can be found at tombs in Japanese cemeteries (see photo below).[2] The inscriptions contain sūtra and the posthumous name of the dead person. These can be considered stupa variants.

And there you have it.

See where conversations over pizza can lead you.

picture credits: the Gotemba stupa