Friday, May 31, 2013

What is Gezi Park? Why should I care? #occupygezi

I've been tweeting about the protests in Gezi Park in Istanbul. It hasn't yet gotten much U.S. media attention, so I thought I'd do a basic summary of what is happening. I've simplified things a bit, forgive me.

Gezi Park is one of the last green spaces in central Istanbul, located in Taksim. Taksim Square is basically the heart of European Istanbul, where you go for a good meal, entertainment, and a stroll. It is also always the site of protest marches, often by labor unions, student groups, and ethnic minorities. So, protests in this area are not uncommon-- nor are police interventions.

As Turkey's economy has grown rapidly, many old Istanbul districts have been torn down to make room for high rises and shopping malls. While the ruling AK (Justice & Development) Party has also added greenspaces and planted many trees around the country, it has been fairly callous in its view of history. Not far from Taksim square, a famous 70 year old cafe , part of a larger historic district, was recently closed to make way for a new shopping center.

This comes on top of other changes in Turkey led by the AK Party, an Islamic-leaning pro-business party. It has nudged Turkey in a new direction from that of Atatürk, the secular founder of modern Turkey, and his would-be disciples known as "Kemalists." Kemalists closed religious schools, the AK Party has reopened them and increased mandatory religious education in public schools. Women are more encouraged than before to wear headscarves as both the President and Prime Minister's wives do, something unthinkable even 20 years ago. Atatürk was fond of the Turkish alcoholic drink rakı, but Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a practicing Muslim, has worked to tighten restrictions on alcohol and declared ayran, the yogurt drink, as Turkey's new "national drink." Abortion has been restricted. The military, once able to stage coups every decade to thwart any Islamic influence on government or public discord, has essentially been neutered. The media has come under increasing censorship, with even cartoons like The Simpsons coming under fire from the government for "blasphemy." All of these changes have happened relatively slowly, with the AK Party, known to be masters of opinion polls, taking advantage of the economic success to maintain popularity. The majority of Turks are nominal Muslims (70% don't drink, and over 60% of women wear headscarves) sympathetic to at least some of the AK Party's goals.

Atatürk and Turkey's commitment to secularism remain a pillar of early childhood education-- most of the national holidays celebrate Atatürk and his ideals. Since there is strong sentiment for secularism, the Kemalists have grown increasingly wary of the Islamists' attempts to change things (I witnessed this while teaching at a very Kemalist school). Istanbul, in particular, has always been European-style cosmopolitan-- different from Anatolia-- and much more secular in its leanings.

*Forgot to mention this in my original post* One of the most-told stories of Atatürk is when he was told that a large tree near one of his homes posed a danger to the home and needed to be cut down. He responded "The tree won't be cut down, the house will be moved." An entire team of engineers moved the entire house's foundation to save the tree. That is also in the spirit of this protest.

Hence, the battle for a single park in Istanbul is actually a symbol of a nationwide struggle between (often left-leaning) secularists and pro-business religious conservatives. The protestors are battling a Prime Minister who has said he will not be defied on this issue, making the battle oddly personal (he used to be Istanbul's mayor). 

It's important because Turkey is still trying to get into the European Union as well as earn Istanbul the 2020 Olympics (it would be the first Muslim country to host the games). The government is trying to wield its new economic might and political influence in areas such as the conflict in Syria and Middle East peace. Now that Turkey is very much on the world stage, how it treats a rapidly-growing group of mostly peaceful protestors in Istanbul will be judged by the world.

For pictures from the protest, I recommend this Tumblr feed. The Washington Post also has a good running account of the protest. But know that protests and wanton tear gas firing by police are almost a daily occurrence all over Turkey over various grievances, labor disputes, soccer matches, etc. It is just the underlying meaning of this protest and its rapidly growing fervor that makes this one different--and important.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Product review: Gold's Gym Multi-Training Door Gym

Every man needs a pull-up bar in his house. (That's a hint to you ladies looking for a Father's Day gift.)

In our last house, we had a mounted Perfect Basic Pullup bar, which was great but required drilling and screws. The Gold's Gym Door Gym, however, balances on your door frame and is fully portable, you can throw it up anywhere!



It also doubles as a push-up bar. You'll notice it has multiple grips; this is perfect for P90X where you're doing multiple types of pull-ups and push-ups. It is great for standard, wide-fly, and close-grip pull-ups as well as standard, wide, and military-style push ups.  You can also set it on the bottom of your door frame to hold your feet as a sit-up bar.

The basement I currently work out in doesn't have any door frames, but my father-in-law has mounted a more permanent pull-up bar. So, I use that for my pull-ups and the Gold's Gym bar for my push-ups. I get a fuller range of motion, it's not as hard on my wrists, and it won't roll like regular portable push-up bars would. I've used it for over a month and am very pleased.

I picked it up for $18.97 at Wal-Mart. Amazon Marketplace has one for $16.21 plus shipping.


There's about a 10 minute assembly time, the tools come included in the package.

Tip: Put the bar on a doorway you enter frequently. Make a rule that you have to do a set of pull-ups every time you enter the room. Voila!

Friday, May 17, 2013

A Christian Response to the "My Virginity Mistake" essay on Salon.com

This essay written by Jessica Ciencin Henriquez is thought-provoking and since I haven't seen many thoughtful Christian responses (the best I highlight below), I thought I'd attempt one.

Henriquez made a "True Love Waits" pledge while at Baptist youth camp and while she admits that she "didn’t buy into a word of it," it reinforced in her mind her already-existing fears that sex was something bad and to be avoided. She was "terrified of sex." She then faults this experience for her later divorce because she couldn't enjoy sex with her husband: 
"Without having sex before marriage, I blindly walked up an aisle and committed myself to a man who didn’t know me and gave my long-held virginity to someone with whom I had no more chemistry than a second cousin."
Several websites and bloggers have linked to the article in approval of Henriquez's thesis that sexual abstinence causes harm rather than good, which is why it deserves a response. 

I don't want to bash Henriquez, but I want to make a few observations: She doesn't mention anything about talking through her ideas/problems with other Christians. She doesn't mention any premarital or marriage counseling, or having had any guidance on what the Bible says about sex-- not even talking with her married friends about what they went through so she could know what to expect on her wedding night. There's also no mention that she was searching the Bible for answers. If she and her husband sought help with their intimacy issues, she doesn't write about it. None of us are Christians by ourselves. The Church is a community of believers who are called to pray for and encourage one another in the faith, without that fellowship we can't correctly say we're Christians, much less enjoy the blessings of the life. 

Henriquez also never investigates why sex is intended for marriage. It would go way beyond the scope of this post to explain, but I can definitely recommend some reading helps below.  Henriquez took a virginity pledge and used it to avoid working through her sexuality rather than using it to affirm what sex is intended for and to enjoy the blessing of avoiding hardships that many people who had sex before marriage now experience. Christianity isn't a list of "do's" and "don'ts" and formulas that, if followed, will magically bring marital bliss without effort, thought, and community help. Becoming a Christian or keeping pledges do not guarantee an easy life (the Apostle Paul's life had so much trouble his followers questioned whether God was punishing him rather than blessing him).  

Sexual dissatisfaction is a symptom rather than a causeAdam Holz at Boundless writes that sexual intimacy is a learning process in marriage, and its feelings change over time. Even if Henriquez and her first husband had really enjoyed each other initially, those feelings would have changed with life circumstances down the road without further work, help, and encouragement. 

Christian marriage counselor Erin Faye writes in response to Henriquez that the Church often fails people like her because we get kids to make a well-intentioned pledge and then don't explain and support everything behind it. We expect Believers to behave biblically without providing the transparent teaching and accountability to help them do it. Parents expect the church to do the job, and the church expects the parents to do it-- so no one does it! Like Henriquez's parents, churches often gloss over the subject-- but this should never be the case. I agree with Faye that:
"In doing so we have lost sight of what we are called to do. We have stopped being the salt of the earth and started rubbing it in people’s wounds. This is our sin."
Likewise, counselor/blogger Arleen Spenceley writes that sexual fulfillment isn't the end-all of marriage, it may be the least important part of the wedding ceremony. The focus on sex detracts from the purpose of marriage:
When a church (or a school or a parent) says "wear this ring" and "sign this pledge" and then stops talking about relationships, girls and boys become women and men who basically only know not to have sex. Otherwise, their concepts of marriage and sex are shaped by their friends or media. That is a problem.

In that sense, I sympathize with Henriquez because these issues were rarely addressed at my church or in my family growing up. I remember one very brave 7th grade Sunday School teacher dealing openly with sexual intimacy (I never forgot and am forever grateful) in a small group setting. I probably remained a virgin because of his testimony of how fulfilling it was in the marriage context as opposed to what he had experienced prior to marriage. The pulpit sermons I heard were helpful but did not contain much detail-- similar to what Henriquez got. But there was woefully little guidance in actual relationship-building, what Henriquez, myself, and all newlywed couples desperately need.

So, here would be my advice to any virginity-pledged person or engaged couple: 
1. Find a community of believers that is open to talking about these things. Don't just go to church and expect to hear a sermon addressing exactly what you want to know. Find a small group within that church that talks about it. Find a church that offers marriage seminars and pre-marital counseling. Make friends! If the church you're attending only blushes at the mere mention of sex-- either demand change or find another church

2. If your pre-marital counseling is a round of golf with your girlfriend's pastor, you're not ready to be married yet. If it's not several hours of sessions with wisdom on everything from communication to finances to sex, then you're not getting counseled

3. Read some books on sexual intimacy and what to expect before you get married. I recommend the following three* having read through them with my wife. 
 Sheet Music is a simple book from a Christian counselor that has plenty of humor and encouragement--it's not boring. It features chapters to read before you get married, just before your honeymoon, and afterwards.
Intended for Pleasure is co-authored by a doctor who helps explain the act of sex and what to expect. It includes the same explanations for monogamy as other books but the medical perspective (including various surveys and statistics) is helpful.
 The Act of Marriage. Tim LaHaye is best known for the "Left Behind" series, but prior to that he and his wife wrote this non-fiction best-seller. It contains a lot of testimonials from the married couple and is similar to the above books but the one I would rate the lowest of the three. 

4. Be prepared to work on these things with your spouse. Start the work before you get married, and make sure you're marrying someone who is eager to work on all aspects of improving his/her life and marriage. Saying "I do" is a covenant to work on fulfilling the relationship until death do you part.

If you're a pastor or elder at a church-- particularly one that asks its youth to make a virginity pledge-- please ask yourself if your church is providing the environment that is explaining, supporting, and encouraging  everyone in all aspects of their relationships-- from sexual fulfillment to identity and communication-- so that no one active in your church can claim the scars that Henriquez claims. 

Joni and I were fortunate enough to have several sessions of good pre-marital counseling and some Christian friends that helped with our wedding-night expectations even though we weren't yet involved with a small group when we got married (because we were moving). Shortly after marriage, we joined a wonderful small group of young couples our age that were very helpful in things beyond marriage and family. (We regrettably didn't know the books above existed until after we got married.) 

More importantly, we have read several other books and sought Christian help/guidance to help us with communication and relationship-building, the most key component of marriage and the key to sexual fulfillment. One I'd recommend to anyone even interested in the Christian perception of marriage, sex, and divorce is This Momentary Marriage by John Piper (my review) which is a free download. As mentioned above, it's an ongoing process and our choice as to whether it improves or worsens. 

Saving your virginity for your future spouse alone is something that God will bless, and my wife and I are certainly thankful we did-- as are many of our friends! But to get the blessings you have to understand them and work through them. That means living, loving, and learning with other Christians-- something that Henriquez chose not to do. I pray for her to be surrounded with friends and a supporting church so that her second marriage fares much better. 

*These are affiliate links, so I'll get a small percentage if you buy one after clicking the link.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Dr. Oz, "Greek coffee," Turkish coffee, facts and a petition.

A few weeks ago, Dr. Oz (In Turkish it's actually Öz, which is pronounced differently than "Oz" but whatever) did a show trumpeting the benefits of "Greek coffee" on his show. The only problem is that most of the world calls the product "Turkish coffee," and Turks are quite proud of it; bizarre that an ethnic Turk like Oz would claim it for the Greeks.

This stirred up a furor in the Turkish news media and launched a petition from a Turkish-American woman calling on Dr. Öz to set the record straight. I'm a fan of Turkish coffee, cook it myself, and miss being able to order it after a meal here in the U.S. like I could in Ankara. Thus I have signed the petition and want to offer some other support. There are plenty of basic tales of Turkish coffee, and coffee in general, being introduced to Europe from Ottoman travelers (see France in 1669). 

But in John Lloyd Stephens' Incidents of Travel in Greece, Turkey, Russia, and Poland (my review) published in 1838 there are several references to Turkish coffee and Stephens enjoys it both in Greece and in Turkey. He has this quote: 
"Fortunately, the Greeks have learned from their quondam Turkish masters the art of making coffee" (P. 18).

Greeks and Turks alike call it "Turkish coffee." Everyone considers the origins to be Turkish from the Ottoman conquests of North Africa or some other part where the drink was discovered. 

So, sign the petition! It needs only about 400 more signatures by Change.org to become active.

By the way, here's the best brand of Turkish coffee you can buy:

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Book Review (#9 of 2013) Incidents of Travel in Greece, Turkey, Russia, and Poland (Vol. 1) by John Lloyd Stephens (1838)

I never expected a book published in 1838 to be so fascinating and educational such that I could hardly put it down. Stephens was an American lawyer-turned-adventurer, who wrote three books on his three separate excursions to Europe, the Middle East, and Central America. This was the first chronologically.

This book is as much about American history as it is the history of the countries he visits because Stephens runs into various Americans abroad-- perhaps known in the 1830s to America at large but lost to the annals of history.

When Stephens visits newly-independent and impoverished Athens, he finds the only school in the city is run by American missionaries, who have earned great graces of the new Greek king. When he arrives in Istanbul, he finds the legacy of Henry Eckford, an American shipbuilder, hero of the War of 1812, who left amid a scandal to become shipbuilder to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.  Stephens befriends Eckford's American protege and watches a grand new ship launch in the Bosporus while the masses are impressed by American ingenuity. The U.S. Ambassador to Turkey was also an interesting character.

In Odessa (then part of Russia), Stephens meets a Mr. Sontag (I can't find a link to any information on him!) an American naval veteran who left the U.S. Navy to join Russia's instead, then spent 20 years climbing the ranks including a land command during the Napoleonic Wars. He marries a Russian of distinction and ends up with plenty of land and title-- and caucasian slaves, which horrifies Stephens (black slaves would not have surprised him, he writes). Some of the characters he meets also published books during that time, some of which are also available for free download. I can't wait to read further.

Everywhere Stephens goes, he finds great interest and curiosity about America, still a new experiment in the world. He runs into all kinds of stereotypes as well-- some well-traveled people expect him to behave like a Native American. In those days, the U.S. didn't have a consular service-- traveling diplomats simply commissioned locals to act on Americans' behalf. Stephens finds quite a few shady people bearing the title of "Consular" and this disturbs him-- he urges Congress to put some money into a diplomatic corps.

Due to Stephens' attention to describing the context and cultures, I learned a lot about the Greek war for independence, concluded in 1828, including the atrocities at Chios, the ruins of which Stephens visits. I got a great picture of Izmir (Smyrna) and the inter-ethnic culture of the Ottoman empire. Stephens celebrates Easter at a Greek Orthodox service in Turkey, and visits the homes of Armenians and Jews as well as Turks.  His travels in Russia begin in Odessa, which starts with a long quarantine set up to cleanse and fumigate travelers from bringing plagues into the city. Odessa was essentially a newly-constructed city at the time.

I give this book five stars because it's so well-written and fascinating. I feel that Stephens observes the same things I would observe, and glad he took the time to write it all down. I look forward to Volume II.

This book (and Volume II) are available for free at Gutenberg.org. There are also some interesting expressions/vernacular from 1838 that make it handy to read on an e-reader so you have a dictionary a tap away.

Monday, May 06, 2013

Market Urbanism in Turkey

I am a market urbanist, but what does that mean? Wikipedia defines New Urbanism "an urban design movement which promotes walkable neighborhoods containing a range of housing and job types." The "market" aspect is a Hayekian notion that if you assign people property rights, then free interaction and incentives will cause the land to be utilized to the greatest value. (I'm more of a "soft" market urbanist, see below.)

We moved to Ankara, Turkey last year largely because we were attracted by its urbanist culture-- which is a fairly recent development in the city. In the previous 30 years the city has gone from 70% of the people living in small houses-- often "squatter" houses called "gecekondu" (trans: night nesters, alluding to how quickly they sprung up) to 70% living in apartment high-rises. The government offers these residents in small houses a new apartment, contracting with entire neighborhoods to be demolished and rebuilt.

Before: A neighborhood of shanty houses (note the steep hillside).  Image courtesy i1.trekearth.com
After: A neighborhood of apartment buildings which also house storefronts. Image courtesy  www.turkiyetanitma.com
It's hard to explain the steepness of the hills the city is built on, apartment buildings go right up the hills and cliffs. The government (both the city and its various district governments) has also built more greenspace,  playgrounds, and mosques so everyone has them within walking distance. Zoning is such that commercial enterprises can open wherever they want in residential areas-- many apartments house storefronts in their ground floor. Within a block's walking distance we had five groceries, seven restaurants, three cafés, a weekly farmer's market, three playgrounds, a jogging track, and everything ranging from housewares and hardware to toys and school supplies. Public transport was also good with plenty of options such that a car was not a necessity. Additionally, most businesses deliver-- from all restaurants to major groceries and the local corner store. Certain parts of the city are designated as industrial parks--OSTİM being one of the largest industrial parks in the Middle East. For the most part, noisy and polluting factories are zoned away from residential areas.

Some locations with a natural watershed or which were unsuitable for housing have been turned into major parks. (Check out Dikmen Vadisi.)  Smart government planning has led to some great conveniences and an increase in the quality of life. But the market is providing the greatest opportunities for choice and employment.

Entrepreneurs have great freedom in what they can open in a neighborhood. It's common to see someone open a successful restaurant or shop and immediately others open up a similar shop on the same block (our block had 4 car washes, for example) until a couple of them close up. As such, Ankara displays aspects of perfect competition that I'd only seen theorized in Principles of Economics textbooks-- competition creating more choice, better quality, and lower prices (see my specific example of the water market in Ankara). To me, market urbanism means allowing large parts of your downtown area to be leased out to whatever the market demands. Making it easy to allow commercial spaces, government buildings, and residential spaces to occupy the same building, for example.

In the last decade, several large indoor shopping malls have also been built such that there is now one in every major region of the city. International retailers are clamoring to get into Turkey and set up shop. Some of these are more difficult to walk to, but all are located on public transport lines. The city government sponsors a "shopping fest" in the summer, providing free bus tours and freeconcerts at malls and other public venues nightly. It's a nice collaboration between government and commerce.

What was nice about the local nature is that you get to know your neighbor. You see them frequently at the local stores, and the vendors get to know who most people are-- they are not driving from all parts of the city to get to this neighborhood vendor. This builds trust in a community. No yards separated by fences to keep neighbors out. People of various races,  backgrounds, and political parties cram into a public bus without a thought. This is not to sugar-coat reality, there is a lot of traffic, smog, violence, and crime. But there is a great deal of community, convenience, and lower cost to the city for providing infrastructure when people live condensed along with their commercial spaces.

Since returning to the U.S., my wife and I have wondered where we can find such urbanism. I don't want to drive 15 minutes just to find a bite to eat or get gasoline. (The absurdity of how we design our suburbs didn't really strike me until my first forays overseas.)

I've found a few blogging urbanists and urbanist organizations, including one who sees urbanism as a way to help us fulfill biblical mandates. I hope to explore my thoughts on urbanism as we seek out a new place to live here.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Guns, Church, and What We Worship

On Sunday morning my wife and I visited a church with a satellite that meets in a community expo center in East Tennessee. Upon arrival, we noticed the parking lot was packed with hundreds of cars; particularly with pickup trucks and men wearing camouflage and UT colors stereotypical of the area. Then, I noticed a man walking into the building with a very large rifle and scope. For a very startling split second I thought I was going to witness the next American tragedy, but then I realized that part of the expo center was hosting a gun show. There was a line of people buying tickets ($10) and a peek inside showed dozens of vendors and plenty of business.

We made our way to the church entrance and worshiped with maybe 100 other people. (I was also glad to see a police officer in the foyer providing added security.)

I mostly thought about how everybody in the expo center was spending their Sunday worshiping exactly what they wanted to.