Friday, November 1, 2019

There Was an Old Woman Who Traveled the World

I just read Patti Smith's new book, Year of the Monkey (Knopf, 2019), a memoir of her seventieth year.  I've been following Smith's career since she wrote record reviews for Creem magazine in the early 70s, when she was a poet and not yet a singer, and while I'm ambivalent about her, she's made some great records and I find her very interesting.

Year of the Monkey begins with Smith in San Francisco for a New Year's Eve performance.  She and her guitarist Lenny Kaye had intended to work with their old friend and colleague Sandy Pearlman, but Pearlman didn't show up and they only learned later that he'd had a stroke and was in the hospital in a coma.  (He died the following summer.)  Smith hung around in the Bay area for some time, staying in a motel by the ocean, fretting over Pearlman, trying to work.  As the book goes on, she returns to her home in New York City, prepares for a tour; spends time in Kentucky with the playwright Sam Shepard, who was dying of ALS, helping him to edit the manuscript of what turned out to be his final book; mourns the election of Donald Trump, observes her seventieth birthday.  She recounts dreams and visions and internal conversations with the sign of the Dream Motel, keeps running into a pompous drifter/shaman called Ernest - whose literal existence I somewhat doubt, but hey, Smith is a poet.

Year of the Monkey is an interesting book, though I find her prose unsatisfying. I can't quite put my finger on the problem.  Somehow she writes in such a way that she seems less intelligent than she obviously is.  But what I mainly took away was the realization that Smith was writing as an old woman, a widow with two grown children as well as an artist with decades of achievement.  It says something positive about the changes of the past fifty years that a woman of her age could write about drifting around, staying in cheap motels, finding rides, walking through the desert -- it's the kind of itinerancy that Jack Kerouac dreamed of, but that was traditionally a guy thing, especially a young guy thing. 

Of course Smith is also a settled, financially comfortable adult with an apartment in New York; she's not a hobo, but she has the freedom of movement that is not conventionally associated with women.  It's a picture of an old woman very different than what I find in other old women writers like May Sarton or Doris Grumbach.  I can't imagine either of them packing for a European lecture tour "six Electric Lady T-shirts, six pair of underwear, six of bee socks, two notebooks, herbal cough remedies, my camera, the last packs of slightly expired Polaroid film and one book, Collected Poems of Allen Ginsberg" (page 98).  Aging isn't what it used to be, and what a good thing that is.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

You Better Watch Out, You Better Not Cry...

I'm just too lazy to write at any length, but this might be worth noticing:
As numerous people pointed out to O'Brien, the Dante quotation is bogus.  It's the opposite of the case in fact, though Dante didn't know any more about what happens after we die than anyone else does.  But if you are going to cite fiction, you should at least get its details correct.

As I thought about it, however, it occurred to me that highly placed Republicans, including Trump himself, are anything but neutral about the impeachment inquiry: they are attacking quite fiercely the process and those who are carrying it out.  So I guess they'll be going to Heaven, right?  If anyone has tried to maintain neutrality, it's the Democratic Congressional leadership, notably Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who did her best to block and retard impeachment until her neutrality became untenable.

There's also dear Barack Obama, last seen being moderate and neutral and reasonable about "cancel culture."  (It should be remembered that he's always been dismissive of those who don't stop with clicking on the Intertubez, but organize and mobilize and take to the streets  -- especially in opposition to his policies.)  But I'm not being quite fair, because Obama isn't neutral: he's ready to act in support of the people who share his values.  

Sunday, October 20, 2019

The Fighting Middle-Aged Skater Who's Not Afraid to Talk to the Young in Their Own Language

The laundromat I used to use had no televisions, because a lot of college students used it and wanted to study there, not be distracted.  Remarkably, the owner chose to cater to them.  I'm not sure whom the owner of the laundromat in my new town is catering to, but this one has televisions on every wall so that the clientele can feast on CBS fare.  I can sit where the screens aren't visible, but the sound follows me everywhere.

Among the riches available today on CBS Sunday Morning was a human-interest story by a 42-year-old podcaster on the supercool skateboard his wife surprised him with on his birthday.
Without a doubt, it was the best present I'd ever gotten, and also the one that most necessitated me updating my will. Because you see, while inside I felt like a kid again, outside I remained very much a middle-aged man with a sense of balance that could only be described as intermittent.

I didn't let that stop me, though, and despite more than a few falls I felt like it was coming back to me.
So far, not bad; I thought it was rather sweet.  But then it turned pathetic:
Heck, I even skateboarded past a bunch of teenagers one time and I swear I heard one of them say, "That guy is cool!" 
Then he encountered this well-known meme:

And behold, there was wailing and gnashing of teeth, and "I knew it was time to hang up my skateboard."

Until he happened to meet the celebrity skater whose name his new skateboard bore.  This man is fifty years old, and still skates daily, though he feels "nervous before jumping his board 30 feet in the air and completely rotating it two-and-a-half times."  Our guy immediately felt better!

I suppose everybody has their own philosophy about aging.  Some want to be a young among the young again.  They can't do that, but try to stop them from trying.  My feeling is that if you're fifty and you want to do something, whether you did it as a kid or are only taking it up, you should go ahead.  Don't expect your fellow kids to embrace you as one of them, and don't cringe or retreat if you overhear them sneering about the old guy or gal trying to relive his or her youth.  If you're fifty and you want to skate, skating is a middle-aged thing.

It's like gender in that respect.  I keep citing the "woman-identified woman" who,
at the 1971 Council on Religion and the Homosexual symposium, was challenged by someone in the audience because of her apparently masculine attire. But Lynda explained, “This short haircut, because it is mine, is a woman’s hairstyle. These so-called men’s boots, because I am wearing them, are women’s boots. This pipe, because I am smoking it, is a woman’s pipe. Whatever women wear is women’s wear. It is a matter of individual choice – and comfort.”*
Your skateboard, because it's yours, is a forty-two-year-old's skateboard.  Or a fifty-year-old's.  You do what you want to do, and you don't worry if it's somebody else's idea of age-appropriate or not.  If any kids want to claim that it's like totally theirs, and you're engaging in cultural appropriation, they're wrong.

Gender is also a good analogy because skateboards were originally a boy thing, and girls encountered pushback when they took them up.  Ditto for electric guitars, but that's another story.  So now there's a group for girls and women based in Venice, California, with a worldwide online presence and regular group outings:
"You don't have to, like, rip. You don't have to do tricks. We're just asking to kick push. We're there to, like, support you in it. The whole idea is we're trying to make this less intimidating for women," Osinski said. "When you're a woman alone on a skateboard, it's very different. When you're a woman together, with all these other people… you really create girl power. Girl power is real. You can change things in your community."
But there shouldn't be any need to gender skating, or to tie it to age or subculture.

Of course, I hope you'll wear protective gear, as serious skaters do.  And when you fracture your hip in a fall, then it may be time to hang up the board.  (Not necessarily, though: some people bounce back from such injuries.)  I've written before about the bodily realities of aging.  At 57 my body had begun to slow down; now, at 68, my age is written on my flesh more than ever, and it's not going to be erased.  Still, as much as possible I negotiate between my body and my mind.  If I want to do it, and I can, then it's what an old person does.  This old person, anyway.

*Del Martin and Phyllis Lyons, Lesbian/Woman (Bantam Books, 1972), page 81.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Believe on the Name of Mr. Rogers and Be Saved

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Tom Hanks's biopic of Fred "Mr." Rogers will be released in November, and I'm wary of it.  Meanwhile, numerous people are using the movie and Rogers to push religion.  That's not unfair, since Rogers was a Christian and a Presbyterian minister.  But this sort of thing annoys me:

The article itself isn't any more nuanced, which is troubling given that the writer touts himself as "a scholar of American religion, politics and popular culture." Sure, Rogers saw his program as a ministry, and his religious beliefs as important.  But did his beliefs determine his ideas about children and television, or was it the other way around, so that he molded his "faith" to reflect what he thought was good and important?  Given how unusual he was both as a person and as a teacher, I think the latter is much more likely.  How many other white American Christians were shaped by their faith to take similar stands and set a similar example?  Not many.  They too let what they believed and wanted for other reasons shape their construction of Christianity.

As an atheist, I prefer Rogers's version of Christianity to that of (say) Pat Robertson or Billy Graham.  But as an atheist, I don't see any reason to believe that Christianity made him the person he was.  Rather, the person he was constructed a Christianity that suited the person he was.  The Bible itself -- never mind two millennia of church tradition theological torturing of the source material -- can be, and has been, mined to support pretty much any belief, value, or action one likes.

One thing that worries me about Tom Hanks as Rogers is Hanks' well-known tendency to avoid uncomfortable truthsThis review of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood reinforces my worry.  According to the reviewer, it "isn't about Rogers himself" but about the troubled young journalist sent to profile him, who is redeemed by being bathed in Rogers's goodness.
"A Beautiful Day" portrays Rogers as a guardian angel of sorts, not pushing Lloyd to do the right thing but using his secret sauce, that relentlessly good heart of his, to ease him down the right path. The film is really about a man finding that his own way, by listening to an elder who teaches him about forgiveness the same way he taught kids for decades about friendship, war, divorce and everything else they might need in their little lives.
I suspect that if Tom Hanks had been given the opportunity to create a children's TV show, he would have just left out the hard parts that were the most important to Rogers: the antiwar material, the grappling with violence and death, the provocative spit-in-the-eye to white racism.  Now that I've seen all of Won't You Be My Neighbor?, last year's documentary on Rogers, and read Michael G. Long's book Peaceful Neighbor: The Countercultural Mr. Rogers (Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), I'm even less inclined than I was before to see Rogers as a simple feel-good guardian angel for adults who regret having grown up, and more inclined to see him as a tough campaigner with iron in his soul and ever-decreasing patience with those who collaborated with the status quo and tried to make things worse.

According to Won't You Be My Neighbor?, Rogers grew up in a family and environment that discouraged the expression of anger.  I think this explains the tension that I always felt underlay his beaming, sunny TV demeanor.  He used his puppets as proxies to express feelings that he couldn't let show in his own person.  But I got the impression that like many people, as he got older he outgrew some of his repressive upbringing.  There were two bits from the documentary that impressed me in this regard, though the entire film is impressive.  First, that after the September 11 attacks Rogers became more visibly angry, because he felt that no one had been listening to what he'd been saying for so many years.  Initially it would be easy to see his anger as prideful, as if he alone could have changed American culture; contrariwise, his fans would read it as evidence that everybody else had failed the Great Teacher.  I believe Rogers had more sense than that.  I think what made him angry (but also, at times, despairing) is that so many of his fans had failed to learn the lessons he'd been teaching.

The second bit, which confirms my reading of Rogers's anger, was an interview with one of Rogers's public-television colleagues.  She recalls the time Rogers told her that in the face of tragedy was that "part of Fred's answer was always to tell children that we, the parents, would take care of them."
Sometimes I found that a difficult message myself as the parent of a young child.  Sometimes I felt I was lying.  I knew that there were things in this world that I couldn't protect my child from.  
Of course, and Rogers knew that as well as she did.  But we have to try anyway.  (Perhaps we could begin, proactively, by not glorifying the child-killers among us, by not arming child-killers elsewhere in the world, by not tearing children from their parents' arms as they flee from the child-killers in our pay.)  What annoyed me when I first saw reactions to Won't You Be My Neighbor? was the adults who wanted Rogers to protect them.

As Junlei Li, co-director of the Fred Rogers Center, says in the documentary,
"What would Fred Rogers do"? It's not a question that you can answer. The most important question is, "What are you going to do?" 
That, it seems to me, is exactly the question many of Rogers's adult fans would prefer not to be asked.  They wish he were still with us, so that he could make them feel better in a scary world.  They want him to say, Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.  It's a very Christian sentiment, but it rejects everything Fred Rogers worked for.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

They Don't Brainwash the Sheeple Like They Used To

The way that "brainwashed" is used in this tweet, and by many other people from all over the political spectrum, annoys me.  The notion of brainwashing went viral during the Korean War, as a horrible thing that the Chicoms and the North Korean Commies did to Our Boys whom they held prisoner for no reason at all, just invading their country.  The scare was bogus, but the idea was useful, though almost always it's applied to other people, the brainwashed sheeple who swallow whatever lies the Mainstream Media ram down their throats.

Strictly speaking, brainwashing supposedly is done in a totally controlled environment, such as a prison camp for captured enemy soldiers.  In such a place, the information the victim is given can be restricted by his or her captors, and he or she can be held in isolation, which breaks down the ability to resist.  (Which is why solitary confinement is regarded as torture when it's done by our official enemies, though not when we, the good guys, do it.)  Despite the power of such a situation, it's not clear that such brainwashing was ever very effective.

The corporate media do not have that kind of power, nor are their audiences as isolated as POWs.  If an American encounters only one side of an issue, it's because he or she chooses to.  True, many people do choose to, but they aren't being held captive by Evil MSM, they have the cell door (as it were) locked from inside.  (Another pet peeve of mine is people who confuse "manufacturing consent," the Herman-Chomsky Propaganda Model of Media, with brainwashing.  It's really the opposite, but more on that another time perhaps.)  And even before the Internet came along, there were abundant alternatives available to the corporate media, and nobody was going to throw you into a lightless cell for using them.  If people didn't use them, and most didn't, it wasn't because they were brainwashed.  And if you did turn to alternative sources, sensible moderate people would caution you that you needed to listen also to the "other side" - as if they ever did.

Perhaps the crowning irony, which indicates that Retired Man is less free of media control than he likes to believe, is that despite decades of media propaganda on the evils of Socialized Medicine, most Americans consistently favor some form of government-run healthcare (the private insurance lobby's term of art, picked up by their beneficiary Pete Buttigieg), just as they consistently hold other opinions that are Truly Politically Incorrect according to the all-powerful mind-controlling media: higher taxes on the rich, say, or less military spending.  I've noticed that most liberals and progressives who denounce the Sheeple for opposing these commonsense policies seem to accept the corporate-media line that they are unpopular, when in fact they quite popular.  So who's brainwashed here?

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Cancel My Subscription, Sir or Madam!

Of course, this is nothing new. But for me the important part is that many people, not just on the wacko Right, believe that if you're rich it means you're smart. Whatever it means, it doesn't mean that, and I'm not talking about Donald Trump, who's an easy target. I mean also people like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, the Clintons, Barack Obama, the entire Bush Crime Family, Howard Schultz, Michael Bloomberg, and Warren Buffett. Among others. The rich aren't smart; it might even be that having all that money makes them dumber, because it insulates them from the consequences of their stupidity.

Read some of the replies in the thread, which point out that not only does Australia have universal healthcare, they have a 45% capital gains tax, a $19 minimum wage, etc. It's common to try to refute these little details by pointing out that Australia isn't all that rich or powerful compared to the US; but I'm not the person who hopes to escape Socialism in the US by emigrating to Australia, this billionaire is. Except that he's lying, like almost everybody who says they'll emigrate if Bush or Obama or Trump becomes President.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Apologetics for a New Millennium, Same as the Old Millennium

It's fun to peek from time to time at the present state of fundamentalist Christian apologetics.  I've begun reading Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture's Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ by Darrell L. Bock and Daniel B. Wallace (Thomas Nelson, 2010), and it doesn't seem that much has changed in the past fifty years -- longer, really.

Bock and Wallace are both academics, professional scholars, but they begin Dethroning Jesus with some rather lazy arguments.  Bock recounts how he debated John Dominic Crossan "in front of a packed house at Southern Methodist University" (page 2).  Crossan, a member of the notorious Jesus Seminar, told the audience of a study of college students who were asked where they were the Challenger Space Shuttle blew up, and were asked again three years later.  Not only did their memories change, but:
Afterward, the students were asked to compare their testimonies and choose the one they liked best. The study noted that most students preferred the description they gave three years after the event rather than the initial account they gave immediately after the event. [Crossan's] point in citing the study was to say that memory becomes distorted over time [page 2].
I notice that we're already getting some distance between the original study and the account I've quoted here: we have Bock's memory of Crossan's description of the study.  No reference is given for the study itself, and though I've heard of similar research that led to similar results, I'd like to be able to have a look at the actual report.  Because memory can indeed become distorted over time, and as we'll see, Bock doesn't actually dispute this, it would be nice to have some backup.  (A cursory search on Youtube didn't bring up anything, but I'll look again.)

Here's how Bock remembers his rebuttal of Crossan:
I noted that two very important points were missing from his discussion of the experiment at Emory. First, it took place in a culture that has developed distance from the use of memory. We have video footage and computers now. Second, those who were asked at Emory had no stake in what was being recalled. I raised the question of what might have happened had the NASA astronaut corps been asked to go through the same exercise, since their lives would be at stake in the shuttle’s fate. The analogy was that those who followed Jesus paid a great price for their belief. Their families probably disowned them. Many even lost their lives for their faith. They likely would have been marked by such an event, and thus their memory was likely to be better. Quite a gap existed between college students and NASA astronauts when it came to the shuttle. The astronauts were more like the martyrs of the first generation of faith.
This is a standard fundamentalist move, brought up-to-date for the space age: because the early Christians suffered, "even lost their lives for their faith", their account of Jesus is trustworthy.  If you accept this argument, however, one must ask about non-Christians who lost their lives for their faith, often at Christian hands.  Many Jews chose martyrdom rather than convert to Christianity, so by Bock's logic, this counts against the truth of Christianity and for Judaism.  Further, most Christian martyrs had no personal memory of Jesus' ministry, so their tenaciousness can not be explained by fidelity to what they had seen and heard and touched.  And what of those Christians who chose life over martyrdom, probably outnumbering those who chose to die?  Notwithstanding its enduring popularity, Christian martyrdom is not an argument for the truth of the New Testament.

More could be said about Bock's attempt to recast the focus to the "astronaut corps" instead of the students.  The astronauts who died in the Challenger disaster could hardly repeat the experiment, since they were dead.  (The same is true of the Christians who died for their beliefs.)  In the absence of evidence about the other astronauts' memories of the disaster, this move can only be seen as an attempt at distraction.  (I'll try to find a study I read about, of children who'd survived school shootings; as I remember it, if they were near the shooters, they remembered that they were far away from him; if they were not near, they remembered being closer and in greater danger.  There are obvious parallels to some of the gospel material here.)

Bock returns to his second point:
Add on top of this the fact that Judaism was a “culture of memory,” for that is how the Jews passed on stories, and the appeal to a modern analogy at Emory looks less plausible. This difference over memory parallels the way Jesus is remembered and discussed today. Some are skeptical about memory and Jesus, arguing that Jesus has been formed largely in the image favorable to those doing the remembering. Others argue that Jesus’ presence and teaching were so powerful that they were well remembered by people who were used to passing on teaching orally. In many ways, this book is about that debate. It is a debate that rages in our culture as people speak about who Jesus was and what he taught.
I'm a bit surprised that a professional New Testament scholar could get so much wrong, but then Bock isn't the first I've encountered.  Judaism in Jesus' time relied on written sources to pass on stories: it was unique among pre-Christian religions in its reliance on Scripture, which means "writing."  Literacy wasn't as widespread in those days as it is now, but reading the Torah in synagogue was a regular part of Jewish worship.  True, the written text was used as a springboard for oral commentary, but that is true today among Christians too, and that commentary could range widely beyond the letter of the text.  There's a genre of Jewish biblical interpretation, haggadah, which retells the written biblical stories with a great deal of variation and invention, but those retellings have also been written down.  And the earliest Christian evidence we have are written documents, the letters of Paul, written a decade or more before anyone bothered to write the gospels.

If you accept the traditional authorship of the gospels, you have to cope with the fact that the evangelists provide as many as four discordant versions of Jesus' life and teaching -- five, if you include Paul's accounts of the first Eucharist and the resurrection.  That "culture of memory" was not all that reliable, even for preserving material that we know was of first importance to believers.  There's been a resurgence of attention to "oral tradition" in New Testament scholarship in the past couple of decades, but it seems to be as much about variation in the church's use of the Jesus tradition as about preserving historical data, and it doesn't give much support to apologists like Bock.

Still, reading these arguments gave me a warm feeling of familiarity: Bock's arguments are invalid, but they bring back memories of other invalid defenses of Christianity that I've encountered over the past forty years.