Saturday, October 25, 2008

A Poem by Charles Bukowski

Everywhere, Everywhere

amazing, how grimly we hold onto our
ever defensive, thwarted by
the forces.
amazing, the energy we burn
fueling our anger.
amazing, how one moment we can be
snarling like a beast, then
a few moments later,
forgetting what or

not hours of this or days or
months or years of this
but decades,
completely used up,
given over to the pettiest
rancor and

there is nothing here for death to

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Anne-Sophie Mutter in Ann Arbor

This past Sunday, after attending church on my own for the third time this year, I drove out to Ann Arbor to see world-class violin virtuoso Anne-Sophie Mutter play what was rumoured to be her last concert appearance in Michigan (a misunderstanding from a French interview gave the false impression that she was retiring this year at the age of 45). It was a crisp and sunny autumn day, a good kind of day to walk around Ann Arbor. I was having a hard time fully enjoying the day, however, as job and financial concerns (among others) were flooding my mind (the place I work had just unexpectedly closed its doors, seemingly for good, two days prior). I also had 2 tickets to the show, but instead of having dinner for two at Grazi's before the show, I had a jelly bagel & coffee for dinner by myself and sold my extra ticket at a loss. Sometimes you do things on faith, and sometimes faith turns out to be a silly delusion...

After my "dinner", I went to church for the second time that day. I haven't been to church on any kind of regular basis for years, and here I am going twice in one day. I guess I felt like catching up a little. This time at the Catholic church my family would always go to when my brother still lived here and we were visiting him. Sometimes it is good to revisit the places in one's past, just to remember that there was life before the world started slipping all to hell...

I've only been to two classical concerts in my life (the first being Perlman 5 years ago), and it was an odd and fitting coincidence that most of the selections were the same at both. Anne-Sophie Mutter was touring in support of her recent recordings of Bach's Violin Concertos (most of the same ones Perlman had played in Detroit in 2003), and thrown in for good measure at the end of the show was Tartini's "Devil's Trill" (a piece I first listened to at a friend's place one spring after we had just gone on one of my first classical music shopping sprees at the late Harmony House Classical store on Woodward). Watching and listening to the grace and fluidity of her playing was intoxicating at times. At a concert like this which demands one's full attention, I am aware of how un-zen my mind has become, as distracting thoughts of all kinds pull me out of the present moment throughout the evening. Aside from my own thoughts, external distractions didn't help much either - the seats were apparantly spaced for children's legs, and luckily I had an isle seat. The audience also chose to do most of it's coughing in between movements, which, on the surface, seems like a good idea, but the silences in between are too important a part of the work to ruin with a chorus of coughs and chuckles at the sound of it. An occasional cough during the performance would actually have been preferrable. But these are all usual distractions at any event of this sort, and they can really reveal the muck and mire that is bubbling up at the core of one's interior life...

After the concert, I was weak and shakey from hunger and mild sleep-deprivation (a side-effect of actually making it to church this morning), with a potential headache making plans for my head later. I was going to stick around to try and meet Mrs. Mutter, but the line was ridiculous, and I realized I just wasn't that interested in this once-in-a-lifetime chance to meet one of my favourite classical performers, so I walked the chilly night streets of Ann Arbor back to my car to drive home to a more substantial meal and watch some of the World Series with my dad... and for some reason, after this evening of inspiring music, the lyrics to Mindy Smith's latest song kept running through my head, walking the sidewalks, past the coffee shops on Main, past the bookstores, past a time I used to know and love...

It’s been a hard year this fall
And I still don't know where you're coming from
And the sky keeps on spinning
The stars are running, hiding from the sun

I don't want to feel this blue
I want to be over you
I don't want to feel this blue
but love lost
If the heart needs a reason to cry for
If the heart needs a reason to lie for
there's no better reason than love lost
If the heart needs a reason to try for
If the heart needs a reason to die for
There's no better reason than love lost

It's a been a while since I saw you
I still don't know what you're running for
Guess you were looking around
For something better
or something more

I don't want to feel this blue
I want to be over you
I don't want to feel this blue
But I do
I do…

Monday, October 13, 2008

"if the heart needs a reason to die for..."

New song by Mindy Smith, who is now officially my favorite new artist of the decade. She's been my favorite new artist since her second CD, Long Island Shores, came out a couple years ago (a CD with some fantastic cover artwork that seems to fit the music perfectly, as her heartwrenchingly beautiful voice does). I have a weakness for deep, dark introspective music, especially when sung with the kind of smooth angelic voice that artists like Mindy Smith or Karin Berquest (of Over the Rhine) employ. (Over the Rhine is probably my favorite group of all time, and as a related side note, Mindy Smith was actually once a house guest of Karin & Linford in Cincinatti before her debut CD came out.) Mindy first stopped me in my tracks with a song she wrote for her dying mother, One Moment More (also the title of her debut CD), and it didn't take long for her to make her way to the top of my favorite new artist list. And in this decade, there's some stiff competition in that category...Hem would almost be at least tied with Mindy if they were more consistent the way Mindy's music has been. Hem's debut CD "Rabbit Songs" is another one that can make me stop whatever it is I'm doing just to fully absorb myself in the music, and "Burying Song" is one of the most heartbreaking instrumental pieces I can think of. But Hem is also capable of some mediocre tracks, and I've not heard anything like that from Mindy. Rosie Thomas is the third artist in my musical "trinity" of favorite new artists, very much in that same "hardcore introspection" (as OtR once put it) vein. Rosie is also more consistently good than Hem, and why I don't consider her as my favorite new artist is one of those inexplicable factors of personal subjectivity. I think Hem, when they are at their best, are far better than Rosie, even if they're not at their best nearly as often as Rosie is. but for some reason, possibly the more personal connection she projects, Mindy Smith just comes out ahead of the pack. And with her new track, "Love Lost", it is evident that she isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

In case you're interested, other artists that would make it into my Top 10 New Artists of the Decade would include Sigur Ros (if this were a more objective list, I would have to put them at the top, easily), Broken Social Scene (when they released "You Forgot It In People", they were my favorite until Mindy came along, but, although they are still one of the best indie rock groups out there, they have never matched the magic of that early CD), and Copeland (another indie/alternative group whose music and lyrics just kill me with their depth. they renew my hope in the future of new music). There are other new artists from this decade that will most likely make my list as well (Do Make Say Think has a promising future and a solid catalog so far), but there's still over a year left in this decade to decide such things. For now, I can't seem to break myself away from this computer while I listen to Mindy's new song over and over. And I can't imagine anyone could come along in the next year who could possibly offer me something better than what Mindy Smith has already delivered...

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The American Sports Mentality

(sorry for the length. I need an editor!)

Anyone who knows me knows that I am NOT a sports fan. I think a significant reason for this is that I am not a competitive person by nature. And as far as I can tell, this makes me something of an outsider in America, because Americans love their sports. it is an industry worth billions, and in America's sports obsession, it is an industry that has completely pervaded people's thinking in many other areas of life. Areas that are (in my opinion) suffering severe damage because of it.

The American sports mentality is that desire to take a side, and then beat the other side into defeat. And it doesn't care about the other side's point of view. it just wants to "win". And one of the foundation stones of this mentality is the label. just as sports teams need a name to put on the scoreboard, we feel that the need to label is justified in all areas of life. Religion is one that is affected most by this. and politics. labels are used to define and then dismiss the "opponent". labels like "Christian" and "Secular" or "Protestant" and "Catholic", "Republican / Right-Wing" and "Democrat / Left-Wing", etc... The problem is that, in the case of religion, this mentality mixes with it about as well as oil and water. One of the main foundations of just about every serious religious tradition is Compassion, which is literally "to suffer with". To put oneself in the other's shoes. To do to others as one would have done to oneself. In Christianity, we are commanded to pray for our enemies. not to pray for their defeat, but simply to pray for them. How many sports teams do you think huddle before the game to pray for the other team? Shouldn't that be completely different among religious people in everyday life? and yet how many people approach their religion as though they are on a sports team? Converting someone to the faith is often no more than a draft pick. Church membership is equated with team membership, and so often the drive to "increase church membership" isn't a drive to bring people to faith and encourage them to go to a church of their choosing, it is usually a drive to increase that one particular church's membership numbers.

The same problem pervades politics even more so. We should be working together for the good of our communities and our nation, and instead, most people on both sides of the party divide are more interested in "defeating" the other party - in "winning". But a country does not "win" unless every citizen is a part of that victory. "No Child Left Behind" doesn't work at its root because most people aren't even interested in "No Citizen Left Behind". Both sides vilify the other side, misconstrue what is said by the other because sometimes the other side believes something a little too close for comfort to the same truth that our side believes in, and no fight is very sustainable with the words "I agree", and so what's the fun of that? A foundational part of the game in sports is to tear down the opponent. And so we look for what's wrong in the other, rather than what's right. As David Dark puts it, we don't want to know that a Samaritan would do that sort of thing. And when one side is proven right on any given particular, humility goes out the door. Their "right-ness" gets thrown in the face of the other, as if they somehow just scored against the enemy. "Victory is mine!" as Stewie Griffin would say. And so, instead of an opportunity taken to bring different sides closer together in a common understanding of the Truth that eludes us all to some extent, the walls of defense are put up even stronger and the distance and divide made even greater, lest the other side "score" against us again. People begin to refuse to look at the facts, at the truth as it works itself out, for fear of being made to look like the fool for believing otherwise. This is part of the reason why some people are so stubborn, refusing even to look at obvious facts before them. In the American Sports arena, to admit the other is right in any way is equated with admitting defeat. And so instead of being grateful that the other side is right about something and we can now agree on it and come a little closer together, there is only resentment toward the other for somehow "sneaking one past us". There have been leaders in the past who have accomplished great things because they didn't care who got the credit for being right, but those leaders probably weren't very good at sports, which requires a "keeping score".

Look at the way so many accept the notion of a "war on terror" with a straight face. And they talk about "winning the war" - "we must win the war on terror". How do you win a war against a concept? or against terrorism, which is a tactic? these things will always be there for the using, even if somehow no one on earth were at that moment using them. If a preacher talked about this in the context of "our war is not against flesh and blood", then I might be inclined to listen, but so many in power (and their followers) act as though you can win these "concept" wars with actual bombs lobbed at actual places on earth. But I think it is the framework of sports which people look through and think they see a way to win. and it is usually simple. lob more bombs over there than they lob at us, and we win. Of course one major problem is that War Games tend to go on quite a bit past double overtime.

There are people in my life, close people, whom I never discuss politics with, even when they are begging me to take the bait. Not because I have no interest in discussing politics (I do), but I know from personal and past experience when someone is simply itching for a fight. and I've lost interest in fighting as a substitute for discussion. I see people listening to the talk shows and yelling at the tv or radio, arguing with commentators who cannot and will never hear them, and what they are doing is target practice. they are loading up on "argumentative ammo" for the next straw man who comes along that they can set up to shoot down. And I don't know about you, but I'm not real interested in being shot at. These people right from the start will not listen to what the other person has to say. they don't care. They don't care where you are coming from or why you feel the way you do about any given issue or candidate. they just want to shoot the target, they just want to win the contest. I have certainly been guilty of this on the topic of religion (pick your category), and I realize (even though old habits die hard) that it does nothing but tear others down and close them off to any new way of thinking. I had someone close to me ask who I was voting for, and when I told them, they didn't ask "why do you like that person?", they responded with a disapproving grunt, an "oh no!". and that was that conversation. One of my friends was even told by his own mother that she didn't really like talking to him lately because of who he was supporting. Too often our immediate response to another's opinion is framed in Attack-and-Defense mode, rather than from a place of unthreatened, calm curiosity and compassion. And I think this kind of mentality, this getting wrapped up in the game, in "our side vs their side", makes us lose sight of all kinds of priorities, one of which is to love others. Wayne Dyer once said "When you have the choice between being right and being kind, choose kindness". I think that about sums up why I don't "speak my mind" more often with certain people, because my mind often darkens and hardens my heart.

I suppose I'm perhaps being a little unfair in characterizing this mentality as "American", as it stems I'm sure from our primitive survival instinct, and intense competition is nothing new to humanity. From Cain and Able through the countless wars throughout history, man has been taking sides and trying to destroy those opposed to them. It's the "mob mentality" - don't think it through, don't talk about it, just go out there and defeat the enemy. It's just that, with "civilization" as well as religious conviction, there is supposed to be some sort of transcendence above our baser instincts to "kill or be killed". It is one thing that makes humanity unique and separate from animals, the ability to reason things out and talk them through with each other. And in America especially, the size of the Sports Entertainment Industry being what it is, those baser instincts are played on and encouraged with millions of dollars worth of provocative advertising and media coverage, and the quieter, calmer, more thoughtful inner life is a huge liability to their "success". More money can be made when people are riled up into a frenzied fever-pitch, and nothing does this better than the presentation and caricaturization of an enemy to defeat.

I wonder what would happen if we could somehow eliminate labels from our thinking. We couldn't simply categorize and then dismiss another based on the label we put on them. We would have to listen to what they said about what they believed, and we would be sure to find things we agree with as well as things we disagree with. In religion this happens a great deal. As a Christian, I have met and known many others who also claim to believe in Christianity, only to later learn that we have extremely different views about what that label actually means and implies. But we also have some very similar views in other areas. Being that we both claim the label "Christian", we can't simply dismiss the other based on a label. We have to talk it out and come to either an agreement, or an agreement to disagree. Unless, of course, we resort to "sub-labels" so we don't have to work so hard. labels like Charismatic, Catholic, Protestant, Fundamentalist Wacko, etc...
But if we could be rid of the "win or lose" sports mentality, we could then actually have a constructive conversation with the other. This would mean not only discussing that which we disagree on, actually trying to come to an understanding of the opposing viewpoint, but also a willingness (a desire even) to recognize (or, as David would say, "hell bent on discovering...") where the other is right and where we are wrong. And only after we do this can we talk about where we think we are right and they are wrong. An acceptance of the fact that we each and all together see through the glass darkly and don't understand as we should, and therefore need each other - even and especially the opposing view - to reach more fully toward the truth.

(side note: as if to confirm my assertion as to how pervasive the sports mentality is among us, when I was discussing these thoughts with a friend of mine, he encouraged me to blog about this, saying he thought it was a "slam-dunk argument". He wasn't trying to be funny or make a pun...I don't even think he realized what he had said...)

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Some Thomas Merton

"We are living under a tyranny of untruth which confirms itself in power and establishes a more and more total control over men in proportion as they convince themselves they are resisting error...
...The basic falsehood is the lie that we are totally dedicated to truth...that we have the monopoly of all truth, just as our adversary of the moment has the monopoly of all error.
We then convince ourselves that we cannot preserve our purity of vision and our inner sincerity if we enter into dialogue with the enemy, for he will corrupt us with his error. We believe, finally, that truth cannot be preserved except by the destruction of the enemy - for, since we have identified him with error, to destroy him is to destroy error. The adversary, of course, has exactly the same thoughts about us...

If we really sought truth we would begin slowly and laboriously to divest ourselves one by one of all our coverings of fiction and delusion: or at least we would desire to do so, for mere willing cannot enable us to effect it. On the contrary, the one who can best point out our error, and help us to see it, is the adversary whom we wish to destroy...
In the long run, no one can show another the error that is within him, unless the other is convinced that his critic first sees and loves the good that is within him. So while we are perfectly willing to tell our adversary he is wrong, we will never be able to do so effectively until we can ourselves appreciate where he is right... Love, love only, love of our deluded fellow man as he actually is, in his delusion and in his sin: this alone can open the door to truth. As long as we do not have this love, as long as this love is not active and effective in our lives (for words and good wishes will never suffice) we have no real access to the truth. At least not to moral truth."
"We too often forget that Christian faith is a principle of questioning and struggling before it becomes a principle of certitude and of peace. One has to doubt and reject everything else in order to believe firmly in Christ, and after one has begun to believe, one's faith itself must be tested and purified. Christianity is not merely a set of foregone conclusions. The Christian mind is a mind that risks intolerable purifications, and sometimes, indeed very often, the risk turns out to be too great to be tolerated. Faith tends to be defeated by the burning presence of God in mystery, and seeks refuge from him, flying to comfortable social forms and safe conventions in which purification is no longer an inner battle but a matter of outward gesture."

-Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander