911, Hitler, facial hair, gay, African, Asian, creature, grace, soul, spiritual, and the usurpation of valid styles and terms.

In June of 2001 I was laid off from my design job in Manhattan in the bloodbath that ensued when the internet bubble burst. Bloodbath was the term then. The term reverted to its more literal form only a few months later.

On Monday, September tenth, I interviewed for a great job only miles from my house. It went really well. They asked me back Wednesday for what could only be the 'how much?' interview. Wednesday was my daughter's birthday. Could anything feel more serendipitous?

It was beautiful that Tuesday morning. I had fallen asleep on the couch in the living room after blearily clicking off a 'get rich quick' infomercial. I was in full and glorious REM sleep as the sun poured onto my face through the French doors of our little house just north of Princeton, New Jersey. I was giddy that I was going to be back at work. But a literal dark cloud, not of meteorological origin, would soon profoundly blacken my mood.

My wife rushed in and turned on the set and woke me up. The first plane had hit - the radio on her alarm clock had alerted her. We saw the second plane hit live. We both knew, despite the stunned denial rhetoric of the reporters (understandable) that we were under attack. My wife saw the second hit before the reporters did.

Now, I had a big, black mustache under my nose and a soul patch under my bottom lip (a la Frank Zappa) for the entire time my wife knew me. But I had that interview the next day and everyone was freaked out to say the least. I had walked those very streets - Church, Wall, Vesey, etc. having arrived under the WTC on the PATH train only five nights before to attend a new media design seminar in downtown Manhattan. At two o'clock Wednesday morning, I got up and decided I had to shave. It was an action brought on by shock, frankly. I still had that interview.

I decided that losing the soul patch and carving a trim, French-style mustache would distance me from the stereotypes I worried about. Unfortunately, I just couldn't stop shaking and, as a result, kept getting it lopsided. I shaved until I was left with the hair thick and just under my nose. Now, if Charlie Chaplin had been the only historical figure of note with that style of lip hair, I might have gone with it. But, alas, Hitler had ruined it for everyone. I shaved my face clean for the first time in ten years.

At three in the morning I was suddenly awakened by my wife's screaming face only inches from my own. I began screaming too. Apparently, having never seen me without facial hair, in a half-asleep stupor, and reeling from the day's events; she thought a stranger was in her bed. We laughed the way people who had just avoided getting hit by a bus might.

The next day, the interview had changed from 'how much?' to 'we need a consultant'. I got paid really well for three weeks and the jobs dried up. I got a few such temp jobs, including one in Manhattan, but did not land a 'real' one for a year. And that was at a major drop in salary. It would be another year before I got back to where I had been.

Thus began my fascination with the usurpation of valid styles and terms. You see, one man had ruined a pretty good mustache style for the rest of us. Seems petty; all things considered. But it is neat, manageable, and lets facial expressions 'breathe' better than other, fuller styles. How long will it be before we can wear it again without fearing association with one of the most successful serial killers in modern history?

What about the word gay? It doesn't just mean happy any more than glad does. Glad is a specific type of happiness based on an outcome as in: I was glad it wasn't my turn to clean the grease trap. And gay used to mean lighthearted and situational happiness as in: We had a gay time at your party.

Listen, I don't really begrudge my friends who are homosexual wanting to take control of the inevitable label they are forced to have. Nor do I wish to comprehensively associate their proactive usurpation of a word with the unfortunate, incidental usurpation of a mustache style by the history of a heinous genocidal dictator. But it is unfortunate to lose a serviceable word because we feel it necessary to label people based on an attribute that should only matter to their private lives.

We now label people based on their possible continent of ancestral origin to avoid the underlying truth that we feel compelled to label people based on the density of their hair, the genetic nature of their tans, or the shape of their noses. Again, I do not begrudge this and understand the proactive intention behind this move. I totally get the need to identify with history and heritage. I embrace the intention to honor and memorialize the path, plight, and progress of an exploited, maligned, and abused group of people.

But what about people of African origin who were born, generations removed, in Europe? Are they African Europeans? And what of people born in Africa of European ancestry? What if they, subsequently, emigrated to the U.S.? Are they European African Americans? Is even the term American, itself, correct when it means a citizen of the United States? There are 35 sovereign nations, and 21 dependent territories in the Americas, after all.

Even more suspect is the term Asian. Asia is the largest continent. Egypt is in Africa on one side of the Suez canal and in Asia on the other. The Soviet Union used to be in Europe and Asia. Turkey still bridges both. Israel, Iraq, India, and Saudi Arabia are in Asia. So, when we call someone Asian, what does that really mean?

How about the word creature? I have a great deal of disdain for creationism; especially the idea that it be taught as science. But I use the word creature all the time. Look it up. It clearly refers to something that was created.

I am a jazz musician. Most musicians I hang with use the word soul and dancers use the term grace. None go to church. Many are atheist or apatheist (just don't care). Soul doesn't mean, to us, some ghost that wears our bodies, and grace doesn't mean that god is moving within us. It means the ability to access a sense of connection to the greater world - to listen while we play and dance in such a way that it does not even feel as if we are the ones playing and dancing. It is a recognition that the separateness of self is contained by a mighty thin skin.

Many accomplished athletes, musicians, dancers, painters, writers, poets, and, even scientists know what I am talking about. Einstein dreamed and daydreamed his most profound ideas. While there is a non-theistic explanation for all of this phenomena; soul and grace are valid terms for it.

So, it really chafes my ass when theists and atheists alike refuse to allow the word spiritual to simply mean of or pertaining to spirit the way that ritual is derived from rite. I can say 'my morning ritual includes a hot cup of coffee', and no one demands that I am admitting a belief in the power of religion. But, the minute I claim to have had a spiritual connection with another person, experience, or event - even once I clarify - I am immediately accused of admitting to a belief in god. Can I call someone a kindred spirit without suffering the same derision? To me, that just sucks. When I get it from atheists I smell the same disgusting odor of ideology and absolutism that the religious stink of.

Recognizing we don't know it all, aren't the center of the universe, and aren't as singular as we may feel we are is a very reasonable and, frankly, defensible position to take. And if I use the terms agnostic, creature, soul, spirit, and grace to qualify my experience, it doesn't mean I believe in any god, creator being, or external mover entity; or even the possibility thereof. In fact, it is simply an acknowledgement that there are forces, systems, and processes at work that the left side of my brain is entirely incapable of distilling down to digestible mathematic or linguistic terms that are easily communicated or fully understood.

I love my friends - be they gay, of African descent, from China, Israel, or Iran. I hold no grudge with anyone's sense of spirituality. But I despise absolutism. I abhor narrow-mindedness. I reject ideological thinking (an oxymoron). And I do not abide disdain when it reaches the level of a sense of inherent superiority.

Oh, nevertheless, I still won't wear that damned mustache.

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Comment by Howard S. Dunn on December 30, 2009 at 4:25pm

1. Vaguely metaphysical - but within the realm of valid to me. I am 'agnostic' (reference to the ability to know - not an acceptance of the possible existence of anything resembling a deity) when it comes to understanding whether or not the universe is fully contained by the dimensions we can experiment in or have any perception of. (see: multi-verse, dark matter, quantum mechanics, etc.)
3. Accept this definition - but doesn't really apply.
4. This plays a definite role in what I am talking about. Thoughts most certainly play a role in the continual shaping/unfolding of the universe. As do dreams. Einsteins best work came to him in dreams and thought experiments, for example. (Ironically, the last dreams of someone who dies in their sleep, or thoughts of someone who dies abruptly become events without effect and meet a special definition of 'nonsense' - but that is another story.)
5-9, 11 & 13 are valid but not, necessarily, relevant.
10 & 12 are valid and irrelevant.
Comment by Howard S. Dunn on December 30, 2009 at 2:42pm
Specific is a relative term (man - what is it about irony that tickles me so?) Good one.

I speak of soul and grace from 'behind the curtain'. There is a certain 'mysticism' (see: 'mystify' rather than 'mystic') when a non-musician listens to music. It can seem to be a type of 'magic' that defies simple explanation. The audience may even collude with their own sense of 'magic' re: suspension of disbelief. But the feeling is quite profound. In the case of music, brain scans can identify no 'center' for the processing of music. It is a rare experience that 'lights up' many parts of the brain. (BTW - that whole 10% of the brain thing is a total myth.) (http://www.yourbrainonmusic.com/)

But (and I paraphrase) Picasso was being pretty profound when he said that art was the lie that reveals the truth. And, like an onion, musicians attain a different level of mystification even when they are pulling the levers of the deus ex machina. In either case, as Joseph Campbell suggests, metaphor underlies myth and, so, what I am discussing, while from a non-theistic point of view, is the experience that underlies the original concept of soul.

Take the creationist who insists that rainbows are proof of god. They are full of crap. But the awe one can feel when looking at a rainbow can be shared by an atheist. On that level, spiritual can refer to the same experience - with a different explanation.
Comment by Howard S. Dunn on December 30, 2009 at 1:58pm
Damn - I hate I that I can't fix typos here. I missed a comma, meant *Webster's* and *their* instead of *there*. Sorry.
Comment by Howard S. Dunn on December 30, 2009 at 1:56pm
'Soul' once had a specific meaning? Really? Even when it was a religious one, it was pretty vague.

Nevertheless, living languages are like science - they are flexible and evolve. And, despite the fact that I do not believe in god - I actually think that my definition of 'soul' refers to the same experience but not the same explanation as the original term. Just as the word 'evil' no longer has to mean 'pertaining to the devil' to many or 'Wednesday' doesn't mean 'Odin's day' to any, 'spirit' has many meanings - in the lexicon. As I pointed out earlier, in Websters online dictionary, only two of fourteen definitions refer to the supernatural. One actually refers to alcoholic beverages. And all find there source in the root 'to breathe'. Are the supernatural definitions a 'bleaching' of a word that refers to pulmonary activity?

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