Inhuman Swill : Youth
            

David Bowie
This morning we wake up to a world without David Bowie.

It seems impossible that he's gone. If anyone on Earth seemed otherworldly enough to transform himself into something eternal and transcendent, it was Bowie. But even he tried to remind us in 1997 that he was not really an alien but an Earthling.

His death hit me harder this morning than I would have expected (as is no doubt true for all of us). I haven't felt this devastated at a musician's death, in fact, since 1990, when Stevie Ray Vaughan died in a helicopter crash. (And is it coincidence that Bowie had helped raised Vaughan's profile, as he did with so many other musicians?)

I came to Bowie "late," as I didn't really start paying attention to his music until 1983, when I was 16. Let's Dance ruled the charts, but it was generally held that his important work was all behind him and he was now selling out. None of that mattered to me, though. I knew some of his earlier music because he was one of the few '70s artists who was played on my favorite Utah new wave station. But Let's Dance was a perfect album for my generation—consummate pop you could move to on the dancefloor while still feeling smart. And Bowie himself seemed the epitome of suavity and cool.

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Is there a religious equivalent to the term "civil disobedience"? As in, a term for defying one's church leaders when you find their edicts unjust or immoral? Something more warm-sounding than "heresy"?

Oh, well. For lack of a better term, I'd like to challenge a Mormon bishop to commit heresy.


Before I get to that, I'd like to talk about the Boy Scouts for a minute. I was very happy last month that the LDS Church decided not to sever its ties with the Boy Scouts of America over the issue of permitting troop sponsors to allow openly gay men to serve as Scoutmasters.

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Blueprint for murder?

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Like many writers, I have long had the habit of keeping notes about future story ideas. I was probably 17 or 18 when I had an idea for a story about man whose many siblings are one by one being picked off by an unknown assailant. The man grows increasingly paranoid and isolated as each one dies, until at last he is the only sibling left. We come to understand that the story has unfolded over the course of a lifetime, and the only assailant is implacable death itself. My note for the story was probably something along the lines of "Brothers and sisters murdered one by one."

Like many fathers, mine long had the habit of going through my stuff from time to time. So it was that my father sat me down one night with a solemn look on his face, waved my story notes, and said, "Are you planning to kill your brothers and sisters?"

As the eldest of eight kids, I admit that I did not take much interest in my family, and I did keep to myself as best I could and keep my many creative pursuits secret. But was that chicken or egg? Was I like that because I had to put up with stupid questions like that one?

I think my father died without ever honestly understanding why I didn't like to talk to him. Which is a shame because he was a smart, interesting guy, and I could have learned a lot of things from him. I mean things besides the ones he taught inadvertently.

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Resisting being jerked around

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You thought I was done with Christopher Bigelow's post, but I was only taking a little breather. After declaring that it's probably too late for him to change his ways anyway, even if he wanted a new lifestyle, he makes this judgment:

And it sounds like Bill's dad was a real jerk, so he's got more of an excuse than I do to reject his parents' lifestyle....  [full post]
I have a lot of complicated responses to this. First is regret at the realization that I probably haven't done a good enough job in public at pointing out that my father was not only a jerk while I was growing up. He was sometimes kind, loving, and supportive. He was independent and often questioned authority. He was smart, though he tended to downplay that and fall back on received wisdom and kneejerk responses, and he was unfailingly discliplined, hard-working, and generous. He was also argumentative to a fault, controlling, and psychologically abusive, and his temper was severe. He correction could be violent, but physically it was only ever targeted at our scrawny behinds. He tended to spank first and never ask questions later (though he had pretty much stopped corporal punishment entirely by the time my youngest sisters were growing up). Admitting when he was wrong was not a strength. He did, however, teach me many invaluable lessons, the one I've taken most to heart being one he probably didn't intend—how to think for myself and make up my own mind about what I believe.

He's a complicated man, and he set a lot of contradictory examples for me. Most of all, he was a distinctive individual in sea of conformity. It would have been impossible for me not to have rejected his lifestyle in some way; in fact, rejection was exactly what we were taught. We were encouraged to become whatever we wanted to be (though doctor and lawyer were pushed harder than any other profession), so long as we didn't become teachers like he was. (Inevitably, at least one sibling did exactly that.)

We could argue all day about whether or not my rejection of Mormonism was a direct rejection of my father (and I would say that was only a small component of it), but it remains a fact that I lived a more rigorous Mormon lifestyle, by conscious choice, than practically anyone else I knew right up through the age of about 20. I tried to live like I believed the tenets, even while I fought private doubts that extended all the way back to age four or five (well before I could have made sense of the idea of rebelling against my parents). And still, it wasn't until nearly the age of 28 that I finally made the decision that much of my misery derived from clinging to a set of spiritual beliefs that contradicted what I had come to know about the world intellectually.

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In my junior year of high school, I signed up for an advanced humanities class that encompassed history, literature, art, music, and drama from the beginning of recorded time. This daily seminar was presided over by the legendary Mrs. Vivian Beattie, an extraordinary teacher amongst what for a public school was a remarkable slate of extraordinary teachers. (Remind me someday to tell you stories about my math and computer science teacher, Lenzi Nelson. When you ask, tell me you want to hear about the teacher who threw chalk.)

We adored Mrs. Beattie, a ferocious old iconoclast whose demands on her students' intellects and attention pushed most of us as far as we'd ever been pushed by a teacher in our lives. She asked us for all we had, but in return she conferred upon us the gift of critical thought, not to mention the kind of respect most adolescents never feel from adults—the respect that says you are a worthwhile generation, no matter what anyone else tries to tell you.

That's usually how it worked, anyway.

If there was one thing Mrs. Beattie would tolerate, it was muddy thinking. I ran afoul of her cruel, casual dismissiveness in this regard one morning during our unit on 19th-century art. The topic was visual composition, the subject under scrutiny Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres's famous portrait of a nude harem girl, "La Grande Odalisque." Surely you've seen it—it's Ingres's best-known painting. The Rubenesque slave girl (the titular odalisque) reclines amid the various appurtenances of a fantastic Turkish harem—veils, silks, furs, pipes, jeweled belts, feathered brushes—with her inhumanly supple back to the artist and her face turned to gaze mildly back at him over her right shoulder. The ripe globe of one breast can be seen in partial eclipse, shadowed by her right arm. The painting was reviled in its time, but is today considered a masterpiece of French neoclassical portraiture.

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The Accidental Terrorist 30th Anniversary Sale

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William Shunn

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