April 19, 2005

about roles

I am nearly beyond words in my fury about Joseph Ratzinger being the new pope. I don't even know where to start explaining why I'm so angry: with Opus Dei?1 with his doctrinal conservatism, which makes him describe homosexuality as an "objective disorder?" with his membership in the Hitler Youth?

And here is where people will say, as they have already, that he was required to join, that he was not enthusiastic about it, that he was never a member of a combat unit in the Nazi military. All these things are true. He probably wasn't a serious Nazi, he was probably just trying to get by, he was 14. I know. I know. It was a long time ago. I'm as sick as anyone of Jews talking about the Holocaust like it was the only bad thing that ever happened in the world.2

But he's the pope. And if you're going to be the pope, you have to expect to be better. Maybe it would be ok that he was in the Hitler Youth, if he had spent a lot of time repenting and praying and wishing he'd been a member of the resistance. This is a man whom God calls to the priesthood, and he never returns to that part of his past in pain and anguish, wishing he had done less to serve the machinery of genocide and more to save at least one of the Dachau slaves he worked beside? He dismisses it as just something he was required to do?

All the pretense that there was no way around it diminishes the great sacrifices made by other Germans in the name of resistance and human decency. It also diminishes the papacy. There are certain offices - the papacy, the presidency, a few others - that are so important that I don't really acknowledge the right of people to hold them and be imperfect. I think that if you're going to be pope, or president, you should be willing to give up just about anything - your life, your free time, your wandering eye, the innocent fiction that there was nothing more you could have done - to hold them. You are responsible for so many people and so much of history that whatever your own personal problems are, you should just deal. Skip that vacation, stay up late, don't have a dog, take whatever rest you need to make it possible to do your job, but no more. If you don't want to make those sacrifices, someone else will. We only need one.

The President of the United States, as the Venezuelan with whom I used to wash restaurant dishes pointed out,3 is responsible for the whole world. I have zero sympathy with Bush as a president, but it's not just the appalling policy his administration makes: it's the fact that he doesn't seem to care. That faced with the enormous responsibility of being one of the most powerful people on the planet, he goes to his ranch, he goes to bed early, he slacks off. I disagreed with a lot of Clinton's policy decisions, but at least I knew he took it seriously. He was up nights worrying and studying and being responsible. 4

I'm not Catholic, but the pope can affect my life, directly and indirectly, and he is the spiritual leader of a billion people. I know that people are people, and fallible. I know that people get to do stupid things and not be sorry for them and still be good people. I'd be ok if someone with Ratzinger's record were a member of the German parliament, and I'm sort of ok with people who used to be hardcore racists being senators (hello, Robert Byrd). I'm ok with members of Congress taking vacations like ordinary people and not being available because they have to raise their kids. There's a feminist argument - most recently applied to high-powered science professors - that not acknowledging workers as people with obligations hits women hardest, because we are more likely to have no one to give our obligations to. Yes. People need time and money and accommodations, and are imperfect. People don't always take things as seriously as they should. It's ok.

But not for the pope. And not for the president.

1. It's a cultish, fundamentalist "personal prelature" with an incredibly undemocratic governance structure. There's an official site, a "source of information," and the Opus Dei Awareness Network.
2. I'm Jewish, people, back off. I get to say it.
3. He was super-cool.
4. I actually find this really painful, because I would love to be able to affect policy that way. Seeing Bush have the opportunity and not caring is like watching someone destroy da Vinci sketches or something.

April 15, 2005

city magic

I went to the grocery store last week, exhausted and starving, and found it both incredibly frustrating and kind of nice. Grocery stores freak me out. Too many products, too many choices of ridiculous things (the world does NOT need six hundred kinds of toothbrushes), and where are the damn batteries? Not in the aisle marked "Batteries and Batteries," that's for sure.

The good thing about it was the random human interactions. I needed ziploc bags, which were roughly impossible to find, but this really nice guy who was doing his own shopping, but still wearing his Safeway tag, tracked down a woman who was in no sort of uniform but knew where the ziploc bags were.

At the check-out line, a 4-year-old boy was running around saying, basically continuously, ooh-ooh-ooooh-oooh-oooh. He grabbed a pack of Starbursts, ran up to his mom, and held them up to her: ooooooooooooh. She looked at him and said, "NO." He put them back and ran off. Ooooh-ooooh-ooh-oooooooh-oooooooh.

The cashier took my discount card and was confused about whether it was a Safeway card or not (it's from a local subsidiary, but not local to where I am), and I said something about people in California thinking I was crazy when I handed it to them. She got really really excited and started telling me how she was going to fashion college in LA in the fall.

This is the stuff that makes it worth it for me to live in a city. All these little interactions with people you don't know. So here are a couple more.

The other day I was at a little produce market in the suburbs and there was a girl - probably about six - behind the counter with her sister or aunt or mom or cousin or something. Making faces at babies is like, the best thing ever and they hide and then laugh, so I forgot that she wasn't a baby and made faces at her. But she was old enough that she made a fish face back at me, and I blew out my cheeks like a pufferfish and she laughed.

Today there was a tiny, toy-looking white dog - probably a bichon frise - at a city park. It barked at another dog and then walked past me and the Hipster Monk sitting on a bench eating ice cream, and I barked at it. It got sort of confused and excited and came over to sniff me and be petted, and stayed interested for a while, til its owner - this woman who looked sad generally and confused because I had barked at her dog, but eventually smiled about it - decided it was time to leave. Off they went. The old couple on the bench - old enough to have started looking frail, and to dress in a way that was noticeably old-fashioned - across from us laughed and started talking to each other and then to me. "Did you see that?" said the old man. "That was funny." "Yes it was." To me: "Do you have a dog?"

I told them I didn't have a dog, but that I grew up with them and love them. They nodded and talked a little more, and then walked off arm in arm, slowly.

April 3, 2005

perennial champion Bob Dylan

If, like me, you're surrounded by hipsters in hooded sweatshirts, their even more hipster siblings, and college public radio,1 you might have heard someone say Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes is the new Bob Dylan. Of course! He's a folksinger-songwriter boy with a scratchy voice, floppy hair, and a brooding expression. He's even a good poet. But it's a really basic misunderstanding of why Bob Dylan matters.

Bob Dylan was a fucking prophet. He was a poet, yes, and a musician, and his music amplifies his words in a way few people can duplicate. That's why, despite how unbeautiful his voice is, his versions of his songs will always tell you something new about them. But he was important because he was a prophet. Prophets don't know the future, but they see the present more clearly than most, and they give us their fury, their vision, they tell us our own stories and make us cry. They see our sins and tell us about them, and woe betide those who refuse to listen. Every time I hear The Times They Are A-Changin' (song or album) I think about what it must have been like to hear it for the first time in 1964 and know that it was about you. Especially to be young, and to hear the voice of this new world you were going to inherit singing about the massive disruption that was creating it. To hear the voice of the prophet.

There are still musicians who do that, but they aren't Conor Oberst. They're not Bob Dylan either, for that matter. I'd nominate, with the approval of my friend the Red-Headed Stranger, Ani diFranco. Like Dylan, she's important. People care about what she says, even if a lot of them do it in this sort of annoying teen-age feminist way.2 People imitate her music, but more important, they listen to her. They hear something about themselves and the world in her music. The fury and vision of prophecy.

I was talking about this at one of my temp assignments this winter, and one of the other temps suggested Ice T, saying that his moral stature and his position as a role model make him the Bob Dylan of our generation. I have no idea. I am white as they come, and don't know enough about Ice T (musically or otherwise) to say anything about it. I listen to the occasional bit of hip hop radio, though, mostly because my students like it, and it's the only mainstream radio I've heard that might, maybe, possibly, have some prophetic leanings once in a while. Most of it is crap, a lot of it is just sexually explicit for its own sake, but Kanye West has given me goosebumps once in a while. I had one of my Outward Bound groups perform All Falls Down (their choice of song) once, and it was the first time I'd ever really heard the lyrics. One of the kids said, "Kanye West speaks the truth." That's the feeling Bob Dylan and Ani diFranco give you at their best. It's not on the radio very often, so not that many people hear it. But you're not a prophet unless you can get some attention, unless you become culturally resonant.

Anyway, I think these are all better proposals than the people David Dye named when he was doing a "new Bob Dylan" top five at 5 on XPN.3 They were all just young guitar guys with scratchy voices.4 No prophecy at all.

1. Affectionately. I say this affectionately. And while wearing a hooded sweatshirt.
2. Let me point out that I get to call them annoying because I was a teen-age feminist Ani fan. Boys, don't try this at home.
3. The top five at 5 is a daily themed list. Like, songs about New Jersey. Or songs about rain. Or songs by people who might be the new Bob Dylan.
4. Conor Oberst, David Grey, Ryan Adams, Bruce Springsteen, and someone else. Bruce Springsteen is the only one I might consider.