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.”