Sunday, April 20, 2014

Quote of the Week



A radical is a man with both feet firmly planted — in the air. A conservative is a man with two perfectly good legs who, however, has never learned to walk forward. A reactionary is a somnambulist walking backwards. A liberal is a man who uses his legs and his hands at the behest — at the command — of his head.-Franklin Roosevelt

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Death



I do not remember my Grandfather, my mother’s father, as much as I would like. Of my two younger sisters, I’m the only child old enough to retain any trace of him. He died when I was nearly seven. I have faint memories of him being well, but I mostly know him when he was in a terminally ill state. At times, I have wished that I was born years earlier and could have developed a real rapport with him. This was the case with my cousins, who are now in their forties.

Grandfather doted upon me and my mother. She was his youngest child by far. Sixteen years separate my oldest uncle and my mother. My mother does not remember her brother living at home. Grandfather was forty-five when my mother was born. Mom was influenced by the fact that her parents were much older than those of most of the kids her age. My father had been raised in similar circumstances, and I imagine that shared fact often drew them together.

The cancer had taken its toll. It was terminal and progressed swiftly. My parents believed that his gaunt, haggard appearance would only upset myself and my two sisters. We were never allowed to see him at his sickbed. Towards the end, my parents inexplicably changed their minds one day. I’d been eager to see him after months apart and leapt at the opportunity.

I saw a weak, pale figure propped up on pillows. He had just enough strength left in his body to address me. Grandfather often quizzed me informally on topics of history. He knew I had an interest in it and enjoyed teaching me new facts and ideas.

Did Harry Truman go to college?

His voice was little more than a resigned, sad whisper by then. My first instinct was to say no, but then I changed my mind. He looked disappointed at my response.

No, he did not.

I felt as though I’d failed him somehow. I was quickly ushered from the room, a place I would never again return. It was clear that my parents had arranged only a momentary visit and that I would not tarry there long. He passed away a couple months later.

Now to the matter of the question asked of me. I was called bright and gifted beyond my years. Older people seemed to always want to ask me trivia. I acted the part of the boy genius, providing the correct answer. About the same time, an elderly man offered me ten dollars if I could recite the alphabet backwards in his presence. My mind does not work in such a fashion, but ten dollars was a lot of money in those days. I felt a bit like a trained animal in a sideshow, but appreciated the opportunity to flex my intellectual muscles.

With my Grandfather, there were different motives for this game of teacher and pupil. To him, I was not a curiosity, not a novelty. This line of questioning about Presidents and colleges was due to my Grandfather’s own upbringing. Though more than capable enough intellectually for college, the Great Depression left his family without the money to afford it.

The whole of his life, he felt inferior to those who’d had the opportunity to go. He was an autodidact with an amazing recall and had taught himself as much as any professor could, but still the deficiency nagged away at him. Education was important to him. He read the newspaper front to cover every day and sometimes two or three.

It is a stock cliche of a sort to introduce the specter of death at a young age. It happens frequency and from that perspective it has resonance. The pomp and circumstance of dearly departed does make a powerful impression upon a child. I recall the slow procession of black cars pulling alongside the roadway of the cemetery. I remember taking shade under the tree he’d planted years before with his own hands. The family plot was a reverent destination we would visit for years afterwards.

I think the dead deserve our respect. Not only do they remind us that someday we ourselves will die, but we ought to take time from our busy lives to remember the memory of those who influenced us. Every time I visited the graveside I was always struck by a sense of loss. I felt that he’d been taken from me prematurely, but I trust that God had a greater purpose for him. If I get to Heaven, I hope I get a chance to speak at length to him.

My mother was, quite understandably, utterly devastated. At thirty-one, she was younger than I am today when she lost her father. I remember she entered into a period of deep grieving that lasted for over a year. My Grandfather’s name could not be mentioned in her company, or she would begin sobbing. I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose a parent, though I know I will experience this same feeling eventually. That eventuality beckons sooner than I feel comfortable contemplating.

The death didn’t haunt me the way it could have, if I’d been a little older. There were a few scary moments here and there, but I was deliberately insulated from most of them. I remember the paramedics arriving, taking him from his bedroom to the hospital. My Grandparents had moved to a retirement community in Birmingham from the family home so that Grandfather could be closer to his doctors.

There was a tense energy in the air that I picked up on, but I said nothing. I didn’t know what was going on and, in any case, everyone was too busy and preoccupied to explain it to me. It must have been close to the end by then. In my mind, the events are scattered, but I was very young. I suppose it must appear this way to any young child.

The class assignments for a new school year were posted on the outside doors to the front entrance of my elementary school. Having passed Kindergarten, First Grade now beckoned. Had Mom been less preoccupied, she would have intervened in my behalf. I was assigned to a teacher who genuinely hated children. Why she’d decided to take up the profession is beyond me. I imagine she could have been extremely burned out. Her reputation preceded her and no child looked forward to nine full months with her.

Mom made one last desperate, in-person appeal to the principal, but received a lecture instead of any sympathy. The next school year, he’d be sent to transportation, which in some public schools is the equivalent of being sent to Coventry. In the school year to follow, I would contract a severe case of chicken pox that kept me out of school for nearly a month. My teacher didn’t call even once.

Saturday Video



Thursday, April 17, 2014

My Poetic Contribution

On behalf of National Poetry Month, I submit the following. I am a born prose writer and poetry is a discipline I have never mastered, but hard work made my work passable, at least.

The Death of the Party

At evening’s end
exaggerations
caricature

motivated by restlessness

like an itch unscratched
leading directly to the door

these remain when all else
has long passed away

In those last waning moments
Conversation competition commences

cleverest victory can
circumvent the social hierarchy

Yet, age and experience
trumps youth’s insecurity

Humor—
the wild card

The catalyst
for our brand
of social mobility

Older party-goers
establish the rules

Remember similar
defeats

Inadvertent misinterpretation
Often reflects intention

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

False Prophets

A work of fiction.

It goes a little something like this. If you know the right psychiatrist, he or she can contact the admitting psychiatrist on call who will eventually find you a bed. Otherwise, you're on your own. Without someone to grease the wheels, you're a low priority, neither the victim of a car accident nor a heart attack. Psychiatric wards are not my favorite places to be, especially because I’ve experienced somewhere around twelve lengthy stays over time.

After waiting for eight hours in the ER, I was finally triaged and placed in a room to wait a little more. The hospital was the best in town. I'd made a conscious decision to choose it. Even in a fully socialized system of health care, some hospitals provide better care than others. This is based primarily on available financial resources. One can make the system fairer, but capitalism reigns.

All the beds were taken, so I was transferred to another hospital. In accordance with the law, I had to be placed somewhere, whether it was in the next country over or even the next state. Where I was headed now was based entirely upon chance. I wasn't thrilled with the prospect, but had to admit my hands were tied. I needed care and I couldn't sit by myself in that room forever.

Time means nothing to those who work in hospitals. At three o'clock in the morning, a slot opened up at the worst hospital in the city, one that I'd recently read was in danger of completely coming apart at the seams. I wanted to leave almost immediately upon being admitted, from the moment the wheels of the gurney upon which I had been placed hit the tattered carpeting of the main hallway. I needed help and couldn’t turn down any offer of assistance.

Upon entrance, the patients reacted to me in unexpected ways. Some treated me like The Messiah. The label was not deserved, nor sought. My mistakes and limitations were no different than theirs. Mine came attached with the splendor of a college education, a loftier vocabulary, and a few more exotic road trips. Even had I tried, I wouldn't have been able to convince the most mentally ill of my mortal status.

I noticed, rather quickly, that they asked to borrow my clothing. They coveted things that had touched my body, lusted after them like talismans, as though they somehow had power and charm. There was a touch of the supernatural about it, as though they believed that wearing my clothes would make my own supposed superior traits transfer onto them. I imagined they worshiped them, placed them before altars, and whispered incantations before bed.

I went through the motions as I had many times before. During occupational therapy, I yet again unenthusiastically water-colored a cheap piece of balsa wood in the shape of a fish. While doing so, I made unsatisfying small talk with fellow patients. Social class and educational opportunity kept me from the company I sought, forcing me to skim across the surface instead with dull and unsubstantial small talk. I love deep conversation, which leaves me feeling satisfied, but I had to make do with the audience provided me.

I never quite understood the point of what we were doing. I take that back, somewhat. On one level I did. It kept us from stewing in our own misery, distracted for the moment by something designed to keep us busy. I didn't understand the phrase occupational therapy. This activity wasn't exactly labor-intensive, nor did it promote any sort of helpful exercise that I could reckon. What it did do was occupy patients' time while the staff took smoke breaks and drank copious amounts of diet soft drinks.

Every day, punctually at 1 pm, we filed into a room with lots of tables and chairs. One was supposed to select three colors that he or she preferred, all found in large plastic see-through cylinders. One hoped that they weren't painted shut from someone else's earlier carelessness. We were next supposed to select an object to paint. I went through the motions, but not with much relish or zest for the task at hand.

Each of us patients had a measure of unsupervised freedom perhaps undeserved, one that could be dangerous. The staff was too consumed with making sure that a particular patient, who everyone called Mister Norris, wasn't sexually harassing the other patients or mutilating himself. He would sidle up to female patients and express a desire to kiss them. The only thing the staff could think to do to discipline him was to restrict his smoke breaks.

No, you ain't smoking today, Mister Norris, said the nurse, her face a portrait of annoyance, hands on hips. I heard you been causin' trouble.

I had the misfortune of rooming with Mister Norris. I would find bloody rags and paper towels in the trash can. I would wipe the urine off of the toilet seat. I would never walk around in the bathroom without rubber soled shoes. Having lived with men before, some of this was expected, but I still found that a lack of basic cleanliness was totally disgusting.

They called all of us, even the hopeless cases, Mister, Miss, or Misses. From that treatment, one could almost believe that we really weren't stark raving insane, that we were instead guests at some exclusive resort with horrible food and dishwater coffee. I appreciated the professionalism, but it didn’t seem to fit here, not under these circumstances.

The true entertainment was watching Mister Norris moonwalk across the room with a dishcloth on top of his head, much to the amusement of other patients. The day room was where we spent most of our waking hours. A round-faced, sarcastic patient had maybe one-half a front tooth left, due to years of meth addiction. I tried to ignore the visuals. At some point, she accidentally brushed up against me, whereupon the oily foundation she had caked onto her cheeks rubbed off on me.

Is this even? I didn't have the heart to tell her that she was asking the wrong questions. Whether or not her makeup was evenly distributed wasn't the problem. I doubt she was well enough to do it herself. Until she recovered, her hands were too unsteady, her perception too impaired.

Look, I never told you I was a nice guy. I generally enjoy being left alone, but thinking hideously cruel things about fellow patients was my means of compensating.

I had various rude nicknames for certain patients I disliked. Snow White was the moniker of one such woman, an exceptionally pale-skinned lady in her mid-thirties who had slashed her wrists. She showed us all the stitches that had closed the once open wound. It reminded me of horror films--the way that eyelids are sometimes sewn shut. She pulled out her Bible in an effort to show us how the events of the present day were connected in some large, overlapping way to Scripture.

A day later, she terrified the more trusting, and more devout members of the ward by feigning a seizure in the dayroom. Faking her convulsions she continually repeated the same verse in Proverbs. This had drawn the fury of the rest of the patients, and leaving her now a pariah. Other patients angrily confronted her for faking illness and momentarily turning the ward upside down. I suppose she wanted the attention.

Ain't I a good actress? 

Later that same day, she practically dry-humped me, leaning over my body under the pretense of re-attaching a loose telephone cord. She wondered out loud if she could only divorce her husband. I wasn’t sure what she was implying, but didn’t want to find out. I wasn't interested, if she was suggesting I might consider being her lover.

I had no peace of mind. Mister Norris talked non-stop. Initially, he'd only kept me anxious, but now it was much worse. The staff had seen everything by now. A male nurse gave me a reassuring smile and told me oh, he's just old and confused. Mister Norris droned on and on, returning to the same two or three topics. He owned a house over by the helicopter pad, he claimed. He’d point out the window towards the location, with great emphasis, assuming you were also capable of seeing it yourself.

I arrived at the hospital in the middle of some fairly massive exploration of my gender identity. I was too weak to hide evidence of it. My socks off, Mister Norris looked at my painted toenails. I wish I had some polish on my nails. Would you do it for me? You know if they saw a man like me with polish on his nails they'd call him a sissy. I wasn’t sure how to honor his request and had not, in any case, brought toenail polish with me.

My assigned nurse very kindly offered to locate some nail polish remover for me. One of the other patients had loudly accused him of being gay and in denial. Based on my perception alone, I suspected this was probably true, though I did not hold the same intolerance. I took offense but tried to gently correct her. Because she looked up to me and respected my opinion, she never raised the subject again.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

What's The Buzz?

I manage to blow out my vocal chords halfway through, but the rest of the vocals were too good not to include. These are always live takes, and often prone to a few mistakes here and there.

 

(Apostles)

What's the buzz?
Tell me what's a-happening

(Jesus)

Why should you want to know?
Don't you mind about the future
Don't you try to think ahead
Save tomorrow for tomorrow

Think about today instead
I could give you facts and figures
Even give you plans and forecasts
Even tell you where I'm going

(Apostles)

When do we
Ride to Jerusalem?

(Jesus)

Why should you want to know?
Why are you obsessed with fighting?
Times and fates you can't defy

If you knew the path we're riding
You'd understand it less than I

(Apostles)

What's the buzz?
Tell me what's happening

Why should you want to know?

While you prattle through your supper
Where and when and who and how
She alone has tried to give me
What I need right here and now

(Apostles)

What's the buzz?
Tell me what's happening

Monday, April 14, 2014

Today's Untouchables: Sex Offenders



Sex offenders are the foremost pariahs of our current day. In opinion polls, even intravenous drug users place higher. A recent series of high profile cases involving child sexual abuse have revealed the maddening frequency of the problem. My hometown newspaper now exists in electronic format, and as I read the local news, it seems that every other week brings a report of a new crime against minors. This is only the tip of the iceberg. Most are the product of incest, unreported, hushed up within families. The offenses that occur in a public setting, among those who aren't blood relatives, most often make it to most peoples' attention.

One of the few places sex offenders are welcomed and made to feel included are in houses of worship. It shouldn’t be said that the red carpet is necessarily rolled out for them. Yesterday, during Meeting for Worship, an issue that has lain smoldering for over a year once again took center stage. A frequently tone-deaf member of the Meeting implied strongly in her vocal ministry that the sex offender who has been Worshiping with us has no right to participate. He has provided no problems whatsoever for anyone since he began attending, three or so years ago. In her mind, exhaustive policies made to ensure child safety were a waste of time, since there was no way to contain the potential threat.

The sex offender she called out by her vocal ministry took understandable offense to the treatment, leaving Worship in dramatic fashion, midway through. His son departed with him, leaving an ugly energy behind in the Meetinghouse. Healing ministry followed, though what had been a joyful gathering until then was still soured by its conclusion. The man rightfully noted, as he parted, that he had been treated the same way as the tax collectors, prostitutes, and lepers of Jesus’ day.

Striking a balance between button pushing and responsible journalism is increasingly difficult. Gotcha journalism exaggerates the threat he poses to children. Prior to writing this post, I read three separate accounts of this man's recent life. Each account was quick to rush to judgment towards what was billed as an inexcusable parole violation for a deplorable human being. I read them now as an exercise in yellow journalism. He spoke in front of a group of people where children were present, but had gotten permission from his parole supervisors. In short shift, the chargers were dropped, but it was further proof that he will live the rest of his life with a target on his back.

As I read each article posted online, his full name is never presented until halfway down the page. He is introduced mostly as “a sex offender” or “a convicted child molester”, depending on how inflammatory one wishes to be. Following closely behind is another retelling of the crime for which he was convicted and spent eighteen years in jail. He will wear a scarlet letter until his dying day and he knows it. If he returns to prison, he knows he will be specifically targeted and face the constant threat of being murdered by a fellow inmate.

The details of his offense are always enclosed with the salacious details. I’ll retell it one more time, to see what kind of impact it makes on you. The man sodomized a nine-year-old boy, nearly two decades ago. Since then, he has admitted he was wrong and has gone through intensive therapy in prison. In our company, he has willingly assented to be chaperoned and is shadowed everywhere he goes, save the bathroom. He has agreed to never be alone with children or even a single child.

With all the hassle, he has asked to be a part of us all the same. I fault the local media for preying on the fears of parents at the expense of a story. I don’t know all the details of his crime and would feel uncomfortable asking for them unless they were volunteered, which is unlikely. His very presence among us has been very controversial. Some have left us. The rest of us have wrestled with our own anxiety and fears, but also our desire for inclusivity.

I hope that he returns to our Meeting. It is difficult to strike a balance with issues so emotionally charged. No one ever feels halfway about child sexual abuse. Some of us are very uncomfortable with the notion of a sex offender worshiping with us. Some of us believe that a radical, difficult concept of tolerance and love are the very foundations of our Quaker faith. We choose our words carefully to not seem to favor one view or another, else we risk disturbing the fissure that has yet to fully heal.

Other groups are not nearly as magnanimous as we are. I know that in certain feminist conferences or gatherings, male allies with a confirmed history of violence towards women would be banned from attending. If this history included sexual assault, that would be further reason to keep them from taking part. This would be true even if the allegations, proven or unproven, were many years old. If he had done time in jail because of them, excluding him would be more tempting and perhaps even more certain.

Get-togethers with different standards do not adhere to the same definition of forgiveness and tolerance. I’m not being judgmental. Everyone has a right to set the ground rules and the boundaries for themselves. Yet, it might be worthwhile to examine what emotions these arrangements and negotiated compromises bring out in us.

I hasten to bring this up one more time, but I was a victim of childhood sexual abuse when I was the age of the man’s victim. The man who abused me is now deceased and has been deceased for many years. I don’t have the opportunity to confront my abuser, or to worry that he might show up at my conference of choice. This is a good thing in some ways. And yet, even with my history, I believe that the sex offender who worships and participates with humility and cooperation has a place among us.

This statement isn’t made to divide the Meeting between those who favor his attendance and those who don’t. It is rather to say that each of us has past events we’re not proud of confronting. One of the most effective arguments against capital punishment follows: Imagine if you were judged on the basis of your worst day on Earth.

I pivot to another identity and cause very important to me, that of Feminism. Sometimes I, too, want to throw down the gauntlet and draw lines in the sand. That impulse contradicts what my faith teaches. I eagerly welcome self-identified groups who clamor for protection under the moniker of what is termed safe space. People have been persecuted, injured, or psychologically damaged in some way, and giving them recognition and protection has become a patented part of the liberal diaspora. But know this. No space is ever safe enough, and I say that both to 20 year old college students and 33 year old couples who have just had their first child.

In a very abrasive kind of way, this is what the speaker at Worship meant to convey. Even two responsible parents couldn’t prevent my own abuse. Early Quakers believed in the perfectibility of the soul, wherein enough hard work and listening to the Holy Spirit might eventually lead to a perfect balance with God’s will. That's not too far away from the idealism of liberal activism.

I know too much of human nature and human frailties to ever believe in the perfectibility of the soul myself, and it’s an idea among fellow Quakers that is rarely believed today. Knowing the foibles of humanity, should we come down harshly or be more accepting? I admit I’m often not sure which is the correct approach.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Quote of the Week



Reward for information leading to the apprehension of Jesus Christ

Wanted for Sedition, Criminal Anarchy, Vagrancy, and Conspiring to Overthrow the Established Government.

Dresses poorly, said to be a carpenter by trade, ill-nourished, has visionary ideas, associates with common working people, the unemployed, women, and bums. Illegal immigrant, believed to be a Jew. 

Alias: Prince of Peace. Son of Man, Light of the World. Professional Agitator. Identifying marks on hands and feet as the result of injuries inflicted by an angry mob led by respectable citizens and legal authorities.