Friday, October 31, 2008

October Holidays

I've created a quick photograph web page with iPhoto to show scenes of Halloween in our neighborhood, and some other pictures from earlier holidays in October. The page is at: I'm afraid some of the images are quite large.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Quirky Religious Web Pages

About a month ago I was looking for some information on St. Cyricus and St. Julitta, because I was curious about the story behind a painting I saw in the National Catalan Art Museum in Barcelona. I came across an interesting reactionary web site called Tradition in Action. It's an interesting website to explore. I especially liked the movie reviews.

This reminds me of a few religious websites that aren't actually reactionary, but are sorta interesting.  The Tradition in Action website describes martyrdom in a way that I can relate to, as when I was a young and impressionable youth several of my co-religionists went to their deaths for their beliefs, and this has always been a deeply meaningful and powerful fact for me.  I'm thinking now of an interesting website that memorializes the ten women martyrs of Shiraz. The little snapshot biographies you get by clicking on photographs of the women at the bottom of the page are worth reading. Let's see, what else from the Baha'i world?  A person I very much admire, Ahang Rabbani also has a good website for keeping an eye on what's going on in Shiraz these days. Incidently, one of my favorite Baha'i websites is Baha'is online.

Now, back to interesting little religious websites.  I recommend we all become familiar with the Mandaeans (one of the groups of Sabians).  Also, it's worth remembering that the Samaritans aren't just an obscure group out of the Bible, they are still active.  Also, although they haven't been in the news much since the wars in Lebanon in the early-to-mid eighties, the Druze are still around. The Zoroastrians (including the Parsis) remain a force for good in this world, powerful beyond their numbers.  And of course, everyone (who knows about them) loves the peaceful Jains. The Mevlevi Sufi school within Islam is also gaining popularity. 

One thing that really annoys me about some of the textbooks or children's books offering introductions to religion is that they will devote significant space to small (but also worthy of attention) groups like the Rastafarians, but entirely ignore Baha'is, Mandaeans, Samaritans, Druze, Zoroastrians, and Jains (well, the Jain's usually get a mention in the sections on Hinduism, along with the Sikhs). We're all part of this great process of worship and awe and morality and self-discovery that is religion, and the more variety the better.  

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Power of Love

In my human nature course my students collect quotations and aphorisms.  I was extremely impressed with their work, and many of them found especially inspiring quotes.  I want to share one here.  It's one I think I'd seen before years ago when I myself was an undergraduate student taking a course on Gandhi:

Scientists tell us that without the presence of the cohesive force amongst the atoms that comprise this globe of ours, it would crumble to pieces and we cease to exist; and even as there is cohesive force in blind matter, so must there be in all things animate and the name for that cohesive force among animate beings is Love. We notice it between father and son, between brother and sister, friend and friend. But we have to learn to use that force among all that lives, and in the use of it consists our knowledge of God. Where there is love there is life; hatred leads to destruction.
(this is either from Young India of May 5, 1920, page 7, or else from Young India of October 6, 1921, sources differ and I haven't tracked down the original).

The student actually only shared, "where there is love there is life," but I remembered there was more to it than that, so I found the context of the original. 
The quotation certainly reminded me of this one from 'Abdu'l-Baha:

…Love is the mystery of divine revelations! Love is the effulgent manifestation! Love is the spiritual fulfillment! Love is the breath of the Holy Spirit inspired into the human spirit! Love is the cause of the manifestation of the Truth (God) in the phenomenal world! Love is the necessary tie proceeding from the realities of things through divine creation! Love is the means of the most great happiness in both the material and spiritual worlds! Love is a light of guidance in the dark night! Love is the bond between the Creator and the creature in the inner world! Love is the cause of development to every enlightened man! Love is the greatest law in this vast universe of God! Love is the one law which causeth and controleth order among the existing atoms! Love is the universal magnetic power between the planets and stars shining in the lofty firmament!...
 That's taken out of a letter from ‘Abdu’l-Baha to an unidentified American woman in the Bahá'í Community, and first published in 1915 in Tablets of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá Abbas, Volume III, page 525. Available online at

Photos from October

I have been meaning to post a few more photographs from the fall.
There are several here from our visit to my old high school (John Burroughs School) during the homecoming weekend. You can see my friends Jenny Gosnell and Jessica Hahn Goldman. Sebastian and Arthur saw some of my old classrooms. You can see them in the dining hall and the art studio. I like the photograph Sebastian took of Jeri and me standing in a stairway. Mom came to visit a couple times, and there is a good picture of her. Also, we celebrated the birth of the Báb on October 20, and you can see our little rabbit (Snowball) standing in front of the bookshelf with the presents on it.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Weekend visit to western Indiana

Jeri and Sebastian and I went to Vermillion County, Indiana to visit the Wharton family this past weekend (we saw Kris, Amy, Ryan, Josie, Julian, and Korinne Lee). We had a good time. Jeri and I went with Amy and Josie to the Halloween Haunted Happenings trail walk in Danville, Illinois on Saturday night. Amy was doing some makeup for one of the groups, and I took some photographs of the evening.

I've used iPhoto to make a simple webpage about our visit. You can see the photographs here.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Where does the money go?

The recent discussion of the tax policies of the presidential candidates running for office and my recent discovery that I’m being paid half of what I expected for teaching an overload this semester has drawn my attention to our family budget. Jeri was concerned that we were spending too much on our sons’ allowances and not saving enough. I have therefore reviewed our spending and income over the past year, and created a pie chart to show where our money goes. I’m sharing it here.

A few comments about our family finances.
We’re spending much less on health than we have been. We recently finished paying for Sebastian’s braces. While we were paying for his braces our monthly spending on “health” was close to 11% (it took about two years to pay for his braces). In general, I think our family pays a little over 5% for health care and health insurance, but my employer (the State of Illinois through the University of Illinois) pays the equivalent of about 4% of our family income on our health and life insurance as well. Our health care expenses are low because we’re healthy and young.
The big travel segment (nearly 11%) includes recreation and fun. In our family, that mainly means books. We probably spend about 2% of our income on books and magazines. Also, we try to get to Taiwan every couple years to see our family over there, and we must save up for those trips, so about 6% to 7% of our income is saved and spent on trips to Taiwan. If we didn’t have family living abroad this money would let us have better cars, we would eat out in restaurants sometimes, we would give more to charity, and we would save more for retirement or college. But, I think it’s better to allocate money as we do, and visit the relatives in Taiwan every few summers.
Our phone budget is small. We don’t use mobile phones.
Our saving for retirement isn’t much. I am a state worker, and I have not contributed into Social Security enough to earn a Social Security pension when I retire. Also, I am in the self-managed program for State of Illinois employees, which means I won’t get any pension from the State of Illinois. All I have for retirement is the 9%-12% of my income I’ve been saving over the years I’ve worked plus any interest or capital gains realized on those savings (this year there is significant loss, but I still will be working for 20 years or more, so there is time for this to come back).
The tax figure is fairly precise, but I’ve had to estimate sales taxes based on a sample of receipts and a consideration of the tax tables the IRS uses. The property, income, and Medicare taxes are precise, and are adjusted for the refunds we get after turning in our taxes. I think a 12.4% tax rate is too low. I ought to be paying 15% to 17% (I make within a few percentage points of the Illinois state median income for a full-time year-around male worker, and our household is within a percentage-point of the national median household income). It seems to me reasonable that households such as ours, right at the middle of the middle class, at the median, ought to pay about 15% to 17%, and households making significantly more (say, $100,000, which is almost double the median household income) ought to pay more, perhaps 25%, and the top 4% to 5% (those making over $200,000) ought to be paying something like 45% to 50% of their income in various sorts of taxes.
We keep our grocery and food budget pretty low by eating out in restaurants only once or twice a month, and then eating in cheap restaurants. We barter with one local Chinese restaurant, providing help with translation and child-care, and getting free meals in return. We also garden. I think most middle-class families probably spend much more on food and groceries than we do, and 12% is probably more common than the 9% we pay.
Our transportation budget of 6.3% is probably significantly lower than most Americans. I live about 7 miles from my university, so I usually ride my bike or take a bus there, driving there perhaps once a week. My wife only works three days per week, and the schools where she works are closer to our home than my university. We have no car payments, as I drive a 21-year-old car that is in such bad shape I am waiting for it to die and not spending significant money on maintaining it. Jeri drives my grandfather’s car, which we inherited eight years ago. If we had more money we would be saving to buy a new car, either a Prius or a plug-in car (they are supposed to be on the market in a couple years, and it would take us three or four years to save up to buy one). So long as I can ride my bike or take the bus, I really think we could just do with one car, however.
Well, there you have it, an example of how a middle-class American family was allocating its income in 2008.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Lincoln's adolescence and political consciousness

I visited my parents’ home in St. Louis this weekend. I brought the family to visit my old high school, the John Burroughs School. We met some old friends and looked around the campus. Springfield has an excellent elementary school, and the middle school that sits one block away from our home seems good enough, but I’m doubtful of the quality of the high schools, and so I’ve been thinking about whether my sons might be able to attend a school such as Burroughs. It seems unlikely, but I have thought about it.

Anyway, while here in St. Louis I get to look at a book I gave my dad at Christmas. This is Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln edited by Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis. Basically, this is a book that collects the raw material Lincoln’s law partner Billy Herndon collected about Lincoln in the late 1860s right up through the late 1880s. I found the following passage (in which I’ve corrected the spelling and grammar) to be especially interesting.

You wished me to tell you whether children [in the area where the Lincoln’s lived, near Pigeon Creek] around the years 1826 to 1828 had exhibitions [of their talents or abilities in rhetoric and learning]. [This would have been around the time Lincoln was 17-19, the last few years that the Lincolns lived in Indiana, before they moved to Illinois.] I have been studying about it, but I can’t remember whether they had exhibitions or speaking meetings. I think they had. I recollect some of the questions they spoke on: the bee and ant, water and fire; another was which had the most right to complain, the Negroes or the Indians….

This is from Elizabeth Crawford’s letter of 19 April 1866. Elizabeth was about three years older than Lincoln, and in 1826 she had moved to the Pigeon Creek area where her family were close neighbors to the Lincolns. Elizabeth’s husband Josiah sometimes hired Abraham to work for him, and the Crawfords campaigned for Lincoln in the 1860 and 1864 elections.

That last topic for a student exhibition is what caught my eye. Who had the most right to complain? Of course everyone who studies history knows that there was a long tradition of abolitionism. As Lincoln himself demonstrated in his Cooper Union Address in New York (27 February 1860), 21 out of 23 persons who signed the Constitution and also had opportunities to vote on slavery’s extension acted to prevent the spread of slavery (another 16 signed the Constitution, but never voted on questions of slavery’s extension). Lincoln’s father and probably his uncle’s children actually told people that one reason they left Kentucky was that they couldn’t stand living in a place that allowed slavery. I think it’s also pretty well-known that American Indians had well-wishers among the European-Americans. After all, a significant number of European-Americans living on the frontier married American Indians or became friends with them. Some missionaries came to respect and defend Indian Christians. Politicians stood up for Indians as well. The Senators Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, for example, attacked the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

What I hadn’t realized was that as early as the 1820s, popular sentiment among common people, including presumably some school teachers and their older students in Southern Indiana, were so strongly set against the injustices inflicted upon African-Americans and American Indians that in speaking exhibitions students would give comparative and evaluative analysis of the outrages and injustices. It’s possible that the events of 1861-1865 (the War of the Rebellion of the Southern Slaveholders) prompted Elizabeth Crawford to imagine the topics of exhibitions, or to confuse later topics with what she witnessed as a young woman. Even so, I find it interesting that in 1866 a woman, when asked to remember what sort of exhibitions children might have given 40 years earlier, recalled (whether accurately or not) that children considered the question of who had a greater right to complain, the African-Americans or the American Indians.

This reminds me of some oral history in my own family about progressive views of racial questions. My grandmother Nel (1914-2000) used to tell me about her mother, my great-grandmother Ruby (1891-1977) and Ruby's sisters, my grandmother's aunts. Evidently my great-grandmother and her sisters and mother enjoyed singing, and they attended concerts or shows up in Port Townsend, Washington where they lived. My great-grandmother Ruby was particularly fond of one song about a dying African-American child who was so psychologically damaged by racism and prejudices that the child expresses doubts that Heaven will allow a child with dark skin to enter. Evidently Great-Grandma Ruby sang this song often enough that my grandmother had learned it from her, and Nel could sing some of it. I can hardly imagine a more pathetic scene than a child on her deathbed expressing hope of gaining admitance to heaven, but being uncertain whether the European-American types who seem to run this mortal world would also hold sway in Heaven and impose similar racist rules about who could get in. That such a song was performed in the 1890s or 1900s in Washington State is interesting to me. (As an aside, one of the first Americans to settle in what later became Washington State, in the Oregon Territory north of the Columbia River, was the African-American George Washington Bush).

Considering this family history and the popularity of that song made me consider the contributions of radical immigrants from Europe. My great-grandma was a member of the Iffland family, and her father John Iffland (1855-1914) was a political refugee, more or less, who left Germany (in 1883) partly because of his opposition to Bismarck and Bismarck's militarism. The Ifflands were very progressive, or even radical for their day. My great-grandmother and all her sisters graduated from university or college (One of Ruby's older sisters was the first woman in Jefferson County, Washington to graduate from the University of Washington). John Iffland was also a Freethinker. Given such a background, I can well imagine the Iffland girls being sympathetic to the plight of African-Americans and Indians. Indeed, there are stories passed down in oral history and some heirlooms of Indian baskets describing friendships been the Iffland girls and local American-Indians living around on the Olympic Peninsula in the 1890s (probably Makah or "Kwih-dich-chuh-ahtx"). I know also that the progressive German immigrants played a role in other aspects of American history. In St. Louis during the War of the Rebellion of the Southern Slaveholders it was the German immigrants who enlisted in the Union cause and helped keep the State of Missouri from going over to the Rebellion. I suppose many of these immigrants would have been recent arrivals, refugees from the Revolutions of 1848. I also recall that African-American poet Langston Hughes, in his early autobiography The Sea describes friendships with socialist immigrant children from Europe while he was attending high school in Cleveland, Ohio (in 1916-1920).

I guess all this goes to show that America has had a long tradition of domestic concern for the equality of humanity and the plight of oppressed minorities, and this tradition has been encouraged by the immigration into our society of many thoughtful people fleeing reactionary governments and bringing along their progressive idealism. Anti-slavery and anti-racism work has been going on for generations, and in teaching about this work we might include artifacts such as the poem The Dying Negro, the accounts of Thomas Morton's counter-cultural experiments in the 1620s, and the recollection of Elizabeth Crawford about the topics that young Abraham Lincoln may have discussed as a youth along Pigeon Creek in Indiana.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Future America

Back in the 1890s a smart person (H. C. Dodge) wrote some new lyrics for that patriotic hymn we learn as "My Country Tis of Thee" ("God Save the Queen" to some people). I was thinking about this song in the context of recent news events, and I've made a little one-page sheet with the lyrics to "The Future America" combined with some images of plutocrats in the United States. It's here as a pdf [1.2 MB].