Tuesday, May 31, 2016

True Weakness and Strength in the Age of Trump

In the early to mid-Seventies, my mother, like many women of the period, found much appealing about the Women's Liberation movement. The inequalities between men and women were prominent and reform was needed. Having said that, she never truly immersed herself fully in the radical and activist side of things, never learning applicable academic terms like second-wave feminism or consciousness-raising. She never subscribed to Ms. Magazine.

She never took to the streets to march or distributed self-penned polemics on street corners. Even with an informal understanding of a complex issue, something about the spirit of the times strongly grabbed her attention. A well-stated and personal manner of framing an argument spoke neatly to her condition and her frustrations. And she was not alone. Lots of women felt the same way, and I'm sure many of them will pull a lever for Hillary Clinton a few months from now.

I came along a few years later. Though she willingly took on the role of mother and caregiver, a hard-edged side always shone through. That part never completely faded from view. Though I tried to understand and usually kept my hurt feelings to myself, my mother used a particularly infuriating mantra on occasion.

Men are weak. This was always said with an off-handed smirk, offered with a kind of snarky condescension that cared little for who it offended. It consistently managed to enrage my father, which might have been the reason why she used it as frequently as she did. Though I love my mother with ever fiber of my being, the comment always burrowed under my skin the way only the best insults can. It still does, even now.

In adulthood, with a far greater sense of context, I better comprehend what she meant and her reasons for saying it. Roughly translated, in her way of thinking, men believe that they are in total control, but they are easily tripped up and felled by their baser instincts. Men are convinced that they are as omnipotent as gods, but they are destroyed time and time again by hubris and arrogance.

The point is taken fairly. Yet, taken a different way, it can also be a gross oversimplification motivated by feelings of substantial resentment, along with a corresponding lack of agency. I get it, though I'm not convinced it is correctly applied in each and every circumstance.

If men are indeed weak, this stance implies that they simply can't help themselves. Talk about an enabling statement! Put that way, men are totally off the hook. In our own time, Donald Trump seems to be unable to help himself in a different way, convinced it is wise to consistently bring up the indiscretions of Bill Clinton. As we know, Trump’s own history with women is not much better. Nevertheless, his supporters see their beloved as strength personified, a man unafraid to speak hard truths with no need for tact or decorum. Only weaklings and losers need take that course.

It is perhaps inevitable that any political campaign pitting a woman against a man should become, in part, a battle of the sexes. If a more conventional Republican candidate was pitted against Hillary Clinton, more or less politically safe charges and counter-charges of sexism would predictably fly back and forth.

Instead, Americans are dealing with an unprecedented election in American politics, a grudge match between a “strong” man and a “strong” woman (depending on how one defines strength) each with tremendously high negatives that might even increase before voters cast their ballots in November.

Women can be weak, too. They may not be flawed and foolish in the way that skirt-chasing and risk-taking men can be, but they are capable of making mistakes based on very poor judgment. Love her or hate her, Hillary Clinton has been gaffe-prone since the days of two-for-the-price-of-one. But, as we’ve observed in fascinated horror, her GOP opponent seems to have forged his political identity by making outrageous statements that any other candidate would have swiftly walked back.

In this alternate reality, Trump may well have accomplished the impossible. He has somehow managed to secure the party's nomination, while at the same time potentially neutralizing every pertinent talking point Clinton might try to make. Or, he might well have counter-productively managed to somehow neutralize the damage any potential Clinton misstep might make upon the electorate. Or both. These are the risks we take when a loose cannon could well be President.

One wonders if the Trump phenomenon will be a flash in the pan or a dramatic realignment of political rhetoric and the consequences of doubling down on even the most patently offensive remark. On one level, a double standard continues to exist between men and women. That I am not debating. Today, however, it seems that two parallel standards in public perception exist. One applies to Trump and a second, more conventional one applies to Clinton.

On the question of strength versus weakness, who is most deserving of the label? One is reminded of the exhaustively quoted passage from Julius Caesar, itself a story about domineering politicians who reign for a time with unchecked authority. As the Bard put it, "the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings." Americans can opt for true strength or weakness masquerading as power. It will take a movement, not a few committed citizens, but the work can be done. No one will do it for us.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

I'm Not Sure What to Think About This

We shall see.

Quote of the Week

When I was about twelve, I used to think I must be a genius, but nobody's noticed. Either I'm a genius or I'm mad, which is it? "No," I said, "I can't be mad because nobody's put me away; therefore I'm a genius." Genius is a form of madness and we're all that way. But I used to be coy about it, like me guitar playing. But if there's such a thing as genius — I am one. And if there isn't, I don't care.- John Lennon, 1970.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Predominant Mood

C. Murphy/Sloan

So many stories I could tell
I had the world under my spell
Does this even ring a bell?

I wonder because
Don’t you know who I was?
Interest in me dissipated
All my methods antiquated
I’ve been cast away
Lost and friendless today

I made a name for myself
When one could do such a thing
A reputation that’s held
Together by string

And so I chose to cherish those
Who think there’s some purity
To fading into obscurity

What works on paper
Has the tendency to ride on vapor
Sometimes what’s not to love
But then other times what’s to like?

I’m unable to tell if I know who I am
A modest success, a shill, or a sham
I’m not afraid of what I’ve made of
But my trajectory
Has me fading into obscurity

You kids’ll have to fend for yourselves
Because your mother’s gone and asked for the elves
Who used to do all the work around here
Well they’re not gonna do it anymore

You kids can kiss your mother goodbye
And I’ll give you twenty minutes to cry
She used to do all the work around here
But she’s not gonna do it anymore

And you’re getting to old to be cared for by me

And for that matter
This cake is baked but I much prefer the batter
Perhaps in part because it had so much potential
To be delicious and still be influential

I’m undecided
If the evidence that I have provided
Explains what I mean
It’s too late now ’cause I can’t see or be seen

And I know you don’t shrug through my tears
So I’m not gonna shed ’em anymore
Out of favor with the flavor of the week’s where I’ll be
And fading into obscurity

An outsider but in good company
Oh yeah
I’m fading into obscurity

I’m undecided

Saturday Video

There's a destination a little up the road
From the habitations and the towns we know
A place we saw the lights turn low
Jig-saw jazz and the get-fresh flow

Pulling out jives and jamboree handouts
Two turntables and a microphone
Bottles and cans and just clap your hands and just clap your hands

Where it's at
I got two turntables and a microphone
Where it's at
I got two turntables and a microphone

Take me home in my elevator bones!
That was a good drum break

Pick yourself up off the side of the road
With your elevator bones and your whip-flash tones
Members only, hyponotizers
Move through the room like ambulance drivers
Shine your shoes with your microphone blues
Hirsutes with your parachute flutes
Passing the dutchie from coast to coast
Let the man Gary Wilson rock the most

Where it's at
I got two turntables and a microphone
Where it's at
I got two turntables and a microphone

What about those who swing both ways: AC-DC's

Two turntables and a microphone
Two turntables and a microphone

Where it's at
I got two turntables and a microphone
Where it's at
I got two turntables and a microphone

Oh, dear me. Make Out City is a two-horse town
That's beautiful, Dad
Get my microphone

Where it's at
I got two turntables and a microphone
Where it's at
I got two turntables and a microphone

I got plastic on my mind
Telephone plastic baby

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

There She Goes

There she goes
There she goes again
Racing through my brain
And I just can't contain
This feeling that remains

There she blows (there she blows again)
There she blows again (there she blows again)
Pulsing through my vein (there she blows again)
And I just can't contain
This feeling that remains

There she goes
There she goes again
She calls my name
Pulls my train
No one else could heal my pain
But I just can't contain
This feeling that remains

There she goes
There she goes again
Chasing down my lane
And I just can't contain
This feeling that remains

There she goes (there she goes again)
There she goes (there she goes again)
There she goes (there she goes again)

Sunday, May 22, 2016

2016: Making Sense of Where We Are as a Nation

Anyone who knows me well recognizes that I don't like being caught flat-footed. After a trip, I frantically unpack and put everything back exactly where it was before I left. I recently read somewhere that my behavior is symptomatic of someone who wants to assert control over unfamiliar surroundings. No one panics more than me when I momentarily lose my cell phone, or my wallet, or my keys. Most of the time, such items are easily found, and yet in the process of locating them I'm convinced they are gone forever, never to return.

This is why I am often reminded of the biblical Parable of the Lost Coin.

Suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn't she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, "Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.”

Jesus speaks here beyond the literal, specially about the concept of redemption. And by this he means the radical notion that it is never too late to turn away from sin. There is no hierarchy in Heaven over who arrived first or last. This speaks contrary to the way we are conditioned to think and the games we play in the course of our lifetime. We learn to flaunt our credentials, our history of good works, and the sacrifices it took to reach them. We rationalize what we do by saying that such things are simply the way of the world, that they are necessary evils, and they cannot be evaded.

In life, we expect to be treated differently if we've reached some high achievement, made lots of money, or accumulated some combination of the two. In political parties, workplaces, and especially in churches, seniority means that those who have been in good stead longer have more say and more control. These people who occupy the favored seats have the right to guide and lead in the way they choose. To many, Jesus' ministry is an egalitarian one, where the first person to speak is held in the same high esteem as the one who has spoken ten thousand times before.

Backing up one verse from where we started out, the meaning of the parable is made clear.

I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

The upcoming Presidential election showcases two of the least religious candidates in American history. Hillary Clinton rarely mentions her suburban Illinois Methodist upbringing, a past that at least instilled the candidate with a strong sense of social justice. On the other side, Donald Trump could almost be considered areligious, a fact that until this moment was a sure violation of Republican orthodoxy. Assuming the point is raised during the campaign, Trump can avoid even discussing religion, specifically Christianity on the stump unless placed on the defensive.

This would be unheard of not that long ago. GOP candidates have consistently and conspicuously put public displays of faith before voters for a very long time. Courting Evangelical conservative voters, according to the conventional wisdom, panders to the base. It is a move of either cynicism or desperation that many such voters have seemingly placed victory above rhetoric this go round. Clinton is not especially strong on the issue and is unlikely to force the issue. Neither candidate is likely to have a Pastor Wright problem this cycle.

Every election is a barometer of how we have changed as a nation. Only the once-in-a-decade census shows the macro trends that began small, yet grew steadily over time. 2016 might well the first sign that we as a country have moved towards a new Post-Christian reality. Here on the East Coast, organized religion has been dying for a long time. The Midwest and the South continue to uphold long-standing religious traditions and have the highest rate of church attendance, but disenfranchised and thoroughly disgusted voices can be heard from those places as well. In time, I expect that more and more Americans will fall away from church or some sort of religious observance.

Members of Generation X and the Millennials that followed them have consistently shown little to no interest in religion. Within these two subgroups, what remains are a mere sliver of what once existed, a minority group of leaders and activists. These are the sort of people who take their convictions and leadings very seriously, often wishing that others adopted this same kind of passion.

Extremely motivated believers are not enough. Church was designed for mass participation, specifically set up as a place where any and all are truly welcome. It makes me very sad to see these traditions slowly withering away. From now on, I inhabit a space dominated by baby boomers. They may be the last generation, in all seriousness, who wish to carry the mantle.

So how does one find these lost souls, these coins in search of a finder? Many Evangelicals have recognized and observed the distressingly slow decline for years. Many now seek to perpetuate and plant their chosen faith in developing parts of the world. The continent of Africa is a particularly favored target. Asia and South America are next. To some observers, this is merely another form of colonialism, presented with a slightly different backswing. These deeds and the cheerful enthusiasm in which they are undertaken makes even other religious people a mite uneasy.

The Roman Empire successfully spread Christianity across the civilized world, even as its borders eventually grew too large and unwieldy to defend. Today, some people of faith are completely in favor of outsourcing a precious commodity to the third world, their eye on conserving the old ways, keeping Christianity alive, thriving, and intact.

I personally am highly conflicted about the process, as I most certainly do not want my own faith, Quakerism, to die out. Neither do I wish to supplant the ideas of the conqueror upon the conquered, even though that very same process made me who I am today. Assuming I am speaking to those who live in the so-called First World, the same process made you who you are today, as well.

Speaking of American politics, let me put it another way. When I fear that our own treasured Democratic values themselves are truly under threat, not presented in a spirit of reactionary fear-mongering, then I will sound the alarm for a five-alarm fire. Until then, everything is not lost, but time is of the essence. We need to act and come together. Our causes are linked by necessity.

Members of liberal and progressive faith traditions are not nearly as ambitious as our Evangelical and ideologically conservative brothers and sisters. Many of the former are divided among themselves as to know how to best grow the faith in the parts of the world where we first came to be. But in truth, the extreme skepticism and even hostility towards organized religion has in large part caused this problem. Sixty years ago, a sitting U.S. President could state, without pandering to voters, that he was a Christian and a Democrat, and nothing more.

The last Democratic President to make the same distinction was Jimmy Carter, whose rise to prominence came about four decades ago. Since then, the liberal electorate and the powers that be have skillfully talked out of both sides of its mouth on the subject of religion, much to its detriment. It has equivocated by way of a mealy-mouthed, on-one-hand-but-on-another-hand ambivalence that is always careful to offend no one, but offers no real path forward.

And it's this attitude, among others, which must change if Christianity in its current form is to even survive the next few decades. Faith is undone and perverted by people, not by the concepts and precepts themselves. The Left is reaping what it has sown by disassociating itself from Christianity, and sometimes even a higher power. The Right has dug its own grave by selectively picking the verses, moral lessons, and self-serving emphasis it most agrees with, implying that the entire faith itself has no greater context aside from the narrow interpretation of some. Both are wrong. Neither is correct.

If all else fails, I suggest buying a one-way ticket to some simpler place, some far away hamlet. A person might be heard and understood there, not talked over on the cable television news program of one's choice. The next six months are going to be bitter and nasty, and the vitriol ginned up by both sides will likely persist well past November. If ever the world needed religion, let it be today. The message remains, but we must stop resisting, thinking that we are somehow in control of our own destiny. Election years are always proof to me that despite on-message delivery and focus groups, one can never prepare for the unexpected.  

Quote of the Week

"...Of no one marrying, or going home, or getting a job in a town a thousand miles away, or doing any of the traitorous things friends do after college."- Donna Tartt, The Secret Life

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Saturday Video

We like the breeze flow straight out of our lids
Them they got moved by these hard-rock Brooklyn kids
Us floor rush when the DJ's booming classics
You, dig the crew on the fattest hip-hop records
He touch the kinks and sinks into the sounds
She frequents the fattest joints caught underground
Our funk zooms like you hit the Mary Jane
They flock to booms man boogie had to change
Who freaks the clips with mad amount percussion
Where kinky hair goes to unthought-of dimensions
Why's it so fly cause hip-hop kept some drama
When Butterfly rocked his light blue-suede Pumas
What by the cut we push it off the corner
How was the buzz entire hip hop era
Was fresh and fat since they started saying audi
Cause funks made fat from right beneath my hoodie
The poobah of the styles like Miles and shit
Like sixties funky worms with waves and perms
Just sendin' chunky rhythms right down ya block
We be to rap what key be to lock

I'm cool like dat
I'm cool, I'm cool

Friday, May 13, 2016

Friday Video (A Day Early)

For Donald Trump

I bet you fall in bed too easily
With the beautiful girls who are shyly brave
And you sell yourself as a man to save
But all the money in the world is not enough

I bet you've long since passed understanding
What it takes to be satisfied
You're like a vine that keeps climbing higher
But all the money in the world is not enough
And all the bridges blown away keep floating up

It's cold
And rough

And I kept standing six-feet-one
Instead of five-feet-two
And I loved my life
And I hated you

It's cold out there
And rough

And I kept standing six-feet-one
Instead of five-feet-two
And I loved my life
And I hated you

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Quote of the Week

Civilization, in fact, grows more and more maudlin and hysterical; especially under democracy it tends to degenerate into a mere combat of crazes; the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.-H.L. Mencken

Saturday, May 07, 2016

Saturday Video

Punctured bicycle
On a hillside desolate
Will nature make a man of me yet?

When in this charming car
This charming man

Why pamper life's complexity
When the leather runs smooth
On the passenger's seat?

I would go out tonight
But I haven't got a stitch to wear
This man said "it's gruesome
That someone so handsome should care"

Ah! A jumped-up pantry boy
Who never knew his place
He said "return the ring"
He knows so much about these things
He knows so much about these things

I would go out tonight
But I haven't got a stitch to wear
This man said "it's gruesome
That someone so handsome should care"
La, la-la, la-la, la-la, this charming man
Oh, la-la, la-la, la-la, this charming man

Ah! A jumped-up pantry boy
Who never knew his place
He said "return the ring"
He knows so much about these things
He knows so much about these things
He knows so much about these things

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

How Prescient

From A Face in the Crowd, released 1957. Andy Griffith, in his first film role.

Monday, May 02, 2016

The Continuing Experiment to Regulate Teen Drinking

I’ve been watching, as some of you may have been, CNN’s recent documentary series about the decade of the 1980’s. Many, if not most of the historical events and themes covered are familiar. I was a child at the time, but nevertheless a precocious little boy, and my memories of those times are strong. Two of my strongest recollections show the fingerprints and direct involvement of my parents. My mother and father quite intentionally sat me down in front of the television to watch two crucial world events unfold. Children of the Cold War, they had never been allowed to forget the spectre of communism and inherent threat of the Soviet Union. Could the end finally be near?

Patriotic Americans to their core, these family viewings were partially a pep rally for capitalism. Democracy had won. Communism had lost. They were enthused by the optimism and myriad of possibilities in Tiananmen Square. And then it all came crashing down, predictably. My parents held their breath as the students were dispersed, the depressing, but inevitable conclusion in place, a repressive government back in control. The fall of the Berlin Wall, that same year, was a different story. The Reunification of East and West Germany to follow provided what it promised. It was trendy, almost de rigueur, to buy a tiny concrete cube of the Wall and install it like an art exhibit on a person’s work desk. Many an interesting conversation piece was, for at least the next two years, provided for the slightly gloating Western world.

But if any event summarizes the decade for me, it’s a much more localized incident. The reason it left an indelible impression on me is due to my relative proximity to the source. For in it, I came to understand for myself what real, not canned grief looked like. Instead of a world away, through the lens of a camera and a video feed, I only needed to direct the handlebars of my bicycle a mile from my backyard. In the beginning, the story was considered only somewhat newsworthy. It was treated as not much more than an afterthought in the local newspaper, a one-day story at best. When the details spilled out, to most it was just another senseless tragedy. It became little more than a two minute story on a local news broadcast, provided by appropriately serious and grave toned news anchors.

No one could have foreseen a ghoulish plot twist the likes of which O.Henry would have loved. Let’s first consider a familiar culprit, drunk driving. As likely happens in every city and town in the United States, five high-spirited teenagers crammed into a car late at night. Many of us probably resembled them once, if we think back on it hard enough. None of them had any clue of what was to follow. Teenagers usually don’t. When I was that age, I tended to live quite happily in the present tense.

Tuesday, August 11, 1987, was the waning moments of summer vacation for many. In the news, the attention of Americans continued to be directed at the always-troublesome area of the Middle East. Iran-Contra raged on, as did the Iran/Iraq Civil War. In film, the sleeper hit Dirty Dancing, starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Gray, was a week away from being released. The number one song in the nation, according to Billboard, was Irish group U2’s single “I Still Haven’t Found What I'm Looking For.” In sports, another college football season was about to kick off. Only a few months before, Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas, Texas, received the Death Penalty for frequent violations of NCAA rules.

August 11, 1987, is notable for other reasons. It marks the date that five teenagers from Hoover, Alabama, a southern suburb of Birmingham, made a particularly fateful decision. Four were female. A fifth, the driver, was male. As it was learned after the fact, he had apparently been drinking, despite being several years underage. The family of one of the girls, Ashleigh Nutter, has since stated that none of the passengers were aware of his level of intoxication before entering the car. Nutter and the driver, Todd Patterson, were dating at the time, which might explain why he offered everyone a ride.

A fascinating wrinkle to this story came two or three days later. One of the girls, first identified as Susan Ponds, somehow managed to survive the crash. Her body was rushed to a local hospital, where she was placed upon a ventilator to save her life. As fate would have it, she’d been the only passenger not to wear a seat belt. Though currently alive, there was no guarantee that she would survive. If she did make it, extensive time would be required to heal from her injuries. The story now takes a swift, unforeseen turn for the macabre.

At some point during that fateful night, Ponds and a friend, Christie Reeder, decided to swap class rings. The girls had been attending a slumber party, one of those chatty affairs which inevitably concludes well into the early morning. The accident that followed had been a brutal one. Patterson took a hairpin turn, driving much faster than the posted speed limit of 30 mph. This bad decision on his part effectively flipped the Ford Mustang in which all had been traveling face down in a ditch. Due to the severe injuries inflicted by the trauma of the crash, identifying the bodies was a difficult task. It became evident to many that the funerals to follow would likely be closed-casket affairs.

Three days later, the UPI caught up to the story. Nothing captures the attention of the media more than news of the bizarre.

HOOVER, Ala. -- A 17-year-old girl severely injured in a car accident while wearing a friend's class ring was mistakenly reported dead, and her relatives prepared for her funeral before learning she was alive in a hospital.
The mistake in identities was announced Wednesday night at the closed-casket visitation of Christie Lee Reeder, a Hoover girl whose funeral had been set for Thursday although she was very much alive.
'When the young man told me, I said, 'I'm her grandmother, what are you trying to tell me?'' Margaret Welch recalled. 'He said there was some sort of mix-up and Christie wasn't dead and it was another girl.
'When they announced it at the funeral home it was just bedlam.'
Imagine how it must have felt, as a parent, to absorb the shock. Grief that intense rarely produces many retellings, which is why I’ve rarely heard this story told much. To learn first that your child has been involved in a terrible accident is beyond awful. Informed of your child’s demise, you dazedly and dutifully follow all the needed steps, manage the hoops to jump through as best you can, all the while processing the loss and anguish. You even make funeral plans, only to learn that your child is, in fact, very much alive. Imagine the tragedy in reverse, the agony of the Ponds family, their hopes cruelly dashed.

I was young then, almost seven, but I remember how the news reverberated across the community. The local swimming pool and racquet club, itself less than a mile from the site of the accident, installed a brass placard by a flagpole that listed the names of the deceased. I walked past it on many a fond, chlorinated day. For a time, using this example, adults warned me of the consequences of drinking and running with a wild crowd.

The age today that my parents were thirty years ago, I understand the approach they took, even as I acknowledge its flaws. They meant well, but I was a little too young to understand. It would be many years before I was old enough to drive a car. Only then would I have any kind of conception for how deadly automobiles can be. It would take a long time before I understood innately how easy it is to get into an accident and how much care one must take while driving.

As warnings go, not much was going to dissuade me from adolescent foolishness when it became my time. The years of mandatory D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) taught me from the age of nine or ten what hard drugs were, but I grew up in a suburban bubble where no one snorted lines of cocaine or tried to sell me PCP on street corners. Later, as so many do, I drank too much in college, even breaking the law a handful of times by taking the wheel when I shouldn’t have. I’m lucky that I didn’t get caught.

Twenty-nine years later, I wonder how many of us from back then remember that car full of teenagers and how they ended up. I pass by the site of the accident multiple times on my way home to visit my parents. Car wrecks are the real American epidemic. I have only known one confirmed heroin user in my life, but have had at least five relatives and friends die or be seriously injured in an automobile. The statistics on auto vehicular homicide are probably close to their levels in the 1980’s. I would be shocked if they were not.

When we talk about the decade of the 80’s, we shouldn’t leave out a crucial detail. It was in 1984 when the United States raised its drinking age in all states from 18 to 21, an experiment in paternalism and in placating grief-stricken Mothers Against Drunk Driving that, to many, has been about as effective as Prohibition. If we examine a very formative and significant time in American society, we need to also examine its share of enacted reforms, legislation, and the ways they continue to affect every American. How times haven’t changed.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Quote of the Week

In times like these, it's helpful to remember that there have always been times like these.-Paul Harvey