Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A New Year's Memory

Everyone else was out at clubs or glued to the television elsewhere, eagerly awaiting the ball to drop in Times Square. I was alone in an empty apartment. Back then, I was yet another struggling musician, staying home by choice with an expensive bottle of champagne chilling in the refrigerator. The occasion for my private celebration was, I hoped, the first in a series of small successes. I’d recently performed two songs live at a popular local club. Both of them had been recorded. The college radio station in town had agreed to play at least one of them during its regular programming.

The primary songwriter for The Kinks, Ray Davies, tells a similar story. The group happened to be touring in a foreign country when momentous news arrived. Their latest single “Tired of Waiting for You” had hit number one in the UK. For the first time ever, the group had a number one hit. Achieving the top slot in the hit parade had been frustratingly elusive prior to that moment. Davies happened to be eating at a restaurant in another country when he received the good news.

Though his waiter didn’t speak a word of English, Davies had a celebratory drink with him anyway. Some musicians I encountered thought they’d soon cast aside their day jobs for a string of semi-lucrative paid late night gigs among the perpetually adolescent and regularly intoxicated. I had no such pretenses. The challenge in front of me was substantial, the deck stacked against me from the outset. Massive fame and fortune never once crossed my mind.

What I hoped for was a cult audience of a few passionate fans. Everyone agreed that I had talent and a strong singing voice, but talent alone is no indicator of success. Had I truckled for pennies and promoted myself like the latest breakfast cereal, I might have been a bit more successful, but I found the practice demeaning. Some of my musical peers sold themselves as voraciously as insurances salesmen peddle their wares at a house party. I always felt I had more dignity that that, or maybe far less energy and enthusiasm.

The show began at 9 that evening, but I tuned in a half-hour earlier. For several minutes, I nervously paced the floor of the living room, waiting. I rarely liked the way I sounded on recordings, nor how I looked in pictures. It was a personal insecurity and on at least one level I knew it was not rooted in reality. Others had assured me, multiple times, that I had nothing about which to worry. This was not my big break, but it was a break of a sort. Assuming the listening public liked it, I might well be placed on regular rotation.

I’d been saving up money to record a full-length album in a studio. Studio time is not cheap. The clock begins to tick the moment you strap on a guitar. A year before I’d blown through $500 in three hours. During that rushed Saturday morning session, I only had time for the bare necessities. What was produced sounded more like demos than the finished product. It was rush, rush, rush from start to finish. I would have loved to be able to take my time and embellish a song, layer by layer.

In the meantime, the radio show began with great gusto. I had no idea whatsoever about how many songs would be featured prior to my own, or when my song would be played. To calm my nerves, I thought about uncorking the champagne immediately, but decided it was more opportune to wait, as I had originally intended. This was very difficult but I managed it anyway.

Around an hour into the broadcast, my song was played. It lasted two and a half minutes, and then transitioned instantly into another song. In many regards, that experience was one of the longest two and a half minutes of my entire life. My name and the song title were not mentioned immediately afterward. My identity was not revealed until four other songs followed in rapid succession. Fortunately, I have a difficult name to mispronounce. I hoped listeners took note of who I was and what I sang, but knew that the matter was entirely out of my hands.

Overjoyed, I poured myself the first glass of champagne. A couple hours remained before the New Year was ushered in, before I heard celebratory fireworks from every direction outside. If only I had my own waiter at hand to commemorate the occasion. My roommate was elsewhere, as were my other friends. I’d sacrificed company on New Year’s Eve because I would have missed hearing myself over the airwaves. Even so, I did not really regret my choice.

You probably know how the story ends. With time, I set aside my dreams of making it. For most performers, except for the lucky and the fortunate, a much less glamorous reality follows. One has only to look forward to modest pay, long hours, and late nights. Beggars can’t be choosers, and the audience that lay before me was not the one I wanted.

But I could not be picky. I realized then that this life could have lasted years, with no increase in success. The thought of being an opening act at a small restaurant for ten years was not a pleasant one. I walked away of my own volition, but I’ll never forget my first taste of success, back before I toiled in obscurity for slave wages.

Communication Breakdown

My internet connection has been down here at the house for the past two days. A repair person is on the way, but in the meantime, I may not be able to post. It's frustrating, but I can't do much about it.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Say Yes

I'm in love with the world
through the eyes of a girl
Who's still around the morning after

We broke up a month ago
and I grew up I didn't know
I'd be around the morning after

It's always been wait and see
A happy day and then you pay
And feel like shit the morning after

But now I feel changed around
and instead falling down
I'm standing up the morning after

Situations get fucked up
and turned around sooner or later
And I could be another fool
or an exception to the rule
You tell me the morning after

Crooked spin can't come to rest
I'm damaged bad at best
She'll decide what she wants
I'll probably be the last to know

No one says until it shows
and you see how it is
They want you or they don't
Say yes

I'm in love with the world
through the eyes of a girl
Who's still around the morning after

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Quote of the Week

DENNIS: Anarcho-syndicalism is a way of preserving freedom.

WOMAN: Oh, Dennis, forget about freedom. We haven't got enough mud.

from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Different Cultural Levels Eat Here

The title of this post is pulled from Peter DeVries' classic short story.

Christmas dinner for me this year was much different from the usual. Most often, I’ve spent it in the company of my nuclear family, the epitome of white, middle class suburban domiciliary. My family is reasonably tolerant of those not like themselves, but this set of shared values often exists in the abstract, rather than in reality. When it comes to something as intimate as dinner served with the good china and the antique pewter cutlery, we’ve rarely entertained guests who don’t look, speak, and act like us.

This time around was a complete shock to the system. I was not expecting to find diversity in multiple forms chatting peacefully in a crowded residence. Sitting around the table were black and white, young and old, straight and gay. The guests included an interracial couple and two gay men, both of whom were long ago married in all but name. In my personal convictions, I support same-sex marriage and hardly bat an eyelid at a mixed race couple. But as I noted before, I should be quick to add that my beliefs in favor of tolerance often only exist in the abstract. My first impressions were initially very different from my idealized notions of what was to come, growing especially evident as I shared the same room with everyone who was present.

Martin Luther King, Jr. noted presciently that the most segregated hour in America is 11:00 am on Sunday morning. This is when both whites and blacks worship separately, in different buildings and different parts of town. This quote has been overused enough that it borders on cliche, but the truth behind it is very much still valid. We may work together and occasionally cross paths in relative harmony but it’s still more comfortable if we consign friends and family to those we deem most like us. The most segregated hour in America doesn’t stop with church. Rather, it occurs with great regularity during Thanksgiving, Christmas dinner, and the holiday season.

Those who wish to dissect the reasons why are welcome to do so. I'm not enough of an authority on the matter. I wouldn’t say that my reluctance or my family's reluctance to expand our social circle is racist or intolerant in nature. Instead, I’d say that, for me, I find myself quickly out of my comfort zone and worry that I’ll say the wrong thing at the wrong time. I experience a kind of low-level paranoia that ratchets up my stress level and makes me a thousand times more cautious about what I add to the conversation.

An album released a few years ago by the alternative group Modest Mouse cleverly summarizes my usual worldview, and perhaps yours as well. It is entitled “Good News for People Who Like Bad News.” At times, I have fallen in love with criticizing everything, finding significant flaws around every corner. I wonder whether effective reform is really possible, but I will concede that haven't put it to a direct test, either.

There are no shortages of problems to call attention to, often those with no clear resolution in sight. One might find this pastime defeating and demoralizing. Yet, paradoxically, I almost crave a steady diet of bad news, even if it does nothing beyond raising my blood pressure. At sizable contrast, here before me on Christmas Day was a direct opportunity to see if 21st Century America really has made itself over for the better.

I feared some off-handed remark grinding the proceedings to an awkward screeching halt, but was glad that this did not come to pass. If Americans approach their own metaphorical Christmas table the same way, I believe now that it can share a meal and delight in the unique qualities and perspective of all who are present. This kind of optimism is often out of character for me, and those who know me well can attest to it.

While we achieved nothing particularly earth-shattering in three hours of sometimes fascinating, sometimes ribald storytelling, I am again reminded that the healthiest, most respectful gatherings are often found in small groups which provide the opportunity for intimate settings. There, it is possible to truly know and understand everyone who participates, putting a face with a voice, placing a flesh-and-blood person with his or her own opinions.

The exceedingly large Quaker Meeting I now attend often appears stiff, formal, and cavernous, compared to the small, family-oriented Meeting in my hometown. I have seen organized religion work well, much as I have recently observed the simple comfort of food and fellowship. This is why I still believe. I have seen success in front of me, and now I wish to replicate it in other places.

If what the futurists and predictors say is true, it won’t be many more years before the dynamics, racial and otherwise, of this country are much more evenly distributed. We will be asked to come together for the benefit of every citizen, not just a fortunate few, and I pray that we will take that opportunity as a way to form successful, not dysfunctional community. The societal problems of a new and different time will require an increased spirit of cooperation between each of us. We will need to sit at new tables, and not just once or twice a year.

If we view each other with respect and with a willingness to learn, the transition will be much easier. Should we dig in our heels and retreat back to familiar spaces, the progression will be very difficult. It’s not pie-in-the-sky, not some fanciful wish to say that we have more in common than we may believe we do. Let’s make things easier for everyone and begin our work nurtured in this spirit.

Saturday Video

It's not my way to love you
just when no one's looking
It's not my way to take your hand
if I'm not sure

It's not my way to let you see
What's going on inside of me
When it's a love you won't be needing,
you're not free

Please stop pulling at my sleeve
if you're just playing
If you won't take the things
you make me want to give

I never cared too much for games
And this one's driving me insane
You're not half as free to wander as you claim

But I'm easy, yeah, I'm easy
Give the word, I'll play your game
As though that's how it ought to be
Because I'm easy

Don't lead me on if there's nowhere
for you to take me
If loving you would have
to be a sometime thing

I can't put bars on my insides
My love is something I can't hide
It still hurts when I recall the times I tried

But I'm easy, yeah, I'm easy
Take my hand and pull me down
I won't put up any fight
Because I'm easy

Don't do me favors,
let me watch you from the distance
'Cause when you're near,
I find it hard to keep my head
And when your eyes throw light at mine

It's enough to change my mind
Make me leave my cautious words
and ways behind

That's why I'm easy, yeah I'm easy
Say you want me, I'll come running
Without taking time to think

Because I'm easy, yeah, I'm easy
Take my hand and pull me down
I won't put up any fight
Because I'm easy, yeah, I'm easy
Give the word, I'll play your game

As though that's how it ought to be
Because I'm easy

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Quote of the Week

"There's nothing sadder in this world than to awake Christmas morning and not be a child."- Erma Bombeck

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Saturday Video

"Linus and Lucy," Vince Guaraldi Trio

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Dance, Dance, Dance

Never thought love
had a rainbow on it
Used to think a cloud
was a nightmare

That was up until
I first met you
Now I go around
hoping you care.

Dance, dance,
feel it all around you
Dance, dance, dance,

Never thought love
had a rainbow on it

See the girl dance
See the girl dance.

Mississippi mud
never touched her fingers
California sand
lies in her hand

Love her more than life
as the daylight lingers
Early in the morning
I'll be her man.

Dance, dance,
feel it all around you
Dance, dance, dance,
Mississippi mud
never touched her fingers

See the girl dance
See the girl dance.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Winding Down for Christmas

I leave Sunday for Christmas with family. Much as was the case with Thanksgiving, I'm not going to post much for a week or so. I need a break. This month has been stressful, making it difficult to get into the Christmas spirit. It gets more and more difficult with every passing year. I think if I had children of my own, I might be able to live vicariously through them and delight in how much they enjoyed the holiday season.

In other news, I'm revamping a memoir to submit to a contest. While my initial submission was rejected, I was encouraged by an editor to resubmit and try my luck again. The prize money is substantial. $2,000 will be given to the winner.

Over time, I've learned that writing contests depend entirely upon the individual discretion, likes, and dislikes of the judges. There are few absolute rules of thumb. Anticipating what the judges will like is next to impossible to know beforehand. In this particular contest, three separate readers will make their recommendations. Determining the winning entry will proceed from there.

I tend to write succinctly, using as many words as necessary but as few as needed. This not only confirms to a desired Quaker standard of economy, but my general outlook on life. Though I've dabbled with a variety of forms, including book and movie reviews, I mostly write short essays and op/eds these days. My posts rarely extend beyond 800 to 900 words. Succinctness is only one reason I have chosen this approach. Everyone's attention these days is divided and most people don't have the time to read a lengthy piece, regardless of how artful or insightful it may be in construction.

The memoir, however, runs to six full pages. I wonder if it needs to be longer, but I feel like I've said what needs to be said. Though I wrote many twenty page papers in college, those were academic writings, full of footnotes and citations. I wasn't necessarily aiming for beauty, more to make my arguments. The books, journal articles, and periodicals I referenced backed up my analysis and added page after page to the finished product. I'm glad those days are over.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all of you. I hope you return to families who get along with each other and show each other selfless love and warm company. For those of you who find the holidays a trying time, may you find a way in your own life to build your own Christmas joy. I hope you surround yourself with friends and family capable of being civil to each other.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013


Last night I had too much to drink
Sitting in a club with so many fools
Playing to rules
Trying to impress but feeling rather empty

I had another drink
Drink, a, drink, a, drink, a, drink

What a way to spend that evening
They all turn up with their friends
Playing the game

But in the scene I should have been
Far away

Away, away, away, away, away

Getting up, I feel as if I'm remembering this scene before
I open the door to an empty room
Then I forget

The telephone rings and someone speaks
She would very much like to go out to a show
So what can I do, I can't think what to say
She sees through anyway

Away, away, away, away, away

Out of the front door I go
Traffic's moving rather slow
Arriving late, there she waits
Looking very angry, as cross as she can be

Be, a, be, a, be, a, be, a, be

Getting up, I feel as if I'm remembering this scene before
I open the door to an empty room
Then I forget

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Continued Lasting Power of Privilege

I pause briefly to reflect upon a transformative event in my life. Ten years ago, I attended an Anti-Oppression/Anti-Racism workshop. Going in to the event, I felt that I was relatively informed about the particulars, but believed that it was good to be reminded of them every now and again. It wasn't long after I took my seat that I quickly realized I had much to learn.

The concept of privilege was a new concept to me, one that resonated strongly, even if I wasn't sure who might understand and help me process my mixed feelings. I knew how to manage overt racism, sexism, or homophobia, but now I was left feeling unsure what questions to ask and how best to articulate my thoughts.

Because it cannot be reduced to an easy binary of good versus evil, privilege is rarely discussed beyond educated, motivated activists and thinkers. The undeniably clear instances of racism and oppression are glaring and offensive. Everyone sees these for what they are. These are the ones who make the news, narrated by reporters with a somber tone in their voice, lifted up as a sad example of how a problem has not yet been fixed.

The more subtle forms are often not given a public airing. I've sometimes questioned whether the mainstream media chooses deliberately to not cover issues like these because it fears its audience wouldn't understand. I wonder if it somehow benefits them to stir the pot rather than reach consensus and real understanding. Controversy is good for business, but it can be extremely counter-productive if it is reduced to spectacle alone.

During a workshop lecture in that same conference, it was noted that white men usually speak first in public forums. A woman seated next to me made the connection instantly, stunned by the plain truth of the statement. I could see the lightbulb go off in her head, the message received. Some feminists call this a click moment, the instant a profundity is received and understood.

White men do benefit from cultural expectations that insist they be forceful, opinionated, and taken seriously. Women, by contrast, are frequently told the opposite. They shouldn't be too confrontational or opinionated. They ought to hold their tongue and be congenial. Those who do not only leave themselves open for criticism.

My last post began auspiciously enough.

Among women, I am told that a peculiar kind of competition exists. It is a contest to see who can be the nicest and the most pleasant. Men would laugh at the very premise, but women are often socialized to be people pleasers, never to step on anyone’s toes or to hurt feelings. Good girls are rewarded, while women who do not march to the prevailing standard are criticized stringently. Though men can and do seek to enforce gender norms, women often police their own more energetically and thoroughly.

I received some strong, but mostly fair criticism from a reader regarding this section, a man who felt I wasn't being honest in my argument. To him, this section was sexist. He felt that the stereotypes which stigmatize men as intimidating, aggressive, and violent are not indicative of every man. He has a point, but the truth is complicated and not nearly that easy to reconcile.

Arguing that not every man responds with brute force does not negate the fact that cultural conditioning encourages it. Every man is not created the same, but the exception does not prove the rule. We may not adhere entirely to expected behavior, but we were born into it and cannot help but be influenced by our socialization.

These days, it is popular among some who wish to get beyond injustices like racism and sexism to hold a belief in a kind of relativism. They are exasperated with the continued nagging problems that never cease, the enemy who never goes away, the culture war that never becomes a negotiated peace. I've been there myself. At times, I grow frustrated with people who appear to be addicted to bad news and finding fault. But when a story or a comment touches a nerve, I'm the first person out front, a prophet spreading word of God's great displeasure with his people.

It is factual that gender roles and gender norms are not nearly as cut and dried as assumed by many, but they do prominently exist regardless. I don't think we live in a post-racial America or a post-anything America. Many people want to believe that we have turned a crucial corner and are merely bickering over trifling details of no real worth. Even in my most optimistic moment, I must admit that I don't see the end of racism, classism, or sexism anytime soon.

Every generation has its own struggle with the latest mutation. The question which remains is why these blights upon society and liberty are allowed to exist in the first place. It may well be ordained from above that we work together to find a solution, striving to attain a cooperative spirit. If life is indeed a series of challenges to be faced, one by one, then let's proceed.

We really aren't that different, really. We may never reach the mountain top that many clamor for, a cause that even more have given much of their energy and attention, seeking to eradicate a societal ill. But in the meantime, we can find common purpose and unity. That's the first step, and the same one that proves the most elusive for all crusades and all movements meant to better everyone.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Quote of the Week

"There are thousands of people who feel that it is useless and futile for us to continue talking peace and non-violence — against a government whose only reply is savage attacks on an unarmed and defenseless people. And I think the time has come for us to consider, in the light of our experiences at this day at home, whether the methods which we have applied so far are adequate."- Nelson Mandela, 1961

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Saturday Video

Somebody's Heine'
is crowdin' my icebox
somebody's cold one
is givin' me chills
Guess I'll just close my eyes
Flip on the tele'

Wrestle with Jimmy
Something is bubbling
Behind my back
The bottle is ready to blow

Say it ain't so
Your drug is a heartbreaker
Say it ain't so
My love is a lifetaker

I can't confront you
I never could do
That which might hurt you

So try and be cool
When I say
This way is a waterslide away from me
That takes you further every day
So be cool

Dear Daddy, I write you
In spite of years of silence
You've cleaned up, found Jesus
Things are good or so I hear

This bottle of Steven's
Awakens ancient feelings
Like father, stepfather
The son is drowning in the flood

Friday, December 13, 2013

Malcolm Speaks

Weeping Willow

When morning breaks
We hide our eyes and our love's aching
Nothing's strange

It was in our hands from 6 to 10
It slipped right out again

There'll be no better time
There'll be no better way
There'll be no better day to save me
Save me
Yeah, save me

I hope you see like I see
I hope you see what I see
I hope you feel like I feel

And the world don't stop
There is no time for cracking up
Believe me friend

'Cause when freedom comes
I'll be long gone
You know it has to end

There'll be no better time
There'll be no better way
There'll be no better day to save me
Save me

Yeah, save me
Yeah, save me

I hope you see what I see
I hope you feel like I feel
Someone to stand beside me

Weeping willow
The pills under my pillow
Weeping willow
Pills under my pillow

Weeping willow
The gun under your pillow
Weeping willow

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Pearls Before Swine: Why Nice Isn't Enough

Among women, I am told that a peculiar kind of competition exists. It is a contest to see who can be the nicest and the most pleasant. Men would laugh at the very premise, but women are often socialized to be people pleasers, never to step on anyone’s toes or to hurt feelings. Good girls are rewarded, while women who do not march to the prevailing standard are criticized stringently. Though men can and do seek to enforce gender norms, women often police their own more energetically and thoroughly.  

In houses of worship, nice sometimes trumps merit. Members and attenders who are seeking an often subjective standard of perfection themselves are quick to reward others who superficially appear to be pursuing the same. This often shows up when it comes time to hire paid staff. Limitations in competence and a lack of experience are overlooked, because everyone wants to reward the new hire for being such a nice person.

While I was doing research for this post, I ran across an article that discussed Fifteen Characteristics of Dysfunctional Churches. One particular numbered item summarized the main thrust of my argument exceptionally well. It was entitled “Repression.”

[Dysfunctional churches contain] unspoken rules that it is not "Christian" to express feelings of disagreement, dissent, or anger. Instead, one must hide how one really feels or suffer censure for expression of emotions. Instead of expressing feelings, feelings must be hidden. Result: Repression ultimately must be released in episodes (or series of episodes) of uncontrollable anger and hostility.

This is not a healthy or successful way of expressing emotion, resolving conflicts, or conducting anyone’s daily life. While it appears to be sound on its face, it is predicated upon faulty thinking. If wishing made it so, all of God's children would be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

Let’s not forget that Dr. King had a dream, and as tantalizing a dream as it is, we live in an imperfect world not yet ready to turn dreams that audacious into reality. In the meantime, acting the part is not the same as possessing the wisdom that takes into account the imperfections of oneself and of others. Our external behavior is far less important than the intentions we hold within our heart.

While many of my same faith revere Martin Luther King, or at least what notions of him they find best correspond to their internal beliefs, I have a particularly soft spot in my heart for Malcolm X. Even though a few remarks of his make me uncomfortable, and for good reason, I’m often a skeptic myself. Like Malcolm, I know that good intentions will never take the place of reason.  

"I believe in the brotherhood of man, all men, but I don't believe in brotherhood with anybody who doesn't want brotherhood with me. I believe in treating people right, but I'm not going to waste my time trying to treat somebody right who doesn't know how to return the treatment."

Jesus warned his audience to not throw its pearls before swine. Many progressive thinkers and those on the religious left ignore this central premise, unwilling to swallow their pride. Those who do not place an emphasis upon respectful conduct will never respect anyone else. It is foolhardy to think otherwise. Being nice only works if adversaries play by the same rules. Discarding this argument means we must step down from the clouds and reevaluate our stance. Nice, without a full understanding of the facts, is a losing proposition.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Sharing Our Faith with the Nones

I have lots of doctor's appointments today, so I enclose a column from Friends Journal instead. Many people of faith have sought to increase membership and participation. It's a struggle common to almost everyone. As this post discusses, some of the indicators are positive, and some are negative. The full column is here.

I am a Friend primarily because I am deeply drawn to the grace and power of the spiritual practices and insights of the Quaker movement expressed in worship as well as in service. Looking around me though, I cannot help but notice that relatively few have been drawn into Quakerism in recent decades; in fact, the number of newcomers is less than the number who have left or passed on in recent years. This fact poses questions that are central to the life and future of Quakerism.

I see the Quaker movement, at least in the United States, sliding slowly—or maybe not so slowly—toward extinction. I see this decline happening, ironically, in a time when many people in this country seem to have a deep hunger for authentic spiritual nurture and genuine community. Quakerism is a spiritual movement with a rich history of both, offering an entryway into transformative spiritual experience and, at its best, a deeply nurturing community.

How can we better make visible and available and accessible to others—to those who are hungry for these things—the spiritual gifts and faith-filled life that our history and practice makes available to us?

As we look at these questions, I want to suggest there is some good news hidden within the generally bad. There are a few overarching trends in the several sources of survey data about American religion that are discouraging for “traditional” religion. All these sources describe a landscape where:

The number of people who now claim they have no religious affiliation—a group newly titled “the nones”—is rising, dramatically so in the last decade. This number has, in fact, increased by a third between 2007 and 2012, reaching 20 percent of all U.S. adults.

Attendance at religious services for the last 50 years was actually lower than previously recognized; and it has declined significantly since the 1960s. Now, only about 25 percent of adults in the United States attend weekly or near-weekly; this rate is probably less than half what it was at its zenith in the 1960s.

  • The number of people in the United States who say they do not believe in God is at an all-time high—reaching 8 percent, and more than doubling in the last decade.
  • Public confidence in religious institutions and their leaders (which used to get among the highest ratings in such polls) is at an all-time low.

These trends are bad news, especially for those who wish to see religious congregations thriving as entities that offer supportive community, compassion, caring action, and moral vision to our larger society.

However, what we also see in the data is an intriguing shift in how people understand themselves religiously (or spiritually) speaking. In 1999 and 2009, a poll asked Americans whether they consider themselves to be spiritual, religious, both, or neither. In that decade, there was a dramatic rise in the number of people who identified as both spiritual and religious.

When the question was asked in 1999, 54 percent of the respondents said they were religious only, and 6 percent answered as both spiritual and religious. Ten years later, only 9 percent identified as religious only, and 48 percent said both.

Combine these numbers with the 30 percent that identified as spiritual only in both polls, and we find that in 1999, only about one-third of respondents described themselves as spiritual, but by 2009 more than three-quarters described themselves using that term. It is difficult to know how an individual who claims to be “spiritual” understands that term, but there seems to be a significant shift occurring.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Two of a Kind

Open your eyes and don't be blind
Can't you see we're two of a kind?
I've got to say this, I hope you don't mind
I love you, we're two of a kind

Just ask yourself and you will find
We go together, we're two of a kind
No use protesting, be resigned
Baby you know, we're two of a kind

I knew it when I saw you
I felt it a little more when
I talked with you at first
All my blues dispersed

I couldn't disguise
My complete surprise
When you were feeling it too
I'm in love with you, I'm in love with you...

Open your eyes and don't be blind
Can't you see we're two of a kind?
I've got to say this, I hope you don't mind
I love you, we're two of a kind

Monday, December 09, 2013

When Trolls Attack

I live my life like an open book. I open myself up to everyone in what I write and in my conversation with others. Few secrets are kept from my readers, nor from friends or casual acquaintances. I have never considered this behavior over-sharing or a desperate plea for attention. For me, the personal will forever be the political.

That particular phrase first came to prominence during women’s liberation and the consciousness raising gatherings of the 1970’s. In this setting, women who had never felt they never had the right to voice their real feelings were encouraged to open up, often for the first time ever. Those days may be in the past, but the power of first person narrative and the sharing of stories cannot be discounted. Even today, too many put their personal needs secondary to those of others.

I made a pact with myself years ago. Details about my personal life would be freely shared, not concealed, provided there was a good reason for it. Though I have always been brutally honest, I have come to appreciate that personal narrative is an enormously powerful tool, if done well. A good balance between autobiography and facts to support it makes for a compelling read. For a person seemingly born without a filter, however, life becomes little more than a lurid melodrama and a scandal sheet. I use my life story and those who are close to me as a means of illustrating much greater lessons, not for cheap gratification.

Last week, I had to deal with two very persistent trolls for several days. I had little experience with how to manage this outbreak. It took me a while to find an effective strategy. One of them hurled a series of petty insults at me in an especially energetic offensive. Its attacks were launched, one by one, using three separate social media platforms. I must admit I was not expecting pitched battle on three fronts, nor did I ever anticipate that a person might be committed enough to keep it up as long as he did.

From both of these disgruntled readers, I received a series of nasty remarks that grew even nastier as time progressed. They appeared first on a random YouTube video clip that I had recorded three years ago. Next, they popped up on my Twitter page. And finally, my blog was targeted. Whomever is responsible for these insults assumed that they would use multiple personal details about my life to try to get under my skin.

I can’t for the life of me understand why they felt that to be a worthwhile strategy. The cat’s out of the bag. I’m not ashamed of what I share online, and know full well what has become public domain. I’m not sure why they felt I might somehow be embarrassed or ashamed of details I voluntarily published in a very public forum. Anyone who wants to uncover some secret about me is wasting his or her time.

What did give me some reason for concern is how extensively and obsessively one troll had read my blog. To have knowledge of the information he sought to use as blackmail, he would have, I estimated, needed to read between two or three years of entries. Most people trying to inflict harm on another person don’t bother with anything that time-intensive, nor that time consuming. This behavior is more in line with a stalker than to a foul-mouthed idiot who has to pull others down to make himself feel better.

Let it be said once more that even annoyances have a silver lining. I have been privy to a valuable lesson, one I intend to never forget. Women, I have a new respect for your toughness and your resilience under pressure. This is especially the case for women who write, or women who comment frequently on websites. You get it fifty times worse than I do.

I write as a man and from a generally male perspective. And I recognize now how much I benefit from male privilege. I am rarely treated with the sort of rough dismissal and abuse that might be a daily occurrence for you. That I have only recently experienced discomfort on this level lets me know how lucky I've been. Having blogged for seven years and been a more or less serious writer for maybe three or four, it’s remarkable I haven’t received this kind of treatment long before now.

I have never been called cunt, slut, bitch, or feminazi. I have never received a death threat because of something I wrote, or even multiple death threats over time. I’ve never had to worry about keeping my identifying details secret, or to fret about someone finding out my physical address. These are routine occurrence for many women who dare to put themselves out there, much as I do, day in and day out. I know a little now of how it must feel when a loser with something to prove decides to play mind games.

I learned last week during the troll infestation is that I am slowly losing my anonymity. When I was a total unknown, no one would have cared enough to try to bully and intimidate me. Now I see the opposite side of the coin, which is true for anyone who consistently sets himself or herself out before others. A story I write that shares a moving account of an especially problematic time in my life may inspire others to take control of their own. But those same details can also be used by blackmailers and bullies, especially if they think they can wind me around their little finger and try to get inside my head.

The more my name grows in stature, even modestly so, the more likely it is for experiences like these to grow more frequent. I have accepted this reality, because I genuinely love to write. There is another reason that is equally important, if not more so. I intend to live my faith and, in so doing, let my life's example speak for me. A particular passage of scripture teaches us that we are the light of the world.

No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.

In every word I write and every aspect of my life that I decide to put out for mass consumption and mass criticism, I shine my light before people. How others take it is a decision entirely theirs, and is neither my problem, nor my concern. The only antidote to the ugliness of those who would seek to beat us down into submission is a dogged persistence on our part to resist. And if we want our deeds and acts to have an impact greater than a few well-placed words on a page, we mustn’t fear the ridicule of a stranger or two. We will not be silenced. Religious or non-religious, atheist, agnostic, or lapsed believer, let your light shine out for all to see.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Quote of the Week

"Premenstrual Syndrome: Just before their periods women behave the way men do all the time."- Robert Heinlein

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Winter Woods


Winter Woods, a set on Flickr.

Take the day before an ice storm.

I Love This

Saturday Video

It's funny how money change a situation
Miscommunication lead to complication
My emancipation don't fit your equation
I was on the humble you on every station

Some wan' play young Lauryn like she dumb
But remember not a game new under the sun
Everything you did has already been done
I know all the tricks from Bricks to Kingston

My ting done made your kingdom wan' run
Now understand "L-Boogie's" non-violent
But if a thing test me, run for my gun
Can't take a threat to my new born son

L been this way since creation
A groupie call, you fall from temptation
Now you wanna ball over separation
Tarnish my image in the conversation
Who you gon' scrimmage, like you the champion?
You might win some but you just lost one

You might win some but you just lost one
You might win some but you just lost one
You might win some but you just lost one
You might win some but you just lost one

Now, now how come your talk turn cold?
Gain the whole world for the price of your soul
Tryin' to grab hold of what you can't control
Now you all floss, what a sight to behold
Wisdom is better than silver and gold
I was hopeless, now I'm more hopeful

Every man wanna act like he's exempt
Need to get down on his knees and repent
Can't slick talk on the day of judgment
Your movement's similar to a serpent
Tried to play straight, how your whole style bent?

Consequence is no coincidence
Hypocrites always wanna play innocent
Always want to take it to the full out extent
Always want to make it seem like good intent
Never want to face it when it time for punishment

I know you don't wanna hear my opinion
There come many paths and you must choose one
And if you don't change then the rain soon come
See you might win some, but you just lost one

You might win some, but you really lost one
You just lost one, it's so silly how come?
When it's all done, did you really gain from
What you done done? It's so silly how come?
You just lost one

Now don't you understand man universal law?
What you throw out comes back to you, star
Never underestimate those who you scar
Cause karma, karma, karma comes back to you hard!

You can't hold God's people back that long
The chain of Shatan wasn't made that strong
Trying to pretend like your word is your bond
But until you do right, all you do will go wrong

Now some might mistake this just for simple song
And some don't know what they have 'til it's gone
Now even when you're gone you can still be reborn
And, from the night can arrive the sweet dawn

Now, some might listen and some might shun
And some may think that they've reached perfection
If you look closely you'll see what you've become
Cause you might win some but you just lost one!

You just lost one...
What a bam-bam!...

Friday, December 06, 2013

Dear Troll

Pardon me, readers. I have to get this off my chest. I suppose everyone attracts a troll here and there.

Dear Troll,

I'm not entirely sure why you persist in taking swipes at me. The fact that you have obsessively memorized details of my life, details that could only be achieved by having read my blog for months upon end, is almost flattering. Flattering and creepy, that is. I suppose I don't really understand why you care so much about me. Most people in life tend to be too concerned with their own daily routine. Because of this, they rarely have the inclination or the time to launch such consistent personal attacks.

I'll be blunt. Mostly I'm not sure whether or not you intend to insult me or to have sex with me. People in times past have made similar efforts, much as you have, to get to know me in order to arrange a date. I will at least grant you reluctant credit that you have developed something of an encyclopedic knowledge of me. That being said, I'm not a college course. I'm not to be studied and then regurgitated during a final exam.

Are you seeking to determine if I'm dating material? I highly doubt it, because I'm fairly sure you're a straight male, despite your ambiguous username. But who knows. Anyone willing to memorize the minutia of my life only to throw it back in my face has a vested interest well beyond intended humiliation. Or, maybe you're just jealous. Most people lash out once or twice and then call it a day. You have persisted, for motives and reasons I cannot discern.

You won't respond to this, but maybe you'll read it. Consider spending your time on other pursuits. I've never understood why you've singled me out. If all you dished out was hate, that would be one thing, but underneath it all you're a fan, albeit a particularly misguided one.

The Obsesity Epidemic Strikes Close to Home

An obesity epidemic has been declared. First Lady Michelle Obama has made it a centerpiece of her agenda. Even First Daughters Sasha and Malia have been personally placed on a healthy diet by their mother. Even though both young women are of good physical health, their mother has decided to regulate her children's food intake. I follow the logic. It is never too soon to start eating properly, say proponents of this approach. I agree, though I feel this is often a simplistic resolution to a complicated problem.

The move has been controversial. Mrs. Obama decided to put both of her girls on a closely regulated food regimen at a very young age. Neither child has problems with obesity and yet, they still adhere to the same sort of precise, regulated standard that many people would only uphold if they were trying to lose weight. Whether that's right or wrong is entirely up to the eye of the beholder.

In any case, it seems that people are listening. The American public is consuming fewer soft drinks and snack foods, leaving businesses who produce these products scrambling to provide healthy alternatives to consumers. But if good health and a balanced diet were enough, it would not explain why certain people have such a difficult time losing weight and keeping it off. Women, for instance, are biologically predisposed to keep weight on in the off chance that they might need to carry a child. This makes it often very difficult to lose even a few pounds at a time.

At Thanksgiving, one of my sisters arrived for the traditional meal with her soon-to-be husband in tow. I have learned to be extremely sensitive about matters of body image around her. In the past, one comment intended with what I thought was the greatest sensitivity landed very wrongly. It had nothing to do with her weight, but it did concern decisions she had made in her life. She refused to talk to me for three months because of it.

Every time I see her, which is usually twice a year, I notice that she's gained more weight. It pains me because in addition to her increase in size, she looks very unhealthy and unwell. My sister has dark circles under her eyes and looks exhausted. I know there is something going on here, but I dare not ask. My parents fill me in with her news on a frequent basis. It's not as if I don't know her or know her situation.

As a child, she was a little chubby, but nothing serious. We thought she'd grow out of it. In middle school and into high school, she became relatively slender. We thought she was finally losing her baby fat and blossoming into a young woman. What we had surmised was not the case. We learned after months of denial that she was, instead, bulimic. This was why she'd been able to keep the pounds off for as long as she had. We were told, at long last, that she'd never had much willpower regarding food.

That was then. This is now. Reversing course, my sister apparently decided to opt for the other extreme. She rarely watched what she ate, kept up a poor, very fatty diet, and continued to put on weight. At this last family gathering, she was the heaviest I've ever seen her. I noted, with worry, that she was now a plausible candidate for a gastric bypass or some other sort of obesity surgery. That decision is hers, of course, but I will support her if she chooses it. It is not how she appears to the outside world that troubles me. Rather, I worry about her eventually developing diabetes or other serious health problems because of her weight.

This may be the emptiest of empty victories, but at least her eating disorder is no more. Neither outcome is beneficial or productive, leaving me grasping for something uplifting and optimistic from the whole mess. She has exchanged one sort of sickness for another. Until she stabilizes others areas of her life that beg for alleviation, being very overweight is the least of her worries. I want to honor her privacy while recognizing that I may need to intervene eventually. She cannot continue to live like this.

We often view obesity though several incomplete and unsatisfying lenses. One popular way of thinking blames overweight people for not doing the hard work necessary to watch what they eat. It's a simple matter of personal responsibility, they say. Others place the blame on companies and corporations, pointing to hidden additives in foods, especially processed foods. Even more commentators rightly point out that economics are a major factor; cheap food is usually unhealthy food. As is true with complicated matters like these, the answers take a little from column A, a little from column B, and a little from column C.

The organic or locally grown food I see sold at farmer's markets here might be better for you, but it surely isn't cheap. Like so many items on the progressive agenda, enrollment and participation depends entirely upon income and level of education. My working class relatives in East Alabama are shockingly ignorant of Thai food, the healthful virtues of brown rice, and hordes of foodies. And outside of a large, very urbane city, I'm sure their perspectives are not unusual. I am increasingly concerned about a wholesale Soylent Green world, where only the rich can afford actual food, and the unwashed masses have to make do with whatever government-provided sustenance they can afford.

In my parents' house is a smiling, framed picture of my sister with a flower tucked into her hair. It shows a young woman with promise, nearly graduated from high school. She'd just obtained a full scholarship to college and looked forward to opening a new chapter in her life. The most well-rounded student of the three of us kids, we were sure that nothing would stand in her way. What happened is indeed a tragic story, but one for another time.

That fading image could not be more different than what I recently observed, eight years later. Obesity is, to be fair, the least of her worries. Until she deals with greater issues, how she tips the scales is of secondary importance. She's regrettably inherited the anxiety disorder and depression that are hallmarks of my family's DNA.

One of my criticisms of this navel-gazing focus upon obesity awareness is that it forgets to recognize that many other conditions are co-morbid alongside being overweight. Obesity has many causes, several of them equal parts psychological, psychiatric, and physical. It's very easy to proclaim that fat people get what they deserve, until it happens to someone you know. It's not as simple as some may wish to believe.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

You Like Me Too Much

Though you're gone away this morning
You'll be back again tonight
Telling me there'll be no next time
If I just don't treat you right

You'll never leave me and you know it's true
'Cause you like me too much and I like you

You've tried before to leave me
But you haven't got the nerve
To walk out and make me lonely
Which is all that I deserve

You'll never leave me and you know it's true
'Cause you like me too much and I like you
I really do

And it's nice when you believe me
If you leave me
I will follow you and bring
You back where you belong

'Cause I couldn't really stand it
I admit that I was wrong
I wouldn't let you leave me 'cause it's true
'Cause you like me too much and I like you

'Cause you like me too much and I like you
I really do

And it's nice when you believe me
If you leave me
I will follow you and bring
You back where you belong

'Cause I couldn't really stand it
I'd admit that I was wrong
I wouldn't let you leave me 'cause it's true
'Cause you like me too much and I like you
'Cause you like me too much and I like you

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

All My Exes Live in Texts: Why the Social Media Generation Never Really Breaks Up

I'm sick today, so I'm going to repost an interesting article from elsewhere. I will say that, as this article discusses, I am at least partially to blame myself, but not entirely. Just read it. You might have stumbled across it before because the article was written in July. The author is Maureen O'Connor.

I have 700 friends on Facebook, 36 of whom I consider exes. Not all are ex-boyfriends—in the eleven years that “boyfriend” has been a name for men in my life, I have referred to nine as “boyfriends.” The rest are men I dated casually, guys I dated disastrously, make-out buddies, one-night stands, vacation flings, and a few boys I never touched but flirted with so heavily they can no longer be categorized as “just friends.” These people aren’t ex-boyfriends but they’re ex-something, weighted with enough personal history to make my stomach drop when they message me or pop up in social-media feeds. Which is pretty often.

There was a time, I am told, when exes lived in Texas and you could avoid them by moving to Tennessee. Cutting ties is no longer so easy—nor, I guess, do we really want it to be. We gorge ourselves on information about the lives of our exes. We can’t help ourselves.

There’s the ex who “likes” everything you post. The ex who appears in automated birthday reminders. The ex who appears in your OkCupid matches. The ex whose musical taste you heed on Spotify. The ex whose new girlfriend sent a friend request. The ex you follow so you know how to win him back. The ex you follow so you know how to avoid her in person. The ex you watched deteriorate after the breakup. (Are you guilty or proud?) The ex who finally took your advice, after the breakup. (Are you frustrated or proud?) The ex whose new partner is exactly like you. (Are you flattered or creeped out?) The ex whose name appears as an autocorrection in your phone. (Are you sure you don’t talk about him incessantly? Word recognition suggests otherwise.) The ex whose new partner blogs about their sex life. The ex who still has your naked pictures. The ex who untagged every picture from your relationship. The ex you suspect is reading your e-mail. The ex you watch lead the life you’d dreamed of having together, but seeing it now, you’re so glad you didn’t.

My peers and I have all these exes, in part because we have more time to rack them up before later marriages, because we’re freer about sleeping around, because we’re more comfortable with cross-gender friendships and blurring sexual boundaries, because not committing means keeping more love interests around as possibilities, and because the digital age enables us to never truly break up. We don’t have to shut the door on anything. Which is good, because shutting the door on something is not something we ever want to do.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Wild Night

As you brush your shoes, stand before the mirror
And you comb your hair, grab your coat and hat
And you walk the streets trying to remember,
All the wild nights breezes in your memory ever

And every thing looks so complete
When you're walking down on the streets
And the wind, it catches your feet
Sets you flying, crying

Ooh ooh-ooh wee, a wild night, is calling, alright
Ooh ooh-ooh wee, wild night, is calling

All the girls walk by, dressed up for each other
And the boys, do the boogie-woogie
On the corner of the street
And the people passing by, stare in wild wonder,
And inside the jukebox roars just like thunder

And every thing looks so complete
When you're walking down on the streets
And the wind, it catches your feet
Sets you flying, crying

Ooh ooh-ooh wee, wild night, is calling, alright
Ooh ooh-ooh wee, wild night, is calling, alright

Wi-i-i-ild night, is calling
The wi-i-ild night is calling
C'mon out and dance, c'mon out and make romance
C'mon out and dance, c'mon out make romance

Wi-i-i-ild night, is calling
The wi-i-ild night is calling
C'mon out and dance, c'mon out and make romance
C'mon out and dance, c'mon out make romance

Monday, December 02, 2013

Let Your No Be No And Your Yes Be Yes

A few years ago, I received a routine summons for jury duty in my mailbox. For most people, this is a trifling annoyance, a benign buzzing insect to be casually swatted away without much worry or concern. For the average person, it requires a temporary reshuffling of plans in an otherwise busy life. Many people I know seek to actively avoid jury duty, coming up with excuse after excuse to not serve.

I, however, felt it to be my civic duty and intended to participate fully in a trial, should I be selected. Complicating the situation was a nagging need to be faithful to my religious convictions. Because I am a Quaker, I am to refuse to swear oaths of any sort for any occasion. Prior to the trial, each juror, should he or she be selected to serve, was sworn in individually. When it came time for my turn, I knew I would need to make sure that special accommodations were made specifically for me.

This problem may seem strange or confusing without an adequate explanation. A passage in the Gospel of Matthew serves as the impetus for this often-misunderstood requirement. In the beginning, we Quakers were known as the Friends of Truth, later shortened to simply “Friends”. As a result, Truth with a capital T is the premise of this custom. The verse of scripture that inspired it reads,

Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.

Swearing an oath in a court of law means that lying carries the penalty of perjury. As Friends, we are already implored to avoid spreading gossip (tale-bearing) and telling fibs. I recognize how difficult this is, especially because it seems contrary to the way most of us behave, but I continue to challenge myself to live in accordance with my beliefs. If we are to tell the truth already, without the fear of breaking the law, why would we violate the trust of the court? In our way of thinking, there is absolutely no reason for additional reinforcement to be necessary.

Quaker merchants became wealthy because they set fair prices for their merchandise and did not cheat their customers. This is another application of the same concept. I’d be willing to wager that all of us have, at one time or another, told half-truths or twisted the facts to suit our own whims. Businesses are often built on the premise of negotiation, where every price is never set in stone. We live in a society where the well-worn cliche “let the buyer beware” reigns supreme, whereby those making a maximum profit are largely unregulated and the consumer is not protected.  

I knew that in substituting the word “affirm” for “swear” in the words I recited would be calling attention to myself. I would be setting myself apart, and even if it was for the right reasons, I’d still be visibly sticking out. The attorney friend I counseled prior to the day I arrived for jury duty believed I should have shelved my beliefs for a moment and simply taken the oath. In her mind, I would make things harder for myself with each lawyer, the judge, and even other jurors if I made a decision to opt for standing out, regardless of moral purpose.

I was perfectly within my legal rights, but I did indeed stick out from the rest of the pack. The experience got me thinking about all the ways we draw attention to ourselves, deliberately and inadvertently. Our desire for attention can be carefully calculated with great purpose, or it can be serendipitous and coincidental. Jesus devotes much attention to the condemnation of the Pharisees, the group he saw as the hypocritical, sanctimonious priestly class of Judea. In my research I have since learned that the Pharisees were a political party, a social movement, and a school of thought. In a biblical context, they were misguided zealots, makers of the law and social climbers extraordinary.

Returning to Matthew, here is the rationale to why Jesus reserves special scorn for this elite group.

"Everything they do is for show. On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and they wear robes with extra long tassels. And they love to sit at the head table at banquets and in the seats of honor in the synagogues. They love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces, and to be called 'Rabbi.'”

Place a few honorific titles on a person and see whether his or her humility is cast aside in the process. That’s the truest test of a person that I know. We may say we seek to be equal, but that desire can easily fall by the wayside, tainted with self-importance and an inflated view of our own worth. Although this is human nature, resisting it is a challenge well worth embracing.

A person years removed from military service may insist upon being called “Major”. Someone who has struggled through years of medical school and a residency might forever be “Doctor” to everyone within earshot. And there are many other examples. These titles immediately set up hierarchies, a system that ranks importance from top to bottom. It persists even in a supposed Democracy like ours. In 17th Century society, which gave birth to Quakerism, the entrenched British class system was the original target of this practice. In this country we may not have Lords, Earls, and Peers along with a rigid class system, but this concept has managed to take hold in 21st Century America.

Five years in DC have acquainted me with many activists, movers and shakers, and highly motivated workers for change. I’ve seen them make many sacrifices for reform from within and outside the system. I have learned that calling attention to themselves, as they do on a routine basis, can reflect noble motives, or it can easily be done for baser, selfish gratification. But fear not. All is not corrupted or lost. Those who sincerely seek to make the world a better place than where it was when they started out manage somehow to resist temptation. Though we may frequently expect pessimistic outcomes, take care to acknowledge those whose good works speak for them.

As T.S. Eliot put it in his play, Murder in the Cathedral, “The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.” Eliot’s work addressed the death of 12th Century Archbishop Thomas Becket. Becket was struck down due to a mistake, a few grossly misunderstood words by a frustrated King that led to a friend’s bloody demise on the floor of Canterbury Cathedral.

Political sentiments and social justice aside, the treason from within ourselves is the enemy we should fear the most. The flesh and blood people lined up to oppose and to obstruct are nowhere near as dangerous as we can be. This is especially the case when we lose sight of who we are, what we ought to be doing, and where our real devotion lies. Nothing could be more understood than the desire to race to the top, but if we are indeed committed to an ideal of radical equality, we are our own gatekeepers.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Quote of the Week

"I tore myself away from the safe comfort of certainties through my love for truth — and truth rewarded me."- Simone de Beauvoir

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Saturday Video

Sunday, Sunday here again in tidy attire
You read the colour supplement, the TV guide
You dream of protein on a plate,
regret you left it quite so late

Together the family around the table
to eat enough to sleep
Oh the Sunday sleep

Sunday, Sunday here again
a walk in the park
You meet an old soldier
and talk of the past

He fought for us in two world wars
and says the England he knew is no more
He sings songs of praise every week
but always falls asleep

For that Sunday sleep

You dream of protein on a plate,
regret you left it quite so late
Together the family around the table
to eat enough to sleep

And mother's pride is your epithet,
that extra slice you will soon regret
So going out is your best bet,
then bingo yourself to sleep

Oh the Sunday sleep

Monday, November 25, 2013

Orgasm for Men and Women

Before I continue further, I need to provide a disclaimer. The intent of this post is not for me to take on a braggadocious pose, nor is it to thump my chest about how versed and gifted I am as a sexual being. Men before me have indicated this kind of ego gratification directly and by implication. The identities I take on might seem contradictory at first glance. If you know anything about who I am, you might find it surprising that a strongly religious person like me has had such a complicated sexual life. I’ve never stayed long in a faith tradition that tried to regulate what I did in the bedroom.

Though we never discuss it, I know many people with whom I attend Worship engage and have engaged in sex before marriage. Sexuality is more permissive in liberal religious groups than the conservative groups who act like they're the only people of faith currently walking the earth. Where I attend Worship, no one would ever bring up anyone’s bedroom behavior for the sake of argument or to encourage innate spiritual purity. They are more inclined to opt instead for privacy and a sometimes isolating, standoffish respect for someone’s private life. However, as is true for almost all of us, religious or non-religious, I do have a sexual side.

I don’t feel ashamed of it and never will. In all honesty, I’ve never let anyone’s dogma dictate how I live my life in this regard. After a lonely childhood, I used my new found courage in high school to find sexual partners. I was not unusual in that regard. What was somewhat unusual was the voracious, exhaustively detailed effort I devoted to learning the game. Because I placed such an emphasis upon understanding sex, I was persistent enough to learn the unwritten rules. Though my first few encounters with the opposite sex were awkward affairs, with time I began to catch my stride, much as everyone does.

Periodically, it is deemed necessary by a feminist publication to demystify the female orgasm. The column I've linked here inevitably deconstructs orgasm and sexuality layer by layer. I’m not criticizing the decision one bit. Women have often been taught to be afraid or ashamed of their sexual lives and their sexual selves. This topic needs to be reinforced with regularity, but I rarely see a man add his own thoughts to the other side of the dimension.

Lesson number one. What I have learned from my own sexual experiences with women is that no two women are the same, especially when it comes to sex. As the Jezebel article noted above discussed, it is often difficult for many women to achieve orgasm with a partner. My own life experiences speak to this fact. In times past, I have literally exhausted myself while performing cunnilingus, then collapsed, sweaty, tired, and disappointed. Sometimes my effort eventually provided the desired response, but sometimes it didn’t. I was usually successful, but not always.

For a perfectionist like me, the defeats were demoralizing. And as for the frustrating times, where I may have gotten my partner at least close to climax, I always felt that I’d failed somehow if I didn't get there. Few women I have ever been sexually involved with have ever been critical of me for trying. As I said, it is extraordinarily difficult for some women to orgasm, but that doesn’t mean that the whole experience was somehow wasted effort or not pleasurable for both of us. Sometimes my partner and I never even had formal intercourse.

What causes a disconnect between the sexes is that men and women process and experience orgasm very differently. For a man, orgasm is the end all, be all. This is because it happens with such frequency and regularity. It’s almost a given, almost an understood that will happen eventually, often sooner than one might like. The beginning of a sexual experience builds slowly but surely towards the sexual release of orgasm. When complete, a kind of sated satisfaction sticks around for a while, then departs.

Antidepressants, for example, make climaxing more difficult, but even with medication most men get there, eventually. As I noted, the entire intent of sexual contact for men is the orgasm, which arrives quickly, lingers for a few fleeting and euphoric seconds, then dissipates into thin air. Perhaps this is why men have been known to feel exceptionally un-virile and therefore far less masculine should they be unable to achieve climax. Men rarely go through multiple experiences of simply not attaining orgasm. It’s almost a birthright assumption and a given.

But again, I know better than to speak in absolutes. There have been women in my life who had an orgasm sooner than I did. This was true both for oral sex and for intercourse. Some women can only climax during intercourse, rendering, for them, oral sex absolutely unnecessary and unhelpful. Again, this disappointed me more than it should have done. Regardless, I never had to worry (even though I did) that I’d done an insufficient job in these circumstances. For me, success in bed was always a huge relief and also a rush of very powerful emotions. In addition to the pleasure of having accomplished an intended goal, I also got the satisfaction of seeing my partner climax. That was always the intended target for me, and maybe there was a little bit of self-satisfied confidence present as well when I was successful.

I’ve never understood men who are selfish in bed. Pleasing my partner is too much of a worthy challenge. I enjoy being creative and persistent, both of which could easily serve as maxims for all of life when the two are conjoined together. One act follows the other. Anything I’ve ever accomplished in life, from music, to writing, and even to my own sexuality has been a product of practice and more practice. When I lost my virginity at 16, I had absolutely no clue what I was doing, nor did my first girlfriend. While my lack of technique didn’t matter then because we were both relative innocents, if I had to evaluate my performance now, I would not rate it as technically proficient or especially pleasurable.

I could share many more stories, but I doubt they would advance my narrative any further than what I’ve done already. They are there for me anytime I want them, which is another pleasing outcome of a sexual experience with another person. My mind often returns to fond memories. They involve the unselfish exchange of energies involving two people. In all of them, two people mutually respect each other while at the same time enjoying the process of causing their partner to experience intense pleasure.

Done unselfishly, it's a positive situation for both parties. As for me, I learned something from everyone I took to bed, the good and even the bad. While I felt at times I had to scale mountains to please my partner, I realized eventually that I only had to be myself to succeed. Wisdom comes with time for each of us. 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Quote of the Week

"If you are not already dead, forgive. Rancor is heavy, it is worldly; leave it on earth: die light."- Jean-Paul Sartre

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Saturday Video

Go west
paradise is there
you'll have all that you can eat
of milk and honey over there

you'll be the brightest star
the world has ever seen
sun-baked slender heroine
of film and magazine

go west
paradise is there
you'll have all that you can eat
of milk and honey over there

you'll be the brightest light
the world has ever seen
the dizzy height of a jet-set life
you could never dream

your pale blue eyes
strawberry hair
lips so sweet
skin so fair

your future bright
beyond compare
it's rags to riches
over there

San Andreas Fault
moved it's fingers
through the ground
earth divided
plates collided
such an awful sound

San Andreas Fault
moved its fingers
through the ground
terra cotta shattered
and walls came
tumbling down

o promised land
o wicked ground
build a dream
tear it down

o promised land
what a wicked ground
build a dream
watch it fall down

Friday, November 22, 2013

Thanksgiving Dreams, Thanksgiving Reality

Before I leave for home, I thought I might share a few words about what Thanksgiving means to me. As a kind of exercise in gratitude, I've observed people online listing multiple things for which they are thankful. I'm not led to participate, even though I know I take particular things in my life for granted on a consistent basis. Periodically, I feel a need to get out of my head and to enjoy the poignancy and emotion of the moment as it happens. Intellectual exercises are calisthenics for most of my daily life, but sometimes it's worthwhile to step back and observe.

I pride myself for my lack of sentimentality. Should I take stock of my writing and thinking over time, a pervasive, sardonic theme is present. At my core, I'm a wisecracker, an even distributor of sarcastic quips. Whether fairly or not, I've been critical of those who compete with themselves and others to see who can be the nicest. Though my progressive friends and acquaintances might never make the connection themselves, their boundless optimism can be, to my observation, artificial and quite telling. To thine own self be true is my most cherished proverb. It's difficult for many to keep that unforgiving standard when it is often obscured by ulterior motives, personal agendas, and best intentions. 

My family has seen it fit to preserve several traditions regarding Thanksgiving. Particular foods are prepared, following recipes passed down over generations. The good pewter silverware and crystal, a wedding present to my parents, is methodically cleaned one more time. At most, these utensils make their presence known twice a year, and sometimes not even that. They are now nearly forty years old. When my parents die, as all parents do, I know my sisters and I will determine who should have them. That date is a long way away, but as my folks enter their sixties and retire, it is a reminder of days to come. 

When my grandmother was alive, she insisted that beets and radishes be served at the table. She was the only one who ever saw a need to eat them. When she passed away, they never returned. My mother makes a family recipe for stuffing appreciated by everyone. I have even learned to tolerate bits of hard-boiled egg in the gravy, even though I sometimes remove them with my spoon. The warmth expressed around the table is genuine, even though my family is frequently loud, opinionated, and verbose. I wouldn't say that we rival the stereotypical Italian family, but it does come close. Everyone fights for control of the conversation, but no one takes offense to the banter. This is the way things have always been.    

The invitation to dine with one of my uncles is always extended, though I politely decline. I am not a masochist and do not want to listen to three hours of name-dropping. When I was a child, I was always taken along every year, many times against my will. The last time I went was when I was in high school. Shortly before dinner, I was instructed to pick out my present from underneath the tree. As I unwrapped it, I found that the box contained a model rocket kit, something I would have loved if I'd been 8, not 17. My uncle and aunt hadn't made much of an effort to know me. Knowing me would have meant I'd receive a gift I'd appreciate.

Maybe that's why I'm skeptical of this neo-hippie, kill-'em-with-kindness ethos I view with great regularity. The other night at a Young Quaker gathering, an attender talked about the benefit of momentarily adopting offensive points of view as another intellectual, highly impractical exercise, this time for the sake of conflict resolution. What was shared sounds worse than it was. One such example involved validating a racist perspective to seek to understand another person's offensive views.

The intention was to discover where an adversary's opinions and judgments are based, and that is noble enough, but something about the process was very unsettling to me. Though I did not voice my thoughts, I would have said that it's also possible to rationalize fascism. Neutralizing a opposing perspective for the sake of warm fuzzies is not just ridiculous, it's also ineffectual. Some want to chase dreams and while dreams do have their place, we can't live forever in a paradigm of our own creation. 

Conflict resolution is a sexy topic these days, especially for those who work at non-profits and NGOs. These people believe in making the world a better place, which is, I will concede, a laudable enough goal. At times, however, this line of thinking can also be unintentionally comical. For example, a Friend's daughter has moved to South Africa. She now teaches circus techniques, including juggling, to a group of painfully eager white and black children. Cooperative learning is fine, but I think this idea is very silly.  

The Thanksgiving dream we are supposed to experience takes this same form. The promise often does not provide the reality. I can see why the holiday can be a buzz kill for many. The promised notion of a warm gathering of people chatting pleasantly and then sharing a meal together isn't everyone's experience. The holidays can be a depressing and difficult time for many, especially when the dream does not hold up to the reality.

But, we do have options. We can bog down in cynicism or fly to the opposite extreme, trying too hard to make everything perfect. Living with the cards we are dealt is everyone's lot in life, but if we meet with Triumph and Disaster, as Kipling wrote, and treat those two impostors the same, we'll go far.