Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Attention Getting Devices

women stride by you
in dramatic gestures
out on parade

dressed all in red
for emphasis
making sure to be seen

a game of tag

you could call it possession
but it's not that, somehow

problem is,
some don't
really want to be it

the ball moves
from court to court
but no one takes a shot

women sweep by
quite deliberately
as if on stage

while you speak your lines
ad libbing all the way
to some other female
quite intensely

hoping they'll peel
you off somehow

or maybe that you
won't forget them

(you won't)


or some combination
of the three

the rules of the game
are not subtle

but just try your hand
at leaving the court.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Baby, Let's Swing

Dedicated with great affection.

Laura, I saw you open in LA
There's something I gotta say
Laura, you know it's really
been such a long, long time.

And you know Laura,
I knew you'd make it good someday
And you knew it anyway
Laura, I know that maybe
this is the wrong, wrong time

But Laura, where did that magic go?
It's so hard, it's so cold down here
Did you have to leave me behind?
I wish that I could make it

But how I love to shuffle
(how I love to shuffle)
Baby, let's swing
Now I love to shuffle

Ever since I heard you sing
(since I heard her sing)

Laura, I saw you in that magazine
You looked like a gypsy queen
Laura, I beat around the bush
'cause it's oh so hard

But you know Laura,
it's not the best it's ever been
I think you know what I mean, Laura
I wish you'd take a look

in your own back yard
To see that someone has seen it all
Seen you climb, seen you fall so low
If you have to leave it behind

I'll carry it on for ya,
'cause it's oh so hard.

Baby, let's swing
Now I love to shuffle
Ever since I heard you sing.

All of my Friends Were There

My guitar won't be fixed until the end of the week. Certain parts need to be ordered and I'm not expecting it back for the next three or four days. Accordingly, I think I'll be posting songs here which have influenced me over the years.

This is what it feels like being on stage, often times. These days I don't drink, but earlier I used alcohol to keep my nerves in check.

My big day, it was the biggest day of my life.
It was the summit of my long career,
But I felt so down, and I drank too much beer,
The management said that I shouldn't appear.

I walked out onto the stage and started to speak.
The first night I've missed for a couple of years,
I explained to the crowd and they started to jeer,
And just when I wanted no one to be there,

All of my friends were there.
Not just my friends, but their best friends too.
All of my friends were there to stand and stare,
Say what they may, all of their friends need not stay.

Those who laughed were not friends anyway.
All of my friends were there to stand and stare.

Days went by, I walked around dressed in a disguise.
I wore a mustache and I parted my hair,
And gave the impression that I did not care,
But oh, the embarrassment, oh, the despair.

Came the day, helped with a few large glasses of gin,
I nervously mounted the stage once again,
Got through my performance and no one complained,
Thank God I can go back to normal again.

I went to that old café,
Where I had been in much happier days,
And all of my friends were there,
And no one cared.

Say what they may, all of my friends were there.
Not just my friends, but their best friends too.
All of my friends were there,
Now I don't care.

Are We Finally Ready for an Honest Discussion on Race?

I appreciate the opportunity now laid before the American people to have a long overdue discussion on race. Prior opportunities like these have come and gone but, pardon my skepticism, I still don't think many of us are willing to commit to it. Doing so would explode a variety of myths, particularly ones held by those who enjoy patting themselves on the back for a job well done. Jobs this complex cannot be undone by one movement alone.

For example, Katrina's aftermath revealed to many how pervasive poverty still was in this country and how closely tied it still is to skin color. As a native Southerner, I have to say I failed to understand how those in other parts of the country could have been so clueless and ignorant of this simple fact. All one had to do was visit New Orleans and stray not too far off of the beaten path. More perceptive souls could have seen through even the most presentable parts of town. I appreciate the Civil Rights Movement for what it accomplished, but growing up where I did, I've seen the impact of re-segregation in the form of white flight. I've also seen a thousand power struggles between white suburbs and black urban centers over resources, planned developments, and control of just about anything people can control.

Whenever the subject of racial division came up, a mentor of mine often invoked this analogy. Envision the keyboard of a piano, he'd say. Look at the positioning of the keys. White keys inhabit certain areas of the keyboard, as do black keys. White keys are of one length and shape and black keys are of another. White keys produce sounds, notes, and tones different from those of black keys and black keys produce sounds, notes, and tones different from those of white keys. This is simply how the instrument is designed.

In order to play a song of great beauty, a skilled musician knows, through practice, listening, and observation precisely what combination of black notes and white notes will sound tuneful together. A chord, for example, is itself a marriage of different notes struck at the same time to produce one precise, desired sound. Chords regularly comprise pairings of different sounds in different keys that, by themselves alone, would be unspectacular. Together, of course, they sound fuller and more vibrant. Piano music is a balance between keys of music and physical keys that exist on the instrument itself.

It should never be forgotten, however, that black notes and white notes are not the same and never will be. They don't live side by side on the keyboard in perfect harmony. A novice pianist can easily produce discordant sounds and auditory train wrecks. Even a master of the instrument would concede that black keys and white keys have different functions within a piece of music. The solution then, would seem to be completely in how one plays the chords and strategically uses that which appears to be different up front in order to build something that is bold, compelling, and memorable.

I don't believe we'll ever have a color-blind society, nor do I think that it should be our ultimate goal. Both cultures are very different. Ironically we've influenced each other to a great extent, but we've interacted actively only when necessary. Both groups have preserved their own unique identity and I, for one, find nothing wrong with that. So, how do we find a way to combine a stately waltz with the sheer playfulness of a ragtime melody? Up front, there may seem nothing remotely similar between us, but if we look closer, we might find more in common than meets the eye.

Reform never stops. The need for real change never ceases. As I conclude, I'm reminded of a particularly damning quip of Peter Cook's in a sketch included as part of the early 1960's comedy troupe, Beyond the Fringe. I may be paraphrasing a bit.

Q: Isn't there an awful lot of poverty in America?

A: Yes, but you'd scarcely notice it. It's all congregated in the slum areas. It's very nicely done.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Disability Issues and A New Wrinkle

Prompted by a pertinent discussion on Feministe, I thought I might add my own two cents.

It occurs to me that I haven't yet put a coda on my struggles with depression. Regular readers have probably been able to discern that I've been feeling much improved. Though it took nearly two months, I've finally been stabilized on a satisfactory dosage of medication. The only slight issue I have now is that I'm on a pretty hefty regimen of Lithium, which has a tendency to make one's hands shake constantly. While I was out at Baltimore Yearly Meeting, a woman close to my age noticed it, and I made a decision to tell her the truth rather than disguising it with a lie. Her immediate reaction, I regret to inform, was to think at first that she should question my sanity and her safety. As I do so often, I pointed out that she had no need to worry. I am just a person with a chronic illness, one usually controlled with medication and therapy.

However, the day before I departed for BYM, I noticed a reddened, puffy, very large, very swollen area of skin close to my left groin. I assumed at first that this was just a temporary rash, probably a result of working out at the gym, and it would go away on its own. I waited several days, where I determined that not only was it not going away, it was also spreading. It took two full weeks to get an appointment with a dermatologist, but by that point I was treating the infected areas with over-the-counter creams and with frustratingly limited success. At this point in time, I assumed it was simply a stubborn case of jock itch.

The time for my appointment came around, finally. A dermatological exam revealed that, in reality, I had a major case of psoriasis. For those who don't know what it is, psoriasis is a genetic, chronic, autoimmune condition, one apparently inherited from both sets of Grandfathers, as I found out when I called home. The first thing the dermatologist mentioned that I must do immediately was keep my stress level down, lest I have another outbreak. Anyone who lives in Washington, DC, has a tendency to hear that sage pronouncement and let loose a blackly comedic guffaw.

This town thrives on stress. There's almost no way to get away from it. I've already been told by two other specialists who treat my bipolar disorder to keep my stress in check, but I suppose this one was a bit of a wake-up call. I'm going to have to be even more careful, even if it compromises my ability to build a substantial work history. The news has not been received well, I have to say, but I don't really have another choice, do I? Depression is tough enough, but compounded with another ailment on top of it only makes things worse for both.

If only there was a way to let presumptive employers or everyday people I run into on a regular basis know these sorts of things without having to explain myself in great detail. I have a variety of well-worn, heavily rehearsed statements I use with strangers and associates when the subject of my disability comes up; now I've started work on another. I've never wanted to be pitied by others, nor do I pity myself at the moment. I'm merely stating this situation directly, trying not to worry about the way things are in the process. I'm more worried about the compromises and the obstacles that two chronic illnesses on top of each other present. I'm pretty resourceful, so I know I'll figure out something that works, but I really wish I wasn't forced to be when it comes to sugar-coating (if not outright lying about) my health situation for the sake of someone or something else.

The good news: I am finally fully recovered. Perhaps that's all that matters right now.

Quote of the Week

“Men are at war with each other because each man is at war with himself.”- Francis Meehan

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Saturday Video

On a morning from a Bogart movie
In a country where they turn back time
You go strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre
Contemplating a crime

She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running
Like a watercolour in the rain
Don't bother asking for explanations
She'll just tell you that she came
In the year of the cat

She doesn't give you time for questions
As she locks up your arm in hers
And you follow 'till your sense of which direction
Completely disappears

By the blue tiled walls near the market stalls
There's a hidden door she leads you to
These days, she says, I feel my life
Just like a river running through
The year of the cat

Well, she looks at you so cooly
And her eyes shine like the moon in the sea
She comes in incense and patchouli
So you take her, to find what's waiting inside
The year of the cat

Well, morning comes and you're still with her
And the bus and the tourists are gone
And you've thrown away the choice and lost your ticket
So you have to stay on

But the drum-beat strains of the night remain
In the rhythm of the new-born day
You know sometime you're bound to leave her
But for now you're going to stay
In the year of the cat

Friday, August 27, 2010

Stand In, Stop Gap

I would have recorded a performance video today, but my guitar is in the shop being fixed. So, I've included a song by the original artist instead. Happy Friday!

Ain't it hard
when you wake up
in the morning

And you find out
that those other days
are gone?

All you have
is memories of happiness
Lingerin' on.

All your dreams
and your lovers

won't protect you,
They're only passing
through you in the end.

They'll leave
you stripped of all
that they can get to,

And wait for you
to come back again.

Yet still a light is shining
From that lamp on down the hall.

Maybe the star of Bethlehem
Wasn't a star at all.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Sunday Bloody Sunday: A Review

Film in the early 1970's explored taboo areas regarding sexuality and relationships. This is the same era where, in celluloid, a bored housewife overburdened by child rearing and an overgrown, social climbing boy of a husband engaged in a retaliatory affair with a sadistic novelist (Diary of a Mad Housewife). A year or so later, director John Schlesinger directed a daring movie which, though it has dated somewhat with the years, still says much about who we are today. Interestingly enough, it was brought to life by a male and female screenwriting team of Penelope Gilliatt and David Sherwin, the latter talent being best known for his work with film and stage director Lindsay Anderson. Both Gilliatt and Sherwin were prominent contributors to the British New Wave and frequented similar social circles.

The basic premise of Sunday Bloody Sunday is compelling and thought-provoking even today. A young bisexual abstract sculptor Bob Elkin (Murray Head) carries on two simultaneous relationships. One is with a middle-aged, divorced employment agency worker by the name of Alex Greville (Glenda Jackson) and the other is with a much older man, a gay Jewish doctor, Daniel Hirsh (Peter Finch). Both of these participants in this love triangle are well aware that they are not having an exclusive relationship with him, but have resigned themselves to the fact that something is better than nothing at all. Bob Elkin, the sculptor, floats freely back and forth between the two of them, often creating jealousy and hurt feelings in its wake. Both lovers desire his exclusive attention and neither achieves it, though they display their frustration and cope with it in different ways.

Elkin, though a cheerful and convivial soul, can be insensitive at times and is consumed mostly with making a name for himself and with it lots of money. He has but recently started putting a pound (or dollar) sign in front of his artistic creations, at the expense of almost everything else. While not an unsympathetic character, he does nonetheless appear selfish and disinclined to soothe frayed nerves when the need for it arrives. By contrast, both of his lovers reveal serious character flaws throughout the course of the film, but no more so than the average person. One has no trouble relating to them. They appear wholly human and one sympathizes with their plight. It should also be noted that both are lost in a kind of existential crisis of their own making, knowing that there is something looming and substantial in their lives that they do not have, while unsure of how to achieve it.

The doctor is a genuinely warm, almost Grandfatherly sort of person, whose devotion to his patients is beyond reproach. Yet, he can't seem to gather the courage to reveal his sexual orientation to his emotionally remote, patrician, high-achieving family. One of the most revealing scenes in the film shows Dr. Hirsh visiting the Bar Mitzvah of his nephew, where he is derided by his mother as supremely selfish for not having married yet. "I just haven't met the right person yet," he wearily announces, with a shrug of the shoulders. After the ceremony, a well-meaning, but heavy-handed relative decides to play matchmaker, and while he politely carries on small talk with his chosen date, he nonetheless shows no interest in her. The doctor's convivial warmth of personality sets him apart from a very bourgeoisie and emotionally-repressed audience, one which he knows he must associate with from time to time, but not a bit more than necessary.

Alex Greville's internal struggles are quite different, in some respects, but not in others. Her divorce is recent enough that it is still a topic of conversation, but it's also evident that she's long since moved on from it. However, the aftermath has produced at least one unresolved complication, namely that she's begun to seriously second-guess herself as to what she really wants from a partner. We're never told how she met Elkin, the artist, but one can tell that she entered into it with the notion that enough's as good as a feast. Her father, as we are shown in flashbacks to the past and in real time, is an incurable workaholic who has always put his family in a distant second place.

In some regards, her relationship with the young sculptor reflects this same dynamic. As for her mother's take on her daughter's conflict, she is told that she ought not to expect too much and should instead deal with what she has. "After all, I left your father once", she says. The mother expresses the same exasperation felt by all who are relegated to the sidelines by a partner for whom career comes first, but she has notably developed some kind of stoic resolve to contend with the loneliness and the resentment.

Bob Elkin is a difficult character to read. We're never truly privy to his internal agony. He is not an unlikable character, but despite his cheerful veneer, we do see a person who is nakedly ambitious and unwilling to let a quibbling thing like a relationship (or two) get in the way. What we do see is a frequent habit of abruptly bailing on one lover to visit another, a tactic probably adopted to prevent him from unduly favoring one over the other. It's also likely a response to each partner's unintentional, but nevertheless plain desire to have him only to himself/herself. Elkin wishes to preserve what he has, but knows instinctively that he'll find himself choosing sides if he isn't careful. In those days, no one would have been familiar with non-monogamous concepts like polyamory, so accordingly each active player in this drama wants exclusivity, even Elkin to some extent. When Greville, disappointed in her lover's behavior, takes another man home with her, the artist shows jealousy, though he tries to hide it.

The greater message of Sunday Bloody Sunday has less to do about relationships or romance than the question of loss and desire. Each major character in the film slowly realizes that the old adage that anything is better than nothing isn't always the case. It's neither selfish, nor unjustified, we're told, to desire complete unconditional love, instead of a half-measure. We're often told that relationships are based on compromise, which is true. However, neither should one compromise one's basic emotional needs by having to contend with someone else's timetable other than our own. All characters experience the pain of separation and recognize by the end that what they are getting out of the deal is wholly insufficient and unsatisfying. The film's conclusion does not provide much in the way of resolution or emotional satisfaction, but the questions it raises are worthy ones.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Defeating Privilege, Challenging Assumptions

I've written before about the rather limited reach of privilege. A conversation with a fellow writer and friend from Australia showed me yet another area where a lack of infrastructure, wealth, education, and crucial connections leaves people out. Oversights like these which yell out for alleviation are all too common, but not terribly sexy in the way only a massive disaster can be. While we were discussing LGBT issues, she mentioned a topic very enlightening and thought-provoking. To preface, my friend identifies as bisexual herself and so she listened intently, and with much interest, to the words and phrases I'd been throwing around regarding my own identity and its many nuances. Her immediate response raised another issue pertinent towards the need to spread resources beyond our liberal borders.

She wrote,

...things in Australia are quite different- there's a distinct lack of practical resources and support here, particularly in rural areas. Plus, a lot of books published in the States and directed at queer teenagers don't make it over here- whether into libraries or in bookstores. So I think, in a lot of ways, we're well behind the States when it comes to the stigma attached to identifying somewhere on the LGBTQ spectrum.

I grew up in the American South, albeit the suburban/city part of it, but a lack of allies, support, acceptance, and understanding with the general public made me feel thoroughly behind the times and alone. It wasn't until I traveled outside the region and went elsewhere that I was aware of just how backwards my perspective was. A few months back, I wrote a post that shared what it was like to attend a conference full of people from activist Progressive areas and to have audience with that sort of environment for the very first time ever. The analogy I often make is this---imagine if you'd grown up in the Bible Belt (as I had), where liberal attitudes were never mentioned very loudly or boldly and certainly not much in public. From that starting point, with no transition or preparation, I immediately entered a space full of agitprop activists from Berkley. I can think of lots of adjectives to describe the experience: jarring, unsettling, perturbing, discomforting, distressing, and many others. I appreciated the experience, but it was definitely very different from that which I had grown up.

It was assumed upon arrival that I would understand the basic concepts of queer theory (among others) which I, of course, did not. To briefly summarize what I wrote in an earlier post, that particular conference was the first time I met someone who identified as transgender, which was only one small part of a massive and protracted culture shock. As I read her response, I postulated that my Australian friend might have felt the same way at an earlier point in her life, perhaps even now. I certainly wish she could have benefited from the same accepting, albeit slightly preachy space which quite nearly slapped me across the face at an younger age. However, part of me also wants to make it plain to her that terminology and philosophy isn't everything.

The most obvious initiative or action I could propose to address her concern would expand an existing network from which only a relatively few privileged people benefit. Finding a way to transfer these necessary resources to parts of the world where they are needed would not be easy and these could not be the only step in the process. Otherwise, it'd be much like dropping crates of self-help books in locations where rates of illiteracy are high. Knowledge is useless without instruction and teaching. Convincing a skeptical, perhaps even openly hostile populace would be also important to take into account. I'm aware that what I'm noting here is totally obvious, but you'd be surprised how many people disregard common sense steps like these, only concerned with the optics, the path of least resistance, or both.

Don't get me wrong. Many people mean well and do good work. Criticizing or lecturing people for being irresponsible or lazy is never my objective. Rather, I think sometimes we get fixated on one particular cause that quickly snowballs, rather than using our imagination and creativity to accomplish the same altruistic ends elsewhere. It's often easy to raise money for a natural disaster, like Haiti, to cite one recent worthy cause. Fixing Haiti, as we have recently discovered, is a headache of exponential quantity that will take years to turn around, assuming it ever will. Giving thought and contemplation to more concentrated, smaller areas or causes might give us the ability to really see growth and needed change in our own lifetime. Every activist wants to see direct evidence of hard work, myself included. I might not turn around a poverty-stricken island nation, but I might be able to provide books, media, guidance, and a safe space for LGBT teenagers in a rural town in Australia.

As the saying goes, don't sweat the small stuff. If we feel helpless to change the the big problems, we often feel a tendency to micromanage and exercise veto power over a few trivial areas of no real importance. For example, we might not know how to refurbish a room from top to bottom that has fallen into disrepair, but we can stubbornly demand our way by insisting that it be repainted whatever color we think best. When others engage us in discussion regarding their choice of color, quite often counter-productive arguments break out and petty power struggles are the result. This is what leads to stalemate and generally childish behavior. Arguments over insignificant details is a big reason why many worthy projects simply don't get off the ground or don't accomplish what they seek to reform. Though I was taught in Kindergarten that I ought to work together with others and clean up my own messes, many adults seem to have forgotten this.

"That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life--whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear. Isn't life more than food, and your body more than clothing? Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Dated in some ways, not dated in many others.

I am a lonely visitor.
I came too late to cause a stir,
Though I campaigned all my life
towards that goal.

I hardly slept the night you wept
Our secret's safe and still well kept
Where even Richard Nixon has got soul.
Even Richard Nixon has got

Traffic cops are all color blind.
People steal from their own kind.
Evening comes too early for a stroll.

Down neon streets the streaker streaks.
The speaker speaks,
but the truth still leaks,

Where even Richard Nixon has got soul.
Even Richard Nixon has got it,

The podium rocks in the crowded waves.
The speaker talks of the beautiful saves

That went down long before
he played this role

For the hotel queens and the magazines,
Test tube genes and slot machines

Where even Richard Nixon got soul.
Even Richard Nixon has got it,

Hospitals have made him cry,
But there's always a freeway in his eye,

Though his beach just got
too crowded for his stroll.

Roads stretch out like healthy veins,
And wild gift horses strain the reins,

Where even Richard Nixon has got soul.
Even Richard Nixon has got

I am a lonely visitor.
I came too late to cause a stir,
Though I campaigned all my life
towards that goal.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Daughters of Light: A Review

In the spring of this year I met up with several young women who were actively involved in Washington, DC, print media circles. Arriving early for the gathering, as I often do, I took my seat at a table and began to converse with a person sitting next to me. During the course of our talk, I mentioned that I was a Quaker.

Surprised, she exclaimed “I’ve never met a Quaker before!” Overhearing our conversation, a middle-aged woman sitting one table over said, “Did someone mention Quakers? I'm a Friend.”

With a wry smile on my face, I turned to the person I’d been speaking to first and said, “See, now you’ve met two!”

I enjoy telling that story because it emphasizes that allies are often present in forms and avenues we might never before have even thought to consider. As it stands, The Religious Society of Friends, commonly known as Quakers, were hundreds of years ahead of the curve regarding women’s rights and gender equality. It is for this reason that I’ve been reading Rebecca Larson’s fascinating book, Daughters of Light.

In particular, the work talks about the crusading women in the 1700’s who followed a powerful sense of Divine direction to become active, respected ministers. I’ve been amazed to discover how progressive were certain strongly held beliefs among Friends, some of which were as much as three hundred years ahead of their time. It seems obscene that the lives of these groundbreaking women and what they accomplished should be consigned to obscurity.

Nowadays, many Christian denominations have, after much delay, ordained women. In the United States, certain denominations still retain male-only clergy while others have allowed women to serve in this capacity. But it’s only been within the past fifty years that this degree of willingness to accept the contributions of women has been present. Perhaps one can now understand how radical and subversive a belief it was three centuries ago to assert that women’s leadership and active participation in worship was equal to that of men. This daring belief openly defied the Patriarchal norms of the day.

A devotion to the leading of the Inward Light was considered of paramount importance to man-made systems, laws, and customs. It was for that reason that Quakerism appeared threatening to many in England, particularly so to the established Church of England and the English government. Unlike almost every single other denomination within Christendom, female ministers were given equal weight to that of men. Following a zealous desire and Divine instruction to spread God’s message across the British Isles and the American colonies, these women traveled constantly, delivering vocal ministry from meeting to meeting. The Society centered on the basis of an egalitarian premise, one which eschewed ordained and professional clergy, eliminating the middle man, and in so doing not depriving the right of each Friend to speak his or her mind.

Underscoring the threat Quakers posed to others, justified or not, I am reminded of a particularly amusing anecdote. It concerns an Anglican clergyman, who took up his quill to write, warning families, friends, and fellow churchgoers to refuse to allow women to travel to Pennsylvania, else they be converted to Quakerism. Even worse, once in Pennsylvania, these deluded souls could become Ministers! As he phrased it, being a member of that cursed group was akin to infection with some contagious disease. Paternalism and with it a desire to shelter women from themselves goes back a very long way indeed. How easy it is to justify controlling someone else’s right to freedom of choice under the self-serving premise of protection. We still see it today.

Since a calling to ministry was considered more important than anything else, female ministers usually delayed marriage until they felt that traveling and spreading the Word had been adequately fulfilled. Some women married well into their thirties, in a time where most women married in their late teens, and sometimes earlier than that. A precedent against societal norms regarding marriage began with George Fox, the founder of the faith, when he married active minister Margaret Fell (The Mother of Quakerism).

Despite the fact that at age fifty-five Fell was ten years his senior and had eight children by her first husband, Fox registered no reservations. He justified the union by stating that it was spiritually based, not purely for the purpose of procreation. Following his example, two other male ministers around the same time married older female preachers, setting a precedent whereby when considering marriage, age was largely unimportant, and seeking assistance (helpsmeet) to live a religious life was valued more highly in a relationship partner.

The societal expectations of how women were to keep home and hearth were different as well. Regarding the subject of motherhood, in particular, 17th Century women in general were expected to primarily be managers of the estate more than central figures in child rearing. This is in direct contrast to how we think of the hands-on role common today. Each individual meeting helped determine the arrangements necessary to perform household tasks, since a minster could be expected to undertake long periods of absence from home. Quakers of this period had developed particular strategies over time, still expecting that they would also endure long periods of incarceration for being open with their faith. In the beginning, a generation before, extended time in jail was usually the order of the day.

The Church of England saw Friends as heretical and the government found them a unwelcome challenge to the established order. This degree of intolerance expedited the move of Friends to North America, particularly to Pennsylvania, where the Quaker William Penn was given a massive land grant by the Crown, seeking to establish a colony there based on Friendly principles.

Daughters of Light does fall a bit on the academic side, but not terribly so. I have only one real reservation with the text itself. It doesn’t provide something important I’d like very much to know. Growing in a world more sexist and more misogynist than exists today, what distinguished Quaker men of the period from their brethren? Did they deliberately ignore the contradictory messages of the society around them? Did they deliberately condition themselves to block out notions that could have easily prevented them from thinking of women as equals?

If neither of those questions are helpful, are there simply men of a particular persuasion who don’t buy into condescending beliefs that proclaim male superiority? Feminist discussion focuses often on how to best override institutionalized attitudes of inequality. I wonder now if some men are more susceptible to them than others and, if so, what can be done to recognize these signs.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Quote of the Week

“Feminism is sort of like God. Many people profess to believe in it, but no one seems to be able to define it to everyone's satisfaction.”- Aaron Allston

Saturday Video

If you'll pardon a few lyrics regarding married name, this song can stand by itself. And as for the greater interpretation, it doesn't necessarily have to be about me, though a part of it is.

Friday, August 20, 2010

If I Could Have Her Tonight

All of a sudden
She was on my mind

I wasn't ready for her kind
And she was taking her time.

What if she came to me
Would she be kind?
And if she stayed with me

do you think that
she'd like to do anything
I would, or would she leave me?

If I could have her tonight
Would she want to go?
Look at those eyes
If I could have her tonight.

Lately I've found myself
losing my mind
Knowing how badly I need her
It's something hard to find.

What if she came to me.
Would she be kind?
And if she stayed with me.

Do you think that she'd
like to do anything
I would, or would she leave me?

If I could have her tonight
Does she want to go?
Look at those eyes
Does she want it?
If I could have her tonight.

If I could have her tonight.
If I could have her tonight.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Organized Religion is Not a Social Club

Elijah went before the people and said, "How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him." But the people said nothing.

Friends say that they find hierarchy abhorrent, and yet they build it within themselves. We say that are against ritual, and yet we build unconventional ritual. For once and for all, we must decide where our allegiance lies. Are we, as our forebearers believed, children of Israel, a peculiar people resistant and separate from the sins of the outside world, or are we children of influence, power, and greed? Can we separate our occupational efforts from our Friendly selves in a spirit of fellowship the instant we enter Meeting for Worship or engage in active business within it? If we cannot, then we are little more than an exclusive social club utilizing holy language for secular purposes. We must choose between being Professional Quakers or Quaker Professionals. There is a difference.

It seems to me that the moment the focus ceases to be on growing the faith and welcoming newcomers, then petty factionalism, rivalry, and cliques enter. What is so distasteful about staying relevant and spreading our message through the world? How did we get here, after all? I find much comfort in the stories of Friends from the 18th Century who risked their very lives to bring the Light to those who would receive it. The threat of shipwreck, piracy, and disease were ubiquitous dangers for those who undertook lengthy voyages at sea or took to horseback to ride from meeting to meeting. When I contemplate my own challenges, it is a helpful exercise for me to reflect upon the hazards which could have easily befallen these Quaker pioneers. My own issues are minor in comparison, but also no less worthy of resolution.

There is no sin helping those who are unrealized Friends in general sentiment and unaware of our existence to our Beloved Community. We have some ancient company to use as an example in this area, the same company we mythologize with great reverence in our vocal ministry.

"What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you build tombs for the prophets your ancestors killed, and you decorate the monuments of the godly people your ancestors destroyed. Then you say, 'If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would never have joined them in killing the prophets.'

I have no doubt that many would condemn or at least slander George Fox if he were alive today. The irony has never been lost for me as I contemplate many a vocal ministry that suffices for a Quaker history lesson. Such is the natural temptation of things, of course. Neither do I doubt that Jesus himself would be pilloried in many a faith gathering, if for no other reason that he had an uncanny habit of speaking Truth to power.

It seems that East Coast Friends are often the worst offenders. In Washington, DC, the dominant climate is very hierarchical, competitive, insular, demanding, suspicious, and as a result frequently difficult to maneuver for outsiders. With so many egos and high achievers in possession of elite credentials rubbing shoulders in one relatively small pond, the way one makes a name for oneself is by seeking to impress others, sometimes even resorting to intimidation. I've always been repulsed by ego excess under any name for any purpose, but am even less tolerant of it when I see that attitude reflected within monthly and yearly meetings.

"Blind guides! What sorrow awaits you! For you say that it means nothing to swear 'by God's Temple,' but that it is binding to swear 'by the gold in the Temple.' You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? And you say that to swear 'by the altar' is not binding, but to swear 'by the gifts on the altar' is binding. How blind! For which is more important--the gift on the altar or the altar that makes the gift sacred?

I left Alabama to move North, where I benefit from living in a town where money and power have been concentrated for a very long time. Yet, this does not mean that there are not major problems, too. What I've found in particular is that class privilege is a monumental challenge here and a supremely institutionalized one at that. With so much influence on one spot that has persisted for years and years, people rapaciously hoard what they have out of fear of losing it somehow. The state of my birth focuses most of its time and energy on matters important only to other Alabamians. It does so, in part, because many other Americans rarely believe that what happens there is important to the national debate or to their own lives.

Newsworthy events in Alabama picked up by the national press are either centered around spectacle, salaciousness, or offensiveness--sometimes all three. I fault some in the region of my birth when they keep alive stereotypes that do nothing to contradict this automatic assumption, but I also understand the resentment they feel. When people bitterly grouse about a corrupt and misguided Federal Government, I know their initial emotional response, though I believe it to be an oversimplified one, one reduced to bite-sized Populist platitudes that do not stand up under close scrutiny. As a Young Adult Friend, this is how I and others often feel regarding the institutions that lock us out altogether or give lip service to our reservations. Our concerns are valid and justified, but one cannot talk to anyone unwilling to listen.

As practiced, Quakerism, a faith so rich with stories of personal sacrifice and the thrill of the newly Convinced has, in many minds, died. Allow me to illustrate what it is I mean. I found a helpful list here, and have compiled the subject headings of a few precise characteristics indicative of dead religions.

Dead Religions:

  1. Cry out for justice, rather than mercy.
  2. Attempt to discount sin in our own lives.
  3. Do not accept instant forgiveness.
  4. Are enemies of Grace.
  5. Keep records of wrongdoing/keep score.
  6. Expect and demand much of others and self.
  7. Feel like they've earned something.
  8. Are envious of others.
  9. Resort to condemnation when self-righteousness fails.
  10. Have a hard time trusting God.
  11. Are quick to discredit the ministries of others.
  12. Are very legalistic.
  13. Are argumentative and always right.
  14. Cannot deal with criticism, even in a spirit of love.
  15. Rebel for human, not Godly reasons.
  16. Fear loss of salvation.
  17. Are scared or afraid of God.
  18. Fear the unpardonable sin.
  19. Are prideful and arrogant.
  20. Never feel good enough.
  21. Lack self-control.
  22. Have their own agenda.
  23. Are all about tradition.
  24. Are un-thankful for God's blessings.
  25. Display false humility.
  26. Are very judgmental.
When our earthly lives take dominance over our spiritual selves, then religion dies. Please do not misunderstand. I am not saying that Quakerism as a whole is defunct, but that individual believers have willingly transformed the sacred into the profane. If all who I encountered and spoke with were infected with this same unhealthy philosophy, then I would be heavily discouraged. Fortunately, I am not alone in my goals and in my perspective.

I think that it is possible to avoid these pitfalls even when we are not in prayerful, sacred spaces, but only if we are willing to go inside ourselves when necessary. Friends often shun potential conflict, but it seems to me that not all conflict is poison. Still, I believe that this conflict should start within us first, as a means of self-reflection and prayerful contemplation. Many are unwilling to go there, for whatever reason, which is why nothing ever changes. The first query we submit should be for us.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Busy Day Post

I'm the water, I'm the dishes, I'm the soap
I will comfort, make you clean, help you cope
When you're tired feeling helpless
Come inside, I am the shelter

And then when you're feeling better I'll
Watch you go

dum dum dee dee dee dum dum dee dum do
All the little babies go "Oh, oh I want to"
dum dum dee dee dee dum dum dee dum yeah
Rock the little babies with one two three

Are you hungry? Did you eat before the show?
I peeled potatoes, set the table, washed the floor
I know the others treat you rough
and when you know you've had enough

You'll come and see me 'cos you know
I'm always here

Mother's little helper

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Reductionism, Not Western Civilization, is the Great Satan

Those currently in opposition to the construction of a mosque near Ground Zero don't seem to want to understand the whole picture. They will not even entertain anything other than views stepped in prejudice and fear, seeing an enemy in the face of every person of Middle Eastern descent. While in stuck in this merry-go-round that passes for substantive discourse, they are trusted supporters of a system that sees the sum of its parts as more important than the whole. Today's believers in preemptive prejudice take stock in reductionism, a theory that justifies bigotry nicely. Indeed, their system of belief relies more on personal bias and illogical rationales rather than outward truth. The spread and growth of this, its own near-religion upsets me more than that of the genuine terrorists themselves.

As a person of faith, I find myself frequently put on the spot when others assume that my social causes must certainly be contradicted by my religious views. "How can you believe in women's rights," they say, "if The Bible says this?" Or, "How can you believe in marriage equality if The Bible says that?" They speak from a reductionist framework that strains to simplify, for the ease of argument, a very complex text. What is printed on one page of thousands should not be considered "The Bible". A theological disagreement with one verse out of a multitude of others does not invalidate Christianity as a whole, either for individuals or for larger gatherings.

Christian denominations have disagreed about interpretation of certain passages for a long time, which is why we happen to have different faith groups and not one singular Church which speaks for all. By contrast, Radical Muslims use the Koran to justify their violent acts, passages that other Muslims interpret far differently. These disagreements do not invalidate Islam, the Koran, nor does one group's interpretation certainly speak for all of Islam. It seems presumptuous to me to believe otherwise.

Before 11 September 2001, many Americans were utterly ignorant of Islam. I myself took a class a couple years before which spent nearly three months focusing exclusively on the monotheistic, Abrahamic religions, and what I remember most about it was how I noted the strong similarities that existed between all three. I finished the course feeling a sense of shared kinship with both Jews and Muslims, which is why I find such blatantly Anti-Islamic sentiment so out of bounds and predicated on nothing more than outright lies.

Returning to the idea of potential scriptural conflict in Christianity, one verse alone does not contradict a huge work that spans thousands of years, contains many authors, was written for different purposes, and was itself a product of whichever particular historical and culture issues were raging during its composition. If we were speaking of an anthology, would we believe that one author's contribution on page 3, paragraph 2 speaks for the entire volume? The Bible is an anthology, not a novel. No two authors are the same, and indeed other books exist that were not included in the general canon for entirely man-made reasons.

Regarding this discrepancy, one oft-quoted passage in 1st Corinthians states,

Women should be silent during the church meetings. It is not proper for them to speak. They should be submissive, just as the law says. If they have any questions, they should ask their husbands at home, for it is improper for women to speak in church meetings.

This, it must be mentioned, was part of one Pauline Epistle and directed to one particular church. Other passages in other books by the same author speak to a universality of belief and authority not separated by sex. But, as is often the case, certain people, probably power-hungry men, decided to take these two verses out of context and apply them uniformly to all women. Here below is one interpretation of these verses, though I take some liberty with a few of the author's conclusions, so I've notably left them out.

The context of this passage, and much of 1 Corinthians, is the order and structure of the church. The Corinthian church was noted for the chaos and lack of order that was rampant in that assembly. It is interesting that no elders or pastors are mentioned, and the prophets were not even exercising control. Everyone was participating with whatever expression they desired “whenever” they desired. Apparently, certain (emphasis mine) women in the Corinthian church were out of order in disruptively asking questions publicly in the chaotic services.

Certain women were out of order. Not all women, just certain women. I can think of certain men who have taken the same liberties. Again, this was a command directed towards a handful of people in a very specific circumstance and at a very specific place. But such is the way of power. It will distort anything to keep itself in control. I don't fault the writer of the text as much as I fault those who took it out of context to suit their own purposes. Such is the way of reductionism. Religion is more complex than a draconian power grab, but some only want to see it in such terms.

Consider this verse in Galatians, by contrast,

There are neither Jews nor Greeks, slaves nor free people, males nor females. You are all the same in Christ Jesus.

Same author, different time, different church. The contrasts are marked. Enclosed below is a brief definition of reductionism, religious or otherwise, included to emphasize my greater point.

Religious reductionism generally consists of explaining religion by boiling it down to certain nonreligious causes. A few examples of reductionist attempts to explain the presence of religion are: the view that religion, could be reduced to humanity’s conceptions of right and wrong; the belief that religion is fundamentally a primitive attempt at controlling our environments; or in the opinion of religion, as a way to explain the existence of a physical world.

Sigmund Freud's idea that religion is nothing more than an illusion, or even a mental illness, and the Marxist view that religion is "the sigh of the oppressed," providing only "the illusory happiness of the people," are two other influential reductionist explanations of religion.

Even as Progressives, how many of these do you hold true these days? Beyond liberal opinion, I myself have observed similar tropes even within conservative discourse. Such is the pervasiveness of cynicism, reductionism, and skepticism today. My heart as heavy as I contemplate how willingly we cast aside critical thinking. Reductionism doesn't just keep us separated, it's also fundamentally lazy logic. Why would we want to believe in a perpetual argument machine? I thought debates were undertaken to establish a clear winner and a clear loser once and for all. What's good about never-ceasing conflict based on ignorance?

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Soldier's Faith?

"Behind every scheme to make the world over, lies the question, What kind of world do you want? The ideals of the past for men have been drawn from war, as those for women have been drawn from motherhood.

For all our prophecies, I doubt if we are ready to give up our inheritance."

This Here's a Story 'Bout Your Friend and Mine (Who is it? Who is it?)

There you stand with your L.A. tan
And your New York walk
and your New York talk

Your mother left you
when you were small

But you're going to wish
you wasn't born at all

Steel and glass
Steel and glass
Steel and glass
Steel and glass

Your phone don't ring
no one answers your call
How does it feel to be off the wall?

Well, your mouthpiece squawks
as he spreads your lies

But you can't pull strings
if your hands are tied

Well, your teeth are clean
but your mind is capped

You leave your smell
like an alley cat

Steel and glass
Steel and glass
Steel and glass
Steel and glass

Sunday, August 15, 2010

On Lindsay Anderson

While the gossip mags speculate about Queen Latifah's same-sex relationship, here's my addition to the debate.

A particularly looming influence on my art and writing is Lindsay Anderson. Better known for his work on the stage than behind the lens, Anderson did direct two films which I still watch frequently, 1968’s If... and 1973’s O Lucky Man!. In addition to that, he was an eloquent and influential film critic, much in keeping with British and French New Wave directors of the period. Aside from the content and the themes of both cinematic works, I am utterly fascinated by the director’s unusual personal life which in some ways is similar to mine. I understand what it is like to feel afraid to be honest with the rest of the world, but I have never taken these fears to such extremes as he did. Though the identities I claim are slightly different from his, I do understand his quandary.

Lindsay Anderson’s sexual orientation stayed a secret until his death. The subject was a matter of massive speculation among many a cast and crew as well as those who knew him personally, but never revealed for any reason. Anderson’s profuse journals, published after his death, reveal a man in a kind of perpetual masochistic torment, a person who fell in love with every single leading man in his films or frequent stage plays, nearly all of whom were straight. Perhaps he found something safe in that fact, being assured that his feelings would never risk being reciprocated. He lived alone most of his life and never partnered, though he did surround himself with friends and associates at all times, which I suppose kept away loneliness.

During his life, had his homosexuality been common knowledge, Lindsay Anderson would have been horrified had anyone tried to label him a “gay director”. Unlike his contemporary John Schlesinger, Anderson’s films never explored overtly gay themes like those found in the latter director’s controversial Midnight Cowboy or Sunday Bloody Sunday, one of the first films to confront homosexuality and bisexuality. While the two of them might have hailed from the same country and may have been of the same persuasion, their whole ethos and attitude towards their work and they themselves could not have been more different. Schlesinger was openly out and Anderson was resolutely closeted.

A Lindsay Anderson film contains elements of homoeroticism based on setting or scene, but one careful to preserve plausibility denial. If..., for example, takes place in the all-male environment of a British public school, the American equivalent of an elite private boarding school. There are elements of the plot which are clearly homoerotic and violent, but can be easily excused as part of the experience of hazing and initiation rituals: humiliation, submission, pain, dominance. Since much of the movie was based on Anderson’s actual experiences as a public school student, one wonders how much of the conduct young Anderson found perversely appealing and which he found totally appalling. He was said to have greatly enjoyed the experience of being at college, though for the life of me, I can’t see how one could.

Since his death in 1994, Anderson has been criticized by film critics for fetishizing the male form in his works in ways that I have alluded to above. It is indeed interesting to note that the British director’s greatest influence was the super-macho auteur, American John Ford. Anderson even published a well-regarded book on Ford's work. Perhaps Anderson was drawn most strongly to the intensely masculine, a regrettable attraction for someone already inclined towards the impossible in romance. It is a tragedy when anyone lives in a state of being that denies the prospect of joy or happiness, but I can also understand Anderson’s desire to be seen through more than one lens.

The tragedy of his life is that of a man who, I believe, wanted desperately to be straight, and found a way to live as something close to one, but at such a cost!

Quote of the Week

"Hypocrite: the man who murdered both his parents and pleaded for mercy on the grounds that he was an orphan."- Abraham Lincoln

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Change Is Not An Enemy or an Empty Slogan

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: "Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I give a tenth of my entire income.'

"But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.' "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."

When we speak about inequality, in any form, it reveals how indebted we are to hierarchies. We can rightly criticize the existing power structure as elitist and exclusive, but without proper action our words are meaningless. What we label our efforts, be it liberation theology or any number of related terms is pointless unless we put it into action. I still recall how, on the stump, Barack Obama proclaimed that making needed change began from the bottom up, not the top down. His Presidency and example prove how easy it is to let the ways of the world creep in and commandeer our best intentions. Well done, as Benjamin Franklin noted, is better than well said.

As a Young Adult, my status and station is decidedly lower than those older than myself. This is a fairly obvious fact, of course. So before I go any further, I know that I do have it very good in many ways. Having the privilege granted me by fortuitous birth of being white, male, educated, and middle class puts me in a prized place others would give almost everything to attain. I am sincerely thankful for the sacrifices of those who came before me who reinforced these privileges. But in response to the Young versus Old debate, one every generation apparently must confront for itself, something really needs to be said. What I'm about to say is endemic of a great generational divide, one that is both new to our times and old as the Earth itself.

Being told constantly that we are lazy, uncommitted, and massive ingrates tends to get to us. Some people our age can be disinclined to work hard and keep alive the process of societal evolution, but not everyone. What I and other activist Young Adults regularly contend with regarding efforts to create revolutionary reform from the bottom up with are people older than ourselves who are quite comfortable where they are and don’t really want to entertain change. Change on their own terms is what they want, and this rarely provides anyone the ability to observe that a different methodology and school of thought exists and has existed for a long time. Modifying where one chooses to look may be a more successful strategy.

The people in question I am talking about have fought their battles. They're counting the days towards retirement. They talk about passing the baton wistfully, speaking frequently about their declining physical energy and stamina, but they're also often covetous of power and influence. I’ve recently spoken with several people who are the age of my parents and grandparents; an attitude overheard more than I'd like is one that believes any change undertaken is a simple question of individual prerogative, not one mandated for all. That is to say, in their opinion, “I can choose to keep up with new things if I wish, but ultimately no one has the right to force me or anyone else to keep up with the times”. Ironically, they enjoy their own privilege in this statement and they want to be accommodated accordingly.

I never believe that anyone ought be left behind or not included in the discussion, but it depends entirely upon the expectation of the request. The anxiety verbalized stems from a fear from being left behind, justified or not. Though it's not terribly Quaker of me, my immediate reaction is one not terribly tactful or diplomatic, but I'll seek to soften how I feel as I cite my reservations. To such people I would say this:

  1. Change is inevitable.

  2. Adaptation is a life skill.

  3. There’s no reason to feel threatened by new ways. One's hard work will not go unnoticed, nor will be somehow entirely disregarded.

  4. What you've published or accomplished with your life is not helpful if you're out of print, literally or figuratively.

  5. If you seek immortality beyond your physical existence, you must be discussed well beyond your own time in the sun. This means you must modify your message to suit the times, not place sole obligation upon others.

I can empathize. It must be difficult to accept the reality that, having been cutting-edge once upon a time, one has now given way to being dated and no longer terribly relevant. The easiest way to stay current is to keep oneself and one's ideas current. This doesn't mean attempting to be young only to look foolish. It means being an elder statesperson or a mentor. Young Adults need both, people who manage to be comfortable with their age and comfortable with themselves. Wisdom never dates. Attempting to span the gap between youth and age, however, will always create problems. Be yourself.

Expand your sphere of influence. Find a compelling message, then expand it beyond a very small orbit. Small ponds beget short half-lifes. The size of the universe you inhabit is directly proportional to how quickly your ideas will cease to be debated. One of the reasons I cite my activist allegiances as often as I do is to make sure that the wisdom and knowledge contained within them doesn't die there. In some way, it is my own private evangelizing, though I seek not to win converts through direct action. I merely want people to find comfort in knowledge the way I did when I first came across these exciting ideas. There was a time in my life where I believed that helpful, inspiring, compelling information should only be the domain of the few who could understand the filing system. Now I think that the solution ought to be free for everyone, distributed on street corners, and should be translated into as many languages as possible. Let's start the process of translation now.

Saturday Video

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Demise of Cathy

And now for something completely different.

One of my friends, in addition to having a super-important serious job, is an independent cartoonist. This, shown below, was her recent take on the demise of the strip Cathy.

(Click to embiggen)

It strikes me as strange how attached we are to our punching bags. If we are ever to have peace and not constant conflict, it seems to me we'd first need to cast aside the means and methods of how we project our fears and anxieties. Cartoons like Cathy remind us that the offense we take from them is a result of how close to the truth they are sometimes. The female protagonist of the aforementioned comic strip was very much an over-the-top portrayal, constantly fixated on the same insecurities and phobias. And yet, I'm sure many of us knew people just like her, and perhaps even see bits of ourselves in what was essentially a caricature or perhaps even a pastiche of so-called modern womanhood.

I've surveyed a fairly wide range of Feminist critique over the past couple days, and it seems as though the basic sentiment is that Cathy reinforced negative stereotypes of women, reducing them all to neurotic complainers, desperately seeking the perfect swimsuit or man, for that matter. This is a sentiment not received well with many, particularly those who sought to avoid the Cathy stereotype or who are not exactly concerned with the eternal pursuit of men. I acknowledge their concerns with an open mind.

Yet, what has also been uniformly noted is that the strip broke a tremendous amount of new ground. Its basic premise has been co-opted into many successful chick lit books and chick flick films. Times change constantly and no doubt what has been written today may be seen as shockingly behind-the-times at some future date. Cathy was very much a product of her time. I often cringe to see racial and homophobic stereotypes in literature, art, and film from the past. Whether I toss aside the works altogether, or seek to look past the parts that are not in keeping with my own moral compass is my call alone to make. To me, it's a matter of individual choice, though the past has its own wisdom and guidance I am glad I learned, with life lessons I'd have disregarded altogether had I kept to a far stricter standard.

I love silent film, but I also recognize that depictions of people of color, if they even appear, frequently resort to minstrelsy as a means of comic relief. It's not terribly amusing to see African-Americans shown as childish buffoons whose cartoonish dialect is a frequent punch line, but I know audiences roared with laughter at the time. Likewise, the director John Ford worked closely with John Wayne in numerous Westerns, films which advance a conception of repressed, rugged masculinity that never really was, one where acting tough, unsentimental, and, when the situation demanded it, violent, was the norm. However, I can't help delighting in the beautiful black and white cinematography and the shot composition.

We may only be left with one of those unsatisfying on-one-hand, but on-the-other hand kind of resolutions.

I'm reminded a bit of Woody Allen's opening monologue for the film Annie Hall.

"There's an old joke. Two elderly women are at a Catskills mountain resort, and one of 'em says, "Boy, the food at this place is really terrible." The other one says, "Yeah, I know, and such small portions."


I wept and I fasted
I prayed and I've lasted
At least six months longer
Than the one before

Some think it foolish
To guide all the mulish ones
Taking the path where
The world says to go

The kids are all cranky
Their minds beyond manky
And I have to show them
A sponge and a mop

If this is a marriage
The fault is the carriage
Guilt-wrapped and gold-plated
Confused for the top

Some people don't question
The reason for blessing
The idols so plentiful
Frequently sought

The kids are all cranky
Their minds beyond manky
And I have to show them
A sponge and a mop

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Review: Summertime

On this day when the highly anticipated film Eat, Pray, Love is set to be released in theaters, I thought I might provide a bit of contrast. Namely, I decided I'd write a movie review (for the first time in ages) about a much older film that covers much of the same territory. While it's not a perfect fit, many of the same plot elements are present. Released in 1955, Summertime stars Katharine Hepburn and Italian actor Rossano Brazzi. Originally a play, the screenplay stays faithful to the original by preserving a primary interplay between two major characters, a device that is commonly used in that form. As the action begins,we focus upon the trials and tribulations of a middle-aged secretary (Hepburn), seeking something very different while on her summer vacation. Appropriately, she has chosen to visit Venice after saving up for years in order to go, she informs us. The point of the trip, she alludes to in an off-hand fashion, is to find herself and spread her wings, though even this pronouncement is jittery and quavering.

A self-proclaimed independent woman flaunting the still very traditional trends of the day, Jane Hudson (Hepburn) is content in the beginning to pass her time eating in restaurants, taking pictures of the city, and engaging in small talk with fellow tourists. Hepburn had a way of playing nervous, ill-at-ease characters with exacting detail, and through the person of Jane we see a woman who can barely conceal the outward display of her life of quiet desperation. One would never call her confident. She's clearly an emotional wreck, stuck together with glue. Authentic repression requires dexterity or at least self-confidence and there is nothing skillful about any personality this self-doubting and uncertain.

Seeking a reason for this obvious discomfort with the self, we are led to believe that Hepburn's character, Jane Hudson, is simply approaching spinsterhood. What could be more frightening than the promise of being of being alone forever, of course? This might suffice for an answer, if it were not for one crucial, and very brief scene that shows a woman in absolute anguish and fear regarding the promise of real love. The response I got after viewing it was not that her neuroses and doubts always had kept her from finding a relationship partner, but rather that she had recently been severely heartbroken and had taken a trip to Italy to heal. We never know for sure, but I find the latter scenario a bit more plausible than the former.

Enter shopkeeper Renato de Rossi (Rossano Brazzi). de Rossi takes an immediate like to Jane. While sitting in a large open air cafe he spies her sitting by herself and smiles appreciatively. Her immediate reaction is to furiously put on a pair of sunglasses and shrink away from the attention. She is flattered/humiliated at the outset and not in the right frame of mind to be receptive to it even a little bit. So, he continues to pursue her, hoping to find her in better spirits eventually. He succeeds in his efforts, only to have (SPOILER ALERT) one nagging detail threaten to destroy the nascent affair and ruin her fantasies. He is married, but in the process of separation, a detail he explains that he intended to tell her eventually, but didn't say up front, not wanting to scare her away. Even after her Puritanical streak drives her away once, she seeks him out a second time, whereupon they engage in a brief, but passionate love affair.

A Feminist critique of Summertime is occasionally difficult. Hepburn's character is a contradiction in terms. She claims to be self-reliant and strong, and yet she is neither of these in reality. The shopkeeper de Rossi is a tender, gentle lover all in all and seems to instinctively know that being forceful is the only way the relationship will ever get underway. I wouldn't say that he ever broached consent, but rather that, from his perspective, he probably found it difficult to know how to properly approach someone so violently conflicted within the self. She is her own worst enemy, more so than any man ever could be. Is she the portrait of Fifties-era spinsterhood, a living example of why every woman needs a husband? Perhaps, but I don't think so.

Here's why. The film does not end up happily ever after for either character. Neither he nor she find their needs satisfied, which is in line more with a tragedy than a romance. Perhaps the basic idea is that falling in love, to say nothing of romance, can only be accomplished with the expectation that it will not be easy and will require pushing past fears that are simply not justified. Feminist critique often talks about fears that are very justified and often not taken seriously by others. Here, it would seem that the general message is that love is imperfect, it doesn't always arrive in socially acceptable forms, and yet to turn away from it would be throwing away the chance at contentment. This is subversive now, and subversive then.

The Answer to Answers

Winding paths
through tables and glass

First fall was new
Now watch the summer pass
So close to you.

Too late to keep the change,
Too late to pay,

No time to stay the same
Too young to leave.

No pass out sign on the door
set me thinking

Are waitresses paying the price
of their winking?

While stars sit in bars and decide
what they're drinking,

They drop by to die 'cause it's
faster than sinking.

Too late to keep the change,
Too late to pay,

No time to stay the same
Too late to keep the change,
Too late to pay,

No time to stay the same
Too young to leave.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Drain the Swamp? Drain the Attraction to the Swamp, First

Generation after generation of politicians running as Washington outsiders have railed against the established system. Lambasting corruption and inherent evil has been an effective populist message for a long while. We saw it from one party in 2006 and 2008 and now, in 2010, we observe it in another. Every generation appears to have been sold the same basic message. But after each wave of reformers finds the going perilous and true change difficult, we engage in an equally long-running tradition, that of demanding why. Why is this institution so resistant to change and so stubbornly ingrained? Where does one even begin?

One must first examine why people go to Washington in the first place. I should qualify that by "people" I do not mean only newly elected politicians. Much to their credit, some come to do great good. Some come for specialized experience and educational opportunities available nowhere else in the country, if not the world. Many, however, come to acquire power, plain and simple. I am aware that this description sounds overly simplistic, and to a degree it is, but after one has observed it first hand, it is difficult to understate this unfortunate reality.

Those whose God is power alone willingly sacrifice their humanity and integrity in the process of obtaining influence. Even good people are often tainted by the prevailing climate. Those who intend to stay a long while in DC make their peace with the existing framework somehow, either by compromise measures or occasionally through outright rationalizations.

How it came to be as it is and what factors converged to form Washington culture is a matter for historians and sociologists. I'm sure that answer exists somewhere. Sometimes I feel as though capital cities or any sources of very centralized power can easily become repositories of great evil. And yet, without them, as we know, it is much more difficult to properly govern. As it stands, the politics of the District, themselves a reflection of the strongest sources of power, those found at the White House and Capitol, are based around competition for influence.

Proving one's importance is the District's favorite parlor game, followed closely by name dropping. One also mustn't forget the practice of social climbing. Humility, as you might guess, is not listed here, nor is a refusal to overstate one's credentials for the sake of wishing to impress someone else. Not everyone is a high roller, but you'd be surprised how many pretenders to the throne exist.

If this sounds like Louis XIV's court in Versailles, circa 1700, it's because, in many ways, it is. The whole system is kept up by glass house residents throwing stones, or by true believers in the Emperor's latest brand new suit of clothes. As we have discovered once more, one person alone cannot fix what has been broken for so very long. Neglect and lack of adequate leadership produce swamp land. The longer unhealthy attitudes and practices go unchallenged, the more difficult they are to be reversed.

Draining the stinking scum will treat only the external issues. We would be better off taking on the reasons why people are drawn to it in the first place. Some of these unhealthy compulsions are likely due to human nature, but some of them could easily be curtailed with adequate oversight and strong leadership.

Yet, even so, we might be more wise in collapsing the house of cards and starting over. This has certainly been an attitude expressed by others I've solicited on this subject. What exists now has been in force for a very long time. Modest changes, in the District's current form, are about all we can truly expect going forward. I certainly am not advocating active revolution since I deplore violence of any sort, but I am instead suggesting that revolutionary changes are needed. Right now, too many people are indebted to the way things have always been.

This includes journalists, politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyists, government agency workers, non-profit do-gooders, and everyone both directly and indirectly influenced by the prevailing winds. Though the system is entirely broken, few wish to dismantle it and to assemble something else. Most are comfortable with the devil they know, casting a rather skeptical, fearful eye at the prospect of something potentially worse arriving next.

Remember again, friends, why people come to Washington, DC. Power is often paranoid and afraid of losing stature, which is confirmed each and every election cycle. Beyond politics, a very particular kind of personality is at force here behind the scenes. For those high-achieving, resume-padding, Type A, sharp elbowed, uber-competitive sorts, the ends often justify the means. And even though not everyone thinks or acts this way, there are more than enough present to create tremendous problems.

These problems are ancient. They do not pertain only to the modern era. We might do better pondering where we fit into the equation, and how individually we contributed to a cesspool environment, through both our complicity and our silence. We might ponder how to prevent this process from forming in the first place, in areas small enough or new enough that we individually have some modicum of control or guidance over the proceedings.

Hear these words. Some know them by heart, some haven't heard them in years, some have never heard them at all.

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: "The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.

They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden. Everything they do is for show. On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and they wear robes with extra long tassels.

And they love to sit at the head table at banquets and in the seats of honor in the synagogues. They love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces, and to be called 'Rabbi.'

"Don't let anyone call you 'Rabbi,' for you have only one teacher, and all of you are equal as brothers and sisters. And don't address anyone here on earth as 'Father,' for only God in heaven is your spiritual Father. And don't let anyone call you 'Teacher,' for you have only one teacher, the Messiah.

The greatest among you must be a servant. But those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Truth in Short Supply: Baltimore Yearly Meeting

My contribution to the Spirit Rising: Young Quaker Voices anthology was entitled, "Reviving the Slumbering Light". I was responding to a particularly unfortunate experience I experienced a couple years ago at a monthly meeting. The title could also easily apply to Baltimore Yearly Meeting's annual gathering. What I mean by this will soon be as clear as I can manage.

Before I begin, I want to note up front that I do not see myself as the eternal curmudgeon. Every community has at least one and I'm also aware of how easily they show themselves on an online forum. We don't often act responsibly regarding constructive criticism. It seems that when problems must be voiced that it is necessary to fall into one of two extremes: the risk-averse hand-wringer or the chronically misanthropic complainer. "Rocking the boat" need not be an emasculating experience, nor have we any need to cherry pick someone's best intentions from his or her baseless insults and petty grievances. Though I seek that which is God within everyone, some people make the process very difficult.

As I collect my thoughts, I am inspired by the early Quakers who, out of a desire to speak Truth to power, found themselves frequently misunderstood. It is in emulation of that great and noble tradition that I write, risking the same response. To be sure, had I chosen to write immediately after arriving home, I would have spoken from a place of frustration and anger; my prose would have reflected it. Now, after processing what I went through, I believe I am better able to objectively outline that which caused me no small distress.

Here is what I mean. Baltimore Yearly Meeting was run with as little transparency and accountability as I have ever seen in a spiritual gathering. I find this dumbfounding, since many of the problems present defied common sense. To cite one example, chain of command was nonexistent. Friends were confused as to what person or persons on staff (or on an appropriate committee) needed to be approached for specific purposes.

I shudder to think what would have happened had a person had an accident or severe illness requiring immediate medical assistance. Moreover, no pre-packet of general information was provided to attenders before showing up on site. Ideally, at minimum this packet would have lain out important details, phone trees, room assignments, and emergency contacts. It could have been printed out beforehand for those who would have preferred a paper copy or provided in PDF or Word format to those who sought to be environmentally friendly.

Here another example: orientation was held only once, which is fine for those with the financial and time resources to attend for a full week, but is very inconvenient and unfair to many Friends who arrived after the proceedings had gotten underway. Signs pointing attenders across the campus of Frostburg State to scheduled events were minimal. It is my understanding that efforts were made to increase their presence, but these efforts need to continue and to be greatly expanded. In short, the gathering was run by long time attenders for people who were also long time attenders.

For those like me who had never been before, we felt for all the world as though we were engaged in a massive scavenger hunt. Even those who had attended many times before got confused by the lack of adequate organization and often arrived late to activities. While I know that the phrase "Quaker organization" is an oxymoron in some corners, I think surely we can do much better than this. Had I not attended a prior gathering where these sorts of problems were not found in bushels, I might not hold these same expectations.

I arrived seeking spiritual refreshment in the company of others with the same inclination, and I regret to report that I did not find it. Instead, I felt in many ways as though I was a new member of a country club or fraternity. Whether Friends intended it to be structured in such a fashion or whether this is a consequence of ignorance and neglect, I know not, but the feel of the gathering was about as far from Beloved Community as I can imagine.

I aim to help out and assist others as part of my leading from the Spirit, but when the work of pertinent committees and individuals is kept hidden without any easy means of comprehension or discernment, it makes me not want to undertake the effort needed to obtain this information. To try to better explain precisely what it is I mean, here is a example of a conversation I had.

Me: I'd like to know more about the __________________ committee.

Long-time Friend: Surely you must know ____________________.

Me: No, actually, I don't.

(Thinking to myself) No one's ever really introduced themselves to me before. How would I know them if they don't make it easy for me to participate? How can I participate if I am expected to do so much legwork up front?

Long-time Friend: Well, talk to _______________________.

Me: I don't know them either.

It has been my experience that committee work is often rewarding. I don't want to be seen as though I'm bashing the committee system as a whole. But I think also that many of us are well aware of what happens when one or two people take control over a committee. When these people think that working together is some threat to their own power, then Quaker process completely breaks down. In unfortunate situations like these, other committee members often feel as though it's not worth the trouble of an argument or a conflict to correct this Friend in a spirit of love.

I saw this at Yearly Meeting and my impressions were confirmed by other Friends I spoke with privately. Several threw their hands up in the air, stating that this had been the way things always had been ever since they'd been attending. It is from these conversations that I understood the dysfunction was systemic and totally entrenched.

This regrettable dynamic kept most Young Adult Friends from wanting to engage in daily activities. Instead, they kept to themselves. I did discover that most Young Adult Friends in attendance tended to trend more to the younger end of the spectrum, towards the late teens and early twenties. I am a full decade younger than them and yet, I have to say I felt a sense of kinship in their company more than I felt with most older adults. There were maybe two or three other Young Adult Friends in attendance who were in their late twenties and early thirties, which is problematic in and of itself, but another subject altogether.

On this general topic, a Friend gave a group presentation at BYM, directly discussing waning Young Adult participation. He titled the talk "Where Have All the Children Gone?". To answer his query literally, and in part, I'd answer that they simply don't want to deal with the exhausting drama and needless conflict. They see adults, their presumed elders, acting childishly or not especially Friendly, and they want no part of it whatsoever. One cannot blame them. I myself have noticed in my own monthly meeting that a great divide in attitude and mentality exists between the Young Adults and Older Adults, and the two are often in tension with each other.

Are we asleep, Friends? If we are, it should be easy enough to rouse ourselves from slumber. I recognize that change becomes progressively more and more difficult to enact as we grow older, but straightforward reforms like these are vital to the survival of our faith. My concerns speak well beyond just one Yearly Meeting. As I set down these words, I seek to keep a foot planted firmly in two camps, both with people with my age, and also with those older than me.

There is certainly enough blame to go around, should we choose to devote our energies towards finger-pointing. I, however, would much rather discuss strategies for continued growth and healthy dialogue. What I do know is that unless we are willing to speak the same language, we should expect to stay here forever. It's not fair to demand that others must learn our language to gain admission and then act incredulous when they take offense.