Monthly Archives: December 2012

Of Resolutions

The only new year’s resolution I’ve ever made and then kept was the one I made last year to publish my novel Monster Talk in 2012. But I think I was cheating because the decision to do the thing was made before the close of 2011 by a couple of days–so the ball was in motion and there was very little I could do to stop it, even if I wanted to. I mean, I could have dropped the ball at any point in the process, but I didn’t, and there was lots of work to do around revision and editing and proofreading and arranging art that kept me busy all the way into spring of 2012.  That was an impressive resolution to make, though, the results of which were public and out there in the open for all to see, unlike most resolutions people make to drink less or eat less or lose weight or be nice–things that are very difficult for anyone other than the person making the resolution to see or keep track of.

So, I’m having some difficulty this year thinking of a suitable resolution.  Maybe I will resolve this year to make no resolutions.  Isn’t it true that people, on the whole, do things they really want to do, achieve the things they really want to achieve, and those things they don’t want to do or achieve, even if they’re really good for them, don’t get done–whether a resolution is made or not?  Maybe deep down I don’t want to drink less, eat less, lose weight, or be nice.  And most of the things I might resolve to do in 2013 (write more, finish the draft of the new novel, read more, record more, stress less, meditate)–these things just might happen anyway. But perhaps, even when a resolution is not kept, in part or in full, there is still some value in resolving to do something in the new year.  Just saying the words–especially in earshot of someone who might notice or care–might be worth doing.

It’d be nice, though, wouldn’t it, if resolutions could be more transformational and radical.  If resolutions could really shake things up, present real significant challenges, create profound  and lasting changes.  I imagine that some people accomplish these things with their resolutions, but I bet it’s more likely that these people are transforming their lives or the lives of others through a daily process of working toward some goal, some dream or another–it’s a part of their daily living and their way of being in the world and likely has nothing to do with a promise they made on New Year’s Eve.  This is just leading me down a kind of sad path as I realize how little agency I sometimes feel to make radical changes in my life–whether it is about some significant change professionally, creatively, personally, in my relationship to people and things, in how my values reflect or don’t reflect the way I actually live or work.  It’s an interesting, profound, and difficult question–if there were no limitations on things you could decide to do or try in the new year, what would you do? What would you try? What’s holding you back?  Would it help to make a resolution?

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Of Smoking Jackets and Product Endorsement

Smoking2

Okay, so, here I am wearing what they call a smoking jacket, and I don’t smoke. Maybe it’s a drinking jacket.  I do drink, but that’s not a real drink.  Actually, it is a real drink, I’m just not drinking it, because, first, it was a family photo shoot before the noon hour, and second, there were dead bugs in the glass, fruit flies that had somehow found themselves drinking too much and drowning too much in a bottle of Jameson months or even years before.  I know, it’s terrible, a terrible loss of Jameson.  Let me give you a second to collect yourself.  I appear to be modeling either for the drink or for the jacket, and since there are dead bugs in the drink, it must be about the coat.  And that’s true.  If I upload this photo to the website that belongs to the company that makes this jacket, they’ll give me a discount on my next purchase.  I’m a total whore.

I have never been very much into clothes.  When I was young, I suppose I cared about fashion a little bit.  As a musician it was prerequisite to put some thought into what you wore, even if it looked terrible or you’d never wear it anywhere else but on a stage.  And that was my modus operandi.  I wore bow ties and yellow jackets, yellow pants, Converse high tops, and in the late 80’s even a little bit of eye make-up.  This seems so stupid to me now, but I thought it was pretty great in my 20s.  As I matured, I started to care less and less about clothes, even for performing.  Any new clothes that came into my wardrobe got there by mysterious means.  I think there may have been someone else in the household making all of my clothing purchases.

And then I discovered the smoking jacket. Well, first I discovered pants.  I was simply being practical, hoping to find a pair of pants I could bicycle in and also teach in–no more changing of clothes once I got to work–a painful process that added a whole 5 minutes to the time I spent at work not working.  I must have googled something–yes, that’s it, I googled “bike to work pants” and immediately I discovered this company in San Francisco making a line of pants called, you guessed it, “bike-to-work pants.” I’m wearing them right now.  I’m always wearing my bike-to-work pants because they’re very nice pants.  And when I’m biking I can roll up my pant leg a few inches and suddenly I’ve got reflective bands around my legs, and, if I want to be a little bit more visible, I can turn my back pockets inside out and display reflective flags from my backside.

The bike-to-work pants people also make smoking jackets, and while I fell immediately in love, it took me a year and a half to save the money  and then build up the courage to buy one.  It’s a very strange thing, suitable for very few occasions–but it’s reversible!  On the other side from the side you see in this picture it’s very formal, snazzy, corduroy gray, and, well, normal.  So it’s kind of like a Jekyll and Hyde jacket. When I’m feeling crazy or mad, like I was for this photo shoot, or when it’s New Year’s Eve, I’ll turn this baby around and grab a glass.  This company also makes hoodies that look like pinstripe suits or cardigan sweaters, disco ball pants and hats and jackets, voodoo dolls, horizontal corduroy, their website features the funniest, wackiest ad copy I’ve ever seen, and, if you buy their stuff, upload a picture of yourself wearing their stuff, they’ll give you a discount.  I’m a sucker, and I’m a fan, and they should be paying me a handsome fee for this blog entry, but they’re not.  Bastards.

http://www.betabrand.com

photo by Erin Fitzpatrick-Bjorn at Kidding Around Photography

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Of a Holy Secular Christmas

The only times I go into churches any more are for weddings and funerals, and, on rare occasions, when there’s no service, for a quiet space. I am not attending mass or any other church service on Christmas. And I guess, it needs to be said, and I’ll say it here publicly for perhaps the first time, formerly speaking: I am an atheist. And I’m celebrating Christmas. I love Christmas. But mine is a secular one, meaning that I have participated in most of the trappings of the season (tree decorating, music listening, goody consuming, gift giving, light hanging) but not in those trappings that are particularly religious (church going, Bible reading, sermonizing, prayer sending, nativity scene building)—and even when I listen to or perform music that is blatantly religious, “Silent Night,” “We Three Kings,” “O Come All Ye Faithful” (to name a few of my favorites), I will appreciate the beautiful melodies, the nuanced performances, the arrangements, and I’ll even admire the beauty of the feeling and the narrative behind that feeling, without a conviction that this music represents literal truth or historical truth.

I sometimes wonder if it is not somehow inauthentic to celebrate a religious holiday in a tradition one does not participate in or even remotely believe. Let me justify my position. I am not the kind of non-believer that suggests that Jesus never lived. Nope, I think he was an actual guy, as human as anyone—I mean, in the same way that Martin Luther King Jr. was as human as anyone. But Jesus was not born on December 25th. We don’t know when the guy was born, exactly, although most historians put his birthday early fall or maybe late spring. So why the 25th? Early Christians, in an effort to appeal to the Pagans and win over more converts, chose the 25th, a Pagan holiday called Saturnalia celebrating the Winter Solstice (which I understand was one hell of a party). So I can, in good conscience, celebrate Christmas as a Winter Solstice holiday, or, whether it’s his actual date of birth or not, I can celebrate the day as a symbolic birthday party for the guy who, while not the son of God, or God in the flesh, had a few really good things to say about how to live a life and how to treat people.

And I can celebrate the holiday as a kind of nostalgia trip. As I child I was spellbound, intoxicated, totally enthused by the season and this particular holiday. I was a believer as a child—and I know that part of the appeal of Christmas for the childhood me, beyond all the commercial stuff that’s been bastardizing the holiday for at least the last one hundred years, was a kind of wonder, a reverence and awe for the spiritual or religious aspects of the season. I know that added to the magic; and illusory as that magic was—the feeling was real enough. And I think about how I want my son to experience the holiday. I don’t want him indoctrinated but I do want him to understand some things.  I can teach him about the historical Jesus. I can teach him what Christians believe about who he was. I can honestly tell him where I stand (to do otherwise would be dishonest), and I can emphasize to him the importance of making up his own mind when he has the maturity to do so. But I imagine that part of the holiday magic, that spiritual part, might be something that is always lacking for him—unless the holiday can remain somehow holy without being dependent upon religious dogma and superstition.

I appreciate two of the five definitions of the word“holy” I find on my favorite web dictionary. Something is holy when it has the quality of being spiritually pure. Or, something is holy when it is entitled to worship or veneration—as if sacred. I can get behind both of these ideas. First, one can be spiritual without being religious.  Second, there can be something sacred, worshipful, venerable about the holiday if we take time to think about those values Christmas can represent—all of which are inherently good and secular to boot. Good will toward men and women. Compassion, tolerance, and generosity. Peace on earth. Gratitude. Childlike innocence and wonder. Quiet time with family. A really good seasonal ale. An attempt to resist materialistic excess. These things, when they occur, are just as magical as any story about a virgin birth–maybe more so because they are within the realm of possibility.  These things represent Christmas for me and will continue to embody the holiday for as long as I’m around, I suspect.

Have a holy secular Christmas, y’all, unless you’re inclined to do otherwise.  Then do that.  And happy new year.

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Of Of and On

What’s it about. What’s the subject. Why no question marks. One could perhaps ad an of or an on to any title and the title would still function properly. Check this out: Of The Great Gatsby. Of Shades of Grey. It would not work so well, though, if one’s title begins with a preposition, if it already begins with an of or an on. Of Of Mice and Men doesn’t sound good and makes little sense—unless one is writing ABOUT Of Mice and Men, in which case about would be a better choice, albeit pedestrian. What ABOUT Of Mice and Men? “Of Steinbeck’s Use of Fuzzy Rabbits in Of Mice and Men.” That’s much better.

Why am I writing about this? I am writing about this because I have been reading Michel de Montaigne, the French writer from the 16th century who pretty much invented the essay form, coined the term to describe this animal, and who, more significantly perhaps, and more germane to my crazy blog title, began every single one of his essay titles with the word of: “Of Cannibals,” “Of Drunkenness,” “Of Smells,” “Of Thumbs,” “Of Sorrows,” “Of Liars,” “Of Fear,” “Of Sleep,” “Of Names,” “Of Three Good Women,” of etc.

So I had an idea that I would try this out—this of and on way of beginning, and I thought that, too, I would solicit of_____ titles from readers, students, friends, and I’d come up with my own list—so that I would never be at a loss for something to write of, on, or about.

What would be the nature of these babies, these “Of_____” essays? They would be short, highly improvisational meditations on a variety of subjects, and they would serve the purpose of stretching my thinker, broadening my range of subject matter, teaching me something about something, experimenting with mind, rediscovering my inner Montaigne, and postponing my fiction writing. And for you, dear reader, they would provide some free-form thought theater.

So what do you say? Would you like to help? Give me an assignment, a word, a verb or a noun, a phrase, a writer, a book, a day, an artist, a poem, a song, a band, an animal, a plant, a film—and I will do my best; verily, I’ll do my best. You can bet though, I’m going to cut myself some slack, in that if I receive and choose an of or on topic for which I am woefully unqualified to speak, I will approach it any way that I can. And that may or may not be satisfying to the originator of the topic, but I hope it will at least be of some entertainment or educational value to the general reader.

Ready? I will put all suggestions into a hat or a bag or a bucket, and when I am so inclined, hopefully with some regularity, I will draw a title and begin to write.

Game on. Or, game of.

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Of Social Networks: Is Real Dialogue Possible?

First off, I offer my apologies, to anyone who’s actually following this blog, for my lengthy absence from the sphere. It was August the last time I penned anything for this venue, and that’s been weighing on me pretty heavily during this most difficult first few months of the school year—over 200 high school students on my caseload, new curriculum again, new standards again, and very little in the way of additional support. So, I come home feeling hit by a bus and pour myself a glass, listen to music, play with my boy as much as I can, work on fiction maybe a couple hours once a week, and sleep.

I decide today to break the dry spell, in the wake of the last week’s horrors, to ask a question regarding the social network we call facebook and the degree to which it is a viable avenue for social discourse of any consequence.

Let me give some brief context. I’ve got friends who aren’t really friends (an interesting commentary on the way this particular social network has really morphed the meaning of that word). You know, we all probably have them—ghosts from our past who friend-request us, people who, decades after our initial acquaintance, likely old high school haunts, we would not even recognize if we saw them on the street. We vaguely recognize their names, find out they were ex-students, or we were classmates or neighbors or something, and we say, of course, why the hell not? Let’s be “friends.” And over the course of this precarious “friendship”, we end up learning a little bit about these people, most disconcertingly perhaps, that they do not share our politics. Now, that, on the surface, is no big deal. I have real friends, ones I see in the flesh every day, whose politics are very different from mine—and yet, we get on just swimmingly.

But let’s say for example, after last week’s mass murder of children, and in my own neck of the woods a mall shooting, when you’re exploring these issues around security, school safety, gun control, media responsibility, and mental health, trying your level best, liberal as you might be, to make sense, to figure out some stuff, to come to terms, while taking care as best you can of your loved ones—you’re checking out your news feed on facebook and this is what you see. It’s one of those quote graphics, words of “wisdom” against a pretty and sometimes appropriately themed backdrop. And this one concludes with this: “The problem is not guns. It is a Godless society.”

So, now that you’re squarely in my shoes, I’ll speak in the first person. Immediately, I’m enraged. My heart pounds, my blood boils. I cannot help but respond. And the exchange that ensues, sometimes reasonable, but mostly not, mostly frustrating, mostly talk at cross-purposes, some name calling, a lot of misunderstanding and dismissiveness, consumes practically my whole day. I try to stop. I can’t. I walk away and say that I’m done. A half an hour later I’m checking my notifications to see what new idiocy appears there. Part of me says, dude, you can defriend the guy; this is swallowing up too much of your psychic energies. Defriend. Problem solved. The other part of me says, no, I must not remain silent. I must not allow people to explain away an extremely complex and urgent social problem with a supernatural, pre-modern, anti-intellectual, fairy story. If they’re facebook friends of mine and they say things publicly I disagree with on some deep, important issue, I have an obligation to speak up.

So I keep at it. The last post in the thread, mine, appears at 1:30 in the morning. I’m in the process of letting it go now, perhaps, only because the friend in question and a couple of other voices that chimed in on his behalf have been silent. If they were to keep at it, who knows how long I would have pursued the argument—and finally, for what effect, to what end? And I’m sure these other folks felt the same way about what they perceived as my bleeding heart stupidity. Why was I doing this? Did I think I would change their minds? Doubtful. Did I derive any pleasure from the contest? On the contrary: it stressed me out. Was anything accomplished? Thus far, only that I had the last word. I don’t find that terribly satisfying. So, rather than saying anything specific about the issue we were arguing about (the simplification of complex social problems around gun violence to the SINFULNESS of our nation), I just want to pose these questions and offer some possible answers:

What are the benefits of facebook participation? I enjoy hearing from people I care about from time to time, dropping in on their lives for a moment to find out what’s going on. I enjoy readings or images and audio posted by these people I care about. I enjoy articles posted by on-line publications, artists, writers, musicians I subscribe to or “like.” And I enjoy the benefits in the opposite direction: letting friends know what I’m up to or thinking about, telling people about my writings, my blog, or my musical endeavors. For the most part, I enjoy political or philosophical posts made by real friends of mine; and because we have certain sympathies in common, these posts rarely make me uncomfortable and often confirm what I already think. And this may or may not be a benefit of facebook: that most often, people are preaching (or posting) to the choir. No change occurs, just people patting each other on the back. That’s the sort of cozy community aspect of facebook, which, while it may not be all that earth shattering, passes the time somewhat pleasantly. Ultimately it’s just another kind of television.

Can facebook be a place to conduct meaningful social discourse? Generally speaking, I hate to see people airing their dirty laundry or their personal squabbles on facebook. That’s unseemly to me, embarrassing. By contrast, also generally speaking, I get more interested when people argue politics and big ideas, but find, like I found with my own experiences with this, that it’s impossible for people to really reach each other this way, in part, because there’s so much less accountability when you’re typing something from a distant place on the web-o-sphere and not speaking face to face, there’s a tendency toward nastiness and attack, and as a result, nothing changes. There’s a part of me that wants facebook to be a way to decompress and “be with” friends. That part of me advises against becoming friends with people I don’t know well, or people whose world view will make me angry and upset; it’s hard enough navigating the interpersonal relationships with the people I encounter every day in the flesh. But then, there’s another part of me; (there are often, I must confess, on any number of issues and occasions, more than one part of me). This part of me says SPEAK UP. Be like Gandalf in the Fellowship film, faced with the big fire monster; when ignorance rears its head, say, “You cannot pass!” And stand your ground. If I do this, as a practice, I’ve got to approach it in way that results in less hand wringing, less blood boiling, less anxiety. That’s hard for me. To those fears, those emotions that threaten to twist up my insides, and to those who believe God is punishing us by killing our kids, I must again borrow Gandalf’s words: “Fly, you fools,” and continue to argue for sanity.

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