Thursday, July 30, 2020

John Lewis: May His Memory Be a Blessing

John Lewis, of Blessed Memory:

American Hero

King Ray

Ray Charles & the Raelettes was my first show, best show. Thomas Wolfe Auditorium in Asheville, 1988. It was a huge deal. I'd been a fan since watching The Blues Brothers as a child. Mom had a great collection of records upstairs by Ray Charles and John Lee Hooker in addition to Rachmaninoff, Percy Faith, and Ferrante & Teicher. LPs were the best. They still are.

Unlike Johnny and Jimmy, Ray Charles is not a close blood relation. I'm just a regular guy. Ray Charles will always be the king.

King Ray

Cousin Jimmy

Once you go up the Georgia family tree a branch or two, you arrive at the Carters. If anyone ever asks me how I can be Southern proud, it's because of my family.
Cousin Jimmy

Cousin Johnny

I talk quite a lot about being a Garrison, but there are three other important branches of the family: CASH, Stubbs, and Thomson. I can't remember how the Georgia Cashes and Arkansas Cashes connect up, but we do.
Cousin Johnny

My grandmother Louise Cash, of blessed memory, was a genius. I want to say that she was the first woman to chair the Republican Party in Georgia, back in the 50s or 60s. We had our differences, plenty of them. That's how family goes. That said, I owe her more than I can put into words, and I am extremely thankful that she was my grandmother.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

An important note on what follows

What follows is a collection of writings from the past. I no longer hold many of these views. I left the GOP because of its opposition to marriage equality. With the rise of Trumpism, I can't imagine a return to compassionate conservatism or anything truly conservative. Being a reactionary is every bit as un-conservative as being a radical.

I've always been a strage beast politically. Bush in 92, Clinton 96, Gore 2000, Bush 2004, Obama 2008, Romney 2012, Clinton 2016. I take pride in every one of those votes. That said, if I had a do-over, I would go Obama in 2012. Also, I think the Clintons are as much of a crime family as the Trumps and Corleones. To be clear, the Bidens, Bushes, Obamas, and Romneys are not crime families.

A lot of this is worth reading, but just misguided enough to be totally wrong in places.

I hope you find it thought provoking if nothing else. Most of these pieces were cross-posted on RedState, where I attempted to pull things in a more moderate direction. That's why I became a precinct chair of the GOP as well. Once I understood the culture from within, I realized that I had been tilting at windmills. Hubris was a thing. Being a Republican no longer made sense.

The End of Church ☮️

I spent 2009-2010 converting to Judaism. I became angry and confused about what it meant to be Jewish. It wasn't Judaism's fault. Saying anything beyond that is inappropriate.

I started going back to church in 2012, and during my divorce St John's Episcopal Church took us in, cared for our needs, and never judged us for our differences. Later, St Martin's Episcopal Church did. These communities are full of open, kind people. I learned a lot about how to be a better person from them, even though it was a hard time for me. I can never thank my friends from those years enough. I'm sorry if my silence hurt.

The essay below describes why I stopped believing in Christianity and left church. It doesn't describe the guilt and agony I felt the entire time I was there, I wasn't myself. I used to worry about offending people when I say why I believe Christianity is untrue without being offensive. With time and reflection, now I know: Belief is what it is.

  • When the twins started attending Charlotte Jewish Day School in 2017, I remembered what it meant to be Jewish and recognized that I had a responsibility to raise them un-divided. I had stopped believing in Christianity by this point. Going to church started to make me feel ill.
  • In May 2018 I built a minecraft Fortress of Solitude. I think I was telling myself something. 
  • I returned to Judaism in June 2018. I wrote this letter, but I knew the time wasn't right to share it yet. Except for getting rid of the word "woke" because it is obnoxious and silly, the piece is unchanged.
  • In July 2018 I quit facebook and stopped returning calls.
  • I wanted to rediscover and reclaim the self.
  • In December 2017 I weighed over 260 pounds. I dropped down to 170 by getting rid of fat. Now I hover around 190.
GG July 2020

The End of Church
It would be nice to talk about this in person, but this is easier. I think better with my fingers than with my lips. And I’m only courageous up to a point. And I need to talk to a few people at once.

In the past few years, I've taught your kids Sunday school. I've played bass and sung in worship services. I've done comedy routines to lighten things up. I put together an ecumenical hymn party at a bar to try bring folks around the city together. I've helped (sort of) with Game Night. I helped organize a group of amazing guys. So I'm writing this because you deserve to hear it directly if you want.

Our friendship developed because we were Christians. I'm not a Christian anymore. I hope that we will still be friends without Jesus.

You probably know my story since I am direct and unguarded: I was a Christian for over 30 years. I was an atheist--out of anger more than conviction--for a year or two. I studied and converted to Judaism. After a college reunion, I missed the Christian friends of my youth. I felt torn between the religion of my upbringing and the religion that I had chosen. I started going back to church, trying to recapture the magic.

What I've told few people is this: I couldn't make it work, at least not once I started taking church seriously instead of quietly coming and going.

I tried to claim dual citizenship: Jewish and Episcopalian. I couldn't. I tried to believe the things that I had believed when I was young. I couldn’t. I moved from one church to another, hoping that a more progressive house of worship would allow me to hold humanism and Judaism and Christianity together, in my mind and heart, at the same time. I couldn’t. I clutched to find bits and pieces, scraps of something to hold onto, a reason to stick around. I couldn’t.

I came to that realization that I was trying to believe things I didn't believe and forcing myself and (more importantly) my kids to fit into a community of believers where we did not belong.

Only one path made sense: Move on. Grieve the loss. Direct my attention where it should have been all along: providing an emotionally healthy home for my children and giving them the tools that will help them live well. That includes setting a good example across the board. So I'm getting physically fit and spending time at home instead of being socially active. They need me every day. No one else does. That's the way it should be.

If belief is the price of admission to church, the wallet is empty. I could keep up appearances, but instead, I'll keep it real.

The reason I reject Christianity is pretty simple: If a murder 2000 years ago leads to salvation in a supernatural sense, then the man behind the curtain is the monster under the bed.

In a movie, there’s a storytelling device called a maguffin. The Maltese Falcon is a maguffin. The Death Star plans are one. Rosebud. The Ark of the Covenant. Nathan Jr. The maguffin gets the action started, and it's what the movie is about in the description on IMDb.

Movies aren’t actually about maguffins though. They’re about the relationships that play out between characters, the changes that occur in those relationships, the changes within individuals. If a movie isn’t about those things—if it is actually about the maguffin and not the relationships and change caused by the search for the maguffin—it probably isn’t worth watching.

Religion is one of society’s most potent maguffins. It brings people together around something, and that’s what those individuals focus on. In the meantime, relationships are created by the search for the maguffin, the quest for God or truth or social justice or whatever that group is into.

Those relationships are the good part. What people do together is what matters, even if the maguffin falls away. I think that most relationships work this way. Hopefully those forged in religion are less fragile than those where you work together or where meet and enjoy the same things and just hang out because it's fun. I know that that kind lasts.

The maguffin that we used to talk about and pray about and worship is no longer a thing that we share, but every conversation we had is a thing that we always will. The important parts of what we talked about—at least to me—were always about life and kids and stories and music and art, not the maguffin itself.

Some of my values have changed in the last few years. I’m more liberal than I used to be. I’m more conscious of others' differences and needs. I want my kids to be themselves and live good lives. I don't care whether and what they believe about things that are invisible and intangible as long as it's not crazy talk.

The rest of my values haven’t changed. They're just not compatible with Christianity. I can be a disbeliever in church, but I can't be a disbelieving Christian, and if I'm not a Christian, it doesn't make sense to go to church.

Hopefully this helps to explain why you haven’t seen me there and won’t anymore. And I hope that our friendship will continue if there's more to it than the maguffin. I value my friends regardless of their metaphysical opinions. I hope it goes both ways. Just keep it real. I'm trying to.


The End of Politics

Note: I wrote this piece in April 2012, six months after the death of my father.

Cyrano De Bergerac was probably, at least in part, a political animal. He was fictional, obviously, at least as we know him, but one didn’t live as he did—able to navigate among fellow aristocrats—unless one was a creature with some political instincts.

When I was a child, I loved the movie of Cyrano starring Jose Ferrer, and I memorized huge chunks of the play (the Brian Hooker translation), a paperback of which I carried around far too frequently. I memorized lots of things back then, including all of the non-sports-related Trivial Pursuit questions (I’ve never been able to retain information about sports), Carroll’s nonsense poem Jabberwocky, the cast and crew of every movie that played on HBO (back when HBO only played movies at night), and heaven knows what else. I have forgotten the sorts of things that I used to remember.

It occurs to me, now that I think about it, that no one remembers Cyrano for his ability to articulate his position vis-à-vis royalty, taxation, and whatever else might have been the topics du jour in mid-seventeenth century France. People remember him because he had a huge nose. And he wrote poems and loved with a perfect mixture of heroism, valor, and absurdity.

Love is never complete without absurdity. End the refrain. Thrust home.

What about other childhood heroes and favorites? A random sample: Jim Henson, Batman, James Dean, Stephen King, Maxfield Parrish, Han Solo, James Kirk, Bugs Bunny, Andre-Michel Schub, Mozart, Beethoven, Billy Joel, Green Arrow, Green Lantern, Michelangelo, C.S. Lewis, Steve McQueen, every character in The Great Escape except for the Gestapo SOBs, The Shadow, the artists who made the Dreamery comic books, Berkeley Breathed, P.J. O’Rourke, Hunter S. Thompson, Roger Dean, Yes, The Grateful Dead, The Beatles, Superstoe by William Borden, Ray Charles (first concert), the Indigo Girls (second concert), Rolling Stone (before it became a cross between the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition and Tiger Beat), The Rolling Stones, Charles Schultz, and John Belushi. Most of my adult relatives.

There are a few political people and things in there, but by and large, it’s just stuff that I liked because I liked it. When I think of things that I disliked, a lot of them were political. A great example is Doonesbury. Its subtitle should be “Predictable, rehashed, unfunny crap since 1970” or “Here for the same reason as Rex Morgan, MD. We make Ziggy seem worthwhile.” I think that I liked the idea of the comic briefly when I found out that Uncle Duke was based on Hunter S. Thompson, but then I read a few panels and returned to my stance of disdain.

An Essay In Search of a Raison d'être
So what’s the point of all of this? There are at least two: 1) This is a blog, so it must occasionally turn to self-involved navel-gazing for inspiration. 2) I think that I’ve reached the end of politics, at least for now.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to say that I don’t read the news and have opinions—often strong ones—about issues that have a political component, but I have reached a point where I no longer care to let political positions define me or determine the nature of my relationships.

Political banter is tedious and tiresome, more often than not, and the political evangelist is the modern equivalent of a chattering door-to-door salesman who makes his living irritating people and convincing them to buy his space-wasting widgets, to make him go away if for no other reason.

A person’s political beliefs say something about him, just as his religious beliefs do, but they don’t define him. A lot of Americans take political issues—things over which each individual has virtually no control—and use them as crayons to draw childish outlines of who people are.

I think that this is a mistake.

Imagine someone believes that, say, blacks or Mexicans or Jews or gays (or members of whatever group) are inferior due to their [fill in the blank]. This can translate into a set of weird political beliefs or a preference for a certain type of fringe political candidate, but it’s not their political extremism that makes them so bizarre and discomfiting. It’s their crazy, abhorrent beliefs that do, and this drives their politics as well as their other choices. I’ve known a few people like that, and it’s easy to point out a dozen reasons why they’re assholes. Politics are usually present, but they’re not required.

Self-Involved Narrative 201: Intense Navel-Gazing
You can see, sort of flipping backward through the essays on this site, that I was playing with various things and trying to deal with current events with humor and even-handedness as I shifted from ill-defined liberalism, for lack of a better word, to a sort of Burkean conservatism. I was trying to figure out how and where I fit into everything around me, and I’m not going to go into all of the reasons why, because some things are personal.

A year and a half ago, my head swollen from the positive reception given to a few of the things I’d written, I was ready to get involved in politics. The idea was to establish a name for myself in the conservative blogosphere and try to turn it into a book deal or something. Eventually I showed up at a precinct organization meeting and was recruited to be the Republican chairman for my precinct (I had switched my political affiliation to Republican in order to get involved). I would also be a delegate to the county convention and, if I wanted to go, to the state one.

Around the same time, I was asked to help with MeckFUTURE, a grassroots political movement that put pressure on county commissioners to keep property tax rates flat. Soon thereafter, a friend ran for political office and wanted my help.

During all of this, my wife became pregnant with twins. The pregnancy was complicated, and she was on bed rest starting around the sixth week of the pregnancy until the babies were born. This meant that I had to do all of the errand-running, cooking, taking the other eight kids where they needed to be, and everything else in the household, plus work. A few other things were happening too. Suffice it to say, I had plenty going on and a lot to think about.

I had to prioritize, and naturally, I chose my family over everything else. I missed most of the MeckFUTURE meetings, never was able to help my friend’s campaign, missed every convention where I was a delegate.

At the same time, I became increasingly uneasy with the GOP because it was talking about social issues, which are almost totally irrelevant (at least from the perspective of what the government should be doing). Worse yet, some prominent Republicans have gone beyond irrelevance and said downright idiotic things about birth control, abortion, human papillomavirus and the cervix-saving vaccine that prevents it, homosexuality, and books that should be banned. I can't verify that last one, but there was probably at least one boneheaded elected official in the GOP pushing to prevent kids from being infected with Hogwarts. Fortunately, there is no vaccine for that.

The economy was crashing, the national debt was ballooning faster than my waistline when I stopped dieting a couple of years ago, and politicians (including a jackass also-ran who lost re-election to the US Senate by 17 points) were debating whether birth control makes angels cry. Ridiculous.

The NC GOP, which had a governing majority in the legislative branch for the first time since Reconstruction, did some good things like increase the number of charter schools. At the same time, they introduced an amendment that, if passed, will write prohibition of gay marriage into the NC constitution. For the love of God. I just can’t attach that label to my name.

By the end of the summer, I had decided that politics weren’t really that exciting anymore. When I thought about getting more involved, I just felt, well, unpleasant and kind of dirty. So I went back to being unaffiliated.

When In Doubt, Quote Songs or Movies
If not politics, then what? What makes the battle worth the fighting? What makes the mountain worth the climb? What makes the questions worth the asking? The reason worth the rhyme?

Six months ago—to be more precise, six months, twelve hours, and fifty or so minutes before I started writing this tonight—my father died because his heart had become too big to fit in his body. That probably has something to do with the whole business. I’ve been looking at things in a different way since then, trying to focus on doing things that matter.

I’d never lost someone before, at least not someone to whom I was so close. We were different in some ways, especially on the surface. I have a corporate job, and he was a self-employed intellectual bedouin of sorts. Beneath the surface, though, we were simpatico. I miss being able to call him and just talk about nonsense. I think that a lot of my political writing was for him. I liked the idea of being able to make my Dad smile. We enjoyed talking about politics and agreed on most things.

But I don’t love my Dad because of his politics. I love him because he’s my Dad. Or was my Dad. I still haven’t figured out how to use tenses correctly where he is concerned. He was born under a wandering star and became friends with people in every town that he called home. He made beautiful paintings and lived with a perfect mixture of heroism, valor, and absurdity.

And that’s when everything falls into place. The chunk of rhymes that I quoted above is one that I know by heart and recall without trying. If I close my eyes and think very hard, I can hear Dick Van Dyke’s voice. It’s not from Mary Poppins. I pause. It’s from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. It’s from the song “You Two,” which Caracatus Potts sings to his children. And that’s what really matters to me in the end. That’s my raison d'être: My family.

When listing out the things that matter most—God, family, country, honor, hard work—politics don’t even deserve a thought, much less a place.

My aunt Mary wrote a lovely piece about my father after his death, and a particular line has stuck with me: “He had strong opinions but managed to keep friendships with those with whom he disagreed.”

That’s how I want to be. That’s who I want to be: a bit gentler, a bit funnier, a lot more humble, and never willing to harm a relationship over a difference in opinion, especially political opinion. In the end, politics are just things that will get settled in a back room, bedroom, statehouse, courthouse, or battlefield.

For years, I had this sort of belligerent attitude of, “Gotta stand for something, or you’ll fall for anything.” I want something different now. Fortunately, Bebo Norman captured this something in his song “Here Goes”, and so I’ll borrow from him instead of trying to describe it myself: “Gotta reach for something, or you’ll fall for anything.”

The End of Politics
This is not the end of “The Joy of Reason.” I stopped writing on this site during the crises last year. This is the longest piece of non-fiction I’ve written since my wife went on bed rest, I think.

Our twins were born five days after my father’s death. Now that we have figured out how to manage a house with two more people in it, I’ve started focusing my creative energy on writing fiction instead of political nonsense. I’m currently trying to shop the book, a young adult fantasy novel entitled Children of Midgard, to agents. So far, I have not had any success.

I don’t know what I’m going to use this site for in the future. I have the idea for an adult novel called The Joy of Reason, and hopefully I’ll work out the plot enough to write it someday. I already know the last line, which helps.

Until then, check back once in a while, and I might surprise you by spewing my opinion on current events. I don’t shill for a party anymore, though, and while I do and will vote, I will not seek to change the way that you do.

I don’t know if you’ve been able to read this, Dad, but if so, I hope that you’ve enjoyed it.