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The Longer Interview: On My Book and On Writing

At the blog, “A Literary Vacation,” aliteraryvacationinterview.blogspot.com, there’s an edited interview with me about Troubled Mission and about writing. I thought you might be interested in the longer, unedited, version, which follows. (Somehow, the second part of the interview got into bold-face type. I’ve tried to get rid of that but haven’t figured out hhow to yet. I hope it’s not too distracting.

Q. To start off with, please tell us a little about your book, Troubled Mission: Fighting for Love, Spirituality, and Human Rights in Violence-Ridden Peru.

A. Troubled Mission is my true—and I hope inspirational—story of what it’s like to try to change your life in very fundamental ways, dealing with the important “big issues” of life we all face: love, spirituality, and what is the essence of who we are, in my case my desire to do human rights work. I try to place the reader directly in my shoes and see directly through my eyes: what I wanted to do, the problems I encountered, how I tried to overcome those problems, and also the desperate situation of Peru during the time I was there, the violence from both the terrorists and the Peruvian government, the repression, poverty, and disease, and somehow despite all that the incredible character and resilience of the Peruvian people. I use a “flat” chronological style, showing what happened, in order to draw the reader in as opposed to trying to paint a picture essentially forcing my conclusions on the reader.

The first question, of course, is why would a successful, middle-aged attorney want to give up a comfortable life style in the US—I lived, and still do, in Sacramento, California—to live in reduced circumstances in Peru, to seek to develop a deeper spirituality, and to work for human rights in what could be a very dangerous situation. I show how this wasn’t an impulsive act just to seek adventure nor was it based on the feeling that there was something wrong with my life. Rather, the desire came as a result of becoming immersed in the Peruvian society as the result of an intensive study tour. Also, I describe how I met Bella, the woman who would change my life, a vibrant Peruvian teacher. While I easily could have tried to develop a relationship with her while continuing to be a lawyer in the US, I am candid that she certainly was a factor in my decision.

Then I show the reality. What’s it like to join a mission order, especially when I wasn’t a terribly religious person to begin with. I make it clear I wasn’t a saint—I was unmarried and very open to relationships with women—and I didn’t want to proselytize or try to get people to go to church. What’s the training program like, what was the mixture of other candidates to be missioners? What were some of the conflicts and issues that arose, as well as some of the deeply moving experiences? What was it like to go to language school where I was the odd man out—one of the few lay people and the only one from my religious order? And how did I stumble into the heart of the drug capital of the world and what was it like there. Then what was it like in Peru, including the big differences between life in Lima, a big city in many ways like any in the US but with much worse problems, and life in the rural altiplano, the high altitude area dominated by indigenous races and belief systems centered around the earth and reciprocity?

Now I get into the “what happened,” not as a history but as an involved observer who at times simply could not believe what was happening. The brutal terrorist assassinations. The horrific government overreactions. The strong popular, meaning “of the people,” organizations. The president overnight becoming a dictator! What is it like to see that? To see a censored newspaper? To see troops attacking lawfully elected senators. To hear a popular radio announcer, host of a nationwide interview program, say, “I’d like to continue my program but there are soldiers in the studio who won’t let me?” Imagine. We have serious problems but we’ve never had anything like that in the US.

Finally, there were two situations in which I was heavily involved. In one, terrorists attacked Alta Perla, a nearby town, killing police and civilians, and I was one of a group of church workers asked to be of assistance. The director of my human rights agency made it clear she didn’t want me to go, although she wouldn’t stop me. Then the Army tried to keep us out of the town. Here I was, in conflict not only with the terrorists but with the Army and even my own agency director. It was there I came to grips with the visceral reality of violent death, in helping to prepare for burial the ravaged body of Dioncia, a pregnant campesina woman. I also describe the effect of the attack on the town and the townspeople.

Then there was the world of working in a human rights agency in a foreign country. The conflicts within organizations and between organizations. The worlds of religious organizations, and of human rights organizations, aren’t at a higher plane of values than other organizations—they have turf wars, political battles, and interpersonal conflicts just like all other organizations. Also, there are vital issues of the role of women versus the role of men, in a variety of circumstances.

Suddenly, for the first time ever, the Peruvian government tried to prosecute a Peruvian human right attorney for doing lawful human rights work, for doing his job. That attorney just happened to be our attorney, Victor, who by now had become my friend. I rushed into an intense campaign to fight for him and the book describes the details of that fight, which would become a landmark case in Peru.

My goal is to have the reader keenly feel these experiences along with me, feel the reality of living in Peru in this situation, all the while feeling my struggle with the ups and downs of a relationship with Bella, and feeling my struggle to achieve a life of more spirituality.

Q. There are a lot of heavy, shocking themes running through the book, made all the more terrifying for the reader given that this is your true story. Do you ever sit back and think, “Wow, I can’t believe I survived that?” Are there any particular moments or memories that still haunt you today?

Yeah, there were so many things that could have gone wrong in a hurry I do wonder how I survived. One thing is that, as a tall gringo, I tended to stand out in any setting, even public transportation. Street crime was very bad during that time and I’m still amazed I wasn’t mugged or worse. I never felt targeted by either the military or the terrorists but then I suppose if you were targeted you wouldn’t be aware of it. I tried to always be alert, even to the point of walking down the middle of the street if there were suspicious characters around.

Many memories haunt me, especially the terrorist attack at Alta Perla and helping prepare Dioncia’s body for burial. Her body had been horribly torn apart by the terrorist bombs. I’d never seen such a horribly mutilated body and it was all I could do to keep myself together. I later had PTSD type reactions and for a long time I wondered if I could be intimate with a woman without seeing in my mind her body ripped open and all of her internal organs visible and gouged out. Eventually, I did become able to compartmentalize that and I am able to appreciate the beauty of all people I deal with, including a satisfying intimacy with my wife. In a way, maybe that horrible incident has even helped me—to really and vividly understand, not just intellectually, which I already knew, that everything can be over, or horribly changed, in an instant and all that we really have is our spirit, our essence.

Q. I’m not as aware now of all the many political, social, and spiritual conflicts going on in Peru, but it does seem that there might be some similarities with issues (even if not as extreme) we are facing here in America. Are there any similarities you particularly notice?

Yes indeed. Sometimes I feel like shouting: “Don’t you see what this,” the particular incident, “will lead to?” I realize terrorism and illegal immigration are problems but the current push by some is a dangerous overreaction. And often we don’t even recognize the problem.

In many ways, our society is already in a police state and most of us don’t realize it, or don’t realize how serious it can be. When traveling, I saw once how the Border Patrol literally takes control of US cities near the border, in this case, Douglas, Arizona. Many dismiss the NSA and other electronic surveillance as something that, “doesn’t affect me if I haven’t done anything wrong.” That is SO short sighted and fails to realize all the real problems of a total surveillance state. And the recent “reforms” of the NSA aren’t real reforms at all.

I see in the current support for certain politicians the same attitudes I saw in Peru—“the problems are so bad we have to do something and so what if we violate the Constitution.” Often we forget how important it is to have the rule of law and how that, often—not always—distinguishes us for the better from other countries. One example is that we don’t realize how close we are to censorship, especially self-censorship to avoid confrontations with the governmental. To be trite, we can’t throw out the baby with the bath water!

Every day in the news there are more examples.

Q. With all the themes running through Troubled Mission, is there any point or points that you most hope readers take away from the reading?

There are three main themes weaving through the book: First, seeking and testing love, is it for real, can we trust each other, are we fully compatible? Second, fighting for spirituality. And I mean a fight. We have to dig into our real self, our essence, our spirit, and to do that means digging through the layers of the exterior self that we put on to mask our insecurities from others and from ourselves. Finally, there is the fight for human rights, in this case the fight to prevent the Peruvian government from imprisoning a Peruvian attorney who did nothing wrong—he did his job as a human rights attorney and he did it lawfully. The consequences could be dire and the story is very up and down.

For all of these themes, what I want the reader to take away is that we must confront the issues head-on. The first two themes are timeless and relate to the human condition, any time any where. The human rights theme is more location-specific and time-specific. Most of us, thankfully, won’t be involved in a human rights struggle. But we will be involved in struggles for love, for spirituality. And we will be involved in struggles relating to what we choose to do with our lives.

In a real way, the book is inspirational. The reader can see how these themes are inter-related and how we need deep honesty and authenticity to confront these challenges.

Q. What does a typical day (if there is one) look like for you? How do you balance writing and the rest of your life?

I wish I could say I’m one of these writers who gets up at 4 a.m. and writes for several hours in peace and quiet. Unfortunately, even when I get up at my usual time, say, between 7 and 8, I just don’t feel like writing. After breakfast, I might keep reading whatever book I was reading the night before or even work on the stack of bills always on my desk. Even on good days, I usually don’t start writing before 10 or 11 in the morning.

Three days a week I have to drive across town for my physical therapy and workout program in the afternoon. On these days, I don’t assign myself any writing goals. That’s also when I try to schedule my routine appointments. Two days a week I try to keep clear just for writing. Not that I always succeed. On these days I do have a goal of getting at least a thousand words down on paper, actually, in the “cloud” nowadays. I’m not fussy about this. I don’t require that they be polished sentences at all. If I get a thousand words and know that I’ll have to cut the majority of them I still feel I’ve accomplished my goal. Then I have the freedom to just keep writing as much as I can after that, knowing that’s it’s all “free money’ in a way, it’s all gravy. Sometimes this is where I hit my stride and I really feel I’m writing creatively and “in the zone.”

Now those are “original writing” days. I also spend countless days editing and revising, often far more than I did writing the first draft. I probably edit and revise more than some other authors because of my prior legal career. Editing and revising is just a way of life that’s been burned into me. Also, I tend to get much more accomplished on these days because I have a text in front of me. I may change it all around but at least I have a jumping-off point. It’s not like staring at a blank page.

For relaxation, I may watch a movie or something else on TV. I’m not a big fan of TV but I’m not a saint—I can get sucked into shows, especially dramatic series. I must have watched The Sopranos and The Wire ten times and if a TV channel repeats them now for the nth time, I’d probably get sucked in again and watch it all over again. I’m also a news junkie, especially during election season. When I’m watching a program or a movie on TV, I always have a pen and notebook nearby and I often write notes to myself for future use. Not notes from what I’m watching but just thoughts that occur to me. Finally, I always like to read something page-turning before going to sleep. I’ve recently discovered Joseph Kanon’s series on intrigues of the post-World War II world and they’re great for night time reading.

I shouldn’t admit it but I’m kind of a hermit and a homebody. Also, I’m at an age where I’ve had “the talk” with my dermatologist and I have to stay out of the sun as much as possible. On some weekends we have get-togethers with my extended family—two step-daughters, one step-son, and my five grandkids, and some friends. I’m generally not big on going out to eat just to try out a new restaurant. And my days of going out to bars are long over.

Music has always been an important part of my life. I discovered the Grateful Dead late, after law school, and I’m still a hard-core Deadhead. And paradoxically I’ve become an opera buff, particularly the operas of Richard Wagner. No, it’s not because we have the same last name and no, I don’t think we’re related. I’ll now think nothing of traveling to Europe for one of his cycles of The Ring, a series of four connected operas. It gets to be an expensive hobby!

Q. Are you a big fan of using social media to promote your writing or to interact with readers? How do you prefer to promote your writing?

My publicist is going to hate me for saying this but I’m a real troglodyte with social media. I do have a web site, http.//johnpwagner.com, but I’m not nearly as active on it as I should be. The reason is I feel my first priority is to work on whatever book I’m writing (I’m now in the middle of my second book and plan at least two more after that–“if God wishes” as they say in Spanish). After doing that all day I don’t have much interest or energy for going back to the computer. I need to get some more blog posts out there and I promise I’ll try to do that. As for the rest of it, I don’t know how to and I don’t really care to spend my time on Facebook or Twitter or Snap Chat or whatever else is available. I’d love to but I just don’t have the time. Now that I’m retired, I realize I only have so much time left and I want to focus on my writing. I’ve gotten to be an ol’ curmudgeon who wants to write and hope that reviews on Amazon and elsewhere will help an audience find me. I know, I know, this is so old school. At least I’m not using pencil and paper!

Q. Finally, I’ve noticed that many writers are also big readers. Have you read anything worth reading recently?

Yes, I’m a voracious reader, a habit I picked up from my mom. I have a wide range of interests. Some of my all-time faves are: Joseph Heller’s Catch 22; all the books of John LeCarré, who I think is unfairly stereotyped as a “spy novelist” and actually is one of the greatest writers of his time, period; everything by the wild and crazy inventor of “gonzo,” Hunter S. Thompson; the poems of Paul Celan and Sharon Doubiago, who are completely different from each other but amazing poets; the works, depressing as they are, of French writer Michel Houellebecq; and what to me is the all time classic of how life can completely change, minute-by-minute, step by step, Fatelessness by Imre Kertész.

Some interesting books I’ve been reading, or re-reading lately include: Edie Meidav’s Crawl Space, a true masterpiece dealing with memory and history; Michael Ignatieff’s political memoir, Fire and Ashes, which really pushes beyond the usual politician’s pat answers and struggles for a deep honesty; and Hilary Mantel’s unheralded A Change of Climate, which appeals to me much more than her recent best-selling bloody historical novels, which I haven’t read. And, as I’ve mentioned, I’ve recently discovered Joseph Kanon who may be the “new” John Le Carré for me. I also like the World War II novels of Alan Furst.

Recently I stumbled onto Wolfgang Herrndorf’s Why We Took The Car, which is actually considered YA literature. It’s very well written, hilarious, and profoundly insightful on coming of age issues in contemporary Germany. Finally, at this exact moment I’m re-reading one of my favorite books of various analytical pieces on Elvis Presley, Kevin Quain’s The Elvis Reader. There are so many more books I like, and new books I want to read, I could go on and on.

Tell The Truth About Human Rights

Recently several human rights groups have documented that the US State Department has upgraded the status of some countries, notably Malaysia and Cuba, regarding human trafficking in order to improve diplomatic relations with those countries. 1 Human trafficking, which is modern day slavery, is the illegal buying and selling of people, typically for forced labor or forced prostitution. According to Reuters, some diplomats privately say that human rights workers are naive “purists” and should recognize that diplomatic interests properly outweigh human rights interests.

I’m not an expert on the countries involved or on the State Department reports involved, but I write to say it is vitally important to tell the truth about human rights and not to falsify official reports about human rights in order to achieve diplomatic goals.

Human rights workers are rarely “purists.” They fight a lonely battle, often knowing there is little they can do in the offending country and knowing that “good” countries such as the US often will choose to elevate diplomatic goals over human rights goals. That is a fact of life. But when we make such choices, we must do so knowingly, with our eyes open, and not falsify reports or documents in order to sanitize our decisions.
Our official reports must have credibility. The whole point of preparing Trafficking In Persons (TIP) reports—or, for that matter, any human rights reports—is to provide a solid basis for analyzing the problem and identifying the countries involved: the countries who either turn a blind eye to trafficking or, worse, just refuse to do anything about it. Once the US is known to “cook the books” on the TIP reports, it loses its moral authority.

Moral authority is, after all, the primary focus in the world of human rights. President Obama, as well as prior presidents, has promised that the US will lead the fight against human rights violations. Yes, yes, we all know the US is not going to declare war on a country because of its terrible human rights record. The real power in human rights is the power to embarrass, to shame. Once TIP reports became known as being accurate, and once it became known that human rights would be a part of the US’s diplomatic calculations, countries tried to avoid being shamed. Two examples, according to Reuters, are that Switzerland closed legal loopholes allowing child prostitution and that the Dominican Republic began more aggressive prosecution of child trafficking, resulting in greatly increased numbers of convictions.

But the reverse is true as well. Once TIP reports are known as being fudged, they will lose their credibility, and thus their power to shame. Offender countries can simply deny the problem, saying the US TIP reports are known not to be credible.

The so-called “realists,” who say the US should attempt to achieve only its own interests and not try to fight human rights abuses in other countries, are flatly wrong. Trafficking in other countries does involve US interests. Child prostitutes and forced laborers are often smuggled into the US. Then, we not only have the duty to be concerned, we have the law enforcement imperative to prosecute the violators and the social imperative to help the victims.

In addition, most of us in the US have no idea how officials in other countries view with alarm the prospect of reports being written to US authorities. When I was a human rights worker in Peru, I asked our Peruvian attorney at my small human rights agency what I could really do. Yes, I was a lawyer in the US but of course I couldn’t practice law in Peru. He told me not only were there many things I could do, but also that my status often could be more important than being a Peruvian attorney. “If you are in a meeting with us and the military,” he said, “the very fact that you’re a North American” human rights worker “might have a restraining effect on” the military. “Even if you don’t ‘do’ anything.” Also, he said, the military and other authorities would be very concerned about any reports I might write. This prediction was later borne out when he himself was improperly charged by the Peruvian government with “aiding and abetting terrorism” for his lawful work as a human rights attorney. I led an international protest effort by human rights groups around the world and the government dropped the charges. Human rights leaders later said this stopped the Peruvian government in its tracks from going after human rights workers.

In the case of Cuba, the US has the goals of ending the embargo, opening the US embassy in Havana, re-establishing diplomatic relationships, and gradually improving trade relationships. I happen to support those goals. But we should not achieve these goals by “upgrading” Cuba’s notoriously horrific human rights record. We may say we will improve relations but we must emphasize we are doing so despite Cuba’s human rights record—and not say we may do so because it’s human rights record has “improved.”

In the case of Malaysia, where dozens of mass graves of migrants have been discovered just this year and where forced labor is common, the US wants to facilitate the Trans-Pacific Partnership with Malaysia and eleven other countries in Southeast Asia. In this case, I’m not sure I support the TPP. I admit I just don’t know enough about it. But even if we decide to improve relations with Malaysia for the TPP, we should not do so at the expense of accurately reporting—and denouncing—its human rights record. We must tell the truth about human rights.

Notes:

  1. Annie Kelly, “US Human Trafficking Report Under Fire as Cuba and Malaysia are Upgraded, The Guardian (July 27 2015, 10.24 EDT) http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2015/jul/27/us-human-trafficking-in-persons-report-under-fire-cuba-malaysia-upgraded; Jason Szep and Matt Spetalnick, “Special Report—US State Department Watered Down Human Trafficking Report,” Reuters, (Aug. 3, 2015, 21:19 CET) http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/08/04/us-usa-humantrafficking-disputes-special-idUSKCN0Q821Y20150804.

WHY NO PROTESTS AGAINST GEICO “TORTURE” AD?

I can’t believe there are no protests against the currently running Geico Insurance TV “torture” ad, which treats torture as normal, as acceptable business as usual. We don’t see torture because the theme of the ad is that all workers, even torturers, will play instead of “work” when the boss isn’t around. But the ad clearly treats torture as something acceptable. As such, it is an outrage.

The Ad Itself

In a medieval torture chamber, we see the boss of a group of tough-looking supposed torturers. The torturers have a prisoner tied to a large table. The boss asks what progress they are making with the prisoner and the torturers reply that the prisoner will soon tell them everything. They display vicious-looking weapons. But once the boss and his flunkies leave, the torturers turn the table over and we see the table is actually a ping-pong table, with the prisoner tied in the middle as a net. The theme of the ad is that goofing off at work, even work as torturing, is “what you do” and somehow you should decide to switch to Geico if you want to save money.

Ha! Ha! Ha! Torturers who goof off. How funny!

What’s Going On In The Ad?

Forget whether Geico is a good insurance company or whether you’ll really save the amount Geico claims you’ll save. I have no idea and no opinion.

What’s happening in our society when a major company decides it will be good for business to have a commercial portraying torture as normal, as a usual and customary part of society, as something to be accepted? Sure, we don’t really see torture in the ad. I can imagine the ad managers pitching the ad to Geico said something like, “See, when we say, ‘it’s what you do,’ why this even applies to people we usually don’t have a high opinion of. Who could be worse than torturers. So, this is satire, get it? The ad says even the worst people will goof off when their boss isn’t around because ‘it’s what you do’ and we want people to think getting Geico insurance ‘is what you do.’”

But the hidden message is, had the scene with the boss had the ad gone on a few seconds more with the boss present, the torturers would indeed have started torturing their prisoner. After all, that was their job. And doing your job is “what you do” when the boss is present.

Suppose we change the scene to Dachau or Auschwitz. The boss comes by and the workers say, “Yes, we’re definitely making progress with the prisoners.” Then the boss leaves and the workers take Jews off an incoming train to be spectators while they play soccer. No mistreatment of anybody. The workers are goofing off. Still so funny? How long could this go on before the workers decided they’d better get some work done and get going with their job of funneling the Jews into the “shower” rooms? Sure, we wouldn’t actually see any Jews being killed but wouldn’t that be the implied premise of the ad.

Not only does the Geico ad treat torture as a normal and acceptable part of society but it comes at a time in our country when we are engaged in a major and consequential debate about what actions our country, a democratic republic with a constitution that explicitly prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment,” may engage in against “suspected terrorists.” I write this shortly after the first, raucous, Republican debate of 2016, in which more than one candidate made it clear they believed the country could do anything the military wanted to against suspected terrorists. We are supposed to be a country of “rule of law,” but no candidate raised our Constitution (or anything else) as a protection against torture.

In my opinion, the ad is clearly not neutral on this issue—it expresses no moral disapproval whatsoever. The ad comes down squarely on the side of the argument that human rights are irrelevant—“we should do whatever the military decides is necessary to suspected terrorists.” And who is a “suspected terrorist?” It’s always vague and it’s usually people we don’t like.

Why No Protests?

Is this what our society has come to? Making fun of prisoners being tortured? Suppose we brought Abu Ghraib into the scenario. “Hey, let’s goof off from putting the prisoners in humiliating sexual positions and threatening them with dogs for a little while once the boss leaves.” Still funny?

I searched on Google and could find no protests of this ad. I can’t believe it. Well, I protest. Shame on you Geico!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MARGARET JUNTWAIT: A FAN’S TRIBUTE

I recently opened the latest issue of Opera News and was shocked to read that Margaret Juntwait had died. What? She was in the prime of her life (58). How could that have happened? (Alas, it happened because of ovarian cancer, which we must find a way to cure.)

I felt like I literally “heard” Margaret grow up on the radio—doing the Saturday morning (at least for those of us in California it began in the morning) Live From the Met broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City since 2004. At first, I was not enthralled. When she took over from Peter Allen, it seemed to me she was just reading a script. I found it a little uncomfortable to listen to. But then an amazing transformation began. After the first season or so, little by little, week by week, she seemed to develop her own voice. I’m sure she still had a script, or at least an outline, but more and more it sounded like she was sitting there, in a wonderful seat at the Met, talking with (not, “to”) us, her listener friends, not pontificating but helping us notice interesting aspects of that week’s opera. Just sharing her thoughts, no big deal.

It got to the point where her voice and her comments seemed completely fluid, knowledgeable, and spontaneous. Luckily, as time went on, I had cars that came with SIRIUS radio and I was able to hear her Met broadcasts on some weekday evenings, while driving home from work, in addition to the regular Saturday performances. That was always an extra treat. Over time, she seemed to be a friend sharing her knowledgeable thoughts in an amiable, relaxed manner.

At the same time as Margaret was “growing up” (to me at least) on the radio, I had become a fan of Richard Wagner’s four-part “Ring Cycle” and had begun traveling in the US and Europe for opera in general and especially to see various Ring performances. In early 2013, I was in Frankfurt, where it was bitter cold, attending that city’s opera company’s innovative Ring production. During one of the intermissions, I found myself in the food area next to a vivacious and interesting woman. We began chatting about the production. We each first made it clear we were married so there was no hidden agenda—it was just a wonderful conversation about Wagner in general, the Frankfurt production, and a bit about our lives. We conversed about a range of issues and finally we talked about what we each did. From her knowledge of opera, I expected her to say she had some affiliation with an opera or arts association but I was blown away when she told me her name. Here she was, “the” Margaret Juntwait, whom I felt I gotten to know via the radio, talking with me. I almost fell over. And not only was I talking with her but she seemed to be enjoying our talk and learning about my work (healthcare law) as well as hearing my unlettered opinions! I expected that, at any moment, someone from the Met would come and take her to meet someone more interesting but it never happened.

Although vivacious and beautiful, she was not arrogant or patronizing. She was so friendly and so approachable. She told me she was here with her husband and her Met team and, when I asked, she told me a bit about her work-a-day world preparing her shows. She was nothing like the divas I’ve heard about or the “operaistas” I’ve met in various Wagner Societies who let you know they’re doing you a favor by even saying “hello.” To the contrary, Margaret seemed a friendly, knowledgeable, expert interested in talking about anything: yes, opera of course, but also life in general. I became tongue-tied as soon as she said her name but she quickly had me talking again, asking about my work and my family. Of course she was a professional interviewer by now, but at no time did I feel that she was “doing her interview thing” to get through a long intermission with this guy she happened to get stuck next to.

I told her how I thought she’d developed more and more confidence each year and how I so looked forward to each show. And I couldn’t believe that she actually seemed interested in whatever I was babbling about. Maybe she was just being nice. But I remember how she seemed so genuine, friendly, and down-to-earth.

After that, sometimes when I heard her on the radio, I thought: I should send her an email about how I liked this or that show, and why. (Not that I had her email address.) But I never did, thinking, oh, sure, she was nice to me during an intermission but she wouldn’t be interested in hearing from the likes of me about her show. Or, I thought, she’d think I wanted something. Maybe so but who knows? I’m glad I had those few moments with her. I’m glad I told her how much I’d come to appreciate her shows. But I’m sorry I never sent her an email now and again when I felt something she said had truly moved me. I didn’t want to be a bother but maybe she would have liked to know how her work affected at least this fan.

It’s cliché but it’s true: death don’t have no mercy. Soon the Met will be starting a new season. Margaret Juntwait should be there, helping all of us appreciate it better. But she won’t. I’ll treasure the few minutes I had with her.

 

 

Why Give Up Everything?

In the middle of my career as a lawyer–a career i enjoyed very much–I decided to “give up everything” to do human rights work in violence-ridden Peru, a country being ripped to shreds by two terrorist groups and by “counter-terrorism” violence from the security and police forces. Whatever led me to do this?

Recently I came across copies of my newsletter of that time to friends and family: ¿Quien Sabe? (Who Knows?)–John Wagner’s Newsletter From Peru, the first issue of which addressed that question. I remember writing that newsletter, pre-internet, on a beat up manual typewriter and sending it to a friend in Sacramento who kindly made copies and mailed them for me. The following summarizes my thoughts at the time.

I knew i couldn’t act as an official “lawyer” in Peru but I hoped to act as an informal advocate and to assist persons and families who’d suffered human rights violations. To use a religious cliché, just as St. Paul had an epiphany in which he was knocked off his horse, I took a study tour of Peru that caused me to question every aspect of my life. I came into direct contact with the poverty of the Third World and I also came into contact with people doing very meaningful things to help those people.

I felt the most important thing was not on any “results” I might obtain but that I wanted to strip myself of the trap of possessions, running for success, materialism, workaholism, and then rewarding myself for those things by, yes, more possessions–the endless cycle of self-ism as Buddhists might say.

I interviewed with several well-known human rights agencies but, in a surprise to my nicely-developed ego, they weren’t interested in successful lawyers in mid-career seeking to change their lives. They were suspicious of people they hadn’t trained and most human rights jobs went to prior interns at those agencies.

I had been a Catholic, although not active, and sought out Catholic organizations having overseas placements. It took a while but I finally  found a progressive Catholic order that promised me a human rights job in Peru. I was worried that I might not be Catholic enough for the order but to my surprise, it was focused not pushing any given doctrine but focused on accompanying poor and oppressed persons in the third world. I wrote in my newsletter:

I view a religion as a community in which members not only have the right but the responsibility to express their views and engage in dialogue with each other. But I realize that: (a) there are still many problems within the Church, including hierarchy, sexism, paternalism, etc., and (b) no religion has a corner on “the” truth, all religions are not merely dealing with “inner” beliefs but are political and institutional forces replete with bureaucracies, turf-battles, organizational dynamics, etc.

Little did I know how prophetic those words would be. I also wrote:

The biggest question, of course, is why go overseas when there are so many problems right here in the US? If I want to work with the poor, why not work for a Legal Services program here where I already know the language and can utilize my skills? There’s no easy answer as that is what i would have sought had this program not worked out. There are many terrific people doing wonderful work in such programs. But to some extent what I want is the “stripping away” effect and the transformational effect of coming to grips with a new language and culture. In some ways it’s actually easier to seek a transformation by changing cultures at the same time. Corny as it sounds, I guess it boils down to my feeling on the Peru study tour that, “Why are you not here?”

Looking back on it, i really nailed the issues. In some ways, I got exactly what I was seeking in my placement in Peru and in other ways, my efforts completely failed.

John Wagner’s memoir is, TROUBLED MISSION: Fighting For Love, Spirituality, and Human Rights in Violence-Ridden Peru (Kelly House), coming out in the fall, 2015.

“Missionary” versus “Missioner”

Advance readers of my memoir, TROUBLED MISSION: Fighting For Love, Spirituality, and Human Rights in Violence-Ridden Peru, have asked a question about word usage: the difference between “missionary” and “missioner.”

There’s a great world of difference, although dictionaries tend to equate the two words as synonyms of each other. In one sense, the words are synonyms: they refer to members of religious communities in the US who go to work overseas. But that’s where the similarity ends.

To modern “missioners,” the word “missionary” is old-fashioned, referring to members of a religious group seeking to proselytize, to convert others, typically in underdeveloped countries,  to the “missionary’s” faith. Old-school “missionaries” spoke of “converting the heathens” and of “bringing” the unchurched to God. There are still many religions attempting to do this.

More contemporary views of mission, on the other hand, use the word “missioner” in deliberate contrast to the word, “missionary.” Holders of these views believe the people they work with and for are already with God, as they believe all people are, and don’t need to be “brought” anywhere. Rather than seeing their role as converting the unchurched, they see their role as “accompanying” those in need, typically, the poor, the marginated and the victims of oppression and repression. Rather than seeing themselves on a “higher” spiritual level than those they are working with, they see themselves as equal and as using their skills and talents to help the victims of injustice.

The use of the word, “missionary” connotes imposition–forcing or “persuading” people to change beliefs and religions in the quest for a better life after death. The use of the word, “missioner” connotes servant leadership–working with victimized persons to help them develop skills and abilities to live better lives in this life, on this earth.

So far, the nuanced differences between these similar words haven’t made it to the dictionaries or even Wikipedia. But ask any “missioner,” and you’ll get a lengthy and detailed discussion!

 

John Wagner’s memoir, TROUBLED MISSION: Fighting for Love, Spirituality, and Human Rights In Violence-Ridden Peru (Kelly House) will be coming out fall, 2015.