Monday, February 28, 2011

Reform's Inside Game and Outside Game

The weariness has taken hold. Years of recession inevitably produces, pardon the phrase, malaise. We may not be falling farther down, but neither are we observing new growth. Though our tastes, as well as our ideological stances greatly differ, every tree that does not produce good fruit has been threatened to be chopped down and thrown into the fire. What constitutes "good" from "bad" is the very nature of our disagreements. Once upon a time, we complained heavily about high gas prices. Now we accept it with gritted teeth. We recognize now that our problems go well beyond the cost of crude oil. Nonetheless, the perceptible excitement once so prominent in earlier days is nowhere to be found. Disappointment laid upon disappointment builds upon itself prodigiously. Like the foolish man, we built our houses and mortgages upon sand.

I wonder if this is how we've felt before in previous times of relative famine. Had this been an earlier age, revolutions and upheaval might well be next. We stare, despite our distractions, across an ocean and see the end of the beginning, the unshackling of autocratic power. Rebellion is easy when us can be so clearly separated from them. In Libya or Egypt or Bahrain, we know our own allegiances as sure as they know theirs, or so we think. But without much understanding of the context, we might as well be watching a sporting event full of rules we can't quite understand.

Class and economic stratification, though they may have diminished over the years, has become complex and convoluted here in the Western world. Wealth has its own hierarchy and its own distinctions while, arguably, poverty has its as well. Years of good fortune have granted us the ability to have an upper and a lower middle class, as well as a concept of poverty "line". This is not always the case elsewhere. In the First World, if we still even retain a King or Queen, they have long since taken a ceremonial role and wield no real power. In other places, where sultans and emperors once ruled, dictators now wield authority in similar fashion. The first step towards greater empowerment may well be the easiest.

I'm not really surprised that here in the United States we've seen relatively modest protest and collective action of boots on the ground. Even with the recent nastiness of political discourse, we have at least civilized certain aspects of our disagreements. An earnest, passionate, left-wing movement in Wisconsin has captured the hearts of many, but thus far managed to spread no further than its own borders. The Tea Party, despite its self-aggrandizing bloviations, comprises a relative small slice of the electorate. We so badly want to emulate our past history, or at least replicate that which we see unfolding via a live broadcast stream.

But to be honest, in our own time, do protest and dissent really work this way anymore? And if it does not, is there any reason to criticize people for their perceived inaction? Here in Washington, DC, most people I know are overworked and praying they don't lose their jobs. They live day-after-day with the fear that grant money will dry up, contract assignments will be not be renewed, or budgets will be redrawn, eliminating the money to pay their salary. I may be describing one city's perspective in a large, complex, massive country, but I doubt this stops at the water's edge. Here, as you would expect from any capital city, people want to do good inside the system. I am careful to not denigrate their intentions, most of which are motivated by the desire to do good. And if I did, I would be personally insulting close friends and acquaintances. We can all go astray if circumstances provide us that ability, but that might not necessarily be everyone's fate.

I have always been torn on this issue. When and how should I best strike that crucial balance? Raising my fist in protest feels cleansing and cathartic, allowing me the ability to feel a part of something much larger than myself. Us versus the world, in any form, for any reason, inspires passion. Recent experience, however, has shown me the limitations of throwing rocks, even at glass houses. Working the inside game has been more fruitful. Yes, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions. Some actions are rotten through and through, and some are nourishing. Even in my justified cynicism towards politics, I have known, and have even had the fortune to speak directly to politicians who have restored my faith. They've tended to be as frustrated, and likely more so, than me. And, to a person, they've all desired others to take up the same mantle. They ask for backup. They want new blood to carry the torch.

The dramatics of a street protest cannot be understated. However, having lived in DC now for over two years, I have seen one wave of protesters after another. After a time, they all begin to run together. The streets around Capitol Hill are regularly (and literally) papered with the remains of the latest rally. To know the latest to invade, one needs only look down at the pavement. There, one can read the all-too-familiar bold-faced type and agitating rhetoric of the most recent mass-produced handout. I wouldn't say I'm jaded, only that I know the limitations. What is for so many a popular tourist destination, both for pleasure and for protest culture, also happens to be my home. I'm not dismissive of the need to be politically aware, nor do I think protests are useless and counter-productive, but again, too often protests are short-term affairs with short-term goals, much like Get Out the Vote efforts. Once the election is over, the energy and drive once so prevalent seeps away.

In my humble opinion, if your cause is to ensure that reproductive rights for women are protected and not co-opted, then by all means, attend the ensuing rally. But better yet, take an active role in organizing it. Nothing shows the complexity, challenges, but also the benefits of such things more than being a leader. This can often be a humbling experience, knowing that grand ideas usually give way to how things work in practice, not in theory. Furthermore, once the speeches, chants, and parades end, the truly hard work begins. Those who find themselves inclined to leadership might well consider running for elective office. Our is a participatory democracy, with the root word being participate. Those who do not wish to adopt such a public role can support those who do, and also encourage others in their own inclinations and leading. Every candidate needs a staff and needs workers. The system is supposed to work this way, albeit in theory. But it's still worth a try. New ways can be built onto existing frameworks, without the need for complete dismantling.

Returning to my original point, despite recent hits to our power and worldwide image, we are still the trendsetters. Due to our perceived status, we prove or disprove theories and serve as the breeding ground for ideas. This is true whether we like it or not. Perception is reality. Today, we peer into television screens or computer monitors, watching Libya. They peer back at us, trying to make as much sense of us as we are trying make sense of them. What we see may well be a poor reflection. But it is not a useless one, so long as we remember to view it in its proper perspective. We can be reminded of our own past, as it was, and we can also be reminded that power and money are distributed unequally throughout the world. Now our knowledge is partial and incomplete, but in time, we may be known, inasmuch as we are known.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Quote of the Week

"Youth is a wonderful state. It's a shame it has to be wasted on young people."- George Bernard Shaw

Saturday, February 26, 2011

8 Ways No One Should Talk About God (Please!)

Pretty please?

Desire, Version 2

I've long been meaning to explore the visual art side of me. The computer is a more comfortable medium, since I'm useless with a pen or brush. As a photographer, I'd say I'm middle of the pack. I have some good ideas, but I've never had enough training to know much about technique.

Saturday Video

Friday, February 25, 2011

G Turns To D

I rarely dedicate songs, poems, or essays to specific people. These are meant for the benefit or enjoyment of whomever might find them meaningful. Universality is my ultimate aim, because I've been a member of far too many groups who are so maddeningly insular that they assume everything must only directed be squarely at them. I do not isolate my identities, I give them space to flourish.

But I am going to do something different today. I've been reading about Ann Friedman's recent initiative to encourage and increase the number of women in journalism. I agree that the world of print media is still very much a boy's club. That being in the back of my mind this morning, I recalled a song that seems appropriate to the subject.

"G Turns to D" is written from the perspective of a jilted ex-boyfriend, perhaps even a bit of a Svengali. He's lamenting the fact that his former girlfriend, who he taught to play guitar, has now written, recorded, and released songs that are sharply critical of him. Still stinging from what he considers a betrayal, his final words are that she'll never have him around any more, should she need additional help. It's a bit of an empty threat, but it gives him some satisfaction to say it, nonetheless.

When concerns the real life of the actual songwriter, "G Turns to D", is very much autobiographical. At face value, it's a typical he said/she said sort of conflict. He claims she taught her the instrument, but she claims otherwise. On a larger scale, I'd be willing to safely wager that relationships like these, romantic or otherwise, are pretty common, regardless of vocation or passion. And it does highlight well the power dynamics at play in fields that are still male-dominated, music being only one of them. The attitudes expressed here are "How dare you!", "you owe me", and "you are nothing without me." I'm sure women in workplaces hear this all the time.

These songs are all about you
And I'm tellin' everyone
I'm doing fine without you
I hurt you but I helped you

You may think I've a lot of nerve
But I deserve some credit
Or at least an edit

Take out the part that breaks my heart
And makes me sound uncaring
If you eliminate the swearing
Then I could show my mother

That you can go from one chord to another

G will turn to D
You'll turn to me

And you'll say
You have done me wrong
I wrote these songs about it

She's aware it's all been done before
It's another song in this key
Yeah, but this one's about me
That all the validity she needs

Her criticism's brutal
But I don't really mind
Yeah, she's put it out on vinyl
But it's pretty hard to find, now to another

G will turn to D
You'll turn to me
And you'll say

You have done me wrong
I wrote these songs about it

I wish I'd never taught her how to play
I knew she'd get me I should have known
Now my hands are on the fretboard
In an unfamiliar way
And it's telling me

She's aware it's all been done before
It's another song in this key
Yeah, but this one's about me
I may not wanna hear the words to

G will turn to D
But if you take what you're shown
Learn on your own
Then everything you do
Belongs to you

But know that you are on your own

On your own
On your own
On your own

In any case, Ann, this one's for you. Best of luck!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

I'll Be Running 400 Metres Again

Can't you see the black strap?
It holds me up for the last lap
I know I said I had a good time
But now I'm sprawled across the finish line

I'm picking up the straws
And now I'm wondering how I did because
The situation's heavy
And the competition's thin

Now I've got to wake up
So I can get back on my feet again

Could you spare some common sense?
It's a brave gamble, so just give it up
Now you know about those people in the sky
Well, they're the same folks that held me up

I'm sorting out my flaws
Because I'm running last place
And the look on my face says

This record's disappearing
And my system's on the mend
But I'll never know who wins
Until I make it to the end

Take care of what you preach, right
'Cause no one cares about your mike fright
But when the pen is to paper, I never stop to think
That I should stop thinking about you that way

The signing of this mock simulation
Plots a course towards some clarification
It's a keenly realized fabrication
Coming from your radio station

But I'll be running 400 metres again

By-Products of a Damaged World

I've recently been reading the late UK novelist's Muriel Spark's book The Comforters. Her first effort at the genre, it describes in detail the life of Caroline Rose, a recent convert to Catholicism. Set in 1950's Britain, Rose is first supremely skeptical of organized religion. The fellow believers with whom she interacts have an intellectual understanding of the faith, but to her they lack real sincerity. Beyond that, she believes that these people appear to fabricate God's presence in their lives, rather than displaying the humility only a truly Divine relationship can produce. In particular, Caroline finds one frequent, unfortunate practice most distasteful of all.

Recalling these proceedings, Caroline recalled too a similar fireside pattern, her family on the Jewish side with their friends, so long ago left behind her. She saw them again, nursing themselves in a half-circle as they indulged in their debauch of unreal suffering; 'Prejudice!' ' outright insult!'

Catholics and Jews, the Chosen, infatuated with a tragic image of themselves. They are tragic only because they are so comical.

This could well describe the combative attitudes of the present day. I could be speaking of Democrats and Republicans, Liberals and Conservatives, Jews and Muslims, Christians and Non-Christians, Labourites and Tories. Prejudicial attitudes do exist, but after a ceaseless war of words, sometimes even with bombs and guns, what is gained? We do not trust. We do not understand the process of our opponent. So we lash out, in a cathartic exercise that may exorcise our frustration, but does little to eliminate the confrontation which has created our need to vent.

These days, it's difficult to separate the posturing from heartfelt sentiment. Politics has always been a question of making a show to advance a larger point, even if the ultimate outcome will be defeat. Governors stand in schoolhouse doors. GOP-controlled chambers of Congress threaten to strip complete funding to Planned Parenthood. It is easy to fall into the role of martyr, and overly-ambitious people fashion entire careers this way. Shell-shocked as we are in these contentious times, I wonder sometimes if we may court this suffering and persecution for our own perverse psychological need. For example, politicians who willingly take martyr roles may believe they are particularly well-qualified or possess rare traits of misunderstood integrity.

Other martyr complexes involve willful suffering in the name of love or duty. This has been observed in women, especially in poor families, in codependent or abusive relationships. It has also been described as a facet of Jewish-American folklore.

The desire for martyrdom is sometimes considered a form of masochism. Allan Berger, however, described it as one of several patterns of "pain/suffering seeking behavior", including asceticism and penance.

In my own life, I observe Asceticism among certain Quaker groups. Conservative Friends, in particular, fit the profile well. "Conservative", in a Quaker context, doesn't refer to political allegiance. It merely means that such Friends are seeking to "conserve" the old ways of doing things. Whether this means going back to the land to embrace an agricultural way of life, much like our common ancestor the Amish, or even to dress plainly depends on each individual group in question. The attitude runs hand in hand with the concept of purity. According to two separate dictionaries, a purist is defined as "one who desires that an item remain true to its essence and free from adulterating or diluting influences" or "a person who adheres strictly and often excessively to a tradition", especially "one preoccupied with the purity of a language and its protection from the use of foreign or altered forms."

Purity may well also be a by-product of pain and suffering. I recall in my own life how purist I was, in an early stage, regarding music, art, and film. In some ways, I still am and may always be so. It was painful to hold interests and passions which so few shared. Biological beings that we are, we undergo adaptations so that our lives may be allowed to progress to their natural, inevitable end. Should pain and suffering be constants, the body will develop, naturally, coping strategies to manage it. Yet, sometimes we will still go to extremes to seek the ability to feel pain, if only to pronounce it publicly. Some find this comical, some find this self-serving, some find it brave and noble.

Regardless of true intention or audience, I do see more and more of such behavior these days. And I'm increasingly inclined to view it as a rather telling response to the prevalence of pain and suffering around us. The behavior itself may or may not be healthy, but the environment that enables its growth and prevalence is, in my opinion, incredibly toxic. That we would seek pain in order to display our wounds to the world sounds like a disease to me. The treatment is not more conflict, more fear, and more contagious hyperbole. God knows what we will become next should those continue unchecked. These days, I fear for our collective mental health more than the latest bill being considered in Congress. And as I direct my energies upward once again, my prayers are for everyone.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Community Can Be Strengthened Even During Challenging Times

Much that has recently transpired gives us reason to be outraged. The rights of women are being compromised and invalidated by Congressional fiat. By now, there is no need for me to mention them again. Other posters, columnists, and commentators have eloquently taken stock of the situation and discussed its potential consequences. I find myself unable to do much but agree with their assessments, conceding once again how easy for it is for some to thoughtlessly terminate the ability of women to make their own personal decisions.

Earlier in the week, I was given a particularly rich piece of advice that I’ve been contemplating within myself. I’m a feminist reformer, but I am also a Quaker reformer. Both of these identities regularly influence the other. I cannot manage to separate them, nor would I even if I could. I live my faith, but I also live my Feminism. Within the whole of my own faith group, as well as where I worship on Sundays, an equally great need for action and change exists. Feminism is evolving to fit new times, and the same is true for organized religion. But neither is a painless process. As might not surprising you, small-minded, short-sighted attitudes are present within religion as much as within Congress, and with similar abundance. Resistance has been fierce. People grow accustomed to old ways, and often view new ones with great suspicion.

The advice of which I spoke at the beginning urged me to consider reevaluating my general strategy. My usual course of action, for whatever cause it may be, consists usually of pushing and shoving with great force, then standing back for a time to observe the result. In some ways, it reminds me of lobbing a hand grenade several yards ahead, bracing myself for the blast, then advancing forward to observe the results of the explosion. It makes for great pyrotechnics, but has its limitations. The guidance provided me suggests I ought to instead apply slow, consistent, unyielding pressure to a troublesome area, but to also mind not to push too hard, nor too fast. “People are small-minded”, she said, implying that this is the nature of humans, and simply cannot be removed from the mix.

I write this not to criticize anyone’s leading or their own particular view. There will always be a need for people to agitate and mobilize, to call attention, and to raise consciousness. If I were speaking to a religious audience, I would note that all believers are part of the Body of Christ, and that each of us play an important, essential role within it. Though I know I am writing now for an audience of different faiths than my own, and sometimes no faith at all, this basic message has a greater application.

For we have many parts in one body, but these parts do not all have the same function. In the same way, even though we are many people, we are one body in the Messiah and individual parts connected to each other. We have different gifts based on the grace that was given to us. So if your gift is prophecy, use your gift in proportion to your faith. If your gift is serving, devote yourself to serving others.

If it is teaching, devote yourself to teaching others. If your gift is to encourage others, be encouraging. If it is giving, give generously. If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously. And if you have a gift for showing kindness to others, do it gladly.

Turn a tragedy upside down. Take this opportunity to grow together, to appreciate, acknowledge, and validate everyone’s unique contribution to the community. Recognize that there is great purpose here for all who are seeking. If we were not in search of something, we would not be here. Some of us seek ourselves. Some of us seek to be informed. Some of us seek to instruct others. Some of us seek to open the way so that we might all proceed into the light. Some are still unsure, but grateful for a forum to be heard and not silenced. Above all, be people of the light. For the whole of our lives, there will always be darkness.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Things We Said Today

It was past time for a new multitrack recording. I've been a fan of this song since my early teens. I did take some liberty with the end section, eliminating the last four lines because I've always thought they were redundant more than refrain.

Making Sense of Revolutions

We are witnessing what may be the birth pangs of nascent democracy in the Middle East. Or, we may be witnessing something else entirely. A region which has long trailed the rest of the Western world in basic freedoms for its citizens is in the process of long-needed transition. What it will be and what form it will eventually take has yet to be established. This doesn't mean, of course, that we won't try to transpose our own understanding upon the scene that lies before us. Especially when we contemplate the unknown, we can fall so easily into dichotomies. When comparing two things simultaneously, it is easy to believe that everything must belong to one part or the other, or, failing that, nothing can belong simultaneously to both parts.
Egypt is not Libya, nor is Tunisia exactly like Egypt.

We watch Al Jazeera with rapt attention, looking for some greater meaning behind the images. The high passions, chants, and rioting often have no context to us. Seeing the world through Western eyes, we long for a metaphor, or a helpful parallel so that we might understand. And through it all, we see how our national, regional identity complicates our comprehension. Though we may now live in a global world, our vision has yet to be corrected. We would best be fitted for bifocals.

What I have observed in American discourse are fears that dictatorship will circumvent democracy and with it the peoples' prominent role in government. Seeking greater understanding for the sake of analysis, references have been made to France during its revolution. The French Revolution began in a moderate, even conservative phase, then quickly gave way to radical chaos, then to a slightly more moderate form. The Revolution was eventually dissolved by a coup d'état led by General Napoléon Bonaparte. Napoléon ruled as a dictator for the next fifteen years. But it must be noted again that this is one particular scenario, one that is not necessarily fated to reestablish itself.

Historians love a good narrative, because it makes their work easier. I say this as someone with a history degree and half of another. High intrigue is easy to dramatize. Easily understood delineations between factions and warring parties grab the attention of the audience in ways a mere listing of past events cannot. Thus, we are more likely to have an understanding of 18th Century France than of other revolutions. By contrast, that which is often termed the English Civil War was a convoluted affair. Taking place a century or so before that of France (or of America's), it contained multiple theaters. It was an asymmetric affair beholden to fits and starts. For example, Scottish concerns and battles were different than those of their English counterparts. The common thread linking all of these together was a singularly incompetent King, who is still, and likely to be the only sovereign that Great Britain ever beheaded.

And as for the American Revolution, we are taught in totality only of the its first few stirring years. These are meant to appeal to our sense of national pride. It's this degree of patriotism that empowers certain groups to latch hold to it and claim some sense of identity with its stated goals. But in reality, the American Revolution did not exist in New England alone, or take a lightning pace down to New York and then to Virginia. Battles also raged in the South, and it is in this region where the British had the most success. By the end, the Southern theater began to turn in the favor of the American colonists, but this wasn't before years of British dominance. Because of this, we don't often study that portion of the conflict in much detail. It doesn't exactly fit the profile.

Nature abhors a vacuum, as the saying goes. And when details are faint or imperceptible, ready made answers are dusted off and brought out. Until 11 September 2001, most people were either ignorant of Islam or the Middle East, or uninterested in knowing more. They believed it didn't have much relation to their own lives. Then after a horrific attack, suddenly it was important to understand, though most of what passed for "understanding" was jingoistic propaganda girded by fear and hatred. This should never be confused for knowledge. Now, nearly a full decade later, a reduction of our own history has been co-opted by those with an particularly close-minded agenda. These revisionists should not be given license to do this.

C. Vann Woodward wrote,

Every self-conscious group of any size fabricates myths about its past: about its origins, its mission, its righteousness, its benevolence, and its general superiority. The conformist is not required nor expected to abandon his distinctive religion. But whether he remains a Protestant, a Catholic, or a Jew, his religion typically becomes subordinate or secondary to a national faith.

It is this national religion that encourages short-sighted attitudes. Politicians know better than to remove flag lapel pins or to criticize the scriptural passages of the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, or the Constitution. But the irony I have seen personally would be amusing, were it not so tragic. I have observed people arguing over the meaning of these sacred documents who have never actually read it for themselves. Imagine two people bickering about an interpretation of a biblical passage when neither of them have so much as opened the Book in years!

To me, nothing summarizes the current State of the Union more than this.

Good Morning Good Morning Good Morning

Monday, February 21, 2011

Shadow People

The vocals for this song are in a key that is at the very top of my upper register. It's not a comfortable one to sing, so I've resisted recording a version until now, although I do love it. The simplicity of the chords disguise the complexity of the lyrics and the phrasing. And, I like the message.

The rain is falling, it's after dark
The streets are swimming with the sharks
It's the right night for the wrong company
And there ain't nothing 'round here to look at
Move along, move along

The neon lights on Baltimore
Every shadow's getting famous
In some backyard, in some plastic chair
Hoping these cigarettes will save us
Here we go again, here we go again

You got rings in your ears
And you got kicked around and made up
Looking high, looking low
Where did all the shadow people go?
Where did all the shadow people go?
I wanna know, where the shadow people go

I stole a bike from the Second Mile
Saw a band play in the basement
I crossed the path of a friend of mine
And I know what that look upon her face meant
Something's gone from her eye
Something's gone wrong

You could be a woman or you could be a man
Wear the glove on the other hand
Or you could be twisted or you could be insane
Pushing the envelope against the grain
Just playing along, just playing along

And I got something on my mind
And I got voices on the other line.
Saying hi, saying hello
Where did all the shadow people go?
Where did all the shadow people go?

I wanna know where the shadow people go.
Where the shadow people go (Where did all the shadow people go?)
Where the shadow people go (Where did all the shadow people go?)

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Art for Art's Sake

I have taken to documenting, visually, parts of my body recently affected by health issues. This allows me to closely observe where, in this example, Estradiol is too high. I can then best explain it to doctors or even e-mail pertinent images when needed. As for this picture, I doubt most people would even know what to even look for. What you can see looks fairly normal unless you have some knowledge of the symptoms.

Most of these pictures are fairly nondescript and not terribly compelling, but a few of them appeared as though they had artistic merit. These seemed worth displaying publicly, assuming they were subtly tweaked first. I don't know a whole lot about Photoshop, but I did manage to experiment here and there with filters and effects. The result is interesting, at least. I'm not sure how many of them I'm going to put up here, but sometimes the process of experimentation is often worthwhile.

If you wish, click on the picture to view the image at its full size.

Quote of the Week

Self-righteousness is the hallmark of inner guilt.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Health Update

I haven't posted about the course of my treatment here for a while. I think because I live with the minutia of it daily, sporadic updates are all I really want to document.

For a while, I was having problems with communication between the primary care doctor and the endocrinologist. My PCP initially diagnosed the hypogonadism and wanted to kept in the loop with the specialist to know how best to treat me. I'm being treated for certain specific issues by one doctor, you see, and what is beyond her sphere of knowledge is then the domain of the specialist. My endocrinologist wasn't returning requests for his doctor's notes from the PCP, nor my e-mails and phone messages asking him to please comply with the request. He did, however, apologize profusely at our last appointment, stating he was deeply sorry for being busy, while promising to be more accessible in future. I believe him. So it was good to get that resolved, hopefully for good.

Regarding specific treatment, the course of treatment the endocrinologist has chosen to take is to focus on one particular area at a time. Sensible enough, since juggling multiple variables often makes it difficult to clearly observe the effects of specific processes and procedures. As always, I wonder how long this entire process is going to last from start to finish. In the meantime, he
has agreed to prescribe an aromatase inhibitor called Femara (Letrozole) that is newer than prior medications used to treat the same condition. This will effectively lower Estradiol (Estrogen) levels, boosting my testosterone in the process. One only has to take one pill a week, which is convenient.

He first wished to attain a peak level of testosterone, plus a base level of Estradiol, a sample taken only two or three days after the last testosterone injection. I provided that bloodwork Thursday. Then, on Tuesday, I will return to the lab to provide a second level that will measure the so-called nadir level of testosterone and resulting level of Estradiol. After both measurements are recorded, I will begin taking the Femara. Interestingly, the endocrinologist thinks that once Estradiol levels are lowered sufficiently, there may not be any reason to continue with testosterone therapy.

He also cautions me not to expect too much. Of course I hope to feel better, but I know that this is only one area being examined and treated. There are likely others that need to be considered. He's going to eventually check for thyroid antibodies via another test to locate the source of the swollen thyroid. That will see precisely what autoimmune condition is to blame for the symptoms reported. The thyroid ultrasound, as I suspected it would, revealed only that my thyroid gland was larger than it should probably be. That was good news. At least I don't have a goiter or some sort of node.

Since it's never simple for me, apparently, I've also developed something else, it seems. A gland on my lower back along the base of the spine has become severely infected. I kept hoping it would go away on its own, but that was not the case. I've been prescribed a very intense round of antibiotics lasting a week. Those may take care of the troubles eventually, but my GP believes that surgery will likely be needed to remove it. Such things, as she explains it, are rarely relegated to just one particular place on the body. All of this is related somehow, but the process, as explained to me, is much like untwisting a very complicated knot.

Here's for the final unraveling.

Saturday Video

Of course!

Friday, February 18, 2011

An Interview with Adlai Stevenson III: Part Five, The Death of Congressional Sanity

In this final section, I'll cover the portion of our talk in which we discussed the differences and distinctions in government between the House and Senate. Stevenson was a first-hand witness to their devolution for eleven years while a member of the Senate. Having won a special election in 1970 to serve out the remainder of a term vacated when a Senator died in office, Stevenson then won a full term in his own right. By its conclusion, burned out and disillusioned, he decided that nearly two full terms was enough for him. He instead returned to his home state of Illinois, preparing to run for Governor. That is quite a story in and of itself, and one I will leave for those who wish to read his new book, again titled simply, The Black Book.

Returning to the present day, the sinister rumblings and threats of a GOP-controlled House of Representatives have been on the mind of many. Whether it be a restriction of abortion rights or a threat to defund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Stevenson sees such conduct as symptomatic of the overall decay of the People's Body at a whole.

[The House] represents the people most directly and is the first check against excesses in the Executive Branch. I found that the House was capable of approving irresponsible, politically convenient measures because it could count on Senators with their longer terms in office to protect the public interest from its excesses. This is no longer a prudent assumption.

Partisan ideology is Stevenson's fear, in part, but he fears more the influx of capital, and a grand pay-for-play scheme that grows more virulent every passing second. Returning to the state of the Congress, comparisons between the 1994 Republican take-over of Congress and last year's election are inevitable. Measures currently under consideration are identical or at least closely related. In our interview, the Senator noted that "regular order was abandoned altogether by the Republicans [in 1994] after they acquired control."

Roll call votes were held open as long as the leadership required to cajole or bribe Members. Omnibus bills of hundreds of pages were drafted at night by leadership staff and rammed through the House before Members had a chance to study them. They were loaded with hidden earmarks for the faithful, denials thereof for dissidents, and favors for the interests which had invested.

Republican who have long complained about Democrats ramming legislation through Congress might need to take a long look in the mirror. Or, at least they ought to recognize the identical shade of their own kettle to that of the pot they criticize. Politics has grown increasingly petty and vindictive, and though there might have always been a certain amount of partisan name calling, Stevenson believes such conduct has been elevated to a far more ignoble plane.

The subject of pork and earmarks has also become a contentious issue recently. Stevenson states that, in his time on Capitol Hill, they were relative rarities, especially as concerns today. In The Black Book, he describes the way things used to be.

In the old days, a smoke-filled closed conference committee meeting of the Congressional Public Works Committee would have warmed the cackles of Boss Tweed's heart. That's where the pork was divvied up. But we were subject to more restraint and discipline. It never was an ethically pure process, as the Abscam incident implicating a Senator and several House members in an apparent bribery scheme demonstrated. But in the main we revered the Senate and earned the respect of our peers through its service.

...We exercised more restraint when we were less vulnerable. We fought for pork on the merits, justifying it to the Executive agencies and the Congress. We had more security in Party and were less dependent on the expectations of investors in politics, as well as the appetites of the new media. We did not trade votes for earmarks, which were unknown. Affections of patriotism, faith, and support for social values, all taken for granted, were no part of the political culture and process.

In other words, it was nothing like the current day. An during our interview, once again, Senator Stevenson returned to a consistent theme that runs also throughout his book. The influx of money from outside sources has poisoned the well, and will continue to poison the entire political process from the ground up. In particular, he is deeply critical of the way that foreign nations have essentially bought their way into Congress, and have established permanent seats at the table, if not the trough.

The lobbyists buy earmarks, loopholes, and other concessions, even favors for foreign countries. This is especially true with the Republic of Armenia which has a local constituency. Turkey hires lobbyists to counter those of the Armenians. The Iraqi government has, and still is, lobbying Congress as I speak. China and Russia, to my knowledge, have no lobbies, though China has been reported to be hiring a public relations firm. By contrast, in the early 1960's, Senator William Fullbright and the Senate Foreign Relations committee began a lengthy investigation of foreign agents, even daring to probe Israel's espionage and unlawful organization of its lobby.

Money and power, in a global economy, have no allegiance to nation or state. This is the way of the world. And after spending the better part of an hour considering all that is wrong and in need of resolution, I asked the Senator how best we ought to begin to change it. With so much set in motion, how can we ever begin to reverse course? Stevenson was as perplexed as I was, in some ways. His response, after giving it much thought himself, was that we all ought to take a more active role in our Democracy. Good people have done nothing for too long. Instead of running for office ourselves, we've outsourced that job to the wealthy, the well-connected, or the flat-out incompetent. He believes in the American people, but knows also that until we believe in ourselves, we should expect more of the same.

As I conclude what has been an extremely successful series, I would like to thank readers for their comments and their attention. For those interested, The Black Book can be purchased here.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Relative Rarity

A YouTube fan asked me if I'd record one of my better originals live. I usually keep videos for covers only, but I have no qualms about including material I have written myself. I've played this one so often now that I can just about do it in my sleep. Most unusual for me, I produced a suitable rendering in one take.

The lyrics are not to be taken completely at face value. Some are intended to be literal, others are entirely me poking fun at myself. I was, you must understand, much younger than I am now when I wrote this.

I've just about had it with you
You don't know what you've put me through
If love's just fun and games
I'm ashamed that I play 'em with you

Life's rough when you're weak like me
You get a tan just from watching TV
The sun's come down, but it's okay to breathe
I believe in the truth of the moon

And I don't know
Who you think you are
I don't know
Who the hell that you think you are

I have no answers
to the questions I seek
I haven't changed my clothes in weeks

The dryer's broken
and my clothes are still wet
Yeah, I bet that you think
I'm depressed

I used to watch a lot of cartoons
But now I hit the bottle waiting for noon

The liquor's gone
and I've got more than a buzz
Just because I'm a drunken buffoon

And I don't know
Who you think you are
I don't know who the hell that you
think you are

I've just about had it with you
You don't know what you've put me through
If love's just fun and games
I'm ashamed that I play 'em with you

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

I Has a Hat

An Interview with Adlai Stevenson III, Part Four: Diplomacy and Foreign Policy

On the subject of diplomacy and foreign policy, Senator Stevenson followed in his father's admittedly massive footsteps. In particular, he spent much time working in the Far East, and holds an expert opinion on Asia and monetary policy. The most detailed sections of The Black Book are devoted to both subjects. This next installment, however, will discuss the high-stakes world of brinkmanship and negotiation. In it, Stevenson directly refutes past political narratives whose veracity has rarely been challenged. In a Wikileaks world, the Senator has some severe criticisms of a failed system whose abuses have left all of us still feeling the effect.

The Senator is particularly critical of way that ambassador assignments were doled out under the Bush Administration's spoils system. Citing a Center for Responsive Politics report, The Black Book notes that a total of forty-three ambassadorships were awarded to campaign donors. And furthermore, Stevenson argues that the process of formulating and implementing policy ought to be the within the sole purview of the State Department. He is suspicious of the Pentagon's presence in the process, as well the existence of a myriad of other intelligence services. Stevenson also notes that lobbying by foreign ambassadors and individual embassies has become a significantly larger issue.

[This policy] was an improper intrusion into State Department authority as late as the early 1970's. By the end of that decade, even foreign ambassadors were lobbying, and foreign governments were hiring public relations firms and lobbyists. Politics never stopped at the water's edge...but diplomacy was not formulated by ideologues in the Executive Branch or members of Congress unchastened by experience in the real world.

Once again, Stevenson believes that an intellectual understanding of complex matters is no substitute for hands-on experience. Returning to the topic of foreign intrusion into American affairs, one relatively recent event comes to mind. Three years ago, one may recall the considerable flap over Canadian diplomatic intrusion into the Democratic Primary fight between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Michael Wilson, then the Canadian Ambassador to the United States, was accused of telling a reporter that Obama was not serious in backing out of NAFTA. The Obama campaign had been attempting to make a large issue out of Hillary Clinton's involvement in the process during her husband's two terms in office. In the midst of a political fight that was then nowhere near settled, Team Obama took a hit. To his credit, Wilson noted that he did speak to the reporter in question, but nonetheless refused to discuss exactly what it was that he discussed with a member of the Canadian media.

George Washington warned us in his Farewell Address to beware of foreign entanglements and to pursue a generally isolationist course. This was easier at a time where the United States was an emerging power, greatly subordinate to the nations of Western Europe. Ours is a global world now, full of foreign entanglements and intrigue that cannot be evaded. That is the nature of a new reality. But it does further underscore, as Sir Walter Scott pointed out, what tangled webs we weave when we first we practice to deceive.

Speaking truthfully, other countries have likely been trying to unduly influence, if not altogether subvert American politics as long as the United States has existed. In his book, Senator Stevenson shares a particularly fascinating anecdote about one of his father's experiences.

In the spring of 1960, when Adlai II was being urged to seek the Democratic Presidential nomination for a third time, he was invited to speak with Ambassador Menshikov of the Soviet Union at its embassy in Washington.

Two chairs were placed in the room, away from walls to signify the conversation was confidential. The Ambassador explained that he had received instruction from General Secretary Khrushchev to inform Governor Stevenson that the Soviet Union was prepared to assist his presidential candidacy. To draw out the Ambassador, the Governor inquired as to the kind of assistance Mr. Khrushchev had in mind. His inquiry had been anticipated. The Ambassador replied that he was instructed to invite suggestions from the Governor, who then rejected the proposal.

Senator Stevenson, the son, is particularly critical of the man who would be the Republican nominee for President that same year of 1960. Eventually elected to the office eight years later, President Richard Nixon's entire approach to diplomacy is often considered a personal strength and overall success. Stevenson strenuously disagrees. Within a struggle that was soon to be painted in terms of Evil Empire versus Capitalist Virtue, few seemed to know, or to care, the reality behind the rhetoric. In the meantime, a controversial Nobel Prize winner emerged from closed door sessions with the Soviets, convinced of the rightness of his cause.

Secretary of State Kissinger, the "realist", pursued "détente" with the Soviet Union by granting it more than a billion dollars worth of cash and credit in one year. Thus, the Soviet Union was being subsidized by the U.S. The Stevenson Amendment, which I sponsored, put an end to Kissinger's pursuit of détente with money. It conditioned cash and credits for the Soviet Union on periodic Congressional review, thus ending his unwitting efforts to prolong the life of the Soviet Union. Unaided, it would collapse of its own inner contradictions and weight, and thus would the Eastern Europeans and the Republics of the Soviet Union be finally freed, under President Gorbachev.

The recent celebration in some corners of Ronald Reagan's 100th Birthday has opened up the legacy of his Presidency to the same scrutiny. I doubt many of these same fiscal conservatives would be pleased to recognize that we were, for a time, essentially bankrolling a sworn enemy. A rarely contested assertion is that Reagan's policies bankrupted the USSR through the process of the arms race. Stevenson is not so sure, or at least not inclined to concede the former President more than his due. And to speak even more frankly, we all indirectly subsidize our stated enemies by a variety of means, dependence on crude oil being only one of these.

How easy it would be if the world was divided into good guys and bad guys. But without increasing our cynicism more than it is already, there is honor among thieves. Negotiating with foreign countries requires a dexterous tongue and a gracious spirit. It is not for the faint of heart. Adlai II summarized the vocation in this way. "Diplomacy consists of protocol, alcohol, and geritol."

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

An Interview with Adlai Stevenson III, Part Three: Religion in American Life

While in the midst of a discussion about the vast unchecked growth of the military, the subject of religion entered our interview. While on the subject, I mentioned that I am a Quaker, and opposed to the very existence of a military. We then began to chat briefly about the connection between church membership and political allegiance. Senator Stevenson is a Unitarian Universalist, and though his church does not expressly take the position, he has long been in favor of abolishing the death penalty. The Senator's father and Great-grandfather also believed that capital punishment should be cast upon the scrap heap of history. And as we discussed the particulars of the Religious Left, our interview then turned towards the abuses of the Religious Right.

On this subject, the Senator writes,

Evangelical Christianity remains a powerful, perhaps growing force in the lives of Americans. While mainline Protestant denominations have shrunk, evangelicals have increased and continue to derive their inspiration from a literal reading of the Bible and the resurrected Christ as their savior. Christian Zionists have become supporters of Israel's occupation of Palestine, trusting in the eventual conversion of the Jews.

The Senator noted that many of our Founding Fathers were often extremely suspicious of organized religion. Products of what was perceived to be an Enlightened Age, they believed that reason alone could solve a multitude of societal problems. Those who affixed their signatures to the Declaration of Independence, for example, did not need to look too far back in history to see the excesses and barbarity committed in the name of God. This makes it extremely ironic, to say the least, that conservative politicians and groups have revised history so substantially that they reverently invoke the names of men who, were they alive today, would very likely have vocally repudiated their stated beliefs.

Evangelism in the early days propagated the Gospel, preached salvation, and often employed Scripture to depict a caring Jesus. Later, it began to metamorphose into salvation through rebirth, the end of times, and predestination, which had roots in Calvinist New England. For a long while, this fundamentalism did not invade American politics. God did not demand the submission preached by Luther, Calvin, or the Pope.

Without any background or contrast, many assume this latest incarnation of Christianity has been around forever. Indeed, the version of Christianity now considered almost-Orthodox has taken hold so quickly and thoroughly that it is sometimes difficult to remember a time it was not present. While spending two terms in the U.S. Senate, Stevenson saw the beginning of this transition firsthand. He routinely worked closely across the aisle with Republicans to draft legislation, and is dismayed at the divided, partisan atmosphere that is now present in that deliberative body. It didn't take long.

The political climate in 1970, when he started his first term, was wholly distinct and different to when he left the Senate eleven years later. To some extent, he assigns blame to the Reagan Revolution, which was on its way in while he was on the way out. But part of this division and growing partisan rancor he places squarely on the shoulders of Evangelical Christanists. "The Republican Party," he notes, echoing others on the same topic, "has become America's first religious party."

With a now decreased voice in the greater debate, liberal faith traditions find themselves increasingly at a severe disadvantage. The strident pronouncements and self-righteous testimonies of Evangelicals make the most noise and achieve maximum media saturation. In part, this is because religious liberals tend to be more private about the matter, thus they are often loathe to appear as though they are proselytizing in any way. Uncomfortable with what they see as the heavy-handed approaches of others, progressive people of faith routinely believe that church membership and religious faith ought to be entirely up to the personal conviction of the individual. This attitude is, of course, itself a direct response to the mission statement of Evangelicals, which is quite often to save souls and win converts.

In The Black Book, Stevenson cites the Quaker theologian Elton Trueblood.

The biblical record is far more concerned with events than it is with ideas. Ideas there are, but they are subordinate to events. The conviction usually unstated, is that God reveals Himself much more fully in history than in nature or in any other way...The men who wrote the words of the Bible were contented, for the most part, with telling a story.

It may be instructive to see this new Evangelism as a counter-reformation of a sort. Where reason and religious tolerance once reigned, now fundamentalism, superstition, and intolerance poses as Gospel. Once politics enters religion, problems are not far away. When Christian love should be of paramount importance, now stem cell research, gay rights, and abortion have become as important, if not more so. Stevenson can't help but note the tragedy. To him, this is nothing less than class warfare, and nothing can be less productive than a Civil War.

Senator Stevenson's Great-grandfather, Adlai I, ran as Vice-President with William Jennings Bryan at the head of the ticket at the early part of the last century. He notes that the Great Commoner himself would be dismayed at the result. "Common people [are] waging war against their own class for the benefit of rich and privileged beneficiaries and their supporters." What is even more tragic is that many don't seem to be able to see this.

Nor do people often recognize that religion has become big business. Megachurches spring up on every corner, espousing philosophies which are little more than feel-good platitudes validated with a bare minimum of scripture. The so-called Prosperity Gospel now in vogue is capitalism lightly disguised as theology. True faith itself is not simply The Power of Positive Thinking. Belief is a complex matter inclined to provide us what we need, not necessarily what we want. When the focus shifts to bricks and mortar or individual gain, religion has no room to breathe.

But amidst all that is discouraging, Stevenson does conclude with a few hopeful words.

Perhaps Reason will return. Evangelicals have been detected taking an interest in global warming and the afflictions of the needy in the world. Republicans, despite their most recent successes, have been losing elections. But the commercialism of religion flourishes unrelated, as it is, to the evangelical virtues.

Monday, February 14, 2011

An Interview with Adlai Stevenson III, Part Two: The Role of the Media

Midway through our interview, Senator Stevenson spoke about the ways in which the mainstream media shortchanges the American people. While criticizing sound bite culture, as so many have before, his harshest words were for a mass media who, in his opinion, oversimplifies broader issues without taking the time to provide the full context to its audience. In his opinion, this is tantamount to complete irresponsibility. Then, perhaps qualifying his remarks somewhat, Stevenson conceded something very interesting.

"In a world of globalization," he acknowledged, "issues are often more complicated to explain. It didn't used to be that way."

Regarding the subject of the ongoing Egyptian Revolution, I recall the way it was initially reported to an American audience. Substantive details were few and far between. Confusion reigned as a result. All we knew was that something very important and substantial was happening, but we weren't exactly sure what that was, exactly. Experts in the region were consulted to provide some color commentary, but their remarks were regularly consigned to the fringes. It was tacitly assumed that we wouldn't have the patience or the time to wish to know the complete picture.

In The Black Book, his new memoir/political treatise, Senator Stevenson cites a recent study to support his claims.

A study of local television news coverage by the University of Wisconsin-Madison News Lab in 2007 showed clear evidence of this discrepancy. In an election year, thirty-six monitored Midwest stations devoted an average of 36 seconds in a typical 30 minute news program to election coverage. By contrast, advertising received more than 10 minutes, sports and weather received more than 7 minutes, government news received about a minute, and foreign policy received all of 23 seconds.

In a bygone era, America was more regional in orientation. Local newspapers devoted print and space to covering events which were pertinent to relatively small numbers of people. Radio, then television expanded national coverage, giving Americans the opportunity to identify more with country than with region. In today's Internet age, any person with a computer and a connection can read what has been reported by media outlets in every world region and within almost every country in the world. The industry has still not devised strategies to best disseminate and synthesize this massive amount of content to its viewers and listeners. Instead, it continues to extract bits and pieces of much larger topics in the hopes that less is more.

It is difficult to know what changed first. Were people forced to embrace a busy, hectic lifestyle where free time is at a premium, or did the medium of news openly encourage this attitude? Or, did one perhaps cater specifically to the limitations and demands of the other? Whatever is the case, this is still the reality in which we find ourselves. Furthermore, Americans distrust the press about as much as they distrust Congress these days. Yet, both still manage to take their seats, year in and year out. Stevenson cites a Harris poll taken in the 1970's wherein 25-30% of those surveyed stated that they had a great deal of confidence in in the press. This dislike has been widespread for a long time, it seems. By 2005, that number had shrunk considerably, registering now a paltry 12%. The Senator wryly points out that, in the more recent poll, only law firms were trusted less.

Stevenson is particularly critical of the way in which elections are presented by the media. In his words, they focus too much on "the game" and less upon substantive policy issues. Electioneering, to him, goes beyond public relations and should never be confused with a sporting event. Furthermore, he believes that candidates ought to do their part to provide information to a responsible press, after which the media should uphold its end of the bargain.

He writes,

In 1980, former Congressman John Anderson--a respected, eloquent, moderate Republican of Illinois--pledged a third party issue-oriented campaign for President. The idea was newsworthy until he started to spell out his positions on issues. The public heard little of his ideas--only that he had news conferences to explain them.

President Carter, in the closing days of his 1980 campaign for reelection, sought to explain his objectives for a second term in a prepared speech delivered in Texas. That is what the public at large heard--that he had objectives, not what they were. Leaving office, he was asked his greatest disappointments: "Iran and the press," he replied.

After that campaign year, one defeated candidate remarked of the media, "And then they complain that we did not discuss the issues." It has been downhill since then.

In a book that is peppered, deliberately, with frequently clever and wise sayings as it with commentary, the Senator concludes his chapter on the media by telling this story.

Mark Twain, then an editor of a small Missouri newspaper, was asked by a subscriber if a spider found in his paper was an omen of good or bad luck. He responded that finding a spider in the newspaper was neither good luck, nor bad. The spider was merely looking over the paper to find out which merchant was not advertising so that he could go to the store, spin his web across the door, and lead a life of undisturbed peace.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Quote of the Week

"Take away the sword; states can be saved without it."- The Cardinal de Richelieu

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Don't Leave Me Dry

Recorded by yours truly, less than an hour ago.

An Interview with Adlai Stevenson III, Part One: Government Transparency

Editor's Note:

Earlier this week I had the great honor to be able to interview former Illinois Senator Adlai E. Stevenson III. He is promoting a new book entitled The Black Book, in which he summarizes a career spent in public service as well as sharing his thoughts about the current day. We covered a lot of ground in our hour-long talk, so I intend to write a series of posts as a result. This, then, is Part One.


Comrade Kevin

Former Senator Adlai E. Stevenson III is the third in an impressive line of well-regarded public servants. His famous father, Adlai Stevenson II, is beloved by many for his witty quips and literate analysis, both of which are regularly cited to this day. Adlai II stood as the Democratic Party’s candidate for President on two separate occasions, then bolstered his historical reputation further as Ambassador to the United Nations during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Great-Grandfather Adlai Stevenson I served one term as Vice President under Grover Cleveland and ran once more for the same office on the same ticket as Populist orator William Jennings Bryan.

I spoke with Senator Stevenson at length recently. Our talk touched on many topics, but the most compelling of these regards the need for transparency in government. Last year’s heavily contentious Health Care Reform debate brought the issue of sunshine laws and their ilk to the forefront. Candidate Obama called for a comprehensive end to closed-door deliberations that left the American people out in the cold. Then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was routinely criticized for perceived hypocrisy by relying heavily on secrecy in particularly sensitive Congressional deliberations.

Many of the more controversial backroom deals in that agonizing process, such as the so-called Louisiana Purchase and Cornhusker Kickback, were conducted in ways that would seem to defy the stated wishes of the President and the American People. In response, the media cried foul, the Republican Party expressed indignation, and so did many private citizens. What could be less democratic than a return to the smoke-filled rooms of days gone by?

Senator Stevenson holds a surprising opinion on this topic. When I interviewed him, he expressed deep regret that he himself had pushed for government transparency in the early 1970’s while a member of the Senate. A reformer by nature, Stevenson once championed open congressional communication in all forms. In his recently published memoir/political commentary, entitled The Black Book, Stevenson speaks of precisely why he has come to reverse himself with time. “Our efforts to make the democratic process more democratic,” he notes with regret, "made it more plutocratic.”

The Illinois Senator has, late in life, instead become a believer in the old system. On the subject of selecting a Democratic nominee for President, party insiders, not primary and caucus voters selected candidates. He adds that his father was deeply reluctant to run for President in 1952, but felt that he must do so to fulfill his duty to the nation and the party. In those days, the primary system was embryonic compared to the way it is now. Democratic Party insiders believed that the candidate who had achieved the most primary wins, Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver, simply could not win the General Election. Based on their judgment, Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson II was substituted instead. Sixty years later, his son calls for a return to strongly centralized party organization and even pines for the existence of the well-oiled political machines so despised in their day.

In The Black Book, the Senator devotes a full chapter to this idea.

“Senators... retreated behind closed doors to draft legislation in mark up sessions and represent[ed] the public interest with impunity, as the founders did at the Constitutional Convention. We opened the doors. Senators then retreated to closed Conference Committee meetings to reconcile legislation passed by both Houses. [They] represent[ed] the common interest by removing concessions adopted in public for grateful supplicants and constituents, knowing they would disappear in secret.

When their doors were opened, Senators had nowhere remaining to represent the public interest without fear of retribution from interest groups.”

As Stevenson sees it, open government means open opportunities for money to dominate. Ironically, all of these reform measures were adopted, as he states, “in the name of more democracy”. Recently, we’ve seen a variation of this argument which began when the Supreme Court struck down key portions of the McCain/Feingold Act early last year. Citizens United v. Federal Election Committee has only increased the proliferation of money and financial interests into the political process, factors which, according to Senator Stevenson, continue to create corruption and dysfunction.

“We opened up the legislative process," he writes, “increased the staffing and, in redistributing power, broadly left it vulnerable to pressures at many more points from think tanks, industry, financial, and farm groups, environmentalists, gun control, and abortion advocates, religionists, and advocacy groups of all kinds. [All of these] proliferated to take advantage of reform and the mounting vulnerability of the politicians.

The unintended results were due in part to the new mass media which took advantage of the reforms, [opting] to be adversarial and superficial instead of availing the public of its new access to political process and politicians, as we reformers had naively expected.”

In effect, Pandora’s Box was opened, and we are still dealing with the consequences. I began our interview asking Stevenson how he thought we might correct it. His opinion was that, in part, we needed to encourage people to take a more active role in civic affairs and government. He mentioned that his wife, like so many, felt so inspired by the Obama 2008 campaign that she volunteered for direct service. Now, from the vantage point of two years, the Obama Presidency has failed to impress, but neither should we forget the feelings of unity in common purpose. To Stevenson, this is the true definition of democracy. When we designate other people to stand in for our own self-interest, problems are not far away.

As I conclude, reflecting upon the Senator's remarks, a time-honored phrase comes to mind. “Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.”


*To purchase The Black Book, please follow this link.

Saturday Video

I know so many people who think they can do it alone
They isolate their heads and stay in their safety zones

Now what can you tell them
And what can you say that won't make them defensive?

I know there's an answer
I know now but I have to find it by myself

They come on like they're peaceful
But inside they're so uptight
They trip through their day
And waste all their thoughts at night

Now how can I come on
And tell them the way that they live could be better?

I know there's an answer
I know now but I have to find it by myself

Now how can I come on
And tell them the way that they live could be better?

I know there's an answer
I know now but I have to find it by myself

Friday, February 11, 2011

Where I Am and What I'm Doing

Today is a day full of medical appointments to keep, in my ongoing process of treatment.

I do have some exciting news to report. I got a chance yesterday to interview Adlai Stevenson III, the son of the former Illinois Governor, two-time Democratic nominee for President, and Ambassador to the United Nations. Adlai III was a U.S. Senator from Illinois in his own right. What we discussed will be included in Monday's post. I have a lot to go through, and it'll take me a while this weekend to select and sort.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Risking Failure is Sometimes the Only Option

Valentine's Day will be upon us shortly, so I thought I'd give voice to something that has been my mind recently. This past week I've been reflecting upon the challenges of communication between people. I attended a party last weekend, whereby I silently observed the behavior of those who showed up. What I found particularly interesting were the ways in which flirtation and sexual interest manifested themselves. The gathering was comprised of young, educated, socially conscious, progressive, slightly socially awkward, frequently introverted men and women. We usually seek company with people who are like us. And even though the sample size may not be particularly broad, I think some of my conclusions have universal application.

To wit, I was once again profoundly aware of the difficulties and challenges that social anxiety and internal fear produce for us. Still, many braved their insecurities and reservations in search of a good conversation, platonic or otherwise. And, taking in the full scene, I was also reminded of how the Internet has changed the way we see ourselves and each other. Many, myself included, have used it as a means to make interpersonal contact much easier. But it is also true that Internet confidence only goes so far. For example, I've mentioned things about myself here that I would never feel comfortable sharing with many in real life.

Returning to my larger point, I know many people, both male and female, who one would assume up front to be strong, decisive, and forceful. When these adjectives are applied to academic achievement or their career, they could not be more appropriate. According to many of society's benchmarks, they are very successful. However, when the subject of romance and dating is raised, this cocksure, fearless attitude dissipates. They are keepers of a particularly heavily guarded secret. Sometimes the solution is unknown to them. Sometimes the solution is too painful to actively contemplate, so it goes underground.

The fear that seems to have many in its grip is the fear of intimacy. To some, the thought of being vulnerable in the face of the unknown is utterly terrifying. This proves to be a contradiction in terms, but humans are often contradictory beings. This is unfortunate, because, taken to an extreme, one never finds true love or lasting satisfaction. Before I go any further, let me also point out that I recognize that some people simply aren't interested in being part of a partnered relationship. And, on the subject of sex and sexual desire, I don't need to forget the asexual community, either. My intention is not to shame or harshly judge women (or men) who have made deliberate decisions of their own free will to remain single. What is true for some is not always true for all. I am instead merely responding to people I have met who are actively seeking a relationship and seem to be stuck in neutral. Since I associate mostly with women, I know their stories and background better.

To start out, be it known that in my own life, dating was not something that came particularly easy. This is an extreme understatement. An anxious, fearful, neurotic child, I became an even more anxious, fearful, and neurotic teenager. Routine conversation regardless of the context was challenging, and seeking out company with others was always very scary. Even to this day, if I'm in an unfamiliar setting, the same terror regularly returns, though I have developed tools and strategies with practice and therapy to at least take the edge of of them. And as concerns dating, in particular, when I first tried my hand at it, I was in a state of mind so far outside my comfort zone that I had to give myself private pep talks just to approach those who I found attractive. It still embarrasses me to think about how many times I tried and failed and tried and failed.

But, as Oscar Wilde put it, "experience is simply the name we give to our mistakes." I wish I could dispense the same wisdom to the friend who quite vocally longs for a boyfriend, but keeps the boxing gloves on at all times, jabbing away, seeing an instant enemy in every phrase and person. I wish I could reach the friend who has devised an elaborate way of channeling her desire in safe, evasive, labyrinthine, complicated ways that allow her the ability to entertain the possibilities, without possessing the actual intention to ever turn them into reality. It is easy to live in fantasy, because we control the plot development and the outcome. To surrender to the unknown, however, is a thought too painful for far too many. Sometimes I think this phenomenon has swelled to epidemic proportions.

What are we all so afraid of, really? Ourselves? Each other? The agony of possibly being hurt or rejected? Even though I am not female, nor was I socialized as a woman, I am aware of the need for protection in a world where violence and trauma are very real possibilities. In Feminist spaces and communities we are good to draw attention to those injustices when they are neglected by others. Yet, I do nonetheless know, based on my own experience, that it is entirely possible to find an adequate balance between cautiousness and trust. If finding love or basic human connection is what we seek, one cannot study for it like the GRE or a final exam. It is not a question of having good references and an impressive resume. Nor is one guaranteed of seeing immediate results. Faith is what is needed most, which promises us only that we will eventually receive what we need. What we need may not be what we think we want. May we all have the courage to fail, as many times as we must.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Regarding Yesterday's Song

I recognize I didn't specify who I was singing about or singing to with yesterday's song. I was talking about clueless mainstream media personalities and the barrage of soft news that passes for actual discourse.

They're the one's pissing in the wind, if you will. Some people are oblivious to the fact that they need to change. In my life, I've been encountering people so beholden to the status quo that they reject any criticism off-hand, since in their ordered world, things run smoothly and efficiently.

If anyone felt that I was criticizing them personally, I assure you I was not.

Even Though I Try

I sat at a blank computer screen for an hour this morning, trying to come up with something compelling to write about. Instead, this song entered my head, summarizing my current situation.

So, why not record it?

I try not to personalize these songs, but I think I've been aware recently of the challenges of communication. There's a certain tragedy present for those of us who have a desire for connection with each other, but our confidence deserts us. At a party over the weekend, I was aware of the games we play with those we find desirable. One can be a student of them, but still not incorporate applied knowledge into actual experience. I feel comfortable among people with my same basic worries, anxieties, and neuroses, but we have a way of being alone together.


Please forget the words that I just blurted out,
it wasn't me, it was my strange and creeping doubt,
it keeps rattling my cage.
And there's nothing in this world will keep it down,

and even though I might, even though I try, I can't.
Even though I might, even though I try, I can't.

Soon your things that keep, that keep me underground,
so many words that I, that I can never find.
If you give up on me now,
I'll be gutted like I've never been before.

And even though I might, even though I try, I can't
Even though I might, even though I try, I can't

If you give up on me now,
I'll be gutted like I've never been before.

And even though I might, even though I try, I can't
Even though I might, even though I try, I can't,
even though I might, even though I try, I can't.
Even though I might, even though I try, I can't.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

An Ambulance Can Only Go So Fast

This song can be interpreted in a variety of different ways, but I've always seen it as a critique of certain segments of the media. I performed it with that in mind. I do try to resist the temptation to not overplay my hand, but some of these lines are designed to be strongly emphasized.

Back in the old folky days
The air was magic when we played.

The riverboat was rockin'
in the rain
Midnight was the time
for the raid.

Oh, Isabela, proud Isabela,
They tore you down and
plowed you under.

You're only real
with your make-up on

How could I see you
and stay too long?

All along the Navajo Trail,
Burn-outs stub their toes
on garbage pails.
Waitresses are cryin'
in the rain

Will their boyfriends
pass this way again?

Oh, Mother Goose,
she's on the skids

Shoe ain't happy,
neither are the kids.
She needs someone
that she can scream at

And I'm such a heel
for makin' her feel so bad.

I guess I'll call it
sickness gone

It's hard to say
the meaning of this song.
An ambulance can only
go so fast

It's easy to get buried
in the past
When you try to make
a good thing last.

I saw today
in the entertainment section
There's room at the top
for private detection.

To Mom and Dad
this just doesn't matter,
But it's either that
or pay off the kidnapper.

So all you critics sit alone
You're no better than me
for what you've shown.

With your stomach pump and
your hook and ladder dreams
We could get together
for some scenes.

Well, I'm up in T.O.
keepin' jive alive,
And out on the corner
it's half past five.

But the subways are empty
And so are the cafes.

Except for the Farmer's Market
And I still can hear him say:

You're all just pissin'
in the wind
You don't know it
, but you are.

And there ain't nothin'
like a friend

Who can tell you
you're just pissin'
in the wind.

I never knew a man
could tell so many lies
He had a different story
for every set of eyes

How can he remember
who he's talking to?

Cause I know it ain't me,
and I hope it isn't you.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Super Bowl Ads: One Small Step for Man

Last year's slue of Super Bowl commercials put a new spin on tired traditions. Hyper-masculinity was predictably glorified and exaggerated, women were shown to be little more than sexual objects, and blatant homophobia was present in a variety of ads. Each catered to an overarching idea that traditional masculinity was under attack from women, homosexuality, and femininity. The derisive phrase "the year of anxious masculinity" rightfully summarized the general feel and content of much of what aired. That particular slate of advertisements was nothing terribly novel in and of itself, but it did hearken back even farther than recent memory. The antecedent for each was, in part, one pervasive story.

...Samson fell in love with a woman named Delilah, who lived in the valley of Sorek. The rulers of the Philistines went to her and said, "Entice Samson to tell you what makes him so strong and how he can be overpowered and tied up securely. Then each of us will give you 1,100 pieces of silver." So Delilah said to Samson, "Please tell me what makes you so strong and what it would take to tie you up securely." She tormented him with her nagging day after day until he was sick to death of it.

Finally, Samson shared his secret with her. "My hair has never been cut," he confessed, "for I was dedicated to God as a Nazirite from birth. If my head were shaved, my strength would leave me, and I would become as weak as anyone else." Delilah realized he had finally told her the truth, so she sent for the Philistine rulers. "Come back one more time," she said, "for he has finally told me his secret." So the Philistine rulers returned with the money in their hands.

Delilah lulled Samson to sleep with his head in her lap, and then she called in a man to shave off the seven locks of his hair. In this way she began to bring him down, and his strength left him. Then she cried out, "Samson! The Philistines have come to capture you!" When he woke up, he thought, "I will do as before and shake myself free." But he didn't realize the LORD had left him. So the Philistines captured him and gouged out his eyes. They took him to Gaza, where he was bound with bronze chains and forced to grind grain in the prison.

When we speak of this anxious masculinity, what we are really talking about is male privilege. Specifically, it is the fear that leveling the playing field, so to speak, will come at the expense of heterosexual white men. What I in particular find distasteful beside the obvious is that one particularly recursive interpretation of masculinity gets reinforced and advanced over and over. A brawny, brute, lecherous, not terribly cerebral version of masculine expression gets interpolated in between the over-the-top sight gags and bad puns. Men come in all shapes, sizes, and formulations. This same is also true for women, though publicly acknowledging this is far more common.

That was last year. This year, someone in marketing and advertising got the hint and listened to at least some of the criticism. Super Bowl commercials aired yesterday made some strides towards inclusion, rather than exclusion. A few began to even walk back their more smarmy attacks towards women and minorities. The most prominent example I recall off hand began when a particularly dangerous-looking cowboy walked up to the bar in a saloon, in the oldest of timeworn stock cliches. Demanding a particularly well-known American beer, he takes a sip of it, then peculiarly begins up an off-key rendition of the Elton John song, "Tiny Dancer." The rest of the bar joins in as if on queue, as though this were some demented musical. In the end, everyone appears to be thoroughly satisfied and happy, which always seems to happen in beer commercials.

At times, however, this sort of near-concessionary approach seemed overreaching rather than wholly genuine. Other commercials made similar attempts, but in a kind of halfhearted, resentful fashion instead. Once a belief in all that is zero sum game takes hold, it's difficult to shake. In any case, I'm often thankful for small favors regarding content aimed about as low as low culture gets. What might not have been conspicuous in its presence was at least conspicuous in its absence. Madison Avenue has always had an uneasy relationship with cultural reform and equality, as both threaten to swallow its bottom line. It's much easier and less risky to keep peddling corn chips to the lower common denominator than to take into account new realities and emerging movements. Until mutually parasitic relationships indebted to inertia are shown to be destructive and poisonous, rather than steady revenue streams, change will not come to America.

Marketers and advertisers mine existing tropes to extract every ounce of gold and silver possible. They do not break ground on new developments. They do not wish to invest in alternative sources of fuel or coinage. The trade itself is a multi-billion dollar a year enterprise and, in response, no one's cash cow is sacred. If they can't bribe Delilah, they'll be sure to bribe Samson next.

Philistinism is a derogatory term used to describe a particular attitude or set of values. A person called a Philistine (in the relevant sense) is said to despise or undervalue art, beauty, intellectual content, or spiritual values. Philistines are also said to be materialistic, to favor conventional social values unthinkingly, and to favor forms of art that have a cheap and easy appeal (e.g. kitsch).

We can take this hatred of Philistinism too far, as well. Note that the description above includes the crucial phrase "favor[s] conventional social values unthinkingly." This is the difference between blatant sexism, racism, homophobia and its more insidious, subconscious rendering. This doesn't mean the offense should be excused, just that it must be addressed by different means. And it is interesting to note that the culture wars raging today have evolved with time. Returning to my source,

Philistinism affords a contrast to Bohemianism, as the character of a smugly conventional bourgeois social group perceived to lack all the desirably soulful "bohemian" characteristics, especially an artistic temperament and a broad cultural horizon open to the avant-garde. To the chosen few, the "Philistines" embodied a smug, anti-intellectual threatening majority, in the "culture wars" of the 19th century.

To some extent, we are still fighting this same battle. My basest fear, with every approaching Super Bowl Sunday, is always that someone in another country will make incorrect assumptions about American culture based purely on our advertising. The Super Bowl is watched worldwide, of course, and the tradition has been spread by American citizens living abroad. The game, with its famous commercials between plays is uniquely American, but not always in the best ways. Someone on the outside looking in could be provided information that has some basis in fact, but the conclusions drawn will often be distorted, cartoonish, and exaggerated. The lyrics of a song by the 90's Britpop group Blur parody American consumer culture and banality. "Magic America" gets a few digs in at our expense.

Bill Barret has a simple dream
He calls it his Plan B
Buildings in the sky and the air is sugar free
And everyone's very friendly

Plan B arrived on a holiday
Took a cab to the shopping malls
Bought and ate until he could do neither anymore
Then found love on Channel 44

La la la la la
He wants to go to Magic America
La la la la la
He'd like to live in Magic America
With all the magic people

Bill Barrett sent his postcards home
To everyone he'd ever known
They read,

"Fifty-nine cents gets you a good square meal
From the people who care how you feel"

La la la la la
He wants to go to Magic America
La la la la la
He'd like to live in Magic America
With all the magic people

The importance of challenging popular culture cannot be overstated enough. Still, the solutions we advance must take into account more than we who are, ourselves the modern-day Bohemians. Our audience must not limited. Thomas Jefferson's impact in shaping this country cannot be understated, but at times his philosophy was contradictory and conflicted. For example, Jefferson mentioned that he admired the common man, albeit at a safe distance. This is, I cannot stress enough, the very same man who drafted the immortal phrase, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." Even if we modernize the word "men" to also include women, the contradiction remains.

Today's culture wars crop up all the time, and eventually make their way into mass media, especially in the form of gross caricature. Discerning where we can best make an impact as gatekeepers likely requires a scalpel rather than an axe. Education is always part of the equation, but possessing a sharp eye is also a requirement. We must be careful to not keep the common people of our own lives at a safe distance. We say we believe in open communication, but if someone we did not know were to knock at our front door, I know we'd make sure the screen or peephole served as a defensive barrier. Mistrust is what calcifies unhealthy systems. It is what kept Samson at first from revealing his strength, though beyond that unfortunate outcome, the ultimate resolution of the story reveals his ultimate triumph. We do not need to destroy ourselves to destroy that which is offensive and regressive, but we do need to derive strength from the best parts of ourselves. Should we do that, then we will succeed in the end.