Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Cosmic Christmas Conundrum

It started as a comment during a recent conversation I was having with my Dad. I was describing the process and materials that were used in the construction of my wife’s latest ‘alternative Christmas tree’, a yearly tradition with the crazy artist I married.

Me: “It’s built with bamboo skewers and gift wrap and tissue paper and hot glue. We didn’t want it to look like a Christmas tree, but still have that feeling.”

Him: “You know, you can’t really call it a Christmas tree.”

Me: “Why not?”

Him: “Well, it doesn’t have anything to do with the letters C-H-R-I-S-T in ‘Christmas’, does it?”

Me: “You’re kidding me, right?”

I wanted to ask him WTF a newly-dead tree, covered with ornaments and standing in the living room, awaiting a spark to catch on fire and immolate everything, has to do with C-H-R-I-S-T-mas. I wanted to, but was momentarily dumbstruck over the magnitude of his statement, at what he was inferring. He’s pretty conservative in most ways, being 75-years-old and all, but it was the matter-of-fact tone of his comment that stopped me cold.

It happens every year nowadays, this whole argument about what the Christmas holidays actually mean, what it stands for, what we should be celebrating. It rages on the teevee and in the newspapers, on the blogosphere and around dinner tables. It’s one of the singular hallmarks of our modern American discourse, meant to divide believers from everyone else, a litmus test to see how devoutly American you are.

I have my own opinions about how and why so many people have accepted the lyrical allegory of The Bible (or The Qu’ran or The Talmud or whatever) as their dogma of choice, their marching orders for access into the afterlife. I get it, really I do. We humans fear death more than anything else, so it’s natural to accept the promise of ‘life everlasting’ in exchange for emotional and spiritual servitude on this mortal coil.

As for the meaning of Christmas, an invented holiday which was nicked from the Pagan Winter Solstice bacchanal in the first place, the most vocal adherents to the biblical interpretation are clear: it’s all about the birth of Jesus, their Lord and Savior. The Immaculate Conception, the Star of Bethlehem, the Three Wise Men, the sheep and cattle in the manger, the whole star-spangled glory of it all. The Bible is the be-all end-all Book of Answers… nothing else need be considered, because it is the WORD OF GOD and, after all, God is infallible, as is The Bible. Case closed, move along, nothing more to see here as you try to salvage your dirty soul in this life while preparing for the next.

(Side note: the stop-motion animated Comedy Central series 'Robot Chicken' has the most outrageously hilarious segment regarding the whole 'Away in the Manger' story. Deeply disturbing, fall-down funny stuff.)

It got me to wondering about the basis for the myth, the legend, the lowdown on the birth of Jesus. Now, I like to think of myself as an informed person with an expanded consciousness about our existence. Why not use some of what I think I ‘know’ and extrapolate that into an understanding of how this notion of a child born to save the world could be so all-consuming and important to so many followers. It’s a subject that has been bouncing around in my head for some time now, but Dad’s comment started the cogs turning and the synapses firing and gave me the inspiration for this little exercise.

To begin: although not a concept accepted by many (if any) Christians, I hold dear to the notion that our Earth is but a microcosmic speck of dust in the vastness of our spectral universe, which plays host to billions of other stars far greater and more important than our own little Sol. My life as a supporter of all things scientific has taught me to accept that amongst those billions of stars are also hundreds of billions of planets circling them. The likelihood of other life forms holding sway over the surface of many of those planets is an easy concept to grasp, at least for me.

That’s right… other life beyond ours exists in the universe. Deal with it. It could be a single-cell protozoic society of flagellates, or it could be horrific blobs of acid-spewing multi-faced time-warping octopodi, or maybe even bi- or tri-pedal upright skin bags like us. Not important what they are, but they are… out there. I like the idea of that, first and foremost, because it makes me feel like we have neighbors. And some of them are also very likely to be WAY MORE ADVANCED than we can ever hope to be.

Anyways, here’s my point: assuming there are other far more superior life forms out there in the Cosmos, how far-fetched would it be to consider that the story of Jesus’ birth was the retelling of an actual event that occurred when his Mom was ‘visited’ by an off-worlder? I mean, wouldn’t that give new meaning to all those ‘NOTW’ stickers being proudly displayed on the back windows of SUVs? Think about it – an immaculate conception is one that could have occurred when she was unconscious and inseminated by one of them sneaky aliens, for whatever purpose. The Star of Bethlehem? Yup, a hovering spacecraft. The ‘angels on high’? Right again… more of those guys. It would also explain a lot of the stories about Jesus… healing the blind and disabled, water into wine, walking on water, rising from the grave… all of it.

Does this mess with your sensibilities a bit? Dunno why it should… from my perspective, the assertion that alien visitors were behind the story of Jesus makes a whole lot more sense than the purported acts of magic he performed as the ‘Son of God’. Now, I will agree that it would mean those visitors were pretty awesomely talented to perform such acts, but assuming they were able to traverse the distance from their rock to ours must also allocate them some majorly strong juju. The more I think of the Jesus story within this framework, it only seems more plausible, not less. MORE PLAUSIBLE… NOT LESS.

A point of fact: I am NOT an adherent to the idea that there ever was a Joseph or Mary or baby Jesus or any of the stuff that believers believe. I think the Bible was a very craftily-written morality fable, an allegory to be used on a vast uneducated mass of people who did not have anything better to believe, so… why not the Bible? Like the earliest man, we have always sought to understand who we are, why we’re here and for what purpose. Naturally, those cagy early religious leaders knew the way to get the unwashed masses on their side, to control and manipulate and oversee them, to convince them of the gravitas of their story, a story that I believe was created out of whole, unwashed cloth. However, taken in the context that the story was a legend passed down verbally for generations before it was set to papyrus, the only semi-plausible explanation would be… VISITORS.

Are you howling at me with anger and hostility right now? Are you incredulous at the insanity of my supposition? Are you falling to your knees, praying hard to delete this concept from your conscious thoughts and for me to be damned to hell? Or… are you quietly thinking a bit more about the stars, the universe, the vastness of space and all that it contains? Knowing far more now than anyone knew when the Bible was written, can you envision a series of events as I described? Honestly… doesn’t it make more sense than the talking snake-burning bush-begat begat poetry? It does for me.

As I’ve written before, I do not fear dying or death, the great nothingness that awaits every last one of us. I do not believe there is a conscious afterlife that can be seen or tasted or touched. I believe that we have only one conscious life, and that everything before and after is unknowable. When my bell is ready to be rung, I know that my life’s force and energy will be absorbed into the natural machine that powers our Earth, just like the billions of lives that have been here and gone before me. Our cumulative energies are what makes this mysterious planet work and survive, and it may also be to our peril if we keep ruining it. It has less than nothing to do with a magical being who supposedly died on the cross so that we could continue to live and worship him.

BUT… if I were to ascribe to the notion that the story of Jesus was based upon ancient fact, I would find it far more logical to buy the astral connection rather than the magical mystical one. It just makes sense. In fact, a few years ago we built a 'tree' that celebrated alien visitation, the kidnapping and 'probing' of a certain ex-President, and the spawn of a new generation of little Green men. It was COOL.

In a sweeping circular motion, I come back to the idea of the Christmas tree and what it represents. For my wife and I, the alternative trees are a way to tweak the notion of the holidays to our satisfaction, for our enjoyment. Yes, we’ve had real trees too, but only a couple, and we’ve not used any traditional holiday decorations in years, save perhaps for the weird Pink and Black and Red fluorescent aluminum mini-trees that we prop up around the house. We celebrate the idea of loving compassion, the importance of family and friends, the message that we are all more united by common cause than divided by fear and uncertainty. That's what Christmas means to us.

None of these things are secular or sectarian… they are human. If you believe that Jesus was a real person and take comfort and solace in the poetry of the Bible, you have what you need to revel in the Glory of Christmas. If you have questions or even none at all, then keep seeking the truth, your truth, from the world around us. Celebrate Christmas in any way that suits you, or not at all. The most important thing to keep in mind is that we have free will to believe what we choose, or not to believe.

A friend posited this question to me: If, upon my death, I learn that there is indeed a God and Heaven and Hell, what will I say to God as my defense for not believing? My answer would be: "Hey God, many thanks for the free will and open mind you gave me. It has served me well, has allowed me to forge my own path, and live the life of my choosing. GO FOR IT."

I am not afraid of what I don't understand, but I am the first person to admit that what I don't know... is a lot. I'm OK with that, and it helps me live every day with joy and purpose and happiness, as if it is my last day... or even Christmas Day.

To see the alternative Christmas trees mentioned in this post, please log onto, then click on MD Xmas Trees. To catch a whiff of my metaphysical leanings, read Arthur C. Clark’s novella ‘2001 – A Space Odyssey’ and then watch the film immediately afterwards. Alien Crucifixion image courtesy

Monday, December 6, 2010

American Exceptionalism?

An excerpt from Howard Zinn’s excellent book, ‘A People’s History of The United States’. This unvarnished look at the plight of Indians, women, blacks, poor whites and immigrants during the formation of our country should be required reading for every high school Junior. Except in Texas, where The Bible is seemingly the only educational document accepted by that learned populace:

Under (President) Andrew Jackson, and the man he chose to succeed, him, Martin Van Buren, seventy thousand Indians east of the Mississippi were forced westward. In the North, there weren’t that many, and the Iroquois Confederation in New York stayed. But the Sac and Fox Indians of Illinois were removed, after the Black Hawk War (in which Abraham Lincoln was an officer, although he was not in combat). When Chief Black Hawk was defeated and captured in 1832, he made a surrender speech:

“I fought hard. But your guns were well aimed. The bullets flew like birds in the air, and whizzed by our ears like the wind through the trees in the winter. My warriors fell around me… The sun rose dim on us in the morning, and at night it sunk in a dark cloud, and looked like a ball of fire. That was the last sun that shown on Black Hawk… He is now prisoner to the white men… He has done nothing for which an Indian ought to be ashamed. He has fought for his countrymen, the squaws and papooses, against white men, who came year after year, to cheat them and take away their lands. You know the cause of our making war. It is known to all white men. They ought to be ashamed of it. Indians are not deceitful. The white men speak bad of the Indian and look at him spitefully. But the Indian does not tell lies. Indians do not steal.”

“An Indian who is as bad as the white men could not live in our nation; he would be put to death, and eaten up by wolves. The white men are bad schoolmasters; they carry false books, and deal in false actions; they smile in the face of the poor Indian to cheat him; they shake them by the hand to gain their confidence, to make them drunk, to deceive them, and to ruin our wives. We told them to leave us alone, and keep away from us; they followed on, and beset our paths, and they coiled themselves among us, like the snake. They poisoned us by their touch. We were not safe. We lived in danger. We were becoming like them, hypocrites and liars, adulterous lazy drones, all talkers and no workers…”

“The white men do not scalp the head; but they do worse – they poison the heart… Farewell, my nation!... Farewell to Black Hawk.”

Image of Chief Black Hawk courtesy of

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Let's Do The Time Warp Again!

Advance notice: this is a very long post, but seeing as how it’s my first at Gort Nation on the subject of music, one of the single most important influences in my life… well, it just turned into something more sizeable than I had originally intended. I hope you’ll find a way to read until the end, then let me know if you thought the time you invested was worth it or not. Don’t worry… I have no ego in this regard, I’m a big boy. If it's crap, so be it.

So here goes...

I am always amazed to find out that there are humanoids around me that are not music-centric. They tell me “I listen to music, but I don’t really pay attention to it.” After I pick myself up off the floor, I begin to start questioning about how that can be? How can a person not have an affinity for music… OF ANY KIND? How is it possible to be nonchalant at best, uninterested at worst, about music and singing and all the pleasing arrangements of lyrical sound? HOW CAN THAT BE?!?!?!

Mebbe I need to think about this, wrap my head around what it is that makes me crave the sounds of musical talent, of the ability to manipulate an instrument, flex dem vocal chords, assemble notes on a page that can be re-interpreted by another for countless mediums. It starts me to thinking about my own musical history… no, not the horrific guitar playing or the junior high school choir. I’m talking about my sonic muse, the thing that drives me off the cliff when I hear a certain song, a type of voice, a harmonic convergence of instruments and sounds. Why me?

I blame my Father. Yep… it's all his fault, and he cannot deny culpability for his part in my musical addiction. In my mind’s eye, I can see his massive dark wood stereo cabinet in my childhood home, all ten horizontal feet of it. It held a turntable and radio tuner hidden in the center and several feet of shiny black vinyl records on either end, stashed inside cardboard sleeves covered with all manner of artwork. Some were innocuous, some were so suggestive that I would hold the sleeve in my hands, staring at it while the music played. Was I the only one who did this? The cover of the Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass 'Whipped Cream & Other Delights' LP displayed a lovely young Latina, sitting there, covered with (apparently) nothing but whipped cream, her hand held up to her smiling mouth, tasting. Oh boy, that was a good one.

Herb Alpert… Wes Montgomery… Dave Brubeck… The Baja Marimba Band… Antonio Carlos Jobim… Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66… June Christy… Getz & Gilberto… The Ramsey Lewis Trio… Eydie Gorme y Trio Los Panchos. I know there are more, but these are the artists I remember most, the ones I would pull from Dad’s collection, spin and listen to, rapt with a newfound awe and inspiration. The long version of Brubeck’s ‘Take 5’ with its extended drum solo, cool and precise yet free and wild. The jazzy live version of ‘The In Crowd’ with clinking glasses and female laughter and scattered applause while Ramsey Lewis' hands danced over the keyboard. Eydie Gorme… I think that maybe her version of ‘Sabor a Mi’ is the most beautiful song I’ve ever heard, hands down, with its classical Spanish guitar and simple percussion and spare production value. Stunning. This stuff affected me, all thanks to my Dad’s love of music... it stained and varnished my soul.

My earliest fanboy recollections always go to The Beatles, first and foremost. They are the signature start of my musical odyssey, the touchstone that drives my insatiable need for tuneage. I recall how I was completely taken over when I heard ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ and ‘She Loves You’ on my transistor radio… does that tell you how freaking old I am? I can recall my best friend Billy Burger and I sitting on his front lawn on Conlon Avenue in La Puente with both our radios tuned to KHJ-AM, blasting as loud as those batteries and tiny speakers could handle. WE LOVED THE BEATLES. I think there was a Beatles song on the radio every half-hour, all day, every day, and I couldn’t get enough of them.

But of course, that was just the beginning. My very first vinyl records were the ubiquitous 45’s… ’96 Tears’ by ? and The Mysterians, ‘Wooly Bully’ by Sam the Sham & The Pharoahs, and ‘Psychotic Reaction’ by The Count V. I’d stack those babies up on my cheesy little portable record player, play them one after the other, then re-set and play them again. I’m sure it drove my Dad crazy, but so what? A series of full-length LPs followed... The Ventures, The Challengers, The Beach Boys, more Beatles. I built my record collection all through grade school, junior high and into high school and college, but still my quest kept me seeking and searching, looking for new sounds and expressions of musical talent and genius.

Certain songs and lyrics are time-travelling vehicles, and I think it must be the same for anyone who claims to be a true music fan. There are songs that send me to another place within seconds of hearing the first few bars or notes or intro, it never takes longer than that. I always thought it was a bizarre reaction, my instant mental journey to another time, another place, like Billy Pilgrim in Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse 5’, becoming unstuck in time and whip-sawing back and forth. I can’t control it. It just happens. I love it.

‘Knockin On Heaven’s Door’ – Bob Dylan
In 1973, I was a Junior in high school, and my girlfriend (a Sophomore, for cryin’ out loud!) and I were in her room, on her bed (oh yes, but fully clothed), locking lips and hanging onto each other for all we were worth. Her Mom: gone bowling, her sister… somewhere else for hours. The room was dark except for (I swear!) a red lava lamp glowing on her dresser, and this song was drifting over us, all spacey and dreamy and far away. The words to the song weren’t relevant, but the melody and the production were from another world, and we were the only two people in that world. I hear this song, I close my eyes, I’m RIGHT THERE AGAIN, every damned time. Did I really unhook her bra so deftly with one hand, or did she plan it all along? I’ll never know, I dinna care. Excellent. The Mazzy Star tune ‘Fade Into You’ is a scary-close clone to the Dylan song, and there are echoes of that magic moment when I hear it, but that’s as far as it goes.

‘The Blue Danube Waltz’ – Soundtrack to ‘2001 – A Space Odyssey’ performed by The London Philharmonic Orchestra
Summer of 1970, before the start of high school and all that followed. Consider a series of ill-fated junior-high schooler decisions, another fine lassie, a fall and resulting huge gash on the back of my head, many stitches and going AWOL from a Boy Scout troop meeting. As the result, I found myself and my Dad at the Eastland Theater in West Covina, watching the theatrical release of ‘2001 – A Space Odyssey’. Little did I know that a film, a movie, a director's vision would shake me to my foundation. When ‘The Blue Danube Waltz’ began to play, those images of a sleek transport craft and rotating space station, circling the Blue Earth, a ballet of metal and science in the gorgeous black vacuum… it changed me. I sat in that darkened theater, big-eyed, transforming completely without Dad even noticing. I would never be the same, because I had just read the Arthur C. Clark novella and now, with those mental images come to life in front of me, big screen stylie, my personal path was forever altered. Within days I would go to church as a believer for the last time. Dad still says it was the worst movie he’s ever seen.

‘Only The Lonely’ – The Motels
During the summer of 1982, the newfound relationship with my better-half had begun and, although still in the early stages, we found a deeply nuanced simpatico that was almost scary. One night after work, we drove through a warm, stormy night to The Wherehouse record store and bought the new Motels LP, then drove back to the house where I was renting a room. The boys were all out so we mixed up some wine coolers, fired up the stereo, popped on the LP and when this song came on, we got up and began to slow dance in the living room. Very few lights on, a steady rain and some thunder outside, and Martha Davis crooning words that mattered... it created a very intoxicating brew. We had no idea, dancing there, that we'd still be together 28 years later... that moment was a fevered grasp for something real, something honest, something with substance. Guess what? We succeeded. We RULE.

‘Love On A Two-Way Street’ – The Moments
WOW... this one was really tough! As a very emotional 8th grader circa 1969, I was madly in puppy love with a 7th grade knockout (?!?!) who I was hoping would agree to 'go around' with me... does that make sense? I'd walk her home from school most afternoons, hoping to get a kiss goodbye, but it rarely happened. Imagine my glee when she invited me to a party at her house... at night! Well, once I got there I discovered that she'd also invited several other guys that were sweet on her, and we were all gathered in her enclosed back porch, with colored lights and munchies and punch and a record player stacked with 45's. She danced with all the guys, but only once with me. For some reason, I was the odd-geek out, and she barely acknowledged my presence. When this song started to play, with it's words of heartache and longing and lost love, I was crushed, watching her dance with the other guys all evening. I remember walking home that night weeping, knowing that I'd been humiliated, hearing those very relevant lyrics in my head over and over and over and over. OUCH.

Special note: OK, I'm sensing a pattern here... are you? Not surprisingly, there are serious emotional touchstones in every case where a piece of music is burned into my psyche. I had never thought about it until now, but it makes perfect sense. You can't plan out how things happen in your life... no one can. You can only make choices and react the best way you know how.

‘Take 5’ – Dave Brubeck Quartet
My Dad's love of jazz was truly inspiring, and once I found the LP with this cut sometime in (I think) 1967-68, I came up with a secret plan. I'd wait until I was home alone (a pretty rare occasion) so I could drop the needle on this instrumental classic. I'd turn the volume up as high as I dared and sat directly in front of the huge stereo cabinet with my eyes closed, hearing each instrument separately, but all playing at once. The piano, the sax, the bass, the drums, the echo of studio blackness. Oh my gosh... those drums, with a cool syncopation that had me air-drumming like a crazy person. Sitting there in our living room, with the glossy black ceramic crouching panther statue and the green 7-piece sectional sofa and the flowered wallpaper... I was actually sitting on-stage, smack in the middle of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, jamming, floating.

‘I Can’t Tell You Why’ – The Eagles
Sometimes, a song has lyrics that are so relevant, so perfectly attuned to an individual's plight, it almost seems mystic. Pain and pleasure can be extreme opposites, and in this case, pain was all I could draw on. In 1980, my (then) wife and I were having a terrible time of it, with nothing in common except a toddler and much negative angst between us. This song was in constant rotation on the radio, with THOSE WORDS mocking every person whose relationship was on the downward slide. Natch, we'd had yet another horrible, emotionally disfiguring argument... she demanded that I get the hell out, so I grabbed a suitcase, threw in some clothes and began to walk (since we only had HER car) the 2 miles to my friend's house and beg for a place to stay. All during that walk, I could hear the words to this song hammering the inside of my skull. At one point I became so angry that I pulled off my wedding band and tossed it into an empty field. The next day I went back and, lucky for me, found it so that I could try to salvage whatever was left of our marriage, but it was doomed. Even now, this song fills me with the same terrible feeling of failure and wretchedness, but it is fleeting and I'm left with the knowledge that the past is past.

I don't know if these time-warps are the same for others, but I have to believe that in some way, each of us has our moments of personal reflection that are spurred by music, sounds, words or some combination of the three. Of course, there are many other songs that cause me to time-slip, but for some reason I don't have more recent examples of music that does the same thing, dunno why. Lack of emotional torment, perhaps? There's no question that although the last 28 years have had some ups and downs, the constant and loving presence of my wife has brought a serene happiness and giddy love of life that overcomes the trying times in every way. I'm a Lucky Monkey.

What music makes you stop in your tracks? Does it allow you to loosen the ties to reality and drift across time and space? Does it have relevance and meaning, or is it simply a soundtrack? Writing this post has brought clarity to my musical muse, perhaps for the first time, and I'm glad that for all the important (and non-important) times in my life, there was music to help plant a mental anchor there. Mebbe you too have a song or piece of music that spirits you away... I'd love to hear your story of time-travel, so don't be afraid to share your comments. We're all adults here, for the most part... heh heh heh.

This much I can say: my life would be much less full and complete without the music that stirs my soul and fills me with happiness and excitement and pleasure and pain, all examples of the human condition. Art is what it's all about, and artistic expression is the best example of how the creative spirit can be shared with the rest of us. We are better for it, and must never take it for granted.

As always, Muchismas Gracias to YouTube.

Now... where's my i-pod?!?!