Monday, May 29, 2006

Survey I: Characteristics of a Good Person

Read the question and post an answer. One word is acceptable. Several words are great. An answer with an extended explanation is also encouraged.

Question: What is a characteristic of a good person?

Dinner Plates from Acme

Dear Gramma,

I am in your great granddaughter's kitchen. You would like her. She has your sweetness and she goes with the flow.

I am staring at one thing trying to remember another. I have a green plate in my hand. A blazing fire is roaring in a colonial style hearth. A musket hangs on the edge of the mantle that holds several plates and pitchers. It is obviously a working kitchen like yours was with bellows to keep that fire cooking and pots and spoons. This plate was a grocery store giveaway that mom had collected and gave to my daughter who loved the picture so. The set was circa 1965 or so I guess. The rest of the set is worn but still in use, with its chips and flaws. The dessert bowl features that set of bellows and the salad plates feature a spinning wheel.

But I am trying to remember your dinnerware, also brought into the big house on 18th street, piece by piece, as a prize for loyal shopping. And you probably walked it home, in the 1950's, for Pappap never did learn to drive and neither did you. Your set was blue and white with artwork by Currier & Ives. I remember winter and a house, and a horse, and maybe a stream. And I remember chicken and potpie and rye bread. And I remember Swedish meat balls and chicken noodle soup.

As I'm remembering the sweet anise taste of your rye bread I'm wondering what you might think of the debate on immigration that is raging in Congress right now. I know that you probably wouldn't be following it too closely. You would be too busy working, with those dear rough, wrinkled, and dry-cracked fingers. But what would you think of the fears of wealthy upper class congresspeople and senators who are straining to protect their various properties, most of which they inherited from wealthy parents and grandparents.

We are all decendents of hardworking immigrants aren't we, most of whom were not terrorists? In fact immigration doesn't have anything to do with terrorism, no matter how much Congressional confusion exists on the subject. And the value of that hard work, the value of the labor is greater, I think than the capital that sits in the investment accounts of many of the second and third generation wealthy elite.

Meanwhile, looking at a hearth on a plate from a working class kitchen, I am grateful for an inheritance not of financial riches but of cultural prosperity and the affluence of fully employed days and tired muscles and energetic endeavor.

With loving memories,


Friday, May 26, 2006

Macro vs. Micro Morality or Prelude to a Survey

Dear Son,

I have been doing a survey. I know that you participated at the dinner table sometime, answering my question, “What is a characteristic of a good person.” So far, I've gotten responses to the question from quite a few people of all different ages and shoe sizes.

People occasionally ask me why I ask that question. That is a good question too, so let’s start there. I ask because I’m desperate. I want to know what good looks like. I want to know “good with feet.” By this point in my life I should be more sure of that answer, shouldn’t I? But I am not. Partly I am not sure because I see so many people who have some of the characteristics that I would name as good, who have other characteristics that I would not include on the list.

We talked about some of that last night. These are people who think it’s ok, even good, to go out and get high, to live with a wide range of life practices that I consider bad or, at best, unhealthy. Yet they are good, and struggling with issues of goodness that are, in many ways more critical than the ones being ignored by people who seem to be concerned with good behaviors of the other sort. With my survey, I want to study what that is all about?

Then, of course there is a negative drive in my investigation. I see people, lots of people my age, who have for many years lived a life in which they apparently embraced the “goods” of conservative behavior, who are now disavowing those behaviors and diving headlong into a life of fairly unfettered practices. It is not a pretty sight to see the innards of middle-aged discontent!!! People seem to be able to flippantly trash their lives and families for “wine, women, (or men) and song.” Why is that?

Your dad described a conflict between macro-goodness and micro-goodness. He said that some people seem to embrace a definition of good that is a reaction to global activity, global politics, global philosophy, global intent. Others have a micro-morality that reflects conceptions that rest within the heart and internal conflicts that have implications for daily behaviors, intimate relationships, personal desires, and immediate reactivity. To macro-moral-man, it is a sin to take certain political positions, such as supporting nuclear proliferation or doing things that cause global warming. To micro-moral-man it is a sin to drink alcohol because it could have negative moral implications for relationships with family and friends.

We seem to polarize ourselves though. We are either micro-moralists or macro-moralists, but we aren’t good at being both. Perhaps the weight of it all is too great. If we think too long about global warming, we feel like we just need a good stiff drink. If we look inside ourselves at the moral dirt of our own souls, we are too exhausted to have the energy to get involved in environmental clean-up.

On the surface, Scripture does seem to present a rather micro-picture of morality. The Ten Commandments, after all, don’t include, “Thou shalt recycle” or “Thou shalt not emit noxious fumes into the atmosphere that shalt tear up the ozone layer.” But there is macro stuff there. The Genesis call to tend the “garden” environment, the parables about stewardship, the strong call for justice in Micah and its curse of the “short measure,” “wicked scales,” and “bag of deceptive weights.”

Have you ever been bored reading the Old Testament with its page after page of the machinations of people groups that are hard to understand? I wonder if that is because the descriptions are trying to get us to understand a macro-morality using examples that are out of our sphere. Maybe if the children of Israel were going in to slay the people of Exxon for corrupting the sea or to conquer the land of Haliburton for charging unfair interest to a people devastated by war, we would get it.

But there is something conceptually much more transferable about the teachings of the heart, the micro-moralities that were experienced BC, AD, and now. The wrestlings from the hearts of Jacob to Moses to Deborah to Peter to Priscilla to John carry an immediacy that I understand at first sight. And the commands are pretty clear also. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Do not get drunk with wine for that is dissipation. Even “gird your loins with truth” sounds pretty darn personal.

So, what are we to make of this? I don’t think its simple. I think it is a long hard struggle to understand the interplay between the micro- and macro-moralities. It is the source of much angst in our souls. But that isn’t new either, is it? Micah cried out, “Shall I present my first-born for my rebellious acts, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” Every morning, I start my drive to work with a rather primal scream in my soul to God, “Save me, save me, save me.”

I don’t think that it is an either/or proposition. To embrace one form of morality and eschew the other undermines the whole thing. But to feel the weight of it all is way too much to bear. If we can chunk it someway and feel just the burden of today, assuming the weight of the decisions and moral choices for today only or of our own lives only. Perhaps that is how we can survive successfully.

Reinhold Niebuhr has written a classic work entitled, Moral Man and Immoral Society. I am starting to read it. Supposedly, he says that the morality that a person can experience on an individual level cannot be applied at the global level, because institutions are incapable of running on any level but the politics of power. I think that this is an interesting take on things. Maybe that is why Scripture attends more to the intricacies of the internal morality. It is there that we have some choice, but in the global realm we cannot rely on morality.

bell hooks, a writer who engages subjects from feminism to greed, is more hopeful about moral applications to the public sphere. She says in her book, All About Love, New Visions, “An overall cultural embrace of a love ethic would mean that we would all oppose much of the public policy conservatives condone and support. Society’s collective fear of love must be faced if we are to lay claim to a love ethic that can inspire us and give us the courage to make necessary changes.” She then quotes Eric Fromm who says, “Society must be organized in such a way that man’s social, loving nature is not separated from his social existence, but becomes one with it.”

Obviously, others have and are and will struggle with the questions of morality. It is a very weighty thing. Establishing a true moral compass is not as easy as compiling the right list of behaviors and abiding by it. Those lists serve some purpose, primarily as guides for us when we are blinded by the heat of our passions, I suppose. But they don’t serve well as clubs for beating up others or ourselves for that matter.

I love you honey and am glad that you are the kind of person that you are. I’m sorry that you have to engage in the very painful philosophical struggles. Yet, I have found these struggles to be the very things that make us deep and loving individuals.

With all my love,


Thursday, May 25, 2006

For the Women in My Daughter's Class

Dear Marilyn Kallet,

I attended a reading that you sponsored for the aspiring poets in one of your poetry classes. I came, for I love poetry. I came, for I love my daughter and she was in your class, ready to read her work. I enjoyed.

I think I had read my daughter's work prior to the event. I don't quite remember which of her many poems she read that evening. I do remember the work of some of the other women though, for they caused me to think and to wonder and to write my own poem.

For the Women in My Daughter’s Class

I’m fifty years old and I’ve only had sex with one man in my life.
I suppose that sounds naïve to those of you who, at twenty-one
Think of your lovers in a row, or judging from your readings,
In a line-up.

I’m fifty years old and the one man in my life can make me rage.
But not because, after telling me he loved me (or not), he left,
But because he spits his toothpaste in the sink or on the mirror
And never rinses.

I’m fifty years old and could be convinced by you or my own imaginings
That a life of multiple lovers makes lovemaking hotter
And orgasm vitally anticipated, poignant, and quick.
Does that cover it?

And a life of practiced monogamy, me, knowing him, him, knowing me,
Me, sure, him, sure, me, loved, him, loved,
Could be less, I can see, because I’ve propensities too.
But I don’t know, for I’m fifty years old and I’ve only had sex with one man.


Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Veneering

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Veneering,

We haven't met, but Our Mutual Friend, Dickens, told me:

"Mr and Mrs Veneering were bran-new people in a bran-new house in a bran-new quarter of London. Everything about the Veneerings was spick and span new. All their furniture was new, all their friends were new, all their servants were new, their plate was new, their carriage was new, their harness was new, their horses were new, their pictures were new, they themselves were new, they were as newly married as was lawfully compatible with their having a bran-new baby, and if they had set up a great-grandfather, he would have come home in matting from the Pantechnicon, without a scratch upon him, French polished to the crown of his head.

"For, in the Veneering establishment, from the hall-chairs with the new coat of arms, to the grand pianoforte with the new action, and upstairs again to the new fire-escape, all things were in a state of high varnish and polish. And what was observable in the furniture, was observable in the Veneerings—the surface smelt a little too much of the workshop and was a trifle sticky." I, on the other hand, smell a little too much of mold, I fear, and am a trifle dried out.

I'm not sure why this description of you gathered up my attention so, though partly it is Charles' way with words--"a French polished great-grandfather", indeed. But partly it is because I struggle with this world we live in that seems to be too new and too renewed. I can't absorb all the revisions. I was just getting used "World 6.0" when "World 7.0" was released. And then before I got that installed in my brain, there was a patch and it was time for "World 7.1" I am trying to live with my mind open to change, but the newness of things all the time leaves me with the sense that life isn't authenticate, just a laminate.

Regards to all of our mutual acquaintances.

Betsy DeGeorge

I Must Crusade

Dear Women in Black,

You are my friends, in a narrow way. I don't know many of you well, but we stand together once a week on the same narrow strip of ground. And we have stood here in Knoxville, now, for four years.

We stand in mourning. So last week when we celebrated four years of standing together, we were celebrating a mourning. How odd.

Together we heard these words:

{All Things Not Considered
by Naomi Shahib Nye
(from 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East)}

"You cannot stitch the breath back into this boy

A brother and sister were playing with toys when their room exploded.

In what language
is this holy?

The Jewish boys killed in the cave
were skipping school, having an adventure.

Asel Asleh, Palestinian, age 17, believed in the field
beyond right and wrong where people
come together.

to talk. He kneeled to help someone else
stand up before he was shot.

If this is holy, could we have some new religions please?"

And more words, but it wasn't the words. It rarely is. And I knelt and touched the names of Israeli children and Palestinian children written on a piece of paper. And I wondered why people tend to be more distraught when it is children who die. Is it because we hope that they held within them more potential for peace than the rest of us? Or is it just that we feel that we should have died first.

We Women in Black stand in front of a federal building each week in some kind of protest. It is a crusade of sorts, one in which Jewish women, Muslim women, Christian women, women of no religious commitment, join together on a narrow strip of sidewalk and crusade for peace.

Betsy DeGeorge

Monday, May 22, 2006

Eudora Welty Must Crusade

Dear Eudora Welty,

I have read something. Two things really. First I read a critique. Then I read the real thing. That is backwards I know, but I found the real thing through the critique, so perhaps the procedure is forgivable. “The thing” is your essay entitled “Must the Novelist Crusade?” You wrote it, from what I can tell around 1965. I must say that the essay helped me put together some other ideas that have arisen in my head while reading some of your other work.

May I vent? Then let me ask questions.

Truth is an elusive thing. It is absolute and unchangeable before fading into the mists and transmogrifying into an apparition. Beauty is seductive. It is appealing and glorifying before eroding into silence and transforming into an ogre.

Yet truth and beauty are constants, coming and going in the human heart. And we know they are, without knowing what they are precisely. The writer and the artist are caught in the webs spun by truth and beauty, fated to look upon the captors that enslave and finally consume them.

The artist, speaking here of painter or musician, is lured by beauty, and though truth may suck some of the blood out of them, it is beauty that drains them I think. The writer on the other hand is enticed by truth and though beauty takes its toll, it is truth that bankrupts them.

So how is it that a writer might deny that liability? Or how might a musician deny the light that inspires? Perhaps the writing technician might, the fellow who plots means of filling pages for purposes of selling toothpaste or describing irregularities on the surface of granite. Or maybe the musical practitioner could, the woman who creates the chord structure that lazily leans behind the action of a soap opera or increases the tempo to chase the coordinated end of a sentence in a TV drama, but not the artist.

So what is it that might drive you, Eudora Welty, to deny your muse? Do you fear the very power that you command? Do you wish to play with the angels and demons of truth and believe that you are not tempting eternal glory or damnation?

But I think that you are (terribly) responsible for the glories and damnations that you create. It is that very heaviness, the very weight of your authority over the written word to compel truth that makes you great. You are doomed no matter how vociferously you may try to deny it.

Oh, dear. Surely I have offended you. And I must stop for now. I will write again, and perhaps ask questions that can actually be answered and that may eventually shed some light on our disagreement on this philosophical point. I intend to correspond with Richard Wright on this subject also.



Saturday, May 20, 2006

Emily Bronte

Dear Emily Bronte,

I have been reading your novel. It is difficult, for your characters abuse each other unmercifully. So I worry for you.

I have heard that you attended a school where abuse was the order of the day. What happened to you there. And your father? What was he like? Stern? A clergyman they say. They have a bad reputation statistically for abuse. Did he abuse you? How?

I'll write more later. I want to finish up the book. And I've heard there are some poems.

We must talk more.


Tags: Justice Literature

Friday, May 19, 2006

Feminism for a Father


Dear Dad,

It was good being at home with you, even for painting. I will try to come again soon. We can do more chores! I told mom that chores are her love language. When I ask her how you two are feeling, she always says things like, “Pretty good, I did the laundry,” or “Your Dad is good, he cleaned the toilet.” Honestly, I must admit, I am quite the same as Mom. Steve says that there in nothing more sexually attractive to me than the sight of him washing the dishes.
I was reading a book this morning called “Communion, The Female Search for Love,” by bell hooks. She is a feminist. I guess you know that I am a feminist too. I don’t put any qualifications on that. I’m not almost a feminist or a Christian feminist, just a feminist. But of course there is not just one definition for feminist, but a different one for every person. Anyhow, bell hooks talks about losing the love of her father and how devastating that was for her. She says that women spend a lot of energy worrying about being worthy of love. She talks about the universal system of patriarchy and how it oppresses women.

Now, I understand how it is true that women are universally faced with that oppression. However, I came to that understanding slowly and probably as an adult. Here is why. You never made me feel unworthy of love. You gave me the great gift of unqualified, unconditional love. Therefore, I was freed to develop in ways that many women were not. In a way it set me on a slower track to feminism, but one that is, I think, more healthy (at least less painful.)

My thinking about feminism is full of emotion and anger at times. Patriarchy plays very evil tricks on women across the world. It uses all kinds of tactics to steal from women their god-given drives and talents, to keep them out of competing roles and in roles where they are available for abuse. This is evidenced blatantly in the Eastern world and is institutionalized in Islam and its culture. It is present strongly in the conservative church here in the West (women as secondary), as it is in the Hollywood culture (women as sex objects), the fashion world (women as mannequins), and in the sports world (women as cheerleaders).

I wanted to write this, not because I think that you have hurt me as a father, but because you have helped prepare me to be a positive feminist who can see clearly because I have had a father who loved unstintingly. (Not that I don’t think you could stand to move a little more in the direction of feminism. Become a radical!)

I love you,


Tags: Family Feminism Justice

Thursday, May 18, 2006


I'm introducing a collection of letters. These will be written to many different individuals (living and dead). Any reader is welcome to assume the role of recepient or critic to answer or comment. My topics may be many. They will include matters of family and literature, feminism and Marxism, opera and equine care, friendship and love.

I will introduce later a series of surveys. I am interested in gathering comments on subjects of importance to me. The first survey will ask the question, "What is one, or several, characteristic(s) of a good person." I have already begun collecting data on this subject and will post that data in addition to any offered here.