Boa Constrictors

animals-94587_1280My dogs and I met our first Boa the other day. The encounter/attack was life-altering. Nobody died or anything, but meeting a 10+ foot snake 12 yards from the front door is a bit disconcerting to say the least. We met and caught a 4 footer the following week in the front yard, just under the bedroom window. Isn’t that nice? Well, we didn’t catch it, the fish and game commissioner who lives up the hill did. I just trapped it in the container where it was discovered sleeping. I wish I had some poignant metaphoric observation to make about all this, but it is still too fresh to me. I will have to give it time. Meanwhile, I’ll tell you what happened.

One of the many selling points that brought us to the island where we moved recently was that there are no naturally occurring snakes here. The snakes we met aren’t natural in that sense, they were brought here as pets and let loose when they got too big and now there are lots of them living quite naturally here in the rain forest part of the island.

So, word was out about snakes in the area. Our neighbor, the Fish & Game Commissioner, had caught about forty of them in the last year. He had already been doing an excellent job of keeping the invasive population of lionfish down along the coast, but now his focus was shifting towards these land based invaders.

So, I was keeping my eyes out as I walked our Basset Hound and Yellow Lab. They were on one leash with a ‘Y’ on the end because my hips couldn’t handle being twisted about by two 50 pound dogs pulling individual leashes in two directions at the same time. This way they pulled against each other and I was no longer their wishbone. This island is very third-world in many ways but my road is paved. No curbs or sidewalks, however, and the vegetation intrudes on the roadway rather quickly, so it gets chopped back by crews every so often.

We were walking by an area of 18 inch tall grass when the dogs started tripping over one another. I looked down at them and saw the beautiful large head of a snake! So, I yanked on the leash causing the Lab’s chin to come crashing down on the snake’s forehead. This startled me more, so I pulled both dogs out of the way and looked back at the snake.  I stared at him, mesmerized, waiting for the snake to tell me what to do next. He looked as if he were deep in thought while he regarded me warily. He did not look as if he were going to pursue. The three of us were still very close to the alluring attacker, so I broke my gaze and moved the dogs to the other side of the street. I turned and saw that he continued to gaze at me. I slowly stepped closer to see how big he was since most of his body was still folded in the grass. We examined one another for a few moments more, then he slowly, and confidently, turned and retreated into the grass.

The boa and I seemed to have a rapport with one another during our brief encounter. It was very primal. It was the regard of a predator to its meal: consumer to the consumed, bully to his target. I trusted the snake not to attack me, he sensed I was not going to attack him, we could see our intent in one another’s eyes. I assume he was waiting in the grass for some rat or mongoose to happen along when a basset foot showed up and he sprung. He must have pulled in his teeth when he saw more than the dumpy basset’s foot strapped to a taller yellow creature attached to 5’-8” human. His tiny brain couldn’t calculate the mass of the potential meal in front of him.  Nor could he figure how to wrap himself around all three of us to squeeze our lives away. 4beef17e8527de224e65017c86778190He had the affect of an old-time accountant wearing a vest and green visor pulling the handle on an adding machine tallying up his options.

The colors on his head and back were astounding. I was in awe of the color. Young people use the word awesome for anything that is novel to them, but the emotion of awe  in its true meaning modestly describes my attraction to the beauty of his skin. I barely noticed how much body was curled up in that pile of snake. There were some angular protrusions along his flank that may have been still-digesting dinners of the past. I am glad none of us were among them.

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What’s Inside?

So, as residents of the rainforest we have certain other critters to contend with, one of them being rats. These fellows are actually kind of nice, not like their cousins I’ve encountered in downtown Detroit and Boston. They are still destructive however, so we have a service put poison out in little black plastic containers with holes for the rats to enter and exit. During the day these boxes become quite warm in the sun. Snakes like warmth and will sleep in them during the day. The young man who services them didn’t expect to be touching a boa constrictor when he reached inside. He screamed like a school kid at three o’clock on a Friday. That snake was gone by the time the commissioner arrived, so he showed me how to trap it next time. We caught him two days later. This one was four feet long and not nearly as friendly as the other one. Of course, we had just woken him from his nap and grabbed him by the throat and squeezed his jaws open to look at his multiple rows of hooked teeth. That would make me cranky too. He spent the rest of his life in a backpack. Rules say wait five days to dispatch these guys and a backpack is secure enough (snakes don’t get how zippers work apparently) and easy to carry.  Although, as of late, he seems to need more backpacks.

So, how has my life been altered? Well, I carry a big stick on dog walks. My husband wants me to carry a machete which he has recently sharpened, but I’m pretty confident the dogs or myself would be the targets of my blade wielding ineptitude; it’s hard enough using the damned thing to harvest a bunch of bananas without the loss of a thumb. The main change in my life, though, comes from having looked directly into the eyes of a predator and being considered, briefly, lunch. I, for a moment, shared a rapport with an eating machine. He considered eating me and since I showed no aggression he felt he might have a chance. He chose not to, possibly due to the bumbling dogs at the end of my leash, or my extra-large belly; who can say? Neither of us showed the other fear. Now, I just hope he goes home and tells all the other snakes how fearless I am and to leave me and my dogs alone. I’m not sure I could go through that again.

Yell Well

This is about an ex-Presidential Candidate who is proud of his Yell Leadership. I have to confess that I don’t know what that is, so why am I talking about it? Well, yelling apparently gives a person the credentials to complain about Student Government Elections in Texas. Neither being that State’s ex-Governor nor Secretary of Energy are essential criteria, but yelling is. I’m going to have to look this up.

So, according to this YouTube video, and a few subsequent videos, Yell Leaders exist at Texas A&M University to replace female cheerleaders, but they don’t like to be called cheerleaders because of its feminine connotations. These macho men have big muscles and are manly. The primary benefit of being elected to this prestigious position is that you get to date a lot of girls. Someone says so in the videos. Anyone who does this non-feminine version of cheerleading is well known on campus and gets lots of dates. They are usually quite good-looking guys and muscular from doing pushups.

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Not Feminine

Got that? As elected yellers these handsome fellers have some kind of pull with University dwellers for many years after they graduate. Rick Perry the yeller mentioned above decided to use the bully pulpit of ex-yeller to get an editorial published in a Texas newspaper complaining about a recent Student Government election here and here, his other titles may have helped some too.  As a yeller he is already hyper-sensitive to being thought of as a cheerleader (girly) so when a gay man got elected as President of Student Government at his alma-mater he did what any like-minded republican, masculine cheerleader type would do and turned the gay student into a national, modern-day, LGBT version of Rosa Parks. (They can’t help themselves!)

There are a few other details to mention. Bobby Brooks, the new president (and inadvertent gay rights icon of the month), just like Trump, did not win the popular vote. The student who did was disqualified by a unanimous vote of the SGA leaders who make these decisions. The student who was disqualified is the son of a Republican fundraiser who campaigned for Trump. Gee, maybe the highly placed federal Cabinet Secretary was doing a political favor? I doubt that, this fits in with Trump’s anti-gay agenda more than simply fulfilling a campaign debt, but it did kill two birds with one stone.

So, Trump and Perry put their feet in their mouths again. The Department of Energy got hijacked by a local student government non-issue. And Bobby Brooks’ political career just got the biggest boost possible. Your tax dollars at work!

Feeling Daffy Duck-ish

The animator’s pencil comes into the frame, eraser first, as it starts to remove the black and yellow duck known as Daffy from the screen. The duck continues a conversation with the unseen animator complaining about being erased. It’s a surreal, existentialist cartoon from Warner Brothers that plays with the conventions of the dramatic art of cartooning.

To enjoy a cartoon, you, the audience, must first accept the illusion of reality as presented in the animator’s product. Once you realize the conventions of the illusion: bright colors, stylized scenery, animation, funny voices, sound effects etc. you can choose to go along with it or not. The natural inclination is to disbelieve things that are so blatantly artificial, so you must temporarily suspend your disbelief to give the artist the opportunity to present his art. Duck Amuck, pokes fun at the cartoonist’s own rules through a number of techniques calling into question what reality is, and other existential dilemmas. The image of a god-like pencil and unseen power controlling it could be frightening in another circumstance.

I’m feeling a little Daffy Duck-ish today, speaking of other circumstances. The omni-twitter-present power controlling our government’s pencil is erasing me. After fighting my whole lifetime for the opportunity to be recognized in society and especially by the government, Trump is erasing me from the picture. I know it’s not personal, he is erasing a whole category of which I am apart. I am old, gay, disabled, and I have no children. This category of individual is being erased from the National Survey of Older Americans Act Participants (NSOAAP). The love that dare not speak its name from my youth is being told to shut up again. Well, not exactly told so much as the questions about us have disappeared from the questionnaire. We won’t statistically exist any longer. Poof, gone!

We know it is a planned effort on the part of the administration for a number of reasons:

  1. They are doing the same thing on the Annual Program Performance Report for Centers for Independent Living which evaluates services that help people with disabilities to live independently. No statistics specific to the gay population will be collected this time.
  2. They lied about the changes made in the surveys. The Administration for Community Living (ACL) oversees the surveys.  They give a new reason for the dismissal of questions while contradictory statements about these issues remain on their own website. They describe the current questionnaire as not being any different from the last one.
  3. “An anonymous administration official confirmed to the AP that the agency targeted LGBT questions in the surveys” according to Zach Ford’s post in Think Progress yesterday.
  4. The LGBT rights web page disappeared from the WhiteHouse site on Trump’s inauguration day.
  5. A HUD survey on LGBT homeless was dropped completely. No data there!
  6. And of course, all the pull back on transgender issues in education and in North Carolina.
  7. This is a continuation of the homogenization of our culture. I have mentioned it before. No attempts to recognize diversity are being made. We are all the same – worker bees. Our distinctive characteristics are diminished while our commonality is reinforced.  There is no point in recognizing any sub-group because Trump, really doesn’t want any identity to define Americans other than American. Ignore the “Special Interest” to remove its power as a sub-group. He spelled this out in his inaugural address.

Those of us of a certain age are quite familiar with a closet. We know it when we see it. This is the database version of the closet. If there is nothing to find in the database then it doesn’t exist. If the questions aren’t asked in the research then there is no data to report. When there is no search information to find, the query provides no answer, so a default answer is applied. Our society is so reliant upon searchable data that even our religious institutions have trouble relating to the humanity of their belief system. Take, for example, the Pope’s recent Apostolic Exhortation on love, it is designed to fit into a database. Lawyers must have written it given the legalistic nature of statements defining the rules of Catholic love. It is a forceful anti-LGBT document dressed up in the flowery language of condescension.

There are clear edges on each rule starting with the first sentence. “The Joy of Love experienced by families is also the joy of the Church.” This says what they mean it to say, but further explanation of the fine points is necessary. It’s a declaration that the church and the family are inseparable, making love impossible without the church and its database of rules. There can be no love in a family unless it follows the rules in his book. My reaction to this is one of eww yuck – I don’t want the church in bed with me. I envision a creepy priest peeking under the covers of each bed while the family is asleep.  The Exhortation is a long list of rules that fit in the database and become absolute criteria for love to exist. I was never a Catholic, but once I had read this manual for love I was appalled at the audacity of those pompous men in robes for demanding this from human beings. I’ve never read anything so pretentiously cruel. You see, a database has no way to turn emotion into data. The church disregards, denies or ignores the feelings of the humans it overlords.

Trump is formulating his own exhortation on being a subject under his rule. His first criteria is that every commoner will be regarded in the same way unless they are rich. Money is the deciding factor in whether distinctiveness shall be noticed. Are the rules for belonging to Mara Lago that different in their exclusivity than the Pope’s Exhortation? In the Pope’s realm the excluded masses go to hell; in Trump’s realm the excluded masses become the homogenous 99% citizens of America. The only distinction that matters has already been made. No need to gather the data of distinction.

So, the end of Duck Amuck reveals the unseen hand of God controlling the eraser to be Bugs Bunny. Who knew Bugs, the Pope and Trump have so much in common? The final line in the cartoon is Bugs’: “Ain’t I a stinker?” The answer is three times yes.

Thats all folks!trio

Still willing to suspend your disbelief?

 

Ceremonial Deism and Alternate Facts

God, so prominently mentioned on our currency and in the Pledge of Allegiance, is an ambiguous term. It is so devoid of spiritual significance in either context as to be absolutely meaningless. But that doesn’t stop the atheist community from being upset by its omnipresence in society, nor does it keep the evangelical community from going ballistic when people try to take it away. Maybe we should relax about this. Maybe the degradation of this particular word is a good thing – let them make God bland.

A word looses its original meaning when it becomes overly commonplace, mundane and familiar; in this case the god we purport to trust on our pennies and quarters is just a slogan – “God” becomes routine, not special, just a word. It looses significance because of rote repetition. Ceremonial Deism is the legal word-of-art that excuses this phenomenon. The legal system invokes this theory to justify the use of a generic god in secular public life, thereby, bypassing the constitutional establishment of government religion. The courts created what Trump’s folks call an alternate fact version of God. When god is mentioned in public it doesn’t mean the God of any particular religion. It is ceremonial. It refers to whatever supernatural entity an individual subscribes to, and that is up to the individual, no one else. The alternate god no longer means anything specific so why ban it?

‘In God We Trust’ is a powerful sentiment for those who already have a clear idea of a god, but those with a secular perspective find it pointless. That’s the beauty and the intent of this shared delusion – everyone takes from it what he or she already believes. Franklin Graham believes the government publicly supports his version of a god, so he defiantly mentioned Jesus in the closing of his prayer at Trump’s inauguration. This had the effect of making Jesus generic!! Jesus was formally neutered of Christian significance by Graham’s act and made ‘ceremonial’ if the logic of the courts holds true. I am sure Franklin had the opposite intention, but that is the trap of alternate facts, if we put it on our money and in our pledge and justify its use through the removal of its meaning, then we are left with a shell. Christians can believe in this alternate shell of their faith and the followers of Zeus (if any exist) can believe the same thing. Everybody comes away happy. Well, maybe not the Hindus who might prefer the plural: In Gods We Trust.

Still the shared delusion is maintained. Humanity’s natural tendency to seek comfort in groups of like-minded people while avoiding the use of reason, is the order of the day. Nobody’s gonna look foolish due to a supernatural “belief” if everybody else is affirming their own irrational belief. The only people who don’t fit into this scheme are the people who don’t have an irrational belief, those who prefer rational exploration. But, their numbers are small and they think too much, so don’t worry about that complaint. At least, that is what the courts, the legislature and our president want. So lets give it to them!

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Let them create their semantic utopia. Let posters adorn each classroom with the milk-toast pabulum of trust in god. Let them force this word into the daily life of all of us so that we give it no more notice than a crack in the sidewalk. The more commonplace the aphorism the less significant is its message. Bumper sticker moralizing turns God into a greeting card message – all sentiment, no substance, and totally impersonal.

Look how willingly evangelicals abandoned their principals to get Trump elected. He hooked them into believing he shared the minimum, a ceremonial deist’s faith. “See, he’s just like a penny: in God he trusts.” (Although, he may not even capitalize the ‘g’in god, we don’t really know.) “He’s one of us. Let’s place our faith in him.”

Perhaps we could surreptitiously sponsor a new ‘religious’ cover for secular humanism – Ceremonial Deism. Its sole purpose would be to homogenize theology into a pasty-sweet, mind-numbing form of the narcotic: soma as Aldous Huxley presents in Brave New World. Appease the masses with the comfort of a shared illusion. Alternate facts taken to a theo- logical conclusion. ‘God’ officially becomes significance-neutral when anyone can interpret it as they see fit.

Where are the adults?

Remember back in school when the teacher lefty the room for a few moments and all hell broke loose? The girls started talking, the bullies started picking on the nerds and guys would start telling dirty jokes. I was the nerd in that scenario. I really didn’t want to get in trouble so I was probably the only kid there hoping the teacher would come back right away.

I’ve been re-living that same sensation during the whole presidential campaign. When is an adult going to come and restore order? The teacher has been gone so long now that the bully is in charge, the guys are acting out their dirty jokes and the girls have made one another cry so often that they’ve started doing it all over again.

Seriously, the adult has to come back and tell the bully that working with the Russians is bad, then make him sit in the corner until he gets it. Tell him to stop lying. Use the dictionary. Be polite to guests, immigrants and German Chancellors. Stop killing the poor, young, sick, old and disabled by taking away their health care and polluting the environment. Don’t start any wars or threaten nuclear nations with leaders wackier than you are. Finally, take him off Twitter.

A Common Cry From Curs

Did your dog ever ask you: “What the hell is going on?” I mean, like on the third day of vacation in a cottage someplace totally different from home. He looks at you with his ‘existential’ face instead of his ‘what’s next’ face; the one with knowing skepticism. The face that says: “You know I will do what ever you want, but could you please just explain all this sand?” “Yeah, and what are crabs, exactly?” “And that big water bowl tastes salty and gives me explosive diarrhea.” “Really, where is our life going and why?”

Faith in love is the most basic element of a relationship. As humans we can use words, language, gestures and intonation to convey all sorts of details and subtleties about love. We expect these techniques to work in all communication but, in some moments, it fails us completely. Our conversations can instantly be reduced to one as simple as between a dog and his master. Coming out can be one of those occasions. Sometimes there is only this answer: “Sorry, doggie, you’ll know it once it happens. Until then trust that I will love and care for you.”

In the time of YouTube and Facebook young folks have a slew of “It Gets Better” and other coming out models to follow. Something like six million people have come out on Facebook alone. In contrast, during the 1970s there were few if any role models for coming out. Each person blazed their own trail blindly. If someone was lucky, they could prepare a plan and have the time and support necessary to execute the plan. Some others were forced out of the closet door unexpectedly, which was harder, and often life-altering in extremely negative ways.  The “it gets worse” side of things is a harsh and un-cool place to be.

One commonality of gay life in the 1970s was the ritual telling of coming out stories. Everybody has one. The stories were a natural point of reference for living in the gay world. I would listen to another guy’s story and think, that’s not so bad, or wow you had it rough! Some stories were so devastating as to make the whole room cry and some were funny and surprising. All of them provided a context for what it meant to live the gay experience.

I was mystified at the stories coming from gay Catholics with their matter-of-fact discussion of abuse by priests. I heard these stories during the years I was getting my MFA in Detroit. The repetition of story after story of what must have been horrible childhoods made me, at first, question the veracity of the stories until I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of priestly experiences. I felt honored, in a sad way, to hear this discussion, as if I were now part of an elite club of secret knowledge. I wasn’t even Catholic and yet I knew the intimate details of what eventually became sensational child abuse scandals thirty years later. Child rape was a way of life in Catholic coming out story after story.  All of this was common knowledge in my circle of Detroit friends. It was almost a joke actually — another aspect of the downtrodden lives of sexual misfits. These gay Catholics seemed to believe they deserved the abuse. It was a contextual standard for the next chapter of a coming out story; insert your priestly experiences here. alterboyssmall

Hearing those stories I could begin to imagine what had happened to Mark Sobota, my eight-year-old, first, best friend who came back from Father Pedantic’s (not the real names) summer camp a different boy than the one who had left. He had been assigned the honor of Father’s ‘favorite’ that summer. Gradually, as I looked back to those awkward memories, a thought became clear: had Mark been raped by this priest? Why, after two weeks at camp, would he reject affection, isolate himself, have a fear of old friends, and act out in anger all the time; it was so unlike him? And, why would he become a priest himself later in life?

A grad-school friend of mine, David, wanted to be a priest very badly and yet, because he would not deny his sexuality, he was excluded. I watched him struggle year after year as other, less-honest gay men were taken into the training program. They had no problem stretching the veracity of their sacred vows. David had integrity while they did not, yet they got the job and he did not. Secrets are required to become a priest? I guess if your duties involve shuffling unveiled pedophiles from parish to parish, secrets might just be an essential requirement for the job.

If your dog can take you on faith alone, while theological bureaucrats require you to lie and even turn away those who are truthful, then you have to wonder who has the better moral code? It makes me want to put on my existential face and ask: “Really, where are our lives going and why?”

 

This is an adaptation of a chapter from Billy’s Moral Adventures, Featuring Serious Emotions Such as Those Brought on by Death, soon to be published. Text copyright © 2016 William W. O’Donnell

Trump v. Serendipity

Let’s remove the crudeness of reality by taking the topic of: art as a spark plug for finding moral solutions, and give it some application in the real world, Trump’s world. I have been preaching the benefits of art as a catalyst toward finding solutions to moral dilemmas. The actual process may seem a little non-specific (or downright goofy) since we are relying upon serendipity to send us in the right direction.

Trump’s behaviors and policies are immoral. People are being harmed. The language is being abused with alternate facts, of all things. Trust is a fading concept. Trump’s malevolence is, obviously, much more serious than what an individual painting or song might teach us. Art itself doesn’t solve anything; its success rate on that score is about the same as prayer. Communing with thought-provoking ideas is what directs you to a solution. Engaging with art is a conversation with universal ideas. Art is not limited to your own experiences as prayer is, it encompasses the whole world of ideas.

You could seek out specific artworks to solve a specific problem I suppose. Go see Death of A Salesman if you are having troubles relating to your father’s bad choices. Read From The Mississippi Delta if you are a smart young black woman struggling to become educated in an environment of prejudice and poverty. Go see Angels in America to reflect upon your own behaviors back in the late 1980’s.  Go see the new King Kong movie if you are in the mood. It does not matter much whether the story shares an identical problem with yours or not. Although, look at all the people flocking to re-read George Orwell’s 1984 because of Donald Trump.1984

Re-reading 1984 or Animal Farm could be a wise thing to do for any number of reasons. It is part of our shared history. It provides parallels to the current situation. It is fiction, yet speaks of real-world truths. It helps us remember the emotions of people in our circumstance which provides tremendous value. One of the edifying benefits of art is emotional intelligence. If all we needed was information – Wikipedia would provide that with more efficiency. True facts require interpretation; alternate facts already are propaganda. Orwell’s novels provide an interpretation we seek to understand.

Another profitable choice is going to an art museum or gallery (or skim through an art history book). Walk around, view the pictures on walls and sculptures on plinths. Allow the environment to provide a space of inspirational possibilities. Creativity is contagious, it makes the thoughts in our minds race to a solution. The ‘use’ of another artist’s visual products to design scenery for theatre is similar to a sound designer’s use of music. The creative products of others are re-purposed to assist in storytelling. A certain era can be quickly re-established with music and amplified with fashion and architecture. The evocation of emotions can be accomplished in the same way. So can a solution to a moral dilemma.

st matthewArt is a path to the Dreamworld. The Dreamworld is a resident of our hearts and minds. A glance at Caravaggio’s “The Calling of St. Mathew” is like a mirror reflecting our own conscience. We don’t even need to be Christian to gain the benefit. Inside that glance may be the solution we have been searching for. Art reveals clarity. Why that painting? Why that moment in time? Why that song in our earbuds? Does the subject of this painting, a deity picking an apostle, have any bearing on our personal revelation? Possibly not, the subject of the painting is not necessarily relevant to the creative spark – the atmosphere of proximity to art. Art is, once again, the catalyst to inspiration. Solutions are revealed to your mind when opportunity is ripe. Art makes opportunity ripe.

So, our moral dilemma involves discovering a way to deal with the moral disaster that is Trump and his republican cohorts. Normally, this would be just a political issue but he is damaging the lives of too many people in our country and elsewhere to pretend there is no moral problem. His unstable behavior along side the nuclear buttons makes this a moral problem. Do we, as regular citizens, have an obligation to do something? Of course we do – the obligation of citizenship.

So, how will serendipity best Trump? Well, it’s not like we are going to sit around waiting for chance to throw a better fate at us. Nor are we all going to march out to the local Museum of Art with a mass expectation of grand revelationsdreamworld. Art doesn’t work like a church where the sanctuary fills with people seeking comfort from life’s hard knocks. Church is a place to commune with the Dreamworld filtered through an intercessional deity. The Dreamworld exists inside you so art helps you see yourself directly. It is the catalyst, the prime mover of change, but not change itself. You change because art, the path to yourself, reveals your Dreamworld. Religion gives you a super-natural artifice, a fantasy of gods and angels, a detour along the path to your internal Dreamworld that steals focus and delays finding the solution within. It strains your integrity through a sieve of dogma. It takes credit for what is already yours.

Through art, our mind is amassing a series of value decisions. Most are insubstantial on their own, but the cumulative results of all of them within the context of the main question are gradually putting pieces of the puzzle together. One choice becomes associated with another in a thoughtful order. Connections are being made. The part of our brain that is organizing all this is a different operating system than the conscious brain. We don’t realize this process is going on until we choose to revisit the question. Our conscious brain sees all those new connections made while it was busy cooking dinner or what ever, resulting in a “realization” or “idea” or “solution”.

If you are hoping for a solution to the Trump problem you are going to have to wrestle with art for yourself. I don’t know the answer. For now, my solution is writing this blog. A blog that is being read by perhaps 150 people. I don’t seem to be a mass market type of blogger. My blog is a broom; one person with a broom might inspire other people with rakes or vacuum cleaners, shovels or backhoes to start cleaning too.

Finding Morality Through Art

Two artistic expressions of melancholy, both alike in sincerity, if not stature or quality, will be the subject of this blog. One you will recognize from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the other one you will not recognize at all because I created it and it has been shown to very few people. The two are paired together because they are expressions of young men and their efforts to address the pains of existence within their personal circumstance. This is a continuation of the discussion of the last two posts regarding art.

Hamlet is probably twenty years old although some say he is thirty, but that makes no sense, he is written with behaviors of a student questioning life, not a full grown adult. Let’s not delve too deeply into the details of his anxiety; he is a Prince who’s father, the King was murdered while some hanky-panky was going on in the castle between his Mom and the king’s brother, his Uncle who conveniently became the new King. A ghost, his dead father, comes back and suggests avenging his death. This stress adds to Hamlet’s basic not-yet-an-adult angst. He is already a pensive lad and depressed when he gives the following monologue to his two friends:

I have of late, (but wherefore I know not) lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition; that this goodly frame the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o’er hanging firmament, this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire: why, it appeareth no other thing to me, than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals! And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

The second piece is a watercolor painting that’s been modified in Photoshop. I painted this the night in 1978 when I struck up enough courage to walk into my first gay bar. I got my self all dressed up and ready for action and walked straight through the door and sat down at the bar. The place was empty. It was only eight PM. Nobody was likely to show up until at least eleven. The bartender took pity on me and explained how things work in the gay bar scene. I went home, cried, got stoned and painted this self-portrait.BMA cover art

The original painting was less colorful. I jazzed it up on the computer so it can be used on the cover of my book. Years of stress, anxiety, frustration and soul-searching culminated in that brazen trip to the bar only to end in embarrassment and disappointment. This moment was the apex of my struggle. At least I got a painting out of it, such as it is. The title is “I Was Angry” in case you wouldn’t get that from the red eyes. The brows aren’t furrowed the way they would be if looking at some other person angrily. This is an internal, reflective anger focused on no one else. All the energy, conflict and determination through years of effort is churning inside. There is still a peaceful resoluteness in the face that shows a firm determination to succeed. The staunch pursed lips say, “I’ll win this battle”. Coming out of the closet will happen despite this set-back. Period.

So, in my last two posts “art” is assigned a moral and edifying quality. Can we see it in these two examples? Well, the most obvious lesson is that they both exult humanity. Perseverance, the human quality of getting up and doing it again after facing adversity is a major element in storytelling. When do people need that lesson? When they are depressed from having faced adversity themselves. The picture illuminates both anger and peace. The monologue illuminates both the strengths of mankind (is it sarcastic?) along with the harshness of foul and pestilent vapors, summing it as “a quintessence of dust.”  The terms of the discussion have been defined. The monologue could be taken out of context of the play and used to describe any person’s circumstance and so could the painting, making them universal expressions of mankind’s existential struggles.

The moral insight comes from observing humanity exalted through art. There may be no specific moral point of view stated in the piece, so we, the observers, are going to assign a moral value to make our encounter meaningful. Will it be the intended opinion of the artist? Who knows and who cares? The ways in which we interact with art are personal. It is designed to provoke questions and thereby provide an observer the opportunity to draw conclusions. The artist has certain questions in mind while creating the work but the audience always forms new questions and seeks to answer them all. That is a good thing.

Moral solutions are derived through the process of deliberation, which is a crucial element of having integrity. If one can say they honestly examined a choice from all sides, that it results in an opinion/conclusion, and are willing to back up that choice publicly with reasons, then they have integrity. Moral decisions require contemplation and time. Hamlet is deliberating his own moral dilemma when he speaks this monologue. He puts forward universal thoughts in an effort to solve his specific problem. By watching him experience this process we can discover something useful to help us with our problem.

A young adult or anyone for that matter may see something of value in the portrait or not. It may be found in the monologue, or not. A song on the radio, a book, a movie, a TV show, an opera, any and all modes of art have the potential to provide the insight required.

Suppose you choose to seek guidance from a priest or another dogma-based source, you are still culpable for your own actions. Following advice from a bible or religion doesn’t absolve you from your own actions. If you choose to do so, you should truly understand the reasoning behind the instruction from that authority. When you reason out a decision for yourself, you know why you have made the choice you have made. Following predetermined dogma because you ‘believe in it’ doesn’t give you the same insight or understanding. Following another person’s rule does not convey moral integrity.

Art is not a straight line toward understanding. It is a strange and wavering path that exposes vulnerability and encourages confusion. It asks you to think, deliberate and debate so you can form your own considered conclusions. Art is a catalyst which assists its audience with the option of making personal choices. If all art directed people toward forming the same conclusion, then it would be propaganda. Art does not do that, it has no dogma. Art removes the crudeness of reality and the inanity of dogma and frees your mind to explore all options.

Art, Morality, Religion

“We need Religion for religion’s sake, Art for art’s sake and, Morality for morality’s sake.” Victor Cousin

I describe religion’s sake as being ‘know thy god,’ art’s sake is ‘know thyself,’ and morality’s sake as ‘know one another.’ In high school, I volunteered at three different organizations; each one represented one of these ideas. Those experiences brought tremendous growth to my humanist outlook.

Religion, know thy god. Church, for me, was a place to socialize and manage facades. Basically, it was my sanctuary from the bullies of the world. The idea of ‘knowing’ my god was a stretch. I couldn’t get a solid grip on the three-in-one trinity thing because no one could sufficiently explain it to me. (Seriously, God is not like a pack of Hostess Ho Hos just because you get three tasty treats in one package.) So, knowing God was neither reasonable nor possible. I went with knowing about god instead. At church I hung out with friends, made poignant, wry observations, and tried to learn a better way to live life through facade management and religious dogma.

Morality, knowing one another, is what I learned working with the mentally challenged. When you strip away all the facades people apply to themselves you are left with the basics of their humanity. The intellectually disabled are, without the burden of higher thought, the most fundamental human beings on the planet. They exist and they love. Every moral choice is put into its simplest context without artifice. Those who care for them gain a perspective that is unique, so these children are to be regarded with a form of respect that is not patronizing and is accepting of whatever circumstance they inhabit. This was my insight from four years of volunteering. It molded my approach to all people from that point on. Because of this, my philosophy of moral behavior included respect and acceptance of individuals as they are. Once you understand the individuals who exist at this fundamental level of being, you learn to discover those fundamental elements in others. This allows you to see through the artifice of a facade, making the facade useless in those who wear one, even a bully.

My art, or knowing oneself, is theater. It’s collaborative, intelligent and full of emotion. But more than anything it’s instructive; it teaches life-lessons with every play. It is secular, in that each play carries a different philosophy and point of view. It tells stories of social interaction to elaborate on morality. It makes philosophic and theologic arguments from all doctrines exploring many possibilities. It challenges those who participate to be excellent. It challenges those who observe it to think excellent thoughts. In order to tell a story, one must first understand the story, so research and discovery and reading and discussion are essential from the beginning. Each play has a time, a place, a point of view and a message. As each production ends a new play takes its place. It comes with a new time, place and message to first understand, then convey. The cycle of beginning and ending, death and rebirth are constant. When you exist in an emotional and intellectual environment like this you come to know yourself very well.

Seek Moral Guidance in Art

The human moral decision-making process seems mostly random: Our laws are enforced differently depending upon race. Religions put out a conditional morality through allegiance to their exclusive society. Our President merely pretends to have a moral center. Corporations rape the land, sea and air. Our schools cower to politics resulting in clipart substitutes for the power of moral art. Hate groups hire lawyers trained in religious colleges to sneak hateful bigotry into law. New York Times columnists have to chastise other journalists for food-related arrogance. And the christian school where I endured my freshman year is regularly noted for being the most anti-LGBT campus in the US.college_photo_53ff7860a94a99.75957266washington postgcc

I’m not a philosopher. As a matter of fact, I almost failed Intro to Philosophy as a freshman at Grove City College, an extreme, alt-right school, well, at least in terms of LGBT issues. I was not afraid to ask the kind of questions that caused the whole class to turn and gape at me. I challenged the concept of god no matter what the topic of the day. My questions were genuine, but didn’t always match the syllabus, so the minister/professor who obviously preferred grad students to freshmen was quite frustrated with me. He failed me on a paper I had put a lot of time into. I challenged him point by point on what I had written and it became obvious to both of us that he hadn’t bothered to read it. He had judged me on my non-christian attitude in class not the paper itself, so, I passed the course. The ethical merit of his actions was typical at the school – repent if and when you get caught, otherwise keep up the pretense. It was a place to learn moral pretense and hypocrisy.

Old furniture has a moral value to some people. People who value functionality would rather sit comfortably in a chair while having enough room to eat dinner at the table. For others, the expression of status is inherent in the furnishings of their abode. The list of criteria necessary to make value judgments on a chair or a table is daunting. I’m more proud of the fact that I inherited the dough box from Aunt Charlotte than its dollar value, which I have never bothered to discover. I give the object, the thing, the dough box – sentimental value which comes from my heart. Its place in my family history and its aesthetic qualities evoke joy within me. The antique crowd gives it a dollar value.

If the box were to be broken in an accident, would the person who breaks it be guilty of an immoral act? Well, I know how upset I’d be, but I wouldn’t make too big a fuss about it. Damaging another person’s property is a violation of the moral code we live by. I can forgive an accident but once the judgment of the antique crowd places a dollar value on it, the issue gets complicated. A different kind of sentiment becomes important by the introduction monetary value.  In that mind-set, my feelings about the object become irrelevant. Objects with dollar signs attached are morally superior to things of mere sentiment. The person who broke it would feel much more guilt if she knows the dollar value of the piece. Her sense of guilt would go up accordingly with the dollar value. That list of criteria that assigns a price tag to an object is devoid of feeling. The result is we become confused with what we truly value: the emotions derived from the object itself or emotions derived from the money it represents.

Who can we turn to when deciding the morality of a situation? Not philosophers who are still asking that question themselves. Not lawyers, duh, nor the cops. Not the spiritual leaders – they hire lawyers to pick on gays. Not teachers. Not Presidents. And not corporations. We must look at all these resources while taking them with a boulder of salt, not just a grain.

The answer comes from inside us.

Find art.
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Seriously, art helps make things clear to us. It could be a poem, a play, a novel or a song. It may not have any words at all like a painting or a sculpture or ballet. It may be grand and bombastic or calm and lyrical. Let the art transport you into the world it creates to experience its message and emotion, then come back changed because of the journey.

It won’t be like googling, “how to be moral” on the internet. You can’t go to art with a question expecting THE answer, but it will move you to another place and perspective. Perhaps you already know this new place and can revisit it as an old friend. Perhaps you will totally disagree with the premise. Perhaps it will disturb or shock you. It may make you cry. Art as a whole has no agenda, individual pieces have different meanings but there’s no dogma in art. There are no rules or formulas to follow, and yet it instructs you emotionally and intellectually. Art is, by its nature, altruistic.

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The moral lesson intended by the artist may not even be the one you carry away after experiencing the work. I was able to endure my freshman year by repeatedly listening to scratchy records of the musicals Oliver and Fiddler on The Roof, along with the Who’s rock opera Tommy. They all had the theme of an individual struggling against and surviving an unjust society. People take journeys away from their homes to find a new life where they can be the person they are. None of them mentioned being gay but they taught me much of what got me through my internal coming out process. Even a show like Grease with its questionable lesson of getting-the-guy by lowering personal standards and conforming to marginal behaviors has value for the discerning observer.

As with anything, art should be used with discretion and determination. Art helps make clear the questions alive in the world, however, it is up to the consumer of art to find the answers. Art is an excellent starting point for the discovery and resolution of moral concerns. If you seek answers from those who repeat dogma such as priests, mullahs or rabbis, you get a cookie-cutter answer – they think, so you don’t have to think. Their cookies may not have the ingredients you require. The thing is that you already have all the ingredients necessary within yourself. Art will help you find yourself so you can answer the questions for yourself. Make your own cookies.