Tuesday, July 30, 2013

I Am a Rock

A winter's day on a deep and dark December
I am alone
Gazing from my window to the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow
I am a rock, I am an island

I've built walls, a fortress deep and mighty
That none may penetrate
I have no need for friendship, friendship causes pain
It's laughter and it's loving I disdain
I am a rock, I am an island

Don't talk of love, well I've heard the word before
It's sleeping in my memory
I won't disturb the slumber of feelings that have died
If I'd never loved, I never would have cried
I am a rock, I am an island

I have my books and my poetry to protect me
I am shielded in my armor
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb
I touch no one and no one touches me
I am a rock, I am an island

And a rock feels no pain
And an island never cries

Monday, July 29, 2013

Anyone Who Is Not Against You Is For You

John said to Jesus, "Master, we saw someone using your name to cast out demons, but we told him to stop because he isn't in our group." But Jesus said, "Don't stop him! Anyone who is not against you is for you."
This passage illustrates beautifully the way that religion, as properly expressed, flips priorities and expectations upside down. The ways of the world are not those of God, though humans have made them over in their own image in flagrant violation of their intent. Misplaced priorities have wounded many and led others away for years, sometimes forever. I often address a chorus of wounded skeptics, who are burning with a desire to believe while being simultaneously pulled in the opposite direction. 

We must consider our own very human flaws before condemning those who are in need of a lesson. The twelve Disciples were ordinary, average people who had been chosen at random to form an inner circle. They had stayed at Jesus' side for the whole of his ministry and as Jesus' star began to grow larger and larger, they began to argue within themselves. Who would be the greatest when, as they were certain, their Master began a rebellion and successfully kicked out the Roman occupiers?

These men had witnessed miraculous acts, which confirmed the importance of the journey and their role in it. Some of the same powers at their master's command were granted to them. They'd observed how Jesus raised up the dead, healed the sick, and performed the impossible over and over again. So when someone else was using the name of their Master to accomplish the same noble ends, they were jealous and indignant. They and they alone deserved the right to use these powers.

They were missing the point, anticipating greater glory to lie ahead. The Disciples were already arguing about their eventual placement next to King Jesus' throne. They failed to understand that this Kingdom their leader kept alluding to mysteriously was not an earthly one based on military conquest. There would be no armed insurrection leading to the reestablishment of Palestine under its own leadership.

We know how the story ends. When everything was said and done, the task of those left behind would be to work to build upon the legacy they helped to establish. Dreams of great power and influence would be set aside in place of the hard work of setting strangers right with God. In time, they recognized their folly, but it took self-reflection and a proper way of seeing the world first.

I include this verse to show how many religious group stray from what is right, ignoring or skirting past this passage altogether. Scripture does not place walls around people, rather, the people who interpret it for their own selfish reasons twist it around and make it that way. Seeking to copyright or patent a particular means of achieving Eternal Life is precisely why we have as many denominations within Christianity and religious groups as we do today. People have, through their own pride and covetousness, set forth the idea that their theology is superior to others.

I live in Washington, DC, a city that creates ideas. Beyond Capitol Hill, its own universe, a myriad, often disconnected network of non-profits, PACs, and NGOs are found. Their existence is often a result of some peoples' pet concepts and schemes for making the world a better place. The pool is small and the players are often elbow-to-elbow. Misplaced priorities lead many to feel defensive, afraid that someone will encroach upon their turf, or steal their ideas. And yet, nevertheless we are told that anyone who is not against us is for us.

When I was in grad school, I was told that no idea or academic theory was beyond improvement. Nothing is worse than an idea which is not in debate. Either it is perfect and needs no further revision (unlikely), or it merits no further analysis (most likely). Theories wilt away and began collecting dust when others find nothing worthy or helpful about them. We are indebted and emotionally connected to what we have conceived with our own effort. Criticism does indeed sting. But it is far better than being irrelevant and not part of the game.

Beyond the ivory tower is the world most of us inhabit. Many might argue that it doesn't make good business sense to believe that anyone who is not against us is for us. Millions, if not billions, are made by people who are highly covetous of their own creations and inventions. In this day of competition, fears, and scarcity suspicion exists because, in a perversion of the passage with which I opened this post, the reverse is true. Everyone who is not with us is against us.

If we are religious people, or even people with religious pretenses, we ask ourselves once again how we can live in this world and not be of this world. I know people who feel no strong draw towards religion, yet are still trying to figure out that very conundrum for themselves. It is the same reason why the Amish isolate themselves deliberately from this fallen world and why hippies lived in communes. Some find the taint of our civilization corrupting, regardless of how they seek to side-step it.

Though its foundation is ancient, this question could not be more modern. Some people disgusted with the warped values systems of daily life withdraw altogether. Some engage as little as is necessary, and even more find it a thoroughly impossible task. But though our decisions may differ, our conflicted attitudes never do. Instead, we face a lifetime's worth of second-guessing, trying to span the gap between two very different mindsets.

Religion is meant to challenge, not to fling insults or be the justification for abrasive put-downs. The real words, printed on the page, are controversial, but not in the way you may have been led to believe. Not all criticism is meant to tear down. The very best is designed to make us think.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Quote of the Week

"Acting is not about dressing up. Acting is about stripping bare. The whole essence of learning lines is to forget them so you can make them sound like you thought of them that instant."- Glenda Jackson

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Saturday Video

Drivin' on 9
You could be a shadow
Beneath the street light
Behind my home

Drivin' on 9
I sure miss you
Pass a motel
Looking at the piles

Drivin' on 9
Looking for one thirty
Maybe I passed it
Go another mile

Drivin' on 9
Drivin' on 9

Drivin' on 9
you sure look pretty
Carson City
Walking down the aisle

Drivin' on 9
Does daddy have a shotgun
He said he'd never need one
Go another mile

Drivin' on 9

Drivin' on 9
Looking out my window sill
Wondering if I want you still
Wondering what's right

Drivin' on 9
Drivin' on 9
Drivin' on 9

Friday, July 26, 2013

Infidelity: Posing the Tough Questions

The single family member who looms largest in my mind is my grandfather. As is true with many who lose highly influential figures at a young age, I am left more with a sense of loss because of his absence than a sense of joy for the short time he was in my life. I was nearly seven when he passed away after a traumatic, torturous bout with cancer. Often, I wonder what it would have been like if he'd lived to see me enter high school or even graduate from college.

In his lifetime, my grandfather was a force to be reckoned with and even today the memories of his deeds and words have reached nearly mythic proportions. He was a highly complicated person who suffered from bipolar disorder (undiagnosed and untreated), a Napoleonic complex, and the misfortune to have discovered the suicide of his first wife. He never spoke about the combined impact of each of these things, but in those days, men rarely did.

This latest Anthony Weiner/Huma Abedin controversy affects me in a way that may not be true for others. No doubt most people in monogamous relationships have contemplated, in the abstract, how it might feel to have a spouse or partner cheat on them. Others may not have to pretend, having dealt with infidelity a time or two themselves. The real question is a personal decision not likely made easily. Whether the wronged party will leave or go seems simple enough to us. That being said, what goes on behind closed doors is not as easily resolved as we might think.

My grandfather was the center of the universe in his household. His spirited, passionate opinions were gospel. He was as well-known for his encyclopedic knowledge of current events as he was for his almost comical impatience. In his prime, Grandfather possessed movie star good looks and kept them well into middle age. His height was a topic never to be discussed. To give himself an extra inch or two he wore shoes with elevated heels.

He was also routinely unfaithful to my grandmother. The first time it happened, his wife, my grandmother, strongly threatened to leave him. By then, they had two small boys together and a struggling family business. In no unequivocal terms, she gave him an ultimatum. Leave the other woman and return to her, or else. If he was not willing to do what she asked, she vowed to take the kids with her to a place where he would never find any of them again.

As family legend goes, a momentarily chastened man returned to his wife and all was forgiven, eventually. In truth, I'm not sure if he ditched his mistress or not. His wandering eye might not have been on the same level as Don Draper of Mad Men fame, but it was close. My grandmother eventually learned to live with it, making no further demands. After a while, she had no more energy left to expend and wasn't sure any efforts to curtail his behavior would be successful. Once he made up his mind to do something, no preventative measures made much difference one way or another.

My grandparents stayed married to each other until his death. My grandmother outlived him by nearly fifteen years, finally passing away when I was in my early twenties. No doubt she took many secrets with her to the grave. The family she'd kept up, sometimes in his absence, was good at brushing problems under the rug. In fact, it wasn't until recently that a close family member shared these stories with me.

Returning to Anthony Weiner and his faithful wife, I find I can't really blame her for staying. What she has decided is a personal decision on her part and, for now, I'll give her the benefit of the doubt. I recognize that women today are not bound by the same standards and social inequalities of their own grandmothers. But when it comes down to passing strong judgment, I look within my own family to form my opinion. I observe what happened back then and wonder what could have been done differently. Unwilling to speak truth, a family that keeps secrets stays this way forever.

In this day and age, it's more difficult to keep infidelity secret. Any politician intent on cheating in an era of the immediacy of electronic communication is playing with fire. They run a risk 1,000 times greater than any ordinary person of being caught and exposed. The question that might never be answered to anyone's satisfaction is "why?" Within my own family, I'll never be privy to that information, but the thought has crossed my mind many times over the years.

Six seasons of Mad Men have postulated that skirt-chaser Don Draper's behavior is a product of his own dysfunctional upbringing. I can't say that I understand the full significance of the perpetual flashbacks that reveal Draper's past, but it makes for interesting speculation. Anthony Weiner alone knows why he craved sexual partners outside of marriage, despite marrying the perfect political wife, a woman who happens to be quite beautiful as well. Until we hear some honest details, all our speculation is moot.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Health Update

Tomorrow I visit another specialist to try to find a solution. I usually try to get a minimum of two written posts up per week. Looks like I may not get there this week. Still, I think this time I might be pursuing the proper course of treatment.

Oh Lonesome Me

Everybody's going out and having fun
I'm just a fool for staying home and having none
I can't get over how she set set me free 
Oh lonesome me
There must be some way
That I can lose these lonesome blues
Forget about my past and
Find someone new

I've thought of everything from A to Z
Oh lonesome me

I'll bet she's not like me she's out and fancy free
Flirtin' with the boys with all her charms
But I still love her so and brother don't you know
I'd welcome her right back here in my arms
There must be some way I can lose these lonesome blues
Forget about the past and find somebody new
I've thought of everything from A to Z 

Oh lonesome me
Oh lonesome me 
Oh lonesome me

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Gender-Neutral Accommodations and Unintended Consequences

A recent new policy directed at transgender teenagers has unleashed a firestorm of criticism within LGBTs and allies in the Religious Society of Friends. This significant backlash has been directed at Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, the oldest, largest, and most established group of Quakers on the East Coast. The controversial decision has been met with hostility by some and incredulity by others.

Liberal Friends were some of the first religious groups willing to designate gender-neutral spaces, which is what makes this decision so puzzling. It seems as though those who drafted this new language may have been seeking first to kill two birds with one stone, in place of a greater understanding of just what it was that they were doing.

What has made many upset is that the wording of this new policy is heavily disingenuous. Claiming it had listened closely to transgender concerns before making a decision, the committee reached a conclusion that shows profound ignorance. They certainly chose their words carefully, but even a casual reading reveals their real intent.

All participants will use the sleeping and bathroom arrangements in alignment with their biological sex. All bathroom, showers, sleeping and changing quarters will be clearly marked as “male” or “female.” In a facility with one bathroom, it is to be used by one gender at a time.

Changes to the existing policy now insist that everyone must share lodgings and bathrooms in accordance with a person's assigned at birth, biological gender. The planners must have failed to take into account even the most simplistic understanding of Transgender 101. Under their decree, those who have made considerable strides adjusting to their rightful gender would be forced back into an identity they deliberately rejected. It is difficult to believe that an otherwise progressive faith group could overlook a detail this elementary.

In setting the new policy, the leadership feigned one direction, but addressed instead a wholly separate issue entirely. Not designating bedrooms and bathrooms specifically for men or specifically for women had produced unintended consequences. Heterosexual teenagers were using the freedom of that arrangement to have sex. Bedrooms and bathrooms had been designated co-ed, making it remarkably easy for sexual relations to proceed without fear of being caught or disciplined. It is worth noting that this would be less a problem if the participants involved were legal adults, but here we are discussing the activity of minors.

One of the consequences of being part of a liberal faith group is often a hand's off attitude towards sexuality. Once they become of age, we want adolescents to understand their bodies and we also hope that they will use good decision making. We want them to think of themselves as healthy sexual beings, but wonder how much authority to use to keep them in line. The shame attached to sexual thoughts and sexual expression is commonplace within conservative religious doctrine. This is what we seek to avoid with our kids. In the end, we may take our permissiveness too far, especially when a few hormonal teenagers are consistent offenders at conferences and gatherings.

Rather than restrict the rights of transgender teenagers, a better strategy would be to find a more effective way to discourage sexual activity. Most people, of any age, follow the rules. When I was younger, some youth conferences I attended had an unwritten, but nonetheless understood hook up culture present. Other organizers made it plain that romantic and sexual relations had no place there, and I made sure to take note of it.

My personal opinion, which is really about fifteen years of hindsight, is that conference sex is the surest way to create totally counter-productive drama. The easiest method to introduce needless negativity and ruin everyone else's good time is to have private problems spill over into the larger meeting. Sexual conduct to a person of any age is emotionally intense. I speak from experience. Earlier in my life, I did not have had the same reservations in place that I do now.  

In the meantime, it might do each of us well if we were schooled about what it means to be transgender. Even better, talking to someone who is transgender would make the concept real for everyone. The committee who drafted this policy erred mainly from ignorance, which is what happens when planners don't address persistent problems with more than glancing blows. Quakers are many things, but institutionally, we are petrified of confrontation. In the future, I hope we all stiffen our spines and recognize that confrontation is necessary, even if it puts us outside our comfort zones.     

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Rock 'N' Roll Suicide

For whomever it gives comfort.

Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth
You pull on your finger, then another finger, then your cigarette
The wall-to-wall is calling, it lingers, then you forget
Ohh how how how, you're a rock 'n' roll suicide

You're too old to lose it, too young to choose it
And the clocks waits so patiently on your song
You walk past a cafe but you don't eat when you've lived too long
Oh, no, no, no, you're a rock 'n' roll suicide

Chev brakes are snarling as you stumble across the road
But the day breaks instead so you hurry home
Don't let the sun blast your shadow
Don't let the milk float ride your mind
You're so natural - religiously unkind

Oh no love! you're not alone
You're watching yourself but you're too unfair
You got your head all tangled up but if i could only
Make you care
Oh no love! you're not alone

No matter what or who you've been
No matter when or where you've seen
All the knives seem to lacerate your brain
I've had my share, I'll help you with the pain
You're not alone

Just turn on with me and you're not alone
Let's turn on with me and you're not alone (wonderful)
Let's turn on and be not alone (wonderful)
Gimme your hands cause you're wonderful (wonderful)
Gimme your hands cause you're wonderful (wonderful)
Oh gimme your hands

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Quote of the Week

"You can't hold a man down without staying down with him."- Booker T. Washington

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Last Will be First and the First Will be Last

For the last several days, I've seen many experts and authorities contribute their sainted opinion, usually predicated in worst-case scenario and doom-laden fear. Even people I usually agree with have pushed the panic button multiple times. Have no fear, America, we are not returning to some Third Reconstruction, or some Second Jim Crow. What you are hearing is mostly self-interest and the fear of relinquishing power for its own sake, even if stepping away from the arena could do much for progress. Power never belonged to them in the first place. It was given to them, originally, as a gift from God. Though they may retain the memory, they may not retain the mandate of a different age today.

I have long felt that any activist group ought to work first from the premise that they are in business to make themselves obsolete. This is not to say that all the dreaded -isms have been set aside forever. We know that racism still exists, but the past week has brought to mind a particularly cringe-inducing realization. Many who fought on the front lines of variety of causes have become obsessed with preserving memory of the triumphs that put them where they are today.

Little do they know that the American public has a notoriously short term memory, even with incendiary race-tinged court trials. Here's my bet. In two years, we'll be stirred up again, for a short period of time, on something that is both brand new and more of the same. In a well-regarded speech five years ago, President Obama likened this phenomenon himself to a series of shallow distractions substituted for honest dialogue. He posed a hypothetical situation of how the United States was likely to deal with racial controversy.

"If we do [take that course], I can tell you that in the next election, we'll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change."

Five years ago, Reverend Jeremiah Wright's incendiary remarks made in front of his Chicago congregation raised such a fuss that they threatened to derail Barack Obama's first run for the Presidency. Now, in 2013, racial indignation has been raised and dissected in a slightly different venue, but have no fear. It will eventually melt away into the background. Candlelight vigils will subside in a few weeks. The realities call for very difficult work, even as we pause for remembrance.

This work requires the willing to work as a servant, not with the possibility of promotion, exposure, and great heft placed behind words written and spoken aloud. At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 19, Jesus utters one of the most eminently quotable lines of the entire New Testament.

"But many who are the greatest now will be least important then, and those who seem least important now will be the greatest then.'

Those who entirely miss this message do so because of their own pride. "Look at all I've done, God! I risked my life! Why can't people recognize my sacrifice! I put all I had into working for_______and we still haven't fixed the problem!"

Consider the most powerful or well-known people in our world. How many of them got where they are by being mild-mannered, self-effacing, and kind? Not many! Even the minor players with their minor parts fight with themselves over what the world calls greatest and most important.

The self-professed experts and soothsayers may have, metaphorically speaking, been working for years longer in the vineyard, but God's grace extends to all who will follow him. Race doesn't matter. Gender doesn't matter. Socio-economic status doesn't matter. Seniority and historical record mean nothing to him whatsoever. Our earthly values are turned upside in the eyes of the Almighty.
For the Kingdom of Heaven is like the landowner who went out early one morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay the normal daily wage and sent them out to work. "At nine o'clock in the morning he was passing through the marketplace and saw some people standing around doing nothing. So he hired them, telling them he would pay them whatever was right at the end of the day.
 So they went to work in the vineyard. At noon and again at three o'clock he did the same thing. "At five o'clock that afternoon he was in town again and saw some more people standing around. He asked them, 'Why haven't you been working today?' "They replied, 'Because no one hired us.' "The landowner told them, 'Then go out and join the others in my vineyard.'
 And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ When those hired at five o'clock were paid, each received a full day's wage. When those hired first came to get their pay, they assumed they would receive more. But they, too, were paid a day's wage.
 When they received their pay, they protested to the owner, Those people worked only one hour, and yet you've paid them just as much as you paid us who worked all day in the scorching heat.' "He answered one of them, 'Friend, I haven't been unfair! Didn't you agree to work all day for the usual wage? Take your money and go. I wanted to pay this last worker the same as you.
 Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?' "So those who are last now will be first then, and those who are first will be last."

Jesus clarified the membership rules of the Kingdom of Heaven--entrance is by God's grace alone. We cannot work our way into heaven, nor will works alone provide eternal Divine assistance and agreement with our cause of the moment. The world tells us to build a legacy, but God and Jesus disagree strongly with that assessment. The Kingdom of Heaven cares little for your resume and admits entry-level workers all the time. Does it make you defensive when someone half your age is as insightful and intelligent as you are?

In this parable, God is the estate owner and the believers are those who work for him. This parable was for those who felt superior because of heritage or favored position, to those who felt superior because they had spent so much time with Christ, and to new believers as reassurance of God's grace. It's dangerous to say that God favors anyone's side or faction, because there is no way to prove it beyond rationalizations and subjective argument.

Do you resent God's gracious acceptance of the despised, the outcast, and the sinners who have turned to him for forgiveness? Are you ever jealous of what God has given to another person? Instead, focus on God's gracious benefits to you, and be thankful for what you have. Having insight and power comes with great responsibility.

Saturday Video

All men have secrets and here is mine
So let it be known
For we have been through hell and high tide
I can surely rely on you...

And yet you start to recoil
Heavy words are so lightly thrown
But still I'd leap in front of a flying bullet for you

So, what difference does it make?
So, what difference does it make?

It makes none
But now you have gone
And you must be looking very old tonight

The devil will find work for idle hands to do
I stole and I lied, and why?
Because you asked me to!

But now you make me feel so ashamed
Because I've only got two hands
Well, I'm still fond of you, oh-ho-oh

So, what difference does it make?
Oh, what difference does it make?
Oh, it makes none
But now you have gone
And your prejudice won't keep you warm tonight

Oh, the devil will find work for idle hands to do
I stole, and then I lied
Just because you asked me to

But now you know the truth about me
You won't see me anymore
Well, I'm still fond of you, oh-ho-oh

But no more apologies
No more, no more apologies
Oh, I'm too tired
I'm so sick and tired
And I'm feeling very sick and ill today
But I'm still fond of you, oh-ho-oh

Oh, my sacred one...

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Cathy's Clown

G                            D7  G
Don’t want your lo-o-o-o-ove any-more
                               D7         G
Don’t want your ki-i-i-i-isses that’s for sure
           Em              C
I die each time I hear this sound
G                     D7             G
Here he co-o-o-o-omes that’s Cathy’s clown

                 C                          G
I’ve gotta stand tall  you know a man can’t crawl
But when he knows you tell lies

And he hears 'em passing by
     D7           G
He’s not a man at all

                       C                            G
When you see me shed a tear  and you know that it's sincere
Don'tcha think it’s kinda sad
That you’re treating me so bad
   D7             G
Or don’t you even care

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A Letter to My Meeting on Wisdom

Hello Friends,

The last couple of days, I've been decompressing and analyzing as I'm sure many others have been doing themselves. As someone who works with the natural rhythms of the media, the presentation of news most often resembles a drought. However, as has been true in recent days, making sense of the flurry of passionate opinions is not unlike trying to drink from a fire hose. Eventually, everything calms down and the process starts over again. We wonder what will follow next and what will stir the hornet's nest once more. With time, we stop trying to predict, because we know it to be a fool's errand. There is no in between, no medium setting. It is either placid or combustible, and so long as people are involved, I know there never will be anything else.  

I thought I might share a thought or two that has been recently on my mind. In this day and age, honest wisdom appears to be difficult to find. Its ersatz, cheap, counterfeit version is on display everywhere, but sages and philosophers are nowhere to be found. Opinions are not necessarily wise or well-reasoned, even by people with good intentions. Few people actively seek wisdom and even fewer even know where to begin, should they flirt with taking up that mantle. It takes a kind of seasoned insight to see matters clearly and in their proper context. The trouble here is that people routinely overlook or unknowingly ignore the very advice and guidance they need most.
Wisdom comes through a constant process of growth, not unlike the maturation of a human being from birth to adulthood. Wisdom is both a God-given gift and an energetic search. But it is only given to those who earnestly seek it and take it on its own terms, not theirs. The pathway to wisdom is strenuous, but is richly rewarded for those who put themselves up to a challenge. People don't develop all aspects of wisdom at once. Each of us has blind spots, just as we are all created differently. Some people have more insight than discretion, others have more knowledge than common sense. But each facet can be developed and built up with faithful conduct.

Where does our emphasis fall as Friends? I rarely hear anyone invoking the word "wisdom" with any regularity. To some, it is some antiquated notion no longer taken seriously. I wish often that we placed more of an emphasis on wisdom rather than love. Love is what we need, but without insight, it's just a good idea.  Perhaps real wisdom has never been easy to locate, though we seem to know it when we see it. Knowledge alone is not wisdom. Rationalizations are not wisdom. Oft-repeated bumper sticker sloganeering is not wisdom. Trends and fashions are not wisdom. Once discovered, the human-made substitutes I've just mentioned lose their luster, wither away, and give way to truth.

God's blessing and hand in our life is like finding a single rose in a garden full of weeds and thorns. The reward is rich for the willing. Those who clear away distortion and disorder in their own lives will eventually find what they have been seeking most. Sometimes it is that simple. Sometimes is is that subtle.

In the Light,


Exit Music (For a Film)

Wake from your sleep,
the drying of your tears,
Today we escape, we escape.

Pack and get dressed
before your father hears us,
before all hell breaks loose.

Breathe, keep breathing,
don’t lose your nerve.
Breathe, keep breathing,
I can’t do this alone.

Sing us a song,
a song to keep us warm,
there’s such a chill, such a chill.

And you can laugh a spineless laugh,
we hope your rules and wisdom choke you.

And now we are one
in everlasting peace,

we hope that you choke, that you choke,
we hope that you choke, that you choke,
we hope that you choke, that you choke.

Monday, July 15, 2013

History or Fellowship?

Since I've been living up on the East Coast, I've noticed a decided difference in the way Quakers prioritize their focus and time. Within Monthly Meetings of a certain region, Quaker history is often deified. This is true in Philadelphia and also in other locations where Friends have long been present. But this isn't the case everywhere. The Deep South Meeting in which I became Convinced was more interested in the present tense than the past. They did an excellent job of building community and tending to regular attenders.

Quaker history, however, was largely consigned to the familiar picture of Hicks' Peaceable Kingdom. Here and there, on occasion, group discussion touched briefly upon the major figures in the Religious Society of Friends, but more as a point of reference. We were too busy considering other weighty topics to stop there for long. We spent, I recall, a full three months discussing the history of nonviolence, but with little mention of George Fox, William Penn, James Nayler, or any other famous Friend that might come to mind.

Earlier in my life, I attended Methodist service. The Methodists spoke a little about their own founders, John and Charles Wesley, and their tireless evangelizing. In Sunday school, we learned the basics, as we largely glanced past most of the rest. One had to sign up for classes to learn more about the history of the faith, and none of these sessions were offered with much in the way of enthusiasm. Participation was never especially active and was probably limited to the same few retired couples who came to almost everything, and the long-standing members who felt guilty for not taking part.

The church I attended did not place much of a priority upon what we would call adult religious education. Any discussion group or class proposed seemed to have a thin layer of dust covering it. Because no one stressed the importance of Methodist history, I remained almost entirely ignorant of it. The adults around me never talked about it in much detail. Even as a child, I remember wondering if they knew any more than I did.

I was, instead, schooled to live for another Sunday morning. Taking my familiar place on the pew, I sang the Doxology at the same part of the service as I did every week. No one ever explained why and I never saw any need to question. As a young child, I was periodically fitted with a black robe and solemnly lit the candles on the altar. At the appropriate time during the service, I dispensed shiny brass collection plates to the congregation, so that they might contribute their financial gifts to the church.

Slightly outside the sanctuary were baskets filled with a daily devotional guide entitled The Upper Room. These were largely ignored by almost everyone, but out of guilt, people did occasionally buy a copy or two. They were tributes to good intentions, but I found them exceptionally boring to plow through from front to back. I could not apply the information these pamphlets contained to my own life. Eventually, my reaction to this religious literature characterized my entire feelings about Methodism, and I left.

When I became a Friend, I felt a little as if I'd landed in the middle of a historian's conference. Learning the faces and major events of Quakerism was not difficult for me. I'd been trained to one day eventually teach history to legions of largely disinterested college freshman. Anything I've found interesting or any group to which I have formed a strong allegiance ensures that I will soak in pertinent details with great relish. That has long been a personal strength.

There must have been some reason for this strong emphasis upon our roots. Were we afraid that our past efforts might be whitewashed away by hostile religious groups? After all, we do sign our names at the conclusion of a Friends wedding, certifying by our presence that a joyful event has taken place and cannot be denied. Were we fearful that ritual in any form might eviscerate the importance of our Elders?

From my own experiences, it seems that churches and houses of worship fall too heavily upon either one area or the other. They over-stress their history, or come down too heavily on worship and community. Integrating these three is the sign of a healthy gathering, one that is fully attuned with the Light. It displays a reverence for what came before and an understanding that tending one's flock of is of similar importance. In liberal unprogrammed Quakerism, a discomfort with Scripture leads some to use Quaker history as a substitute authority. While I understand the desire, this practice borders dangerously upon Idolatry.

But again, I question. Why the focus upon history? I've encountered my fair share of card-carrying Quakers who have a savant's understanding of terminology and an encyclopedic knowledge of the publication history of an otherwise obscure Friend. In no other religious group have I found this attitude and while I am never opposed to a healthy understanding of the past, I do question the motives behind it.

If we do wish to keep in touch with what came before, we don't need to resort to half-measures. My Meeting almost expects that Friends will learn pertinent information without prompting. Some of us are that highly motivated, but many of us need a guide to focus our attention. Recommending a pertinent book to read or text to use as ballast is a good start, but if we imply that Friends ought to become an authority on all Friendly subjects, we'll need to blow away the cobwebs and start teaching.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Quote of the Week

"You have to look beyond race because as a human being you have to experience the person from the inside first."- Henrik Larsson

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Saturday Video

The original is a poem by Jacques Prévert the group set to music.

He put sugar in his coffee
He stirred coffee with a teaspoon
He poured milk into sweetened coffee
He lifted the cup up to his lips
He drank coffee 'til was empty
He put cup back onto saucer
Without looking at me
He took cigarette from his packet
He lit cigarette with his matches
He blew smoke rings with the smoke
Without looking at me
Without talking to me
He put his hat onto his head
He put raincoat 'cos it was raining
Oh he did have no umbrella
And he left in the rain
Without looking at me
Without talking to me
Silently no looking at
Speaking leaving me
Without looking
Talking silently
No looking
Leaving without going
No looking at me no looking at me...

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Saviour Machine

President Joe once had a dream
The world held his hand, gave their pledge
So he told them his scheme for a Saviour Machine

They called it the Prayer, its answer was law
Its logic stopped war, gave them food
How they adored till it cried in its boredom

'Please don't believe in me, please disagree with me
Life is too easy, a plague seems quite feasible now
Or maybe a war, or I may kill you all

Don't let me stay, don't let me stay
My logic says burn so send me away
Your minds are too green, I despise all I've seen
You can't stake your lives on a Saviour Machine

I need you flying, and I'll show that dying
Is living beyond reason, sacred dimension of time
I perceive every sign, I can steal every mind

Don't let me stay, don't let me stay
My logic says burn so send me away
Your minds are too green, I despise all I've seen
You can't stake your lives on a Saviour Machine

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Health Care Reform Doesn't End with Insurance Companies

In March, I had bladder surgery. The process took two steps, each a week apart from the other. In the second part, a small rectangle of metal was implanted into my lower back, against the bladder. It was intended to correct a nagging issue that had been problematic for years. Keeping details to a minimum, I found myself having to urinate more and more frequently. After a time the frequency could be as much as twenty to twenty-five times a day. My lifestyle suffered, as did my social life, so finally I sought help..

I tried minimally invasive procedures first, but they were largely ineffective. I'd had six months to contemplate surgery, and eventually recognized that surgery was probably the only real option I had left. The procedure was scheduled, I met with the surgeon, and two weeks later I arrived at the hospital. Medical procedures no longer intimidate me or make me feel nervous. Instead, I feel impatient, eager to have everything complete and out of the way.  

Because I have Medicare, I routinely receive an itemized statement in the mail. It thoughtfully provides the precise cost and a basic explanation of each charge. This is a welcome change, one that has been equal parts enlightening and frustrating. Now that I know a little, I recognize how much I do not understand about the full process. 

Before I became disabled, I had private insurance through my employer. My insurer never provided such information, leaving me mostly ignorant about billing and precisely how much money had exchanged hands. What little information I had at my disposal was often minimal and sketchy, more about the bottom of the bottom line. I'd be sure to know about precise figures if I ever exceeded coverage ranges, but those were about the only instances where I dealt with health insurance jargon and real numbers.

What has complicated the health care discussion is the complexity of the system, which is maddeningly imprecise. Not all charges are the same. Only an accountant might know for sure to explain who is charged what, but what I've seen reminds me more of a stock market than an industry. A dollar is not always a dollar. 

It seems that medical treatment, like a share of stock or the exchange rate of currency, might forever be subject to the hand of the market. We may well have a market system in place already, one not entirely dissimilar to that which will go into effect on January 1, 2014.

In the meantime, consumers are often not informed of what they owe, line by line, until services have been rendered. The price of every component of surgery, for example, depends completely upon each patient's insurance carrier or method of payment. Hospital systems, where most Americans go to have surgical procedures, each have learned to extract as much money as is possible. Under the previous system, surgeons profited handsomely from Medicare, but now I believe that every doctor's profit will be more reasonable. Some have objected to the pay cut, but we have too many specialists who have learned they can make twice as much for the same amount of work.  

Three years ago, we clamored for transparency within health insurance companies. The resulting legislation passed and signed into law sought to take those demands seriously. What we may have failed to recognize then could spell significant problems sooner rather than later. The practice of medicine and the system built around it has become very profitable over the years, and no one wants to give it up. Doctors don't want their salaries to go down for the sake of anyone's parity. Hospital systems want to keep building gleaming new wards and buildings. 

Here is one example. Yesterday, in the mail, I finally received the total cost of surgery, as charged to insurance. Some charges were matter-of-fact, but a few seemed excessive. At the conclusion of my first procedure, a nurse sat with me as I came to from the anesthesia. Mostly awake, I chatted with the surgeon as she made her rounds. My vital signs were monitored. When I was comfortable enough to leave, I stood up slowly and headed home.

I appreciate the dignity of care I was provided. I know each of these elements are important, but I'm not sure how a hour's work for, at most, three people collectively merits a $6,000 bill. That day alone, Medicare was charged slightly under $53,000. The surgery was not especially invasive. It required a few small incisions to implant the device. These charges are excessive and indicative of the numerous flaws sought to be corrected.

The second procedure was even more expensive. This time, Medicare was charged slightly more than $74,000. It proceeded much as the previous surgery had taken place a week before. If care alone was the problem, I would have little that merits complaining. Even with the benefit of observing each charge for myself, I have to guess as to its meaning. Someone within the system knows what it means, while the rest of us are left in the dark.

Explaining to a confused nation of the changes yet to come would be difficult, but it is necessary. What has always disappointed me about the American health care system is its over-reliance upon rules and procedure. The health care reform law has heaped more rules upon rules, but I concede there may have been no other way. 

Our President once was unafraid to take a chance and speak to Americans like adults. It befuddles me that he remains stock still, impassive, and wholly not involved in the great roll out, which should be a triumphant moment. Instead, he has kept silent, while what may well be his signature success is lampooned by a chorus of skeptics. 

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Big Empty

I changed my mind about what video to post. Truthfully, I've never been sure what this song really means.


Driving faster in my car
Falling farther from just what we are
Smoke a cigarette and lie some more
These conversations kill.
Falling faster in my car.

Time to take her home,
her dizzy head is conscious laden.
Time to take a ride it leaves today
no conversation

Time to take her home her dizzy head is
conscious laden
time to wait too long,
to wait too long.

Too much walking shoes worn thin
too much trippin' and my soul's worn thin
Time to catch her ride it leaves today,
her name is what it means
Too much walking shoes worn thin

Time to take her home,
her dizzy head is conscious laden.
Time to take a ride it leaves today
no conversation

Time to take her home her dizzy head is
conscious laden
time to wait too long, to wait too long,
to wait too long.

Conversations kill

Time to take her home,
her dizzy head is conscious laden.
Time to take a ride it leaves today
no conversation

Time to take her home her dizzy head is
conscious laden
time to wait too long, to wait too long,
to wait too long.

Conversations kill

Monday, July 08, 2013

Why Scientists Don't Understand Anything about Sexual Orientation

Every so often, a study comes along that intends to further our understanding about sexual orientation. A recent column, entitled "Why Women Are More Likely to Be Bisexual" gets right down to it. While this study has its detractors, its hypothesis is at least compelling, and does not (for the most part) peddle over-the-top pseudo-science. Naturally, none of its findings can be conclusively proven, but the study does make for interesting speculation.

Bisexuality cannot be explained easily by science or humanity. Nor, in all fairness, can it often be defined without difficulty by those who identify as such. Studies like these have tragic flaws. For one, it's impossible to separate scientific theory from cultural attitudes, looking at both of these in strict isolation. The conclusion is automatically suspect. When conventional masculinity is no longer threatened by homosexual conduct and behavior, a truly objective survey might be possible someday. I once never believed the day would come, but it may well yet.

Understanding my own sexual orientation has been one of the most difficult endeavors of my life. Along the way, I've had the great fortune to have considerate, helpful LGBT friends inform me that they accept me as I am. A few of them may express some consternation that, in spite of their open-mindedness, they still can't guide me towards full self-acceptance. I have come a great distance but know that this journey towards inward exploration is ongoing. Perhaps it's more realistic to expect that I'll always be learning about myself, but without as much insecurity or doubt.

Auspiciously, the article begins like this.
Women may be more "hetero-flexible," or be primarily attracted to men with some same sex attraction, because same-sex behavior allowed women to raise their children with other women, a new study has proposed.

The hypothesis, published this April in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, suggests that more fluid female sexuality may have evolved because it benefited women's offspring. Some women who were raped or fathered children with absentee or deceased dads formed sexual relationships with other women, which may have made it easier to raise children together, according to the theory.

"Being born with the ability to [be attracted to men and women] may have been beneficial to ancestral women," said study co-author Barry X. Kuhle, a psychologist at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.
When I was in my early twenties, a bisexual girlfriend who was considerably older than me was fond of saying that all women were bisexual. Though her assertion is unlikely, it is possible that there was some glimmer of truth in the statement. Once again, none of this can be conclusively proven, but it does make for interesting speculation. Should I classify her as hetero-flexible, or say the same of any of the other bisexual women I have called friends?

Now that the stigma against men who have sex with men grows less damning by the day, one wonders if new research will entirely disprove the conclusion of this study. I recognize that this may be easy for me to say. I have the great fortune of living in a liberal bubble. In this blue city, it is possible for lots of gender-bending and stereotype-challenging to take place. Women who dress up and wear pantyhose for work conceal proudly unshaven legs displayed, of course, while not at the office. Men who seek other men signify their preferences by a particularly understood style of dress and haircut.

I was socialized a man. My vision will always reflect the view from the dominance of one particular lens. I find myself utterly unqualified to speculate about the particulars of female sexuality and I will not try. My role here is that of an informed observer. This study reports upon variables that are too subjective to be taken seriously and I look forward to whomever wishes to expend the energy to pick these conclusions apart.

The article continues.
But exactly why has been a puzzle. Researchers have proposed that women's sexual fluidity enabled women to bond with sister wives in polygamous marriages. Still others have argued that it's a byproduct of the fact that women have weaker sex drives that are therefore easier to channel to different objects of attraction, Kuhle wrote in the paper.

At what point does biology and societal conditioning meet? Was polygamy a product of a Patriarchal culture or honest human behavior? Polyamorous couples would likely opt for the second option, even though strict secrecy continues to be necessary to protect them against disapproving attitudes. Is it possible to divorce the two from each other and, in so doing, form a new identity? We may instead find different combinations, not the death of one and survival of another.

Personally, I'd like to know how it was determined scientifically that women have weaker sex drives. That would be my first question to whomever who worked upon this study. As I have grown more liberated myself, I've come to understand that much of my understanding about women was wrong at worst, distorted at best. Nevertheless, studies like these surface and are published, and the discussion begins anew. What can be set aside as inaccurate, and what can be preserved for posterity as truth?

We are drifting towards some greater destination, though I would be willing to wager that none of us know where that might be. The sterility of scientific certitude would remove doubts and disagreement once and for all, except that we live together. We are forever interacting, creating a blending of cultural mores and biological truisms. Educated guesses that discourage sloppy logic and sloppier science might be our best defense.  

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Quote of the Week

"The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them: that's the essence of inhumanity."- George Bernard Shaw

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Saturday Video

And it's true we named our children
After towns that we've never been to.
And it's true that the clouds just hung around
Like black Cadillacs outside a funeral.

And we were done, done, done
With all the fuck, fuck, fuckin' around.
You were so true to yourself.
You were true to no one else.
Well I should put you in the ground.

I've got the time, I got the hours,
I got the days, I got the weeks.
I could say to myself
I've got the words but I can't speak.

Well I was done, done, done
With all the circ, circ, circlin' round.

I didn't die and I ain't complainin'.
I ain't blamin' you.
I didn't know that the words you said to me
Meant more to me than they ever could you?

I didn't lie and I ain't sayin'
I told the whole truth.
I didn't know that this game we were playin'
Even had a set of rules.

We named our children after towns
That we've never been to.
And it's true that the clouds just hung around
Like black Cadillacs outside a funeral.

And we were laughing at the stars
While our feet clung tight to the ground.
So pleased with ourselves
For using so many verbs and nouns.

But we were all still just dumb, dumb, dumber
Than the dirt, dirt, dirt on the ground.
Well wings on flames, kings with no names,
Well this place just ain't got right air right now.
You were so all over town but still so Crayola brown.

Well you should run 'round yourself right now.
And we were done, done, done
With all the fuck, fuck, fuckin' around.
Circlin' round.

Friday, July 05, 2013

Golden Slumbers

Once there was a way,
To get back homeward.

Once there was a way
To get back home.

Sleep, pretty darling,
Do not cry
And I will sing a lullaby.

Golden slumbers,
Fill your eyes
Smiles await you when you rise

Sleep pretty darling
Do not cry
And I will sing a lullaby.

Once there was a way
To get back homeward

Once there was a way
To get back home

Sleep, pretty darling
Do not cry
And I will sing a lullaby.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

A Rejected Independence Day

A long told story addresses the river town of Vicksburg, Mississippi. A Confederate stronghold, Vicksburg surrendered to Union general Ulysses S. Grant's interminable siege on July 4, 1863. Independence Day would not be celebrated there for the next 81 years. Even then, the holiday would be downplayed, if not ignored completely, displaced in favor of other holidays like Memorial Day.

Many who fought for the South believed they were fighting the second American Revolution. The result was far bloodier than the first conflict, the one we celebrate today, which had begun four score and seven years before. North and South had, only the day before, settled the war's turning point in rolling Pennsylvania farmland. The simultaneous losses of Gettysburg and Vicksburg left behind resounding bitterness and resentment.

A 1997 article reposted in the Baltimore Sun, speaks to the feelings that remain, years afterwards.
"There was nothing for us to celebrate for a long, long time," says Gordon Cotton, local historian and director of the Old Courthouse Museum, where the community's relics are on display. "Even the post office stayed open for a number of years on the Fourth of July." By the time the wound had scabbed over, Vicksburg was used to not observing the Fourth. Even today it seems unable to get the hang of it.
History may be written by the victors, but it is never forgotten by the vanquished. Even though I recognize the evils of slavery and the foolishness of the rebel cause, I still retain a strong sympathy in spite of myself. Stripped of the terrible context, in a gauzy, romanticized way I climb aboard the bandwagon. My emotions have temporarily taken the place of my intellect. I do so in the same way as I would with a Cinderella sports team. Nothing stirs our hearts more than an undersized unit fighting to survive against all odds.

We may place our emphasis upon the initial volleys of gunfire and the birth-pains of freedom. I often choose to celebrate Independence Day for all the times our nation nearly came unglued, but somehow survived. We are a marvelously resilient nation despite ourselves. We could have split apart a thousand times before, but yet we continue. One of war's great ironies is that it seeks to neatly tie up loose ends, but its wounds continue well beyond the signing of treaties and the battlefield. The conquered may acquiesce to force, but they retain the memory and the humiliation for eternity.
In 1945, when the Allies had conquered Nazi Germany and were about to defeat Japan, Vicksburg, like the rest of the country, had an attack of patriotic fever. "They started celebrating again," Cotton says. "But they didn't call it the Fourth of July or Independence Day. They called it the Carnival of the Confederacy. They had parades and floats and all that, and they had a pretty girl to represent each Southern state."
Two hundred and thirty seven years later, what does Independence Day mean to us? Our freedom was obtained, as we know, with cannon-fire and musket shot. In every military venture we launch, we create lasting impressions on our enemies. Often the bitterest of wounds are those inflicted upon civilians. The soldier may have prepared himself or herself for the horror of conflict, but those who stay behind have not. They are the walking wounded, haunted storytellers for the rest of their lives.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

From the Vaults

I told you about strawberry fields
You know the place where nothing is real
Well here's another place you can go
Where everything flows.

Looking through the bent-backed tulips
To see how the other half live
Looking through a glass onion.

I told you about the walrus and me, man
You know we're as close as can be, man
Well here's another clue for you all
The walrus was Paul.

Standing on the cast iron shore, yeah
Lady Madonna trying to make ends meet, yeah
Looking through a glass onion

Oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah
Looking through a glass onion.

I told you about the fool on the hill
I tell you man he's living there still
Well here's another place you can be\
Listen to me.

Fixing a hole in the ocean
Trying to make a dove-tail joint, yeah
Looking through a glass onion.

Monday, July 01, 2013

The Miracles of Modern Dentistry

I meant to write something today, but had an unexpected emergency dentist appointment this morning. Around 9 am, on my way to the coffee pot, I sneezed ferociously. A porcelain, almost metallic thud rang out as most of one tooth clanged against the wooden floorboards at my feet. I knew then that my morning work was going to be pushed off to the afternoon at least. Time to collect the remains of the tooth, place it in a plastic baggie, and make a phone call.

All of this followed a marathon two-hour visit to the dentist's chair on Saturday. One of my teeth had abscessed and six cavities needed to be filled. The most painful part was the protracted process of draining a large infection, a complicated procedure that continued for over an hour. I have never been so glad to leave the dentist in my entire life, and this is really saying something.

My upper lip on the left side is swollen enough that it simulates a Novocaine injection. I live off of ibuprofen. My tongue rubs abrasively against the new fillings, which will wear down with time. If I can get the swelling to go down, I'll be satisfied. In the meantime, I intend to keep writing.

It appears that modern dentistry lied to me. I was told that if I brushed my teeth twice a day, flossed, used a waterpik, and went to the dentist regularly, I had nothing to worry about. 12 cavities, one root canal, and an abscessed tooth later, I find that there's nothing I can do to prevent problems with my teeth. Maybe I can keep them from getting worse. Thank God for dental insurance.