Saturday, November 27, 2010

Sung Heroes

The late 19th century saw a burst of North American hymn-writing. Like English hymn-writing in the early-18th and American, again, in our own time, this burst of sacred song-writing can be traced to the creative energies of particular individuals. In 18th-century Britain, it was Isaac Watts and, later, Charles Wesley. Today, it is Ruth Duck (although, to be fair, there was a spate of Catholic hymn-writing in the immediate aftermath of Vatican II that has petered out). In the late 19th century, indeed not in church history, has there been as prolific a hymn writer as Fanny Crosby.

Quite the important public figure, an advocate for the blind, she spent much of her adult life doing mission work in Hell's Kitchen in New York, at a time when that name was truly earned. She never lost her belief in the transformational power of the Christian faith. This was expressed, simply enough, in her hymns. Far from some pie-in-the-sky view of the Christian faith, just consider the very first line of her hymn, "Blessed Assurance" - "Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!" In other words, we already experience that divine glory in our lives here and now, and for all it is something at which to marvel and for which to give thanks, it is just a foretaste of what is to come.

Historically, we in the Methodist tradition have been known as those who sing their faith. In the hymns of Fanny Crosby we have a marvelous example of that faith, poured out in over 8,000 hymns, and lived out in service to others.

What Comes Out Of The Mouth Tells Others About What May Be Inside The Head

It's an old discussion - bad words on the internet. Oh, those dirty-mouth bloggers!

Except this isn't part of that discussion.

I am a pretty accepting person, when it comes to word-choice. I don't faint, or climb up on my high-horse when I see a vulgarity. Considering my own, sailor-like vocabulary, this would not only be hypocritical, it is really meaningless. I try not to be overzealous in my use of colorful idioms, but well-placed and strategic, they can punch up otherwise stagnant prose.

Saying that, I noted recently, in the course of an exchange elsewhere, that one of my frequent and long-time right-wing commenters, Marshall Art, has an affinity for a term that I actually find quite offensive. It first cropped up, as best I recall, a few years back in a very lengthy discussion that included the provenance of my great-grandmother (conceived and born out of wedlock, fathered by a man married to another woman). Marshall told me that he taught his children to refrain from sex before marriage (nothing wrong with that) and that, should they choose to act otherwise, they were, and I quote, "scumbags" if they so chose.

He has used that word over and over again. I noted at the time that I found it kind of disgusting to refer to one's children as used condoms. He has continued to use that word, and when I tried, gently to be sure, to admonish him about it, he tried being sarcastic (but came across kind of stupid, in my opinion).

I am not offended by much. Bad words? Pshaw. I occasionally get vexed by our hypsersexualized popular culture, particularly on television, but that mostly came about after having children I would prefer not be exposed to locker-room humor at the age of five.

There are things I find far more offensive than scatological language. Wars fought to no purpose, based on lies. Torturing people, then insisting it isn't torture, but if it is, the sons-a-bitches deserved it. The casual insistence that the United States should use its nuclear arsenal under any conditions whatsoever against a non-nuclear-armed nation.

Finally, referring to other human beings as scumbags and (to be gender-neutral) douche-bags. I do not like it. It is one of the few things at which I take offense. It is dehumanization on steroids. It makes of human beings a waste product. Someone who casually refers to others in such a way apparently finds it easy to think of others not just as less than human, but as filthy things, worth only tossing in the garbage.

I dislike moral grandstanding, and I'm kind of embarrassed that I feel it necessary to say anything at all about this. Sometimes, though, it is important to draw lines.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Rest Now, Eldo, Your Tears Are Wiped Away

I had not heard of Eldo before five minutes ago. Reading his story, however, made me sad. It made me sad that his man was not able to rid himself of his demons in this life. It made me angry. It made me angry that an ungrateful nation turned its back and him the the hundreds of thousands like him of whom so much was demanded, and so little was offered as a reward. It makes me weep. It makes me weep for the decades of pain and silent, non-teared weeping, the dreams that wouldn't go away, the fear that found no voice, the rage that could only be unleashed in self-punishment.

I had not heard of Eldo before five minutes ago. I am thankful, though, that Eldo lived, and served, and only wish that he could have been treated less shabbily by a nation that all-too-quickly turned its back on him.

Because I believe in a God of resurrection, I believe that Eldo will find his tears wiped away. He will find a compassionate shoulder upon which to weep the years of pain and suffering and loneliness, and those tears, after finally finding a way out, will be dried as he is led by the hand to a place where pain, and tears, and loneliness are no more.

Close Your Eyes As You Imagine Being Patted Down By A Beefy Guy . . .

I really have nothing more to say about this story than it is really inappropriate for a family newspaper to broadcast someone's sexual fantasies for all the world to see.

Stuff Worth Waiting For

Working retail on Thanksgiving night offers the opportunity to take in all sorts of scary, funny, odd, and interesting human behaviors. Sometimes, these occur at the same instant, in the same act. I try to maintain a bit of professional distance, not worry too much about what doesn't effect me, keep my eyes and thoughts on what is immediately in front of me, if for no other reason than it can be overwhelming if one attempts to broaden one's horizon too much.

Last night, the usual 5 am start-time was staggered, with some items now going on sale at midnight. These consisted, for the most part, of household items like towel and sheet sets, some toys and games, some inexpensive movies on Blu-Ray and DVD. Everything was clearly marked, "On Sale At Midnight". Walking through the store as early as 11:30, however, it was clear that there were some for whom this admonition meant nothing. The plastic shrink rap was cut or simply off, and shoppers were digging through the corrugate stands, loading up their shopping carts. My guess is they figured they could load up on this stuff and it would be after midnight by the time they managed to get what they wanted. None of the items on this particular time-schedule would ring up at their lower prices before midnight, but at least these gun-jumpers would be first in line at the cashier soon after midnight, thus beating the long lines.

None of the items on sale at midnight were particularly special. Indeed, were I to receive a set of towels for Christmas I would not exactly be thrilled. I much prefer buying my own, thank you very much. While the movie sales certainly seem like a deal, all these same titles are available for a few bucks more any day of the year.

None of these things were worth fighting over, breaking store rules for shopping, pushing or shoving others out of the way for, or otherwise losing one's sense of proportion. As the folks milled around, however, one could clearly see a glint of not-quite-madness, perhaps grim determination, in the eyes of those most forcefully filling their carts ahead of schedule.

With what is, by and large, throw-away junk.

With Black Friday just about over, as we move from one holiday to the next, we enter the beginning of the Church calendar, with the season of Advent. In Advent, the Church prepares itself for the coming of the Christ child. The one thing we reiterate, over and over again, is the virtue of patience, of waiting. In preparing, part of what we do, is realize that what is coming is not yet here. We operate under the semi-fiction that that for which we are waiting is coming on a yet-to-be-determined schedule. Of course, the feast of Christmas has a set date; yet as we move through Advent, we read and recall all the ways the people of Israel were, indeed, waiting for the Day of the Lord to arrive. We celebrate with the returning exiles recorded in Isaiah 40 and after, yet also know this celebration is mere anticipation of the greater day to come, recorded in chapters 56-65. We remember Jesus' own words, that the final consummation will come "like a thief in the night". We recall St. Paul's insistence that God's time works on a different schedule, which he calls "the fullness of time". All this is to say that all the schedules and calendars we keep are meaningless, arbitrary ways of marking our own fleeting sense of time that only finds its fulfillment in God's fullness.

A bunch of cheap towels, movies that aren't worth watching more than once, toys that will only end up broken on the floor of a closet, to be sold in a garage sale in a couple summers - this stuff isn't worth setting aside patience and decorum, shouldering and elbowing one's way past fellow shoppers in order to cram a shopping cart. We lose any sense of proportion, of rationality, when we act this way. It would be far better if we declared that for which we can no longer wait, that for which we are willing to act like madmen and madwomen is nothing less than God's final settling of affairs, for the establishment of the kingdom of justice and peace. While we are preached patience, it would be nice if, in fact, we exhibited a little more impatience for its arrival.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Just Breathe

Scott McLemee's column today in Inside Higher Ed unearths a marvelous chestnut from the relatively dim reaches of the past.
The volume in question, America as Americans See It, was published by the Literary Guild in 1932. It contains more than 40 essays by various eminent and near-eminent figures of that era, plus dozens of photographs and cartoons. The editor, Fred J. Ringel, says in the introduction that he intended to prepare a study of the national culture after he arrived in the United States. (From where, he doesn’t indicate, and this seems to be his one major publication.) But he gave up and decided to edit an anthology instead. Among the better-remembered contributors are W.E.B. Du Bois and Upton Sinclair. There is also an essay by one Clare Boothe Brokaw, an editor at Vanity Fair, on the rituals and pretenses of high society. This author would become somewhat better known when she changed surnames after marrying Henry Luce, and her observations would be recycled into more memorable form in a play called The Women.


“Americans are a queer people,” [Canadian political scientist Stephen Leacock] writes. “They can’t rest…. They rush up and down across their continent as tourists; they move about in great herds to conventions, they invade the wilderness, they flood the mountains, they keep the hotels full. But they can’t rest. The scenery rushes past them. They learn it, but they don’t see it. Battles and monuments are announced to them in a rubber neck bus… So they go on rushing until the Undertaker gathers them to the last convention.”

The same state of distracted haste prevails in the educational system and in publishing. Americans “have more schools,” Leacock writes, “and better schools, and spend more money on schools and colleges than all of Europe. They print more books in one year than the French print in ten. But they can’t read. They cover their country with 100,000 tons of Sunday newspapers every week. But they don’t read them. They’re too busy. They use them for fires and to make more paper with.” Today, of course, we publish everything digitally, then ignore it.
Tomorrow, take a moment or two in all the busyness to just stop. Look at those around you, think about who they are, what they mean to your life. Look at the home in which you stand, whether your own, a friend's, or a relative's. Think of memories the place evokes. Drink deep of the smell of roasting turkey, the sage from the stuffing, the sweet potatoes and green bean casserole.

We need to stop, in the midst of all the rushing about we think defines necessity, and simply be, in the moment. We need to remember that, in giving thanks, we need to be conscious of what is before us. We cannot do this if we are too busy rushing to the next item on the agenda, the next meeting.

May your Thanksgiving Day be filled not just with food, but with laughter and the joy of being together with those you love and like or merely tolerate. May you have the opportunity to stop, take in all that surrounds you, and be thankful. My prayer, I suppose, is this lesson can be carried with all, and each, of you throughout the coming year.


Some moments in life are so sublimely funny, they live on no matter what. When I was a junior in high school, we had a HUGE crowd for Thanksgiving dinner. My oldest sister and her family. My brother. My youngest sister. My grandmother and Aunt Kay. Some family friends from Cortland. Some mutual friends of my youngest sister and oldest sister. Somehow, we managed to jam around our dining room table. Being the youngest, I was sandwiched toward one end of the table, my brother to my left around the top of the table by Dad. On my right was Curtis Smith, a mutual friend of my oldest sister's husband and my youngest sister. Telling tales out of school, Curt and my brother had escaped from the house about an hour before to prepare for a large meal. They asked if I wanted to go, and I DID want to go, but I was such a chicken I said no. They returned, eyes bloodshot, very mellow, ready to eat gobs of whatever was put before them.

So there I am, a scrawny barely-16-year-old, surrounded by our large, noisy, crowd, three conversations (at least) going on around the table, the food disappearing, sitting next to a very cool guy to whom I wanted it made clear I was not as nerdy and goofy as I looked.

That was when the chair I was sitting in collapsed.

One second, I was sitting there chatting with Curt, the next, the chair seat, with my ass still in it, is flat on the floor. I looked up and Curt, smiling in that way reserved for the happily stoned, said, "Where'd you go?"

I couldn't help myself. I started laughing, too. My parents wanted to make sure I was alright, and I assured them that, beyond embarrassment, I was fine. We somehow scrounged up another chair, and I finished the meal without further incident.

Of all the things I am thankful for - for just being alive, to be sure; for my wife and children who each day make me smile and laugh and remind me what grace is - I think having been part of the family in which I grew up is one that I only came to appreciate as I grew older. But, I am thankful. Five kids, two parents, various and sundry animals, friends, significant others, in-laws, the next generation - they all have traipsed through my parents' house at one time or another, sometimes many at once, sometimes just a few. My own feeling has always been, the more the merrier. If there's one regret I have moving to the midwest, it is that my kids have yet to experience a family gathering at casa Safford in Waverly. When I think about that Thanksgiving; when I think about all the great times I had growing up with my Konicki and Johnston cousins; when I think of the parade of friends and boyfriends and acquaintances and whatnot, I want my kids to experience that, not only to enjoy the company of their various cousins, but just for the experience.

When you're sitting down tomorrow, whether it is just one or two in an intimate setting, or a huge, multi-generational gathering; whether it is around a traditional meal of turkey and all the trimmings, or perhaps a ham or lamb roast; whether it is done early in the day or late - enjoy and remember all the things for which you are thankful.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Why I Don't Worry About The Threat Of A National Security State

If it weren't for the fact that lives are at stake, plus the last part of the quote, this story would be hysterically funny (subscription required for link to NYT; if you have it, link to original is provided).
For months, the secret talks unfolding between Taliban and Afghan leaders to end the war appeared to be showing promise, if only because of the appearance of a certain insurgent leader at one end of the table: Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, one of the most senior commanders in the Taliban movement....

United States and Afghan officials now say the Afghan man was an impostor.


“It’s not him,” said a Western diplomat in Kabul intimately involved in the discussions. “And we gave him a lot of money.”
For anyone out of work, at least we now know how to get money from the feds. Dress up as a member of the Taliban.

This is so awesome in a frightening, sad kind of way.

Thanksgiving III

Today, I am thankful to the Electro-Patent-Instrument Company, founded by Adolph Rickenbacker, Paul Barth, and George Beauchamp. It was Beauchamp who was the principle innovator, and EPI was the first to mass-produce an electric guitar, in 1931. The company changed its name to Rickenbacker, and you can still find Rickenbacker guitars out there.

It was jazz musician Charlie Christian who showed the potential for the electric guitar as a solo instrument. Les Paul, not just a musician but a tinkerer, created the first solid-body electric guitar. Leo Fender added bolt-on necks. Previously, the neck, running down from the fret board through the entire length of the body (Paul called it a "log") had been standard. Fender made the guitar in two pieces, the body, then the neck. The Gibson Guitar company manufactured a guitar under the name "Les Paul", while Fender created a line of guitars, including the Telecaster and Stratocaster, that were made famous particularly by blues musicians, because of their gritty, dirty sound when distorted. Gibson's guitars, even when amplified and distorted, tend to have a much cleaner sound. Unless other effects are added, of course, which makes the sound muddy.

Because of these innovations, our world has been enriched by the music, not only of Christian, but other jazz musicians like Jim Hall, Wes Montgomery, and Pat Metheny; blues guitarists like B. B. King, Memphis Slim, T-Bone Walker, Albert King, and Tad Benoit; and rock musicians like Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Jimmy Burton, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, George Harrison, Keith Richards, Jimmy Page, Dave Mason, Steve Howe, Steve Hackett, Robert Fripp, Peter Frampton, Kirk Hammett, Yngwe Malmsteen, Steve Vai, Eric Johnson, Joe Satriani, Trevor Rabin, John Petrucci, Michael Romeo,Chris Letchford and Travis LeVrier.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Thanksgiving II (NSFW, or those easily offended)

When I was in high school, Steve Martin had a live Thanksgiving Day special. I cannot find any evidence of it on YouTube, but I swear it happened. I even remember, he came out at the end and gave a monologue on things for which he was thankful. Two of them have stuck with me. He was thankful for the Atlantic Ocean; without it millions of Portuguese would be walking in to the US illegally each year. He was also thankful there is no such thing as a rectal barometer.

If there is anything I enjoy more than laughter, it can't be mentioned on a public forum. So, without further ado, here are some NSFW, occasionally offensive, but always funny bits. If bad words offend you, maybe you should just agree that laughter is something for which we should all be grateful and carry on.

George Carlin on germs:

Robin Williams on Viagra:

Richard Pryor on Prison:

Lewis Black on Milk and Water

Woman Of Our Times

Sarah Palin is unpopular. Her activism on behalf of candidates in her home state, in Delaware, in Nevada backfired. She is an object of ridicule and scorn. Her ghost-written books wither on the shelves. Outside the tiny universe of some right-wing pundits, her continued presence in our national life is a source of a mixture of curiosity, fear, and laughter.

She now has a "reality TV" series on cable.

She is, in short, the perfect politician for our age of fake celebrity. She is the Snookie of politics, Paris Hilton without the cocaine bust, Lindsay Lohan out of rehab, Kim Kardashian in a sweater and muck-lucks. In other words, in a historical moment in which more Americans can identify "The Situation" than the future Speaker of the House of Representatives, Sarah Palin personifies almost to perfection the union of celebrity culture, tabloid journalism, and the destruction of our political sphere.

Her adumbrated tenure as governor of Alaska should not be accounted for by her excuses. Rather, she saw the main chance and grabbed it with both hands. Her record in public office is mixed, at best. The opportunity, however, to move out of the strictures and confines of public service offers action without accountability. No need to appear before those pesky voters with their preferences. No need to answer questions from a press corps that might not be charmed by her faux-folksiness or winning smile.

While I could be wrong (Lord knows I was wrong about the election!), I doubt very much she will run for office ever again. For one thing, despite press attention to her every word, and heavy-hitters in and out of the Republican establishment weighing in on the possibility, she has far more to lose by a run at the Presidency in two years than she could ever gain. She cannot win. I doubt she could win a single primary. Unlike, say, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whom most of the press has dubbed "divisive" for two decades, but who actually enjoys pretty broad popularity, Mrs. Palin's approval ratings are dismal. They actually are made worse when she appears in public.

Rather than evaluate her in traditional political terms, we need, rather, to consider her not as a politician at all. Consider the attention paid, for example, to the doings in the Pitt/Jolie household as far more relevant to our understanding of Palin agonistes than anything else. Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, the Kardashian sisters are famous because . . . they are famous. One is the dysfunctional daughter of a hotel magnate. One is the seriously dysfunctional former child actress who has little future in front of her. The Kardashians are the daughters of a now-dead attorney who made his name fifteen years ago during the O J Simpson trial. Beyond these brief descriptions, there is little to attract our attention to them. They are followed, however, by photographers, the ups and downs of their personal lives, including purloined tapes of their private lives and photographs of their private parts displayed in public, because . . . they are famous! They do nothing, contribute nothing, and attract our attention for the same reason a bloody accident does. We all feel better knowing, "At least that isn't me."

Sarah Palin serves much the same function. She is the perfect politician for our historical moment, precisely because she does nothing, offers nothing, seeks only the affirmation of her own celebrity status through our continued attention, and wants nothing more than to continue to be before us, verifying and affirming her own existence for its own sake.

Understood this way, she is no more a threat to the Republic than would be another Britney Spears public meltdown. Entertaining, yes. Sad, too. Relieving because we can gaze upon the unnecessary overdramatization, the too-public nature of what should remain private, and remind ourselves how much better we are. Beyond any of this, she represents the final resting place for failed politicians in our society - to show up on heavy rotation on the cover of US magazine.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Thanksgiving I

I hope to set other things aside this week, and just do one post each day on something for which I am thankful. Moved by worship this morning to give thanks, I am beginning with more than little trepidation, as my first post will deal with a person who, while no longer with us, taught me much, and the memory of whom makes me smile, all these years later.

My earliest memories of Chip Kinch go back to some time at Lincoln Street Elementary School in Waverly, NY. I'd like to say I know for sure it was third grade, but I can't say for sure. Over the ensuing years of school, he was just there, this tall presence, full of life and laughter, sometimes too full of himself, but then again, when are any of us free of that particular minor vice?

In retrospect, being a friend with hims seems incongruous. Besides being far shorter than he was (Chip was six-three before he was a freshman in high school; he loomed in a very physical way), we were opposites in other ways. He was outgoing where I was a bit more tentative. He always seemed happy, where I had a tendency toward adolescent gloominess. He was insouciant toward authority, whereas I had a fear of being caught out being or doing wrong. He seemed to love life, where I, at times, was far too angst-ridden, burdened with ennui to carry on.

As we grew older, in senior high, I learned to lighten up. I learned this from him. The lesson didn't always take, and I still have occasion to remember his example of simply enjoying the moments we are given. Being able to laugh at oneself makes laughing at others more honest, because it comes from a more honest place than ridicule. It is mutual enjoyment of the folly of life, the absurd things we do and say, the foolish things we find ourselves doing.

We were on our high school swim team together. I will never forget a moment our senior year. Our coach was having us do pulse-checks during one practice session, checking our heart rates after some sprints. After touching the wall, we were to raise our hands (I forget why), and with the other, check our carotid pulse. Chip suddenly burst out, "This is the Waverly High Swim Team of 1983!" and mimed an exaggerated hand-waving and pulse checking. I laughed because he had caught the absurdity of the moment so perfectly.

After high school, we drifted apart, as even close friend will do. We crossed paths on occasion, the most memorable at a party on Christmas Day, 1986. We sat and talked, and I was increasingly concerned as he told me, nonchalantly, of his life. I will not speak ill at this moment, revealing all he said, but I had an inkling, I guess, a bad omen of things to come.

A couple weeks later, on January 9, 1987, he took his own life. I had few to no emotional resources to deal with his death. Being out of town at the time made the whole situation doubly hard. I went through a long period of guilt, totally unwarranted, because I missed signs that could have led me to see at least the possibility of an attempt at suicide. After the guilt, I spent quite a bit of time angry with him. I was angry that he hid so much from us; even as kids and youth, he never once gave a sign of what must have been the many anguished moments that led to his final, desperate act. At least, not that we interpreted as such at the time.

Finally, nearing twenty-four years on from his death, I can say that I am so very thankful that I called him friend once upon a time. I learned a lot from him. I laughed a lot at him, at myself, and with him at the silly things all kids do. While part of me can still be pissed at him for not learning the lesson he was teaching me each day, I am still grateful that he lived. I let go, years ago, of focusing so much on his death so I could be able to celebrate that he lived, and that I could call him my friend. So, today, I am thankful for the life of Charles "Chip" Kinch.

Virtual Tin Cup

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