Monday, 31 March 2008

Video games and two-headed dogs

I'm pretty used to never having anything to do, nor anyone to do it with on Fridays. In my world, sometimes I can swing things to do with people on Saturdays, though. This weekend was different. Joel quit his job that had kept him so busy, and now has part-time work which, oddly, doesn't require him to work Fridays for once. So, Friday was a good time to hang out.

I've been going to my sister's to hold my nephew every second day or so. Me holding him seems to keep him quiet, which gives her a rest. This picture is of my dad holding him. He is quite alert (and large, and able to hold his head up and almost roll over) for not being a month old yet. He is almost 12 lbs. The same holds true for my nephew. (disputable antecedent humour!)

After hanging out with my nephew, while my neice watched episodes of Josie and the Pussycats that I'd burned for her, and she had me dangle her upside down a few times, which she likes, I went and got Joel and we played some video games and watched some stuff. My video games are too old for him. He likes old Mario games, but not N64 games, and I've been doing that classic N64 thing lately. We played Goldeneye and Perfect Dark anyway.

Arrangements had been made on Saturday to meet up with J from school to go second-hand clothes shopping, as this is a themed week at school, and on retro Thursday we wanted to have funny outfits. He got a selection of somewhat funny 80s stuff (not gaudy, like I thought he would) and I was picky, and shooting for a Don Johnson look. I couldn't get a white blazer, but I got white docker pants and boat shoes I can wear with no socks. I also got a (synthetic) blazer that looks very like black suede that I can actually wear to teach in. We met at Long and McQuade, and his buddy the Guitar Section Manager there told me good things about my guitar, and what guitars would be good choices, should I be looking to expand my available pallette of sounds. J's time and availability for fun things was limited, as he was accompanied by his wife.

Afterward, I was hungry, so I went to a Boston Pizza for pizza and beer. I saw a man holding what looked like a two-headed white husky dog in front, talking about "the by-law officer," which didn't sound good. Once he got reluctant permission from the restaurant, he released what turned out to be two gorgeous white blue-eyed huskies that he'd been holding the collars of together, into the closed for winter patio section. It was all full of snow in there, so as I ate a spicy perogy pizza I watched them running and leaping, romping around in the snow, and the cute waitresses going out to pet them. Apparently they run off from their owner's place, and often end up in the middle of the bustle where the restaurant is, excited by all the people and cars.

Sunday, I realized I had really wanted to go to the truly giant second-hand clothes store, which J had been unwilling to drive to, and so I MSNed Troy and he was into going. I had to watch Troy play Fantasy Star for Sega for an hour until he finished it and we could leave. Then he drank a Diet Pepsi Max (aspartame, and the caffeine of a Red Bull) and we went shopping.

I got a Club Monaco neon light blue t-shirt and a grey speckly blazer with huge shoulders and a nubbly pattern to it for my 80s outfit. Also, I got some other shirts, including a kind of Hawaiian one. We also ate at a food court in a huge mall (I went to a cajun place called Bourbon Chicken which we seldom see around here) and got some courdoroys. Brown. I wanted tan, but they only had brown and black. The majority of things I own are black, so what I really need are things that go with black, so I went with the brown.

Then Troy and I returned to his place, he fixed my Nintendo (NES) cartridge loading mechanism (which now works perfectly in terms of mechanics, but the games don't play anymore, so we should look at that), and we jammed. I played a lot of songs, and he had his Line 6 guitar hooked through a port into his computer, playing through his powerful computer speaker setup, picking guitar, amp and effect emulation to suit each one. We played until we were exhausted. Walking up the stairs, I managed to step on his cat, which tried to run under my foot as I was stepping down onto the next step. It was like stepping on a football. I fell rather than hurt the cat, but am ok. Just some bruises to my wrist and thigh. The cat was scared but not hurt, as she bolted out from under my foot and smacked headfirst into a step. Troy also fixed my Starfox 64 cartridge by cleaning it, so I tried that out when I got home, and it worked.

I haven't had such a happy, optimistic weekend in a long time.

Sunday, 30 March 2008

Self-image, living, loving and God

I don’t like "Amazing Grace". I like the melody, but I don’t like things that tell me that we’re all wretched and that we’re not worthy of God’s grace. That stuff is old. It doesn’t work anymore. Any time you think you’re a wretched person, you put yourself a serious distance between you and your creator. Any time you say, "I am made out of the same light," your creator can work with you a lot faster, a lot more immediate, and a lot more productive and constructive.
Carlos Santana

I'm writing this to myself, but you can read it anyway. To put it mildly, I grew up in a soup of prescribed self-loathing. It was weird. Charismatic, attention-getting speakers, musicians and writers, and quirkily charming, confident old people all saying "Self is the enemy. Don't love yourself, don't serve yourself. If you saw yourself clearly, you'd realize what a wretched, sinful person you are. Take a good look at yourself and learn this lesson and then fixate upon it for the rest of your days on Earth, or better yet, just take my word for it and then do that. It's how we please God, and what could be better than pleasing God?" (The Gospel, according to them, was that we need to keep our wills and attentions focussed upon how wretched and undeserving of God's grace in not sending us to hell we are.) Thing is, it became us trying to turn our wills selfward in an effort to triumph over self-focussed narcissism. That doesn't work. And being occupied with how "wretched" or potentially sinful you are isn't healthy or spiritually advisable. It may be a cue to give up on certain paths, but in itself, it clearly isn't a path that goes anywhere.

Although one can always cherry-pick verses of scripture, the general message of Paul, of Jesus, of the rest, is not a focus on how wretched we are, and on remembering to always remember that. God doesn't need us to view ourselves as wretched in order for Him to look good and be properly honoured. God is not honoured in His work being judged wretched when compared to Him. He is honoured by His work being seen to be excellent, somehow, even though His work is us and we tend to fuck up, as the manner of children is. The path to wisdom is God-focussed, rather than merely un-self-focussed. We enter into it, of course, inasmuch as we get to touch God, to be touched by Him, to see Him and be seen by Him. He touches us through Life, and through Love.

Prayer and the scriptures aren't the whole story. Life enters into it too (that is an understatement). We often make prayer and the scriptures all about us. We make prayer about confessions and petitions and we make the scriptures about virtues we are going to try to imitate the outer forms of, or at the very least, about vices we will strive not to be seen to appear to be indulging. There are the fleetingly cast shadows of actual human lives in there, y'know? Offhandedly mentioned life-long romances ("and she became his wife; and he loved her"). Stunningly understated deaths ("and he died").

What do you have to do to be transported outside the dreary, empty, onerous world of merely feeding, dressing and amusing yourself? People have tried everything, from fasting, to meditation, to the reading of holy scriptures, to entheogens (substances taken to see the face of God). Here is what I recommend as a prescription for seeing the face of God: He made the world, time, reality, people, matter, nature, and the complex lines of potential conflicts, comings together and interactions between all of it. Take a big dose of all that. You're in the middle of it.

Never go away alone and shut it all out, in the name of achieving greater spirituality, unless it is to be apart for a short time and get yourself together (self-focussed self-exploration) with the intention to return and fully engage with all of it. Think of what a dead person doesn't (isn't able) to do, and then do that stuff. Live. Love. Look for opportunities to do those, and do them fully and deeply and well. Accept no substitute for either. Satan knows there is no shortage of those. Let the written words and acted conversation of the people on the TV and movie screen touch you and always see them for what they actually are: the work and art of other human beings and what they care about, dream and imagine. Reach for the deepest, highest, truest, newest dreams and imaginings. Have your own conversations and interactions too. Have your own dreams and imaginings. You're on earth, in this time and place, in this reality, so BE here.

You can't develop formulas for wisdom and depth, for spiritual exploration and success. It flows from God and it is living stuff. It's not a deal. We don't agree to set aside self-focus, and then it all just floods in. It's grace. Grace is God giving you stuff because it's good stuff and He likes you. It isn't God finally being able (or finally wanting) to bless because you have obeyed. Even when we disobey, there is grace. Disobeying isn't good, obviously, but the scriptures give us very little to obey, and lead us into questions more than answers. Questions which we have to get to know God personally, if we wish to get any kind of answers regarding.

None of us is worthy of God's grace. This is, technically, true of course. It is also true and more relevant to say that grace isn't about deserving or being worthy anyway. Whenever grace, patronage, forgiveness or generosity are seen, they flow from the heart of a person, for that person's own reasons, and have nothing to do with earning, deserving or owing. None of us is "worthy" or "unworthy" of good stuff from any other of us. Sometimes we agree to exchange goods for services, or wages for work, but that's just a contract. It's a separate and lower thing than charity, a more petty thing no matter how much power or time, people or money is involved, than an actual inner drive to give something to someone, just 'cause.

We are here to live and to love, not just to trust and obey. That's very hard for some of us, because we grew up to adulthood and no one ever told us that this was alright, let alone that it was what we're here to do. A few people, by example and by their hearts being active while they lived their days around us, sent out that glorious dissenting message: you are here to be part of the living and the loving. They lived like no one had to remind them to, and it sent a message. It felt like a mythic horn sounding through the mist that lay upon distant verdant hills too far from here for us to ever contemplate visiting. So, many of us just sat very quietly as we'd been told to do, meditated upon the image of our own wretchedness and embraced a subtle, self-inflicted semblance of death, while the dust slowly settled upon us. And we hoped God was happy with it. It was the sort of thing He likes, right? The only way to please Him besides telling others to be like us?

God is transcendently excellent. He doesn't need us to make Him look good. Sharing anything that is of His light, His love, His excellence with others (sharing the actual thing, the experience of it, rather than describing or promising it) is a wonderful, loving act. It isn't a duty. When love is a factor, the word "duty" becomes inappropriate. In fact, it ruins things. In some technical, literal way, someone who loves someone else may "obey" or "honour" or "fulfil duty" to him, but that's not what it's like inside. Someone who loves someone else would not reach for those words when talking about the relationship between the two, the dealings.

When I hold in my hands the life and warmth that is in my newborn nephew, and we sit in the awareness of each other, I am not obeying anyone, serving anyone, nor fulfilling duty. Questions of worthiness and wretchedness, helplessness and strength simply do not enter in. It is primarily an experience and we don't judge those nor dissect them, if we know what we're doing. It is the only way I know what the word "holy" means. Despite what a biologist might say, I am not primarily or merely obeying a biological imperative to "protect the young of the tribe." I'm also not helping my sister out, nor gracing my nephew with my presence. It's about life and love, and they are deeper and higher and beyond that. This is not something to prove. It is something to experience. It is real and it is also true.

Fragments and potential instances of life and love lie in glowing, amorphous pieces scattered throughout the world where God has sown them, calling out warmly to each other, looking to touch and reconnect, to taste and grow, to reunite and catch up on time apart, to be enlarged by one another, to get their collective groove on. Get in on it.

Monday, 17 March 2008

My taste in heroes

I watched the episode of The West Wing this evening in which Josh is claiming to be OK, but is asked to speak with a therapist, as he's suffering from a psychological disorder brought on by being shot earlier in the season. I realized how much I like tortured heroes in general, and how I always love those episodes of any show in which they delve deeply into the the troubled psyche of characters. Usually this has to do with death. In "Walk The Line" and "Ray" I thought it was done cheaply. In the "chicken" episode of M*A*S*H*, in which Hawkeye is talking to a therapist, I liked it. I like tortured heroes. I don't know why.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

March Break

The plan this March Break was to do a lot of the little things that needed to be done. I looked into passport renewal, and am ready to use school printers to print out the form now. I did some dishes, and bought some groceries, but missed getting the garbage out or getting an oil change or changing the strings on my guitar. The plan was to record and mix music. I couldn't bring myself to touch that until today, and I'm actually kinda surprised I got to it. No doubt part of it was meeting a very cool (married) friend of my sister's who said to get at that. The song is a sappy love song I've recorded many versions of, and was determined that I needed to record it all Motown. Despite finger snaps, claps, tamourine, and a switch to 2/4 time, it actually sounds more like peppy acoustic pop, in a fairly good way. I want to get Tyler to add piano and Jay to add electric. I think that'll fill it out. I've been making my neice DVDs of the 1969 Scooby Doo episodes, as she seems to like them. I gave up on Zelda (Ocarina of Time) for now, but got at Goldeneye and am about to rescue Natalia from the bunker once I get the drone guns figured out and so on. Welcome to 1997.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

An Overabundance of Snow

For once, our weather in Southern Ontario, Canada, is living up to people's stereotypes. We've had 8 schoolbus cancellations due to weather at my school this winter (that's about 7 or 8 more than usual).

Earlier in the week, my sister got her baby crowning within 40 minutes of going into labour, at which point he stuck fast, shoulder caught behind her pelvic bone. They felt they had 4 minutes before the baby was in danger, so they got out scalpels, did a bunch of cutting, and then reefed the baby out hard, bruising his shoulder and arm. He weighed 10 lbs 9 oz.

I inadvertantly named him. When talking to them earlier that week, I'd asked if they had a name in mind, and they didn't, so I said "teens I'm teaching now often have last names for first names. Names like Connor or Mackenzie. You could always give him a last name from literature. I don't know, like Byron, or something." Then when he was born, it was announced that his name is Byron. I wouldn't call a kid Byron, but they did, and that's ok with me.

The weather was for a huge storm Saturday night (again), so I zipped into the city after school on Friday, hoping to find some novelty baby t-shirt or jumper (with Nirvana on it or something). No luck, so I got him a little navy hoodie, and ordered a Nirvana jumper from eBay. The storm hit 24 hours early, so driving home, I was sliding all over the place. I actually slid straight down a hill when trying to turn left onto a different street.

My power brakes weren't working (fluid leak) so Saturday morning I went to my folks' house in the blizzard (driving very slowly, roads covered in several inches snow) and Dad and I worked on it. We replaced the brake cylinders in the rear brakes (they'd been leaking) and bled the brakes and they started worked wonderfully. Dad also caught me having let my tire pressure go down, which was part of the reason the (soft) tires weren't grabbing snowy road properly. Then, against my parents' wishes, I drove most of the way back through the blizzard as the sun set, and stopped at my sister's. I delivered the hoodie, and a DVD of original 60s Scooby Doo episodes I made for my neice (it's her favourite cartoon right now) as well as a CD of Nirvana songs done as lullabies.

Eventually, completely stupid, with the snow no shallower than a foot on the roads where ruts were, I started to drive home in the dark (I live 10 minutes drive away in the next town over), it having snowed for more than 24 hours with little or no plowing possible, due to the unceasing volume of snow, and high winds as well. I quickly realized that it was more than possible (likely, actually) to get the car completely stuck on any town street. The entrances to some streets were completely blocked by drifts. I drove home, sliding through snow from 1-3 feet deep and constantly seeming on the verge of losing my forward momentum completely, leaving me stuck in the middle of the highway where there are no streetlights for miles. I didn't meet anyone coming the other way, which was good, as it was necessary to drive more or less down the middle of the road (not that any asphalt or street lines or ditches were visible or anything), the drifts getting too deep halfway to the shoulder on either side. The car would sometimes get into a good set of tire ruts that hadn't quite drifted over, and speed up to as much as 40km/hr (25 mph), then lurch sloppily back down to almost zero. Steering was quite a bit like steering a jetski going very slowly.

Arriving in my town less than an hour later, I somehow managed to get onto the street near my place(seen here), seeing that drifted snow meant I wouldn't even be able to get into my parking lot, let alone navigate around in it. After nearly getting stuck on the street, I got almost up to "person walking at a brisk pace" speed somehow and took at run at a parking spot, and managed to get my car to slide sideways in, off the street, parked almost legally.

Here is the view out my window the next morning of what my car looked like once the plow had been around.

Once I felt like it, and plows had cleaned out my parking lot, I shovelled a lot of snow away from the front half of the car (if the town had given me a ticket after burying my car, I'd have raised some kind of unholy hell) not being careful pitching shovelfulls of snow all over the street if they should have been thrown over the roof of the car onto the sidewalk drifted waist-high, and two people pushed me and the car came free, leaving an amusing car-print behind in the snowbank, bumper contours, licence plate in reverse, rear window and trunk and all.

The trouble with all of this snow driving is clearance. Once the whole undercarriage of the car starts dragging on snow that is high enough to start to lift the car right up off the road, you're going to get stuck. I almost did repeatedly while driving home. I should have slept at my sister's, but they are up and down all night with night feedings, and are both very tired, and generally trying to get used to the new baby, so I didn't.

The Internet tells me there were 25 motor vehicle collisions in our area during this storm, and that there hasn't been this much snow in any single day in March since 1947.

Monday, 3 March 2008

Excerpts from an Email I sent to a Christian about My Christianity

This response? It's not 100% one thing or the other, and it's not all laudable. It just is. I was replying as part of a chat about "Is Christianity a vibrant, exciting, growing thing, or is it in ruin?" : 

I place a lot of emphasis on the idea that, even in the apostle Paul's day, things were already completely awry. The idea that we, therefore, will decide to selfishly hold onto our own connection to God, and everyone else can just go hang if they don't have the sense to come where we are, is appalling, I admit. 
     My parents worship at a place that provides no evangelical work whatsoever, including no Sunday school nor gospel meeting. It only serves them, giving them a place to worship until they die, and everyone else can just go to hell. I have never, however, taken part in handing out tracts, singing or preaching in the streets, in this or any other country. It never felt right to me. By which I mean, not just that I felt uncomfortable, but that it actually didn't feel like a good thing to be doing. It felt counterproductive. Felt like bad press, like it was hurting the image of Christianity, like getting the "foolishness" part right, but missing the "preaching" part in any way that made sense. It felt like busy work, like doing something so we could say we were doing it, not to any practical, effective purpose. 
     I've certainly never met an evangelist who was actually interested in being real, and getting real results. They're in it to win, to be evangelists, in my own experience of them. If anyone is touched by anything they do, they chalk it up as a victory they achieved and move on hungrily to more conquests, hoping to remake the whole world in their own image. A Christian who's not up to the same shenanigans as they are barely qualifies, as far as they're concerned. Are we a virus? Living only to reproduce? 
    Today I went into a Subway restaurant with pretty much no customers. The manager on duty was Asian, with poor English. The music he was playing was odd. It wasn't the usual pop or classic rock. It was cloyingly, smugly happy. It sounded like hyper people masturbating to the slow songs that happy characters sing at length in Disney movies. It sounded like Adult Contemporary music if it was more syrupy and unconvincing. I have heard some oddly depressingly perky and sentimental music listened to by asian people in my time, but this didn't sound Asian. 
     It wasn't until the guy's only co-worker politely asked about his weekend and he said "Well, of course we went to CHURCH, and then we..." that it clicked. He was playing a Christian radio station (CHRI) in his restaurant. My first thought was "I wonder if his superiors are OK with that" and when the DJ came on and listed off the songs, every one of which had the name "Jesus" in the title, and my second thought was "Holy Crap! Why do Christian DJs all sound really, really gay?!" I left, and he was trying to catch my eye, in case I wanted to talk about the music, and all I could think of was what a job I could do of making a spoof Contemporary Christian album, with songs designed to try to give people a wake up call as to what they are doing wrong when it comes to being convincingly human. 

...I saw a man on the street, with empty pockets and no dreams left 
I saw a child with no one near to wipe her nose 
 I saw so much that could have made me almost weep or care 
And then I realized, I'm heaven bound! 
(I'm heaven bound! Nothing can get me down! Heaven bound! Jesus loves me! Heaven bound! Nothing's worth worrying about! 'Cause I'm Heaven bound!)...

I believe that Christians are ghettoized like a cult or like the gay community, inviting others in, but not able to go out and look people in the eye as if they were from the same race, on the same earth, largely in the same situations. I see Christians everywhere coming off as a creepily, preternaturally earnest Infomercial For Jesus, a cheesy, forgettable and fading bumper sticker, offering up the best sincerity they can conjure, imitate or just plain counterfeit. 
     I'm just doing what I do. I talk about religion and Jesus and evolution and science and so on with anyone who's interested. Mostly that's nonChristians. Christians don't want to talk to me about that stuff. I am determined not to hurt what I see as the cause of Christianity by faking any of it, ever. Ned Flanders exists because everyone thinks they know what Christianity is all about. Do they? Largely, they might. 
    Here is some frankness I feel I can say, because you didn't write the "Operation World" book you sent. If this sounds ugly to you, to no purpose, I am sorry. To me, where I am, it sounded very oddly like something from Amway, the nazis or the Moonies (in spirit, mostly. ) It reads like a plan for invasion by underdogs. 
     Well, Western Christianity? We're not the underdogs anymore. We already invaded. We joined with spiritual vandals and Goths, Huns and Mongols, and, eventually, Nazis, all in the name of Christ, and we took over much of the world. Now it suffers under us and the power we still hold and it wants to be free of what we've become. It is getting free. It seems extremely late to plan a pre-emptive invasion at this point. I think that the message of salvation went largely into the world, pretty much all over, barring people living in corners. It went out, generally, and it got subverted, thoroughly, from within. It was already infiltrated in Paul's day, and that went on and on so that by the time it got out, it had a disease which it gave everyone it touched in the name of God. 
     I think we're not only poor, weak, wretched and blind, but also affiliated with stuff that's evil, in a very complicated and seemingly irrevocable way. I mean, yeah, even if we weren't, we'd have the child abuse scandals, the taking of money, the homosexual prostitutes and the drugs. But my end of things is that people who have been seriously hurt by people who'd come in the name of Christianity keep coming to me and telling me things, and I'm troubled by all of that. Very troubled. 
    I don't think (nor do I think it would matter if) that's just "a few cases." Even if it were only one, I'd not feel ok about sitting and singing with the ninety and nine. The church is one, and what some of us are one with is connected to all of us. What is, I think, evidence of our evil connections (besides the sort of men who rise to the top in our groups, and the scandals they implode with) is the fact that these typical evils (drugs and so on) are not the limit of the damage. There is also a whole undercurrent of what the author of "Freedom of the Mind," the quintessential anti-cult mind-control book calls "rape of the spirit." People who were not necessarily physically molested as children, not necessarily beaten physically, but profoundly crippled in their ability to respond to joy, to the other gender, to children, to people in general. Damage at the roots, seen in the leaves that try to grow every spring. 
    So, I don't really know what any of us are to do, but the obvious stuff, the "go to a church each Sunday" or "start your own church 'cause we don't have enough of those already" or the "make sure you're on a different continent whenever possible" strategies do not make sense to me. That's where I am.