Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Political Rule #136

All day at work I hear angry regurgitated rhetoric (mostly from one side of the political spectrum), so I thought I'd throw in this link to an article a friend of mine posted on facebook that tries to rebuff some of it.

I generally think all politicians are either weasels or delinquent children, so I work really hard to stay apolitical and not get embroiled in their vituperous vituperousness.

Nonetheless, I have my limits. So here is my latest rule, invented on the spot the last time someone asked me what I thought of the health care bill... Political Rule # 136: On any political question, listen with your guts to who is being the meanest, the most spiteful, and the most childish. Then get as far away from those people as you possibly can!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Dorm Meeting, 2010

Of all the male friends I had at University, I did not know a single one who had never looked at pornography (well, maybe a few... but they were lying). Of all of these, only one of them ever told me, without equivocation, that he liked pornography - loved it, in fact.

This is a man for whom I have a great deal of respect. A man who used to come to dorm meetings (at the private, Christian school we both attended) wearing only a sequined speed-o and a cowboy hat, asking if he was in the right place for a party. This is also a man who repeatedly wrote on the dorm white-board that the topic of our next meeting was going to be "Masturbation."

Now, I know that you're probably just as nervous as our whole dorm was about that topic. Every single week we shot him down, and even when (in a tear-filled meeting at the very end of the year) we confessed all manner of sexual misconduct to each other and swore to never, ever do it again (ha, ha), we still only barely scratched the surface of the matter.

It is one thing to talk about it with a room full of blubbering young men. But to come right out and say it?!? On the internet? That's the sort of garbage you only find on low-brow, back-alley websites, right? Well, yeah. Usually.

You will please remember, however, that I said that I have a great deal of respect for this man. He was a guy to whom I regularly brought my woes as a confused, mis-placed little missionary kid in a country and culture I could not begin to understand. He offered me encouragement, friendship, love, and most of all, honesty.

That's right, honesty. The sequined cowboy might have had the decision-making abilities of gibbon on caffeine (it didn't take too long for the school to give him the, er, boot), but he always tried to tell the truth about himself and to get others to do the same. So in honor of him I am calling a dorm meeting right here and right now, and I am going to try to tell you the truth with as much reason, grace and propriety as I can muster. I am doing it because I believe, with every fiber of my being, that the only way to be free of my sins is to confess them.

The Catholic church now refers to confession as the "sacrament of reconciliation". I love that, because I desperately need to be reconciled: to my community, to humanity, to the Universe, and to the God who started the whole shebang. I need to take these very different and often opposed things, and bring them into harmony.

So here is my confession: I have failed in more ways and more often than I will ever admit to some internet audience of strangers. I have cheated, lied, stolen, coveted, and cetera. If it's been burned into a stone tablet by the glowing finger of God and smashed by Moses, I've done it. I have looked at things I shouldn't have and have done the worst thing that I can imagine - I have treated people as things. That's right, I have violated the most important law of them all - the law of love. What is even worse than that, though, is that I have done all of these things while simultaneously pretending in a thousand weaselly, underhanded ways, to be better than other people - people that if the truth were told (and it will be, I hope) just happen to be more honest and loving than I.

No more.

It's the end of that lying, hypocritical world as I've blown it, and you know what, I feel FINE. Better even than that, though, I feel free.

The truth is, while I love and respect the sequined cowboy, I disagree with him sometimes on how the world works. For instance, on that whole, pornography/masturbation thing. I don't think it is a foregone conclusion that as a sexual being I have to wallow in my selfish brokenness - whether it be as a lying hypocrite or an honest, open failure. I think that I can express my nature as a sexual being to other people in a way that is both honest and loving. And you know what else? I am about to say something that for me is revolutionary. Are you ready? Because it's the most important two sentences of the whole piece:

I think that love can set me free. That it in fact HAS set me free. 

This is very, very hard to accept or live out when it comes to sexual love. As I mentioned in my last post, we live in a culture that has taken something that ought to be the most beautiful, intimate human connection in the world and has ripped it to shreds and stewed it into a big, black, sticky, stink-pot of tawdriness

I am not talking about a good, hearty, perhaps even bawdy enjoyment of the robust musk of sexual identity in inter-human relationships. I am talking, rather, about sex as a putrescent commodity. I am talking about how the divorce of sex from community and procreation in our culture has turned it into an act of selfishness, rather than one of love and creation*. I am talking about how the creative, restorative drives of young men and women are frustrated and channeled repeatedly away from "good work", as Wendell Berry would call it, and into bad.

Because to my mind, that is what pornography and masturbation are - nothing more horrible or pathetic than our thwarted attempts to fulfill in a very selfish way what our souls  at their most unselfish yearn to accomplish: to become active, creative participants in a greater Story than the one told by our hum-drum, path-of-least-resistance lives. We want to be the heroes of this Story, but we do not want to recognize that heroes are made not through their own inherent magnificence but rather through their humble proclamation of the Magnificat, the song of Creation and of Grace.

So for all you out there who are broken failures like me I offer this hopeful prescription: If you spend your time focusing all your energies on what you purpose not to do and on avoiding whatever broken way in which you manifest your cries for Grace, then you are bound for a life less lived - a life of slavery to your own brokenness. If, however, you can turn your eyes to the Story and join into it with as little fear as you can manage, then you might just find the freedom and meaning for which you so honestly yearn.

Is there a twelve-step, unimodal program for this? Not hardly. I couldn't possibly begin to know who you are and what things you were born to create. But mark my words - you are an artist, an artist with a great many gifts. You have a song to sing, a dance to dance, and a word to speak or a pipe wrench to turn in love. Whoever you are, make something! Love everything! Don't. Stop. Ever.

I have a new creed and it goes like this:

You Are Free
Do It Now
Above All Else, Trust in the Slow Work of God **

You aren't going to figure it all out, make the right decisions, or love the way that you feel in your guts you were born to love. You are going to screw up. You are going to treat people as things and you are going to destroy beauty, sometimes with little more than your indifference. But it's okay. Something much more beautiful than you or I can imagine is being woven out of it all.

I believe it.

I doubt it.

I believe it.

God, oh, God... let me believe it a little more tomorrow than I did today.


*Don't get me wrong here. I'm not advocating that you poke holes in all your condoms and let the connubiating commence. If I ever marry again, I'm not all that sure how I feel about making more babies than the one I've already got. My artworks are my children, and far less demanding than the real, pooping and screaming deal.

I get it. I do. But our attitudes about what sex is for affect how we experience it, and I for one am done with deluding myself into thinking that it can be experienced in a healthy way if it is completely amputated from its very obvious, pro-creative context. I'm not sure what to do with this - but I'm pretty sure that (for example) chemically altering a woman's hormonal cycles to trick her body into thinking that it's permanently pregnant is a very, VERY bad idea. But maybe that's just me. For a further exploration of this idea, see the comments below.

**That last bit was borrowed from a poem by Teilhard de Chardin

Sunday, March 21, 2010

chess, sex, and commitment

I do not want to kiss Austin the actor. In fact, I do not want to do anything of that sort with Austin. Don't get me wrong - as men go, Austin's not a bad fish (pay attention, ladies). He is smart and funny. He is tall, broad-shouldered, talented, and I suppose one of the less sorry-looking examples of man-meat you're likely to find. He does a glamorous job and cares about truth. Even though he's on speaking terms with Phillip Morris, I like and even love him. Just not like that, because Austin is a man (I'm not attracted to men) and he is my friend.

Good friends are hard to come by, because they are generally situational. First, your life has to brush up against theirs. Then, there has to be a sparkle as you recognize that, yes, you have commonalities that might make for interesting interactions. Like how the fact that Austin likes to play chess blends perfectly with the fact that I like to beat Austin at chess. Or how the way he liked to make fun of me when we first met while working as waiters blended exceptionally well with how I've always enjoyed latching onto people who make fun of me - desperately trying to prove myself worthy of their affection.

Long-term, though, it's hard to say exactly why we or anyone else stay friends; because life's main constant is change. Austin is always talking about moving back to New York or LA, and I'm always talking about staying here in my shed in the woods and not moving to New York or LA. So as beautiful as our friendship is, it doesn't come with guarantees.

I was thinking about this yesterday when I was driving an hour to pick Austin up. He'd asked me to give him a ride to his car; which for some reason was about a half-hour from where he'd been stuck (for a whole week) at his dad's house. When you're a freelance actor, you can be stuck for a week at your dad's house and nobody will say "boo."

As we were driving I mentioned this friendship stuff to Austin and admitted that I'd been thinking about the possibility of someday getting married again. He kindly suggested that I needed to stop being an idiot and thinking such thoughts at a time when I have not yet, in fact, been mailed any divorce papers. He suggested, sarcastically, that maybe it would help if he promised to be my faithful friend forever and ever amen. To which I replied, "it doesn't work that way"... which got us back to talking about marriage.

There are two things, in my opinion, that differentiate a marriage relationship from a bosom-buddyship, or even a life-long cohabitation of roomate-pals. Both of these things have been routinely, systematically dismantled by our culture, rendering marriage in our day and age practically meaningless. The first is sex.

I know someone who used to get really mad at me when I'd say that the difference between a roommate and a spouse is sex. Maybe we had different views of what sex is, but I tend to think of it as this mystical, wonderful, sacramental gift between a man and a woman (I'm a heterosexual. So shoot me.) that provides the glue for what a married relationship can be. I think of it as natural and good. I think of it as a mysterious union that is inherently tied to reproductive cycles. I think of it as an opportunity to rejoice in one's human finitude - to love oneself while simultaneously, paradoxically, self-sacrificially loving someone else. I think it was designed for that (I am a man attempting to have faith. So shoot me.) and I think that as such it is an ideal that married folks ought to fight for with everything they've got.

And fight they must, because sex is something that in our culture is marketed as anything but the above-described mystico-poeic union. It is seen as a bestial act (you and me, baby, we ain't nothin' but mammals...). It is seen as a way to sell soap, toothpaste and car wax. It is seen as a way to prove you have a penis or that you're a better man than your father or that you are the most important being on the face of the planet. It is seen as leverage in a relationship, a weapon, and a tool for career advancement. It is seen as a way of solving all your problems, getting what you want out of other people, and otherwise generally taking power and being in control.

I am not trying to be one more of "those guys" here. I am not speaking out of my position in a faith tradition and saying, "look at all those horrible, mixed-up, no-good, very-bad sex-fiends out there." My faith tradition (such as it is) has been thoroughly infected by this systematic dismantling of the significance of sex. My faith tradition also does not love or cherish sex, but rather vacillates wildly between seeing it as this dirty, bestial act that needs to be quarantined by a couple of rings and a piece of paper, and seeing it as exactly the sort of selfish idiocy I've just been describing.

A sixteen-year-old high-schooler who is very much an active and participating member of my faith tradition recently defended to me her practice of regularly "hooking up" (in this case, defined as heavily making out with an assortment of guys to whom she is not committed in any way) as being, and I quote, "necessary". "We have needs," she insisted, "we can't just ignore them." When her fifteen-year-old best friend grunted a half-disapproval, she argued that in her opinion it was better than what she'd done, which was to cheat on her pot-head boyfriend by making out with some other random guy. The thing is, these girls don't think of what they are doing as sex (it is).

I am not bringing that up to bemoan the state of our kids today. We made this bed, and we sure as condiments are going to lie in it. We taught them to think this way with our own warped attitudes towards sex, and it's no fair whining that we were just parroting our parents. Just as I expect a teenage girl to take responsibility for her own decisions, so too do I expect the same of myself. My attitudes towards sexuality are warped and wonky, and I have made them worse by following the paths of least resistance, choosing a quick-lift and a responsibility-free mind-party over the difficult, often arduous path of really loving women the way (I firmly believe) they desperately want and need to be loved.

Sex isn't all there is that separates marriage from a lifelong chess-arch-rivalry with my friend Austin, though.

There is also the part implied by that whole "reproductive cycles" thing, and that is commitment to marriage as an institution. This ideal has likewise been systematically dismantled in a culture that in every possible way has actively sabotaged it, ultimately bringing us to a place where marriage is nothing more than another form of marketing - a way to make an average of eighteen thousand dollars (last I heard) off of a whole lot of frippery on an event that is billed as "the most important day of your life", but which is really just another excuse to participate in the grand consumerist frenzy that is savagely strip-mining our planet and our souls. A grandiose statement, I know... but possibly, I think, true. The most important day of your life is always TODAY.

It isn't my purpose here to attack weddings, though. Despite my aversion to their scale, I do believe the extravagance of weddings proceeds from a noble desire to celebrate a big, big thing... entry into a life-long relationship. It is the sort of relationship in which I in faith balance my feelings and my desires and my ambitions against those of another person. In this relationship I choose to die to myself a little each day and come alive to the possibilities that a life together can bring. In a sense, I don't even marry another person - I marry a belief that together we can make something that is bigger than the both of us. We can make a community (and, possibly, a family) out of faith in the value of that relationship. We can do this with the power of commitment, regardless of how we might feel on any one of the "most important day of our lives". Or week of days. Or year.

You may now leave in a huff. But if you don't, know that I am desperately trying not to be the sort of person who advocates for structures and institutions over people. Neither am I trying to rant and rail about what has happened to me - to pick a literary battle with an unarmed person over the death of my own marriage. As I look back with bemused sorrow at my somewhat tragic life, I can see countless ways in which I have personally, actively sabotaged myself both in terms of sexuality and commitment. But beauty can come from ashes. It doesn't have to be this way.

Where do I end? How do I tie this all up in a way that neatifizes things and leaves everyone all warm and glowing? I don't think I do. It's a broken world and we are in it. Somehow, though, in the midst of all our brokenness and the destruction we've wreaked on ourselves with our blind acceptance of a warped sexuality and a selfish betrayal of the ideals of commitment and community, I think we can begin to make tiny little choices and weave back together the strands of what we have so savagely torn. I find it very, very hard to have enough faith to do that right now. My default position is to believe that all this dismantling has left marriage irreparably broken.

Faith, however, is the evidence of things that I hope for but just cannot for the life of me see. Let men and women be re-made in their joinings and, God-as-my-witness-and-aid, let it begin in me.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

she walks

This newest little 8" x 10" is a bit of a departure for me in terms of color scheme. Fairly subdued, but I like it.

Friday, March 19, 2010

slack, slack, slack

No matter how many times I say, "Hey, you ought to consider reading this slacktivist guy", if you're like me you probably won't listen. I mean, you came to this blog for a reason, and here I am trying to send you somewhere else. Nonetheless, his latest two posts ought to be read, I think, because they clearly express the frustration I often feel with them there 'publicans. So I'm going to cheat and just re-paste them here, hoping you'll stick around:



"Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor," the eighth commandment (in some numberings, ninth) reads.
When I was growing up in Sunday school our teachers usually paraphrased the archaic King James Version English of that commandment as "don't lie." Teaching children not to lie is a good Sunday school lesson, but note that this isn't actually what the commandment says. It's much more specific, prohibiting a particular kindof lying -- "false witness." A better children's paraphrase might be "don't accuse anyone of something they didn't do" or "don't make up bad things about other people."
The distinction and the specificity matters. Lying is a bad thing and if you're teaching small children in Sunday school about the importance of telling the truth, there are plenty of other Bible passages you can cite to make that point. But this particular kind of lying -- bearing false witness -- is singled out as particularly bad. It's corrosive and enslaving in a way that other lying may not always be.
To explore this, I'd like to revisit a classic Ethics 101 hypothetical situation involving, as so many of these hypothetical situations seem to, Nazis. (I apologize for violating the "Godwin" convention.)
Say you're living in occupied Holland during World War II and you've got a neighboring Jewish family hidden in your attic. A local busybody, a collaborator eager to curry favor with the occupying Nazi government, comes sniffing around looking for anything he might learn that would earn the oppressor's praise. Is it acceptable to lie to this man, to deceive him in order to ensure the safety of the innocent family you are helping to rescue?
Note that this classic hypothetical dilemma was not-at-all hypothetical for many actual people who lived it. The righteous gentiles of the Netherlands -- people like the Ten Boom family or the many helpers who tried to save Anne Frank's family -- were constantly confronted by this very real, high-stakes situation. And every time, they lied. They actively, aggressively worked to deceive the collaborators and the Nazis themselves, lying, misleading, forging papers and deceiving without hesitation or remorse.
I believe they were right to do so. I think this is obvious and uncontroversial. This is, in fact, the judgment of history. These people are remembered as righteous gentiles, after all, because they chose to lie to protect the innocent.
There are schools of thought which regard the moral duty never to lie as applying even in cases such as this. (Michael Sandel has an engaging discussion of  Kant's views on this, if you're interested. As far as that consequentialist/inconsequentialist argument goes, I'll see your Kant and raise you a Bonhoeffer.) My point here is not to rehash that argument, but simply to point out that this sort of lie -- deceiving an evildoer to protect the innocent from harm -- is a wholly different species from the sort of lie prohibited in the Ten Commandments. The rescuers lied, but they did not bear false witness against their neighbors.
That brings us to the distinction I want to make here. I do not think it is difficult to envision, imagine or identify a context in which it is acceptable -- justified, moral, right, wise, obligatory -- to lie to evildoers. But it is far more difficult to construct or identify a situation in which it is acceptable to lie about evildoers.
Lying about others -- bearing false witness against them -- is dangerously corrosive. It sets the liar on a downward path that leads not just to moral confusion, but to epistemological insanity. Bearing false witness will ultimately make you crazy.
What may start out as a well-intentioned choice to "fight dirty" for a righteous cause gradually forces the bearers of false witness to behave as though their false testimony were true. This is treacherous -- behaving in accord with unreality is never effective, wise or safe. Ultimately, the bearers of false witness come to believe their own lies. They come to be trapped in their own fantasy world, no longer willing or able to separate reality from unreality. Once the bearers of false witness are that far gone it may be too late to set them free from their self-constructed prisons.
This slide from fighting dirty to embracing insanity happens in politics, obviously, but not only in politics. And regardless of the arena the end result is the same. The bearers of false witness make themselves stupid -- so stupid that they don't even seem to notice that they've surrendered the argument by choosing to live in a fantasy world in which all arguments are irrelevant.
Anyway, contra Kant, I believe it may be justified and just sometimes to lie to evildoers. But don't lie aboutothers, not even about those you regard as evildoers. That's never justified and it won't end well for you.

Lying Your Way to Crazy
Wednesday's post on bearing false witness wasn't prompted by a specific incident in the headlines as much as it was by a general phenomenon. Scarcely a day goes by without some public official saying something insanely untrue and ridiculously stupid -- and yet says it with what seems to be utter sincerity. Scarcely an hour goes by when some pundit doesn't say something just as crazy-stupid. (This seems to be what "pundit" means.)
I think many of these pundits and politicians have fallen into the quagmire trap of bearing false witness. And I think sinking down into stupid and crazy is the inevitable consequence of that.
This is probably also related to what we earlier discussed as "Family Feud politics." Once you decide that politics -- or any other realm of dispute -- can be won by allowing perception to trump reality, then the temptation to bear false witness becomes overwhelming.
I was trying in the previous post to avoid mention of specific examples because I wanted to make a point about the corrosive repercussions of bearing false witness without entangling that point in the choosing-sides and knee-jerk defensiveness that any given example would likely provoke. But since that may be unavoidable anyway, let's consider the example of the Republican Party's yearlong Family-Feud opposition to theRecovery Act.
The GOP wants the Recovery Act to be unpopular, so they want to create the perception that it has been ineffective. The problem for them is that the Recovery Act has actually been quite effective. It was designed to preserve and create jobs and it did so.
This is not a statement of my opinion. Opinion don't enter into it. This is something we can measure and verify and know.
One is free to argue that the Recovery Act might have been more effective if it had been bigger or more targeted or more balanced toward tax cuts or more ambitious about infrastructure or what have you. But one is not free to say, truthfully, that it has been ineffective. And one certainly cannot say, as Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., recently did, that the Recovery Act "didn't create one new job." The Congressional Budget Office -- the nonpartisan office charged with the measuring and verifying that allows us to know -- says that the Recovery Act created about 2.1 million jobs in the fourth quarter of 2009.
That puts the Family-Feuders in an awkward position. The reality has proven to be stubbornly unlike the perception they've been trying to create by lying about the supposed ineffectiveness of the Recovery Act. And now a respected arbiter of reality -- the CBO -- has weighed in with the final word disproving what they've been saying.
But having committed to the Family Feud approach, they see no choice but to continue trying to create a perception of ineffectiveness even if it can't be reconciled with reality. They can't very well say the CBO has innocently miscalculated -- the difference between 2.1 million jobs in a single quarter and zero jobs, ever, doesn't seem like a simple rounding-error. And they really don't want to get into a numbers fight with the numbers people -- start playing on their turf and suddenly the game becomes Jeopardy, where facts matter.
So the next step becomes to suggest that the CBO is lying, that it is somehow, for some reason, deliberately misrepresenting the effects of the Recovery Act. They thus go from bearing false witness against the proponents of the Recovery Act to bearing false witness against the CBO too. Bearing false witness turns out to be kind of like eating pistachios. You just can't seem stop after the first one.
Accusing the CBO of lying pushes them further into unreality. That step requires an even slipperier step of trying to explain why the CBO would be lying, which almost always leads to the vague suggestion that the nonpartisan agency can no longer be trusted because they're "in on it." The suggestion, in other words, of a vast, shadowy conspiracy.
This is the destiny and destination for everyone who chooses to play Family Feud politics and/or to bear false witness: Conspiracy theory.
Once you choose to prefer manufactured perception to reality or to deny reality about others, you wind up pitting yourself against every arbiter of reality. You will be forced to accuse them all of lying -- of being "in on it." Eventually, you will be forced to embrace the theory of a conspiracy so vast that it includes and encompasses any and every arbiter of reality which might cast doubt on the false perception to which you're committed: the press, the media, researchers, scientists, NASA, teachers, doctors, the courts, authors, photographers, philosophers and intellectuals and artists of every stripe. And even, to paraphrase Groucho, "your own lying eyes." Even your five senses can't be trusted because they will seem to be "in on it" too.
Once you arrive at that destination, you've metamorphosed from a liar into a fool. You're no longer bearing false witness, you're just stupid and crazy. It's not a pleasant thing to behold.
Consider the sad example of Sen. James Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, who left reality long ago, lying his way to the conspiratorial land of fools.
Grist recently interviewed Inhofe, trying to get the senator to explain his repeated assertion that climate change is a "hoax." He rises to the challenge and gamely lists many of the various conspirators conspiring in the conspiracy he imagines must be perpetrating this hoax: the United Nations, the International Panel on Climate Change, NASA, NOAA, the majority of scientists, "Hollywood people," the Heinz Foundation, "very liberal churches," the Pentagon, the White House, General Electric.
This isn't Inhofe's comprehensive list of agents in the grand conspiracy, but it was only a short interview.
But Inhofe believes they're all in on it and that therefore you mustn't listen to any of them.
Maybe James Inhofe simply began as a fairly stupid man who then went a bit mad. But I don't think his sad predicament is due to either mental illness or a lack of mental capacity. I think it's the consequence of a moral choice. He started out lying and he wound up stupid and crazy.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


Prayer is strange, and I know as little about it as I do about anything else. However, I do have a grab-bag of impressions on prayer gleaned mostly, I'm sorry to say, from avoiding it. I tend to think a lot about the things I am avoiding.

Prayer is weird. It is abnormal, odd, off-kilter. It doesn't make sense. The tests have been done, the results are in. For some reason, if you pray a lot you'll live longer. You'll be healthier and happier and less stressed. You could attribute this to the fact that prayer lowers your heart rate and allows you to mentally disengage from the stresses of your everyday life (stresses that have been proven to be poisonous to your body on a molecular level), transposing those stresses onto some other non-existent entity.

But for me, that doesn't cut it. I think there has to be more. What? I'm not sure. Sometimes, though, prayer does seem to actually deflect reality from what seems to be the inevitable flow of causality. People who were dying get better. Relationships get healed. Et cetera. You don't have to believe me on this (and I certainly don't, a fair bit of the time) but I have seen too many examples of unexplainable shifts in the axis of the Universe (Although, of course, if you wanted to explain them, I'm sure you could. Humans are incredibly resourceful) to honestly ignore them.

Now, my perspectives on prayer have been pinched, shaped, poked and prodded by my education in the Christian tradition, and despite what this thoroughly non-Christian culture would have me believe, I don't think this is a particularly narrowing thing. Everybody approaches prayer from some position or another. Besides, although there is a whole lot of chicanery masquerading as Christian prayer, prayer is nonetheless something that Christianity has always taken very seriously. I doubt there is another faith tradition that has spent more time researching, exploring and experiencing it.

Despite this background-o'-mine, honesty also demands that I admit that prayer does seem to have a lot of the same positive effects, regardless of the particulars of the religion of the prayer. Does this mean that there is no God and that the benefits of prayer are psycho-somatic? Reason would seem to lean that way, but again, I don't think so. Rather, I think it means that God is bigger than any individual's conception, and willing and eager to hear the prayers of God's creatures.

Before I get firebombed, I have to re-iterate for the sort of people who like to firebomb heretics that I do, in fact, believe in Christ, and am the sort of person who answers the question "are you a Christian?" with a resounding, "well, I sure try to be." I know that won't matter to those to whom even a whiff of what they regard as pluralism damns me to the damnedest hell. To them I say, "Well, gosh-darnit, I shore am glad y'all ain't the ones in charge."

Besides, the way I have experienced and attempted prayer in my own tradition has often just felt so deeply flawed, superficial and ugly that I am willing to look at other traditions to provide myself with some kind of context - and perhaps even to learn from them. One of those traditions is that of the Muslims. Now, I never paid the Muslims much attention before my sister went to live among them. They were just these slightly scary oogah-boogahs whose most radical adherents sometimes strapped explosives to themselves.

But as my sister sent video clips and pictures of their lands, cultures, and traditions, I started to hear in their (what to me is gibberish) calls to prayer a sort of beauty. Their devotion intrigued me, and I got so fired up with passion that I went to all the trouble of typing the words "muslim prayers" into wikipedia, seeing that the article that came up was really long, and after reading a tiny bit, going somewhere else.

I recommend, however, reading the bit about the five daily prayers, called "Fajr, Dhuhr, Asr, Maghrib, and Isha'a," that are to be performed at five distinct times throughout the day. If nothing else, these prayers force a devout Muslim to think about God (even if only briefly), at regular intervals throughout the day. More than that, it forces them to pause and orient themselves, at those regular intervals, in the context of the God in which they believe.

For someone such as myself, raised Protestant and undisciplined spiritually and otherwise, this was a bit of a revelation. I tend to drift through life, fractal and unfocused, and I very much liked the idea that I could set myself a schedule of prayer. I could not only get those holistic health benefits it provides, but I could also remember who I believe I am and get some context on the disconcerting barrage of experiences I have to deal with.

I mentioned this thought during a discussion with some Christian friends and the immediate response was, "well, I can't really believe something as rote as that could have any meaning."

And I thought... what?!?

And then I thought... oh. So that is where some of my prayer-confusion comes from. My religious culture believes that prayer has to be spontaneous and original to mean something.

Again, I don't buy it. I'm an artist, so I love creativity and originality. But at the same time, most of what I experience as a human being is determined by habit and by rote. In a world frantically pursuing innovation and the titillation of new experiences, I enjoy tradition and the comfort of regularity and ritual. It provides me with a sense of inner peace that enables me to handle with grace the insanity of my scattered life. The more I live, the more I realize how little I understand of anything, and how helpless I am against the forces of nature - especially human nature (my own, even). In that helplessness, I am starting to learn to find a sort of quiet strength in not depending on my own creativity, originality and gumption as I attempt to rest my soul and self in the comforting grace of a higher truth, a higher power.

As I put less of my faith in me, I find that prayer as a habit or a ritual becomes more and more of a balm. And even though I am not likely to starting bowing in any particular direction on the dictates of a clock, I am beginning to believe that perhaps in this sort of regular, external approach to prayer, I might find the healing for which I yearn.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

rules for dealing with humans

There's no manual, and that stinks. So I decided to sit down and think of the ways I have failed in dealing with humans. I will now write these rules on my wall. Obey them. 

1. Don't be afraid of them. They need your love. 

2. Love them.

3. Don't try to change them. 

4. Be trustworthy and honest. Then, if they want to change, they'll let you help them.

5. Don't try to teach them. Inspire them to learn, and then help them in any way you can.

6. Make them feel special every time you see them.  

7. Don't be afraid of physical contact.

8. Smile often, and look them in the eye. 

9. Ask them questions, and actually listen to the answers. 

10. Get curious! People are the most interesting folks in the world.

11. Never, ever, ever, ever try to possess them, and be very grateful if they give themselves to you.

12. Love them.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Summer Frivolity

While most schoolteachers anticipate a few months of student-free adventure climbing Kilimanjaro or clicking through cable TV channels, I thrill to the thought of all the time I will have to spend at this desk, writing my way into a slightly enlarged piece of history.

There are a number of things I would quite enjoy doing this summer (like going to Nova Scotia to visit my friend Leland at his barn/home by the sea, or riding up to Lexington again to feel the love of eclectic earth-dancers, or even taking a motorcycle trip around back roads in the foothills of Peru), but instead I am shaking my head and fastening my seat belt, believing in faith that I was made to make stuff. It's good that I teach art, because I love making stuff.

Encouraged by the fact that the second script I ever wrote is now in pre-production and will probably be filmed within the month and then submitted to major film festivals all over the place, I will be attempting to bang together  my first feature-length screenplay. I will also continue to attempt to sharpen (and hopefully sell) my memoir, hone my ukulele skills and, last but not least, paint.

I have been spending spare class moments slopping paints down on little canvas boards, and this summer I will be attempting to paint five (that's FIVE) 8"x10" little masterpieces a week, which I will be selling on ebay.

I have been told that I have what it takes and that all I lack is work, work, work. Well, I plan to change that, and to see if my longtime supporters have been right. So I'm putting this out there as a way of binding myself to the cause. Carpe duodenum, and to me be the spoils! Or something.

Below is a re-imagining of "Beata-Beatrix" by nineteenth century poet, illustrator and painter Dante Gabriel Rosetti. I've utterly transmogified it and if he could see these bubbles he'd turn over right now and disturb some very contented bacterium. I'll probably start off with this sort of thing - a lot of re-painted classics and then move to more personal works. I have no idea whatsoever where I'll go with this, which is terrifying and wonderful at the same time.

Monday, March 1, 2010

In Defense of Walmart (sort of)

I'm going to risk the WROTH of Larsen by yoinking this panel of his off the internets and stapling it to my page, because it's always been one of my favorites and I think it perfectly says what I'm about to write about.

Now that the picture has said a thousand and twenty-nine words, it's a lot harder to justify my exposition, but let's just say that I think maybe a bit more could be said to link the title of this blog post to that panel.

Here's a little quiz. Read the following statement and circle one of the options below : Walmart is evil.

a) strongly agree
b) agree
c) agree somewhat
d) don't know
e) disagree somewhat
f) disagree
g) strongly disagree

If you are like most of the people I call friends (and not just in the "facebook" sense), you probably circled "a", "b", or "c". Walmart is a huge corporation. They buy the cheapest stuff regardless of how it was produced or by whom, and although they're bajillionaires, they do not generally profit-share with their employees. They are monstrous, impersonal, and the sales workers generally seem to be wandering around as confused as the rest of us. We can do much, much better, right?

I have started to wonder, however, if that really makes them evil. It is easy to call them evil - as is evidenced by numerous documentaries and countless internet rants dedicated to just that purpose. But even though we'll say Walmart is evil, when push comes to shove most everyone I know (including myself) will, from time to time, shop there when they think that Walmart has the Best Buy. And Walmart does sometimes, on the rarest occasions, do good things like promote healthy food.

So what's with all the yelling? Do we merely lack the conviction to live out our principles, or is the "Walmart is Evil" platitude not a principle at all, but rather a defense mechanism? That is to say, do we yell at Walmart because it is easier than the alternative - which is to look long and hard at the socio-economic conditions that have made Walmart what it is, and at our own role in creating and sustaining those conditions?

The problem, I suggest, is not Walmart. While it would be wonderful to have some big corporate boogeyman out there to blame, the problem is us. And although it is important for us to fight hard against the exponential evil that corporations can do in the world with their igNoble Barnes of cheap stuff (because who among us can personally insure on our own that millions will perpetually teeter on the brink of starvation?), it is perhaps even more important for each of us to look long and hard at how our sanctimonious scapegoating keeps us from squarely facing our own guilt. We can build a better, less destructive world. We are a creative race with immense potential... but first we have to really, really want to change.

I guess what I'm saying is that Walmart's rubber, and we are glue. Some things stick to rubber, but angry shouting usually doesn't. Are we going to spend our lives throwing pebbles at easy Target(s), or are we going to figure out how to get the boulder our own backs?