Monday, March 31, 2014

A Silent Anniversary

An excerpt of a work of fiction.

I wonder because/don't you know who I was?- C. Murphy

A silent anniversary has passed. It has been ten years since an ill-fated trip to the Northeast. Three days into a doomed five day trip, I found my legs could carry me no farther. I hailed a cab and took it to a hotel. Upon arrival I was nervously escorted into the lobby by the cab driver that took me there. Even one of the notoriously short-tempered Boston cabbies found my current medical condition alarming.

The withdrawal made my whole body feel hollow and disembodied. I couldn’t feel a single one of my joints and muscles as I took one strange step after another. I might as well have been walking on the moon. Once situated in my room, having requested a smoking room, I lit a cigarette, which in those days was probably a Marlboro Menthol.

It was a bad habit I’d picked up from a relationship recently concluded. They were what she smoked, and then they became what I smoked. I really shouldn’t have made this trip. I was sick enough that I don’t remember a thing about the departing and arriving flight. I only recall from start to finish the obsessively lengthy airport security upon arrival. After that I only recollect bits and pieces, a heap of broken images.

I walked fifteen miles in the course of one strange day, approaching strangers in the street to ask for directions. When I plotted out my path with a $7 store-bought map later that evening, I realized I’d been more or less walking in circles. One kind soul, a young woman, saw me on my feet unsteadily and spoke to me with pity. At her request, I sat down and rested for several minutes, leaning heavily against a black cast iron fence. Incapable of seeing myself as others saw me, I saw no other option but to keep on stumbling around until I found my destination.

What I do remember fills me full of shame and regret. Since then, I have delighted in the passage of time. I begged God for a miracle, the willingness to turn three years into five years, five years into seven. Now I have reached ten and know that fifteen is just around the corner. Only a small group of people I will likely never see again for the reminder of my life hold any memory of what transpired. At most, they number around one hundred, or maybe close to seventy-five. Now that I have become something of a name and a known quantity, their stories of me could be very lucrative indeed for those easily swayed by a generous payout.

I told my handlers the full story, as I remember it, during the vetting process. At the conclusion of our intensive, detailed meeting they didn't seem especially concerned. I was told that they’d heard far worse and didn't seem overly concerned. Early adulthood hell-raising can usually be excused because criticism usually has a way of boomeranging, damaging the hypocritical should one retaliate and dig deeply enough into someone else's past. The past terrifies me, but I talk about it constantly as a purgative, a bloodletting, as though constant retelling could serve as an exorcism of sorts. I live in fear, terrified of past behavior becoming public knowledge.

I have used my past behavior as the inspiration for many a sermon. The congregation loves a good story of redemption. Americans feel the same way. We can be unforgiving at first, but we love second acts and comebacks. As I've learned, even those who aren't religious find personal anecdotes like these compelling and moving. There will always be some whose doubt takes the form of hostility. These are the ones I pray for the most.

Like any alcoholic in recovery, I separate my life into two piles. One contains periods of relative health and the other, periods of undeniable, acute crisis. I’ve reached the potential I always knew dwelled within myself, though for a long while I wasn’t sure how to best channel the leadership skills that lay dormant for a long time. My father used to tell me, even in my boyhood, that I had great things ahead of me. It took long enough to for me to arrive and I worry that one day the game will be over, and the rug will be pulled out from under me forever.

The larger a name I became, the more two distinct camps grew and swelled in number. Those who wanted to protect my image jealously guarded my reputation and those who knew my indiscretions sought to break through the protective bubble that had been fashioned for me. I followed good advice and gave the naysayers very little dirt with which to work. I usually busted myself, frustrating the news media, and spoke constantly of my limitations and previously undisciplined behavior.   

I relate to St. Paul, who prior to a particularly well-known roadside conversion in modern day Syria had been hard at work signing the death warrants of Christians. My sins may not have been as extreme as his, in some ways, but for some I know my name will forever be known in unflattering terms. I pray that they see me back then as troubled, not a man with malicious intent. I once considered changing my name, or adopting a pseudonym, but reconsidered. I learned that running away prevented me from sharing a powerful narrative, speaking to others who were ashamed of their earlier conduct. My name was part of that radical honesty. 

People sometimes weren’t sure whether I had any control over my actions, or whether I was choosing to selectively enforce control over them. When you hit rock bottom, as I did, illness and drugs take over and grab the wheel. In a few of those circumstances, I can say emphatically that I was entirely out of touch with reality. I lived my life in a constantly impaired state, a generally convivial and friendly person, but at times prone to lash out at others when I believed I was being mocked or belittled.

To some, I’d been a devious manipulator. This is the case with all addicts. If I clamor that forgiveness be granted to others, it is partially my salvation own I request. Addiction made me a pathetic figure. It made me appear alternately threatening, distorted, and eccentric. Since then, I have destroyed any visual evidence of my past. The task was not difficult as it could have been because during the worst times I deliberately stayed out of the range of most cameras or video recorder. That which I missed will resurface eventually, sold to gossip magazines or television networks.    

During my trip, I ended up in Worcester, Massachusetts. Upon arrival, bags in hand, a man offered to sell me drugs. I declined. He was strangely supportive of my decision. That’s so good, man. Don’t do it. A young woman with blue hair was waiting for me at the train station, sitting behind the wheel, parked nearby the entrance. For an evening, I got to know a group of working class slackers who lived on a diet of diner food and very cheap pot. They laughed at my accent and I laughed at theirs.

I crashed on the couch that night, hoping to be left alone by her pet ferret, who had earlier scattered the contents of my backpack across the entire floor space. Convinced by her earlier behavior that she was interested in me, I rose unexpectedly in the early morning. I wasn't sure where I was at first. Upon opening my eyes, I felt beneath me the unfamiliar. I had dozed off on the cushions of a couch that functioned as my bed. She was sleeping across the room from me, and I was struck once again by how beautiful she was.

Swaddled in a huge blanket, I walked a few paces to her bed. I began to run my fingers through her hair, delicately smoothing her cheek with the fingers of the back of my right hand. She woke up instantly, surprised, but not upset. Taken aback by what I’d done, she indicated that she appreciated the gesture, but wasn’t interested in me that way. Crestfallen and embarrassed, I immediately returned to my impromptu sleeping quarters. I had guessed wrongly, which meant a brand new round of self-loathing and hurt. 

She rose around 9 that morning to take me back to the train station, back to Boston. We briefly discussed what had happened the previous night. She wasn’t upset, but interpreted it as proof of her overwhelming physical beauty. Everyone’s attracted to me, she said. This wasn't exactly the case. She was no runway model, but she had her charms. In some ways, her looks were very rough around the edges. On that slightly narcissistic note, we parted ways there and never met again.

My congregation believes in second chances. The Pharisees, the keepers of the law, who were active in Jesus's day would call most people who attend my church their social inferiors or even downright scum. As it is written, it isn’t the healthy that need a doctor. The membership includes convicted felons, sex workers, sex offenders, and the chemically addicted. Having hit rock bottom, they cried out for God's assistance. I tend my flock with care. This is one of the only places where damaged people can belong without being forcibly expelled.

They come in twos and threes, shuffling in with their heads down. They've heard about me and this church. Our no questions asked policy is enforced. Those with no families to return to seek to form those of their own. It pleases me that I can provide peace of mind to those who have lived in a perpetual state of crisis. Once I was there myself, and with every point I make, I regularly see heads nodding in agreement during the sermon.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Light Posting This Week

I have doctor's appointments every day this week, so I won't have the time to post very much. Next week things should return to normal.

On an unrelated note, the results of several writing contests I've entered will soon be announced. I will be happy if I place, but will be a little discouraged if I'm passed over this go round. I have other options open to me for publication, though literary journals do not pay for submissions. After years of neglect, I've finally gotten back to writing short fiction again, and find I enjoy it considerably if I find a subject that inspires me.

Quote of the Week

"I don’t want to overdo discussing my experience of motherhood. It's too private and profound to parade around. I will say that carrying a child, giving birth to a child, and raising that child up has made me feel more engaged and connected to others. I have a greater understanding of people (living, past, and present)."-Natalie Merchant

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Saturday Video

So long sitting here,
Didn't hear the warning.
Waiting for the tape to run.

We've been moving around in different situations,
Knowing that the time would come.
Just to see you torn apart,
Witness to your empty heart.

I need it.
I need it.
I need it.

Through the wire screen, the eyes of those standing outside looked in
At her as into the cage of some rare creature in a zoo.
In the hand of one of the assistants she saw the same instrument
Which they had that morning inserted deep into her body.

She shuddered
No life at all in the house of dolls.

No love lost.
No love lost.

You've been seeing things,
In darkness, not in learning,
Hoping that the truth will pass.

No life underground, wasting never changing,
Wishing that this day won't last.
To never see you show your age,
To watch until the beauty fades,

I need it.
I need it.
I need it.

Two-way mirror in the hall,
They like to watch everything you do,
Transmitters hidden in the walls,

So they know everything you say is true,
Turn it on,
Don't turn it on,
Turn it on.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Marrakesh Express

Looking at the world
Through the sunset in your eyes
Trying to make the train
Through clear Moroccan skies

Ducks and pigs and chickens call
Animal carpet wall to wall
American ladies five foot tall in blue.

Sweeping cobwebs from the edges of my mind
Had to get away to see what we could find

Hope the days that lie ahead
Bring us back to where they've led
Listen not to what's been said to you

Would you know we're riding
on the Marrakesh Express?

Would you know we're riding
on the Marrakesh Express?
All on board the train

I've been saving all my money
just to take you there
I smell the garden in your hair

Take the train from Casablanca going south
Blowing smoke rings from the corners
of my my,my,my,my mouth

Colored cottons hang in air
Charming cobras in the square
Striped Djellebas we can wear at home

Don't you know we're riding
on the Marrakesh Express?
They're taking me to Marrakesh

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A Quaker Ex-Athlete Renounces Violence

Over dinner a few weeks ago, a group of Quakers in their 20’s and 30’s discussed the game Wink. It is difficult to describe if you haven’t played it, but in some ways the game is similar to the childhood pastime Red Rover. I have more experience with the latter than the former.

In my childhood, we played Red Rover on the school playground each Friday. It was a concession granted us for good behavior, by teachers excited at the prospect of two days off of work. When one of the adults panicked over fears of broken arms, we were never allowed to play it again.

A woman who attended a Quaker college remembered that Wink was flatly denied to students. Our pacifist roots rendered the game far too violent. I’m relatively new to pacifism, so I may be more tolerant than those raised in the faith since birth. The conversation got me thinking about what violence is and what it’s like to live in a violent society. Becoming a Friend caused me reevaluate earlier stances which were once never reasons for concern.  

Long ago and far away, I was an athlete. When asked what it was like to play an intensive team sport like football, I respond that it was like being in the military. Basic training is the best metaphor I can use to describe what it’s like to sweat and toil for hours under the unforgiving sun. I lived in fear of being dressed down at high volume by a coach should I make the most modest mistake. It is well that I enjoyed the games as much as I did, because I absolutely hated practice.

A game is almost like an out of body experience. It proceeds too quickly for circumspection and analysis. Only observers have the time to make complete sense of what has just happened.  To this day, I only remember a few details here and there, mostly significant outcomes like touchdowns. A play proceeds and is over in mere seconds. One picks oneself up off the turf and immediately resumes position across the divide. I imagine the same thing is true for soldiers in combat.

With adrenalin coursing through my system, I might as well have been a machine. I was usually oblivious to pain until much later, sometimes a couple of hours after the play clock had expired. I saw my teammates receive severe injuries on the playing field. These included broken arms and torn ligaments. Some were serious, some not. 

Injury is an omnipresent threat players know instinctively, even though they’re too consumed with their assignments to worry whether or not they’ll be the next to go down. I became so accustomed to pain that it took me a week and a half to recognize one of the bones in my hand was broken, snapped right in two. The coaching staff pressured me to have a hard cast put on, so that I could continue to play. The orthopedic doctor disagreed and told me I needed to fully heal first.

Today, I have the ability, within reason, to define what nonviolence means to me. In those days, I didn’t have much agency to determine my fate. I did what I was told and never questioned the system. My talent level was high enough to win me the respect of my teammates and most of the coaches. I always saw it as the right to be left alone and in peace. I imagine the same is true for talented soldiers, who consistently win medals for valor and bravery in the face of the enemy.

I pushed my body to an extreme level on a daily basis. Back then I was in the best shape of my life, but I’ll never forget the sensation of gasping for breath at the end of wind sprints. I know now I’m not the right personality type to roam the gridiron. Though I could have played college ball somewhere, I was too highly strung and anxious to sign my life over to someone else for months at a time. Being designated as a good player only made me retreat within myself more.

My teammates despised practice as much as I did, but I wondered constantly about their own motivations to put up with it. As I said, I kept to myself. Most of my friends were reserves that rarely, if ever, got a chance to play. I rarely spoke to starters like myself, because their interests revolved around hunting, Evangelical Christianity, and cheerleaders. I was a fish out of water from the start.

Though I was treated as royalty by teachers and other students, that kind of deference and adulation never sat well with me. I was no conquering war hero or happy warrior. Instead, I quietly did my assignment, showered, and left for home. I didn’t care about going mudding in a pickup truck on Saturday afternoons, or shooting an eight-point buck. Those interests were fine for some, but they weren’t mine.       

One could make the argument that football is a militaristic game and I won’t discourage those who do. Removing the occasion for all war is a difficult standard to uphold and the games mean too much to me to push away forever. Our society is reasonably tolerant of violence, though much of it flies under the radar. The culture into which I grew up is sports-mad and gives me an opportunity to harmlessly small talk with people from back home. They’re often not unlike my teammates. What common ground would we have otherwise?

Violence and tradition easily become linked. We live in a society slowly unshackling itself from brutality, though some may see the current day as too passive. If we could isolate larger issues from their component parts, the task of fostering peace would be much easier. Violence, much like sexuality, is never only about just violence or just sex.

Studying war can be unconscious, rather than overt. My teammates participated in sports for lots of reasons, but I doubt they ever really understood the greater implications of who they were and what they were doing. Each of us can do our part to facilitate peace on a greater scale, but we must recognize that simple kindness and right thinking is not enough. We may not receive any confirmation that our efforts have succeeded until much time has passed. Patience with ourselves and others removes the occasion for all war.     

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Activism That Risks Persecution

The owners of the apartment complex where I live employ the same workman to fix every task. In addition to being the owner of some spectacularly bad tattoos, he dresses and acts like the blue collar laborer that he is. I live in a predominately white, middle class part of the city. He lives outside the Beltway and commutes in every day from a small town in Maryland.  

In a country designed to eliminate class distinctions, I find that we have succeeded in some ways and failed in others. His beliefs are not my own and mine are not his. The two shall never meet. He’d never be the one to encourage a deeper dialogue; our discussions rarely go beyond small talk. He’s the handyman, but he knows me by name and over time I’ve learned his.    

A few years back, I purchased a feminist t-shirt from a website. Wearing it in public had very mixed results. I wasn’t really seeking to provoke a response, as my college days of billboard activism are no more. The shirt made some women appreciative, but others weren’t quite sure how to take it. Two women at a coffee shop made friendly eye contact with me as they passed by my table. A woman who shared the same public transportation car was visibly uncomfortable at the sight, unaccustomed to such sentiments being advertised by a man.   

In the company of men, I experienced lots of what are known as microaggressions. Microaggressions are statements both passive-aggressive and defensive.  Their implied meaning is easy to understand, even though they stop short of direct condemnation. In a way, they are similar to the dog-whistle coded language of politicians, speaking one’s mind without directly stating it for the record. For them, the truth can always be denied if stated subtly.

I happened to be wearing the shirt when the workman entered my apartment to complete an assignment. He was taken aback, so much so that he tripped over his own feet trying to get out the door. I’m not sure precisely what he found distressing, but I can wager a few guesses. Later remarks to me indicated that he had not forgotten our earlier meeting.

When I said that I was planning on supporting a female candidate running for local office, his response was matter-of-fact. 

“So, I bet you’re voting for the woman.” 

The statement seems innocent enough, but placed in a proper context with body language and vocal emphasis, it is defensive and derisive. In his mind, I’m throwing my support to women over men, as though I am betting against my own kind. This is not a sporting event, but this is the lens through which he views my convictions. To him, I’m giving away my birthright. He can’t understand the reasons for my stance and I know that trying to state my case would probably be wasted effort.

I want to be cautious before complaining too vigorously. The breaks awarded me by virtue of luck and genetic chance likely limit whatever discomfort I feel. But even so, I find myself frequently placed on the defensive around other men when I put this side of myself on display. The t-shirt was quietly retired and now languishes at the bottom of a dresser drawer, unworn. I look at it sometimes and almost put it on, but I talk myself out of it each time.  

If I were a stronger person, I’d keep it in my weekly rotation. Unintended consequences like these have kept many causes silently unexpressed. Women never can benefit the way I can. Eliminating a wardrobe choice isn’t enough. I have the ability to remove most of my critics by a relatively simple act. In another aspect of my life, I have the ability to run to the closet if I feel the need to protect myself, but they are women regardless of the choices they make.

Conflicts like these have kept male allies like me in short shift. Those who do remain are often bisexual or gay men, who have never felt traditionally male. Straight men are even more unusual. I concede that my sexual orientation does lead me to feminist discourse, but it’s not the only reason why I have felt led to participate. 

Every aspect of my identity thirsts to establish equality, and every identity I claim provides distinct approaches and ideas to accomplish those goals. In a perfect society, there would be no reason to wear any t-shirt slogan. We've fallen short in our stated goal that all men are created equal. If we can't hold ourselves accountable to a standard that other countries find to be the epitome of American, we can't begin to take on other needed tasks.

The struggle before each of us is daunting. Over the course of the past several years, I find my consciousness has been stretched and expanded considerably. Knowing what I know now feels freeing, but many of the ideas I have uncovered cannot be expressed beyond a certain tiny kingdom. If we live in a world of anxious masculinity, what I hear from many men is a cry of panic and fear.  

My father has always found feminism threatening, for much the same reason as the workman did. He concedes that I might be foolish enough to associate myself with such people and largely leaves me alone. His criticism is strident and immediate when speaking on the same subject to one of my sisters, herself a feminist. He finds Rachel Maddow angry and yells at the television his disapproval.  

I’m not sure where to proceed from here. Gender Studies was a self-limiting, isolated minor where I went to school. I would have benefited from a hefty dose of it, but it was not a requirement in school and in life. Instead, I had to learn it myself, which was good in some ways, as I learned from real life interaction, not feminist theory in a textbook or a course.

Misinformation is our real adversary. Passion doesn’t matter if the message isn’t received. When I’ve meant to provoke discussion in others, the effect has been intended to speak to the creativity I see everywhere. To break through the noise, new strategies must be tried. Our life can speak to our causes, but leading by example is only one approach. If I’ve pushed myself and others hard, it has been to leave our comfortable spaces where no one gives me a cross look. We all must wear the t-shirt, knowing that we cannot say for sure what reaction it will provide.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Find a Cost of Freedom

Find a cost of freedom
buried in the ground
mother earth will swallow you
lay your body down

Find a cost of freedom
buried in the ground
mother earth will swallow you
lay your body down

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Quote of the Week

Fear not, fair audience. I have not reversed my political sentiments, but I think this quotation has some validity. At twenty, I simply would not have been able to understand.

“If you're not liberal at twenty you have no heart. If you're not conservative at forty, you have no brain.”-Francois Guisot

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Movie Review: Blue is the Warmest Color

Last year’s winner of the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d'Or was an especially controversial French/Belgian film. Entitled La Vie d'Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2 – The Life of Adèle – Chapters 1 & 2, it has been retitled for the English-speaking world as Blue is the Warmest Color.

The film is a coming-of-age story about a high school girl, Adèle, who finds herself strongly attracted to an older, jaded lesbian. Our main character takes her eventual lover, Emma, by great surprise at first. Emma doubts if Adèle is truly interested or is merely a bicurious straight girl looking only for experimentation. Convinced at last, she begins a relationship with her younger paramour, one which takes many expected and unexpected twists and turns along the way.

Blue is the Warmest Color won tons of notoriety for its sexual content, and rightfully so. In the United States, it was relegated primarily to art house cinema alone, due to its NC-17 rating. This dubious distinction remains a relative rarity. Most film directors avoid it whenever possible to salvage a profit. Chain American cinemas often refuse to screen any work beyond an R rating. I recall that in my own life, the 1990’s critically-panned film Showgirls, itself rated NC-17, was not available in even a single local movie house. Seeing it for myself would have required I take a lengthy drive to Kentucky, and I was not interested enough to take the time.

Quite unlike Showgirls, Blue is the Warmest Color is worth the audience’s time and patience. Due to the amount of attention and laudatory critical notices already written about it, I would prefer to not focus for very long on its sexuality. Yet, under the circumstances, I find I absolutely must.

It is impossible to ignore what got everyone's tongues waggling. The strong sexual content fairly begs for greater scrutiny. This is a move taken at great risk, one that comes dangerously close to overshadowing the rest of the three-hour-long running time. Blue is the Warmest Color is the sort of movie that makes a powerful impression on the viewer, even with its shortcomings.

I’m far from a prude, but the graphic lesbian sex scenes did strike me as gratuitous. In film, the last barrier yet to topple is that of unsimulated sex scenes versus simulated sex scenes. Unsimulated, in this context, means completely real, not cleverly disguised. A precious few studio films have challenged the standard and most comply. Many believe it crosses the line from art to pornography. Any cinematic effort in that vein, regardless of quality, would still receive the modern-day equivalent of an X rating, consigning most movies towards even greater obscurity.

As much as I want the aforementioned content to be liberating and subversive, one could make a strong case that it is neither. A reviewer from The New York Times, a self-admitted feminist and lesbian, wrote that she was suspicious of the very existence of these love scenes, particularly because of their extended nature. In her view, heterosexuals would take the effect merely as titillating and amusing, while queer audiences would see the steamy scenes as contrived and inauthentic. This is, to a large extent, my own perspective.

Not every barrier was crossed. An early oral sex scene shows that a particular female sexual organ was a product of the makeup room, not biology. Few films and filmmakers go to the trouble to choreograph love scenes as precisely as this one, which required much from its two young actresses, who are heterosexual in real life. Unusually long takes were critical to the narrative of the film and they made severe demands upon both main leads. It is for this reason that I am cautious about criticizing too harshly the superlative acting jobs that make the film.

As a bisexual man, I found I resented the way one of the two main characters, Adèle, was presented. Though she is bisexual and has lovers male and female, this distinction is never spelled out and conspicuously absent. She never admits to being anything, leaving her sexual orientation a question mark rather than a period. Adèle reinforces stereotypes about bisexuals as fickle and confused, unable to decide which gender to pursue, and therefore not to be trusted. The lesbian scenes, as authentic as they try to be, continue to reinforce stereotypical tropes that bisexual people have fought against for years.

I won’t spoil the ending. Blue is the Warmest Color is an excellent film and then some, though I will retain my reservations. We’ve come a long way, but we’re not there yet.

Saturday Video

Kiss me goodbye and write me while I'm gone
Goodbye my sweetheart, Hello Vietnam.

America has heard the bugle call
And you know it involves us one and all
I don't suppose that war will ever end

There's fighting that will break us up again
Goodbye my darling, Hello Vietnam
A hill to take a battle to be won

Kiss me goodbye and write me while I'm gone
Goodbye my sweetheart, Hello Vietnam.

A ship is waiting for us at the dock
America has trouble to be stopped

We must stop communism in that land
Or freedom will start slipping through our hands
Goodbye my darling...

I hope and pray someday the world will learn
That fires we don't put out will bigger burn
We must save freedom now at any cost
Or someday our own freedom will be lost

Kiss me goodbye and write me while I'm gone
Goodbye my sweetheart, Hello Vietnam.

Friday, March 21, 2014

A Few Words on Illness and Adjusting to It

Most of the time, we’re not aware of the brain in the way we are other body parts. I use my fingers and hands constantly throughout the day. When injured, nerve endings tell me that something is very wrong. From experience, I know precisely how to treat a minor cut or burn. The brain is different. There are relatively few instances where it’s possible to sense direct pain from that most crucial of all body parts.

Antidepressants work by increasing the function and multitude of neurons. Due to genetics, I was born lacking enough of them. Now that a new sheriff is in charge, my brain is scrambling to adjust. Medications used to treat depression indicate precise marching orders. In the past three weeks, those orders have changed dramatically. The process is not over yet. I’ve moved from one drug to another and now my body is seeking to cope.

Working through the pain is a necessity. I’ve learned how to force myself to make coherent sense and to be productive, even when I feel severely drugged and distanced from the outside world. At a different, less responsible time in my life, I lived every moment on marijuana. Anyone who identifies or has identified as a pothead knows what I mean. My state of mind was always impaired. It amazes me how functional I was during that brief, but potent period of my life.

Surrender is waving a white flag and succumbing to lethargy. I’m too motivated to languish, too driven for idleness. The last two weeks are evidence of my drive to stay productive. As I write these words to you, I can feel something strange going on up there between discomfort and pain. I feel the sensation of neurons in a semi-chaotic state, resisting the complex chemical structure that research science has devised. It feels tingly and warm, electrically charged.

I’m not really sure when the adjustment symptoms will subside. One never does. I’m on a brand new medication called Brintellix. Being prescribed the next new thing provides potential outcomes both good and bad. The good thing is that it has the potential to be extremely successful in ways that others were not. The bad thing is that doctors haven’t had an opportunity to observe precisely how it works in their patients. Psychiatric medications are notoriously imprecise, and it is only through direct observation that their impact can be adequately judged a success or a failure.

Treatment is a question of proportion. I’ve been on nine different medications for the past three or four years. Every prescription added to the canon produces its own side effects. I admit that I wish I lived 100 years in the future, if that meant more exact treatments for bipolar. I have talked about the limitations of medications devised to treat disorders of the brain until I am blue in the face. I suspect I will for the remainder of my lifetime.

The medications specifically designed to treat my condition have had a corrosive effect. I’ve developed abnormally low levels of testosterone for a man my age and required surgery for overactive bladder. Though no one can tell me why I developed these medical issues, I know that nearly twenty years on psych meds are to blame. One drug corrects what another has damaged.

Mood swings and intrusive thoughts have been my lot as long as I can remember. For the moment, I am not fully protected, meaning my psychological defenses are down. A difficult lesson for people with mental illness to learn is how little mental effort other people devote towards insulting or belittling us. To wit, I am usually the primary source of hurtful untruths and baseless fears, not any other person. But, it deserves to be said, our feelings of rejection and insult are not always figments of our imagination. Those who have not adequately dealt with their own internal problems have sometimes responded in ways that are not especially kind, nor compassionate.

Irrationality doesn’t need to be fed. Adding fuel to a fire of nonsense only confirms that it was real in the first place. I have gravitated to religious groups and religious settings because in them, I find that most people desire to be inclusive and not dismissive. Each of us have gotten severely injured in certain undesired environments. While I do genuinely feel that we are called to be kind to each other, nor am I indebted to the idea that I think that love, peace, and understanding are enough.

Wisdom doesn’t have a side. It has no reason to always be right. We can call it the high ground if we wish. It doesn’t salivate upon command like Pavlov’s dogs. It knows that extending sympathy is not enough and reacting without prior consideration is ineffective. It’s not easy to co-exist, and I think the behavior of some leads others to scoff dismissively at the naiveté of being always overly trusting and sunnily optimistic.

A middle ground exists. I seek it in my own way. I drift between the potential of mania to the potential of depression. Neither is finite. Instead, each exists along a continuum. Every day I wake up feeling different. I can even forget I have these health problems until I’m reminded of them once again. Binaries are over-simplifications of complex truths. I think that pain and joy are the two states that we can neither prolong, nor ignore. Until we take our own internal temperature, living a life where the behavior of others does not knock us off our moorings is imperative.    

Thursday, March 20, 2014

I Feel the Earth Move

A brief moment of insecurity. This particular camera angle is not flattering. In addition, I concede that being placed on testosterone has added weight to my frame. It isn't unhealthy weight, but I look very different now.

I feel the earth move under my feet
I feel the sky tumbling down
I feel my heart start to trembling
Whenever you're around

Ooh, baby, when I see your face
Mellow as the month of May
Oh, darling, I can't stand it
When you look at me that way

I feel the earth move under my feet
I feel the sky tumbling down
I feel my heart start to trembling
Whenever you're around

Oh, darling, when you're near me
And you tenderly call my name
I know that my emotions
Are something I just can't tame
I've just got to have you, baby

I feel the earth move under my feet
I feel the sky tumbling down, a'tumbling down
I feel the earth move under my feet
I feel the sky tumbling down, a'tumbling down

I just lose control
Down to my very soul
I get hot and cold, all over, all over, all over, all over

I feel the earth move under my feet
I feel the sky tumbling down, a'tumbling down
I feel the earth move under my feet

I feel the sky tumbling down, a'tumbling down,
A'tumbling down, a'tumbling down, a'tumbling down,
a'tumbling down, tumbling down!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

When I Was 19

A little bit memoir, a little bit fiction. You decide what you like most.

I was 19. I lie and say I was 16, which is partially true. The eventual destination was between second and third base, but it went no further. If I hadn’t lost my nerve, there would be no reason for lies. I’m not sure why it bothers me still. She’s married to someone else and I’ve taken my own vows of a sort. In the end, we must weigh our youthful indiscretions and experimentation against who we are in the present day. I nearly flush red with embarrassment when I read the silly, fatuous comments left for me on high school yearbook day.

But really, I was 19. For a time, I felt like I needed to be up to the standards of the statistical mean. Now I’m older and none of it matters anymore. The metrics my contemporaries use as cultural yardsticks are quibbling details like age of first marriage. In fifteen years, it will be age of second marriage, and hopefully the conversation will not need to entertain any more nuptials beyond that.

What are more embarrassing are the circumstances. She was one of my first internet crushes, back when what some called cyberspace was brand new and everyone was eagerly and desperately trying to understand it. In those times, nearly everyone subscribed to the same provider, which meant that finding conversation was never a challenge. Those who were romantics like me drew no walls of separation between us, even though we could never embrace or exchange physical affection with each other. The more guarded souls tried to separate out real life from internet life, but theirs was an artificial distinction. In what seemed like an instant, a full regiment of peculiar, isolated teenagers appeared.

You’re just someone from the internet was code for I care for you more than I would ever wish to admit. The heart can be bruised easily, but I sought company and risked the ache. In this particular instance, her interest in me was unusually intense and full of longing. She suggested that I come out to visit. I drove five hours south towards a dirty port city that looked, upon arrival, washed out and eroded. Fourteen days later, after months of daily conversation online, we were acquainted for the first time in person. We wasted no time.

I spent my first night in her presence on the floor of a modular home, trying not to wake a four-year-old boy, her son, who gratefully was not roused from slumber for two hours solid. It would not be the first time I’d learn the rules of quietly fooling around, trying not to attract attention to myself. This was the reality of life with children present close nearby, and I respected the extra effort required.

Before we began, she pointed out the exact site where our most substantial conversations had taken place. Partitioned off from the rest of the front room, it held sentimental attachment to her. Aside from that, it was little more than a fairly standard desktop computer with monitor. For whatever reason, this was a gesture made by everyone I met in this way. Had we been penpals, I’m sure she would have shown me my own handwritten letters to her. It was proof that an emotional connection existed, and that what was to follow had complicated motivations beyond anticipated outcomes.

We’d gotten to know each other as personalities before any knowledge of facial expressions and body language. I always found that, for me, synchronizing the two was never difficult. This was not always the case for others. Once I found someone who was okay with me as I existed online, but when it came time to collect my bags, a lengthy flight just behind me, she was so nervous that her whole body shook. That excursion in misplaced trust and fear of the unknown was a rough week for both of us, but fortunately those adventures were few and far between.

But again, this was not the case when I was 19. I know it sounds terribly romantic, but we camped and pitched tents on a sand bar in the middle of an estuary. After sharing exceptionally bad marijuana, it came time for confessions that even the courage of the internet could not produce. Until then, I’d always assumed all women found my stories of men threatening and intimidating. I never once believed I’d chance upon someone who would understand and ask no clueless questions out of harmless, but nevertheless frustrating ignorance.

She asked, and I obliged. You’d think this memory would be more comforting, but I wasn’t quite ready yet for that much truth, that much honesty. That being said, a dialogue this emotionally and psychologically charged was far too tempting to ignore. The sexual aspect of it was difficult enough but I let myself go. I told myself it wasn’t scary to envision wherever the talking would take me. I would eventually land somewhere, and, after all, I was with a person I could trust.

I said what I was and who I was early on, in the hopes that frequent displays of honesty would mean eventual self-acceptance. Later, much later, I began to explore what queer meant. The patterns of dress and outward expression, the mannerisms, the tattoos, the tone and pitch of a voice--each of these became known to me with time. She was ten years older than me and farther along the beaten path. I see this now. Her preferred form of dress was very masculine, and I understand today the symbolism, based on gestures both covert and obvious. Gender was flipped inside out, the very same approach I would eventually adopt myself in reverse.

She was entirely unashamed in being attracted to women. This is why she coaxed and pleaded for my own semi-secret tales. I cagily provided them, unaware at first at the effect they produced, which was far from disgust and displeasure. In addition to being curious, she enjoyed the fantasy. It was my first look in the mirror, finding my twin.

Three years earlier, I’d been with an eccentric girl who wrote bad poetry, but much to her great regard knew the best way to not take herself too seriously. We parted before a year was up and I kick myself to this day for leaving her the way I did. I wanted more than she could provide. But we had broken up, and now I was 19. I had college in front of me and other landmarks to follow. The sticky humidity of a tent gave birth to a rambling, but enlightening conversation as afternoon became night. This is what I remember most. Benchmarks and age matter far less.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


Still pertinent today.

You say you want a revolution
Well you know
We all want to change the world

You tell me that it's evolution
Well you know
We all want to change the world

But when you talk about destruction
Don't you know you can count me out

Don't you know it's gonna be alright?
Don't you know it's gonna be alright?
Don't you know it's gonna be alright?

You say you got a real solution
Well you know
We'd all love to see the plan
You ask me for a contribution

Well you know
We're doing what we can
But if you want money
for people with minds that hate

All I can tell you is
brother, you have to wait

Don't you know it's gonna be alright?
Don't you know it's gonna be alright?
Don't you know it's gonna be alright?

You say you'll change the constitution
Well you know
We'd all love to change your head
You tell me it's the institution

Well you know
You better free your mind instead
But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao
You ain't going to make it with anyone anyhow

Don't you know it's gonna be alright?
Don't you know it's gonna be alright?
Don't you know it's gonna be alright?

Monday, March 17, 2014

Call the Midwife: A Review with Digressions

The British television drama Call the Midwife has been critically acclaimed since its first season aired in 2012. I only discovered it a week or so and have been utterly entranced. In particular, the cast is predominately female, a rarity even for the current day. The series shows us life where men are the minor characters, though even behind the scenes they still tend to pull the strings. Gushy dialogues exclusively about men are fortunately few and far between. These women work too hard for frivolity of any sort.

As the series begins, a young midwife, Jenny Lee, takes a new job in poverty-ridden East London. She is assigned to an Anglican Religious Order, a convent of nuns who prepare women for childbirth and deliver babies when the time is ready. Living in a strictly religious setting is new for Jenny, and somewhat unsettling. Like many in her time, she is well-versed in the particulars and language of Christianity, but is wrestling with the idea.

The conclusion of one episode concerns the faith journey of the main character. Each ends with a voiceover of an old woman, Jenny, now much older and wiser. In one such summation, she concedes that while she might not have understood fully what faith is, she could at least grasp the concept of love. A richer comprehension of what faith offers awaits those who seek it, but its lowest common denominator is love.

I might well say the same for 21st Century America. I know many who practice the religion of unselfish love for others. Many work in helping professions. Others wrestle with ideas and solutions to perplexing problems. With time, they may develop a more enriched spiritual life. What some ascribe to God, others credit to wisdom.

When I wrote a few weeks back about the divide between Atheism and Religion, a reader noted in the comment section that his completely nonreligious upbringing had pushed him away from God, but in time he reached a greater understanding. Faith of any sort changes over time and where we end up at any one point may astound us. Writers often go through phases. T.S. Eliot grew increasingly religious as he aged. His late period works are very different than the early poems many have memorized.

As the story goes, the deeply religious Malcolm X was approached by a young black woman at an event.

“I want to believe you,” she said, “but you scare me.”

With a grin, Malcolm replied, “You will someday, sister.”  

Call the Midwife does make the odd political statement. In the pre-birth control era, a woman has produced an astounding eight children and is pregnant with a ninth. She’s resorted to superstition and old wives’ tales to prevent pregnancy, each of which has failed in dramatic fashion. But at a time before hard science and the birth control pill, her options are frustratingly limited. It’s difficult now to imagine a time before the prevalence of effective birth control.

In despair, she begs a doctor to have her tubes tied, but he is hesitant to perform the surgery. Pitifully poor, she relies upon the National Health Service to subsidize contraception, but it will not. Americans tend to look to the UK as an example of efficient, truly socialized health care. While much is to like, here we see that the latest Obamacare controversy over birth control is not a new one.

The nuns have recognized over years of service that real life application and wishful thinking theology are two very different things. Indeed, one hears no platitudes about baby killing. They’ve seen too many women without the financial means of feeding their vast brood. They’ve observed babies in their crib being attacked by rats. Being fruitful and multiplying in a vastly different context, an urbanized society, has decidedly harsher consequences.

I will say this for the series. If we do think aversion therapy is effective, high schools should stop forcing young women to carry simulated babies with them. They should show them this show instead. If I were a woman, this show would cure me of any desire whatsoever to procreate. The process itself is frightening enough, but the added risk of birth defects and unforeseen consequences adds additional terror. Our inborn, biological desire to continue the human race must be powerful.

I’ve never felt that the agony of childbirth was a punishment from God. Whoever wrote those words and formed that concept was trying to explain what many saw as unfair and petty. Over the course of human history, many women have died, or have experienced agonizing labor that persists for days, not hours. The story of the Garden of Eden has, to me, always been more symbolic than literal. Any answer is better than none, for many.

And in that spirit, let us recognize that what we do not know still outweighs what we do. One year red wine is lauded as healthy, the next it is to be removed from everyone’s diet. 6 out of 10 doctors prefer Chesterfield cigarettes over any other brand. And in the meantime, God is mystery and love. Even true believers harbor doubts and are blind to their own imagined sagacity. True knowledge is a question of rolling with the punches, not digging in for a siege.    

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Quote of the Week

“The shell must be broken before the bird can fly.” -Jennifer Worth

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Saturday Video

I belong, a long way from here
I put on a poncho and played for mosquitoes
And drank 'till I was thirsty again
We went searching, through thrift store jungles

Found Geronimo's rifle, Marilyn's shampoo
And Benny Goodman's corset and pen
Well, okay, I made this up
I promise you I'd never give up

If it makes you happy
It can't be that bad
If it makes you happy
Then why the hell are you so sad?

Get down, real low down
You listen to Coltrane, derail your own train
Well, who hasn't been there before?

I come 'round, around the hard way
Bring you comics in bed
Scrape the mold off the bread
And serve you french toast again

Okay, I still get stoned
I'm not the kind of girl you'd take home

We've been far, far away from here
I put on a poncho and played for mosquitoes
And everywhere in between

Well, okay, we get along
So what if right now, everything's wrong?

Friday, March 14, 2014

Revisions, Revisions

I'm nearly at 5,000 words with the new short story. Because I intend to submit it for publication, I'll leave the rest for later. In the meantime, the first two sections of "The Voyeur Mafioso" have been revised since they were originally published here.

I'm at the point that I'm trying to devise an ending. My talent is for exposition.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Voyeur Mafioso, Part Two

Yesterday, I posted the first part of a new short story. Enclosed here is part two.

A work of fiction.

In case you were curious, I've been experimenting more with an unreliable narrator. For example, this unnamed main character has opinions that cannot be excused, even with his rationalizations on his own behalf. At times, what he says can be taken seriously, but the whole of his opinions should never be taken as complete truth.

If nothing especially interesting shows up, I know of a few alternate locations that have worked well before. But unlike those who know how to conceal a hidden camera, my usable videos might last for a little more than a minute a person, or they might last for five. As before, I try to keep my hand steady and not make noise. I’ve gotten pretty good at it and slightly fearless.

At the moment, I’ve just finished up recording a young woman in her early twenties. On my knees in the adjacent stall, I’ve managed to take an effective position. She is too busy trying on swimwear and talking on a cell phone to know what I’m doing. Posted on every door in the changing area is a reminder that it isn’t sanitary to try on bathing suits without first donning underwear. This woman doesn’t seem to notice, but she stays reasonably still and will be a popular upload.

What makes my work even possible is the way the cubicles are laid out. The men’s facilities are right next to the women’s. In stores where men and women are placed far apart, my job is impossible. We usually hit the smaller stores for this reason, though once again, finding an adequate location is a task left to someone else. As I leave, the woman speaks excitedly to an unknown party, entirely naked, talking enthusiastically about some person who is a dickhead, in her words. I’ve been here long enough.

I check my phone for a text message.


That store makes me nervous. It provides considerable challenges when it is not packed to the gills. I know that whatever I salvage from this trip is going to come at great risk and what is usable won’t be much. 

Apparently it’s a popular location, which is why I keep coming back here against my better judgment. When I set up next to a woman in an adjacent room, I have little to no idea of what she looks like. Based on what I’ve heard, I assume the occupant is a woman in her late teens. This is confirmed when I peek slightly over the divider, using my camera like a flexible periscope.

She’s also trying on bathing suits, but only the brassiere portion. Her breasts are large. She calls out to an unseen friend who is also trying on clothes.

Maybe we should go to Target later.

Yeah, we should, she replies.     

Her voice is girlish and youthful, very much the stereotypical hyper feminine girly girl. The audience likes women like her, based on the statistics, especially when one considers the number of highly ranked downloads. There’s commission in it for me if stumble upon an interesting situation and produce a particularly popular clip. That depends on luck more than it does skill. Much like a viral video, it’s often difficult to predict how to produce success and interest on the part of viewers. Videos I thought were fairly unimpressive have at times struck a chord.

Assuming I had a girlfriend, I might be able to take on-the-job experience and apply it to my love life. I’ve seen hundreds of women preen and primp before the mirror, scrutinizing themselves in a way they would only do in strictest privacy. It can take whole minutes before the express purpose of my being there presents itself.

After going through an elaborate, private ritual of self-scrutiny, she begins to put on a new outfit or element of clothing. The process is that of considerable analysis. From an aesthetic perspective, this is, in many ways, much more interesting to casually observe. Sex is one thing, but vulnerability and true secrecy is even more private than that. We may be more comfortable as sexual beings in the outside world, on our own terms. We are considerably much less confident when our bodily flaws are on display, assuming we believe we are completely alone. Our worst critics are ourselves.   

I’ve done this for five years and I’ve developed a sixth sense about this location. Something about this place makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I’m tempted to leave a few minutes early. It’s like gambling. Should you start winning, the best decision is in knowing when to quit.  The odds are in your favor only to an extent. Eventually, mathematically speaking, your luck will swing against you. Cut your losses and move elsewhere.

The pay isn’t what I’d prefer, but neither do I have to work terribly odd hours. Once I worked as a security guard at an exclusive golf course. My assignment was the graveyard shift, 7 pm to 7 am. Twelve hour shifts will really take it out of you, as well hitting the bed after the sun has risen. I don’t have to guard ice machines and golf clubs at early mornings anymore, and I’m thankful for that much. It’s tough to be strictly ethical when you haven’t had much money. Even with the constant promise of great terror and discovery, I work a generally fun job.

One learns to not ask questions of one’s superiors. Plausibility denial is a good strategy. I don’t know who puts clips and pictures online. I send them along in edited form to a purposefully vague and innocuous e-mail address. Few of my submissions are ever returned for being of insufficient quality or needing additional video edits. An operation this intensive and complex could only work in a large city, which is how I’ve learned nearly every neighborhood and general area, even if I’ve got completely lost a time or two. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Voyeur Mafioso

A work of fiction.

This is an incomplete draft of a short story I've been working on today. I'd like to show you its progress up until now.

To be honest, I’m not sure what started me along this path. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that much of our sexual thoughts and fantasies are fueled by voyeurism. Particularly, our private glee can be in observing something supposed to be off-limits to us and forbidden. With time, those fantasies grow more refined, layered because of our own advanced personal tastes alongside an increase in general life experiences. Mine started in middle school gym class, seeing if I could look up the gym shorts of girls. I rarely succeeded, but when on the odd chance I did, it felt as though I’d almost had a religious experience.

In those idyllic days, when puberty was fresh, exciting, and at times mortifying, one of my classmates decided to take matters into his own hands. Because he was small of stature and didn’t weight much, he managed to remove a ceiling tile from the boys’ bathroom and from there climbed into the women’s’ facilities, only a few short yards away. For as long as his weight would hold him, he observed the bathroom habits of several of our female classmates.

With time, however, the flimsy supports gave way and he crash-landed somewhere in the neighborhood of one of the sinks. It was fortunate that no girls were present, as he quickly fled the room, feeling aroused and terrified all at once. Of course he told all of us boys about it. Being that his last name was Bates, after that mission, someone decided to start calling him Master Bates. The nickname stuck, though he absolutely hated it.

Over time, his story changed a little. He embellished a few details here and there. In each subsequent account, the names of the girls he’d viewed from above were a little different from start to finish. Still, we had it on good faith from the girls that their bathroom had to be closed for repair for two days. It was too plausible a story to be doubted, though it was probably not strictly factual.

Each of us wished we’d first thought of what Bates did.

Some years later, I read My Secret Life, an erotic book published by an anonymous author around the end of the 19th Century, shortly before the end of the Victorian Era. It could never be confused as a work of great fiction, or even good fiction, but its veracity could not be questioned. One particular anecdote has always stuck with me.

In the days before mass produced, easy to obtain pornography, men turned to other sources to appease themselves sexually. I recall one section, an interlude on a group trip through the woods. The men were to dress and bathe in one segregated area of the camp. The women were to occupy another space where they might presumably have privacy.

Several men took vantage points along the top of a hill, directly next to where the women dressed. They witnessed many women changing and taking time for bodily functions. The account was, like the rest of the book, alternately bizarre and uncomfortably sexual. Its author was much kinkier than I was, willing to take risks I could not and would not, because he was quite wealthy and could afford to play dare devil. I envied his proficiency and access, though some of his behavior was beyond even me.

When I began to give it some thought, voyeurism appeared to skirt a line somewhere between acceptable and unacceptable. If not against the law, it was, at best, invasion of privacy. But, as I learned later, it paid and a market existed for it. I had to buy my own equipment at first, though I was eventually reimbursed for it within the first month or two. Digital video cameras are a fraction of the size they used to be, as are the lenses, and I learned many ways to disguise what I was doing. Disguise was my stock in trade and I coupled that with enough raw nerve to achieve every target goal.

Every morning, even Saturday and Sunday, I received a fresh e-mail from my boss. They were usually curt and to the point, typed in all caps.


One wouldn’t want to hang around for too long, as that would attract attention. Times really have changed. Technology makes much possible that was once impossible, or at least consigned to the realm of fantasy.

John Lennon, while still with The Beatles, relayed in song a similar anecdote. It appears that a man had been arrested for gluing small mirrors to the tops of his boots. That way, he could get a cheap thrill by looking up women’s skirts if he was clever enough to evade suspicion. It must not have lasted for very long. I always kept the outcome in mind every day on the job, knowing that it might well be my last.

The man in the crowd with the multicolored mirrors on his hobnail boots/Lying with his eyes while his hands are busy working over time. 

Photographs are much easier to take, because they take only a fraction of a second or two, but the customers clamor for videos. Don’t worry about trying to find our website. You won’t come close unless you’re an expert or have a few hours to spend fruitlessly linking from site to site. Most of our business is spread by word of mouth, though at times a few persistent and lucky people have encountered our site on a whim and subscribed. Everyone knows the risk involved. You pays your money, you takes your chances.

Every assignment has its own challenges and unknown variables. One day at a department store I spied only middle aged women, which is fine for some, but we tend to get more requests for the younger set. I’ll let our customers provide the color commentary. For me, this is just a job. My foremost responsibility is not getting caught. I’ll concede there is a degree of taboo fun present sporadically, but that’s long since faded into the background. I’ve become a professional, a label that always eluded me beforehand.

How I do it is a trade secret I would prefer to keep mostly hidden. Suffice it to say that it wasn’t learned overnight. In the beginning, I silently observed whoever entered a stall, balanced uneasily in an adjacent room, half-standing, half-crouching, peeping just over the wall, recording a few moments or so before ducking back down for protection. Before I perfected my technique, I almost got caught on more than one occasion. My first few attempts were unusable because I couldn’t hold my hand steady.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

51st Anniversary

Musician's Note: I cannot even begin to fathom the complexity of Jimi Hendrix's guitar playing, which is to say that I didn't even try. I'm a competent rhythm guitar player by nature and a very rudimentary lead guitarist.


For fifty years they’ve been married
They can’t wait for their fifty-first
To roll around, yeah, roll around.

For thirty years they’ve been married
And now they’re old and happy
And they settle down
Settle down

For twenty years they’ve been married
And they did everything that could be done
You know, they have their fun.

And then you come along and talk about it:
“So you, you say you wanna be married,
I’m gonna change your mind.
Oh, gotta change it.”

That was the good side, baby
Here comes the bad side.

For ten years they’ve been married
A thousand kids went around hungry
‘Cause their Momma's a louse
Daddy’s down at the whiskey house.

That ain’t all,
For three years they’ve been married
They don’t get along so good,
They’re tired of each other.
You know how that goes,

She got another lover.
Hah, same old thing.

So now you’re seventeen
You run around hangin’ out
And having your fun
Life for you has just begun, baby.

And then you come sayin’:
“So you, you say you wanna be married.
I ain’t ready to get married,
I ain’t ready.
I’m gonna change your mind.

I ain’t ready to get tied down
I ain’t ready, I ain’t ready now
Let me live a little while longer

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Fellowship of Peculiar People

My father is a complex character. As he has gotten older, I have been increasingly aware that I will not have him with me forever. It is for that reason that I’ve sought communication with him more frequently, trying to catalog his life’s history. Dad’s story is, in many respects, my own.

In our most recent conversation, he expressed ambivalence and a kind of survivor’s guilt. We tend to speak more of the past than we do of the present or future these days. What he said surprised me, especially when I’d earlier heard him speak contemptuously of one particularly odious proxy war.

“Sometimes I’m glad I didn’t go to Vietnam,” he stated, “but sometimes I wish I had.”

Life can pivot on two choices that lay in front of us and which one we took. Religious conviction aside, I’m glad that my father didn’t enlist. Now that I’m an adult, I ask him for advice and value his opinion in a way I did not when I was much younger. I know I will have him several more years, God willing, but every visit home he has lost more hair and is a little more unsteady on his feet.

He lost a friend in active combat. One of his classmates from high school wanted to be gung-ho and prove his masculinity, so he qualified for the Marines. Following the grueling drills, the friend was deployed immediately. In proof that war is cruel and ironic, months of specialized training were never put to the test. He was dropped by helicopter into a heavy firefight, took perhaps two or three steps forward on solid ground, and was killed by enemy fire. From start to finish, he died within ten seconds of touching down.

Before I lived in DC, the family took a trip to Washington. Dad made a point of visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and scouring the names to find the one belonging to his friend. That was the first time he publicly shed tears and probably one of the last. I remember the discomfort on my mother’s face, responding to the grief on his. Dad recalled the last time he’d seen his buddy alive. The thing to do in those seemingly carefree days was to work on cars or rebuild older ones for racing. The friend had been appropriately cocky and full of bravado, a true believer in the cause. This is not a difficult stance to adopt, I have observed, when a person is only 18 years old.

Dad stayed out of Vietnam for a myriad of reasons. For one, his draft number was very high, making it unlikely he would be selected. His best friend’s father was a well-connected and wealthy lawyer, with significant sway over the local county’s draft board. Quietly, behind the scenes, my father’s name was removed from the rolls. Dad never found out until many years later. To not take any chances, Dad became a state trooper, because being a part of law enforcement usually disqualified a man for military service.

I write extensively about being Quaker and the particulars of Quaker identity. Should conscription be reinstated, I would need to file for Conscientious Objector status. I’m fairly certain I have enough of a paper trail, a personal conviction, and people willing to testify on my behalf to keep me out of war. I have been fortunate to live in a time when an all-volunteer army is sufficient and when conscription has not been in effect.

Unlike my father, I don’t believe that wars are inevitable or that I somehow belong on the battlefield. I’m supposed to remove the occasion for all wars, which is to say that I am to short-circuit conflict wherever I see it, be it militarily or even in my personal life and daily dealings. I fall short, but I vow to do better next time. Unchecked grievances between people can be the first steps towards a hot war. A dangerous spiral continues and instead of a fight between two people, we have a fight between two nations.

Friends have their own ambivalent attitudes, especially when it comes to the Old Testament, which is full of wars and rumors of wars. A famous passage from the Book of Joel reads this way.

"Proclaim this among the nations: Prepare for war! Rouse the warriors! Let all the fighting men draw near and attack. Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears; let the weak say, “I am a warrior.”

This would seem to contradict Quaker pacifism and its reliance upon the Sermon on the Mount. The Early Friends must have seemed like eccentrics to be eager to lay down their weapons. Giving women equal voice in Worship must have been unbelievably odd or even threatening to the average person. I personally perceive of Quakerism as a feminist religion, but I know others might not interpret it the same way as I do.

Once more, I’ll use a particular quote to emphasize what I mean. In his day, Samuel Johnson was a writer and noted wit. He was also curtly dismissive of this new sect, the Religious Society of Friends, even resorting to a kind of sexism thankfully not seen as frequently in our own times.

I told him I had been that morning at a meeting of the people called Quakers, where I had heard a woman preach. 
"Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."

Quakers have long identified themselves as peculiar people. Until recently, I assumed this meant that we were strange as personalities and odd in our manner of Meeting for Worship. In fact, this is not so. I am mistaken but gratefully so. A passage of the New Testament book of 1 Peter is the source of this quotation. It is only found in the King James Version. Subsequent translations attempt to convey a more concise meaning for the modern day by removing three crucial words.

But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light:

In this verse, Peter is not saying that Christians or believers are odd or unusual people, even though the world often looks at us that way. What this passage is communicating is that Christians or believers are people who belong to God, they are his own possession. Another way of saying it is that believers are “God’s own special people.”

Being thought of as peculiar is a great compliment, not an insult!

"God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. God blesses those who are humble, for they will inherit the whole earth. God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be satisfied. God blesses those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 
God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God. God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs. God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers."

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Quote of the Week

"One of the oldest and perhaps the noblest of human aspirations has been the abolition of poverty. By poverty I mean the grinding by undernourishment, cold and ignorance and fear of old age of those who have the will to work.

We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land. The poorhouse is vanishing from among us. We have not yet reached the goal, but given a chance to go forward with the policies of the last eight years, and [sic] we shall soon with the help of God be in sight of the day when poverty will be banished from this Nation.

There is no guarantee against poverty equal to a job for every man. That is the primary purpose of the economic policies we advocate."- Herbert Hoover

Saturday, March 08, 2014

What (Some) Friends Believe

Every calendar year, my Meeting conducts a Spiritual State of the Meeting survey. With time, the data collected from those who voluntarily submit their opinions will be transformed into a report. It will then be presented at Meeting for Business and sent to Yearly Meeting. Now that I am no longer a member of Ministry and Worship, I believe I can speak to what has long been resting on my heart. Everyone knows the problem, but only a few are willing to provide suggestions or engage actively in reform efforts.

SurveyMonkey is a rich resource, one that displays Truth in the words of members and regular attenders. We’ve used SurveyMonkey the past few years to compile results. Once, around a year ago, I mentioned this tactic at a conference with the clerk of her own committee. She found it very amusing and I admit I was a little embarrassed. In a Meeting our size, no other choice exists.

Numerical information that speaks to who we are and where we worship is shared early with the entire Meeting community, but that’s only 20% of the survey. Most written comments, I report with disappointment, are suppressed by the committee. This is a decision made because a handful are provocative (though not profane). The fear is that these remarks will grow and swell into a large drama storm that will require lots of damage control to put out the flames.

This is unfortunate, because written responses like these hold a needed mirror to the Meeting. The fear is that they will be inflammatory, but I counter that these honest remarks are much less so than many in leadership may think. Many hard truths are present, the sort others need to hear, provided they are willing to remove years of wax from their ears. I wonder how many have hardened their hearts like the Old Testament Pharaoh, or the Pharisees of the Gospels.

I’ve picked three profound responses from last year, the ones that didn’t make the final cut.

This survey is NOT a good way to figure out the State of the Meeting. My experience is that group Worship Sharing would be far more effective. I could suggest a series of evenings or afternoons of Worship Sharing as a better means to craft this.

I understand the good intention of this suggestion. However, keeping to the present format is the best way to compile information. A series of Worship Sharing sessions, while they surely would be unifying, is not tenable. They would cut down on participation precipitously because relatively few people would have the time to commit to even one. This particularly would be true with parents who have small children. As imperfect as this online-based data collection system is, it’s the only one that has ever given us a much fuller, more complete response.

While I welcome and respect those with different conceptions of God than my own, I do believe that there are certain aspects of Quakerism that are inherent in our belief structure and cannot be changed. There need to be clear guidelines as to what these structures are. We need to hold consistent and comprehensive education efforts as to where these values come from and why we believe them. We should encourage both old and new Quakers to participate. If someone does not feel lead to these ideas, we need to acknowledge that not everyone is moved to be Quaker.

Having recently written a column seeking to understand the views of Non-Theist Friends, my response here is on record. I do believe that my Meeting and even liberal Quakerism as a whole has sacrificed diversity for unity. We have years of established precedent, and it is an affront to the Early Friends who underwent severe persecution for some to want to completely excise that part of our history. In some ways, it reminds me of counseling a friend who was having marital problems. He wanted out and I said, “Do you want to throw away ten years together?”

I’ve known God even as a young child and view him with love and obedience. I wish others would. While I do believe in the concept of continuing revelation, this is not the form it should take. Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “In matters of style, swim with the current. In matters of principle, stand like a rock.”  
I would avoid using the word God, as that may cause people not to take us seriously on political or other conversations, but freely use the testaments of Quakerism. And there are now several scientific studies that the values inherent in Quakerism lead to more lasting and sustainable peace and healthier societies.

We have one of two options here. Either we can surrender the right to refer to our maker, or we can risk being seen wrongly. This writer is clearly afraid of being mistakenly viewed as a right-wing zealot. In all fairness, we’re viewed wrongly every day, for a variety of reasons, often when we are unaware of it. Our religious beliefs aren’t the half of it. But reducing who we are for less threatening Testimonies or statements of faith which were based upon God’s guidance (and Scriptural passages) is compromising our identity as Quakers.

Reducing religion to a science is a huge problem. One cannot reduce God to scientific terminology. Science insists upon concrete proof, theories, and laws. Faith demands our belief and compliance when we cannot see concrete proof through human means. I have felt the presence of God myself, but never in ways I could define; I’m completely okay with that and am willing to take God on his own terms. That’s simply what I call living my faith.

Everyone seems to identify some facet of the problem. Our issues are not from lack of awareness. One partial answer is that unity cannot proceed until people come to a greater shared understanding. In a Meeting full of lone wolves or those who take a short-sighted perspective, this is impossible. The Theist/Non-Theist divide is only one small sliver of a massive problem that preceded me, but is nonetheless my problem and everyone else's.

Saturday Video

When I look back, boy, I must have been green
Bopping in the country, fishing in a stream
Looking for an answer, trying to find a sign
Until I saw your city lights, honey, I was blind

They said, get back, honky cat
Better get back to the woods
Well, I quit those days and my redneck ways
And, oh, the change is gonna do me good

You better get back, honky cat
Living in the city ain't where it's at
It's like trying to find gold in a silver mine
It's like trying to drink whiskey from a bottle of wine

Well, I read some books, and I read some magazines
About those high-class ladies down in New Orleans
And all the folks back home, well, said I was a fool
They said, oh, believe in the Lord is the golden rule

They said, get back, honky cat
Better get back to the woods
Well, I quit those days and my redneck ways
And, oh, the change is gonna do me good

They said, get back, honky cat
Better get back to the woods
Well, I quit those days and my redneck ways
And, oh, the change is gonna do me good

They said, stay at home, boy, you gotta tend the farm
Living in the city, boy, is going to break your heart
But how can you stay when your heart says no?
How can you stop when your feet say go?

They said, get back, honky cat
Better get back to the woods
Well, I quit those days and my redneck ways
And, oh, the change is gonna do me good

You better get back, honky cat
Living in the city ain't where it's at
It's like trying to find gold in a silver mine
It's like trying to drink whiskey from a bottle of wine

Oh, yeah

Get back, honky cat
Get back, honky cat
Get back

Thursday, March 06, 2014

The Baby Bust and Other Current Trends

I hasten to write a trend piece because the conclusions drawn are often very subjective. My surroundings dictate my views, and living in a large city on the East Coast may not correspond well to the rest of the country. Even so, my informal study might have resonance beyond a major metropolitan area. Class, race, ethnicity, religion, and a myriad of socio-economic factors, among others, are crucial towards understanding.

What I can say, based on a large sample of my friends and acquaintances, is this. Liberal, middle class, highly educated Caucasian young adults are shunning having children. By an exceedingly rough estimate, I would say that no more than 10% of the people who fit the particular criteria I’ve just defined are willing or even interested in procreation. This significant change in attitudes has taken root in the course of a generation or thereabouts. My own parents, by contrast, started having kids when my mother was 24. My mother wanted children immediately after marriage, which for her was at age 19, but decided against it.

If I followed my parents’ course of action, I’d have a nine year old by now, in addition to two other younger children. The mere thought alone is enough to give me a panic attack. But I am appreciative. I’m glad my parents always wanted me and my sisters. Had my mother not had such a severe labor with her youngest child, my parents' plan was for four kids, not three. I have a heartfelt respect for people who want to be parents, because I know I never could. This isn’t some sort of selfish sentiment on my part, but rather a reflection on my unfeasibility as anyone’s father.  

One of the most influential variables these days regarding having children is cost of living and location, location, location. Washington, DC, is an expensive city to call home, and in still-uncertain economic times, being able to afford even a single child is a tall order. I’m 33 and most of my friends range from 27-35, though not exclusively so. Those of us who have coupled up or gotten married usually have no plans to have kids, or if we do, we’re willing to put it off for several more years. An acquaintance of mine badly wants children of her own, but wants to complete her training as a therapist and be established in private practice before she even considers a pregnancy.

Alarmist, opportunistic treatises pumped out by the Right warn white people to maintain their majority at all cost. These seek to stir up fears that any other ethnic and cultural group will, when it is finally its time in charge, surely resort to punitive measures to avenge past discrimination. One finds this view far and wide. Harlem-based, reactionary black Pastor James David Manning has admonishing his congregation and, in effect, all African-Americans that Mexicans will soon be signing their paychecks. Pat Buchanan wrote a best-selling book on the topic, geared towards whites, which was slightly less inflammatory, but no less offensive.

Even if these racist, fear mongering notions had any validity, one cannot reverse the trends already in place. For two and a half years, I saw a therapist who worked in a clinic designed primarily for low-income residents. The area of town in which it is located, Columbia Heights, is predominately Latino. While waiting to be seen, I saw several young Hispanic mothers with multiple children, often pushing baby strollers and trying to supervise several kids at once. This is the face of the new Baby Boom.

I am not sure how they do it and for that, they have my deepest respect. By contrast, one of my doctors, a woman on the lower end of thirty, is married to an oral surgeon. Neither of them have the time to be helicopter parents, even if they were so inclined. The two of them have to rely on nannies for primary child rearing and make time for their three children when they can. Circumstances like these are increasingly rare, and if income levels like theirs were the norm, you’d see many more young white women with babies, though to be fair you’d probably see white kids being pushed in strollers by Latinos and African-Americans.

One child appears to be the maximum for many, should they have children in their late twenties or thirties. Many women have kept to a single birth beyond that, even waiting well into their forties and sometimes beyond. Once they’ve been established in a career path and achieved a relatively stable income, they feel that they can now be effective parents and give their kids the economic advantages needed to succeed. One woman I know had her first child at the age of 47 for the same reason and never intends to have another.

Many of my friends in their late twenties place more of an emphasis upon themselves. I wouldn’t call this selfish, as some commentators have. They’re the sort to move into a recently gentrified part of the District, a dubiously safe neighborhood of the city more to cut their rent in half than to be a trendy urban pioneer. The money saved is for traveling, be it to spend time with a friend from college or a former co-worker living in a different city. Not being coupled frees up their income. They’re not quite ready to settle down yet, so for a while, they enjoy being a rolling stone that gathers no moss. Washington, DC, is a very transient city in general, one where few people put down roots, which explains some of this wanderlust, but not all of it.

As I return to my sample, considering friends who are coupled, married, or single, I contemplate the similarities. Following World War II, returning servicemen had kids by the bushels in the so-called Baby Boom. Areas of town not far from where I live now were developed to provide roofs over heads and a modicum of home for those now eager to start families. Generation X and the Millennials have other priorities. I predict that the existing state of being will only continue. Americans will see an increasingly sharp number of young white married couples with no children and should they wish to be parents, they will only have one.

I emphasize again that the trends of one large city on the East Coast should not speak for the entire country. Working-class whites, often situated in more rural settings, are much more likely to sire children. One of my cousins, by way of my father’s side of the family, married in her late teens and had children shortly thereafter. This is a view that is conveniently not taken into account. I think Chris Rock put it best.

But not all people on welfare are black. There are white people on welfare too. But we can’t give a fuck about them!  Broke-ass mothafuckas, livin’ in trailer homes, eating mayonnaise sandwiches, fuckin' their sisters, listening to John Melloncamp records!

I grew up in suburban Birmingham, Alabama, in an affluent city south of town called Hoover. The South is much more traditional than the rest of the country and may always be. Getting married early was routine, as was settling down and starting a family. Being married right after college or in one’s early Twenties was not unusual. In DC, those same times in a person’s life were to be earmarked to explore the new freedom and independence of college. As graduation loomed, frivolities were pushed aside. Now began the inevitable path towards training and preparing for a serious job.

It’s a matter of priorities, once again, regardless of a person’s skin color, checking account balance, or level of education. Whenever it is that white people are no longer the majority in the United States, I could not even begin to tell you what to expect from it. I’m not especially afraid of change. We have no reliable or pertinent historical examples to give us a glimpse into the future. I’m fairly sure that no matter what, the wheels will keep spinning, and politicians will continue to disappoint us, regardless of their last name, what language they speak, or their own cultural experience.