Thursday, December 29, 2005

A Letter to Daniel

Dear Daniel,

We had so much fun at your house on Christmas night. I had a great time playing with your new train and listening to your Polar Express songs. Thank you for offering to let us borrow your copy of the movie. I know once I see it I'll be able to tell you which song is my favorite. And by the way, even though you say that first song is too fast for you, you sing it really well.

We had fun playing “cage the Sharptooths and the Longnecks” with you and Mari. If you ever decide you are tired of being kids, you might want to consider becoming dinosaurs.

I was REALLY impressed with how good you and Mari are at waving sparklers in the dark. A lot of five year olds would be scared of them. And the way you made all those confetti poppers explode! Very exciting. I hope there wasn't too much of a mess in the front yard to clean up the next day.

Speaking of the next day, as you sat on the stairs while we got ready to leave you asked us if tomorrow would still be Christmas. As I thought about it later, I think my answer was kind of a buzz kill; I said that Christmas would be over the next day. Thankfully I was only using half of my brain. The correct answer to your question, Daniel, is that there are, in fact, twelve (!) days of Christmas. The day after was just the 2nd day. Today is only the fifth day of Christmas, so you still have plenty of time to whoop it up.

Make the most of it all. God blesses people your age with a special ability to make Christmas as fun as it can be. It is one of your jobs as a kid to help us adults remember how to celebrate!

We are looking forward to our trip to see the trains with you, Mari, Papa and Daddy,

Much Love and Merry 5th Day of Christmas!

Uncle Troy

(Daniel is the five-year old son of our friends Duane and Todd. I doubt he is a regular reader of Growing Sense yet, but maybe his Papa will pass this letter on to him. He and Mari (his sister who is 4) are both brilliant. Earlier this month Daniel sat his grandmother Tia down before she and granddad left for their home in Florida to tell her all of the reasons why they didn't have to stay down there all winter. They were as follows: you can drink hot chocolate by the fire and watch movies, you can build snowmen and have snowball fights and go sledding. He also pointed out that their house here is on a lake, which means that they can ice skate almost whenever they want. It all made perfect sense to me.)

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Brokeback Mountain Review: Truth and Beauty Make a Comeback

By way of movies like Sense and Sensibility, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and now Brokeback Mountain director Ang Lee has quietly coaxed the c-listed celebrities, beauty and truth back into American consciousness.

Lee's latest was not the movie I expected. Instead of being a story about Ennis and Jack, two Wyoming ranch hands who fall in love, it turned out to be an epic poem that stumbles around a long-lived truism: for love to exist it must battle fear. Brokeback Mountain is more like The Chronicles of Narnia and a LOT more like the Lord of the Ring series than the Christian right might ever admit.

Many more non-gay people will see this movie, not because they need or want to be enlightened, but because they already are, at least when it comes to the love/fear scuffle. They will respond to the movie's honesty. What person, gay or straight, has not, at some point in their life, wondered if they are loved the way they need to be? Nearly every person in this movie seems to silently ask this question, except one--Ennis. Love literally racks his body in pain. But he can't delve deep inside enough to figure out how to respond because the fears he carries are so bewildering . He limps between and sometimes embraces glimpses of unconditional love. He is nearly struck dumb by his inability to direct devotion anywhere but in Jack's direction.

In between revelations and until he is jarred deeper into life, Ennis unflinchingly settles in with a deep absence. In my opinion, the part of our culture who fears, misunderstands, and feels the need to keep their thumbs on gay folks was not mirrored in the suspicious villagers (though I did on one occasion expect someone to make a grab for pitchforks and torches) or even in the guys' tragically disappointed wives. I recognized our culture in the stymied, loving, and violent Ennis. Someday his grief will be our own.

While the fear/love battle is common to the majority of us, some of the specific fears portrayed are as well; like the fear that you are simultaneously too much and not enough like your peers to ever fit comfortably. For gay people who “pass” for straight, this fear can take on a uniquely powerful dimension. If a gay person's behavior or appearance doesn't happen to mirror the social cues assigned to the concept of “gay”, as is the case with Ennis, he may be presented with the Faustian choice to remain invisibly isolated in a world that would otherwise dismiss him, figuratively at best, physically at worst. That is, he can stay until the “sins of omission” start to stack up: doesn't date girls, doesn't get excited about the idea of dating girls. When the extended diet of shame, the byproduct of a long stay in such a tenuous position, bumps against the suspicious stares and gossip of his community an avalanche of dangerous events can break loose. In the non-movie world, such disasters lead to truth, or to death, sometimes both.

In Brokeback Mountain, truth and beauty lope alongside beat-up trucks, loaded guns, and threadbare trailer homes. Tricky digs for love of any kind, but don't let all the fear talk above fool you. Love holds its own in this film. But as the movie ends like a stone quietly sinking below the water's surface, an ever widening ripple of an idea takes its place: within some of us fear and love are evenly matched.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Dolly Gets It

Yet one more reason to love Dolly. She has just been nominated for a Golden Globe for her song Travelin Thru from the movie Transamerica. The story is about a transexual.

Form the New York Daily News:

I'm just so tickled," chirped the country goddess, whose tune "Travelin' Thru" received a nod for Best Original Song.

Dolly composed the ballad for "Transamerica," in which fellow Globe nominee Felicity Huffman plays a woman who comes by her breasts the hard way - through a sex-change operation.

Parton told us you don't have to know the song is about a transsexual to like it. Given its Christian imagery, she said, "country fans may think it's gospel.

"That's not particularly the kind of movie they'd go to see. But it's a beautiful movie, and they might be lured to it by the song.

"I've known a few transsexuals," said Parton, who's something of a gay icon. In fact, she thinks "Travelin' Thru" turned out as well as it did thanks to the guidance of a friend who used to be a woman. "I have firsthand knowledge of how complicated the whole process can be," she went on. "I knew this person before, during and after he was a man. You might call him 'A Boy Named Sue.' That's what his name used to be.

"He works for me," Dolly went on. "He typed up the lyrics when I was writing and rewriting it."

Yet more evidence proving that to understand different kinds of people it helps to really get to know them. This is a lesson the Church still needs to learn.

BTW, the term transexual confuses some. My limited understanding is that a transexual person is someone who has the body parts of one sex and the mind of another. It might also apply to someone who was born with both sets of reproductive organs (yes, this happens) and was physically assigned a sex by doctors at birth that is inconsistent with who the person feels they are. Sexual reassignment is an option that helps put things back in order for some of these folks, but it is expensive and not available to all.

I know folks who are transexual. I love them. They tell me they do not choose the life they have to live, and seeing how the world treats them as they struggle through an already difficult life, I believe them. But I have to say, their perspective is unique and valuable. Also, transexuals and transvestites are not the same thing. A transvestite is a person of one sex who dresses in the clothes typical of another. This behavior has nothing to do with sexual orientation. I have less of an understanding of transvetism.

There's your gender identity lesson for the day!

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Christmas So Far

It is still 48 hours from C-day but Christmas feels like it is here in some ways already. We've had snow on the ground for the past three weeks, which gives the days extra sparkle and the early evening an ethereal purplish glow that I love.

John started his two-week vacation on Friday so now I get him all to myself until after New Years. Friday night we went to our friend Chris's house for a party. Chris is so creative (he is also our garden designer). He renovated an Arts and Crafts house and has decorated it with vintage 50s modern furniture in just the right way.

Chris is passionate about Christmas lights (even more than I, maybe not as much as my mom). He has strings of the big colored bulbs puddled on top of his frosted glass kitchen cabinets. He collects vintage boxes of lights and has them piled up on his buffet. His staircase was draped with about 6 different kinds of colored lights wrapped together in a way that I probably couldn't pull off. He and his house are lots of fun.

After the party John and I drove up to the new Keystone Arts Cinema to see The Squid and the Whale (thumbs up). We got there early and realized that the theater has a bar in it. When we ordered our drinks, the waitress said we could take them into the theater with us (thumbs WAY up). Soon some friends, John and Anne, who live on the next street over walked in. They were going to the same movie so we just made an evening of it.

Saturday morning our choir had practice for our church's Christmas music on Sunday. In the afternoon I finished my Christmas shopping--the mall was crowded but people were still in a good mood. I also treated myself to dim sum at Shang Hai Lil's. Got home, John and I took a nap. I wrapped some presents. Then we went over to our neighbor's house for dinner and to play Settlers of Catan (fun strategy game). This is one of our favorite winter things to do.

Sunday it snowed the whole day and everything was fresh and white again. We went to John's dad's house for a family Christmas. We had ribs, mac and cheese, and a great time. Our choir's Christmas music was at 4:00. I only sang probably 2/3 of the notes because I was on the verge of tears most of the time. I can't even say (or evidently type) the title “Mary Did You Know?” without choking up. We had a choir party afterwards at Barb and Bob's house-beef tenderloin (thumbs way up again!).

Then our friends Dave and Ken invited us over to open our Christmas presents. We love the book of vintage Christmas they gave us, but Dave painted an ornament that literally took my breath away. He gave it to us, but we had to agree to let him enter it in the Indiana State Fair's Craft competition (holiday ornament category). I'll keep you posted on how it does. Dave has cleaned house in this category before. Two years ago he painted an Easter ornament that I made him swear would be left to me in his will.

Today our first snowbirds and cardinals showed up at the bird feeder outside our kitchen window. Seeing them made me feel like family had arrived for the holidays.

The rest of our week will be full of friends, more family and our church's Christmas Eve midnight service where I will cry all over again because of the music and because the church is so unselfconsciously beautiful when it is crammed full of people who love each other. And the light of candles hovering over the congregation gives the sanctuary a hushed glow-- like a Christmas dream. Afterward we can be quiet, settle in and exhale the spirit of hope and wonder as we welcome Jesus into the world.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Lookout Lawrence, Kansas...

Indianapolis has your number. Yes, Lawrence, Kansas, where there is not even a debate over whether or not Intelligent Design should be taught in science classes (they're all for it), already had a city ordinance that made discrimination against gay folks in the workplace and housing market illegal. And as of last night, so does Indianapolis!

From the Indianapolis Star:

The proposal to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace and housing market passed on a 15-14 vote after Langsford and three Democrats changed sides. It had failed 18-11 in April.

"This has changed my view of Indianapolis now that I know the majority of residents support equal rights," said Susan Hazer, the mother of a gay daughter.

Amen sister. While it was no easy battle for people on either side of the issue and the vote was hardly a landslide, the result was favorable. And it does show that at least in some cases, prejudice can be overcome.

I was really down after last week's hearing. The barrage of rage-filled rants against people like me were painful. My pastor, Mike was there. I know he was tired after working all day but he came and stayed throughout the four hours of testimony, including mine, and at the end he had a big smile and a hug for me. I needed it. The next day he sent me a message with this prayer:

It is a prayer by a friend of mine by the name of Stanley Hauerwas...and it goes a little like this...

Dear Lord, I am filled with anger born of frustration. I confess I know not whether all my anger is of you. I just know I am filled with hope, which makes me angry that others are not so filled. Take away the self-aggrandizing righteousness that so often accompanies such anger, but please do not rob me of the anger. It is energy. Make it to be of service. Help me pass it on. We are taught by the world to fear anger. Yet we know that you are a just judge, angry because we are not justly angry. We want you to be like us -- get along by going along. You will not play that game. You expect your church to be faithful--yes, angry. Make us a people with dark bows capable of scaring a few folks. May they look at us and say,'Those guys are so filled with love their anger overflows.' Amen.

I have decided that, for better or worse, it is very American to have to fight battles like this one and the ones that are coming up. It also is American to stay in the U.S. to do it. And it is JUST as American to win. Today Indianapolis is one small step closer to that goal.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

One Step Forward: Proposition 622

The Indianapolis city/county council committee reviewing Proposition 622 that would protect disabled, gay and transgendered folks from being fired or denied housing because of who they are will go before the full council with a recommendation to pass. This after two VERY long public hearings. The one last night started at 5:30 p.m. and lasted until 10:00 p.m, with a packed house the entire time.

Some highlights:

One gay business and property owner was furious. He said that if this ordinance doesn't pass he will fire and evict every straight employee and tenant he has. The reason why? Because he can. The ordinance insures that no one can be fired or denied housing based on their sexual orientation. Without it, it is perfectly legal for him to fire people just because they are straight.

There was much denial on the opposition's side that there was a need for this. Several members of the public said they didn't believe the stories of people who testified about losing their jobs (some people more than once) because of who they loved. The sad thing is that even though MANY people testified on behalf of the proposition there were lots of folks who are scared to testify precisely because they will be harassed or fired. Even John, who works for a company that offers domestic partner benefits, was afraid to have any sign of me on his desk for this very reason. Imagine how someone working in a truly hostile work environment feels.

There were several Bible college students and conservative pastors there again last night. They typically say one of three things: gay people can and should change, if we protect gay people we will have to protect pedophiles (rapists, polygamists, etc.), the Bible is very clear that homosexuality is wrong.

I had actually planned to testify about something else, but after sitting through all of that I finally decided to share my perspective on the religious aspect. I told them that I'd been in a ministry for several years specifically to change and nothing close to that happened. I mentioned that the difference between being gay and being a pedophile, rapists, etc. is that in the latter there are victims and in imbalance of power, which makes these acts illegal and therefore NOT protected by law. As for the Biblical defense, I stated that the Bible is also very clear that slavery is acceptable (to the point that Paul even counseled a slave to return to his master), but that we had chosen to look at slavery in relationship to the major themes in the Bible rather than just as isolated verses. We should do the same now.

One person who blithers incoherently in favor of changing homosexuals is Dr. Vincent Alig. He references NARTH and Exodus, two organizations who NEVER track their success and failure rates with clients (I'd be in Exodus's failure camp) . Alig ignores 20 years of statements from every major medical association that state that homosexuality is not a disease or a disorder. He tries to sound compassionate at the podium, but I sat by him and his wife at the last hearing and they both heckled every gay speaker who testified under their breath. What is scarier is that this extremely misinformed and mean-spirited self-purported expert is the father of council member Virginia Alig Cain! No wonder she is so messed up on this issue.

Another advocate for changing gays said that we should all get lobotomies. This same guy misquoted Dr. Robert Spitzer as saying gay people can and therefore should change. What Spitzer says is some people may be able to change and therefore each individual should be given the opportunity to decide for themselves what kind of psychological treatment to pursue, if any. I have always believed people should not be prohibited from trying to change. I needed to believe I could for awhile to get to a healthier place. And for some homosexual people, preconceived notions are so strong that struggling their way through a marriage is a better alternative than suicide and living alone forever. Believe me, a LOT of counseling is required to pull that off. Much of the time it doesn't work as many of my formerly married gay friends can tell you.

Proposition 622 opponent and council member Scott Schneider actually had the nerve to ask what will keep straight people from pretending they are gay in order to get special treatment. First of all not getting fired or evicted for being gay is hardly special treatment. Second of all, well, can someone even explain to me how pretending you are gay would protect your job if straight people are protected by the proposition as well?

Oh, and just so you know, cities like Lawrence, KS, Dayton, OH, and some town in West Virginia already have ordinances like this. I can't believe Indianapolis isn't even as progressive as Lawrence, where intelligent design is to be taught right alongside actual biology. If this doesn't pass, Indianapolis is in big trouble.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Brokeback Mountain and the Ex-gay Folks

I'll be seeing Brokeback Mountain for several reasons. One is Jake Guyllenhaal. I think I am the only person who liked The Day After Tomorrow, and I liked it because I couldn't get enough of that boy (and because I was fascinated by the idea that a storm might get so big that the Troposphere would drop down and flash-freeze me). And Donnie Darko? Please. Don't get me started.

There are other reasons I'll see Brokeback Mountain. It will be a little like revisiting some of my past. If you aren't familiar with the original Annie Proulx story, here is a short plot summary. Two guys take summer jobs working together as sheepherders on a mountain in Wyoming. The boys discover they are attracted to each other, and they eventually fall in love. Not having a vocabulary or frame of reference for their feelings causes them to struggle with what to do next and to fear for their lives. Eventually they part and marry women, which seems to be the only socially acceptable option available to them (happens all the time). They also cobble together what they can of a long-term relationship with one another. As you can imagine, the seeds of love are sown right alongside those of dysfunction.

Exodus International, a ministry that encourages same-sex attracted folks to try to change their sexual orientation, is not happy with the movie. I can sort of see why. When I was involved with an Exodus affiliated ministry there were guys in my group who were married to women. They joined to try to get rid of their strong attraction to men. As you can imagine, it is about as hard for these guys to change as it would be for you to rid yourself of your attraction to whatever gender you look forward to waking up with in the morning.

Exodus is afraid that the movie will cause men to question whether or not it is a good idea to stay in these problematic marriages, and this likely will be the case. Alan Chambers, a spokesman for Exodus, said that the movie was:

“a story of unbridled obsession and painful oppression-emotions that I and thousands of others who have left homosexuality are well familiar with,” said Chambers. “The hopeless desperation we experienced, however, came from accepting the culture's 'born-gay' mantra and resigning ourselves to a life dominated by our unwanted same-sex attractions.

If Chambers experienced hopeless desperation because the culture around him insisted he resign himself to “unwanted same-sex attractions” (or in other words “your same-sex attractions may be unwanted, but there is nothing inherently wrong with them”) then he was right to find a way to keep from swallowing the business end of a rifle that worked for him. His experience was different from mine, however. In my case, I wanted to die because the entire world around me seemed to despise who I was and insist that I be someone I didn't know, which is similar to what the main characters in Brokeback Mountain wrestle with.

I'm willing to believe that Chambers and I are both a lot more joyful now that we have followed the paths God has set before us. I honestly think there must be some people who get what they need from ex-gay ministries. And I'm equally convinced that God provides blessed unions for same-sex couples. I certainly have one.

I don't, however, see the value of insisting that we all do things Exodus's way to the point that an undue burden is placed on individuals, certain families and their children. Our society is on the path to understanding this. Brokeback Mountain may just be an expression of the loss our society experiences as it stutters and stammers its way toward a more full confession of what love is.

Leelee and Brad at Dollywood

Leelee and Brad
Originally uploaded by Troy Smythe.
Those who know me, know I love Dolly Parton. When our friends Brad and Leelee found out about my love for her, they offered to go with us to Pigeon Forge, TN, home of Dollywood.

We spent all of Saturday in the park. John, Leelee and Brad treated it like it was my birthday. They said we could do anything I wanted while we were there. I sho 'nuff took 'em up on that offer.

We rode one roller coaster three times in a row, at least Brad and I did. John doesn't go in much for rides. We all rode the bumper cars though, which was a blast. I don't know what it is about ramming a small car into complete strangers that makes me smile. John even voluntarily rode an airplane ride that swung around 75 feet in the air!

We toured a replica of the cabin where Dolly and her 12 brothers and sisters were raised (two rooms). Leelee and I spent about 2 hours in Dolly's museum. Brad and John took naps on a bench.

That woman really is amazing. Only Dolly could name a themepark after herself, keep it packed full of people and still come off looking humble. Can you imagine Six Flags over Oprah? Not likely, though I'd probably go there, too.

Bear Hug
Originally uploaded by Troy Smythe.
While were in Tennessee we stayed in a little cabin that clung to the side of a cliff. The owners call it Bear Hug. It was a great place to get back to after our days spent touring and shopping the outlets. We roasted hot dogs and smores in the fireplace and hung out in the hot tub, which was outside. The air was about 27 degrees, but it still felt good in the tub. John and I couldn't get that Will Farrell and Rachel Dretch SNL skit where they play the Professors Roger and Virginia Clauven hot tubbing with Professor Barbara Hernandez (Drew Barrymore) at the Welshley Arms Hotel out of our mind.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Book Preview: The Commitment by Dan Savage

this is an audio post - click to play

WGT Dance

this is an audio post - click to play

The Twelve Days of Kiefle

Last Sunday was our annual Holiday Cookie Bake. Christmas is about Jesus and then family, but right after those two things, I think it may be about a little cookie called Kiefle (pronounced Kee-flee). It is one of the many that we make during the daylong event.

Kiefle can hardly be called a cookie. A Kiefle is a 2-inch long crescent of cream cheese based dough, filled with a citrusy, amber-colored mixture of chopped fruit and nuts that is almost like mincemeat, but much lighter. The whole thing is baked until lightly browned on top. The moment you eat a Kiefle with a cup of hot coffee is full of joy and surprise, like when Luke Skywalker and Princess Leah finally realize they are siblings.

It is not the easiest cookie to make. I think it was introduced to the Cookie Bake by one of John's work friends in 2003. Duane said this year that he was surprised it has lasted this long. Making the dough and the filling is not the hard part. The shaping is. Because the dough contains cream cheese it is very sticky. All of the steps-- rolling the dough into one-inch balls and then flattening them by hand into little 3-inch circles, then stuffing and sealing the filling inside--have to happen outside in the freezing cold to keep the dough stiff. We make about 65 of Kiefle, so it is not a quick process.

Team Kiefle (my friend Julie, who sadly was not able to be with us this year, came up with the name) puts on their coats and goes on to the back porch to work their magic in the 20-something degree air. They have to work in stages with hand-warming breaks dotted here and there--pinching and rolling requires only one hand-warming break, however, flattening and stuffing requires about four.

Though no one works slowly in that kind of cold you do have time to talk and chat. This year, Dave made up a Team Kiefle handshake. We also debated how much the Madonna's appearance in a Kiefle might fetch on E-bay (surely the effort Kiefle requires would make it more valuable than a piece of toast). The Madonna of the Kiefle discussion lasted through a couple of warming breaks. Kathy and Callie, do you think you might get Mike to preach a sermon on this topic?

Eventually the work is done. The hands return from the edge of frostbite and we can sample from the dozens of other kinds of cookies that were in the process of baking while we visited Siberia. There are a few more cold stories to share at next year's Cookie Bake-and best of all LOTS OF KIEFLE until Christmas, if they last that long.

I had so much fun this year, always do I guess. I like the Cookie Bake because cooking together allows so many opportunities for little intimate conversations. Our home is never more toasty and full of life, and never smells better than on this day. It is filled with the kind of family and friends who like to create and talk and don't mind washing a dish, getting their hands dirty, or even rolling dough in freezing temperatures. The kind who gladly bring their best cookie sheets and then leave them here for me to hoard until they can pry them out of our kitchen again. These are the kind of folks one is thankful for throughout the year.

Friday, December 02, 2005

The "Ideal" Home for Kids

Shaunti Feldhahn, a Harvard educated conservative Christian columnist writing for the Chicago Tribune(see here) had this to say recently about parenting studies:

We've all heard the discomforting facts. Even after controlling for variables such as poverty, kids outside mother-father families are twice as likely to end up abused, poor, sick, on drugs, in jail, and with poor reading and math skills.

By contrast, children who live with a married mother and father are more likely to excel in school, have good self-esteem, seek healthy friendships and avoid self-destructive behaviors. Those contrasts are devastating in an era when one-third of all babies (and two-thirds of all African-American babies) are born to single moms. Those contrasts should also raise great caution about choosing to deny kids either a mother or a father via even the most loving same-sex parenting

Diane Glass, another Harvard grad answers her claims in the same column. I liked Diane's response, but here is what I wrote back to Shaunti:

Dear Ms. Feldhahn,

I have not heard these "facts" you mention. You fail to cite even one of your sources so it is impossible for me to examine them for myself. But did you really mean to equate the home environment of committed, monogamous same-sex couples with that of "broken homes"? I suspect that was not the position articulated in the studies you mention.

What constitutes an "ideal" environment in which to raise a child? Having been raised in the rural South, it was impossible for many people I knew to believe that a child should be raised by a mixed-race couple--they didn't believe it was "best" for the child. Though their position was perhaps defensible from a Biblical standpoint, kids of such arrangements seem to turn out just fine (ideally even) when the couple are well-equipped and the surrounding environment is not excessively hostile (let me know if there is a study on this).

I do not believe the form of something matters as much as its substance. Jesus sort of made that point to the Pharisees when he described them as white-washed sepulchers. If we indeed are going to define who should parent based on an "ideal", I would suggest the two prospective parents demonstrate high level psycho-social and emotional skills and an ability to love deeply and discipline effectively and responsibly. A marriage license and differing reproductive organs hardly qualify a couple for parenthood. The protections that come with legal marriage, however, certainly do seem to make things safer for families. Denying these protections to same-sex couples and their kids seems to be anything but Christ-like to me. Those are actions many will have to provide an account for later I suppose.


Troy Smythe
Indianapolis, Indiana