Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Strolling Along a Pulchritudinous Plank Toward the Sea of Floridity

I was recently introduced to the beautiful, entrancing prose of Carlos Ruiz Zafón (Shadow of the Wind and The Angel's Game). Each volume consumed my attention over the course of several cool late July and early August evenings. As I turned the final page of The Angel's Game to complete the second novel of his Cemetery of Forgotten Books series, I felt literally spent, exhausted from the immersion in the world of Ruiz Zafón's characters and creation. Simultaneously I was struck by disappointment that I would have to wait perhaps years until his next novel is published in English (the orginials are written in Spanish). I cannot remember the written word ever effecting on me such a complete emotional response; it has me looking at words -- and more specifically fiction -- in a completely different manner.

Fast-foward to the past 48 hours. In this time, I have run across an article that spoke of persons learning English as a second language needing less than a 1,000 word vocabulary to understand the language. Last night, I was asked to "speak English" after using the word incredulous in a chat, and also this afternoon when one of my status updates was considered florid by a commenter.

My sensitivity may be raised by the impact of Ruiz Zafon's novels, but it seems more than serendipitous that the meaning and usage of words have emerged so significantly in the past few weeks. By some estimates, there are more than 600,000 words in the English language, but the average person uses less than 10,000 of them. Why is this? Do we not illustrate our lives better with a greater diversity in our vocabulary? Often the use of more specific, less common terms leads to the criticism of excess implied in the word florid -- the implication that the author is somehow "showing off" or, even worse, elitist.

But what is it that the literary masters do that leaves us spent as we turn the last page? They possess an envious command of the language, knowing that written words, both by themselves and surrounded by compatible partners, have the power to speak to us from the page, evoking our passions, fears and imagination.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Scout's Honor?

My last 24 hours have been consumed by a serious dilemma, the correct path from which remains unclear. My son has expressed interest in joining the Cub Scout pack based at his elementary school, but I hold serious reservations about allowing him to join an organization that is openly discriminatory (through official policy) against religious non-believers and homosexuals.

In the official FAQ from Boy Scouts of America, persons not subscribing to theistic belief cannot be scout members or leaders. The BSA definition of God is admittedly ecumenical and inclusive, but only for those faiths that subscribe to the idea of a personal God who bestows "favors and blessings." A person is prohibited by policy from being a member or leader unless he subscribes to this general concept of God.

Perhaps more troubling is the BSA blatant discrimination of homosexuals. By BSA policy, "a known or avowed homosexual does not present a desirable role mode for the youth" and considers homosexual conduct "as not morally straight." As such, homosexuals are prohibited from participating in scouting.

These prohibitions are so diametrically opposed to my personal belief that my first reaction is to suggest alternative activities to my son. I am sure that if instead of non-believers, we substituted "Muslims, Hindus and Jews" there would be outrage. I am sure that if instead of homosexuals, we substituted "Blacks, Latinos and Asians" there would be outrage.

To make sure I wasn't having an overly reactionary response that would have negative affects on him, I decided to get feedback from friends who had experience (good or bad) as scouting members or parents. A simple post to my Facebook profile elicited a quick and wide variety of thoughtful response.

A more religious friend of mine asked: "Are you going to ban him from saying the pledge of Allegiance? Would you let him go to Notre Dame? Would you let him eat at a friend's house if they were going to say grace before the meal?"

My answers to these questions is "no, yes and yes" -- because I see a vital difference between these scenarios and that presented by scouting.

My son has the choice to say the Pledge of Allegiance at school. If he says "under God" or not, he is still welcomed as a student in his classroom. If he has the inclination and talent to go to Notre Dame, he will be accepted there as a student, regardless of his profession of religious belief. In fact, Notre Dame is the place where I was challenged by faculty and fellow students to ask the questions that eventually led to my adherence as a non-believer. His religious faith or lack thereof will have no bearing on his acceptance or success should he attend. Finally, we are firmly in support of him gaining exposure to a variety of different ways and faiths as he makes his way through life. We would never prohibit him from a friend's dinner table where a prayer of thanks was given, as long as his participation was voluntary. He routinely participates in grace at his grandparents house, as I bow my head in silent respect for the beliefs of my in-laws.

In all of these scenarios, there is a respect for individual choice. In the case of scouting, that choice does not exist (at least by stated policy). Is this the type of organization I want my son to participate in? Is official policy different from actual practice? From the reaction when I posted this question online, it would seem that the official BSA policy is not one that is emphasized or practiced. Two of my more secular friends whose children participated in scouting commented that they didn't "recall any religious overtones" and "the experience was extremely positive and there was little if any religious aspect to it at all."

What good do I do for my son by forbidding his participation? Is he old enough to even understand why my decision was made? As another friend asked, "Is it worth disappointing him to try to teach him that you don't believe in discriminatory organizations?" I understand the positive outcomes that scouting can have in a young person's life. I would love to see him gravitate away from video games and TV and develop new interests, especially those that involve the outdoors, personal responsibility, and community service. Scouting can provide all three. Am I prepared to forbid his participation in all organizations that don't represent my values verbatim? Is this a case where the good can outweigh the bad, and the bad can provide a moment where tolerance can be taught?

I must admit that I'm leaning toward giving the local scout pack a chance to prove that it stands separate from the discriminatory policies of its bureaucratic parent. I hope that it proves my concerns unfounded.
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