Saturday, July 26, 2008

Lethal Language

Gravity wants to bring me down.
- John Mayer

My father has been in intensive care for nearly three weeks. He's very sick, perhaps at death's door. I hope he recovers, of course, but he may die. So this has me thinking about death and dying and all the games we play with words to banish such discomfiting thoughts. Relief, for me, comes in the form of a reality check. I know from experience that pushing away the truth only delays the inevitable and accomplishes essentially nothing.

We are obsessed with death, just as we are obsessed with sex. We euphemize our conception of the end of life and simultaneously use a vocabulary that alludes to it. This two-pronged denial strategy is analogous to our sexual double standard - we both glorify sex in the abstract (through advertising, pornography and other forms of pop culture) and repress our actual sexuality (via ancient taboos inculcated primarily through religious indoctrination). Hmm, sex and death. Sounds like a good subject for a Woody Allen movie.

When someone dies we say that they have passed away, expired, gone over to the other side, dropped their body, made their transition, gone to their maker, returned from whence they came. We imagine that they're in a better place, they're in heaven, with the angels, with god. We hardly ever plainly say that they're dead. We wriggle and squirm at the mere thought of anything related to death - cadavers, funerals, cremation... We've created a death-centered literary and cinematic genre - horror - devoted entirely to scaring the bejeezus out of us, as if we could steel ourselves vicariously for the real thing by reading or watching.

It must be our abject fear of our own mortality, combined with the magical hope that we are somehow immortal, that makes us so squeamish about death. All religions offer the vainglorious carrot of eternal life in one form or another: heaven, salvation, nirvana, the "light" on one hand and hell, Hades, samsara, the inferno on the other. From the fear of death and the promises/warnings about the hereafter streams our obsessive need for rules of behavior. We blithely allow our gods, prophets, governments, bosses and parents to create and enforce those rules. Comply and you go to heaven. Misbehave and spend eternity in hell. It seems like a helluva bad deal to me.

Though we have so many we ways to avoid mentioning death and dying directly, we also use expressions that include aspects of it in everyday speech. Musicians love to speak of a "killer" groove. A great performance or recording is "killin'". When a comedian does well he has "killed" or "knocked 'em dead".

Another quizzical word for me is "execution". It is at once the violent ending of a life and the goal of those of us who have specialized skills. To execute well (for a musician, a visual artist, a ballplayer, a dancer, a doctor) is to have a good technique, to be able to perform deftly. If you can execute, you'll kill. Hopefully this is not true for surgeons. It does suit corporate executives, however. Those people are killin'.

While not specifically a euphemism for death, the word "grave" has interesting multiple meanings. There is a sense of downward pull inherent in it. The dead person is, of course, lowered into a grave (or, more delicately, their "final resting place"). Someone on the brink of death is said to be gravely ill. The musical marking "grave" (pronounced Italian style) means very slow. One can speak gravely, that is, in a low or descending pitched voice. A grave subject is serious or weighty. And we experience "gravity" as the earthward (or downward) force exerted on us.

Maybe it would be better to be more direct with our language. The euphemisms create a false barrier between us and the truth. We may feel the need for that protection sometimes, but denial only works temporarily. Lenny Bruce had a famous routine about ethnic slurs in which he posited that by repeatedly saying those nasty words outloud and not hiding from them, we could eliminate both the illicit pleasure some get from using them and the pain caused to the people being denigrated by them. The same may be true for death. Think it, say it, know it is final. All the candy coating in the world is not going to make it any easier to recognize that dead is dead.

When it is my turn to die, I strongly suspect that I will not be going to a "better place". I don't believe I have an eternal soul that will float up to heaven (or, more likely, down to hell in my case). I'm not riding on the wheel of samsara and I don't expect to be reincarnated as a snail or a bodhisattva. When my neurons stop firing, the entity known as "me" will cease to exist.

This recognition does not make life meaningless for me; on the contrary, knowing that my existence is finite inspires me to do the best I can, right now. If I only get one crack at it I'm going to try to make the most of it, in every way possible.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Fine Art: Wood Sculpture by Connie Berg


Another serendipitous result from yesterday's eye-and-ear satisfying events: I met a very interesting sculptor from downstate Illinois. Her name is Connie Berg, and she creates wonderful wooden objects using, in her words, discarded "thrown away" pieces, such as parts of antique furniture, old tools, the banister of an old stairway, wooden molds and so on. I have yet to see the pieces in person but I did get to view images of these marvelous creations.

Due to the wonder of modern technology, you can too:

Connie's Wood Sculpture

Inspiring Sunday: Art, Poetry and Music

Sundays are rarely lively for me, arriving, as they do, at the end of my musician's schedule work week. I make it through my weekly church gig by depending on the talent of the singers I get to accompany (most of them, anyway) and the company of two great musician friends.

Yesterday's inspiration came from a couple of events that I was fortunate enough to attend later in the day. First, I was invited to a poetry reading at the Woman Made Gallery, 685 N. Milwaukee here in Chicago. The gallery itself is a wonder - two spacious floors filled with an amazing exhibition entitled Drawing On Experience. If that wasn't enough, I was privileged to hear the work of what must be some of the best contemporary poets, including Ellen Wade Beals, Mary Kathleen Hawley, Allison Joseph, Lauren Levato, Patricia McMillen, Judith Valente and Nina Corwin. I feel quite sheepish that I had previously been unaware of their work, as well as the existence of the gallery. I am now, in the spirit of Jimi Hendrix, experienced.

Last night I visited the newly reopened Jazz Showcase, now located at Printer's Row in the South Loop area. I have been a patron of this world-renowned venue since I moved to Chicago in the mid-70s. I heard one of my favorite contemporary musicians, guitarist/composer John Abercrombie. Mr. Abercrombie has distinguished himself as a writer, improviser and band leader in an era that has seen the ascension of some other great guitarists. As one of the inheritors of Jim Hall's lyricism, he has gone his own way as a stylist quite distinct from Metheny, Scofield, Towner and Frisell.

In recent years I have foolishly denied myself the pleasure of hearing world class jazz played live, a sin I hope to rectify in the next phase of my life. My excuses for this are as indefensible as they have been intractable. I've also been in the dark about the local visual art and poetry scenes for the last couple of decades (at least). Since I rail against ignorance and credulity in other areas of life, I'm going to have to spend some time in my personal penalty box for being so out of it, culturally.

Yesterday I witnessed creation. People are making art, poetry and music that matters - viscerally, intellectually, spiritually. My eyes and ears have been reopened, much to my surprise. And it feels really good.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Go Gore!

Al Gore - visionary? I guess so. In case you live under a large boulder, yesterday the former VP made a historic speech calling on the U.S. to eliminate the use of fossil fuels within a decade.

Is there the political will to get this done? That's the question. This morning I heard some wonk from the American Enterprise Institute thoroughly dismiss the idea that Gore's proposal is within the realm of possibility. It may not be in the best interests of the oil oligarchy currently in power, but, as Al points out, if we can put a man on the moon in less than ten years, we can certainly find a way to use solar and wind power to achieve a carbon-emission free society much more quickly than the energy industry would like. It will take tremendous technical know-how, money, people...

But mostly it will take great courage for our leaders to put this in motion. Are you listening, Mr. Obama?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Book Report: Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith

With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.
--Steven Weinberg

I first visited Nauvoo, IL around 1980. The town looked like the set of Little House on the Prairie, all dirt roads, buggy rides and quaint mid-19th century shops. It all seemed innocent enough, despite the gleaming white temple in the middle of town with the huge, weird statue of an angel standing guard outside. I knew nothing then about the Mormons and assumed they were just another Christian sect, akin to the Lutherans or Presbyterians. I still don't understand how all of these faiths can claim to worship the same god but disagree so vehemently on how to do so, but I suppose that's a topic for another day.

I was in Nauvoo again with my children two summers ago, as part of our driving trip following the path of the Mississippi River. This time the town seemed considerably creepier, and the kids were bored stiff there. So we sauntered around briefly, collected our brick with NAUVOO emblazoned on it, and took off. Had I encountered Jon Krakauer's frightening book Under the Banner of Heaven in the interim I would have stayed as far away from this midwestern Mormon outpost as possible.

Krakauer tells the story of the 1984 murder of Brenda Lafferty and her infant daughter Erica by Ron and Dan Lafferty, two fundamentalist Mormons. But the bulk of the book is taken up with Krakauer's astute and even handed analysis of the faith, its history and its adherents. The question he tries to answer is this: What kind of faith system would encourage two men to believe that it was god's will that they murder two members of their own family?

Very briefly, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (as Mormons are officially known) was begun in 1830 by their first prophet, a man named Joseph Smith. Smith communicated with an angel named Moroni, who revealed the tenets of the new faith to him through a set of magical golden plates. (Incidentally, it is the figure of Moroni which guards the Mormon temple in Nauvoo.) It seems that the main attraction of the new faith was the notion that all individuals can communicate directly with god. Every member of the church is therefore capable of receiving divine revelations. It was one of these revelations, given to Ron Lafferty, that led to the double homicide that Krakauer examines in the book.

There are a couple of controversial points that were revealed to Smith during his tenure as prophet and published by him in The Book of Mormon. First, the LDS church believes that women must be subservient to men in every way. The only way to god for them is through surrender of their liberty, especially to their husbands. "Celestial marriage", what those outside of the faith call polygamy, is but one heinous example of this subjugation. Second, only white men can serve as members of the governing body of 15, consisting of a prophet, his two counselors and the Quorum of Twelve Apostles. No women or non-whites may become members of the elite group that sets all policy and adjudicates all disputes within the church.

Both of these original tenets of the LDS faith have been challenged and, for the time being, set aside by the mainstream church. In fact, it is this deviation from Smith's revelations that has inspired the creation of the fundamentalist Mormon movement, known as FLDS. Members of a group from Eldorado, Texas affiliated with the FLDS were recently in the news regarding allegations of polygamy and child abuse.

As chronicled by Krakauer, this schism between Mormons has often been bitter and has sometimes turned violent. The history of the LDS itself is rather bloody, but that doesn't necessarily distinguish Mormonism from other religions. But the church is very guarded about its past and regularly withholds information and documents that might reflect poorly on the character of Mormons, especially the prophets and other important figures. Smith himself had a rather sordid side, but this aspect of his biography is swept under the proverbial rug by the LDS leadership. "Lying for the faith" is considered a laudatory act by Mormons, and it is practiced regularly by the leadership as well as the lay members of the church.

The FLDS seeks to restore both the racist and sexist components of Mormonism that were extant during the time of Joseph Smith. Krakauer estimates that there are roughly 40,000 people who identify as members of the FLDS, primarily living in isolated communities in the western U.S. This is as frightening to me as the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

Mainstream Mormons number about 13 million worldwide, according to their official website. The LDS church actively proselytizes and the number of adherents is consequently growing rapidly. The mainstream church downplays the role of "celestial marriage" but the laws are still on the books. Many who have studied the faith believe that the LDS is biding its time until the church becomes so powerful as to be able to demand legislation allowing them to practice their religion as they see fit, at least in areas (like Utah) where Mormons are in the majority.

When people firmly believe that the voices in their heads come from a supreme being who is perfect, omniscient and omnipotent, they can and will do unspeakable things without remorse. It doesn't matter if the supernatural being is "familiar" Jesus or "strange" Allah, the results can be the same. If children are brought up in insular communities, kept ignorant of other ways of living, and indoctrinated into a faith without the ability to question and make personal choices, this creates a very dangerous situation.

The Lafferty murders, chronicled and impeccably researched by Jon Krakauer, are examples of how destructive this kind of blind devotion can be. If you want a good dose of cultural reality (and a scare that will rival any horror movie ever made), read Under the Banner of Heaven.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Declare for Nader, Vote for Obama

When the pollsters call, tell them you'd vote for Ralph Nader. If you call yourself a progressive (ie you're in favor of progress), then please don't get swept away in the Obama love-fest that has been the story of this campaign so far. The only way we can hope to shift the campaign agenda towards the issues that matter most is to let Nader be heard. Of course he's not going to get elected; he knows and acknowledges that fact. But if he polls at 10% or higher he will be invited to debates (such as the upcoming Google sponsored event) and might even get a crumb's worth of coverage in the MSM (though I'm not holding my breath for that).

Nader is the only candidate with progressive positions on such crucial topics as the environment, military spending, health care, civil liberties, corporate crime, the economy, etc. Obama has been on the reasonable side of these issues but is too willing to be pushed to the so-called p0litical center in order to get elected. He is dead wrong in his support of the FISA legislation. And while he has expressed support for a single payer health care system, he currently favors reform that allows the criminal hegemony of the insurance industry to continue. I haven't heard a peep from him on reducing federal military spending nor any innovative ideas on getting solar, wind and geothermal technologies into the mainstream.

Look, I like the guy. I met Obama when I played a fundraiser for his senatorial bid a few years ago. He struck me then as a straight shooter, someone whose word you can trust. Now I'm not so sure. Will I vote for him in November? You bet I will. But supporting Nader's bid right now is the only conscionable action I can take.

Happy Ironic 4th of July

The faux-bombing of my neighborhood has begun, so it must be the 4th of July. I am, once again, overwhelmed by the irony of celebrating our nation's independence under the present political circumstances. The erosion of our civil liberties continues unabated, primarily in the guise of increasing national security. The Bush administration is covertly preparing for a war against Iran, against the will of most Americans. The presidential campaigns are studiously avoiding such unglamorous issues as true health care reform, criminal corporate greed, the absurd military budget (public and secret), alternative energy and global warming.

I'm stunned by the blind obeisance being paid to King George with regard to the FISA bill. Our Great Mixed-race Hope even supports this impending legislation, which gives immunity to the telecom industry for the gross violations of our 4th Amendment rights. Joseph Galloway has written an editorial for McClatchy that I wish I'd written. In it he rightly condemns Congress for its lack of will to fight this latest attack on the Bill of Rights.

And the jingoism, false patriotism and flag worship keep on coming. I would really like to feel proud to be an American, the way I imagine it must have felt when WWII ended. I am grateful to live in this country, but can find very little to celebrate when so much of what is done by our government with our tacit approval is so wrong.

For last year's much more thorough rant about Independence Day, please go here.