Friday, February 24, 2017

Why I'm a Feminist



So I recently updated my Facebook profile picture to the same one that's here on my blog, and my primary reason for doing so was simply because I think it's a good picture of me. But I also happen to be wearing a very visible "This is what a feminist looks like" T-shirt in the picture.

If I could've updated the picture without everyone seeing it on their timeline, I would have, because I knew it would generate comments. Furthermore, for every person who posted a comment, there were undoubtedly 20 others who thought something, but didn't post it.

In addition to the obligatory comments likening me to Brian Posehn (the most hideous-looking actor in Hollywood), and in addition to the smart-alecky comments from old fraternity brothers, one person said the following:

Feminism isn't really about supporting women or women's rights, it's more about spite and envy directed towards men.

This led me to thinking about the reasons why I consider myself a feminist, and what feminism really means to me versus what a lot of people might think of when they hear the word "feminism."

To suggest feminism isn't about supporting women or women's rights is patent nonsense. That's certainly what it's about for me. It's about standing in solidarity with women's rights and women's issues. I'm a man; obviously I'm not interested in directing spite and envy towards my own gender, and neither are the vast majority of the women I know and am acquainted with, many feminists included.

Women have been regarded as second-class citizens in most societies for most of human history. In some modern societies, they still are. Since the advent of human civilization, men have been controlling what women do, what they say, how involved they get to be in politics and culture, what kinds of jobs they can have, what kind of education they can have, what they can expect out of life, and how they should treat their own bodies. In the modern west, most of these issues have been addressed and are no longer a day-to-day struggle for most women. Instead, they have taken on new dimensions. Women today, for instance, can and do vote and participate in the political process. But we still live in a society that is in many ways distrustful of female politicians and which doesn't encourage female participation in political leadership. Of our 100 U.S. senators, only 21% are women. The U.S. House is even worse, with only 19% women. Only 10% of U.S. states have female governors.

Is this all the fault of men? Of course not. But considering the sorts of things women must endure if they want to enter politics (from both men AND women, sadly), it's hardly surprising that many gifted women prefer to do something else or work behind the scenes.

This is just one example, of course. There are countless others. Violence against women. Rampant sexism. Religious traditions that still deny women ministerial and/or leadership roles. Access to reliable and affordable gynecological and obstetric care including, when necessary, safe abortion services. Strong social protections for single mothers and their children. Equal educational and vocational opportunities, including equal pay.

I totally agree that there are some feminists out there for whom feminism is (or certainly seems to be) largely about spite against men and metaphorically castrating men. These are what you might call "militant" feminists and they seem to be interested not in equality and protection for women and women's rights, but rather for replacing a perceived patriarchy with what could only be called a matriarchy. They don't want to be equal with men, they want to rule men. And anytime they perceive something wrong in society, especially in regards to women, it's all men's fault. Presumably, even the millions of women who are opposed to "feminism" in general are just under the spell of the evil patriarchy.

I don't think this characterizes most self-proclaimed "feminists." I think militant feminists are just like many other groups in society - they are a loud minority who, by virtue of their extremism, get a lot of media attention.

Defining feminism by militant feminists is a bit like defining Islam by Islamic terrorists or Christianity by fire-breathing fundamentalists. It's like defining white Americans by the KKK.  

I also want to make a brief comment on the "envy" thing. I think that bothered me more than anything about my friend's comment, because it implies that men enjoy certain inherent virtues or abilities that women don't have and which are, therefore, "enviable." That, of course, is biological nonsense, and that attitude is exactly why standing for, and supporting, women's rights is still so important.

So yes, I am a feminist, and I am proud to stand in solidarity with women and their continued pursuit of equality and fairness in society, even as millions of other men and women roll their eyes or, at times, stand boldly in their way.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Denying Jesus

So I saw this post today by someone on Facebook:

I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. He said deny me in front of your friends and I will deny you in front of my Father. Challenge Accepted: If you are not ashamed Copy and paste!!

I started to reply to the person, but refrained because I figured I'd regret it later, as I always do. I won't, however, regret blogging about it.

In chapter 10 of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says: "Whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my father in heaven." A popular verse among evangelical Christians, for sure.

This is the only gospel that records this saying of Jesus, making it among what textual scholars call the "M" material - meaning stories and sayings unique to the gospel of Matthew (compared with "L" material for unique stuff in Luke and "Q" material for stuff unique to both Matthew and Luke).

Most scholars would undoubtedly agree that Jesus never made this statement because it sounds suspiciously reflective of the early Christian society in which the author of Matthew was living and writing (80-85 AD) rather than the society in which Jesus lived and spoke (30s AD). The fact that no other gospel records it lends credence to this theory.  It's also worth pointing out that Matthew (as well as the other three gospels) also records the story of Peter denying Jesus three times before his crucifixion. Did Jesus therefore deny Peter before God? Is Peter in hell? If you take Matthew's gospel literally, that's the obvious conclusion.

In any case, whether you agree with scholars that this isn't an authentic saying of Jesus, the saying clearly held profound meaning for early Christians who were, at times, faced with persecution and even execution for being Christians (the main reason why this seems to come out of the culture of the 80s, and not the 30s - no one was being persecuted during Jesus's lifetime for following Jesus). Standing before a magistrate of the Roman Empire, many people denied being Christians so they could avoid being tortured or executed. But this saying was used to encourage Christians not to be afraid to stand up for their beliefs, even in the face of death or torture or social ostracism. The implication was that you might lose your salvation if you denied Christ. Many people were (unnecessarily) martyred in the name of this verse.

Why did the Romans dislike Christians so much? Because they considered them a new and insidious cult who had secretive rituals and who denied the Roman gods and refused to acknowledge the authority and, especially, the divinity, of the Roman emperor. This last point was the primary reason Christianity was frequently outlawed in various portions of the empire. Jews had long been given a pass on denying the Roman gods and the emperor's divinity, but that was because theirs were an ancient and well-respected religious tradition that predated Rome. Christianity, on the other hand, was new and had no antiquity to lend it credence. Think of how many people today feel about Mormonism - a relatively new and secretive cult, invented in America, and espousing strange beliefs and rituals. That's how average Romans viewed Christianity. There were all sorts of crazy rumors about what Christians did, including one that actually accused Christians of sacrificing, then eating, a baby while sitting at a table (which was undoubtedly a conflation of Christian interest in "baby Jesus" and the Lord's supper, where - in the eyes of Romans - Christians ritually ate their own god).

So how does this historical context relate to modern Christianity? To be perfectly frank, it doesn't. Modern Christians aren't persecuted and haven't been since the 4th century. Sure, there has been mistreatment of Christians in parts of the world where Christianity isn't the primary religion, and that continues to some extent even today, but in the Christian west, it's always been Christians doing the persecuting. In the United States, no one has to fear proclaiming their Christianity - depending on which poll you look at, anywhere from 70 to 85 percent of Americans identify as Christian - a vast majority.

That's why this verse has become a popular one for evangelical Christians. It's not about courage in the face of persecution, it's about proclaiming one's faith for the purpose of evangelizing. My Facebook friend isn't proclaiming Jesus even though she thinks she might be persecuted for it. She's proclaiming Jesus because she thinks that's what a good evangelical Christian should do.

In closing, let me also note that failing to copy and paste an evangelical proclamation of your faith on Facebook does not equate to "denying Jesus," as the post strongly implies. This post uses the old trick from the days of mass email forwarding where one was promised good things if they forwarded an email to a certain number of people, or bad things if they didn't. This post makes no promises like that, but the implication is clear that you are "denying Jesus," and Jesus will therefore deny you, if you don't copy and paste it to your profile.

I can't help but wonder if evangelicals like this have ever read another verse from Matthew which, interestingly enough, also is only found in Matthew (the "M" material). Matthew 6:5 says: Do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synogogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward." The whole first part of Matthew chapter 6 is devoted to Jesus encouraging people to practice their religion in private and not proclaim their actions to the world.

Friday, February 17, 2017

The 10 Best Jimmy Buffett Titles



As the heading indicates, you don't have to be a Jimmy Buffett fan to enjoy this post because it's not about Jimmy Buffett songs as much as it is about Jimmy Buffett song titles.

If you know anything about Buffett, it's that he fancies himself a comedian, working clever turns of phrase into his songs and occasionally coming up with funny song titles to go with it. This is, of course, a tradition in country music, and Buffett has always first and foremost been a musician out of the country-western tradition.

Not all of these songs are among his best tunes, but they are without question among his cleverest and, sometimes, surprising titles.

10. Trying to Reason With Hurricane Season

This is one of Buffett's better known songs, if only because it's on his seminal 1974 album A1A. If you haven't heard it before, it's worth a listen because not only does it have a clever title, but it's a fantastic song to boot.

9. God Don't Own a Car

This is from Buffett's pre-major label period. Recorded in 1971 as part of his second album on tiny Barnaby Records, neither the song nor the album was ever released because the sales of his first album with Barnaby were so poor. Barnaby actually claimed to have "lost" the master recordings when they explained to him why they weren't releasing the album. After he achieved mainstream success in the mid-1970s on a different label, Barnaby magically "found" the master tapes and finally released the album, to limited appeal, in 1976. After going out of print for years, most of the songs on the album (including this one) were released on a compilation CD in 1991 called Before the Beach. It's an apt title because these songs don't sound like anything Buffett did later. They are more like 60s folk rock songs.

In any case, God Don't Own a Car isn't a great Buffett song, but the title is eye-catching nonetheless.

8. Earl's Dead - Cadillac For Sale

This is a track from Buffett's most recent studio album, Songs from St. Somewhere. Like a lot of his recent music, this song is only okay. He definitely doesn't have the songwriting chops of his heyday, but that's okay. I still love everything he does and this song is clever if nothing else. It's about a circus performer who has died and whose widow is trying to sell the Cadillac that was an integral part of their life together.

7. It's Midnight and I'm Not Famous Yet

This is a song from the 1982 album Somewhere Over China. It's about a gambler in a casino trying to win it big with "one more bet."

6. If the Phone Doesn't Ring, It's Me

This is a really good song from the 1985 album Last Mango in Paris (the title track, which follows this one on the album, was considered for this list, but didn't quite make the cut). This song is clearly based on Buffett's separation from his wife, which occurred in the early 1980s. They finally reconciled around 1987 and have been together ever since. He wrote a lot of break-up songs during that period.

5. What if the Hokey-Pokey is All it Really is About?

This is from 2002's Far Side of the World album. It's not one of my favorite Buffett songs. It's a song that gives one the impression that it began as a funny title - probably something that someone said while drunk - and then a song was built around it. This song has five songwriters credited, including Buffett, and I've found there is an inverse relationship between the number of songwriters on a Buffett song and how good the song is.

In any case, the title's still funny.

4. We are the People Our Parents Warned Us About 

From Buffett's classic 1983 album One Particular Harbor, this is a great song that pokes fun at what the Baby Boomer generation was growing into in the early 1980s, and how that related to their parents' views on life in the 1950s.

3. Vampires, Mummies, and the Holy Ghost

Religion has long been a theme in Buffett's music, and this song, from 1994's Fruitcakes album, is no exception. Growing up Catholic (he was even an alter boy), Buffett jettisoned his religious trappings in adulthood and apparently never looked back, but his religious upbringing has influenced a lot of his lyrics.

This song is only okay, but the title is eye-catching and the lyrics discuss childhood fears that Buffett had - namely vampires, mummies, and the Holy Ghost. "These are the things that terrify me the most." Which is pretty funny.

2. The Weather Is Here, Wish You Were Beautiful 

A classic Buffett title, this song comes from the Coconut Telegraph album of 1981. Like a lot of Buffett's tunes, it could easily be turned into a short story. It's about a New York businessman who runs away from his life and moves to the Caribbean, only to find that even paradise sucks after a while, and he ends up heading back home to his old life. Buffett has stated that he got the title from graffiti he saw in a bar bathroom.

1. My Head Hurts, My Feet Stink, and I Don't Love Jesus 

Unquestionably Buffett's best song title, this one comes from 1976's Havana Daydreamin' album. The song is about a killer hangover and the title describes how Buffett feels about it. Humorously enough, the Oak Ridge Boys, of gospel music fame, sing back-up on this song, which has a real ragtime feel to it. They apparently were afraid their largely southern Christian audience wouldn't get the joke and asked not to be credited in the liner notes.



Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The 10 Best Songs You've Never Heard Before

Okay, so to be fair, some of you have undoubtedly heard some of these songs. But I'm fairly confident most of them are unfamiliar to most of you.

Like other similar lists I've done in the past, this list is, of course, my own creation based on my own likes, dislikes, and experiences. You might pick different songs. That's okay. We're different people.

I've tried to put some semblance of "ranking" here, just because it makes for good reading, but you could probably mix up any or all of these numbers and it would be the same difference.

Finally, I decided not to pick more than one song by any one artist. Narrowing down great deep cuts by my favorite musicians was probably the hardest part of this exercise.

And now ... on with the countdown!

10. Don't Damn Me - Guns n' Roses



This is a highly underrated GnR song from Use Your Illusion I that has been one of my favorites since I bought the album on the day it was released in 1991. It was written by Axl Rose and Slash (with additional credit given to someone named Dave Lank, who must have been a friend or something) and it's got one of Slash's best guitar riffs, matched with a great vocal performance by Rose. The guitar solo near the end is pretty kick-ass too. The lyrics are Rose's attempt at justifying (and kinda sorta apologizing for) some of the controversial things he said and did back during GnR's heyday in the late 80s and early 90s.

9. The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald - Gordon Lightfoot 




This is actually one of Gordon Lightfoot's better known songs, but I still think it deserves to be on this list simply because most people under 50 aren't familiar with Gordon Lightfoot or his music. The lyrics tell the (mostly) true story of the sinking of the ship in the title during a storm on Lake Superior in 1975. This is the only Lightfoot song I know, but it's a really good one. I heartily recommend drinking a Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter while listening to the song.

8. Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy - Queen



This song appears on one of Queen's greatest hits compilations but it's only claim to fame is being a minor hit in 1977 in the UK. It's from Queen's hugely popular A Day At The Races album. Written by Freddie Mercury, he described it as a "ragtime" song. It's piano driven and sounds like parlor music, particularly at the beginning. Maybe my love of ragtime parlor music is why I like this one so much. In any case, it's also kind of funny because you can't help but remember how flaming gay he was while listening to him serenade an unnamed lover in the song.

7. Leningrad - Billy Joel 




Despite being a Billy Joel fan since I was a kid, I had never heard this song until a few years ago. It's from his later period and was never released as a single in the U.S. (It apparently did chart briefly in a few European countries, which is undoubtedly why it was included on one of his greatest hits compilations.) It tells the story of a visit Billy made with his daughter to Leningrad when Russia was still the Soviet Union. It's a great Cold War song with emotive music and poignant lyrics that aimed to humanize the Russian people during a time when they were frequently still demonized in the American popular consciousness.

6. Pillar of Davidson - Live 




In the same way that Appetite for Destruction by Guns n' Roses provided the soundtrack to my high school years, Throwing Copper by Live was the soundtrack to my time in college. I absolutely love this album, which offers an hour of great song after great song. Pillar of Davidson was not one of the many hits off this album, but it's perhaps the best song on what is undoubtedly one of the best albums of the entire 1990s. Like a lot of the album's songs, the lyrics are vague and make no sense at times (for instance, I have no idea what the title means or how it relates to the theme of the lyrics), but it appears to be a song about the plight of factory workers and laborers in the U.S. But it's the hard-hitting riffs and vocals (especially the chorus, which is downright glorious) that really make this a magnificent song.

5. I Feel Like a Bullet (In the Gun of Robert Ford) - Elton John




If you know anything about the history of the Old West, you'll know Robert Ford (more commonly called Bob Ford) was the man who shot and killed Jesse James. As evidenced by this an other songs, Elton John's lyricist, Bernie Taupin, apparently had a fascination with American history. In any case, the song is actually about the breakup of a relationship, but uses Jesse James' murder as an analogy. Between the great music and vocals, and the lyrical themes (I'm a big fan of the Old West), this has always been one of my favorite lesser-known Elton John songs.

4. Migration - Jimmy Buffett



This is the best song from Jimmy Buffett's best album, and it's been one of my favorites since I began listening to Buffett in the early 1990s. You won't hear it on his multi-platinum greatest hits collection or in concert, but trust me ... it's one of his best songs. It's the quintessential beach bum song and it includes a line about buying a parrot and teaching it to cuss and drink. What more could you want?

3. Are You Sure - Willie Nelson



Willie Nelson has had a slew of hits over the years but what is perhaps more remarkable is how many great songs he has that never were radio hits. This is one of them. I'd never heard this song until a demo version (released in the 2000s) was used during an episode of the first season of Lost. The studio version, as released on his Country Willie album in 1965 (his third album) is the one I like best and it's the one featured above. It's a great little ballad that highlights everything about Willie that makes him the greatest of all time.

2. Headlong Flight - Rush




It's me, so of course Rush is going to be on the list and be ranked near the top. Headlong Flight is from their most recent (and probably final) album, Clockwork Angels, released in 2012. Unless you're a major Rush fan, you've likely not heard this song, as it certainly didn't get any radio airplay. But trust me, it's one of the best songs of their 40-year career. With their recent retirement (at least from touring), it's become in my eyes their final masterpiece, after four decades of masterpieces. You may or may not like Rush, but if you don't think this song kicks all manner of ass, you just don't like hard rock. It's three virtuoso rock musicians at the height of their collective power.

1. Was I Right Or Wrong - Lynyrd Skynyrd 



Though it was recorded in the 1970s, this song was never released on any Lynyrd Skynyrd albums during their heyday, but sat in the vault until released during the 1990s on several compilation albums. This is remarkable to me because with the possible exception of Free Bird, it may be their best song. It tells the story of an aspiring musician who goes out to pursue his dream against the advice of his parents. He succeeds, but then comes home to find both parents have died. The story is perhaps a bit sappy but the guitar riffs are unbelievable. I just love, love, love this freaking song.

Special Bonus Song!

The Green Fields of France - Dropkick Murphys 



When picking songs to include on this list, I came up with 11 instead of 10. Instead of dropping one, I just decided to add one as a bonus. You're welcome.

The Dropkick Murphys are a Celtic punk band - yes you read that right - from Massachusetts. This song is a remake of a folk song written in the 1970s by a Scottish singer named Eric Bogle. In it, the singer reflects on the grave of a 19-year-old who was killed in World War I. In my opinion, this is not just the greatest anti-war song ever written, the Dropkick Murphys' version of the song is hands down one of my favorite songs of all time. I can't listen to this song without getting chills. Watching the video above while listening to the song intensifies the impact even more.

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Notes from the Cave

Thanks to everyone who has responded to my last couple of blog posts with thoughts and advice. It's appreciated. I've decided to go ahead and more or less disengage for the time being from politics. It's just too overwhelming and there is so little of real value that I can actually do. There's just no reason to feel guilty for being powerless to change anything. It's just reality.  I'll leave the hard work to those who are in better positions to fight than I am, and put my trust in their progress.

In other news...

I finally got a new desk chair at home. I had been without one for about a year since the last one broke down after years of abuse by my children, their friends, and my niece and nephews (not to mention my increasingly fatter ass sitting in it for untold hours). I'd had that chair since 2000. For the last year or so, I've been using a horribly uncomfortable metal folding chair. Thanks to a Christmas gift card, I've now got a Serta desk chair that is super comfortable. I could sit here and watch TV in it.

I also recently got a book of Elton John piano music. These are note-for-note transcripts of the recorded versions of the songs. I'd had one of these in college, but it was not with my other music books when I pulled them all back out last year after getting my piano. I have no idea what happened to it. It's been fun playing some of these old songs again. I only wish my friend Mike Houchens was still around to sing to them while I play. I've also got a Billy Joel book of the same type, although I think I like playing the Elton John songs better. Elton is a little more of a classical-type to Billy's jazz-inspired stuff.

I'm currently reading a book called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli historian. I highly recommend it. As the title suggests, it's an overview of literally all of human history, from our earliest human ancestors up through the 21st century. I'm still only on the "cave men" part, but the survey so far has been fascinating and informative.

Serene Musings Books of the Year, 2005-2015