Thursday, October 31, 2013


Laurie Anderson, for whom I have had great appreciation since the 80s, married Lou Reed several years ago and published a letter in their local newspaper about his death. It's not heartbreaking, although that's how Spin terms it, but heart-affirming. Would that all of us can have this said about us after our last days. Namaste, Lou.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

those were different times

Lou was my goo-roo. There was a period of my life when nearly every situation I came across I asked myself, "What would Lou do?" My 50-plus year old self may not always appreciate those decisions but the younger me knew that was the way I loved living. One night, after we'd driven 30 miles to a theater to see the Rodney Dangerfield flick, Back to School, I serenaded my then-quasi-girlfriend by singing the entire album Transformer. I am not a good singer and she was not happy with either my rendition nor my continuing after she'd told me to stop, but I wasn't listening to her. Lou told me, "keep going, this is a perfect moment." He was right. She left me for Pentacostalism soon after.

I tried for years to write a murder mystery titled Sally Can't Dance about just such a guy as I was in the late 80s that is chockfull of Lou references. In fact, I included a scene at a darkened club in the book just on the off-chance, if it was made into a movie, I could meet Lou onset. As a kid in the 70s growing up a few hours north of The City my occasional forays there had Lou as a soundtrack. (That's not a good video, btw, but it has killer average NY scenes.) Thanks to him I knew just how dangerous and alluring Times Square would be and how I ached to be a part of it. He spoke to something I repressed. The messy Tim Curry movie Times Square gives a good indication what that place was like in the early 80s: a place full of cheesy curtains, smelly leather jackets, teenagers working in strip clubs, garbage on the streets, boozy oldsters breathing over you, businesses that only opened after dark, cigarette and other smoke, where the underground was, whether it was velvet or not, and the hustle was always on. I couldn't hustle nearly as well as Lou--really, no one could--but I could watch others hustle and that's what I loved to do.

So I watched the hustle going on all around me in those years with Lou sing-talking in my head. Those years were the start of my affinity and affection for street kids and respect for their decisions. After all, my decisions were rarely better and were based on, c'mon, the actions of a former junkie! But what a former junkie.

Today I am listening to episodes of New York Shuffle, a music-appreciation show Lou did with Hal Willner that began playing on Sirius XM on Saturday night, ironically the day he died. For what it's worth, one of the points I had in common with Lou and a reason I loved him, was a love for radio: “I’ve always been a fan of eclectic radio, such as FM radio in the past when you could hear stations play widely divergent music, ranging from Rock to Country to Jazz to Opera. I loved the days when DJs who did their own programming set the bar high.” Lou as programmer was as interesting as Lou as musician. His voice is rough and harsh and exactly what a 70 year old with a history of abuse should sounds like. Lou didn't age overnight, he aged like most of the rest of us, one day at a time.

He's dead now and unless there's a rock n roll heaven I'll never have the opportunity to meet him. I think now about Laurie and his ex-wife Sylvia and Rachel and Bowie and his friends and ex-lovers and his ex-friends. They've lost someone who was, as important as he was to me, was more important to them. He wasn't a giant or a saint, he was just a guy who made good music that resonated with an astonishing breadth of people, although I suppose that's what becomes a legend most. Like David Bowie and Neil Young he was someone I listened to and appreciated throughout his career. I have his music and that's got to be enough.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

gratuitous nude

A few days ago I published a post about feeling monkish. I included a throwaway line about dancing naked in the road to find someone to talk with and used that as the title of my post and an old photo to illustrate it. I found that by Googling "dancing naked" images (NSFW).

One set of friends on Facebook took me to task for having used a picture in which the nude woman is featured prominently but the nude man's penis is hidden (although if you look closely you see his scrotum is prominent below his left leg, although that's neither here nor there; you don't need to enlarge the photo to see the woman's nudity, which is more the point). I hadn't noticed the absence of the man's genitalia. Their legitimate observation was that the photo objectified women or at least the woman in the picture. It's also a reinforcement of a distortion of society that presents nude women readily but is more reticent about nude men.

I mistook the conversation for a light-hearted one and commented that they'd put more thought into it than I had and I'd decided to reaffirm the patriarchy by leaving the photo up. My rationale for leaving the photo up is 1) I don't think it's right to ascribe contemporary questions to modern photos (the picture is obviously early 20th century), 2) I like the picture's drawing on the couple's awkwardness and grace and comfort, and 3) it's my blog. But I soon came to realize the conversation, if it had started light, swiftly turned heavier.

I ended up removing the link on that group's news feed after a few hours consideration. No one had requested it but I decided leaving it there was taking advantage of a privilege that I hadn't earned, and more importantly, I'd become embarrassed having answered their concerns so tongue in cheek before realizing they were serious.

While I think the more correct response on their part might be to say, essentially, "enjoy the cocks," that is to have pointed it out more publicly on their own blogs or by posting male full-frontal nudes, their point is taken. It was relatively easy to find that illustration while to find the one gracing this post required several tries and I wasn't successful until I added "man" to "joyous nude" (again, NSFW); even then, many of the results are porn and about a third are of women.

But I have other sets of friends also on that group's page who could make similar complaints that by choosing two people not in wheelchairs I'm being ableist, or by choosing a white couple I'm being racist, or by choosing a mixed couple I'm being heteronormist. Those arguments have a lot of validity, too, maybe even greater validity because I can't say I didn't notice any of those things, and didn't use any of those elements in my criteria for my Google search. The point isn't to suggest my friends' original criticism is absurd--it isn't, it's a good observation--but to point out that we are privileged even in how we criticize.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

dancing naked in the road

I'm not working this week and have spent it at home, going outside only to get the mail, and only leaving our property to take one dog to the vet's on Monday and today to get a few groceries. My wife's residency requires her to sleep at the hospital once a week while she's on-call, and it was Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. Because we have a sick dog we haven't even attended dog classes this week. I have seen few people this week at all since Sunday.

Normally, seclusion like this drives me crazy, and if it was summer and sunny I would be dancing naked in the center of the road just to find someone to talk with. Perhaps it's the early cold weather we're having--most days have hovered around freezing during the day, dipping into the 20s overnight--and the general grayness of the sky that has kept me inside. I can't say I'm happy this way, but I would call it a strange contenment. Strange because my usual method for recharging my batteries involves talking with friends (and there really is no shortage of friends nearby who would like my popping in on them but they are just far enough away to make seeing them an all-afternoon affair and I feel just enough inertia to override or more passively to avoid making that move) and this week has been in fact a time when I hadn't thought of recharging my batteries but I simply haven't felt the draw to visit friends or even to be in public and seeing strangers.

I know four days with forays into public every other day does not a hermitage make but I wonder if this is what it feels like to purposefully be alone. I have gotten a lot of reading done, including in the Shane Claiborne book I find so troubling. He writes of this impetus, "Community is what we are created for. We are made in the image of a God who is community, a plurality of oneness. When the first human was made, things were not good until there were two, helping one another." But Claiborne connects his Simple Way with something called a New Monasticism and this appeals to some part of me. I have always wanted to live in community with other people in a cloister or an intentional community as I did for short periods with the Hare Krishnas and the Rainbow Family and other friends. Claiborne talks about how the members of the Simple Way pool together $150 each month (this was in 2006 so it's bound to have gone up by now, maybe to $250) with which they pay the costs of x number of people living in the poorest neighborhood of Philiadelphia. I can't deny that notion is attractive to me.

But my wife and I have tried living with other people before and that hasn't worked out at all. I would argue we lived with the wrong people but I know her wish to pare down the number of people she deals with on a daily basis. The truth is we come from very different backgrounds--my small family consisting of just my sister and me, her larger one with several siblings--and I suspect it's like the old saying of the homeowner dreaming of many houses and the hobo dreaming of only one. But I look around at the things I do around this house, making many comfortable places--the 3-season porch, the southwest corner of our property, the front yard labyrinth, the upstairs study and the huge picture window facing the fields--and contemplating changes to some of the buildings--boarding them against the elements and making them little oases of calm and retreat--and I wonder who I'm doing it for.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

this is the new normal.

It's frightening, and it ought to be, how something as previously unthinkable as school shootings have become the new normal. (And as I write this, a banner reading "Breaking News" flits across the CNN homepage, linking to this.) How many of us have even registered the latest incident in Sparks, Nevada? Among my Facebook friends, I was the only one who made a comment about it Monday, and that was to link to the story as it was happening and the comment that it had become the "new normal," a knee-jerk reaction on my part to the number of almost-weekly incidents.

This is what we know so far.  A seventh-grade student at the middle school in Sparks showed up for school with a Ruger 9mm semiautomatic pistol that police believe he brought from home and shot another student outside the school in the shoulder. Mike Landsberry, a math teacher at the school, ran to confront the student and was himself shot. The student then shot another 12 year old in the abdomen before shooting himself in the head. Landsberry and the shooter died at the scene, while the other victims are expected to recover. The district attorney's office is considering charges against the shooter's parents for access to the weapon.

As has also become distressingly normal in these situations, the amount of information we have available in the days immediately after they happen is also slight. In an era of 24/7 news, in which the new normal is to turn on CNN or Fox or go to a website for information as soon as we hear of something, the frustration we feel when someone tells us "We just don't know" in response to the natural question why did a 12 year old boy shoot other children at his school is also the new normal.

Many of us thought, after the shootings in Newtown, that substantive actions would be taken to curb gun violence. They were not. One interpretation of an individual's Constitutional right has been allowed, through inertia and incredible financial backing, to trump public safety. Mounting numbers of dead from school shootings is not the new normal. The new normal is our willingness to accept them.

UPDATE: This is the situation to which CNN's Breaking News alert referred.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

resistible revolution?

This book has been a challenge to read. Not because I disagree with its theology, although sometimes I do, or because it is written amateurishly, although sometimes it is, or because sometimes I want to hurl it against the wall, although sometimes I would. It's a challenge for all those reasons, plus Shane Claiborne's occasional lapses into the unbelievable--a page after he tells us he was a student at Wheaton while "they still had that pesky no-dancing rule" he describes himself as having "multicolored hair and...ripped jeans and a Rage Against the Machine shirt sporting a black American flag with the words 'Evil Empire'"--after which he manages to pull out something as honest as this:
We hang out with kids and help them with homework in our living room, and jump in open fire hydrants on hot summer days. We share food with folks who need it...Folks drop in all day to say hi, have a safe place to cry, or get some water or a blanket. Sometimes we turn people away, or play Rock, Paper, Scissors to see who answers the door on tired days. We run a community store out of our house. We call it the Gathering, and neighbors can come in and fill a grocery bag with clothes for a dollar or find a couch, a bed, or a refrigerator. Sometimes people donate beautiful things for us to share with our neighbors; other times they donate their used toothbrushes.
We reclaim abandoned lots and make gardens amid the concrete wreckage around us. We plant flowers inside old TV screens and computer monitors on our roof. We see our friends waste away from drug addiction, and on a good day, someone is set free. We see police scare people, and on a good day, we find an officer who will play wiffleball with his billy club...[We] mourn the two people who died in this property...We try to make ugly things beautiful and to make murals. Instead of violence, we learn imagination and sharing. We share life with our neighbors and try to take care of each other. We hang out in the streets. We get fined for distributing food. We go to jail for sleeping under the stars. [My emphases]
This is part of Claiborne's recitation of "an average day" at Simple Way, the community house he's a part of in Philadelphia. The book is full of passages like this. He describes miracles to which he's been witness and then he recounts spending the summer in Calcutta working in Khalighat. He recounts one night when he and some friends sent a demon in the form of a little old grandmotherly type skittering from them in shrieking horror by humming "an old worship tune." Then he describes the patient, gentle, "careful" way he dresses a leper's wounds in Khalighat, and is rewarded with  "Namaste." Of course he has to add that he whispers back, "Jesus."

Perhaps you see why this book troubles me. It's the mix of the true--the tired days when they turn people away, the friends dying, the used toothbrushes--with the stuff in there because the book is published by Zondervan--the miracles, the shrieking demons, whispering Jesus' name. I am having a great deal of difficulty from page to page determining whether to toss the book far away from me or to keep reading.

What is probably most troubling to me is that I suspect this is Claiborne being true to himself, this mix of the worst stereotypes and heartfelt experience. It is a self-image mirrored by both the photos inside the back covers where he is presented as a willowy, do-ragged, barefoot, geeky white boy and on the Simple Way's website where the simple community is composed of Boards of Directors and Chairs and Controllers and Claiborne even has an assistant. It leads me to uncharitably point out that Jesus didn't have an Executive Director. But to be fair Jesus wasn't operating a 501(c)3 either.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

"enjoy the cocks"

This article on is an interesting read but it's wrong-headed in its allegation that a collage made up of photos of breasts contributes to rape culture. To argue that is to say the photo to the left does too. Rape is a serious topic and there are some nasty cultural memes going around that seek to make it a giggle. But to quote myself from the comments section, "the best response would have been for a swarthmore sorority to issue a booklet whose cover was a collage of male nudes with the note, 'enjoy the cocks.'"

Saturday, October 12, 2013

should books be destroyed?

Low-cost mass production seems to diminish our sense of the sacredness of things, of food, of books, even of the Bible. Half a dozen years ago, I had the privilege of being at a conference with practicing Muslims. The reverence with which they handled their beautifully ornamented and scripted Ku'ran made me guiltily aware of my own dog-eared, written-in paperback Bible places casually on the floor beside my chair. As a Catholic, I am glad the days of chained Bibles are long gone and that we have easy access to the word of God. But perhaps I have become too familiar in my treatment of it; maybe I should kiss the Bible after reading it. Now, too, the thick leather-bound daily missals with gilt-edged onionskin pages, which some Catholics owned and used at mass, have given way to seasonal missalettes. Found in the pews of most parish churches, they are available to all. But they are paper-covered, printed on cheap gray stock--disposable. I am sure they are simply thrown away when outdated, or recycled, like newspapers and magazines.
Still, although I may have lost a sense of reverence for the sacred books themselves, the same sacramental principle that finds God in all things has impelled me to explore a spirituality of reading in different kinds of books, not just explicitly spiritual ones. Because in them, and especially in good novels, I find the astonishing richness of God's world--human, animate, inanimate--celebrated in all its haeccitas, its "thisness" (just the opposite of the mass-produced), as Duns Scotus named it.

--from Walking a Literary Labyrinth: A Spirituality of Reading by Nancy Malone

Malone, who is a retired nun (can one be? any more than one can be a retired teacher or preacher?), uses the example of the novels of Patrick O'Brian to explain what she means, the ever-opening world the Aubrey/Maturin adventures invite her to live in, calling his gift of giving words flesh a "marvelous alchemy. Or better, a transubstantiation, a sacrament." And she is right. But for me the more important question is one that arises in that final paragraph above. Are we right to destroy books when they've outlived their usefulness?

Having worked in bookstores for a long while, I'm familiar with the common practice, dictated by the publishers, the "owners" of the books, of ripping off the front covers of mass market paperbacks for reimbursement and recycling the rest (by federal law a book can't be sold without its cover, not even as a used book). We do the same with trade paperbacks and hardcovers that are judged to have outlived their shelflife: they are returned to the publisher for reimbursement and destruction, sometimes by pulping, sometimes by incineration. I understand and somewhat approve the economics of this practice. It makes sense.

But there remains a lingering impulse that books, once having taken form, represent a world and the hard work of someone whose existence might otherwise be passed by. Shouldn't there be some sense of mourning at the destruction of these testaments to a writer's time and effort?

However, the corollary question is, Should we save all books? Do we restrict eternal life only for religious books like the Bible and the Q'uran? What about compendiums of Buddhist or Jainist wisdom? Or books that are "like" bibles, like the AA's Big Book?

And if we salvage books of ancient wisdom, what about more recent books of wisdom? Do we keep copies of The Prince in perpetuity? What about The Rights of Man? Nixon's Six Crises? The latest Rush Limbaugh?

And that's not to take into account classics like Huckleberry Finn, Walden, Ulysses? And once we hold up Beloved as a contemporary classic, does that mean we also keep every copy of every book Toni Morrison will ever write? The Bonfire of the Vanities was Tom Wolfe's attempt to breathe new life into contemporary literature, and while I don't think he quite managed it, it's an ambitious try. Does anyone know what I Am Charlotte Simmons is?

Maybe what Malone calls a good book's "haeccitas, its 'thisness,'" is a more reliable indicator. That certainly cuts a lot of books out it would seem: Lord of the Rings over the Inheritance Cycle; O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series over Forester's Horatio Hornblower; John Le Carre over Eric von Lustbader. But each of those books will have its defenders. Who gets to choose? And what do we do with someone like the late Tom Clancy whose novels certainly are precise and technically intricate and place you in a world most of us aren't privy to, but whose characters navigating that world are, at best, paper thin?

Maybe this is just a long argument to keep the status quo. After all, it's not as if anything could change even if all readers somehow got together and decided never to get rid of any of their books no matter how worn and tattered they become. I have several copies that long ago lost their back covers or their pages have slipped loose of the binding or a dog has gotten hold of it and ripped off part of its cover and spine. I'm uncertain exactly why, but I keep them. But I suspect that this is hoarder behavior and advise against it.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

oooh baby, it's a wild world

I could never call Shelley a girlfriend.  We were friends with benefits long before that term came into vogue. Our relationship, however it might be described, was one of those leftovers from the 60s and 70s when we accepted a lot of normality to relationships--having male and female lovers as a regular course, the occasional fuck with a good friend that neither took seriously, dating both a daughter and then sleeping with her mother (I didn't but I knew a few guys who had), even becoming friends with ex-lovers--that scandelize my teenage and young adult students. When we saw each other last summer, after an absence of over 20 years, it was almost as if the decades and their attendant baggage hadn't elapsed. She was older, heavier, weighed down with medication, but so was I, and we clung to one another like drowning sailors to flotsom. Her adult children, watching us, could only have wondered what we used to be like back when we liked each other.

I'm reminded of her because I heard Cat Stevens singing "Wild World" this morning. That was one of the songs we used to sing together on long drives. We traveled around together a lot in the mid-80s, all over the east coast, and although neither of us had voices that lent themselves to singing, there were certain songs that we sang to each other regularly:  "Me and Julio," "Brass in Pocket," a few others.  Their words didn't have any meaning beyond our liking the sounds that came out.