Archive for May, 2009

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Musical Musing: Jonathan Coulton – “I’m Your Moon”

May 6, 2009

Jonathan Coulton is a musician. I like to call him a geek troubadour; I hope he’d approve of the moniker. He left a career in software programming to write music and now sings lots of songs on lots of topics, many of them near and dear to the hearts of geeks everywhere. It should be no surprise that this man struck a chord with my geeky little heart.

What is surprising is how deeply that chord is resonating. Sure, lots of his stuff is just silly fun (I’m not sure I can write anything of much depth based on Re: Your Brains, for instance, and if I ever do, I may just open the door and let the zombies in). But this man isn’t all fluff and nonsense, and if you dismiss him as such, you do him (and yourself) a disservice.

I will warn you, not all of his songs are “SFW”, or what the geeks call “Safe For Work”… there’s some, how did Star Trek put it, “colorful” language in there (though always in good fun, and I’ve never heard anything vicious). But the song I want to talk about today is completely clean, so you can follow all of my links without a shred of guilt. (It’s just if you continue to explore that you might find some of the more colorful material).

At his concerts, Coulton introduces “I’m Your Moon” with some backstory. You see, you and I grew up with nine planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto. But in 2006, astronomers decided to officially define for the first time what it meant to be a “planet”… and in defining “planet”, they excluded Pluto. Pluto was redefined in a new category, called “dwarf planet”. There’s been an outcry and an uproar about the decision… but this isn’t about whether or not Pluto is a planet. There’s more science (stick with me). Pluto has three moons… two tiny little dust balls and Charon, which is nearly the size of Pluto. In fact, Charon’s “status” is up in the air… the same astronomers that labeled Pluto a dwarf planet may do the same to Charon, making Pluto and Charon a dual dwarf system. Neither one orbits the other, either… they orbit a point outside of them both. The two bodies dance around each other, orbiting one another. In a way, they are each the moon of the other. It’s in light of these facts that Coulton wrote the song “I’m Your Moon”; Charon is consoling Pluto after the declaration of Earth-bound scientists (who’ve never even had a satellite pass close enough to give them close pictures of the system), changing its identity.

At it’s heart, “I’m Your Moon”, the song about Pluto and Charon, isn’t about those two moons at all, though that’s the fun that makes me laugh. What makes me love this song, that makes me want to cry, and that made me write about it, is that it’s about being certain who YOU are. It’s about knowing not to define yourself by what others say about you, especially those who don’t truly know you. In the end, there is one voice who truly knows you… there is one voice who can truly define you… just as Pluto, orbiting out there in the expanse beyond what we are certain of, where light takes hours to reach, could, arguably, only be “known” by its moon, Charon.

I have this odd definition of existentialism: we are before we are anything else, and we are defined only by what can be observed by outsiders. It’s an odd pairing, and it comes into play in an odd way with the ideas in this song. We’ll start with the second idea first: as humans, we categorize. We tuck things into little boxes and folders and make order out of chaos. We even do this with people. We need to categorize things, or sort them out, or figure out the relationships so that everything fits. But the only way for you to do that with me is with what you can observe about me. There are physical descriptors that you can use to categorize me, and there are behavioral ones: I saw her clear the trash off the table in the restaurant. She goes to church. You can’t know why I do them, or don’t do them; that’s inside my head. I could tell you (ah, but how do you know I’m not lying?), but only what you can see for yourself is provable data. All of these things allow you to form some idea of who I am, what I am, and they let you categorize me for yourself. That’s basically all the scientists were doing with Pluto: based on the data they had, which box did Pluto fit best?

But there’s another side to my little definition of existentialism, the one that Charon reminds Pluto of in the song, the one we must all remember, even as we sort people into our boxes. Before we are any of the things we can be observed to be, we are. The essence of what we are, church goer, table clearer, tall, short, fat, thin, male, female… is all preceded by our existence. We exist. We are. There, Beloved, is the crux of the matter… and it is there that you and I must find our identity, and it is there that we must remember to love and respect others.

Now granted, the analogy falls apart: we’re assigning sentience to spatial bodies, and expecting scientists to love and respect them like living, breathing, knowing things? Not exactly. But if you take the same idea and apply it to your life… remember that who you really are, your own identity isn’t based on someone else’s conception of who you are… well, something strange happens. You begin to realize that no matter what someone thinks of you, says of you, there’s one thing they can’t change: who you are.

There is only one voice that has ever known you inside and out, who has ever seen your motivations and your actions. Pluto has Charon there to encourage it, to remind it who it really is, to affirm its identity when the definitions of others confuse. You and I have the same benefit… Someone who has been with us faithfully through all the ups and downs of life and doubt. When you find yourself confused by the definitions others have placed on you… when you aren’t sure who you are, and you’d really like to be the person you were born to be, the one He says you are… well, you only have to talk to Him. He’d be happy to lend an ear, to help you sort it out. Your Creator, the Intelligent Designer, wants to go ’round and round with you.

I’m not sure Jonathan Coulton found this in his song. I’m not sure he knew I’d find it in there. But down there, in the orbit of Pluto and Charon, as they go round and round, I found my God winking up at me. The Lover of your soul is waiting, arms wide, for you, and He’s asking you to remember who you are.

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Musical Musing: Ben Harper- “When She Believes”

May 5, 2009

Early in my marriage to my husband, our church had a sunday school class for newlyweds. We covered a variety of materials, but one of the things we discussed was Gary Chapman’s study, The Five Love Languages. The ideas we learned in that book have gone farther than just our marriage, but the biggest thing it may have done for us was to teach us something about ourselves while giving us the vocabulary to communicate that information to our spouse.

The heart of Chapman’s book is that Love is “spoken” in five “languages”, and we all give and receive love in one (or at most two) primary languages. We demonstrate our love for others in the way we most want to receive love. The flaw with that model is that not everyone we encounter is wired the same way we are… so they may not want to receive love the way we do. It’s like trying to communicate, but neither of you speak the same language; you might occasionally luck out and do something right, but most of the time, it’s going to be an exercise in frustration if not futility.

Worse, as we are going through life and marriage, we are pouring ourselves out for our mate, giving of ourselves and putting ourselves on the line, hoping and trusting that it will be rewarded. If we go through this cycle of frustration and futile attempts at communication that seem to end in failure every time, or more often than not, eventually even the most patient among us grow weary, emptied of all our good nature and hope. Chapman calls this our “Love Tank” and compares it to an air tank for a diver; without a constant flow of fresh air in, the drain of what air there is will kill a diver. So too, in a relationship; without a fresh intake of love, the relationship dies.

This, though, is only the diagnosis. If you can learn to identify your love language, then your spouse has a fighting chance of knowing which language to use to love you. Likewise, if your spouse can identify theirs, then if you can learn to speak theirs (and yes, it’s a learning process), then you have a means of communicating the love that sparked your relationship in the first place. The other thing we learned to do, despite how silly it might seem, was to do a sort of systems check. We’d ask each other “How’s your love tank?” and then “what can I do to help fill that up for you?” It was a way of communicating our satisfaction with our marriage in particular, but also with life in general. There were days that our love tanks were low, but it had nothing to do with what either of us had done; work had just been awful that day, and neither of us knew of a way to refill the way work had drained the joy from our lives. I honestly think it helped the early days of our marriage immensely, building a foundation for us to work from for the years that have followed and those yet to come. (If you’re interested, I’ve linked Chapman’s site here, and his book is on Amazon.com here.)

As powerful a tool as the Five Love Languages is, and it’s amazing… as I said before, I’ve found that I use it outside of my marriage, in my relationships with other people… it’s not the only tool in our toolbox, nor is it the one that came to mind first when I first heard this song. Emerson Eggerichs added to the toolbox in another of our sunday school classes in 2007 when we studied his book “Love And Respect”.

If we could borrow Chapman’s language, then Eggerichs teaches that respect is a sort of 6th language… except, while we’re all taught that we should love one another unconditionally, we’ve missed the need of our men to be respected unconditionally.

I know that what I just said is radical. There are some horrible men out there. Trust me; I’ve put at least one of them in prison- I know there are BAD BAD men. But men aren’t pigs, they aren’t irredeemable, and when we treat them as the butt of every joke, as disposable and stupid, we destroy the one thing they need most. If they had one language they speak, it is respect. If there is one thing we are systematically robbing from our men, it is respect. Why?

If love is the very air we need to live, respect, Eggerichs says, is the air men need. The men in our class agreed heartily. But our society has taught us that men are buffoons and fools. They are good for sex, sports, and little else. Fathers are shown in movies and television as being clueless at best. Even Cliff Huxtable, who was a respectable role model for a man, a doctor who knew how to guide his children into adulthood and responsibility, was written as a bit of a fool who served cake for breakfast as an acceptable nutritional choice (it has eggs, flour and milk… it must be ok, hyuck). Granted, we’ve all laughed at the sitcoms… but where are the role models for our men to follow?

Have we forgotten the power in our words? Have we forgotten the power of our expectations? We tell cockamamie stories about how we dare not risk bruising the egos of our students by giving them failing grades or letting teams actually win or lose in sports… but we can destroy our men by mocking them endlessly? We tell our children “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” knowing the whole time that it’s a lie, that the first time they told us they loved us, it was life-giving, and the first time they told us they hated us, it wounded us to the core… and then turn around and bad-mouth their fathers.

In the book of James, we are told of the power of the tongue. It is likened to the rudder of a ship or the bit in a horse’s mouth. This tiny piece has the power to determine course for an entire transport! So too it is with the tongue. We know that verbal abuse has an enormous impact on a child’s life; why do we think that words are somehow powerless against our men? Because they’re bigger than we are, they can “take it?” What kind of thinking is that? If you could see the damage your careless words were doing, would you be so glib with them? James says that the tongue is full of deadly poison. Proverbs likens reckless words to a sword!

I warn you of these things because I’ve seen the damage of careless words. I was verbally abused growing up, and while the tools Chapman gave us were amazing, the damage done by the abuse was powerful, too. I repeated what had been done to me. There is no excuse for the verbal abuse I heaped on my loving husband.

I know, not all wives are verbally abusive to their husbands. I was an extreme… an unacceptable one. It is a miracle, and a testament to John’s love and our commitment that we’ve made it as far as we have… that we got to the class in 2007. By the time we got there, I knew what I’d done wrong… we were more than 2 years into the healing process. But I also know there’s a lot of careless, thoughtless, disrespect happening… and I know it’s destructive to our men. What I did may have been destructive by feet… but that doesn’t mean that the general attitude towards our men isn’t killing them by inches.

 And that brings me back around to the song I heard by Ben Harper tonight. “Nothing is as beautiful as when she believes in me.” I’ll be honest; I don’t know if he’s talking about his wife, his daughter, his mother, or someone else. But I do know this: John and I’s marriage is never better than when I build him up. When I show him respect, give him specific examples of reasons why I respect him, nothing makes him smile brighter. I’m not saying we have a perfect marriage; does anyone? But when I make a point to speak life into him, to use my words to build him up instead of tearing him down… I see a difference in my husband, a difference for the better. He’s a better man. People say we’re a cute couple. Maybe, just maybe, it’s because we’ve learned that nothing is as beautiful to him as when I believe in him.