Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Larger Bowl

Track 4: The Larger Bowl (a pantoum)

If we’re so much the same like I always hear
Why such different fortunes and fates
Some of us live in a cloud of fear
Some live behind iron gates

Why such different fortunes and fates
Some are blessed and some are cursed
Some live behind iron gates
While others see only the worst

Some are blessed and some are cursed
The Golden One or scarred from birth
While others only see the worst
Such a lot of pain on the earth

The Golden One or scarred from birth
Some things can never be changed
Such a lot of pain on this earth
It’s somehow so badly arranged

Some things can never be changed
Some reasons will never come clear
It’s somehow so badly arranged
If we’re so much the same like I always hear

This is a great song. Despite that, it is one of the most “un-Rush” songs that Rush has ever recorded, in my opinion (right up there with Tears, Rivendell, and Losing It). The subtitle, “a pantoum,” is a reference to the poetic style employed in the lyrics. A pantoum is a series of 4-verse stanzas in which the second and fourth verses of the previous stanza become the first and third verses of the next stanza. In a song, it makes for a really nice, lilting, circular feel, and in this case, it manages to pass on an important philosophical message, too.

Clearly the lyrics are waxing philosophical about the nature of “good and bad” and how some people seem to have all the luck, while others are “scarred from birth.” These things, the lyrics suggest, are the bad side effects of “different fortunes and fates.”

I was thinking the other day about the line: “It’s somehow so badly arranged.” I didn’t catch it at first, but this seems to me to be a direct response to theistic ideas about God being in control and all the known universe being intelligently designed. For a supernatural deity who designed all the intricacies and mysteries of life, intelligence, and the universe, he sure botched the whole “fortunes and fates” thing. But I suppose that’s where the theists bring up their “fallen world but saved through faith” arguments (if they can be called “arguments”).

And yet, like so many of Neil’s lyrics, I can see an alternate interpretation, one with a little more hope, a little more compassion. “If we’re so much the same like I always hear, why such different fortunes and fates?” “It’s somehow so badly arranged, if we’re so much the same like I always hear.” By saying “If we’re so much the same like I always hear,” the line seems to have an ironic tone. “Oh yeah, we’re so much the same? Prove it.” It’s like a challenge. A challenge and a suggestion that it’s up to us to change our fortunes and fates, and to help elicit positive change for others in our homes, our cities, and our world. Some are scarred from birth while others live behind iron gates – it’s our responsibility to change that, to work toward equality on all levels, to tear down the iron gates that separate the “blessed” from the “cursed.”

This week is the beginning of a new quarter at school for me, and Tuesday I had my first class in Career Development. It’s basically a class that teaches us how to write a good resume and how to interview. Anyway, we spent most of the first class discussing our best and worst job experiences. One girl, who looked to me to be Hawaiian or Filipino – Pacific Islander, one way or the other – told of an incident she had while working in a store where a customer refused to let her help him, telling one of her co-workers that he didn’t want that “nigger bitch” helping him. Naturally, the first inclination is outrage, disgust, and ire that someone could say such a thing and believe that way, and those same feelings are directed to the individual himself. Yet – and I think this relates back to the lesson that can be drawn from the lyrics to The Larger Bowl – when you step back and think deeply on the situation, you recognize that this person, like all of us, was born innocent. No one is born a racist, a murderer, or a child molester. We are born innocent, and we become racists, murderers, liberals, conservatives, peace activists, or soldiers based on our own inherent nature and how that nature causes us to react to the environment, upbringing, and culture we are given. The individual in the story above was not born a racist. He learned to be a racist through experience, upbringing, and, no doubt, a lot of poor influences.

This is not to say, of course, that people should not be held responsible, and called to the floor, for racist beliefs, violent tendencies, anger issues, or any of a hundred other negative and damaging personality traits. But it is important to recognize that we are all born innocent, and but for a tweak in brain chemistry here, or a change in upbringing and/or culture there, it might be us standing in the store, calling someone of South Pacific heritage a “nigger bitch.” Seeing deeply in this manner helps us to develop compassion and understanding.

“If we’re so much the same like I always hear, why such different fortunes and fates?” It is up to us to elicit positive change in the world, by recognizing the inherent innocence of all people and by seeing through to the human side of life, and using that understanding to work for peace, equality, love, and compassion.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Workin' Them Angels

Track 3: Workin’ Them Angels

Driving away to the east, and into the past
History recedes in my rear-view mirror
Carried away on a wave of music down a desert road
Memory humming at the heart of a factory town

All my life
I've been workin’ them angels overtime
Riding and driving and living
So close to the edge
Workin’ them angels

Riding through the Range of Light to the wounded city
Filling my spirit with the wildest wish to fly
Taking the high road to the wounded city
Memory strumming at the heart of a moving picture

Driving down the razor’s edge between the past and the future
Turn up the music and smile
Get carried away on the songs and stories of vanished times
Memory drumming at the heart of an English winter
Memories beating at the heart of an African village

Some might say it’s art or sculpture or even the written word, but for me, music is the most fervent expression of human emotion. Maybe it’s because there’s real sound involved, but nothing cries like music, nothing laughs like music, nothing rages like music, and nothing loves like music.

Don’t believe music can cry? Listen to Stevie Ray Vaughan or Mark Knopfler. Don’t believe music can laugh? Listen to Jimmy Buffett. Don’t believe music can rage? Listen to Guns n’ Roses. Don’t believe music can love? Listen to Beethoven.

Even as an avowed scrivener and scribbler, I still have to give the nod to musical expression as the penultimate form of emotive art.

In addition to playing on our emotions, music has a fascinating way of connecting itself indelibly to our memories. I remember those car trips to western Kentucky to my grandmother’s house, listening all the way to the greatest hits of Elton John and Alabama. I still can’t hear “40 Hour Week,” “Honky Cat,” or “Daniel” without thinking of those trips and the anticipation I always felt. Those were good times, and they had good music to accompany them.

Another song that has always been full of memories for me is Dire Straits’ “Your Latest Trick.” The Brothers in Arms album was one that I would frequently listen to in my fancy Sony Walkman on those long car trips to western Kentucky, and “Your Latest Trick” was one of my favorites from that album (still is). I distinctly associate that hauntingly sad song with one of the last trips we made to western Kentucky from Louisville. It was the evening of Friday, March 4, 1988, and we were heading to Muhlenberg County because my grandfather had just died. I can still remember sitting in the back seat of the car, on the right side, and staring out the window at the stars overhead while “Your Latest Trick” played in my headphones. “And we’re standing outside of this wonderland, looking so bereaved and so bereft. Like a Bowery bum when he finally understands the bottle’s empty and there’s nothing left.” It was very surreal. I think I listened to “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” too, which was quite apt because I definitely said goodbye to a part of my childhood that night.

Those are sad memories, but as I indicated above, there are plenty of good memories associated with songs too. I remember playing with Lego’s in the hallway of our house in Louisville on rainy Sunday afternoons, listening to Amy Grant’s “In a Little While.” What a perfect rainy day song. And every time I think of “Christmas is for Children” or “Little Snow Girl,” I am immediately taken back to Christmas at the Christmases, icing sugar cookies on the kitchen table and getting up before dawn on Christmas morning to light the fire and prepare for a few hours of materialistic bliss.

Later, Guns n’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction album became the soundtrack to my life, helping me to escape from teenage angst and providing an outlet for my emotions. I never will forget listening to “Mr. Brownstone” in the car one day, and my sister – no doubt angry with me over something – casually telling Mom and Dad that the song was about “doing drugs,” hoping to get me in trouble. I don’t think I had even known, prior to that, what they meant when they said, “We’ve been dancing with Mr. Brownstone...”

And then there’s Jimmy Buffett. What song of his doesn’t take me back? One semester in college, I had a hammock strung up from wall to wall in front of my window, and I would lay in it in swim trunks on sunny winter days and bask in the warmth of the heat radiating through the window, listening to “Brahma Fear,” “I Have Found Me a Home,” and “Migration.” “I got a Caribbean soul I can barely control and some Texas hidden here in my heart.” And Buffett’s live album Feeding Frenzy still reminds me of a get together in 1990 when my friends Russell and Osborne came up from Louisville for the weekend and we listened to that album over, and over, and over again. Russell brought a video camera and we filmed a video to “Fins.” (As I recall, we also did what we thought was a hilarious commercial for condoms, which primarily consisted of me and Osborne humping.)

Like the song says: “Turn up the music and smile; get carried away on the songs and stories of vanished times...”

Friday, June 15, 2007

Armor & Sword

Track 2: Armor & Sword

The snakes and arrows a child is heir to
Are enough to leave a thousand cuts
We build our defenses, a place of safety
And leave the darker places unexplored

Sometimes the fortress is too strong
Or the love is too weak
What should have been our armor
Becomes a sharp and angry sword

Our better natures seek elevation
A refuge for the coming night
No one gets to their heaven without a fight

We hold beliefs as a consolation
A way to take us out of ourselves
Meditation, or medication
A comfort, or a promised reward

Sometimes that spirit is too strong
Or the flesh is too weak
Sometimes the need is just too great
For the solace we seek
The suit of shining armor
Becomes a keen and bloody sword

A refuge for the coming night
A future of eternal light
No one gets to their heaven without a fight

Confused alarms of struggle and flight
Blood is drained of color
By the flashes of artillery light
No one gets to their heaven without a fight
The battle flags are flown
At the feet of a god unknown
No one gets to their heaven without a fight

Sometimes the damage is too great
Or the will is too weak
What should have been our armor
Becomes a sharp and burning sword

I really like the lyrics to this song because they have so many subtleties and possible interpretations. The second half of the first stanza – “We build our defenses, a place of safety, and leave the darker places unexplored” – is such an apt description of how so many people live their religious lives. For them, religion and spirituality is not so much about personal growth and self-actualization as it is about comfort zones and shelters against fear. This is the hallmark, in my opinion, of evangelical Christianity. Take up the cross against the fearful world, and then bury yourself under it, poking your head out now and then to scream at the passers-by to join you in your fallout shelter.

As the song tells us, the natural result of this kind of Fortress Faith is violent struggle to maintain the wobbly walls. “Confused alarms of struggle and flight, blood is drained of color by the flashes of artillery light.” Too entrenched in our beliefs to step away, we fly our battle flags at the feet of our chosen God, and go to spiritual, and physical, war with the enemy who threatens our stability. Our Fortress Faith – our armor – becomes a sharp and burning sword, used to cut down those who stand against us.

This, I believe, is the darker meaning of that repeated phrase, “No one gets to their heaven without a fight.”

I believe, however, that a different interpretation can be taken from that phrase. Whether Neil meant it as a double-entendre or not remains to be seen, but I can find a spark of hope in those words. The lyrics say, “Our better natures seek elevation, a refuge for the coming night. No one gets to their heaven without a fight.” We long for spiritual connections, whether they come through concepts of “God as supernatural benefactor” or “God as source of being” or “Universe as Mother/Father.” We seek comfort from the prospect of a cold, indifferent universe, of eternal annihilation upon the extinction of our consciousness. We hope for something more, something different, something better. In that sense, we struggle to find our heaven, to find our source of peace and love.

So when I listen to this song, and contemplate these lyrics, I see two sides of the same coin. Heads is the spiritual seeker, searching spiritual elevation and self-actualization through understanding and communing with God - whatever their definition of God may be. Tails is the comfort seeker, searching for refuge and shelter from a sin-stained world, burrowing under the cross, the crescent moon, or the six-pointed star, and coming out from time to time to fight off those who threaten their comfort zone.

As for me, I call heads.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Far Cry

In honor of Rush’s 2007 Snakes & Arrows tour, which started last night in Atlanta, Georgia, I am going to do a series of blogs about each song on the new album. I’ll do a new blog post each day (hopefully!), one for each of the 13 songs, and I will post the lyrics first, and then my commentary on what the lyrics mean to me and/or any other relevant commentary that may spring from the lyrics. I’ll also cut out all the repeated choruses and refrains from the lyrics, for the sake of space and needless repetition.

These won’t be blogs about how much I love Rush or about Rush-related issues – meaning, you don’t have to like Rush to, hopefully, read and enjoy these posts. Like all my blogs, these will primarily be commentaries on religion, politics, philosophy, and the state of life on this watery little planet – you know, serene musings.

Track 1: Far Cry

Pariah dogs and wandering madmen
Barking at strangers and speaking in tongues
The ebb and flow of tidal fortune
Electrical changes are charging up the young

It’s a far cry from the world we thought we’d inherit
It's a far cry from the way we thought we’d share it
You can almost feel the current flowing
You can almost see the circuits blowing

One day I feel I’m on top of the world
And the next it’s falling in on me
I can get back on
One day I feel I’m ahead of the wheel
And the next it’s rolling over me
I can get back on

Whirlwind life of faith and betrayal
Rise in anger, fall back and repeat
Slow degrees on the dark horizon
Full moon rising, lays silver at your feet

You can almost see the circle growing
You can almost feel the planet glowing

One day I fly through a crack in the sky
And the next it’s falling in on me
I can get back on

Besides being one of the best songs, musically, on the album, the message of Far Cry really resonates with me. Growing up in my comfortable, safe, upper middle class, Christian world, I certainly haven’t come to find, as an adult, the world I thought I’d inherit. Life never turns out quite how you expect – which, you come to find out, is not necessarily a bad thing. I never thought I’d be 32, with two kids, divorced and remarried to the same person, and back in school to work in a hospital setting. Yet I feel happy with where I am and what I’ve come through, and I feel that I am on the right track. Still, those ups and downs of the daily grind can take their toll. One day I fly through a crack in the sky, and the next it’s falling in on me.

It’s easy to get caught up in the fears and anxieties of this world we’ve inherited. Terrorism, bird flu, political ineptitude, unjust wars, the loss of liberty in the name of freedom, outrageous gas prices, theocratic politicians who legislate their misguided sense of morality at the expense of humanity, hopeless greed, guileless corporate gunslingers, the squeezing out of the middle class, and $6 hotdogs at the ballpark. Considering this, it’s little wonder that I heard a recent news report saying violent crime was up all across the board. Who couldn’t have predicted this 7 years ago? Anyone who was intellectually honest and had even a thimbleful of foresight.

But despite those things, hope remains. And that’s one of the most powerful messages of this song, I believe. That little, innocuous, repeated phrase – “I can get back on.” Even in the face of the horrors, anxieties, and uncertainties of the modern age, if we can keep forging ahead, keeping picking ourselves up, and keep refusing to be ruled by fear, maybe we can help ensure our children can

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Thoughts on Trees

I was outside on a break today and a co-worker motioned to a nearby tree and said, “If that big old tree ever snapped off, it would crush my car.”

It sparked for me one of those moments that cerebral people frequently have where you suddenly find yourself in awe of nature’s magnificence.

The trunks of trees grow thick and strong, which allows them to stand up to the fiercest of winds. On their much thinner branches, they grow leaves, which (among other things) help increase the surface area receiving the brunt of the wind, thus allowing the branches to withstand wind forces much higher than they could stand without the leaves. They lose their leaves in the winter, when strong storms with powerful winds are less likely to occur. By the time storm season returns, the trees have regrown their leaves.

When branches do snap and fall to the ground, they biodegrade quickly into the soil, providing powerful nutrients for the tree to keep growing stronger.

It’s all just such a perfect circle of life, everything working together in flawless precision, every unexpected turn met with botanical preparation.

It almost seems...designed.

Almost. But not quite.

It’s fascinating to realize that the only reason I am even here to contemplate it is because it works.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

An Illustration of the Jewish Midrash Tradition

You all have heard me talk many times in the past about the Jewish midrash tradition. This tradition was a writing style wherein stories of real people would be imbued with fictitious accounts meant not to promote myth and lies, but to explain in clear language the importance of the person being written about. Rather than use traditional language, the person or event would be described against the backdrop of ancient stories and myths, in order to show how the subject person or event was bigger than life, and vitally important to the continuing story of the Jewish culture. Jesus's life was described in this way in the bible.

This tradition worked both on the positive and the negative. Just as intentional metaphor and mythology would be used to describe the greatness of certain individuals or events, intentional metaphor and mythology would be used to describe the depravity of certain individuals or events.

One such example is in the case of the Roman emperor Titus.

Titus was emperor of Rome from 79 to 81 C.E., and was considered by most secular historians of the time as a good emperor. He reigned during the catastrophic eruption of Vesuvius in 79 C.E., as well as through a devestating fire and plague in Rome in 80 C.E. He distinguished himself during these events through charity, monetary and peronsal aid, and an active policy to relieve the suffering these events caused. He personally visited the site of the destroyed Pompeii twice. Furthermore, because of his moderate and charitable reputation, he is considered the model emperor for the later "Five Good Emperors" described in Edward Gibbon's seminal work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Be that as it may, Titus was a general prior to becoming emperor, and as such, he was the figure who led the battle for the Romans against the Jews in the revolt of 70 C.E. His armies put the Jewish revolt down, secured Jerusalem as a province of Rome, and destroyed the Temple, thereby dispersing the Jews for good (that is, until 1947).

As you can imagine, despite his glowing reputation among Romans and Roman historians, Titus is viewed quite negatively in Jewish histories.

The Babylonian Talmud describes Titus as "wicked," saying that he "blasphemed and insulted heaven." There is a story of him taking his mistress into the holy of holies (a place only the high priest was allowed to go), opening a scroll of the Torah, then having sex on top of the scroll in the middle of the holy of holies.

Later, after the war, when Titus was returning to Rome, a great gale came up on the sea, and Titus mocked God, saying that the Jewish God only has power on the water. God, in turn, told Titus he would meet him on land, and destroy him with the tiniest creature on earth, a gnat, to prove his power.

The Babylonian Talmud goes on to say that a gnat, which, it claims, has only an orifice for eating but not for excreting, entered Titus's nose and went up into his brain. There it lived for the next 7 years, before finally killing Titus. Upon a post-morten examination, Titus's head was opened and the gnat was discovered, the size of a sparrow.

All of this is midrash. It was metaphor and mythology, intentionally devised to show how the Jews felt about Titus. Describing him conducting a sex act on a scroll of the Torah, inside the holy of holies, was about the worst possible thing imaginable to a 1st or 2nd century Jew. Describing a scene in which God's power is displayed on the water harkens back to stories of the parting of the Red Sea and the story of Jonah (this same theme is used in the Gospels when describing Jesus's power to calm the storm).

Describing a "gnat" as entering Titus's brain also harkens back to the stories of the Exodus. One of the plagues was a swarm of gnats. Gnats, as well as any flying insect that swarmed or "went about on 4 legs" were considered detestable and unclean to the Jews, as outlined in Jewish Law (see Leviticus 11:20 and Deuteronomy 14:19). So to suggest God sent a gnat to kill Titus not only describes God's power over earthly rulers, but also portrays earthly rulers as so insignificant, weak, wicked, and depraved as to be destroyed by an unclean, detestable insect.

All of this illustrates well the Jewish midrash tradition. Titus never copulated on the floor of the holy of holies. Titus never had a conversation with God during a storm at sea. Titus did not get killed by a gnat entering his brain through his nose (as if such an opening even exists there), and there was certainly no sparrow-sized insect found in Titus's skull after death. These stories were incorporated into the Jewish written tradition in order to illustrate in an overt and unconcealed way just how the Jews felt about this man Titus.

Understand midrash, and you will see the Gospel stories of Jesus in an entirely new, refreshing, and spiritually meaningful light.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Happy Birthday, Kentucky

215 years ago today, Kentucky was admitted as the 15th state in the Union.

35 fun facts about Kentucky:

1. Kentucky is called the "Bluegrass State" because it is rife with a type of grass that is thick, lush, and deep green. From a distance, when the angles are right and the grass is in bloom, it looks dark blue.

2. It is unclear exactly where the state's name comes from -- most agree it is based on a Native American word, but there are many theories about just what this word was, and what it meant.

3. Kentucky borders 7 states and has 120 counties.

Louisville, Kentucky

4. Kentucky's Lake Cumberland is the largest lake by volume east of the Mississippi River.

5. Kentucky's Mammoth Cave is the largest cave in the world. First promoted in 1816, it is the second oldest official tourist attraction in the U.S., behind Niagra Falls.

6. Both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis (President of the Confederate States) were born in Western Kentucky, less than 1 year and 100 miles apart.

Abe Lincoln's Birthplace

7. Kentucky was originally part of Virginia, known as Kentucky County, Virginia.

8. The central star on the Confederate flag represented Kentucky, even though Kentucky never officially seceeded from the Union.

9. Kentucky governor William Goebel is the only governor in U.S. history to be assassinated (1900).

10. Kentucky is historicaly democratic in terms of political leanings. In 2006, only 35% of Kentuckians were registered as Republicans, as compared to 57% registered as Democrats. Be that as it may, Kentucky has voted strongly Republican, both at the state and federal levels, since 2000.

11. 91% of Kentuckians are white.

12. 33% of Kentuckians are affiliated with evangelical Protestant churches, the largest of any group. However, 46% claim no relgious affiliation.

Lexington, Kentucky

13. Bourbon whiskey was invented in Georgetown, Kentucky by Baptist preacher Elijah Craig in the late 1700's. Craig also helped found Georgetown College (my alma mater).

Georgetown College, Kentucky

14. As of 2007, Bourbon County is dry. Christian County is wet. Barren County has the most fertile land in the state.

15. The Toyota plant in Georgetown makes every Toyota Camry driven in the United States.

16. 51% of Kentuckians live in either Louisville, Lexington, or Northern Kentucky (Cincinnati metro area).

17. The widest portion of the Ohio River is at Louisville - in one spot, it is nearly a mile wide.

18. Berea College was the first co-ed southern college to permit both blacks and whites, doing so from its inception in 1855.

19. Every Corvette driven in the world is made in Bolwing Green, Kentucky.

20. State Bird: Cardinal. State Flower: Goldenrod.

21. Thunder Over Louisville, a fireworks show kicking off the annual 2-week Derby Day festivities, is the largest annual fireworks show in the world.

Thunder Over Louisville, 2007

22. The two largest rivers in North American - the Missisippi and the Ohio - converge near Wickliffe, Kentucky.

23. Kentucky is the only state in the U.S. with part of its contiguous border cut off from the rest of the state. The Kentucky Bend area, in extreme Western Kentucky, was separated from the rest of the state during the New Madrid Earthquake of 1812. As such, this area, with an official population of 17, is completely surrounded now by Missouri and Tennessee. A portion of Missouri cuts it off completely from Kentucky by about 4 miles.

24. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, most of Kentucky was unsettled by Native Americans. Rather, the area was a hunting ground for Shawnee and Cherokee tribes farther north.

25. The first permanent American settlement in Kentucky was Harrodstown (now called Harrodsburg), settled in 1774.

26. The first cheesburger ever served at a restaurant was served at Kaolin's, in Louisville, in 1934.

27. The first commercial oil well in the U.S. was in McCreary County, Kentucky, 1819.

28. The Happy Birthday Song was composed by two Louisville sisters in 1893.

29. The first Mother's Day observation was held in Henderson, Kentucky in 1887. It became an official U.S. holiday in 1916.

30. Lexington, Kentucky premiered the first Beethoven symphony to be played in the United States, 1817.

31. Post-It Notes are manufactured exclusively in Cynthiana, Kentucky.

32. Thomas Edison introduced his light bulb in Louisville in 1883.

33. The radio was invented in Murray, Kentucky in 1892, three years before Marconi's claim.

34. Fort Knox stores the largest amount of gold anywhere in the world.

35. The Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption in Covington has the largest hand blown stained glass window in the world.

Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption