Monday, November 29, 2010

Friends, Grecians, Countrymen - Lend Me Your Ears - PLEASE!

The “Ear-Zoom” recently arrived at our front door by carrier. Janice ordered this hearing assist for me, in the hope that springs eternal; she dreams that, paired with my much more pricey hearing aid, she will no longer have to endure the higher volume of the television set, “juiced up” by me. I’m just trying to make sense of the dialogue on Law & Order or NCIS! She seems concerned that the neighbors may not want not to hear the programs that we watch. Go figure! Acknowledging her concerns, I have told her, in my best client-centered, counselor-training-speak, that I “hear what she is saying.”

The conversation at our house put me to thinking about ears – not just hearing, but ears. I can remember in my lifetime when ears, except for ladies ear-rings, were almost completed ignored by me. If you have ever seen the size of my ears, you would be tempted to wonder how I could bypass these protruding, curvaceous pieces of flesh, that, as some in my culture were prone to say, “look like a taxicab coming down the street with its doors open.” Mother often counseled me to wash mine, but, other than that, I actually paid little attention to them. Much later in my life, when I endured attacks of dizziness related to inner-ear imbalance problems, these two appendages and the mysteries within them would make themselves inconveniently known to me. I guess they were tired of being ignored.

As I reflect on it, ears are rather prominent in our world, not always for their hearing and balance functions, but as convenient places for hanging things. Of course, they have for many years been useful hangers for spectacles. My Mom & Pop grocery store-owner grandfather always had at least one pencil wedged behind an ear.

The other day, I saw a woman with five holes in each ear and five different pieces of jewelry – in each ear! Reminded me of a girl one of my sons once dated whom I referred to as the “love is a many punctured thing” girl. I can remember when men began to wear ear-rings and the controversy that it caused, including the “left is right” code with its gender-bending implications. Remember when “Big Mike” took a bite?

In recent years, ears have also been called on for multitasking by becoming convenient resting places for “hands free” telephone senders and receivers. Many of us routinely listen to music now on our ear-phone-equipped IPods and other, similar devices. When I get on the airplane, someone always has one of those expensive head-sets that block out the disturbing ambient sounds of nearby humanity and the mechanisms which we require.

In the seventies, in my culture, men allowed their hair to grow long and, for the first time, some of us found “follicle shelter” for our protruding ears. Recently, some people have, in the name of fashion, begun to enlarge holes in their ears and place all sorts of “decorative items” in the now vacant space. If Bobbie Burns would pardon me, I might say: “Oh, the gift, the giftie gee us to see our ears as others see us!”

Of course, on the romantic front, ears have often been blown into, kissed or sucked, in the heat and height of passion. “Sweet nothings” are often whispered into these little critters, perhaps to some seductive effect.

In His mystery, magic and marvelous creativity, God made our ears in such a way that, at their best, they can catch sound waves, transmit them to the brain, give us cognitive recognition and keep us from losing our balance. As marvelous as that may be, however and as often as we may find secondary and tertiary uses for our ears, there is absolutely no guarantee that human beings will actually “hear” – no matter how beautiful or how otherwise functional their ears may be. The kind of hearing to which I am referring is the “hearing to understand” or the “receiving and comprehending” kind of hearing.

So often, even when I “hear the message,” I do not “get it.” So often, I can dismiss it, or ignore it or reinterpret it, so that the functional reality is that I do not actually “hear” what is being said to me at all. Unfortunately, the “Ear Zoom” just will not help me on that!

God, grant me the “ears to hear!”

Friday, November 5, 2010

Turkey & Dressing; Cultural Ramadan & Civil Religion’s Thanksgiving

Our early fall trip to Istanbul, Turkey for a few days of R&R provided a nice change of scenery and a break from the regular routine. As always, there were plenteous opportunities for people-watching and I tried to keep my cultural sensitivity eyes and ears open. Since our hotel was just minutes from the famous Blue Mosque and since we were in this predominantly Muslim city during Ramadan, I felt especially privileged. Each evening, as practicing Muslims were preparing to break their Ramadan fast, Janice and I were able to walk through Constantine’s famous Hippodrome area and experience, first-hand, this venerable religious custom.

The Hippodrome is no longer the center of public chariot racing which once attracted up to 100,000 spectators; many locals are oblivious to the reality that 30,000 died on these grounds in five days of urban warfare during the “Nika” (“Victory”) riots between the Green and Blue factions in 532 AD. Its proximity to the Sultan Ahmet (Blue) Mosque makes it a prized spot for Ramadan fast-breaking; so it was quite congested every time we were there.

A family representative would arrive in the afternoon to stake out a picnic table or a smooth spot on the grass, so that relatives could celebrate together in close proximity to the imposing 17th century structure. The mosque was originally constructed to demonstrate the superiority of Islam in general and, most especially, over the Agia Sophia - the historic church, become mosque which, in the modern, secular Turkish state, is now a museum of history.

As sunset approached, the place grew more crowded. Bands played, TV crews reported from the scene and local political movements were omnipresent. Sidewalk vendors revved-up both the volume and the intensity of their sales pitches, especially since, by custom, hungrier-than-usual children are allowed to eat early. The call to prayer signaled the beginning of the feast for the adults. Although I did not understand the language, it was clear that, from a functional equivalent standpoint, the voice over the public address system was saying “dig-in!”

With the American civil religious custom of Thanksgiving soon to appear and another kind of turkey destined to occupy the center stage of many an American imagination, I found some interesting comparisons. Both feasts serve as an opportunity for the underwriting of intergenerational family solidarity, reinforced by a generic, non-specific, national religiosity. In Ramadan fast-breaking and Thanksgiving, participants are called to step aside from routine priorities and sit with family around a meal. In the end, each provides, both literally and figuratively, the warm feelings of a full belly and the comforting, ethnocentric sense that one’s ways and those of one’s culture are superior to all others. Both feasts follow predictable and well-understood patterns, passed down over hundreds of years. In both cases, the ultimate, potentially powerful and influential voice of personal faith is all too easily made subservient to a penultimate patriotism and a nationalism that, by its very definition, flies in the face of a supreme devotion to the Almighty.

Both Ramadan and Thanksgiving, in their cultural expressions, are easy venues for use by radical extremist nationalists. They are perfect opportunities for those intent on revisiting, if not rewriting, history. They can quickly be subverted by the not-so-subtle “selling” of a version of generic, theocratic patriotism which substitutes timeless, religious, idealistic means for pragmatic, contemporary, political ends. I can only wonder if many cultural Muslims at Ramadan, like many cultural Christians at Thanksgiving, leave the table with a smug sense of both their own piety and the superior virtue of their own, largely unexamined way of life.

With so much hate talk poisoning the environment these days coming from both radical, civil religionists in the States and extremist Muslims elsewhere, we might do well to recognize some of the essential weaknesses and strong similarities between the two faiths, as expressed in these feasts. After the turkey and before the football and the nap, maybe we should add a little reflection on the side.