Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

Ruminations on theatre, music, and just about anything else that crosses my bipolar brain.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Computer Worm. Literally.

I'm sick as a dog today (just in time for two 12+ hour days working on John Adams), and my stomach is turned easily. But I don't think I can blame my ill health for the fact that I nearly vomited in my classroom today.

I was working on my school laptop, grading my kids' classwork, and I was having a hard time with the "Home" key. The other keys around it were fine, but for some reason "Home" wouldn't push. Upon closer investigating, I saw something under the key.

It was a worm.

Not a software worm, an actual grub or maggot of some kind was living inside my computer. It was about as long as the last knuckle of my little finger, a brownish, grey color, and very much alive as it slowly wriggled its way between the keys of my keyboard. Fighting back the vomit impulse, I pried up the key and tried to pluck the damn thing out of my keyboard with a paperclip, hopefully without puncturing it and smearing worm guts all through the insides of my laptop. By the time I dropped it in the trash can, it wasn't moving any longer.

This freaking worm is all I can think of. How long has it been living inside my computer??? How did it get there? What has it been eating, and how much worm poop is between my keys? Why in the world was it there? Did some insect lay eggs inside my computer? Are there more of the freaking things in there? Of all the places, why inside my compter?

Dude, there was a worm living inside my computer. I am completely nauseated.

I wish I'd had my camera on me.


Belichick Rolls the Bones

Left to right: Patriots WR Randy Moss, coach Bill Belichick, and top pick Brandon Meriweather.

I'm not sure which is more shocking: that the Patriots traded for Randy Moss or that the Raiders were so eager to get rid of him that they only asked for a 4th-round pick.

I kind of thought the Pats were more of a class and character organization than this. I know they had excellent success rehabilitating chronic complainer Corey Dillon, but Dillon was gaining 1800 yards a year while he was agitating in Cincinnati. Moss's dissatisfaction in Oakland resulted in two sulky seasons of his worst production as a pro. It's hard to imagine Pats fans rooting for Randy Moss.

And Moss isn't even the first or biggest questionable character choice the Patriots made this weekend. Gun-toting Miami safety Brandon Meriweather was probably the sketchiest pick of the whole draft. One wonders what it's going to look like in practice when bad-boy Meriweather hits bad-boy Moss a little too hard for Randy's comfort. I echo the sentiments of CBS Sportsline's Clark Judge, who wonders "What in the world is going on in New England?" ESPN's hilarious Bill Simmons compares the Moss deal to a mid-life crisis, with Belichick saying, "I've always wanted to drive one of these..."

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Saturday, April 28, 2007

Sox Wearing Yanks Out

Game recap! With a huge 11-4 comeback win, the Red Sox now lead the season series against Torre's boys 4-0. The Yankees have lost seven straight and Steinbrenner's head is whistling like an unsupervised teapot. It's double-satisfied: the Yankees keep losing and losing bad, and A-Rod (whom Yankees fans hate) is on pace to hit something like 120 homers. From CBS Sportsline: "New York (8-13), whose April began to unravel with three straight losses at Fenway Park last weekend, has lost seven consecutive games for the first time since the last week of the 2000 season. The Yankees are a $195 million last-place team, 6½ games back of the division-leading Red Sox. "

This, naturally, means the Red Sox are doomed.

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Draft Day 2007!

Some call it the most overhyped sporting event of the year, but I really enjoy the NFL Draft. I'm going to miss most of it to the Festival Young Company and the Bard Bash, though.

Looks like my Redskins are holding onto the sixth overall pick. I'd prefer that they trade down for multiple early-mid-round picks, but if they must keep it I'm really hoping they'll pick up Louisville DT Amobi Okoye, partially because it's a lot of fun to say Amobi Okoye.

My fear is that they're going to go for the splashy pick, Louisiana safety LaRon Landry, who's too similar to Sean Taylor to be the right choice. The Redskins need help on the line, and they really need multiple young depth players all across the board.

You Panthers and Patriots fans out there have hopes and dreams for this draft?
EDIT 1:18 PM: The Redskins held onto the pick and used it on LaRon Landry. The good: it's a bargain to get the player many considered to be the best defensive player in the draft at #6. The combination of Landry and Sean Taylor makes the prospect of going across the middle against the Redskins a very frightening prospect. The bad: Landry's going to be tackling a lot of running backs making 12-yard gains if the 'Skins don't do a heck of a lot better in run-stopping on the line.
Side note: It's rough rooting for a Redskin named Landry.

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Big Update!

Anyone who says that the Age of Miracles has passed, that God no longer reaches His Hand into the lives of His people, is just not paying attention. Sometimes it comes in a whisper, sometimes a burning bush, but I’m convinced that it’s usually just a matter of timing too good to be accidental. Honestly, I just don’t believe in coincidence any more. Call it God-incidence.

After a whirlwind application and interview process, I have accepted the position of Contemporary Worship Leader at Redeemer Lutheran Church, on the south side of Richmond. It’s a part-time job involving selection, rehearsal, and leading music at Redeemer’s 11:00 contemporary service.

It all happened very suddenly, after a long and stultifying build-up process. The story of this event is one of God closing door after door after door in my life only to fling this glorious window open so abruptly that the draft blew me through it.

Flash back to 2004. Having played drums and bass in praise bands at Christ Church Episcopal, I asked Keith Tan, the Music Minister, if it would be possible to switch to piano. I had a sense that God was building me up into a leadership position in music ministry, and I knew that I was going to need to get better at playing piano. The very same day, within ten minutes, in fact, the leader of my praise band asked me if I might be willing to split leadership duties with him. God-incidence #1.

Then, in spring of 2005, Christ Church needed an Interim Youth Minister just as I was graduating from VCU with an MFA and no job. Of course, a big part of the job (in fact, the only part of the job which I feel I did at all well) was leading the youth praise band. I quickly discovered that the kids responded somewhat better to worship music on guitar than piano, so I gave myself a crash course on guitar. I led the youth group for nine months, building up the youth music team to the point where they could lead music for entire worship services. God-incidence #2.

Fast-forward to December 2006. Having taught part-time for four months at the Center for the Arts at Henrico High School (and feeling very low about Richmond Shakespeare’s training program, which simply could not attract any students for love or money), I was told that Henrico was likely going to make my position into a full-time job for the 2007-2008 school year. It was dependent on funding coming through, but it was promising enough that I expressed official interest in the job. God-incidence #3.

In February of this year, Richmond Shakespeare and Shakespeare Festival/L.A. paid for me to attend STAA, the Shakespeare Theatre Association of America conference in Nashville, world center for contemporary Christian music. Loved Nashville, didn’t so much love STAA. I just felt out of place among so many people for whom the regard of Shakespeare resembled nothing so much as religious reverence. I love Shakespeare, but not like these people do. Add to that the fact that the Training department made absolutely no money whatsoever this year, due in large part to my ineptitude at promoting it. I was becoming more and more certain that the board of Richmond Shakespeare was not going to approve my salary in next year’s budget. This would be okay, though, if the full-time teaching job came through. I came home disturbed, convinced more than ever that I need to make more time in my life for my dormant music and writing interests. God-incidence #4.

After STAA, I met with Keith to talk about increasing my role in Christ Church’s music ministry. I juggled my schedule in order to start attending the Wednesday noon worship meetings, and had a big hand in planning and executing drama and music in worship during Holy Week. This was the most entirely satisfying week of my life in Christian service. I even had lunch with Keith to talk about what’s involved in being a professional music minister. God-incidence #5.

Then came last week.

Early in the week, the word came down from Henrico High: the funding was not going to come through for my position to be full-time next year. It was purely a numbers thing; there just weren’t enough IB drama students. My part-time position would still be there, the same as last year. God-incidence #6. Karen and I, who had been looking into buying a house at the end of the summer, finally came to the realization that we just don’t make enough money right now, and that we would probably be staying in our current rental house for another year. Bummer, but God-incidence #7. Dissatisfied with the prospect of continuing exactly the same frustrating, draining, low-pay schedule for another year, on Friday I looked at the Times-Dispatch’s classifieds for teaching or music work. Almost by accident, I came across an ad for a church looking for a part-time contemporary worship leader. God-incidence #8. I called the number and made an appointment to meet with the pastor, James Byork, the following Tuesday.

Well, it just so happened that I was leading Christ Church’s praise band on Saturday, God-incidence #9, and Keith suggested that I videotape our rehearsal to include with my portfolio. When I explained the camera to Paul Johnson, CCE’s rector, he said, “Andrew, you can’t leave. But of course you can use me as a reference.” Redeemer’s contemporary service is at 11:00, so I was able to play percussion and guitar at Christ Church at 9:00, get in my car, and drive south to Redeemer in time to worship with them at 11:00. It was a great opportunity to get a sense of their flavor of worship and to see and hear the music ministry in action. God-incidence #10. (A side note: I went to three different worship services last weekend, and not a single reader pronounced “Ananias” correctly. It’s “AN-uh-NYE-us.)

I came home from Redeemer and told Karen, “If we were church-shopping right now, we would have a very serious conversation about joining this church.”

Sunday, I spent much of the afternoon preparing for my interview. I agonized over a Statement of Faith and a Ministry Vision, printed and re-printed my résumè, and transferred the videotape to DVD. Monday was a 16-hour work day with a workshop and two tour performances of Twelfth Night, so I wasn’t able to prepare much in the way of rehearsed responses for my interview.

Tuesday’s interview meeting was a surreal experience. The number of philosophies we had in common, the needs of their church that I am uniquely suited to fill, the schedule; everything seemed to be a perfect fit from the start. Lump that all in to God-incidence #11.

The final piece was an especially interesting bit of happenstance. James Byork, the senior Pastor, had once needed to fill an organist/choir director position some time ago. Having interviewed several candidates, he was just on the verge of closing the search and making a selection when a young man approached him and asked if he could talk about the position. Jim metaphorically rolled his eyes, believing the search process finished, and reluctantly agreed to interview the young man. The musician turned out to be a recent graduate of Harvard with a degree in sacred music; he was the perfect candidate and held the job for several very productive years.

Friday, when I called to make the appointment, Jim was similarly convinced that the search was over and that he had enough candidates to fill the job. When the secretary informed him that she had made a 1:30 appointment with this Andrew Hamm character for the following Tuesday, Jim metaphorically rolled his eyes, believing the search process finished, and reluctantly agreed to interview the young man.

When Jim shared the story of the organist with me Tuesday afternoon, I was pretty sure he was going to hire me. God-incidence #12, right?

They wanted to hear me play a couple of my original worship songs (I chose “I Believe” and “Temple”), then they asked me to pull a song out of their song book and play it. I looked for “Step By Step,” which wasn’t there, and settled on “Amazing Love.” Just as I was finishing that song, I realized how great of a medley it would be with “Draw Me Close,” which I just transitioned into.

So that’s where I am. What else happens from here is still up in the air. Please continue to pray for me as I figure out what other job I’m going to have next year, and of course pray for guidance as I continue down this road.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Charles Krauthammer: "A Moment of Silence"

Krauthammer echoes my revulsion with political opportunism in Friday's column, which reads, in part:

If we are going to look for a political issue here, the more relevant is not gun control but psychosis control. We decided a half a century ago that our more eccentric and, indeed, crazy fellow citizens would not be easily locked in asylums. It was a humane decision, but with the inevitable consequence that some who really need quarantine are allowed to roam the streets....

In a previous age, such a troubled soul might have found himself at the state mental hospital rather than a state university. But in a trade-off that a decent and tolerant society makes with open eyes, we allow freedom from straitjackets to those on the psychic edge, knowing that such tolerance runs a very rare but very terrible risk.

I differ with Krauthammer on the need for more gun control, but his commentary on the risk of the psychotic in a free society is interesting. And Krauthammer brings more light to a baffling and shameful speech of Barack Obama's, wherein he compared the violence of mass murder to the violence of Don Imus and outsourcing. Yes, outsourcing.

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Saturday, April 21, 2007

Yale University Responds to Virginia Tech Shootings by Banning Stage Weapons

Yeah, I couldn't believe it either. From the Yale Daily News, "Weapons to Go Offstage."


In the wake of Monday’s massacre at Virginia Tech in which a student killed 32 people, Dean of Student Affairs Betty Trachtenberg has limited the use of stage weapons in theatrical productions.

Students involved in this weekend’s production of “Red Noses” said they first learned of the new rules on Thursday morning, the same day the show was slated to open. They were subsequently forced to alter many of the scenes by swapping more realistic-looking stage swords for wooden ones, a change that many students said was neither a necessary nor a useful response to the tragedy at Virginia Tech.

According to students involved in the production, Trachtenberg has banned the use of some stage weapons in all of the University’s theatrical productions. While shows will be permitted to use obviously fake plastic weapons, students said, those that hoped to stage more realistic scenes of stage violence have had to make changes to their props.

Yeah, that's the answer. Ban realistic props in university theatre departments. Because, you know, there's a long-established link between violent plays and violence in society. Everyone remembers how the Columbine killers spent every available weekend watching violent plays together and memorizing violent monologues. Remember how the Unabomber's manifesto threatened to "go all Richard III" if his demands weren't met? That was scary. And I'm sure in the next few days NBC will release pictures the Virginia Tech killer took of himself dressed as Thyestes, Iago, and Medea.

Fake-looking weapons are the answer, you see, because the audience is incapable of realizing for themselves that those people on the stage in front of them, separated by seating, lighting, costumes, makeup, set and props, are actually only pretending to engage in violent behavior. The solution: wooden swords, of course.

Congratulations, Dean Trachtenberg. For at least a day or two, you have made all other idiots in America a little bit smarter in comparison with you. "Knee-jerk," "overreaching," and "ignorant" are only the first three words that spring to mind. "Censorship" is another.

Red Noses director Sarah Holdren announced before the show, "Calling for an end to violence onstage does not solve the world’s suffering: It merely sweeps it under the rug, turning theater — in the words of this very play — into 'creamy bon-bons' instead of 'solid fare' for a thinking, feeling audience. Here at Yale, sensitivity and political correctness have become censorship in this time of vital need for serious artistic expression." Holdren is a junior (class of '08), and Red Noses is an extremely challenging play. Big ups to her for her ability to handle this ridiculous situation.

The cast of Twelfth Night learned of this story in the van after a performance late last night (thanks to Grant Mudge's father for emailing it to him). Some of us were surprised that they even performed at all. Some of us were surprised that they caved.

Personally, I think they should have performed the show, as rehearsed, with stage weapons, until the administration had the lights turned out--then they should have kept performing by candle- or flashlight.

I'm very interested in hearing the thoughts of my fellow performing artists.

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Friday, April 20, 2007

Mark Morford: "Everyone Should Get a Gun!"

Wayne Conners forwarded me this excellent op-ed piece from the San Francisco Gate's Mark Morford. An excerpt:

You know what offers just tremendous amounts of pleasure? Shooting guns.

It's true. Shotguns, handguns, rifles, BB guns, squirt guns, you name it. Try it yourself: Just head out to a shooting range and have the gun boys yank you some clay pigeons and blast those things out of the sky and oh my God it's just a ridiculous barefaced thrill, a sense of godlike power, a rush of adrenaline to go along with a hot buzz of precision and concentration and the smell of gunpowder and much manly macho grunting.

I am not at all joking. I've done it. I've even enjoyed it, quite a bit. Sport shooting is an intense rush, a unique sort of pleasure, scary and powerful and deadly and fascinating and, in its deep, pure violence, rather beautiful. What's more, guns can be gorgeous pieces of precision engineering, sexy and brutal and often superbly made and so dumbly phallic and obviously homoerotic it makes the men of the NRA tingle every night, secretly.

But let this be known: Guns are also, quite clearly, something that could exit the human experience entirely and we would, very simply, only be the better for it. Much, much better. Oh yes we would.

Yes, Scott. Now it's time. ;-)

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

"Today We Are All Hokies."

Todd Raviotta shared this cartoon on MySpace:

Last night the Nationals all wore VT hats in their game against Atlanta. A fan emailed the owner with the idea, the team ordered the hats in late afternoon, and the hats arrived in the dugout in the bottom of the first inning. Game-worn hats are headed to Cooperstown and Blacksburg.

Friday is "Orange and Maroon Effect Day" across the nation. Virginia Tech family members across the country have invited everyone to be part by wearing orange and maroon.


Monday, April 16, 2007

Unprepared for the Unthinkable

My prayers go out to the students and staff of Virginia Tech, as well as the families of everyone affected by what will certainly be called the Virginia Tech Massacre.

Once again, I am disturbed and repulsed by the swiftness to which the news media is embracing rumors, innuendo, unconfirmed reports and assumptions. Perhaps worst of all has been the instantaneous blaming of Virginia Tech's president and police force for their perceived mistakes. Many are already laying the blame for these deaths at the school's feet.

Please, I beg you, I beg all of us, wait for the information to come out. Let's wait for the professional investigators to do their job and find out what happened here before we start handing out recriminations. But even if it turns out that the Virginia Tech administration made errors in judgment in not shutting down the entire school after the first shooting, I'm inclined to be forgiving (partly because I think killers are to blame for killing).

But this was an unthinkable act, and we should be taken unawares by the unthinkable. I understand that the university president's job is to keep the students safe. But when you're hiring a president for your university, you want to make sure he's going to oversee excellent academics, responsible administration and steady development. His ability to manage a mass-murder situation is just not a high priority for the search committe. And it shouldn't be. This was a completely unprecedented act, not just in the sheer number of victims but in the two-attack way it happened.

A rogue individual who's out to kill and determined to die is nearly unstoppable. Failing to stop him from doing so is eminently forgivable.

As a final note, can we at least wait a day or two before we use this tragedy to advance our firearms agendas? It's obscene to argue Second Amendment issues less than 12 hours after these people were shot.

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Saturday, April 14, 2007

Jason Whitlock: "Imus Isn't the Real Bad Guy"

Whitlock expresses my opinion better than I ever could.

Imus isn’t the real bad guy
Instead of wasting time on irrelevant shock jock, black leaders need to be fighting a growing gangster culture.


Thank you, Don Imus. You’ve given us (black people) an excuse to avoid our real problem.

You’ve given Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson another opportunity to pretend that the old fight, which is now the safe and lucrative fight, is still the most important fight in our push for true economic and social equality.

You’ve given Vivian Stringer and Rutgers the chance to hold a nationally televised recruiting celebration expertly disguised as a news conference to respond to your poor attempt at humor.
Thank you, Don Imus. You extended Black History Month to April, and we can once again wallow in victimhood, protest like it’s 1965 and delude ourselves into believing that fixing your hatred is more necessary than eradicating our self-hatred.

The bigots win again.

While we’re fixated on a bad joke cracked by an irrelevant, bad shock jock, I’m sure at least one of the marvelous young women on the Rutgers basketball team is somewhere snapping her fingers to the beat of 50 Cent’s or Snoop Dogg’s or Young Jeezy’s latest ode glorifying nappy-headed pimps and hos.

I ain’t saying Jesse, Al and Vivian are gold-diggas, but they don’t have the heart to mount a legitimate campaign against the real black-folk killas.

It is us. At this time, we are our own worst enemies. We have allowed our youths to buy into a culture (hip hop) that has been perverted, corrupted and overtaken by prison culture. The music, attitude and behavior expressed in this culture is anti-black, anti-education, demeaning, self-destructive, pro-drug dealing and violent.

Rather than confront this heinous enemy from within, we sit back and wait for someone like Imus to have a slip of the tongue and make the mistake of repeating the things we say about ourselves.

It’s embarrassing. Dave Chappelle was offered $50 million to make racially insensitive jokes about black and white people on TV. He was hailed as a genius. Black comedians routinely crack jokes about white and black people, and we all laugh out loud.

I’m no Don Imus apologist. He and his tiny companion Mike Lupica blasted me after I fell out with ESPN. Imus is a hack.

But, in my view, he didn’t do anything outside the norm for shock jocks and comedians. He also offered an apology. That should’ve been the end of this whole affair. Instead, it’s only the beginning. It’s an opportunity for Stringer, Jackson and Sharpton to step on victim platforms and elevate themselves and their agenda$.

I watched the Rutgers news conference and was ashamed.

Martin Luther King Jr. spoke for eight minutes in 1963 at the March on Washington. At the time, black people could be lynched and denied fundamental rights with little thought. With the comments of a talk-show host most of her players had never heard of before last week serving as her excuse, Vivian Stringer rambled on for 30 minutes about the amazing season her team had.

Somehow, we’re supposed to believe that the comments of a man with virtually no connection to the sports world ruined Rutgers’ wonderful season. Had a broadcaster with credibility and a platform in the sports world uttered the words Imus did, I could understand a level of outrage.

But an hourlong press conference over a man who has already apologized, already been suspended and is already insignificant is just plain intellectually dishonest. This is opportunism. This is a distraction.

In the grand scheme, Don Imus is no threat to us in general and no threat to black women in particular. If his words are so powerful and so destructive and must be rebuked so forcefully, then what should we do about the idiot rappers on BET, MTV and every black-owned radio station in the country who use words much more powerful and much more destructive?

I don’t listen or watch Imus’ show regularly. Has he at any point glorified selling crack cocaine to black women? Has he celebrated black men shooting each other randomly? Has he suggested in any way that it’s cool to be a baby-daddy rather than a husband and a parent? Does he tell his listeners that they’re suckers for pursuing education and that they’re selling out their race if they do?

When Imus does any of that, call me and I’ll get upset. Until then, he is what he is — a washed-up shock jock who is very easy to ignore when you’re not looking to be made a victim.

No. We all know where the real battleground is. We know that the gangsta rappers and their followers in the athletic world have far bigger platforms to negatively define us than some old white man with a bad radio show. There’s no money and lots of danger in that battle, so Jesse and Al are going to sit it out.


You're a genius.

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You Can't Spell "Animus" Without "Imus."

I was going to post my own thoughts on the Imus story today, focusing on how hypocritical the destruction of a Broadcast Hall-of-Famer is in the context of the much more prevalent racism and sexism of mainstream urban music culture. But the Associate Press is doing it much better than I could.

Reprinted with no permission whatsoever from (ironically) MSNBC's website:

As Imus falls, critics step up attack on hip-hop
Lyrics, themes demeaning to women targeted in wake of radio host's slurs

Updated: 5:46 p.m. ET April 13, 2007

NEW YORK - Fighting in vain to keep his job, radio host Don Imus said that rappers routinely “defame and demean black women” and call them “worse names than I ever did.”

That’s an argument many people made as the Imus fallout intensified, culminating with his firing Thursday for labeling the Rutgers women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos.” Now that Imus has been silenced (for the moment), some critics are moving down the radio dial to take on hip-hop, boosting the growing movement against themes in rap.

“We all know where the real battleground is,” wrote Kansas City Star columnist Jason Whitlock. “We know that the gangsta rappers and their followers in the athletic world have far bigger platforms to negatively define us than some old white man with a bad radio show.”

“We have to begin working on a response to the larger problem,” said the Rev. DeForest Soaries Jr., who as pastor of the Rutgers coach helped mediate the Imus imbroglio. Soaries announced Friday that he is organizing a nationwide initiative to address the culture that “has produced language that has denigrated women.”

The larger issue was alluded to by CBS President and CEO Leslie Moonves when he announced Imus’ firing: “The effect language like this has on our young people, particularly young women of color trying to make their way in this society ... has weighed most heavily on our minds as we made our decision.”

MSNBCPointing out that the rapper Mims uses “ho” and worse epithets in his chart-topping song “This Is Why I’m Hot,” columnist Michelle Malkin asked: “What kind of relief do we get from this deadening, coarsening, dehumanizing barrage from young, black rappers and their music-industry enablers?”

The Rev. Al Sharpton, among the loudest critics calling for Imus’ termination, indicated that entertainment is the next battleground. “We will not stop until we make it clear that no one should denigrate women,” he said after Imus’ firing. “We must deal with the fact that ho and the b-word are words that are wrong from anybody’s lips.

“It would be wrong if we stopped here and acted like Imus was the only problem. There are others that need to get this same message.”

It is a message that was spreading even before Imus’ comments.

After “Seinfeld” actor Michael Richards was castigated for a racist on-stage rant, the New York City Council passed a symbolic resolution banning the n-word, and other cities around the country have passed similar measures.

Cultural critic, author and columnist Stanley Crouch, a longtime foe of rap music, suspected the Imus ordeal would galvanize young black women across the country. He said a key moment was when the Rutgers players appeared at a news conference this week — poised, dignified and defying stereotypes seen in rap videos and “dumb” comedies.

“When the public got to see these women, what they were, it was kind of shocking,” Crouch said. “It made accepting the denigration not quite as comfortable as it had been for far too long.”
Some defenders of rap music and hip-hop culture, such as the pioneering mogul Russell Simmons, deny any connection between Imus and hip-hop. They describe rap lyrics as reflections of the violent, drug-plagued, hopeless environments that many rappers come from. Instead of criticizing rappers, defenders say, critics should improve their reality.

“Comparing Don Imus’ language with hip-hop artists’ poetic expression is misguided and inaccurate and feeds into a mind-set that can be a catalyst for unwarranted, rampant censorship,” Simmons said in a statement Friday.

The superstar rapper Snoop Dogg also denied any connection to Imus. “(Rappers) are not talking about no collegiate basketball girls who have made it to the next level in education and sports,” he told “We’re talking about hos that’s in the ’hood that ain’t doing ---- that’s trying to get a n---- for his money.”

Criticism of rap is nothing new — it began soon after the music emerged from New York City’s underclass more than 30 years ago.

In 1990, rapper-turned actor Queen Latifah challenged rap’s misogyny in her hit song “U.N.I.T.Y.” In 1993, C. Delores Tucker, who was chairwoman of the National Political Congress of Black Women Inc., led an organized movement — which included congressional hearings — condemning sexist and violent rap.

That same year, the Rev. Calvin Butts of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem drove a steamroller over a pile of tapes and CDs.

In 2004, students at Spelman College, a black women’s college in Atlanta, became upset over rapper Nelly’s video for his song “Tip Drill,” in which he cavorts with strippers and swipes a credit card between one woman’s buttocks. The rapper wanted to hold a campus bone marrow drive for his ailing sister, but students demanded he first participate in a discussion about the video’s troubling images. Nelly declined.

In 2005, Essence magazine launched its “Take Back the Music” campaign. Writers such as Joan Morgan and Kierna Mayo and filmmaker Byron Hurt also have tackled the issue recently.

T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, author of “Pimps Up, Ho’s Down: Hip Hop’s Hold on Young Black Women” and a professor at Vanderbilt University, said many black women resist rap music and hip-hop culture, but their efforts are largely ignored by mainstream media. As an example, the professor pointed to “Rap Sessions,” the 10-city tour in which she’s participating. She said the tour and its central question — does hip-hop hate women? — have gotten very little mainstream media coverage.

Sharpley-Whiting said, “It’s only when we interface with a powerful white media personality like Imus that the issue is raised and the question turns to ‘Why aren’t you as vociferous in your critique of hip-hop?’ We have been! You’ve been listening to the music, but you haven’t been listening to the protests from us.”

Crouch said that change in rap music and entertainment likely won’t come fast, because corporations are still profiting from the business — but it’s coming.

“I’ve been on (rappers) for 20 years,” Crouch said. “I was in the civil rights movement. I know it takes a long time when you’re standing up against extraordinary money and great power. But we’re beginning to see a shift.”

© 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

And now some of my thoughts:

Don Imus is a jackass. He has a long history of being a jackass; his job was to be a public jackass. He also has (or had) three hours of radio time to fill every day. You try riffing for three hours straight, trying to be edgy and entertaining, without saying something ill-considered that you'd like to build a time machine to take back. If previous things he has said, things far more offensive in my mind, were not worthy of firing, this surely wasn't. And canning him in the middle of a previously-scheduled fundraiser for cancer research, cutting off the telethon is just unbelievably thoughtless. For God's sake, fire him on Saturday, after the telethon is finished, you heartless bastards.

I don't like Don Imus. I don't listen to his show, I don't watch him on MSNBC, and I don't for a moment defend his words. Clearly, the free market has spoken; Imus likely would have lost his job to loss of sponsors if nothing else. But we have this thing called the First Amendment.

What disturbs me in this case is the apparent victory given to Al Sharpton (of Tawana Brawley fame) and Jesse Jackson (of "Hymietown" fame), in their continual quest to pit blacks against whites in America to increase their flagging political power. The idea that Al Sharpton, elected to no office, appointed to no position of authority, and trailing a long legacy of racism, anti-semitism, and homophobia, gets to be the moral arbiter of what is deemed acceptable for broadcast is simultaneously hilarious and horrifying. Then again, it's entirely predictable: Sharpton's stock-in-trade is racial animus, and Imus gave him a massive opportunity to snatch some relevance back from Barack Obama.

And where was Obama during all of this? He's a leader who was actually elected to his position; I would very much have liked to hear his thoughts on the subject.

Raise your hand if you want Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson determining when the First Amendment is to be applied or not.

What, no hands?

No surprise.

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Friday, April 06, 2007

Looking for God in All the Wrong Places

It’s an annual religious tradition. Every year during Holy Week, Americans gather at their site of worship to hear the re-telling of the ancient story. That’s right, we gather on the couch and turn on the TV to watch the annual network, CNN, and History Channel specials about that famous and controversial historical figure: Jesus.

Every year, it seems that we hear more and more about modern historians’ speculations about Jesus’ wife (or wives) and children. Every year, we hear more about modern scientists’ theories about the "swoon" theory, apostolic bodysnatching, or other explanations for Jesus’ apparent "resurrection." And every year, the Bible is reduced more and more to an increasingly dubious historical document, its inconsistencies making its spiritual value more and more questionable.

Nothing interferes with the understanding of the actual Jesus more than rigid examination of the "historical Jesus," particularly in today’s scientific-intellectual environment where nothing immaterial is even permitted to enter the discourse. C.S. Lewis wrote beautifully about the subject in The Screwtape Letters. Lewis' insights in the 1940s are frighteningly prophetic when read in 2007. Letter XXIII reads, in part: "Their 'historical Jesus'... has to be a 'great man' in the modern sense of the word--one standing at the terminus of some centrifugal and unbalanced line of thought--a crank vending a panacea. We [devils] thus distract men's minds from Who He is and what He did." Materialist thinkers who deny the resurrection because it has no verifiable, repeatable, scientific explanation are considered to trump theologians who argue that the verifiable, repeatable and scientific seldom has any transcendent value in actual human experience. Intellectual discussion is restricted to things material, with all things of a spiritual nature placed in a remote location and bound inside a box labeled "irrelevant."

I suppose I shouldn’t complain about this as if it’s some kind of a new phenomenon. Paul, Peter and the first Christians faced skepticism of all kinds in the early days of the church. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote: "Jews demanded miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength." (1 Corinthians 1:22-25, NIV)

The apostles' inability to "prove" the facts of Jesus’ transcendent sacrificial death and resurrection was the least of their problems. It simultaneously amuses and infuriates me when modern thinkers dismiss the early church founders as having established Christianity in order to gain power for themselves and their heirs. It's amazing to me how often I hear this argument. Assigning later abuses of individuals and eras to the institution of "church," these high-minded "progressives" conveniently ignore the facts that the earliest believers were one of the most persecuted minorities in world history, that every apostle (save John, who was exiled) died a horrible, tormented death, and that people simply do not allow themselves to be tortured and killed for something they know to be a lie if denying it will save their skins. The fact is, Christians had no political power whatsoever for the first several centuries of the church's existence. The people founding this faith had absolutely nothing to gain in establishing a church based on a lie.

So it’s Good Friday as I write this, perhaps the first directly theological piece I’ve ever posted to this blog. I have avoided writing about faith for the same reasons I avoided politics for so long: because discussions of politics and faith seem to drive friends apart much more often than they bring them together. But the discussions of politics here have really opened my eyes, so I’m less afraid to bring the subject to faith than I used to be. If I profess to believe we can all gain from an open, respectful discussion of our disagreements, I should absolutely be open to talking about the central fact of my life: my belief in Jesus Christ.

But the defining moment was actually a silly little MySpace bulletin from Scott Wichmann entitled "And knowing is half the battle." The point was to ask your friends to answer questions about you, ranging from "What is my middle name?" to "What is your favorite memory of me?" and so on. What moved me was Scott’s answer to my question: "Who is my best friend?" Scott wrote about me: "Jesus (I'm not being sarcastic--I think your faith runs that deep)."

When I read that, I started to cry.

I think this is the best thing anyone has ever said to me ever.

One of the central prayers of my life is "St. Patrick’s Breastplate," a prayer-poem attributed to the famous Irish evangelist. It reads, in part: "Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me, Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me." The fact that Jesus was in the eyes of someone who saw me, someone who has not heard me talk much about the details of my faith, was absolutely one of the defining moments of my life.

Having come out of the closet as a conservative (albeit an atypical, occasionally liberal one), it’s time to be a whole lot freer about my Christianity.

So back where I started: It’s Good Friday, and the news networks are flooding the airwaves with the story of Jesus as they see it (and as they are permitted by their paymasters to present it). It’s the story of a social revolutionary who spoke amazing words, who challenged long-standing beliefs about how people should behave toward each other, and whose charisma founded one of the world’s great religions. (He just may have performed some amazing works along the way, but science has explanations for pretty much all of them by now.) Having aroused the ire of the local government, Jesus’ movement was brutally suppressed and its charismatic leader was tried, convicted, tortured, and then executed by crucifixion. (Legend has it that his body disappeared three days later, but this has been widely discredited by modern scholars, doctors and historians.)

The thing is, there’s no way to tell the story without some element of ridiculousness. If we Christians really look in the mirror and honestly evaluate the foundations of our faith, it’s impossible to avoid the fact that it’s awfully hard to swallow. There is, in fact, a segment of theologians who profess that the very act of believing in the extremely improbable facts of the Gospel is in itself a miracle. It’s a kind of divine circle wherein we believe enough to pray for the belief to believe in more.

And that’s where the study of the "historical Jesus" must always fail. If Jesus was the Son of God, as Christians profess, then restricting investigation of Him to only the material and the historically verifiable is a fruitless endeavor. Of course, God is God of the material and historical as well as the spiritual, and examination of the material world is very instructive in learning about the nature of God. But omitting the spiritual from investigation of the nature of Jesus is like omitting physical sensation from investigation of the nature of the Sun. You can learn a lot about the Sun from looking at it and by reading thermometers, but if you don’t feel the warmth of sunlight on your face, you’re missing out on perhaps the most sublime detail. In short, you can’t learn jack about a spiritual figure while omitting the spiritual from the investigation.

Not that there isn’t a lot of history backing the Christian tradition up. There are simply no ancient texts with as many consistent copies as the books of the New Testament, and none for which we have copies as close to the date of original writing. And it’s not that I don’t care about that stuff; my faith is strengthened by works of historical Christian apologists, like Lewis' works and Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ (a highly recommended read for anyone who wants to know more about the foundations of Christianity). But the foundation of faith is belief, not history.

Faith is a spiritual suspension of disbelief, and like theatre your spiritual life can only have any depth when you allow yourself to believe in something beyond what you can wrap your senses around. Faith doesn’t just happen; you have to decide to have it, work at it, exercise it, and pray for it. In the words of Firefly's Shepherd Book: "You don't 'fix' the Bible.... It's not about making sense. It's about believing in something, and letting that belief be real enough to change your life. It's about faith. You don't fix faith, River. It fixes you."

I’m going to be talking about spiritual matters around here much more from now on.

So this Easter, I invite you to remember that the story of Jesus is more than the story of a man who was killed for his radical beliefs. I invite you to remember that the totality of the story of God’s plan for our salvation, your personal salvation and mine, is so very much more than the sum of its parts. And I invite you to join me in a prayer for the faith to believe in greater, deeper, and more improbable things. The stuff on the surface can only take you so deep.


Adventures in Visual Art

Throughout my life as an artist, it has always frustrated me that I haven’t been able to demonstrate any real aptitude for visual art. I can find my way around most musical instruments, I’m a competent theatre artist in many areas, and I’m a pretty good writer, but I have never had the patience to draw. I just want it to look the way I want it to the instant I envision it. In fact, when asked what artistic skill I would most like to have, I always answer the same: I would love to be able to draw comic books. Sculpture is also incredibly cool; I have always been far more captivated by statuary, sculpture, and architecture than paintings or drawings. But I just don’t have the patience to do it.

So it came as quite a surprise to me how quickly I volunteered to create an artistic representation of one of the Stations of the Cross for Christ Church’s Good Friday. Even stranger, I instantly knew what medium I was going to use and what the overall look of the piece was going to be. I added my name to the list and took on the sixth station: “Veronica wipes the face of Jesus.”

Now, there was just no way I was going to be able to create some kind of realistic representation of a human figure. That’s just not my thing. I can barely draw stick figures, for crying out loud. So I needed some representational imagery of suffering and a moment of mercy in the midst of torment.

I went to Cheswick Park looking for wood. There were fallen branches aplenty, but it took almost 20 minutes to find something of the right length, thickness, texture, and shape I was looking for. From Target, I bought twine, some white cotton cloths, and an assortment of nails, screws, and hooks. I also got Volume Two of Family Guy on sale. I brought the whole mess home, spread newspaper on the table, and got to work.

Now, I’ve gotten emotionally caught up in creating artwork before. Something I’ve written will sometimes move me (a confession: I re-read “Goodbye, Abnormal Jean” several times after posting it), and my own music moves me quite frequently. Seeing plays I’ve written or directed performed is perhaps the greatest feeling in my artistic life. But I have never experienced anything akin to the feeling of driving nails into a piece of wood representing Jesus. Every single nail, screw, and hook caught in my throat. Draping the cloth over the un-mutilated right side felt like an act of mercy. I don’t know if this is how visual artists experience their work of creation, but it was amazing to me how caught up in it I became.

So I brought it to Christ Church Tuesday night and left it in Josie’s office. I also wrote “BACK” on the back of it. I’m really quite nervous about this, I have to say. It’s a very abstract work in an environment where the representational image has been king for 2000 years. I have a sinking feeling that every single station (all done by parishioners) is going to be something with well-rendered human forms and then mine is going to be this hunk of wood with nails in it. I mean, for crying out loud, I had to write "BACK" on the back of it.

This whole story would be much better if I had remembered to take pictures of it before I turned it in. It also probably would have been better without the Family Guy reference.

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Washington Post: "Pratfall in Damascus"

Someone needs to underline the "separation of powers" section in Nancy Pelosi's copy of the U.S. Constitution, and she should probably have to take a quiz on the meaning of "legislative branch." No one elected Pelosi to the office of shadow-president, and she is in no way authorized to make foreign policy.

Strong editorial in yesterday's Post entitled "Pratfall in Damascus: Nancy Pelosi's Foolish Shuttle Diplomacy." Again, I'm reprinting the whole thing because is funny to link to.

Pratfall in Damascus
Nancy Pelosi's foolish shuttle diplomacy

Thursday, April 5, 2007; Page A16

HOUSE SPEAKER Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) offered an excellent demonstration yesterday of why members of Congress should not attempt to supplant the secretary of state when traveling abroad. After a meeting with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, Ms. Pelosi announced that she had delivered a message from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that "Israel was ready to engage in peace talks" with Syria. What's more, she added, Mr. Assad was ready to "resume the peace process" as well. Having announced this seeming diplomatic breakthrough, Ms. Pelosi suggested that her Kissingerian shuttle diplomacy was just getting started. "We expressed our interest in using our good offices in promoting peace between Israel and Syria," she said.

Only one problem: The Israeli prime minister entrusted Ms. Pelosi with no such message. "What was communicated to the U.S. House Speaker does not contain any change in the policies of Israel," said a statement quickly issued by the prime minister's office. In fact, Mr. Olmert told Ms. Pelosi that "a number of Senate and House members who recently visited Damascus received the impression that despite the declarations of Bashar Assad, there is no change in the position of his country regarding a possible peace process with Israel." In other words, Ms. Pelosi not only misrepresented Israel's position but was virtually alone in failing to discern that Mr. Assad's words were mere propaganda.

Ms. Pelosi was criticized by President Bush for visiting Damascus at a time when the administration -- rightly or wrongly -- has frozen high-level contacts with Syria. Mr. Bush said that thanks to the speaker's freelancing Mr. Assad was getting mixed messages from the United States. Ms. Pelosi responded by pointing out that Republican congressmen had visited Syria without drawing presidential censure. That's true enough -- but those other congressmen didn't try to introduce a new U.S. diplomatic initiative in the Middle East. "We came in friendship, hope, and determined that the road to Damascus is a road to peace," Ms. Pelosi grandly declared.

Never mind that that statement is ludicrous: As any diplomat with knowledge of the region could have told Ms. Pelosi, Mr. Assad is a corrupt thug whose overriding priority at the moment is not peace with Israel but heading off U.N. charges that he orchestrated the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri. The really striking development here is the attempt by a Democratic congressional leader to substitute her own foreign policy for that of a sitting Republican president. Two weeks ago Ms. Pelosi rammed legislation through the House of Representatives that would strip Mr. Bush of his authority as commander in chief to manage troop movements in Iraq. Now she is attempting to introduce a new Middle East policy that directly conflicts with that of the president. We have found much to criticize in Mr. Bush's military strategy and regional diplomacy. But Ms. Pelosi's attempt to establish a shadow presidency is not only counterproductive, it is foolish.

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"Answers to the Atheists" by E.L. Dionne, Jr.

A fairly good piece in the Washington Post today, appropos to the Easter weekend. It also connects with the recent discussion here about the anti-theistic power base of modern science / philosophy and its war against Christianity. I'm going to go ahead and re-print the whole thing.

Answers To the Atheists

By E. J. Dionne Jr.

Friday, April 6, 2007; Page A21

This weekend, many of the world's estimated 2 billion Christians will remember and celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

While some Christians harbor doubts about Christ's actual physical resurrection, hundreds of millions believe devoutly that Jesus died and rose, thus redeeming a fallen world from sin.

Are these people a threat to reason and even freedom?

It's a question that arises from a new vogue for what you might call neo-atheism. The new atheists -- the best known are writers Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins -- insist, as Harris puts it, that "certainty about the next life is simply incompatible with tolerance in this one." That's why they think a belief in salvation through faith in God, no matter the religious tradition, is dangerous to an open society.

The neo-atheists, like their predecessors from a century ago, are given to a sometimes-charming ferociousness in their polemics against those they see as too weak-minded to give up faith in God.

What makes them new is the moment in history in which they are rejoining the old arguments: an era of religiously motivated Islamic suicide bombers. They also protest the apparent power of traditionalist and fundamentalist versions of Christianity.

As a general proposition, I welcome the neo-atheists' challenge. The most serious believers, understanding that they need to ask themselves searching questions, have always engaged in dialogue with atheists. The Catholic writer Michael Novak's book "Belief and Unbelief" is a classic in self-interrogation. "How does one know that one's belief is truly in God," he asks at one point, "not merely in some habitual emotion or pattern of response?"

The problem with the neo-atheists is that they seem as dogmatic as the dogmatists they condemn. They are especially frustrated with religious "moderates" who don't fit their stereotypes.

In his bracing polemic " The End of Faith," Harris is candid in asserting that "religious moderates are themselves the bearers of a terrible dogma: they imagine that the path to peace will be paved once each one of us has learned to respect the unjustified beliefs of others."
Harris goes on: "I hope to show that the very ideal of religious tolerance -- born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God -- is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss. We have been slow to recognize the degree to which religious faith perpetuates man's inhumanity to man."

Argument about faith should not hang on whether religion is socially "useful" or instead promotes "inhumanity." But since the idea that religion is primarily destructive lies at the heart of the neo-atheist argument, its critics have rightly insisted on detailing the sublime acts of humanity and generosity that religion has promoted through the centuries.

It's true that religious Christians were among those who persecuted Jews. It is also true that religious Christians were among those who rescued Jews from these most un-Christian acts. And it is a sad fact that secular forms of dogmatism have been at least as murderous as the religious kind.

What's really bothersome is the suggestion that believers rarely question themselves while atheists ask all the hard questions. But as Novak argued -- in one of the best critiques of neo-atheism -- in the March 19 issue of National Review, "Questions have been the heart and soul of Judaism and Christianity for millennia." (These questions get a fair reading in another powerful commentary on neo-atheism by James Wood, himself an atheist, in the Dec. 18 issue of the New Republic.) "Christianity is not about moral arrogance," Novak insists. "It is about moral realism, and moral humility." Of course Christians in practice often fail to live up to this elevated definition of their creed. But atheists are capable of their own forms of arrogance. Indeed, if arrogance were the only criterion, the contest could well come out a tie.

As for me, Christianity is more a call to rebellion than an insistence on narrow conformity, more a challenge than a set of certainties.

In " The Last Week," their book about Christ's final days on Earth, Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, distinguished liberal scriptural scholars, write: "He attracted a following and took his movement to Jerusalem at the season of Passover. There he challenged the authorities with public acts and public debates. All this was his passion, what he was passionate about: God and the Kingdom of God, God and God's passion for justice. Jesus' passion got him killed." *

That's why I celebrate Easter and why, despite many questions of my own, I can't join the neo-atheists.

* The "Jesus' passion got him killed" or "Jesus' subversive message got him killed" point loses me every time it is brought up, and any theologian, historian or philosopher who makes such an argument instantly completely loses me. Jesus wasn't some social revolutionary whose mission was cut short by The Man; he was God on earth, the only sacrifice pure enough to expiate humankind's sin. Reducing Jesus' crucifixion to a social-historical event takes away the divine mystery.

I'm out of time. I should write more about this today, of all days. After school. ave your responses for that.

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Monday, April 02, 2007

What's Next?

Here's what's on tap for the Hammster:

It's Holy Week, so I'm working on music for Christ Church's Easter services. I'm playing percussion and various instruments (mandolin and accordion, if I can figure out a cool way to include them) at all three services. I'm also playing drums and sound effects for the Easter Vigil, where they are using the Old Testament drama I wrote last year again. I've added another art to my arsenal, as I will be creating a visual representation of one of the Stations of the Cross for Friday's service. I should probably get started on that, huh?

The day after Easter, I leave for Los Angeles, where I will be training with Shakespeare Festival / L.A. for Will Power to Youth this summer. Five days in L.A., finishing with a flight home on Friday the 13th. Good thing I'm not superstitious.

And of course, the day after Twelfth Night closed, we had our first production meeting for the 2007 Richmond Shakespeare Festival. Yes, less than 24 hours after closing the downtown season, I had already started work on music for The Tempest. (I'm looking for a percussionist and violinist, if you know anyone.)

But of course the big news of the day:

It's Opening Day, boys and girls.
Baseball is so good.

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