Monday, June 27, 2022

Articles of Faith

Things as I see them.

There is no God.

There is no Heaven, no Hell, no Devil. There are no angels or demons or ghosts. There are no miracles.

There is no afterlife, no reincarnation. Whatever the "soul" can be said to be, it dissipates when the body dies.

There was no Original Sin, no Fall, and thus nothing to redeem. There was no Incarnation. Whatever the truth about his sayings and doings, Jesus was an ordinary human being. His mother was not "conceived without sin" any more or less than everyone else, nor was he the product of "virgin birth." He did not "die for our sins," he was not resurrected, nor will he return.

The universe is not concerned with our existence. In fact, even to say that it is "indifferent" is to engage in indefensible metaphysics. The universe is not capable of having an attitude towards our existence or its own. It simply exists. Why and how there is something instead of nothing is a question that neither theologian nor scientist is capable of illuminating.

Morality and ontology have nothing to do with each other. A godless universe is no more or less moral than a universe with a god in it. I once heard an Episcopalian priest, in the aftermath of one human-produced atrocity or another, say that if he thought for one moment that what had happened was God's punishment for our sins, he would put aside his priestly garments and walk out of the church forever. And so, in his place, would I.

The only true "sin" is cruelty, and the most fundamental virtue is compassion. There are more virtues than sins, because all sins ultimately come down to the same thing.

Religious institutions and religious leaders are susceptible of the same virtues and failings as everyone else. Many do good work, but many are corrupt and hypocritical. Much of the cruelty in the world is the outcome of religious belief, but much is not.

If religion gets you through the night, keeps you off the sauce, and maybe makes you a slightly kinder person, then more power to you, but if it serves as a cover for hatred and oppression, you'll get no respect from me.

Friday, June 17, 2022

Effingers (Coming Attractions)

One to watch out for: a promised English-language translation of Gabriele Tergit's family saga Effingers, which was originally published in Germany in 1951 but only recently "rediscovered" and reissued there to general acclaim. Robert Normen has a description on the website of The German Times:
In the best way, this epic 900-page novel resembles another historic family saga: Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks. Mann’s story of four generations runs from 1835 to 1877. It may be no coincidence that Tergit’s book begins the very next year. Effingers is set against the backdrop of a changing German society steeped in the comforts of Bismarckian Prussia. Modernization and an economic boom bring affluence and changing norms, which are reflected in the contrasts between the city of Berlin and Karl’s and Paul’s small hometown in southern Germany. After World War I, anti-Semitic sentiment slowly but surely takes hold and the Effinger family must reluctantly learn that they are not the German clan they aspired to be.
NYRB Books has previously published a translation by Sophie Duvernoy of Tergit's earlier novel Käsebier Takes Berlin, and they have signed Duvernoy up for Effingers as well, though apparently no date has been announced. In the meantime, a snazzy-looking Spanish-language version has just been issued by Libros del Asteroide in Barcelona.
More information is available at The German Times.

Friday, June 03, 2022

Cardboard Box of Batteries

The death of Kelly Joe Phelps on May 31st got me thinking about my favorite Kelly Joe song, so I've dug out and updated some notes I made back in 2005. First, here are the lyrics, based on the liner notes for Tap the Red Cane Whirlwind, with a few minor changes to punctuation.
make a dent in the shovel
run the mud through a sieve

paste your hopes on a windmill blade
and plant 'em up on the hill.

a pencil sharpened with a putty knife
a pretty girl as a pretty nun
maybe you wake and think this is great
i just want somewhere to run.

oh, the walls blend into ceilings, and the faces they disappear.
never enough time to think it out only time to forget i'm here.
oh, and the bill is on the table but i've got no coins for pay
a beer half circle around her name, and what the hell did she say?

ah, the wise are playing tetherball and the ball's eyes they look like mine
rollin' around all on the end of the cord i can't make up for down
oh, i'm a streamlined engine with a cog chipped out of the wheel
i remember a dirty joke or two but i can't remember the feel.
i remember a dirty joke or two but i can't remember the feel.

too much time alone i spend, a miser with a nickel worn
starving like a mother, well, but i can't let go.
i'll spit the hours across the room and I'll kick 'em out that door
hell, you can have them. another thing i've got no use for.

well and it's funny that this comes out dark, it is not that bad
Oh, there's still a sparkle of silver in my cavity that plays music in the winter
i've a cardboard box of batteries hidden in a tire swing
a miner's hat with a light on top and a handful of wedding rings.
a miner's hat with a light on top and a handful of wedding rings.
a miner's hat with a light on top and a handful of wedding rings.
It doesn't quite "tell a story," but as a mood piece or character sketch it's about as precise as you can get. Memories, regrets, hopes — they're "all in the bag with the coins" (to quote another KJP song). I've highlighted everything that refers to prospecting, money, metal; it's a vein (so to speak) that runs through the whole thing. Some of the imagery is homely and eccentric — has anyone else used the word “tetherball” in a pop song? — other bits (“a pretty girl as a pretty nun”) just raise questions.

It's a melancholy picture, but there's that little "sparkle" at the end. The looseness in the fit between the lyrics and the tune adds something when Kelly Joe sings it, making it seem more spontaneous and conversational. And then there's the acoustic guitar, which after the intro mostly stays in the background but then bursts into extravagant arabesques at the end of some of the lines.

Kelly Joe was clearly a complicated guy, both personally and musically. He had a jazz background that shows in his playing, but his well-received first record, Lead Me On, was a collection of acoustic blues covers featuring slide guitar. He could probably have stuck to that indefinitely and made a career out of it and session work, but instead he repeatedly reinvented himself, abandoning the slide for fingerpicking (and occasionally, banjo) and becoming a gifted if sometimes frustratingly cryptic songwriter. In what turned out to be his final record, Brother Sinner & the Whale, he created a kind of unassuming Old Testament gospel music (if that's not a theological contradiction).

About ten years ago Kelly Joe said he needed a break and stopped touring and recording. At the time there was some mention of ulnar neuropathy, but as the years went on it was clear that something else was going on. His fans waited to see what new iteration of Kelly Joe Phelps might eventually emerge from the ferment, but for whatever reason it never happened. Maybe we'll know more in time, but maybe Kelly Joe just preferred his privacy.

Thursday, June 02, 2022

Kelly Joe Phelps 1959-2022

And it's funny that this comes out dark, it's not that bad
There's still a sparkle of silver in my cavity that plays music in the winter
I've got a cardboard box of batteries hidden in a tire swing
A miners hat with a light on top and a handful of wedding rings.
Word is that Kelly Joe Phelps died on Tuesday. The Guardian has an obit. A fine guitarist and singer — and eventually, songwriter as well — whose career encompassed jazz, blues, original songs, and gospel, he took a break from the music business about a decade ago and sadly never came back. Few details are available at this point.

Maybe I'll have more to say when this has sunk in for a bit. For now, here are two examples of Kelly Joe in happier days.

Saturday, May 28, 2022

Stepping up to the plate

Two forceful and anguished statements in the wake of yet another mass shooting indicate that the stereotypical image of the American professional baseball player is seriously out of date or simply wrong. First, Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle:
It just feels like we’ve reached a point where if not now, when? We should have done something after Sandy Hook; we should have done something after Vegas; we should have done something after Pittsburgh; I mean, you can go down the list. We should have done something after Virginia Tech. How far back do you want to go? And then the conversation inevitably always changes to mental health or bulletproof backpacks. We’re talking about ballistic blankets. We’re talking about renovating schools so there is only one entrance and one exit. We’re talking about arming teachers.

You’re describing a prison, and you’re bargaining and negotiating with people’s lives instead of just addressing the common denominator in every single one of these issues. It’s really frustrating, and I would like to think that in this country we’re capable of some common-sense reforms that a majority of Americans support that don’t infringe on your Second Amendment rights ... Who am I? I’m on the injured list. I’m a middle reliever on a team that unfortunately is in last place right now ... But we’re still members of societies and our communities, and there are people who look up to us as athletes, who listen to what we have to say as athletes.

And I think if you could start some of these conversations, or you can participate in some of these conversations and maybe get people to listen or put pressure on elected officials to do something, the reality is that you have a little bit more sway than the average person. And when it comes to making changes in your community, you can help move the needle on any number of issues that are important to you.

Perhaps even more remarkably, San Francisco Giants manager (and former player) Gabe Kapler, on why he won't be coming out of the dugout during the playing of the national anthem:
I’m often struck before our games by the lack of delivery of the promise of what our national anthem represents ... We stand in honor of a country where we elect representatives to serve us, to thoughtfully consider and enact legislation that protects the interests of all the people in this country and to move this country forward towards the vision of the "shining city on the hill." But instead, we thoughtlessly link our moment of silence and grief with the equally thoughtless display of celebration for a country that refuses to take up the concept of controlling the sale of weapons used nearly exclusively for the mass slaughter of human beings.

We have our moment (over and over), and then we move on without demanding real change from the people we empower to make these changes. We stand, we bow our heads, and the people in power leave on recess, celebrating their own patriotism at every turn.


Saturday, May 14, 2022

Turtle Diary

Two days, two eastern box turtles. This mostly terrestrial chelonian, considered a "species of special concern," is widespread in our area but probably not all that common numerically. I see maybe one a year, often in more or less the same spots. The empty shell above may be the remains of one I saw on two occasions a few years ago. It appears to have succumbed to a predator strong enough to pierce its armor. No such grim fate as yet for the red-eyed male below, which I observed when he was, improbably, in the process of climbing over a stone wall. I kept my distance and he held his ground.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Nobody's business

That the Supreme Court is poised to overturn settled law and reverse the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade should surprise no one, given the steady rightward drift of the court, but it should appall anyone who cares about fundamental human rights.

I'll state my bias: human beings don't procreate spiritually, we procreate as bodies. We are no different in this regard from other animals, and anyone who thinks differently has a lot of special pleading to do. There is, therefore, no more basic level of individual rights than that which pertains to the body and to reproduction. The recognition of those rights, in the face of determined opposition, has been one of the most important advances of modern society. It is, paradoxically, the defense of the fundamental dignity of the physical, of our nature as animals, that defines us as modern human beings.

To deny a woman the right to control her reproduction is as outrageous an affront to human dignity as can be imagined. We pride ourselves — rightly — on the declared principles of freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion, but what is more intrusive, forcing others to keep their thoughts and beliefs to themselves, or telling a woman that even her own body is not hers to control? Defenders of abortion rights often point out — rightly — that it would be unthinkable and cruel to force a rape victim to carry her rapist's child to term, but that argument, legitimate as it is, is ultimately superfluous. It is for women to decide under what circumstances they are willing to bear a child. And it's no one else's business.

Roe v. Wade established a reasoned balance, informed by medical science, between the interests of society and a woman's rights. That balance has been steadily undermined by legislation and previous court decisions, but the essential principle underlying it has been preserved — until now. There is little short-term prospect, given the nature and dire condition of or political system, that the overturning of Roe can itself be undone. The damage will be profound, both to women and to American democracy.

It has to be understood that those who would deny a women's right to decide when or whether to have a child, and who more generally reject the whole idea of a right to privacy, don't really believe that human beings have inherent, independent rights at all. They recognize only power and its privilege to compel those who are subject to it. The fact that the right to abortion has long been acknowledged and supported by a majority of Americans will count for little. I have no doubt that reversal will be robustly cheered in the states that will be lining up to enact restricive legislation and competing to see how extreme that legislation can be made.

This country has been morally problematic from its inception, but it's hard to see how it will survive in any real sense. Even before this decision, we have come as close to fascism as we have ever been, and the danger has in no way receded.