Today, “ideology” is a word that seems to be used mostly when referring to religion and politics. However, arguably a personal ideology has many more influences beyond those things. A personal IDEOLOGY ultimately is made up of all of an individual’s experiences with both RULES and AUTHORITY. Throughout our individual lives we learn RULES involving the things we can and cannot see. We learn rules from stories we are told and the ones we live out first hand. After all, we will not pay attention to rules in the abstract without experiencing real examples of how they are applied.
Therefore, someone’s individual ideology becomes a cumulative result of their experiences with stories about rules and morals along with their experiences with the authorities that enforce those rules and morals. RULES include philosophies, religions, stories told by media and family members, and laws of the land. AUTHORITIES include closest loved ones, teachers, philosophical/religious leaders, government, and law enforcement. Therefore our personal experiences with ALL types of RULES and AUTHORITY combine to ultimately determine what we individually BELIEVE. ALL RULES + AUTHORITIES = IDEOLOGY = BELIEVING.
I suppose there is something very magical about the simplicity of two dots for eyes, one for a nose, and a curved line for a mouth. The first time I imagined God looking like someone, it was as a cartoon character. The image was not of any specific character on television or books. Rather I created it based on a combination of cartoon and story traits I felt should be associated with someone who had the job of running the universe. Maybe I loved cartoons because I loved to draw. Perhaps it was the idea of drawings moving and coming to life that gave hope to my own simple stick figure drawings to move on their own as well.
I liked the idea of there being a God probably because it was nice to know, to believe, that there was a higher power to answer to than my parents when they frustrated me. At times when I felt like they either did not understand me or I felt like an outsider even among them, I remember biking at the bottom of my block looking up at the sky and talking in my head to who I thought might be my real parents, God and Mother Nature.
Nevertheless, I distinctly remember imagining God looking like a huge cartoon head with arms coming out of the side of his chin, and legs coming out of the bottom of it, similar to a Mr. Potato Head. This image of God was influenced by the “Mr. Books” that were popular in the eighties, short pamphlet stories that featured characters with certain personality traits. The “Mr. Books” books I had were “Mr. Greedy”, “Mr. Happy”, “Mr. Quiet”, “Mr. Grumpy”, and “Mr. Tickle”. My favorite one my mom read to me was “Mr. Tickle” because at the end of the story he supposedly sneaks his long orange arms into your bedroom window to tickle you, which my mom would do to me in his place. He just seemed like a fun guy.
So God, to me, became just another “Mister” character in my head. I imagined his face was Crayola peach colored with black dots for eyes and a curved line for a mouth like those Playschool quadriplegic looking figurines, along with bushy curly brown cartoon hair and an orange baseball cap turned reversed on his head. In my head he worked in an office like my dad’s with desks and lots of paper and typewriters, only up in the clouds running the company that determined the fate of the world. Warner Bros’ Bugs Bunny cartoons where deceased characters would float off into the clouds no doubt influenced this image of a heavenly realm.
Neither of my parents was particularly religious in the formal organized sense. My father’s side of the family is primarily Russian Jewish, while my mother’s side is Presbyterian. The many different cultural people my parents worked and socialized with often believed they were very righteous in terms of whatever respective religion these respective friends belonged. Christians thought my parents were good Christians, Jews thought they were good Jews, all because my parents seemed to practice universal ideals of working hard, being kind to your neighbor, charitable, and generally being very happy, and shining an inner light of peace. While those were their respective genetic religious history, Nevertheless we grew up celebrating Christmas, which to me was more about music, warmth, and meals with family and friends, than about Jesus.
I started to become more aware of Jesus and Christianity when my parents sent me for 1st and 2nd grades to Grace Lutheran School, because it had a great reputation for education. During what must have been one of the Christianity classes or services at that school, sitting on a pew, for the first time I really took notice of the large cross with a plaster mold of Jesus on the altar. I remember thinking how much it must have hurt to have those cuts in his chest, and he looked so hungry being so skinny with those ribs sticking out. It was a little scary to look at someone who looked so uncomfortable up there. I actually thought that he was only supposed to be on the altar temporarily, that he was a character that had to be mostly addressed during Christmas. Maybe Santa Claus would help him feel better on that cross. I did not think that the whole religion was based on the whole dying for sins concept. One of the pastors, Pastor Mac, who was also the principal, had long beard that reminded me of Santa Claus, so I thought he must be pretty nice and trustworthy like a big teddy bear. Again, when it came to Christmas, I loved the music. For the longest time I thought Mary’s last name was Mary “Nodded”, from the lyric in the song “Little Drummer Boy” we sang in school.
I suppose separating the thought and image of Jesus from Christmas was easy for me because the only organized “religious” sect my parents tried participating in was “humanism”. I was “baptized” by a humanist “minister”, I suppose one called it, named Joseph Shuman in a ceremony at the Ethical Culture Society, which is like the “church” for humanists. My mother described humanism as being “concerning yourself with how to do the most good in the world while you are alive instead of worrying about what happens later”. This made a lot of sense because I was aware enough to know that everything that happened to me happened in this world, in my life during that time. Logically I would be more concerned with what happened while I was alive, and conscious, than what happened afterwards. For less than a year, we would go every Sunday. There would be a sermon like service and there were even classes for kids afterwards to talk about spirituality and afterlife concepts. It seemed to be very inclusive. Apparently you could be part of any religion and still be a “humanist”.
The Ethical Culture building itself was very familiar to me anyway because that was where my Mom booked space for her students’ recitals. Still that was the only thing I would really associate with it beside the brief few months we tried to go regularly for “Sunday service”. The reason my mom gave for eventually no longer attending was that she thought they were “good at talking but not very good at doing”. That always stuck with me.
Perhaps I was genetically hardwired to be a little superstitious. The humanist principle of “being the best person you can be while you’re alive” consequently instilled in me an over the top fear of death. Similar to my fear of catching other people’s brains by merely peripherally touching them I was afraid of the slightest unhealthy or hazardous thing jumping into my mouth, accidentally ingesting it, and then dying. Examples included fear of putting on insect repellant and accidentally getting deathly fumes or tasting a little bit accidentally and dying, or while using crazy glue afraid of it bonding to my skin, getting in my mouth and dying from it. I even combined fear of catching people’s brains with fear of accidental ingestion of any hazardous material so that either process would kill me. I was so scared that my parents wisely knowing my superstition used it to help me. They bought me a necklace with both a cross and a star of David, and said they would protect me from dying from anything like “brains” or “hazardous materials”. When I lost that necklace, my dad gave me his silver necklace with a Pisces on it. I believed they were magical simply because my parents said so and the fact they looked so cool, and easily could pass for magical things I had read in children’s books or the shows I saw on television.
After I grew too old to be told bedtime stories (around six), the concept I continued to have trouble sleeping with my mind obsessed about what it would be like to die, afraid of it being unknown, afraid of my death upsetting my parents, and afraid of all the missed opportunities I would have had in a longer life. My parents put a clock radio in my room. I found that listening to music on the clock radio helped take my mind off any fears of death. That in itself made me think that music was supernatural and magical in itself with its ability to calm my mind and make it think about other things.
I would have many conversations with my parents, especially my mom, about religion and what happens after death. She told me about the Golden Bough, a book that supposedly discussed all types of religions, and ideas about the origin of man and what happens after death. While I never read the book, at some point from watching movies about people coming back from death or being reborn, or learning about Hinduism in a World History chapter in grade school, I really liked the idea of reincarnation. I especially liked the idea of being rewarded in the next life by acting well in the current one. I just thought it was such a great concept to encourage empathic behavior to your fellow man. Using what I knew from grade school biology and reincarnation, it came to mind that what made most sense was that as the body decomposes parts of our spirit decomposes with it and ends up being absorbed back into the earth, part of us ending up in the soil, in the water, partly being ingested by bugs, etc., and then joining the journey of status within the contexts of those worlds. I liked what my mom always said about believing in a higher power, which is why she appreciated the movie “Star Wars” and the concept of the force. She also had the idea that similar to what is often depicted in Christian influenced cartoons and shows, that once our bodies die the energy of our spirits of our life force has to go somewhere. I really liked her idea that our spirits might join the rest of the energy above the Earth and into the universe. She said that my idea about being made of many spirits based on a combination of what we eat and what our genes were was very similar to what was described in Native American Indian religions according to the Golden Bough.
For years going into high school and into college I would call myself a “humanist” who celebrated Christmas. I appreciated ideas of Christ or Yaweh or whatever any religion described as being a divine spirit because at the end of the day I thought they all referred to what my mom described as the same unifying power. However going into my fourth college year, after my sister died, I was much more into questioning logic of why things happen, and destiny in general. I had always considered my family pretty much the most functional of any family I knew. I knew we were not perfect, but the issues we had seemed pretty tame compared to most families I observed. My sister dying killed the innocence of believing that only bad things happen to dysfunctional families. I did not know how such an atypically super-functional family could have murder in their destiny. Murders of passion only happened to dysfunctional families. I was not sure what the purpose, if there is indeed an all powerful God, was of her death. Basically if my sister passed, I realized that nothing was guaranteed for me either, no matter from where or whom I came from.
Robin Eubanks came to do a master class at Oberlin as part of his interview/audition process to become the new jazz trombone teacher. I was neither impressed with him when I had heard him on an early solo album of his from the early 90’s nor when I heard him play in the Mingus Band when they came to Cleveland. But when he played in person doing his own music, he was pretty remarkable. I had never heard someone have so much unusual technique. Plus he played jazz on a classical horn like me, what is called a large bore tenor trombone, a challenging instrument because one needs more air and endurance than on a smaller horn. (The great thing about big trombones is that they have bigger sounds, almost operatic, which I like. They can be quite versatile, making it easier to cross over into more different styles than in smaller bore trombones used in traditional jazz.)
What caught my attention at the end of his master class was when he openly credited his musical success to his Soka Gakkai Buddhist practice. I was intrigued because most people who wear their religions on their sleeve I had come into contact with were either Christian or Jewish. Being one of only two jazz trombone students, and being the elder one at that, I was in charge of showing him around. Eubanks wanted to go the gym to workout and possibly play basketball. I was the right guy to show him around. I was very impressed with his energy, and overall fitness, being another trombone player obsessed with fitness and a basketball fan. Since he seemed to have such good physical habits, especially as a trombone player, I was curious what spirituality he believed in that supported them. Christianity and Judaism seemed way too mainstream and full of contradictions, not to mention unrealistic imagery and mythology.
We went back to the Oberlin Inn where he was staying and he showed me how he chanted “Nam Yoho Renge Kyo”. It was not the first time I heard it. Interestingly a couple of summers earlier I first heard of this chanting when I heard music from my house in Teaneck coming from the band shell in Votee Park. What was unusual is that the park was about 10 blocks away including a loud highway. I followed the music one day, and found a bunch of people playing jamming out to “watermelon man” and having a picnic. I sat in with them and they told me about how chanting can improve your life. I thought they were nice, but was not going to try some voodoo magical phrase to try to improve my life.
However when Eubanks invited me to join him chanting, he simply just told me to think of whatever I wanted to happen in my life while saying the phrase “Nam Yoho Renge Kyo”. He said all I had to try doing it five minutes a day and see what happens. He said it could help me work out whatever issues I had about my karma, which rang true for me trying to figure out the new karma my family seemed to have being without my sister. I was willing to try anything, and considering Eubanks had all the qualities I wanted as a professional musician I thought it couldn’t hurt.
What was so interesting about chanting was that it was the first time I ever took time out to think about what I wanted. My whole life from birth to adulthood seemed to include fulfilling one task after the other, thinking about the next thing while doing another. But to actually take time away from doing anything and think about what I wanted, to reflect on my past, my habits. It seemed so revolutionary. So I would chant a few days at a time in spurts over the next few months. Eubanks even gave me chanting beads. I would not have called myself a Buddhist. I still believed in God in my own universal kind of way. However the ritual of chanting different words from English, and based on a system that was very logical – it recognized the basic physical principle of cause and effect – and the scientific the power of sound, particularly the power of words itself, all made very inspirational sense to me.
While I occasionally chanted “Nam Myo Ho Renge Kyo” throughout my last semesters at Oberlin, I picked it up again more seriously after I moved to NYC when I was up to audition for the tour of that Broadway show “Swing!” I was so desperate for any kind of financially stabilizing opportunity especially if it involved music. It was not an easy existence living hand to mouth, consciously spacing out what I was going to eat and when, wondering how I could possibly have a functional life as an artist in NYC. The opportunity of going on tour and making and saving some money seemed like a silver bullet to solve my financial woes. I wanted to be prepared in every possible way. I felt like it was not enough to practice trombone. I felt I needed to guard against unforeseen obstacles including choking or stage fright. While visiting Robin at his old apartment in Brooklyn, he encouraged me to start chanting again, but with a more specific ritual. He suggested I write down on a piece of paper all the things I wanted to happen, and focus on it at least 5 minutes a day until the audition and see what happens at the audition.
I ended up nailing the audition even though I did have to overcome some obstacles that day. I took the bus from New Jersey the morning of the audition, and it broke down. I borrowed somebody’s cell phone and called my dad, who came to pick me up along the bus’ route, and drove me into the city just in time for the audition. I could not help but think if chanting helped me overcome the transportation obstacle.
When I got the gig, it was the most joyful musical moment I remember feeling at that point. Since it often seemed like throughout high school and college that teachers and peers did not believe in my talent or focus as much as other students, getting that musical tour gig meant so much. It proved to myself that I did have what it takes to make it NYC despite their doubts. I had beaten out quite a few great NYC trombonists to get that gig. I also knew that my dancing abilities gave me an edge since the trombonist had to move pretty well in the featured number. But I also had to demonstrate that I could obviously play well enough, and getting that gig proved it.
I chanted fairly regularly through the tour and into the next summer. After moving back to the city after the tour, this time out of Brooklyn and able to pay more to live in a better space in Inwood, Manhattan, I joined a neighborhood chapter of SGI members. Up until then, the only Buddhist meetings I went to were at Robin’s place. I thought I would further my Buddhist practice, and hopefully my musical and social goals by joining a chapter in my own neighborhood. If I did, I could get a Gohonzon, which is like a shrine with a scroll in it that SGI members chant “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo” to. The only Gohonzon I had chanted to by then were at Robin’s place, or now at various apartments in my then Inwood neighborhood. After attending so many meetings, getting a sponsor, and joining the SGI center in Union Square I was able to receive my Gohonzon. I started reading a couple of introductory pamphlets about how chanting works and words of wisdom from the president, Daisaku Ikeda. However I started getting turned off with all the formalities, protocol, and what I would describe as “born-again-Christian-like” forced happy enthusiasm and dedication about Buddhism itself.
As much as the members pride themselves on not putting guilt on anyone to do anything, they still manage to “guilt” you by mentioning how many karmic “benefits” one will miss out on if one does not volunteer or participate. What I had liked so much, and continue to like about chanting is that it was very personal. What I started to dislike about my chapter was the zealous forced happiness that chanting was the key to everything, and yet I always felt this vibration of desperation in so many members that they needed the group to feel validated. Always cynical of groups in general, I did not like the idea of committing to some people and a cause that ended up seeming as clicky, and zealous as any other practice. I ended up only going to Eubank’s house for chapter meetings. It was really him I felt like I owed so much of my gratitude. I still find myself chanting here and there when I want to focus, which is supposed to work that way, but I prefer to keep it private. I rather keep my chanting and practice more as a supplementary ritual to the rest of my life of actions towards my career, than make my chanting my main action to get everything done.
I had an epiphany while on tour with another band, realizing how skeptical I was about calling myself a Buddhist. There have been so many instances when playing in bands with mostly Christian black members, where we would join hands in a circle before a gig and say a prayer to Jesus Christ. Despite not believing in Jesus in the way so many others do, I respect the ritual. During those moments of prayer, in order to feel united with the band, I accept Jesus as my savior. But for me it is not about Jesus, in the same way of when I chant “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo” with other musicians. For me, I engage in these very important spiritual, and ideological rituals, which do not require ingesting any substances, for the sole purpose of THE MUSIC. Whatever prayer a group agrees upon, I feel that is the mode I which I am joining in sending energy into the universe, to submit to a higher cause of sharing in and building a creation or expression.
It was reflecting on this dedication to the spirit of music and creativity that made me think further on LABELS versus RITUALS. Just because I chant “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo” as my occasional default prayer when I am alone looking for parking spaces while driving, or sitting down to concentrate on what I want in my life, does not officially make me a Buddhist, nor does it destine me to be automatically comfortable among the most zealous (and often religiously elitist) SGI members. In the same vain, Similarly, just because I dance black, or like things associated with black culture, do those things make me “black”. And furthermore, just because I like musical theater, and dance flamboyantly, does not make me “gay”.
What clicked in my head was that in many different contexts performing certain rituals and belonging to labels can be two very separate things. To me, all of these rituals, regardless of the labeled groups they are associated with, are part of the creative spirit of the universe. Whether it is asking the universe to grant me what I want, or help me figure out what I want, that is when prayer of any form can be effective. Since I had met Eubanks, who impressed and inspired me at a very impressionable time in my life, chanting ended up as my personal mode of choice to pray and connect with what I believe is God, what my mom described when I was little as the force that unites everything. And similarly, perhaps through the elements of both “black” music and the flamboyantly expressive sensibilities of musical theater, I find my way to express the universe and praise its beauty.
Interestingly, in 2005 I considered looking into Christianity. Between Hurricane Katrina, the personal betrayal, and the many shows on History Channel about Armageddon, I ended up asking a bandleader, who was also a minister, about suggestions in getting a bible. For years he had known I had chanted, and was excited about finally converting me as a Christian. I bought a bible in Barnes & Noble, and read through Genesis and Exodus over the next couple of months. and while there were many great stories about morals and universal rules, I realized that Christianity has as many strange allegorical metaphors as any other religion, major or otherwise.
Still since then while I still chant occasionally, especially when I try to make big moves or transitions in my life, I find peace in accepting all religions and people’s faith in them with this one idea I read somewhere, perhaps Conversations With God – “We are all manifestations of the universe trying to experience itself.” One experience cannot explain a universal purpose of humanity or the world. Perhaps that is why so many experiences exist at the same time, for the infinite ways the universe attempts to experience its own range of destruction and creation that occurs within itself. Perhaps all ideologies in all its forms are just attempts to justify and cope with the various range of experiences that exist in the human condition. Similar to what Rue writes about religion in his book “Religion Is Not About God”, perhaps ideologies other than religion are also functionally more about finding “personal fulfillment within a social coherence”.
It is the “social coherence”, the power of a group united with belief, which not only gives power to an individual, but also gives power to an ideology itself. All power is strengthened in numbers. This book, Uncle Tim’s Condo, presents an ideology that encourages the awareness of ideology itself. Among other power dynamics, this book brings to light that ideology can be defined and influenced by many other things other than religion and politics – family, media and government. This awareness is an ideology in itself, one presented to better navigate a world where believing can be as (and even at times more) influential as sensuality and materialism.
Table of Contents
Part I – My Material (Physically Having) History
- Chapter 1 – Race, Money, Fashion
- Chapter 2 – Plants, Pets, and Education
- Chapter 3 – Jobs
- Chapter 4 – Connections, Opportunities, Genetics
Part II – My Sensual (Feeling) History
- Chapter 5 – The Satin Edge
- Chapter 6 – Gifted, Hyper Competitive, and Overly Sensitive
- Chapter 7 – Puppy Love and Status
- Chapter 8 – Busy-ness as Salvation
- Chapter 9 – Karate and Self Image
- Chapter 10 – Homophobia and Musical Expression
- Chapter 11 – Digging a Pond, High School, and Music Camp
- Chapter 12 – Heterosexuality, Self Esteem, Avon Fashion
- Chapter 13 – The Opposite Game, College, and Sex
- Chapter 14 – Cruise Ships, Internet, and Control
- Chapter 15 – Saturn’s Return, Delayed Gratification, and Aging Dreams