Friday, February 29, 2008

Saturday Rock Show A Day Early

Tomorrow I kick off my 2008 Mobile Disc Jockey season, so I won't be around. I mentioned Porcupine Tree last September, and have been listening, again, to their CD Deadwing, and I have to say that this video, as disturbing as the images are, captures the feeling of the band in a way that another "official" video might not. There is something dark about their music. Now, personally, I think the best song on this particular release is the 14-minute-long "Arriving Somewhere But Not Here", but the title track is also quite good. In fact, there really aren't any weak songs here. Enjoy, but prepare to be disturbed (the whole crossing out of the eyes thing . . . brrrr, gives me chills):

Six Word Memoirs

Kirsten links to this, and I think it's great. How do you boil down a life to six words?

Here's mine: There are always more chances.

The floor is now open.

A Personal And Not-So-Personal Postscript

This post, in which I speak about what I believe love to be, and not to be, has given me great satisfaction - it has prompted some of the best responses I've ever received. I was surprised this morning, walking in the door from a long night at work, to find that my wife had read it last night (she usually takes one day a week and speed-reads through my stuff). She was visibly upset, and after retreating to the bedroom where our privacy is only marginally better than standing in the middle of a Mall on a Saturday in July, she asked me if I was in love with someone else. So, the only person to actually ask me the question was . . . Lisa.


The long and the short of it is simple - I tried to explain what I meant by what I obviously did not present very well. It was a good opening, because we had an honest and open talk about our lives, and our life together. She told me she has not held the whole "meant for each other/soul mates" nonsense for years, and so I want to retract that. I said that my intention was only to offer the realistic perspective that human beings cannot possibly receive all that they need from a single other individual across the span of a lifetime - people change, needs and wants change, etc. Without ever once breaking one's wedding vows, it seems to me that relationships with those not one's spouse can be rewarding, fulfilling, benefiting all concerned - and should be considered a good thing for all concerned. I realize this is a very fine line upon which I am dancing here, but I reiterated to her that I was not speaking from experience, but only making a general observation about the realities of human interaction, the limits of love and marriage, and the possibilities open to people who are willing to be honest enough, and open enough, to the possibilities life provides them.

Human beings are far too complex and varied over time to think that, without constant attention, a marriage is somehow going to "take care of itself". It isn't. Being with another individual, figuring out all the big and small ways to fit one's life in to another's in the face of all the vagaries and obstacles requires work. It also requires an openness and honesty that change sometimes brings both challenges and opportunities. I told Lisa last night what I wrote in the comments below, that taking the easy road of divorce when we came quite close to falling apart in the summer of '06 seems, in retrospect, to have been the coward's way out. The marriage vows include the promise to be together "for better or worse", and sometimes worse can be pretty bad (I am excluding unhealthy, obsessive, or abusive situations here; run as fast as you can from that kind of thing). With liberal divorce laws, we feel quite free to leave when the going gets rough. How much better to face new challenges together than to throw up one's hands and say, "Oh, well, I tried."

Love, marriage - these are complex, strange things, never really understood, just coped with as we move through life. I like Alan's comment about tossing a book across a room, because all that pseudo-psychobabble we are fed only makes things worse, because we believe there are people out there who actually know the answers to our questions. There are no answers, and the questions aren't really questions so much as they are problems that require an ability to be open and honest.

One last thing. A few years ago, my uncle passed away. After coming back home from the funeral, I sent a note to my aunt - whom I did not know well, but always liked - thanking her for her hospitality (she opened her house to the huge brood of family that showed up for Ned's funeral), and offering on paper condolences I did not have a chance to offer in person. One of the things I wrote has stuck with me, and I think of it often. After reflecting on my own memories of Uncle Ned and what he did for me, and our whole family, during his life, and being grateful he was the kind of person he was (you never stopped laughing when you sat around with Ned), I said that I understood there are private things, secret things, between a husband and wife and those things are the glue that holds people together, no matter what others may think they see and know about a couple. No one knows about a couple, no matter how much they may think they know, because it is those private things that are the real secret. I won't share mine, but I will say that we too often forget those secret things, those private things. Marriages are a many layered, multifaceted experience; there is no summary to any one marriage, even one that ends. I think we would do far better to allow them to be experiences to which we are open, rather than riddles to be solved or some "thing" that has a reality to which ours must conform.

We are engaged in a mystery.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

A Reading Of Psalm 23

Street Prophets offers up Psalm 23 today in the on-going Progressive Bible Study. I will let PD speak for himself as to how he would interpret this most famous Hebrew poem. I have often thought the Psalm an interesting one to offer as comfort. As Pastor Dan notes, it is used at funerals (I have recited it more than I can remember at them), and seems to offer a real boon to those who are seeking some kind of solace. I think, however, that it is as much as question of familiarity and tradition - in the midst of loss we look for whatever anchors of our old life may still be around - as any real assistance the Psalm contains in and of itself.

I would like to focus right now on the most interesting set of couplets within the Psalm, verses 4-5a. To quote from the long-ago memorized King James version, "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for thou art with me/Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies. . ." What kind of protector would lead one through the "valley of the shadow of death"? What kind of shepherd "preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies"? Obviously, a shepherd does these things, leading the herd through areas where wolves and lions sit in wait, pasturing herds in full view of hunting packs of both. Yet, does this not make the protection the shepherd offers somewhat more equivocal than it is usually presented?

I want to ask a simple question with what I think is a disturbing answer - Is there real protection being offered here, or the mere promise of presence in the face of danger? Not only are we told that God will lead us through the valley of the shadow of death, but God will sit us down with our enemies at a common table. There is no offer of comfort or protection here; in fact, there seems to be only the realistic assertion that whatever protection we might feel is merely a presence. Further, it seems to me that the offer of communion with one's enemies isn't so much comfort as a very real threat.

All of this leads me to believe the author of this Psalm was far more realistic about who God is than our own sentiment-drenched reading would allow. We face that fear-filled valley with only the promise of presence - no guarantees we will make it through. God's comfort does not include any promises that our lives will be easy or free from pain, sorrow, or even death. Rather, all we are given is a promise that God will be there, even as we face our enemies, and the last enemy.

Any thoughts?

The Wit And Wisdom Of John Hagee

I once chanced upon a program on Trinity Broadcasting Network - a cable/satellite channel chock-a-block with dispensationalists and out-and-out kooks like Benny Hinn - in which John Hagee was attempting to delineate, with the aid of charts and pictures (I was waiting for a felt board, but it didn't appear), the exact meaning of the Book of Revelations. As an exercise in biblical exegesis it was perhaps the most absurd thing I had ever seen. As an exercise in hilarity, however, it was exquisite. Trying to take this late-first century work of apocalyptic literature and turn it in to a series of predictions for our current state of affairs ended up being a mess, although I doubt Hagee understood that. No, his urgent, earnest pleas to give credence to his nonsense was far too transparent to be anything other than an honest belief that he was preaching nothing but the truth revealed to him and him alone.

It is easy to dismiss such ignorant claptrap, until one realizes the incredible social and political power a person like Hagee wields. Only then do we have to face the fact that our political life includes not just the great and powerful, but the ignorant and demented as well. Hagee's endorsement of John McCain, as Glenn Greenwald notes, should, had we a properly functioning press corps educated on matters of serious import, raise all sorts of red flags and force questions upon McCain that should at least make him uncomfortable. Alas and alack, not only will that not happen, McCain will prance around the country glad to have the endorsement of such a person as John Hagee.

I find it odd - although by now I shouldn't - that the ridiculous statements of Louis Farrakhan and the perfectly reasonable comments of some such as the pastor of Barack Obama's church in Chicago for some reason exist outside the pale of acceptability, while the truly awful, hate-filled ranting of Pat Robertson, and the bloody fantasies of John Hagee are perfectly acceptable. The former, I suppose suffer under the weight not only of not having money and therefor power, but also being black. The latter have money, access, influence, and are so white they are almost transparent.

If we were honest, such little factoids as these might actually be discussed, as would the Rev. Hagee's attempts to create a Classic Comics edition of Revelations for those not schooled in the intricacies of apocalyptic. Of course, they won't, any more than the anti-Semitism which exists at the root of his ironic, blind support for the state of Israel, or desire for military confrontation with Iran, for the free use of nuclear weapons as a tool to bring about the second coming of Christ, and all sorts of other foolish ideas. No, they'll just admire the hundreds who pack his church in Texas and his open checkbook and say, "Wow, he's important," rather than, "Wow, this guy's a war-mongering, hate-filled ignoramus. Why does John McCain want his support?"

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Asking For More Than We Can Ever Get Out Of It

I've been on a kick lately, thinking through a lot of different, yet related, ideas - on experiencing life, on embracing what life has to offer without labeling or judging, seeing grace even in the midst of horror and terror and mourning as part of seeing the presence of God - and my thoughts turn, without too much difficulty to love.

My wife and I have had an on-going debate/discussion since early on. She has always been a firm believer in the whole "soul mate" thing; I, while occasionally dipping my toe in to hyper-romanticism, began poo-pooing such nonsense. Then, after five or six years together, I became a convert to the idea. In the past six months to year or so, I have reverted to my former sense that such talk is utter nonsense. I go further, however; I no longer believe it possible to invest human relationships with so much weight. I think the weight, in the end, crushes not only the relationship, but the people involved. It is all well and good to affirm one's love for another; it is quite another, and I think dangerous to one's own sense of oneself as well as the health of the relationship, to begin claiming that love has transformed in to "need". Need is a dangerous state to be in with another human being, to be honest; most people do not have the psychological health to carry their own burdens. To insist that another human being is responsible for my happiness, my sense of self is not the kind of healthy self-emptying one thinks of when one considers, for example, Christian demands for self-abnegation. Rather, it is a kind of self-infantalizing. We are handing to another person the keys not just to our hearts, but to our very lives. We are asking them to provide for us what, in all likelihood, they cannot provide for themselves.

We are a nation of incurable romantics. Our art, both high and popular celebrates all sorts of foolish ideas, from love at first sight to the emptying of the self onto another as a sign of true love. We sing about it in songs, we watch one after another movie in which people make utterly foolish choices based on the notion that their happiness can come only when they are attached to another human being.

Yet, real love between two people is such a fragile, beautiful thing. Why would we weigh it down with the requirement that it not only give us the pleasure of another person's presence in our lives, a presence to excite and surprise and confound and be at peace with, but also give us psychological strength we lack and equanimity we cannot seem to find on our own? Why would we demand that another person not only love us, but "complete" us, be our "soul mate", thus admitting up front that we feel our selves are incomplete and and for themselves?

The most wonderful part of marriage, for me at least, has been the continual excitement of learning there is so much about this woman I do not know, this woman I have lived with for nearly fifteen years. Far more than insisting that, without her, I am not complete, I revel in the almost daily surprise of seeing something I have not seen before. Why would I demand more than that? Why would I insist on a unbreakable bow of "forever" before the fact, rather than allow the unfolding of our time together to provide evidence that our being together is a worthy goal in and of itself?

I also do not believe that such love is, or should be, necessarily exclusive. Throughout human history, it has not been. I am not advocating adultery; I am saying that it is perfectly natural to discover, one fine day, another person who interests us as much, albeit in different ways, as someone to whom we have committed ourselves. It seems to me that pursuing such interest, cognizant of the limits we have set around such activities, is as worthy a goal as holding fast to the original commitment itself. How else can we live and grow, experiencing the possibilities life has to offer, if we insist that love is, by its nature, exclusive? Since it really isn't, I see no reason why we should pretend that it either can be, should be, or is. A deep friendship can offer a wealth of experiences that can only make us better people, better lovers, better friends, better individuals. To argue that only certain, socially sanctioned kinds of "love" are properly love is ridiculous on its face.

This is another instance of asking of love more than it can possibly provide. I see no reason in the world why it is necessary to seek in one individual every scrap of balance and joy in one's life. Without ever breaking the vow to forsake others, I believe it is not only possible, but rewarding to enjoy many of the same joys and sorrows and surprises we have with spouses with one who is not our spouse. It can only make us better, because one thing I believe about love is quite simple - when it is real, and I mean really real, it is never wrong.

I wonder how many people are going to ask me if I'm cheating on my wife now?

An Extra Music Post

I know no one reads, or at least comments, much on these music posts of mine. I am offering this one because it echoes in many ways my own place right now on my spiritual journey. I suppose Keenan, who wrote these lyrics, would either laugh at that statement, or wonder what it meant, but that's OK. I'm just glad he's around to say better what I have been trying to say. If semi-prog, very dark heavy metal isn't your thing, just skip the vid and read the lyrics, please.

I have written several times that I think Tool lead singer and lyricist Maynard James Keenan should be named poet laureate. Known for their off-putting videos and uncompromising sound - including dark lyrics soaked in rage - what is less known is the sublime beauty of some of their songs. I think Lateralus is without a doubt their best record to date (although 10,000 Eyes has its moments, too), and the title song is a wonderful celebration of the possibility inherent in real living. That is to say, living with eyes open to the possibilities of both pain and beauty that is true human living. Lyrics below the video:

Black then white are all I see in my infancy.
red and yellow then came to be, reaching out to me.
lets me see.
As below, so above and beyond, I imagine
drawn beyond the lines of reason.
Push the envelope. Watch it bend.

Over thinking, over analyzing separates the body from the mind.
Withering my intuition, missing opportunities and I must
Feed my will to feel my moment drawing way outside the lines.

Black then white are all I see in my infancy.
red and yellow then came to be, reaching out to me.
lets me see there is so much more
and beckons me to look through to these infinite possibilities.
As below, so above and beyond, I imagine
drawn outside the lines of reason.
Push the envelope. Watch it bend.

Over thinking, over analyzing separates the body from the mind.
Withering my intuition leaving all these opportunities behind.

Feed my will to feel this moment urging me to cross the line.
Reaching out to embrace the random.
Reaching out to embrace whatever may come.

I embrace my desire to
feel the rhythm, to feel connected
enough to step aside and weep like a widow
to feel inspired, to fathom the power,
to witness the beauty, to bathe in the fountain,
to swing on the spiral
of our divinity and still be a human.

With my feet upon the ground I lose myself
between the sounds and open wide to suck it in.
I feel it move across my skin.
I'm reaching up and reaching out.
I'm reaching for the random or what ever will bewilder me.
And following our will and wind we may just go where no one's been.
We'll ride the spiral to the end and may just go where no one's been.

Spiral out. Keep going...

When Is Catholic Bashing Not Catholic Bashing?

Oy. I just got done writing about the stupid way our discourse is warped by those who shout "anti-Semite" in a crowded theater, and I came across this from On Faith at The Washington Post.

Now, I will admit that I have not read the references letter from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Nor did I read the criticism of that letter, so I have no way of judging the veracity of the claims of Sister Mary Ann. I can say, from my own experience at The Catholic University of America, that for all it's America's largest denomination, it is quite quick to claim "anti-Catholic bias" whenever someone criticizes some public position the Church or its surrogates take. I was the only Protestant in some of my classes, and my criticisms of some point of Catholic teaching was usually labeled the result of my own anti-Catholic upbringing. I was agog the first time I heard this; by the last time it was uttered, I just shook my head and smiled. What else can you do?

In any event, it seems that some people just can't take criticism. In truth, it is no more anti-Catholic to criticize the public stance of the Catholic Church on social issues than it is anti-Methodist to claim the denomination is a hair's breadth away from Karl Marx. No one, on individual, no institution, is above reproach or beyond criticism. To shout "you hate me for being me!" every time someone says that an institution of which one is a member is criticized just doesn't cut it for me.

Please, stop.

The Real Third Rail Of American Politics (UPDATE)

It is often said that Social Security is "the third rail" of our political life; touch it, and die a screaming, horrid death. I don't think so. Trying to have a realistic discussion of our policy towards the nation-state of Israel causes everyone in mainstream and right-wing politics (increasingly difficult to distinguish) to lose whatever equanimity they might possess and start frothing at the mouth. Alan Dershowitz lost whatever credibility he once had by carrying on this way. David Horowitz actually requires a bib when he starts on this tack. Joe "Likudnik" Lieberman is an embarrassment when he starts talking about Israel.

Back in the summer of '06, on my first attempt at blogging, I wrote a very tentative criticism of Israel's invasion of southern Lebanon, and got a comment without a trackback that, when boiled down to its essentials, called me anti-Semitic. I have rarely ventured forth since then, because I weary of having to explain the obvious - criticizing Israeli foreign policy is not the same thing as desiring the death of all Jews; wishing we could have an honest debate about American policy towards Israel is not the same thing as tossing a Hitlergruss and having Arbeit Mach Frei stenciled above my house; wondering about the political sanity of some members of the American Jewish community who demand a narrow range of debate on Israel is not seeing hook-nosed usurists behind every hedge-row. Alas, I am quite sure that my use of various bigoted comments in this paragraph will draw the weirdos like my dog's manure draws flies.

Today, Glenn Greenwald commends Barack Obama for a speech in which he asks, not exactly rhetorically, for a more open debate on our policy towards Israel. In the process, Greenwald shows the results of a recent opinion survey in Israel that shows how warped our own discourse is. I have no doubt that his comments are chock-a-block with accusations of Jew-hating and closet goose-stepping on Greenwald's part. Yet, how can we move forward if we don't actually move from the stalemate we currently find ourselves in on this whole issue? How tiring does it get to repeat, yet again, that the equation of "Israel" and "Jewishness" is simply false?

It should be noted that part of this debate is driven by religious fanatics who actually believe that the current nation-state of Israel is the reincarnation (resurrection?) of the ancient, Biblical kingdom, and therefore it is the duty of all good (American) Christians to defend it, so that it can be destroyed when Jesus descends from the clouds and saves all the Christians and kills all the heathen, including those Christ-killing Jews who live in Israel. CBN actually negotiated with Egypt to build a small, air-conditioned storage facility to house television equipment so that, when Jesus does return, they will have the equipment staged at the foot of Mt. Sinai to broadcast it around the world (I kid you not).

Our entire discourse is so warped, I wonder how we function.

UPDATE: Missing last night's debate, I now see that Russert managed to get his dig in, with the TN state GOP piling on. If it weren't for the fact that Russert is admired by so many people as a "tough journalist", I would laugh. Knowing, however, that there are so many who admire the Boy from Buffalo (and his dad, "Big Russ", God help us), I weep because someone this God-awful stupid actually manages to legitimate idiocy in our public discourse.

Rather than boycott FOXNews, I think Democrats should boycott any debate moderated by Russert. Not because he's a partisan hack. Rather, because he's just so goddamn stupid.

Man And God No Longer At Yale (UPDATE)

William Buckley dying is a bit redundant, as far as I'm concerned. A defender of the lack of principles of the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy; a race-baiting, Martin-Luther-King-Jr.-hating defender of the peculiar institution of Jim Crow as true Americanism; a tired promoter of the idea that Ronald Reagan was somehow the only true American President; and a man who would rouse himself from his semi-comatose, semi-reclining position to toss out a quote from Cicero or St. Thomas to make himself look smarter than he really was - I'll just say, with Douglas Adams, "So long, and thanks for all the fish."

Will they bury him in that same position, leaning so far back in his chair it looks like it and he will tip over, pen cap in his mouth, a look of petulant triumph on his face because his adversary didn't know that he had just quoted from the Tridentine Mass rather than Virgil, just to throw the guy off?

All this will change if, in his will, he has left it all to the most obscure liberal blogger on the planet. In that case, may I just say, "Bill, you were a swell guy, up until 1967 or so, when you actually died."

UPDATE: I can't agree with Matt Yglesias. I refuse to say anything nice about a guy who defended Franco and Pinochet; who continued to deride the Civil Rights movement long after it had succeeded in its initial goals; and who, in his ultra-montane Catholocism resembled a disheveled Cardinal Newman trying to deliver his lectures on "The Idea of the University". No props here, Matt. Sorry.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Living With Complexity

The following is a stream-of-consciousness post, just the not-quite-random jotting down of some thoughts as they pop in to my head on the theme in the title. Feel free to comment or ignore at your leisure, because this is a kind of venting exercise for me.

Most of us, I think, are uncomfortable with complexity. We figure out ways to ignore nuance, conflict, and even the contradictions in our lives. It is always easier to draw lines around parts of our lives, lines that become walls separating vital parts of our lives from each other. We traverse the walls separating out these different parts with care, and we never give a thought as to how the different parts, separated so assiduously from one another, interact in our lives.

Yet, aren't these walls largely figments of our imaginations? Trying to reconcile the irreconcilable in our lives can lead us, usually, in two, time-worn directions: 1) the cliche of "the double life"; 2) eradicate the contradictions and live "with integrity". Neither of these options, however, deals with the underlying problem, however, which is quite simply this - we will never eradicate compromise and contradiction in our lives. No one is free from the dirty little secrets we try to hide from ourselves and others; our closets are full of the skeletons of our past, and no matter how hard we try either try to keep the door closed, or open them up and sweep away the dust of these events, they continue to fill.

One alternative to the endless search for a life lived honestly is to accept the complexity with which we live, and to accept the ways we do not live up to our beliefs about ourselves. In so doing, we can, first, maybe make some headway on dealing with those parts of our lives of which we aren't so proud, or perhaps reconciling those parts of our lives that we separate by those imaginary walls that really don't work so well after all. One of the first tasks necessary for real maturity (as opposed to the psychobabble we too often are spoon fed) is to see ourselves as others see us, not as we imagine ourselves to be.

The first time I went through this exercise was in my early 20's. I was confronted by two different mentors with a picture of myself not only that I had never considered, but when presented with it, was inclined to dismiss out of hand (I won't go in to details). Yet, after thinking about what I had been told, in detail both excruciating and necessary, I realized that I had to take much more care in the future to be aware of the perceptions of others in how I lived my life because decisions I make, for whatever internal reasons, can be interpreted quite differently by others. Care for others is the first step in dealing with complexity.

We too often hear and read people who say, "I don't care what other people think, I'm just going to live my life." That's a wonderful attitude to take. If one is an adolescent still trying to figure out who he or she is. There is nothing "heroic" or "adult" or "mature" in the pose of the disconnected rebel. This is the pose of the fearful adolescent, really - fearful of the approbation of others, and cutting off the approbation before it can reach one's sense of equanimity. If we don't care what others think or say before they say it, if they say it it is already meaningless.

The roots of this kind of pose aren't so much courage in the face of a heartless world, but fear of the complexity and compromise necessary to live in the world. Sometimes we have to see that our lives are compromised, and yet do the best we can anyway. Sometimes we have to accept that we are not the best person we could be, and that's OK. Sometimes we have to accept that others see us in a way we never would have suspected - and some of these unsuspected ways are actually surprisingly good.

I know someone - and no, it isn't me - who accepts the complexity of life so fully, without any sense of irony or compromise or willingness to hedge bets, that I used to wonder how it is done (sorry for the passive voice, but I am trying to hide an identity here). When asked, this person just say, "This is my life." There is no fear of judgment, no desire to live with what other people call integrity. There is only the acceptance of the complexity of life - and the inherent insecurity that entails. Rather than a heroic stance towards life, this is one that shows courage, and I think real integrity. This person is an integrated individual because this person accepts life as it is, and makes choices based on that reality. What others might call "a wrong choice" is only wrong because these others aren't living this life, with these experiences. This person is aware of the perceptions of others, and is careful with the feelings of others, but only so far as they do not interfere with making choices that are necessary to make one happy.

I have learned a lot watching this person. I hope I learn how to live this way more completely, and honestly.

Faiths Of Our Fathers

The Pew Center On Religion and Public Life has published a comprehensive survey of American attitudes towards religion, and the results are surprising. About half of Americans church-shop once they become adults, and close to a quarter simply reject any religious affiliation all together. We are a nation whose public discourse is drenched in religious imagery, yet we are increasingly rejecting the hard-line idea that the religious life has to be a certain way. Indeed, while hardly as secular as Western Europe, we now have evidence that much of the rhetoric concerning religion in our collective life is meaningless to a larger and larger audience.

What's funny about this is that, in our household, we have two people who live on opposite ends of the results of this survey. I was baptized, confirmed, studied theology through, and continue my membership in, the United Methodist Church, for a variety of reasons from personal inertia through a belief in much of the Wesleyan approach to the Christian life. My wife, however, came to the UMC only in 1988. In fact, that was the year she started attending church on a regular basis for the first time in her life. Baptized and confirmed in the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, her grandfather being a pastor in that denomination, she did not grow up going to church. Her father had a falling out with the faith of his youth, and her family didn't go to church until her mother started seeing a man who attended the UMC in the town in which they lived. Lisa started going because of . . . a really cute guy. Within a couple years, she was a US2 missionary for the UMC; within another couple years, she was in seminary. Six years after first setting foot in a church, she was serving as an ordained deacon (under the old ordination rules). This is all good because the Missouri Synod doesn't ordain women, so she couldn't have answered her call there.

What was your religious affiliation growing up, what, if any is it now, and what were your reasons for making the choices you did?

For Democracy Lover

I read Tbogg every single day. In fact, his is the third site I visit, after Sadly,No! and Think Progress. I need a smile when I first get up, and I usually end up laughing out loud when I read him. I rarely quote him, though, but today, I link and quote for the simple reason that he manages to say exactly what needs to be said in re lefty disdain for our compromised political process. Let me say, first, that I think the charges of compromise are accurate; yet, I have yet to have a substantive answer to my questions concerning the questions of power, with what the current system might be replaced in the real world, and so on. In any event, Tbogg constructs a wonderful answer to a "harrumphing" commenter who tries to call out Democrats for being wussies in the face of power, and why the left should extend the Magical Bird salute to them this fall in the form of a vote for Ralph "Vanity Fair" Nader:
Let me see if I can explain it this way:

Every year in Happy Gumdrop Fairy-Tale Land all of the sprites and elves and woodland creatures gather together to pick the Rainbow Sunshine Queen. Everyone is there: the Lollipop Guild, the Star-Twinkle Toddlers, the Sparkly Unicorns, the Cookie Baking Apple-cheeked Grandmothers, the Fluffy Bunny Bund, the Rumbly-Tumbly Pupperoos, the Snowflake Princesses, the Baby Duckies All-In-A-Row, the Laughing Babies, and the Dykes on Bikes. They have a big picnic with cupcakes and gumdrops and pudding pops, stopping only to cast their votes by throwing Magic Wishing Rocks into the Well of Laughter, Comity, and Good Intentions. Afterward they spend the rest of the night dancing and singing and waving glow sticks until dawn when they tumble sleepy-eyed into beds made of the purest and whitest goose down where they dream of angels and clouds of spun sugar.

You don't live there.

Grow the fuck up.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Our Stupid Discourse

I really don't have anything to add to what Glenn Greenwald writes about the ridiculous new narrative questioning Barack Obama's patriotism, including Greenwald's contention that Obama is doing exactly right in his response.

It might not be cowardice on the Democrats' part. They might just be stupid enough to tremble in fear at the thought that someone somewhere might think them unpatriotic.

Music Monday

I've been noticing that a lot of contemporary "prog" and "neo-prog" bands sound an awful lot like Genesis during the period 1975-1983. Now, I'm a fan of Genesis, and I think that some of their best music was produced in this time span. I'm just not sure it's enough to generate an entire musical movement. Or maybe it is, and I'm just not musical enough to hear it. Anyway, here are some songs from this period, starting with the first song off what I think is the best record they put out between The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway and Genesis - Duke, "Behind the Lines":

This is perhaps the most disturbing song Genesis ever did. It is about a psychotic man who is with a prostitute, yet thinking he is with his mother. Yeah. It's called "Mama":

. . . And Then There Were Three was the first album they did after Steve Hackett left. The tracks are consistent, with a similar "sound" as it were, even as they alternate between Tony Banks songs and Mike Rutherford songs (the one Phil Collins track, "Follow You, Follow Me" is slightly different, more in tone than anything else). Of all the songs, though, I always liked "Deep in the Motherlode". Here's a bearded Phil Collins, with hair, probably slightly drunk, as he was deep in his own motherlode, the collapse of his first marriage which he chronicled on his first solo record. The sound on this clip just doesn't quite capture the song the way the cut on their second box set (also a live track) does, but oh, well.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Discrimination Based On Sound Business Principles

What follows is inspired by this little post by Matt Yglesias. Believe it or not, this is something about which I have given much passing thought. In a general sense, I have wondered about the ways in which certain diseases strike certain individuals. In my family, three of my grandparents made it in to their 80's, and my paternal grandmother lived to be 95 (my maternal grandmother only lived to be 64; had she lived even 20 years later, she might have made it through the breast cancer that killed her). I have seen young people with leukemia, testicular cancer, lymphoma, MS, and other debilitating illnesses. My father-in-law, who died in 2001 at the age of 58, had a personal and family history of cardiovascular disease (he died from a pulmonary embolism).

At the same time, I see people who live long, healthy lives, or perhaps long and not-so-healthy, but certainly long lives. I look at my parents, now officially in their mid-80's, and only recently slowing down (three years ago, they made the drive from upstate New York for a week's visit out here on the prairie). I know people twenty years my parents' juniors who would be hard pressed to make a journey half as long.

There just seems to be a place for DNA in this odd distribution of ailments and diseases. Some folks just seem to have superior genetic material, and either fight off microbial disease or manage to stave off the worst excesses of genetic breakdown that result in cancer. There is nothing fair about this; nor is there anything particularly wrong with it, either. It's just the way the biological cookie crumbles sometimes, as harsh as that sounds.

Yet, as Yglesias points out, the kinds of genetic testing which will in all likelihood be developed over the next few decades will only put the whole issue in sharper focus, as insurers push harder and harder to avoid risky investments. So, you are a young man whose paternal line has a history of cardiovascular disease, you are edging towards obesity and diabetes? Or, you are a young woman who has a history of breast cancer in your family? I would guess that insurance companies would take one look at your genes and say, "So sorry."

On the one hand, this makes perfect sense. Folks who are already infected with HIV can be denied coverage; folks with other chronic diseases who do not have insurance can be denied. Why not extend that principle to those with faulty genetic material, making them more prone to illnesses requiring all sorts of payouts from insurance carriers?

Except, of course, we have a problem here, do we not? When this is boiled down to its most basic level, I just want to know how this is substantively different from discriminating against people because of the color of their skin color. Indeed, one could even argue that such discrimination is also sound, from the point-of-view of a health insurance provider - sickle cell, Taysachs Disease, high blood pressure anyone?

I think this is not an argument for regulating these kinds of things out-of-bounds for insurance companies. Rather, I think it is an argument for scrapping private insurers all together and going to national health care. We are not responsible for the genetic material that makes us who we are, including those faulty genes that may make us more susceptible to this illness or that one. I see no reason why good economic sense should condemn millions of Americans to bad or no health care through no fault of their own.

It's Not As Much Fun As Making Up Racist Remarks

In a piece in the Outlook section of The Washington Post, former adviser to John Edwards' Presidential campaign Michael Signer writes an impassioned plea for reporters covering the campaigns to do some serious stories in the national press on the foreign policy proposals of the candidates. In his plea he asks not very rhetorically why it is these reporters don't cover this kind of thing. He cites several substantive speeched by Edwards, Obama, and Clinton that received almost no coverage in the major press. Indeed he even relates a discussion with a reporter who claimed the candidates haven't "said anything" about foreign policy.

In response to Signer's question, I would offer a couple explanation, the weight of each dependent upon one's view of the press. In the first instance, I believe the reporters don't cover them because they honestly believe the American people don't care about foreign policy all that much. Never mind that we've got American troops engaged in combat in two countries in Asia; never mind the endless declarations that we are a nation "at war"; never mind we are reminded every day that war is with, depending on who's talking and what they're saying, "Islam", "Terror", or "Evil-doers". Indeed, never mind that there are other threats and promises abroad of far greater importance, that the candidates have spoken to these issues, and the press has given a collective "ho hum" to it all.

I also think campaign reporters are far less interested in issues than in the campaign itself - who's ahead, who's behind, who's in, who's out. That kind of thing is far more interesting, as well as riveting, than abstruse policy proposals that will only matter is the candidate wins. The day-to-day intrigue and positioning of candidates and their staffs, that's the stuff that really matters.

In line with these two things is the persistence of nonsense stories - the playing of the race card; the role of Bill Clinton in his wife's campaign; remarks by Barack Obama's wife; Edwards' infamous haircut and house; McCain's relationship with a female lobbyist - that dominate our discourse. It isn't that stories on policy aren't done. They are drowned out in the chorus of crap that swells to fortissimo every time something trivial comes down the wires. That much of this trivia is also wrong, false, or misconstrued misses the point. This is the way, for better or worse, politics is played in this country, and to pretend that we do better when we focus on issues misses the point that we rarely have done so. Whether it's a photo of Michael Dukakis sitting in a tank, or Bill Clinton blowing a saxophone (God, I used the word "blow" in a sentence with Bill Clinton again without thinking), or Al Gore inventing the internet, this kind of stuff - regardless of its veracity or importance - weighs far more in the minds of those who shape the way campaigns are run than any question of policy.

It's so much more fun to wonder about Obama's patriotism than it is to wonder how he will deal with a rising Russia.

A Fanatic's Love

I'm currently deep in to Gary Giddins' Visions of Jazz: Its First Century, a most unusual history of this most American of art forms. Had Ken Burns eschewed traditional chronological/personal/formal history, and created his documentary Jazz along similar lines, it would have been far better than it was. Giddins' book is, in essence, a written box set, a series of relatively short overviews of the lives, the music, the songs, and the settings of jazz throughout its improbable run as, first, a racially divided source of inspiration; the sound that gave a generation its name; the revolt of the post-modernists who insisted that jazz live up to its intellectual potential; the fear of and acquiescence to rock, including amplification; and its final resting place as a plethora of styles rooted in a rhythmic style and harmonic and melodic openness to just about everything. Nothing exemplifies the contemporary state of jazz to me more than the Grammy-award-winning CD in which free jazz bassist Charlie Haden and jazz guitarist Pat Metheny (known for his lush orchestrations using either keyboardist Lyle Mays or a real orchestra) play together, Beyond the Missouri Skyline.

Giddins knows the linear, traditional history of the music. He has listened to, and absorbed, every phrase, every solo, every harmony, every variation on "Body and Soul" and "Old Rocking Chair" that exists. He knew, either well or in passing, some of the best musicians to play, from elder statesman Roy Eldridge through the titan Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman. His work is singular in that he manages to present in words on paper, an impression of what this music he loves so well and knows so thoroughly, does to listeners. It is a soloist's art, uniquely American in that it celebrates the power of the individual to be heroic, even as that hero is supported by a motley crew without whom that heroic individualism would be impossible.

He also celebrates some interesting, forgotten people. Who in the world was Bobby Hackett? Why, he was a Muzak performer who also played some amazing solos. Frank Sinatra? Giddins admits he was of jazz without being in jazz; yet his interpretation of pop songs, his ersatz recordings with arrangers Nelson Riddle and Johnny Mercer would have been impossible without Louis Armstrong or Billie Holliday. Giddins celebrates the power and artistry of Roy Eldridge who, had Louis Armstrong never existed, would be celebrated today as the singular genius of the trumpet. Giddins reminds readers that without Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins would not have understood the breadth of possibilities of both song and instrument.

I wish that someone would do something similar to rock music. The standard history of rock has been told so many times, and always with the same emphases - the rise of r&b and a new wave of country music in the early 1950's, given a synthesis in the guitar of Chuck Berry (a country musician at heart) and the swagger of Elvis Presley (who speeded up "Kentucky Moon" in one of his first releases). Only lately has Ike Turner's "Rocket 88", an early '50's r&b classic relegated to the fringes of the mainstream, been recognized as the first true rock and roll song.

How much better to move beyond a celebration of these earliest, primitive forays, through the overtaking by the major labels (if I have to read about the Brill Building again I might throw up), and even the Beatles, and remember the Kinks. How much better to recall that the biggest selling concert act in the years 1965 through 1967 was not the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, but Herman's Hermits (Jimi Hendrix opened for the Hermits on his first, and their last, tour of the United States). How much better to take the Beach Boys off the beach and leave them in the studio where they belong?

One of the greatest crimes of the standard history of rock music (I encountered it in the standard, The Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll, written in three separate sections, denoting the early years up to the Beatles; the period from their ascendance through their demise; and the post-Beatles shattering of consensus) has been the puling and whining that, after John, Paul, George, and Ringo went their separate ways, "the music" no longer had an anchor, as it were. This is wrong for several reasons, not the least of which is that it places far too much on the four young men from Liverpool to imagine that they were the anchor of rock in the 1960's. What of Bob Dylan, the Rascals, the Doors, Motown, the Yardbirds, the Buffalo Springfield? What of the relationship between the Everly Brother's countrified rock and roll and Richie Furay's Poco, which did much the same thing, only to be watered down and over-produced (and sell a lot more records) in The Eagles? Why do standard histories of rock and roll include long reviews of James Taylor or Paul Simon, who were more or less crooners with guitars (Simon was briefly a toiler in the Brill Building factory; some of Taylor's songs were arrangements of Carole King songs, and King, too, had spent years at Brill)? Why is prog denigrated as a dilution of rock, and heavy metal lampooned as noise for neanderthals, rather than as serious attempts to take the music to places - emotionally and artistically - that were accessible to millions of fans?

It would be nice to read a history of rock the celebrated the song-writing of Ray Davies as much as Lennon/McCartney; the studio technique of Brian Wilson, rather than just his song-writing; the way the Rascals' "Good Lovin'" provided a template for both music and lyrics as the sixties moved from its mid- to its late- period? It might even be nice to discount the late Lester Bangs' love-affair with the Stooges and MC5, and later British punk, and celebrate a more mature, post-revolt attempt to take the pieces and put them back together (PiL, and Joe Strummer's post-Clash bands are far better and more effective than either the Sex Pistols or the Clash).

So, maybe like Giddins, it would be nice to read a fan's history of rock, written the way rock is supposed to be - loud, boisterous, upsetting our conceits and traditions and sense of complacency. It should be gritty and sexy, carnal and angry. It should also be by turns short and to the point, and perhaps a bit longer and more thoughtful. It should synthesize what has been done, but also overturn our comfortable assumptions about what this music is, what it has done, what it means, and whether or not it has a future (here, I have some doubts, because for the past twenty years or so, we have been recycling styles; hip-hop is the real music factory today, although that, too, is already getting a bit old).

Who knows, maybe I'll do it.

As if I had time.

Virtual Tin Cup

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