Thursday, December 30, 2010

10 Commandments for 2011

 I posted this list of commandments as my New Year's Resolution for last year. Since I still think it's a good set of instructions (and I didn't manage to follow all of the commandments last year), I think I'll re-up. Happy New Year, everyone!

1. Thou Shalt Not eat at any restaurant that has a drive-thru.

2. Thous Shalt Not listen to talk radio, nor shalt thou buy gold.

3. Thou Shalt read at least one piece of literature per month by an author who died before your father was born.

4. Thou Shalt Not drink alone.

5. Thou Shalt express thy patriotism not through the medium of bumper stickers, but through volunteering your time.

6. Thou Shalt learn how to ride a unicycle.

7. Thou Shalt add as many words to thine vocabulary as there are months in the year.

8. Thou Shalt Not receive revealed wisdom, nor shalt thou bow to the dictates of any authority without submitting said dictates and/or wisdom to rigorous empirical inquiry.

9. Thou shalt eat more Greek food. It's delicious!

10. Thou Shalt modify this list of commandments as needed to better fit your life.

Monday, December 27, 2010

When We Were Boys

When we were boys
We peed on everything
Anywhere, anytime.

We peed on trees
In the woods
On tires flowers dogs
Most pleasantly,
We peed in public pools.
We peed in our beds
And in our good church

When we were boys
We peed on everything.
Anywhere, anytime.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Maybe the Dingo Ate Your Baby Jesus

Christmas was a big deal at our small Southern Baptist church when I was a little boy. It was, in fact, the event of the year. Understandable, when you consider that John 3:16 (for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, so whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.) was the bible verse that practically under girded our entire theology.

Christmas was a big deal: wreaths, gatherings, revivals, plays in full costume, activities, feasts (no dancing or drinking), cinnamon and merriment; all with only a slight whiff of brimstone. There was a huge Christmas tree that stood in front of the baptismal behind the preacher’s podium. Little girls wore emerald dresses with white stockings and red ribbons to services, and the preacher’s nose and cheeks were rosy and red like Santa’s, which seemed festive around Christmas time, but were (in actuality) that color all year round.

Our church’s biggest point of pride was our nativity scene. We were a suburban church, and thus were not immune to the arms race of Christmas yard decorations that only escalated year after year. The secular stuff was easy: Neon reindeer, giant blow-up snowmen. Strobe lit sleighs. The religious stuff took a little more tact.

Our nativity scene was the biggest & most detailed of all the churches in the area. A large, hand built manger. There was a thick bed of yellow, welcoming hay. All of the figures were made of realistic looking wax, and the whole scene was lit up from below by three well placed spotlights. A small fence had been built around the display, and on the weekends--when the church offered free hot chocolate to anyone who attended bible study, member or non-member--one of the parishioners brought in an alpaca from his farm to lend some realism to the scene. Subtle organ music piped in through two speakers at either corner of the set up, and the conservative, white lights that adorned the outline of the church created a perfect frame for our little attraction.

It was a sight to behold. Cars would stop to look at it. It was even featured in the community journal one year. Our whole congregation pitched in with maintenance. We were very proud of our nativity scene.

That’s why it was such a big deal when our baby Jesus went missing.

The pastor called a church meeting to see if anyone knew anything. He had arrived at church one morning earlier in the week, and it was just gone. No one could imagine who would’ve stole the baby Jesus.

Some of the teenagers in the church suggested that maybe it was a couple of Goth kids that lived down the street. No doubt if they took it, it was in the woods somewhere; probably hanging by it’s neck from a tree, graffitied with lewd words and Marilyn Manson makeup.

Unfortunately, the Goth kids down the street were the son and daughter of the local Unitarian minister, so it would do no good to confront them over any part they may have had in the disappearance of our infant savior. The Unitarian minister would say that his children were being unfairly singled out because of their chosen style of dress, and it would create unneeded tension in the community. So that option was out.

But let me digress.

My whole life, I have been a cat owner. I like that they mind their own business, and that you can forget they are there if you want to. Every now and then you will seek them out and pet them, and every now and then they will sit on your lap. Other than that, cats are virtually invisible roommates.

Recently I bought a dog for my kids, and it was a big adjustment for me: Dogs are very needy, and very active. They want your attention constantly. They bark, they need to be taken for walks, and taken outside early in the morning and late at night to relieve themselves. Also, if you don’t want your house to smell like them, you have to give them frequent baths (which is harder than it sounds).

But my kids love the dog, and I like the dog, so I adjusted. I also learned a few things:

1.) If I were single right now, having a dog would be the best way to meet women. Even more so than when you are walking around with a newborn, strangers will come up to you and talk to you about your dog. They will even bend down and pet your dog, and not mind if your dog licks their face. I’ve never seen anyone bend down and pet a baby, and I can only imagine what would happen if they did and the baby licked their face.

Many attractive women have approached me while I walk my dog, in a park or on a trail, and started warm, familiar conversations with me, simply because I had a dog. It’s true. If I were single, my dog would be bringing home the strange.

2.) Everyone’s dog is good with kids. When you’re at a park where there are dogs and kids, and the dog people are communing with one another, inevitably in the description an owner will give of their pet will include some variation on the following: ‘Oh, and Blue is great with kids.’ I hear this all the time. Sometimes people will ask if a person’s dog is good with kids, other times an owner will volunteer the information for no reason. There doesn’t have to be a kid around for miles. It can be two sterile couples who hate kids and have never seen a kid in their life standing around talking about a dog, and the owner will say, ‘Oh, Blue loves kids.’ and the person listening will nod approvingly.

I have never heard a person say,‘oh man, Blue is great, but she hates kids. Actually, I’m surprised she hasn’t killed your little toddler over there already. Great dog, but it sure loves to disfigure kids.’I haven’t heard that yet, but surely, somewhere out there is a dog that hates kids.

I would even be happy to hear about a dog that only humors kids. ‘Oh yeah, Blue is great with kids, but he/she doesn’t really like them. But don't worry. She's really polite about it.

Kurt Vonnegut (whose novels are a big blur to me now) wrote somewhere about a woman who left her kid alone with a starving Doberman pincher, and the dog ate the kid. Edward Gorey made a little book about a woman who dresses her newborn up in a realistic looking bunny outfit, and watches with terror as a pack of dogs tear the little thing to pieces. There are all kinds of horror stories, in both the news and in literature, about dogs. But you never encounter some place in between Dog Loves Kids<--->Dog Kills Kids. Where are the people with dogs in the middle of that spectrum?

I mention all of this dog stuff in the middle of my Christmas reflection, because thinking about this strange relationship between dogs and kids is what brought that Christmas crime scene of my past back into my conscious mind.

The church members shook their heads about the theft of the baby Jesus, but did nothing. We all just assumed it was the Unitarian Goth kids, and left it at that. The pastor put a jar in the foyer to raise money to order a new baby Jesus for the nativity next year, and perhaps some closed circuit cameras. We moved on with our lives.

But thinking about dogs just now got me thinking about another suspect.

The pastor had a German Shepherd named Sheltzie. While the pastor was upstairs in his office, Sheltzie was permitted to prowl through the church, and around the property. Sometimes some of us kids would go up to the church after school to play on the swingset, and to toss a ball to Sheltzie. Sheltzie was really good with kids.

But I remember one day, not long after the baby Jesus went missing, that one of my friends was throwing a ball at Sheltzie in the yard while I was laying in the sandbox staring up at the sky.
“Hey Spencer!” He called.
“Help me find the ball! It just rolled off into the woods!”
“Okay!” I said, and I got up and headed towards the woods. My friend was there at the outskirts of the little wooded area at the edge of the property, standing on his tippy-toes looking for his ball. I ran towards him to help out, but slipped on something and came crashing down to the ground. I stood up, brushed myself off, and looked at what I had slipped on. I picked it up.

I was going to yell, “Hey, I found your ball!” when my friend called out, “Never mind! I found it!”

I looked down at the thing that I held in my hand. It was roundish, colorful, and kind of waxy. There was a strange, earthy odor to it.

I looked at it, looked at Sheltzie; so innocently jumping up around and chasing after my friend, who was holding a tennis ball above his head and running in circles.

I shrugged, and dropped the weird little ball of wax, and ran to join my friend and Sheltzie in the field. I made no connections between the object and our disappeared lord. In fact, I soon forgot the incident.

That is, until now.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Parachutist In Love

For E.G.

The Parachutist’s ripcord is malfunctioning. He is aware of this piece of information, and finds it duly disturbing.
You see, were the Parachutist on ground, in his plane, lying in his bed, sitting on the toilet, eating eggplant parmesan at his favorite Italian restaurant, bedding a young vixen, bedding a few young vixens (one slightly older than the other), practicing the clarinet, making a shopping list, or even playing volleyball at the beach (again with young vixens), becoming aware of such a piece of information would be easily resolvable. Being however that he is currently falling from a very great height, the information about the ripcord is pertinent.

His instinct is to curse, but not being the swearing type, he decides to pray instead: Praying turns out to be harder to do mid-free fall than one might expect, so he curses.
Being a person who has read a book or two by Deepak Chopra, he attempts meditation: He is going to die. This is evident. He attempts to clear his mind by focusing on the snowy mountain tops that cap the quickly disappearing horizon. Also difficult: Consider G-forces.

What about the man in the colored jumpsuit with goggles and helmet?

The Parachutist’s favorite joke is one that usually only garners polite laughs when he tells it:
Q: How many surrealists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Two: one to hold the giraffe by the neck, the other to fill the bathtub up with clocks.

He has a picture of his nephew riding a horse on his coffee table at home. The picture was taken by his brother, on the boy’s twelfth birthday. The boy’s name is Cody. The Parachutist has tried to teach the boy how to play chess several times and has failed. Once, when Cody was about six, a little marble pawn showed up in his stool. The Parachutist has quit trying to teach the boy chess.

The Parachutist closes his eyes, takes a breath, and then opens them back up again. The earth is very beautiful, and very small from where he is. It is getting larger quickly, which is vaguely alarming. The Parachutist decides it would be better to misinterpret this alarm as exhilaration. ‘Whoop!’ he says.

He’s over a piney region of Alaska. The tree line spreads far and wide, and there are mountains in the distance. The Parachutist tries to imagine himself crashing down through the evergreens. Every snapping twig that he foresees, were he to write a blog about this episode, he may call it ‘Returning to the Earth in a very real way’, and the post would be very spiritual. The Parachutist is a very spiritual person in his own way. He has read books by Deepak Chopra, and always plays Prince music when he beds young vixens.

The Parachutist is pleased with how easily he turned the whole tragic affair into something more philosophical.

He imagines the earth wrapping around him, his body becoming thin and embedded, and he begins to relax his muscles as it all becomes very near, the whistling becoming increased, and the mountain view becoming out of sight. He thinks about the terrain, and tries to picture it without trees. A parking lot. A desert. An ocean. A pile of feathers.

To the ordinary wild porcupine, the grass is gentle and high, and the soil is agreeably moist. It easily absorbs the creature’s small footprints as it pads and sniffs it’s way through the sweet smelling forest, looking for whatever it is that porcupines look for.

Some kind of small bug, I would imagine.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Only David Bowie Can Be Trusted

to get this week off in the right way.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

My Dad Hates the Beatles

[re-posted in honor of John Lennon, and the pending arrival of our third son, Langston the Lion.]

I can’t get over what a great rendition of ‘Stand By Me’ John Lennon does. It nearly makes me cry every time I hear it. Same goes for ‘All You Need Is Love’ and ‘Beautiful Boy’. What wonderful sentiments. The following lines tug at my heart especially hard:

“I can hardly wait,
To see you to come of age,
But I guess we'll both,
Just have to be patient”

They’re real tear-jerkers, for one because I know that Mr. Lennon didn’t get the opportunity to see his son ‘come of age’, and two, because I am anxious to be there for my sons as long as they need me, and I am very excited to see the men that they become.

I’m nearing the age of 30, and I’ve only recently discovered the Beatles. The reason for this is that my father had an active hatred of the Beatles as I grew up, and of all the other little iconoclasms I committed against his worldview as I struggled to become my own person, it never occurred to me not to disregard the Beatles. That is, until I had a son of my own.

One day, while my wife and four year old son and I were shopping in our local Meijer grocery store, the song ‘Free as a Bird’ came on the musak, and my son started swaying his head back and forth and singing along with the music. He said, ‘who is singing this, daddy?’ and the whole scene melted my heart. We immediately went over to the electronics department and picked up a copy of The Beatles ‘1’ album (the CD with ‘Free As A Bird’ wasn’t in the store), and it was an instant hit with my son. I recognized most of the songs on the CD, but hadn’t realized that they were Beatles songs. On one level, I was very happy that my son had found a particular musical group to be excited about. This was the most important level. On a second level (I’m a little embarrassed to mention it), I was excited to have found yet another way to rebel against my father, who loves me, who is mystified by my detractions and detestations.

My father has given me something precious that he may not realize. He may think that I've rejected all of his values, but this is not the case. Children learn what they live is the title of a famous book about child-rearing, and I have surely learned what I lived growing up in my father’s house. What I learned from my father is to ‘hate the Beatles’ even if I learn to love The Beatles. I learned to be skeptical of popular opinion and received wisdom, and to feel uncomfortable in a mental crowd. That’s why you’ll never see me in a tea party parade, gleefully hoisting a homemade protest sign with the world ‘soshulism’ scrawled indignantly across it. That’s why I’ll never be at home in church, because there’s just too much that you’re supposed to swallow without first chewing, and you know that none of what they offer you is FDA approved.

My father, a black sheep, taught me how to be a black sheep, and I believe that I’ve improved the art. When in school, I was led to believe that much of what my teachers were telling me was liberal bunk, and even thought that was the case, I was to remember what they were teaching and to spit it back out at them in order to get a good grade. So, going into school, an important authority group was already undermined. My family didn’t go to church until I dragged them to a local Baptist church when I was in third grade. We went there for a couple of years, and again, my parents helped me to understand that not even our pastor had a direct line to God. We left sermons with my parents making fun of my Sunday school teacher’s end time prophecies, our pastor’s complaints against Rock and Roll (my dad loved Van Halen, and was not letting that go, not even for Jesus), and the pastor’s wife’s exhortations against alcohol use.

It was also my father that introduced me to George Carlin.

So, it was only a matter of time before I turned my well learned skepticism of tradition and unbelief in the infallibility of authority against the conservative, modified christian belief system that I was brought up in. I regret that this period in my relationship with him was so messy, and I know that I was often unnecessarily inflammatory and less than respectful in my exploration of ideas at this point. But, so it goes. We’re in a better place now, but it took us a while to get there.

I don’t know if my dad sought out to teach me this skepticism and unwillingness to move with the herd, but it’s been an invaluable tool for me. I know he wasn’t the only one who helped me learn this lesson; I was very much not welcome in almost every peer group I sought out in school (partially for my unusual interest in ideas, and partially because I possessed a weird cocktail of interest in doing whatever I needed to do to fit in with that group and conversely doing anything I could to sabotage the group’s aesthetic at the same time). This experience in school surely helped reinforce my isolation and need to think for myself. But my father gave me the tool, whether he sought to or not, and I am glad for it. I hope my kids are able to learn skepticism and the value of being as fully themselves as they can easier than I did, but I want them to have it. I want them to hesitate when joining groups. I want them to probe their intentions if they ever find their entire worldview lining up perfectly with some party platform. I don’t want them to be fearful if they feel the call to dissent. But, I don’t think they should feel too terrible if their honest inquiry and passion leads them into a group or a community.

After all, we are communal animals. That’s one of the parts I have trouble with that I don’t want to pass down to them. I want them to be as fiercely themselves as they can be, but if they ever find themselves in honest awe of one of the various edifices that have been erected by our (or any) culture, like, say, The Beatles, I want them to enjoy themselves. Because, Christ. You know it ain’t easy.

cross posted at The Daily Kos

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Hitchens On Assange

Over at Why Evolution Is True, Jerry Coyne rightfully agrees with Richard Dawkins that Christopher Hitchens is a heroic figure. As an aside, Coyne linked to Hitchens' most recent piece (on Julian Assange) at the bottom of his post.

Julian Assange is also someone that I find heroic, and I said as much in the comment section, which prompted the following reply from Russell Blackford:

"I don’t think that Assange is especially heroic – some of his actions seem at least questionable – but I do want to see the rule of law applied to him. In this context, that means no retrospective criminal laws, no extra-territorial laws, no arrests on trumped up charges.

What’s coming across at the moment is that the US authorities, aided by those of other countries, are out to get him, come what may, whether or not he actually broke any laws that were in operation at the time in the jurisdiction where he was located at the time. In particular, it’s coming across that the authorities of his own country are happy to hang him out to dry."

to which I replied:

"I think that it is heroic to put your personal freedom and safety at risk to further the cause of an open society, which is something I believe in personally. For all of the anti-authoritarian/totalitarian talk that Hitchens injects into his public case against God, I think it’s interesting that he’s not an Assange supporter. I also agree with you that the charges against him seem fishy. Personally, I find it hard not to sympathize with a man who has managed to turn many of the world’s governments against him simply by disseminating information.

One of the interesting reactions to Assange that I’ve noticed among lower and middle class liberals and conservatives in the U.S. midwest is that they all seem to be generally in favor of what he has done. The big complaints seem to come from government officials of all political stripes.

This is not so much a left/right issue as it is a top/bottom one."

What do you think of Julian Assange and the response that he's gotten?

PS, leave it to Politico to ask the important question in all of this: Who will play Assange in the movie?


After some reading, talking, and reflection, I think I’m going to have to adjust my position on Julian Assange and wikileaks. The two best arguments against my position that I have encountered have been as follows:

1)some of the disclosed documents put people’s lives in danger.

2)a totally open society would lead to total government dysfunction.

The only argument that I can concoct to support putting lives at risk in order to force the world into an open society is an ugly, utilitarian one. I’m not an ‘ends justify the means’ kind of person, so I can’t put forward that argument in good faith.

I can’t answer the government dysfunction challenge either. Imagine trying to broker a deal with someone as macho and paranoid as Vladmir Putin: Obviously, He’s not going to give any ground publicly, and with the threat that his private communications with various diplomats and middle-men may come sensationally to light via wikileaks or some such organization, it becomes more doubtful that he’ll give any ground behind closed doors either (after all, in an open society there are no closed doors).

So, I have to cede those points.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Archaic Smile

A piece of jewelry on a nude
Accentuates the nakedness,
Like the heavy smell of smoke on your jacket
Reminds us you are lonely.

Smoking in bowling alleys,
Coffee splashing against teeth
Like time-dried papyrus.

You breathe smoke into the receiver
With no one on the other end,
And you tap your cigarettes on the pool table,
Purposeful, thoughtful, fingertips chalky blue;
Quickening the onset of death.

originally appeared at Thieves Jargon

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Doomed To Humanism

 [this piece originally appeared on 5/14/2010]

I often give credit to Sesame Street and my own epicurean libido for my lack of racial prejudice. Growing up in a white, lower-class, rural area in the Midwest, there were plenty of racist attitudes flying around, but when you’re receiving steady doses of ‘I’m okay you’re okay’ philosophy from Big Bird and the gang, and finding yourself deeply enamored with Lt. Uhura from the old Star Trek series, the hate is bound to lose. Pabst Blue Ribbon and Lynard Skynard will lose out to muppets and the starship enterprise every time.

The Sesame Street (and Star Trek) message of the potential of mankind and our inherent decency has always rung true with me. It has certainly rung far truer than the cynical view of mankind that is embedded in the Christianity that I grew up with, and tried desperately to reconcile with my own natural philosophical inclinations. Christianity is ugly. It tells us evil things about our nature (and not only are the things it tells us about ourselves evil, they are generally unfounded!). It says that we are born with a sin debt, that we are paying for the sins of our ancestors, that the only chance we had of redemption was God sending a man to be murdered on our behalf (explain the logic of that one to me), that anything bad we do is our fault and anything good we do is only because we allowed god to work through us. Ugly stuff. I always cringe inside when I hear someone say, ‘oh, god is good because I accomplished X.’ I want to grab the person by their lapels and shout, ‘no, god is not good. You are good. You made this happen’.

I should’ve known from the start that I was doomed to humanism. It has always been things that secular people said about Jesus that moved me. Kurt Vonnegut musing on the beatitudes is a thing to behold. If there were a writer in the Christian bible that wrote like Vonnegut, I may have had a chance at remaining a believer.


“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies — "God damn it, you've got to be kind."
-Eliot Rosewater, from God Bless You Mr. Rosewater.

If that’s not nice, I don’t know what is. There’s nothing that nice in the bible, and Vonnegut is just a man. I find it damning that the lord of the universe didn’t even have the good sense to hire a decent ghost writer when he was putting out his self-help program.

Even the symbols that were supposed to scare me away from leaving the fold only drew me farther out of it. Satan, very frightening and tricky as he seemed to be in a more fundamentalist imagination becomes eminently more sympathetic when you think about him for just a minute on your own. Read Arthur Miller’s ‘The Creation Of The World And Other Business’ for the best interpretation of things as they must’ve gone down. In spite of all of the scary stuff I heard in church, the Satan I ended up with was more Prometheus than Loki.

Faith is about shutting off your brain and basing your life and values on stale dogmas and outmoded fairy tales. Faith is a refusal to use your…god given faculties. Faith says, ‘I will claim to believe x and behave x because I have been told to do so’. The humanism which I have been doomed to leaves me with the tools of skepticism and reason to make my conclusions with. In one sense, this is harder than making choices through faith, because I am wholly accountable for my decisions, and it is upon my own faculties that praise or blame can be pinned. In another way it is easier, because I don’t have to constantly try to rationalize away my suspicions about the soundness of this or that dictate, and I don’t have to do all of that unnecessary heavy lifting to justify downright evil shit like the doctrine of hell, original sin, or weird prohibitions about how I use my naughty bits.

Humanism is exciting. Humanism is romantic. Humanism is rational. Humanism is brave in the face of the stories of gods and hell that we are programmed to believe. It’s infinitely appealing, because--to paraphrase Terry Pratchett--we begin life as rising apes rather than falling angels. Not only that, we are more responsible for our actions. We can’t follow the line of the religious and say to ourselves and others that we were ‘merely following orders’ when we go wrong. We have empirical tools to make decisions with, and our ultimate authority is our own conscience. There’s no passing the buck to a higher power. Humanism is intimidating on some levels, but it is also freeing.

I seemed to have been destined to this conclusion. I can’t in good faith vouch for faith, but I can vouch for our potential, collectively and as individuals. I can vouch for the thought that maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain for oneself and others is a simple and decent way to live, and I can see both the cold logic and the basic decency of a philosophy that considers the well being of our neighbors and our societies, and seeks to further human knowledge and understanding.

More Vonnegut:

“A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”


Monday, November 29, 2010

The Genius

The Genius has gained so much understanding that there is no one alive who is capable of comforting him. He knows there are people who are perfectly serene; some through a deficiency in understanding, others through what is generically called ‘enlightenment’. The genius would accept either of these methods to happiness willingly, were someone able to convey their essences to him in a language that didn‘t sound to him like :

1. a peacock plucking out it‘s own back feathers.
2. an engagement ring in the garbage disposal.
3. a herring being swept up in the claws of a grizzly bear.
4. an overfull zit, rocketing itself onto the surface of a mirror.
Since no one can comfort The Genius, he just stares out the rain specked window in his study. His sits in a comfortable red leather chair, and looks at the wet blue grass, the streaked gray shed, and the absorbent brown fence in his backyard.

It is always raining in the genius’s mind. When he’s standing in his kitchen, talking to his wife--who herself only has one small way that she can connect with him on such a high plain--he sees rain. Sometimes it pours, and her hair and shirt are soaked, and he can clearly see the outline of her plain cotton bra and her unserious bellybutton . Sometimes the rain just tinkles, just a small bout of heavenly whizzing. He can hear it chink against the tile, and it sounds with an echo in the deep set sink.

Once, when the genius was in the throes of desperation and willing to toss experience and reason to the wind, he went to see the world’s most renowned Psychotherapist in a small gray flat in Switzerland. The flat overlooked a gray field, a small pond, and a medium sized wooden shack that probably held lawn equipment.

The Eminent Psychotherapist began the session fully aware that he was, indeed, taking The Genius himself down the road less traveled, and so proceeded with deft attention, erudition and care. By mid-session somehow things had gone upside down, and the Genius found himself lecturing the Eminent Psychotherapist (mouth agape, upturned palms supporting his soft chin), on the fundamentals of String Theory.

The Genius has since abandoned all hope of seeing full remission of the Great Descending Haze in his lifetime.

One thing will occasionally lift the influence of that golden demon/will swat the black-eyed dog with cold newsprint:

A casual human touch. A brush of fingers through his graying hair. A hip-bump on the subway car from a careless stranger, or two hands reaching for the same dropped object at once, colliding.
The touches work best when they are accidental.

An accidental human touch--now and again--will appease the insidious beast of woe, and will allay the dull ache that accompanies The Genius through the flak-starred night of his bleakest desolation.

Sometimes the rain smells sweet.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Bacon Of Eternity, part 3

My context is shifting.

We're spending a lot of time getting the house ready for the birth of our third son. We need to build a room, and buy a bunch of baby stuff; we had planned on stopping at two children--so after Jack was born, we got rid of all of our baby accessories--but Langston made himself irresistible over time, so we gave in. I'm glad. When little Spencer was born, the whole thing had an unreality about it to me. The pregnancy, the delivery: Abby and I were both still puppies ourselves, and had no idea what we were getting into. Things seemed to go faster with Jack. We knew more about what to expect, and were both too caught up in our full time jobs/full time college classes to get too excited. Effectively, we were on auto-pilot.

Now that we're two kids in to our parenting career--and I'm out of school and working in my field--there's more room for anticipation, and that room has been filled. I feel less of a sense of urgency to prove myself these days, and more of a desire to perform. As I get older, I find I am growing comfortable enough with myself to forget myself; That absurd, hovering-over-yourself sense of insecurity that is a staple of the oddball-in-his-early-twenties experience has faded into a quirky confidence that I quite like. This confidence has allowed me to experience other people and experiences more fully, and--I think--is feeding the mounting excitement I feel about the arrival of Langston.

So, my context is shifting, as I was warned it would. I find I have a lot more thoughts about the landscaping of my yard these days. I spend a lot more time looking up recipes online than I do surfing blogs and opinion sites. I still read a lot, but most of my fiction reading is stuff I read to the kids--they're developing an interest in Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, and James Blaylock--and the other stuff is mostly pop-science and philosophy, and I suddenly find myself identifying with the middle aged guys who came in to the bookstore I used to work at looking for 'biographies', not of anyone in particular, but just in general: life is a craft, and it's always good to learn about other folks have been successful at your craft.

The urgency of youth is nice, but it can be tiring. There is something to be said for a little bit of plump comfort, so long as it doesn't slide too far into slothfulness. My fingernails are a testament to the unlikelihood of me ever becoming slothful.

I've got a handful of re-runs scheduled to auto-post on the blog until the first of the year. They'll appear every Monday and Thursday, as usual. If I think of anything I need to say to you in the meantime, I'll toss it into the mix.

Until then, I'll be building stuff around the house, looking up recipes, and thinking about how I got to where I am, and about where it is I might be going.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Are You Sure You Just Didn't Get Taught A Wrong View Of God?

This question comes to me from a person who is quizzing me about the origin of my atheism. Their previous question to me was, 'So why are you an atheist?' to which I replied, 'You can explain how we got here and what happens here without evoking a God, and I haven't seen any good evidence to support the claims of any of the revealed religions.'

The reason that I burst out laughing at this person's follow up question is that they had just finished arguing with me that 'evidentialism' was a terrible worldview, and--in essence--all worldviews are faith based.

Yet it is possible that my atheism is the bi-product of having learned 'the wrong view of god'.

Signs and wonders.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

William Saletan Takes A Metaview Of the 'battle of 2010'...

 and discovers--I believe rightly--that the Democratic party won it:
"Politicians have tried and failed for decades to enact universal health care. This time, they succeeded. In 2008, Democrats won the presidency and both houses of Congress, and by the thinnest of margins, they rammed a bill through. They weren't going to get another opportunity for a very long time. It cost them their majority, and it was worth it.

And that's not counting financial regulation, economic stimulus, college lending reform, and all the other bills that became law under Pelosi. So spare me the tears and gloating about her so-called failure. If John Boehner is speaker of the House for the next 20 years, he'll be lucky to match her achievements.

Will Republicans revisit health care? Sure. Will they enact some changes to the program? Yes, and Democrats will help them. Every program needs revisions. Republicans will get other things, too: business tax breaks, education reform, more nuclear power, and a crackdown on earmarks. These are issues on which both parties can agree. Which is why, if you're a Democrat, you deal with them after you've lost your majority—not before."
 So now that we have the skeletal structure for a single-payer health care system in place, the president and his shrunken army can go on to the more moderate goals listed in the Saletan quote above. The possibility that that Democrats can also use some of the moderate, bipartisan capital that they're bound to build up to champion some progressive social issues--which history will invariably look favorably upon us for--and put the lie to the notion that the tea party is strictly a coalition of advocates for fiscal responsibility and individual liberty.

While the Democratic Party experienced a fleeting electoral loss this November, it is nothing compared to the progressive gains it ultimately achieved.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

An Intriguing Expression Of Patriotism...

I took a picture of this sticker in the parking lot of a local grocery store:

 It was stuck on the door to the gas tank of a gigantic S.U.V.

Is it subtle political commentary? Ironic Obliviousness? Or is it one of the most honest and unapologetic acknowledgments of what lies at the root of much of America's foreign policy that you've ever seen?

You decide.

Monday, November 1, 2010

'Hugh Hefner Has Been Good For Us'

Roger Ebert has a piece up over at his blog that I would like to recommend to you. It’s called, ‘Hugh Hefner Has Been Good For Us’; and not only is it well-written,  I believe it's ultimate assertion (that Hugh Hefner has been good for us) it's true, which is an added bonus.


“Hefner and Playboy have been around so long that not everyone remembers what America used to be like. It was sexually repressed and socially restrictive. College students were expelled for having sex out of wedlock. Homosexuality and miscegenation were illegal. Freedom of choice was denied. McCarthyism still cast a pall over the freedom of speech. Many people joined in the fight against that unhealthy society. Hefner was one of them, and a case can can be made that Playboy had a greater influence on our society in its first half-century than any other magazine.
No doubt Playboy objectified women and all the rest of it. But it also celebrated them, and freed their bodies from the stigma of shame. It calmly explained that women were sexual beings, and experienced orgasms, and that photographs of their bodies were not by definition "dirty pictures." Not many of today's feminists (of either gender) would be able to endure America's attitudes about women in the 1950s.”
 Of all the things in my life that I feel guilty about from time to time--my weakness for donuts and Guinness, the difficulty I have sticking to an exercise regime, my periodic inability to think objectively about personal conflicts --my subscription to Playboy  is not among them, largely for reasons that Ebert lists in his piece. The women that are presented in the magazine are more pleasant than they are arousing; they have more in common with the nude sculptures at your local art museum than they do the images and videos you may find at your favorite porn site. And the articles, interviews, stories, cartoons, essays, and trifles that appear in the magazine make it well worth buying in and of themselves.

Overall, Playboy magazine promotes a largely progressive, epicurean worldview and culture that I cannot fault. I didn't know all of the history of Hugh Hefner that Ebert presents in his piece, but it makes me appreciate him and his magazine even more.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Images Of Dead Fetuses Are Just Becoming So Much Scenery

Driving past the local planned parenthood today, it occurred to me that I have become desensitized to the graphic photos of aborted fetuses that pro-life advocates are constantly posting in front of the building. I'm pretty sure this isn't good for their cause.

The pro-life movement is a mess. Aside from reveling in making my kids look at gory photos as we walk to the park, their message is  inextricably woven into their religion, and correlating (incredibly silly) views on homosexuality, condom use, and stem cell research; this is too bad, because there are actually salient ethical arguments to be made for many pro-life positions: no blown up images of mutilated babies or religious silliness required.

Of course, these ethical dilemmas are for individuals to consider before making a choice that is ultimately theirs. There are too many variables and too many individual considerations to be made regarding the termination of pregnancies for one sweeping, national ban to make sense.

For a good example of the kind of nuances and individual considerations that create a need for national access to safe, legal abortions (and the inability or unwillingness of certain pro-lifers to appreciate such considerations), check out this piece over at Alternet entitled, 'What Happened When I Yelled Back at "Christians" Calling My Wife A Murderer'.


"After extensive testing at a renowned Boston hospital three weeks earlier, we were told our baby had Sirenomelia. Otherwise known as Mermaid Syndrome, it’s a rare (one in every 100,000 pregnancies) congenital deformity in which the legs are fused together. Worse than that, our baby had no bladder or kidneys. Our doctors told us there was zero chance for survival."

"I’m not a religious person and I’ve never believed in heaven or hell. But there is a hell on Earth. Hell is sitting next to the person you love most and listening to her wail hysterically because her heart just broke into a million pieces. Hell is watching her entire body convulse with sobs because she’s being tortured with grief. For as long as I live and no matter how many children we have, I will never forget that sound. And I vowed to do everything in my power to make sure she’d never make it again."

here's the dad confronting the activists:

That's some powerful stuff, and is pretty revealing--and pretty damning--of the simplistic, subtle-as-a-hammer approach of many pro-life activists.

There is a solid argument to be made that abortion becomes an increasingly immoral choice as a pregnancy progresses. It is also clear that rationalizing away what is occurring during an abortion--especially later on in pregnancy--as the simple removal of 'unwanted tissue' is intellectually dishonest. But holding up gruesome images in front of planned parenthood, or comparing abortion to a national holocaust--or to slavery--isn't an appropriate way to frame the debate. Ethically, the argument about abortion should be more closely tied to the argument about whether or not folks should be able to choose euthanasia, or have euthanasia chosen for them if they are not able to make that choice themselves. A gigantic framed image of Jesus doesn't insert anything into the argument. If the pro-life movement were serious about their issue, they would untangle it from their religion, their views on gay marriage and stem cell research, and would focus on prevention by advocating better sex education in schools, the empowerment of women, and the eradication of poverty and homelessness. Give people more options, and they're less likely to get stuck in bad situations.

Determining what points in a pregnancy should correlate with what laws (if any) is very difficult. So is weighing the well-being of all parties involved in such a decision. Answering these ethical questions are tough, and thus are not likely to be solved by tormenting women with shouted insults and creepy visuals as they make a tough decision that only they will have to live with for the rest of their lives.

cross posted at Daily Kos.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Creative Genius

My sons each won first place for their grade in the costume contest held during their school's Fall festival this year. My oldest son dressed up as Max, the psychotic bunny from the Sam & Max adventure games, and my youngest son dressed up as Brendan, the young monk from the wonderful animated film The Secret Of Kells.

Verra Cool.

Lodo, The Secret Of Kells might be up your alley. There are no talking animals, but based upon the way some of the animals in this film behave, you wouldn't be surprised to find out that they could talk:

Sam & Max:

I think it speaks well of our school's principal--she judged the contest--that she didn't give the prize to one of the countless Bat Men, Iron Men, or Princesses, and instead decided to reward creative, left-field, homemade costumes. What a good way to encourage individualism and self-confidence.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Follicles In Retreat

I caught myself messing around with my hairline this morning. I was trying to comb a little bit of hair up in the tip-top of my crow’s peak into just the right position to disguise just how far away from my eyebrows it has traveled. This was all happening just below the level of consciousness at first, because I was barely awake. but then I caught myself; What are you doing?, I said to my reflection, and then--in defiance of my vanity--parted my hair in a way that showed as much forehead as possible. Then I covered it up again.

I remember a day when I would laugh to myself (and sometimes with others) when a middle aged man with a comb over walked by; and now here I was, standing in front of my bathroom mirror following the exact same impulse that guides the toupee-d man. As is so often the case, I realize that the vulgar things that bother me so much about other people are the vulgar things that bother me the most about myself.

I first noticed my receding hairline after looking at a photo my wife had taken of my son and I playing with hot wheels on the floor of our kitchen. ‘Hey honey!’ I said, pointing at the shiny round spot on my head in the picture, ‘Isn’t this one of those ghost orbs?’.

I have always had a crow’s peak. I just hadn’t been monitoring its Sherman-esque march across the Carolinas of my scalp. After discovering the bald spot--it looks like the barren crop-circle in your backyard where the inflatable pool had been all summer--I compared an old picture of myself to what I saw in the mirror; My hairline had morphed from a wide, smiling U, to a narrow, anorexic looking V.

I accept that the hairline is going, and that the pattern that is evolving will eventually leave a small, fuzzy island atop my forehead. It’s humbling to know that no amount of cool can prevent the inevitable effects of time on the body, and is worth considering that even David Byrne at some point has probably wondered whether or not hair-in-a-can is actually as fake looking as they make it look in the movies.

It doesn’t matter how art-house you are, baby. When it goes, it goes.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Guest Blogger: 'In Defense Of Doubtatarianism (I think)', by The Elegant Ape

 In my office I sit between two true believers.

On my right is a snake handling, world is five thousand years old, man coexisted with dinosaurs, seamless garment sort of chap.
On my left is show me or blow me, all superstition and voodoo claptrap, what kind of fifth century idiot are you?, all the worlds ills can be traced to organized region teeth grinder.
Both make impassioned and heartfelt cases.
When I was young and full of sap I definitely fell into the atheist camp. As well as the anarchist camp, the narcissist camp, the whatever would get me laid camp (i was once a vegetarian once for six long months). Then gradually under the cover of darkness slipped into the agnostic camp.
There I remained peacefully until the birth of my son.
I am willing to admit I have prayed before. There were a handful of times when I was in the military that I prayed with a fervor that would have made a Baptist blush. But prayer for the sake of saving your own ass seems self serving and sensible. When the boats sinking you throw everything overboard.
But I pray for my son.
That he will be safe on the bus. That the other kids will like him. That he will be bright and happy.  That his fever will break. I do it automatically with out forethought or planning to it's efficacy . 
Doubt is the true human condition. It's universal. I look at absolute belief in anything as something that warrants scrutiny and caution.
So today I state without fear of contrition that I am a rock-ribbed doubtatarian.
(I think.)
You can read more of  The Elegant Ape's stuff here.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

One Nation? No Thanks.

I have been very, very, very, very, critical of the tea party movement. Downright mean at times. Because of this, I thought it might be appropriate--indeed, called for--for me to comment on the One Nation rally that took place in front of the Washington Monument this past weekend.

Mostly, I was ambivalent.

Now, ostensibly I agreed with a lot more of the worldview represented at One Nation than I did at Glenn Beck's 'you can't spell Jesus without U.S.' orgy. But I still didn't care for it, because it rests on the same faulty populist notion that what is true is what is popular. One person, one vote. 80 million Elvis fans can't be wrong. The reactionary One Nation affair seemed to be based on the principle that if the organizers could only get a million more people down to the national mall than Glenn did, they would win.

Boo. That's not how it works.

As much as I love crowds, I hate mobs, and think there can be a fine line between the two. I don't want us all to get along if 'getting along' means mediocrity and relativism. As long as our head-butting doesn't come with a body count, it is a necessary and wonderful part of a functioning democracy. Conflict breeds creation, and any group with freedom and equality as its goal should have a certain amount of inner-tension that keeps everyone honest. Pep rallies are fine for what they are, and there have been many times in human history where it has been necessary for folks  to march, form coalitions, and give grandiose speeches; but that can't be all there is to it. I don't want to be a part of a movement whose entire platform can be summarized on the face of a bumper sticker. I also don't want to be a part of a movement that lacks an ability to look at itself skeptically, and to laugh at itself, and that's exactly the kind of organization progressives will build if they  ape the tea party too much.

We also need to be mindful of the fact that we live in a society that doesn't appreciate the benefit of pain and hard work as much as it used to; If something is not entertaining, we aren't having it. While gathering together with like-minded folk to support a common issue, we need to be sure that we aren't simply feeding into our need to be amused, to be in a constant state of orgasm, to always be eating a cookie. Not everything needs to operate like a game show or a sports contest.

I support the welfare state as it was originally conceived. It allows for personal growth, bolsters pluralism and egalitarianism, and allows the citizenry to deepen their experience and expand their culture. It also puts a parameter on chaos. Life is chaotic. Left unregulated, there would be no one to stand up for the minority. The strong would take from the weak...or, rather, the vicious would take from the principled. But we don't need the herd marching in lockstep. We need thinking folk with deep understandings of various aspects of our collective situation presenting evidence to us, teaching us,arguing with us, and nudging us in the right direction.

Besides, rallies and protests--with a few notable exceptions--are typically exercises in futility. They are energy burning enterprises that lead their participants to feel as if they have done something substantial when in fact they have not. The way to change isn't to hold signs in front of federal buildings and to stick your head into a partisan sound chamber where no alternative information can penetrate: the way to change is is through the betterment of individuals, and the infiltration of institutions. Rallies can be okay. The One Nation rally was okay...Glenn Beck's rally was okay too. What is not okay is treating morality and national politics as if it were a cheerleading competition: 'If we can get more people on this side of the auditorium to shout louder than the people on the other side of the auditorium, everybody gets healthcare! Yaaaayy....'

Rallies and protests should be to our intellectual and moral lives what twinkies are to our diets.

The welfare state can create an even playing field upon which everyone has the same opportunity to better themselves from, even though their success is not guaranteed. It is a thing worth defending, understanding, and vocally supporting. But it can't be defended by a giant Styrofoam finger alone. Being part of the rabble is easy. Engaging in rigorous research, debate, and observation is hard.

It's hard, but it's the better path. Better to be a thorn in the paw of humanity than another pair of marching boots.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Much Appreciated Gesture

Over at his Better Living blog, Mark Daniels has written a post entitled 'Note from a Former Atheist and Current Sinner/Saint to My Atheist Friends'

it reads as follows:

"It’s not too late to make a fresh start with God."

Take it from one who has wandered from God time and again, God does give fresh starts.

Don't believe there is a God? I was once there myself. I was an atheist. But something (or Someone) incited me to dare to believe. I found myself willing to believe, though I couldn't explain that willingness rationally, in spite of the fact that such belief ran counter to my penchant for utter empirical rationalism and complete self-sufficiency. God, loving and powerful, has been turning my surprising willingness to believe into a deepening trust (faith) in the God made known in Jesus Christ ever since.

If I go to a great movie or a cool restaurant with tasty fare or if I read a book that changes my perspective on things, I don't keep that stuff in. I tell people about them. The same thing is true for my faith. I fell in love with Jesus Christ, God-enfleshed, thirty-plus years ago and I've found God to be incredibly faithful, my relationship with him exhilarating, challenging, and comforting.

Please, consider being willing to believe in God. Just tell the God you're not even certain is there that you're willing to believe and then see what happens.

Then, be prepared to be as surprised as I was and have remained for over thirty years, by all the fresh starts that come your way. Really."

as one of Mark's atheist friends, this is how I replied:

"I can't tell you what a heartbreaking, near-insanity inducing process my attempt to maintain and regain faith was. The farther I get away from it, the better and healthier I feel.

The shift in worldview has been painful and overwhelming at times, but now--as a secular humanist--I feel much more justified (and less defensive) in my beliefs. I also feel a lot more compassion for my fellow man, and have found myself just being good--for goodness' sake--much more often.

I don't know whether or not there's a god, but if there is, I can't imagine that god objecting to where I'm at right now."

Even though the prospect of returning to the Christian religion seems akin in my mind to returning to an emotionally and physically abusive relationship, I deeply appreciate the concern for my well-being and eternal welfare. As Penn Jillette remarks in his oft-used youtube video on the subject of proselytizing, 'how much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?'

I agree with Penn, and interpret the witness of Mark Daniels, and all of those other wonderful religious people in my life as an act of love. A willingness to engage in good faith talk about important existential issues--that could certainly cause some social and internal comfort--is a wonderful show of respect. The best way I can think of to reciprocate that expression of respect and love is to return the favor.

I've documented my ascent (or descent, depending on your perspective) from religion here, here, here, and here. It's been a long process that began with an attempt to give God credit for the good things that happen to some while giving him an out for allowing so many inexcusable things to happen to others. This issue--among a handful of others--led inevitably to a view of God that was very close to that of Harold Kushner's: A God that is good, but is not omnipotent. Some other considerations brought me farther away from that point to a deism of sorts, and from there, I landed at atheism as kind of a default state. Realizing that I would now have to create my own value system without the aid of the revelations of a good god, I have adopted the life stance of secular humanism. Things seem to be working out so far. Not being forced to defend claims about things that I couldn't possibly know has been helpful, and it's been a great relief to no longer have to serve as the christian God's spin doctor for some of his less than attractive traits.

All of that as it is, I'm glad that there are people out there who love me and are concerned for my well being. I return their love. I also offer up for their consideration the thought that a life lived for it's own sake, without the need to make and defend unsubstantiated claims, with an awe for the vastness and complexity of 'life, the universe, and everything', a focus on loving your neighbors, your family, yourself, and your community, and with a desire to leave the world just a little better off than it was when you found it, is a worthy enterprise.

As someone much more famous than myself once said, 'there is grandeur in this view of life'.

Monday, September 27, 2010

My Top Five Favorite Movies Of All Time

My top-five favorite films of all time, for no other reason than I am a nerd and I like to make top five lists.

5. Wonder Boys:

It's Michael Douglas's portrayal of the world weary, mildly amused, and reverse-writer's-blocked Grady Tripp that keeps me coming back to this movie. I think it's his best performance by far. I've always been attracted to the existential crisis; be it triggered by mid-life or some other stimulus, and everyone in this movie is in crisis. To one extent or another, they all seem to get that life is a very dry joke--without the guarantee of a punchline--that is being played on them; It's encouraging to see how they all muddle through.

This movie gives me hope that people can sustain a sense of meaning into later life.

4. The Princess Bride:

'You killed my father, prepare to die'
'Have fun storming the castle!'
'You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.'
'Anybody want a peanut?'

If you've seen this movie, I don't have to explain its awesomeness to you. It's the best movie to watch when you're in bed with the flu, and it's also a film that you are obligated by all that is right and good to show to your kids while they are still young.

3. Melinda & Melinda:

I’ve always wanted to write an essay about Woody Allen’s films, but I can’t, because I wouldn’t be able to avoid gushing. He’s a genius. He’s the great moralist of our time, and the modern heir to Shakespeare. See? I’m gushing. It’s unattractive.

While Annie Hall is widely considered the Woody Allen film, I think Melinda & Melinda best captures his mature philosophy. It's also really funny, and has one of the best closing scenes of any movie ever.

2. The Big Chill:

I was 12 years old when Jurassic Park came out. I had just read the book in one excited evening about a week or so before, and was totally psyched to see the movie. The movie was pretty good, even though there were some major deviations that were important an inexcusable to my 12 year old mind. One of the things that most impressed me about the whole affair was Jeff Goldblum's performance as Ian Malcolm. I thought he was really cool. He was brilliant, mischievous; you got the sense that he always felt like he was getting away with something (that is actually a trait that runs through a lot of Goldblum's performances). I decided Goldblum was my favorite actor, and set about watching all of his movies. I liked the way he...uh...enunciated. I actually intentionally mimicked his style of talking, consciously trying to adopt his conversational tics. I was pretty successful at this, and still possess trace elements of Goldblum in my day to day speech.

I got around to The Big Chill in my early twenties. I was working at a book store, and starting college. I was already married and had a young son. I was still a kid, but life--and the choices I had made--were working hard to change that. I guess that's probably why the movie resonated with me so much. Another brilliant Goldblum performance helped, but there was also that theme of grown people coming to grips with the fact that the world had at least as much (if not more) to say about the order of things than their particular utopian fancies did. It's a movie about rigid reeds learning to be flexible reeds, so as not to snap in the current of the stream. I should also mention, the music in this movie is phenomenal.

1. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

This movie is wonderful. I could watch it over and over. It mixes sentimentality and comedy in perfect measures. Every performance is perfect. The final scene still makes me cry. Whenever I need a boost, or just want to unwind, this is one of the first places I go.

So that's my list. I'd love to see yours.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

They Seldom State It Directly...

Jacob Weisberg has a profile of the tea party movement over at Slate that I am highly sympathetic to.


"Nostalgia, resentment, and reality-denial are all expressions of the same underlying anxiety about losing one's place in the country or of losing control of it to someone else. When you look at the surveys, the Tea Partiers are not primarily the victims of economic transformation, but rather people whose position is threatened by social change. Because racial bias is unacceptable both in American political culture and in an individualist ideology, Tea Partiers don't say directly what Pat Buchanan used to: that moving from a predominantly white Christian nation to a majority nonwhite one is a bad thing and should be stopped. Instead, their resistance finds sublimated expression through their reality distortion field: Beck's claim that Obama "has a deep-seated hatred of white people"' or Dinesh D'Souza's Newt-endorsed theory that Obama is a Kenyan Mau Mau in mufti, or the prevalent Tea Party opinion that policies like Obamacare and the stimulus are merely mechanisms for transferring income from the middle class to the minority poor and illegal immigrants—i.e., socialism. Of no previous movement has Richard Hofstadter's depiction of populism as driven by "status anxiety" been so apt."

It was brought to my attention lately that I have been cruel in my caricatures of the Tea Party. I have to own that. I have been cruel. I have been condescending, I have stereotyped, I have mocked, I have scorned. I have also shivered at the weird undercurrents of Tea Party concern, and creepy revolutionary language. Don't get me wrong; I don't think there will be a revolution (no one can stay that excited for that long), but it's still creepy. The Tea Party movement strikes me as hysterical and paranoid. They seem to be in the thralls of a compulsive, mass twitch. The Tea Party, to me, is just another utopian group that wants to tear everything down and start again from scratch. Life tends towards chaos. The welfare state (the safety net) seeks to put parameters on that chaos.

If I could replace the omnipresent (and now somewhat trite sounding) Gandhi quote, 'Be the change you wish to see in the world', it would be with the lesser known--but more apt--observation from Kurt Vonnegut that reads as follows:

"Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance."

Monday, September 13, 2010

To Burn Or Not To Burn?

So, I want to be clear about this whole National Read A Koran Day.

I don't think there's anything special about the Koran. I don't think religion deserves respect. I don't respect religion. I think these people are fucking idiots.

The only reason I proposed this event was because I dislike the idea behind book burnings. Period. I think book burning is fascistic. I think it's totalitarian. I think it should be allowed, but I don't like it.

I don't like religion either, by the way. I think it softens the brain and waters down the spirit. It's dishonest, and it's trite. It's a cultural atavism whose adaptive value is running out, and I'm glad*.

I'm pretty sure you all understood where I was coming from with this idea, but I've seen a good number of folks (including our president) use this issue as a way to reinforce the idea that religion should not be challenged or disrespected. I just wanted to make sure I differentiated myself from these namby-pamby religious accomodationists and cultural relativists.

I am absolutely a proponent of blasphemy, and irreverence towards religion. I am also absolutely in favor of freedom of expression, and completely support a person's freedom to burn books.

But book burning is an ugly, fearful, and frankly stupid activity.

You'd think the more authoritarian personalities in our culture would catch on by now that they're not going about these things the right way. Burning and banning and protesting books only makes assholes like me more curious about them.

Now, if fundamentalist Christians really want to suck some of the air out of Islam, they could take a page from the new atheist playbook and actually READ the book, and then apply the weapon of reason and skepticism to it.

But of course, that would be a very dangerous approach for them to take...

my brother, cousin, and I outside of a fundamentalist church in West Virginia. You have to appreciate their straight-forwardness. They don't mince words:
* Don't get me wrong: I know plenty of wonderful, decent, upright, and intelligent religious individuals, but I also know plenty of wonderful, decent, upright, and intelligent folks who use drugs and alcohol. My proposition is that it isn't their religion (or drug use) that makes these folks good. My proposition is that they make themselves good.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

National Read A Koran Day

So, there's a guy in Florida who is getting a lot of press for a little Koran burning event that he is planning.

As a person who believes in the freedom of speech and expression, I think he should be able to do this without any fear of retribution.

But as a person who believes in the freedom of religious expression, and a freedom from fear of persecution for private, benign beliefs, I think this guy (and the ridiculous amount of press he has received) needs to be countered. This guy in Florida doesn't speak for America. This guy in Florida doesn't speak for Florida.

Because of this, I would like to invite you all to participate in this event. If you have a Koran, on October 2nd, read it. If you don't have a Koran, buy one (or borrow one) and read it on October 2nd. Read it skeptically. Read it searching for truth. Read it anyway you want to. Just read it. And invite as many friends as you can to participate in this event.

Personally, I am an atheist. I have a problem with religion in general. But, I also firmly believe that if there is a book out there that someone or some group wants to burn, then I should be reading that book.

So, please join me. This is the United States Of America. We don't burn books here. We read them.

Please show support for this event by joining us on Facebook. Click here.

"Don't give up so easily..."

This guy inspires me.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Fall Is Flirting With Me

I'm hoping that God decides to smash the east coast with another weak hurricane so we can have some more of this beautiful, breezy weather up here in Ohio...

Labor day weekend has been beautiful to me. Fall is my favorite season, and this weekend was all about hinting at its inevitable arrival. There was a slight chill. The leaves on the trails that my family and I hiked were just a little crisp, and the wind was getting worked up; a little enthusiastic, just as I like it. I burned a CD full of Nick Drake songs.

If you ask me, the best weather is the kind where you're not sure whether or not it's cold enough to wear a jacket for whatever events you may have planned. You think about it. You open up your closet and look for your favorite light jacket. You take it out, maybe even try it on. Eventually you decide to pass, and set out without it. When you're out and about (wherever you are), you say to yourself or whoever is with you: 'I probably should have brought my jacket!'

That's the best weather, if you ask me.

So, the kids start school tomorrow. It was a good summer. Life makes sense to me right now, although it doesn't always. I've been thinking about learning French, in the hopes that in about a year or so I'll be fluent enough to take my family on a vacation to Paris and at least be able to talk to the locals. When I travel, I don't like to go to the tourist spots. I like to find some random place and just exist. We usually choose some random macguffin for our vacation destinations. On our first trip to Chicago, our only item on the agenda was to see the Man Eater's of Tsavo. Our only goal the first time we went to New York was to see if those hot dogs were as good as we heard they were (they're better in Chicago). Next year we're going to Rhode Island to see where H.P. Lovecraft is buried. After that, we'll just hang out. Hanging out in a new city is always the best.

So, that's all. Fall's on the way, and it makes me almost manic with enthusiasm for life. I want to create in Fall. Poetry makes more sense in the Autumn than it does at any other time of year. In the Fall, I want to visit old graveyards and listen to folk music. I want to catch acorns with my kids, and get lost walking in the woods. I want to take hayrides, eat toasted almonds and run around in corn mazes. I want to stay up too late by a big bonfire, fall asleep in my lawn chair and smell smoky--like I just stepped out of Hell--the next morning.

When all of the leaves are dying, I feel most alive.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Government Is a Tool; It's Not Your Daddy.

Michael Tomasky recently wrote a good essay for The Guardian that suggests a better way to view the relationship we have with our government.


"The two problems here are, first, that while they (tea party supporters) think they owe government nothing, they actually owe government a great deal. If they're small business people, they depend on the freight rails and the roadways and the utilities and the regulation of interstate commerce and the laws that keep their crooked competitors from undercutting them and the courts' abilities to enforce those laws. Without question the government is an annoyance in their lives in dozens of ways. But they don't see any of the good, only the bad. If you tote it up, the government helps them a lot more than it hurts them, and if they think not, let them go open a hardware store in downtown Mogadishu and see how that works out.

The second problem is the one I saw manifest at that dinner that night. Everybody in this country isn't like you. Yes, you worked hard to get where you are. But the vast majority of people work hard. Some have good luck, some have bad. Some stay healthy, some get sick. Some make only wise decisions, some make an unwise one. Some benefit from free-market oddities and inequities, some lose. And yes, some, because of history or birth circumstances, started the race at a starting line several paces back from the one where you started. Part of citizenship, a crucial part of citizenship, is standing in their shoes for a few moments – as they must stand in yours, and understand your point of view too."

The thing that is so surprising about certain folks' polarized views about what government can be used for is that it is so short-sighted, and seems to indicate a certain amount of self-distrust. Every relationship need not be of a parent/child nature. Government is a tool; you can use a hammer to bash someone's head in, sure, but most often, hammers are used productively. To drive in nails. To build.

Now, the skill level of the craftsman using the hammer is a completely different matter, but we need to be more conscious of false choices that certain members of the media (whose job security depends on you accepting their premise) present us with. It's not 'Government is the Savior versus Government is Cthulhu', as Glenn Beck would have you believe. It's 'Can government assist us in this task, or can it not?'

Trust me; my choice structure will be much more useful to you than Glenn Beck's will (although it may put Glenn out of a job).

Friday, August 27, 2010

Rabelais Himself Couldn't Have Written A Better Character...

Kanye West represents the best kind of self-aware excess and self-conscious American Braggadocio. He's an epicurean genius, and this is the best snapshot-profile of him that I've read.

promo for the new album:

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Changing the Currency

I don’t like the way certain segments of our population have deified the so-called ‘founding fathers’ of this country. This is not a new complaint, I know, but expressing this sentiment is new to me.

The founding fathers were men. They had some good ideas, and they had some bad ones. They had honorable and decent characteristics, and they had some that were a little on the shady side. So it goes. Their writings should not be sacred. Our constitution should not be sacred. Nothing is sacred.

It’s not bad that nothing is sacred. It’s the truth; saying ‘nothing is sacred’ isn’t going to do some bugaboo to the good ideas that are our self declared national rights. Actually, as George Carlin so artfully verbalized in his last HBO special, even our rights are illusory.

We have no rights, and nothing is sacred. Or rather, we have no intrinsic rights, and nothing is intrinsically sacred. The rights we have are the ones that we win for ourselves on a day to day basis, and we make things sacred by declaring them to be so.

While I will win rights for myself, and encourage others to win rights for themselves, I think there are too many sacred things in our culture. Sacred things are unquestionable things. Sacred things are not supposed to be changed. Sacred things are deemed to be sacred by something other than reason, and things that are deemed outside of reason are dangerous because they are not susceptible to the influence of reason. The doctrine that ‘we find these truths to be self evident’ is a faith assumption. That God has given us these inherent rights. This is not true, because there is no evidence to support the existence of a God, and there is no evidence to support the assumption that God has given us anything. Rights are things that are won. They are coaxed. They must be vigilantly guarded. The assumption that there is something divine underpinning our rights leads to complacency and an assumption that ‘in the end, the truth will out’.

That may be true, but the truth that outs will be the truth, not necessarily what your nationalist faith assigns the truth to be.

I want reason and skepticism to underpin our national values. I don’t like the sacred aura that hovers over the constitution, and I don’t like the sacred aura that hovers around the founding fathers. Thankfully it’s becoming increasingly acceptable to openly question religion in the United States. I wonder how far along we’ve come in our willingness to allow our secular dogmas to be questioned?

This proposal may be whimsical, but I have a suggestion for undermining the nationalist religion of ‘the founding fathers’. It may be perceived that I am merely substituting one religion—American Jingoism—for another—my own secular humanism—but I don’t think so. There may have been a time where our national religion was necessary to preserve unity and to move the country forward. I don’t think this is the case anymore. Reason leads me to believe that if we are to survive (and thrive) as a people, we’ll have to embrace reason—and humanism—more fully than we have in the past. The national religion of the past isn’t spawning patriotism and progress anymore. These days, it spawns nativist reactionaries and fat, spoiled, over-privileged protest movements. We can take from the past—we don’t have to build from scratch—but we need a new story arch.

So, onto my small, whimsical suggestion:

I think we should change the faces that we put on money. The people we honor on our currency should be representatives of where we hope to go as a people, rather than representatives of where we have been. Romanticizing our leaders by building monuments for them, and by memorializing them on money only feeds our national atavism. As we move forward, I think we should look towards the arts & sciences for guidance.

Here are my recommendations. I’d love to see yours.

On the 1 dollar bill: Carl Sagan
On the 5 dollar bill: Louis Armstrong
On the 10 dollar bill: Dr. Seuss
On the 20 dollar bill: Kurt Vonnegut
On the 50 dollar bill: Bob Dylan
On the 100 dollar bill: Woody Allen

what do you think?

cross posted at Daily Kos.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Adventures In Daddyblogging, part 5: Teaching Your Kids How To Think, Not What To Think

Many families are ruptured when children come to different ideological conclusions than their parents. Dad and Mom are Maoists, and Jr. is a card carrying member of the John Birch Society. The parents are anti-choice, the kids are anti-life*. The kids are out scrubbing oil off of starfishes while mom and dad are having a Styrofoam bonfire in the backyard. These kinds of software discrepancies can lead to loads of in-fighting, and often end up in mutual alienation.

To me, being a parent is the most important job I could (and do) have, and there’s nothing I spend more time thinking about. The happiness and resilience of my children is of the utmost concern to me. This being the case, I want to make sure I’m offering them the best tools to achieve this happiness and resilience that I can. Often times, the discovery of the best tools come at the end of a significant amount of reflection.

I’ve observed and participated in the kinds of ideological differences that can upset families. The fallout from the expression of these differences can often take a long time to clean up. Sometimes the mess is never cleaned up, and all parties involved carry around an open internal wound for the rest of their lives. The solution to this problem--seems to me--is that parents should be more concerned with the hardware that they’re installing in their children, rather than the software. It’s more important that we offer our children lessons in how to think, rather than simply telling them what to think.

Children will pick up our most personal values by watching us interact with the world, not necessarily from our words. While it may be good to remind ourselves and our children of the values we aspire towards just to keep ourselves on track, our actions will do most of the leg work for us in that area.

What seems to be of the utmost importance--in this age when we are constantly bombarded with information and opinion—is skepticism. Skepticism is hardware thinking. It’s a framework within which we can do all of our other reasoning. Most children are taught to believe things upon Authority, or Revelation. When we’re children, there are certain Authorities we are told never to question, and the Truthiness of revelation often seems to hold sway over the actual facts. Richard Dawkins included a moving letter to his ten year old daughter on this subject in his book 'A Devil's Chaplain'.Skepticism is simple, yet profound. I introduced the idea to my children through a book by Dan Barker called 'Maybe Yes, Maybe No: A Guide for Young Skeptics',which very simply instructs children to seek evidence. When someone approaches you with a bit of information, requesting that you believe it, the skeptical answer is ‘Maybe yes, Maybe no. Let’s look at the evidence.’ I’m teaching my children that their personal integrity is important, and thus it’s good to be careful about the things we claim to know for certain. There are people out there who claim many things to be true without sufficient evidence. These people should lose their credibility with us if they continually make unsupportable claims about the nature of things. It’s important to keep an open mind to new evidence, but it’s also important not to follow too many rabbits down too many different rabbit holes.

I will try to teach my children to be compassionate, to experience wonder, and to work hard. I will seek to encourage and validate them while I’m here, and will try to teach them to encourage and validate themselves as well, in preparation for the day when I’m here no longer. I’ll share my opinions with them, but won’t insist that they absorb them. After all, I arrived at most of my opinions by investigation. How could I expect my children to accept my beliefs without a thorough investigation of their own? Everyone must go through their own personal Rumspringa, but it doesn’t have to end in alienation. If we’re not married to our beliefs, then no one gets hurt too bad when one of those beliefs is challenged, or even proven false.

I can see why parents don’t want to allow their children to challenge certain institutions. ‘Because God said so’ is an easy response to a ‘why’ question, but it won’t sate a curious intellect for long. There has to be a reason why something is the case, and even a child not raised to think critically will get around to exploring the logic behind even the most banal of commandments. Usually, if the commandments don’t seem applicable anymore, the kids will abandon them. That is evolution. I want my kids to succeed. I don’t want them to be needlessly burdened by superstitions that still linger in my mind, or the logical or dogmatic errors I am bound to make. I want my kids to ask questions, and to be content with knowing that some of their questions are not going to have answers. I want them to understand that ‘I don’t know’ is a perfect answer in lieu of good evidence.

Mostly, I just want the kids to be happy and resilient. With the tool of skepticism in their mental toolboxes, and with their Mom and myself cheerleading for them, I think this is an attainable goal. To be a skeptic is to have an open mind. It’s to ask questions, and to be glad when we discover errors in our own thinking. A skeptical mind need not go down with the ship of unfounded belief. It’s free to inquire, and free to get off and explore at any port it chooses. I like knowing that my kids will have this kind of freedom of intellectual movement, and I like knowing that their explorations are bound to keep me growing too.

Teaching your kids skepticism is a win-win.

my little freethinkers:

*I am using Penn Jillette’s terminology for these positions. It's much more fun, because it doesn't make either side happy.
**”Preach the gospel at all times, and use words when necessary”-Augustine.