Life through lenses

Do not look at the sun! I think we might have heard that before—like a bajillion times when we were growing up, right? On Monday, much of America will be standing outside on a hot summer day looking up at the Great American Eclipse.

Not looking at the sun is good advice because, no shit, solar staring is worse than running with scissors. Fortunately, there are special glasses—with super-dark lenses—so that all of us gawkers can be protected from the sun’s blinding rays.EclipseGlasses

So super-dark lenses will save the day. But it’s just one day. And only one type of lens.

Looking through lenses is nothing new. I’m convinced that we look through lenses—our own customized set—every day, nearly all the time. Unlike eclipse glasses, though, there’s no frantic search to buy these lenses. I’m talking about looking at life through lenses of bias: our preconceived opinions and beliefs. And just like corrective lenses in eyeglasses alter our perception of objects, lenses of bias alter our perceptions of life.

The notion of these life lenses came to me, oddly enough, at a baseball game. A bunch of baseball games, really. I gradually understood that two honest people could witness the same event—say, a play at home plate—and perceive two different outcomes. A fan of the Yellow Jackets, whose player is barreling down the line and sliding into home, will believe with all his heart and mind that his guy slid under the tag—safe! At the same time, a Bearcats’ fan, whose catcher is protecting home plate, will genuinely believe he witnessed the tag being applied before the runner’s foot reached the plate—out!

How the two fans react to the call—silent disappointment or full-fledged rage—depends on other personality factors. But how they mentally processed their perception of the event is based on bias. And there’s nothing evil about it; each entered the ball park that day wanting his respective team to win.

I’ve seen a similar bias play out—again, oddly enough—on HGTV’s “House Hunter” shows. A couple is looking for a house, and one of them is, say, “budget conscious.” We know this because they mention the damn budget at least a dozen times during the episode. Now, I understand these shows are somewhat manufactured, but I have to believe they have at least some connection to the actual house-hunting situation. Why else would a dude shun the house with a home theater and the one close to work and instead pick the one with the shitty siding? Because it fit the budget, and he’s viewing every house through budget lenses.

(As HH fans know, the oft-stated bias can also be “close to the beach,” “my man cave,” “a white kitchen” or “all bedrooms on the same floor.”)

Another place I’m seeing life lenses affect perception is in the political arena. And while I think a series of lenses are in place, but there’s usually one overriding issue—or one demographic—that serves as the first filter. If a voter, for example, believes that women are unfit to be president, it will alter that voter’s perception of everything a female candidate says or does. Similarly, if a voter’s No. 1 issue is allowing same-sex marriage, that voter will view every candidate through that lens first and regard other stances as secondary factors.

This concept has helped me understand how voters I know to be good human beings can support a candidate who is widely recognized as ill-prepared or saddled with what I believe to be disqualifying flaws. But the issue of competency—or the bias against those flaws—is not as strong as that voter’s bias for something else that candidate possesses, whether it’s opposition to taxes or support for raising the minimum wage, or bias for a particular background or style.

In the controversy over Confederate statues, I have to think it’s another lens we look through when we evaluate the appropriateness of those monuments. This isn’t uncharted territory for any American citizen. What biases did each of us have long before the Charlottesville clash—or New Orleans’ removal of statues, or the debates that have cropped up across the country? In some cases, the lens is political: “I’m taking sides with the leaders of my party.” But in most cases, we either stand against the symbols of racial oppression—Rebel flags and Confederate monuments—or we’re OK with them.

And then when Charlottesville or New Orleans or Lexington, Kentucky, happen, different people—with different life lenses—view the same event but reach different conclusions.

There’s one more thing. An eclipse is the obscuration of light when the moon blocks the sun. A similar eclipse is common in today’s news-gathering process. Most of us have sources of news and information we prefer, and we block out the light and, often, the truth of other sources. If you find yourself shout “fake news” at reports that run counter to your political beliefs, you’re often not wearing lenses; you’re wearing blinders. And that’s a whole ’nother essay.

I’m not trying to tell you I’m right and you’re wrong—about Confederate statues or Donald Trump or the play at the plate. I’m just reminding you of the existence of bias, or preconceived beliefs. Being mindful of life lenses not only helps me understand the actions and words of others, it also helps me understand—and even to search to clarify—my own motives and beliefs.

The only thing I’m sure about is that you absolutely need eclipse special glasses—with super-dark lenses—to look at the sun on Monday. And that the Yellow Jackets’ runner was safe at the plate.

How to Win the War on Christmas

Just for fun, let’s assume I didn’t alienate my entire audience with my denunciation of “White Christmas” in a previous blog. (Also just for fun, let’s assume I have an audience.)

While we’re on the topic of Christmas, I’d like to propose a solution to the War on Christmas. This is a bit tricky, as I don’t buy that there really is such a thing, war-wise. I celebrate Christmas, and I don’t feel the least bit threatened by those who don’t celebrate the holiday. Hey, it’s not like they were going to get me anything anyway.

Others feel differently, though, and they fume and feud in public skirmishes. This article traces the history of the WOC from Henry Ford and the John Birch Society to one Bill O’Reilly, the Fox News host who rallies the troops every holiday season.

For the past decade, a major battle has been waged over words used in seasonal greetings. Years ago corporate leaders of retail stores, thinking that some non-Christian customers might feel alienated when wished a merry Christmas, instructed employees to instead say, “Happy holidays.” I don’t know if any customers had actually complained about hearing “Merry Christmas,” but when zillions of dollars are on the line, the corporate guys probably figured, “Why take the risk? Let’s keep it generic.”

Here’s why: A backlash of alienation and outrage came from the other end of the spiritual spectrum. Apparently, many Christians want to be regularly reminded that their “team” is still No. 1 in this country, and a greeting of “happy holidays” became equivalent to “Welcome to hell. Satan will be with you shortly.”

So “happy holidays” became fightin’ words in the WOC. Oh sure, there are tussles over nativity scenes in public squares and school parties in homerooms, but the yuletide greeting controversy is more widespread; it sparks up every time someone utters “holidays” and not “Christmas.”

I understand the struggle. I do. Throughout my work history, I’ve sat on plenty of team-building committees that feel the pain of planning Christmas/holiday celebrations for a work community made up of various faiths and traditions. We try to figure out how we can be festive but considerate. We want to celebrate a season that is rooted in Christian faith without stepping on non-Christian toes.

This consideration for non-Christians smacks of “political correctness,” thought by many to be an overreach of concern for other people’s feelings. (Wait. PC is supposed to be a bad thing, and that makes it sound decent—almost, well, Christian.) But for me, it boils down to this: Once you’re aware that you’re doing or saying something that offends, alienates, or insults people, how can you keep doing or saying it?

Oh, I know there are people who are overly touchy. But if reasonable people are offended, aren’t we being unreasonable if we persist in being offensive?

So that’s the challenge for all of us, whether we’re team-building committee members or store greeters or regular hey-howya-doin’ people. And while I can’t solve the office party issue, I think I can engineer a truce in the fight over season’s greetings.

Just say, “Merry X.”

For those who don’t celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday, but rather, as a cultural milestone, “Merry X” would be innocuous. It’d be, like, fill in the blank. As in algebra class, they can simply solve for X. It’s … whatever.

But for Christians, “Merry X” would be acknowledging their religion at its very roots. Christmas, of course, means “Christ’s mass.” The reason we sometimes shorten it to “Xmas” is because in the Greek alphabet, X is the symbol for the letter “chi,” which is the first letter in the Greek word for Christ. And in the early days of Christianity, believers used the letter “X” as a secret symbol to indicate their membership in the church. (Back in those days, Christians had real reasons to feel persecuted. Hear what I’m saying?)

So if a store greeter says, “Merry X” to your everyday atheist, he or she can interpret it as “Merry Whatever.” But a Christian who hears “Merry X” can nod in understanding. Smiling. “Yes … Merry X to you, too.” We in the cluuub.

So that’s it—that’s my white flag in the War on Christmas: Merry X. And if you’re feeling especially festive—regardless of religious standing—just say, “Thanks. And happy N-Y.”

Leaves Fall

It’s not often that I take thoughtful walks, but the other day I found myself enjoying a crisp fall afternoon, walking and thinking. When I reached the Elkhorn Creek at my property’s edge, I stopped walking, but I kept thinking. And watching.

I watched leaves fall into the creek. No revelation of nature, there, just a routine autumnal occurrence. But I kept watching those leaves as they drifted down from an old sycamore tree. What the yellow-brown leaves lacked in fall color, they made up for in size. Big old leaves drifted down, zig-zagging into the Elkhorn, where they floated like little boats.

Some of them landed in the middle of the creek, immediately joining a downstream flow that hustled them around the bend and out of sight within two minutes. Others landed closer to the creek bank, where they swirled around for a bit before getting caught up by the current, and then they floated, well, gently down the stream.

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily.

But not all the leaves joined the main stream. Some drifted instead into little pools that were formed by branches or rocks—tiny coves of still water, where new fallen leaves joined others that were already stuck there. Those leaves weren’t going anywhere.

I don’t typically draw cues from nature and try to turn them into greater truths, but as I watched those leaves fall, I couldn’t help but to wonder about the random nature of life. Those leaves that fell into the current were transported downstream without missing a beat. They didn’t know how lucky they were to be dropped into the main stream—the mainstream—where they advanced with a majority of the others.

The leaves that landed near the bank, though, took a different journey. Some were able to eventually catch a current and avoid being trapped in dead-end pools. But others were unable to escape the motionless water. They weren’t bad leaves—not misshapen or leaky. They were just unlucky.

Some leaves are lucky, and others are unlucky. It’s simple. Sheesh, it’s just leaves falling from a tree. Just random destiny, right?

On the other hand, it could be that God or Mother Nature was up there pulling strings, deciding which leaves entered the mainstream and which were left to rot in the shallows. That could make a guy feel like there’s plan—that leaf life isn’t so random, so uncontrolled.

Watching those leaves fall, though … it just seemed so natural. Some leaves were lucky and others were lost.

Missed You Will Be

I’ve been thinking about words of sympathy. I read a daily dose of them, see, because I’m one of the lucky 134 million Americans who hold a Facebook account.

Facebook users are highly sympathetic, but I don’t know if their words always match their actual level of concern. Maybe they do. I’m willing to accept that writing “Prayers” in response to posts about friends’ troubles is shorthand for an expression of deeper sorrow or more complicated compassion. That said, when you write “Prayers” for the loss of a parent and the loss of car keys, we have to wonder how much praying is really going on.

But my main gripe about expressions of grief is that sympathizers so often use the passive voice instead of the active voice. A quick reminder: In the active voice, the subject performs the action: The boy wrecked his four-wheeler. In the passive voice, the subject isn’t taking a direct action: The four-wheeler was wrecked by the boy.

(And hey, that boy damn well better be wearing a helmet.)

You can see that the active voice is more straightforward; it better expresses what’s happening.
• Eric Clapton didn’t sing, “The sheriff was shot by me.” He said, “I shot the sheriff.”
• Frankie Valli crooned, “My eyes adored you,” not “You were adored by my eyes.”
• The Stylistics sang “Betcha by golly, wow,” not “Wow-wee … um … Well, you get my point.

Now, there are times when the passive voice is preferred, such as when the performer is not known: The plastic forks were taken. Another appropriate time to use the passive voice is when the writer wishes to be vague or impersonal. Unfortunately, that’s the context in which so many sympathy expressers place themselves—just when they’re making a very personal statement.

When I am deeply grieved by the death of someone, I try to remember to say or write, “I’ll miss him.” Right? It’s a straightforward expression of my feelings. But I often hear or read people say, “She will be missed.” Or when a colleague leaves the workplace, the farewell card is filled with a similar phrase: “You will be missed.”

What if you went to visitation at a funeral home, and when it came your turn to speak to a friend whose wife had died, you said, “She will be missed.” And what if the grieving widower said, “She will? By whom? Do you have, like, a list? Oh, you mean by you? Do you mean you will miss her?”

Grieving widowers never say that, so don’t worry. But by removing yourself from the statement, you are also removing yourself from the sentiment. You’re saying the deceased will be missed by unnamed individuals or by the population at large or by … what are you saying?

Look, maybe you really do want to take yourself out of the picture. Maybe you won’t miss the guy. But if you will, own it. And say it with words: “I’ll miss him.”

Praying for the Bus

Way back when, my sisters and I used to wait for the school bus at the end of our driveway. We had to get there early enough to make sure we didn’t miss Mr. Jones and bus No. 32, and that often meant we had to stand around for several minutes.

Kentucky-cold winter mornings were the roughest, of course. A minute felt like five. Two like 15. Where’s the bus? Did we miss it?

“C’mon bus,” we’d say. “Hurry.”

“Dear God, bring the bus before we freeze!”

So yeah, you could say we prayed for the bus.

I thought about our bus-riding days while reading in the Lexington Herald-Leader last month about the millions of public dollars Kentucky spends on transporting kids to private schools on public school buses. It’s flat-out unconstitutional, but there are well-developed arguments on the private-schools side—none that I buy.

When private school folks want to dip into public funds, claiming it’s their tax money, too, I haul out my favorite analogy: If I bulldoze my own road to town on private property because I want to avoid traffic on the state road, I can’t very well ask the state to fix my potholes. When I opted out of the public roadway, I accepted that I was on my own, expense-wise.

As you might guess, I’m also a separation-of-church-and-state guy. To me it’s the confluence of the Constitution and common sense. So when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled—a few days after the H-L article on school buses—that it’s OK to open a city council meeting with holy-for-real prayer, I dissented.

Please understand I have nothing against church or prayer—especially my church and my prayer. But I can’t help but notice that other people are partial to their prayers, spoken inside their churches. What I don’t see is the need for any of us to trot out our prayers as part of a civic meeting when we know full well our religion is not embraced by everyone.

I don’t worry about offending people who carry a Constitutional chip on their shoulder. What I worry about is shutting the people’s doors on the people. When a public entity (city council, state senate, school board, etc.) gives the official go-ahead to a specific religion at the start of a meeting, it tells those who hold other beliefs they are not a part of the crowd in charge—that they are outsiders. At worst, endorsing one religion proclaims bias. At best, it merely gives the appearance of bias.

Even if most people in an area embrace a certain religion, that doesn’t make it the official religion of the government, leaving others out in the cold. In his first inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson said, “… [T]he minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect—and to violate would be oppression.”

Amen, Brother Jefferson. (The dash in the quote is mine, by the way.)

So let’s get back to the bus. Let’s say I wanted to ask my county’s fiscal court to stop giving a barrel full of public cash to, say, a private, Christian school to help pay for transporting private kids on public buses. And I plan to bring up my personal-road analogy in my request.

I go to the meeting, where I’m instructed to bow my head while the Baptist minister asks God above to guide these public officials that they might be wise in their decisions.

Yeah, they might be wise. They might be biased, too. Because that’s the way it looks. And sure, I expect every elected official to carry his or her own religious beliefs—or not—but it’s not right to establish one religion as the official faith.

It used to be unconstitutional, and I predict it will be again some day.

OK, that’s enough ranting for one blog entry.

I will say this, though: Every time my sisters and I prayed for the bus to come, it did. But not always right away. And not if we had already, you know, missed it.