Monday, August 18, 2014

A Fire in the Desert

This is a true story, though it may not be factual. I've been told that the Devil is in the details; but I've also been told that God is in the details. Either way, whatever the facts may have been, however I may have misheard or mis-remembered the details, this is the story I know. You may have your own - feel free to write it down.

The preacher roamed the wilderness of the desert Southwest for 50 years in a series of new and used recreational vehicles, his wife by his side, always seeking receptive souls to bring to the Lord. He raised a son who went to Vietnam and two daughters - all three raised sons of their own. He built houses, sank wells, raised chickens and rabbits, saved souls, started churches - and moved on, always moved on.

He was a big man with a big voice, a broad smile, a ready laugh, and a proverbial fire in his belly. He once joked that this was why he ate so much when he visited us. His hair, what was left of it by the time I knew him, was usually a close-cropped white stubble that seemed to grow wild and wispy over night. I thought of him as a bald man, but he always claimed to need a haircut.

"Grandpa," I would exclaim, "You're bald! Why do you need a haircut?"

And his laugh would boom, and he would start to relate to me a tale about Jesus telling all men to keep their hair off their collar, not like those... but Grandma would usually swoop in with the clippers and a towel, and hurry him off to our patio for a trim before he could get much further.

He traded camper vans up for RVs, traded the RVs up for pickups with fifth-wheels, and traded the trailers up for mobile homes on an acre of property before deciding he had tied himself down with too many possessions and scaled back down again. No matter where he lived, you would find Grandma with her box of mementos, her organ, their dog, and her quiet hope that some day they would find the right home.

One thing about desert life is its innate mobility. Plants' roots never run deep - they run shallow and broad. Animals may dig in and hide during the heat of the day, but they know to stay on the move if they want to find shade and water. And one place Grandpa could always find some shade and water was under the tree in our driveway.

When Grandma and Grandpa showed up, it was almost always a surprise to us kids. Mom learned not to give us any warning that they were coming to visit, or we would stake out the couch by the big picture window and drive each other crazy with anticipation, shrieking "They're here! They're here!" at every puff of dust on the washboard that was 89th Avenue.

And they would finally roll in, pulling up under the skinny poplar tree where Grandpa would jack, level and brace whatever mobile domicile they were currently living in, and hook up water and electric. He'd run a hose from the sewer line to the poplar tree, and remind us kids that if we used their toilet, only to "run water" in it. When we were little, he'd explicitly tell us, "Only pee-pee and wee-wee in there! No poop-poop!" and we would giggle at the naughty nonsense words and repeat them daringly until we remembered that Grandma was waiting inside.

Most of the time, we could take turns sleeping over in the Camper; no matter what the actual vehicle was, it was always "the Camper" to us. Our favorites were the cab-over motor-homes with their inevitable forward and side windows. I'd fill every spare inch with Star Wars men, posting guards at the corners and locking imprisoned rebels in the cup holders. My sister would pasture her My Little Ponies on and around the dining table. Meanwhile, the grown ups would stay inside with sweating glasses of sweet sun tea, talking about trade-in values, equity, and whatever else grown ups discuss when the kids are out of ear shot.

None of these visits ever lasted long enough for my sister or I, but mom and dad seemed to uncoil a little bit whenever the clouds of dust would follow the caravan du jour down the road toward their next stop - usually my cousin's house a few miles away. Looking back, I can see how my dad, who was always happiest building and tinkering with his handy projects around the property, might have looked forward to not having his father-in-law offering advise on how to build and tinker better. And since they were mom's parents, I could see how maybe there were lingering childhood issues that every family has that made her feel progressively less in control of her own home until the visits were over.

They never said anything to us about it, because they would never say an unkind word about anyone to us. But I think now that maybe the mornings after Grandma and Grandpa drove off after each visit might have been the mornings that mom's old Beatles, Monkees, and Lovin' Spoonful records came out for a spin - replacing Kate Smith's "How Great Thou Art" and Barry Sadler's "Ballad of the Green Berets" which had seen more prominence the previous few days.

Whatever the adults' issues may have been, I remember treasuring the stories Grandpa told us. If Grandma left him alone with us for any length of time, we would prod and pester him to tell us stories about growing up in Kentucky and Alabama, and when he did, we would sit around him, raptly hanging on every word. This happened most often on Sunday afternoons, after church and the big chicken dinner that mom and Grandma would prepare. I remember sitting close to him, despite the inescapable odors of dust and sweat that plague a man who spends long days driving Arizona back roads. I remember feeling full of chicken and listening to him tell adventurous stories about the things that his brothers got up to, or cautionary tales of drinkers and smokers who ended up badly.

My personal favorite was a memorable tale about the time a young Grandpa had found a perfectly good hat floating on a vat of sheep dip when he took a shortcut through the stock yards. He wore it proudly down the main street, only to have a woman run screaming out of her house, calling the police and demanding that he show her where he found it. When the police dragged a pole through the vat of sheep dip, they found the woman's husband - dead and drowned. He had evidently wandered through the stock yards after a night of heavy drinking and fallen in. Sometimes, when he ended the story, Grandpa would tell us that the woman let him keep the hat - and he would point at his sun-bleached ball cap with the enormous grin of a champion spinner of tall tales.

Grandma was never comfortable with Grandpa's insistence on filling our heads with nonsense, so he would frequently placate her by telling us Bible stories. I know he was incredibly proud that I became such a prolific reader of the Bible, largely because I loved hearing him tell those stories. He always stuck to the standard, relatively kid-friendly stories of Daniel and the Lion's Den or Jesus Walking on the Water; I had to find the Death of Jezebel and the story of what Jael did to General Sisera on my own.

I always figured the Bible stories came naturally to him because Grandpa was a preacher. At least, he would talk about being a preacher; and once or twice, he was invited to give a sermon at our church. In school, when our religion class covered the revival movement of the 1860s, I knew exactly what they were talking about when they described the hellfire & brimstone of the tent revivals, largely because of the impression that my Grandfather made on me from the pulpit. He lit up in front of a congregation, and his oratory would grow olive branches and wind its way along the corners of our plain, unadorned sanctuary turning our little Southern Baptist church into a cathedral - or a great tent, depending on how you view these things.

It didn't occur to me until I was much older to ask why Grandpa, if he was such a grand and wonderful preacher, didn't have a church of his own. By then, I was old enough to recognize how uncomfortable that question made everyone, so I dropped it. I figured out on my own that there is a big difference between being a "preacher" and being a "pastor"; it's rather the same difference between being a revolutionary and running a government after the revolution is over. Following the lead of the adults around me, I accepted Grandpa for what he was; but by that point, I was old enough for Grandpa to begin to show concern about me - and my sister, and my cousins - and our resolve in the Lord, and I began to develop a more nuanced conception why it might be hard to stay in a church (or a house?) with someone who wanted to Save you so badly that they applied a deep scrutiny to every belief.

His preaching was never something that was criticized or questioned in our house. We all supported each other in our dreams and endeavors, after all. But I do remember the occasional incident; times when Grandpa would go out for a gallon of milk, and come back hours later relating how he had spied a young man "with an earring" who had clearly needed to hear the Word of Jesus. Or he would leave Grandma with us while he went "visiting" - coming home late in the evening, bursting with energy and planning to move back to Phoenix and start a revival that would sweep the city!

Even when he did "find a church home," it never seemed to last. There would be excitement; property would be purchased or rented, and funds raised. Ground would be broken, and promises would be made. But eventually, almost never longer than six weeks along, the enterprise would evaporate and Grandma and Grandpa would pack up and drive off disconsolately, shaking their heads, and sadly bemoaning a general lack of faith and unwillingness to hear the Word of the Lord.

I was probably twelve, and at the height of my own religious fervor, when he pointedly asked me about my haircut. I never liked having my hair cut; dad usually did it himself. He used two ancient devices to accomplish this: a rebuilt electric clipper that sparked and clattered like something Thomas Edison might have used on an elephant to show how dangerous electricity was, and a pair of dull trimming shears that seemed to pull out as many hairs as they cut. Being uninterested in either electrocution or plucking, I usually made such a stink about haircuts that dad and I would uneasily circle each other for about a week before he would pounce, sit me on a stool out in our garage, and remove as many offending follicles as he could before the noise started to worry the neighbors.

Grandpa seemed to have some odd ideas about me, though, based on the shaggy state of my coiffure. I didn't understand much of what he was saying - I thought my loafers were kind of heavy, actually - but once I got him to state his insinuation clearly, I was horrified. What did my hair have to do with .... THAT? And once I got over the shock, I asked him how, if Jesus had long hair, it could be related to such a Very Bad Thing?  Was Jesus like that?

This conversation did not go well.

Eventually, mom intervened and sorted all of this out, but it was very confusing to me at the time. After all, you have to understand that I had been saved at age 11, and I was going for some kind of record at age 12 of being more "faithful" than anyone else I knew - faithful, of course, meaning that I was a Reagan-supporting, Republican, pro-life, Dr. James Dobson listener with a passion for shouting down the atheists and backsliders that surrounded me at school. For Grandpa to think otherwise based on my unwillingness to submit to my dad's infrequent torture sessions was appalling.

We had a similarly odd conversation a couple of years later, when Grandpa expected that I might be taking an interest in girls. Obviously satisfied with my orientation, he wanted to caution me about the dangers of "mixing a brown horse and a white horse," to which I replied, "No, Grandpa, that's how you get an Appaloosa - and Appaloosas are AWESOME!"

That conversation also did not go well.

I eventually picked up on several notions that Grandpa harbored in his heart along with his extensive knowledge of Bible stories and personal morality tales. When I got older and read about the John Birch Society and Barry Goldwater, and started seeing "conservative" radio and TV hosts gaining popularity in the early 1990s, I recognized many of the ideas that Grandpa had tried to teach me over the years. I remembered how when I was 9 and deeply into dinosaurs, he waited until we were alone in the living room to tell me that Satan had placed their bones in the ground to confuse scientists and to test our faith. I remembered that when the space shuttle Challenger exploded, he reminded me that the space program was just man's foolish attempt to build another Tower of Babel, and that the explosion was God's way of reminding us to stay focused on Jesus.

I remember asking the other adults about some of this stuff, and no one seemed to want to discuss any of it. Grandma would deny that Grandpa had ever said such things, and mom would just steer me onto other topics until I forgot (mostly) about my disappointment.

At the time, though, I hadn't explored any of this very deeply. To me, Grandpa was simply one of the most colorful and admirable people I knew. On balance, he made me feel loved more than judged, and he was clearly proud of me. Maybe his stories exaggerated some details, and maybe some of his beliefs about science were on the questionable side, but he instilled an appreciation for narrative and a love of words that I still cherish. He showed me the beautiful and awkward relationship between fiction and truth.

After I left home on my grand adventures, I didn't see any of the family often, but mom kept me updated on how everyone was doing. And as I went out into the world, some the most deeply rooted ideas I took with me came from the big, bald man who always needed a haircut, and who gave me the gift of stories.

Next week: The Harsh Light of Day

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Death and Heroes

In 2008, one of my favorite writers, David Foster Wallace, took his own life.

I was hurt and angry when I found out; I was also a little scared. This was someone whose work and words I found inspiring and encouraging, and yet he had come to the conclusion that his best option was to opt out. I was just at the beginning of what would turn into several years of private struggles with my own set of adversities, and I was taking his death as something of a warning - that from the outside, you can't tell what someone else's limits are, and that ultimately, we are all alone with our most intimate enemy.

To deal with how I felt, and to process what I was learning about Wallace's private hell and depression in general, I wrote a song called "Get Me Home" (apologies for the demo quality):
"I appreciate the love you give me
But it's not enough
Because it's up to me to get me home."
In the last few years, I've watched other people who you might or might not consider public figures talk about their depression; The Bloggess, Wil Wheaton, and one of my favorites (because I relate so closely to many of her experiences) Allie Brosh of Hyperbole and a Half. They probably aren't what the average person would recognize as "celebrities," but they are brave people who don't hide their pain or their joy; and they want what I want right now: they want you to be alright.

Robin Williams was a celebrity. But like these other folks, and like me, that's not what was important about him. To me, his bravery and honesty, his fear and his unabashed embrace of joy were the things that were important about him. I never met him, and he certainly didn't know who I was, but as I watch the world - the TV, radio, internet, all of my friends and family - react to his loss, I see everyone sharing their favorite moments from his career. Those moments are the evidence of those qualities.

There are the cynics among you who will scoff at another well-off famous person who couldn't handle their too-good life; if that's what you need to feel safe, go ahead and scoff. But for the rest of us - those who are hurting and looking at ourselves and our own struggles with life, I'd like to share one of my favorite moments.

Watch this 5 minute clip from the 1991 Terry Gilliam movie "The Fisher King" and if you haven't seen this film before, pay attention. Then come back here.

When Robin Williams burst exuberantly onto my TV when I was just a kid, he embodied madness. I loved it, because he was putting what I felt inside all the time on display; he was being accepted for being the person that everyone around me told me not to be. He was an epiphany. Even when his jokes didn't work or his character voices fell flat, he still charged brashly out in front of everyone and didn't hold back - and that set me free.

And even at the time, anyone watching him knew - KNEW, without being told - that his life at that time was a drug-fueled piece of performance art. Later, when we saw his Live at the Met performance, he confirmed that. Even though it was a performance, it was honest. You knew he was scared, but instead of hiding from that fear, he turned it into a huge, defiant farce. And many of us watched him work through the self-destructive side of that life and build something better. If you paid attention to his career at all, you gradually realized that while everything he did was a performance, none of it was "fake" - that was why we loved him, even when he was in a colossal piece of crap (looking at you, Popeye).
It was always him up there on the stage running around behaving like a clown, inspiring students and Vietnam soldiers, winning back Neverland, trying to help out Aladdin or trying to love Nathan Lane. Even if you didn't get it or love it, you couldn't deny that he was trying to give you a brilliant gift.

I realized early on that he and I had a lot in common.

That scene in the Fisher King captures this essence. That scene is all about how we perform and put up defenses against getting too close or getting hurt. It says everything that needs to be said about him. His performance - every performance - was a raw display of a man who did not care about the facade he was building. He just loved. Everything he did spoke of that. And he was scared. Everything he did - every joke, every goofy face, every raw, vulnerable moment of quiet showed that he was both terrified and amazed by the world.

As am I.  As are you, if you let yourself feel it.

If you watched that Fisher King clip, but haven't seen the whole film, I'm going to give you a small spoiler. At the end there, when you are seeing him through the window, and he steps to the side, you see his image split into two by the bevel in the glass - that next moment is when his character, Perry, is attacked by "The Red Knight" - the external embodiment of Perry's fear and trauma. It's a confusing and brutal moment of cinema.  When I heard about his death and started seeing my friends and family posting about how surprised they were that Robin Williams of all people would take his own life, that moment is what I thought of. And I wasn't surprised at all.

Because all of us have a "Red Knight". All of us are terrified of this mad, amazing world. Even the brave clowns who dance through the madness are afraid of it. And it can jump out at you from the shadows at the moment when you think you should be your happiest. Your most intimate enemy is always hovering just out of sight.

So I will take two lessons from the life and death of Robin Williams. I will BE joyful, because the world is beautiful and full of love and joy; and I will BE afraid, because it is also dangerous. But I won't let fear of the danger keep me from feeling the joy. I don't let it stop me from loving; and I won't let anyone else pretend that there isn't love and beauty all around just because it feels safer to skip over the scary parts.

And if you need me to, I will help you in any way I can. You may not appreciate how I do it, but I will love you, I will share my amazement with you, and I will sound forth as many barbaric YAWPs as the situation calls for.  (However, unlike Perry, I DO drink coffee.)

The brutally beautiful and honest truth is that it will always be up to you to get you home.  But you're not the only one traveling, and you don't have to fight the Red Knight by yourself.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Stage Fright

Sara shook out her hands, and did some stretches, trying to convince herself that the cold was all in her mind.  Actually, it was all in her stomach.  She felt frozen in her core, and a flush crept up her neck and ears…

She clapped her hands over her eyes and started her breathing exercises.  They not only calmed her, but led into her vocal warm-up.  When she was ready, she stepped into the studio.

Her instrument was on a stand in center of the green stage area, a half-sphere in which she would perform for the world… if they cared to watch.  The dark half of the sphere contained the audio and video pickups, and a large panel would indicate how many subscribers had called up her singing, 3D image on their entertainment centers.  She pushed the thought away.  “Just you in the sphere,” she chanted.  She forbade herself to wonder if anyone would even login for the recital; she had no sponsors or marketing bots to speak of.  It was just word of blog.

Then she picked up the ancient guitar and strapped it on.  The thing dated back to a time when electrons had powered the planet.  It was easy enough to learn to play, but most folks didn’t put their real hands on things any more if they could help it.  Sara relished the bite of wire on fingertip and the ring of real acoustic sound in her ear.

Scales done, warm-up over, she stood in the center, facing out.  Moment of truth time.

She strummed the ancient chords, and began singing the ancient words with her eyes shut.

And when she opened them, she saw the lights indicating the audience… like a million small flames in the dark, winking on one by one.


What did I just read?  Explanations and excuses can be found at this link.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Prissy and Prudence

When I was born, my parents were expecting a daughter and they had a name picked out: Priscilla Jane. Thankfully, my anatomy and their adherence to cultural convention saved me from that fate. By the time my sister came along, though, mom and dad had planned ahead with TWO names (just in case), and this time Priscilla didn't make the cut. So, in the 1980s, when we had the opportunity to adopt a little black toy poodle, mom finally got to use the name on someone who couldn't complain about it.

Prissy joined our household despite the disgust and disdain of our other four-legged resident, a tortoise-shell cat named Prudence. Prudence had dealt with a canine cohabitant before, but Prissy was nothing like our old dog, Maverick. Where Maverick was an affable and good-natured mutt who had welcomed the little kitten into the family several years before (probably establishing a bit of that Alpha dog mystique), while Prissy was  an aptly named intruder on territory that Prudence had come to consider her own.

It didn't help that my sister and I treated Prissy like a celebrity. Competing for her affections, we each tried to coax her to sleep in our respective rooms, and fought over the honor of "taking care of" the dog. Now that I'm older, I realize that Prissy probably didn't appreciate the "stable" that my horse-crazy sister built for her out of Lincoln Logs, and I'm sure she had similar misgivings about my attempts to turn her into the Rancor in my homemade cardboard reproduction of Jabba the Hutt's palace.
This is not a toy poodle.
I suppose it's a credit to Prissy that she didn't let all of the attention go to her head. Or maybe not, since there wasn't much in her head to begin with. She put up with our attempts to relate to her, but she mainly wandered the house doing her own thing. Prudence,being a cat, was at first rather aloof about the whole dog thing. After some sparks struck during their first few meetings, she elected to pretend that there was no dog in her house, and for a while they got along splendidly by not interacting.

This began to change when mom decided to try breeding Prissy. We didn't have papers proving anything, but Prissy was supposed to be a pure poodle, and one of mom's friends had a boy toy (poodle) named Pepper - so they decided to try their hand at animal husbandry. We borrowed Pepper for a week or so when mom predicted Prissy would be "in heat" - and despite the fact that Pepper was a lot younger and smaller than Prissy, apparently magic happened.

Looking back, this was probably where I learned about sexual reproduction, but being both Southern Baptist and born with our family's sense of humor, I don't think I learned about it in as direct and matter-of-fact a manner as I might have under other circumstances. I would hear the adults plotting out Prissy's cycle, and I remember asking what "in heat" meant; I think they told me that was the time in a month when Prissy could have puppies. Since the week came and went with no puppies, I didn't really get the connection until much later.

The connection I did make was with Prissy's array of "gentleman callers" - all of the male dogs in our remote stretch of barely settled desert could smell her, and they would come parading by our house at all hours. Terriers, Shepherds, setters, and a few dodgy looking characters who might not have been entirely domesticated would find their way through our fence and onto our porch, where they would curl up and wait for a glimpse of the source of the alluring scent that was pulling them to our door.

For several years, as I recall, there was an uneasy monthly ritual that surrounded leaving our house.  We had to check the door before opening it to leave, and if it was too crowded on the porch, we would sneak out the side- or back-door. Dad tried patching places in the fence where they were getting in, but there were always a few eager diggers around the neighborhood. Even when the fence held, they would just gather at the gate, waiting to dart in when we tried to get our car out.

The most patient and brazen of these horny intruders was a basset my mom nicknamed "Frederick B. Moose." He was implacable. He would place himself stolidly to one side or the other of the road, and wait for Dad or Mom to go chasing his bolder rivals off. Then he would grunt into motion and trudge his way towards our door. Once inside the fence, he was impossible to dislodge.  Mom and Dad each tried to drag him out by the collar on more than one occasion, just to have him go limp and flop in the dirt. Gravity seemed to favor his bulk. Once, Mom even tried out her new canister of pepper spray (no relation to Prissy's actual beau), catching Fred full in the face. He simply snorfed, shook his head, and pressed on like an aroused avalanche of saggy meat.

But as I said, Pepper was the winner in this genetic contest, and after only a couple of failed attempts, a litter quickened within the womb of Priscilla Jane Poodle. I distinctly remember the smell in my parents' bathroom after the puppies were born. It was vital and terrifying, and of course very gross. I think there were five pups, though I really only remember two of them; the two that my sister named "Bob" and "Nancy", after my dad's parents. We managed to place most of the puppies right away, but Bob stayed with us longest. He went on our summer camping trip with us, and we were pretty attached to him by the time Mom finally found him a home of his own.

Between the bother, expense, and disappointed children - not to mention the uninspiring profit margin - that was pretty much the end of Prissy's career as a breed... mare? ...and her next big adventure involved getting fixed. You can imagine that this provoked a number of questions with illuminating answers about biology, too.

During all of these various adventures and upheavals, Prudence suffered on the periphery. She avoided the puppies, the noise, the amorous packs of gentleman callers, and pretty much everyone in the house while still trying to maintain a semblance of ownership over as much of the domain as she could.

I remember asking if Prudence would ever have kittens, and I think Mom dodged the question at first.  But eventually I learned that Prudence had been the world's worst mother. Apparently, she would sneak off (as cats will do...loudly, just under one's window) and return home with a belly full of joy and erratic behavior, only to sneak off again and deposit her litter in some remote corner of our property. Not knowing what to do next, Prudence would then leave the new kittens wherever they dropped and forget about them. Mom told of finding feeble, nearly dead kittens under bushes, in the tool shed, and even in the attic. She spoke tearfully of trying to save them and find them homes - only to have them succumb to the initial neglect and rejection of their mother.

The last straw was the day my Mom's mom came over and went out on the back patio to play the battered old piano that Dad had found somewhere. It was out of tune, of course, but one section of the keyboard seemed to be muted, and when the adults peered inside the machine they found six little kitten skeletons tangled in the hammer mechanism. The sentence for this crime: uterus removal.

Still, despite the cold, remorseless evil clearly dwelling in her soul, Prudence was a pleasant enough companion. I lost the battle for Prissy's affection early on; she didn't like coming up the stairs to my hot and messy room, and besides, she was too deeply devoted to Mom to leave her side. But Prudence would roam the house more widely, and she seemed to favor places that were Prissy-free, so I would sometimes wake up with her curled up peacefully on the foot of my bed. Of course, being a cat, it was just as likely I would wake up with her standing on my chest, working up a hairball, or that I would catch her skulking into one of the closets in my room to leave unpleasant little treats that I would then have to clean up. 

While the bulk of their time was spent studiously ignoring each other, as Prissy and Prudence got older, they began to take pleasure in annoying each other. Prissy, while never a big thinker, learned that Prudence liked to nap in certain places, and the dog began adjusting her navigational patterns so that she could appear as close as possible to the snoozing cat and nonchalantly poke her with her snout. The first few times I saw this happen, Prudence would launch herself up as if she'd been lanced with a hot needle, and backflip awkwardly over the arm of the couch in an amazing display of cat-fu. Once she popped herself nearly straight up and over the back of the couch in an amazing arc, and when she didn't come back out right away, we peaked behind it to see her sitting regally, contemplating the wall under the big picture window as if that had been where she was sitting all along.

Gradually, Prudence learned to sleep more shallowly, and became quite alert to any movement near her napping spots. As the shock of canine nose nudges decreased, she tried ignoring her nemesis, patiently not reacting to the prodding. But that only emboldened Prissy, and if she got away with the first few pokes, she would start adding a bark or two to her attack until Prudence had had enough and responded with either a rousing chase/fight around the living room, or a hasty exit from the house altogether.

Being more alert than the dog, though, Prudence could mount surprise attacks with very little notice.  I got to see her in action one afternoon when I was changing the laundry. I spotted Prudence coming inside from what was probably an enjoyable morning of murdering birds and lizards; she was sauntering aimlessly across the family room, but when she reached the door to the main hallway, she reared back comically (like a cat version of Oliver Hardy) and darted into the kitchen instead. A few seconds later, Prissy came towards the kitchen from the hallway, clearly heading for her water bowl.

As she came around the corner, Prudence sprang out like a furry, clawed Jack in the Box, and bopped Prissy on the nose. Prissy yelped in surprise, and immediately gave chase. Prudence led her around the legs of the dining room table, back through the kitchen, and up the hallway to my sister's room.  My sister's bed was a pedestal-style waterbed, with cast iron headboard and footboard, and her lacy bedspread hung down to create a neat 1-foot-square runway all the way around the bed. By the time I got to the room, cat and dog had both slipped under the bedspread, and were doing laps around the bed at top speed.

Prudence, being slightly quicker, and a lot smarter, timed her exit perfectly. She reached the corner of the bed, and instead of continuing around the racetrack to the left, she made a right ...just as she passed the post of the foot board. Prissy did not manage to make the same turn.


By the time the dazed poodle regained her senses enough to extract herself from the tangle of lacy bedspread, and could walk in a straight line, Prudence was well out of reach on top of Mom's armoire, cleaning herself innocently, as if she had been there all day.

At some point, Dad had installed flaps in the doors so the animals could let themselves in or out as they pleased. From the kitchen, there was one door out into the garage, and another across the garage exiting to the side yard. This was generally convenient for everyone, but it did create several prime ambush points. I probably don't need to spell out the details - suffice to say the cat was an expert at hiding where the dog would least expect it, and she had the patience to wait for the most opportune moment.

Eventually, my sister and I grew accustomed to this game, and we all got used to seeing Prudence saunter to some corner, nook, or cranny and just sit for hours, so we often didn't realize what she was up to until the trap was sprung and the chasing was over. For her part, Prissy had figured out that she needed to be on guard when going in or out through any of the door flaps. Even when Prudence was nowhere to be seen, Prissy would nudge the door two or three times before actually pushing through - and a few times, she actually worked herself into a paranoid fury, barking at the swinging flap and smacking it with a paw or her snout before deciding the cat was really elsewhere.

One morning, as I lingered over my bowl of cereal, I noticed something moving out the corner of my eye. In the entryway, Mom had several bags of empty cereal boxes that were piled up, waiting to be sorted. She was an avid coupon-collector, and always had brown grocery bags full of boxes with barcodes, coupons, promotional games, etc. Prudence's black tail was extended out from between two of the bags - furred out with anticipation and twitching manically.  On my way to the sink, I peeked between the bags, and saw that her attention was fixed on the door flap.  Glancing over my shoulder, I could see that Prissy was out in the side yard, and headed for the door to come inside.

I didn't think about what I did next. I just casually leaned down and said, in a normal speaking voice, "Boo."

The cat's reaction was a thing of beauty. If I could take my camera phones back in time to capture one moment in the highest definition possible, that would have been the moment. Prudence's legs pushed her up, farther up in the air than I had ever seen her go, and her body went rigid, with all four of her legs as fully extended as they could get. She somehow rotated in this completely stiffened state, like a taxidermist's model of a cat, white-eyed and staring at me in absolute terror as her body followed a parabola across the tiny foyer. She landed - nothing but net - tail first into one of the grocery bags full of discarded cardboard, and disappeared from view.

At that moment, Prissy poked a tentative nose through the door flap and gave a questioning "woof" - coincidentally, right at the bag where the terrorized cat had only just come to rest. This is the part that I would have wanted on film, because I swear that cat passed through the side of that bag at the molecular level. The bag was not torn, but Prudence, trailing a confetti of UPC symbols and scraps of paper, streaked out of the entryway at an altitude of between three and six inches, and we didn't see her for two days.

So, when I jump out at you from nowhere and can't stop laughing while you mutter angrily and try to put your skin back on, please don't take it personally.  I got the taste for this from my cat.

Monday, August 4, 2014


Convict Fenton pedaled, cursing under his breath, and cycled on.  He wasn’t upset; it was his pastime on the Bike.  Convicts didn’t rate streaming media, so they made due.  Some sang, but Fent’s blue litany kept him sane.  Kept him from wondering how long he had left.

After his first year in the GenPen – Federal Electro-Generation Penitentiary – he’d hit 10% and realized at that rate, he’d be in for another decade.  Pitching the Deal, his lawyer had given him rosy estimates about serving time in kilowatt-hours instead of years.  Fent hadn’t known enough science to spot the over-inflated estimates.  He hadn’t caught the “up to” caveats built into the Deal, either.  Bikes could generate “up to” 100 kwh each day… at full tension and a consistently high rpm.  It would help if bike maintenance was a company priority.

But it wasn’t.  And counting watts made the time drag on, so he didn’t do it.  They’d let him out when he was done.

Fent pedaled and cursed until cool-down kicked in.  He dismounted, and stepped through the security door.  When the lights showed green, he pushed through to the shower room, and the guy on the other side, coming in to relieve him, was shunted in with the Bike to start pedaling.

Stretched out, showered, and thumbed into his cell, Fent slipped into his VR harness.  Time to animate some avatars for the Man.  He went through most of the standards in a given night.  Orc, pimp, zombie, terrorist; he shot, sliced, or mauled his way through his shift, crawled out of the harness to sleep, and went back to the Bike.

One day, he thought, they’ll let me out.  But he thought it less frequently every day.

Convict Fenton pedaled, cursing under his breath, and cycled on.


What did I just read?  Explanations and excuses can be found at this link.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Not Up For Debate

I have had a number of people contact me in the last several months asking, "Dude, what happened to you? Why are you attacking Christians? You used to be such a good kid." And then, when I try to answer them, they withdraw, muttering about not having time or needing to preserve our friendship.

It's hard to know for certain what someone is thinking when they don't engage, but the impression that I get is that they want to have a debate with me - just on their terms. I'm happy to do that, of course, as long as they understand what it is that they are asking to debate. The existence of God? Sure! The validity of various claims and assertions by believers and non-believers? Let's do it!

How I should behave on social media and what my personal experiences should mean to me?  Not up for debate.  Sorry.

You see, I've written a lot about what "happened" to me; this is something I do routinely, and I do it specifically for people who might care enough to ask. If our friendship actually meant anything to them, I would expect them to want to know what I have to say and what I really think badly enough to actually read my blog. But since few of them ever actually stay engaged long enough for me to articulate a response, here are some answers (with links to previous posts and amplifying articles sprinkled in as I felt appropriate):

The remark I hear most often is the recurring question, "Why are you attacking Christians?"

That’s frustrating because on the one hand, I've tried to go out of my way NOT to attack anyone. It's true that I share comics that poke fun at Christian privilege, and occasionally mock some of the more outrageous examples of that very broad category of "people of faith", but many of these targets are things I would have called out back when I was a Christian. These are things that I think, if you are a believer, you should probably be calling out, too.

On the other hand, it seems like one must be provocative in order to get any response or catch anyone's attention, especially on social media. I often feel like if I'm not saying something at least slightly controversial, then I'm going to be ignored; but I want to strike a balance that is more "interesting" than "aggressive". This is why I frequently share ideas that I value from Christian sources, and express ideals that, historically, Christians and non-believers have held in common - most notably, the separation of church and state, which used to be one of the founding principles of the Baptist church. I want to strike up a conversation, but balance out that perceived provocation with an earnest look at the common ground between us.

I also strive to "be myself" when I'm online. Anyone who knows me should already know that I mock and tease and indulge in what I consider to be witty wordplay. Obviously, senses of humor will vary, and sometimes feelings will be hurt. As a rule, when it comes to teasing others, I try to "punch up", and avoid picking on those weaker than me. I would never call out people in real pain or try to yank away something they find comforting in the middle of a crisis. But if I see someone else posting stuff that is out of line, needlessly cruel, or otherwise completely full of shit, I will remark on that.

I try to keep my jabs playful; and yet, I've noticed that the people who seem to take such playful mockery personally are often those who complain the most bitterly about "political correctness" and the "tyranny" of having to watch what they say for the sake of mere feelings. I don't claim to be innocent of being a jerk at times - quite the opposite, as I have mentioned before - but dealing with that and learning how to recognize the worst in myself is also one of my primary motivations when I post things that are not exactly "nice." No matter what angle you're coming from, the balancing act is all about maintaining perspective, and assuming noble intent.  (The noblest possible intent, at any rate.)

For example, posting my essay "My Existence Is Not an Attack on You" on Christmas morning (to me, a rare day off when I get to goof off online) provoked an inarticulate reaction of rage from a Facebook friend who repeatedly asserted that it was "in poor taste" to compare religion to sci-fi fandom on Jesus's birthday. Perhaps it is - but if you're going to take offense at such a mild form of criticism, do you really have any right to call that an "attack"? Especially when the premise and title of the offending piece is that simply articulating that I am different from you is NOT an attack on you?

(And why, if that day is so holy, are you reading your Facebook feed on Christmas morning in the first place?)

Then there is the "You used to be such a good kid" approach.

This is doubly frustrating, because they are saying that I'm no longer good without actually saying so. To confront that implicit accusation, I try to use my posts to demonstrate that while I personally reject the various claims of the existence of a God, there is still a lot of overlap between my views and the views of people who would prefer to think that my lack of belief comes with a lack or morality or ethical grounding. Anyone watching my feed should see a healthy number of posts on the subject of being #goodwithoutGod. In many ways, the only thing about me that has changed since I was a kid is that I've stopped accepting the human assertion that there is a supernatural anything out there - at least until there is some reliable evidence. I've found other reasons to behave in a way that I judge to be moral, and I would think if people were really interested in morality, they would want to talk about that - not simply impose their own assumptions on me for their own comfort.

(Oh, and I have been told that I've "grown up" a bit, which I consider to be a vicious slander!)

Frankly, I don't think I was all that great as a kid - mainly because of my personality flaws, but also because religion is designed to exploit our flaws and use them to perpetuate itself. As a kid, perpetuating all of the bad religious ideas associated with the American Christian right is something I did to a degree that frightened even other Christians, at times.  In most cases, when you do see me go on the attack, it's not you or your behavior, or even necessarily the group you identify with that I am angry about. It's that younger version of me whom I now recognize to have been a complete dickhead.

People lamenting the loss of what I "used to be" should probably go read "You Wouldn't Believe It", which explains how I went from there to here - and why I'm not likely to accept many of the arguments that you would like to offer to convince me to change back. I left There behind for a reason, and now that I am Here, I see my personal mission as consisting of two things.

First: even though #notallChristians are intentionally driving these trends, we Americans still live in a near-theocracy. I have been trying to gently but firmly point that out since 2001, and depending on the brazen stupidity of the examples I may choose to share or the public figures I may choose to engage (looking at you, @SpeakerBoehner), I may choose to be less gentle about my criticism.

Despite the painfully obvious fact that we have been engaged violently with theocratic groups in other parts of the world for decades while pretending that it's not about religion, there is far too much intrusion of God into our government. I endeavor to illustrate the damage that this does to our country - particularly to our ability to relate to the rest of the world, our ability to improve education (especially science education), and our ability to preserve personal/individual liberty.

For better or worse, because we live in a nation that is mostly Christian, the majority of the stories available for me to point to are going to be focused on Christians, and calling out the ways in which they harm the very things they claim to love the most. That is the most frustrating blind spot to deal with, because the same people who object to me pointing out Christian privilege in America and Christian insertion of religion into schools or law are the frequently the very same people who insist that this is a Christian nation in the first place. They try to claim majority status AND claim to be an oppressed minority. Sadly, they lack the same self-awareness that the "anti-PC" crowd lacks, and while I would prefer to take a Live and Let Live approach, that lack of self-awareness has a dire impact on the rest of us.

So while I neither desire nor intend to convince anyone to embrace my point of view as their own, I do demand that you recognize it as a valid point of view. I'm not here to deconvert anyone, but because I used to share the American Christian point of view, I know for a fact that you don't understand me while I very certainly understand you. If I don't engage you in some kind of dialogue, your lack of understanding will continue to damage the world around you - and that includes me.

I need to engage so that you can't pretend that I don't exist.

I need to engage so that you can't erase my narrative from history.

Second: because it was such a long, lonely, and painful journey to get from "there" to "here", I sincerely hope to help others by sharing my experience. Many of my Christian friends and family are going to see that as a threat.  I get that. You're going to see me doing that and equate it with your evangelical mandate; you're going to identify me sharing my story, as a "testimony" designed to convert you to my cause.

I get it, but unlike you, there really isn't any evangelical mandate driving me. No atheist leader compels me to spread the word and win "souls" - instead, I see this more as a way to make you understand what our differences really are (as opposed to the mythology I know Christians share about atheists) and how we can along even if you don't accept my views on the supernatural. (Again, that's the point of "My Existence Is Not an Attack on You".) My personal narrative is that, yes, I used to believe what you believe; and yes, I outgrew it (that's how I see it, anyway) through reason, logic, and self examination. Now I encourage everyone to question me about my conclusions and assumptions - with the understanding that you might not be comfortable with my answers.

There is always the chance, of course, that you could change my mind - and if you don't understand what it would take to do so, then you really don't understand me.

I also understand that regardless of what I may do or say, many of my readers and followers are probably already undergoing their own journey - which may look like the experience shared by me and some of the people I repost regularly.

I need to engage so that I can help those of you who need me.

I need to engage so that others can see that they aren't alone, and that the backlash they fear isn't the end of their world.

So that's why I am here, and why I do what I do on Twitter & Facebook. If you feel like you want more explanation, it's probably on the other end of one of these links in this post.

Just remember, before you write me off as a fanatic loudmouth: sometimes simply speaking up is your duty. You need to ask questions. You may need to remind the dominant majority that they are stepping on other people, and that their privilege does not come without a cost to everyone (including themselves). You need to do this whether you belong to that dominant majority or not.

If you are one of those who feels hurt, one of those who feels picked on, who feels attacked by the relatively mild news articles, cartoons & blogs that I post - don't be afraid to challenge me. I will probably respond with my reasoning. I don't consider that to be fighting - I feel that you deserve an explanation or some kind of justification of why I posted what I posted, if not an agreement or the apology you're looking for.

You might be surprised to learn that I dislike many of the same prominent atheists that you dislike, for many of the same reasons. You may be put off by those I do like, or grow uncomfortable with being asked to deal with things you haven't had to think about before. We all deal with that - unless we live in a remote cabin with no outside contact.

But don't just hide.  Hiding is a sign that perhaps your ideas aren't as strong or defensible as you think they are...and leaving those ideas un-examined can be dangerous. That fact is also not up for debate.

Learning that lesson is "What happened to me."

Monday, July 28, 2014

Presence of Mind

James walked into the Owl Creek Bridge Research Center at the appointed time.  His stomach flip-flopped when the receptionist greeted him.  Must be nerves, he thought, smiling shyly.

She gave him his badge, and he walked back to prep, part of him lingering, wishing he had the presence of mind to say something to her.

Never mind, he told himself.

“It’s not too late, James,” the doc told him.  “You can back out up to the last moment, no obligations.”

“No, I’m ready,” said James.  He didn't understand the science behind what they were doing, but it sounded wonderful.  They would “trick” his mind into leaping into their matrix, and he would become the first immortal man.  Their immortal man, true, but he had always been meek enough to compromise.  It seemed worth the trade.

James lay back on the table.  Nothing would be done to his body.  A probe that wouldn't even penetrate his skin lowered into position next to his skull.

The smallest glint between the probe and James’s head…and he knew.

He saw everything.  It was beautiful; immense and small.  Everywhere at once and for all time, beginning leading from ending into beginning for eternity, and He was vast.  

It was not just size, infinitely large and infinitely small, but time!  And other planes and modes and scales, all infinite in their scope!

He cast out, and out… until he nearly swooned at the lack of limits.  He withdrew, zooming inward past the smallest smallness.  He became He, and He filled the universe.  Then the Universes.  Then the Omniverse.  

And in His immense Awe, it occurred to Him, you have to Be somewhere.

“Stop,” said James.  “Never mind.”

He left them speechless, and went to ask the receptionist to lunch.


What did I just read?  Explanations and excuses can be found at this link.