After the Storm

[Part 1: The Imbalance Grows Stronger]

I’m writing this entry on a Thursday morning on the train to Chicago. In a few more hours, six days will have passed since the inland hurricane hit Southern Illinois. As the recovering disaster area recedes into the distance, the events of the past six days seem almost like a dream to me. But they weren’t a dream. And so, the story continues.

By mid-afternoon on the day of the storm, I found myself at the Interfaith Center. Charlie Howe had beat me there since he was travelling by truck, so when I arrived, he was already using his chainsaw on a large tree that had fallen across the path to the back door of the center.

It became clear pretty quickly that at least the initial sawing through the main trunk would be a one-person job. I realized that the walking and working had left me quite thirsty, so I went to get some water for the two of us and came back to watch the work as it progressed.

Once Charlie’s chainsaw got stuck in the tree trunk, the work ground to a halt. We tried hopping on the far end of the trunk in the hopes of snapping the remaining bit of wood at the cut point, but the wood wouldn’t snap. Even after a few other people joined us, we still didn’t have enough weight to snap it, so Charlie went about the work of extracting the chainsaw blade from the wood with a hand saw.

Within a matter of minutes, about a dozen people, mostly students, had gathered by the back door to eat and talk and get the latest news about the storm. I talked to people and helped with the sawing a little bit, but there was little I could do other than talk to people and fetch batteries for a hand saw and occasionally hop on the tree trunk in question. Once a path had been cleared from the parking lot to the back door, I decided to head home.

By this point, our house was starting to become a refugee center of sorts. I use that term half-jokingly since our region’s disaster thankfully involved a relatively small amount of injuries or outright destruction of homes. But it did involve damage to some homes and vehicles, and it became clear very quickly that the power would probably be out for days rather than hours. So, I sent a text message to a few friends inviting them to use our power, and Aur invited a few people over too.

How did we have power while most of Southern Illinois was powerless? Two words: photovoltaic modules. In other words, solar panels, and the inverter and battery storage required to store that energy and use it for our electric needs.

Our house itself doesn’t have a solar system installed. However, in preparation for the Shawnee Energy Fest, Aur had constructed a mobile solar energy trailer. This trailer consisted of a few solar panels on the roof, an inverter to convert the power from DC to AC, a monitor to track how much energy was being captured and stored, a set of batteries to store the energy, a pair of outlets on either side of the exterior of the trailer to use the energy, and an electric golf cart that fit inside the trailer and could be used at the fest for various transportation needs.

This mobile solar energy trailer was designed as a practical means of demonstrating the power of solar energy to the public. Now, it would do just that, but not in quite the same setting that Aur had originally imagined.

Throughout the power outage, one of the first and most popular uses of the solar system was cell phone charging. Cell phones are always handy tools, but especially so when you’re trying to get in touch with loved ones, find out the latest news, track down scarce resources, and coordinate plans in a disaster area. For the first hour or two of the disaster, I had trouble texting and calling certain people, due no doubt to network traffic or a brief power outage at a cell tower. But soon, I was texting people left and right to find out how they were and see how we could help each other.

Shortly after I got home, my friend Ben met me at my house. He left his phone to charge, and I took my charged phone with me. Together, we headed back out into the streets.

It’s hard to describe exactly what it felt like on that first day, and throughout the entire crisis.

On the one hand, people were remaining calm for the most part, and there was little short-term danger to be seen anywhere. Even with the slow and heavy traffic, it was much quieter and calmer than I would have expected a disaster area to be. Most of the buildings in town were either completely undamaged or had suffered superficial damage to their exteriors, and most of the people I encountered were in no immediate danger of food or water shortages or other threats to health and safety. For a lot of us, myself included, it seemed more like an exciting start to an unusual weekend rather than any cause for alarm or anxiety.

On the other hand, there was a tangible electricity in the air, and a post-apocalyptic atmosphere in the streets. Just about everyone was fine, but just about everyone also knew that water and gas and electricity and even cash (versus credit) would rapidly become precious commodities. Just about every block had either a building that had been smashed by falling trees, or a lane or two blocked by debris, or power lines that had been knocked down or still dangled precariously over the road. Many of the side streets, and some of the main streets, were full of lush green branches and scatterings of leaves. In some cases whole trees lay across the roads like willful roadblocks, complicating travel for all of the extra people who were in town to attend graduation ceremonies.

Ben and I did another walking tour of the neighborhood around my house. We looked around for any more volunteer roadwork that needed to be done, but even two people wouldn’t be enough to remove the remaining blocks without any tools. So, we soon made our way to the Strip to see what we could see of the damage and talk to anyone we knew.

Along the way, Ben told me about his experiences getting out of his own home on the outskirts of town. His adventure on the way to Carbondale had been a little more eventful than mine. One of his windows and a shed had been smashed by debris, and a tree had kept him pinned inside his house briefly until he trimmed away some of the branches and made his way outside. His main vehicle had only suffered superficial damage, so he started heading into town and “looking for trouble” just as I had.

Since he lived a little outside of town, there was plenty of work to be done. He can surely tell his own story better than I can, but it sounds like it involved several hours of volunteer road clearing on the way into town. Spillway Road was apparently littered with countless fallen trees, and there was talk of people stuck in houseboats out on the lake, so he spent the first few hours of the disaster working with neighbors to clear the roads. Once he made his way to town, he stopped by my place to charge his phone and hear the latest news from my part of the world.

By the time he’d told me this story, we had bought and eaten some quesadillas from the Mexican fast fast food place on the Strip, which was still selling food even though it didn’t have electricity. Soon, we were at our destination for the moment — a local bar at the north end of the strip called PK’s.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, PK’s has been a staple of the Carbondale bar and music scene for the past few decades. With their dim lighting, hangover breakfasts, and small stage for live music, they’ve been a haven for professional drinkers since before I ever came to town. Usually, I’m reluctant to go to PK’s because I’m not a professional drinker and don’t have much desire to be around them while they practice their trade. But we had heard that PK’s was open, and given the circumstances, I wanted to at least have a look.

To my surprise, PK’s had quickly become by far the classiest joint on the entire Strip. The power was out, and the entire length of the bar was illuminated with several dozen evenly spaced candles. The door had been propped open to let in what daylight remained, and people were milling about having friendly conversations about the storm and resulting loss of power.

Ben and I spent a little while at PK’s talking to people and finding out the latest news. It was at this point that I heard confirmation that there was indeed a 9 pm curfew in Carbondale and presumably other parts of Southern Illinois without power. Since it was around 8 pm when we heard this, we soon wrapped up our conversations at PK’s and made our way to my house.

As we took Ben’s dog for a walk in my neighborhood, we very quickly discovered that a curfew was in fact being enforced. It may not have even been 9 yet, but an officer pulled over and politely asked us if we lived nearby and if we knew about the curfew. Any thoughts of nighttime exploration of city and campus quickly evaporated. With the lights out and a curfew in place, we ended up going to bed fairly early.

In the morning, Ben went to work to check for power and deal with the refrigeration and freezer issues inevitable in his fast food workplace. He had intended to join me later in the morning for a Red Cross volunteer drive we’d heard about, but work kept him busy for much longer than he’d hoped. Instead, my roommate Juan and I ended up driving out to Southern Illinios Airport to find out what we could about the volunteer drive.

When we got there, it turned out that the Red Cross organizers were still just getting organized themselves. Once they found out that we weren’t any of the trained volunteers they were waiting for, they took down our phone numbers and told us that they’d call us once they were further along in the process. They never did end up calling, so I hope they found enough volunteers.

At this point, Juan and I were low on gas, so we drove to Du Quoin in search of a functional gas station.

From what we could tell, none of the gas stations in Carbondale or neighboring towns of Murphysboro, Carterville, or Marion were working at that point. The two places we heard about where gas was available were Du Quoin and Anna. Both of these towns are about the same distance from Carbondale, but Duquoin was slightly closer to our current location, and we’d heard from Ben that Anna’s gas stations were running out of gas. Besides, rumor has it that the socially conservative town of Anna is not the friendliest place for a Mexican and a long-haired Pagan tree-hugger to visit even on the best of days.

So, we headed to Du Quoin.

As we headed north out of town, we saw the first dramatic presence of utility crews that we had seen since the storm — a line of two dozen or more Ameren and CN and other trucks huddled along the railroad tracks working on the power lines and associated debris. As much as I may prefer living off-grid, I knew that a lot of people in the region were depending on that power coming back up, so the sight of all of those workers was very encouraging.

The gas lines in Du Quoin, however, were a little less encouraging. The first two stations we passed had lines coming out of the parking lot and into the street, so we pressed onward. Soon, Juan found a gas station that wasn’t on the main road and thus didn’t have much of a line yet. In the fifteen or so minutes that it took us to fill up, though, a long line started forming behind us, so we had just barely made it in time to beat the rush.

Upon our return to Carbondale, we met up with Aur again. He had wanted to offer power to WDBX, the community radio station where we (and many other local DJs) have our radio show. Unfortunately, though, the station required 220v power and we only had 110v. So, Aur suggested that I should call the Neighborhood Co-op Grocery and see if they needed our solar power.

As it turned out, the Co-op had just acquired a gas generator and didn’t have a pressing need for our solar energy. The person I talked to, however, mentioned to me that they had just gotten rid of some of the large amount of frozen foods and cheeses that had thawed to the point of no longer being sellable. So, Aur and Juan and I decided to go and salvage thousands of dollars of food that would otherwise go to waste.

Juan and I hopped into Juan’s car — the same one that had been briefly trapped under a tree the afternoon of the storm. Aur hopped into his truck, and together we headed off to the Co-op.

When we got there, there was more food to be had than our mere mortal minds could comprehend. The Co-op had been without power from Friday afternoon until sometime Saturday, and all of their frozen and refrigerated inventory had started warming to the point of being unsellable before they could find anything to do to keep it cold. They were prepared for brief power outages, but not ones that lasted days rather than hours. So, the refrigerated and frozen inventory had to go.

We apparently missed out on a bunch of refrigerated foods that we would have had no means to keep cool anyway. But when we got there, we discovered large amounts of frozen foods and cheeses at the back of the store. For health code and liability reasons, the Co-op isn’t allowed to give away such foods since there is some risk that contamination has occured or will occur due to thawing. But that doesn’t stop concerned citizens from salvaging the food once it has been left for disposal in or around the dumpster at the back of the store!

And so, the salvaging began.

The food was all still cold to the touch, so we knew that if we got it into proper storage soon, it would still be useable. Juan and I started loading up his back seat and trunk with a seemingly endless amount of gourmet cheeses and frozen dinners and vegetables and fake meats and even some real meat in the form of bacon and chicken nuggets and salmon patties. One or two other people we knew came by, and we let them take as much as they liked since we had no special claim to the food and were happy to share. They only took a little to fill a few coolers they had and left the rest to us. Juan turned on the air conditioner of his car to help keep the food cool, and then he drove around to the front of the shopping center that the Co-op is a part of.

At this point, we needed some hardware. We had power, but we didn’t have any way to preserve all of this food. So Aur bought a deep-freezer from the neighboring True Value. They apparently thought he was crazy at first for buying appliances in the middle of a power outage, but once he explained the situation to them, they were happy to sell him the deep-freezer and load it onto his truck. We also went to Juan’s family to borrow (or buy?) an empty deep-freezer that they weren’t currently using.

By the time we made it home, the bed of Aur’s truck was filled with a full deep-freezer, an empty deep-freezer, and a pile of frozen foods. Juan’s car had a trunk full of frozen foods, a front passenger seat full of cheeses, and back seats full of cheeses and a few spare tires.

What an odd sight it must have been! I rode with Aur, and we got a few curious looks as we drove through town with two deep-freezers in the bed of the truck, one of them overflowing with food. Soon, though, we made it home and started shuffling around the food and freezers to their newfound homes.

With that story told, I will draw this entry to a close. Shortly after I arrived home from the food run, I headed out to Carterville with a friend, so it seems like a good place to end this chapter of the story. But it will take me one or two more entries to finish the story, so I’m sure I’ll have more to write soon.

As I write this, it’s almost noon and my train is departing the Champaign-Urbana stop. As I walked the streets of Carbondale after dark last night, most of the city seemed to have electricity restored, but there were still some sections with power lines down, and much of the city was still filled with logs and trunks and branches that lined or occasionally still blocked the city streets. I don’t know the full status of Carterville, Murphysboro, Herrin, Marion, or any outlying areas, but last I heard they were all still partially or entirely out of power.

And so, as I ride north to Chicago to visit my family, my thoughts and prayers are with my friends and neighbors who are still without power or full access to their city streets. And my thoughts and prayers are also with the land itself, which has been irrevocably changed by the loss of untold thousands of old trees and the disturbance of what little ecological balance existed in the region. The people and the land will recover, of course; I have no doubt of that. But since this storm did so much to stir up the details of our lives, I wish them all the best in staying in touch with their loved ones and seeking out a new equilibrium in the wake of the storm.

Posted in Uncategorized

The Imbalance Grows Stronger

There’s no way to capture in words what Southern Illinios has been like during and after the massive storm that just battered the region. I don’t want to overplay the significance of it since I realize that it could have been much worse, and other places have experienced much worse. But since it’s been an exciting couple of days, I thought the least I could do was tell the story of my own experiences.

For me, I suppose the story starts last Wednesday night. I was inexplicably restless and hyperactive that night and stayed up until almost dawn on Thursday — which happens to me from time to time, so I didn’t think much of it at the time. After talking to friends, though, I think it may have been due to a sense of realizing that something big was coming.
Ironically enough, what I occupied my time with on that night was climate-related, if only in a geeky way. I found my copy of the Ultima Collection and decided to play Ultima 7 Part II: Serpent Isle. The major plotline of this game involves a world out of balance and a land ravaged by powerful magical storms which threaten to tear apart the fabric of reality unless balance is restored.
So, after playing this for a few hours, I went to be a little before dawn and tried to get a good “night’s” sleep.
The first signs of stormy weather came late Thursday night, perhaps technically early Friday morning. I was at a friend’s house, and the sound of sudden hail hitting the building and ground outside reminded me of the sound of a popcorn popper. We saw the sky light up green with a lightning flash, then many more “ordinary” yellow-ish and grey-ish flashes as the region was pelted with hail. My friend went a few feet outside to pick up some hail to show us, and we all poked our heads out a little bit just to see it fall.
After another night’s sleep, it was time for my radio show. I hadn’t read the forecast for the day, but I’ve heard that there was nothing in the early morning to indicate the strength of the coming storm. I’m pretty sure that the severe weather alert sounded at WDBX shortly after my show (before I left the building), but even then it wasn’t clear that this would be more than just the usual heavy thunderstorm.
During the first half of the storm, I actually went outside and walked and sang and danced a bit in the falling rain. The occasional thunder was loud and powerful enough to fill me with a sense of awe, and I could feel the energy of the storm all around me. In the heat of the moment, I called on the wind and rain and thunder to humble us with their power and intensity and ferocious beauty.
In retrospect, that may not have been the best idea.
As I made my way home, the weather grew very calm. I noticed how stark of a contrast this was from the previous moments of intense wind and thunder, but for a moment it didn’t occur to me that this was the “calm before the storm” — or at least the calm before the REAL storm. As soon as it started picking back up though, I could tell that we were in for trouble.
The winds started picking up, and I was at home with two of my roommates and a third person who had come to look at the plumbing. As the first tree limb was torn loose in our backyard, we actually went outside to marvel at the intensity of the storm and talk about the fact that the branch fell just short of someone’s truck.
But unlike in any other storm I’ve experienced, the winds just kept picking up. More debris started falling from the trees, and the winds rose to a violent crescendo. My two roommates Aur and Juan decided that they wanted to move Juan’s car and go somewhere else to ride out the storm. I told them that they were crazy, but the storm had all of us excited, and there was no dissuading them.
Just as they were starting to back out of the driveway, we had one of the most intense wind gusts of the entire storm. I was standing in my living room looking out through the front door, and I glanced out the side window just in time to see the largest tree in our yard — a massive tree far older than I am — ripped free of the ground and pushed to the ground in the direction of my friends and their car.
For a moment, I was simply stunned. There was nothing I could do, even if I’d had the time to get out the door and get to the car. Instead, I watched as the crown of the tree landed right on top of their vehicle, obscuring most of it behind leaves and branches.
Once I was sure that the tree had stopped falling and nothing else was going to domino down onto my head, I hurried outside to see if they were okay. For a moment, I wondered if anyone was trapped in that car, and if I’d have to be dragging them out to safety. Luckily, the tree had been partially deflected by hitting my friend Aur’s van, and Juan’s car had actually received very little damage. It looked pretty serious having the fallen treetop obscure most of the car, but in reality the car and its occupants were fine. Juan got out of the driver’s side before I even reached the car, and Aur emerged from a tangle of leaves and branches on the passenger side a moment later.
After that, there was no denying the seriousness of this storm!
The entire storm — or at least the intense portion after the calm of the storm — must have lasted only twenty or twenty-five minutes. And yet, the results were like nothing I had experienced firsthand.
As the storm died down, it wasn’t long at all before the rain stopped, the winds were quiet, and the sun started to emerge. Dozens of neighbors emerged from neighboring buildings and eventually from surrounding areas as people wandered around on foot and in vehicles to look at the damage and do whatever else they had to do for the day. The tree that fell on Juan’s car had landed perpendicular to the road and extended well onto the other side of the street to form a massive green roadblock. This was one of the most dramatic scenes in the immediate area, so a few dozen people stopped to look at it, many of them (myself included) pulling out cell phones to take pictures.
For a few moments, we were just a bit dazed, marvelling aloud at the power of the storm. We realized that Juan’s car would be stuck for at least a little while, so Aur and Juan headed out by truck, and I stayed at home. Surprisingly, the house itself incurred very little damage, even with several trees and treetops being tossed around like dominoes.
Once it was clear that my house and my friends were okay, I soon became restless. I was alone now, and I didn’t have any tools or a vehicle. But I decided to roam the neighborhood by foot — “looking for trouble” as I later put it. That is, after all, what my experiences as an activist and my fondness for role-playing adventurous characters had taught me to do.
At first, I was honestly of very little help to anyone, but the span of the storm’s impact started becoming clearer to me.
The biggest damage on my block was a small house that had been crushed almost entirely by a tree. There were a few people milling about, so I asked them if they lived in the house in question. It turned out that they knew the people there, but nobody was home at the time, which was a relief to hear. Then, I moved on to one of the most visually stunning bits of damage I’ve yet to see here in Carbondale.
Over on Wall Street, an apartment building had some or all of its metal roof sheered entirely clear of the building. The entire roof had been flung into the neighboring power lines, tangling all around them and pulling a few of the poles to lean precariously into the street. The end result was a large segment of sheet metal suspended in the middle of the road by a tangle of power lines and poles, surrounded by bits of debris and fallen power lines.
I can only imagine what it must have been like to watch that happen!
By the time I got there, the Carbondale Police had a few officers on the scene — a couple to direct traffic, and one to stand by the sidewalk in a certain spot and direct people not to walk over power lines and debris that had fallen on the sidewalk. That may sound a bit silly — people have common sense, right? But you’d be surprised… they had to advise several people not to take shortcuts under the power lines dangling overhead or across the power lines on the ground. I even got in on the act at that point and pointed out to a couple of people that standing under those lines was a bad idea. They seemed to be holding steady in their newly mangled configuration… but why tempt fate?
I wandered in and around my own neighborhood, but there wasn’t much to help with. In most places, the small debris had either not been a problem or had already been cleared, and I had no power to clear the large debris. So, I mostly just wandered and asked the occasional person if they needed help clearing out anything.
Then, I finally started being mildly productive. With the help of a passer-by, I cleared a bit of debris off of Wall Street — mostly a moot point since a big chunk of Wall was impassable, but that portion was seeing occasional use and I figured it was worth it even if it improved the rapidly-forming traffic only by a fraction.
As I made my way west along East College, I started to see entire segments of road in that neighborhood blocked by trees. You could still get around, mostly, as long as you weren’t in one of the cut off segments. But it did create chaos, especially since they were routing traffic two ways down the normally one-way street.
This is the point at which I first began to feel mildly productive. I came across a pile of fallen branches on the side of the street right around the corner of East College and Marion. On any other day, this pile would have been no big deal since there was still plenty of room for a single vehicle to get around it. But since there was a growing amount of two-way traffic, it had become one of several choke points on the road.
It only took a minute or two to move the light branches and other windsept debris out of the street. As soon as I did, trafic was indeed able to take up two lanes at that spot. I felt encouraged by this small act — and since it seemed like there was little more I could do in my own neighborhood, I decided to move westward.
The intersection by the underpass is a strange place even on a good day. University Ave, Illinois Ave, and Mill St all intersect in a complex mish-mash that seems a bit out of place even when the trafic lights are working. To my surprise, all of the traffic lights were out, and there was no one there to direct traffic.
For a moment, I was tempted to try to direct traffic myself. But I quickly realized that this was one of those whimsical ideas I get sometimes rather than anything practical. Most people were just treating the entire mess as a giant stop sign — and while the complexity of it all lead to some confusion about whose turn it was to go when, it seemed like people were avoiding accidents by exercising appropriate levels of caution. So, I paused a moment to marvel at the site of it and just kept walking.
Soon, I found myself at the one big patch of debris where I feel like I really made a difference. Just a foot or two south of the intersection of West College and University, there was a substantial pile of broken tree limbs. This pile was covering an entire lane of traffic as well as the parking spot next to the curb. There were a couple of long and heavy lengths of wood which I simply couldn’t move alone, but there were also a lot of smaller branches and loose clumps of leaves.
As soon as I saw this pile, I knew that I had to work on it. University is one of the major streets in town, and this sort of bottleneck was the sort of thing that could slow down traffic for a big chunk of the city. So, I started pulling away the smaller branches. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to move the larger branches, but I focused on what I could do, and hoped that other people would notice and come to my aid.
And come to my aid they did! At first, there were two people who walked up together and wordlessly joined in the work. By this point, I had cleared away the small amount of debris that was actually leaning into the passable lane and cleared a bit out of the blocked lane. But together, we were able to clear about a third of the blocked lane — and more toward the north end of it, which helped people turning from College onto University.
At this point, though, we started to reach an impass. We had moved some of the biggest lengths of trunk, but couldn’t get them out of the way entirely. One of the other volunteers invited a group of young men who were passing by to help us, but they apparently had better things to do as they casually strolled off to destinations unknown. And so, it seemed like the work to finish clearing the roadblock was going to be either slow and gruelling or simply not possible.
And then, I looked up and saw Charlie Howe walking our way with chainsaw in hand, ready to get to work.
I think I actually laughed out loud at the sight of him and his unexpected aid. I said that he was just the man we’d been looking for, and he set to work sawing the fallen trunks into smaller chunks that we could haul to the curb. After moving a few of these chunks out of the way, I focused more on the small debris — both because it suited my relatively poor upper body strength, and because it made the lane visibly clearer so that drivers would know they could drive over it.
With Charlie’s help, we made quick work of the blockade and finished clearing the lane — a task that probably would have been impossible without him, or without a few more strong bodies to lift that heavy length of trunk. Traffic on that part of University expanded to fill both lanes, and we decided to move on.
Charlie told me that he was on his way to the Interfaith Center to help clear away some fallen trees over there. He didn’t have room for me in his truck, though, so I told him I’d meet him over there.
And for now, I’ll leave off with that. I did have a few more adventures later in the day, but I’ll leave the telling of that for later. In the meantime, it’s early in the morning after the storm, and I don’t want to waste too much time or electricity writing this entry. So, I’ll leave it at that for now, and I’ll be sure to share more soon.
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On Marriage and Civil Unions

Up until recently, I’ve been content to express my views on same-sex marriage in one-on-one conversations and occasional posts to chatrooms and social networking sites. However, in light of the renewed onslaught against the rights and dignity of GLBT couples, I feel compelled to speak publicly on the subject.

First, I will respond to the latest bit of propaganda by methodically refuting its key arguments. Then, I will present my own solution to the conflict — which, while not at all original, is often overlooked and should satisfy reasonable individuals on all sides of the debate.

So… a group called National Organization for Marriage has started pushing a TV commercial called “A Gathering Storm.” Of course, NOM isn’t the only group pushing this so-called “religious freedom” agenda. But their arguments are pretty typical, and they have appointed themselves as champions of the cause, so I will make them the target of my rhetorical wrath.

I’m not going to link to the commercial because I don’t want to boost their popularity in search engines. But it should be easy enough to find on your own. If you haven’t watched it yet, go ahead and watch it now to ensure that you know what I’m talking about.

We could have a whole nother debate about the level of fear presented in this piece of propaganda, and how much of that is genuine fear versus cool calculating propaganda intended to make the viewer afraid. But for now, let’s take it at face value. Let’s assume that someone is raising genuine concerns over the implications that same-sex marriage has for people who are religiously opposed to it. Let’s examine these concerns and reply appropriately.

Concern 1: Doctors and Faith. Apparently, a doctor was told that she could not legally refuse to perform an artificial insemination treatment simply because the patient was a lesbian. This was ruled to be a form of descrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

First of all, this concern is wholly unrelated to the same-sex marriage debate. The anti-discrimination law would apply regardless of whether her state had same-sex marriage.

Second, this doctor may indeed need to make a choice between her profession and her faith if her faith prohibits working professionally with GLBT patients. As a doctor, her profession serves the general public — and all professions which serve the general public must be ready to serve all members of that public regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, etc.

Her faith-based denial may seem innocuous enough in a fertility clinic — but what happens when I’m in an emergency room and she wants to deny me life-saving treatment because I’m a bisexual? Or because I’m a Pagan for that matter.

The point here is that if you are a doctor, you are a doctor. If you don’t want to inseminate lesbians, don’t work in a fertility clinic. If you don’t want to perform abortions, don’t work in an abortion clinic. If you don’t want to operate on gays or non-Christians or whatnot in the emergency room… well, maybe you should have been a divinities or religious studies major instead of a doctor.

Concern 2: Non-Profit Status. Apparently, a church group in New Jersey refused to rent out their beachside pavilion to a same-sex couple for their civil union ceremony. Because of this, the pavilion’s tax-exempt status was revoked.

This is a contentious case. This case is probably the most reasonable argument put forward by the people at NOM and elsewhere. But ultimately, it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

First of all, this pavilion was operated as a public business. Its filing status and long history clearly indicated that it was a public venue rented out for a wide variety of civic and secular purposes. Its net proceeds [“profits”] may have gone to a religious non-profit, but it was open for business to the general public. Therefore, it is bound by anti-discrimination laws, just as a restaurant, movie theatre, or other business would be.

Second… revoking an organization’s tax exemption does not equate to revoking religious freedom. Only organizations which in some way serve the general public are granted exemptions from public taxes. If a church group or other religious organization wants to exclude entire identity groups from their rituals or services, they are free to do so. However, this classifies them as a private rather than public organization, and this may affect their tax exempt status accordingly.

Really, I think it’s weird that ANY churches or other purely religious organizations have tax exempt status. Tax exempt status is meant to reward organizations for serving the general public. It’s basically a way of “paying” the organization for filling a social or economic need that would otherwise be filled by public services.

But that’s another issue. If we assume that we’re going to give tax exemptions to religious organizations, then this exemption must surely be limited to their purely religious activities. It should not include economic activities which they conduct in a discriminatory manner.

Concern 3: Public Schools. Some public schools, including elementary schools, teach tolerance towards GLBT people and lifestyles. Some parents feel that this violates their right to educate their children as they see fit.

First of all, most if not all states allow home schooling. It’s more difficult in some states than in others, but to my knowledge, it’s not illegal in any state.

Second, the education provided in public schools is intended to prepare students for public life. Currently, we live in a society where GLBT individuals and lifestyles are in fact allowed to exist in the public sphere and are protected by anti-discrimination laws. Therefore, public schools *should* teach children to be tolerant of the GLBT community in the public sphere.

If you as a parent believe that homosexuality is sinful, evil, destructive to society, etc., then you can teach that to your children when they come home. You can also teach them that you believe that the laws should be changed and homosexuals should be forced back into the closet. In fact, it may even make sense to teach in public schools that some religious traditions oppose homosexuality entirely. This is important information for people to know, after all.

But ultimately, a public school is a public institution, and as such it should be teaching children how to function within the public sphere. And in the public sphere, people are not allowed to discriminate against other people on the basis of their sexual orientation. If you want to teach bigotry to your children, you’re going to have to do it on your own time, and on your own dime, not on the time and dime of the public school system.

So… those are three of the major concerns in this movement to oppose same-sex marriages. Now, allow me to propose a solution to this cultural conflict which, in theory, all sides should be able to live with. I didn’t come up with this proposal, but it’s a good one, so I’ve adopted it as my own and share it whenever I can.

The short version: Government has no place in defining marriage. Instead, government should define civil unions and leave the question of marriage in the hands of religious communities.

Now, a few words on the details…

Some religious people seem genuinely afraid that the government will start forcing them to alter their principles and practices surrounding deeply religious ceremonies such as marriage. As a deeply religious person myself, this concerns me too.

Therefore, the government should butt out of the marriage question entirely. Anyone who wants to get married — hetero or same-sex — will not have to ask the government for a marriage license. They will simply ask their clergy of choice to perform the ceremony for them, and it will be done. Once they have fulfilled any requirements of their faith, and participated in any ceremonies or rites of their faith, they will be married in the eyes of their faith.

A civil union, on the other hand, is a civic relationship — a contractual relationship that involves sharing of certain public rights and responsibilities such as child custody, property inheritance, power of attorney, and so on. People joined in a civil union are declaring that for all intents and purposes, they should be treated as the closest of kin. This union may be entered into by a heterosexual couple or a same-sex couple. It may even be open to people in certain other intimate relationships, such as platonic life partners [“best friends”] or people who do not wish anyone in their biological family to be their next-of-kin.

By fully separating the concepts of “marriage” and “civil union,” we allow the religious and spiritual aspects of this relationship to be handled by the religious community while the legal and public aspects are handled by public institutions. This way, religious people can oppose or reject whatever forms of marriage they like without interfering with the civil rights and free choices of other citizens.

Do you think same-sex relationships are sinful? Feel free to think that! Feel free to preach it from the pulpit and hand out as many glossy “family values” pamphlets as you like. Feel free to forbid anyone from the GLBT community from participating in your sacraments, including but not limited to marriage.

But allow the GLBT community the same degree of freedom. Let people form churches which do in fact perform same-sex marriages. Let all people, including GLBT people, enter into consensual contractual relationships (civil unions) with their loved ones in which they share their rights and their responsibilities with one another as if they were blood relations.

There you have it.

Questions? Comments? Affirmations? Rebuttals?

As always, you know where to find me.

Posted in Uncategorized

The Culture War

As a poet, a mystic, a romantic, and a revolutionary, I sometimes have a flair for the dramatic. Like a moth drawn to the flame, I often find myself yearning for some grand adventure to keep life interesting. These adventures take many forms: transcendent experiences of the natural world; ecstatic experiences shared with friends and lovers; encountering unknown people and places; championing the causes of freedom and justice and ecological integrity.

Really, though, at the end of the day, I’m a simple soul with simple desires, and not as much wanderlust as it seems. Give me a good roof over my head, good food in my belly, good fields and forests to work and play in, a good lover (or lovers!) to talk and cuddle and make love with, and I’ll be a happy camper. Give me all of these things in a warm community environment, and I’ll be like a hobbit in the Shire, with little cause or desire to go seeking adventure elsewhere.

But alas, Gentle Reader, I have no Shire to retire to. And thus, my heart falls back on the old longing for epic adventures to grant me my sense of a place in the world.

Sadly, the world is all too happy to oblige.

As I find my health and spirits improving, my attention is returning more and more to my place in the world. Who am I? How can I lead a good life among my fellow humans, and what role can I play to serve the common good of my community and the living Earth?

I wish that there were some simple answer to this. But the world is not a simple place — and sadly, the world is facing some complex problems that threaten to put an end not only to our hopes for a better society, but also the continued existence of life as we know it.

That may sound like an exaggeration. But please, hear me out.

The sad reality is that we’re in the midst of a multilateral culture war. Throughout known history, humanity has always been at war with itself, and various factions and empires have always fought for the hearts and minds of the masses. But given the past century or two of technological advances, booming population, and growing global interdependence, we may very well be the first generation of human beings who literally have the power to unite the entire planet under a “New World Order” unlike anything that has ever existed before.

This late in the game, there’s no point in trying to put the genie back in the bottle. Our social, economic, political, psychological, spiritual, and ecological lives have become so intertwined that “globalization” is already mostly in effect. The only question remaining is what enduring principles and/or institutions, if any, will govern the form and essence of this newfound global unification.

And so, humanity’s unfortunate tradition of “Weltanschauungskrieg” — or “Worldview Warfare” — has advanced to a whole new level. This time, given our mixed blessing of enormous creative and destructive power, the fate of an entire world is at stake.

As far as I can tell, there are at least three major players in the current struggle for the hearts and minds of the people of the world. Since I live in the U.S., and since the U.S. is such a powerful force in the world right now, I’ll focus on how these three cultural factions operate here in U.S. society.

These broad alliances are difficult to define at times, but for the sake of argument, I’ll refer to them as the Dominionists, the Secular Humanists, and the Economic Elites.

The Dominionists are the ones who really got me thinking about Worldview Warfare. They openly embrace the concept of a Culture War. They believe that their God is the only and only God; that Jesus Christ is the savior of all humanity; that God has commanded them to live a socially conservative lifestyle; and that God has commanded them to claim dominion over the public sphere so that the world will belong to Jesus upon his immanent return.

These people played a major role in bringing Bush to power. These are also the people who are for the most part winning in their war against gay marriage and threatening to make advances in their war against any degree of reproductive choice for women. They have quite openly and quite literally declared war on Secular Humanism and anything resembling it, and they have the backing of a good number of wealthy social conservatives plus a large base of poorer “grassroots” social conservatives.

The Secular Humanists are the group who I most identify with. Personally, I’m not secular at all; in fact, I’m a Wiccan Priest. But I do believe that public institutions should adopt principles and practices somewhat along the lines of secular humanist thinking. Therefore, I consider myself an ally of this movement.

The Secular Humanists believe in critical rational and empirical thinking; individual rights and the pursuit of personal and social fulfillment; embracing this life rather than anything that may or may not exist before or after it; ethical systems that are intended to improve the human condition; and the idea that the human condition can, in fact, be improved by individual and group choices.

These are the people who fight for human rights, social justice, environmental justice, and the separation of Church and State rather than their union.

Last, but certainly not least, we have the Economic Elites. This is the numerically smallest movement, but arguably the most politically powerful due to their vast amounts of privately held wealth and positions of economic and political authority.

Some of them, perhaps even a majority of them, fancy themselves to be the entrepreneurial engineers of a bright new future for the rest of humanity. These men (and most ARE men) seek to create a New World Order in which a small number of intelligent, educated, monied elites set social and economic policy for the otherwise bumbling masses.

Of course, in order to make an omelette, you’ve got to break a few eggs. Or perhaps a few thousand. Or perhaps a few MILLION. But in the end, the important thing is that you’ve created a New World Order, right? And if you happen to get filthy rich along the way… well, that’s just your burden to bear.

If this were all a fanciful work of fiction, I’m sure I’d find it quite entertaining to watch these three factions duke it out in their respective quests for empire. Sadly, though, this is not a work of fiction — and the lives at stake are real.

If we don’t act now — and quickly — our collective inaction may result in the death and suffering of millions in our name. Perhaps worst of all, the fabric of life as we know it may be torn asunder by the ravages of climate change, peak oil, deforestation, pollution, and perpetual war. It’s hard to wrap our tiny monkey-sized minds around the fact that our actions may eventually result in the death of most megaflora and megafauna on this planet… but at the rate we’re going, it’s a realistic possibility.

So, what do we do?

Personally, I’d like to wash my hands of the whole ugly mess. I’d like to forget about any thoughts of “epic adventure” and run away to hide somewhere far away from all of it.

But there’s really nowhere to hide, is there? And even if there were, could I ever be happy there knowing that I had done nothing in the face of such madness?

Given the possible consequences of inaction, I feel drawn to do SOMETHING. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far.

As I see it, the key to success here is for each of us to take creative, direct, productive actions which serve to advance both our personal empowerment and the advancement of our worldview. In this way, our success as individuals and communities becomes mingled with the success of principles and practices that we believe will make the world a better place. Over time, our greater successes will allow us to form a more specific and comprehensive group strategy for creating ever-greater amounts of freedom and social cooperation and ecological health and integrity.

When I think of the problem in broad, impersonal, external terms of warring worldviews, heartless elites, billions of lives beings shuffled about like so many pawns on a chessboard, it all seems to overwhelming. But when I think of it in specific, personal, internal terms of actions I can take to improve my lot in life while also advancing a good cause, it all becomes clear. That frenzied restlessness transforms into an urgent laser-like focus, and I do what I can to change the world.

Of course, it’s extremely unlikely that the actions of any one lone individual will decide the fate of the entire culture war. But through our combined efforts, we have the power to change the course of history for the better.

Ever since I lost my job in April, I’ve been searching for ways to transform this time in my life from a crisis into an opportunity. After a month or two of job-searching and soul-searching, it’s finally starting to take shape.

It’s going to take time and effort, but it’s starting to look like I may in fact be able to make a living while serving my community and my planet. I can teach environmental and spiritual workshops; I can do web design for a renewable energy company; I can work on getting more of my writing published and establishing myself in Southern Illinois and beyond as an author and public speaker. All of these projects can earn me some amount of income, and all of these projects can in their own small way advance the cause of social justice and ecological health.

The long-term details aren’t clear yet, but this is a good start. If I can pull this off, I’ll have made the quantum leap from the life of a wage slave to a life of self-employment. Even if this leaves me in the poor house for a while, it could be the start of many new adventures in social and ecological advocacy and activism.

So, that’s what I plan on doing. How about you? If you’ve read this far, we probably share at least some values in common and have some common goals that we can work towards together. Therefore, I’d be happy to hear how your adventure is going, and what your plans are for the future.

Together, we can make the world a better place.

Posted in Uncategorized
My name is Treesong. I'm a father, author, talk radio host, and Real Life Superhero. I live in Carbondale, Southern Illinois. I write novels, short stories, and poetry, mostly about the climate.

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