Chris Cornell taught me something about sex.

May 18, 2017

I’m not sure what compels me to write when my favorite musicians die. I think it began when Miles Davis died in 1991 and I put on In a Silent Way wrote an ode. When Kurt Cobain blew his brains out in 1994, a local weekly in Atlanta asked me to write a poem in tribute. I had already written it. In this blog I have marked the sociological significance of the passings of David Bowie and Chuck Berry. But waking up this morning to the news that Chris Cornell had hung himself was particularly rough.

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Soundgarden is/was in the middle of a tour and, this morning their singer was found dead in his Detroit hotel room. Chris was may age. I might be biased, but I tend to think people born in 1964 are special. It was such an epic year (The Beatles, Dylan, MLK, my birth). This spring, Soundgarden was a booked for a big reunion tour bringing much needed rock to the kids, or at least their parents. He seemed to be back on top.

Others will write about his life or the “Seattle sound.” I was cold on the grunge thing at first because we were trying to carve out our own musical identity in Atlanta at the time and didn’t need the competiton. I was invited to contribute some spoken word to a local compilation in 1991 and I wrote a rant against Seattle that contained the line, “Riding on Tad’s log, lame as Temple of the Dog.” About five minutes later, I was all about Seattle. Turns out I smelled like teen spirit, too.

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Others will also write about suicide. I’ve written about my own past with the issue here in this blog and how it unfolded in my first novel, The Mission of the Sacred Heart. The follow up, The Dream Police, ends in a grand climax with the Soundgarden song, “Black Hole Sun” playing. I couldn’t think of a better song to accompany the end of the world, so it’s there as a musical epitaph.

I wanted to write a sex, or more specifically, how one night in Atlanta with Soundgarden pried open my brain about the fluidity of sexuality.

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It was March, 1989 and Soundgarden was touring in support of their first album, Ultramega OK.  Neighbors in my North High Ridge apartment (the fabled Treehouse) were probably sick of me blasting it (and extra notch up on “Smokestack Lightning”), but the punk era was over and I was growing my hair long. It was time for bass guitars to rattle the building. Aspersions of the Seattle hype aside, I loved their monster sound that was an alternative to the hair metal that was ruling MTV at the time. This was our music, not theirs. For those of us that grew up on Kiss and The Ramones.

In those days, I went out to see bands play almost every night. So when Soungarden had a gig at the Cotton Club on Peachtree Street of course I would be there. And when they opened with the song, “Gun,” and Kim Thayil’s exploding guitar riff, it was on. I was 25-years-old and pressed against the front of the stage, because that’s the only place to be when a band is splitting the universe open. They were inches away from us and it was one throbbing sea of sweat and hair.

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Chris Cornell was shirtless, screaming like a banshee, his long brown hair cascading over his shoulders as he leaned back in his Jesus Christ pose. (I think you might guess where this is going.) The music sounded great but I was just captured by him and his charisma. Like the most iconic of iconic rock stars. Like if Ozzy Osbourne looked like Calvin Klein model instead of a puppy dog who had been hit in the head with a ball peon hammer. He was… beautiful.

Let me back up a space and say, at this point, at age 25, I was hyper-hetero. From the first Farrah Fawcett poster on my wall to my questionable antics on the road with the band I was working with, it was never not about being in a “girl-crazy” frenzy. Never even a crack. Sure, Tom Cruise was “good looking,” but I wouldn’t say it without the quotes. I would joke about homoerotic elements of skinhead and fraternity culture and even the mosh pit, and was still working out my own homophobic training. Gay was fine. I loved my gay friends and music idols. It just never was about me.

Chris Cornell cracked that. The memory is as clear as day. I thought, “I’m straight but I think I might make an exception for this guy.” It was the strangest feeling in the middle of a blasting rock show. What was my sexuality? Is he the only guy on the planet I would make an allowance for? He was just so, perfect. Should I try to meet him?

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I didn’t go backstage. Or write him love letters. I kinda forgot about it (at least until the next time I saw Soundgarden play). But I began to question the idea that anybody is exclusively anything as far as sex goes. Around that time I began teaching undergraduate sociology at Emory University and would lecture on the Kinsey Scale. In 1948, the famed sex researcher published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. His findings identified that only about the 10% of the male population was either exclusively heterosexual or homosexual. The other 80% are somewhere in the middle (or asexual). I would joke to my students, “If you haven’t at least one gay thought, you will!” And then I’d make some crack about the repressed sexuality of “brothers” in the “Greek” system. Holla!

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During my tenure at Portland State University, I became immersed in Queer Theory. Queer Theory seeks to break down these arbitrary binaries we place ourselves in. Gender is fluid. How butch are you today? (After blasting Soundgarden all morning, I feel pretty macho, except the moments when I start to sob.) Sexual orientation is also fluid. A lot of dudes like to play this game. – If there’s one guy you HAD to have sex with, who would it be? It’s permission to flirt with Kinsey’s scale. In my PSU classes, I began to utilize Gender Gumby. Gender Gumby is an exercise that allows a person to plot where, in that moment, they fit on a scale of assigned sex (opening the discussion for people who are born inter-sexed), gender identity, gender presentation, and sexual orientation. The beauty of the exercise is that, where you map your gender today may be completely different tomorrow. I would map mine for the students. On sexual orientation, I would make mark pretty close to the “Attracted to females” end of the spectrum, but not at the very end of it. Because of Chris Cornell.

I’m so sad about his passing. I also loved those Audioslave records, and, after some time, came to appreciate the Temple of the Dog album. I saw him many times over the years. Soundgarden played the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. The city fenced off an area downtown and forced people to pay to get in. I watched the show, precariously perched on a newspaper box so I could see over a fence. Soundgarden was onstage blasting their wall of sound into the city and Chris saw me straining to see the band. He said something to someone, who came over and let me in so I could watch from inside, safe and fully rocking.  We shared this generation together.

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Gender and sex are complex things, far from black and white. And sexuality is like magma looking for a way to the surface. Horrible things happen when you try to suppress it. (Google “Afghanistan” or “Mississippi.”) It’s not surprising that people are fearful of all that hot lava. Even the most “100% certain” person can be surprised by their own sexuality and where it might take them. I got a lesson about that in 1989 thanks to a killer Soundgarden show and got to let go of that certainty. Thanks, Chris. You were never not really hot. Lava hot.

I stand with the women who march: Anatomy of a backlash

January 18, 2017

Politics would make a great spectator sport. How many years did Donald Trump question President Obama’s legitimacy, spreading the cockamamie lie that he wasn’t born in America? One soft-spoken Congress member from Georgia questions Trump’s legitimacy and Baby Hands has a full scale meltdown. It’s entertaining! But it’s not funny. It’s real. And people know this and they’re getting involved. And I don’t mean on Twitter.

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Instead of focusing on the circus of Inauguration Day (No wonder Ringling Brothers is calling it quits. Who can compete!), my focus is on the day after and the Women’s March on Washington. Trump may have secured Pat Boone to sing at his event (Glad to know Pat’s still alive!), but the real star power will be in the streets with an estimated 200,000 marchers in DC. Julianne Moore, Jessica Chastain, and Chelsea Handler will be there and a lot of other women who Baby Hands will surely tweet about. (“She’s totally overrated. A real dog.”) And an estimated million people will join sister marches around the country, including here in Portland. You should see my wife and daughter there.

Unlike a lot of “pop culture feminism,” the march promises to be truly intersectional. I’ve written about intersectionality in this blog. Let’s just say, for now, that feminism doesn’t just belong to middle-class white females with degrees in Women’s Studies. The organizers of the march have made a point of making it open to all identities who see the new oppression of sexually harassing politicians as a growing problem and the liberationist positions of feminism as the solution. Their four-page statement says upfront, “Our liberation is bound in each other’s.” So expect to see bell hooks marching alongside Katy Perry and Malala Yousafzai next to Scarlett Johansson. Trump may have 3 Doors Down, but they’ve got Solange. You can read the full statement here:

Guiding Vision and Definition of Principles

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I wanted to locate this march historically and sociologically, because this isn’t just about a president who brags about sexually assaulting women. The election of Donald Trump represents a significant backlash against the empowerment and true equality of women and girls. Susan Faludi popularized the concept in her award-winning 1991 book, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. The text was a crucial theoretical component of my doctoral dissertation on the rise of racist skinheads and I just pray she is working on a 2017 edition.

So here’s the mini-version of her thesis. Faludi argues, with convincing evidence, that each time women make collective gains of empowerment there is a corresponding backlash that tries to push them back into their second class role. She lays out three historical periods in the twentieth century.

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First was the women’s suffrage movement and what has become known as first wave feminism. Among the gains made were things like access to birth control and, in 1920, the right to vote. This political empowerment was met in the 1920s with the double backlash of the flapper and the housewife. One was cute and ditzy, like cartoon Betty Boop, the other was obsessed with care for the home, the children, and a new invention, fashion magazines.  The message was clear, women don’t politically organize, they have fun or wash their hair before hubby gets home.

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The second wave was about women’s economic empowerment during World War II. As men were off at war, many women were in factories and shipyards, building the weapons of war. Their symbol was Rosie the Riveter. The federal government funded daycare. Theaters were showing films starring Betty Davis, Lauren Bacall on other dames who didn’t take any guff from men. And women had their own money with no men telling them how to spend it. When the war ended in 1945 and the men came home, it was time for women to leave the tank factory and go back to the kitchen. Betty Davis was replaced with Marilyn Monroe and the 1950s became the glamor era when women were meant to be seen and not heard. Backlash #2.

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The second wave feminist movement socially empowered women in the 1960s and 1970s. Betty Friedan’s book 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, and her National Organization of Women brought women into the streets on a range of issues, including workplace harassment, pornography, and abortion rights. “Women’s Lib” became a part of the counterculture of the baby boom generation and every aspect of culture was inspected through  feminist lens (although it was typically a white feminist lens). The great attack on patriarchy was met with the third backlash in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan and the ultimate weapon – THE SUPERMODEL. More than ever women were bombarded with the message that they were their looks and would only lose power as they aged instead of gaining it.

It has been argued that Faludi helped launch third wave feminism in the 1990s. Third wave is more intersectional and not afraid to take on micro-aggressions along with macro power structures. But Faludi’s model would predict that the turn of century wave of personal empowerment for women (including transwomen, lipstick lesbians, Muslim feminists, and a bunch of other cool categories) would be met with yet another backlash. Who would have guessed that this backlash would have come in the form of a TV gameshow host with a fake tan, fake hair, and a wall of fake news stories.

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The new War on Women began before the Trump candidacy. But the fact that the first female major party candidate for president was defeated by a guy who runs beauty pageants and brags about never having heard his latest wife fart was the tipping point. More disturbing than Trump’s “grab ‘em by the pussy” comments were his flock, chanting “Trump the bitch” at his rallies. It was like an army of anti-feminists had suddenly been released from the gates of hell. And now their fake “Good ol boy” (Lordy) and his porn-model wife are moving into the people’s house. Don’t expect much support for women’s issues for the next four years. They’re already going after Planned Parenthood.

My cousin, Chamisa Kellogg, is in DC for the march. She’s an incredible artist who has created the piece below to commemorate this moment in history. She just sent me this message – “The ‘Pussy Grabs Back’ drawing was based on a photo I took at a protest in Portland, Oregon two days after the 2016 Presidential Election. As the Million Women’s March 2017 draws near, I find myself reiterating my goals and beliefs in gender equality, and the importance of affordable healthcare for all, including women (who may sometimes need abortions). I’m selling high-quality archival prints of this drawing on my etsy shop, and all profits from sales will go to Planned Parenthood.”

You can purchase a print at THIS LINK.

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So women will be marching in 2017 just like they marched in 1917. But the beautiful thing about Faludi’s model is the backlash never pushes women all the way back to where they were. Once women have tasted political, economic, social, and personal empowerment, that genie doesn’t go back into the bottle. It may be one step backwards, but there were two steps forward first. Donald Trump may want to make America great “again,” back to a time when women were more like Melania, seen and not “being a bitch,” counting calories and not wage gap data, but he’s looking at more than one march coming his way. The future is female.

See you in the streets.

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Preparing for the Great Leap Backwards: We call it “anomie”

Jan. 4, 2017

There was a wonderful moment of peace in our house on New Year’s Day. Andrea and I were sitting on the couch reading. I was reading Lidia Yuknavitch’s memoir, The Chronology of Water. My wife was reading Patti Smith’s first memoir, Just Kids, and Cozy was sitting in my old bean bag chair, reading Go, Train, Go! It’s one of a series of memoirs by Thomas the Tank Engine. The Best of Donny Hathaway was playing on the hi-fi, the coffee was brewed, and it was almost snowing outside. I took it all in, my beautiful family, and thought, “Can the rest of 2017 please just be like this.”

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But I know it’s not to be. This particular set of 365 days does not promise to be easy. After the rough start to 2016, I don’t doubt that some of the icons of our childhoods, those increasingly fragile baby boomers and older, will pass away and I’ll have to stop to pay tribute, dusting off their records, renting their movies, and maybe writing mournful odes. Stay with us, Chuck Berry. Don’t leave us, Betty Friedan. We still need you in this world. And there will be younger ones, even younger than me. “I just bought his new album! I just read her new book!” These passings will remind me that my parents are getting older and face their own health challenges that will inevitably put my own loyalty as their child to the test. Stay with us. Let me get back to work so I can help take care of you. I want Cozy to get to know you better.

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The country faces much bigger challenges than I do when Trump takes his “oath” on January 20th. (Look for crossed fingers behind his back.) When he and “his” congress repeal Obamacare, millions of the “angry white people” who voted for him will lose their health coverage. The record low uninsured rate will zoom back up and the first contact with a doctor these angry white people will “choose” will be an Emergency Room. And tax-payers will again get stuck with the bill. That looks more like socialism than Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Personal bankruptcies will sky-rocket as medical bills wipe out any savings or home equity these angry white people have. I hope that iron worker in Michigan has got a few hundred thousand dollars under his mattress for his kid’s first few leukemia treatments! But at least the Trump did what he said he was gonna do. I like a guy who says what he means. Now about that wall.

These folks are likely to see all kinds of bad news from the guy who modeled himself as their savior. Prices going up from his simple-minded protectionist trade policies as wages go down because of a new war on benefits, unions, and the minimum wage. “Competition” is great for the fat cats at the top and he knows this. The defunding of public schools will turn these kids to the streets. But hey, you might get a voucher! No worries, because the promise to renew the war on crime and drugs will give them three hots and a cot at the new private prison, all paid for, not by the rich, but you got it. You.

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I’m not sure how the cavalcade of changes that is coming from the arrival of the most incompetent plutocrat to ever golden parachute into Washington will affect me. I am just beginning my return back to work now that Cozy can successfully distinguish Plah-Doh from actual food. It could be great as the sane segment of the population was looking for experts in diversity, criminality, and what to do when a new generation of young, angry white people start spray-painting swastikas around town. Or it could be the exact opposite as the walls go up and Americans, fearful of the coming crash, just put all their money in Canadian dollars and wheels of parmesan cheese. Diversify! That’s me with a sign down on SW Broadway. “Will lecture about Late Capitalism for contributions to my minimum credit are payment.”

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Our first sociologist was a little French fellow named Emile Durkheim. The guy was supposed to become a rabbi but invented a scientific discipline instead. I’ll write more about him because his ideas are fused into my veins. He was, in many ways, inherently conservative, alerting the enlightened to the unintended consequences of the French Revolution. Revolutionary change itself is not bad, but when things happen too quickly and people start throwing the baby out with the bathwater, you’re gonna get some ugly version of anarchy. In 1789 France, it was the abolition of any institution associated with the monarchy. In 2017 America it may be the abolition of any program associated with that black guy. What was his name again? The result in France was the “reign of terror” and the invention of a political tool called the guillotine. What will be the equivalent in the reign of Trump?

Durkheim had a term for this – anomie, the sense of normlessness. When things change too quickly and institutions loose their ability to keep things relatively stable, people freak out. For Durkheim, it was high suicide rates associated with industrialization and the sweeping away of the old regime. Usually, we are happy when the old order goes bye bye. Slavery was a long tradition. So was legal sexual harassment and the unpunished murders of transgender people. As sociologists, we are often discussing anomie associated with change that moves society forward. How have men handled (or not handled) that radical idea that women are human beings invested in right to equal opportunity? Some dudes freaked out.

Get ready for the anomie of a society that suddenly lurches backwards, to AGAIN when AMERICA was GREAT. To a time when women, people of color, LGBTQ people, working people, and yes, a lot of angry white people regularly got screwed and were told to sit down and shut up or the goons would come for them in the night. How will America manage this rapid change to the good old boy days when generals and millionaire (now billionaire) men made the rules? Will we descend into chaos as our basic institutions are attacked by this con artist? He and his Legion of Doom represent the greatest threat to the idea of America we may have ever faced from within.

Hey, maybe I’ve got this all wrong. Maybe nothing will really change after January 20th. That Trump will be our great entertainer and solve all our complex problems with a tweet. His seemingly pathological lies could be a brilliant secret plan to get Wall Street to hand back America’s wealth to Main Street. Or maybe Washington will be crippled with same deadlock as always and any change will be small and unnoticeable to anyone who doesn’t read wonky blogs. But honestly, I don’t think Donald could name the first ten amendments of the Constitution, let alone FDR’s Four Freedoms. The question is will the angry white people who voted for him see the con before the midterm elections in 2018? I imagine even his KKK supporters are gonna feel a bit like suckers by summer.

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Look, I just want enough “freedom from want” to be able to keep my house and sit on my couch with my family on cold winter’s days, reading memoirs, and not worry about guillotines for “libtards” and college professors. And know that Chuck Berry is still in the world.