Monday, October 31, 2011

Cain Accusations Not Uncommon

As a means of introduction, I enjoy sharing this story. Anytime a politician ran into a scandal, or at least ran into strong allegations, my mother had a particularly helpful piece of wisdom to share. “All politicians will eventually hang themselves,” she said, “provided they are given enough rope.” For all of our cries of unfair character attacks and enemies with an destructive agenda, we are usually our own worst enemy. Should Herman Cain be guilty of sexual harassment, one wonders why he had the hubris to believe that the story would not break eventually. The timing is interesting. What has been uncovered so far has been brought to the full attention of the public on Monday morning, having all the markings of a major story in the process of development.

In campaigns, bad news is usually strategically dumped in a quiet fashion, late on Friday evenings or at other times where public and media focus is much less prominent. Smart candidates will come clean with all potentially damaging news to their handlers well before they even contemplate running. That way, they’re in charge of the pace and the framing of any and all potentially toxic allegations. Barack Obama’s election owes itself in part to skillful pre-emptive admissions, especially those regarding substance abuse in his first book, Dreams from My Father, and in his dealing with shady businessman Tony Rezko. The most notable example where the campaign failed to adequately prepare damage control occurred with the Jeremiah Wright flap. Obama was blindsided by his pastor’s incendiary statements, and the damage was severe enough that it could have cost him the Democratic nomination.

Those who have never been fully able to take Cain seriously now have even more reason to doubt. His discipline, nor his rhetoric on the stump hasn't been especially polished, which to some gives him everyman cred. In a weak GOP field, Republican voters have had to take what they could get. If the wheels are about to come off of the bus eventually, I suppose now is as good a time as any. Though I am a Democrat, I genuinely would prefer the opposition party's candidate to be well-spoken and at least slightly polished. A competitive race, I firmly believe, only makes both sides stronger and sharpens the sensibilities of whomever will win approximately one year from today.

Cain evidently has strong allies in the business community, allies who have proclaimed his innocence and denied the basis of these charges. In reading the original Politico article, it is clear that this story has been in development for a long while. That by itself often indicates that the sordid matter has legs and that more information is forthcoming. The candidate has not yet put forth a formal denial, but has tried to put a separate spin on these expensive payoffs in exchange for silence. Cain’s anger is understandable, but he must nonetheless accept that front-runner status means that every aspect of his past is now up for scrutiny and public review. Should he have other skeletons in the closet, now would be the time to exorcise them.

A particularly prominent part of me would like to explore the issue through the eyes of the women who accepted what appears to be hush money. Did they take these payoffs voluntarily? Were their arms twisted through intimidation, coercion, or legal means? Up until now, particulars have not been provided. My own specific allegiance makes me inclined to believe Cain less, and those who alleged sexual harassment more. Until then, I’m caught between wanting to extend the benefit of the doubt for the sake of fairness and recognizing how common it is to silence women’s voices in such circumstances.

An particular leitmotif that keeps turning up like a bad penny is that of men in high positions of authority crossing appropriate sexual boundaries with impunity. Having been caught red handed, they try to stonewall and deny their way out of a problem of their own creation. I can think of ten separate recent instances off the top of my head. A portion of the current controversy regarding economic inequality proclaims that some men with ample financial means believe that they are bulletproof and above the law. If we are able to take that matter on, removing for a moment any sort of political label or ideological identification, we would at least have scratched the surface. And if we can speak out about the 1%, we can include men who evade the consequences of their actions as a result of their wealth.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Quote of the Week

"There is a certain indolence in us, a wish not to be disturbed, which tempts us to think that when things are quiet, all is well. Subconsciously, we tend to give the preference to 'social peace,' though it be only apparent, because our lives and possessions seem then secure. Actually, human beings acquiesce too easily in evil conditions; they rebel far too little and too seldom. There is nothing noble about acquiescence in a cramped life or mere submission to superior force."- A.J. Muste

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Saturday Video

The aural dubbing into Spanish makes the on-screen action even more ridiculous. Enjoy the walking feet. Believe it or not, this used to be what Brooklyn was like.

Friday, October 28, 2011

I Know Better Now I Know Better Now

Only slightly dated.

This meeting will now come to order
Please take your seats
The minutes of the last meeting will be read
The minutes of the last meeting will be read

Old business, new business
There's a motion on the floor
That we review new applications
State your qualifications, be specific

Pounding my head against a brick wall
Finally got smart
Wised up
Gonna look out for myself now

I know better now
I know better now
Won't do it again

Tell us about yourself
What events have brought you to us?
How did you reach this decision?

Are you aware of our function?
The consequences and restrictions of this organization
Be reminded we are listening for slip-ups
Indicating a lack of conviction

Gave myself a little credit
I won't repeat
Past mistakes, mistrust my feelings
Learn from my experiences

Administer the serum
Where's that list of questions?
We all know why we're here
So let's get right to it

There must be order
There must be order
Shocking revelations
We are all deeply affected
But how many times?

How many times must they get burned
Before they learn their basic lesson
Recondition their behavior
Reprogram their responses?

Only stupid people
Fail to see
That it's a bad thing maybe in the 80's,
but I doubt it

maybe in the 80's
but I doubt it

We're concerned about our members
Ours is a very select group

(I know better now
Won't do it again)

Go home and think about it

(I know better now
Won't do it again)

Come back tomorrow and we'll talk some more

OK gentlemen, let's break early
we've all got things to do.

The Waitresses, "Wise Up".

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Tensions Flare Between Occupy DC Groups

Yesterday, in the evening, a group of Spiritual/Religious Progressives met at All Soul's Unitarian Church to discuss their involvement in the Occupy DC movement. I regret to say that instead of common purpose, there was factionalism, rivalry, condescension, and a lack of willingness to respect the beliefs of others. As a proud liberal, I am embarrassed that all of our worst qualities were on display last night. And as a believer in basic solidarity, I am enraged that a single group acted as though it was the only one worth anyone's support or attention.

The issue at hand here begins with the basic makeup of both groups. Stop the Machine is comprised almost exclusively of Baby Boomers and former Vietnam War protesters. Its focus is exclusively anti-war in nature. The structure of the group is very hierarchical and top-down. Unlike the Occupy movements currently in major U.S. cities, its occupation of Freedom Plaza had been planned for months. Stop the Machine has rather tenuously shared the spotlight with the McPherson Square group for most of a month. Even so, tensions have long existed, especially if tentative plans are ever made to consider combining forces. Last night, the Stop the Machine representatives barely allowed those from Occupy DC to get a word in edgewise.

If Stop the Machine had been willing to peacefully co-exist with Occupy DC, then there would have been no problem. However, its leadership has been openly contemptuous of the more democratic method Occupy DC upon which is predicated. With their derision is a strong skepticism, doubting that a bunch of disorganized kids could ever plausibly put a movement together. They forget, however, that their own parents said the very same thing to them once upon a time. The first thing to go with self-righteousness is always irony. To these self-important activists, the world revolves around Stop the Machine, and they have no concern for anyone or anything else.

Occupy DC is much younger and came to life more or less spontaneously. It has regrettably been made to feel like a bit of a red-headed stepchild, since Freedom Plaza is better able to publicize itself in terms that the media understands and can use. Occupy DC focuses more on economic injustice than on war, so the two have always had a separate message for the most part. But what really makes me upset is how Stop the Machine has poached aspects of Occupy DC when to its advantage. Stop the Machine, as I noted, wishes to be seen as a separate group with a separate name. But it still nonetheless recently purchased the domain name, which directs visitors to its own website.

Problems caused by the decentralization of progressive groups were also evident. Liberal faith groups love the idea of interfaith gatherings, not understanding that being respectful of the beliefs of others means you must do your homework first. The Network for Spiritual Progressives representatives routinely used language that was offensive and not pertinent to certain faith groups. For example, the term "clergy" is not an umbrella term meaning all faith leaders. It is instead a mainstream Christian term that leaves out Jews, Muslims, and even some other Christian groups.

It was even proposed that ministers or preachers intending to lend their vocal gifts should provide a script beforehand, so that their messages could be reviewed. In addition to being censorship, this act would have invalidated the basic premise of unprogrammed Quaker vocal ministry, which is meant to be given spontaneously. It would have also limited those who often preach extemporaneously. But aside from compromising individual beliefs, judging what was acceptable and unacceptable would have become the purview of a nebulous board of review. God knows who or what that would have been.

What lies before us in Washington, DC, are powerful lessons. We must avoid these kinds of prideful mistakes if the Occupy movement is to thrive. As it stands now, what exist are two factions. One seeks to suck up all the oxygen to suit its own selfish purpose. Another feels betrayed and fights to stay in the limelight. Both could be unified and be more powerful together than separate, but human selfishness has instead intervened. We cannot let consumerism and narcissism enter, because the instant they do, we have lost. We might as well fold up our tents and go home. Working together in common spirit with other people is the only way. We know what will not work. Imagine what could be accomplished with the right attitude.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Short Story, Part Seven

Trigger Warning

I began writing this memoir after the dream. Once again a small child, I was climbing a tall tree. My intention was to reach the top, but the entire bark was coated with sap. Feeling frustrated, I would wipe the sap on my pants, or on nearby leaves. It didn’t matter. I always ended up with a little more on my hands because I had to grip the trunk of the tree to make my way upward.

Later, I realized that this was a metaphor for my life, and on more than a single level.

Why was I there? I was fearfully trying to escape something, hoping not to be discovered. The farther up I scaled, the less likely I was to be seen. The higher I reached, the safer I felt. I tried to be as quiet as I could, level by level, branch by branch. But always more sap and always another height to conquer.

My eyes opened with the morning light. And then I began to remember. The anger came from somewhere, though I may have been angry mostly at myself. A quiet child who had never been violent before began to lash out. My father knew only to treat this new behavior with frequent whippings. I was in third grade and acting out in class for the first time. At the same time, I carried on a lengthy feud with another boy at the lunch table. Both of these were completely out of character. My one and only visit to the principal’s office was for putting tacks in the chairs of other students during art class. This lasted for less than a year, but long enough. The direct results receded, but the lasting impact persisted.

When adults make requests, children follow. I’m not sure how I ended up in that room. On my knees. In my mind’s eye it is always dark, sinister, and quiet. I do know that I followed instructions. Open. Open. It was almost like going to the dentist, listening to the hygienist, bracing for the tactile sensations that are rarely pleasurable. The other boy had eyes like a doe. I don’t remember everything. I’m glad I don’t remember everything. I wish I remembered more.

For years afterwards, while walking by myself around the neighborhood, I would believe that I was being pursued. I ran to another location. I hid and waited. After I time, I emerged, satisfied that whomever had been after me had been unable to find me. I was safe now. It was like a game, except that I was always compelled to follow. I played along for years, well into my teens.

The other boy called me down from the tree in the front yard. His purpose was to rile me up, to get me emotionally engaged. We ended up fighting or wrestling on the ground. All part of the greater plan. I followed behind him once more on the way to that dingy green house. Inside, it smelled like unwashed feet and dog hair. And again I entered that room. Here my memories fracture like broken film in a projector. One still image here and there is all I recall.

When I remembered it for the first time, I felt like I was going to vomit. The sensation of nausea arrived with a physical pressure in the back of my throat, a heaviness. It was the physical memory, even if other aspects were not as evident. Even today, when I think about it, sometimes that heaviness returns.

Unregulated Consumerism and the Student Loan Mess

Among the issues raised by the Occupy protesters, towering student loan debt has recently been scrutinized. The matter is not a simplistic one. One first has to take into account how and why a four-year college education has considerably spiked in cost over time. One answer is that colleges and universities have consistently become more bureaucratic, adding specialized occupations and positions within individual departments. Many make 100K a year and have minimal responsibilities. They are often deadweight and redundant, but persist regardless. Colleges then cut cost through adjunct labor, whereby part-time instructors, usually in the process of attaining master’s degrees or doctorates, are paid less than minimum wage to teach students.

In terms of dollars and cents alone, the students these adjuncts teach have forked out enough more than enough money to pay a part-time instructor a reasonable salary. But this simply isn’t how the money is allocated. Colleges and universities often are more concerned with maintaining winning sports programs, most often the high-revenue producing men’s athletics like football or basketball. Following that in priority is a desire to build new facilities and grounds, often as a way of attracting new students, presumptive scholars, and research grant dollars. Grants subsidize many departments and programs, especially for public colleges and universities who do not have state funds otherwise available to fill the need. Outsides are often more important than insides. A newly designed student center has negligible appeal or even relevance to the classroom, but with so much competition for student dollars, institutions have embraced consumerism.

The presence of all these elements means that cost is regularly dumped onto students. A few students qualify for a full scholarship, but most do not. Some attain partial scholarships, though they must find ways to fund the rest of their expenses. The increased cost of higher education, of which the charge for courses is only one factor, quickly drains the college funds of many a parent. One must also factor in such essentials as the jaw-dropping cost of each term’s textbooks, a mandatory meal plan, and housing, be it a dorm or an off-campus apartment. Living at home is increasingly an option, but it is sometimes one simply not available. Some colleges charge exorbitant fees for student services, like dorms, and resourceful students regularly pool their money to live more cheaply off campus. Except for children of privilege or the very lucky, taking out student loans is often a necessity.

Those students fortunate enough to be accepted and enroll into an elite school can see their debt reach truly epic proportions. And until recently, no thought was given to predatory loan practices. Few schools gave their students basic loan counseling, which isn’t just irresponsible, it’s also extremely unfair. Eighteen-year-olds who have just left their parents’ house often have no clue about finance and the concept of borrowed money. For a time, one could borrow up a certain amount directly from the US government. These funds never accrued interest. Also available alongside were other sources of credit, though these began to build interest within nine months of graduation or leaving school. It is this debt that has proven the most problematic of all, especially if loans payments have to be deferred for financial hardship. The monthly payments may cease, but the compound interest does not.

In time, the amount borrowed can be overshadowed by the amount now due. Should $9,000 be borrowed at first, the amount to be repaid can quickly jump several thousand dollars to $14,000. Let the buyer beware is only a valid warning if one can safely assume the buyer is well-informed. Should this not be the case, then students should not be faulted for concluding their undergraduate career with several thousand dollars to be paid back. This debt will follow them over the course of many years and even declaring bankruptcy will not wipe them away. Complicating the problem is today’s topsy-turvy, frustrating job climate. Desperate to find employment, and hoping to re-tool to attain a job eventually, many people are re-enrolling in grad school. Tuition and books must be paid, at minimum, so new student loans must be taken out. This adds even more debt on top of the hefty sum left over from an undergraduate career. And even then, there is still no guarantee that a job will even be out there with so many other people looking.

Fixing the issue requires us to confront ourselves as Americans. Our values have been predicated upon profit and how we appear on the outside. We are beholden to foolish consistency and lazy methods to solve complicated problems. Money will always be important, but it can never be the sole measurement upon which we base our reliance. These days, how much we spend has become such an abstraction that we do not seriously contemplate it. Plastic cards automatically subtract money from checking accounts and bills are paid online without the need for paper money and coins. It is easy to be lulled into a false sense of security, but when we are rudely shaken awake, we recognize again why things have to change. Consumerism unchallenged explains how we got here, but now it’s time for a different strategy.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

In My Life

This one came out a little rough, but I felt it wasn't too much of a distraction. If I didn't rush my way through it, to some extent, there would have been no way to complete a take. The first two times I broke down in tears. The section talking about how some of the narrator's friends are dead seems poignant.

As I have written about before, one of my friends is dying of cancer. He has pushed away from me, I think partially because chemotherapy has a way of affecting cognitive function. I wanted to make sure that he has chosen an adequate caretaker to assist him in his last days. He didn't want to talk about it and we haven't spoken since.

There are places I'll remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone and some remain

All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life, I've loved them all

But of all these friends and lovers
There is no one compares with you
And these memories lose their meaning
When I think of love as something new

Though I know I'll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I'll often stop and think about them
In my life, I love you more

Though I know I'll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I'll often stop and think about them
In my life, I love you more

Monday, October 24, 2011

Faith Based Communities Call for Meeting



When: Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Where: All-Souls Unitarian Church
2835 16th Street NW
Washington DC, 20009

Time: 6-8PM

Sponsored by: The Network of Spiritual Progressives - Greater Washington DC Chapter

To RSVP email:

Who: Representatives and leaders of Mosques, Temples, Churches, Synagogues, Interfaith and Ecumenical bodies, and other faith-based institutions/organizations

What: A meeting of faith-based persons, organizations, and leaders to discuss with Occupy organizers how to best support the Occupy movement in Washington, DC.

Immediate Need: As winter approaches, and the Occupy movement continues to occupy locations within the city - there is an increased need for local support to help sustain this occupation.

Goal of Meeting: To establish a more robust line of communication and create an organized support network between members of the Greater Washington DC faith-based community and the Occupy movement.

Why: There have been calls for the faith-based community to play a more prominent role in the Occupy movements throughout the nation and in Washington, DC. In response, we would like to invite and organize faith-based institutions to contribute to the general upkeep and well being of those who are participating in the local on-site occupation effort.

The Significance:

  1. The Occupy movement is lending voice to millions of people in the United States who are crying out for recognition, assistance, and justice due to the current economic crisis (ensuing political paralysis), and the ongoing economic marginalization of people within our nation.
  2. This economic crisis is directly affecting the lives most people in the US , including those who populate our own places of worship. Additionally, this crisis has expanded the circle of persons “in need” that many of our faith-based institutions support through charity, community outreach, and social services.
  3. The Occupy movement presents an opportunity for the faith-based community to demonstrate its compassion, generosity, and support for this “peoples movement” as it proclaims the need for social-economic-political justice across our nation.
  4. The Occupy movement also provides a context and platform for the faith-based community to demonstrate spiritual leadership and relevancy during this time of great change and turmoil within our nation and across the world.

Meeting Outline

I. Why support the Occupy movement

II. Immediate Needs and Requests of Occupation movement in DC

III. Establishing a faith-based support network for Occupy DC
a. Material Support: Food/Supplies/Equipment
b. Communication efforts
c. On-site group participation

IV. Next Steps

Occupy Your Future

Once Occupy Wall Street began to catch fire in other cities beyond New York, right-wing outrage was predictably harsh and immediate. To listen to the rhetoric, one might think that these protests consisted exclusively of lazy freeloaders. Much like a grumpy uncle, the demonstrators were told to get a job and stop whining. Having gone down to one of the Occupy DC sites to see for myself, I have a very different perspective to add. Occupy Wall Street and its outgrowths in other cities have actually provided the unemployed with needed structure.

Being out of work often makes a person feel useless. Losing a job usually means abrupt isolation and end of regular routine, which makes a bad situation even worse. Instead of heaping scorn, it might be better to seek to compassionately understand the mentality of the recently jobless. I agree that daily structure is usually a good thing, but in its absence, even without an income, working towards a greater cause can fill the void. A friend of mine has only been able to find sporadic employment, this because her undergraduate degree and work experience makes it challenging to find a job. The issue here is really one of bad luck, not of irresponsibility. Nevertheless, she has found herself feeling worthwhile and needed while a part of the movement. She is far from the only one.

In a time where we are all supposed to be too lazy to break a sweat, I find the work that others have done on the ground very inspiring. In an all-volunteer gathering where no one is a professional, it is true that a few weak links in the organizational structure exist. For example, in the slightly smaller, younger McPherson Square protest I have visited, outreach to the public has primarily relied upon a Twitter account and frequent Tweets. A better strategy would increase visibility to the DC area, the news media, and beyond. The hope is always that with enough participation from the public, these weaknesses might be shored up or neutralized. What I took away from my time amongst the demonstrators is that true Democracy is messy and a bit off-center sometimes.

If any wish of mine could be granted, it is that conservatives might choose to understand, rather than demonize. As we may recall, the Tea Party protests were frequently hateful and vituperative. Signs held aloft were rooted in anger and resentment. Their behavior could sometimes be boorish and childish. I have never seen anything of the sort in my own observations. The gatherings are convivial, but it would be unrealistic to expect that among those with strong opinions, passionate disagreements have sometimes taken place. Yet, it still seems that there is enough desire for forward momentum that even the strongest conflicts have not sidetracked the protests. One of the most prominent of these concerns the interplay and relationship between both Occupy DC groups. One is located in Freedom Plaza. I have chosen to write here about the second, which is found in McPherson Square. Each has a similar message to convey, but there has been some minor head-butting among activists as to what that might be.

To expand beyond my initial premise, Occupy DC is not merely the domain of those without a job. Several participants are gainfully employed, which is why numbers swell at the end of the workday. To stigmatize broadly, as Republicans have done, is to misunderstand the nuances present. Some protesters live in the area, some do not. Some camp out and sleep in the Square at night, some do not. Some take an active role in planning strategy, marches, and additional actions. Others have sought to find a niche with the intentions of then providing their services. In the meantime, the gathering has chosen to self-govern itself by creating specific committees, each intending to perform needed tasks.

Many local businesses and individuals have been sympathetic. There seems to have been no shortage of food and drinking water, much of which has been provided for free. Many hope that these protests will continue to take on steam and grow. For now, any hopes and dreams of this nature fall under the heading of idle speculation. With winter only a few weeks away, one wonders whether the resolve of these hardy souls will be tested. The protests still exist in an embryonic state. A month is an exceptionally short period of time, especially as concerns long-range organizing.

Until then, I, like many others, have held my breath and crossed my fingers. Even the organizers themselves are largely unsure of where this is going. After questioning one of them, his answer was quite direct. “You know as much as I do,“ he said.

A Needed Moment of Levity

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Quote of the Week

During a furious theological debate, Jonathan Swift lost his temper and asked a stranger: "On which side are you? Are you an atheist or a deist?"

"Neither, Sir" came the reply. "I am a dentist"

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Occupy DC: Or Where I've Been Recently

I’ve spent a few hours the past couple days at one of the Occupy DC protests. As I was told Thursday night during my visit, there are actually two going on simultaneously. One of them is in Freedom Plaza and is peopled by hardcore serious activists™. It trends a little older and grayer. This is because their demonstration had been planned much farther in advance, well before the original Occupy Wall Street in NYC got underway. Its numbers may be a few hundred more or so. This is the group that seems to be getting the most American news media coverage. I've spent my time observing the second gathering, which seems to have sprung up more spontaneously.

The one to which I refer is in McPherson Square and is dominated by young people and college students. The world media seems to be more present at this site. A Friend I spoke to reported being recently interviewed by Japanese television. She stated that she is glad to provide information to anyone with a camera who asks, so long as their requests are reasonable. This seems to be the case with the couple hundred or so who descended around a month ago. Discerning numbers is difficult because many participants have day jobs and only file in after work. Others are unemployed. Large numbers are camped out in tents, but not everyone has chosen to do so.

A Quaker folk singer and poet named John Watts played an hour long free show Thursday night. He is also a young adult and has some renown in certain circles, so the event attracted between ten to fifteen Friends. Had there been more than one day’s advance notice, the size of the audience would have been considerably higher. I received an e-mail from a fellow member of my Meeting yesterday morning informing me that she would have been able to double our numbers, had she had the time to better organize. Our numbers were likely to have been significantly increased if people had time to clear their busy schedules.

The issue here is that much of what transpires on the ground is decided upon quickly. Most peoples' lives outside the protests work at a totally different speed. They need time to prepare and one day's notice is just insufficient. Organizers have asked those of us in general sympathy to consider spending time on site or perhaps even getting involved themselves. I know many people who would do so, if they didn't have to worry about the demands of a 9 to 5 workday and the paycheck that comes from it. Many are glad they have a job themselves and are unwilling to do anything to jeopardize it.

Quakers, as a rule, love protests and being a part of them. Yesterday, a longtime member offered to cook breakfast on Sunday morning for the Occupy DC folks. Lots of other people have agreed to pitch in to assist her and to help out the best they can. They've wanted to assist for a while, but haven't quite known how. The gesture is beautiful and very touching. Call it social justice or whatever term you will. It’s a prime example of a spontaneous gesture of love and support. I’m sure among the Baby Boomers that memories of earlier days have come to mind. In anti-Vietnam War protests and elsewhere, Quakers were regularly present. Look for the Mennonites in a disaster and the Quakers at a rally.

The story goes that the Meeting was harboring a draft resister at the Meetinghouse at some point in the early Seventies. Whatever government/police agency was assigned to take him into custody informed us that they were likely to apprehend him soon. Knowing our options were limited, we made one request. We asked that he please not be arrested during Meeting for Worship. Unfortunately, this is exactly what was done. The arrest occurred in the middle of Worship, probably during a period of sustained silence, making it even more dramatic. I mention this anecdote because it explains the mentality and attitude of those with whom I regularly interact.

Returning to 2011, I’m not sure that this is quite the same thing. Even with all that I have seen, I still retain some skepticism. The movement has my support and my sympathy. So long as it conducts itself in a non-violent fashion, it always will. What I have observed personally has all the makings of a good start. It remains to be seen whether it will take on substantial growth. From my study of history, I’ve learned that most massive movements and revolutions usually have their genesis in extremely unpopular, incredibly offensive government actions.

The French Revolution resulted when a bankrupt nation instituted unpopular taxes. The English, or Puritan Revolution only came to pass when a singularly incompetent King managed to enrage the English, Scottish, and Welsh simultaneously. These sections of what would eventually be known as Great Britain were frequently at loggerheads with each other, and it is only by completely isolating himself that Charles I was the first European monarch to lose his head. A common enemy among differing groups has proven to be a unifying force throughout time.

I don’t think the Obama Administration, in an election year, would resort to something this extreme. Until that happens, I anticipate a steady drip, drip, drip of increased membership at Occupy DC or any Occupy movement. If bad economic times persist and unemployment stays low and unchanged, it may gain more traction. But in these times, I wonder whether something massive would ever be unleashed upon a weary public. What I see, even among the hundreds gathered in local squares and parks, is a weariness. People are tired and uninspired, but nowhere near a boiling point. If anger is the motivation needed, there's a long way to go from here.

Saturday Video

Sittin' in the morning sun
I'll be sittin' when the evening comes
watching the ships roll in
and then I watch them roll away again, yeah

I'm sittin' on the dock of the bay
watching the tide roll away
I'm sittin' on the dock of the bay
wasting time

I left my home in Georgia
headed for the Frisco Bay
because I've had nothin' to live for
and look like nothin's gonna come my way

So I'm just gonna sit on the dock of the bay
watchin' the tide roll away
I'm sittin' on the dock of the bay
wasting time

Looks like nothin's gonna change
Everything still remains the same
I can't do what ten people tell me to do
So I guess I'll remain the same

Sitting here resting my bones
And this loneliness won't leave me alone
It's 2,000 miles I've roamed
Just to make this dock my home now

I'm just gonna sit at the dock of the bay
watchin' the tide roll away
I'm sittin' on the dock of the bay
wasting time

Thursday, October 20, 2011

These Christians, Those Christians

I got a fresh batch of Anti-Christian sentiment, so I decided to write this in response. The criticism was not written by a regular reader, but it does summarize the kind of treatment I get from time to time.


I wish you could know a few of the entirely normal people I do. They certainly don’t look any different from anyone you’d encounter on your morning commute. They blend easily, neatly into the rest of civilized society. Every now and then, if you struck up a conversation, and the subject turned to religion, they might make a Biblical allusion or two. But they’d make sure that matters of faith didn’t overstay their welcome. They are capable of speaking on a wide range of subjects, much like you yourself.

By contrast, one of my next-door neighbors growing up was an extremely observant Southern Baptist. He taught the same tradition to his two daughters, who were my age. A look at one of their blogs a few months back was rather revealing. Every third entry, roughly, was a passage of Scripture without almost no commentary or analysis offered. God was mentioned at least five times every post, which confirmed that God was at the very center of every aspect of her life. She and her husband recently adopted a child from Africa, not because Angelina Jolie did it first, but because Africans are God’s children, too. But they did, I must add, talk about it as much as Angelina Jolie.

There are Christians like her who live by the doctrine of Justification by Works. These are the ones who make many sarcastic and contemptuous. To them, their whole worth and holiness in the eyes of God is based on flawless devotion to a standard of perfection. Pity them, if you wish, but don’t hate them. If you are so inclined, consider praying for them. They bear an impossible burden. If you ever caught them in an unguarded moment, they might tell you how afraid they are of seeming somehow less than acceptable. It rarely occurs to anyone with this mindset that perfection might not be possible, or, to seek a religious explanation, that it doesn’t truly matter what anyone does. If you want to take the Word literally, we’re all saved regardless of what we say or do. Grace cannot be bought by money or by labor.

To return to how I began this entry, I wasn’t always a Christ-centered Quaker. This was an identity I didn’t firmly adopt until well into my adulthood. While it is true that I was raised in a Christian denomination, there were years upon years where I wanted no part of Jesus. I find myself sometimes surprised that the journey has taken this direction. My Christianity is that of Justification by Grace. While it is true that I do try to live a decent life, much like most of you out there, I also wish to enrich my inner devotional life more. What is more important to me is a personal relationship with God and with the Spirit. It is my belief that if I work on that aspect of my life more, I won’t have to work so hard at outward appearances.

I’ve met some wonderful people whose spiritual lives are similar to my own. I’ve read some of their blogs, too, and they sound like regular people trying to make it through life the best they can. Ned Flanders they are not. They make mistakes on a regular basis and sometimes make large ones. Even in a strictly religious context, I’ve heard stories of marital problems, chemical addiction, financial insecurity, and emotional exhaustion. More than one Christian Friend has noted to me that he or she was thought of by friends and acquaintances as the one Christian for whom they had any regard at all. That's an impossible standard of its own. Dislike the religious for whatever reason you wish, but please don’t base your disapproval on a lack of human authenticity.

We all have our identities. And underneath these identities is often the fear that we are not as we seem. The pressure we put upon ourselves is no different than the sort that the Works-oriented Christians take. We’d be better if we recognized that we’re still part of the club no matter what. There but for the Grace of God go I. No one’s going to kick us out if we don’t look impossibly enthusiastic for every measurable second. We judge ourselves more than others judge us, and the opposite side of that coin is itself the rationale for the high standards by which we hold other people. Sometimes no Christian or, for that matter, no believer can ever do any right. And if they can do no right, some can never do right enough. This is a lose-lose proposition if ever there was one.

Part of that inward reflection is an understanding that true tolerance begins with the self. The world has its villains, and we all seem to be able to identify those. What we don’t need is to create enemies where none exist. Some act as though it is their God-given duty to take those around them down a notch. But in reality, there is no need to constantly identify imperfection in others just as there is no need to defy the laws of humanity and constantly seek to be perfect. As I said, the world has enough enemies. But what it lacks are friends.

Feminist Critique and Popular Music


The second-wave heyday of Feminism arrived in the early 1970’s. The movement regularly and directly criticized, even attacked elements of pop culture. One such facet involved scrutinizing the lyrics of popular songs, songs usually written by men. It is a tradition still kept today, one which has produced more than a few successful protests over the years. Here is one such example of those days.

The pop balladeer Todd Rundgren released his first hit song in 1970. Entitled “We Gotta Get You a Woman”, its narrator seeks to find a girlfriend for a lost and lonely male friend. The lyrics reveal nothing terribly upsetting at first. Perhaps it’s a bit condescending in sections, but the final verse made many see red.

Talkin’ bout about that special one
They may be stupid, but they sure are fun
I’ll give it to you while we’re on the run

Feminist response was immediate and scathing. It was so intense that Rundgren wrote a song response a year later, one that mainly sought to laugh off the issue. He cryptically titled it “Chain Letter”.

Don’t take yourself too seriously
There are precious few things worth hating nowadays,
And none of them are me

I was only trying to say how things used to be
‘Til we grew up and we all went our separate ways
Looking for our own paths to immortality

The implication being, as always, that feminists were devoid of perspective. He questions their anger, thinking perhaps intense hatred would be an emotion better spent on others. Defending himself, he states that he was merely trying to copy the attitudes and dialogue of a previous generation, or perhaps a younger self. Furthermore, he concludes that feminists are looking to be in the public eye and to be ultimately immortalized in history, just the same as he is. To Rundgren, everyone involved is playing an elaborate game to win popular attention and be enshrined forevermore in memory.

Still, Rundgren did at least learn his lesson. Possessed of a sometimes juvenile sense of humor, he made sure to avoid similar subjects in subsequent albums. Artists who also raised hackles included the Canadian singer-songwriter Neil Young, whose song “A Man Needs a Maid” won him no favors. The lyrics do not imply that his partner ought to be a maid, but instead that all any man really needs is hired help to cook meals and iron shirts. Young was equally nonplussed by the criticism, but did not respond to it in the form of a song. Like Rundgren, he made an effort for a time to write lyrics that did not involve the interplay between men and women. Still, he was not above occasionally penning cranky rants at ex-wives.

Since then, popular music has taken a different direction. Most Feminist derision has of late fallen primarily on hip-hop, where misogynist attitudes are especially blatant and sadly prevalent. The lyrical content of a previous age seems quaint by contrast. And in the meantime, can it be said that with time offensive content has increased dramatically, or are we just passing through another musical stage? We redouble our efforts on one particular genre of late, but one wonders if there are other forms that need to be examined. Sometimes the effort itself is exhausting. With every problematic song, two more appear alongside it. In another generation, who will draw our fire and spark our ire, or will we ever conquer this problem once and for all?

Short Story, Part Six

Part Six

Sometimes I daydream about younger days. Today’s reverie focused on a particularly irresponsible act that took place during college. The occasion would become known later as The Day We Set the Pigs Free. And by pigs, I mean guinea. Beloved to second grade teachers the world around, the squeaking, grunting, pooping animals previously inhabited a small cage. Lubricated by marijuana, we decided the arrangement was cruel. We felt like PETA, but without the irony and the tone-deaf delivery.

A few years older than me, I was invited over to her apartment. Immediately upon my entrance, she showed me her stripper shoes, which were full of a jumble of other shoes resting in the main closet. These shoes were no longer in active use, but I could almost see the bad music and fluorescent lighting. I just did a lot of coke, she said. This had been a few years before and she made no apologies for it. She downplayed the drug use and I believed her. Three years later, I would receive a terse e-mail from her husband, stating that she had sold the car for drugs and that he was filing for divorce. Some people recover. Some people relapse.

I return to the pigs. After introducing it with the proper fanfare, I produced a regular cigarette from which I had thoughtfully removed the tobacco. It now contained perhaps three inches worth of something very different. Within minutes, we felt like dancing, but even stoned I still could not dance. Awkwardness that profound cannot be cured by recreational drug use alone. So she danced by herself over by the television, and then, growing bored with it, suggested animal liberation. Reaching into the unlatched cage, I lifted one pig in the crook of my arms and she did the same.

Be free! She yelled. They scattered across the hardwood floors, their long nails clacking and clicking. Later, we would find them in the bedroom she shared with her husband. They had, it seems, not very much heart for exploration. Instead they hid in the darkest corner of the entire apartment, and left a huge quantity of pellet-shaped excrement in their wake. I know many people who would do the same thing, if set free from their daily responsibilities.

It was a little comical trying to find them after a time, recognizing even in our disorientated state that they needed food and water. We quickly forgot where we had already looked, frequently checking the same area three and four times over. It was only after I passed by the edge of the box springs that they began to loudly whistle. Guinea pigs don't particularly care much about freedom. Mildly curious in the best of times, they get fearful instead of bold. Chalk it up to another in a series of well-meaning, but ill-informed acts.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The GOP's Unrealistic Tax Fetish

I have to admit that I have only been paying attention to the Republican Presidential debates with half an eye. It is, to my reckoning, impossible to take any of the candidates seriously. They are more like caricatures than anything else, trotting out gimmicks like 9-9-9 or grandstanding about Ponzi schemes. Mostly I am completely disgusted by the way that taxes have become a distracting fetish in the broader discourse. Each candidate could choose to focus on a broad range of issues, thereby winning the trust and likely the votes of the American people, but they instead focus on simplistic answers for complex problems. I suppose if you don't have a solid offense, you've got to rely on trick plays.

A parable of Jesus follows below. It concerns, literally, the paying of tax even when it is unnecessary. However, as you will see, to resort to a one sentence description of a complex story is unfair.

After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax came to Peter and asked, "Doesn't your teacher pay the temple tax?" He answered, "Yes." When Peter went home, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, "What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings on the earth collect tolls or tributes? From their own subjects, or from foreigners?" When he said, "From foreigners," Jesus said to him, "In that case, the subjects are exempt.

However, so that we don't offend them, go to the sea and throw in a hook. Take the first fish that comes up, open its mouth, and you will find a coin. Take it and give it to them for me and you."

In those days, all Jewish men were required to pay a temple toll. This was a modest tax that was specifically earmarked to maintain their holy place of worship. The tax collectors imply directly through their questioning that Jesus is less devout if he has not contributed his fair share. In other words, his reputation is at stake. Peter speaks before he knows the correct answer, making himself look foolish in the process. But those of you who know anything about Peter recognize that this is nothing unusual for him.

As is common during any period of intense polarization, militarization, and dissatisfaction, the challenge of the tax collectors was viewed first through the lens of occupation. The cursed Romans had control of Judea, severely limiting Jewish self-government. Peter, in his answer, returns to the subject of the vastly unpopular taxes levied by Rome to fund its empire. Who do kings go to when seeking revenue? The foreigners they occupy, of course. We could all be foreigners now, by that definition. Of course, we alone determine who are the good guys and the bad guys. Everyone's got a different set of criteria to establish friend from foe.

A particularly helpful analysis gives additional insight.

'Then', argued Jesus, 'ought we to be paying a tax to God in heaven? Does not the acceptance of such a burden imply that whoever pays it is really a stranger from God, a foreigner, from His point of view? But you and I, Peter, we belong to God's family. What need is there for us to pay atonement money?' So Jesus and Peter could regard themselves as already atoned for!

And then, whilst Peter still groped after his Master's meaning, Jesus swung the other way. There must be no stumbling-block to hinder either rulers or people from believing in Jesus. Therefore, although a proper assessment of the situation required nothing of the kind, the payment had better be made. If word went round that Jesus or his disciples refused to pay this temple poll-tax-and with what malevolent satisfaction the Jewish leaders would help such a report on its way! - there would be such a reaction from national and religious prejudice as to make any further progress in the mission of Jesus altogether impossible. So, as a concession to the spiritual immaturity of the nation, the half-shekel was paid.

This parable is partially concerned with the compromises and concessions we must sometimes make. People are often obsessed with small gestures that, when followed, are supposed to prove both loyalty and purity. Though they are largely inconsequential, people place enough stock in their observation that is worth following suit rather than refusing based on strict principle. Unable to make a difference in a broader way, small responsibilities give people a sense of desired authority. So it is true here with this temple tax. Jesus concedes the spiritual immaturity of many believers, recognizing that much work remains.

The Republican Presidential candidates have all acknowledged that they must put forward a tax policy, regardless of how ridiculous and one-track it is. In some respect, this is nothing new. In 1996, Steve Forbes rode his single issue campaign of a flat tax longer than most would have expected. The most Republican of all litmus tests now revolves around decreased taxation of one form or another. Whether this is truly feasible in an economy nowhere near health and financial solvency remains to be seen. Taxation is probably a necessity, and those expected to shoulder the load are likely both subjects and foreigners.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Violence in Its Context

We often talk about violence as an epidemic. Should you believe the news, our society is now ultraviolent. Murders are always on the incline, as are other violent crimes. Sexual assault and rape are constants. We have become desensitized to all of it because of violence on the internet, television, or in video games. I don't disregard most of this, usually, but an alternate viewpoint is always interesting to contemplate.

This TED talk by Steven Pinker presents a drastically different perspective. I will add to his analysis that I once learned a very interesting fact in grad school. The class focused on the English Civil War of the Seventeenth Century. My professor asserted that violence was actually far more prevalent then. She stated that, in those days, the water supply was filthy and spread disease. As a result, alcohol consumption was far higher than today. In addition, men regularly carried weapons on their person both for protection and to assist them in their daily chores.

The idea that we might be evolving towards a less violent society I find quite comforting. This doesn't mean that we still don't have work to do, but perhaps we can see our challenges as less daunting. Still, what I learned in my (since discarded) training to be a historian is that the record of the past is far more subjective than we might think. Perception is a tricky thing. We can only go off of what we are told or taught. I had to take an entire class on historian's craft, full of strategies to work around embedded bias. And even then, as we consult primary and secondary sources, we still have to take their word for it.

It helps me to think of history as being present in a state of evolution. Everyone brings his or her own subjective perspective to a retelling of the past. What we think today may not be what we think tomorrow. We're often indebted to the bias of current trends in scholarship. One movement of scholars works around a set of assumptions. Years later, another group challenges these assumptions and comes up with an entirely new set. As individuals, we have the right to be critical, in the hopes that new theories might improve the way we view the past.

Here I must register my own personal grievances. What bothers me a little is the nature of Pinker's assertions as to why people act less violently now. Few of them are based in altruism. Instead, they are often purely selfish manifestations of human nature. I'd like to believe that we don't act violently based on the presence of conscience or morality, not because it benefits us more to resist the violent impulse.

Pinker is a non-theist, and this informs his scholarship, plus explains why during the talk he gets a small dig in at religion's expense. Time has proven how easy it is for Theists and Non-Theists to begin arguing and I don't want to start it up again. I guess I took a little offense to it. And even so, I do have Quaker F/friends who are non-theist and I try to respect their beliefs. It isn't easy, because a judgmental side of me can always show if I'm not careful. Aside from that, I have no objections to Pinker's scholarship and recognize that it is well-reasoned.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Here I Go

This is a story 'bout a girl that I knew
she didn't like my songs
and that made me feel blue
she said: "a big band is far better than you"...

She don't rock 'n' roll, she don't like it
she don't do the stroll, well she don't do it right
well, ev'rythings wrong and my patience was gone

when I woke one morning
and remembered this song
O-oh-oh, kinda catchy

I hoped
that she would talk to me now
and even allow me to hold her hand
and forget that old band.

I strolled around to her pad
her light was off and that's bad
her sister said that my girl was gone
"But come inside, boy, and play, play, play me a song!"

I said "Yeah! Here I go"
She's kinda cute; don't you know,
That after a while of seeing her smile
I knew we could make it, make it in style?

So now I've got all I need
She and I are in love, we've agreed
she likes this song and my others too

so now you see my world is...
because of this tune!
What a boon this tune!

I tell you soon
We'll be lying in bed, happily wed,
and I won't think of that girl
or what she said...

What's Going On

I woke up last night somewhere around one o'clock with my heart racing. These episodes are occasional, but still very frightening. What I was likely experiencing was a panic attack, potentially brought on by medication. I was deathly afraid of something more intense. The antidepressant I take leaves me sensitive to certain types of food and prescribed drugs. I love strong coffee in the morning, but I can only manage a cup or two before I feel the same distressing tightness in my chest. I've had three hypertensive crises and each time one of these "milder" reactions is felt, I'm immediately afraid of their most extreme manifestation.

Should I have a hypertensive crisis, I have no choice but to go directly to the Emergency Room. I'm in no condition to wait for a bus, so the paramedics are called instead. I'm fortunate in that I'm only minutes away from a fire station. Short of breath and terrified, I somehow make my way to the bedroom to collect bottles from the pharmacy. It saves me having to spell out names of medications and exact dosages. These will be left for the paramedics when they arrive. I am then loaded into the back of a waiting ambulance, where an IV is started. We wait for ten or fifteen minutes to be assigned a hospital, then we are on our way.

Having arrived, I am lifted onto a bed. After I've informed at least two nurses and a doctor about what is happening, I'm hooked up to a machine that monitors my blood pressure and pulse rate. If both reach dangerous levels, I am administered a medication through IV. For the next two to three hours, my hands white-knuckled to the side of the bed, I observe as pulse and blood pressure slowly recede. The frightening aspect is that both heart readings rapidly cycle upwards and downwards until then. It is emotionally and physically exhausting.

Once my pulse slowly, eventually registers under 100 beats per minute, the doctor returns. We're going to discharge you now, Mr. Camp. The IV is removed and the results of an EKG have registered normal. I have likely lost some chest hair because half of the electrodes fail to stick to my skin otherwise. I know an EKG is about to get underway when I see a nurse pushing a white, flat, rectangular machine on a cart, one with what seems like 200 leads attached to it. Inevitably, he or she is also holding a razor. I'd just as soon they take all of the hair off, because the shaven patches look strange.

What I'm dealing with now is different. The depression end of bipolar disorder frequently arrives during a change of season. Lithium is an effective drug but it can be a fickle one, too. At the moment, I've apparently needed to take more than before. The past four days my depression has returned, albeit not as strong as it has been. The psychiatrist has prescribed a time-release version of Lithium that is intended to dispense a more or less even distribution throughout the day. I woke up today around ten in the morning, which is exceptionally late for me.

I'll try to get my act back together soon. It troubles me when it's difficult to provide a high quality analysis of some issue or another. Still, it doesn't do much good to fight against a limitation of this strength. In the meantime, I'll just try to stay calm and distract myself from worrying too much about it. No one asks for a chronic illness. Like always, I seek the silver lining, should I have the ability to find it.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Quote of the Week

"I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our money corporations, which already challenge our government to a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country."- Thomas Jefferson

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Saturday Video

Prelude in E minor (Op. 28, No. 4), Frédéric Chopin

Friday, October 14, 2011

A Little More Personal

One of my friends from childhood has been diagnosed with terminal cancer of the brain. A very large, very cancerous tumor was discovered and he has been given no more than a year to live. Perhaps even less than that. Each of us has, at some point, run across a friend or acquaintance who needs us more than we need them. With time, the two of us grew apart for no other reason than we took a different trajectory in personal development. This was nothing personal and I don't think he took offense. Or, if he did, he never vocalized it in my company.

From the time we met, as fourteen-year-olds with a difficult time making friends, he latched onto me like a burr to a woolen sock. I have resisted for years since then. He's a bit of a ne'er do well, something of a well-meaning buffoon, and ends up regularly coming off as slightly ridiculous. Sometimes I've had to shut my eyes and my ears when he is present. But the other side of it is that he has been, if nothing else, intensely loyal. In high school, when my own medical issues with depression were intense and pervasive, he kept tabs on me when no one else did. During frequent hospital stays, he showed up every day and stayed for hours. I feel obligated to stay in touch, even if part of me clamors for distance.

It has been difficult observing his health woes, even from the perspective of several hundred miles. He has not been especially rational about any aspect of his care, but this might be expected under the circumstances. As has often been the case in other contexts, he became over-optimistic when he weathered the first round of chemotherapy. Anyone who uses Charlie Sheen quotes to describe himself for any reason makes me squirm. This is where I began yet again to take some serious steps backwards. Once the first month had concluded, he claimed to have tiger blood and to have fully beat it somehow, though I knew his fight had only begun. I wasn't sure whether to humor him or to be the voice of tough love, though I opted for the former.

His cognitive skills have begun to deteriorate rapidly, which is what chemotherapy will do. Over the past couple of weeks, he's confused his evening medication with his morning medication, meaning that he's not sleeping much. This is something that can be rectified, but I am fairly certain there are other aspects in his life that are out of balance, too. He cannot rely upon family as he must. His father is an alcoholic with his own issues. His mother is not very affectionate or approachable; I suspect she has cut ties completely due to his past behavior. His older brother was always self-absorbed and caustically dismissive. He doesn't mention family much, and I don't ask.

What I am observing is a man in the process of dying. I can't linger in this space for long, and it makes me feel like a coward. He saw me go up and down. He saw me at my worst, but I can't extend the favor. The last time we talked, he mentioned how much of an impression it made upon him to see me struggling for my own life. I know it must be on his mind now, though the comparison leaves out many key differences.

I was eighteen then. The mostly silent anniversary of my most severe collapse is nearly here. It occurred shortly before Thanksgiving, during my senior year in high school. Twelve years ago. The depression was so intense that electroshock therapy was prescribed as a treatment of last resort. He came by the unit every day. Most of the time, he said I talked out of my head. What I said made absolutely no sense. The process itself has become more humane over time, but it is still somewhat crude and Byzantine. A strong electric current is applied to the brain, causing a deliberate seizure. One loses short term and long term memories. Some return, and some are lost forever.

With time, my condition improved. I've never been that depressed since, a fact I thank God for on a regular basis. The difference here is that my diagnosis was serious but not terminal, and he is staring death in the face. He has now begun to recognize that his days are increasingly numbered. As I suspected would be the case with time, he told me the other day that he is likely to die unless he takes immaculate care of himself. I will grant to him his hopeful caveat. What's the harm in entertaining a modest delusion?

He's never had the greatest luck. For whatever reason, he's always been a wandering soul. Six years after I obtained my undergraduate degree, he still has never completed the requisite coursework. For a time, he was an especially heavy drug user, the kind to drift from house to house in the bohemian part of town. When I first heard about his diagnosis, I wondered if perhaps somehow his chemical intake was partially to blame. It's a very unusual form for cancer to take, one usually found in men older than sixty-five. Or, it just could be, like my own physical difficulties, purely genetic.

I don't know how to be there for him. To some extent, I never have. Ever since we met in eighth grade, I have wondered if he really knows who I am. If he did, would he be so unflinchingly devoted? When so few other people have clung to me this tenaciously over the years, what makes him different? Now that the tables have been turned, I want to return the favor, even though my impulse is to keep him at arm's length. Every day is different. Maybe I'm doing all that I can.

Open Up the Tired Eyes

Something different for today. The photo is mine, but the words are not.

Well he shot four men
in a cocaine deal

And he left them
lyin' in an open field

Full of old cars
with bullet holes
in the mirrors.

He tried to do his best
but he could not.

Please take my advice,
please take my advice

Please take my advice.
Open up the tired eyes,
Open up the tired eyes.

-Neil Young, 1975

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Short Story, Part Five

A work of fiction, with a few elements of truth.

Thus far, you have viewed my better side, my better qualities. I would be negligent now if I did not show you a few glaring mistakes. Forget your perfect offering. A crack, as Leonard Cohen notes, is how the light gets in. You shall see the darkness and the light and judge for yourself.

In the beginning, it is as if every relationship exists in isolation to the rest of the world. Infatuation drowns out everything else. But sometimes the outside world interjects itself rudely and action is necessary. I made the perfectly excusable mistake of inadvertently stepping into a long-running marital feud raging between two of our mutual friends. She was lonely and wished to talk, so I struck up a separate conversation with her upon a visit to their home. We spoke about nothing especially memorable, parted ways, and I thought nothing of it.

His behavior towards me changed overnight. I could feel the anger and resentment radiating off of him in the way he walked past. A year’s worth of jovial discourse was cast aside in an instant. If I tried to initiate the most banal of discussions, he ignored me and quickly departed. I wasn’t quite sure what to do aside from keep my distance. As is often commonplace, the source of the conflict had nothing really to do with me, per se. I was merely a dual projection of animosity and jealousy. It's never comfortable to be in such a situation, but I made it clear through surrogates that I didn't find it especially fair to be caught in the middle. Once the gunfire died down, I assumed that their troubled marriage had resolved itself, but found that only a brief armistice of hostilities had been declared.

It was when they started advertising their feud via Facebook that the tension reached a raging boil. The petty churlishness was on display for the world to see, or at least self-selected friends. There were no shortage of red flags now, but I regret that an impulsive part of me sometimes enjoys playing with fire. I should not have interceded in someone else’s civil war. One of my weaknesses is a desire to vindictively force the shoe on the other foot of someone who has wronged me. Maybe I’ll always be the lonely little boy, the easy target for bullies. Getting even has been the downfall of many and I ought to have known better. I can recognize my motives but not excuse my foolishness.

A relationship is in trouble when both parties start keeping score. Bitterness leads to a thousand impulsive decisions, few of them anchored in good sense. I was hoping she’d jump at an opportunity for retribution. I made the most innocent of inquiries, suggesting she might wish to meet for coffee to talk it over. She got back to me quickly and a time was established. My e-mail had dropped a thousand subtle and a few not-so-subtle hints. I knew what I wanted, but I have learned since then that we’re not nearly in control of the process as we think. Courting danger only promises to release the furies. A jealous man is never a trifling matter, but my irrational side won out.

Once we’d said a hello and selected a table, our talk was by turns flirtatious but also cagey. She saw right through my intentions from the outset, though I had not disguised them. It is clear she enjoyed the attention, but in her mind, I had never been much more than a chess piece. Staring across a table from each other, she moved forward a space, then sideways, then sideways again. I chased her around the board for most of an hour, and then conceded the game based on weariness. When asked if I’d like to meet again, I mumbled something indecisive, than left the table with some haste. I wasn’t interested in another lengthy period of courting. I did not and had not ever envisioned this as a romance or a multi-step process. I wanted instead to see if I could achieve a particularly childish form of evening the score and some harmless pleasure as well.

I recognize you may think less of me now. My motives were a means of seeking to punish the past, to give it a good lashing, if you will. It was payback for every schoolyard taunt, every instance of omission, every hurtful remark based in ignorance. It’s not as though the present is a particularly effective target, but it happens to be the only one available. An eye for an eye is one of the easiest of motivations. After this experience, I watched the continual disintegration of the marriage from a semi-detached point of view. My interest remained, but with most of the mystery removed, the pleasure of idle speculation was no longer possible.

They put their divorce proceedings on Twitter. I know few people who would choose to broadcast such a thing in such a way, but they did. Along with an updated progression of the case, seemingly to the minute, the two also gave running commentary. Never before have I seen such a copious display of He Said/She Said. By the last rap of the gavel, I found it impossible to understand who shouldered most of the blame. They were, at a base level, a supremely bad match who had gotten married for all the wrong reasons. By the end, I regretted I’d stooped to their level. I’ll call it a lesson learned.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Sweetie: A Review

New Zealand director Jane Campion’s debut 1989 film Sweetie is a portrayal of a slowly imploding dysfunctional family. Along with two sputtering relationships are the hijinks of mentally ill daughter Dawn, whose nickname doubles as the title. The more conventional sister, Kay, is as buttoned up and emotionally remote as her sister is impulsive and unrestrained. In the movie’s first half, the screenplay provides no answers to Kay’s repressed character. It is only after the introduction of her black sheep sibling that we begin to feel the sympathy that comes from honest understanding. But it is only through what we observe that this occurs; Kay never seems to care whether we or anyone else likes her or hates her.

It is, in fact, difficult to easily relate or feel favor for any character, male or female, young or old. Kay’s distant behavior endears her to almost no one at her job, which leaves her exposed to a lot of workplace teasing. Her meditating, Buddhist, attractive boyfriend Louis recognizes over time that the two of them are a terrible match. Only a year after they moved in together, she has retreated to a separate bedroom and shows no interest in sex. Shortly before, she managed to win his hand away from one of her co-workers, after he had been previously engaged to someone else for all of an hour. Her sister Dawn/Sweetie has consistently wound the rest of the family around her little finger over the years, resorting to childish tirades to win attention, approval, and her own way. The two long-suffering parents are having their own problems, which could be as a result of being their daughter’s perpetual caretaker. Discerning motives is challenging because they are never plainly spelled out.

As someone with a similar disability, the film’s depiction of Sweetie made me very uncomfortable. It wasn’t because I thought the artist’s rendition was unfair or unrealistic, but rather that I have encountered people similar to her in my own life. Mental illness can best be explained as a spectrum disorder, with extremely varied diagnoses, presentations, and intensity of symptoms. In most psychiatric hospitals, however, patients are grouped together in one or two units, regardless of specific ailment or severity of illness. I have known people like Sweetie, and found it equally difficult to not let my frustrations taint my perception of them. Some people, sadly, use their illness as a means to obtain what they want, entirely as a means of manipulation. Sweetie has made a conscious decision to not act in her own best interest, and based on the family’s response, this is a regular pattern for her.

What is difficult to discern is the role of the father. Is he a delusional enabler, an incurable optimist, a man unable to view his wayward child beyond fond memories of her as a girl? Or, does something darker exist between a daughter and her biggest champion? Some reviewers have suggested the two may carry on a discreet incestuous relationship, one consigned to the shadows. While this theory would not seem out of order in a film of this nature, neither it is for certain. Sweetie’s father may simply, like many parents, be unwilling to entertain the notion that his daughter has significant limitations. Acknowledging Dawn’s flaws might force him to contemplate his own mistakes in parenting.

By the end of the film, a somewhat meandering journey by the entire cast ends in catastrophe. It is not an entirely unforeseen conclusion, mind you, since patience has worn thin with Sweetie ever since she arrived on the scene. Part of the film’s overall theme involves the mystery of fate and destiny and humanity’s inability to make sense of it. Kay consults a psychic early in the film to provide her some assured insight regarding the future. The mystic literally reads tea leaves to make her predictions, with decidedly mixed results. It is a visit to this clairvoyant that bookends the beginning and the end. An otherwise hyper-rational human being like Kay would never be thought to trust in something so improvable, but her veneer of fastidious control shows cracks in the foundation. Her personality may be a well-practiced poker face. It is those who feel they have the most to lose who must seek to control the present and what is later to come. And in short, they are afraid.