Thursday, April 9, 2009

Seriously... Iowa?

Usually when there's a surprise in the News, it's of the unpleasant variety. However, in the past week I was happy to see the Iowa supreme court strike down the state's ban on same-sex marriages.
While Iowa is considered a swing state, politically, and leans conservative on many issues, it has been ahead of the curve in civil rights issues since at least 1839, when, in the re the Matter of Ralph, the state supreme court's first case, it declared "no man in this territory can be reduced to slavery." Iowa also had integrated schools and female attorney's long before the fashion caught on in most other states.
So it's not out of character for Iowa to strike an early blow for marriage equality. Perhaps the birthplace of Ann Landers and Dear Abby figured it was, after all, just good manners.

I was a little more surprised that Vermont waited till after Iowa (and Connecticut and Massachusetts, for god's sake), to declare that it was cool with gay marriage too. Vermont, after all, was a pioneer in the "hey, it's better than nothing" institution of civil unions. The Green Mountain State has a long tradition of going its own liberal-libertarian way on these things. Oh well, better late than never (you hear that New Jersey? Get a move on!).

Personally, speaking as a straight, white male, I find the brouhaha over same-sex marriage hard to comprehend. Why are some people so dead-set against it? The argument that it will lead to bestiality (since when can sheep sign marriage licenses?) and polygamy (although you'd think divorce lawyers would be salivating over the potential income from sorting out that kind of contract) are pretty hollow.
How about the argument that allowing two men or two women to marry is a threat to traditional marriages? For the life of me, I can't figure out how.

And then there's the religious objection. I'm a somewhat lapsed Roman Catholic, and I am not really much of a theologian, but let me try to explain my point of view on this.

Apparently homosexuality is declared an abomination in the Old Testament, along with things like eating shellfish and lending money at interest. Oddly enough, though, you don't see massive religious protests against credit card companies or the opening of a new Red Lobster. It's possible, by the way, that the prohibition against sodomy was actually a prohibition against married men and women pursuing relations outside of their marriages.

If God hates gay people, why'd he make so many damn many of 'em?

Seriously, though, I'm inclined to accept the evidence that sexual preference is hard-wired into our heads, we're made the way we are. I'm straight, my buddy may not be. I'm not going to talk him out of being gay any more than he'll talk me out of liking women (and I wouldn't want to, anyway, my hypothetical buddy may be better looking than me, and I don't need the competition!).

So, by that argument, God made us who we are, and it's up to us to make the best of that. We are inherently social beings, we make friends and alliances, we interact and, if all goes well, we pair up and share some sort of Grace.

Part of that Grace, that bond, is sexual in nature. Yes, my friends, God gave us the gift of Good Sex. Not just wild and exciting sex, or incredibly fun sex but the chance for a transcendent experience, where two people connect and give each other the gift of themselves. It's tricky, and complicated, often ridiculous and more than a little scary, but there's a chance, when you have that kind of commitment and connection to each other, to find what the Archbishop of Canterbury called The Body's Grace.

So, if this experience is something of the divine, a gift from God, and if God made some men to love men and some women to love women, who are we to tell God that his children are not allowed to share in his gifts? Rather than railing against the idea, the truly Devout should be cheering their homosexual brethren on and encouraging them to pursue that Grace.

Again, I'm not a biblical scholar, but it seems to me that Jesus was never one for oppressing the minority. Quite the opposite, if I remember correctly.

So, I ask you, isn't it time to throw out the prejudices and lay out the welcome mat? Why not? The economy, war, pollution... there are a million real problems facing us today, why should we wallow in the mire of pointless artificial divisions?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

What I'm Reading: "Mystery of Grace" by Charles de Lint

I first picked up one of Charles de Lint's books when I was in my early 20s, at a used book sale. When I read it, I immediately realized two things: first, that he was combining traditional folklore and modern urban settings in a way that I thought I was clever and original for doing in my own short stories and comics and two, he understood the symbolism and significances of it all a lot better than I did.

I've since become a diehard fan, so when I saw Mystery of Grace on the shelf at the bookstore, I grabbed it right away.

While many of his previous novels were set in the fictional North American city of Newford, Mystery of Grace is set somewhere in Southern California. And, unlike previous efforts which drew largely on Celtic folk for musical inspiration, its soundtrack is mostly rockabilly and surf rock.

The heroine of the story, Atlagracia Quintero, is a Mexican-American hot rod mechanic. She's considered something of a tomboy who has grease-stained hands and plenty of tattoos.
Without spoiling the details, she ends up falling in love, experiencing some very weird things, as well as some terrible tragedy, and exploring the mysteries of life, death and what's in between the two.

Like in his other work, de Lint draws on the folklore of several different cultures, including the Spanish Catholic traditions of the area and Native American beliefs, and asks the question "what if they're all right?"

De Lint understands the symbolism of folk tales and fantasy, and the importance of stories to our self-identity. The paranormal aspects of the book are, as well as being interesting in their own right, a metaphor for our own inner journeys. Themes of love, loss, childhood tragedy, family and a chance at redemption for the lost are common in this book, like his other stories.

The book had its flaws, especially in the last third. At some point it felt a little rushed and a few confrontations seemed to fall into a bit of a cliche, but overall it was a very good read. The ending, and the overall mood, is somewhat bittersweet, and sometimes feels much like Peter S. Beagle's A Fine and Private Place, with which it has some parallels.

If you're a de Lint fan, you'll love it. If you're not, I'd definitely recommend it, but I would also take this opportunity to put in a plug for his short story collections, such as Dreams Underfoot and Moonlight and Vines, which showcase what are in my opinion some of his best efforts.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

So, about that "national anthem" thing...

I don't know what got me started, but I was thinking yesterday what a horrible song we've got for our national anthem. I mean, "The Star Spangled Banner" has its time and place in American history, but we can do much better.
Seriously, consider
And the rockets' red glare
and bombs bursting in air
gave proof through the night
that our flag was still there

With all respect to Mr. Key, it may capture some moment of hope and inspiration, but it hardly reflects any sort of great national spirit. The whole song comes across as kind of shocked that America is still standing at the end of the battle.
And what about the rest of the time, when we're not being bombarded by our sworn mortal enemies, the British (oh yeah, about that too... that whole First Lady/Queen of England bonding thing, ixnay on the ightingfay the itishBray).

How about "America the Beautiful" with its amber waves of grain and purple, majestic mountains and all? That's always been considered a runner up, and, rather than the martial panic of the current choice it asks that the Almighty "crown thy good with brotherhood." Brotherhood? Sounds nice to me.

But if we're looking for a rousing, military song we've got no shortage of candidates. The Civil War alone produced a bunch of fine material. The best known of the lot, of course, is "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," which, sadly, has been reduced too often to scmaltzy background music. The song was written as an abolitionist anthem, and Julia Ward Howe left no question of how she felt about slavery:

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea
with a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me
as he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free...

"As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free?" She wasn't messing around when she wrote that, was she? Think about it in context for a minute, men marching off to war to fight for the Union and the abolition of slavery, with those words on their lips. Imagine them, muddy, battered and exhausted, belting that out as they trudged ever onward. Glory, glory hallelujah.

Of course, it is an explicitly Christian song, but if you're going to take God with you to the battlefield, this is how to do it in style:

I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
"As ye deal with my contemner, so with you my grace shall deal;
let the hero born of woman crush the serpent with his heel
since God is marching on"

Because of its heavily Christian imagery, I can't see it making the perfect National Anthem, sadly. I just hold it up as an example of how much more meaty you can make a patriotic song. The same diversity of belief and culture that removes "Battle Hymn" from the running, though, is one of our country's great strengths, and should be celebrated if we ever decide to pick a new song (possibly one that people can actually sing without professional training).

Which brings us to Woody Guthrie. In 1940 our own national troubadour penned "This Land is Your Land" in response to what he felt was the too-complacent "God Bless America." Guthrie wanted us all in, "from California to the New York Islands." The lyrics celebrate the broad, open and somewhat anarchic potential of the country. My favorite verse, which is seldom taught in elementary school:

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.
And, unlike some of the other songs, it doesn't speak of the flag or the institutions and symbols of America, it speaks of "this land" and the people who live on it.

These are just a few ideas. There are so many great songs out there, so why are we stuck with the voice-cracking blather we have? Think about that next time you go to the ball park.

Monday, April 6, 2009

How Far We've Come

"Early morning, April 4
shot rings out in the Memphis sky
Free at last, they took your life
but they could not take your pride
In the name of love
What more, in the name of love?"
U2 Pride (in the name of Love)

Forty-one years ago this weekend (in the evening, actually) Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated at the age of 39 on the balcony of a Memphis hotel room.

This weekend, Barack Obama is in Europe as President and spokesman for the United States.

There are many who will say that racism and prejudice of all sorts are alive and well in our country, and they'd be right, but there have been changes. We have moved forward.

Just something to think about on a rainy Monday.