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Regarding Prince

One of my favorite Durham memories is of the 2011 Prince vs. Michael Jackson dance party on 9th Street.  People who had danced to their music as adults in the 1980s were dancing with strangers who were born in the 1980s.  It was a spectacle of sheer, shared joy.  We “went crazy,” forgetting for an evening ways that Durhamites are divided from and taught to fear one another.

I was 16 when Purple Rain came to the theater in San Angelo, Texas.  I am pretty sure I went to see it with a close friend from church and her sister.  It was cheesy in just the right way, and Prince was the most beautiful person I had ever seen on the big screen.  I had a crush on Han Solo when I was little, and I loved David Lee Roth’s devil-may-care ways on MTV.  But Prince was a different universe of sexy.  He conveyed in his music an unselfconscious joy-in-common that suggested to my 16-year-old virgin self an inkling of what sexual intimacy should optimally be.   Read more

True Populism

The essay will appear in the April 3, 2016 edition of the Durham Herald-Sun. ‘Where to Invade Next’ is showing at the Carolina Theatre this weekend. Check here for showtimes.

The drill team at my high school in West Texas made some unorthodox song choices for routines. One of them was “Crazy Train” by former Black Sabbath vocalist Ozzy Osbourne. This song has been going through my head during election season. Songwriters Robert Daisley and Randall Rhoads penned: “Crazy, but that’s how it goes, millions of people living as foes. Maybe, it’s not too late, to learn how to love, and forget how to hate.” They go on to name that “heirs of the cold war” are vulnerable to media messaging that keeps people living as foes: “The media sells it, and you live the role.”

I was recently back in Texas for a wedding. A recurring loop was “No Politics!” One patriarch advised, only half-jokingly, if a conversation starts drifting that direction, interject “How about them Cowboys?” A cousin told my daughter, “Whatever you do, don’t name the one who shall not be named.” Waiting to disembark on the flight home, one hapless neighbor said something about Sarah Palin, and people visibly winced, anticipating an old fight was on. This instant-argument, divide and conquer mess now has a name. The term is “dog-whistle politics.” Keep people living as foes by crafting a figure so divisive we cannot discuss politics with the people we are supposed to love. “The media sells it, and you live the role.” When we cannot discuss our shared future with relatives, something is wrong. Afraid to seem uncivil, or erudite, or backward, or radical, or misinformed, or snooty, we stick to talking about recipes or sports. Some might sweep this into an indictment of “political correctness,” but it is a form of political manipulation. We shout at one another on social media but stay silent when together. This is a crazy train.

True populism requires that people who need to work for a living (meaning, like, all of us) actually talk to one another about what we are experiencing as we work or look for work. For starters, try this: “Name a time when you stood up for yourself at work,” or “Name a time when you stood up for a co-worker.” “Populism” is a phrase political pundits are now using to sort you and me – that is, the populace – and their words are worse than a poor substitute for actual, political conversation with neighbors. Their words are an insulting distraction. The talking heads amplified on media and social media further divide and silence people who need one another to reverse this second great depression.

Here are two examples of insulting distraction. Assessing support for the one who shall not be named, an ostensibly “conservative” media outlet called “National Review” ran these words: “Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence – and the incomprehensible malice – of poor white America.” The writer continues “The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die.” The writer recommends people leave the towns where they grew up and get a U-Haul (with what extra income, I am not sure) to go somewhere else. This is a hateful, unapologetic form of social-Darwinism. If you cannot afford to leave home, you deserve to die. Another widely-circulated assessment of “populism” from a supposedly “liberal” source was Gloria Steinem’s suggestion that young women prefer a labor advocate from Vermont over a hawkish, free-trade opponent because “When you’re young, you’re thinking: ‘Where are the boys?’” Steinem actually said that. In both cases, ways that working people are genuinely struggling to find traction are dismissed as besotted. Either you’re clinging to a past best thrown in the trash or you’re hoping to date a hipster. What if people privy to these dog-whistles talk to each other? What if we get off the crazy train and remember, if not how to love, then at least how to work together?

This essay will appear on Sunday, April 3. I recommend we each bring a neighbor to see “Where to Invade Next” at the Carolina Theatre in Durham. A reviewer named Jon Schwarz writes about the main message of this movie: “You and I aren’t bad. All the people around us aren’t bad . . . If regular people get control over their own lives, they’ll use it wisely rather than burning the country down in a festival of mindless debauchery . . . [the movie] is all the more powerful because it doesn’t tell you this, it simply shows you. It’s not speculation about how human nature will be transformed after the revolution so we’ll all be happy to share our ration of grass soup with The People. It’s all happening right now, with imperfect human beings just like us.” As Ozzy sings, “it’s not too late.”

Why I Am Christian and Pro-Gay

This op-ed originally appeared in the March 6, 2016 edition of the Durham Herald-Sun.

A North Carolina middle-school has started a support group for gay students and friends.  I celebrate this.  Adolescence is a fine time to receive attentive friendship and mentoring about sexuality.  My mother was a middle-school teacher.  She says it’s a time when kids begin to get their “stuff” together.  (She uses saltier wording around adults.)  We begin to sort out how to define our own style of fashion, practice our signature, and discover our gifts for arts or sports at the very time we are trying to accommodate to bodies that shift weekly.  It is tricky, finding your own “voice” when your voice cracks while trying to impress a peer.  Add to this what can be an isolating realization that your lack of conformity to the predictable Adam and Eve pairing was not just a periodic quirk of elementary school, but a solidifying desire to kiss someone of the same sex.   Read more

Rollercoaster of Love

This essay first appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun on February 7, 2016.

I stayed up way too late last night following social media about the Iowa Democratic caucus.  My house has a pink and blue homemade sign in front proclaiming “The Green Street Girls [Heart] Bernie Sanders.”  The last time I had this much love in the game was during Obama’s first primary run.  I remember talking to a good friend in Chicago about the race.  He and his son were traveling to campaign for Obama across the Midwest.  “Do you really think Obama is going to change things?” I asked him, hopeful but also trying to be realistic.  “He is going to break our hearts,” he said, “but I am campaigning for him anyway.”

It is not easy to put your heart back into a game after your heart has been broken.  After I went through divorce five years ago, I was talking to a new friend about trusting in love again.  He and his wife train horses, and they likened the task to getting back onto a horse after you have been thrown off of one.  You cannot let your fear rule you.  You have to trust again that the world is more safe than not – that people are more worth loving than not.  I have found this to be true not only for trusting in romantic love, but also for trusting a new church after a congregation has thrown you off the horse, so to speak, or for trusting a new classroom after you have gone through a really rough ride with a group of particularly rude students.  Investing your heart, truly risking a part of your soul by loving a person or a group of people, can be harrowing.  “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” may be true, but it is not easy.  To venture a sufficient part of yourself truly to be open to love is scary.  

Another friend compared dating after divorce to being in freefall.  He is older than I am, and I had confessed that I felt like I was twelve again, and that it was unsettling.  He reassured me that he often feels twelve also, and added that he often feels like a twelve-year-old in freefall.  Members of funk band The Ohio Players were definitely grown-ups when they wrote their 1976 hit-song “Love Rollercoaster.”  They are singing about loving a sweetheart, and the sense of both exhilaration and barely-controlled panic that go along with such love.  The writers of the 1989 movie “Parenthood” use the same exact image for what it means truly to be part of a family.  The grandmother in the film puts it this way:

You know, it was just so interesting to me that a ride could make me so frightened, so scared, so sick, so excited, and so thrilled all together! Some didn’t like it. They went on the merry-go-round. That just goes around. Nothing. I like the roller coaster. You get more out of it.

Richard Thompson has a song that says something similar about love.  He wrote it around the same time that his marriage to singer and songwriter Linda Peters was coming apart at the seams.  It is called “The Wall of Death,” referencing a circular track where people ride a motor-cycle or other vehicle sideways, basically.  You will have to look up images yourself, because words fail me.  I cannot begin to imagine riding a motorcycle sideways.  But Richard Thompson sings “you’re going nowhere when you ride on a carousel,” which is true.  Grandma is right.  As one saying about family goes, having children means consenting to allow your heart to walk around outside your body.  I have seen this be true also for love between sweethearts, and love of children for parents.  

Investing your heart with fidelity is not always exhilarating.  Putting your heart into a game – venturing, risking, trusting – is also about the tiny little steps that make love possible.  Bernie Sanders tied Hillary Clinton in Iowa not due to something giant, but through one little phone call after another, one conversation after another, made with patience, not so much with valor.  Love between two sweethearts is similar, like kindling, as one of my favorite television shows put the matter recently.  Life together is made little stick by stick.  That same series has a very astute argument against couples writing their own wedding vows.  In one episode, a young couple writes absolutely ridiculous vows to one another, describing love as an up-front, 100% sure sort of thing, thereby confounding other young couples in the congregation.  I am grateful the marriage vows in my tradition are set in stone by old people, who, even though they sometimes feel like twelve-year-olds in freefall, know that love is also about getting back on that horse, trusting daily that the world is more safe than scary.

Courage: A Case for Local, Independent Journalism

Thomas_Aquinas_in_Stained_GlassThere are high-tech adventures in theaters to strengthen one’s New Year’s resolve.  Many of them have the word “courage” in the description.  I recommend Spotlight.  It is the most encouraging movie I have seen in forever.  

Thomas Aquinas offers a helpful description of courage.  This thirteenth-century writer is the authoritative theologian for the Roman Catholic Church.  I have learned tricks over years of trying to entice Protestant students to read him.  The section of his classic Summa Theologiae that hooks students is on virtues and vices.  No one parses the fine distinctions between, for example, jealousy and backbiting, or anger and spite, or temperance and insensibility like Thomas Aquinas.  It only takes a few years in a real congregation with actual people to note the almost infinite variety of vice and virtue.

Thomas continues in a tradition to treat fortitude (courage) as one of the four basic or “cardinal” virtues.  Along with practical wisdom, temperance, and justice, courage is one of four habits of being that orient a person to understand who and where they are, and how their corner of the world fares in relation to the pivotal aspects of life that make life good.  To understand what Thomas means by the cardinal, or orienting, virtues, think of the opposite: an intentionally disorienting story.  Some writers try intentionally to disorient people, for laughs, or to make life appear utterly random.  Such writing can make you temporarily unable to regain your balance.  Courage is one of four virtues that may allow a person to regain her bearings.  Courage is often necessary to determine what is just, or practical, or temperate, particularly when people with power around you are impractical, intemperate, or unjust.  Thomas further explains that each of the four cardinal virtues balance between two excesses.  Courage is a habit of being between foolhardiness, on the one hand, and, on the other, living fearfully.  Sometimes a person has to cultivate courage in order to point out what is nonsensical.  

Or to point out what is obscene.  The word obscene names something so disorienting that it assaults your senses, rendering you senseless.  Here is one local example.  Several years ago this newspaper ran an article on how some executives at Duke University had given themselves large bonuses during a period when supposedly everyone at the university needed to “tighten our belts” and do with less.  While librarians and surgeons and nurses and teachers were doing much more with much less, some higher-ups received giant gold checks.  The week the story broke, one distinguished colleague saw me in our office hallway in a tiara and black velvet dress.  He asked me what in the world I was doing.  I told him I was on my way to perform street theater to draw attention to the scandal.  He shook his head and said, “It really is obscene.”  He did not go on record, but I used his word “obscene” repeatedly in public to characterize the mess.  The most courageous thing I have done ever was declare publicly that my marriage was untenable.  The most brazen thing I have done ever was participate in a group effort to whistle-blow, at my employer, wearing a tiara. But we would not even have had a whistle to blow without old-fashioned, journalistic muckraking.     

In his description of courage, Thomas Aquinas thinks through how courage intertwines with endurance.  Spotlight relates with similar attention to detail the actual story about a team of journalists with the Boston Globe who together discover the courageous patience sufficient to trace a pattern of disorienting deceit.  Boston clergy, lawyers and other public figures sustained a meticulously crafted, multi-faceted cover-up of the fact that at least a thousand children had been sexually violated by over a hundred church leaders in the Boston area alone.  The film depicts the slow, steady, journalistic tenacity necessary for raking up such stealthily buried muck.  The film also shows how a brilliantly lying set of liars can hone the subtle skills of manipulation and intimidation.  Each journalist in the story has to develop the courage both to note subtly delivered threats and to continue, even while noting the power behind these threats, the mundane but heroic tasks to expose truth.  An important part of the film is how Boston is a “small town,” and how a key, regional institution may develop a shield of amoral invisibility.  “The Church” had become a given, an indisputable “Good,” capital G, both uniting and silencing people.  Spotlight is in this way a real story comparable to Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play “An Enemy of the People.”  Ibsen also relates the stakes of telling the truth in a town living a lie.  Both stories vividly show why courageously independent, local journalism is vital for living well.

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