Thursday, December 30, 2010

Happy New Year!

Everybody had a hard year
Everybody had a good time
Everybody got a wet dream
Everybody saw the sun shine
Oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah

Everybody had a good year
Everybody let their hair down
Everybody pulled their socks up
Everybody put their foot down
oh yeah

I've got a feeling.

Everybody had a good year
Everybody had a hard time
Everybody had a wet dream
Everybody saw the sun shine

Everybody had a good year
Everybody let their hair down
Everybody pulled their socks up
Everybody put their foot down
oh yeah

I've got a feeling.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

First Day Back

Oh, the errands to be run!

For a few people back home.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Should Societal Judgment Be Time Limited?

The impetus for this post was a most unlikely subject. I've been recently deconstructing my own uneasy feelings towards disgraced NFL Quarterback Michael Vick. My partner, a native of Philadelphia, is a huge fan of the Eagles professional football team and is thrilled at the its recent success with Vick at the helm. When the dog fighting revelations surfaced, I admit that I wanted to see him banned from the league for life. Instead, Vick served nearly two years in jail, filed for bankruptcy, missed two full seasons, and was blackballed from his original team. His stunning return to form was highly unexpected. And as much I try to be a forgiving person, I simply cannot extend it to a player who is nonetheless a strong candidate to be eventually awarded the National Football League's Most Valuable Player for a most impressive season.

My partner's response is calm, but firmly adamant. How long should we continue to punish anyone for past sins, particularly after they have done their time and suffered for it? I do see her point, though I still retain my skepticism. She frequently and adamantly encourages me to reevaluate my initial viewpoint, with limited success. So it is that on this same basic subject, a fellow Quaker, Betsy Cazden, recently invoked a thought-provoking, and highly controversial query for us all to ponder. Adapted from the theologian and philosopher Miroslav Volf, Cazden poses, “In heaven are there permanent memorials to Auschwitz, to Hiroshima, to the Middle Passage, to the Quaker martyrs?”

Or, to put it another way, can the atrocities humans have committed against each other be rightly let go after a time? Visitors to Holocaust concentration camps and memorials to those killed by Nazi atrocities are implored to "never forget." Is it healthy to eventually forgive and forget? Is it even possible to keep its memory alive beyond a certain time? Eventually, everyone negatively influenced by these infamous crimes against humanity committed in the name of the Fatherland will pass on to the next life. When they do, will wave after wave of museums, memorials, films, literature, and personal anecdotes suffice to serve as the supreme deterrent? Seemingly in in opposition to them is the radical forgiveness espoused by Jesus, commandments unwavering and undeniable.

"If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins."

"Stop judging, so that you won't be judged, because the way that you judge others will be the way that you will be judged, and you will be evaluated by the standard with which you evaluate others."

We are reflections of the way we react to other people, particularly in how we respond to those who break the rules, for any reason, and at any time. Putting ourselves in the place of those we criticize will be sure to create discomfort. If we are honest enough with ourselves, we can see how our judgments evolved and grew throughout the course of our lives. Every human develops differently based on specific environmental factors combined with the complex biology of how we came to be in the womb. This is not to excuse offhand anyone's bad behavior or poor decision making, but rather to note the complicated series of events that goes into the formation of each and every human life. Without contemplating the entire picture, our instant, summary judgments are based on incomplete and inadequate information.

Since I became a Friend, I have been called to avoid absolute words like "evil", in that they provide no possible way to see the Divine within the mortal. Even so, I find it a severe challenge not to see historical figures like Adolf Hitler in such blanket terms. The best I can manage is a weak, strained kind of halfhearted concession which states that der Führer certainly must have loved dogs. Which is more than we can say for Michael Vick. Hitler may have loved canines, but he certainly didn't love many of his fellow human beings. It is an extraction of the scriptural passages above that forms Quaker theology and I concede that as a spiritual discipline, I need to work on myself to not fall into the habit of making self-righteous pronouncements of any sort. Still, when one considers genocides, regardless of who is involved, I seek not to dishonor the memory of those who perished. With this ambivalence, a column I began with open-ended questions I conclude the same way.

Is it finally time to forgive, even if we do not forget? Would forgiveness facilitate healing? What is the ultimate and lasting value of maintaining an open sore? For all our striving, are we fighting a losing battle with time? If we are religious or spiritual people, do we trust in the guidance of God to open hearts and close wounds, or is this our responsibility, first and foremost?

Belated Quote of the Week

"A person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down. If it is a good book nothing can hurt him. If it is a bad book nothing can help him."- Edna St. Vincent Millay

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Friday, December 24, 2010

U.S. Space and Rocket Center Pictures

Alabama's most visited tourist attraction is the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. Located in the North Alabama city of Huntsville, one finds many a paean to the Space Program.

Over 200 pictures were taken. Here are the best of them, numbering 140 in total.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Travel Day

As I hang out in train stations, airports, and cars all day, accept this Christmas offering.


by O. Henry

One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one's cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty- seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.

There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.

While the mistress of the home is gradually subsiding from the first stage to the second, take a look at the home. A furnished flat at $8 per week. It did not exactly beggar description, but it certainly had that word on the lookout for the mendicancy squad.

In the vestibule below was a letter-box into which no letter would go, and an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring. Also appertaining thereunto was a card bearing the name "Mr. James Dillingham Young."

The "Dillingham" had been flung to the breeze during a former period of prosperity when its possessor was being paid $30 per week. Now, when the income was shrunk to $20, though, they were thinking seriously of contracting to a modest and unassuming D. But whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat above he was called "Jim" and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young, already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good.

Della finished her cry and attended to her cheeks with the powder rag. She stood by the window and looked out dully at a gray cat walking a gray fence in a gray backyard. Tomorrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $1.87 with which to buy Jim a present. She had been saving every penny she could for months, with this result. Twenty dollars a week doesn't go far. Expenses had been greater than she had calculated. They always are. Only $1.87 to buy a present for Jim. Her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him. Something fine and rare and sterling--something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honor of being owned by Jim.

There was a pier-glass between the windows of the room. Perhaps you have seen a pier-glass in an $8 flat. A very thin and very agile person may, by observing his reflection in a rapid sequence of longitudinal strips, obtain a fairly accurate conception of his looks. Della, being slender, had mastered the art.

Suddenly she whirled from the window and stood before the glass. her eyes were shining brilliantly, but her face had lost its color within twenty seconds. Rapidly she pulled down her hair and let it fall to its full length.

Now, there were two possessions of the James Dillingham Youngs in which they both took a mighty pride. One was Jim's gold watch that had been his father's and his grandfather's. The other was Della's hair. Had the queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty's jewels and gifts. Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.

So now Della's beautiful hair fell about her rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters. It reached below her knee and made itself almost a garment for her. And then she did it up again nervously and quickly. Once she faltered for a minute and stood still while a tear or two splashed on the worn red carpet.

On went her old brown jacket; on went her old brown hat. With a whirl of skirts and with the brilliant sparkle still in her eyes, she fluttered out the door and down the stairs to the street.

Where she stopped the sign read: "Mne. Sofronie. Hair Goods of All Kinds." One flight up Della ran, and collected herself, panting. Madame, large, too white, chilly, hardly looked the "Sofronie."

"Will you buy my hair?" asked Della.

"I buy hair," said Madame. "Take yer hat off and let's have a sight at the looks of it."

Down rippled the brown cascade.

"Twenty dollars," said Madame, lifting the mass with a practised hand.

"Give it to me quick," said Della.

Oh, and the next two hours tripped by on rosy wings. Forget the hashed metaphor. She was ransacking the stores for Jim's present.

She found it at last. It surely had been made for Jim and no one else. There was no other like it in any of the stores, and she had turned all of them inside out. It was a platinum fob chain simple and chaste in design, properly proclaiming its value by substance alone and not by meretricious ornamentation--as all good things should do. It was even worthy of The Watch. As soon as she saw it she knew that it must be Jim's. It was like him. Quietness and value--the description applied to both. Twenty-one dollars they took from her for it, and she hurried home with the 87 cents. With that chain on his watch Jim might be properly anxious about the time in any company. Grand as the watch was, he sometimes looked at it on the sly on account of the old leather strap that he used in place of a chain.

When Della reached home her intoxication gave way a little to prudence and reason. She got out her curling irons and lighted the gas and went to work repairing the ravages made by generosity added to love. Which is always a tremendous task, dear friends--a mammoth task.

Within forty minutes her head was covered with tiny, close-lying curls that made her look wonderfully like a truant schoolboy. She looked at her reflection in the mirror long, carefully, and critically.

"If Jim doesn't kill me," she said to herself, "before he takes a second look at me, he'll say I look like a Coney Island chorus girl. But what could I do--oh! what could I do with a dollar and eighty- seven cents?"

At 7 o'clock the coffee was made and the frying-pan was on the back of the stove hot and ready to cook the chops.

Jim was never late. Della doubled the fob chain in her hand and sat on the corner of the table near the door that he always entered. Then she heard his step on the stair away down on the first flight, and she turned white for just a moment. She had a habit for saying little silent prayer about the simplest everyday things, and now she whispered: "Please God, make him think I am still pretty."

The door opened and Jim stepped in and closed it. He looked thin and very serious. Poor fellow, he was only twenty-two--and to be burdened with a family! He needed a new overcoat and he was without gloves.

Jim stopped inside the door, as immovable as a setter at the scent of quail. His eyes were fixed upon Della, and there was an expression in them that she could not read, and it terrified her. It was not anger, nor surprise, nor disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she had been prepared for. He simply stared at her fixedly with that peculiar expression on his face.

Della wriggled off the table and went for him.

"Jim, darling," she cried, "don't look at me that way. I had my hair cut off and sold because I couldn't have lived through Christmas without giving you a present. It'll grow out again--you won't mind, will you? I just had to do it. My hair grows awfully fast. Say `Merry Christmas!' Jim, and let's be happy. You don't know what a nice-- what a beautiful, nice gift I've got for you."

"You've cut off your hair?" asked Jim, laboriously, as if he had not arrived at that patent fact yet even after the hardest mental labor.

"Cut it off and sold it," said Della. "Don't you like me just as well, anyhow? I'm me without my hair, ain't I?"

Jim looked about the room curiously.

"You say your hair is gone?" he said, with an air almost of idiocy.

"You needn't look for it," said Della. "It's sold, I tell you--sold and gone, too. It's Christmas Eve, boy. Be good to me, for it went for you. Maybe the hairs of my head were numbered," she went on with sudden serious sweetness, "but nobody could ever count my love for you. Shall I put the chops on, Jim?"

Out of his trance Jim seemed quickly to wake. He enfolded his Della. For ten seconds let us regard with discreet scrutiny some inconsequential object in the other direction. Eight dollars a week or a million a year--what is the difference? A mathematician or a wit would give you the wrong answer. The magi brought valuable gifts, but that was not among them. This dark assertion will be illuminated later on.

Jim drew a package from his overcoat pocket and threw it upon the table.

"Don't make any mistake, Dell," he said, "about me. I don't think there's anything in the way of a haircut or a shave or a shampoo that could make me like my girl any less. But if you'll unwrap that package you may see why you had me going a while at first."

White fingers and nimble tore at the string and paper. And then an ecstatic scream of joy; and then, alas! a quick feminine change to hysterical tears and wails, necessitating the immediate employment of all the comforting powers of the lord of the flat.

For there lay The Combs--the set of combs, side and back, that Della had worshipped long in a Broadway window. Beautiful combs, pure tortoise shell, with jewelled rims--just the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair. They were expensive combs, she knew, and her heart had simply craved and yearned over them without the least hope of possession. And now, they were hers, but the tresses that should have adorned the coveted adornments were gone.

But she hugged them to her bosom, and at length she was able to look up with dim eyes and a smile and say: "My hair grows so fast, Jim!"

And them Della leaped up like a little singed cat and cried, "Oh, oh!"

Jim had not yet seen his beautiful present. She held it out to him eagerly upon her open palm. The dull precious metal seemed to flash with a reflection of her bright and ardent spirit.

"Isn't it a dandy, Jim? I hunted all over town to find it. You'll have to look at the time a hundred times a day now. Give me your watch. I want to see how it looks on it."

Instead of obeying, Jim tumbled down on the couch and put his hands under the back of his head and smiled.

"Dell," said he, "let's put our Christmas presents away and keep 'em a while. They're too nice to use just at present. I sold the watch to get the money to buy your combs. And now suppose you put the chops on."

The magi, as you know, were wise men--wonderfully wise men--who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Can't Tell Them Apart At All

Like to take a cement fix
Be a standing cinema
Dress my friends up just for show
See them as they really are

Put a peephole in my brain
Two new pence to have a go
I'd like to be a gallery
Put you all inside my show

Andy Warhol looks a scream
Hang him on my wall
Andy Warhol, Silver Screen
Can't tell them apart at all

Andy walking, Andy tired
Andy take a little snooze
Tie him up when he's fast asleep
Send him on a pleasant cruise

When he wakes up on the sea
Be sure to think of me and you
He'll think about paint and
he'll think about glue

What a jolly boring thing to do

Andy Warhol looks a scream
Hang him on my wall
Andy Warhol, Silver Screen
Can't tell them apart at all

Andy Warhol looks a scream
Hang him on my wall
Andy Warhol, Silver Screen
Can't tell them apart at all

Monday, December 20, 2010

Freedom of Choice Requires Freedom to Choose

At Meeting yesterday, the subject of raising children found its way into the messages of many. Prompted perhaps by the presence of happy children singing Christmas carols early into worship, vocal ministry focused on the dual blessing and challenges of parenthood. Many moving, emotionally rich stories were shared. Each of them had a common thread, but each also stood separately by themselves as their own unique offering. Much wisdom and humor was present as well, and I am a fan of both. As some contemplated the fragility of the infant Jesus, it seemed fitting that this would be the unofficial subject of the day. When it works well, the exercise in instantaneous revelation that is most Quaker worship is a rich, multi-layered experience, one that, in this instance, left several in tears.

This is why I feel like a stick-in-the-mud in criticizing these unselfish outpourings of love and affection. Long have I wished to see the the Spirit speaking within different people with different life experiences. Most of the time, however, though anyone is always free to share a message and at any point, the same few vocal ministers usually speak. Some who do not vocally share believe that their calling lay elsewhere, which I understand. Some rise to speak only once in a blue moon. But it is notable that almost everyone who served as God's mouthpiece in worship yesterday was female. As best I can reckon, those ordinarily hesitant to speak found a topic upon which they considered themselves a relatively reliable authority. A leap of faith is required for all who would rise to their feet and talk, but some leaps can be reliably made without the fear of failure. Anxiety need not be a disqualifying factor, but I fear it often can be.

My reservations in this are that it took a topic like this one for many women to feel comfortable speaking, even once. Child rearing was the exclusive domain of one sex for a long time and it still is, even with recent changes in attitude. I suppose I always wish that women would feel less constrained to speak on a subject that goes beyond merely so-called "women's issues". Part of gender equality, to me, is the state at which topics aren't automatically relegated only to one or the other. If increased participation is what we seek, be it in houses of worship or in everyday interaction, these deceptively subtle signs must be observed and addressed. It is ironic that Quaker unprogrammed worship begins in and is largely conducted within complete silence, when the everyday silence of women who do not contribute to the greater discourse superficially add to it. Silence to Friends is holy, because there is something weighty and substantive to it, but silence in the form of non-participation is something else altogether. I show up to Meeting every First Day (Sunday) always hoping to hear a different bearer of the Spirit or to observe a message that arises from an altogether unexpected place.

It is choice, above all, that I desire. The choice to minister or not to minister is always present, but I would prefer that the decision be made on theological, not societal terms. I stay seated in the active quiet until a fully-formed message arrives. Often the matter upon which I have spoken instantly takes me out of my comfort zone. Each of us have our interests and passions, and anyone's vocal ministry routinely reflects those. Far be it for me to denigrate anyone else's. The women who spoke were passionate about parenting and Bringing Children Up the Proper Way. To reiterate, this is why I write this post with my own hesitance. Yet, beyond religious expression or practical knowledge, or even gender, I encourage each of us to refuse to silence ourselves. Some traditions are worth preserving, but unlike what some believe, reform doesn't automatically mean that the worthwhile parts of anything will be swept into the gutter at the expense of the new. Women will always be nurturing caretakers of the young, as they always have been. But they don't have to be the only ones, either.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Quote of the Week

“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”- Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Saturday Video

There are any number of interpretations of this song, but I've always viewed it myself as anti-war, first and foremost. The time and place could possibly be during the Civil War, though there is no way to know for sure. I've posted here the acoustic version, which is a fragile and uncertain rendering, in great contrast to than the more familiar, punchier electric one. Regardless of the song's true meaning, several of the lines are absolutely brilliant.

Look out, Mama, there's a
white boat comin' up the river

With a big red beacon, and a flag,
and a man on the rail

I think you'd better call John,
'Cause it don't look like
they're here to deliver the mail

And it's less than a mile away
I hope they didn't come to stay
It's got numbers on the side and a gun
And it's makin' big waves.

Daddy's gone, my brother's out
hunting in the mountains
Big John's been drinking
since the river took Emmy-Lou

So the Powers That Be left me
here to do the thinkin'

And I just turned twenty-two
I was wonderin' what to do
And the closer they got,
The more those feelings grew.

Daddy's rifle in my
hand felt reassurin'
He told me,
"Red means run,
son, numbers add up to nothin'"

But when the first shot
hit the docks I saw it comin'

Raised my rifle to my eye
Never stopped to wonder why.
Then I saw black,
And my face splashed in the sky.

Shelter me from the powder
and the finger
Cover me with the thought
that pulled the trigger

Think of me as one you'd never figured
Would fade away so young
With so much left undone

Remember me to my love,
I know I'll miss her.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Sing a Song for Strength

I've done a version of this before in video form, but I wanted to showcase what it sounds like on the multitrack recorder. The effect is much fuller, as is the emotional impact.

Motion pictures
on my TV screen,

I'm home away from home,
and I'm livin' in between

But I hear some people
have got their dream.

Well, I've got mine.

I hear the mountains
are doin' fine,

Mornin' glory
is on the vine,
And the dew is fallin',
the ducks are callin'.

Yes, I've got mine.

Well, all those people,
they think
they've got it made

But I wouldn't buy,
sell, borrow, or trade
Anything I have
to be like one of them.

I'd rather
start all over again.

Well, all those headlines,
they just bore me now

I'm deep inside myself,
but I'll get out somehow,

And I'll stand before you,
and I'll bring
a smile to your eyes.

Motion pictures,
motion pictures.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Complete Randomness

Hello 1979 hair!

Violent Ends Require Non-Violent Beginnings

As we move towards becoming a more empathetic society, certain regrettable characteristics must be directly addressed. The eye for an eye sorts would have us believe that we are opting for weakness, regardless of our efforts to establish fairness and equality. The paradoxical ferocity of our impulse for justice would seem to belie these fears, but they still remain in the minds of many. Unless we honestly take stock of how each of us is negatively impacted by a noxious undercurrent of violence, we will only be treating secondary symptoms of a larger disease. In the end, it doesn't really matter how many degrees separate our complicity.

Violence and the threat of violence surrounds us on a daily basis. Indeed, it always has. This impulse can and does take many forms. The mentally unwell vigilante with a handgun often grabs the attention more prominently then the prominent figure who has allegedly committed sexual assault. In this instance, even if Julian Assange is innocent of the crimes of which he has been charged, there is nonetheless a tragic precedent present of undercutting or severely discounting similar allegations in similar circumstances. As we opt for empathy, we are torn between the noble impulse to see the humanity within the criminal and our stubborn persistence for just punishment. These need not compete with each other, but the news media favors counterpoint above commonality. Splitting is well and good for those with personality disorders, but I would not highly recommend it to the average person.

Feminists, particularly Third-wave Feminists, have long sought to publicize such matters themselves, particularly when others consistently drop the ball. Detractors sometimes consider their efforts overkill and redundant. But as a means of comparison, do consider this brief anecdote. The British director Lindsay Anderson, a personal favorite of mine, was regularly raked over the coals by film critics. In particular, he received this treatment for repeating the same basic criticisms of UK society in each of his cinematic works. In response, Anderson is reported to have said something to the effect that while he acknowledged their observations, he wouldn't have bothered, except that the country was still f**king doing it!

If we were honestly willing to commit to the soul-searching needed to purge ourselves of institutional violence, if you will, much would need to be contemplated. We'd need to analyze every childhood taunt, every fistfight, every betrayal of trust, every instance where we entered, no matter how briefly, a gray area somewhere between right and wrong, and every rationalization we made to excuse ourselves for doing so.

Faith traditions far more Calvinist than mine borrow freely from the Gospel of John on this subject.

For you are the children of your father the devil, and you love to do the evil things he does. He was a murderer from the beginning. He has always hated the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, it is consistent with his character; for he is a liar and the father of lies.

I myself do not feel comfortable viewing the world in such terms. Above is one particular way to try to understand a particularly crucial part of human behavior. And I find that every group, religious or otherwise, points back to one particular concept to explain why. Some call it male privilege or Patriarchy. Some call it symptomatic of a fallen world. Some cite the presence of trauma earlier in life or look for a lingering, chronic illness. Some scrutinize the latest scientific finding and process of the body. I think there's much truth in each of these, but I can't help but think that there's something even more basic present. The answer we seek is in front of us, and I wonder what the passage of time will reveal. Each of us attacks the problem from a slightly different direction. Now our knowledge is partial and incomplete, and even the gift of prophecy reveals only part of the whole picture! My faith in eventual progress has not dulled with time, no matter how much I may doubt it at times.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Everyone Knows

The verse riff was originally composed on keyboard, so I still hear it in the background when this song is played. This song is now a few years old and appropriately full of longing and confusion. The time signature shift is prominent. The verse is in 5/4 time, an homage a jazz standard by the name of "Take Five", and then the chorus abruptly switches to 4/4. I have long been influenced by jazz, but it usually crops up in my music more subtly.

I don't know where you go
I don't know where you stay
I wish that I never tried
Half as hard to explain

Every time I hope to hold
An answer to a question bold
I tried so hard to make it so
And thus undo the tale I told

I live inside my head
My cares are for my fears
I haven't yet known you
I rarely make mistakes

Every time I hope to hold
An answer to a question bold
I tried so hard to make it so
And thus undo the tale I told

Every time I hope to hold
An answer to a question bold
I tried so hard to make it so
And thus undo the tale I told

I lay it on thick
I only have one speed
I rarely get thrown off
I don't desire your concern

Every time I hope to hold
An answer to a question bold
I tried so hard to make it so
And thus undo the tale I told

Every time I hope to hold
An answer to a question bold
I tried so hard to make it so
And thus undo the tale I told

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

As Long as We Can Sail Away

I resist singing certain songs as times because I've never quite cured myself of a childhood lisp. Speech therapy felt like absolute torture and I remember how frustrated I got with myself. There were torturous, S-heavy sentences to read and a mirror held before me, demonstrating precisely what I was doing wrong. Already self-critical to a fault, this was not what needed. Many hours immediately after lunch were spent in windowless offices that doubled as classrooms--offices peopled by idealistic therapists mostly in their late twenties and early thirties.

For whatever reason, I never managed to learn how to make the proper consonant sound with my teeth closed. It's not as prominent as it was then, though sometimes it is noticeably more pronounced. As a musician, I probably ought to own it as an idiosyncrasy, though I am still very ashamed and mortified when I hear it prominently. Now for the song.

I could live inside a tepee
I could die
in Penthouse thirty-five

You could lose me on the freeway
But I would still
make it back alive.

As long as we can sail away
As long as we can sail away

There'll be wind in the canyon
Moon on the rise
As long as we can sail away.

See the losers in the best bars
Meet the winners in the dives

Where the people are the real stars
All the rest of their lives.

As long as we can sail away
As long as we can sail away

There'll be wind in the canyon
Moon on the rise
As long as we can sail away.

There's a road
stretched out between us
Like a ribbon on the high plain

Down from Phoenix through Salinas
'Round the bend and back again.

As long as we can sail away
As long as we can sail away

There'll be wind in the canyon
Moon on the rise

As long as we can sail away
As long as we can sail away.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Purity is in the Eye of the Beholder

The Quaker artist Edward Hicks is well known among the Religious Society of Friends, but less so among others. Though an adept and respected minister in his own faith, it is for his series of paintings that he is now largely remembered. The reverse was true in his own lifetime. One often considers folk artists like Hicks either charmingly unskilled or unforgivably untrained. Detractors see him as the Grandfather of C.M. Coolidge’s Dogs Playing Poker series. Supporters see a self-taught painter who eventually developed a sophisticated technique. That debate aside, his best known work, The Peaceable Kingdom, has 61 different versions, each modifications from paintings prior.

Hicks struggled mightily with a dual calling. While comfortable with his traveling ministry, he was not always comfortable with his art. Living at a time where Quaker doctrine was unusually strict and restrictive, his talent with the paintbrush was not always popular or accepted among his fellow Friends. The Society had long maintained an element of Radical Protestantism, itself a holdover from its founding in 1640’s England. In this context, this was a doctrine that encouraged deliberate self-denial and with it much in the way of self-restraint. As a result, Hicks often found himself in both a financial and personal conundrum. His decorative painting was financially lucrative, but frowned upon by other Quakers.

At first his fellow Quakers looked a bit askance at his profession, and because of this, at one time he gave it up to be a farmer. He was unsuccessful at farming, however, and returned to his brushes. It was honest work, so fellow members of his meeting eventually forgave him, especially since he was becoming a strong preacher, traveling among many meetings. He did agree with them about certain vanities in art and refused to paint portraits, which were too ego-centered.

He worked at the time when both the United States and modern American Quakerism were young. His spiritual beliefs came from...18th Century Quietism, which espoused simplicity, self-discipline, and contact with the Inner Light. Elias Hicks, his second cousin, was a central figure in a religious storm. Edward Hicks was a spokesman, in word and in image, for those who became known as the Hicksites. It broke his heart to see Quakers becoming worldly, with excessive material goods and inflated pride, and leaning towards the creation of a spiritual elite. He felt this corrosion also in the authoritarian control of elders, as mere men, and not as followers of the Inner Spirit of Christ. He had a genuine feeling for the Scriptures, along with hope for a continuing sense of insight open to all.

In the Book of Exodus, Moses goes up to the mountaintop to receive the Ten Commandments from God. He is gone for quite a long time. Desirous of additional information and fearful of abandonment, his people substitute that which had led them out of bondage for the immediacy and surety of an idol made of gold. Moses’ brother Aaron had been left in charge for the duration, so the people came to him with a request.

"Come on," they said, "make us some gods who can lead us. We don't know what happened to this fellow Moses, who brought us here from the land of Egypt."

Still in the middle of speaking with God, Moses is forced to interrupt what he is doing. He descends from the mountain to survey what the Israelites, God’s chosen people, have been up to while he has been hard at work.

…[Moses] turned to Aaron and demanded, "What did these people do to you to make you bring such terrible sin upon them?"

Aaron responds in duplicitous fashion, as he had been in charge of helping people form the graven image in the first place.

"Don't get so upset, my lord," Aaron replied. "You yourself know how evil these people are.” They said to me, 'Make us gods who will lead us. We don't know what happened to this fellow Moses, who brought us here from the land of Egypt.'

In typically Old Testament fashion, God’s first inclination is to destroy everyone. Moses talks him out of it.

The text encourages us to judge these wayward people harshly. I have never been able to do so. Humanity is often fickle, often inclined to get swept up in the moment at the expense of what is sensible. The more I observe patterns of behavior, the less I think it my place to criticize other people for not adhering to a strict standard. This doesn’t mean that everyone is absolved of responsibilities, but rather I see a system based on the logic of rules as limiting. People and circumstances are far more complex than that.

The intention of Friends in the Quietist period was to not become like the worshipers of the Golden Calf. Adherence to a sense of strict religious purity created problems for those whose calling differed from the standard. A desire to read out of Meeting (excommunicate) those who did not comply was also in force. What was left, however, sometimes resembled the worst elements of the Old Testament God: petty, judgmental, impulsive, inclined to act rashly, and to follow the letter of the law, rather than the Spirit. Each of us has had this leaning from time, particularly true for those of us who consider ourselves the keeper of some ideal. It should be noted that speaking out about the perversion of a belief system is not the same as coveting only one particular interpretation, for whatever reason.

I’ve written recently about my struggles with hypogonadism. To further my argument, here is a brief health update. A couple weeks ago, results of an MRI were far slower to arrive than they should have ever been. In the absence of actual news, fear and anxiety led me to conjure up a million unlikely scenarios and rare diseases. I was glued to the Internet for hours at time, reading medical histories and related studies, in the hopes of finding some resolution to my own worries. I noticed then that there is a curiously human comfort to know something tangible, even if it may be wrong or incorrect, than to know nothing at all. The Israelites were not intending to replace God, but instead craved a physical representation of him to assuage their own doubts and impatience. Mysterious ways sometimes means the illusion of separation or absence, and any believer will tell you about the presence of dry spells that test the faith.

That Edward Hicks would have found greater favor for his idiosyncratic visual works rather than his erudite words spoken in worship is a point to ponder. Those of his day might see this as proof of our fallen world. Even someone with profound spiritual convictions and talents can be overlooked for his service to the Lord. It should be noted that most, if not all of his paintings were religious in nature. This way of thinking says that the effort, no matter how beautifully rendered was tainted by worldliness and sin. A different interpretation altogether would be that it is not for us to say where God finds favor or why one person’s skills are emphasized more highly than another’s throughout the passage of time. It may make more sense to appreciate them as the gifts that they are, as they are lain before us.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Quote of the Week

"Be yourself; everyone else is taken." Sylvia Boorstein

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Friday, December 10, 2010

Just About Had It

This song could be confused for self-pity, if it were not so deliberately tongue-in-cheek. Much of this is me being self-deprecating. Regardless, "Just About Had It" comes from a much darker, younger period in my life. The first verse is a devastating condemnation of a relationship turned sour, yet the melody itself is catchy and attractive. The upbeat swing of the music has been balanced well by the bleak lyrics. The protagonist may have just about had it with a lost love, but he has also just about had it with himself.

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

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Keep DREAMing, Congress

Immigration reform is needed, but it would be foolhardy to suggest that the DREAM act satisfies the requirement. It would seem that we have entered a new era of protectionism. Perhaps we should revive the quota system while we are at it. Though exact numbers will not be regulated, immigrants allowed to attain formal citizenship will be sharply curtailed. Each subsequent revision of the original bill adds hurdles to what will be a lengthy, tedious process of measured steps to follow. The act makes it plain that the process towards citizenship will unnecessarily protracted. The only immigrants allowed the formal right to be called Americans will be high achievers. Granted, good old fashioned Americans can be lazy, unproductive, and not of high moral character, but not illegal and deportable aliens, as the wording of the bill itself reads.

In a country which has long defined itself as a nation of immigrants, this degree of scrutiny seems excessive and contradictory. In this age, we barely trust ourselves, so I suppose it's unsurprising that we'd need trust benchmarks to be met before we'd let anyone different into the inner sanctum. We live in a country that has no concept of individual delayed gratification these days, except for those we can't quite perceive as like us. Apparently, the application process for the melting pot takes longer these days, and requires you have enough money for an appeal if you can't quite assimilate to someone else's satisfaction.

The military service requirement is perhaps the most troubling section of the bill to me. In part, this reflects my own pacifist sentiment, but my moral objections go beyond one specific position. To wit, immigrants requesting citizenship must enroll in a college or university to attain a degree, or serve in the armed forces for two years. As the late comic Bill Hicks put it, I think we may be out of ideas on this planet. The Roman Empire conscripted non-Romans who lived within its massive boundaries to fight its wars of empire. Armies similarly comprised of mercenaries from low or foreign birth have much historical precedent. I can even see a time where American citizenship might be extended to all willing to fight for the privilege.

To show the progression of this basic idea, allow me to briefly reference a few pertinent sources. A article written five years ago about the immigration process reads,

Can people who lack green cards join the military?

While all immigrants – legal or undocumented, are obligated to register with Selective Service, it is actually pretty difficult to join the military if you lack a green card or are not a citizen or asylee. The military is not supposed to accept undocumented individuals (though we are aware of a number of cases where undocumented immigrants made it into the military anyway) and none of the branches sponsor individuals for non-immigrant or immigrant status (with some minor exceptions).

Whether Congress and the military will relax its position in the wake of falling recruiting numbers remains to be seen.

The rationale, at first, was that if one was over here illegally, he or she ought to register for at least the possibility of military service. That seems a bit counter-intuitive to me, since if a person is not in the United States legally, why would they want to call attention to that fact by filing paperwork? One could be deported at any time, for any reason, so why expedite the process? Being cannon fodder on the front lines is acceptable, but taking our jobs while draining our coffers is not. It doesn't make that much sense to me, but then again, I tend to challenge myself to see everyone as a human being, not as a means to an end.

So is this the first step towards building up flagging numbers in our military? An immigration bill of 2007 would seem to support that conclusion. My reservations pushed aside once again for the sake of argument, if I saw military service for undocumented aliens as something more than Machiavellian, I might not be so concerned.

WASHINGTON -- A little-noticed provision in the proposed immigration bill would grant instant legal status and ultimately full citizenship to illegal immigrants if they enlist in the US military, an idea the Pentagon and military analysts say would boost the Pentagon's flagging efforts to find and recruit qualified soldiers.

I can't think of a single conflict that wasn't a rich man's war and a poor man's fight. Since the Senate version of the bill only extends citizenship to those under the age of 30, this further reinforces the more cynical aspects of the presumptive act. In literature, Voltaire's Candide shows its young, impressionable title character being brutally pressed into service by Bulgar recruiters. He is then savagely beaten, nearly executed, and forced to participate in a major battle between the Bulgars and their sworn enemies, the Abares.

The Twenty-Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was itself a product of wartime. Young activists rightfully pointed out that it was patently unfair to involuntarily force a person to serve in combat if that person was unable to determine, by casting a ballot, the fate of the politician whose own vote put lives in harm's way. We give native-born American citizens this basic right, but those eager to win citizenship are deprived of any recourse on this subject. As currently drawn up, it would take a full decade before the process would finally, mercifully draw to a conclusion. It strikes me as profoundly sad that a person can take a bullet for a country and serve under the flag of a country, but still not be given the same opportunities in peacetime. If we were Switzerland, a country proud to ensure that its unique culture not be sullied by outsiders, then that would be one thing.

Instead, we are still a great experiment in Democracy, as I was led to believe at a young age. I place particular emphasis on "experiment", since at no point could we be considered a completed masterpiece. But being that we are in the process of creation, even now, we must still form, and continue to form, a more perfect union. If I believe the United States is exceptional, it is not because I find it to be the new Promised Land, nor because I think that it is inerrant. But in few other places in the world are we allowed to try something new without the encumbrances of tradition. We must decide once and for all who we really are. Though I may disagree with where we are heading, I know we have the ability built into our system and into who we are for us to dare to think differently.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Failed Exercises in Diplomacy, Musical Version

Below is a short little song that grew out of a loose, informal jam. The riff can safely be played for ten minutes or more, provided the audience doesn't grow weary of the lead guitar designed to be played over it. When it came time to write lyrics, however, I had to take an entirely different perspective. For a time, I considered adding additional verses or musical flourishes that would take it over two minutes in length. However, I've come to accept now that the overall length is going to be slight and that there will never be a conventional chorus or bridge. I suppose I said what needed to be said in five short verses.

And as I was writing it, I was thinking about times in high school where I had to give people rides to school or other places. Often I would have to spend twenty minutes or so in the car with someone who annoyed me greatly. The emotional discomfort of those times has carried over to today. Nowadays, I associate the words of the song with those instances all of us have to be around someone whose viewpoints, political or otherwise, make us squirm. We often say similar things under our breath and certainly think them.

And as for the line about, "I don't need your God", I feel this way often times when being confronted with a version of faith or belief that I find morally repugnant. It need not even be religious. People often make their God anything but a divine presence.

I don't need your love
I don't need your games
All I need is to make sure
I don't go up in flames

I don't need your God
I don't want your pain
All I want is you to swear
You won't drive me insane

Don't know where you are
Don't know where you been
All I know is that it's best
You don't come back again

I don't care who you know
I don't care who you hate
I don't care one bit about you
I'll pick you up at 8

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Fallacy of Privileged Activism

I think what concerns me most about American society these days is how so many wish to commodify everything, especially other people. The subject has weighed heavily upon me recently because I’m going to get married fairly soon. I’ve been reflecting back upon the history of those I’ve dated as a means of judging larger trends in my development. There were a few instances where I was valued more for my potential net worth than for my heart. It is one thing to see the possibility of personal growth in a partner, but it’s another thing altogether to see them as a stock portfolio which has yet to mature. People are not savings bonds or bank accounts. The dreams of some involve the acquisition of funds, and to them, marriage is the perfect merger between conglomerates. “Our” dreams are, in fact, “my” dreams with your financial assistance. Woe be unto those whose economic star does not rise.

On a different, but related note, news broke a few days back about prescription abuse in New York’s Medicaid program. Oxycontin, a potent painkiller, had been finding its way onto the black market. Patients prescribed the drug would then sell them a dealer who turned a profit from illegal distribution. The immediate response from the peanut gallery was predictable. I read the comments of a poster who referred to Medicaid recipients, and in these exact words, as little more than trash. As a person who relies and has relied on Medicaid, I believe I may have to beg to differ here. Moreover, when media stories are framed in this context, they reinforce prejudicial attitudes and lead to this sort of bigoted talk. Though it may be helpful to know exactly how many millions of dollars are being wasted in this case, so to best implement necessary reforms, seeing the bigger picture would be far better.

The problem with any kind of fraud along these lines is rarely as simplistic as an amoral underclass milking the system dry. Any number of unethical doctors have been known to write prescriptions for patients who fully intended to abuse them, and with the doctor’s full knowledge of said fact. Those with particularly ample means can usually get whatever they what, and the sad example of Michael Jackson is only the first that comes to mind. Yet, when it’s a respectable middle class attorney with an Oxycontin addiction, regardless of how he gets his supply, we call it a tragedy, and the transaction itself a white collar crime. I have no doubt that drugs make their way onto the streets in all sorts of ways, even through those who have stellar private carrier plans.

To many, poor citizens are merely a dollar sign followed by a series of numbers. We care more about how much money it costs to provide them health insurance and other basic services than their humanity. Now that we are in the Christmas season, it might be time to consider the Ebenezer Scrooges in our midst. Our job lives and the relationships present there are increasingly based on attaining something we want or need by providing something to someone else. We easily take our work home with us and into every sphere of our lives. When this mindset begins to take the place of human love and compassion in our romances and interpersonal relationships, then we lose something of our humanity.

And even when our hearts guide us to do the right thing, we neglect to see the basic needs of those who we stride past on a daily basis. The homeless person can be reduced to a dollar amount, just as the latest victim of an international humanitarian crisis can live on a certain number of pennies a day, provided we give of what we have. The tax write-off may be more valuable to us than the satisfaction of assisting someone else. It is quite possible to have our hearts in the right place, but to miss the point altogether.

In The American Prospect, Courtney E. Martin recently writes,

Many of us from middle- and upper-income backgrounds have been socialized to believe that it is our duty to make a difference, but undertake such efforts abroad -- where the "real" poor people are. We found nonprofits aimed at schooling children all over the globe while rarely acknowledging that our friend from the high school football team can't afford the same kind of opportunities we can. Or we create Third World bicycle programs while ignoring that our lab partner has to travel two hours by bus, as he is unable to get a driver's license as an undocumented immigrant. We were born lucky, so we head to the bars -- oblivious to the rising tuition prices and crushing bureaucracy inside the financial aid office.

I know from whence I speak. As an undergraduate at Barnard College from 1998 to 2002, I felt a deep sense of commitment to "making a difference." I volunteered in a Head Start program in Harlem, protested the treatment of Amadou Diallo and Mumia Abu Jamal, had internships at the American Civil Liberties Union and the Children's Defense Fund, even studied abroad in South Africa where I taught poetry classes in a township high school. I was basically the poster child for privileged do-gooderism. But I didn't once consider taking action to ease the financial struggles of my peers at school, didn't once seek out a movement in my midst that might tackle the economic disparity in my own dormitory. I regret that.

I did not come from such a background, though I now routinely come in contact with those who did. It was not until I left home in the South and settled on the East Coast that I became aware of this altruistic desire, which is misguided more than it is directly harmful. I do not assign blame, but I do know that until it is challenged, wave after wave of crusaders will set sail for faraway lands, learning valuable life lessons while ensuring that other generations will have the privilege, too. I do not seek to denigrate the service of those with pure hearts and noblest intentions who believe in addressing societal maladies in places far less advanced than ours.

But I do also know that successful strategies for tackling complex problems requires an advanced, holistic understanding of poverty and need. If we are Americans, we have a greater comprehension of the way our culture is put together. This would be lost if we uprooted to another part of the globe to do our good work. Still, I do know that it is important to have a fish out of water experience, one gained from being abroad for an extended period of time. It is very helpful to recognize how our country isn’t the center of the universe. But if we see similar problems at home as stealth and invisible, the solutions we implement will always be incomplete elsewhere.

Below is a familiar passage to many, though this translation is quite different from others which have come before it.

Love is always patient; love is always kind; love is never envious or arrogant with pride. Nor is she conceited, and she is never rude; she never thinks just of herself or ever gets annoyed. She never is resentful; is never glad with sin; she’s always glad to side with truth; and pleased that truth shall win. She bears up under everything, believes the best in all. There is no limit to her hope, and she will never fall.

Change is not unfeasible, but class-based attitudes often get in the way. As Martin point outs, expanding equality will be its own reward. Assuming it were done properly, there would be no need to vent about welfare cheats or homeless people sleeping on park benches. We would have ripped the problem up by the roots, which is the only way any issue that confounds us will ever be set aside forever. But it starts with us. We are people of great fortune and with fortune comes great responsibility.

Monday, December 06, 2010

I Wish I Was

I'm sitting in the railway station.
Got a ticket to my destination.
On a tour of one-night stands
my suitcase and guitar in hand.

And every stop is neatly planned
for a poet and a one-man band.
Homeward bound,
I wish I was,
Homeward bound,

Home where my thought's escaping,
Home where my music's playing,
Home where my love lies waiting
Silently for me.

Every day's an endless stream
Of cigarettes and magazines.
And each town looks the same to me,
the movies and the factories

And ev'ry stranger's face I see
reminds me that I long to be,
Homeward bound,
I wish I was,

Homeward bound,
Home where my thought's escaping,
Home where my music's playing,
Home where my love lies waiting
Silently for me.

Tonight I'll sing my songs again,
I'll play the game and pretend.

But all my words come back
to me in shades of mediocrity
Like emptiness in harmony
I need someone to comfort me.

Homeward bound,
I wish I was,
Homeward bound,

Home where my thought's escaping,
Home where my music's playing,
Home where my love lies waiting
Silently for me.
Silently for me.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Quote of the Week

There is wishful thinking in Hell as well as on Earth."- C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

Saturday, December 04, 2010

The Romantic Ideal and the Reality

I read a biography of Charlie Chaplin some months back. In it, the author commented once more upon Chaplin's taste in women, particularly talented women much younger than himself. The Little Tramp seems to have relished his role as wise mentor to promising actresses and the benefits that went along with it. A former lover, Louise Brooks, remarked, in typical acerbic fashion, that he had no confidence with women unless it came down to wielding some degree of power or authority over them. As a brief aside, I know many men who try the same tactic. As a musician, I know the immediate attraction of live music and have reaped the benefits myself from time to time.

But returning to the subject with which I began, some, like Lita Grey, Chaplin's second wife, had a far darker opinion altogether. Complicating matters was the film genius's predilection to seduce or be easily seduced (depending on the source) by teenage girls slightly below the legal age of consent. Assigning fault and placing blame could be equally distributed. The difference between user and used is often only a matter of degree. Such things often tend to shift with time. Mutual parasitism, much like co-dependency, is a difficult puzzle to solve.

The biography in question postulated that, in his pursuit of the fairer sex, perhaps Chaplin may have been living out a fantasy from earlier in life. When both were teenagers themselves, the future actor/director fell in love with a local girl. A lack of money and his own completely understandable youthful ineptitude proved to be the deciding factor as to why it never really got off the ground. As the theory goes, in his desire for adolescent women, Chaplin was trying to recreate an early episode in life. Another, rather Freudian interpretation believes he was influenced by his mother's stories that told of being a young, vivacious Vaudevillian. Both are plausible, but neither is provable. Whatever the case may have been, the noted screen talent had a supreme weakness, and many sought to exploit it over the years.

The auteur's first two wives were all of sixteen at the time. Sad to say, Mildred Taylor and Lita Grey saw Charlie as little more than a meal ticket. Grey's mother deliberately positioned her daughter in front of Chaplin, deliberately seeking to bait the director of the film, wherein her daughter played a small role, into beginning a relationship with Lita, sexual or otherwise. To be sure, he obliged, and in so doing created much more trouble for himself by successfully getting her pregnant. This resulted in a quick shotgun marriage to avoid the moral outrage of the film-going public. The union itself was a disaster, which swiftly terminated in a publicity-heavy divorce proceeding that cost Chaplin dearly in the pocketbook and overall reputation. His first wife, Mildred Taylor, had not been much better, lying about pregnancy so that her former protege would marry her, then taking him to the cleaners with her own lucrative divorce settlement.

Having set the stage, I'm more interested in exploring how life experiences influence to whom we are attracted. Charlie Chaplin is a fascinating study, but writers much better than I have done a sufficient job of exploration. The tawdry details of the life of a man who might or might not have had a Lolita obsession make for interesting speculation, but they are not the purpose of this post. They are important inasmuch as they point back to a larger past event in the life of a human being. I would not say that I am anywhere near Chaplin's stature as a great talent, nor do I share his weakness, but I do relate to having once been a sensitive, emotionally overwrought teenager. Often I have wondered what factors go into what could be called a relationship ideal, both for myself and everyone else. I ask these questions for any who might be curious.

You're a tall man, my mother would say, so you're going to want a tall woman. Perhaps, but I am now with a woman who is several inches shorter than me. Love comes in many forms, as I have gathered, and I'm not complaining in the least about my partner. I'm mainly still marveling that I have finally found someone with whom to spend the rest of my life. For years, I tried to force romance, often out of the dread fear that I wasn't working hard enough to achieve it. I recognize now, in hindsight, that it has its own schedule and its own pacing, but that once achieved, relationships come together of their own accord. Something beyond us sets it on motion, and once achieved, we are all but actors on stage. Though we have some control over the script, the roles we play and the way we proceed are out of our control. Like Chaplin, I've regularly assumed that perfection in romance was required most of all, and with it a kind of incredible effort that took take after take.

Even now, I am still attracted to tall, slender, tomboyish women, the sort I assumed I'd always end up with eventually. The best way I know to describe in few words is that it is the volleyball player's build. I know I always will find it appealing. But I also know that fantasy alone is insufficient in the face of what we need. I met my fiancee as I was still actively searching, and at that instant, the idealized notion of measurement that had been my metaphorical measuring stick was rendered utterly useless. The process of getting to know each other was incredibly fun and exceptionally powerful, but now, the honeymoon period long since over, we have settled into something more satisfying. I pray this gift lasts.

For more about Charlie Chaplin, go here.

Saturday Video

Friday, December 03, 2010

Health Update

Dear Friends,

I know additional news has been a long time in coming about my health. Had it not been for a red tape snafu regarding transferring medical records, I would have had the MRI results days before now. Thankfully, my doctor's nurse and I got to the bottom of it, but it wasn't until late yesterday afternoon that my GP had the records in her hands. HIPPA laws are designed to protect patient confidentiality, but they can also completely foul up the entire process.

Having said that, I have finally received word from my doctor regarding the results of the pituitary MRI. Most of it was normal, but there was one problematic area. As was described to me, it could be a small tumor, or not. In any case, if it is a tumor, it is quite small. An adenoma is the medical parlance. So, as I suspected all along, it's off to the endocrinologist for me, at which point, I'm sure there will be many other tests and steps to follow. I meet with the GP on December 13 to discuss where treatment proceeds from here on out and will let you know about what is discussed and decided.

At least I have something to report, though I wish I had more. This condition has to be handled in a series of tiny steps.

Thanks for the prayers, the well-wishes, and the concern. Much more to follow.

The Old Originals

I finally got around to recording another original on the multitrack recorder. Until today, I hadn't really been feeling well enough to contribute. To be sure, this song is not terribly new and is close to a year or so old in its current incarnation. Still, I needed to record a better version and hopefully have done so here.

As I do sometimes, I started off with a very basic faux-country chord progression. I then used it as a framework to comment on different people I came in contact with on a frequent basis. With the exception of one verse, I wasn't talking about any single person. Instead, I took the more interesting bits of other people and mashed them up into one. And, for good measure, there are parts of myself in all these characters. I am poking fun at myself as much as anyone else.

I know this guy
We call him Gloomy Bill
Walks in circles all day long
and no one talks to him

He ain't got no worries
No ambitions and no fears

Ask him where he's going
He'll say, "Anywhere but here"

And I say, "Hey Bill
What you doin' now?"

He says,
"It don't really matter to me
I'm just trying to get around."

I know this gal
We call her Spacey Jill

She flaunts her ego all day long
And eats handfuls of pills

She ain't got no worries
No directions and no plans

Ask her where she lost it
She'll say, "Once I knew a man"

And I said, "Hey Jill,
What's that on your hand?"

She says, "That deserves an answer
that you wouldn't understand"

I know this guy
We call him Manic Gill

Talks a mouthful all day long
In a world of pretend

He ain't never lonely
For he's always on the phone

"What's the point of living
if you gotta die alone?"

And I say, "Hey Gill
What's your latest scheme?"

He says, "It's kind of a secret
and you aren't on the right team."

If Not For You

*If I look like I've just woken up in this video, it's because I had.

If not for you
Babe, I couldn't even find the door
I couldn't even see the floor
I'd be sad and blue, if not for you

If not for you
The night would see me wide awake
The day would surely have to break
But it would not be new, if not for you

If not for you, my sky would fall
Rain would gather, too
Without your love I'd be nowhere at all
I'd be lost, if not for you

If not for you
Winter would hold no spring
I wouldn't hear the robin sing
I just wouldn't have a clue, if not for you

If not for you, my sky would fall
Rain would gather, too
Without your love I'd be nowhere at all
I'd be lost, if not for you

If not for you

Thursday, December 02, 2010

WikiLeaks and What It Says About Us

It is easy to be cynical in light of the Wikileaks revelations. The automatic believers in the worst case and the perfidious have had confirmation followed by confirmation in the past few days. An intelligence community and a President promising greater transparency has not followed through on its lofty promises. Do as I say, not as I do, would seem to be its modus opperandi. While I recognize that having the strongest hand at the bargaining table is considered the key to diplomacy, the behind-the-scenes sausage factory present here only confirms the fears of many Americans. The timing could not be worse, especially when a strong anti-government sentiment swept the GOP to power in the House.

Nothing I have yet read in previously classified information makes the United States look strong and decisive. Instead, it seems to have taken the path of least resistance more often than not. Refusing to negotiate from a position of strength has been the characterization of many a Democratic legislator or body of high-ranking officials. Senator John Kerry and others have taken pains to distinguish WikiLeaks from the Pentagon Papers, and although comparing the two is not a particularly helpful exercise, I do believe that government must be held accountable when it will not be forthcoming with the American people. In my own life, I have discovered that secrets will sometimes be held only for the love of secrecy.

The previous Administration, as we know, believed in its own infallibility and wielded its authority more or less unilaterally. Nothing I have observed in the Obama Administration appears even half as bold, although there also is much to be said for not holding delusional notions of negotiation being a matter of soul searching. Critics all along have accused department after department, agency after agency of being little more than Bush Lite™. Immediately following a regime that carelessly swept aside established precedent while inserting its own, I think we on the Left wanted a Thermidorian Reaction of sorts, an end to our own Reign of Terror. We voted for it, and in droves, but despite a promising start, our desires have not been fulfilled.

Government moved hard to the Right for eight years, then came the correction. In some ways, unfortunately, the pendulum swung only halfway back to where it had originally begun. At first I didn't want to believe it. The image stuck in my mind hearkens back to those first optimistic days where a resolute, newly Inaugurated President Obama proclaimed that this nation would no longer torture. As theater, it could not have been a greater success, an applause line bound to succeed. Alas, the tone that was set in that moment obscured what in many ways was going to be business as usual, albeit without its former stridency. One can find Obama's attitude towards reform (or for that matter, anything) plodding and overly methodical, but I suspect part of it is his intrinsic makeup and part of it is a desire to not be like George W. Bush.

We may be lots of things, but we are surely not indecisive people. We are sometimes hot-headed and hot-blooded. We do not like our leaders to give the appearance of being impotent or overly cautious. Sometimes we'll give our votes to those promising to do something, even something rash rather than sticking to a stead diet of milquetoast. President Obama and his advisers have consistently picked their battles. In an effort to not expend too much political capital, they have been careful not to engage in open conflict too often. This might have been a good strategy going into a term of office, except that today's climate has rendered it toxic. Ironically, focusing on a few contentious issues rather than setting up for skirmish after skirmish might very well have made the President just as unpopular as he is now. The only difference between now and then is that the Left would applaud his backbone, while the Right would still hold strongly negative opinions of him.

There is such as thing as being a good general. In these days, we have civilized that which was formerly violent or formerly dealt with in violent ways, but we have not lost the love, nor the need for the battle. Conflict need not be destructive or injurious if handled properly. Obama's desire for post-partisanship is predicated on an idea that ideological bickering is always counter-productive to both sides. Yet, there is a third way between two sides of an argument. It involves the recognition that sometimes winners and losers are to be expected, not avoided. Until people are self-aware enough to put aside forever their reliance on either/or thinking, politics, governing, and diplomacy will be a costume drama. Obama's audacity is in that he honestly believes we are farther down the evolutionary chain. It makes for great philosophy, but bad governing.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Let Me Roll It

You gave me something, I understand,
You gave me loving
in the palm of my hand

I can't tell you how I feel
My heart is like a wheel

Let me roll it
Let me roll it to you
Let me roll it
Let me roll it to you

I want to tell you
And now's the time
I want to tell you that
You're going to be mine

I can't tell you how I feel
My heart is like a wheel

Let me roll it
Let me roll it to you
Let me roll it
Let me roll it to you

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Waiting for News from the Doctor

And waiting, and waiting, and waiting.

And also busy.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Vocal Ministry: The Inexperienced versus Experienced Divide

At my Monthly Meeting, a Faith and Practice from Baltimore Yearly Meeting is regularly read before worship. "The experienced speaker should be careful not to speak too often, or at undo length." Curiously, no mention of an inexperienced speaker is mentioned at all. As constructed, or at least presented in isolation from other qualifying statements, the sentence implies that only experienced messages or messengers have enough worth to even need ground rules. Inexperienced messages must be absolutely ghastly, following that line of logic.

The most current Faith and Practice from BYM that I can find modifies this sentence somewhat within the framing of a larger statement.

Counsel and support those who are led to speak out of the silence in meetings for worship. Inexperienced speakers especially may need to be encouraged and advised. Those who are inclined to speak unacceptably, at undue length, too often, or too soon after another speaker, may need prompt and loving counseling.

This draws something of a contrast between the two, though I think my reservations are with word choice more than anything else. On a brief Google search, I could not find similar language inside the Faith and Practice (or related documents) of four other Yearly Meetings. If other Friends know more about this matter than I do, I will certainly welcome the insight. In the meantime, it is interesting to observe that others seem as though they've quite deftly side-stepped the matter altogether. Knowing what I do about Quaker process, I would not be surprised if this issue was contentious enough that it was left deliberately open-ended.

To me, it's more feasible to see a sharp distinction between inexperienced speakers and speakers who break the unwritten codes of unprogrammed worship. I have known many experienced speakers, if years of attendance are any adequate measure, who have been known to speak unacceptably, at undo length, too often, or too soon after another Friend's vocal ministry. I've also heard speakers who are diamonds in the rough, whose message might need a layer of polish or two, but who spread pearls of wisdom from the moment they stand up until the moment they sit down.

We all start somewhere, and in an ideal world, Elders would recognize Friends of great promise, and, with Christian love, encourage their growth and development. Elder has a strongly negative association to it as well, which is another post for another time, but if it were seen here as synonymous for "mentor", I think worship would be all the richer for it. What I am speaking about, in my experience, is a process of inward growth, present no matter where we begin. After all, had you mentioned to me ten years ago, long before I became Convinced, that I would regularly share messages during First Hour, I would not have believed you.

In any case, this extended section in Faith and Practice explains how to correctly manage vocal ministry during worship, but it still does not really speak to the quality and the suitability of individual messages. Making summary judgments regarding one person's communication with God requires a surgeon's precision. As Friends, I recognize that we shy away from rankings in any fashion, for any reason, but we might consider using more specific word choices to distinguish between that which is acceptable, but unrealized, and that which is unacceptable under any circumstances. In a context outside of Quakerdom, inexperienced does have a solidly negative connotation assigned to it quite often, but I've always perceived of it in terms of a work in progress or mere Juvenilia.

Even though some speakers clearly are granted God-given abilities, even the gifted must nonetheless begin somewhere. Some believe that vocal ministry is a Divine blessing granted to a very few and some believe it is granted to everyone. We may all be equal in the eyes of God and have the floor if we so choose, provided we feel a leaning, but most Meetings I have observed contain ministers who regularly speak from the silence, week in and week out. In my own Meeting, I am quite thankful to be one of them.

It may be making too much out of one simple sentence to register such extended reservations, but the subject has bothered me long enough that I've chosen to write about it today. I myself was once an inexperienced speaker at Meeting, but by this I don't mean I was disruptive, long-winded, wholly without Quaker etiquette, or not Spirit-led in what I said. Was I naïve and at times precious in what I said? Yes. But like many other things in life, prayer, experience, wisdom, and study have made my ministry stronger and more concise. I had the great fortune to become a Friend in a small, tight-knit meeting whereby sharing in worship was closer to speaking in the company of a loving few.

Unlike my next stop on the road, I was not speaking in a sometimes imposing worship space, where unwritten, unadvertised codes governed those who stood and started talking. Had I not begun where I did, I wonder if I would have had the confidence and assurance that what I said was experienced or moving actively towards it, rather than inexperienced and inadequate. And even then, I still fall short from time to time, though I tell myself that I am not engaged in a competition with myself, anyone else, or with God himself.

Crucial topics like these need more exposure, if we are to properly nurture each other. Anyone who shares at Meeting for the proper reasons enhances worship for all who are gathered. This is a great responsibility. As we rise, we speak for God, setting aside every ounce of ourselves besides that which actively communes with the Holy Spirit. I myself know the power of weighty ministry and how it perceptibly deepens the experience of everyone present. One can feel it spiritually and observe it in the body language of others. It is in eager expectation of such things that I return, week in and week out. Though we may be called to live every day like First Day, most of us only formally worship then. As much as it should be no more or no less special than any other day of the week, it is and always will be.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Quote of the Week

"Fish and visitors stink after three days."- Benjamin Franklin

Friday, November 26, 2010