Monday, June 30, 2014

Quote of the Week

"We are in a strange period of history in which a revolutionary has to be a patriot and a patriot has to be a revolutionary."-George Orwell

Weddings, Not Nearly As Objectionable As You Might Be Led to Believe

Being that we are now several days into June, with July almost upon us, wedding season has arrived with great abandon. Three invitations have arrived in my mailbox thus far, some elaborate, some simple. I’ve freshly returned from one, finding the experience quite charming, but at the same time feeling no reason to tarry very long, even in the company of seven separate homemade pies.

No need to wear out my welcome or engage in boring, but heartfelt conversation. I no longer consume alcohol, which would have been an option to pass the time some years ago, assuming I’d been able to find someone to drive me home. It was fortunate that three mutual friends of the bride were also in attendance. Otherwise, I’d have been a fish out of water.

I’ve begun by telling my own story, but I’d much rather relate someone else’s. I’m an observer, not an active participant. It has been my understanding that many, usually female feminists have intensely conflicted feelings about marriage. Several highly ambivalent, exceptionally conflicted columns written by feminist writers trickle out about this time of year.

Unsure about precisely how they feel about such a Patriarchal, oppressive ritual, while still straining to see its worth, they opt for a middle ground. The language written takes the familiar on-one-hand-but-on-another-hand argument common to such matters.

I’ve heard all of these arguments and have agreed with most of them. But even so, women keep wishing to plan and go through the wedding experience, regardless of how elaborate or simple they wish for them to be. Unwedded and uncoupled women still live vicariously through the life of the bride, waiting time for it to be their turn to purchase a wedding dress and repeat this same pattern.

Ritual aside, men see marriage as confirmation that they have finally reached full adulthood. I recognize that I’m not including analysis of same-sex weddings, which would require additional insight. The wedding I experienced yesterday was of the heterosexual variety.

I am friends with the bride, a person whose extreme kindness to me over several years makes her, in my eyes, a very good example upon which to live my own life. Regarding her choice of partner, she is different than many women would be. Her now-husband has a severe speech impediment and partial facial paralysis. He speaks with a strong lisp and some of his mannerisms leave him looking physically impaired. If you can look past those shortcomings, he’s an articulate, funny, warm guy, but it’s indeed sad to say that some women probably would not view him as husband material. 

Men aren’t usually solicited about their opinion regarding pending nuptials. For them, weddings seem to be ceremonies that are more endured than relished, but even so the act of reciting vows and putting on wedding rings has brought many men to tears. Not every man dodges marriage for life: feminist, male ally, or regular guy.

When it is my turn, I will gladly go through as much ceremony to which Friends ever resort. In the company of my family, my Quaker Meeting community, and a few close friends, I will stand before everyone. Quaker weddings focus most of the attention on the two people getting married, which is how I think it needs to be. There is no officiating minister, as Friends believe that God alone marries two people, not a priest or minister of any sort.  

This weekend, I was not the first to notice that the bride and groom both were well-matched with each other. Though no one can ever tell for certain, it would not surprise me if they stayed together for life. These sorts of optimistic thoughts are what make me attend weddings in the first place, even though it’s difficult for me to shed tears or get caught up in the moment.

I’ve been to one or two where I seriously questioned how well the couple had contemplated the matter of being together for life, which definitely created a great deal of cynicism in me.  Returning to the good side, I have no issue with marital vows and the general plans that have been given care and thoughtfulness by both the presumptive groom and the bride.

Nothing I observed yesterday would fit in a romantic comedy. There were no entirely unnecessary fights, no catty comments, no spontaneous detours in fast automobiles, no one left at the altar. Normal had to suffice. Two families who did not know each other very well hoped to make acquaintances and made awkward, tentative strides. In time, I’m sure they will grow closer. For now, their child or relative is married to another family’s child and relative. Feminist dogma seems a little hyperbolic when one confronts such yawning formality, such banality.

And while I was there, I thought about my parents’ own marriage. My mother was strongly influenced by the second-wavers, the so-called women’s libbers. But when her own wedding came around, she re-thought some of her original reservations. Her wedding to my father was a Spartan affair. Ten guests were in attendance, all close family. No catering. No bachelorette party. No wedding reception. They were both too poor for any of the trappings. Mom was 19 and still in college. My father was 24 and certainly wasn’t rich.

The wedding was held at the parents of the bride. I’m told that my father was so nervous prior to the ceremony that my grandmother gave him a Valium. Mom could never understand why he was calm and relaxed throughout the whole of the ceremony, when she was a nervous wreck. I have a copy of the pictures taken there, where I see two young people nervously, but eagerly asserting to form a new life for each other, one that would soon include three children.

It’s the same look I saw in the eyes of the recently married couple yesterday. Before I breathe my last, I’m sure I’ll see it again, and again. Nothing I viewed up close for myself gave me reason to give pause. Instead, I had reason to give thanks. In time, they have let it be known that they will be raising their first child. I’m glad it’s not me, but I’m grateful that it will be them.

"I am the Alpha and the Omega--the beginning and the end," says the Lord God. "I am the one who is, who always was, and who is still to come--the Almighty One."

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Camp, Conferences, and Evasive Behavior

Now that the start of summer has been formally reached, it’s the time for the young to experience a particularly cherished rite of passage. By this I mean camp. The theories long-propagated by organizers promise the comforting nature of steady, close contact of one’s peers. They envision the sort of constant, positive interaction which produces lifelong friends.

It is true that you might meet a handful of fast friends there, formerly complete strangers, with whom you will stay in touch forever. Yet, these experiences are, far too often, a minority result that doesn't particularly hold up in reality. Parents of students seek to outdo themselves, ensuring that their children have the best camp and vacation experience possible, but in seeking perfection, they overlook a particular blind spot. One crucial distinction cannot be corrected by programming alone.

Here is what usually happens. The close proximity to each camper often facilitates superficially close relationships, for a time. Each eventually opens up with secrets usually guarded and concealed; it is a tactic that usually creates distance in the end, not unity. It might be healthy, from a psychological standpoint, but the fear of transparency, either as a child or as an adult, eventually pushes people away from each other. Friendships made in camp or in conference usually stay there.

During our adult life we copy the same evasive patterns. Thoughtful organizers make sure to give us e-mail lists and phone numbers, to better facilitate forming the friendships and acquaintances sparked by weeks, perhaps even months of intimacy. And yet, few pick up the phone or type e-mails with the intention of keeping in touch with a bunk-mate or a partner during a workshop. I cannot understand why. What are we afraid of, really?

We might well be seen as risk-averse creatures, keeping ourselves protected from some perceived slight. Failing that, our politeness might well be surface and we may have compartmentalized our life, forming invisible laws and rules about who we trust to be a friend. The moment we do that, we prevent community from forming

As adults, we can generate lots of excuses. Work is too busy. I volunteer for a particular cause. I just don’t have the time. These are excuses, but they seem plausible enough, so we buy them. The most perceptive of us know that they’re only lies or at least half-truths. We claim we don’t have a need for more friends, because that might upset the house of cards lifestyle we’ve been living. As a Christian, I believe that we must form loving communities in order to make the world function as it should. Many people well before my time have discussed and championed the same basic ideas I’m advancing here, concepts first articulated well before the day I was born.

The concerns of children are more plausible and easier to excuse. Lacking driver’s licenses, their mobility is restricted. Every year they are congregated into classes with the same teacher and the same students. They’re constantly forming friendships or avoiding them, and so camp is just an extension of the other nine months of the year. They have much to teach us, or, failing that, our own past could serve as an instructive lesson.

Adults in the work world might be required to attend a conference or a professional development seminar, but it’s not the same. The focus is on work, not on socialization. This is a shame, now that we are busy enough to leave no room in our lives for friendship.

We keep talking about peace. Peace to me is built upon mutual trust and understanding. It is based on real relationships where two or more people are not overly preoccupied with the supposed priorities of their lives. This process requires vulnerability, the very same vulnerability I have been carping about for years. I don’t think that we’re thoughtless people. I think we’re easily distracted and quick to confuse what ought to be our true priorities.

We will not have climate change reform if we do not open up to each other. We will not prevent the eroding away of Roe v. Wade if we do not open up to each other. We will not continue the progress of marriage equality. We will not establish complete parity between men and women, particularly when we consider that a woman still makes 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. These are only a few examples, but I list them here to state that we must reach out a hand to a total stranger or two to see our goals through to the end.  

I believe in organized religion because at its core, not its perversion and lust for power, religion seeks to find ways for very different people to live together. This is our task and our goal. We must stop dividing ourselves and find ways to bring ourselves together. I’m not the first person to say this and I know I won’t be the last. Let us act like John the Baptist and prepare the way for the Lord. This is our God-given leading.

Saturday Video

Nobody made you
Do what you`d done
Nobody told you
What you`d become

If you believe
That you get what you gave
Don`t turn around
Just give it away

Oh Jim
Oh Jim
Can you feel the pain I`m in?

Oh Jim
Oh Jim
Can I leave it all behind

I`m OK
When you`re OK
I feel fine
When you feel fine

Got no pain
No sense no shame
Roll on by
And put a smile on my face

Oh Jim
Oh Jim
Can you feel the pain I`m in

Oh Jim
Oh Jim
Can I leave it all behind

So how does it feel
To be free?
So far away
I wish it was me
Yes, I wish it was me

Oh Jim
Oh Jim
Can you feel the pain I`m in?

Oh Jim
Oh Jim
Can I leave it all behind?

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Welcome to the Working Week

Now that your picture's in the paper being rhythmically admired
and you can have anyone that you have ever desired,
all you gotta tell me now is why, why, why, why.

Welcome to the workin' week.
Oh I know it don't thrill you, I hope it don't kill you.
Welcome to the workin' week.
You gotta do it till you're through it so you better get to it.

All of your family had to kill to survive,
and they're still waitin' for their big day to arrive.
But if they knew how I felt they'd bury me alive.

Welcome to the workin' week.
Oh I know it don't thrill you, I hope it don't kill you.
Welcome to the workin' week.
You gotta do it till you're through it so you better get to it.

I hear you sayin', "Hey, the city's all right
when you only read about it in books.
Spend all your money gettin' so convinced
that you never even bother to look.

Sometimes I wonder if we're livin' in the same land,
Why d'you wanna be my friend when I feel like a juggler
running out of hands?

Welcome to the workin' week, oh, welcome to the working week.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A Prayer for Persistence and Reform

Mr. Camp, it is my professional opinion that you have bipolar disorder.

Many people who have been informed of bad news like this take it differently than I did. They describe their immediate reaction like a punch to the gut, as though this means that their life is over. My original psychiatric diagnosis was treatment-resistant depression, which meant that this news was not unexpected. For three or four years before that particular moment, I’d been hanging on by my fingernails, trying to manage the pain. Keeping out of the hospital whenever possible was my main goal. By then, I took several daily medications, drugs I’d long since accepted I’d need to take the rest of my life.

That said, I wouldn’t downplay what I was told. It changed my life. The milder hypomanic episodes I’d already been experiencing could now be rightly categorized for the first time. I waited for the first major episode to arrive with baited breath, knowing that it could strike at any time. Mania, for lack of a better term, tends to fry the brain. Today, I recognize that the way I think and perceive those around me has been dramatically changed.

Mania makes many hyper-religious. In the middle of an episode, I speak like a seminar student or evangelical minister. I am religious by nature, a quality that usually leads those around me towards conclusions that are plausible, but aren’t always correct. Once, a few years ago, I had to have bladder surgery. In the recovery room, I remember telling the nurse stationed nearby the full story of the Religious Society of Friends, dating from the 1640’s. She was a Mormon and found my anecdotes interesting. I imagine emerging from anesthesia causes strange behavior in many.

I believe that the trying, troublesome times I have experienced have given me the ability to better know God. It bothers me how many people my own age don’t believe. I do respect their own journey, but I wonder if they've never been adequately schooled in how to develop a relationship with the Divine. Though I’m glad I left Alabama, I miss the ability to be public about religious belief. Yankees are private about such matters, limiting sharply their religious discourse with others, losing the opportunity to grow their numbers in the process.

Depending on how you parse the statistics, religious belief continues to hold steady, or it is completely eroding away. To me, God is alive, but to some, he is dead. Urban, liberal Quakers have been losing membership for years, but the same is true for urban, liberal believers of any faith group. A month or so ago, a reader left a comment on a blog post of mine, stating that the reason he remained a non-believer for years was that his parents kept no religious observance of their own. Baby boomers cast a skeptical eye towards religion, one they frequently passed on to their children.

My job is to fight against this belief, however I can. The work is difficult. The young adults who are attracted to my Meeting usually do not hang around for long. 80% of them attend once or twice and then move elsewhere. They’re dabblers by nature. Even so, it deserves to be said that more conservative houses of worship have similar problems. The people I’ve described are often termed “the inert.” They stay on membership rolls, but rarely participate more than a minimum. In other settings and other causes, the inert exist there too, producing in organizers great frustration.

Not all Quakers are created equal, or created with equal beliefs. I am allied with two separate branches of the Religious Society of Friends, one of which patently refuses to do mission work, and the other which considers proselytizing and winning souls for Christ essential. Because of the work of this branch, there are now more Friends in Kenya and Bolivia than the whole of North America. I feel personally torn. Quakers now comprise less than 1% of the population in North America. At our heyday in the 19th Century, we only made up a paltry 3% of the United States. We’ve been losing ground for a long time and unlike many of the mainline faith groups, we never had far to go from the outset.

The recent Young Adult conference I attended included participants from Africa and those with Latin American roots, in addition to those with Jewish heritage who now identify as Quaker. This is a good start, but like every group, faith, or movement that is predominately Caucasian, we have had a persistent issue with attracting people of color. A book popular among Friends is entitled Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship. The issue is known, and yet still we struggle. The title speaks about our reluctance to count among us black members, even as we took substantial risks in establishing full civil rights for recently freed slaves.

I can’t help but worry sometimes that I’m fighting an uphill battle. Feminists worry the same thing about their own numbers, which have shrunk considerably since their apex in the 1970’s. There is never any lack of committed leaders, but the breakthrough to the next level is what everyone seeks. Leadership without followers is not enough. Following does not mean giving up one’s agency. I follow Jesus, but I do not surrender my unique God-given path in the process. This is what many fail to recognize about religious faith. We are not robots, doing the same task as the robot next to us. It is possible to serve God in more than one way.

Bipolar seemed daunting at the time, but I attacked a substantial problem step by step. I try to keep this in mind with every conversation I have and every column I write. I’ve been on medications long enough that I make room for them in my life. My work to make myself well is a continual struggle, but I believe that life is not meant to be easy. No worthwhile crusade comes easily and it never will.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

This Boy

That boy
Took my love away
Though he'll regret it someday
But this boy wants you back again

That boy
Isn't good for you
Though he may want you too
This boy wants you back again

Oh, and this boy would be happy just to love you
But oh my-I-I
That boy won't be happy
'Til he's seein' you cry

This boy
Wouldn't mind the pain
Would always feel the same
If this boy gets you back again

This boy
This boy
This boy

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Fear that Hate Produced

In recent months and years, feminists and women's rights activists have been making extra effort to show the direct impact of rape culture. In particular, they've used first person narratives to great effect. Each of these graphic and at times lurid accounts is told from a female perspective, that of the victim. Many of them focus on rapes and sexual assaults committed on college campuses, offenses that are rarely prosecuted.

Women in these situations rarely have much control over the way a police investigation and criminal prosecution proceeds, if it proceeds. As a man, I recognize that, in this situation, I don’t have the ability to fully relate to my sisters. But I can talk about another aspect of the proceedings that gets forgotten. Victims of sexual or emotional abuse sometimes, entirely without even intending to, negatively impact the people of either sex who they take into their confidence.

I want it to be known up front that I’m not a rape apologist. Rape is never acceptable for any reason, regardless of gender or age. What I do wish to impart is how past damage and abuse can create an atmosphere of extreme mistrust and, for some, very significant paranoia. Those who provide the impetus for the phobias and emotional damage they create in others should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. But what is left behind can be very problematic indeed.

Victims shouldn’t have to do extra work, but fair or not, they have no choice. Restoring themselves to the greatest emotional health possible is necessary effort, though it is effort that is not fair and never will be fair. I have been in therapy for the most of my life. The gains I’ve made are substantial, but expensive and also time consuming. I shouldn't have had to take the time, but I decided long ago that mental health was a necessary life goal.

Men aren’t always aware of the healthy boundaries that we all should set for ourselves and for others around us. Because of this, they sometimes reach erroneous conclusions based on interactions with women who bear substantial scars. In a more perceptive world, men would immediately see the root causes and impact of psychological and physical damage. Moreover, they would have some understanding as to why the women with these maladies and challenges act a particular way around them.

Many men do not have this insight because they haven’t viewed it themselves, nor have they been confronted with the truth of the matter. The gory details frequently get hushed up and concealed, a fact feminists have pointed out and sought to reverse on numerous occasions. In this column, I’ve chosen to write about a series of experiences in my own life to show a different side of rape culture. To follow are the experiences of men who come in contact with women who have yet to process fully their own pain and sense of past violation.


We sat at a coffee shop, facing each other at a table. The talk had been insightful, detailed, and sometimes harrowing. Without my asking, she told me she had been molested by her father as a young girl. I could tell through subsequent insight that the damage was extensive, but what I’d been told already was bad enough.

I was raised to be more honest than normal with others. My approach towards truthful discourse was very different to someone else whose upbringing had not been my own. Feeling confident, I confided that I, too, had been a victim of childhood sexual abuse. It was my assumption from our shared similarities that we would now be much closer friends from then going forward. I was wrong.

Not long after, our relationship changed dramatically. Out of nowhere, with nothing so much as a warning, she demanded, by way of an e-mail, complete space and distance from me. For reasons never stated, she removed herself from a listserve where I was an active contributor. Additionally, she removed me from her list of Facebook friends. Minutes later, she e-mailed the moderator of the online community of which we had both been a member, stating that I made her feel unsafe and she wanted no further contact with me.

We never spoke again, she made no further allegations, and no one else got in touch with me. I was honestly perplexed, and as a male ally, entirely confused with her behavior.


I’d asked her if she’d be willing to have a drink with me. This was said in the computer lab where we were both enrolled as college students. The request seemed simple and straightforward enough. We never got around to mutual consumption of libations. I think I e-mailed once or twice to see if I could get the ball rolling. No reply.

Later in the week, she loudly confronted me in the hallways of a classroom building, screaming a stream of nonsensical concerns.

The volume was loud enough that a nearby professor conducting class came outside to talk to me. She expected a fight to be underway. Although the voice far down the corridor carried well, I was a long way away, strategically placed on the other side of the hallway. The instructor waited for the screaming to die down, then re-entered her classroom. She was satisfied that no crisis was imminent.

Much of what had been said was incoherent, but a few repeated words and phrases failed to escape my notice.

“You’re crazy!” she’d said. “I think you’re going to rape me!”

A few days later, purely by coincidence, I passed by her dorm on my way to somewhere else on campus. I had no idea she lived there, as I was rarely present in that part of resident housing. She was standing in the front of the entrance to the dorm where she lived, smoking a cigarette.

“You scare me,” she said. I certainly had not intended to produce this effect. I kept my eyes down as I passed her by, forcing myself to think about something else.


She’d already distanced herself from a physically and emotionally abusive boyfriend. Everyone had known about the destruction he’d caused in her life, but it took her months to finally leave him.

She was in one of my classes and part of a group assignment. Using the bound paper directory provided to me, I looked her name up and punched the digits into my phone.

Her voice was panicked from the instant I said hello. “How did you get this number? How do you know where I live? Where did you find me?”

I’d meant to ask about an assignment from class, but found immediately that this would be a request she would be unable to fulfill. I hung up with her panicked, fearful cry still ringing in my ears.

Two weeks later, I found she had filed a police report against me. Due to lack of evidence, the report was not pursued further.


The two of us had been communicating regularly, mostly online. There came a time when, having developed feelings for her, I wanted to let her know them. I knew I was taking a risk, but the time seemed to be right.

“You know,’ I said, “I think you’re really beautiful.”

She didn’t smile or say "thank you", as I had been expecting. Instead, she grimaced and walked away. From then on, I was told by way of an e-mail I was not to contact her again, except through her blog, where she could moderate my comments. I wasn’t sure what I’d done, but obligingly commented on her blog for a month or two, to let her know I was really a harmless, nice guy.


One of my favorite female writers was only an e-mail away. In additional to admiring her skills at the written word, I wanted the opportunity to small talk with her, even if it was only sporadic and not especially substantial. I wrote a page long conversational e-mail about a variety of subjects I thought might interest her. Surely there was something present that could stimulate further communication.

I went a week without a reply, then I tried again. The format of the second letter was similar, but I tried to be more eloquent and thoughtful this time around.

Within thirty seconds of sending my second e-mail, I received a blunt, and very hurtful reply.


And as the hurt descended, I realized that this particular communique came from a person who didn’t want to know me. Making assumptions that I was somehow only intending to bother her or emotionally harm her, she’d entirely misread my intentions. Without additional information to prove her fears, I wasn’t sure why she felt that my friendly, good natured words needed to be treated as though I meant to do something terribly wrong. I wasn’t your average troll spouting insults or using psychological warfare to wound or needle. I only wanted to communicate with a personal hero.


Sometimes hate from someone else produces fear in us, which often swings around all the way to hate. Women who put their written ideas before an online audience learn to be thick-skinned, even though each of us, regardless of gender, resents being torn to shreds by criticism. I feel this way, too. In relationships, women sometimes end up with abusive partners. Sometimes men fool them into thinking otherwise and sometimes women haven't had enough life experiences to see the red flags they will eventually view plainly later in life.

I try to keep my own issues compartmentalized enough so that some unkind word or phrase doesn’t go straight to my core. I’ve experienced my share of childish hate and criticism. As long as I don’t let the eternally negative get underneath my skin, I’ve won. Being a feminist or advocate of women's rights requires one to develop strategies to keep us from confusing friend with foe, even though it's remarkably easy to do. Feminists are some of the strongest people I have ever met, but they sometimes have the propensity to jump to conclusions that serve their greater narrative.

It would be foolish to say that every woman's behavior and experiences are the identical to the anecdotes I've listed above, or every man's, for that matter. But even one strongly uncomfortable if not traumatic experience is bound to leave an impact, whether intentional or not. Though this is first and foremost my personal decision, I've gotten the professional help I need in order to avoid making an inadvertent painful impact on someone else. I don't want my still-unresolved emotions or judgments to get the best of me or for them to lead me or others in directions that are unhelpful. Recovery takes time for everyone, male or female.

I made mistakes and sometimes have been a victim of circumstance, but I didn't realize these decisions would be this detrimental. They seemed harmless enough. In the anecdotes I've shared above, my baggage and the baggage of those I've described formed a noxious compound, one that exploded into outright conflict. In our desire to race for prosecution and for justice to be done, we sometimes go too far. We can and should correct our behavior, but in clamoring for justice we have to look at things even-handedly, from every perspective.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Quote of the Week

I had crossed the line of which I had so long been dreaming. I was free; but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom, I was a stranger in a strange land, and my home after all was down in the old cabin quarter, with the old folks, and my brothers and sisters. But to this solemn resolution I came; I was free, and they should be free also; I would make a home for them in the North, and the Lord helping me, I would bring them all there.-Harriet Tubman

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Saturday Video

I could slip, I could fall
In that mean and awful hall
With the other jealous bitches
And the bitter grumbling men

I could sneer, I could glare
Say that life is so unfair
And the one who made it, made it
’cause her breasts were really big

Well I don’t want to get bitter
I don’t want to turn cruel
I don’t want to get old before I have to

I could bitch, I could moan
Say I want to be left alone
But that’s not really true,
Because I like my time with you

'Till you rant and you rave
Wishing fat folks to their grave
But I feel sorry for them
You say they get what they deserve

Well I don’t want to get bitter
I don’t want to turn cruel
I don’t want to get old before I have to

And I don’t want to get jaded
Petrified and weighted
I don’t want to get bitter like you

Like you, with the darts in your eyes
Like you, with disdain for mankind
I was charmed, now I wonder

I don’t want to get bitter
I don’t want to turn cruel
I don’t want to get old before I have to

So I’ll smile with the rest
Wishing everyone the best
And know the one who made it,
Made it ’cause she was actually pretty good

But I don’t want to get bitter
I don’t want to turn cruel
I don’t want to get old before I have to

And I don’t want to get jaded
Petrified and weighted
I don’t want to get bitter like you

I don’t want to get bitter
I don’t want to turn cruel
I don’t want to get old before I have to

And I don’t want to get jaded
Petrified and weighted
I don’t want to get bitter like you

Friday, June 20, 2014

An Excursion in Northern California

A work of fiction.

We met online by chance, completely by random. I picked the right AOL chat room and we started talking. Years later, I don’t remember the circumstance of how we formally met. All that I do recall is that we spent several hours each day pleasantly chatting for several months, well before we even had knowledge of the other's face. Before long, we confessed our romantic feelings for each other. We told this both to ourselves and to our friends close to home. I proposed a trip out to visit her in California. She said she’d have to ask her mother first, with whom she still lived.  

On the way to and from class, I asked my close confidantes for advice, because I was enrolled in college then and these were my primary group of confidantes. To a person, they did not approve, mostly because of the substantial age difference. I was 21 and she was 16. Though I didn’t check the laws on the books, I knew that in several states consummating this relationship would be considered statutory rape. This was a fact that did not escape those I consulted, either. One of my best friends of all, a woman, told me that I’d only end up turning her into a whore.

I proceeded forward in the face of considerable scrutiny from every direction. In retrospect, I remember nothing of the five hour flight to Sacramento. I’d never been to the West Coast, but my tour took me to former gold mining country, not its famously libertine cities. It had become white trash heaven, and then later it was home to many fleeing the oppressive cost of living in San Francisco. At the end of each day while I was there, I wrote down my thoughts onto an online journal. Before wireless internet and the prevalence of laptop computers, the internet café/coffee shop was my only option. There was much to process and the culture shock was profound.

Her courage online was, as I discovered, very superficial. When I stepped out of the aircraft to meet her and sought to collect my bags, what faced me was a terrified teenage girl who had not bathed in several days. We’d agreed to wear particular t-shirts to easily identify each other in the airport. Hers said, “It’s Wasn’t Me.” I've forgotten what mine said.

I was introduced to her mother after a thirty minute drive from the airport, a chat which was pleasant and friendly. The driver, her older brother, had a bad habit of riding the bumper of every car. I never understood his impatience on the narrow two line highways we traversed. Due to the double yellow line, it wasn't possible for him to careen across the median and get ahead of whichever car was slightly ahead. Eventually, we arrived. In an odd moment, the mother ushered me into a quiet, adjacent room, clearly wishing to speak to me about a matter of some importance.

“I want you to know that she is a virgin now and she’s going to stay a virgin for as long as you stay here.”

This was said with a smile, but her intentions were relayed to me effectively.

Message received. Later that day, however, her daughter and I took advantage of a minor catastrophe. One of the younger children had gotten separated from her mother on a cross-town bus. It took several frightening hours to find out where the child was, and my girlfriend and I took the opportunity, without supervision, to release some long pent up sexual tension. But first, firm boundaries were set, boundaries I respected, even though I wanted more than I received.

It took a while to fully realize my surroundings and where I was. I was keeping company with three people in intimate quarters, packed tightly into a small apartment. The third addition was an infant, who had recently been born unexpectedly to uncomprehending parents. The mother had been mistakenly told by a doctor that she could no longer have kids. They hadn’t used contraception because they were told it wasn’t necessary. Regardless of the circumstances, at 42, she delivered her fourth and final child, one which managed somehow to be conceived after tubes had been thoroughly tied and the matter had been seemingly reduced to an impossibility.  

Her much younger boyfriend was the father and was financially supporting the child, even though he'd had no intention of being a parent at the outset. He was stable and supportive, but he later told me he’d met his child’s mother at a male strip club. He wasn’t happy with the work he did there, but it paid the bills. He confided that it made him uncomfortable to strip for gay men, but he did it all the same. I wondered why a man like him with chiseled muscles, posing for beefcake calendar photos would opt for a woman years older than himself.   

My girlfriend worked with her mother at Burger King. Knowing no other career option, I speculated that she might well work here for years, following in the footsteps of those who had come before her. I was dropped off there for a few minutes slightly before it was time for shift change. I noticed that the rough and tumble Northern Californians were only part of the work force. Based on their clothing, piercings, tattoos, and basic attitude the transplants from the Bay area served as a tremendous contrast.

After the third day, I desperately wanted to go home. The family professed itself as white trash, and this would seem to be a well-fit description for all I had experienced. The blanket and bed sheets I slept on badly needed washing. Every room in the house was filthy and needed cleaning. The shower was stopped up and I quickly found myself in a pool of water reaching past my ankles. I wasn't sure how people could live like this and didn't want to find out.

I really knew I wanted to leave immediately when taken by my girlfriend’s older brother to visit his friends in town. They were potheads and I partook, but I felt strange and out of place in their company. Some days before, they’d decided to get rip roaring drunk and had taken a camera along to document the evidence. I saw picture after picture of people puking. The images showed tiny coiled snakes of vomit exiting their mouth, which would almost be artistic if they weren't so disgusting.

The male stripper drove me back to the airport at 5:30 in the morning, the day I was to leave. He talked about his job a little more, and the stops he’d made at different towns. Two or three years ago he’d worked in Alaska, and found he had mixed feelings during his stay. The cold was oppressive. It required fortitude and patience. He was glad to be in warmer settings, but I could tell he’d never vouched for a baby. All the way back to the airport, I knew this was my last trip, the end of a relationship that had never really started. I wanted to go back to a clean, well-maintained home where people felt a need to not wallow in their own filth.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Runaround Sue

Here's my story, it's sad but true
It's about a girl that I once knew
She took my love then ran around
With every single guy in town

Yeah I should have known it from the very start
This girl will leave me with a broken heart
Now listen people what I'm telling you
A keep away from a Runaround Sue

I might miss her lips and the smile on her face
The touch of her hair and this girl's warm embrace
So if you don't want to cry like I do
A keep away from-a Runaround Sue

Ah, she likes to travel around
She'll love you and she'll put you down
Now people let me put you wise
Sue goes out with other guys

Here's the moral and the story from the guy who knows
I fell in love and my love still grows
Ask any fool that she ever knew, they'll say
Keep away from-a Runaround Sue

Yeah keep away from this girl
I don't know what she'll doe
Keep away from Sue

She likes to travel around
She'll love you and she'll put you down
Now people let me put you wise
She goes out with other guys

Here's the moral and the story from the guy who knows
I fell in love and my love still grows
Ask any fool that she ever knew, they'll say
Keep away from a Runaround Sue

Stay away from that girl
Don't you know what she'll do now

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

DC Gentrification: A Decidedly Mixed Blessing

Ten years ago, I enrolled in grad school and began to get to know my classmates. I befriended two transplants from elsewhere who were several years older than me. I confided to them that I hoped to leave the Deep South behind someday. With a knowing chuckle, they told me that blue states were very expensive. While I heard them, I admit that I didn’t fully understand until years later.

In accordance with my wishes, the chance to leave behind my native region eventually arrived and I took it. Since then, I know something of what it is like to have an immigrant experience. Though I’m happy being a Washingtonian, I find that I still identify with the Old Country and likely always will. I am far from alone, since fully 70% of the residents of the District of Columbia are from elsewhere. In the past six years, I’ve viewed a cross-section of the District's character and observed the particulars up close for myself.

A recent article in The Washington Post discusses the unanticipated downside of living in a boomtown. Entitled “Millennials consider leaving Washington as the city becomes more costly,” I find that the column needlessly overgeneralizes, beginning with its headline. While it is true that the cost of living has increased and some businesses are relocating elsewhere, not everyone is flying the coop en masse. Washington is a transient city by its very nature. Many land here for what seems like a fraction of a second, knowing from the outset that their time is limited.

Transient residents often don’t build relationships with their neighbors, they note, and the churn could serve to perpetuate tensions between native Washingtonians and newcomers. Short-term residents also are less likely to pressure city government for services, like repairing roads and fixing streetlamps. And in local elections, newcomers often don’t vote.

Many people see their stay in DC as a means to an end. They enroll in an elite, highly competitive college, knowing at the outset that once graduation is achieved, they’ll head elsewhere. They work an internship or residence for a year, then consider the experience just another rung in their working career. DC, for many, is a resume-padder.  It’s always been this way and indeed, the system is set up for the short-term resident, rather than those in it for the long haul. Those who want to settle down and stay face additional challenges, like struggling with the financial ability to own a home or a condo.

It cuts both ways. The trend is felt by everyone, regardless of age or income. Longer-term DC residents often avoid building relationships with newcomers, assuming they will only leave eventually. In my own life, I found I had to demonstrate that I was in it for the long haul before anyone willingly incorporated me and took me seriously. Having seen half of my social network relocate for parts elsewhere has led me to adopt similar strategies, especially since saying goodbye has never been easy for me.  

The aforementioned Washington Post column highlights the lives of a young couple in their early 30’s, John Van Zandt and Florencia Fuensalida.

Like many millennials in their 30s, Van Zandt and Fuensalida have begun using a different sort of mental math to calculate whether they should stay:
 How much of their identity is tethered to the District? Is being able to walk to work and bars worth a lack of living space, especially when they seem to be overrun by the just-out-of-college set? Could they move to an up-and-coming neighborhood where crime is higher just to stay in the District?

Among liberals, it is trendy to be eco-friendly, but environmental causes are difficult to adopt when one has no choice but to buy a car. Everyone wants to do his or her part, even when many people are already heavily inconvenienced by the limitations of the world around them. The result is almost like a torturous exercise in aestheticism. I have no particular need to stake my claim as an urban pioneer, but I know many who do to get more space at lowered cost. Each of us pinches pennies somehow, as our priorities differ. 

Much of the blame in this article is placed upon the youngest set, who are in a very different place in their lives. From direct personal experience, I can attest that, while there may be a housing shortage, there is no shortage of recent college graduates flooding the job market. It has benefited me to remain anchored to a small apartment that is six decades old, but in good shape. Rent is nearly $1500 a month for a one-bedroom. Now I know what my classmates meant when they told me that blue states and blue cities were expensive.

The article concedes that the greater impact of this influx of young adult remains unknown. Indeed, in the heat of the action, it’s difficult to understand the current trends in totality. Washington may be suffering from a bit of an identity crisis. Does it wish to be the training capital of the world, content to be merely a stop along the way? Even with the new growth, DC has never really changed its modus operandi.

To visitors, DC is a tourist mecca. In contrast, its residents increasingly shape the city’s ingrained, East Coast, Type A character. Though they are different from the norm, in many ways these new immigrants are in the same mold as those who have always been drawn here. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Day After Day

I remember finding out about you
Every day, my mind is all around you
Looking out from my lonely room, day after day
Bring it home, baby, make it soon
I give my love to you

I remember holding you while you sleep
Every day, I feel the tears that you weep
Looking out of my lonely gloom, day after day
Bring it home, baby, make it soon
I give my love to you

Looking out of my lonely room, day after day
Bring it home, baby, make it soon
I give my love to you

I remember finding out about you
Every day, my mind is all around you
Looking out of my lonely gloom, day after day
Bring it home, baby, make it soon
I give my love to you.

Monday, June 16, 2014

George Will's Willful Ignorance

Last week, the conservative columnist George Will wrote a typically dismissive column about sexual assault on college campuses. One of the institutes of higher learning cited was Swarthmore College, a school in the Philadelphia area with deep Quaker roots. I know several alumni and can attest that the warning call Will sounds is entirely unfounded. From a feminist perspective, it is based entirely on groundless fears and demonstrates a complete lack of context.

Will weakens his argument significantly by watering down the few substantive points he makes around the same right-wing erogenous zones. Washington, DC, is the root of all terrible things? Check. President Obama is somehow to blame for everything? Check. I suppose I don’t understand why an established journalist like Will feels he no longer has to make any further salient points.

Now the Obama administration is riding to the rescue of “sexual assault” victims. It vows to excavate equities from the ambiguities of the hookup culture, this cocktail of hormones, alcohol and the faux sophistication of today’s prolonged adolescence of especially privileged young adults.

Some of what Will says does resonate with me. I did not have, as he puts it, an especially privileged East Coast upbringing. I went to a state school in the South instead. My classmates were, more often than not, small town kids in the big city for the first time. I felt out of place in their company, but I concede that I probably would have felt out of place in a different way had I attended an elite school. These days, I rub shoulders with those who consume milk from grass-fed cattle and knit woolen caps for infants in third-world countries.

Will opens himself up to charges of hypocrisy because he’s an alumnus of some very prestigious universities, Princeton and Oxford being only two. This is only the most glaring flaw in his screed.

I keep my eyes open to the flaws in everyone’s argument, which is part of being a responsible citizen. My working-class fellow students had blind spots, as is the case for every person who identifies in a particular way based on shared commonalities. Such outright disdain, as evidenced here, is intellectually lazy. Will’s column is little more than a rant, held together by a nail or two. Resolving conflicts require mutual comprehension, a lesson I’ve learned from peacemaking. Coming to the table with the desire to set aside adversarial relationships is much more difficult than spouting off, but it is work we must do.

An Amen Chorus is always a temptation, as is one’s daily dose of outrage. Long ago, I learned that raising my blood pressure to dangerous levels on a regular basis was counterproductive. If we really want to make progress and make beneficial changes, we must first recognize that blasting away at each other is only helpful to a degree. I know that words like peace and resolution may seem ineffectual or even naïve.

I understand the cynicism many feel about these concepts. But for the sake of the greater good, we should act like evolved beings. This doesn’t mean we reduce our arguments to mush in the process. Will’s approach is an example of how not to proceed. I may disagree with some on the other side who voice their opinions, but I respect them more if they make thoughtful arguments. I will likely never share their views, but I will gladly embrace the role of loyal opposition.

But in the meantime, back to the same old, same old.

Meanwhile, the newest campus idea for preventing victimizations — an idea certain to multiply claims of them — is “trigger warnings.” They would be placed on assigned readings or announced before lectures. Otherwise, traumas could be triggered in students whose tender sensibilities would be lacerated by unexpected encounters with racism, sexism, violence (dammit, Hamlet, put down that sword!) or any other facet of reality that might violate a student’s entitlement to serenity. This entitlement has already bred campus speech codes that punish unpopular speech. Now the codes are begetting the soft censorship of trigger warnings to swaddle students in a “safe,” “supportive,” “unthreatening” environment, intellectual comfort for the intellectually dormant.
This condescending response shows willful ignorance. Though I shouldn’t have to defend my own perspective, I will here for the sake of argument. As I have written about several times already, I am a survivor of sexual abuse. As a means of basic survival, the memories of most of what happened to me have been submerged and repressed. When triggered, some of them return. I’ve spoken to other survivors who cite the same issues and have experienced themselves an uncomfortable memory.

I could salivate like Pavlov’s dogs if I wanted, allowing several buttons to be pressed simultaneously. Once, I felt there was some value in playing ain’t it awful, but mainly I want us all to play nice and not run with scissors. Outrage is the key tactic of the activist, but I have loosely embraced that label over the years. If we could liken our country to a dysfunctional family, I’d rather we put aside our bitterness and resentment. Each of us wants satisfaction and the feeling of togetherness. Rarely do we ever come together in a spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood, but soon we may need each other for the sake of survival.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Quote of the Week

"People who count their chickens before they are hatched act very wisely because chickens run about so absurdly that it’s impossible to count them accurately."-Oscar Wilde

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Saturday Video

You've got to change your evil ways, baby
Before I stop lovin' you
You've got to change, baby
And every word that I say is true

You got me runnin' and hidin' all over town
You got me sneakin' and a-peepin' and runnin' you down
This can't go on, Lord knows you got to change, baby

When I come home, baby
My house is dark and my pots are cold
You're hangin' round, baby
With Jean and Joan and-a who knows who

I'm gettin' tried of waitin' and foolin' around
I'll find somebody who won't make me feel like a clown
This can't go on, Lord knows you got to change, baby

When I come home, baby
My house is dark and my pots are cold
You're hangin' round, baby
With Jean and Joan and-a who knows who

I'm gettin' tried of waitin' and foolin' around
I'll find somebody who won't make me feel like a clown
This can't go on, Lord knows you got to change, baby

Friday, June 13, 2014

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

Thursday, June 12, 2014


Let love be your highest goal! But you should also desire the special abilities the Spirit gives--especially the ability to prophesy. For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. But one who prophesies strengthens others, encourages them, and comforts them.- 1st Corinthians 14: 1-3
I admit that I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived at YAFCON. As I flipped through the folder describing the nature of the programming, I learned a few general details here and there. It wasn’t until about halfway through that I recognized the focus was on leadership development. What I’ve learned about leadership has come from my own direct experiences. Without formal training and formal strategies, my education has been largely self-taught. I’ve never held a specifically Quaker job in any formal capacity, nor been a paid advocate for social justice, but have been extensively involved within my Meeting.

For me, it was appropriate that the theme of the gathering was Community. Community is a great challenge in my Monthly Meeting. Gatherings of Young Adults display this Testimony in abundance, but elsewhere this desired state can be very hard to find. During the six days we were together, I found reflected back at me many similar concerns to my own. It was profoundly comforting to me to never have to explain myself and my own leadings, nor the feelings of exasperation that crop up from time to time.

I chose the Scriptural passage above to illustrate a point. Each of us has a purpose in the Kingdom of God. Some of us are seekers, working diligently towards a path of self-exploration. Others have scaled plateaus of their own in the recent past. They now look to incorporate the progress they’ve made with their life goals, putting intention into action. We have the ability to realize a profound Truth, even if at first we peer through a glass darkly. Life for me began in ignorance, though with every passing year the picture becomes clearer.

The work I do for others has varied. I moved to DC about six years ago, and saw an immediate need. Our Meeting is blessed with an abundance of Young Adults, very rare in this day and age. At first, there was little to no organization. YAFs who attended Meeting for Worship didn’t stay around for coffee and fellowship after Rise of Meeting.

Four or five of us recognized immediately that we shouldn’t squander a golden opportunity like this, and we spontaneously began to schedule activities. Before long, a core group of attenders sprang up. Ten to twenty Friends became actively involved, and several others attended sporadically when they had time to participate.

The challenge before us now is to develop working relationships with older adults, even when this is not easy. I served as my Meeting’s clerk of Ministry and Worship, which expanded Community for me. Members and regular attenders ceased to be abstractions, or people who only sat across the way from me during Worship. Those who comprise liberal faith traditions are not always the best or the most effective in reaching out to others.

When I was in high school, my parents decided to take myself and my two younger sisters to a Southern Baptist church. I never agreed with the theology or the politics, but I did appreciate the emphasis in tending the flock and taking an interest in the lives of what we as Friends call Beloved Community. Being involved was never optional. If one was part of their Spiritual community, it was their duty to come to the aid of those in need.

Following Worship, several Young Adult Friends have taken it upon themselves to be conscious of newcomers and new faces. Many have arrived very recently, knowing no one, feeling isolated. By contrast, it has taken me five years to know many established members and to learn which people are in charge of particularly important tasks. I’m not entirely sure why liberal faiths are laissez-faire to an extreme, because it seems to me that each of us have basic needs to be met. We are human, therefore we have feelings.

I’ll tell a story. When I first became a Friend, years ago, a man from Wisconsin contacted me by e-mail. He found my writings interesting and wanted to interview me for his podcast. I agreed to participate and he called me shortly thereafter. Explaining the format of the talk, he had a question for me as an aside.

“Where did you ever find such strange people?”

I wasn’t entirely sure how to respond, whether to laugh or to ponder the question further. Certainly Quakers have their share of eccentrics, and I concede that I’ve always felt somewhat different myself. The interviewer may have given me at least a partial answer to many challenges in Community. As Friends, we call ourselves a peculiar people, though many Friends are unaware that "peculiar" really means “People of God”. It’s an archaic term that dates back to the wording of the King James Bible.

For many who have grown up feeling different from the norm, it’s easy to internalize not being a part. In 1st Corinthians 12, Paul writes about interdependence and Community.

Now if the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. But our bodies have many parts, and God has put each part just where he wants it.

The challenge for me, at age 33, is to know how to form relationships with those who are not close to my own age. In a year and a half, I will age out of YAF and fall under the category of an Older Adult Friend, though oddly enough I don’t necessarily feel older. The skills and relationships I formed at YAFCON 2014 are still percolating and I find I’ve felt a need to sit and think since I’ve returned. What I experienced was blessedly intense, but I now have inner work to do before I engage in outer work.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Conference Notice

As I wrote a couple weeks back, I leave early Friday afternoon for a Young Adult Quaker conference. The venue is a resource center named Pendle Hill that is outside of Philadelphia. The place name is particularly important for Quakers. In 1652, our founder, George Fox, felt led by God to walk up Pendle Hill in Northwest England. There he received a religious vision. The center for study and contemplation I will be attending is named in its honor.  

During my week away, I recognize I have some personal business of my own to work through. I’m 33 now and will turn 34 in October. The outward limit to qualify as a young adult is 35. The Meeting where I worship extends that deadline into early forties. The dynamics of this city are partially a result. Older participants who are single or remain childless by choice find they have more in common with those a few years younger than they. The young parents in the Meeting band together for support, as young parents always have, but their lives are very different than ours.

How will I feel when I turn 40, I wonder. Will I feel too old to be among young adults? Even as a child, I was an old soul who sought first the company of adults. Young Adults are a tight-knit group and to be thrown into the deep end without a support network worries me. Though I have formed friendships with older Friends, age differences keep me from being able to fully relate. I’ve embraced my spiritual calling and have been successful among those of all ages, but my primary network is comprised of those close to my same age.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every young adult gathering I’ve attended. They are a haven for the religiously serious and the future leaders of the movement. Most of what we call Monthly Meetings (where one worships on Sunday) are disproportionately comprised of aging baby boomers, but there are always a handful of very active young adults. Distance usually separates us, but put together, we are a formidable force. I’ve forged connections with others who are ambitious, eager to make reforms and to keep the faith alive.

I really feel my age when around college students and those younger than 25. They are confirmed Millennials and remind me of my youngest sister. I qualify as Generation X, though I am one of the very last members. I am just old enough for grunge and old enough to remember a time before the Internet and cell phones. Before long, I’ll qualify as middle aged, wondering how I got there. I began losing my hair several years ago and am beginning to grey around the temples. I still feel young, but a different sort of young.

Integrating fully among those of all ages is my intention. Making progress requires everyone’s participation. I find that I have learned to code-switch admirably in order to speak to everyone. When I speak to those my parents’ age, I find I copy my father’s stories and mannerisms somewhat. It makes me feel a bit like a character actor playing a new part.  Personality and basic communication, I have learned, is timeless. I envy a woman my own age that is skilled enough to make every person she talks to feel as though they are the most important person in the room.

I’m more distant, more cerebral. I have an anxiety disorder, which I’ve learned to fight through with the passage of time, but it causes me to withdraw more than I wish I did. My explicitly religious writings are now disseminated to a growing number of readers. Most are my age, though not everyone. I find I can communicate better in written form, though God granted me the ability to share vocal ministry during Meeting for Worship.

During my time away, I want to network more, to listen to new strategies for growth and learning. I’ve developed a good name for myself the past several years. As religious mystics, we recognize that God is mystery and our relationship with him is a process of seeking to understand. Meanwhile, the joy of community is blessing enough itself. When I age out, I hope that I am not in hot pursuit of an identity and a group where I belong.  

Wild Horses

Childhood living is easy to do
The things you wanted I bought them for you
Graceless lady you know who I am
You know I can't let you slide through my hands

Wild horses couldn't drag me away
Wild, wild horses couldn't drag me away

I watched you suffer a dull aching pain
Now you've decided to show me the same
No sweeping exit or offstage lines
Could make me feel bitter or treat you unkind

Wild horses couldn't drag me away
Wild, wild horses couldn't drag me away

I know I've dreamed you a sin and a lie
I have my freedom but I don't have much time
Faith has been broken tears must be cried
Let's do some living after we die

Wild horses couldn't drag me away
Wild, wild horses we'll ride them some day

Wild horses couldn't drag me away
Wild, wild horses we'll ride them some day

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Caanan Land

"Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?" Nathanael asked. "Come and see," said Philip.

Upon arrival in Atlanta, everyone told me to play Eddie’s Attic. In a profession where making a living usually involves late nights and low pay, it seemed to be Canaan. Other musicians knew this quite well, which is why the venue scheduled out three months ahead of time. Two songs and no more than ten minutes, then the waiting commenced. Everyone in the area had given it a whirl once or twice and often more than that.

If audience response was any indication of victory, I’d have been a shoo in. They were appreciative, applauding me for my effort. I stood upright from the stool, feet feeling the wooden stage, my guitar strapped across my front. The judge strode vigorously past me as I exited the stage, a grin on his face. This was a very good sign. But we were only halfway through the contest, and fickle hearts can be easily swayed by new sounds and new combinations. The race was in progress. I was merely the early leader in a horse race.

I’d arrived early, full of nervous energy, barely able to sit at the bar. A waitress took a liking to me and provided insider knowledge. I was not to introduce my songs, because that set off the schedule. Keeping this in mind, I played a good, tight set. The room was wired for sound. I intended to purchase a recording of my performance to plug to college radio stations. Scheduled top of the bill, the recording engineer had yet to get warmed up, neglecting to record the first minute of my first song. Now I only had one song to pass along.

It’s much cheaper to record live. Studio time is expensive. I’d already recorded a few demos, but at $50 an hour, I never had the money to spend the exhaustive effort it takes to really lay down a song the way it needs to be. Everything produced that Saturday morning into afternoon sounded rushed, because I always had my eye on the clock. I could rarely play more than three takes of anything, which had to suffice. I put down the rhythm guitar track, overlaid a basic bass part, made sure the studio drummer was on beat, then immediately recorded lead and background vocals onto the backing track.

I thought I had it figured out, though I knew winning would require more than raw talent. It was mostly luck and chance. Every musician learns that it’s more important to have connections than to be good. Good musicians go hungry every day. I’ve played with many of them. With only one opportunity for career advancement in a large city, it’s impossible to have slots for everyone. It’s even worse now.

I lost to a rare percussive instrument from some obscure African country. The performer felt no desire or inclination to sing. The presentation was interesting, but nothing I’d pay money to see on stage. This is what makes every contest without strict guidelines subjective. I wondered whether or not I might have done a better job by grabbing my guitar and beating the sides of it in rhythmic fashion.

Eddie’s Attic held the power and the keys to the Kingdom. We had nothing to use as a bargaining chip. The experience felt a bit like playing the lottery. The odds are infinitesimal. A person could play every week for an entire lifetime without winning a cent. Many do. Speaking from a strictly mathematical perspective, you might be better flushing your money down the drain, but there is always a chance.

Years later, I understand why Quakers are against games of chance. My one and only trip to Atlantic City saw me gamble, slightly guiltily, the complimentary $20 given me to use on the slot machines. I won enough to cover the cost of my dinner, and considered it a success. I grew up in a state where the Christian Coalition, in an unholy partnership with the Mississippi gambling interests, effectively scuttled a proposed lottery. In Sin City, I saw the worst minds of my generation destroyed by madness.

Musicians self-destruct in slightly different ways. Writers before me have romanticized junkies and addicts as though their own innate sensitivity proved their undoing. I am less sympathetic, because those who make it are part of an elite club. I suppose I’ve never completely forgiven Kurt Cobain for rising above his station in the redneck logging towns of the Pacific Northwest.

I know depression well, but it’s much sexier to live rather than to perish. Breaks are gifts from God, never to be tossed carelessly away, and yet they are. Any group who goes more than three years between albums isn’t being fair to their audience, in my opinion. As I reflect upon contests great and small, I view the similarities and the differences. In the end, everyone’s life is half chance.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Workplace Sexism: Poor Leadership is a Culprit

Much of my work in a religious setting involves learning how to successfully interact alongside women. They are the majority, as is the case with most religious groups, and if I didn’t know how to grease the wheels, I’d find myself constantly frustrated. Due to a variety of helpful factors in my upbringing I've written about often, I can honestly say that this has rarely been difficult. Personalities have, more often than not, clashed not simply because of gender differences, but instead because of the kind of irreconcilable problems caused when two or more people simply cannot get along.

Often I’m a passive observer, filing away new information, but not entirely sure what to do with the knowledge. Toxic bosses and co-workers have been male and female alike. Workplace culture is where I place primary fault. I recognize that those who have experienced discrimination rarely forget the treatment. It’s difficult, if not impossible to make blanket statements that summarize every person’s experience, and most certainly every woman’s. I’ve made it a goal of mine to strive to look beyond the immediate and the obvious.

A few things perplex me. In particular, I’ve noticed how some women seek to “out-nice” each other in a peculiarly competitive sort of way. This isn’t to say that men aren’t prized for being level-headed and easy to get along with, but that a very different type of man would rather be respected and even feared instead of being anyone’s hell of a nice guy. There’s room in acceptable male conduct and behavior for badasses and rogues in a way not always extended to women. Certain men want to be deliberately rebellious, and build upon this attitude regardless of whose feathers they ruffle along the way. The nice guys do it for their own reasons, but it isn't always to be the best out there.

Though I would never say that gender doesn’t create misunderstanding, I’m enough of a creature of modern times to say, with confidence, that I have not fallen prey to the worst offenses. The women in my immediate environment are most often kind-hearted dreamers who want to save the world. They genuinely and blamelessly look at the world through a rosy, optimistic perspective. I’m the skeptical pragmatist, seeing limitations in theories and pronouncements, but secretly believing enough in the cause of righteousness to feel that changes can and must be made.

Women with a strong rebellious streak, one not inclined to be kind and uniformly even-handed for every occasion, often end up as feminists. I’ll concede that I was raised by two plain-talking parents who never buried the truth under surface niceties. I’m blunt, but fair, and I can’t understand the need to spare the feelings of those who would be better served by honesty. This is what separates me from many women in my immediate orbit who might be derisively described as hippies and do-gooders.

I believe that women ought to have the right to even be tactless from time to time, if that conduct resolves problems and puts aside double standards. Better that than the passive-aggressive out-nicing that suffices instead. The problems I’ve seen are that no effective, tested mechanism exists for regulating problematic attitudes and resolving the crises caused by them. Feminists, beginning with the best of intentions, have eaten themselves alive in numerous situations for this very reason.

This is not to say that men always do an admirable and impeccable job of resolving grievances (file under: war, duels, physical altercations), but that there are rules of conduct that have been in place for eons. Call them barbaric if you will, but we have civilized our conflict and now fight over the results of the ballot box rather than with swords. I’m a member of a religious group that may well be centuries ahead of schedule, believing wholeheartedly that peace is the favored and most effective way to go.

Peace has not been what I have experienced from the world, which is what keeps me moving forward. At one stop in my work career, a loose cannon of a man wanted to fire me on the spot, simply for requesting my union representative to be present, which was my right. Quietly undermining him, my immediate boss, a woman, intervened on my behalf, saving my job in the process. The most prevalent conflicts I have seen have been between personalities and personal limitations, not gender. A statistic I am fond of quoting says that only 1 in 20 people are capable of being effective managers. I’m certain that sexism is a factor, but I question sometimes how much of a factor it really is.

Feminists have argued that a thoroughly unpleasant man might end up being retained at a job longer than a callous woman. That’s entirely possible, but I’ve had female bosses whose incompetence showed in a different way. They were indebted to a lack of backbone, one which meant they never fired problem employees, even when given chance after chance to reform their behavior. Tough decisions have to be made, and I’ve seen both men and women respond with no spine whatsoever. Blustering or incompetent, either way is wrong, but once again we must look for the best parts of ourselves and act accordingly, male as well as female.

The new female leaders soon to take charge can take a cue from their mothers. There’s no need to act like men to be successful. But what needs to happen is that behavior by women among other women and among men needs to pull from the successes of masculinity and femininity. The most successful leaders I have known have never needed to justify their behavior. They do their job effectively and go home. If we need to culturally psychoanalyze ourselves to reach those heights, then so be it. Activists have been doing that for centuries.

What I do know is that the two differing styles of leadership presented here are incompatible. I recognize that women in positions of authority may still be unfairly criticized for whatever they do or don’t do, but I’ve observed enough encouraging signs. I think the future will continue to bring to life real progress. While I admit that I know that I'm treated differently by a woman than a man, I’ve had enough female bosses and co-workers and beneficial experiences that we’ve been able to talk more or less as relative equals.

At high levels of achievement, at the top of the food chain, I recognize the pressure of the office may bring to light strong instances of sexism. Sexism isn’t simply the denigration of women by men, it takes the place of rivalry, jealousy, anger, hubris, and a thousand other problems not the fault of women. It is not justified for any reason, but men can act like jackasses if they want because they’ve been allowed to do so. Many people fail to see that acting like a jerk in any context is much the same as living an immoral life. You can do it if you want to, but it will eventually backfire and blow up in your face someday. Unpopular people eventually win enough enemies, enemies who will eventually pull them down with glee.

Cowardice and taking the easy way out are two evasive approaches that do no one any good. The stories of workplace problems I've enclosed here show two significant failures of management. Every human life requires risk, and taking risks means that you might not be the nicest person around in everyone's eyes. It could even mean that your employees do not respect you for unjustified reasons. Risk comes with increased confidence and self-esteem, variables that many of us lack. The cure for sexism is self-respect and understanding the perspective of every seat at the table. We’ve had enough of poor communication, now it's time to really talk to each other.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Quote of the Week

“If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I'm neurotic as hell. I'll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days.”-Sylvia Plath