Standing Rock 1

SD Hills.jpg


(My Standing Rock posts are a diary of two trips James and I took to Standing Rock as, with the backing of our church, we protested the Dakota Access Pipeline. The first four posts come from around Labor Day, 2016. The remaining posts come from around Thanksgiving, 2016.)

We arrived at Sacred Stone Camp, which is the prayer camp of the three protest settlements. We unloaded our van of supplies, and by the time we were halfway through, the campers were cheering “Yay, Iowa!” They offered us fresh watermelon. The children especially liked the football we bought. The tribes are trying to erect a semi-permanent settlement here, regardless of what the federal court says on September 9. They are looking for hardware to help with all that—and after a while, they asked if we’d be planning to make a second trip to donate more. There’s a happy, even serene feeling at the camp–but as fall approaches, their need will only increase.

When we asked how we could best help the camp while we are here, they said they need folks to send camp dispatches, like this one. The protestors—or water protectors, as they call themselves—despair at how the local authorities have spread stories about gunfire and pipe bombs. They asked us to show how these protector camps are nothing but peaceful, that they have signs prohibiting guns—despite a citizen’s right to bear guns—to further make their point. When we volunteered to serve as human-rights witnesses on the picket line, they said we would not be allowed even to approach the line, if we hadn’t first been trained in non-violent protest. And when we told them about the pipeline arrests in Boone County, Iowa, their first question was whether those folks were behaving peaceably. 

A sixty-four-year old man, with a prison record, told us that the tribes bear no grudge against the American people. “You’re from a Christian church,” he said. “Your religion is about forgiveness. Tell everybody that the Native Americans have forgiven you your transgressions. We’ve fought wars for you. We have joined your wars, with some of us never coming back, and now you’re taking our water.” He stopped talking then, because he’d begun to weep.

We left the main group, to set up our tent along the river. We watched a black snake catch a fish. A little while later, a young man approached, and offered us a handshake and a cigarette. He was showing us respect, he said, by giving us tobacco. He told us, meekly, that we had camped on a ritual ground, and that he would like us to move. We scrambled with our tent. We lifted it, without taking it down, and carried it up a hill while the wind tried to throw it. We felt that in a way both small and complete, we’d enacted the entire trespass and respectful protest, between settler and Standing Rock Lakota.

(Originally posted September 3, 2016)

Smoking Gun

Especially after all the bloodshed that these things promote, it is inconceivable to me why anyone would want access to an assault rifle’s capability to kill so many people, so fast. This morning, I tried on a few reasons—and I warn you, it made me write a slightly-unshapely… accretion. I also warn you that my thinking has led me to a horribly unpleasant realization.

At first I wondered if an assault rifle would provide protection. But then I wondered about protection from whom. Are we talking about a home invader? I mean, wouldn’t a basic, BLAM-BLAM sort of gun do the job in that case? If you need an assault rifle, I need to ask exactly how many people you’ve pissed off. And besides all that, isn’t it true that family members have been injured when, say, even shotgun spray goes through a wall? It seems like an assault rifle would do much worse. 

So what about protection from a mass shooter—or a terrorist, even? Are we going to start carrying assault rifles to movies and nightclubs? Even parodies of the Wild West have the saloon guy saying that you have to check the guns at the door. But let’s say Mr. Blamo does come into your mall, or movie theater, or ice-skating rink, and you have a gun (of any kind). That’s happened before, of course. It happened in Aurora. But it turns out that the good guys don’t shoot, in this situation. Sometimes they can’t see; sometimes they don’t get a clear shot; sometimes they’re afraid that when the police come, they’ll shoot the guy who’s, uh, shooting. You have to give props to these responsible gun owners. All of that makes perfect sense. But it makes me wonder how irresponsible you’d have to be, even to shoot a pistol—let alone an assault rifle—into a panicked public.

Okay, so what about government take-over? If you press some gun owners hard enough, they’ll say that this is something to hedge against. Stepping aside from the debate over that suspicion, I’ve never had a better occasion to ask, “You and what army?” An assault rifle is a potent thing, but it’s got nothing on rocket launchers, helicopters, tanks, F-16s, and all manner of very disquieting warheads. A machine gun—even a battalion of people with machine guns—is not going to help you here. Weapons enthusiasts know this. And this makes me wonder where some of them really want to draw the line. Does the Second Amendment grant each citizen the right to build an of arsenal of any kind? Should Wall-Mart be allowed to sell rocket-launchers? What about that nice chemistry lab on University Ave? Should it be able to sell sarin gas? Our government has those things. In fact, so do our more present enemies. But by my lights, we’d only increase the terror if you, and I, and the guy on the bus had them too.

But let’s go back to the Second Amendment, because that seems to be the great scripture that gun people use to support their claims. And I use “scripture” advisedly, because the Second Amendment is prone to the same sort of out-of-context cherry-picking as a line from any sacred text. In full, the Second Amendment goes like this: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” When it’s possible for suspected terrorists to buy an assault rifle, I see very little “security of a free state.” When the law requires gun owners to have less training than what you need to earn a driver’s license, I see very little “security of a free state.” And I certainly don’t see a well-regulated anything—let alone a “well-regulated militia,” which implies some kind of organization instead of a guy, a computer full of conspiracies and a head full of hate. 

And please, let’s not forget that in the 18th Century, the height of weapons technology was something that took, what? Three steps to fire? There’s pouring and tamping and cocking, and I don’t know what else. In any event, it’s not very Duke Nukem. This should be an old argument by now—but I feel that I have to repeat it: Today’s assault rifle has more destructive power than the Continental Army’s basic cannon. Treating it as what the Second Amendment allows is like saying the Founding Fathers wanted us all to have access to something they couldn’t even imagine. They hadn’t seen modern warfare. Heck. They’d developed an edge over the Brits by deciding it was better to skirmish than to shoot in a line. Some historians say it was actually the Civil War that gave the first glimpse of modern warfare. This saw the innovation of the faster-firing rifle, which had a range of 1000 yards instead of a musket’s 250. It saw the advent of the devastating repeater, which could fire seven bullets in a minute. And this was about 75 years after anybody penned the Second Amendment.

So, in light of all this, I’m really working to keep an open mind. I’m honestly looking for reasons why Citizens and Assault Rifles is a needful thing. The only time I’ve been somewhat accepting of an assault rifle is when it was in the hands of the National Guard, as they stood in the airports after 9/11. In other words, I accept assault rifles only when we’re under siege. So is that the difference? Do the pro-assault folks feel under siege? And if that’s the case, what so threatens them? Is it ISIS? ISIS is using the very weapons we want to protect us. ISIS recruits from within the United States, and says, “Hey. Go buy a gun. It doesn’t matter what list you’re on. They’ll let you.” And besides all that, a little digging shows that the NRA started to shift from pro-gun-control to anti-regulation way back in the 1970s—which, incidentally, was just before the time the US was supporting the porto-organizations that gave us ISIS. When the NRA was born after the horrors of the Civil War, its motto was: “Firearms Safety Education, Marksmanship Training, Shooting for Recreation.” Over the years, it stood behind gun-control measures that came about under FDR, for example, who wanted to keep guns out of the hands of gangsters. But then, in 1967, six Black Panthers, wearing three-piece suits, walked into the California State House, and declared that oppressed blacks would defend themselves. To this, Governor Ronald Reagan said, “There’s no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying a loaded weapon.” (This NRA stuff is all reported by Salon writer, Steven Rosenfeld.) After the Black Panther event—plus a post-Kennedy-assassination push for more gun control—the NRA started to split. There was a NRA faction that wanted to loosen gun control. And it was led by a guy named Harlan Carter, who’d been acquitted in Texas, for shooting a Mexican who’d come at him with a knife. His faction toppled the NRA’s old regime, and changed the NRA motto to the cherry-picked Second Amendment that goes like this: “The Rights of The People to Keep and Bear Arms Shall Not Be Infringed.” The change, by the way, brought the ire of Nixon-appointed Supreme Court Justice, Warren Burger, who said the NRA’s new view of the Second Amendment was “one of the greatest pieces of fraud—I repeat the word ‘fraud’—on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”

At best, then, the pro-assault siege mentality is a fabrication that’s been brought about, despite the protests of conservative icons. It’s run directly against the wisdom of the NRA itself. It’s run directly against the government’s wisdom that saw us through the rise of two Kennedy assassinations, plus Al Capone and his tommy guns. And the impetus from all this reversal comes, at least in part, from the appearance of the Black Panthers. You can say there were other factors; I’m sure that gun sellers make more profit when there are fewer regulations. (They also make much more profit, when there’s more fear.) You could also say that gun regulations infringe on the rural way of life, which includes, I guess, the right to defend one’s land. But then I refer both to my beginning point about protection and also the final point I make here: The question, again, is protection from whom? When I look at the siege mentality that persists after all logic breaks it down, I see that it isn’t the government that the pro-assault people fear. It isn’t anything so armed. It isn’t just ISIS; terrorists make up a minuscule portion of last year’s 60 mass shootings. Nor is it the gun-blasting crazy who goes berserk about un-Christian behavior, or bad lovers or bad grades. Otherwise, we’d be shoring up funding for mental health. (While in fact, in some places, such as Iowa, we’re defunding mental healthcare.) The siege mentality is about the Other. We have to kill the Other—the brown terrorist or the brown Mexican who creeps over the border with a knife. It is, in a sense, the same fear that drives the trope of the lone machine-gunner mowing down a horde of zombies. Zombies–who have so often stood for a society gone amok. At the heart of this siege mentality—at the heart of this fraud that has confounded the staunchest, old-guard conservatives—is racism.

(Originally posted June 26, 2016)

Notes on a Tour of Islam

(Because we can’t teach this stuff enough.)

This post comes from notes on a lecture given by Muslim writer and activist, Susan Douglass. Ms. Douglas is an American Muslim who conducts the educational outreach program at the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, which operates out of the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Relations, at Georgetown University. In 2006, she was a senior researcher for the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations.

Islam is the Third Religion of the Book

Muslims believe the first prophet was Adam. A prophet is anyone who receives revelation from God.

Muslims believe that both Adam and Eve equally fell to temptation when they decided to eat the forbidden fruit. Eve did not eat it first—and she did not persuade Adam into sinning with her.

Abraham is a prophet, and Muslims believe that he is a role model for all believers. The Quran mentions Abraham more often than it mentions Muhammad himself. Muslims believe that Abraham fathered the entire line of prophets. And they see his willingness to sacrifice his son as a demonstration of the fact that in matters of sacrifice, the intention is what matters more than the act.

The word Muslim means someone who strives to submit to God. In the Islamic view, all prophets are Muslim.

Muslims believe Jesus was a prophet. They accept his virgin birth, the miracles he performed, and his ascension. In their tradition, however, Jesus ascended before his crucifixion. God took Jesus “up to himself,” and it only “appeared to them that Jesus was crucified.” Jesus did return to earth three days later. The reason for the pre-ascension is because Muslims don’t see why God would torture one of his prophets. They do not, however, believe that Jesus was the Son of God. Allah is alone to himself. He can’t have a son.

The Beginning of Islam

The angel Gabriel revealed the Quran to Muhammad over a period of twenty-three years. Gabriel bid Muhammad disperse the Qur’an, “so others will know/understand.”

God bestowed the Quran in order to restate the basics of the Old and New Testament. Muslims don’t see Islam as a new religion as much as it is a reinforcement and recovery of what had already been lost.

With the Quran accomplished, Muhammad became the “seal” of the prophets. No new ones will appear, and nobody will write new books. Reformers might come and go as the need arises. 

Muslims believe in equality among all prophets.

Muslims believe that the only, truly authentic version of the Quran is in classical Arabic. (Notice how this belief addresses the inevitable warping of meaning that comes from translation.) Classical Arabic is preserved, thanks to the Quran.

Because Arabic is God’s language, the preservation of Arabic is critical to Islam. This gives us insight into why Americanization of some Arab nations would become problematic. 

That said, the Quran celebrates human diversity as a gift that arrives so that “we may know each other.” Muslims believe that regardless of doctrine, each individual is ultimately responsible for herself, before God.

Points of Doctrine

Traditionally, Islam has no clergy and no central authority. Muslims recognize mullahs, who are scholars on Islamic law, and they use imams as worship leaders. They believe that the foundation of human authority comes from knowledge.

Muslims embrace the Five Pillars of Islam as a primary expression of devotion. They are the following:

Shahadah: The declaration of faith. Muslims proclaim, “I bear witness that there is no god except God, and I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of God.”

Salat: Regular prayers. Muslims pray to God five times a day. 

Zakat: Giving to the poor. All able Muslim adults must give 2.5 percent of their annual earnings to the less fortunate.

Ramadan: Muslims fast during the month of Ramadan. This is to commemorate Mohammad’s reception of the Quran. Those who are feeble or on a journey may truncate their fast.

Hajj: Every able Muslim must endeavor to make a pilgrimage to Mecca once in their lifetime. They believe Abraham started this ritual when he and Ishmael built the Ka’bah, which is the cubed structure at Mecca’s center.

In addition to the Five Pillars of Islam, Muslims keep all Ten Commandments, except for the Sabbath. They don’t believe God needed to rest on the seventh day, so they don’t either. Their high prayer day is on Fridays.

Muslims also follow the prescriptions of the Hadith, which is a collection of Muhammad’s sayings and actions that was recorded after the Quran appeared. These precepts require that:

A Muslim should care for herself as a creature of God. Suicide is the worst sin after idolatry. This is significant when you think of the terrorism that occurs today. It’s also interesting to note that as Islam developed, the Law of Hirabah asserted that publicly-directed violence is a capital offense.

A Muslim should respect parents, relatives, and neighbors. Think of this in contrast to what we hear about the extremists’ treatment of women, who are, after all, mothers, daughters, wives, and sisters.

Some scriptures both from the Quran and Hadith are as follows:

O mankind! Be careful of your duty to your Lord Who created you from a single soul and from it created its mate and from them He has spread abroad a multitude of men and women. Be careful of your duty toward Allah in Whom ye claim your rights of one another, and toward the wombs that bore you. Lo! Allah is a watcher over you.” (Quran 4:1)

And among His sights is this, that He created for you mates from among yourselves, that ye may dwell in tranquility with them, and He has put love and mercy between your hearts; verily in that are Signs for those who reflect. (Quran 30:21)

Your wives are your garments, and ye are their garments. (Quran 2:187)

They (women) have right like those (of men) against them; though men are a degree above them. Allah is Almighty, All-Knowing. (Quran). OK, this scripture is pretty stark. But notice that Allah is so big and so mighty, that compared to him, the difference between man and woman is pretty darned small.

I inquired the Prophet (peace be upon him) about his teaching in respect of women. He replied: “Feed them as you feed yourselves, clothe them as you clothe yourselves, and do not beat or scold them.” (Hadith)

Our Prophet (may God bless and keep him!) said, “Women are the twin halves of men.” “The rights of women are sacred. See that women are maintained in the rights granted to them.” (Hadith)

A Muslim should conduct herself with honesty.

A Muslim should keep promises.

A Muslim should treat others as she would like to be treated.

A Muslim should refrain from waste and greed.

A Muslim should care for the earth as a trust from God

Much like every major world religion, Islam is extremely old. And as such, it reflects ancient values as much as it contains timeless wisdom. It admits from its very inception that as a divine gift in human hands, we will need to reform our treatment of it as the ages evolve. As with Judaism and Christianity, a number of sects have interpreted Islam in light of various circumstances–for better and for worse. 

Some useful websites include: 




(Originally posted July 21, 2015)


My friend died. He was my childhood friend. We hadn’t seen each other in thirty years. He died of sudden heart failure. He was thirty-nine. Full stop. 

When he was seven, I was Luke and he was Bo. We made his living-room couch into the General Lee. When he was eight, I was Luke and he was Darth. We made the school bus the Millennium Falcon. We’d stand in the bus’s exhaust cloud, and pretend we were on Dagobah. He called me a tomboy. He hated it when I called him a tomgirl. His mother called us turkeys. 

He had the the first horse I ever rode, the first piano I ever played–the first guitar, the first video game, the first Dungeons and Dragons adventure. He exposed me to fried bologna, cap smoke, chicken pox. We kissed once, on accident, delighted and disgusted. Later on, the girl down the street made us have a wedding, and we sealed it all by clasping hands and shrieking, “Wonder Twin Powers, activate!” We were delighted. She was disgusted. We jumped in his pool. It was the first backyard pool I’d ever been in. His parents later built a pool house, and to celebrate, they made a pool-house shaped cake, and there were tiny Tootsie Rolls in the cake toilet. Brent had blue swim trunks and knobby knees, and whenever he got cold from the water, he’d just hold his towel in front of him and shiver. He dove into the pool to save my sister, who was two, when she fell in. We were all nearby; she would have been fine–but he was so proud that he saved her. He loved my sister, all of her chubby happy. He would stand behind her, and she would babble, and he would laugh silently, over her head.

He moved to Iowa when I was nine. I moved to Florida when I was ten. He started to think about how he wanted to style his hair. He became supremely athletic–a star athlete in an Iowa town. I don’t know which sports–baseball, basketball, butterfly. We’d lost touch. His family visited us twice in Florida. His sister gave me a t-shirt from the University of Iowa. Who knew I would move to Iowa City? Who knew any of this?

Brent played baseball for UNI. He married young. We became distant Facebook friends. I once saw a picture of his son, a blond child in a green field. He and his wife had three children; the oldest is eleven. I don’t know what else. I think that for a while he kept bees. Facebook rarely lets you know much. But he said to me in a post once, he said, “Can you guess what team I mean when I call them the Battle Cats?” And I knew who they were; they were the ’84 Tigers–because that’s when we were eight and nine, pitcher and catcher, Bill Maxwell and Ralph, spying on his grandma while she watched The Price is Right, pissing off a neighbor named Imogene when we ate from her garden’s strawberry patch. For a while, Brent was the first cousin I never had. Now his memory is both incomplete and indelible. It isn’t fresh enough for me truly to grieve him; I am not the person to console. But I feel that part of my mundane and lively childhood has been brought still. Part of this life doesn’t seem right. And despite all else–and despite the whimper in such a belated objection–I always thought I would see him again.

(Originally posted June 1, 2015)

My Review of The Last of Us

I just finished playing The Last of Us, and I feel compelled to write about it. I know this post won’t resonate with most of you, but The Last of Us has given me so much to think about, that I don’t really mind. The Last of Us is a zombie-survival video game. That’s what it is. You play as a hardened smuggler who has to protect an orphaned child. It’s also the first game that has made me cry. 

I have a stress-knotted neck from this game. We say I have zombie cruft. The undead are horrid. The humans are worse. I had the subtitles on, because it’s hard to hear over gunfire–and at one point a human committed something so tragic that I said, “Oh my god!” And right then, the sentence appeared on the screen. This was clearly because a character had said the same thing. But the confluence felt right–because it also felt like the game had heard me, that it had registered my line, because I too was a living part of the story. It’s the dialogue and the resulting relationships that give a player such a profound connection to the game. You care about that little girl. And among all the alternating shooting and gnawing, you realize that you’ve walked out of a video game and into a cross between Blood Meridian and True Grit. 

Now, the ending fails. In my head, I’ve already rewritten it. The ending abuses the players, the characters, and maybe also the story’s own rules. It made me mad. In fact, it made me indignant. Poor James heard about it for half an hour–and you’re hearing about it now. I can’t say any more without crashing into whole stacks of spoilers, but I will mention that even in my disgust, I admire the story’s attempt. This is the first game that has ever gotten me talking–even critically–about character and narrative. (To say nothing of player rights–which is an area that is completely new.) What I mean to say is that The Last of Us asks a person to treat it as serious fiction. Regardless of its flaws, it exists as art. And that, dearies, is cool. That is Mario-smashing-into-bricks-and-having-Athena-come-out-of-his-head cool. The Last of Us is alive. For some of that very reason, I don’t recommend it for children. Nor do I recommend it for people who most deeply care for the welfare of children. The game is disturbing for what it shows–but it is astonishing for what it promises.

(Originally posted January 10, 2014)

Outvoting Justice

I recently attended a lecture by Justice Michael Streight, who was one of the seven state supreme court judges who unanimously passed the ruling that made gay marriage legal in Iowa. A year after the decision, Streight was voted out of office, along with every other supreme court justice who was up for renewal. This is my take on what Justice Streight had to say in his address:

When the justices first received the gay-marriage case, they took a preliminary bench vote, and found that everyone agreed, without argument, that Iowa law permitted gay marriage. Ultimately, the justice who wrote the final ruling was a Republican.

Since the 1950s, Iowa has voted only seven supreme court judges out of office. Three of those seven lost their positions over the marriage ruling. However, just 5 percent of the judge-removal-campaign money came from Iowans themselves. The remaining 95 percent came from Mississippi, Washington DC, New Jersey and Newt Gingrich. No one, to Justice Streight’s knowledge, criticized the legal aspects of the ruling. No one found fault with the judges’ reasoning. In fact, most every attack centered on questions of religious belief, quasi science (debunked by the AMA and the APA) and the so-called interests of tradition. 

Few Iowans reacted to the judge-removal campaign until it was too late. The judges themselves didn’t react until deep into the election year. For the most part, Iowa figured that our judges had never lost their jobs to a political movement–and that they’d certainly never lost those jobs to a political movement whose funding came from out of state. And because we were so complacent, most of us didn’t fill out the judicial portion of that year’s election ballot. 

This November, Iowa Justice David Wiggins faces re-election. As one of the judges ruling for gay marriage, he’s featured in the No Wiggins bus tour. No-Wiggins participants include Rick Santorum and Bobby Jindal. 

This kind of campaigning has inspired movements in other states as well. In Florida, a similar judge ouster could happen in regards to a ruling on business laws. And in Michigan, a judge told Justice Streight that although he believes it’s Constitutionally correct to rule for gay marriage, he would never do so, because he’d lose his job.

So please: If you’re proud that our courts defend their constitutions, or if you’re happy with the separation of the branches of government, or if you’re just partial to the idea of a state’s own people making a state’s own decisions–vote for your judges. And vote for them manually. Voting a party-ticket won’t do it, because, as interpreters of the law, the justices aren’t affiliated with politics. That’s the whole bleeping point.

(Originally posted September 24, 2012)