Sunday, January 31, 2010

A few thoughts on Wilberforce

My class this week was probably the most intense for me to prepare so far out of all of my classes. That was because the story was so convicting and so emotional. I cried more in preparation for this class than I have in preparation for any other, and probably prayed more.
A large part of that was because the question that kept going through my mind was "My gosh, what am I doing with my life?"

Laurie and I watched the wonderful bio pic that came out a few years ago about William Wilberforce called Amazing Grace. It plays a little fast and loose with dramatic license (coming up with a lot of scenes of things that are the sort of thing Wilberforce might have done if, for example, passing a man whipping a horse. Which surprised me as there are so may actual recorded historical stories of things Wilberforce did which reveal the abundance of his heart. Not sure why they felt the need to fictionalize a few bits, but I guess that's why I don't make movies) but it is an excellent movie. The scenes with John Newton alone are worth it, but the whole film, I thought, was very well done.

Of course, there's Wilberforce, played by a dashing and handsome actor (which always strikes me about bio pics. I guess no one would want to watch 2 hours of, say, a Martin Luther bio pic with an actor who actually looks like Martin Luther.) Even in history books, even in the most secular of history books, Wilberforce is a heroic figure. But then, there was a character in the film, played by Toby Jones, who was meant to be the encapsulation of the disgusting aristocracy, the selfish, greedy, amoral, pro-slavery scumbag (which he played remarkably well.) I just kept looking in my mirror at myself and seeing that wretched man. I mean, here I am, aside from the elderly lady who attends our church and lives mainly on government assistance, otherwise probably the poorest person I know monetarily. And I have a three bedroom house, two running cars, always a choice and surplus of food, electricity that I take for granted, water that I can drink right out of the tap without dying, the world library of literature, film, and music nearly literally at my fingertips for the asking. There are times when I look at every commodity, every product in sight and think that somewhere there are people scraping by with low pay producing these products and people getting rich off of their labor. There may be people suffering and dying, that I'm not even aware of, for my Lord Fauntleroy lifestyle, who don't even know I exist; and it makes no difference that I marched against the wars and want to alleviate their suffering. I mean, a simple act like making coffee in the morning may have paid for the oppression of hundreds.

People around me don't like it when I talk like this. But this is why I included the bit about the criticism over not caring about British "wage slaves" in my class. I know that must have cut Wilberforce deeply as it did me.

Dialing it back a few steps, I mentioned at the beginning of my notes "things it did not mean" and never really got around to elaborating on that. One of the side notes that struck me in preparing this class was that the Governor of India was in the Clapham Community in the early 1800s. Many of you will remember I've just recently read a book (Recalcitrance by Anurag Kumar. Highly recommended) about a revolt in India against the British in the 1850s, just about 25 years after Wilberforce died. During the revolt, there was horribly racist propaganda in England over the revolutionaries in India to keep the British public from sympathizing with the people of India. And it worked! India did not gain Independence for almost another century. So, I know that Wilberforce's story is not that he brought in an age of enlightened race relations vis a vis the rest of the world. This is not to diminish what he did accomplish, but in retrospect the contrast I find a little startling. Laurie and I recently watched Spalding Gray's Swimming to Cambodia and that one line keeps sticking with me also where the director says to Spalding, "I hope that working on this film has taught you that morality is not a movable feast." And Spalding says that he gets dizzy just watching how often people move it.

The lessons of Wilberforce are not left behind in the 19th century. I guess this whole experience has caused me to take a look at who I am, what I'm doing with my life, and maybe questioning if it's what I ought to be doing with my life.

William Wilberforce class notes

Here are my notes from my lecture this morning on William Wilberforce. My notes were largely compiled from A History of Great Britain by R.B. Mowat, Christianity by Roland H. Bainton, Church History in Plain Language by Bruce L. Shelley, the writings of William Wilberforce and the wonderful biography sermon on Wilberforce by John Piper. So, for those who might be interested, here are my notes:

This week we are mainly focusing on a man who ended the British practice of trading slaves kidnapped from Africa to the American Colonies or, less frequently, to Britain itself. A lot of you probably know that William Wilberforce was a Christian man in Parliament who fought bravely, ferociously and with great endurance to end the legal slave trade. But hopefully we'll also look a little bit at what that really meant, and what it really didn't mean.

The movement to abolish the slave trade actually began and built a bit of steam a few decades before. The Prime Minister at the time had proposed a Bill which would severely reduce the amount of slaves that could be packed onto a ship legally. William Pitt (a close friend of Wilberforce and later Prime Minister) wanted to go much further and called to abolish the slave trade all together which he thought an embarrassment to civilization. But can anyone guess what may have gone on in the world a few decades before the abolition of the slave trade in England that may have distracted and derailed that movement? Something that would be of much more interest to the British government? Something involving a massive loss of land and taxes overseas with a revolutionary war?

This actually put a strain on the friendship between Pitt and Wilberforce as Pitt, the Prime Minister, showed that he was willing to postpone talks of abolition in favor of paying more attention to broader plans for the British Empire. This would be a continuing frustration for Wilberforce in dealings with Pitt.

Interestingly, John Wesley was an early supporter of the cause, although never saw it through to its end due to his death in 1791. There was a loud argument from supporters of slavery over the ideal working conditions for slaves in the climate of the American South, even suggesting that slaves may have small farmlands of their own and live in better conditions than some in England. In fact, it was said in the cold, damp comfort of England that only Black men could work in the hot American south, that they were built for work in that sort of climate. Wesley, a prominent and well respected figure, loudly testified "You know what? I've been to Georgia and that's a lie! Conditions are terrible for the slaves."

Wesley wrote to William Wilberforce when Wesley was 87 years old to cast his vote of support for what Wilberforce was doing ""Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of man and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you. . . ."

Wilberforce was the head of a group of Evangelicals in London called The Clapham Community. It was a sort of a district, an group assembled in an area largely populated by wealthier and prominent Christians in London. They would meet for Bible studies and prayer. They would also have Councils where they would discuss what they felt were, in light of scripture, the wrongs and injustices perpetuated by their country. Far from "gripe sessions", bear in mind these were some of the wealthier and more powerful Christians in London in that day. They would discuss social problems and then they would then discuss who present would be best equipped to fight these injustices. Included in the group was a newspaper editor, several members of Parliament, and Lord Teignmouth who was the Governor of India at the time. Many social works groups of England, much like the ones we saw last week in America, came from the Clapham Community including The British and Foreign Bible Society, the Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor, the Church Missionary Society, and The Society for the Reformation of Prison Discipline.

James Stephen wrote of Wilberforce, "Factories did not spring up more rapidly in Leeds and Manchester than schemes of benevolence beneath his roof."

"No man," Wilberforce wrote, "has a right to be idle." "Where is it," he asked, "that in such a world as this, [that] health, and leisure, and affluence may not find some ignorance to instruct, some wrong to redress, some want to supply, some misery to alleviate?"

Wilberforce's life was marked by the distinctives of the Reformed faith. Total human depravity, divine judgment, Christ's atonement for our sin on the cross, justification by faith alone in Christ alone, regeneration by the Holy Spirit, and the practical necessity of fruit in a life devoted to good deeds. He would contend that most of British Christians were nominal and had fallen back on a sort of Age of Reason ethics. "The fatal habit of considering Christian morals as distinct from Christian doctrines insensibly gained strength. Thus the peculiar doctrines of Christianity went more and more out of sight, and as might naturally have been expected, the moral system itself also began to wither and decay, being robbed of that which should have supplied it with life and nutriment."

It was through the Clapham group that Wilberforce came into contact with Thomas Clarkson who was a leader in the abolitionist movement. Clarkson and friends, including the former slave Olaudah Equiano whose biography on the slave trade was a key element to turn the public opinion on the slave trade, convinced Wilberforce to take up the cause of abolition. On October 28, 1787, Wilberforce wrote in his diary, "God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners [which is to say "morals" in modern terms]."

The slave trade started in England in 1562. Sir John Hawkins took a boat filled with slaves from Sierra Leone and sold them to slave traders in St. Domingo. In 1660, when Charles II was returned to the throne (people from the Puritan class will remember that whole mess) Charles chartered a company to take 3,000 slaves per year to trade to the West Indies, which, for those of you rusty on your geography, are the islands in the Caribbean. Don't worry, I had to look it up too.

The trade grew by leaps and bounds due to the high profitability and by 1770, British slave ships transported over 50,000 slaves a year. Which was around half of the slaves being imported. To give you an idea of what that means, that's 100,000 slaves a year from Africa where the total population of the continent was only around 100 million at the time. By the end of the 18th century, over 11 million slaves had been transported to America and the West Indies.

When Wilberforce was 25, he was traveling on vacation from Parliament and became converted after reading Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul by Philip Doddridge which was laying around the house where he was staying.

That summer Wilberforce traveled again with Isaac Milner, the friend at whose house he stumbled upon the Doddridge book, and discussed the Gospel at length. His "intellectual assent became profound conviction." The first outward manifestations of what he called "the great change" - which is to say, his conversion - was disgust he felt over the wealth and the luxury in which he lived, especially on these vacations between Parliamentary sessions which he happened to be on at the time. His passion to help the poor ignited as did his lifelong passion to transform his political position of clout and all of his inheritance into a way to bless the impoverished and the oppressed. He wrote "By careful management, I should be able to give at least one-quarter of my income to the poor."

Which is misleading according to one of his sons who later remarked that Wilberforce gave away far more than a fourth of his income and one year in particular gave away 3,000 pounds more than he had earned in that year.

Wilberforce agonized over the life he was leading versus the convictions of his faith at the beginning of his converted life. In fact, William Pitt encouraged him to give up Evangelical Christianity to better serve the government. There were tremendous pressures in Parliament to turn his back on his new found Christianity.

In seeking to resolve these issues he felt over what to do with his life as a Christian, he decided to risk seeking an audience with John Newton (who, you will remember, was both the author of the hymn Amazing Grace as well as a sincerely repentant former slave ship captain. Now he was a minister and a fervent abolitionist who was mortified over his past actions. I would add as a parenthetical that there is a fantastic film dramatizing the life of Wilberforce called Amazing Grace which I would highly recommend to everyone. The scenes with John Newton alone make it well worth it.) This was a risk because Newton was an Evangelical and not admired or esteemed by his colleagues in Parliament. Wilberforce said that he walked around the block twice before he worked up the courage to knock on Newton's door. To his joyful surprise, the sixty year old Newton implored Wilberforce not to cut himself off from public life and office, but to use it to God's glory. Newton later wrote him: "It is hoped and believed that the Lord has raised you up for the good of His church and for the good of the nation."

Wilberforce then threw himself into study of scripture and theology, studying up to 9 or 10 hours a day in hopes of making up for the wasted and lost time of laziness he'd had in college. I know that feeling well. He would eat meals alone with a book, usually the Bible.

He was a born leader. Some called Wilberforce "The Nightingale of the House of Commons." He was well respected, well education, an excellent public speaker, writer and communicator, a fine example of using the gift of education for God's kingdom.

He said of his life in politics "My walk is a public one: my business is in the world, and I must mix in the assemblies of men or quit the part which Providence seems to have assigned me."

Wilberforce fought for 30 years for the abolition of the slave trade, often seemingly making very little headway, but persevering all the same. He appealed to the conscience of England. Slavery, he told the House of Commons in 1789, "battens upon vices. When the surgeons tell you the slaves are stowed so close that there is not room to tread among them and the stench in intolerable. Death, at least, is a sure ground of proof. Upon the whole there is a mortality rate of about 50 percent. Many persons argue that if we relinquish the slave trade France will take it up. We cannot wish greater mischief to France. For the sake of France, however, and for the sake of humanity, I trust, nay, I am sure she will not."

The French Revolution had instilled England at that time with a sort of revulsion to any social innovations. As well as a revulsion for the French. Also, there was a revulsion at the idea of losing international clout, profits and trade to other nations who might take up the slack if Britain outlawed something that the US or France had not outlawed.

"I confess to you, so enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did its wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for Abolition. . . . Let the consequences be what they would, I from this time determined that I would never rest until I had effected its abolition.

"I mean not to accuse anyone but to take the shame upon myself, in common indeed with the whole Parliament of Great Britain, for having suffered this horrid trade to be carried on under their authority. We are all guilty - we ought to all to plead guilty, and not to exculpate ourselves by throwing the blame on others."

Of course, needless to say Wilberforce knew that great public speaking alone was not going to sway the argument, especially as a lot of people were making a lot of money off of the abominable practice. He needed grass roots, public opinion to sway the tide which, fortunately, is something the church was very good at at the time. He also needed information to use to sway said tide, so he asked his Clapham community to help him prepare for his next presentation to Parliament.

Two years later, after two years of preparation, Wilberforce delivered another speech to the House of Commons to introduce a bill to end the importation of slaves into the West Indies. He said, "Never, never will we desist till we have wiped away this scandal from the Christian name, released ourselves from the load of guilt, and extinguished every trace of this bloody traffic."

He appealed to the British people saying "It is on the feeling of the nation we must rely, so let the flame be fanned."

He and his Clapham community were masterful at creating a public opinion and use that to pressure the opinion of the government. The Evangelical community in Britain flooded Parliament with petitions signed by unimaginable numbers of individuals to the point where the opposition insisted on examining the petitions. The petitions turned out to be entirely valid. They published abolitionist literature. They lectured from the pulpit and in town squares. They took sympathetic MPs (or those who were possibly swayed) on tours of slave ships so that they could smell the stench of blood, feces, and death and see and touch the chains for themselves. They even, in sort of a groundbreaking move, erected billboards for the abolitionist cause around England. Wilberforce himself was a very well known and widely read author. His book A Practical View of Christianity is considered a classic of the faith to this day.

Wilberforce suffered many threats to his life from several slave ship captains. Wilberforce lost many friends in his long battle including, to a large extent, his friendship with William Pitt. Also there were political ramifications. The West Indian colonial assemblies claimed that if Britain ever really outlawed the slave trade they too would declare independence and join with the United States. Also the slave trade pumped huge amounts of money into the British economy which Wilberforce was calling to end on the ground of human decency?!!? Such a thing would be unheard of today. Unthinkable that a nation would give up a profitable industry on the grounds of morality and accountability to God?!!?

Probably the harshest and deepest cutting criticism was from a slavery-defender named William Cobett, who turned Wilberforce's commitment to abolition into a liability in his cutting criticism. Cobett stated that Wilberforce pretended to care about slaves from Africa, but cared nothing about the "wage slaves" - which is to say the poor of England.

"You seem to have a great affection for the fat and lazy and laughing and singing and dancing Negroes. . . . [But] Never have you done one single act in favor of the laborers of this country [a statement Cobett knew to be false]. . . . You make your appeal in Picadilly, London, amongst those who are wallowing in luxuries, proceeding from the labor of the people. You should have gone to the gravel-pits, and made your appeal to the wretched creatures with bits of sacks around their shoulders, and with hay-bands round their legs; you should have gone to the roadside, and made your appeal to the emaciated, half-dead things who are there cracking stones to make the roads as level as a die for the tax eaters to ride on. What an insult it is, and what an unfeeling, what a cold-blooded hypocrite must he be that can send it forth; what an insult to call upon people under the name of free British laborers; to appeal to them in behalf of Black slaves, when these free British laborers; these poor, mocked, degraded wretches, would be happy to lick the dishes and bowls, out of which the Black slaves have breakfasted, dined, or supped."

On top of this, Wilberforce's daughter Barbara died of tuberculosis in 1821 right after Christmas.

Wilberforce wrote, "It is in such seasons as these that the value of the promises of the Word of God are ascertained both by the dying and the attendant relatives. . . . The assured persuasion of Barbara's happiness has taken away the sting of death." Soon after, Wilberforce wrote to his son that he had developed a "new malady - The Gout."

The word "new" highlights that Wilberforce suffered, labored and toiled with some severe physical ailments. He wrote in 1788 that his eyesight had declined so much that "[I can scarcely] see how to direct my pen." For the first few hours of the day he could not see well enough to read. "This was a symptom of a slow buildup of morphine poisoning."

You see, in 1788, doctors had prescribed daily opium pills and laudanum to Wilberforce to control his ulcerative colitis. It's a sign of the different times in that it never would have occurred to any of his enemies to impugn his character on the basis of his opium use. "Yet effects there must have been," Pollock observes. "Wilberforce certainly grew more untidy, indolent (as he often bemoaned) and absent-minded as his years went on though not yet in old age; it is proof of the strength of his will that he achieved so much under a burden which neither he nor his doctors understood."

Along with his colitis, his breathing problems, his degenerating sight, he developed a curvature of the spine. "One shoulder began to slope; and his head fell forward, a little more each year until it rested on his chest unless lifted by conscious movement: he could have looked grotesque were it not for the charm of his face and the smile which hovered about his mouth." Most people didn't know he wore a brace under his clothes for the rest of his life.

But one of Wilberforce's chief rivals in Parliament wrote of him "It is necessary to watch him as he is blessed with a very sufficient quantity of that Enthusiastic spirit, which so far from yielding that it grows more vigorous from blows."

The poet Robert Southey wrote, "I never saw any other man who seemed to enjoy such a perpetual serenity and sunshine of spirit. In conversing with him, you feel assured that there is no guile in him; that if ever there was a good man and happy man on earth, he was one."

Joseph John Gurney, a Quaker, visited for a week with Wilberforce and wrote, "As he walked about the house he was generally humming the tune of a hymn or Psalm as if he could not contain his pleasurable feelings of thankfulness and devotion."

Wilberforce himself wrote:

"My grand objection to the religious system still held by many who declare themselves orthodox Churchmen. . . is, that it tends to render Christianity so much a system of prohibitions rather than of privilege and hopes, and thus the injunction to rejoice, so strongly enforced in the New Testament, is practically neglected, and Religion is made to wear a forbidding and gloomy air and not one of peace and hope and joy.

"Joy . . . is enjoined on us as our bounden duty and commended to us as our acceptable worship. . . . A cold . . . unfeeling heart is represented as highly criminal."

The slave trade was not outlawed until 1807. The supporters of the slave trade finally had to relent to the wave of public opinion. When Charles Fox was speaking, he spoke of the contrast between warlike Napoleon who, upon his victory, would have parades and cheers while the great, good, peaceful, compassionate man Wilberforce would quietly go home to bed, and the entire House burst into spontaneous applause and cheers. Wilberforce was overcome with emotion and sat with his head in his hands, with tears streaming down his face. After the long assembly had ended, in the early morning hours Wilberforce turned to his friend and colleague, Henry Thornton, and said, "Well, Henry, what shall we abolish next?"

Next was to abolish slavery its self, but emancipation laws were not passed until 1833. Age and illness had since forced Wilberforce to retire, but he sort of appointed his successor in ideology in the evangelical Thomas Fowell Buxton. The act was passed four days before Wilberforce died. Wilberforce learned of this on his death bed and said, "Thank God" as one of his last words on this earth. He was buried in Westminster Abbey next to William Pitt.

Piper finishes, "What made Wilberforce tick was a profound Biblical allegiance to what he called the "peculiar doctrines" of Christianity. These, he said, give rise, in turn, to true affections - what we might call "passion" or "emotions" - for spiritual things, which, in turn, break the power of pride and greed and fear, and then lead to transformed morals which, in turn, lead to the political welfare of the nation. He said, "If . . . a principle of true Religion [i.e., true Christianity] should . . . gain ground, there is no estimating the effects on public morals, and the consequent influence on our political welfare."

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Reading Group Reminded- The Metamorphosis

Next week at this time, people in the Reading the Classics with Paul reading group will post our comments on The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. This particular book is a favorite of mine and I think everyone will enjoy reading this one. Welcome to the birth of the modern, folks. It's a shorter work, shorter than most of our sections from our last book, so we are going to do the entire work in one week. It's a quick read, so I don't anticipate anyone having a problem with this.

The copy I have is the edition from the picture there at the beginning of the post. It's the same edition that I borrowed from the first girl I ever had a crush on. She was in my Freshman year high school drama class and while the other students were doing scenes from Saturday Night Live, she and I would do scenes from Ibsen, Strindberg, and Wallace Shawn. We never ended up in any sort of relationship. I doubt she even knew she was my first crush. Her and I traded books once. I let her borrow The Viking Portable Woollcott, she let me borrow Kafka. That was a long time ago.

So, get a copy, read it, and next week we will discuss The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. Even if you've not been following along with the reading group thus far, this is a great time to start. Read the text and next week we will share our thoughts on it.

As usual, I like to put a little (hopefully) complementary side piece along with our reminder. One of my most overplayed albums is Philip Glass' Solo Piano album. It's in heavy rotation of "albums I'll throw on the stereo." Most of it is pieces of music from a theatrical production of The Metamorphosis from long ago. Also there's one piece that was written to accompany a poem by Allen Ginsberg. But here is the first piece, Metamorphosis One.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

State of the State of the Union

Once a year we have a State of the Union address. This is when the President comes before, well, before the rest of the major figures of the federal government, although specifically to Congress, and gives a speech on "The State of the Union." It's in our constitution. I've been watching these for years with great fascination. I am far more compelled by a State of the Union address than I've ever been for a Super Bowl. Usually the State of the Union is highly optimistic, mainly because we have a legend in our country that if the President suggests that the Union is weak, Daniel Webster will come bursting out of his grave and the taxpayers will have to pay for his reburial.

Which translates to: every time, regardless of how much or little I like the Presidents, I really want to believe what they say in the State of the Union. What they say usually bears little resemblance to consensus reality in the present and the future (and sometimes even the past). What they say is more often than not a platform for political agendas and specific hobby horses they are trying to pass into reality at that given time (although, judging by the constant, predictable, petulant refusal of whatever the other political party is to clap, it gives you an idea of how effective it's going to be.) Usually one can get a glimpse into what the President is going to be focusing on and where he would like to steer the nation in spite of the opposing parties attempting to steer in the other direction simply out of spite and consequences be damned. Make no mistake, I'm not pointing specific fingers. Both major political parties do this.

This time our President focused largely on the economic crisis and jobless rates. It's nice to hear him speak so much about creating new jobs, doing right by big corporations and what not. I don't think much will come of it, but our economy has sort of a "clapping for Tinkerbell" aspect to it. If the President got up there and said "We're all doomed! DOOMED!" you can bet the stock market would tank the moment Darth Vader rings the starting bell.

By all indicators from economists on all sides of the political spectrum, I think I've become convinced that the worst is over and we are beginning to see growth. However, don't be fooled. It's growth like a bean planted in a kindergarten classroom on the day when you first see the tiniest sprig of green in the dirt. Bear in mind, the kindergartners are the people and the corporations who have a tendency to leave the fragile new plants in the sun or drown them in water or leave the class bunny out of its cage to eat all of the new growth. You see, this animal spirit manifests itself in, to use Freudian metaphors, the collective people who make up the economy, the people and the corporations, who are like a giant id. They feed their base desires and fly fully at whatever emotion they're feeling. The government acts as sort of an ego which comes in on occasion, very rarely (much like all of our own ids), to try to keep the unruly id from self-destructing. And hopefully the joint efforts of the two will, much like the science of emergence, create a super-ego which will guide the body (the economy in this metaphor). Unfortunately, the id rages to keep itself fat, drunk and happy, guzzling resources and getting away with whatever it can get away with, while the super-ego dithers over where and when to step in, how to step in, the right and left side turning on one another like an allergy until the body is so low on nutrients that it starts to devour itself from starvation.

Obama did not say any of this.

Obama talked about clean energy. The only clear dig I saw him take at the previous administration was mentioning climate change deniers in the face of staggering scientific evidence. He talked about leading the world in clean energy in one of the more jock-ish sections of the speech.

He spoke out about the need for the best education in the world. In one of my favorite moments, he said, "The best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education." For which I wanted to stand up and applaud, but we were in the car at that point. Although he then went on to say how a high school education no longer guarantees a job and how we need to reform colleges both inside and out. Which is nice and all well and good if a bit behind the times. My immediate thought was "A Bachelor's degree... Heck, a PHD no longer guarantees a job in this country much less a high school diploma!"

Then he talked about health care reform. I wasn't sure he was going to go there with as disgusting a turn that whole topic has taken. But he did. I still stand by what I've said before that I think given the direction it's going, when his administration is done, people like me will be in either exactly the same position with health care or worse. It's a nice thought, but I think it's going to end up in a one term president embarrassment. Our nation is horribly impatient and unforgiving; and leaders who inherit a load of headaches from the sins of their predecessors don't tend to fare well in America no matter how much headway they make. Again, I would love love love to see real health care reform that helps the people happen in America. I know this isn't the most civic minded things for me to say, but I'll believe it when I see it.

He talked about reform. Then he talked about the war and did a bit of sabre rattling at other nations we're nervous about, which I really wish he wouldn't. I had a friend who was of voting age in the 1960s who told me once that he didn't vote anymore. That was because he had voted for Lyndon Johnson who promised to be the anti-war president, the president who would scale back and stop the war. My friend felt so burned by it that he never voted again. I think about that every time Obama talks about the war.

Look, I would really, really like to like Obama. I really want to. As it's going, I think at best he'll be our generation's Carter, at worst our Johnson or Hoover.
He talked about the deficit of trust in the people toward their government which I yes and amen.
He ended with a touching bit about Haiti and that was that. You can read the full text of his speech here.

I am of so many minds about politics. I usually end up trying my best to be apolitical, especially on this blog, but it's one of those things that effect our lives so we must take an interest in it, although our power is so strangled and impotent, so it's kind of a big frustration. I want there to be a great leader, an amazing heroic figure who is going to march in and lead us all to a grand new future. But I don't think we have one; and I think we may have reached a point in our history where a person like that couldn't make it to any real point of power. Which leaves me with us, the people, who I think are the ones who could work for a better future. But we don't.
And I'm sure Obama's words about the "deficit of trust" will haunt me, one who naturally leans heavily to the Left, for years to come as I see myself acting out that very phrase. I guess it points to where my hope is and where it isn't.

And this is where I find myself at the end of January almost every year. It's a bit like having a favorite party holiday that every year ends up not living up to your expectations.

Sorry to end on such a downer note. See, this is why I don't talk politics very often but, like Michael Corleone, every time I think I'm out, they drag me back in.
As a coda, I would like to add that the gross inadequacies of our local television networks were such that we did not have the usual troupe of political nerds before the event discussing what may or may not be said in the speech. I decided to continue this happy serendipity and, at the time of writing this, I have not read a single analysis or reaction or even listened to the Republican rebuttal (because I decided that my time would be more pleasantly spent chewing a wad of aluminum foil and shoving sharpened bamboo shoots under my own fingernails.) I did this so that my reactions would be purely my own reactions to what was said.
And this is what I came up with!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

It's A Bull Roaring Tuesday!

Wow! The questions came flooding in overnight, so here's another round of reader's questions answered.

AND remember people, if you'd like me to answer your questions, throw a question at me (gently) through this link! Ask early and ask often.

Beatles or Stones?

My short answer is the Stones, but, as you can probably well imagine, I also have a longer answer.

If I were stuck in a living situation where I was only allowed the complete library of either of those artists, I would 9 times out of 10 pick the Stones. However, I am very fond of the solo work of both John Lennon and George Harrison probably more than anything they did in the Beatles although, to give a little perspective, I own nothing by any of them including the Stones (except Beggar's Banquet.) I like some individual songs of the Beatles (Norwegian Wood, Something, A Day in the Life, Here Comes the Sun, In My Life, and many more), I love Laibach's Let It Be cover album, and, yes, I am one of those people who really likes the work of Yoko Ono. I also love Harry Nilsson probably more than the Stones or the Beatles.
Anyway, the long and short of it is that I strongly dislike Paul McCartney and "the Paul McCartney sound." And I love the Stones' complex, wild, rock-blues sort of sound. So, it's purely a matter of taste and not a hill I'm going to die on. I'm not much of a listener of either.

So an orange hypothetically explodes in your bag. You try your best to clean it out, but nevertheless, your entire bag now smells like orange (not in the good citrusy palmolive sort of way either!) do you a) go out and buy a new bag, even though this one has been so good to you in the past? or b) do you try to clean it more thoroughly (and with what?) or even c) get it professionally done, but at what cost!

Right, so I have two answers to provide for this question. The first is what I would do left to my own devices, the second is what my wife would do because she knows how to deal with these things better than I do.

First of all, it's a perfectly good bag aside from the smell. By no means would I immediately buy a new one or even pay someone else to clean it. I would try to clean it out more thoroughly maybe with a watered down TSP solution or something similar that I found around the house. Then I would take a small cereal bowl, fill it with coffee grounds, set it in the bag and close the bag overnight, by the heater in the winter or out in the open air if it's a little warmer out. Hopefully, this would cause my bag to smell strongly of coffee grounds (which I would find pleasant) and not some disgusting coffee-orange mixture. Although I kind of doubt it. But I probably wouldn't even get that far as Laurie would catch me putting a bowl of coffee grounds into my bag and trying to set it up by the heater in a way that the cats won't knock it over in the night. She would stop me and tell me what I should really do. I'll wait until she gets home and see what she says.

I was close. She said that she would clean it out again really good, dry it completely with heat (sun, heater, hair dryer), and then spray Febreeze or another odor neutralizer in there.

I never got an answer to my last one!

Don't yell at me!

Well, I have answered every question that has come to me, so either you've missed a few question answering entries (you might take a moment to scroll down and check out the previous entries on this blog to make sure you haven't missed a question answering post: ).

Or, and please don't take offense as none is meant, we have a Code 18 problem here. Perhaps the question asking button wasn't pressed before the page was navigated away from. Perhaps you're operating on the secret government internet that runs parallel to this internet and forgot to switch over when you asked the question. In which case you'll have to file a 18714-H voucher before proceeding. Once you've ascertained that I have not already answered your question, follow the link and re-ask. I would be more than happy to answer your question so long as you keep it clean. My mom reads this blog.

Unless, of course, the comment is objecting to the quality of one of my responses. In which case I can't really help you. Like I said, I can't promise answers, but I can guarantee responses.

what did you turn to in college?

With all due respect, the wording of this question suggests two possible questions to me. I'll answer both!

The first is probably what I focused my studies upon. I majored in Theater at Chapman University with a focus on 1) playwriting 2) stage management and 3) technical theater (as in building sets, designing lights and costumes, etc.) My goal was to do monologues like Spalding Gray and to work in the theater in technical capacity to support myself. I minored in Religion.
Or, the question could be "turn to" as in religion, spiritual walk, coping mechanisms, and so on. In the Religion department at Chapman I studied under Marv Meyer who was one of the chief members of the Jesus Seminar, one of the translators of the Gospel of Thomas and the Nag Hammadi Library, and a man you will probably see if you see an ABC special or a history channel show on "The Historical Jesus." In other words, about as liberal as Christian theology gets. I was a Quaker and highly influenced by Albert Schweitzer's doctrine of Reverence for Life. I also turned to Transcendental Meditation and was a frequent visitor to the Hare Krishna temple in Laguna Beach. I was consumed with doctrine dictating a lifestyle focused on social justice and somewhere to the left of Leon Trotsky.

So, that was college aged Paul.

Monday, January 25, 2010

It's a Bull Roaring Monday!

It's time again for another round of answering your questions!
AND remember people, if you'd like me to answer your questions, throw a question at me (gently) through this link! Ask early and ask often.

What's the most embarrassing thing thats ever happened to you, and what's the worst thing you've ever done?

Wow, Ms. Walters. I see we're not pulling any punches this time. Two things immediately spring to mind, which I have to assume is for a reason, so I'll tell you about those. Neither are what others observing my life might call my "most embarrassing" and "worst" but they're not the ones who have to live in my head. So there.

The most embarrassing memory I have (although I took an active role in it "happening to me") that I can remember immediately was in an Acting Shakespeare class in college. My scene partner and I were doing a scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream in which Oberon and Titania are fighting. What I did wrong was this: I did all of my work on my own, alone, and only met with my scene partner once or twice (I think twice.) The day of the scene, my partner could not remember her lines. It was a debacle. We should have rehearsed together many many times, but she didn't really want to and I really didn't insist. I felt I could do my work just fine individually, but, turns out, theater is a group effort. The quality of the work showed. It was a tremendous life lesson (probably best learned in the classroom instead of out in the world), but also embarrassing.

I know that it may surprise some people to find me telling of such a seemingly innocent and harmless experience, people probably thought I would more likely have a long list of things from my pharmaceutical period, but there are reasons. The first is that it's a clear memory. The second is that I knew what I should have done and I didn't do it. And third, and most importantly, it was about my art which should never be half-assed. If something is worth doing, it's worth doing well.

I've done a lot of bad things in my past. More of my distant past now. But in thinking back, the thing that keeps springing to mind is a girl I loved once telling me about how she wanted to go to Calcutta to help people in some capacity, and I tried to talk her out of it because I didn't want her to leave me. I tried to talk her out of her dream. I apologized later, but in spite of all of the things that I've done, I think that may have been one of the worst.

What should I get my boyfriend for his birthday?

Well, that depends on what you think of him, how long you've been together, and what your intentions are for the future. Before I start sounding even more like a mother, here are a few suggestions at a few varying levels of boyfriendhood. If he's new to you, get him a book and some good wine. I know some would say that a book is an impersonal gift, but that's a lie from the pit of Hell. There's nothing more intensely personal and exciting than a book. I would recommend for a good boyfriend "Life of Pi," by Yann Martel, "Valis," by Philip K Dick, or something by Jonathan Carroll, Milan Kundera, Ray Bradbury or John Gardner.

If he's a keeper and you're both aware of it, get him something fun with form meeting function (this is on my own personal wish list) along with the wine and a book.

If he's new and you're not sure what you think about him yet, get him wine and a book that every human should read before they leave this Earth like, The Little Prince, or, Leaves of Grass, or something like that. Something great, but great in a general sense.

If he's been around a while and you're not sure if you want him to be around much longer, get him a book that you think would make him into a better person or teach him a lesson that you think he needs to learn. If he gets the lesson, score! If he doesn't, maybe he'll get all upset and leave you, in which case, score!

This is why books are the perfect gift. There is nothing books can't do.

What's the sickest you've ever been?

I think this last Spring, last April, I may have been the sickest I've ever been. We weren't diagnosed so we can't say for sure, but we think we had the swine 'flu. The symptoms sounded similar. I am hard pressed to remember being more sick than we were for those days which, immediately after, I 1) was laid off from my job and 2) developed and was diagnosed with asthma.

I've had a few rough patches in my life: stopped breathing once in my early 20s, had a "botched wisdom tooth surgery" horror story. But I think this last Spring was the worst.

What's the real story about the 1930s or so guest lodge on Mount Baldy once owned by the mother of the late aviator, Barnes?

Um, you may need to make these questions a little more personal.

Naturally, as you well know, I climbed Mount Baldy with my father. We did not, however, travel in time that day nor did we stay at the Lodge. I heard it was inhabited by spirits who possess people and release their dopplegangers into the real world in their place.

Actually, that's a lie. I heard no such thing.

This question could be referring to Pancho Barnes. She was an aviator as was her son. She was a contemporary of Amelia Earhart although in a rare instance in history Barnes is someone who actually became less famous by not disappearing.

I don't know if she ever lived near or owned land near Mount Baldy, but a few interesting facts about her are:
* she knew a young Buzz Aldrin
* she started the Happy Bottom Riding Club. I did not just make that up.
* when she died of a heart attack alone in her house, her body wasn't found for days and her dogs had partially eaten her. Every time I think of Pancho Barnes, I wonder what my dogs would do to us in a pinch, and remember that we are, and are also surrounded by, wild animals who can revert to basic animal instincts at a moment's notice.

In short, to answer your question, I have no idea.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Short Cuts

I thought I would do a miscellaneous post as there are a few short items in our life worth mentioning.

- We took Agnes to the vet, which was something we'd been meaning to do for about 3 years now. Agnes was the stray who used to be fed by our neighbor who moved away and abandonded her. Several months ago, you'll remember, we brought her into our home, gave her worm medicine, tried to clean her ears, and generally gave her a happier, safer, warmer life than she'd probably ever had before. But her ears continued to bother her and she wheezes so we took her to the vet.
She had stuff (pus, earmites, etc.) in her ears so bad they had to put her under to clean it. Even then they couldn't completely clean her left ear. She has had a respiratory infection for probably about as long as we've known her. She's on antibiotics (the good news is that she seems to love the flavor of the medicine. That makes our job a lot easier.)
The most striking thing is that it's like having a new cat. In spite of the cost, there is no doubt in my mind that we did the right thing. She has such a visible sense of peace in her expression that she's never had before. She's not nearly as timid anymore and will come up seeking attention. She's playing. This afternoon she even jumped up in my lap for the first time completely unbidden (although not in the least unwelcome.)

- So, there was the noise of an evil, hell beast living underneath our bathtub. At night we would hear it clawing, breathing, sometimes growling. All of our pets were beside themselves when this noise would start up. So, we rented a trap. My assumption was that it was a possum and we would trap it and release it somewhere far from our home. But after almost 2 weeks, we only managed to trap our outdoor cats a few times. Finally we assumed it was a large rat and went to buy poison.
There's a panel in Tony's bedroom closet which opens on the plumbing of the bathroom which is the next room over from his. It's clear that his room and that bathroom were later add-ons. It's also clear that this place was a rental for decades and there wasn't a lot of love put into the place. Hence, there's a panel you can open and look at the pipes coming out of the bathtub.
We opened it to put the poison down there and found a big possum looking back at us. We closed the panel, freaked out for a few minutes, then called Animal Control. They told us 1) it's illegal to trap and relocate possums (in which case I don't really understand why the feed store even rents them, but that's not really any of my business I guess) and 2) we would have to call the county trapper (yes, that is a real job that someone holds) and the trapper would, for a fee, come and kill the possum in our wall.
Hours passed and I walked into the kitchen, and this is the part of the story where a lot of people might think we're crazy, but I saw our cats on the counter eating their food and thought "you know, that possum isn't going to eat our wiring or anything. The only real difference between that thing and our cats is aesthetics, really. And how messed up is to to kill something just because you think it's ugly."
I told all of this to Laurie and we decided that we would throw some mothballs and ammonia down there some night while the possum is out to encourage it to find another place to live and be done with it.

- Last week I had an interview with what will probably be the most serious job I've ever had in my life. I am fully convinced of my capability to do it. I have no idea how the interview went, although one of the interviewers did tell me that I did "very, very well" on the test. I should know at least if I've made it to the next round by the end of this week. I'll write more on this then.

- Laurie and I watched My Dinner with Andre (one of my favorite movies), the Spalding Gray monologues (which is what I wanted to do for a living about 10 years ago. My own monologues, of course) and then almost got whiplash going to a silent film, City Lights (which competes in my brain with The Third Man for the position of "my favorite film ever.")
Synapses seem to be popping and I seem to be moving in a spiritual/well being direction I'm not entirely sure of yet. Some people who have known me for a long time probably know about the spark that went out of my eyes a few years ago, the peace and joy that went away. Well, I've had a few moments like the "we're going to need a bigger boat" scene from Jaws lately. More on this soon as well. Laurie and I have been talking a lot and she's been helping me tremendously in my walk and keep my internal reactions focused in the right direction.

-The dining room is almost finished and then we paint the front room. Also, Schubert and I have lost a little weight. I'm trying to walk him at least five times a week as both Schubert and I could use to drop a size or two.
So things are good. More soon.

Oh, and we're almost at enough questions to warrant another Bull Roaring post, so if you have a question, any question, you would like to ask me, I can't guarantee a right answer, but I can guarantee a response. Personal, recommendations, advice, anything. Send them here:

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul- Walden part 4 (the conclusion)

And so we say goodbye to Thoreau and Walden. It was a difficult journey, a reading experience like I've rarely had in my life. It was a book which, largely, I disliked, but then at other parts loved.

In a way, I disliked what the book did to me, which was to hold up a few ugly mirrors (along with apparently driving away the rest of the Reading the Classics Reading Group participants. Did anyone else besides my mom make it all the way through this one?) I found myself ranting often about a work of classic literature. Normally I strive to be a champion for the cause of more people reading "the classics" (whatever they may be.)
I think I had a sort of Naked Lunch moment last night when Laurie and I had this conversation before I went to bed. I was reading a rather garishly covered glossy graphic novel.

Laurie: "What are you reading?"
Me: "Camelot 3000. It's a comic book from the 1980s about King Arthur fighting aliens. It's kind of a living document to why Alan Moore had to happen."
L: "Well, I guess after Walden..."
Me: "After Walden, I feel like I've earned it."
L: "You've earned the right to read some crap."
Me: "Hey, look, Walden would have been a lot better if Thoreau had been fighting aliens through it."
L: "Hm. Seems to me someone else did that with another book and zombies."
Me: "... Egad! What have I become?!!?"

Part of the problem for me this week was that I loved this week's section almost without a single qualm. There were a few off-putting phrases, but for the most part it was really lovely nature writing and a conclusion which I actually liked. Which left me feeling a little cheated as well. Here I had built a huge case of disliking the book for the first 160 pages and the last 60 really aren't that bad taken on their own. Really, in my opinion, if Thoreau had not been so consumed and focused early on with pointing out the flaws of people who were not like him, he could have pulled off a beautiful book.

We start this week with a section on firewood. He talks about the universal value of wood, which is even more dear today than in Thoreau's day. There's a lovely description of ice bubbles in the pond. Largely this week's reading was about the pond from Winter into Spring with a conclusion. I would have most likely loved this book without reservation if the book has been only the section we read this week.

The Former Inhabitants section describes a dramatic and failed effort to save a farmhouse from a fire. There's a visit from a poet. There's a description of watching an owl. A lovely bit about staying in the courtyard in the evening in case a guest should show up, whether they do or not. Descriptions of birds landing on the wood he's carrying to the cabin in his arms. Fathoming and sounding the depth of the pond. The men coming to take ice from the pond to ship it to points southward (the neat bit about people in New Orleans, et al, drinking at his well) and the greenness of the ice described so vividly. And then the new growth of spring, the loud cracking of the ice, the silly squirrels. This is what I wanted this whole book to be. I found all of this really compelling, charming and meditative. Although I have to add that all of the previous sections had tainted all of these positive feelings this week.

The only weird bit I have marked from this week's reading is this quote "In our bodies, a bold projecting brow falls off to and indicates a corresponding depth of thought." To which I wrote "phrenology?" Be careful, little children, what you believe.

The conclusion is the section of the book I think I underlined most heavily without a single outraged comment in the margin. He deals (albeit briefly) with how not everyone can go run off and have a "top of the mountain" experience which, as you'll recall, was one of my main objections to the first fourth of the book. He ends with such a hopeful note. "There is more day to dawn."

So, I think my own conclusion about Walden is this: I agree that it's a classic and would recommend it to people with one stipulation and it is a very serious and earnest stipulation. I would say to anyone, "If you want to read Walden, go, get a copy, and immediately tear out the first 150 pages." This is not a suggestion of censorship, it's simply what I think an intelligent editor would have done in the first place. Or, to put a finer point on it, had I been Thoreau's editor, I would have cut out so much of the Thoreau and tried to leave Walden intact.

Anyway, our next book in the series is The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. It is a wonderful book which we will do in one go. That means if you want to read along, get a copy. At the end of next week I shall (Deo volente) post a reminder to start reading. The following Friday, two weeks from today, we will post our thoughts on The Metamorphosis.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Mourning toast

I was absolutely crushed this morning to get this news. There has been a tradition for around 60 years in Baltimore on January 19th, which is Edgar Allan Poe's birthday, of a mysterious man in black coming to the grave in the early morning, toasting Poe with cognac and leaving the bottle, also leaving three red roses on the grave. No one knows who he is or if they do know, they aren't telling (although more than one person has claimed to be the Poe toaster. It's usually fairly transparent that these people are braying asses and their facts tend to be wrong and easily discredited.) It's a kind of magical tribute, much like the mysterious woman in black who appears at Rudolph Valentino's grave to leave roses on the anniversary of his death. It's also a tradition every January 19th for me to report to Laurie what happened with the Poe toaster and for her to call me a "nerd."

Edgar Allan Poe was an amazing author beyond measure. American literature owes Poe everything. Everyone stems from his influence. Not everyone is aware of it, but Poe's influence is incalculable. The fact that such a magical, spooky, and solemn ritual rose up around him is fitting.

The Poe toaster has had a strange history in my lifetime. Up until the late 1990s it pretty much went like clockwork, like a tribute should go. Toaster shows up, toasts Poe, leaves the flowers and bottle, and vanishes. In the late '90s, a note was left with the roses and cognac which read "the torch must be passed." The next year, the Poe toaster was noticeably more spry. In 1999, another note was left which stated that the original toaster had passed away. And that's really when things started to get dodgy.

In 2001, the new toaster left a note with a cryptic prophesy about the Baltimore Ravens losing the Super Bowl. Yes, you read that correctly. First, the Poe toaster is surprisingly not a Ravens fan. Second, this was hardly the venue to talk sports. Third, he was wrong.

A year or two later the Poe toaster left a note explaining that he was reluctant to use French wine (and apparently unable to control himself from saying so) but would defer for the sake of family tradition. This was a reference to a controversy perpetuated at that time by a large portion of America's thriving idiot community suggesting the boycotting of French products because France did not ally themselves with America in the Iraq war. I'm sure almost anyone else can readily identify that this was hardly the venue for politics as well. First and foremost, the event is supposed to be about Edgar Allan Poe. Also, I think everyone collectively groaned at the specific political viewpoint of the Poe toaster. I know I did. However, I think I would be just as upset if the toaster had left notes which agreed with my political point of view. It is not the time and place for that.

And Poe fans certainly did immediately identify the sullying nature of the sacred event with these knuckledragger's notes! In 2006, some people tried to accost the Poe toaster because they were outraged over the disregard for the solemnity of the event by the current toaster. Bear in mind, people travel from all over the country to see this event and one doesn't like to make a once in a lifetime pilgrimage to find it being trivialized by the people who are supposed to be continuing the tradition. I, for one, have had attending a Poe toasting on my list of "things I would earnestly wish to do someday if ever I am able" for most of my life. High on the list, in fact, as well as something attainable on that list. All I have to do is be on the East Coast on January 18th and I will find a way to his grave for the morning of the 19th. Although I would add that I am hard pressed to think which upset me more, the notes or the people who tried to accost the toaster. Both struck me as the behavior of people ruining a very cool thing.

Since that unruly year, the toaster has behaved himself and left no notes. And then, this morning, for the first time in around 60 years, there was no Poe toaster.

I feel upset, sure, but very sad. Surprisingly sad. I didn't know something like this would effect me so much, but it's really kind of terrible. In a time where there is so much vanishing magic in this world, the loss of more is something to be mourned. We go about our lives, day to day, mechanically eating, drinking, working, watching TV. The cities grow larger and the rural areas want to become more like the cities, want to pump loud celebrities into their homes at every waking moment. We have lost our sense of ritual and are quickly losing awareness of life, of the world around us.
Little events and rituals like the Poe toaster are precious, crucial in this anemic culture. Like holidays or interesting events in our personal lives, they break us out of our routines and help us to look at the world again.

I suggest everyone out there read some Poe today. Read it out loud to one another. Maybe, this evening, propose a toast to Poe.

As for the Edgar Allan Poe Society in Baltimore, I would recommend finding someone to pass the torch as the up-until-this-morning Poe toaster isn't making himself known. Next year, have your new Poe toaster come a little early and then bar the gate from any other Poe toaster who might show up. This is too important to leave in the hand of incompetents or the uncaring. Admittedly, the toaster could very well have died himself (possibly immured in a wine cellar wall by a leftist literature fan?), in which case I probably shouldn't be so harsh, but since we'll never know, shouldn't the tradition continue?

I would also mention in passing that I am still looking for a job, if you catch my drift.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Sins of the Father: a few thoughts on the subject of Nietzsche

So, a friend of mine suggested I write a little about Friedrich Nietzsche. This was sparked a few weeks ago when I mentioned a story about a new book being published which claims that it will prove that the more problematic of Nietzsche's philosophies were probably later additions and perversions of his writings by his sister, who was a sort of proto-Nazi in her own ideology. This may be wishful thinking on the part of some philosophy students who appreciate parts of Nietzsche while rejecting the gruesome associations the bulk of the world tends to associate with him. Or maybe not. Personally, I'm not entirely convinced we can ever know for sure.
Unfortunately, Nietzsche is another one of those historical figures that one must approach discussing with apologetics and corrections. He has been so deeply appropriated by so many groups and ideologies. Not to mince words, many of the Nazis claimed to build upon and enact Nietzsche's ideas. Of course, they were wrong, deluded or lying (or all three).
To quote Walter Kaufmann, "In any case, no other German writer of equal stature has been so thoroughly opposed to all proto-nazism - which Nietzsche encountered in Wagner's ideological tracts, in his sister's husband, Bernhard Forster, and in various publications of his time. If some Nazi writers cited him nevertheless, it was at the price of incredible misquotation and exegetical acrobatics, which defy comparison with all the similar devices that Nietzsche himself castigated in the name of the philological conscience." I think that Nietzsche himself, were he alive and in his right mind again, would probably have been quite grieved to find some of his ideals appropriated by such an ugly group. Also, it's worth noting that Nietzsche was distinctly non-political.

I just taught a class this past Sunday on The French Revolution. One of the things I noticed and called attention to, possibly because I had this post in the back of my mind, is that so many of the ideas of the very bloody and violent French Revolution can be traced to American founding fathers (Franklin certainly springs to mind and I don't think it's a reach to link him to French thinking at the time) as well as Voltaire. Certainly Liberty, Equality and Fraternity as well as free speech, the separation of church and state (in extremis in this case) and such a strong emphasis on Reason can be traced to those thinkers. However, you don't often hear people linking Benjamin Franklin to the nearly 40,000 people beheaded by Robespierre. Maybe that's because I live in America where Franklin is nearly sainted. I don't see Nietzsche's face on anyone's currency.

Of course, the Nazis aren't the only group to (probably falsely) lay claim to Nietzsche's ideas. I took a course on Existentialism once which spent a lot of time and energy on Nietzsche. I got the strong impression that the professor included so much on Nietzsche in that course for the same reason I started my class on the life of J.S. Bach by talking about Karl Lagerfeld. Which is to say, because I felt like it, and it's my class so I'll do what I darn well want.

Also, Ayn Rand attempted to stake herself a claim in some Nietzsche. I've not yet been able to find the bottom of my dislike for Ayn Rand. In her case I also think her understanding of Nietzsche is twisted and perverted. I almost read an essay by her where she lifted Nietzsche's concept of Apollonians versus Dionysians and tried to apply it to hippie culture versus her philosophy of Greedheadism before I threw the book across the room and spent the next half hour washing my hands and eyes with soap.

But let's back it up many steps. That was an ugly way for me to start this post, but I think it's a fair indication of where history has left the man. Let's back it up to the man himself and his ideas and then maybe we can make some sense out of what happened after he could no longer speak for himself.

Nietzsche, for the most part, was an excellent writer, which is sort of a novelty in philosophers. His books are for the most part highly readable (although I could never make it through Zarathustra.) Some of his major ideas were:

* Immoralism- which is not to say that he was some kind of monstrous Mr. Hyde type. People who knew him say that he was very well behaved. But by calling himself an "immoralist" he meant that he desired a re-examination of morality, why and where we need it, how it would be naturally, where it comes from and why. Which leads to -

* Master and Slave Morality- Nietzsche was extremely enamoured with the ancient Greeks. He saw "Master Morality" as striving for excellence, power, glory, honor, fame, renown, and so forth. But along came Christianity, a school of thought which Nietzsche rejected loudly. Nietzsche would say that Christianity popularized a "Slave Morality" which takes the major concepts of Master Morality (fame, power, wealth) and turns them into vices. In his own words "It is not surprising that the lambs should bear a grudge against the great birds of prey, but that is no reason for blaming the great birds of prey for taking the little lambs. And when the lambs say among themselves, 'These birds of prey are evil, and he who least resembles a bird of prey, who is rather its opposite, a lamb,—should he not be good?' then there is nothing to carp with in this ideal's establishment, though the birds of prey may regard it a little mockingly, and maybe say to themselves, 'We bear no grudge against them, these good lambs, we even love them: nothing is tastier than a tender lamb.'"

I might add, while we're paddling around in this thought experiment, that those in the Master Morality may have come up with the Slave Morality to keep the lower classes from aspiring to their level, but lately it seems I'm incapable of having a conversation without shifting into Socialism at some point. I should probably have that looked at by a doctor (but I can't afford medical insurance! [rimshot] )

* The Ubermensch- who shows up at the beginning as a character in Zarathustra if memory serves. Also if memory serves, it's Nietzsche's philosophy embodied, a higher version of humanity to which one can aspire. Of course, this was one of the concepts misapplied by the Nazis coupled with a rather extreme misreading of Darwin to condone ethnic cleansing and eugenics. Far to the contrary, the Ubermensch in Nietzsche would be one who creates a new morality based on a love of this world and life (see the eternal return concept below.)

* The death of God- I often find myself explaining the scene Nietzsche wrote where there's a madman in the town square yelling "God is dead! And we killed Him!" The first half of the quote is often quoted, the second not so much. This is not a happy scene and is, in fact, an indictment of human complacency even in their own religion. Although elsewhere Nietzsche, who was almost certainly an atheist (but he is not often "owned" by the atheist community probably because he was not particularly at peace about it, and also because of the bad associations many make with Nietzsche), says that the death of God in our society would lead to either an unfixed morality, a sort of extreme relative world which celebrates diversity and differences OR nihilism (which, if I understood correctly, was the part that made the boy in Little Miss Sunshine stop talking.)

* The eternal return- this is one of my favorite concepts that he played with. He asks, what if you found out that after you die, you then relive this life, exactly as you've lived it, over and over eternally. Would that be Heaven or Hell? Of course, for most of us, it has elements of both and for the sake of the thought experiment it should probably be ignored that Nietzsche ended in extreme psychological turmoil, which is a nicer way of saying tortured madness.
The point is being aware of the weight of life, the weight of the infinite. If one is going to go through something once, one might not care so much, as you can endure anything for a time. But if you learn that you're going to go through something eternally, it adds a weight to everything and behooves one to pay great care and attention to what they are doing, how they are thinking, where their priorities are, and why.

* The Will To Power- sort of an expansion of his Master Morality. The idea is in response to the Darwinian concept of the major driving force in the story of life on Earth as "the will to live." Nietzsche claimed that it is rather "the will to expand one's power" that drives the story of life on Earth.

It probably isn't terribly difficult for you to see how these concepts were twisted by the Nazis (and, if memory serves, I think Leopold and Loeb had some weird Nietzsche kink as well.) Richard Wagner and Nietzsche started as friends on a similar philosophical track, but Nietzsche broke ties rather dramatically with Wagner (no pun intended) mainly over Wagner's anti-semitism which Nietzsche interpreted as coming from Wagner's Christianity, especially as presented in the opera Parsifal. My own two cents: it's a pretty big reach to call Wagner a Christian, but I share Nietzsche's disgust with anti-semitism.

My own reaction to Nietzsche is that I find his ideas fascinating, brilliant, and I disagree with nearly all of it. However, I think part of the great value of reading Nietzsche, which I would recommend to everyone, is to be challenged to figure out why you disagree with him. I certainly appreciate his appreciation of the problem of morality without God. I am a Christian, which immediately disqualifies me from Team Nietzsche. I believe in mercy, compassion, reverence for life, that all people are equal, and that I ought to strive to love everyone as I love myself. I believe in peace and peace-making. Nietzsche would call this slave morality. I find his concept of Eternal Return quite beautiful and compelling. I certainly agree with the call for a realization of the weight of life. I don't believe in the Eternal Return, but I certainly think it's a valuable thought experiment, one that more people might do well to keep in the front of their minds.
Also, no, I do think I am in agreement with the Darwinists and Albert Schweitzer in so much that the course of history has been formed by wills to live, not wills to expand power. I find Master Morality repugnant on many levels, although especially in that it attempts to rob me of striving for excellence and beauty in my own morality.

The whole story of Nietzsche, his life and his philosophy, is a dark and difficult one. There is so much to wrestle with, but I would also say so much to gain from wrestling with it. In the end, I think that I would recommend reading Nietzsche to everyone... And I think I would recommend following him to no one.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

It's A Bull Roaring Sunday!

It's time again for another round of answering your questions!
AND remember people, if you'd like me to answer your questions, throw a question at me (gently) through this link! Ask early and ask often.

Are you an animal?

Yes. Here is an interesting fact about me. I am by all appearances and to the best of my knowledge a bipedal primate belonging to the species Homo sapiens in Hominidae, which is the great ape family. Although science fiction has taught me that it is entirely possible that I am actually:
1) an android who appears human and is programmed to think it is human OR one who is programmed to lie to you and say that I am human
2) the only human and everyone else is robots
3) some completely alien being somewhere having a wild dream or, in fact, a crazy alien or
4) part of a virtual reality program.
I am by all appearances of the only species on this planet with advanced consciousness and language although the dolphins seem to be gaining on us.

What are your thoughts on pre-destination?

The question refers to the biblical Christian doctrine of predestination which asks if God had His Elect, that is to say the specific people who he would save, in mind (or, indeed, planned) before Creation and for all time. It also often suggests (assumes the converse, derives, extrapolates, etc.) to some a doctrine of reprobation or, in even more stark language, a class of people (a very large class of people) who are "the damned."

As with any theological doctrine, one must turn to the source material and see what it says, otherwise one may as well just make up whatever doctrine one feels like. If you're subscribing to a spiritual path, your doctrine comes from the source text. Predestination is in the Bible. In fact, it's all over the Bible. A few starting points, if you're new to this, are Romans 8:29 & 30, Romans 9 the whole chapter, John 6:63-65, Genesis 50:20. But even more so, all of Scripture. I think that one must find in the Bible that God is all-knowing, all-powerful, Creator, not subject to time, not to be derailed by the schemes of humans, and above us. In short, I don't know how I would be able to understand Scripture without believing in some form of predestination and the sovereignty of God. It's there throughout the text.

In shorthand theological speak, I hold to the Reformed view of predestination. This means that I fully believe that God has predestined His Elect and that His will shall not be foiled. Yes, I think that also means that God has always been fully aware of those who do not fall into that category. We know that God works all things out for good and for His glory, so we must trust that if it is His will, it is good, fair, just, right and holy. If one has a problem with that, I usually refer them to Job chapters 38 through 41. I think God answers any reasons and objections just fine without my help.

A helpful model I have found is one written by John Frame in his book "The Doctrine of God" where he goes through many models of the relationship between God and Man suggested by different points of view. One is the teacher-student model, one the general-troops model. The one I think is the most helpful model is the author-character model. He uses as an example Macbeth killing King Duncan in Shakespeare's play Macbeth. "The reason why every event in Macbeth can have two complete causes without irrationality is that the two sets of causes are on different levels. In a sense, Shakespeare and his character Macbeth live in two different worlds. Shakespeare could, of course, have written into the play a character representing himself... But Macbeth cannot ascend from his position in the drama and become an author on the same level as Shakespeare... We can see one reason why Macbeth is responsible for his actions, even though Shakespeare in one sense `made him' kill Duncan. In his world, on his level, Macbeth is the necessary and sufficient cause of Duncan's death. He is fully to blame." And so, of course also as scripture tells us, you can see that God is not the author of sin.
And he goes on to say that characters are how they are because it is in their character and they like themselves and defend their character even though there is an author whether they know it or not. Again, this is a model and not to be interpreted as my exact view of reality. As with any model, it breaks down eventually. For example, although Shakespeare could write himself as a character in a play of his, the character of Shakespeare would not be Shakespeare in the same sense that Jesus is God. But I find it to be a helpful model in some ways.

It also does not tax reason. If you were to study physics or neuro-biology or even psychology in a major modern university (or even pick up some of the popular contemporary scientific texts. I would highly recommend this one), you would find that our lives are largely "predestined" or predictable, that time is relative in spite of appearances, and that the choices we make are a result of many factors, not from an autonomous Will which resides somewhere in a vacuum free from external influences.
Now, I should hasten to add that unlike many Reformed people I've met, this is not usually one of my first stops on my theological tour. And, unlike many people I've encountered on both sides, it's also not a point in which I think it's necessary for people to divide upon. I think that my view of predestination points to a sovereign and almighty God. I don't think it informs a change in my behavior toward my fellow man in any way. I don't know who is of the Elect and even after someone has died, even if all external evidence points in one direction, I don't think it's for me to say. As Laurie often says, "You know how you know God is still showing someone mercy? They're still breathing!"
I can have assurance in my own salvation by looking to Christ and His atonement for my sin. As for others, I preach the gospel, I love others and try to be as kind as I possibly can.

I don't know much about classical music, but I'd like to learn more. Do you have any suggestions for where to start?

You don't know how much you've made my day.

First of all, listen to a lot of classical music. Hopefully you've a decent classical radio station in your area but if you don't (Chico), you can stream KUSC or WNYC or WGBH or any number of classical music stations from major metropolitan areas who have the support to maintain a good classical station, on iTunes or their websites. You can listen to them anywhere in the world through the miracle of the Internet. Which is not actually a miracle, but, rather, a explainable system.

If you're in America, use your local library. If they do not have a large classical music library, often they will have a "resource sharing" program with other libraries and you can request material from other places or even request that your library GET a certain recording that you just feel like listening to. Libraries are cool like that. Ask your librarian.

As for what to look for specifically, start with Beethoven's odd numbered symphonies, Bach's Brandenberg Concertos and the Goldberg Variations (or any recording by Glenn Gould) also Bach's Cello Suite No. 1 and if you're feeling ambitious his Mass in B Minor, Wagner's Die Meistersinger Von Nurnberg (or, if you naturally like to geek out on things, grab yourself a copy of Das Rheingold and jump right in to The Ring Cycle. Some people spend years in that cycle of operas. Heck, some people spend their whole lives in there), Liszt's Hungarian Rhaphsodies and Brahm's Hungarian Dances and Saint-Saen's Carnival of Animals (you'll recognize a few tunes with these three), also Brahm's 4th symphony and his piano concerto no. 1, Mendelssohn's 4th, Schubert's Wintereisse or Trout Quintet or String Quartet no. 15 in G major "The Death and the Maiden" or Impromptus or his 8th and 9th symphony (Schubert is, as you probably know, one of my favorites), Mozart's Magic Flute (especially if you can borrow a DVD of it) or The Marriage of Figaro and also his 40 and 41st symphony, Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake or his Pathetique symphony, anything by John Dowland, Gershwin's An American in Paris and Rhaphsody in Blue, Vivaldi's Four Seasons, Haydn's Emperor String Quartet. If you find a Strauss, go with Richard. Steer clear of recordings of Leopold Mozart which mainly only exist to show why there aren't more recordings of Leopold Mozart.

If you're looking for an intro to modern classical, check out Philip Glass, John Adams, Meredith Monk, Steve Reich, and John Zorn. Although I have probably just dated myself as well as I think every person on that list is pretty close to at least old enough to collect social security at this point.

So much more I don't even know where to begin, but you can print and clip that for your wallet. But poke around. There's an embarrassment of riches out there for anyone who wants to get started (and a lot of free material too.) See what you like and what you don't. Look around for things you've heard of and for things you haven't. When you see something you like, check out some composers from roughly the same time and place and see if you like that too.
As for books, Aaron Copland wrote a fine beginner's text called What To Listen For In Music. It's your basic music appreciation text (and, to be candid, I like it a lot better than any actual music of Copland's. Apologies to his fans out there, but aside from Wagner, I usually don't go for "cinematic" music.) There's a good collection called The Glenn Gould Reader of his various writings. There's another good beginner's reference text by Jim Svejda which you can probably find used online called The Record Shelf Guide To The Classical Repertoire. It goes through the major works by the major composers, guides toward the better recordings, and gives a lot of basic information, trivia, and opinion. Svejda is way more of the "music died with Stravinski" crowd than I, but his work is beyond value. If you listen to KUSC streaming, you'll probably hear him as a DJ at some point.

There are a few entry level movies too, if you'd like. Amadeus is a fine film about Mozart and Immortal Beloved is a fine film about Beethoven. Both are very true to the events of their life, except for a key thesis which is entirely made up by the people who wrote the scripts. Both are excellent films on their own, but I mention them because both kind of immerse one in the music. You ought to come away from both passionate about the music of the composer.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Photographs from our life

So, a friend of mine suggested I write a blog entry about Friedrich Nietzsche. I am working on it. As you can probably well imagine, I've been thinking about it for many days. Also I am gathering enough questions to produce another Bull Roaring blog entry. As soon as I get enough questions we'll have more of that.
But rather than going several days between posts (and leaving us the foul taste of Walden in our mouths) I thought it might be fun to post a few photos of some of the things Laurie and I have been doing.

The big news is the dining room (formerly the "other" living room.) As you probably noticed in our Christmas pictures, we have brought a dining room table into that room. We have now (and by "we" I mainly mean Laurie. In this particular room project I seem to have been little more than a furniture mover) stripped the old, disgusting wallpaper (long time readers will remember that was the wallpaper that we said, when we first had a walk-through of this house almost three years ago, would be the first thing to go.) We've painted the upper wall a sort of burnt sienna and the lower and trim a sharp white. Also, Laurie has a new hat.

We've moved the bookshelves back since I took this picture, but it gives you an idea of what the room now looks like. The front room, which you can see in the background through the arch, is going to be painted gold very soon.

Of course and as usual, I am spending a lot of time walking in Bidwell Park when weather permits.

Laurie and I have some foul hell-beast living beneath the house (not on purpose and it is not the animal in this picture.) We are fairly certain that it is an opossum. So we went to the feed store to rent a trap. At the feed store we encountered the largest cat we've ever seen in our life (which is the animal in this picture. You'll notice it's about one-fourth the size of Laurie.)
So, I've set the trap for several nights, caught both of our outdoor cats at least once, and still the Stygian beast claws at the bottom of our bathtub to the gross chagrin of our menagerie of pets.
When I do trap it, I will drive it 15 minutes away in some direction and let it go.

The other news is Agnes, our cat who you'll remember we rescued over the summer. She is doing remarkably well and adjusting wonderfully. Her eyes are bright and she jumps up on our laps now, we've even caught her playing a few times. She had a horrible life outside and we're really happy that she's doing so well in our home. She does have an ear problem of some kind (you'll notice her left ear is down) and we're taking her to the vet next week.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul- Walden part 3

I want to start this week by talking about a concept behind a phrase which is thrown around in theological circles. The phrase is "destroying your witness." Simply put, it is when you're known for your bad behavior so much that no one can take your positive message seriously. For example, after Pat Robertson says something evil, wicked and hateful toward a group of people, why would anyone then listen to him if he starts preaching the gospel (although I'm hard pressed to think of a time when he was ever in danger of doing that); no one is going to listen to him. He's proved himself a hate-filled man and now he's going to talk about a God of love and grace? This can be applied to so many situations. It also works for hypocritical behavior. I remember a pastor telling me once, with much humility and repentance, about driving to work on a weekday morning and getting stuck behind a slow driver whom he then tail gated and glared at with daggers shooting out of his eyes. Finally he sped around them, cut them off, and eventually arrived at the church to find the slow moving car pulling into the parking lot behind him. It was an older lady and she had been distressed by the sudden death of her child and on her way to seek comfort and counsel at the church.

I tell you these things because my struggle with Thoreau has reached a kind of fever pitch. I think that this book could probably be condensed into a 30 page pamphlet of nature writing and it would be a much better book. Last week, I could see past his cranky, mean-spirited passages because of his good nature writing. This week it flipped on me. I can't enjoy the good nature writing because Thoreau is otherwise so cranky and mean-spirited. To indulge myself in a bit of hyperbole, I can't applaud Mussolini for making the trains run on time.

There's only one week left and then we get to move on to Kafka, which will be way more pleasant.

Thoreau's nature writing is very well done. He communicates his awe, his love and reverence for nature. It's not exactly armrest-gripping reading, but it's pastoral and nice. Some of it is stunning and unexpectedly beautiful like the axe when it falls through the ice. Brilliant!
Unfortunately, he's destroyed his witness for me with his sections about the world and his interactions with other people, most of which has to do with why one group is better than another group, specifically how he is better than other people. For those of you not reading the book in this book group, I assure you, most of the book is about why Thoreau thinks he is better than other people. What's more, those sections seem so labored, contrived and superfluous. He would do so much better to show and not tell.

He starts our reading for this week with a section about his bean field. I find I highlighted a section and wrote that it was the nicest part of the book yet but for the life of me I can't remember why I thought that at the time. If anything, it's a completely benign section.

I especially liked his comment in the Village section when he promotes living simply by saying that if all people lived and desired to live simply, there would be no theft. Theft takes place in places where some have more than is sufficient while others needs are not met. A rare instance of me appreciating his social commentary.

He talks about how the villagers are a bunch of gossips and men with idle tongues, but also that he goes into town to hear them! Also to buy things! I don't know about you, but this really blew the whole "solitary monastic simple living" fantasy. The book is touted as a "back to nature" treatise and here he's got a train going by his cabin all of the time and he walks into town every day to hear the gossip.

He talks about how Flint's Pond is a bad name and speculates over the person who may have named it that. Although, the bit about the folk history of the Native Americans and how Walden Pond may have been named was an interesting bit of information and one that probably wouldn't have been remembered today if he had not recorded it.

He even has a section about how some people get halos in a certain light and others don't.
The Baker Farm part was the worst for me. He finds shelter from the rain in the home of a poor Irish family. Thoreau seems entirely incapable of charity or compassion of any kind. He criticizes how the Irish family live, in poverty, and tells them that they ought to live like him and go a-huckleberrying for amusement and sustenance. The couple share a glance which Thoreau reads as desire for the things he's describing, but I found myself wondering if the glance wasn't "This guy is a nutball! We have a baby. If we don't work for proper food and shelter the baby could die. A baby can't live off of a-huckleberrying!"

Thoreau is an educated man who turned his back on a potentially productive life, a bit like Schweitzer minus all compassion and charity. Thoreau is a single man. He doesn't give a rip about the problems of a struggling family, a man seeking to provide for his family. I kept remembering that song by Pulp (as loath as I am to regurgitate pop culture references, it really did keep running through my head) Common People, about the rich art school girl who wants to live like common people but, as the narrator says, she never will because if she lived in poverty she would always have the option of calling home and being saved from it immediately at any time, a luxury which actual common people will never have. I don't know about Thoreau's family or financial situation, but he is not responsible for anyone else or anything really. It's unfair for him to look down his nose at people who are responsible. Sort of an ugly example of Nietzsche's master/slave morality. Thoreau describes the man as a hard worker, but shiftless and I failed to see the distinction Thoreau made between that description of that man and himself. How is Thoreau not shiftless? And how is a poor man who is "bogging" to feed and shelter his family "shiftless?"

In all honesty, part of the reason this section stung me so much is that I am a man who has been earnestly searching for work for a while now and there are simply no jobs out there or, at least, I have not found one yet. I continue to look. I find it difficult to sympathize with Thoreau who willfully shunned a life of work and responsibility to go do whatever he feels like whenever he feels like and to criticize everyone else.

Then he goes on to say why American children are better than British children. Then how he's better than fishermen. Oh, and surprise! He's better than omnivores too. Also he's better than drinkers of alcohol and caffeinated drinks.

Then we get into Thoreau's theology (which, surprise again, is very muddled) and I began to see why I am struggling so much with Thoreau. He says that there is an animal within us all which awakens in proportion to how much our "higher nature" slumbers, which is asceticism defined. He continues into a section which may be the very core of why Thoreau and I do not get along. His theology is so dark and works-based, so unsustainable to anyone being honest with themselves, so very very man-centered. He writes "Man flows at once to God when the channel of purity is open." In other words, make yourself pure and you can flow toward the divine. My whole belief system revolves around faith in God, in God's ability and willingness to uphold me and save me by no work of my own. Because if I am to be counted upon for any part of my salvation, I am doomed. It is only by the grace of God that I can have anything to do with Him, not by any ability of my own to "make myself pure." If I must depend upon my own ability to keep myself saved, I will fail. I thank God that the Universe is not as Thoreau describes it.

On the next page, Thoreau asks, in essence (and paraphrase) "what use is it to be a Christian if it doesn't make you better than other people?" Again, I refer to Emerson's statement that "no truer American existed than Thoreau." What an ugly way to look at religion!
I don't know about you, but for me this book is WAY darker than our last book, Of Mice and Men and way more than our next one, The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. Those authors both have obvious compassion for humans and their struggles. Thoreau is the pinnacle of self-importance and self-absorption. Thank God the Existentialists came along about 70-some years later!

And then we hit a fine example of the problem. Thoreau spends a lengthy section describing a battle between red and black ants. He anthropomorphizes them in order to prevent us from having any valid scientific interest in the events he's describing. And, you know, maybe this harsh world has beat some of my sense of magic and whimsy out of me, but after about three sentences I found myself wondering why on Earth is it a good thing for a grown man to go into the woods alone to watch ant fights?!!? There was a "painting miniature pewter orc" moment for me in this section where I saw Thoreau there on his haunches looking at the dirt and calling out the fight like a sportscaster and I thought, "This book has gone from frustrating me to making me very sad for a very lonely man."

No, I do not like Thoreau and I do not like Walden. I think he was a horrible man and I have no idea why this book is considered a classic. I really have to assume most people haven't read it and, instead, like what they think the book is about. Oh well. One more week of this, people, assuming there's anyone left in the reading group. Finish the book this coming week and we'll meet back next weekend. After this, Franz Kafka should be like a breath of fresh air.