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Archive for March, 2010

I always thought it oddly funny that we refer to the different Christian religions as ‘denominations’ because that’s the same word we use when we talk about money. In all honesty, if I had a choice, I’d choose the denominations that include $100s, $50s, $20s, etc. over the denominations that include Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, etc.

But when you think about it, the term ‘denomination’ aptly fits both religion and money, and I would bet each of the denominations (Christian religions, that is) would all think they were a C-note and the other religions were merely sawbucks or fins.

And while that might seem to be a politically incorrect thing to say since we are living in such a tolerant time period, I believe there is some truth to it. I say this because my gut sometimes tells me that religious tolerance sometimes only pays lip service to other religions. I mean, how can one religion with strict dogmas and doctrines actually ‘tolerate’ another religion with sometimes diametrically opposite dogmas and doctrines?

I guess it all depends upon you definition of toleration, a word, in my opinion, with two very different definitions. On the one hand it means “to put up with; endure,” and on the other hand it means “to recognize and respect the rights, beliefs or practices of others.”

When people of one denomination “endure” the practices and beliefs of an other denomination, is that a good thing? I was raised in a time when it wasn’t always good to tolerate things. In fact there were certain things, especially behaviors, you weren’t supposed to tolerate under any circumstances, e.g. bad manners, gross behavior and disrespect. It didn’t matter if someone’s belief system allowed bad manners.

I think Dorothy illustrated this on the YBR more than once. She was not about to put up with (tolerate) the Lion’s bad behavior when they first met and she was not going to endure the Wizard’s flim-flammery.

I certainly recognize and respect the rights, beliefs and practices of people of other denominations, and that includes those religions not normally included in the traditional denomination set. (I guess Judaism, Buddhism, Unitarians, etc. use foreign denominations.)

In my mind, belonging to a particular denomination, whether it be US currency, the Euro or the Yen, is a lot like having a library card, only your library card can only be used at certain libraries where the collection of books available is limited and exclusive. You can’t use your library card at another library and you can’t check out any of their books.

I much prefer a bookstore because I can browse the aisles and pick and choose books without any limits on what I can or can’t read.  And because I’ve been in the habit of visiting ‘bookstores’, I’ve come to not only “recognize and respect the rights, beliefs and practices” of other religions, but also to appreciate them for what they all have, or should have, in common – a YBR that champions the dignity of all people…regardless of ANYTHING.

There’s no room for exclusivity on the YBR. Dorothy didn’t ask the Scarecrow about his sexual preference, the Tin Man about his religious persuasion, or the Lion about his politics. She understood that they were all looking for something, as she was, and they all went looking for it together.

To Oz? To Oz! Together.  And leave the denominations and the baggage they come with home because you can leave home without them.

P.S. – I wonder. Do Catholic bishops and cardinals say “there’s no place like Rome”?

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From the Baltimore Catechism

Some learned man once wrote that what we believe as adults about God and religion was learned at an age when we lacked discernment and therefore formed a less-than solid belief foundation.  Arguably, I have to agree with him. And his concept goes beyond God and religion. It refers to any of the beliefs we cling to as adults.

The little lessons we learn as children are often ‘imposed’ on us by adults who sometimes have no idea what they are talking about; have an agenda; or are just passing along something they learned as children. And while not everything passed along to us by adults as children is bloated with inaccuracies, it seems that much of what we learn about God and religion is.  Because we learn these things during our formative years and because we rarely ever scrutinize what we have learned, we have no choice but to use old and untested information when we’re adults.

When I was a kid in a public elementary school we said the “Lord’s Prayer” at every assembly. I was taught the “Catholic” version of the prayer which comes to an ‘amen’ after “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  The Protestant kids kept talking after the “Catholic amen” and added: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever.

I can remember how every Catholic kid in the auditorium would suffer temporary lockjaw, making sure they didn’t utter those “Protestant” words.  And when we, i.e. Catholic kids stopped praying, the Protestant kids looked at us like we were heathens.

Back then there was this other little Catholic practice of making the sign of the cross when you drove past a Catholic church. I was in a car with a cousin once and she blessed herself as we drove by a church. When I told her that it was a Lutheran church, she actually “unblessed” herself.

The things we learn as kids…we often carry with us as adults. And that’s the rub.

As young as I was, I was exposed to the idea of not only other religions being different, but other religions being questionable, i.e. wrong.

And I should add, back in those some assembly required prayer-in-public-school days, no one gave a hoot for the Jewish kids!  (I think back then, people only came in three flavors of religion: Catholic (vanilla), Protestant (chocolate) and Jewish (strawberry).

Back then, little did I know that chocolate was actually more than one flavor (Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, etc.) I also never gave a second thought to those real foreign religions like Buddhism, Hinduism (which is actually not a religion), etc.

My entire religious foundation was built on flimsy Popsicle sticks. Everything I came to believe about God and religion was based on paper-thin theology confounded by the Baltimore Catechism, the training manual for all Catholics. The Baltimore Catechism was basically a FAQ for kids. It was to be memorized, never questioned or challenged. Here’s how it went:

Q. Who made the world?
A.  God made the world.

Q. Who is God?

A. God is the Creator of heaven and earth and of all things.

Q. What is man?
A. Man is a creature composed of body and soul, and made to the image and likeness of God.

Q. Why did God make you?

A. God made me to love Him, to love Him and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy  with Him for ever in heaven.

Q. How shall we know the things  which we are to believe?

A. We shall know the things which we are to believe through the Catholic Church through which God speaks to us.

Pay attention to the last question. The answer is how you distinguished between Catholics and non-Catholics (when I was a kid that’s how the world was divided). Consider the Catholic whose learning curve stopped with the Baltimore Catechism. Is it really a foundation strong enough to support and adult belief system?

I don’t think so. And while I was subjected to Catechism classes until eighth grade, I attended a Catholic high school. And let me tell you, I was swimming upstream wearing metal boots in my religion class. Most of the kids in my class were the product of eight years of Catholic education. They had earned their Ph. D. in catechism. I didn’t even have a GED.

But here’s the thing. Did four years of high school religion make me or any of my classmates better Catholics, let alone people? I don’t think so. Just because you know a lot of ‘stuff’ doesn’t make you a wise or learned person. I mean, just because you know a lot about American history doesn’t make you a good American.

The only thing any intensive one-dimensional/one-sided learning base teaches you is difference, not toleration and definitely not compassion, empathy or understanding. In fact, all that kind of learning emphasizes exclusivity, as in “we are this (and therefore better and right) and they are not (and therefore less and wrong).

And on a closing note, what is a Catholic (or an American) actually mean? If the meaning only ‘means’ identifying our differences and ‘believing’ we are superior, it means less than nothing.

Different is different. Not better. Not worse. Just different.

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Did you ever misplace your car keys, forget where you parked the car at the mall or gone upstairs to put something away only to have left it downstairs?  It happens to all of us.

I sometimes think we forgot where we put God on the YBR, and when we go looking for God* we go looking for God in all the wrong places. And sometimes we never find God because we either really never lost God in the first place or we never really figured out who God was (and what God meant to us) to begin with.

Sometimes I think we were far too young to be taught about God when we were taught about God. Instead of discovery, God is imposed on us, and because God is imposed we never have the chance to come to really embrace what God might be all about.

How many of us have ever thought back to when we were first introduced to God? How the idea of God developed and grew in us?  How many of us also confused God with religion?  (They are not necessarily mutually inclusive – or are they mutually exclusive. It all depends…on a lot of things.)

Supposedly I was born a Catholic, a notion I’ve come to consider a bit ridiculous since I don’t believe people are born anything other than born a person. But, being ‘born a Catholic’ obligated me to a path that perhaps was not meant for me. Being ‘born a Catholic’ made me a member of a group who were united by a certain belief structure that was initially imposed on them, and usually without question.

I ‘was a Catholic’ because my birth mother was a Catholic and my birth father was….very Catholic; because I was place in a Catholic orphanage that would only place babies in their care in a ‘Catholic home’; and that’s the kind of home my adoptive parents had.

I was baptized a Catholic (like being given a library card only good at certain libraries and only good for taking out only certain books).

I was introduced to God through Catholicism. And since I had nothing to compare it to, I thought God must have been a Catholic, too.

My parents and relatives mistook my reserved personality and good manners as a sign that I was destined for the priesthood. If the truth be known, as a young child I lacked any personality and I might have been well-mannered because I thought if I misbehaved I would be sent packing back to the orphanage.

But because those around me believed I was being ‘called,’ I was treated differently. For birthdays and Christmas, instead of getting toys, I often received religious statues. It got to the point that the top of my bedroom dresser looked like the Vatican or the back lot of a Hollywood religious epic.

My first communion was viewed as a mini-ordination. The reality was something very different. I lived in dread of my communion day because I have a very sensitive gag reflex. (When I’d go to the doctor for a check-up, I’d begin to gag when the doctor removed the paper off the tongue depressor.) Since I received my first communion in the Middle Ages when chewing the host was a one-way ticket to hell, I feared what would happen if I gagged on the host.

As I marched up to the altar to receive communion, my mouth turned into a parched desert. (I swear I could taste tumble weed in my mouth.) And I guess because I had my teeth clenched, a vacuum formed inside my mouth. This vacuum, coupled with the desert conditions, created the worst environment for the host. No sooner was it placed on my tongue when it jumped to the roof of my mouth, clinging there with a vice-like grip.

I began to gag. I wanted to chew the host, but I feared blood would pour out of my mouth all over my white communion suit. I couldn’t touch the host with my tongue. All I could do was gag. I couldn’t stand it. So I spit it out. Or I should say, the host flew out of my mouth with the speed of a stealth bomber. It crash landed on the back of a kid about five rows in front of me. The nun who witnessed my communion launch sprang into action, retrieving the holy satellite and performing a number of actions that I no longer remember.

After the ceremony my parents asked me what all the confusion was. I told them I was the confusion. I’ll never forget the stunned looks on their faces.  A week later I was enrolled in remedial communion class. I graduated magna cum communion.

And that’s where my journey for God began on the YBR.

(I refuse to use the word him when referring to God, and not because I want to be politically correct. It’s just that once we apply a gender to God, we reduce God to something …human.)

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Whether you are familiar with Oz the book or Oz the movie, you might have noticed that Dorothy and her traveling trio (and Toto, too) never come upon a single place of worship, be it a church, synagogue, mosque temple, etc.  Additionally, there is never a mention of God or god. And while one might conclude that Oz was a godless place, I believe they would be wrong.

Author Baum did not infuse his wonderful story with religion, as in a recognized organized religion, primarily because it really didn’t belong in it. There was also another reason. Baum was an avowed Theosophist. And what is Theosophy? Theosophy holds that all religions are attempts by the “Spiritual Hierarchy” to help humanity in evolving to greater perfection, and that each religion therefore has a portion of the truth.

Get that? Baum subscribed to the theory that “each’ religion has “a portion of the truth.”  However, Baum’s personal religious beliefs notwithstanding, I believe that he was not trying to write a story of Theosophical proportions.

Baum wrote a tale. And as with all good tales, it was layered with meanings; some of those meanings floating on or near the surface and others buried at different levels.

Admittedly, I have spent years mining “Oz” and still can’t say that I have discovered all the meanings to be found in it, and that’s because I’m still on the YBR, and if you’re still on the YBR, looking for meaning is essential to living a full life.

You can’t engage in any real journey of discovery on our YBR if you avoid talking about God and religion. And while most of us were raised to avoid talking about God and religion in mixed company (and by mixed company I mean people of different religious persuasions).

While I might be going out the proverbial limb by bringing God and religion into my YBR ‘blagh,’ I “let me at that limb.”

For a number of consecutive posts, I want to talk about God and religion on the YBR. I have no agenda, no axe to grind and in no way will engage in any proselytizing. Conversion is out of the question because I have nothing to convert you to.

People familiar with Bill Maher’s “Religulous” should know up front that I have no intention of being flip, cynical or pompous.  That does not mean, however, that I won’t challenge and question some of our notions of God and religion.

Fasten your seat belts. We might be in for a bumpy ride.

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Yesterday’s ‘blagh’ on Sara Josephine Baker barely scratched the surface of one of the most admirable women of the 20th Century. And while I highlighted a few of her accomplishments, there was one thing I left out on purpose because I believe her insight into one of the most basic human needs impacts our journey on the YBR.

At the beginning of her career, Sara spent many hours working in Manhattan orphanages. She became one of the first to promote a theory on the importance of human contact with infants. Or to put it better, the importance of the bond between a mother and her baby.

But because the infant was without the benefit of a mother, and because there were so many infants left in the care of orphanages, the likelihood of any bond was…unlikely.

Sara declared that the cause of the  high infant mortality rate in orphanages was because the babies weren’t cuddled, weren’t rocked and weren’t kissed. They were left alone…to die.

Once Sara introduced the idea of developing an army of foster mothers whose job was to cuddle, rock and kiss…the infant death rate dropped.

Baum never told us if Dorothy was cuddled, rocked or kissed by Aunt Em. Worse still, we never know anything about her mother and father. (I solved the mystery in my way by creating her parents in my novel Dorothy: This Side of the Rainbow.)

But Dorothy was a fictional character…and we’re not. And while we all take different paths on the YBR, we all begin as helpless infants. The cuddling, rocking and kissing that hopefully were given to us freely, most definitely played an important part in who we were to become. As important as the nourishment we received and as important as the inoculations we got to prevent illness.

Is there a lesson to be learned here? Yes. To those who are just starting families, take every opportunity to smother your babies with kisses, to hold them close, to rock them, to cuddle with them. And don’t let it stop. Continue it, even though you might have to modify the way you show your affection.

To those of us who might never have had the right dose of affection as infants, we can’t go back in time. But those of us lucky enough to be in a loving relationship, have children and have grandchildren, can, by giving the love to others, receive it back.

Bereft of this kind of love, our journey on the YBR will be hollow. It doesn’t have to be because love is all around us. We just have to click our heels to feel it.

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Since March is National Women’s History Month, it makes sense for this ‘blagh’ to shed some light on a woman of enormous courage. And while certainly neither a household name nor one that even gets a footnote in school history books, I believe Dorothy would be proud to confer the first “Dorothy Gale Courage Award” to Sara Josephine Baker (1873-1945).

The Poughkeepsie-born Sara Josephine Baker had every intention of enrolling at Vassar College, but after both her father and brother died of typhoid (the result of hospital sewage being discharged into Hudson River drinking water), Sara was inspired to seek a medical degree to fight the many diseases taking the lives of so many young people.

With so few medical schools accepting women, Sara enrolled in the New York Infirmary College (founded by the Blackwell sisters). After getting her degree and qualifying to be a medical inspector, Sara began working in the public school system where she was alarmed to see how many deathly ill children were mixing with healthy children. She fought long and hard but finally saw to it that a qualified nurse would be in place in all schools.

Her success in the schools brought Sara her next assignment. A health inspector in Hell’s Kitchen where 4,500 people died…every week (most of the deaths were infants and young children). Among her many accomplishments:

– licensing mid-wives (the first time any standards were ever established)
– created a special baby formula that mothers could mix at home (many young mothers had difficulty breast-feeding).
– established baby milk stations where women could get safe milk or baby formula.
– started “The Little Mother’s League” where older siblings were trained in how to properly care for their baby sisters/brothers.
– designed special infant clothing for warm weather (many infants were dying from heat exhaustion and suffocation) McCall’s Pattern Co. bought the patterns and The Metropolitan Insurance Co bought and distributed 200,000 to policy holders.
– invented a foolproof sanitary solution to prevent accidental blinding of newborns  (all babies routinely received silver nitrate drops to prevent blindness from venereal disease. Unfortunately, the silver nitrate bottles often became contaminated or the solution evaporated leaving behind a dangerously high level of  silver nitrate. Both resulted in blinding the very infants they were trying to protect from blindness). Sara’s solution: beeswax capsules containing enough solution for one eye.

Promoted to head up the Division of Children’s Hygiene, Sara was responsible for saving 82,000 lives between 1908-1923.

Having made a name for herself, in 1916  Sara was asked to  lecture at the New York University Medical School. She agreed on one condition. That she be allowed to enroll in what was a men’s only college. Because the school could not find anyone as qualified as Sara, she was accepted into the school. In 1917 she was the first woman to receive a doctorate in public health from the school. She also established a precedent that forever opened the doors for other women to attend the Medical School.

Her lifetime accomplishments are envious. Her courage to work for others is unquestionably amazing.

By the time Sara died in 1945, over half the babies born in NYC were cared for at the health stations she established.

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The million dollar question on “Who wants to be an Ozinnaire” is: When is Dorothy’s birthday?

Time’s up.  We don’t know. L. Frank Baum never said when Dorothy was born? And in a way, that was a good idea because Dorothy, as Baum created her, was meant to be as ageless as J. M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan.”

However, I think it’s time to celebrate Dorothy’s birthday. And by the power not invested in me, I do hereby declare that today is Dorothy’s birthday.

And while I’m making declarations, let me further proclaim that today is everybody’s birthday. Because it is. We might have one day that we were actually born and a number of times we celebrate that day in time, but on the YBR we have the opportunity to look upon the day at hand as our birthday.

Yesterday is yesterday. Tomorrow, well, that’s the day after today. But today is today. (Credit to Auntie Mame for that piece of philosophy.)

As sophomoric as it might sound, we often fail to see the importance of what a day not only has in store for us, but what we can bring to the day.

From  my reading of Oz, Dorothy looked upon each day as a gift waiting to be opened. (Is that why they call a present a present?).

And the most amazing thing about celebrating your birthday every day is that if a particular day doesn’t go the way we had hoped, tomorrow will be a new today.

Happy Birthday, Dorothy. And to you, too.

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