The Olympian Caster Semenya

Caster Semenya is a South African middle distance runner and Olympic gold winner who has naturally higher levels of testosterone than the typical range for women. Speculation is that Semenya may be intersex.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport has now ruled that in order to continue competing, Semenya will have to take hormones that lower her natural testosterone levels and take blood tests to show that she is doing so. That ruling supports an International Association of Athletics Federation ruling that specifically targets athletes like Semenya. The position of IAAF and CAS is acknowledged to be discriminatory, but the belief is that this discrimination is necessary to safeguard the integrity of women’s sports.

This is a tough one, and it has split the world of women’s athletics. Billie Jean King, Abby Wambach, and Martina Navratilova support Semenya’s position. So does Madeleine Pape, an Australian runner who lost to Semenya in competition. British long distance runner Paula Radcliffe supports IAAF and CAS.

I think blanket rules to cover relatively rare situations are generally a bad idea. I also think it’s ironic that governing bodies who work hard to control performance enhancing drugs in elite competition are now taking the position that performance-limiting drugs must be used in this case. If I were Semenya, I wouldn’t take hormone treatments that could have an uncertain impact on my overall health for the sole purpose of making me other than I am and satisfying sports officials.

Asking her to do something quite unreasonable, I say.

Kamau Bell on Megachurches

Kamau Bell is a mid-40’s American comic and TV host; his original series United Shades of America is on CNN Sunday night. For a tall black guy who tackles exceedingly difficult topics like a visit with the modern day KuKlux Klan,  Bell is disarmingly laid back and funny. He sports not quite a full Afro, but way more than low-drama Obama’s buzz cut. Bell dresses in jeans and a shirt — no Anderson Cooper suit with a crisp white shirt and tie, no matter where Bell is going.

That Bell has a history as a stand-up comic protects him, I think. He just doesn’t evoke hostility, even from the most hostile people. I found that show where he visited the  cross-burning Klan terrifying, even though I suppose he had the protection of a CNN camera crew who were doing the filming. That the Klan members were chummy with Bell while explaining the ins and outs of cross burning gave me chills. I held my breath until he got out of there and went back down the dark road, safely away from the rising flames and white hooded Klan members.

Bell’s latest foray is into the world of megachurches, specifically those that make their home in Dallas, home of the megachurch movement. Bell visits a conservative white one, where the pastor told his 30,000 followers to vote for Trump because Trump is in alignment with Jesus, a black megachurch dedicated to social justice whose pastor follows the path of Martin Luther King, an LGBTQ megachurch with a Brit gay pastor who tries to redeem “church” for those most wounded by it, and a megachurch-in-the-making that has just raked in enough money to build a big structure in the boonies outside the city.

All of these places share common threads: they are full-blown media productions that attract tens of thousands of members; they present the gospels in an easy to follow mode that assumes worshippers want to be entertained; they bring in a lot of money; they are by and large segregated by race, sexual orientation, philosophy. One white megachurch pastor said outright that he considers Jesus an entertainer, and his ministry calls him to be an entertainer too. The Prosperity Gospel megachurches make no apologies for insisting that members fund the lavish lifestyles of their preachers; the 6M jet pastor is unabashed in saying God wants the members to buy him this jet.

After my book How Much is Enough? came out in 2002 and I got hired by a lot of Protestant churches to talk about stewardship, I attended a Wednesday night church service at one of these places in the midwest, at the invitation of my host. I found the service intentionally hypnotic, with low lights and repetitive chanting and people swaying back and forth with their eyes closed. Biblical instruction was projected onto a big screen with fill-in-the-blank questions and answers, as in “The purpose of prayer is _________.” I forget the single word answer, but the congregants all knew it. During the praise section a church member was singled out for having baked 400-some odd cupcakes singlehandedly. She was a nondescript woman who probably didn’t get much recognition in the rest of her life, but here we all were shouting praise to the Lord  for Sister-Cupcake-Baker.

I found the whole thing creepy. But thousands of people flock to these places, while more traditional Protestant worship is dying on the vine. In some way megachurches and the election of Donald Trump are hitting the same chord, but it’s not music that I myself can hear.

Getting to Know Seattle: Fallen Construction Crane

Some of you have asked if Klainer West lives anywhere near the fallen building crane that killed four people and injured three here in Seattle on Saturday. The answer is yes. I walked past Mercer and Fairview, in the South Lake Union intersection where the crane fell, a little over a week ago — right past the new buildings under construction and that very vulnerable crane. That intersection is a boundary for Amazon Central; Sara works there. And Matt drives past the intersection every day on his way to work.

We weren’t there on Saturday and didn’t know the people who lost their lives or were injured. But the accident did indeed hit close to home.

Downtown Seattle is filled with building cranes, and  you often can’t avoid driving beneath them. Scary.

Getting to Know Seattle: Spring Sounds

As I sit drinking my morning coffee and writing the next day’s blog posts, I am serenaded by the sound of a cement truck dumping its load. Last summer the small Craftsman house across the street was jacked up, and a new entire floor added below. There was a new house built from scratch just down the street. That meant a summer of hammering, banging, sawing, screeching … and cement trucks or other building material delivery trucks dropping their supplies. If one construction site wasn’t doing something noisy, the other one was.

Sigh. I was glad to have it all done. But I breathed a sigh of relief too soon. Now the house two doors up from the reconstructed house is jacked up, and construction has begun. People who live in Seattle have a lot of money. They can buy a house for 1M — the going entry price on Queen Anne — and consider it a fixer-upper.

Eventually the cacophony fades into the background, but right now the construction noise feels very loud.

Getting to Know Seattle: From Old to New

Seattle neighborhoods are known for Craftsman homes, built at around the same time as my stucco Tudor home in Rochester, NY — late 1920’s, early 1930’s. The Craftsman homes are not usually very large, and they are often on small lots — making adding to their space difficult. But they are filled with fine architectural detail and skilled wood work. These are features you don’t get in newer condo buildings in downtown Seattle — even at a 1M price point for a two bedroom. The home I live in now, belonging to daughter Sara, is a fine example of the period.

Slowly, the Craftsman homes are being razed and replaced with modern structures — more space efficient, but they change the character of the neighborhood. I passed these homes today on my way downtown, on opposite sides of a steep street.

Old giving way to new…

If you had a choice, which place would you live in?

Watch Out for Your Cassowary

I’ve never understood why people want to keep dangerous wild animals as pets. Siegfried and Roy did a Las Vegas act with white Siberian tigers for years until one of the tigers attacked Roy on stage and nearly killed him. A Connecticut woman, Sandra Herold, kept Travis the chimp as “part of the family” until Travis attacked and came close to killing her friend, Charla Nash. Nash had to have a face transplant after Travis ate hers. Travis apparently slept in Herold’s bed, watched TV with her, and ate steak at her table. All good until Travis reverted to norm and tried to eat her friend.

Now, a Florida man has been killed by a cassowary that he kept on the grounds of his home. A cassowary is a dangerous bird. They have pointed nails, long enough to function like daggers, growing from three toes on each foot. They attack when frightened. They do not have the capacity to make friends with humans.

The 75 year old man’s fiance’ apparently said he died “doing what he loved”. Not sure what that might mean, other than the man had a fondness for tempting death.

These human/animal fatal encounters put others at risk, namely the emergency personnel called to get the attacker secured and rescue the victim. Police and other emergency responders are trained to deal with many different adversaries. I doubt that includes much preparation for subduing a raging chimp or a killer cassowary.

To be fair, the wild creatures are only doing what they do. It’s the humans who keep them who need a swift, sharp reality check.

Watching Notre Dame Burn

I was at the gym on the treadmill watching CNN when pics of Notre Dame du Paris burning came on. Evident almost from the first appearance of flames and smoke was that this would be a catastrophic fire.  Nearly destroyed is the iconic 12th-14th century structure that sits at the heart of Paris, of the Roman Catholic Church, and is of significant artistic and architectural importance globally. The inferno gripping Notre Dame was terribly hard to watch.

Apparently these centuries-old buildings undergoing construction repairs –filled as they are with dried out wood and flammable art — are primed for catastrophic fires.

I’ve been at Notre Dame du Paris twice, once many years ago, and once in recent years when I stayed with my friend Jane in that fabled city. Although TV commentators are talking about how long it will take to rebuild the cathedral, anyone who has been there knows that much of what was destroyed is irreplaceable.

Structures are important to us, especially ones like Notre Dame that convey a sense of permanence. We don’t expect such massive stone edifices to fall.

Buddhism teaches us much about the impermanence of life. Sacred mandalas, sand paintings, are created by the work of several highly skilled monks over many weeks. Then, after contemplation of the beautiful work of art, the mandala is swept up and the sand deposited into a nearby body of water. We have, and then what we have is gone. Such is the nature of life.

But those of us who have not cultivated the Buddhist sense of detachment are devastated when something like Notre Dame du Paris falls.

This is a different loss from the Twin Towers, because injury and loss of life was limited. But the loss is immense nonetheless. That something so beautiful, a building that has stood for centuries and which was still a living faith community, could be consumed and destroyed in a matter of hours, is almost unimaginable. And yet here we are, with soot and ashes and our belief in permanence gone up in flames.

When Did You Last Buy a Sewing Kit?

On San Gabriel Drive we had a monster sewing kit, with oodles of thread colors and various sizes of needles. Jerry was the button-hole-sewer-on-in-chief. I was never much good at it.

During my moves since 2010 the sewing kit has vanished. As I pack for Nassau, I want to take along a light linen shirt that serves well to keep the sun off without being too hot. I took the shirt to Panama, where I noticed that a couple of the buttons, machine-sewn no doubt, were loose and the thread unraveling. As I pulled the shirt out for Nassau, I saw that the buttons need to be reinforced, or they’ll imminently fall off.

Have you tried to buy a sewing kit recently?

This was all our Bartell’s pharmacy had — a little travel kit with a couple of needles and the basic thread color choices. I’m sure I could have gotten something more substantial on Amazon, but there was no time.

Apparently I haven’t needed a sewing kit since 2010, when I moved to Seattle.

The hardest part was getting the thread through the tiny needle opening. Once I had that, the buttons were stabilized just fine.

Panama 2019: Thinking about Minga

A dear friend has just returned from visiting her 96 year old mother-in-law. The elderly woman has had pneumonia, but is recovering. Her doctors say that for her age, she’s in quite good health and can indeed recover her energy and quality of life. But all the woman wants to do now is die. My friend went in an attempt, mostly unsuccessful, to help her mother-in-law recover the will to live.

The story made me think about Minga. Before I went in November of 2018, I’d had intimations that Minga was growing tired of her dialysis regimen, and the attendant pains and indignities that went with it — like the severe leg cramping that made it hard to walk even a few steps. Who wants to be carried to the toilet, and carried back to a chair or bed? I suspect Minga would have thought that giving up on life was a sin. But I also suspect she was wondering with no small amount of apprehension what the next months and years, if she lived that long, held in store for her.

When I arrived in Panama City, I found her ebullient, happy to see me and eager to be part of whatever I proposed. She seemed full of energy. As regular readers of the blog know from pictures, we went to the mall. We visited Amador Causeway to see the ships ready to transit the Canal. We went to a dinner theater with folkloric dance. We took a drive around Panama City to see all the new buildings and neighborhoods she hadn’t visited in years.  We went to the roof deck of the hotel, with its gorgeous view of Panama City, and talked while Miley and her friends splashed around in the pool. We savored the hotel buffet, with more of a variety of foods than Minga was used to, and a dessert table with bite-sized sweets that seemed manageable even on her restricted diet.

Then I returned home, and five days later she died. I don’t think for a moment that Minga caused her brain bleed. But I’m wondering about the arc of her reportedly growing tired and listless, the big resurgence of energy, then death.

Maybe, like my friend’s mother-in-law, a body knows.