Thursday, October 16, 2014

Joseph Anton Salman Rushdie Judy Garland.

I've been thinking for several days that I need to write something about the book I just finished, Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie's memoir about the fatwa years, because I can't remember when I've been so caught up in a book, but I've had trouble homing in on just what I want to say about it. There's so much.

1. It's an enthralling book. I really, really recommend it. It's full of suspense, tension, surprises, reads like the best fiction, except that it really happened. Great behind the scenes stuff about the art and literary worlds. Art, sex, politics, religion. And just a fascinating story about someone having an experience you could never imagine the likes of.

2. Maybe you have a vague negative feeling about Rushdie from reading about him in the tabloids for so many years. Then definitely read this book. One of its major themes is the distance between what we think is true and what is actually happening, the distance between who we think we are and who others think we are. Maybe you'll walk away with a different impression, but I finished the book feeling like I had gotten to know someone hugely intelligent, passionate, bighearted, courageous, and self-aware. He is scarily candid. His devotion to getting at the truth is breathtaking.

3. It's a perfect book for this impossibly puzzling moment in our encounter with Islam in the Middle East.

4. Read it if you are at all interested in art and freedom.

5. Maybe you've already read it. It's been out for a year or so. I got it for Christmas last year. Don't be daunted by its length. It's a page-turner.

6. One sort of tangential thing I learned is that Rushdie wrote a monograph on The Wizard of Oz, which I bought and read also. It's wonderful, sweet, fun, full of unexpected insight. And his thoughts on Somewhere Over the Rainbow, which he calls "a celebration of Escape, a grand paean to the uprooted self, a hymn -- the hymn -- to Elsewhere" (much of his take on the film, what he finds resonant in it, centers on what it says about dislocation, living in a place other than home, or in a home that doesn't feel like a true home, knowing that that true home might exist somewhere else, through the eyes of someone (Rushdie) who left home and was banned from returning) crystallized for me why I was so taken with Judy Garland years before I ever could have known of her gay icon status (and by extension why indeed she became that icon), and I'm certain this has been said many times but it never really sank in so simply for me: my sense of otherness, of not belonging, as a kid, and how compelling that idea of a place where there is emotional peace, belonging, contentment, must have been as a little kid, all those feelings were part of my world long before I associated them with sex. Judy (Dorothy) singing those words (to me, because who is she singing to, if not to me?) with such pure conviction was a huge dose of "Yes! That's it exactly!" It was easy to understand why I was obsessed with her as a 53 year old gay man, harder to pinpoint just why I was obsessed with her at 8. It was all about that song.

That's a lot of words typed very quickly. Hopefully some of it makes sense.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

What Is This God People Say They Believe In?

Everyone is still talking about the Bill Maher/Sam Harris/Ben Affleck dustup regarding Islam and whether or not it's dangerous, or any more dangerous than any other religion, and the subject came up last night among a group of friends gathered here on a chilly October night after dinner in the Fire Island Pines.

Our friend M. expressed the opinion that belief in God is mental illness, riffing on Dawkins' idea of a "God delusion." I'm somewhat sympathetic in a sort of how-can-people-believe-such-obvious-horshshit way, but in the end a mental illness diagnosis isn't for me an adequate explanation since it implies that really everyone before the Enlightenment was mentally ill.

I argued that belief in God is impossible to speak of as a single phenomenon because different people, even among the group of people who would call themselves devout Christians, have radically different ideas of what God is, from a white-haired old man sitting on a cloud to a universal spirit immanent in all creation to the embodiment of everything good to pure love.

M. was of the opinion that there are those who believe in a God who is a male supreme ruler of the universe and then there are those who have other, less anthropomorphic, conceptions of God -- and the latter are what we call "agnostic."

I went on to argue that there is a very large group of contemporary American Christians (maybe even a majority of non-fundamentalist Christians?) who do not have such a literal, limited understanding of God, who believe that the essence of God is essentially unknowable, and that the Bible and the traditional stories about God as a "being" are a way of approaching an understanding of God but not meant to be taken literally, and that such an understanding of God as something that is beyond human understanding is not incompatible with their sincere faith. M. argued that Christians believe literally in an anthropomorphic God and other such Biblical and traditional ideas as a literal heaven, hell, Satan, etc., and that those people who do not believe these things are not properly called Christians.

In an effort to understand just what the fuck American Christians do believe (and of course to prove myself right), I've been researching, googling, emailing an old friend who is a scholar of religion, and learning quite a bit but not really zeroing in on the issue. There's no shortage of polls asking about belief in God, but it never seems to be asked exactly what people mean when they say they believe in God.

It's only coincidental that I'm thinking and writing about God on a Sunday.

Monday, October 6, 2014

No End to Idiocy.

Obviously, there's no end to the idiocy around gender expectations. They're telling this woman that in order to be considered a real female she must medically alter her body's hormone levels.

I used to strongly resist the focus, when it came to fighting repression and persecution of homosexual and trans people, the focus on athletics and the military, but my aversion was, I guess, mostly that I hated the whole culture of those institutions and didn't want to have anything to do with them. They were mean, childish, gross, conservative, icky. If I'm brutally honest with myself, I just didn't give a shit what happened to "those people."

But I see more clearly now -- and I know I'm late to this notion -- why those are the places where the cracks first appear: because they are the most pathologically attached, the most inflexible, the most (they believe, anyway) existentially threatened by any change in the enforcement of 2 discrete and opposite genders with no overlap or grey area in how they might look, behave, fight, run, dress, urinate, love.

That and the fact that sports and the military are so worshiped and fetishized, so obsessed about, so obscenely visible as to be perfectly situated to host these battles first. So there's a bright side to our addiction to organized sports and war.

(I have to admit that when I started writing this I had no idea that's where I'd end up.)

Friday, September 12, 2014

Regard All Dharmas as Dreams.

I got very worked up yesterday about this new war, very angry and hurt. This blog post by Noam Chomsky, maybe surprisingly, maybe not, made me feel much better, sort of forcing my vantage point back to a reassuring philosophical distance. Noam Chomsky is one of really few public intellectuals I always trust, ever since reading the mind-blowing and undeniable Manufacturing Consent in my late 20s, and, though I know there are some who see his name and roll their eyes, I'm too old to care. A prophet who isn't widely considered a crank is likely not a true prophet.

C. took me to task yesterday for writing somewhere on Facebook that I was angrier at Obama than I'd been at Bush. What I meant to express is that I was more deeply hurt because this new war is the last thing I expected from Obama whereas with Bush it was no surprise and I never liked him anyway so he couldn't hurt me. I guess I thought it was self-evident that Bush is the greater evil. I was just talking about my feelings.

And that's the problem. Why am I taking all this stuff so personally? I've been thinking about my blog post from yesterday, about how I reacted somewhat blandly to the events of 9/11. Because I was off the grid. Because I was in a beautiful forest. Because my own life was distracting me from world politics. The lesson that I seem to be trying to teach myself -- again -- is that it's not about me.

I will try to watch these world events unfold and not experience it all as a personal insult. You all know how I feel about this war and other wars, and now I will try to keep in check my moment to moment outrage.

As always in moments of anxiety about the world around me, it helps to return to my Lo Jong slogans. The operative one here is "Regard all dharmas as dreams." Pema Chodron, with Chomsky in my pantheon of reliable and always pertinent teachers, says:

Whatever you experience in your life—pain, pleasure, heat, cold or anything else—is like something happening in a dream. Although you might think things are very solid, they are like passing memory. You can experience this open, unfixated quality in sitting meditation; all that arises in your mind—hate love and all the rest—is not solid. Although the experience can get extremely vivid, it is just a product of your mind. Nothing solid is really happening.
Words to live by as we glide together to the end of the Holocene.

Thursday, September 11, 2014


On September 11, 2001, I was staying in a state park just outside of Ithaca, New York, with Jay and Roger. On the road, we lived more or less without media, except for the radio in the van which is how we heard about the World Trade Center attacks. We'd been living on the road for nearly two years and in that time had made two circuits from Nashville to the West Coast and back around to the East.

That September, we were on our way to the city for a show at HERE Arts Center. I think I've told this story here before, watching the dirty smoke rise over lower Manhattan as we approached on the New Jersey Turnpike and the bruised, sad eyes of our dear friends when we reached the city.

As we all do, I think about those days every fall. The way I commemorate the events is to renew my vow to avoid images of the planes crashing into the towers, the flames and smoke, the people jumping. We had no way of encountering those images at the time, but in conversations with traumatized friends in the days following it seemed clear to me that their trauma was caused as much by looking at the photos and video over and over and over as it was by what had actually happened. I decided I didn't need to see it.

As you can imagine, it's been impossible to completely avoid the pictures. They ambush me at newsstands, sneak up on me in commercials. But I look away quickly; I take in as little as possible.

I used to think that the reason I was not as revenge-crazy as it seemed the whole country was in 2001, and still (if slightly less) in 2003, was that I hadn't felt the visceral blow of seeing the attack. But last week, don't ask me why because it's not like me and it didn't even really seem voluntary, but I looked at the video of James Foley being beheaded, and I still don't have a taste for blood.

I'd say it's just temperamental, that I'm meek and tender-hearted, but that would be disingenuous. I can think of half a dozen times I've felt homicidal rage when I've been attacked or slighted or insulted or humiliated. I'm capable of it.

The video was shocking, and certainly justice is called for, but my feelings are somewhat abstract. I'm not angry. I guess I just don't feel like anyone did anything in particular to me.

I'm angrier at President Obama this morning than I am at ISIS. I probably shouldn't admit that today, but it's true.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Scarlet Tide.

This song is from the Cold Mountain soundtrack and was written by T-Bone Burnett and Elvis Costello. I was obsessed with it when it first came out, and I rediscovered it a few days ago while I was looking for something else. I think it's overwhelming beautiful. If nothing else, it's an antidote to that feeling that sometimes rises that the artistic output of some other time was better than that of our own.

Look at this bunch. I don't love the liberties Rufus takes with the melody, but still.

And this line-up, good god, at the Ryman. (Fats Kaplin again, on accordion. It's a Fats Kaplin week.) Listen for the added 3rd verse -- in case anyone in that Nashville audience forgot that it's an anti-war song.

And bare bones Elvis. There may be a few songs as good as this one, but none better.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Drunk Heterosexuals' Babies.

We're all abuzz about the ruling by federal judge Richard Posner striking down the gay marriage bans in Indiana and Wisconsin, and yes it's a pretty great takedown of the absurdity of the arguments these anti-gay yahoos trot out, less and less credibly, every time. But I got stuck on this particular passage:

At oral argument the state‘s lawyer was asked whether “Indiana’s law is about successfully raising children,” and since “you agree same-sex couples can successfully raise children, why shouldn’t the ban be lifted as to them?” The lawyer answered that “the assumption is that with opposite-sex couples there is very little thought given during the sexual act, sometimes, to whether babies may be a consequence.” In other words, Indiana’s government thinks that straight couples tend to be sexually irresponsible, producing unwanted children by the carload, and so must be pressured (in the form of governmental encouragement of marriage through a combination of sticks and carrots) to marry, but that gay couples, unable as they are to produce children wanted or unwanted, are model parents—model citizens really—so have no need for marriage. Homosexual couples do not produce unwanted children; their reward is to be denied the right to marry. Go figure.

It's kind of a perfect illustration of the tension between the 2 schools of thought about what marriage is. The sentiment that has been so incredibly fertile for the "marriage equality" movement is that marriage is a special and sacred privilege or reward for people who are in love and should be extended to everyone who falls in love, no matter who they fall in love with. The other view -- and it's the view I've taken most of my life, though naturally it has been complicated by events in my personal life -- is that marriage is a form of social control. A way for men to control women, for women to control men, for the church and state to control people's sexuality and family and intimate lives.

I think marriage is certainly both, and many other things, and mostly it is what we want to make of it. So Posner loses me a little when he ridicules the idea that marriage provides some pressure on men to support the babies they make even if they hadn't considered the consequences before the fact. Because it is true that straight people are much more inclined to reproduce accidentally, and if the state has an interest in the welfare of children (which neither side in this debate disagrees with), then its support of marriage for heterosexuals has a quality not necessary for homosexuals. That seems pretty straightforwardly true and when he dismisses it so snarkily, I think he undermines the seriousness of the implications of laws and policies governing marriage and family life.

The "shotgun wedding" aspect of marriage is maybe outdated in most cases (now that single mothers and divorce are so ubiquitous and accepted) and it's obviously only one among many reasons that people might want to marry, but I think it at least deserves to be addressed seriously. I think this is the first time one of those Christiany "it's for the children" arguments has struck me as even ever so slightly convincing.