Sunday, December 12, 2004

You are what you eat....

I'm an ova-lactic vegetarian. I eat that which does not require the death of its producer. I do know that most farms on which the products are created are incredibly exploitative and sometimes cruel. But for me the principle is simply about killing for food.

I grew up on a beef and citrus farm in Central Florida. In ninth grade, my father, a teacher in the local high school where I attended (and had him for two years) required me to join the Future Farmers of America. I excelled in public speaking and parliamentary procedure, ornamental horticulture and forestry. I sucked at using band saws and welding. But I also did well at meat cuts identification. Until the second year.

The second year followed the life cycle of a cow from gathering semen for artificial insemination (I will spare you that story) to the insemination (that one, too) and the birth of the calf, which I think is probably one of the most spiritual moments of my entire life. Then we went through the castration process to create a steer, the showing of the steer at the county fair, and finally the inevitable trip to the slaughterhouse.

I am not sure what I expected that day. But I remember like it was yesterday what I saw: terrified animals bleating horrendous sounding dirges; the air hammer used to supposedly knock the animal unconscious so his throat could be slit (bleating all the time); the hanging of the now headless animal by his hoof on a hook suspended from the ceiling; the rubber boots the packing house employee wore around which a swirl of blood ran down a drain in the floor; the now separated organs stacked like bowling balls on racks, the sound of saws ordinarily heard in the sawing of lumber but here sawing apart the body of animal only minutes before alive.

I have never forgotten that day in 1967 when I lost the luxury of naiveté in eating dead animal flesh we euphemistically call "meat." And I have never forgotten the sound of that terrified bleating or the thud of the air hammer on the skulls or the swirling blood running down that drain. And I know that's why I've been vegetarian three different periods of my life, the most recent now in its eighth year.

I'm not an evangelist for this. I would note that meat is the most labor and materials intensivefood human beings eat. The grain used to feed cattle alone could feed the world several times over. I'd also say that for me, humane treatment for animals is a natural extension from myinsistence that human beings treat each other in a humane way. There are clearly some health benefits from vegetarianism - even more from veganism which I am slow to embrace - butfor me those are secondary to the ethical and spiritual concerns.

The Buddha instructed his followers to tell those who would feed the mendicant monks not to kill to feed them but if they had already done so, to eat what was offered with gratitude. Similarly, Francis of Assisi and his followers lived lives of simplicity which both honored the animals of the very good creation as well as eating a diet which was itself simple, usually vegetarian as most religious observed in the middle ages. But, if someone had prepared a meat dish for the friars, they were to eat it with gratitude because such was the generosity of the creator G-d being offered. It is my policy to do the same. Don't kill for me. But I will not refuse your hospitality if you have already done so. Such a response would reject the generosity of the Creator and spits in the eye of G_d.

There are a number of good quotes about vegetarianism I've gathered over the years. One which I keep on my refrigerator under the obligatory magnets is from Leonardo da Vince which reads, "I have from an early age abjured the use of meat, and the time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look upon the murder of men."

Well said, Leo.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an
unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Psalm for a Security Society

Pentagon Envisioning a Costly Internet for War

The Pentagon is building its own Internet, the military's world wide web for the wars of the future. The goal is to give all American commanders and troops a moving picture of all foreign enemies and threats - "a God's-eye view" of battle. This "Internet in the sky," Peter Teets, under secretary of the Air Force, told Congress, would allow "marines in a Humvee, in a faraway land, in the middle of a rainstorm, to open up their laptops, request imagery" from a spy satellite, and "get it downloaded within seconds." The Pentagon calls the secure network the Global Information Grid, or GIG. Conceived six years ago, its first connections were laid six weeks ago. It may take two decades and hundreds of billions of dollars to build the new war net and its components.

Here is my rather perverse response to this:

Psalm 139

1 O Government, you have searched me out
and you know where I am.
2 You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
3 You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
4 Before I have hung up my cell phone,
you know my conversation completely, O Government.

5 You hem me in-behind with your Tasers and before;
you have laid your satellites upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too frightening for me,
too high security for me to attain.
You would have to kill me should I know it.

7 Where can I go from your satellite Internet?
Where can I flee from your spying cameras?
8 If I go up to the heavens, your orbiting satellites are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, your listening devices are there.
9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your reconnaissance will find me,
your troops will hold me fast.

11 If I say, "Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,"
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
with your night vision equipment
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is no problem for you, O Government,
Indeed, you cherish keeping your citizens in the dark.

13 For you seek control of my inmost being;
your laws require me to be born from my mother's womb.
14 I fear you because I am powerless before your technology;
your works are hegemonic,
I know that full well.
15 There is no place that is hidden from you
I have no refuge, there is no secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,
16 your sonogram saw my unformed body
and your laws require it be born.
All the laws ordained for me
were written in your book
and there shall be no exceptions.

17 How frightening to me is your power, O Government!
How vast is your military and technological might!
18 Were I to count the ways you can control your people,
they would outnumber the grains of sand.
When I awake, you are still with me.
There is no escape from you.

19 If only you would slay the wicked, O Government!
And keep away from us those bloodthirsty men
of whom you keep us constantly concerned.
20 Your corporate media daily speak of their evil intent;
your designated enemies regularly grace our televisions.
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O Government,
and abhor those who cause our Amber Alerts?
22 I have nothing but hatred for them;
I count them my enemies
Because your sound bytes so instruct me.
I have learned my lessons well.

23 Search my home and car, O Government, and know my life;
remind me why your security state should relieve my anxious thoughts.
24 Monitor my speech for any dissent,
and force me in the way which is patriotic.


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

Monday, July 19, 2004

She was quite a little girl
Her name was Ratzinger, an unusual name no doubt, particularly for a cat, but she was an unusual cat, to say the least. She came from the Guardian Angel Rescue folks who always sets up shop in front of the Petsmart on weekends, seeking to adopt out dogs and cats who have been abandoned, dumped, some of them abused in the process, all of them neglected and forgotten.
We needed a cat to catch the rats who were taking over our yard. Seems when you maintain a small semitropical jungle for a yard, rats come with the territory. We had tried the humane mouse traps, glue traps, everything short of poison. We already had two cats, both of them kept indoors, so the agreement I negotiated with my partner was that Ratzinger would be an indoor-outdoor cat who slept outside at night to catch rats.
She was a beautiful animal, orange tabby, gold eyes, and six toes on her feet. I told people she was a Hemingway cat since there seemed to be a lot of those six-toed cats in the flock to which he left his mansion in Key West.  But regardless of her origins, she quickly lived into her name, Ratzinger. It was intended as a double entendre, the zinger of rats on the one hand, redemption of the name of the Roman cardinal with the morbid obsession over matters sexual on the other. During the five years she graced our lives, Ratzinger brought the remains of 34 rats to the door, often left on the mat. (I cannot tell you how disgusting it is to step out in bare feet, enroute to pick up the weekend New York Times, and to come down on the remains of a rat.)
What I hadn't anticipated was how bright she was. Ratzinger was a highly extroverted animal. We had put a tag on her with her name. About a month after she arrived, she disappeared for three days. I went into major mourning, my kitten taken from me. As it turned out, she had gotten caught under the house in a glue trap for the rats, extracting herself only at the cost of one of her extra digits on her left foot. I knew then a couple of things. One, that she was an extraordinary animal. Everyone in the neighborhood knew she was missing, knew her by name and helped look for her. Ratzinger had simply made her acquaintance with all the neighbors. But I also knew that Ratzinger's presence in our lives was not a guaranteed thing and that one day I might lose her. 
 Ratzinger spent her days in the yard, often sleeping in the sun or on top of the fence by the door where she could keep an eye on our coming and going. The minute our car doors had slammed her little voice could be heard, prancing across the driveway like she owned it. Ratzinger was self-possessed if anything.  She frequently joined the dinner table on the nights the Francis-Clare Community met in our home and more than once I held her across my shoulder during parts of our eucharist. Somehow, she just seemed to fit in, one of G-d's most wonderful creations that we celebrated in our eucharist (which literally means "thanksgiving").
This past Easter season, I began to notice that Ratzy was not doing so well. She seemed listless, lacking in energy. I put off taking her to the vet thinking she just had a little bug, she'd get better. But she didn't. One night I noticed she was having a difficult time remaining atop the aquarium where she often slept. She insisted I let her out, something she often did by ringing the bells strung from the back of the front door. I obliged her, but when  I called her later that evening, no Ratzinger. Ten o'clock, midnight, 2 a.m. came and went, no Ratzinger. I cried myself to sleep that night, afraid she'd gone off somewhere to die.
It was that night that I knew she would not be with us much longer. I was back up at 6 a.m. the next morning as the sun was coming up, out into the yard, choking back tears, calling her name. A flood of relief came as I heard her little bell. She came from the neighbor's house across the street, one of her favorite hiding places. And off we went to the vet. I left her with the good doctor, hoping for good news. The doctor's ashen face when I arrived that afternoon told me there would be no good news that day.
Somehow, one of her kidneys had failed. The other seemed to be sufficing for the time being. That was the good news. We began talking about a kidney removal. But her iron count was very low. Her HIV test had come back equivocal. More tests needed prior to the surgery revealed her heart was enlarged and her lungs were filling with fluid. She was so miserable that afternoon when I came to get her. She seemed to know her daddy was absolutely heart broken. We sat on the cold floor of the vet's office and I sobbed. And I knew, this was the second time she'd left and returned. The third time would be goodbye.
About $1200 later, we emerged from the vet's office with special food, iron supplement, a diuretic which she had to take twice a day and a syringe to force feed her. She was down to 8 pounds and would die of starvation if I didn't force feed her. For awhile, she was good about letting me do all of that. She tolerated the force feeding and meds well. She began to rally, gaining back weight, showing spark, even fussing at the other cats. Then one day, about
a month after the doctor's visit, she began to decline again. She wouldn't eat despite my locking her in her carrier with food, water and a box.
On the Fourth of July afternoon, my parents had come to town. I was headed to my brother's to see them and have dinner. Like I had done many times before, I had Ratzinger on the floor, syringe only partly full of food and water mixed up. Suddenly she choked. She leapt from my arms, up on the counter, gasping, eyes wide in terror. She leapt from the counter to the floor, convulsed a couple of times and died. I have lived through many hard times in my life. But this one 30 second interval of watching her sheer terror is probably the hardest thing I've ever faced in my life. I screamed at her to breathe, tried mouth to mouth, Heimlich maneuver, tried to help her now erupted heart to begin beating again. Nothing. She died in my arms as I rocked her, crying, aching. I have rarely felt the urge to die quite as strongly as I did that moment.
I tried to go to my brother's for dinner but I was too distraught. I excused myself early, tears brimming in my eyes, headed home to bury my little girl. I wrapped her in a turquoise towel, dug a hole in the corner of the yard where one day soon Charlie Beagle, now 15 years old, will soon rest as well. I lit a candle beneath the Celtic Cross in my yard, placed incense around
the grave and the bench where I sat cradling my little girl. I poured a glass of wine to celebrate a far too short but joy-filled five years. I spoke to her of how loved she was, of how much she had brought to the lives of all she knew, of how the rats were breathing easier these days, and of how much I would miss her. I sang the song I always sang to her: "You are my only sunshine...." Then I buried her, placing a round paving stone over the grave and surrounding it with border grass and lilies.
I was supposed to go to a Fourth party that night at the home of my friend, Judy, out on Lake Conway. All the Francis-Clare Community would be there.  I called, uncertain what to say, blurting out through my tears that Ratzinger had died. They insisted I not stay home alone. So, I went to the party.
I will never forget the sky that evening. It was a shade of orange I've rarely seen before, the result of thunderstorms earlier that afternoon and the setting sun. Across the eastern horizon, a double rainbow stretched, periodically punctuated by long forks of lightning and erratic bursts of Fourth of July fireworks from around the lake. A cool breeze blew in off the lake. It was a masterpiece of nature. Despite the grief I felt, it was one of the most beautiful nights I had ever seen.  
Days later, I found in my email a story about rescue animals waiting for their rescuers to cross the Rainbow Bridge into heaven. I smiled. Ms. Ratzinger was not waiting for me to cross that bridge. She had crossed a glorious sky on a double rainbow into heaven that night.  As always she had gone in style. There were other animals and people to meet and charm.
It's been over two weeks now since I lost my little girl. There has not been a day yet that I have not cried over my poor Ratzinger. Having recently read The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, I have started looking for lessons that painful events have to teach me. Ratzinger's death taught me several things. One, there are human limitations. Even the best vets and the most profound desires to keep a living being alive are sometimes not enough. My sense of helplessness - powerlessness - as I watched her die was a lesson - sometimes you can't prevent death, you can't make things better. They simply have to play out as they are destined to occur. I've also learned once again that I need to be mindful of the moment, grateful for the loving time together I have with all those many wonderful living beings G-d has graced my life with. I suddenly realized last week that I had been ignoring my other cats almost completely during the time Ratzinger had been so sick. I've been making up for lost time the past few days. 
Finally, I realized I'm probably not as OK with death as I thought I was. I don't worry about what happens after death. Concern about heaven or hell don't make much sense to me. I trust G-d with whatever happens. What I've figured out is that I simply have a hard time letting go of those I love, of contemplating being without them. It's not so much attachment as it is aversion to the pain of loss and loneliness. At any rate, it's something I need to work on at midlife with many potential losses staring me in the face.
The statute of the smiling kitten, rolling on its back, arrived last week. I ordered it off the internet from the Better Homes and Gardens site, no less. Andy and Luci both said, "Oh yeah, that's her!" when I showed it to them. Today I put it on the spot where Ratzinger is buried. And once more I cried. Andy says I should be more patient with myself, give myself some time. I know I have survived the loss of animals, friends and family members before. I will survive this as well. Funny thing was that the statue, though concrete, was coated with some kind of stain and a burlap string tied around its neck. I hesitated to put it on her grave, afraid that in the torrid summer weather, even this reminder of her would deteriorate and fade away. Even in death, my grasp of Ratzinger is fragile, fleeting, momentary.
I know this is a bit maudlin. Unlike some of my other posts, this one was for me. I needed to write this even as I've put it off for a couple of days since the statue arrived. For those of us who will never have children, the loss of our animal companions is particularly profound. It's always a devil's bargain to be a pet owner because the chances always are that they will die before you do. The question I find myself asking these days is whether my heart can survive the loss of the animal I am always happy to adopt and bring into our lives. In years past, it was not a hard question. As I get older, I'm not so sure.
I really miss my little girl. One day I will think of her and smile. She was quite a cat. In five years, she managed to completely capture her daddy's heart.  There have been times she's seemed like she was just around the corner. I find myself looking for her, waiting for her little bell to signal her procession in. The neighbors have an orange tabby named Crush who looks an awful lot like Ratzinger. In some ways, it's like she's still around, watching, waiting.
For tonight, all I can say is that I'm thankful for knowing her, for being owned by her (humans never own cats!) and for the things she taught me. There will be a day when I no longer cry for her. But there will never be a day when I will not be a better human being for having the far too brief five years I was given with a little extroverted six-toed orange tabby with a big heart and an unusual name, Ratzinger. Thank you, little girl, for all you were and all I became because of you.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

Saturday, July 17, 2004

Because I wasn't there…..
It's odd how you can go much of your life and not understand why things happened the way they did. And, then, when you least expect it, a moment of clarity occurs when an answer to a question you have never been able to even articulate suddenly presents itself. Revelation. And suddenly so much makes sense.
I had one of those Larsen cow (where the cow suddenly realizes "Grass! This is grass we've been eating!") experiences last week. I had taken my friend Juicy Luci to see her grandmother and aunt and uncle up in The Villages (why do I always think of the 1960s British series The Prisoner when I hear that name?). Afterward we had driven down to see my parents and have dinner with them. As I was sitting in the home where I had spent the last six years prior to graduating high school (getting the hell out of Dodge the day after graduation, literally),  the home which sat on the land my father, brother and I had cleared together, I suddenly became aware of the photos on the walls. Photos of my brother and sister and their children - the grandchildren. And so I got a wild hair - why not show Luci my photos from my growing up days?
I began to casually search the house for my photographs. There was the portrait of the three of us taken when I was a senior in high school. And there was one down the hall taken when I was four years old, an innocent toe-headed face peering back at me across the nearly 50 years. (Lord, has it been that long?) The rest was filled with photos of weddings, my parents' and my brother's and sister's. And siblings with children. And grandchildren alone.  Long dead forebears peered from my father's room which has become genealogy central for him. All of a sudden it began to dawn on me: but for the two pictures from my childhood, I simply wasn't there.
Suddenly I remembered the funny photo of Andy and I my sister had taken last summer over at the beach. I had framed it and given it to my mother for Mother's Day a couple of months ago. I looked around, trying to remember where I had last seen it. It was nowhere in sight. Finally I detected the edge of the frame peering from behind a photo of my brother and his family. There it was, my partner and I, buried under the socially respectable heterosexual family photo, removed from sight of visitors and occupants alike. I doubt my parents consciously covered up the evidence of their oldest child's adult life. But regardless, for all practical purposes, I wasn't there.
I'm not sure why this surprised me. Surely I could have seen that coming. But a wave of sadness spread over me. I felt the tears brimming in my eyes. And I resolved immediately that I would not let anyone see me cry over this. The last thing I wanted to do was to have to explain why I was upset.  "I need to go outside for a minute," I said. "I'm not feeling too good."
The revelation was not yet complete. Blinking back tears and rubbing my burning eyes, I surveyed the wooded 12 acres in which I had spent the bulk of my teenage years. Familiar sights swam into view. The palm tree Daddy gave me for my Christmas present in 1970, now well over my head. Banks of azaleas I had planted, so brilliant in the springtime, rendering the state highway beyond invisible. There was the large oak, its trunk split into two arching giants, where we used to shimmy up between the two and then step out onto the moss and lichen covered branch large enough for a teenager to walk on. Behind the house, past the small citrus grove we had spent many frosty nights building fires to keep alive, was the half acre rock garden I had built over the years. Its concrete fish pond now filled with leaves and weeds, its bricked paths and the wishing well built from a discarded washing machine agitator now grown over with out-of-control ivy and ferns. Yet even in its overgrown appearance, it still soothed me with a warm feeling that came unbidden.
That's when the revelation came into focus. Of course my photos weren't in the house.  I wasn't there. And I hadn't been for a long time. It was the woods that had been my refuge in the last years of high school when my father had made life so difficult for me, struggling to deal with a son he feared was probably gay in a town where he had been raised and now taught school. It was the woods where I escaped, pouring out my grief, exchanging uncried tears for rock-lined flower beds brimming with azaleas and ferns, a monument to sublimation and transformation. And it is these same woods from which I have transplanted so many of those plants to my current lot-sized confinement in the heart of a city which does not understand the need for greenery to shield a fragile soul from a world which does not understand it.
Suddenly a number of pieces began to fall into place. For one, my affinity for the woods. I have always loved the woods as long as I could remember even as I despised the small towns - farms and ranches at their edges- with their little minds and even littler hearts. The woods were a place of recharge and refuge, my true alma mater where my broken heart found rest. The psalmist described it well: "It restoreth my soul." I have sought to recreate those woods in every place I have ever lived. Suddenly, I understood why. The woods were my solace, the place I sought out when rejection began to pile on rejection in the little farmer and jock dominated school to which I was sentenced for 11 and a half long years. In the woods, I could be myself hidden from the hostile, judgmental eyes of the townspeople and my increasingly perplexed and anxious father. The woods were the place I belonged.
I also suddenly understood why when my mother asks me what I want of her estate, I have a hard time thinking of anything. The furniture, the wall decorations, the dishes all speak to a house - indeed, a world - to which I never truly belonged. What I really want is outside, where I had existed.
Upon reflection, it has occurred to me that there is a reason my photos stop appearing in the house at the point in my life where they do. At four, I was still the little boy my parents always wanted, the toe-headed, bright child who read at three and whose curiosity about the world was unbounded, the little boy who liked people and invited complete strangers right off the street to his fourth birthday party. At 17, I was still the son with much promise, high scores on standardized tests, good grades, a state merit scholar, a good son who grated at the reins but still was respectable in the little town which raised him. Thereafter came the struggles in earnest, the long, painful coming out process, the failed heterosexual relationships, the alcohol whose abuse escalated toward disaster which would come some 20 years later on a highway in California. There would be no wedding photos or grandchildren to add to the collection of the socially respectable. And the many graduation portraits (five from colleges alone) and the many photos of me with dear friends or my partner of 30 years I gave my parents would never make it to the walls. It's essentially as if Harry, the toe-headed boy and the serious-faced promising high school graduate, the tragic oldest son, simply vanished into the night at graduation from high school that sultry May evening in 1971.
I need to hasten to say that I have never doubted that my parents loved me. Even in my darkest hours of coming to grips with my sexuality and struggling to survive the persecution I experienced as a teacher in Inverness during the late 1970s, I always believed that, at bottom line, my parents still loved me. Their pain at my absence from their immediate lives those four years I spent in California was palpable, one of the major reasons I returned to Florida. But I also have become very clear in my middle age that they have never really understood me though I suspect they have tried. Perhaps no one is ever completely understood. But I think my father, whose world of reference was that little town which had produced him, and my mother, a saint for sure but lacking any kind of experience upon which to relate to a gay son, simply didn't know what to do with the son that emerged after escaping the little town which had held him captive those years. The photos missing from their home bear witness to their response: I simply wasn't there.
I find myself oddly detached from these words as I record them. I don't feel any particular sorrow or anger. I simply find a sense of relief in finally understanding. It's odd to realize such things at midlife. I love my parents no less. And I think I probably understand them a little better than I did. I will be sad the day that I can no longer walk the grounds of the home where I spent the last years of my teenaged life. But I have long since said goodbye to the house where I was at best nominally present those six years. I now have my own home which I love, a home surrounded by a wall of green, some of it from the woods in which I lived those many years. It is a home brimming with photos and mementoes of a very full life, wonderful friends and a loving partnership of some 30 plus years. This is my place, my home. It is a place where my presence is inescapable and its rightful place unquestioned. And it is from that place that I today give thanks for the woods that were my true home and my refuge those many years and for the lesson they have afforded me these many years later. Deo gratias.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

the loneliest animal in the forest
Back in the late 1980s, we lived near a large park downtown on the site of a former lake in which a sinkhole had opened and drained its waters years before. It was largely a swampy area and the parks department had created a series of trails and boardwalks through the area to allow people to appreciate nature in the midst of a city of over a million people. The park was adjacent to a housing project in which allegedly a good bit of drug dealing was occurring.  It was also the site of some homosexual cruising which local police claimed resulted in sexual acts being committed in park restrooms and in the bushes. I say allegedly because for all the hype that came out of OPD, the statistics rarely bore out the alarming incidence of crime the public was being warned of.
I was practicing law those days and we saw increasing numbers of misdemeanor city ordinance violations as the OPD sought to harrass ghetto kids they presumed were dealing drugs and gay men whom the presumed were planning sexual contacts in the parks. They prosecuted these targetted people through the use of obscure ordinances like "leaving a designated path" or "being in a park after sundown,"  broad charges which fit any kind of suspicious act. Never underestimate the power of the combination of a Calvinist religion, a Hobbesian anthropology and the power and authority of local law.
Most of the agents sent to sweep up these heinous criminals were undercover. Many wore revealing skimpy outfits designed to attract gay men or the beard and baseball cap uniform of the stereotypical drug dealer. These agents often hid in the bushes, wired for sound, waiting to spring their traps on those they saw as menaces to society. In addition to the irritation I felt as a public defender whose time was being wasted on bullshit city ordinance misdemeanor  harrassment,  the obsession with the city over sex and drugs (those things our puritan culture cannot deal with because they represent an unthinkable loss of control) played out in a more personal manner for me. My new jeep had been broken into in my carport and some things stolen from it. I called the police, they said they'd be over but none ever showed. I knew for a fact the undercovers were down in the bushes that afternoon because I saw them there. And after a couple of days when LEO never showed, I simply wrote the mayor a letter laying out what had occurred. I said that while the department was busy trying to bust misdemeanor departures from the path a mere block away, the felony occurring in my home was ignored. So what's wrong with this picture?
Years later,  a friend would tell me of the night his father had died. He had driven to a parking lot overlooking Lake Underhill a block from where I now live. A young man in revealing clothes had come up to his car, pounded on the window and struck up a conversation punctuated repeatedly with offers to engage in sexual activity. After about a half hour of this, my friend agreed to go somewhere with the man. Out came the wiretap and the handcuffs. There is no small amount of predatory motivation in this practice. Knowing this man was grieving the loss of his father and was in a state of vulnerability, the officer continued until he had bagged his game. Who protects us from the protectors?
The last event which gave rise to this post occurred about six months ago. The park where I often go to meditate overlooking Lake Underhill has become a notorious cruising and drug dealing spot, according to the OPD. Local television channels have secretly planted television cameras to record supposed illicit activities in the park. One day as I was meditating, a middle aged man from south Florida came up and struck up a conversation. At one point he suggested we might go into the park restroom. The purpose was fairly clear. Politely declining the offer, I told him that this was a very dangerous place to be doing what he was doing, noting the undercover surveillance. He walked away. A couple of months later, the latest confusion of police operations and entertainment appeared on the local "news" in the form of a story about the park. In the story, the reporter noted that the Orange County Sheriff's Department had created a website on which the photos of those caught in undercover operations like those at the park were posted. I could hardly believe tax moneys were being used in this fashion. So I looked up the site. And there amid the photos was the man I'd warned that day in the park.
I'm not sure what drives these men to engage in risky behaviors in public venues. I know that many are married. I know that others fear the public acknowledgement of their true sexual orientation. The closet has long been a refuge for those who want to have their cake and eat it, too. I'm guessing some like the thrill of doing something risky. I'm also guessing that some have such terrible views of themselves that the venue of a public restroom smelling of stale urine and feces acknowledges their low self-value.
But what I do observe about the many men I have seen in these parks is the absolute and profound sense of loneliness, often mixed with despair, that they evince. For whatever reason they are there, they are there seeking a shred of human contact, a momentary forgetting of their lives of lies. The poem that will be posted in a separate post has been ruminating for about 17 years since the days of living near that downtown park, the boardwalks long since removed by city fathers seeking "zero tolerance" (which usually translates to zero intelligence) of such heinous crimes as departing designated park paths. It speaks to the desperation of the liver of lies, the stupidity of their predators and the ultimate destructiveness of homophobia in a society that long ago should have figured that out.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.

Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.


the loneliest animal in the forest 
under the green awning of live oak trees
along the creek beds
where little boys  catch tadpoles in dixie cups
and old men tend to smoking barbeque grills
azaleas are blooming
camellias and gardenias, too
the park a mass of color
and wonderful smells
the birds sing joyous songs of creation
in the air a chorus of buzzing
bees hovering over the gaping mouths of lilies
and bold squirrels daring to retrieve
corn chips from the hands of project children
momentarily disengaged from their teeter-totters
swings and merry-go-rounds
but he doesn't notice
like prey instinctively listening for the trigger
he whips his head from side to side
looking over first one shoulder
then the other
scanning the horizon
will he find what he is seeking
will he find the one
who will make him forget
even for one second
the miserable life of lies he leads
his face bears the signs
of desperation
of a loneliness so profound
a chasm so deep
that no fleeting moment of pleasure will ever satisfy
for he is seeking himself
a self he has long since learned
never to love
never to acknowledge
never to trust
never to affirm
a self now so atrophied and withered
the image of god it once bore so plainly
now unrecognizable
he pretends that he is the hunter
the one seeking prey
seeking to be sated
of the gnawing hunger
for intimacy
for a moment's forgetting
for an accidental lapse
into total honesty
but it is he who is prey
the men in their binoculars
and walkie-talkies
their wiretaps hidden
under the scanty "plain clothes"
they believe he will trust
just long enough
for the net to drop
the snare to swallow
the trap to snap shut
its iron teeth digging into
his vulnerable exposed paw
and then he is caught
though he can never prove it
no one will believe him
he will be guilty as charged
from the moment of arrest
berated, dehumanized enroute to booking
public humiliation to follow
on newspaper local pages
and tax payer funded websites
his so poorly kept secret now out
his co-conspirator wife
who never believed the stories about working late
now forced to face
the web of self-deception she has spun
the "i always knew it" spoken in whispers
behind his back
at work
at home
at church
where he will once again give his soul to jesus
and pray to be delivered
of this demon which possesses him
appearing unchecked in his dreams
and emerging with the shadow's power
in moments of weakness like these
wreaking of whiskey
though he tries to forget
he knows the trap is being laid
he tells himself he'll be careful
he won't get caught this time
he knows he is lying to himself
once again
like always
and yet he has returned
to the boardwalks and paths
lined with lilies and water maples
seeking the unattainable
amidst the deceitful and treacherous
praying this time it will be different
and that the fire in his loins
and the abscess in his soul
will go away
even if just for a few fleeting moments
he is the loneliest animal in the forest
a creature beyond reason
beyond love
beyond self-respect
who surrenders his dignity
and sells his very soul
for ever-conditional affirmations
of a world who reviles his very being
and who seeks to redeem it
in danger-filled venues
of fleeting passion
and willful forgetting
            - Harry Coverston, 2004

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.


Friday, July 02, 2004

Lost in Space

OK, so I saw the movie last week. What movie? THE movie, Fahrenheit 9/11. As usual, Michael Moore manages to force viewers to look at a picture we often don't want to see, a truth much larger than the superficial p.r. that we get from the "news" agencies. There were few surprises: Bush is an example of the privileged Peter Principle, the war in Iraq was entered into under subterfuge and has proven destructive, and the working poor of America are footing the bill with their taxes and the lives of their children. What Moore managed to bring out well was the irony of the poverty draft, the working poor who have no other economic options but the service, and their often strong support for the very people who have denied them opportunity to begin with and thereafter used them as cannon fodder.

None of this is particularly news. At least not to anyone who has paid even a modicum of attention to national and world events over the past 10 years. So why is it that when I open my MSNBC home page yesterday, the headline reads "Bush down but not out?"
Why is it that Kerry and Bush are virtually tied in this election? How can 43-48% of the American population continue to support Bush in the face of the disaster in Iraq, the revelations of deceit in its inception, the destructive economic impact his policies have had on the working poor, the wholesale assault on the environment, the fundamentalist religion he has imposed on the American public and the creeping fascism his security state represents? How can so many people be fooled? Worse yet, how could so many people think these policies are somehow good things?

I remember what one of my last term students said about the election. This was a nice young man, a football player and, surprisingly, a good student who ended the semester with an A. Polite, handsome, good hearted, this young man came from a family of Republicans in suburban Tampa and I believe he was involved in one of the campus "ministries" in the vein of Young Life or Campus Crusade, judging by some of his comments. When the subject of the election came up one day, he simply pronounced, "I don't like Kerry." When pressed as to why, he simply insisted he just didn't like him and wouldn't vote for him. When confronted by classmates with the deceptiveness of George Bush and the destructiveness of his policies, he demurred, saying simply "I just don't like Kerry" as if that sentiment alone was sufficient to justify his vote for Bush. He's not alone. My office mate at the community college where I taught prior to the university made a similar comment in 2000: "I just don't like that Al Gore" as if there needed be no more reason to cast one's vote for the nation's highest office than mere whim. This from a graduate educated college instructor.

It's times like these that I begin to feel a sense of despair for democracy. I sometimes wonder if Plato wasn't right in his distrust of democracy and his insistence that only philosopher-kings - educated and trained to think critically and to see the big picture - are fit to rule. I have been a populist all my life, believing in "the people." But in this age of complete distraction (cell phones) and diversion (game boys, computers, mindless programming like "survival" shows) and a news media that seems either incapable or unwilling to present critically considered news, I wonder if democracy CAN work. It's not that the people are unfit to govern themselves. They always have the capacity to do the right thing for the common good. The problem is they are demonstrating more and more consistently that they are unwilling to do so. Ronald Reagan posed the question "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" in 1980 and the American people have taken it to heart.

Two thoughts occurred to me as I did my daily (you wish!) constitutional along Lake Underhill's shores. First, the seeming intransigence of the blue and red state showdown suggests something that Leon Festinger spoke of in his work on cognitive dissonance. What makes it difficult for people to change their minds, even in the face of the fact their answers no longer can resolve the questions with which they are faced, is the role of public investment in one's position. Festinger found that in cases like the groups which became the Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists, it wasn't so much getting the date of the end of the world/second coming wrong that was problematic. It was the fact the members had sold their goods and gathered on a mountain in plain sight of the rest of the world which went on about its daily business as if nothing had occurred when the end failed to materialize. Might it be that the 43-48% red state contingent feel they cannot back down from their former support of Bush because they have too much public face invested in it? Might it be that winning could be seen as vindication of their position, even when it means returning a failed regime to power? I thought to myself, if Bush loses, those of us here in Florida who have never stopped nursing our wounds from the victory stolen from us in 2000 by the U.S. Supreme Court could gleefully point out that Bush was the only president to have held office without winning and without succeeding another president? And yet, is it not precisely that kind of shame that red voters seek to avoid given their public position?

Cognitive dissonance led to another thought on this. Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of moral reasoning posits that movement upward in developmental stages often only occurs as a result of severe cognitive dissonance, sometimes related to tragedies or catastrophic changes. The United States evidences behavior that is often described as juvenile, stage 3. The honor/shame approach to foreign policy (G-d, how long must we reassure ourselves of our masculinity after Vietnam? And how many peoples must play the sacrificial lamb for that project?) and the strong fundamentalist religious tradition of many red state conservatives all evince at best a stage three, conventional pattern of moral reasoning.

I have often wondered aloud how Canada and Europe seem so able to transcend these lower levels of moral reasoning and why the US has appeared almost developmentally disabled in that process. The conclusion I have come to is that post-conventional thought in Europe did not begin to appear until after the devastating Second World War. In that light a frightening thought occurred to me. Perhaps it will take a major disaster to shake the US and its red state supporters into a higher level of moral functioning. I shudder to think what that might look like. If history is any guide, the truth of the need for a major shakeup to prompt growth and maturity would appear obvious. It took a world war and a resulting depression to shake up the US in the early 20th CE to begin any kind of holistic understanding of itself as a country with duties to all of its citizens. It took the failure of banks to institute regulatory agencies. It took the ecological and agricultural disasters of the Dust Bowl to institute USDA agencies to assist farmers and to protect the environment. It took the near starvation of so many elderly people to institute social security.

Since the Reagan regime, those programs and others like them have been steadily dismantled while America has sought to reassure itself of its imperial virility over and over in essentially defenseless places with names like Grenada, Panama and now Iraq. The focus of our people seems to have increasingly shrunk smaller and smaller arriving at the atomized consumer who asks simply "What's in it for me?" Our roads full of killer machine SUVs and oversized trucks driven by distracted drivers talking on cell phones enroute testify to that. Unaware of and unconcerned about the rest of the world or even the underclasses of America, most Americans could care less about the Saudi businessmen, lies leading to war and working poor grunts with stumps where legs - and lives full of expectations - once existed that Michael Moore so desperately wants us all to see.

Will it take a catastrophe to awake America from its slumber, to force red state conservatives to admit they are not only wrong but dead wrong? Will it really make much difference if John Kerry is elected this fall? Is it possible that even with a Kerry victory, most Americans will remain Lost in Space?


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.


Sunday, May 16, 2004

My Mother Was Singing to Me

My friends call my mother St. Marge. I suppose she is a saint in many ways. She has survived an awful lot of heart ache that few human beings will ever know. Her mother died when she was 10, her father fell down the neck of a whiskey bottle for about 10 years as a result and she and her four siblings ended up being farmed out to relatives in West Virginia. No doubt that was a radical change from the tropical warmth (and killer hurricanes) of Homestead, Florida, where she had lived. Prior to my birth, Mom almost died from a tubular pregnancy which resulted in a partial Fallopian tube removal. Yet, a year later, I was the first of three children to arrive, the last the only girl who was born the year my Mother turned 40.

St. Marge has also had to put up with a lot from the four of us. My Dad, brother and sister and I have always been strong-willed people. We are a fairly intelligent lot and well educated. My Mother managed an Associate of Arts degree before leaving the University of Florida with my father and then returning with him and me (I was a Baby Gator at the University of Florida in 1953, its centennial year) to help him obtain his Masters thesis. Thereafter, she was a working mother, raising two lively little boys and one pistol ball of a daughter - all of whom would go on to obtain bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees - while working full-time for the Farmer's Home Administration in our little town in Central Florida.

My Mother is the face on the issue of the glass ceiling, the clerk running the local office, the one spending hours every weekend and many weeknights to keep the place together, yet unable to advance without moving to another location - the choice being family and home versus advancement, a choice no male employee in that office ever had to make.

My Mother's example to me has been one of tenacity in the face of hardship. The runt of her litter of five, she has always been delicate boned and rarely above 105 pounds soaking wet. She's survived pancreatitis, breast cancer and a small stroke and continues to be Mother, Grandmother and Wife. But it is her example of compassion that has most marked my life, her attentiveness to the poor of our community which has marked my own sense of vocation, her insistence that human dignity be afforded all human beings regardless of their circumstances in life that has served as my ongoing aim. If I can be even half as loving and accepting as my saintly mother has been, I will indeed have been a decent human being.

Last week I accompanied my Mother to her consultation at the Moffit Cancer Center at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Her CAT scans were good and her bone scan had indicated only a tiny group of cells in a vertebrae that would respond to a short dose of radiation, her doctor said. When my Mother said how relieved she was to hear it, her cute young German woman with a thick accent - in particular - "Of course we're going
to keep you around for a few more years. I love you too much to let you go." You don't hear that from doctors too often. All in all, it was a good prognosis and we came away much relieved. St. Marge will be around for awhile yet.

On the way home, I was so exhausted I dozed off in the front passenger seat as my Father drove the hour's trip back up I-75 from Tampa. I dreamed I was a little boy and my Momma was rocking me to sleep, singing to me as she always did. Suddenly the car hit a bump and I awoke with a start, only to realize that my Momma was singing to me, from the back seat, singing along with the radio tuned to the station which plays the hits of the 40s, 50s and 60s. Suddenly, I realized how lucky a human being I am. Very few people have had saints for mothers. And I cannot tell you how happy I am St. Marge will be around to sing to her oldest child for awhile longer.

Happy Mother's Day, St. Marge. I love you.


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.


Wednesday, April 07, 2004

But it doesn't have to be this way

The past days the news has been full of accounts from Iraq of Americans burned in their vehicles, their charred bodies dismembered and dragged through Iraqi streets; of servicemen dying in greater numbers than during much of the actual fighting before George II pronounced hostilities ceased; of rumors of carpet-bombing Iraqi cities where increasingly it appears that the heretofore enemy Shia and Sunnis have found a common enemy in their American occupiers. In Washington the news has been dominated by one after another former Bush administration figures testifying to the needlessness of the Iraq invasion and the obsession the boy prince and his neo-conservative cabal had with Iraq from the beginning, even in the face of 9-11 and the evidence that a very real threat existed in an Al Qaeda the Bushies had failed to take seriously.

My heart aches as I read of these young lives snuffed out for no apparent reason and of Iraqis who feel so desperate about their situation that they are willing to engage in suicide bombing and suicidal resistance. But my head absolutely reels when I read the polls showing that a resolute 43% plus of the American public simply cannot abandon this embodiment of the Peter Principle currently occupying the White House. Even worse are the polls from Florida suggesting that Bush remains seven points ahead of Kerry in this state where the last election was stolen from the true winner, Al Gore.

It is times like these that I despair for my country and my fellow Americans. I continue to believe that in our heart of hearts we know better than this. And I also believe that our election is not merely a matter of our own privilege, though one might not know that given the booming sales of SUVs in the face of record gas prices and wars to secure its supply.
This election is ultimately about the world and our relation to it. It is about the ultimate health of our planet. And the cavalier response I am seeing in the American public thus far is frightening. We really do seem to be numbed by the bread and circuses playing out in our media which continues to confuse entertainment for information.

And yet, in the midst of these throes of despair, I find myself yesterday at Barnes and Noble, sipping my coffee, listening to some wonderful music, surrounded by books detailing the noble thoughts of humanity, its artistic, architectural and engineering genius, its beauty and its glory. And as I have felt on numerous occasions recently, most often when I watch children singing, playing music or acting, I am struck by the enormous potential for good of the human race. We really can be just below the angels, as Pico della Mirandola, the advocate of the Florentine Renaissance, proclaimed.

So, why are we so intent on waging needless and destructive wars? Why do we bury our heads in the sands while the waters of global warming encroach? Why do we devote our lives to the trivia of who will be voted off the island or who will endure the bed of worms or the jump from the bridges while tied to bungees? Who is this human race, so noble in possibility, bearing the image of G-d but so often settling for the lowest common denominator of banality?


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.


Thursday, February 26, 2004

This is my body

I admit that I have not seen Mel Gibson's film The Passion so I don't purport to speak authoritatively on its content. I am conflicted about seeing the film given the pre-release controversy over anti-semitism and the stealth campaign among fundagelicals to generate a market for it. I tend to operate out of a principle that I don't pay my oppressors to oppress me and G-d knows the fundies are pretty good at oppression, repression, suppression and compression.

The general consensus among those who have seen the film is that it is a bloodfest. A bit like Jesus of Nazareth meets Freddy Kreuger or Jesus visits Texas for a chainsaw massacre. Jesus Seminar scholar John Dominic Crossan described the film as a pornography of violence. And one has to wonder whether he might be onto something. Clearly the slasher movies are stimulating. And feminist scholars for years have pointed out the difficult to separate responses to sexuality and violence aspects of snuff and rape pornography.

In all fairness, Gibson said he sought to graphically demonstrate how horrific the crucifixion of Jesus must have been. Of course, he appears to have fallen into the same trap as the Gospel writers in blaming the Jews for the event and letting the Romans, who actually killed him, off the hook - the paradigm which 1900 years later will form a basis for the Holocaust. But, it is not a bad thing to consider the horrendous nature of the world's most famous execution - indeed, any execution.

The strongest supporters of the film have been fundagelical Protestants and some conservative Catholics (Gibson's dad is far out to the right that he thinks of the current pope as "liberal" - go figure!). They've brought whole congregations to see the film, many stressing the need for people to know what a price Jesus paid for human sin. Without diverting down the siderail here to the whole question of why any human being of good conscience and an IQ above that of a rutabaga would buy such theology, suffice it to say that atonement theology can be readily depicted without slow motion close-ups of chunks of the muscular Jesus' flesh being ripped out and his eye being put out. As one fundagelical minister said, "I'm afraid this might back fire and cause people to doubt atonement theology." One can hope.

Frankly, I am not terribly interested in worshipping a god who requires this kind of torture for any reason. I've never been able to reconcile a notion of G-d, the good creator who loves the creation, with a vision of G-d the bloodthirsty tyrant demanding his honor be redeemed through a gruesome piece of human sacrifice. That is not a god worth worshipping, in my view. On the other hand, a Lord who proclaims the Kingdom of G-d, who calls people to value the good Creation and themselves, who prescribes a way of living out that calling in the form of the Great Commandments, a prophetic sage figure who speaks of G-d with intimacy - Abba, Daddy - does indeed point toward a god worth worshipping. And his communal rite of belonging - a rite marked by eating and drinking together with "all sorts and conditions of men," to cite the Book of Common Prayer, does speak of being a part of a movement through which G-d is revealed and whose calling to live as the people of G-d can be embraced.

As I walked by the edge of Lake Underhill today considering these thoughts, I began to hear the words of Jesus. I looked across the lake's surface to the ducks preening themselves in the shallow water avoiding the piece of Styrofoam floating next to it..."This is my body!" And in my mind's eye, the Roman guard's whip caught a chunk of Jesus' flesh, ripping it from his shoulder, blood spurting through the air....The voice of the Holy Spirit punctuated that awful image, this time in the song of a mockingbird, As I turned my eyes toward the tree where she sang, I caught sight of the McDonald's cups and straws caught in a stagnant pool behind a natural gas pipeline...."This is my body!" And the crown of thorns were jammed into Jesus' scalp in my mind's eye. Shaken, I decided it was time to go home, my prayer and meditation time over....As I approached the expressway overpass, a plastic bag with a half-eaten salad to go and an empty bag of chips from a fast food drivethrough tossed from a car window created an arc of debris across the shoulder of the street and the bikepath on which I jogged....And in my mind the voice screamed out "THIS IS MY BODY! THIS IS MY BODY! THIS IS MY BODY!!!!!!....." the vision of Jesus exhaling his last breath from the cross now vivid in my mind's eye.

Frankly, I don't know if Jesus was G-d, anymore than any other human being has been. I don't know if Jesus is really present in the sharing of the communion or that the communion of saints stands around us at that moment though I believe I experience both of those things. But I do know that Sally McFague is onto something when she calls the Earth the body of G-d. In our haste to reassure our own existential security needs about the next life, we have allowed some of the basest sins to be committed against the body of G-d.

Can we in good conscience speak of salvation - health and wholeness - even as we choke G-d's body with our waste products of smoke and toxic gases? Should we not choke on our holy bread even as we befoul the water supply that our overpopulated planet already finds in short supply? Does not the wine cause a lump in our throat as we read of yet another species of animals no longer among the living, the victims of human acquisitiveness? Can we even look up from our debates about a movie long enough to see what is being done to the body of G-d?

This is my body given for you. ...Do this in memory of me....Whose memory do we really cherish?


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.


Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Smart Aleck Bumper Stickers

On the bumper of my 2000 Honda Civic (Elsie, I call her, after my late beloved Franciscan novice counselor) are a couple of bumper stickers. On the left side there is a sticker with a telephone image and the words "Hang up and drive!" On the right side, a more modest, tasteful lime green sticker reads "WWJD: What Would Jesus Drive?" n
OK, I know, I know. Just a little preachy and smug. I actually ordered both stickers off websites at a moment when I was more than a little annoyed with the latest coed in her SUV complete with her sorority decal in the rear window in the pass lane on the expressway, oblivious to the world and holding up a little parade as she was weaving across the center line from time to time and hitting her brakes for no apparent reason (must've been a funny joke!). But I'd like to think my bumper sticker evangelism has more of a purpose than mere expression of irritation at rush hour.

As a college instructor, I observe the most amazing scene the moment class is dismissed each hour. In one fluid motion, many of my students pick up their book bags and take out the cell phone that most - though not all - have been courteous enough to turn off in class and by the time they hit the door to the hall, they're already engaged in conversation. I see them staggering across the campus, oblivious to their surroundings and sometimes unaware even of their footing as they walk by, chatting so loud that even if I had not wanted to hear about their lunch menu, their evening plans or the chick that vomited into the punch bowl, I still get to share that joy.

While this is annoying and perhaps something to chalk up to immaturity, when one combines this obliviousness and inconsideration with a motor vehicle, it's as problem. When you add all the other age groups - those of us who ought to know better - doing the same thing, it can be dangerous. One of the common observations I make of driving cell phone addicts is that they often appear to be looking up, as if to imagine the face of the dear one whispering sweet nothings into the cell phone on the other end. The problem is, they're not looking at the highway! They aren't aware that they're holding up a train of cars in the pass lane or that they're in the middle of a curve on an entry ramp. In short, they're tuned out.

Part of what disturbs me about this phenomenon is what it says about these folks. The comparison has been made more than once of cell phone use to other addictive activities including driving while under the influence of intoxicants. Accident rates suggest this new addiction is approaching the destructiveness and deadliness of the other intoxicants while driving. And yet the rate of cell phone use continues to climb. Why is that?

What strikes me about all this is the apparent near desperation to be distracted. The kids call it being entertained but the bottom line is not so much enjoyment of what one is engaged in as much as the perceived need to avoid thinking about what they are doing. Somehow walking across campus and driving to one's apartment are now too boring to be dealt with. So we must be distracted, diverted from these oppressive facts of life.

One of the marks of spiritual maturity is the amount of time one can spend alone with themselves. I look at my students, beautiful young men and women with good minds and often with sweet hearts and wonder to myself, what could be so bad that it must constantly be held in abeyance, constantly escaped? Why must they be constantly diverted or distracted? At a very basic level, their cell phone abuse is not just about inconsideration and the inability to respect others, though it is about that. But it is more: it is a barometer of how much of the American myth that says our prosperous lives overrunning with material goods somehow make us happy is no longer able to be taken seriously. People don't feel the need to escape or be diverted from happiness.

Of course, there is much that could be said about what Jesus would drive. My father dryly quipped, "A camel." And he's right, of course. But the point of the sticker is not that Jesus would endorse a particular consumer product but whether he'd think *any* of them are particularly good things. SUVs tend to be top heavy and roll over. When they do, they often kill anyone their vehicle touches, sometimes along with the SUV occupants. They also hog more than their share of the gas fueling our national petrochemical addiction. They take up more than their share of the highway, the parking lot and pollute more than their share of the air.

Clearly there are some SUVs that are worse than others. And then there's the Humvees! What sadist determined that monstrosity should be marketed for American streets and highways? But what all of these vehicles have in common is one thing: selfishness. I call SUVs the "selfishmobiles" for obvious reasons.

Of course, in my little Honda, I spend a good deal of time looking into the back of SUVs I can't see around. I find that annoying on a good day, frustrating as hell on a bad day. But mostly, I simply think that the person who would inflict him or herself on the public with such a vehicle - and often with a cell phone in use to boot - really has a hard time escaping the junior high misimpression that "it's all about me."

Now, I think Jesus would have a good deal to say about that. I think he'd remind us that one of the primary ways we love G-d is by loving others as ourselves. I think he'd remind us about the lilies of the field and how they display G-d's goodness and generosity, lilies that fall victim to more and more pavement to accommodate larger vehicles and to acid rain that results from their exhausts. I also think he'd point to "the least of these," the working poor in their rattle-trap vehicles, barely road worthy, often uninsured, but absolutely vulnerable to assault with a deadly selfishmobile.

I suppose I'll take those stickers off shortly. I'm not much of a one for bumper stickers generally and I don't dare put a sticker on for a candidate I want to win election - it's generally the kiss of death. But I do have to say that I'm worried about where this is all going. Mother Earth can't take an ongoing, mindless self-indulgent human race oblivious to what it's doing to the planet, much less to each other. I'm hopeful things may be about to change in this country at the top. But the desperate search for diversion, distraction and entertainment regardless of how it affects other human beings, much less the planet, is a symptom of a much deeper problem. There are days when I wonder if we're really up to hearing what our warning signs are trying so hard to tell us....


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

Sunday, January 18, 2004

Of Love and Power

What do they value more on average? money/career or better relationships? If the latter, follow the love part of the diagram, if the former follow the power part of the diagram. (Note: people who prefer power don't trust people enough, whereas people who prefer love trust people too much.)

This quote comes from an interesting site,, which features a plethora of self-inventories giving Myers/Brigg Personality types and Enneagram types. Being a certified administrator of the MBTI, as well as having a long interest in the Enneagram, I was interested to see if my scores had changed from previous self-evaluations. Usually, I self-report as a 2, Helper, with a 3 wing, Achiever. Sometimes it comes out 2 with a 1 (perfectionist) wing. Both are true to an extent. But in the not too recent past, I self-reported as a 4, sensitive artist, and in all inventories I report a high score for 7, the Adventurer/Generalist. MBTI type is consistently ENFP though my E and I scores are a lot closer than before. I recommend this site to people seeking a little self-knowledge with the caveat that all such inventories should be taken with a grain of salt.

That being said, I turn to the quote. About 15 years ago, I was enrolled in the Institute for Christian Studies, a diaconal school for the Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida here in Orlando. I remember how excited I was about these studies, learning for the first time about source and literary criticism of scripture, about the history of the faith and the Episcopal Church particularly, about theology and the interface of sociology and psychology with religion. It was an incredibly expansive period in my life. And I have a fine priest, Bob Vanderau, who was then canon at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke in Orlando to thank for what has become my life's work if not obsession. Things in this diocese and at the cathedral are very different today, I am sad to say.

What sparked this memory was the dichotomy between power and love that the Enneagram explanation on the similarminds site featured. I remember saying to Bob years ago that what I saw in tension within the Episcopal Church and probably throughout the Christian faith was the conflict between love and desire - if not a perceived need - for control. It seemed to me that Jesus represented trust embodied: trust of G-d, trust of the creation, trust of his fellow human beings. Trust like that could only be understood as originating in a love of self, others and G-d. But it also seemed that Jesus met with unrelenting, fear-driven forces which manifest themselves in the perceived need for control, power over others. Surely that was true of the Sadduccean temple cult he encountered who were unwilling to see their place of privilege in the Roman province of Palestine threatened, not unlike the brokers of power in religious heirarchies today. It seemed true of some (though hardly all) of the Pharisees who believed that by exercising control over their own lives they could feel efficacious and thereby superior to others, not unlike our religious right today. And clearly it was true of the Romans who lived for power, control and domination of their conquered foes, not unlike the neo-conservative Machiavellians of our current administration.

But what seemed saddest to me is that for Christianity the tension didn't die with Jesus. Indeed, in the broader history of the Christian faith, I continue to be haunted by the question raised by my church history professor: "Is it possible that for the most part Christianity has been a destructive force in the universe?", a question followed by "Have a nice Thanksgiving!" and a disarming sweet smile. I've thought about that question for 13 years now and I have to admit I am still troubled by the possibility that the answer to her question is yes. And I also have to wonder if the primary reason for that being the possible answer is the inability of Christianity to live into the calling of Jesus to love, opting instead for mechanisms of power and control in their many guises, not the least of which is exclusive claims to absolute truth and ultimate salvation.

What the similarminds site added to this mix is a plausible explanation: People who prefer power don't trust people enough. Indeed, one has to wonder when reading the negative anthropology of people like Augustine and Calvin on the religious side and Hobbes and Machiavelli on the secular side whether people who prefer power can trust people at all. Seems to me that the root of not being able to trust is simply fear. Such fear is abundantly clear in theologies of original sin and Hobbesian/Machiavellian realpolitik. In the former, fear/distrust of the other manifests itself in an otherworldly fixation in which getting the right religious formula in this life determines whether one escapes the fearfulness of this world in the next life. In the latter, fear/distrust of the other results in authoritarian approaches to life in this world. While fear makes a very poor basis for public policy or religion, it also provides a very common basis for both.

I have to admit, I've never much understood how anyone could find such worldviews plausible, much less attractive. Of course, being an Enneagram Helper 2, that makes perfectly good sense. To boot I am a Myers/Brigg iNtuitive Feeler Perceiver (NFP) which approaches the world in terms of concern for human relations, openness to others and preference for the big picture rather than the immediate details. The other is generally not frightening to me; rather I find them intriguing, people I could learn from.

Admittedly, the other part of the equation can be true: Love-oriented people can be too trusting of others. I have found that to be true to my great dismay far too many times to detail here. It certainly was true in the hypercompetitive business of legal practice. It was very true of the process for ordination in the Episcopal Church. And it is becoming increasingly clear that the halls of academia are not immune to untrustworthy academics. There is something refreshing about Polyanna naivete and the child-like trust that it evidences. But those of us whose natural tendencies are to approach the world with these presuppositions can often find ourselves rudely awakened and disheartened. It is possible to trust people too much. Human beings are a mixed bag on any given day.

The struggles within the Episcopal Church today are a current example of this conflict of love and power. The move to expand inclusiveness within ECUSA to gay clergy elected bishop and to make available the blessing of unions to gay and lesbian couples has provoked a major firestorm not only within the American church but within the larger Anglican Communion. The general rubric for the convention's decisions has been that of justice though I would agree with any number of liberal theologians who rightfully understand justice in such terms as little more than love incarnate on a collective basis. While ECUSA is hardly a bastion of love-based practice, decisions such as those of the General Convention 2003 have brought the theory of our faith (to "seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself...." and to "strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being..." Baptismal Covenant) a baby step closer to its actualization.

Of course, it's not surprising that fear-driven theologies of power and control would find such actions anathema. People who don't trust the other will find solace if not a sense of security in rules to bind both themselves and others. They will come to worship the work of their own hands as the absolute, eternal revelation of the deity even as they ignore the history of its social construction. Fear has a way of blinding people.

The reaction to General Convention was fast and furious. The bishops of Central Africa, locked in a death grip with the fundamentalists of Islam, believe they cannot allow the Muslims to appear more homophobic than themselves. Pronouncement after pronouncement has rung out of places like Nigeria declaring themselves out of communion with ECUSA. Similar stories are reported from the Caribbean and Latin America where homophobia is the official policy if not always the actual practice. And within the US, Episcopal fundamentalists armed with tons of money from far right think tanks like those of Scaife and Ahmanson secretly plot ways to destabilize and destroy ECUSA from within.

And so, once again, the message of love - of self, of others, of the good creation and of the G-d who created it and in whose very being all exists - is eclipsed by the driving power of fear. Those who cannot trust others make a mockery out of their promises to love their neighbors as themselves (although one must wonder how much one could love a life driven by fear - perhaps they DO love their nieghbors as they love themselves!). Once again, the crowd cries "Crucify them!" as power-driven Pilates and priests ponder how to retain power and protect privilege.

Perhaps this is just the human condition. Perhaps all of us have a little Pilate deep in our souls even when love is our primary motivation. And perhaps all of us have a little trusting Jesus in our depths even when we desperately seek to repress it. And perhaps the best we can do is to be as aware of those two Enneagram poles within each of us and to be as conscious as possible and open to the call of Jesus and countless other enlightened souls who have embodied a higher example of what it means to be fully human and called us to "Follow me."



The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.


Monday, January 12, 2004

The Broken Heart of a Good Creation

And God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. Genesis 1:31

This past week saw several reports regarding the health of our planet and its occupants. The first, a report in Nature magazine, suggests that if the current rate of global warming continues, within 50 years one quarter of all extant land animals and plant life will be driven into extinction. One of the more agonizing aspects of the report was the prediction that many life forms will be unable to relocate and thus left to languish and ultimately die in habitats once hospitable but now deadly. It's a bit analogous to a human being imprisoned to ultimately starve to death or die for lack of water in a prison cell whose walls increasingly converge toward the center. Would we not call such inhumane if it involved human beings (presuming, of course, that they were not inhabitants of the "axis of evil" in which case inhumane treatment is not only acceptable, it's mandated by the bloodthirsty tribal god of George Bush)? How much less inhumane is this sentence for one-fourth of our biosphere?

A second report from Thomas Karl and Kevin Trenberth of the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, NC, details the source of the problem: "[T]here is no doubt," they say, "that the composition of the atmosphere is changing because of human activities, and today greenhouse gases are the largest human influence on global climate.'' They estimate that by the end of this century there is a 90 percent chance that the world's climate will heat up between 3.1 and 8.9 degrees Fahrenheit because of those human influences.

What continues to float to consciousness as I read these reports is the context of the Spielberg film Artificial Intelligence. Aside from the absolutely gut wrenching story line of the created little boy who wanted so badly to become human and to be loved (Spielberg is a real genius at touching the very core of the human heart), in the background of the film is the ever-present rising water levels of a world in which global warming has done its nasty deed. The polar caps are melting and it's only a matter of time until the planet is innundated. The drip, drip, dripping of the rain into puddles only accentuates the sadness of the film, a cosmic weeping. What I found myself feeling over and over as I watched the film was less the immediate heartbreak of the little boy seeking humanhood and a mother's love played so brilliantly in the film by Haley Joel Osment, but rather the profound sorrow for the loss of Mother Earth that served as the contextual setting for the storyline.

The other thing I felt as I watched the film was a white hot anger at either unconscious or conscienceless human beings who had done this to themselves and to all living beings of this good creation. And the absolute mystification over how they could be in such deep denial about this tragedy. As the human beings continued to seek ever greater consumer goods and services -perfumes that were now no longer being produced, parties to forget the impending disaster, more and more advanced technology to serve a human race which had become lazy and turned in on itself and the natural progression of our current obsession with stimulatimg passive entertainment which took the form of a neo-Roman coliseum complete with the slaughter of quasi-sentient beings - the world was dying around them. I see this denial in full bloom even now in our own time as the world is dying around us. Listen to the suzerain oil industry and their client state administrators in Washington as they reassure us about limitless petrochemical supplies to meet the demands of an addiction fed by our advertising industry. Listen as they question the findings of folks like Karl and Treberth, asserting that they have no solid "proof" that the environment is being wounded, perhaps irreparably. Listen carefully and you can hear the drip, drip dripping as our earth gurgles and sputters.

This week begins the season of Epiphany in the western liturgical traditions. The readings for Anglican lectionary cycle C have featured Isaiah with nations streaming to the light of the redeemed Israel, often cast in terms of mountaintops where the light can be seen. I contemplate those mountaintops as I read of the Bush administration's proposed revisions to environmental policies which would allow for "mountaintop mining." What such involves is essentially shearing off the tops of ridges to expose a coal seam. Dirt and rock are pushed into nearby stream beds, a practice known as valley fill. The Interior Department's proposal would eliminate an existing policy that says land within 100 feet of a stream cannot be disturbed by mining activity unless a company can prove that the work won't affect the stream's water quality and quantity. In the proposed rule, the department said that the standard is impossible to comply with and coal operators must instead prevent damage to streams "to the extent possible, using the best technology currently available."

"[T]o the extent possible?" Who are we kidding? These lies and half-truths dressed up to sound like actual considered policy would be laughable if their consequences were not so dire. Human beings always have choices about these matters. The question is whether we are willing to be honest about those choices and resposible for their consequences.

So, what if there were no mountaintops for the nations to stream to, only jagged scars of abandoned coal mines? Might the policies pursued by this very destructive regime be seen as magnets for darkness, not light? As the priest in the controversial but excellent film Priest said, when we destroy G-d's good creation, do we not spit in the very eye of G-d? As I stand on the shores of Lake Underhill each morning, saying my prayers, watching the mist rise from the lake shrouding the reflections of the cabbage palms in the lake's polluted waters, the birds singing G-d's praises as the soundtrack for the rising sun, I wonder to myself, how much longer will these birds have a home in this place? Where will the cabbage palms go if the water rises above their root systems? What will happen to the herons and cranes, the squirrels and mockingbirds, the gopher tortoises and prickly pear cacti, not to mention the little boys and girls who will play in these waters come summer? Where is the light? Where is the outcry from the nations?

This night my Franciscan heart aches for the Creation. It wonders if the image of G-d has not become obscured by the crudeness of greed and selfishness among we creatures who bear that image and hold the potential to grow ever more into the likeness of our maker, a potential neglected if not abandoned in our striving for more and more goods and ever more stimulating (and diverting) entertainment. And it wonders what it will take to cause us to awaken from this very dark dream.

The Kadampa Tradition (Vajrayana) Buddhists in San Jose, CA, taught me that the scope of compassion is not properly limited to simply human beings. They taught me that "all sentient beings" were deserving of compassion. And so I close with their Prayer for the Four Immeasurables, noting that "everyone" here means all living beings:

May everyone be happy.
May everyone be free from misery.
May no one ever be separated from their happiness.
May everyone have equanimity, free from hatred and attachment.

And from the Prayer for Generating Bodhichitta, "May I become a Buddha for the benefit of all." Or as the modern Franciscan prayer says it: "Lord, make us instruments of your peace."



The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.


Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Blowing off a little steam....

Two things greeted me my first day back to the university for spring term. First, I am delighted that so many former students have decided to take the second half of my class (offered over two semesters). It's not a given and many don't. But about 1/3 of the students yesterday were former students, some from as long ago as last fall (2002). It's nice to see their faces. It's nice to know that, at least for some of them, learning with this instructor is seen as a valuable thing. Of course, that doesn't account for things like fitting schedules and the devil you know v. the devil you don't know. Who knows exactly what drives students? I'm not ever sure I could tell you why I took some of the classes and instructors I took. Nonetheless, it's nice to see them.

The other thing awaiting me on my desk Monday morning was the first round of student evaluations from last semester. This particular batch comes from an honors college group I taught fall semester. As usual, the evaluations managed to stir up a lot of conflicted feelings.

I probably should preface the following comments by noting that the overall assessments were good. My average in the department (this is one of the more moronic aspects of student evaluations) is always above the department average and well above that of the college. Generally the assessments are predominately positive, rating me excellent or good in virtually every category. The comments usually can be categorized as such: good professor, passionate about his subject, cares about his students, too much work. There are also consistent comments from a small minority that see me as disrespectful of them personally and sarcastic. I probably would own up to all of those comments with the caveat that students who feel less than fully respected have often demonstrated through their behaviors, attitude or comments that their performance in class is not terribly respectable. All of this is to say, simply, that the comments I am about to make are NOT the result of sour grapes. In the student ratings game, I generally am a winner. Indeed, on the one student graded professor slam sites I know my name has been placed, my average is A+.

But, the fact it is a game is my first concern. I understand the original purpose of student evaluations to be what they actually state on the forms: to assist the instructor with his/her teaching. Everyone needs constructive criticism periodically. No one has reached the point of performance where they are unable to improve. And a good instructor will want to improve, to try new things, to reconsider old approaches, otherwise they become stagnant. But that doesn't mean that any form or use of evaluation is necessarily helpful, even valuable.

Of course, the first problem with the evaluations is those who take them. While we emphasize to our students that this is not a forum to vent one's spleen and seek revenge for poor grades, loss of face in class or for not constructing the class according to the consumer demands of the student, far too frequently students use evaluations for precisely those purposes. I thought Peter Sacks, author of Generation X Goes to College, had made up the story about the student evaluation which reported a student saying Sack's tie had distracted him/her and prevented their full attention in class until I got virtually the same comment on an evaluation. The question that and other personal comments ("Nice butt," a comment my office mate was reported to have received on an evaluation) raise is simply why student evaluations should be taken seriously. People who are unable to distinguish college instruction from Entertainment Tonight are probably not the best sources regarding the former.

Far too often the very problems the student has experienced with the course manifest themselves in the comments on evaluations. I wonder if students realize how self-disclosing they really are in these comments. One student suggested that my "master thesis" had been to demonstrate "Catholicism as a destructive force in the universe." This, the student noted, had been humiliating. Of course, humiliation is about identifiable individuals being held up in class for scorn. Such does not happen in many classes for long. Singling out students for disrespect or other unwanted attention can readily land an instructor in the unemployment line if not court. And it certainly did not happen in this class. Other than the self-disclosure the student made in a written assignment, no one knew his religious affiliation. Indeed, except for those who discussed their religious backgrounds in class, no one knew anyone else's affiliation. It's a bit of a stretch to see oneself as personally humiliated under those circumstances.

What the comment does reflect, however, is the problem the student had with the class. It demonstrates an inability to distinguish critique of an idea, attitudes, values, etc. from the holder(s) of said ideas, values, attitudes. It fails to distinguish an ad hominem attack on the person from a criticism of their behavior, thoughts or words. Ironically, the skill of making such distinctions is precisely what most college instructors are seeking to instill or hone in their classes. It is not surprising that students who are lacking in the capacity to think critically would personalize such critique and blame the instructor.

Another comment I received from the same student involved whether classes should be put on-line. His comment (and surely students don't labor under the misapprehension that we can't recognize their handwriting after a semester) was that "a big chunk of the class should be on-line since we watched a number of movies in class..." That illustrates part of the problem here. Might the fact he is unable to distinguish short instructional videos designed to illustrate concepts from the text from a "movie," commonly seen as entertainment, suggest the inappropriateness of such comments being taken seriously?

How is it that college freshmen are somehow seen as holding the expertise sufficient to make judgments about college level pedagogy? The absurdity of a patient stopping a surgeon mid procedure and telling her where to cut is obvious. Similarly the client who tells his attorney how to make motions during a trial. Why would students be in a position to tell their instructors how to teach? Clearly, patients do play a large role in most medical care, advising the physician of how they feel and, hopefully, following their instructions regarding their treatment. Clients who are open and honest with their attorneys provide them with the necessary information to make judgments about strategy and conduct of a trial. But in both cases, the expertise of the professional is only as good as the patient or client is willing to listen and follow. Why would it be any different for college instruction?

Compounding the problems of questionable value of the assessments is the use that is made of them.
College department chairs and deans often seek to reassure instructors and professors that they do not use student evaluations to make judgments about hiring, tenure and promotion. I think the reality is that they could hardly help from being affected by these evaluations. The averaging and comparing of evaluation scores within colleges and departments suggest that these evaluations mean a lot more than simple feedback to instructors. Such practices speak to competition among colleagues, something totally out of place in an institution which derives its names - universitas and collegium - from the notion of cooperative learning.

At some level I suppose I ought to favor student evaluations since they historically have worked to my advantage personally. And if it were just about me, perhaps I wouldn't have written this post. The problem is, this is a fairly common practice. And it speaks to a general confusion of the obsessiveness our hypercompetitive culture has over "accountability" with a rather more diffuse but pervasive consumerism in which, like Disney World taught its employees, the customer isn't always right but the customer is always the customer. Education is not the provision of consumer good or service. And students are not customers. The medieval university recognized that without a collective, cooperative effort of "the whole body," faculty and students, the learning community called the universitas simply could not function. We post-modern academics and the corporate indentured servants in government who maintain the modern university would do well to return to our roots of working together toward a common goal - an educated society. It's not difficult to see how the current student evaluation system falls far short of that noble endeavor, indeed, perhaps even proving counterproductive.

I also suppose I ought to be able to simply slough off the petty comments of students who didn't make the grade they wanted or got their feelings hurt along the way. Things like that happen in human institutions. But instructors are human beings, too. It hurts to have highly personalized vindictive comments made about the part of your life that students rightly recognize as your passion, particularly when it becomes a public record. It is troubling to have your motives called into question. Even in the face of an overall good assessment in a history of the same, it is still unsettling. One of my colleagues who is close to attaining tenure told me she no longer even reads the evaluations given how disturbed they make her. Little wonder. I read her evaluations on public display at the honors college for a previous class. One of her students complained that she had been petty for taking off points for writing errors in composition and grammar. When asked at the end of the evaluation what part the student liked best, they replied "The free food" from the final class party. And remember, these are the honors students.

OK, I've gotten it off my chest. Time to move on.....