Saturday, April 30, 2016

Saturday Video

I said-a hip, hop, the hippie, the hippie
To the hip hip hop-a you don't stop the rock
It to the bang-bang boogie, say up jump the boogie
To the rhythm of the boogie, the beat

Now what you hear is not a test, I'm rappin' to the beat
And me, the groove and my friends are gonna try to move your feet
See I am Wonder Mike and I'd like to say hello
To the black, to the white, the red and the brown, the purple and yellow

But first I gotta bang bang the boogie to the boogie
Say up jump the boogie to the bang bang boogie
Let's rock, you don't stop
Rock the riddle that will make your body rock

(And so on, and so on)

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Honky Cat

When I look back, boy I must have been green
Boppin' 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-a
Mmm mmm mmm mmm
oh, the change is gonna do me good

Get back honky cat, living in the city ain't where its at,
It's like, trying to find gold in a silver mine, its like
Trying to drink whisky, 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, they said I was a fool,
They said leave them alone, is the golden rule

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

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

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Health Update

Ever since I turned thirty about five and half years ago, I've dealt with one chronic illness after another. Should you be a reader of any duration, you've likely encountered a few posts like this one. My intention is always to educate. I'm processing my feelings by dissecting the particulars, inviting you to join in on the analysis if you wish. Follow me in my journey, a frustrating trek through mystery ailments and medical conundrums.

The most recent evidence of a potential new condition showed up in recent blood work. Four levels turned up elevated beyond normal readings. The offending four are hemoglobin, hematocrit, zinc, and the immunoglobulin antibody M. If one or two of these in isolation were flagged, it would not be troublesome. All four in tandem is a different matter and requires further investigation.

To give you a better idea of what these findings indicate, I'm going to totally cheat here. I'll cut and paste in the definition of each metric from a Google search. Please see below.

  • Hemoglobin is the protein molecule in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to the body's tissues and returns carbon dioxide from the tissues back to the lungs.
  • Hematocrit is the proportion of your total blood volume that is composed of red blood cells.  
  • Zinc is an essential mineral that is naturally present in some foods, added to others, and available as a dietary supplement.
  • Imunoglobulin M, or IgM for short, is a basic antibody that is produced by B cells. IgM is by far the physically largest antibody in the human circulatory system. It is the first antibody to appear in response to initial exposure to an antigen.
I have an appointment with a hematologist in around two weeks. Most doctors in specialized practice schedule first and diagnose later. In this situation, the doctor to oversee my case required a fairly vigorous pre-screening first. This took the form of several pages of paperwork, alongside consultation with my primary care doctor. The lab levels must have indicated that, in his judgement, something more substantial might well be wrong. Had it not, the hematology nurse would have never called me back earlier this week to formally schedule an appointment.

Specialists usually don't require anything up front besides a referral from another doctor. I've never experienced a situation before where consultation with a doctor came only after my case was reviewed. I imagine it's a way to cut down on the backlog of patients, separating the truly needy from those who don't need further examination.

What do these test results mean? At this stage, they could mean lots of things. The primary care provider took into account several months of complaints and corresponding labs before referring my case in deference to someone else's expertise. Over the summer, I completely lost my appetite, didn't eat solid food for three months solid, and lost fifty pounds. A condition called polycythemia may be to blame. Once again, I'll cheat and borrow someone else's definition.
Polycythemia is a condition that results in an increased level of circulating red blood cells in the bloodstream. People with polycythemia have an increase in hematocrit,hemoglobin, or red blood cell count above the normal limits.
It makes sense that this condition is suspected. My primary care doctor suspects that allergies are to blame. The levels recorded are too high, yes, but not to an extreme sense. The worst case scenario is cancer of the bone marrow, and while rare, it is an option that cannot be taken off of the table quite yet. And this is where I leave you, for now. 

Monday, April 25, 2016

Being Good Is Not Enough

My partner’s mother hails from conservative small town Texas. Now pushing seventy, I’ve heard her tell the same story on numerous occasions. It must have left quite a lasting impression, as I hear it every time I’m visiting family during the holidays. The latest retelling is always delivered with a kind of amused pity. She relates to the unfortunate but is very glad to not be one of them.

Our setting is some time in the 1960’s. A group of young God-fearing Baptists kids are intent on disguising their actions. Men and women drink beer at a restaurant, quietly chatting, calling no attention to themselves. They are trying to conceal what they are doing. Someone evidently came across the idea of sticking lemon slices on the lips of the plastic cups that the eatery provides paying customers. The effect was pure plausibility denial, designed to make it seem as though they’d only been consuming iced tea instead. Such is life in the Bible Belt.

This story is an excellent demonstration of the limitations and weaknesses of any system of belief that insists upon the strict undertaking and completion of good works. Perfection is an ideal that no one can ever truly reach, and we know this innately, but that hasn’t stopped anyone from trying. Jesus’ ministry holds particular scorn for religious hypocrisy, particularly directed at an elite priestly caste who add meaningless rules for the sake of adding rules. As Scripture puts it, they strain out a gnat and swallow a camel. Their priorities are totally askew, indebted almost to absurdity, much like watering one’s house plants when one’s house is on fire.

The famous Protestant reformer Martin Luther spoke out against similar excesses of the Roman Catholic Church in his own day. Taking communion was not enough. Confessing sins was not enough. Being baptized was not enough. These rituals shouldn’t take the place of inward conviction and honest belief. Furthermore, it was his view that groups of people and large religious institutions should not have the right to define purity and salvation only for themselves.

I recall the old joke about Baptists and fishing. The yarn goes like this. “Why should you always take two Baptists fishing with you?”

Answer:  “Because if you only take one Baptist, he’ll drink all your beer.”

The news over the last several weeks from my home state of Alabama has been quite embarrassing. The current governor, Robert Bentley, is embroiled in a sex scandal. His hand has been caught in the cookie jar, but he brazenly refuses to resign or even to admit to his numerous indiscretions. Briefly, the Governor had an extramarital affair with an top aide, made said top aide almost equal in power to himself, and conducted all of this with absolutely no discretion or thought for legality whatsoever. The affair led to a scandalous divorce from his wife of fifty years, which is where the drama began.

To provide some context, this is a man who was elected to office as an unapologetic born-again Christian. He raised eyebrows in the inaugural address of his first term by very nearly implying that his chosen faith was superior to others. In the present day, he may not be indicted for breaking the laws of man, but guilty or innocent of those charges, he has certainly broken the tenets of his faith. In addition to violating the Old Testament commandment against not committing adultery, his sins (if we interpret biblical teachings by his standard) now include obtaining a divorce, as well as a vast multitude of parsed lies and half-truths that are simply too numerous to mention here.

Kindly pardon a quick change of scenery. Baseball season has resumed recently, much to the joy of its fans. My memories of the game are often bittersweet, as I was a long-suffering fan of a hapless club. Though times eventually changed for the better, they are back to their old ways today in 2016. The Atlanta Braves baseball team of my childhood were perpetual cellar-dwellers. One couldn’t even excuse their pathetic play by calling them lovable losers. They were just bad. The team’s line-up was a paean to mediocrity, with the exception of one player. The outfielder Dale Murphy was the team’s lone star, but his religious piety separated him from most superlative players in the sport.

Murphy's clean-living habits off the diamond were frequently noted in the media. A devout Latter-day Saint (Mormon), Murphy did not drink alcoholic beverages, would not allow women to be photographed embracing him, and would not pay his teammates' dinner checks if alcoholic beverages were on the tab. He also refused to give television interviews unless he was fully dressed.

People gravitate to laws and rules because they promise easy resolution. Quakers have their Testimonies, but they are far less strictly applied. We have far more freedom of choice, but that same freedom challenges us ever more to live a worthwhile life. We must hold ourselves responsible for being the best Friends we can manage, not needing to feel shame, guilt, or the disapproving gaze of others to do what is right. It might be simpler and more comforting in the short term to come up with a system of laws to easily address and eradicate every weakness, every perceived imperfection. But in hindsight this approach is not really any satisfactory resolution. We’ve learned that building higher walls or more prisons might not necessarily make us any safer, only creating other problems that require new rules and laws to fix.

It’s difficult enough for me to hold my tongue and not swear profusely. I cursed too much in my teenage years to defy authority figures. I’m now ashamed of my earlier behavior. If I can’t even clean up my talk, what makes me think that laws put in place to address complicated societal problems are enough for every person? The first law and its observance lies within us, whether we call that self-control, restraint, inward conscience, even the Inward Christ. That’s the philosophy Quakers and those of liberal religious faiths usually profess. Orthodoxy can be loose or robust, black and white or shades of grey, but it still requires adherence and some degree of conformity.

Those who prefer the comfort of a more authoritarian mindset might need to go elsewhere. And this isn’t true just for religion, it’s true for whatever groups we identify with or actively participate within. How much do you trust yourself with your life and your life’s decisions? For some of us, that answer changes dramatically over time. Intense, even painful life events can necessitate what philosophy we choose. It’s this kind of internal honesty, rather than acting the part that is needed. Where we are today might not be where we are later. If we are honest with ourselves, we won’t deny it.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Quote of the Week

Two wrongs don't make a right, but they make a good excuse.-Thomas Szasz

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Erotica: Time for an Update

I'm still adjusting to the desires of my audience. Writing total smut with the barest consideration of plot or character development may be their foremost desire. The expectations are severely lowered in this context, far below what we might consider high-brow, or even middle-brow entertainment and high standing. Writing a short story for serious publication requires lots of things: a lucky break, a foot in the door, a chance to excel and impress. Being good at what one does is not enough. This is not exactly that.

In that universe, the competition is incredibly intense, at times hopelessly elitist. Erotica often caters to an audience that wants sexual titillation only, with no need for gussied-up flourishes. Defining what erotica even is can be tricky. To some, it's nothing more than glossy pornography, a means to an end. To others, it's a misunderstood art form. I've always found that the brain itself is more sensuous an organ than the genitals, but whether others buy into that theory remains to be seen.

My first story in a now four-part series continues until I get totally bored with it. The process started off well. The hit count of subsequent posted stories have slacked off tremendously. My first won slightly over 10,000 hits in ten days of publication. The second received roughly half of the first. The third has plateaued somewhere between 2,000 and 2.500. And the fourth, posted only this morning, has reached slightly over 2,000 hits thus far.

I am too much of a polished writer to produce purely gratuitous content, no matter how much the audience wants it. I write for people who like to think. I draft, construct, and revise stories for those who desire being challenged from a psychological and intellectual standpoint. That said, I'm not out to impress anyone with multiple six-syllable words, sentences that fill up a whole paragraph, or a command of a foreign language. Such stories tend to bore and alienate me, so I deliberately don't put my audience through the same labors. It's only fair.

Many of my stories revolve around mind control and fantasies of physical transformation. If I were to psychoanalyze the reasons why, I could come up with a few good guesses. Dealing with years of chronic illness has routinely left me feeling out of control and in significant pain. Those fears, given a very different content, routed much differently, can turn to sexual desire without much effort. I process the problems I can't fix myself by channeling them through the lens of sexuality. If my hit count proves anything, it makes a strong case that I'm not the only person to feel this same way.

The bisexuality and gender dissonance that torments me, but that I have never exactly tried to hide, is still another explanation. Though it may be difficult to explain, I recognize that I was born a man, even though I've never totally felt like one. Though it is currently a polarizing and controversial topic in today's discourse, transgender has never been a label I've claimed for myself. Worrying about bathroom access is petty politics, barely scraping the surface, educating almost no one. I have no opinions because I'd rather communicate on a much higher plane.

Undergoing transition is not an option I wish to pursue, but I know that I'll always have a love/hate relationship with masculinity. My characters, male or female, are often placed in situations that they cannot undo, problematic circumstances with no clear path to resolution. Pain becomes catharsis, or at least that's the intent.

Writing from a woman's perspective used to be difficult, but now it is easier. In fascinated curiosity, I've examined what might be called women's ways. The pertinent parts that spoke to me have been memorized and incorporated wholesale into my identity. I won't say that I write with total confidence, raised as I was in a male body, responding as I did to the world of other men. But for someone who is largely self-taught in ways that often get pigeon-holed as pertinent only to women, I'm proud of my progress.

Moving on, I find I have two major challenges as a writer. One of them is being comfortable with expanded and extended dialogue. I am much more interested in the progression of the story, the psychological underpinnings and inward conflicts that hold it together. Yet, I must admit that verbal communication is essential to convey every interpersonal relationship. Eliminating or downplaying conversations between two people is a dodge, no matter how artful.

The second challenge is writing outside of my own first-person perspective. Inevitably, my stories start with a single character speaking as much to himself or herself as the audience. This protagonist experiences life as it happens, only glancing back into the past when it's absolutely necessary. He or she is a storyteller by nature. All action and significant plot twists are viewed first through his or her eyes. I've never felt especially comfortable writing in third person. The ghost in the machine effect, in my opinion, distances the reader from the writer. I want my audience to feel at home within the narrative, not held aloft by someone else's superior knowledge and judgment.

I've learned from this process of crafting erotica. These stories reflect greater seasoning and maturity. Progress has been made. But I am not yet satisfied, nor do I ever intend to be so. Athletes wear out with time, but writers and thinkers hone their craft throughout a whole lifespan. May it be so for me, too.

Saturday Video

Well, the clock says it's time to close now
I guess I'd better go now
I'd really like to stay here all night

The cars crawl past all stuffed with eyes
Street lights share their hollow glow
Your brain seems bruised with numb surprise

Still one place to go
Still one place to go

Let me sleep all night in your soul kitchen
Warm my mind near your gentle stove
Turn me out and I'll wander, baby
Stumblin' in the neon groves

Well, your fingers weave quick minarets
Speak in secret alphabets
I light another cigarette

Learn to forget, learn to forget
Learn to forget, learn to forget

Let me sleep all night in your soul kitchen
Warm my mind near your gentle stove
Turn me out and I'll wander, baby
Stumblin' in the neon groves

Well, the clock says it's time to close now
I know I have to go now
I really want to stay here
All night, all night, all night

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Erotica and the Craft of Writing

I've started writing erotica in the last few weeks, mostly for practice. No need to worry. Links will not be posted here, nor any excerpts from much longer works. I'm quite happy writing under a very private pseudonym to an audience of complete strangers. Most of the time, I write intentionally for a public forum, courting a fan base. The key to being a good blogger, a good op/ed writer, an internet attraction, or all three, is building a cult of personality around oneself. I find the work of naked self-promotion distasteful, offensive to my artistic and religious sensibilities, but I've been necessarily forced to court it to be relevant.

But not here. In this case, I've chosen an innocuous username, one that will never be revealed for any reason. I'm not even telling my friends where to find me. That said, should you feel similarly inclined, I encourage you to try your hand. You may find you really enjoy it, particularly because of the instant gratification aspect that is rare in many other platforms. Receiving praise and a few thousand hits within hours has a way of boosting the ego.

Writing, as anyone who tries can attest, is a discipline. It is one of the most demanding disciplines of any worthwhile artistic endeavor. I haven't written much fiction in months, and what I've been doing in the past few weeks is mainly good practice. I'm easing myself back into the purview of short stories, efforts that need to be revised and revised again. At the site where I've been recently posting, one can submit content in one of about ten different categories. I'm comfortable with three or four of the listed genres, but totally out of my league in the rest. I want to expand my skill set, for the sake of growth, but I don't want to sound like I have no idea what I'm doing.

My first story won me between 4,000 and 5,000 hits. So far, it's been rated somewhere between 3 and 4 stars. As is true for internet content of any form, most people only bother to read a post. A very small minority even bothers to votes. Almost no one leaves feedback or comments. 5 stars is the maximum rating, but that is an impossible standard. Certain truths prove inescapable. Discerning the taste and preference of those who read comes first. It doesn't matter how compelling or arousing one's work is. Every publication has its formula, its system.

Part of the fun is confusing my readers, making them guess who I really am and how I identify. I'm a complex person with a correspondingly complex fantasy life, which is, I assume, what one wants. Truly skilled craftspeople can switch genders, ages, settings, and periods of time skillfully. These qualities separate good authors from great ones. Thus far, I've written three stories, all part of a series. I'm not sure how to draw it to a satisfactory conclusion, but I'm having a lot of fun generating plot twists and dialogue.

Erotica has been less daunting than I feared it might be. There's something titillating about the process of creating an erotic story. Sexuality can be as stimulating for the author as it is for the reader. I haven't had to worry as much about losing patience, drive, and the will to do it. This might not be the case with a lengthy post about a political issue, but writing on topics like those can occasionally try my patience. But as I wrap up my thoughts once again, I have no real destination in mind, nor any idea of when it makes sense to stop. It doesn't matter, and that's okay.  

Quote of the Week

Too often critics seem more intent on seeking new ways to alter Congress than to truly learn how it functions. They might well profit from the advice of Thomas Huxley, who said a century ago: "Sit down before facts as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion — or you shall learn nothing.-Gerald Ford

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Saturday Video

It's your thing, do what you wanna do.
I can't tell you, who to sock it to.
It's your thing, do what you wanna do.
I can't tell you, who to sock it to.

If you want me to love you, maybe I will.
Believe me woman, it ain't no big deal.
You need love now, just as bad as I do.
Makes me no difference now, who you give your thing to.

It's your thing, do what you wanna do.
I can't tell you, who to sock it to.
It's your thing, do what you wanna do.
I can't tell you, who to sock it to.

It's your thing, do what you wanna do.
I can't tell you, who to sock it to.
It's your thing, do what you wanna do.
I can't tell you, who to sock it to.

I'm not trying to run your life, I know you wanna do what's right.
Give your love now, to whoever you choose.
How can you love, with the stuff you use now.

It's your thing, do what you wanna do.
I can't tell you, who to sock it to.
It's your thing, do what you wanna do.
I can't tell you, who to sock it to.

It's your thing, do what you wanna do.
I can't tell you, who to sock it to.
It's your thing, do what you wanna do.
I can't tell you, who to sock it to.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

When Trigger Warnings Aren't Enough

I write on this topic with some reluctance because I could be easily misunderstood and misconstrued. Even so, I think it needs to be said. For the last decade or so, it’s been popular to preface especially intense online tales of physical abuse or blatant psychological cruelty by means of a so-called trigger warning. An issue this crucial, rooted as it is in human frailties and basic shortcomings, shouldn’t have become ideologically polarized between the Right and the Left, but it has anyway. Conservatives hint darkly at a new culture of socially acceptable, whiny victimhood and selfish histrionics. Liberals see the issue as a simple, decent matter of protecting those who have been through traumatic circumstances.

I wish it was as easy as right versus wrong. Raise your voice in an online forum on a controversial topic and let the hate mail begin. Should you be a woman or a minority (or both), expect the floodgates to cascade open and sewage to spew forth. Resolution, in person or online, is difficult enough. Both efficiently and effectively prosecuting those who make anonymous threats, often as dramatic as rape threats and death threats, is much more challenging.

I’ve written in a public setting for several years, and have won my share of criticism, no matter how childishly rendered. One particularly annoying troll left numerous insulting and offensive comments on my personal blog. Not content to stop there, he did much the same thing with most of the 400 or so YouTube videos I have recorded since at least 2007. It takes a perverse, driven work ethic to go such lengths. I do not understand his motivation to be even the score.

Around ten years ago, I filed a restraining order against a former girlfriend. Filing the paperwork required hours of scaling a mountain of bureaucratic red tape, filling out every necessary form, standing in line at the correctly numbered teller window, and many other exasperating delays. I didn’t even get everything done in one day, necessitating that I return later in the week to tidy up that which remained. Following that, I had to plead my case in front of a cynical, weary, overworked judge. She sat in a tiny, dark office, ushering in the latest to speak without much conviction or energy. Her ultimate discretion and say decided which presumptive orders of protection were granted, and which were not. I queued up in line with everyone else, waiting for nearly an hour, only to receive about three minutes’ worth of her honor’s time.

A young black woman, no doubt in shock, told me a horror story about her former boyfriend that was far more vicious than mine. I could have had it much worse, I reflected, but I still had a purpose in being there and I intended to see it through to a conclusion. It is unfortunate that the current legal system, be it state or federally managed, requires indisputable proof of cruelty before the procession can proceed. Metaphorical nail marks must be felt. Priority comes first, skepticism follows second, and validation comes a distant third. In far too many circumstance, women have been unable to prosecute their abusers because they simply weren’t beaten up badly enough.

Violence doesn’t only take physical form. Emotional abuse and psychological cruelty can be as damaging as a right hook to the jaw. And to add insult to injury, the telling and retelling of a painful story makes a bad situation even worse. By the time I was through with the latest account, the most recent run-through, I felt that I was a novice actor performing a memorized part on an illuminated stage. What happened to me before no longer seemed real, as though I was singing a well-known cover song in front of an audience who knew all the words.

We live in a time of evaporating privacy. True safety is increasingly growing rare, even as many claim to the contrary. We like to believe that we inhabit a world that is growing more benevolent and less cruel. Perhaps, perhaps not. It depends on how we define safety. The Internet has emboldened cowards and sadists alike. Law enforcement statutes designed to protect are often insufficient and clumsy, a day late and a dollar short.

As for myself, I had to tell my story at least four times in a row to the uncomprehending before I was at least partially understood. Most of us don’t have the financial means and the time to spend to get the creaky process fumbling towards resolution. I was only able to jump through the hoops in sequence because I was on disability from my job and thus had the free time needed to do it.

This isn’t a popular sentiment, I recognize, but there really aren’t any truly safe spaces out there. I’ve known many people, men and women alike, but usually women, who demand the most ideal circumstance imaginable in every gathering or community. Those raised by alcoholic parents want alcohol-free spaces. Those who grew up in dysfunction of any form want assurances that their immediate environment won't contain these elements. I’d be all for it myself if I believed such spaces even exist.

We’re told that there was a epoch in our collective past where we could leave our doors unlocked and place full trust in our neighbors. Women have every right to ask for adequate protection, but time has taught us many difficult lessons. One of these unfortunate truths is that safety is a fantasy. I live in one of the safest parts of the District of Columbia, but a casual survey of recent police reports reveals routine acts of senseless violence and a few key stabbings a mere mile and a half from my residence.

As I understand it, the rules, the laws, and the guidelines as written are mostly to blame. Trigger warnings are a good first step, but they are insufficient. They are highly cosmetic, but if you believe that they work, far be it for me to discourage you. Safe spaces are really just giant placebos, but, as we know, the placebo effect has always been curiously effective for some. Windows can be broken, alarm systems can be disconnected, cars can be stolen, and privacy is merely an illusion. With greater technological advances to follow the current day, we will no longer have the ability to disappear completely, leaving no footprint behind.

This doesn’t mean that anything goes. Laws only work if citizens agree to abide by them. Unlike a few choice hackers with a little too much time on their hands, I’m not an anarchist. The prevalence of online communication and its increasing importance in our life is going to require brand new strategies to consider and implement in place of what we have now. But in the meantime, I suggest that you regularly rehearse in your bedroom mirror a particularly effective narrative account, directed towards the proper authorities, should you one day be the victim of a crime. Trust in God, but keep your powder dry.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Quote of the Week

"I went to Zimbabwe. I know how white people feel in America now--relaxed! 'Cause when I heard the police car I knew they weren't coming after me!"-Richard Pryor

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Saturday Video

Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme
Remember me to one who lives there
She once was a true love of mine

Tell her to make me a cambric shirt
(A hill in the deep forest green)
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme
(Tracing of sparrow
On snow-crested brown)

Without no seams nor needlework
(Blankets and bedclothes
The child of the mountain)
Then she'll be a true love of mine
(Sleeps unaware of the clarion call)

Tell her to find me an acre of land
(On the side of a hill
A sprinkling of leaves)
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme
(Washes the grave with silvery tears)

Between the salt water
And the sea strand
(A soldier cleans and polishes a gun)
Then she'll be a true love of mine

Tell her to reap it
With a sickle of leather
(War bellows blazing
In scarlet battalions)

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme
(Generals order their soldiers to kill)
And gather it all in a bunch of heather

(And to fight for a cause
They've long ago forgotten)
Then she'll be a true love of mine

Friday, April 08, 2016

A Spirited Defense of the Pastoral System

For the sake of full disclosure and complete transparency, let me state for the record my religious past. I was raised, baptized, and confirmed a United Methodist. At the age of seventeen, well into teenage rebellion, I became a heathen Unitarian Universalist. This lasted for eight years, whereupon I dramatically renounced UUism and returned again to my beginnings. Both of these faith traditions have, as part of their time-honored and long-established leadership structures, formally called, seminary-trained, full-time ministers.

At no point did I ever worry that my voice was somehow being compromised by a usurping preacher, priest, or rector who was up to no good. No one I encountered agonized about such matters, and it wasn't until I began worshiping in the company of Friends that I ever learned any reason to be especially alarmed or concerned. Many liberal unprogrammed Friends, in particular, share this uniquely paranoid, pearl-clutching religious view. I have to say I never once felt especially disenfranchised or taken lightly in my own faith journey with a single leader nominally in control.

Bored? Yes, certainly. Uninspired? Of course. Cynical? Absolutely. But it takes belief in the destructive power of organized religion to fear its ultimate malevolence. Never assign to malice, as the saying goes, what can be assigned to stupidity. Never assume stupidity when ignorance will suffice. You might say that I saw the exact opposite perspective, one that is equal parts milquetoast and mind-numbingly bureaucratic. Ministers were often underwhelming in practice, and as a member of the congregation, I knew I had a vote and a say regarding church matters. No one railroaded me or disregarded my views.

I think some of us are giving ministers of any denomination or persuasion far too much credit. Those of us who have never worshiped in what Quakers call a programmed setting, or who left programmed worship long ago may benefit from a slightly different perspective, an alternate means of contemplation.

My worries about any sole minister, male or female, young or old, ambitious or conflict-averse, were quite practical ones. I didn't like dull sermons that droned on and on with no resolution, not an end in sight. I wasn't always sure that we needed an cute eight-part series to span three solid months of Sundays or a clever concept to remind us to tithe regularly. It was basic competence that I always sought, and sad to say, not all ministers are interesting or particularly skilled in what they do. It's hard to feel threatened by someone who gives a person no compelling reason to care one way or the other.

The most recent issue of Quaker Life magazine features its usual regular column by FUM General Secretary Colin Saxton. Readers of this post may find it particularly relevant.

At the close of worship, we divided into worship-sharing groups to talk further on the practical nature of reconciliation.
As we were about to introduce ourselves, a member of the group turned to me and asked, "Are you a pastor?" I responded that I was.
Suspicion confirmed, this person looked me in the eye and shouted, "You know, you are everything that is wrong with the Religious Society of Friends, and you are ruining it for the rest of us!"
Obviously, I had underestimated my influence!

Sound familiar, Friends? How ironic that a discussion intended in a spirit of reconciliation took a sharp, swift detour towards disharmony. Someone else put it much more eloquently than my inadequate words ever could.
So the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. I want to do what is good, but I don't. I don't want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.
Saxton's column ends on a positive note. Reconciliation is eventually achieved between Friends, but sharp, judgmental, unforgiving words come first. How very human. It is also very human to resort to projection when an open-minded, peaceful attitude is much better served. Instead of assuming that someone else is over-reaching, defining what Quakerism is for everyone, especially without your having any say in the matter, look deeper. Live your Testimonies in your own way. Speak to your condition, but recognize that we do have more in common with each other than we have differences.

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Just Sayin'

If you're having girl problems, I feel bad for you, son.

Monday, April 04, 2016

The Myth of the Good Negro, Revisited

A well-regarded news anchor was recently fired for making racially insensitive remarks. Wendy Bell, formerly of Pittsburgh’s WTAE-TV station, posted controversial opinions to her personal Facebook page. Though her post was not exactly artfully worded, I believe what she wrote is not nearly as offensive as some believe. Bell’s indiscretion can be an instructive exercise in deflating and discrediting a persistent myth, that of the Good Negro. Instead, it has been transformed into another condemnation of what can or cannot be expressed in an Internet forum.

First we must define what is meant by a Good Negro. Writing in November of last year, the attorney Nikki Johnson-Huston states:
I have always been what is considered to be a “good black person.” I have a diverse set of friends, a home, a nice car and three graduate degrees. I’ve traveled the world, from France to India, New Zealand and beyond. I am happily married to a white man who loves and respects me, and his family loves me and has supported our relationship from the beginning. Many have said to me that I am a credit to my race.
Professionally, I am a well-respected tax lawyer and a leader in my community. In fact, I have been supported and mentored by many people who do not look like me. The people who know me will tell you that I am not angry or a race-baiter. I have been an incredibly lucky person who grew up in poverty and even experienced homelessness, but with hard work, the social safety net and mentoring, was able to build a good life. I am living the American “Post Racial” Dream.
The problem is this narrative doesn’t tell the full story of my life. It doesn’t tell you that for too many people in my community, I am the exception and not the rule. Black Americans are some of the most talented and ambitious people that I have ever met, but for many, their spirits have been crushed by a lack of opportunity.

Having formally spelled out what is meant by a Good Negro, now we can address the flaws in Ms. Bell’s argument. A professional, one forever in the public eye, should have known better than to post what she did. But her larger point, though highly incorrect and oversimplified, is nevertheless very commonplace. Bell sought to make sense of a complicated situation by resorting to a kind of lazy logic. Who among us, black or white, can attain a full sense of the perceived flaws and challenging problems within the black community? Even venturing an educated guess on this explosive issue can invoke charges of racism. Stating an opinion either way is quite dangerous.  
The mother of five’s post also praised a black teen she saw working in a Southside Works restaurant. Bell described the employee as a “young, African American teen” who was “hustling like nobody’s business” as he carried plates and picked up scraps that had fallen to the floor. Bell also applauded his attitude. ”He did all this with a rhythm and a step that gushed positivity,” she wrote. “He moved like a dancer with a satisfied smile on his face. And I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He’s going to make it.”

Bell’s commentary sought to draw a contrast between a Good Negro, the aforementioned hardworking teenager in a restaurant, and the Bad Negroes who commit violent crimes. She began her post by condemning African-Americans living in a violent hell of their own creation, offering a solution in the form of character-developing toil and self-discipline. If we are to be truthful, many Caucasians believe the same thing. In some respects, it’s a little like the old pull-onself-up-by-one’s-boostraps fabrication. Often a gaffe reveals what many think, but few dare to verbalize.

As this line of thinking goes, African-Americans are almost wholly to blame for their present condition. They should get their house in order first by looking within themselves and then resolving to do better. The best attributes are already present and these impulses should be further encouraged. The very worst parts of black identity should be cured like a debilitating disease.

Some idealistic whites continue to believe in the widely debunked white savior complex, the idea that well-meaning white folks can somehow redeem their black brethren by way of example. In this case, examining her remarks more closely, Bell does not support this particular definition of racial uplift. Her remarks reveal that she feels powerless over a situation that causes her great discomfort, even if her conclusions are wrong.
“You needn’t be a criminal profiler to draw a mental sketch of the killers who broke so many hearts two weeks ago Wednesday,” Bell wrote:
I will tell you they live within 5 miles of Franklin Avenue and Ardmore Boulevard and have been hiding out since in a home likely much closer to that backyard patio than anyone thinks. They are young black men, likely teens or in their early 20s, They have multiple siblings from multiple fathers and their mothers work multiple jobs. These boys have been in the system before. They’ve grown up there. They know the police. They’ve been arrested. They’ve made the circuit and nothing has scared them enough.

Black comedian Chris Rock brushed up against the same subject in a controversial 1996 comedy routine.

Rock began his routine by asking his audience, “Who’s more racist? Black people or white people?” Answering his own question, he concluded, “Black people, do you know why? Because we hate black people too!”

“There’s two sides. There’s black people and then there’s n*****s. And n*****s have got to go.”
The controversy caused by Rock's constant use of the word "nigga" led him to remove the piece from his act. In a 2005 60 Minutes interview, Rock said: "By the way, I've never done that joke again, ever, and I probably never will. 'Cos some people that were racist thought they had license to say n****r. So, I'm done with that routine.

It appears that no single racial or ethnic group has proposed an adequate and fair solution. Everyone has done a laudable job of spelling out the problem, but resolutions are nowhere to be found. As for myself, I don’t think Wendy Bell should have been fired. The punishment must fit the crime, and the easiest possible solution is to lop off a few heads, rather than correcting and enlightening. If she’d resorted to the kind of language and highly offensive racial stereotypes that have felled some, then that would have been something very different indeed.

In her own mind, I’m certain Bell believed she wasn’t being racist or racially insensitive. Pulling an award-winning broadcaster off the airwaves with little justification only prolongs the problem that no one ever wants to confront directly. We can’t continue to skirt this issue if we really want it to go away. We must engage in dialogue with each other.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Quote of the Week

To really be centered and to really work well and to think about the kinds of things that I need to think about, I need to spend large amounts of time alone.-Donna Tartt

Very Belated Saturday Video

I was walkin' down the street, mindin' my own affairs
And two policemen grabbed me, uh, unawares
They said, "Is your name Henry?"
I said, "Oh, why, sure"
They said, "you the boy we been lookin' for"

I was framed
I never do nothin' wrong
But I always get blamed

They put me in the lineup and let the bright lights shine
There were ten poor souls like me standin' in that line
I knew I was the victim of someone's evil plan
When a stool pigeon walked in and said, "Ah - that's the man"

I was framed
I never do nothin' wrong
But I always get blamed

The prosecutin' attorney started prosecutin' me
Man, that cat gave me the third degree
He said, "Where were you the night of June 29?"
I said, "I was home in bed"
He said, "Judge, this man is lyin'"

I was framed
I never do nothin' wrong
But I always get blamed

I deny the charges of robbin' the liquor store
Deny the charges of carryin' a .44
Deny the charges of vagrancy, too

But when the judge came down,
poured whisky on my head,
turned around to the jury and said,
"Convict this man, he is drunk,"
what could I do?

I was framed
I never do nothin' wrong
But I always get blamed

He was framed
I was framed
He was blamed
I was framed
He was blamed
I got framed