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Sunday, July 24, 2011

Rio Daydreams

I'm taking a break from serious topics like religion, etc. To be honest, IT'S TOO DARN HOT !!!! After suffering through this unbearable heat and humidity here in Kentucky, I just want to come in the house, drink a glass of wine, and figure out what I need to do to be singing by this time next year. What could be better than inspiring myself with music I love.

I have had a love affair with Brazilian music since I was 15. The music and the voices had such an impact on me then that I started teaching myself Portuguese. Of course, then I was a nerdy teenager with a penchant for languages who daydreamed about being an expat and playing music. Now I'm a nerdy 32 year old, coming back around to those same dreams having been through a couple of renovations and detours. With this heat and humidity, I couldn't think of a better place to daydream about than Rio.

First up is a clip of Elis Regina, probably the best known Brazilian singer, and one of NPR's "50 Great Voices". She, (along with Sarah, Ella, and Aretha) is a singer I CANNOT live without hearing on a regular basis.

Continuing with more music I love, I will share one more clip of Tania Maria, someone whose name I read many times in listings of great musicians and singers from Brazil, but never took the time to listen to until a couple of months ago, when a song of hers came up on Pandora. I seriously was missing out. Now I spend whole days with her albums Via Brasil 1 and Via Brasil 2 playing on repeat and drift off into musical ecstasy. Here is a clip of one of my favorite songs of hers.

Stay cool, wherever you are !!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Singing and Living Through the Low Notes

I learned a little something about the vocal bubble I've squeezed myself into over the years during my lesson on Wednesday. It's going to be the one of the non-physical barriers to singing (and maybe living in general) that I need to get over to make any progress.

I've been told by four different voice teachers that I have pure, beautiful tone in the "top" of my voice, and I have used this bit of information to help me persevere in my dream to sing. The only problem is, one's head voice only goes down so far, and especially in commercial (non-classical) music, I am going to have to negotiate these low notes.

The logical part of my brain knows that women sing below middle C. The emotional part of my brain is telling me that I shouldn't. Even though I speak in that range (as most American women do) and don't get called "Sir" (as my mother often does), I have a terrible hesitation and mental block to singing in that range.

The funny thing is, I LOVE to hear female voices that almost sound like baritones in their low range. Actually, that is one of the most prized qualities of Sarah Vaughan's voice, and she is my favorite singer of all time. I also fell in love with Jessica Reedy's husky female voice, and here is a clip of her singing a couple of LOW riffs. (Only 39 sec)

Her voice truly amazes me, and I saw its impact first hand when I watched that show with a group of people who were blown away. But part of me thinks people wouldn't be blown away if those notes came out of someone with my past.

What this all really brings to my attention is the fact that in order to sing, become a Jew, find a partner, or just to live the full life I'm dreaming for myself, I have to stop worrying about how people will react, and just put myself out there. Maybe I'll learn something about negotiating life's low notes and discomfort in general.

On a separate note, I also want to pay some respect to Amy Winehouse, a husky contralto voice that was taken away from us too soon. Here is one of my favorite songs of hers.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Off and Running

I want to post this trailer because I have been drawn in by it. As an aspiring Jew of Color, I get excited over the stories of other Jews of Color, either by birth or by choice. The subject of this documentary is African American, yet adopted by two Jewish lesbians and of course, raised Jewish.

As of yet, I've only seen the trailer and the additional video clips on the PBS website, but I will definitely be purchasing this film next week (it's on iTunes). I remember wanting to be Jewish as a teenager, without any idea that I would convert, or what that would even involve.

I had Jewish friends in middle and high school, but I distinctly remember one person who was a redhead with blue eyes. One time in middle school we (a group of non-Jewish white kids and myself) questioned if he was really Jewish because he didn't look like the other Jewish kids in school, and he answered that his dad converted. Fast forward fifteen years to all the things swirling around in my head now, and I have a completely different perspective. I wonder, "was his mother Jewish?" Even five years ago I wouldn't have had any context for that question.

Just thinking about the film without having even seen it stirs up so many issues. I still wonder if it will matter to me that I won't ever "look Jewish". I obviously can't have children and would have to adopt and I wonder how they will feel. Would some man's Bubbe not want him to marry a Jew of Color by Choice, one who had their gender reassigned? My therapist would say that I'm borrowing trouble from the future, however borrowing trouble from the future is one of the few times where I haven't had trouble getting a loan despite my bad credit.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Two Great Singers I Had Never Heard Of

I don't want to write a lot today, seeing as how I'll probably have plenty to write over the weekend. Stressful events over the past few days have opened up a need for some spiritual healing and deep thinking this weekend about what really matters to me. Well, I guess I already know what's important to me so I need to refocus on those things and move beyond the setbacks.

I also don't want to write anything serious, so I'm posting music clips from youtube.

The first is of Marsha Ambrosius, a British neo-soul singer. I CAN'T BELIEVE I HAD NEVER HEARD OF HER !! I was so impressed during her performance on the BET Awards a couple of weeks ago. I've been trying to find a good clip to put on here, and the one I like the most is or the rehearsal for the BET Awards, where she did a fabulous job. Unfortunately all of the clips that were on youtube of the actual performance were removed for copyright reasons.

The next singer I'd never heard of but fell in love with is Sophie Milman, a jazz singer. My friend Aaron posted this clip on my facebook page and I was immediately mesmerized. I then went on an iTunes shopping spree (maybe a mini spree, as I have done way more damage before.)

I also love this song, "Eli Eli"


Monday, July 11, 2011

The Taming of the Wannabe Jew

I read another chapter of Judaism as a Civilization over the weekend and have been attempting to write this post over the past three days. Every time I would read something that struck me I would automatically type the quote into blogger. I ended up with six excerpts that I planned to write about, but thankfully I whittled that down to two.

Of course, I skipped around as I did with the first chapter I read, and this time it was, "The Folk Aspect of the Jewish Religion." I have to say that this chapter ranks high on my list of writings that transformed my way of thinking. The chapter is basically about the role of personal and folk religion in life, both ancient and modern, but it also helped center my focus on one of the central issues in my life at the moment. Before I read this I have found it hard to even begin to answer the question, "Why do you want to be Jewish?" He also talks about how religion helped to tame the self-seeking instincts of man. Instincts that once helped me go against the grain in life, that I am now trying to tame as well.

I think this chapter helps me answer an even larger question that I couldn't answer even in a conversation last week. "Why be religious at all?" Everyone has always known me to be a deeply spiritual person, and to be "spiritual, not religious" is so common that it's often a box you can check off on a questionnaire. That was always enough for me until lately.

My home in Buddhism was inadequate, because I found some forms practiced by "Westerners" to be too focused on retreating through meditative practices. This is not good for a person with social anxiety issues and occasional tendencies towards agoraphobic behavior. All of a sudden the solution to every problem was to sit at home meditating, chanting, and lighting candles. I believe that this is why Buddhism has not been enough for me. Practicing with the Soka Gakkai gave me a set of rituals and a welcoming comunity, but an overly simplified belief system that never was enough.

Mr. Kaplan had something interesting to say about belief sytems...

"Judging from the nature of the beliefs usually stressed in the historical religions, it seems that emphasis always went with incredibility, as though their being in conflict with reason enabled them to test the loyalty of the individual to his group. In fact, there seems to be a great deal of truth in the witticism that a religious dogma is a doctrine which people have ceased to believe."(p.335)

I will never discount the negative effect of growing up in a fundamentalist Christian sect that offered little in the way of folk religion. I just had to believe the world was coming to an end in a short matter of time, deny myself any "questionable" pleasures of this world, and spread the word door to door. Any failings in these areas, I could blame on Satan's persuasion and persecution. I never really believed in Satan, but of course, I was told that was just Satan convincing me that he didn't exist to lure me out of "The Truth".

So much of what has touched me in my quest is how Judaism is more (at least in the things I've read) about doing than believing, and that doing things according to this set of principles is what can lead you to greater awareness and appreciation. Until reading this chapter and the way he differentiates folk religion and personal religion, I never understood the needs I was trying to meet through all of my spiritual exploration over the years. But now I get it. After finding my own personal religion and set of beliefs (or at least deeply held thoughts) I'm looking for folk religion, for something to do that will elevate my thinking and actions above my own interests and predilections.

Being a polyglot, post-op, African American, transgender, aspiring singer with Attention Deficit Disorder I thought my religious journey and issues I'm struggling with were as unique as the path that got me here. Intuitively I know that human nature doesn't change, and I use that knowledge to be a compassionate person, but somehow reading something that completely describes inner workings and urges that I had no words for has been very exciting.

"Primitive man, no doubt, resorted to praising his deity as a means of eliciting favors from him. But in the higher civilizations, when the pious sang praises to God they gave utterance to the ineffable delight they derived from communion with him...To areticulate that experience in the midst of a worshipping throng is a spiritual necessity of the normal man. He needs it as a means of affirming the meaning of life and of renewing his spirit." (p. 347)

It has been so easy for me to think that my needs are unique, that my struggles are as unique as they appear when I compare them to what I currently see in those around me. Now I can no longer continue along that line of thinking, and I would say, mystically, that Mordecai Kaplan read my mind (except that he wrote this book in 1934).

It is so much more comforting to realize that the problems I have and the path I am taking are nothing new. Reading this book feels like an embrace, saying to me that I'm not alone in my struggles and the issues that have isolated me from religion and urges that bring me back. I have found through reading stories of conversion, through reading Torah, and especially through reading Judaism as a Civilization, that this is not the case.

That is so refreshing.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Not where I want to be, but not where I used to be . . .

I didn't make it to temple today. I got finished with my day way too late, and the person I was going with did not feel like going this week. It's a good thing I found those streaming services online. I'll be getting a late start, but I'll be up late tonight anyway.

I had a moment today where I just paused and thought to myself, "I'm so glad I'm in my thirties". Every once in a while something will happen and I'll remember how that would have affected me when I was twenty-five. I'll notice how I actively cultivate friendships now, when I used to think all you had to do to get new "friends" was to start going to Happy Hour at a different bar.

Times have changed, and even though I have more growing to do, it has been good to see how far I've come.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Opposing polarities

I'm starting to feel a little pathetic because I told both my mother and a close friend that I no longer care whether or not I ever find "that someone". I really don't mean that in any depressing kind of way, but I'm starting to realize that if given a choice between a fulfilling romantic life or a successful and fulfilling career, I would probably choose the latter. I even said the tragic words that I wouldn't care if I was celibate for the rest of my life. Well, I might be exaggerating on the last one. . .

I guess there really are a couple of things going on here. Up until I was about 27, the #1 priority was being involved with someone, usually the wrong someone. By the time I knew better I had also learned that focusing on other paths to self-fulfillment was reaping bigger rewards.

It doesn't help that I'm a painfully shy person who occasionally morphs into an extrovert. I've read about so many of my favorite performers who either confess to being painfully shy as well, or are described that way by others, so I guess maybe it makes sense that I would have these opposing polarities. I know how to strut my stuff, but turn into a 13 year old if a man I don't already know strikes up a conversation with me. Heaven help me if I'm interested in him as well.

It's crazy and completely true, but I'd rather speak in front of a thousand people than let someone know I'm interested in them. I hold on tightly to the idea that every crush and infatuation will dissipate with time, as long as I'm not foolish enough (as I have been recently) confide in the wrong person. (Note to self: Only share your crushes with people who also believe that if left alone, they will vanish into thin air.)

I couldn't find a video of Aretha's 1971 performance of Mixed Up Girl at the Fillmore West (I have the CD), but I found a version by Thelma Houston. I think of myself when I hear this song.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Miscellaneous updates...

I have fully recovered from my fall into Tea Party madness. Whew!! I actually spent a couple of hours yesterday getting a a more balanced perspective of the Federal Reserve system and fractional reserve banking. I'm now aware of the advantages and problems with an elastic money supply. I'll also know exactly what it means when the Federal Reserve buys Treasury bonds, which it will be doing to the tune of $25 billion monthly, until further notice. Here is a link to the Planet Money article that started this whole intellectual excursion. I guess I can add monetary policy to the list of potential topics I might blog about.

More exciting things are on the horizon in my life as well. Today is my first singing lesson (of my third round of lessons, that is). I know I won't be doing much singing, mainly breathing. Also today is the launch of the Fall/Winter 2011 edition of Louisville Bride Magazine, in which I have a styling credit. At end the week, I'm supoosed to go to The Temple for Kabbalat Shabbat.

Off to my lesson...

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Creation of Money

For some reason I have been watching documentaries about our monetary system all day long. I'm not exactly sure how I went off on this tangent, but my search for "finance documentaries" led me to this page, where I have spent most of my day.

I have learned all about the perils of the Federal Reserve system, and the impending financial disaster that will dwarf any that we have seen so far. Part of me was getting swept up in the momentum, and but a larger part of me was having flashbacks of all the Armageddon craziness I grew up with as a child. Some of what I heard even sounded like Tea Party conspiracy theory.

Could it really be all doom and gloom as some of these people are predicting? Maybe so. I think people are so irrational when it comes to money and have no clue how the monetary system works that it will all be perpetuated until it becomes painfully obvious that it is not working. I didn't realize until today that money now represents debt instead of value.

It also never occurred to me that money actually disappears from our money supply when a debt is paid off, since the bank created that money out of thin air in the first place, and must create more debt to replace it (in the system as a whole). I really thought there was gold in a vault somewhere, even though I know I've listened to debates about going back to the "gold standard" on NPR.

In the end, I'm sure we'll eventually get more regulation and come to some sort of balance. But I'll be looking into urban homesteading and living off the grid...just in case.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Bringing myself to the Torah

I started reading Judaism as a Civilization today, and in my usual fashion, I did not start at the beginning. I skipped to the chapter on the Torah as a way of life. Something about the title of that chapter spoke to me, and though I wanted to start at the beginning of the book, I just had to read this chapter first.

Although I'm not done reading the chapter yet, I felt the need to stop and blog about a realization I just had. I remember when I first began to formally practice Nichiren Buddhism in 2007, I was having a hard time with the concept of the Gohonzon, which is the scroll that Nichiren Buddhists enshrine, and chant in front of.

Through years of independent Buddhist practice, I learned the value of meditation and chanting. I didn't even have a problem with a Buddha figure, but when people at SGI were talking me into getting a Gonhonzon, I really didn't see the point, and for some reason, I even felt uncomfortable about it.

This discomfort went away when I read an analogy between the Gohonzon and other pieces of paper that we assign meaning to such as money. A scroll with Chinese script hanging in a wooden cabinet does not have inherent meaning or power, just as a piece of paper with Benjamin Franklin's picture and the number 100 has no meaning to someone who has no frame of reference for it. We are taught these things, buy into these things, and then use them move through the world.

I've realized that some of my issues and stumbling blocks in beginning my conversion relate to a similar hesitation to give the Torah meaning and power in my life. Though I was able to make a mental and spiritual leap in Nichiren Buddhism, coming back around to familiar names like Leviticus and Deuteronomy put me back into an old frame of reference. In some ways I've felt that accepting liberal interpretations of scripture was lower on a spiritual hierarchy, despite the fact that I vehemently do not believe in taking things literally.

But as a friend commented, you bring your whole self to the Torah. I think that is definitely what makes it a living and relevant force and symbol in a person's life. If I as a trans person can only experience its power by conforming to something that is against my nature, then it serves no purpose and has no symbolism in my life. I think the Torah becomes more beautiful and powerful when it becomes the source of "trans" liberation, queer liberation, heroic inspiration, or maybe just a way to make it through ordinary life in any era.

When I was 20 years old and feared I was backsliding into Satan's world of things, I left a desperate message at a Kingdom Hall in the middle of the night. I told them that I felt like Satan was tempting me. I did not share with them that I had been exploring some of my issues with gender and my attraction to men. On some level, I really think at the time my subconscious mind was responding to the level of risk of meeting people online and basically being naive. This was in 1999 when meeting online was sort of a new thing, as was the internet in general.

They came a couple of days later, with their Bibles and Watchtowers in tow. They told me that we as humans were not wise enough to discern right from wrong, and that the Bible provided explicit instructions for how we were supposed to live. They also said that the presence of my guilty conscience over my actions was some kind of evidence that Satan had led me astray.

I still remember standing there and literally having two currents going through my mind and body. One current told me that these people were right, that Satan had lured me away from the flock, and that the outside world (especially college, they mentioned) was a dangerous place. The other, and thankfully more powerful current, said that even though I had no other worldview at the moment and couldn't argue with them, there had to be a better answer out there.

Writing this post is like creating a empty space in my consciousness for a new understanding of and relationship with the Torah and with sacred writings in general. However, I must always remember the danger of the old ways of framing and seeing those same words.