Archive for the ‘Material’ Category

Note: if you are seeing weird slashes in the text, it’s not typos, the blog software’s acting up. I will fix if I can–emjb

One of the reasons I read Slacktivist as much as I do is that he shares my upbringing, in the strange side-world of Christian separatist evangelism; church camps, re-dedications, witnessing to total strangers, and being “protected” from the secular world.  (Fred came through his experience with a bit more gracefulness than I did, I think, but I don’t begrudge him that.)

But this post touched off a swirl of memories for me, and sent me skipping along across the Internet to try and put some of the stranger bits of my fundamentalist past back together.

The first and most important thing to remember is that, when it came to music, everything was suspect. Not just Madonna in her lingerie, but neon-colored clothing. Not just heavy-metal bands with demons on their album covers, but harmless pop-groups like Mister Mister.

Everything. Was. Suspect.

The math went something like this: Doesn’t explicitly say Jesus is the answer in the song=Not Christian=Possibly Leading to Demonic Influences.

Sometimes, even that wasn’t enough; my dad agonized over whether “rock beats” and electric guitars (but not electric pianos, for some reason) were inherently evil, meaning, even if you sang songs glorifying God on them, the fact that they had a quick danceable beat might mean you were tempted to think impure thoughts.

I know now that much of this was leftover John Bircher, White Panic crap, fear of the “Negroes” and their hypnotic beats impurifying the youth of America, but back then, I was possessed of enough logic to argue with my dad about that last part. “A guitar is an instrument; it cannot be good or evil, Dad!”(/me tosses permed 80s hair, stomps out).

But that minor rebellion aside, I mostly tried to live inside the  restrictions; I did feel guilt when I watched MTV (on the sly, one finger on the remote button to turn it to the news), and mostly accepted that popular music was bad for me.  But I was hungry for music of my own, and developed a burning hatred early on for the Sandi Patti and Amy Grant dreck that was shoved down my throat. Maybe because, before my dad plunged back into religion when I was 10, I grew up listening to funk and disco and country on the radio and on tapes and 8-tracks. I used to spin my parents’ old Herb Alpert and Statler Brothers LPs on the giant stereo console (oh I wish I had that now!) and I had my own collection, Grease and Kenny Rogers and the Nutcracker Suite, and some Disney showtunes. Hooked on Classics was one of my favorites for a summer. Also some Beatles, my sister’s Saturday Night Fever 2-LP set.

Suddenly having to switch to all Maranatha and Amy Grant was too strict a reduction in diet, even for a good Christian girl like me. So I looked for loopholes.

Flipping in despair through the tapes at Joshua’s Christian Stores, (an approved source), I found some buried treasures; Second Chapter of Acts, (some of) Randy Stonehill (more about him in a minute), even an old Debby Boone tape (not this one, but that’s all I could find online–bland as she was in public, that girl could sing and she did some interesting things with hymns.)

My other way of skirting the rules was to judge that my dad would be less prone to censor music from the 50s and 60s, when Life was Perfect (so he said).  So I got to know the  playlist of the local oldies station,  which taught me to love the Gladys Knight version of “Heard it Through the Grapevine” as well as Aretha Franklin’s brassy insistence on getting what she wanted from her man.  Doo-wop and early rock and a few hippie songs.

Anything, anything, to get me away from Amy Grant, or, God help me, Carmen.

And then I grew up, and moved out, and eventually married a musician with a prog-rock fetish, among other weird tastes, and began to see even more of what I’d been missing. (And what I hadn’t, considering my high school class picked a Whitesnake tune as our class song.)  And ever since, I’ve been climbing gleefully through the genres, scouring for new artists and expanding on my abiding love of soul and early R&B, indulging my disco nostalgia, my old-country nostalgia, and deciding that though I like some Cure, I was never in much danger of becoming a Goth kid.

And then recently I came across blip.fm and twt.fm, and was finally able to re-hear some of the things I loved as a repressed Christian kid, that survived my transition to an agnostic adult, and to share them with you.

The first is this truly, awe-inspiringly strange song, “Cosmic Cowboy” by Barry McGuire, notable not for its excellence, but for its feeling of ecstasy, of weird hippy-dippy tripping on the whole Jesus thing, which later, more cynical Christian artists just didn’t have. Like Second Chapter of Acts, McGuire was doing something that was, however cheese-ily produced, original. There just isn’t anything else out there like it.

Second is a Randy Stonehill track, Christmas at Denny’s, which is possibly the most melodramatic thing I have ever heard, and more interestingly, doesn’t ever mention Jesus once; it’s a straight-up, go for broke, over the top country blues song. I don’t know that he really hits what he’s aiming for, but for a Christian album, wallowing in despair in this way was, at the least, unusual.

And then I loved Kim Hill all through college, on the strength of two albums which had some dark, strange songs, like this one, “Snakes in the Grass”.

None of these artists are super impressive next to the other things going on in the late 80s and early 90s, REM and Nirvana and Insert Your Favorite Band here; they could be a little weird or niche, but the Nashville Christian music establishment, and the customer base it served, didn’t tolerate too much that might be considered dark or disturbing. I hear things have loosened up a little since, but I have so much else to listen to these days that I haven’t gone back to check.

There is just so much, that’s so full of life and joy, and anger, and pain, and power, out there in Secular Music Land. That was the biggest lie the scaremongers told us in church, that real feeling and emotion, and pain didn’t exist outside of approved music, that they were all about (bad kinds of) sex, shallow, meaningless, and corrupt.

And when you set it up that way, then no wonder you have to “shelter” kids from outside, because once they realize that life isn’t confined to the sacred approved space, they’ll leave, and they might never return.


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Pain, Promise, Perspective

This post made me sad.  It’s a feeling I often get over at pandagon.net, whenever Amanda writes a post on childbearing. Not because I disagree with 99% of what Amanda says, or because I think choosing not to have kids is wrong in any way. Or that women (especially) who don’t want kids aren’t subject to lots of unfair pressure about it. All true.

The point of the post I linked was that, in light of the crashing economy and new studies about how much of a grind it is to raise children inside a typical marriage, fewer people might consider having kids. And that maybe this is a good thing.

And that cuts close, because I have fewer kids than I want for pretty much those exact reasons (money, plus stress on my marriage) and it’s not something I can shrug my shoulders over or celebrate.  It’s a situation that weighs on me, but that I also cannot change, that was imposed on me by forces outside my control, not one I chose. And since Amanda doesn’t want kids, or understand people who do, I think that’s why she cannot see the difference. She’s smart and one of my favorite bloggers, but she’s younger than me, and considerably more ruthless in her ideology. I don’t begrudge her that, but I cannot step into that perspective and embrace it. I’ve known too much, seen too many other sides of this particular mountain.

But the whole subject is so rife with sadness for me that I start to feel at a loss, and also irritated at how much any discussion about this topic turns into “those unthinking breeders” vs. “those clueless childless crazies”. I usually try to wade in and divert the conversation into a more productive channel, to get people talking about why we have these extreme stresses and strains on people who raise children, when we know that someone, after all, has to.

And it seems like an unnecessary road to go down, for someone with progressive beliefs; people having kids are not the problem. People having kids are necessary to society, and people who don’t have kids are also necessary. Which camp you end up in should be about what you truly want, not what you’re forced into against your will. I would not celebrate any woman being forced to have kids she didn’t want; neither can I celebrate women or men who want to be parents having to give it up for lack of basic resources.

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Golden Calf

False economy is a term that means, basically, being too cheap costs more in the long run. Buy a cheaply made car and pay more for repairs later. Buy shoddy clothes and have to replace them more often.

But when I’m confronted with the resistance to using public money for public goods that comes up so often when talking to hard-core conservatives, it becomes even more clear that they operate under a false-economy philosophy. Skimp on education now, pay for jails later. Refuse to fund sex education and contraception, pay for more moms on welfare and kids locked into poverty…and more STDs. Refuse to fund mass transit and pay in increased pollution, highway maintenence, and unsustainable sprawl. Refuse to invest in intelligence and diplomacy, and start wars that cost us in trillions of dollars and thousands of lost lives. And then blame all the bad results on others; on democrats, or sexually active teens, or black people, or Saddam Hussein. Anyone but us.

I’m told this sort of thing is common in politics, where pandering trumps strategy, and winning elections trumps any idea of working for the long-term good of the American people. But while I can see the logic of that explanation, it doesn’t really work either, because even a Senator or House member will probably have children, and grandchildren, to inherit the country they leave behind, to breathe polluted air and drink polluted water. Even riches won’t protect you from those things indefinitely.

Which is why I think the Republicans who are left (more seem to retire every day) have succumbed to a sort of madness, have forgotten that what they do affects the ones they love, and untold others, for generations, have told themselves that ideology trumps reality, that if they just pray harder to the almighty market to save them, all will be well. That America can never fail, therefore there is no risk to doing anything they wish. They’ve made a god of free markets and patriotism and shut their eyes and their minds to what is actually happening around them.  And their gods have failed them, but they dare not admit it.

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In learning to narrow my focus this year, I am also learning how much power that distraction has.

Distraction is not a negative, inherently speaking. When you’re in pain or caught in a mental crazy spiral, it’s an absolute blessing. Distractions interrupt a current, and if a particular current isn’t doing you any good, then distractions let you halt the feedback and walk away for a while.

But then, some currents are just slow, or tedious, or frightening to us, and then we panic and hit the distraction button instead of working through them.  In learning to deal with some parts of life (money, child-raising, working a job I don’t love) I can easily get myself into trouble by keeping myself unfocused and distracted. I’m having a bit of that now, at my job, where I haven’t focused myself because I don’t want to be bothered. It’s not fun work, it’s tedious sometimes, and I have very little control over how much of it I get and what form it comes to me in. I can’t streamline or schedule my work into a form where I don’t have to give it too much attention. Every new project is starting from scratch, and I resent that, so I resist working as quickly or efficiently as I should. And end up nearly missing deadlines.

I did the same with money till recently, ignored it until I got pink-tinted notices, then paid it off in a panic before ignoring it again.

And this kind of thing is stupid, and wastes my time, and encourages bad habits, and costs me money.  Which is why I’m trying not to do it any more, but I’m still fighting myself.

It’s not that I want to give up the part of me that knows I could do more interesting work, and want to, when I have the chance. Or that someday I’d like to pay my bills quickly because I had plenty of money to do so, so it would be nothing I was scared of. It’s just that my resentment and avoidance doesn’t get me to those places any faster. Accepting that at the moment, this is where I’m at, hurts my pride. I want to be somewhere better, more interesting, more fun, more rewarding.

Some religious writers talk about living in the moment as though it were about peaceful acceptance, and I see that, but sometimes the moment is not a peaceful one. Sometimes it’s a battle. Sometimes to get to that peace, you’re going to have to grab yourself by the shoulders firmly and say yes, I know this isn’t what you want to do, but not doing it hurts more.

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Tree or Fire?

As my husband and his friends cursed and shivered and tried to get our damn New Year’s bonfire to light (some of the firecrackers we were using to set it off were apparently duds) I talked to another friend about what we thought it meant. What does it mean when you tie firecrackers and newspaper to a supposedly dried-out old Christmas tree, set it on fire, then watch in disbelief while it mostly refuses to burn?
We decided there are two possible interpretations:
  1. Negative. Like our attempts to burn the tree, all our attempts at success this year will fizzle and disappoint. Comparisons to the Fed’s frantic approach to fixing the economy inevitably come to mind.
  2. Positive. Like the tree, we will resist firecrackers, burning newspaper, and even a splash of gasoline thrown at us in desperation. Battered and scorched, we’ll survive midnight to greet the dawn.
I guess we’ll have to wait 12 more months to find out which one applies.

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There’s a lot of fear around, these days.

The funny thing about fear is that you can almost always justify it. There is no reason to think you’re not doomed, that things aren‘t going to go to hell in a handbasket, that death or disaster is crouching just around the corner waiting for you or your loved ones. Whole genres of literature (dystopian sci-fi) and political philosophies (survivalism, Rapture-ism) are based on the obsession with What to Do When it All Goes Pear-Shaped.

And of course, in the end we all die anyway. So that fear, at least, makes some sense. But the rest of it is of limited value for me.

I think about fear a lot because it’s always had a crippling effect on my life, even when I knew it was irrational and that it was making me miss out. Fear of “doing it wrong” whatever “it” was; being a good person, good wife, good mom, good friend, competent employee. The times when I’ve let fear make my decisions have almost always been the times with bad outcomes–when I take the safe job, turn down the risky opportunity, stifle a deep need out of misplaced martyrism or just being timid. The safe job turned out horribly; the stifled need made me miserable; being a martyr just sucks, period.

When I feel most alive, most connected to living, is when I’m taking a risk–a thought-out risk, usually, but a risk–that is connected with something I need. Having a child, moving to New York without a job or a longterm place to stay, marrying a musician, going to a college that no one had heard of but that had an awesome English department.  Traveling to Germany on my own at 19 for a week with minimal language skills. Not all of these were easy or 100% awesome (I got homesick in Germany and came back early, I kind of regret not going to a cheaper school) but all produced rewards and made me intensely happy in one way and another. All of them gave me stories, and memories, and opportunities, that I would never have gotten otherwise. All of them required ignoring my fears.

So I’m resisting the fear all around me now, of bad news, of uncertain survival. It’s easier of course, because I haven’t lost my house or been laid off. Yet. But there’s still plenty of anxiety to go around. Logically, I should be worried, should rein in the hopes and plans I have for my future and Nathan’s and Matt’s. In chaos, though, there is opportunity. The world is being shaken, and it’s quite possible that this is the beginning of a long bad stretch. But it might also be the chance for new things to pop up, new ideas to get tried, a chance to change some things that weren’t working.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t take the suffering so many are going through lightly. I think it’s a damned shame that it takes an economic collapse to get our leadership to take seriously problems and ideas that have been around for a long time, that have been clamoring for our attention long since. I am angry that things have had to get to this point at all. That’s immoral, because it has caused needless suffering, and it should not have happened this way.

But it has, and if we can use this time to make life more worth living, let’s do that. Let’s not be afraid any more than absolutely necessary. Let’s leap into the unknown, instead of waiting for it to catch up to us. That way, we might generate some useful momentum to carry us to something better.

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Spiritual Osmosis

This morning, I took my son to McDonald’s so he could play and I could read the paper; a setup I dearly wish more restaurants would copy, since it’d be great to have better food while my son enjoyed himself. We’ve been doing this for a while on weekends, to let him burn off steam while we ease into the mornings. If we had more cash right now, we could choose to just finish fixing up our backyard instead, so he could play while we watched from the kitchen table. That would be nice. The food would be better, we’d use less gas, I could stay in my pajamas.

But then we’d be missing something else; the chance for him to play with other kids, and the chance for us to, at least, smile and nod at our neighbors. The lady at the McDonald’s knows me well enough to comment when I changed my hair; I recognize a few of the kids from time to time that we run into.  Nathan watches the older kids and yearns to play their games, to imitate their coolness. He is more daring, climbs higher and jumps farther, when other kids are around then when we’re the only ones there. In fact, at home we have a playroom just for him; he hardly uses it, unless one of us plays in there with him. He’s not self-sufficient, at least, not yet.

But then, nobody is. “Self-sufficient” is almost a nonsense term when applied to human beings. As babies, we can hardly survive, and can’t thrive, without interaction with others, even if we are fed and clothed and otherwise cared for.  As a species we clump into groups and societies, and benefit immensely from it even when they feel constricting.

Which is why I found one of the articles I read in the paper today so interesting: happiness (or smoking or obesity) is contagious among a geographically close network.

The results were striking:

A happy friend who lives within a half-mile makes you 42% more likely to be happy yourself. If that same friend lives two miles away, his impact drops to 22%. Happy friends who are more distant have no discernible impact, according to the study.

Similarly, happy siblings make you 14% more likely to be happy yourself, but only if they live within one mile. Happy spouses provide an 8% boost — if they live under the same roof. Next-door neighbors who are happy make you 34% more likely to be happy too, but no other neighbors have an effect, even if they live on the same block.

Our history books overwhelmingly tell the tale of Great People (usually men) who, it’s implied, single-handedly Changed Everything.  But feminism has taught me that, while exceptional talent should be recognized, the situation in which it comes to exist determines whether it will flourish. Were he born an illiterate peasant, Isaac Newton would most likely have died a clever nobody. Without rich families or patrons, or occasional outstanding luck, or being born male, the history-changing people we worship would mostly never have had a chance to do the things they did. This doesn’t take away from their hard work, but it does recognize that achievement never takes place in a vacuum.

Not even our bodies are single entities; more and more, we learn they are run by colonies of bacteria and other organisms who find us a useful home and without whom we could not survive. We exist in our current form as the accidental byproduct of their activities. We are woven into the larger world, even at the level of our own cells. There is no escaping our connection to everyone and everything. Happiness is contagious, and racism; optimism, and despair. We are not separate.

That idea would have horrified me as a teenager, but it comforts me now, when I’m more at home in my own skin and less worried about purity of any kind. Lots of people still annoy me, but I don’t seem to care as much about separating myself from them.  I have had to rely too often on people who I have thought dumb, prejudiced, or uninformed to help me, and been helped by them, to feel good about looking down on them anymore.  It doesn’t help them, and it hurts me. Besides, we’re all gonna die someday, anyway. Why infect each other with hatred in the meantime? Almost all of us will be anonymous once we’re gone, one of billions who never made it into history books. But we find out, we can leave our mark in the oddest of ways, in the body of humanity, just by standing close to one another.

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