Saturday, December 23, 2006

Christmas is about faith

More often than I might expect, friends ask if I have faith in anything. I've done an excellent job in convincing people that I'm a die-hard secular advocate. That the scientific method rules my life. That I can't believe in anything I can't measure with a scale and ruler.

This may or may not be true. But what about faith? What about just "knowing" something to be true, in contrast (or in spite of) evidence? Do I believe anything like that? I do; many things, in fact! The reason why no one hears about them is because I believe faith is a quiet thing. There is no way for me to convince anyone else on matters of faith by using words. Trying to talk about faith is to miss the point entirely. In that spirit, let me tell you about something I have faith in, rather than trying to explain it.

I have faith in Christmas.

Ever since I was a child, I have loved Christmas. If I were better at analyzing myself, I'd pin it on the fact that Christmas is a wholly optimistic holiday. From the religious background, it is a beginning. For the naturalistic, it's the equality of day and night, showing the process of the sun towards summer.

When I was growing up, I got fed lots of platitudes about Christmas being about good will to everyone, peace on earth, the community of all. And I believed them. I still do. I heard sappy songs talking about keeping the Christmas cheer throughout the year. And I do. Why? It's what I want. I want to be able to connect with people the way I do at Christmas.

I have no great plan to effect this in people. I have no figures to back it up. I'm almost positive it's not possible. Yet I believe it, nonetheless. I feel it in my heart. I accept it, even given evidence to the contrary.

I have no logic to the ability to accept this season while denying the religious foundation. Yet this year, while at the church for the choir concert a few weeks ago, I was caught up listening to the music. The choir was singing "The First Noel," and I was enraptured. It was gorgeous music, swirling around me like I was crashing through waves. As the music built to its climax, I had to reach out to the railing to steady myself. I was almost overcome. Overcome by Christmas music!

The music touches me. Even going to the candlelight service at my local church (which I do every year) touches me. But it's not about the church, or the sermon, or the orthodoxy. It's about the people and the community all oriented towards peace on earth.

I have managed to disconnect the holiday from Christ altogether. I write that as if it's some sort of grand philosphy, when I've never even thought about it. I wouldn't have been able to speak about it, unless I was trying to write it into a blog (like now). The words of the Christmas carols may as well be in Latin, for I do not connect them with the church event.

In the past (and probably in the present and future, too) this declaration has opened me to ridicule. I'm subverting it. One cannot separate the two. Even if I'm not thinking about Christ on Christmas, he's thinking about me. After all, he went to all the trouble of dying on the cross for my sins.

All of this is completely irrelevant. If tomorrow, it were somehow proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that Christianity was a hoax and that it had been started by greedy fiction writers in Palestine all those years ago, it wouldn't effect my Christmas celebration in the slightest. My spirit would be undimmed, my carols still sung as loud.

My faith is in Christmas. It's in the spirit it brings to people. I have faith that every once and a while, we all feel the need to help each other out (even if we need to disguise it as "gifts"). My faith is steady and deep. I have no desire to press my faith on anyone; if I tried, the teachings would be worthless. Everyone must come to the Christmas spirit of their own free will, or it has ceased to resemble the beauty of what I feel. Everyone must want to learn. There are no threats. No guilt. This is one of the things I have faith in.

I believe in Christmas.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Gives me a Galactic Inferiority Complex

Here's a fun film on Google Video showing the relative size of many celestial bodies, starting with Mercury and ending with a couple of red giant stars.

Awe-some. Heavy on the awe.

Our Pick of Jobs

I was offered a chance to play a gig on Christmas Eve. Two services, one rehearsal, $250. I thought about whether or not I could take it, but in the end I decided that if I did it, I would either have to drive back four hours after a midnight service on Christmas Eve (not appealing), or drive back Christmas Day (also not appealing).

I always complain that there aren't enough paying gigs, so it's unfortunate that I had to turn down even one. But since I'd already gone to my parents house, it would have meant 8 hours of driving either way. Perhaps it might be a good time to ride Amtrak, but then I'd have to resort to the kindness of friends to drive me around. No good.

I've been connecting this in my mind with my middle brother's situation. He's just been hired for a job working software support for a university in St. Louis. They hired him to a contract, with salary and benefits, etc. He's now making more than $30,000 a year, plus any classes he wants to take with the university are completely free.

I don't begrudge him the job; I believe I heard him say that it's his dream job. Besides, I don't really know much about the inner operating of computers, so I couldn't have it anyway. I am slightly jealous of having a job that you like that pays well. I have a job I like, but when you're freelancing, it doesn't pay *well*. Ahh, so it goes. Perhaps when my brother starts throwing parties at the fancy hotels, I can play trombone out front for nickels.

I may be excited for my brother and his new job, but not all of his friends are. One in particular was decidedly unimpressed about the whole thing. Maybe it's that he's smoked a vast amount of marijuana, so is relatively laid back about EVERYTHING. Or maybe it's that my brother called to tell him while this guy was at his job, delivering pizzas. Perhaps he's jealous of my brother. I always thought this guy liked his job, because he got to use his cell phone camera to take pictures of all the hot girls that he delivers pizzas to. Does this mean that happiness in life isn't just about fuzzy, voyeuristic pictures of unsuspecting women holding pizza coupons?


Thursday, December 14, 2006

Five Unique Items

I stumbled across this meme and liked it. It was originally intended for an instant messenger friends list (I think), but I'm expanding it to all my friends, because that makes it more difficult. I enjoyed making this list, because I didn't want to just chose things that I owned that no one else did. Since I own a lot of eclectic stuff, that's not too hard. I could just mention things like my recital CD (which no one else owns) and be done. Hopefully my choices inform you about me.

Name a CD you own that no other friend does.

I originally selected the score to "Dead Again" by Patrick Doyle. Though this is probably unique, I decided I would rather chose the score to "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Elmer Bernstein. This score haunted me for months, because it was part of the mix tape that played while I swept floors at St. Louis Bread Co. I was overjoyed when I accidentally discovered which movie the melody of the main title belonged to while renting it from the library.

Name a book you own that no one else on your friends list does.

This one is ridiculously easy, when considering my talent (?) for never throwing old books away. Since it was recently pointed out to me, I'll use "The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets" by Helen Vendler. The inscription inside the front cover (which is not from the author) reads, "5/17/02 To Andy: On Your Second Graduation. Congratulations."

Name a movie you own on DVD/VHS/whatever that no one else on your friends list does.

This is much harder than the book question, considering my library of movies is small. I'm going to choose "Clue" from 1985, starring Tim Curry. Consistently a movie that makes me laugh uproariously every time I see it. I adore this film and may actually be able to quote it line for line. If I find a woman who appreciates it as much (and as foolishly) as I, I will marry her before the dust settles.

Name a place that you have visited that no one else on your friends list has.

I had to think about this one. Many of the places I've been have been either WITH friends, or to SEE friends, which excludes those locations. I have to be fairly specific. When my college wind band was touring Ireland, our bus stopped in the middle of the windswept ground of the Burren, a region in western Ireland almost devoid of trees and famous for the ancient stone tombs and markers. While the rest of the group was looking at these stones, I went to a small cemetery behind a small church, the only building as far as the eye could see. Standing in that disused place, under the only tree around, I felt a particular kind of peace. The ancient stones were getting the tourist attention, while the "merely old" gravestones from the 1800's were gradually decaying and crumbling. The size of the cemetery alone gave me a sense for how slowly things changed there; since ancient times, few had lived here, and even fewer would continue living there.

Name a piece of technology or any sort of tool you own that you think no one else on your friends list has.

Hmm....I'm looking around, thinking about tools and technology. My first thought was an ink fountain pen, but I'm sure someone else has one of those. I'm going to go with a mechanical movement pocketwatch. It's one of my prized possessions, given to me by my uncle when I graduated from high school. I can not explain how much this watch means to me, what it feels to wind it, what I feel when I hear it ticking.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Still Worked Up About Opera


Since I'm an instrumental musician, I always had a "that's nice" view of the opera. The music is fun to play sometimes, but can also be boring. Plus, the orchestra is paid to make their individual personalities subservient to the master plan (the director). We're down in the dark, wearing black, names in the program somewhere.

The vocalists are paid to have attitudes. They're performing characters, and if they aren't engaging to the audience, the audience won't connect to the opera. Not only that, but opera has faded as a popular entertainment from when Caruso had a much-listened to radio hour. So it warms my heart a little bit to hear about audiences who still get passionate about opera.

The news story is slightly thin on details, and there's no indication of why the lead tenor was booed offstage. The theatre manager released a statement which spreads the blame around.

But there's something funny to me about a performance of Aida, which is the "spectacle opera" to end all spectacle operas, being performed by a guy in jeans.

I also think it's funny that nowhere in the article is Verdi, the original composer, mentioned. I guess anyone who reads a story about Italian opera KNOWS it's not the Disney/Elton John version.

A Spectrum of Craziness: "E tu, Cruise?"

A couple of entries ago, I wrote a bizarre, schizophrenic entry about relationships. In the first half, I wrote about the sort of typical craziness a guy goes through when he's attracted towards a girl and doesn't know how to handle it. As a result of that entry and subsequent discussions with friends, I'm writing a follow-up to talk about the wide range of craziness that we (both sexes) go through.

Imagine a ladder in front of you which stretches both up and down. This is the continuum we're working on. It represents introversion and extroversion, with external reactions being "up" and self-conscious behavior being "down". The middle point on this ladder does not represent normality, but a balance between two kinds of crazy.

Let me set the boundaries of the scale, just so we have a common frame of reference. I'll use Hollywood stars, because it's more fun that way and it because it trivializes the more serious second half of this article. I'm all about undermining my own pronouncements.

At the top of the ladder (the extrovert) is Ashton Kutcher. For anyone over 30, he made his claim to fame as the big, dumb guy in "That 70's Show." He's been trying to both embrace that identity (with his practical joke TV show "Punk'd") and run from it (his "thinking hard" movie, Butterfly Effect, which is what happens when a director reads the book jacket of a Philip K. Dick story and gets $70 million to make a film about what he can remember the next day). I have no idea what his actual personality is, but since he seems to "play" his character on late shows, I'm going to assume he's the sort of fellow who'd gladly do some crazy action to prove his love for someone. Something like standing on a table in a fancy restaurant and singing a song about his girl, or streaking by her apartment naked with "Marry" written on one leg and "Me" on the other.

At the bottom end of the ladder is the introverted crazy. I picked Jude Law. Again, I have no idea what's he's like personally. I'm sure he's fine. It's his "movie character" I'm concerned about. I picked him because even when I see him in the upcoming holiday romantic comedy "Holiday" where he suavely woos Cameron Diaz, I still think that deep in his mind, he's crazy. I won't be able to watch that movie without thinking that when he's laughing at Ms. Diaz' culture shock from living in England ("Spotted Dick? Tee hee hee."), in his mind he's trying to decide how best to frame her for a murder, then mummify her so she can be with him FOREVER. But that's probably just me.

In the middle of the ladder, at the join between extrovert and introvert, is Tom Cruise. He's got it all. He's willing to jump up and down professing his love for his third wife, who's probably MUCH better (and younger) than the other two. He's also willing to go toe to toe with Matt Lauer and Brooke Shields to defend his Church. Extrovert, check.

His church is also a strange organization which doesn't believe in psychiatry, but does believe in aliens being the root of all our bad thoughts. Also, check out his eyes during the Lauer interview; he's seriously threatened. Introverted (because of personal demons that may actually be demons), check. Ok, we've established our scale.

*** *** ***

All silliness aside, my thoughts about this scale are simple. Guys seem to tend more towards the extrovert crazy, while women tend towards the introvert. Again, this is "seems". In reality, we're all a nice blend of crazy.

For the guys (which I'm most familiar with), things go pretty much as I mentioned them in that previous entry. Guys may have some feelings of inadequate self-worth and wondering if such a goddess (as they all are) would ever stoop to say hello. But most guys have a floor they rebound off of before the self-esteem falls too far. At some point, they'll say, "Yes, she's hot and I've got no chance. And she's got a boyfriend. But what do I have to lose?"

Even if they won't actually DO anything (like talk to the girl), they don't lose hope of her falling in love. To effect this, they'll just hang around all the time! When guys aren't well adapted to social behavior, they act out. One of my favorite quotes in from a Steve Martin screenplay, L.A. Story. His character is talking to a woman he's interested in.

Man -- "Ordinarily, I don't like to be around interesting people because that means I have to be interesting, too."

Woman -- "Are you saying I'm interesting?"

Man -- "I'm saying when I'm around you, I find myself showing off, which is the idiot's version of being interesting." [paraphrased from memory]

Men like to show off, and if they can't, they try to be annoying. They do this because, if you're annoying, the girl IS still thinking about you, and "any publicity is good publicity". I can recall doing the following things to girls I liked: pulling their hair, bringing them Pop-Tarts, giving backrubs, presenting "free" tickets to something, talking down about other guys, buying presents which were "really inexpensive, actually", buying the favorite type of gum to have ready, attending the events of their sport, trying to be more sensitive than their boyfriends, using any excuse to touch them (even stepping on their feet)...

I could go on, but I'm starting to get ashamed of my own behavior. My point is that the length that guys go to is all demonstrative. "Positive," if you will. Guys may have doubts about their own worth, but they usually say that if the girl "knew the real me," then there would be happiness. There's a floor of self-esteem that props them up and prevents them from falling too far.

Now it's time to enter the realm of observation and conjecture. I don't know what it's like to be female. I only know what it's like to be a man with an immature kid calling the shots. Many women have been open and frank about what goes through their minds, however. I feel like an author dedicating a book, but their experiences help inform what I have to say. Remember, I'm talking in general, and may even be familiar only with a minority portion of some women's thoughts. [translation: It may only be six or twelve women out of 3.5 billion]

The main difference seems to be that women don't have the floor of self-esteem. Or it's not in the same place, anyway. They also have a "ceiling" on how demonstrably crazy they get. Exceptions abound, but in general, women are more reserved in how extroverted they behave.

For instance, it would never occur to me to wonder if, when an attractive girl started showing interest in me, she was actually sincere. I might be mystified, but not openly skeptical. Some women I've spoken to have so little faith in their own worth that they can't quite accept that anyone would be attracted to them. This is what I term introverted craziness, or "negative", because it pulls the person back into themselves.

Or perhaps it's just me that's the oddity. A friend recently expressed surprise that I was so friendly. We hadn't been in contact for a couple of years (as is often the case with my friends now), but after we established contact again, we've been embroiled in lots of conversations about issues that are important to me (and some that are just fun, like "heaven as a Ponzi scheme"). I value any friend who makes good conversation and can put together intelligent points. I have questions that I don't understand! I appreciate any friend who can teach me something, and I value any friend who can say "You're wrong."

Anyway, she told me I was in the minority (rather than normal) in terms of someone of my age and gender being interested in talking. I don't necessarily believe this (because it makes me in the minority if true, and that's sad), but I told her a dirty secret about me: I talk so I can understand people.

I know I've done crazy things. They seemed like smart and crafty actions at the time, but at least I understand now why I did them. And I've found that I don't need them. We attract people of the opposite sex based on what we show to others. And all the hair-pulling in the world isn't going to net me the kind of girl I actually want. I'm lucky, though; for the most part in my life, I've relaxed into the man I actually am. And because I'm relaxed, it's a lot easier to appeal to the people whom I have an interest in.

It hurts when friends are down on themselves. Unfortunately, the only proof I can offer is that I am not friends with people whom I feel have no value. This is terrifically blunt, but it's the most straightforward thing I can say. At the very least, I think my friends have merit. Those with really low self-esteem will say I am mistaken, with regards to whatever I value about them.

Because when it comes to trust, who ranks higher? Doctor Andy, or personal experience and reinforced negativity?

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Actual Thoughts Are Delayed

I'm in the midst of writing a paper. Updates will continue after I've managed to scrape together enough information about the "rise of Finnish musical product into independence and beyond."

Approximately 10% finished, give or take a paragraph

Catch you tomorrow.

EDIT: OK, it's tomorrow. 2:51 AM by my watch. I have completed 90% of the paper, so I just need a little less than a page tomorrow.

Late to bed, early to rise.
Makes a tired body and two bloodshot eyes.

EDIT, the second: 8:11 AM. Moving forward. Had a difficult time waking up this morning. Eyes determined not to open. Very groggy and out of it. Managed to eat leftover spaghetti without forking myself in the eye; considered it a victory. Spaghetti was tough, dry, and flavorless, however. Overall dining experience lacking.

EDIT, the third: 9:51 AM. Paper completed. Much more awake now. Success assured.

I have a terrible stomach ache.

On a completely unrelated note, someone seems to have raided my shoelace and rubber band drawer. Further investigation necessary.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

In Our Own Self-Image

I can't help staring. It would take a man much more in control of himself than I am. Being told there are beautiful people somewhere out there is no preparation for when they're here. I even know they're here, so I have no excuse.

But every once and a while, I'm actually rendered stupid by it. It causes me to do things which in other circumstances ARE stupid. But first things first.

As soon as I know she's in the room, I turn away. My eyes are slightly wider, because I've made the realization. My brain places a marker which burns so brightly that I feel it inside my skull like a phosphorous compass needle, even when I look away. The extraneous noise in the room falls to whispers, filtered by my brain to make space for her voice, should she speak. Though I never realize it at the time, my mouth is drying out. I become extremely aware of where my hands are. While looking at my hands, I see all the lines I never notice. I see old scars I haven't thought about lately. Eventually, my eyes unfocus entirely, so that I'm looking through my hands or the computer monitor; past them, because my brain is desperately processing other inputs.

Then comes the stupidity. How many times can I walk past to the drinking fountain before it's obvious? How many times can I be in the right place at the right time? How many times can I see her in one day before it becomes obvious? How long before I actually DO need to walk past her to go to the bathroom, because of all the water? How many times can we lock eyes for longer than the maximum length allowed for "room scanning" before we both admit that something is happening?

This leads to self-consciousness. I'm trying so hard to not look that I'm positive everyone else can see the heat radiating from my head. How many looks can I have in one sitting before I start to feel an Unperceived Observer's guilt and shame? Shouldn't I really be thinking about other things, more important things?

*** *** ***

And what does it mean that if I were to speak to her, she'd probably just express that she doesn't consider herself beautiful? She'd say that today's not a good day. She'd say I'm not seeing the "real" her, because I'm not seeing what's actually there. She'd say she needs to lose a few pounds. She'd say the clothes don't fit right. She'd say "it's obvious." She'd sob. She'd say she's hideous. She'd shy away from my touch because "nobody wants to see that." She'd "just know" she looks disgusting. She'd be certain she'd never deserve anyone like me. She'd take two steps back even as I hold her hand. She'd tell me through tears how good I am to take pity on her. She'd tell me how much she hates being comforted.

She'd lie to my face.

She'd cause my heart to break because she can't accept what's real. She'd hurt me because she doesn't understand my honesty. She'd lash out at me because of the pain that came before I was even here. She'd make me scream; scream into a thunderstorm so no one can hear. She'd hide behind her armor, because that's what intelligent girls do when they're threatened. That's what she'd do when people like me come too close. That's what she'd do when people like me grab on to her suffering; grab on and don't let go, because letting go means it will vanish beneath the surface again.

She'd wall herself off, because when she realizes that I understand...

... that's too close.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

I'm Dreaming of a White (Suburban, Middle-Class) Agnostic

Tonight I'll be participating in a large concert to benefit a local food bank. It's mostly a choral concert, but it also includes some of my brass colleagues from the university. It's for a good cause, it's in a beautiful Spanish-revival Catholic church, and it sounds beautiful. Good stuff.

Christmas music forms one of three legs that anchor my Christmas spirit. The other two are Family and Decorations (lights, specifically). As long as there is some combination of these three, it feels like Christmas.

Maybe that's part of the reason I'm fond of snow. It's a herald for a certain time of year.

*** *** ***

"But wait!" I hear you cry. Aren't I some sort of raving atheist? Don't I worship Charles Darwin? Don't I marry gay couples for the fun of it?

Sorry, no. I, like just about every other person, cannot fit neatly under a label. Some would say that I'm just diluting my beliefs, since I'm spread to thin and therefore more susceptible to assailing of my position. For example, aren't I a hypocrite (or at least a bad Christian) if I both celebrate Christmas and excoriate those who fervently advocate Christ? Probably. I am the sort of person who lives a just and moral life as I understand it, and will not allow myself to force any other horses to the water and make them drink.

In the past few years, I've learned that I'm not doing it correctly. To be a Christian is to be out, pounding the streets! If I'm not out bringing everyone the Message, then I'm no kind of Christian. If I'm not telling everyone how great God has been in my life, then I'm falling behind all the others who meet their quotas.

Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. -- Matthew 6:1

When I made the transition to "high school" Sunday school, they started public prayer. People who talked about all the great things that God and Jesus had done for them got rewarded with applause and praise from the youth ministers. People who didn't mention them were prompted to include them, or that all glory is His. It was at this point that I first doubted that I was a true Christian. I never felt like God was involved in me taking tests, getting a job, or doing good works. Doesn't He have bigger things He should be doing? Because I'd rather God be working on getting people to stop hunger and war; I can (and should!) study on my own.

But when I tried to explain this to people, they simply said that since God was everywhere, he could do it all at the same time. And that even if I didn't want or need his help, he was still helping. If I didn't think I wanted it, God still helped because he loved me, and if I didn't think I needed it, then God was still helping, but He was also making me feel like I was doing it by myself. "Wow," I thought. "God's kind of a prick." He gives me the feeling that I want to work myself, freeing up his attentions for more deserving areas, but then he goes ahead and helps anyway, since I can't do it without God's help?

No thanks.

And over the years I came to understand what being a Christian is, in today's age. It is acknowledging His glory. It's believing that God's son was somehow God himself. It's trying to round up everyone under the banner, because only the Bible is correct and divinely inspired (I accidentally wrote "sinspired" here. Paging Dr. Freud!). It's going out and making apostles of all nations. It's hearing about loving even the sinners, but hating the sins.

And I realized that even though I had always considered myself a Christian, I was wrong. I am not, and I never was. This would be a good time to use the old Ronald Reagan cliche about "I didn't leave the Democratic party; it left me!" I thought about using it, but then I realized that's a cop out. Christianity didn't leave me; it was just never explained in detail earlier. Ceremonies that I thought I understood were actually about something different. And it turned out that no matter how much I felt independent; no matter how much I learned the value of humility and passing help to others who needed it; no matter how much internal progress I went through to allow myself to do things I couldn't before, I couldn't escape the fact that God had his hand in everything. I wasn't doing anything praiseworthy or groundbreaking other than following God's trail of invisible breadcrumbs. All glory is His.

So I made the decision. And to this day, people still tell me that God's inspiring everything I do. That God is testing me. That God never lets go. That God gave me stubbornness to eventually bring me back to him. Well, God also made me intelligent enough to know self-righteous desperation and vindictive sniping when I hear it.

When I die, I'll no doubt be consigned to Hell. But if everyone who makes up the public face of evangelical Christianity is in Heaven, then I wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole. I'll burn in eternal torment, and if even the smallest part of me is still conscious of myself, I'll know it's for the better. I'd rather be tortured next to Socrates, Mohandas Ghandi, and Oscar Wilde, than play my harp next to James Dobson, Jerry Johnston, and Fred Phelps.

So, I like Christmas. I like it because it is a fading reminder of what I thought Christianity was about. I like it because it reminds me who I am, and it reminds me what's important. And it tells me that even though good things don't last long, they'll come around again, soon enough.