Sunday, September 28, 2014

Quote (Poem) of the Week

Twenty-eight young men bathe by the shore,
Twenty-eight young men and all so friendly;
Twenty-eight years of womanly life and all so lonesome.

She owns the fine house by the rise of the bank,
She hides handsome and richly drest aft the blinds of the window.

Which of the young men does she like the best?
Ah the homeliest of them is beautiful to her.

Where are you off to, lady? for I see you,
You splash in the water there, yet stay stock still in your room.

Dancing and laughing along the beach came the twenty-ninth bather,
The rest did not see her, but she saw them and loved them.

The beards of the young men glisten’d with wet, it ran from their long
Little streams pass’d over their bodies.

-Walt Whitman

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Saturday Video

Greetings from the Beach!

I once had a girl
Or should I say
she once had me

She showed me her room
Isn't it good, Norwegian wood?

She asked me to stay
And she told me to sit anywhere
So I looked around
And I noticed there wasn't a chair

I sat on a rug biding my time
Drinking her wine
We talked until two and then she said
"It's time for bed"

She told me she worked
In the morning and started to laugh
I told her I didn't
And crawled off to sleep in the bath

And when I awoke I was alone
This bird had flown
So I lit a fire
Isn't it good, Norwegian wood?

Friday, September 26, 2014

Up From Pain

On my last day in town, I wanted to share another writer's work. It is a masterfully written memoir about a life with many conflicts and paradoxes. In The Root, Peniel E. Joseph summarizes this unflinchingly honest account this way.

Every man in America—particularly every black man in America—should read New York Times op-ed columnist Charles M. Blow’s recent essay, “Up From Pain,” adapted from his forthcoming memoir about identity, sexual abuse and coming to terms with his own identity as a man.
This work could be my own life story. I hope you will read it yourself if you feel led. 

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Doctors and Office Politics

If you’ve ever had to hang around waiting rooms or inside examination rooms as often as often as I have, I know your pain. Later this morning I will have two appointments back to back. Visiting doctors has become a part-time job. I go through the motions, signing in, waiting, having my temperature and blood pressure checked. I sit on a thin sanitary white piece of butcher paper and wait some more. In time, the doctor raps her knuckles against the door and it’s time for me to start talking.

One of my doctors is especially physically attractive. I say that as fact, not as drooling chauvinism. This fact would not be especially notable to everyone if you removed me and my own thoughts completely from the equation. It is likely only important to me and maybe a few others patients, though I inflate the presence of beauty for reasons even I cannot easily understand. Here, I live inside my head, not in rationality.

The primary complaint is that I tend to fall in love with my doctors and caregivers very easily. Responding with logic doesn’t seem to work as well as preventative care. I don’t really know any of these professionals, as much as anyone can innately know someone else who one sees for fifteen minutes at a time, three months a years. Bereft of love and companionship at crucial and formative times in my life, I’m a sucker for a sympathetic ear, presented in soothing maternal tones. I ask redundant questions to keep the doctor in the room, then feel sad when it is time for him or her to leave for their next appointment.

I ascribe being needed to the violence and isolation of my childhood. In those days, I wanted to be saved by someone and I didn’t much care in what package it arrived. A kind face and voice activates something inside me, some primal need carried over from our last evolutionary step. I wanted nothing more than a girlfriend or boyfriend when in high school, and I found them eventually. They are all my lovers to an extent.

But as for doctors, I’m aware that these feelings of mine are not and never will be reciprocated. They can never be, even if they were somehow by luck and dysfunction mutually felt, else careers would be ruined. Other doctors in the city told me that the malpractice laws in the city where I was living were especially punitive. They were written in such a way that it made it especially easy to sue a doctor, which rendered quality of care conservative, exasperating, and inflexible.

And into the middle of this high stress cocktail of paranoia and retribution came me. I was a child from a rough home, an angsty teenager with a hopeless and eternal crush on her English teacher. In fact, I had been so starved for affection that real love in any form was addictive. My imagination ran wild with almost no one's encouragement.  It didn’t take much to push me over the edge. I become Thurber’s Walter Mitty quite easily.

A while ago, I was a patient at a medical center, where every employee was housed under the same roof. My primary care doctor was especially skilled at her profession, but I kept running into the same curious reaction among her co-workers. Though never explicitly spelled out, they implied that the doctor had romantic feelings for me. It was like a huge game of I’ve-got-a-secret. Over time, I surmised that she may have said, in complete harmlessness, that she thought I was cute.

In a gossipy, high stress workplace without adequate leadership, drama thrives. While waiting to get a Hepatitis B booster shot, a clinic worker sized me up in a millisecond, scoffing at my presence at even being there. It wasn’t especially professional conduct, but then again, it had not been from the beginning. The nutritionist and I spent our thirty minute sessions small-talking rather than planning out a menu. Time and time again, the doctor kept being introduced into the conversation. I wondered if the doctor was especially socially awkward without a white coat on and that this behavior was tantamount to teasing.

But then reality came crashing down. The drama this kicked up spilled over into the professional relationship between a nurse and the doctor. Theirs had been a contentious relationship from the beginning. A silly crush on my behalf was overshadowed by egocentric power plays and rivalry. The whole time I felt this must be somehow about me, when really I was only a sideshow to office politics. How easy it is to turn everything into sex or romance, when motives go well beyond it.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Square Pegs: A Review

Decades before Sex in the City, Sarah Jessica Parker won a degree of renown for her leading role in the CBS television sitcom Square Pegs. A time capsule of the early Eighties, or at least some version of it, the show is nearly forgotten today. Adding a degree of cred, it was created by former Saturday Night Live writer Anne Beatts. Beatts brought along to her new project the tinted and toned photographic montage she'd used for the first several seasons of SNL’s introduction. She also wrote the screenplay of roughly a third of the first and only season.

Though occasionally willing to think outside the box, Square Pegs in many ways is a conventional teen sitcom. Those that followed in years to come were edgier, tighter, and more realistic. A decade later, the ABC network sitcom My So-Called Life pushed the envelope for the whole genre, focusing on realism rather than easy laughs. Roughly around the same time, MTV gave rise to a popular animated series, Daria. Square Pegs mines similar sitcom territory common during its time, including horrible one-liners, awkward teenaged romantic interludes, and lots of talk about boys.

This series passes the Bechdel test, for the most part. Much conversation involves boys, but its primary obsession is popularity. Daria’s main character and Angela Chase of My-So Called Life could care less about their social status. Popularity is not stressed, or if it is, it is mocked. The anti-hero pose of protagonists reflects the social norms of a different era. In Square Pegs, best friends Patty Greene (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Lauren Hutchinson (Amy Linker), are two awkward teenage girls desperate to fit in at high school.

In this day and age, punks and new wavers circumnavigate the periphery, though most kids dress the same as everyone else. One of the regular cast, Johnny "Slash" Ulasewicz (Merritt Butrick), proudly identifies as new wave, down to the skinny ties and solid color shirts. Arcade games are the showcase of one episode, a reminder that there was a time where Pac Man and Donkey Kong were the obsession of many teenagers.

The band The Waitresses, best known for their song “I Know What Boys Like”, contribute the theme song for the series. During the pilot episode, they are featured in person at the tail end of a school dance. Like this show, The Waitresses are nearly a cultural afterthought today, though at the time they were a promising group. New Wave bands had a relatively short shelf life, even the witty, sarcastic ones.

Only Sarah Jessica Parker rose towards greater fame, and hers did not occur overnight. Here we see her at age sixteen, not yet a scene-stealer, but with great potential. She holds her own with the rest of the cast. She would have fit well into the brat pack of a John Hughes comedy, her immediate contemporaries. Where she would not have fit well is the cornball pre-adolescent Saved by the Bell, which aired a few years after Square Pegs’s twenty episode run was canceled in 1983.

Unusual for its time, the writing of Square Pegs was completed almost exclusively by women. Being that the two main characters were female was part of this unusual distinction, but not all of it. Young women on screen are usually the most active participants, though the roles of male characters are equally crucial to the action on screen. Though at times a few scenarios are silly and fatuous, the show retains just enough veracity to keep the attention of its audience.

The best way to describe Square Pegs, from episode 1 to episode 20, is cute and gentle. A few situations involve race, but these are glancing blows without moral platitudes. Teen melodrama is the show’s bread and butter, as is the convoluted relationships between heterosexual couples, since apparently queer characters didn't exist then. It should be said that the series was filmed 32 years ago. The sweetly jovial is the pervasive mood. There are no best friends with drug addictions or unwanted pregnancies. What we see before us is escapist fun, never intended to be deep and complicated.

Today’s audience might find it a fascinating historical document. I was two years old when Square Pegs was showed, far too young to watch it myself. Speaking honestly, I see us now in a more cynical media age that began in the 1990’s and has continued since then. The same cute jokes were no longer enough, and audiences were no longer willing to suspend their disbelief. We clamored for the real world, and as much as the small screen ever could, it gave it to us.

See for yourself. The full series is released on October 21.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Leave of Absence

I'll finish out blogging this week, then head for the Gulf Coast for a beach trip. Though summer no longer formally exists, it will still be plenty warm, and the hordes of college students will be gone. I fly out Saturday morning and come back the first week of October.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

New Voices

What is divinity if it can come
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?
Divinity must live within herself:
Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;
Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued
Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;
These are the measures destined for her soul.-

from “Sunday Morning” by Wallace Stevens

I’m home and not at Meeting. In approximately eight minutes, Worship will begin and I will not be there. Most people with whom I interact and befriend do not understand the guilt I feel for not being present today. Weekly attendance was never stressed for them. If one didn’t feel like going, one didn’t. I can, I admit, be somewhat contemptuous of those who think of Quaker Meeting as a tourist attraction, especially in my very transient, urban Meeting in Washington, DC.

My experience was quite different. Every week, when I was a child, I dressed up in a suit and tie. I could generally manage the suit part of dressing myself, but I could never get the hanging of tying a necktie. My father, who is left-handed, had to show me how to do it in a mirror, backwards. With difficulty, I can manage, but not easily. The next time I have to dress formally, I’m contemplating buying a bow tie. If it makes me look seventy years old, I don’t care.

My Meeting can be emotionally and psychologically draining. Giving every attender the right to speak in Worship means that the message shared can be alternately brilliant and very offensive. One of the long-term members is an autistic woman who gives ministry that can be inspiring, but often rambles, frequently lambasting the Meeting for treating her like a pariah and not incorporating her views. Friends grit their teeth and put up with her. She has no life outside of Quakerism, which is tragic, but despite this, she has no right to verbally berate the rest of us. This is an old issue, and I seek not to fan the fire, only to make a larger point.

I believe that religion ought to be an open avenue for all who seek it, but I can understand why the non-religious see our pacifism and beliefs as naive, impotent, and tolerant to the point of masochism. Inclusivity doesn’t mean getting abused on anyone's behalf. This morning I’m taking a brief break to refresh. When I lived in a different city, I felt excited when I parked outside and walked inside the Meetinghouse. I knew I was going to be greeted with warmth and friendliness. I knew I would be made to feel welcome and loved.

In very different surroundings, I feel loved and appreciated usually by a minority group of members and attenders. It is not the lack of general socializing that gets to me most, it’s the scattershot and undisciplined vocal ministry, even with recent improvements. Some Friends confuse NPR or a Thích Nhất Hạnh with the Holy Spirit, even when they are well-intentioned. I know this is commonplace to liberal Quakerism, especially in an urban setting, but I favor Friends who honor what we denote as Spirit-led vocal ministry. We are given a great gift of freedom to form our own message and honor our own Divinity, but we take it too nonchalant and informally.

An update. Meeting has already started and I am not there. I still feel guilty. When I was a very young child, I was highly anxious and afraid of my own shadow. The Methodist church I attended had an adjacent graveyard where the elders of the church were buried. I would flee and cower behind one of the ancient gravestones because I was deathly afraid of Sunday School. But by the time the service began, I would remove myself from my hiding place and take my place alongside my family. Even then, I knew this to be part of my moral duty, though I would not have put it that way at the time.

Sermons I heard could be of a very high quality or very dull. I happen to think that effective preaching is a gift from God and relatively rare. I think I would have remained a member of a mainline Protestant denomination had the minister been reliably charismatic and inspiring. Since then, I’ve taken on a new standard of ministry, though sometimes I feel that I alone have to keep everyone focused in the same direction with what I share. I listen closely within myself to the messages that are the most powerful and the most inclusive. I see my role as one of enhancing Worship for others, and I see this as my God-given leading.

But when I am not present or I am not led to share, the wheels seem to come off the bus at times. I am not aware of anyone else whose leading and duty to the Meeting corresponds to my own. It is not my responsibility to steer Meeting for Worship in the proper direction. After all, I am a minister, but not the minister. When I was a member and clerk of Ministry and Worship, I was privy to many complaints regarding the quality of vocal ministry. I took these to heart.

In an unprogrammed Meeting, the rules that govern ministry are very open-ended. It is imperative upon the faith and belief of the individual Friend to discern a true leading from one that is not. If we don’t know how to do this, we are often left either with a political diatribe, a public service announcement for Eastern philosophy, or a psychotherapy session. The question then remains as to whether genuine Spirit-led ministry can truly be taught.

Part of it is a question of learned helplessness. We know someone else will take part in a committee, so we don't. We know someone else will give the vocal ministry weighing on our hearts, so we refrain. Learned helplessness is sometimes called the bystander effect. In the middle of a crisis, many hesitate because they know someone else will do the heavy lifting.

We have a few guidebooks along the way, but as religious mystics, much of that inner work is our own. No one said it was easy, but to be Quakers, we must challenge ourselves for the good of everyone. Those who are not Quaker might see this opportunity as something of  direct democracy. Every Friend's voice is valued, but I now have observed years of problems that transpire when there are no checks and balances within reason to resolve crises. More recently, it took us over 10 years to draft plans to build a handicap-accessible campus, for example.

When I was a member of a programmed faith, I never once wanted to intercede and take the place of the minister in the middle of his weekly talk. I had been conditioned to politely listen and hopefully be inspired for twenty minutes. With unprogrammed Worship, we are commanded to think of ministry very differently. At its best, a gathered meeting, our goal, is an extended, harmonious dialogue from every person who stands to speak that can go off the rails or line up perfectly. It has inspired in me a kind of direct communion with God that was never possible before. I do understand why the Early Friends took on this radical form.

We usually take an indirect approach to this concern. We assume if people feed their own spiritual needs, the rest will follow. But I wonder what direct classes and workshops on the subject of vocal ministry would provide those enrolled. At my Meeting, maybe 10-20% of those in attendance regularly share ministry, but this leaves 80% who do not. I think some of us are better at it than others, but I encourage a renewed focus that might bring new voices, enriching others and themselves in the process. Even when there are no official leaders, some speak more loudly and more frequently than others. Others who are less talkative ought not doubt their skill. This may be my leading, but it is not solely my own.

Quote of the Week

“Do not commit the error so common among the young of assuming that if you cannot save the whole of mankind, you have failed.”- Jan de Hartog