Monday, December 12, 2011

Why I Am a None

Meta: I've been reading the "Why I Am an Atheist" testimonials on Pharyngula's freethought blog with growing interest over the last few weeks. At first, I felt a twinge of discomfort at the idea of sharing conversion stories - for reasons you'll understand soon - but the more of them I read, the more I recognized bits of my own story. It made me want to share, too. I dislike labels, which is why I prefer "none" to"atheist" and I have noted that PZ disapproves of this, so whether he decides to host this tale on his blog or not is an open question. Either way, here is my story.

You know my dad was a nun. ... Cause whenever he was up in court and the judge asked "occupation", he'd say "none".      - Private Baldrick, Blackadder Goes Forth; "Captain Cook"
At age 11 I went up to the front of the congregation at the end of a Sunday Evening sermon and accepted Jesus Christ as my own, true personal savior. Everyone was singing "Just As I Am," and at the end, when everyone files up to greet new members and converts - a surprisingly frequent event in small churches - everyone hugged me, some cheerfully, some tearfully.

My conversion was not much of a surprise to anyone. My parents had hosted our church in our home when it started, and I had always been an eager and active participant in our services. I loved to sing in the choir, and I devoured the stories and lessons in Sunday School. It probably didn't hurt that I was one of the few kids in our little Southern Baptist church, and that our neighborhood was out in the sticks, so there was little or no "outside" influence on me besides my family and church. I knew that being Saved at 11 was kind of unusual, but it seemed like a natural enough thing to do.

It would be fair to say that I wanted to belong and be accepted. And I was. Everyone was proud of me, and I felt welcomed more and more into the adult circles around me.

My memories of my childhood are "normal" to me, which isn't surprising I guess. I never felt pressured to "join" the church, because it was always just there. My family was pretty low-key about the philosophical underpinnings of faith and the deep thinking necessary to question things; for us, being Christian was about behaving yourself and treating others kindly. It was straightforward.

Then there was my grandfather.

Grandpa Russ was the classic itinerant preacher, always on the move, going from church to church to bring the word to flocks who needed to hear the tough lessons he had to teach. (Those were the words we used for it in our family; the sad fact is that everywhere he went, he told people what was wrong with them until they drove him out.)

It hurts to criticize him, because I loved him, and I don't want my family to read this and feel hurt. I never thought of him as cruel or crazy, and don't want to sound like I'm tearing him down; but if I describe him honestly, what you will see is the photo-realistic portrait of a Christian conservative. Part Archie Bunker, part Billy Graham, and a little bit of white Al Sharpton for style. (And even though he passed in 2002, I still feel mean, traitorous and guilty describing him that way - he hated Al Sharpton.)

In Grandpa's mind, the reason he had to move a lot was because people couldn't handle the truth. I know now that no one can - not on Grandpa's terms. He had an odd relationship with truth, in the way that anyone who has dealt with this kind of person would recognize. But to me, he was Grandpa. He was an amazing friend to hang out with, he loved me, and he had Stories.

Grandpa's stories were always amusing. He could spin tall tales with the best of them, and my favorite stories had to do with him, as a boy in Depression-era Kentucky. The older I got, though, the more they tended to contain some admonishment about boys with long hair - and you know that means The Gay - or backsliders suffering through drugs until they find Jesus.

When mom, dad, or Grandma caught him pulling me to one side and filling my head with his tales, they would try to intervene. They were rational enough to recognize the ugliness of some of his ideas and they wanted to protect me from them, but I loved hearing him talk. I was a pretty lonely kid, and he kept me rapt as he told tall tales of his adventure in the war - getting lost in the fog at sea and ending up in Murmansk; being hired by Glenn Miller to sing in his orchestra, just before Maj. Miller's plane disappeared. No matter how outlandish or unlikely, I loved Grandpa's stories.

But I've always loved ALL kinds of stories.

I recognized early on how stories tell us hidden things about ourselves. They're puzzles with secret messages and lessons about how we tick. Old stories pick up details and layers like the sedimentary rocks that form fossils. If you know how to decipher them, all stories are true. I like to think I learned this from Grandpa, thanks to the inventive ways he would have to twist facts or events around to fit whatever he was trying to teach me. I recognized the dishonesty in what he was doing, but I was enthralled by his skill for spin, and the psychology behind it. From all of this, I learned at a tender age how to tolerate a great deal of cognitive dissonance - though it would be a dozen years before I would learn that term.

Of course, the Bible stories were literally true, as far as I was concerned. There was no question of that. I knew "real" from "pretend" - there was the Bible, and then there was "Star Wars." I was also an avid listener to Family Life Radio - the local Christian broadcaster that carried Dr. Dobson's "Focus on the Family", among others. Dr. Dobson's program was where I learned a lot of pop psychology - how people fooled themselves into thinking right was wrong. He also warned me about cults (ie, other religions), the occult and Satanism. These programs reinforced what I was learning in church, helping keep me focused on what was True.

Our pastor held an annual seminar on cults and the occult, so the he could explain to us why those false churches were wrong, and we were right. And of course, atheists, communists, and other godless people were mentioned along with backsliders and sinners of all stripes. So it was that I began my teen years a righteous, fiercely faithful soldier of Christ. I was accepted by my church and my family, and I knew what was right and what was wrong. I wasn't perfect, but I was Good. And I thought I was ready for the world.

Then things stopped making sense. It was no single thing.

It wasn't just that when I told Grandpa that I wanted to be a paleontologist he told me that fossils were put in the ground by Satan to test our faith - and meant it. It wasn't that I fell in love with a Catholic girl, and watched her turn on me bitterly after the passive-aggressive treatment she endured from my church family. It wasn't just that I began exploring music, and getting into strange things that my country-and-gospel family didn't understand. It wasn't that I wanted to fuck more than anything in the world, and couldn't figure out a way to do that within the strictures of our moral code.

And it wasn't that I began to recognize that I became a cruel and vicious asshole when "debating" any or all of these issues with my peers.

In the end, it was the stories that made me see it.

Everyone has a conversion story; a point where they go from believing one thing to believing the opposite - or at least something new that pushes out the old belief. One day, while arguing with a Mormon friend, something crucial dawned on me. He had used the same lines and logic to try to convince me he was right that I used on atheists all the time - not that it ever convinced them. He said the voice of God told him to believe, and he did. I told him he was ridiculous. After all, there is documented evidence that Mormonism was fabricated by Joseph Smith in the 1860s, and there is NO evidence that the Golden Tablet of Moroni or the Lost Tribe of Israel ever existed in North America (if at all).

As I blisteringly mocked his faith in a poorly written re-imagining of history published by a con man from New York, I realized that as ridiculous as it was to believe a hoax dreamed up in 1865, it was even more ridiculous to believe a hoax from 2000 years ago. They're all just stories, after all. If millions of people could buy into Mormonism after only 150 years, what did that say about Christianity? How could I trust the old game of Telephone as it played out across two millenia?

After I asked myself that question, I thought about Grandpa. A Man of God - who lied, and exaggerated  and sometimes just "got things wrong." Not because he was evil, but because he was dying from plaque forming in the arteries of his brain. If he was wrong about the fossils, the way Joseph Smith was wrong about the Golden Tablets... and the way George Lucas was wrong about that galaxy far, far away... how could I ever really know how to tell which stories were factually true, and which were just poetry and social memory? I suspected it would be a long and difficult road if I decided to take it.

I was 17.

I held on for a long time. I still don't want to appear to simply "convert" - I didn't know where to go from where I had been, and it's hard for me to describe to people where I am now. This is why I dislike labels; as soon as someone hears "atheist" they think they know what you're all about. Even if being atheist was the only justifiable position to take, I have always hated the pat feeling of the conversion story: "I once was blind, but now I see." I did not want to go from being the asshole defender of Christ to being an asshole defender of ... nothing.

The key was to stop being an asshole, and just be honest. I don't know if I'm "there" yet.

But I'm not struggling, any more, and that's something. I did not give up struggling until I was 34. At that point I had spent half my life as a devout believer, and then half as nothing, I decided to stop calling myself agnostic, and just admit that it was that I didn't know: I really didn't care. Since then I've realized that I don't have to "accept" anything to replace my faith. I don't have to have a conversion story, mainly because it's my story I'm telling, and it's okay if this part is all internal monologue.

All anyone else needs to know is that I don't simply accept things as "true" just because it makes a good story for them.

I am still interested in stories. The older I get, the more I appreciate the poetry and art in teasing meaning out of the universe. I'm interested in watching how people think, and seeing how they deal with life according to their different ways of looking at the world. I still feel somewhat sanctimonious about the common mistakes people make in their lives, but I am less interested in judging them and more interested in learning from their mistakes. If they ask, I will tell them what I know.

I write about faith sometimes - about others who have it, and how it impacts me. I want to figure out how to relate to people who are like I was. But mostly, I just want to enjoy the stories, and try to keep straight which are true, and which are just for fun.

Lucky for me, I find truth to be fun.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sewer Saga

Since we started the construction of our upstairs addition this past spring, we noticed a few clues that something was wrong.  Discoloration and debris on the sides of the toilet and a ring in the unused tub - both in the downstairs (ie, finished basement) bathroom.  Occasional "bloop bloop" sounds from the pipes. All cause for concern, but dismissed because the drains were still working. We figured it had some relation to the construction.

But a few weeks ago, we couldn't dismiss it any more.  The tub backed up with brown sludge containing not only shreds of toilet paper, but a nasty mixture of ... stuff.  So, we called the warranty company.

We had two visits from the company's contractor to clean out the pipes. On his first visit, he wasn't able to clear the problem, and he identified dirt and roots in the muck.  This was a potential problem, because our warranty wouldn't cover a break in the sewer line.  We also learned that the county wouldn't deal with any break occurring on our property.

In order to get a "diagnosis," the first guy came out the second time with a locator.  He ran the transmitter end as far as he could from the access point (the clean-out) in our basement, then walked around with the receiver end on the driveway.  He pointed to a spot about 10 feet from where he estimated the pipe to come out of the house.  His guess was that the pipe out of the house was cast iron, with it being terracotta the rest of the way to the street.  If it was terracotta, a repair job was not likely to solve the problem; it would be better to replace the whole stretch with PVC.

"I can't officially mark this, but that's where I think your break is."

It wasn't.

Turns out that when they built the house in the late 1940s, they ran the sewer line out of the east side of the foundation at a 45 degree angle, turned 45 degrees toward the street, ran about 10 feet to a right-hand 90 degree turn.  That's where the "break" was.  From there the pipe went about 15 feet, and made a couple more 45 degree turns to get to the west corner of our property - a run of 90 feet from outlet to county sewer.

But we didn't know that, yet.  We got estimates for a straight shot - right down the middle of our concrete driveway, 35 feet to the east corner of the street.  We discovered that our homeowner's insurance would cover the replacement of the line and the removal/replacement of the concrete... but NOT the excavation. (Apparently, the driveway and the pipe are part of the residence, but the dirt between them is not. Effin' lawyers...)

We needed estimates (the lowest clocked in at $4,200), schedules (next week? NO! Now, please!), and a lot of planning. Since this was happening in November, right around the 3-day weekend of veterans day, we ended up have to get creative. I took clothes in a gym bag and showered at work for a week; the kids and Kate went to shower at our friend's house; and we spent WAY too much at the laundromat. Eventually, the crew made it out and spent 3 days destroying, learning, and replacing.

But rather than terracotta in a straight shot down the driveway (which was, of course, the first thing torn out), they found 90' of ancient cast iron following that path I described above. And worst (or best) of all: they saw no break.  Nothing in the pipe being ripped out; no obvious cracks; no wet ground showing weeks' worth of seepage anywhere.  All was clear and fine (and now it was all brand new PVC) to the county's pipe.

We had to let the new joints cure overnight, so it was a full 24 hours before we could run the water.  When we did, it still backed up. So out the County came, at 11pm, to run a snake down our newly installed external cleanout.  They pulled about a foot of tree root clump out, called it good and left.

Really?  All of that money, time, inconvenience and effort for a clump of tree root? We're supposed to believe that was all that was causing 90 feet of pipe to fill with water? Was that all that was needed in the first place? I was skeptical, and so was Kate. But perhaps we would be alright.

Turns out, no; Friday night, running a load of laundry, I heard the familiar "bloop bloop" and ran into the bathroom to see the tub filling with murky, cold water.  Out came the County.  They ran the snake.  Nothing.  But miraculously, the water was flowing. Until today. Same thing (at noon instead of midnight, this time!); men + snake = still nothing.

Next step: cameras.  Maybe they'll find some missing mythical creature nesting in the junction of our sewer: the Phantom, an escaped cold-weather Anaconda, or a competent and attractive alternative to Newt Gingrich.  Who knows what watertight abomination could be down there!

Meanwhile, I'm eyeing the drains with suspicion, and waiting for the next Bloop.

To be continued?

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Clown Shoes

The opposition is convinced they will win.

The President is on the ropes, they say, and anyone could walk in and take the office from him.  They have a litany of complaints - dismissed by the President's defenders in the ruling party with a range of attitudes from snarky disdain to mock horror - and they have a list of candidates ready to vie for the chance to put their ideas on the national ballot.

But supreme overconfidence seems to be the theme of the primary race.  From the acknowledged establishment front-runner no one really likes; to the more appealing-but also less familiar challenger; to the out-of-touch Cold Warrior spouting ancient Soviet-era ideas; to the religion-tainted crackpot; to the exciting governor who implodes when he opens his mouth; to the untrusted dark horse with kooky ideas; and the unexpected denial of candidates who thought it was their turn - the opposition seems bent on selling ideas that have been roundly rejected by the electorate rather than gaining the confidence of the voters and offering any solutions to contemporary problems.

And after the dust settles, the President will walk away with a Mandate from the People to continue doing business as he has been doing business all along.  He will double down on ideas and strategies from his first term, and not only disappoint and alienate the independent electorate that chose him as the lesser of two evils, but also erode and embitter his own base. (Of course, most of them only dig in and defend him to avoid the appearance of "giving in" or to entertain themselves by watching their political enemies fume.)

Sound familiar? Yeah - the 2004 race sucked.

You would think that no one would want to repeat that experience.  After all of the agony and bitterness, not to mention the political losses on both sides, you would expect that more candidates might try to appeal to the sensible middle of the political spectrum. You would expect them to duplicate the "no drama" approach to campaigning; after all, that was what some 40% of us found appealing about the last winner.

Instead, the GOP has denied reality at every opportunity, has ramped up the viciousness of their rhetoric, and seems to have bought into their own alternate-history view in a way that even the 2004 Democrats - the "anyone but Bush" crowd - did not do.  The Democrats at least had legitimate complaints against Bush - I've documented my reasoning behind that opinion in this blog before. 

I'm not convinced that the Republicans have such legitimate complaints about President Obama. 

He has largely accomplished things that the GOP insisted they would do; from taking down bin Laden and Ghaddafi, to pulling out of Iraq in an "honorable" way (to use the word the administration uses). His domestic agenda has pushed through a lot of Republican ideas - to the chagrin of his Democratic supporters - only to have those ideas roundly rejected by the GOP and declared by their PR arm to be part of his alleged Socialist Plot to Take Over the World.  The GOP seems universally convinced that the rest of us believe what they believe about President Obama - and what they believe is on 24/7 display on FOX news networks.

Watching the current crop of candidates deny science, deny economic reality (really, guys?  Trickle down - still?), and insist that God is leading them to save us from the Gays, Foreigners, Communists, and Atheists has been occasionally entertaining, but it's still depressing to think that this is the best an established political entity can produce. 

Then again, they may have a point.  

After all is said and done, God may really WANT some of these morons in charge of our government. Remember - this is the same God that allegedly designed the camel and the platypus. 

Monday, November 7, 2011

Lb4Lb#9: Yours, Mine, and the Truth

There's three sides to every story:
the Truth.
Cupid's Dead
Sometimes we're just too clever for our own good.

Extreme is a band that has suffered from straddling a line between down-to-earth and over-the-top. They clearly had the chops and the musicianship needed to rule the earth, but they wanted something else. And what they wanted was something that you can't come right out and ask for: your fans have to figure it out on their own.

I'm a hapless romantic
St-t-tuttering p-poet
Just call me a Tragic Comic
'Cause I'm in love with you
Tragic Comic
I'm one of the many fans and critics who consider their best effort to have been the album entitled (somewhat ambiguously) III Sides To Every Story. It was their third, following up their breakout hits More Than Words and Hole Hearted. If the world was a fair place, then III Sides would have been the homerun the band needed to hit. It showcases one of the world's best guitarists without being a "guitar" album, and it blends thoughtfulness, spirituality, and humor in a wickedly funky metal confection.

The band tried to pull off something really difficult with their concept. After all these years, even a fan like me isn't entirely sure what the message was, or what it all really means. I know that there are parts that I really get, and others I don't. I'm never entirely sure I'm comfortable with what it says.

Mr. Goody Two
Do you really thing the world
Can be Black, White, and Jew?

...Mr. Music Man
Don't turn your back on me?
Cause I'm the one with the gun
Peacemaker Die
At first glance, this bold and disturbing stance seems obvious. Clearly, since this is a concept album about politics and belief, and since the first "side" of the three - Yours - was not meant to reflect the band's own opinions and beliefs, you can't take this bravado and swagger at face value. For these songs, they ought to be painting a picture of the Other Guy - the one we're supposed to be against.

This world ain't big enough for two
And I've got my sights on you
Oh, yeah - that guy is an aggressive jerk. That's YOUR side, alright. Not mine. I know people like him, so "Your" side is about him, right?

That works to a point. But then you see something of yourself in that Other guy:

"Make love/not war" sounds so absurd to me
We can't afford to take these words lightly
or else our world will truly Rest in Peace
Rest In Peace
Wait a minute - I hold to that sentiment myself. Even though the threat of Soviet-inflicted Armaggedon is even less likely now that it was in 1992, I know that we can't afford to neglect our own defense. Maybe these guys consider me to be that Other guy? And yet, I'm also far from the Warhead described in the opening track.

This second-guessing goes on throughout the whole album; what are these songs trying to tell me about the band? Or about myself?

Picture a world without any color
You couldn't tell one face from another
I can't understand why we fight with our brother
Color Me Blind
Just when you think you've got it figured out - which side is which - they throw in something that doesn't fit. Are they hippies? No, because why would hippies put Color Me Blind on "Your" side? Maybe they're trying to show that both "sides" have some balance? Maybe they're trying to show that there's common ground between the "sides"?

But then there are the chilling moments, where you see something horrific and alien in the Other side. I still get goosebumps from the sick feeling of being inside the mind of a violent extremist as the band plays a sample of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech over the repeated leit-motif of "Peacemaker Die." I know exactly where the gunshot is, and I still jump when I hear it. If I identified with "Your" side up to this point, I would be suddenly forced to realize something horrible about the person that "Your" side describes.

All the world's
a masquerade
made up of fools
and philosophers
Were it to rain
on our charade,
all washes away,
except for our true colors
Stop The World
How many listeners were put off by this inherent confusion, I wonder? And how many missed the larger point because they either took the lyric at face value as something the band really believes, or pushed away from what they took to be criticism of their own beliefs? Judging by the sales figures, a lot of people didn't get it.
Which is sad, because there is a lot of goodness here. I suspect the disappointment from the way this album was received led to the frustrating compromises the band made on their next release; a so-called "grunge" album that their more loyal fans saw as a "sell out" move. I'm just glad they had the courage to take this risk, and give us this album first. It must have been a real conflict to decide to do so.

And conflict is really what this whole thing is about. While the conflict on Your side is harsher and more threatening, Mine is more open and accessible. This side is the questioning, sentimental side.

If I had one wish
It wouldn't be hard to choose
Seven Sundays in a row
'cause that's the day that I spend with you
Seven Sundays
I think we can all recognize the hopefulness and futility that comes from trying to sort out our place in a world that seems downright crazy. We all think we're just good, average folks trying to make our way through; we all want to rely on someone stronger and smarter than us to pull us through; and we all want to escape from the glad-handing charlatans trying to take advantage of us.

But even here on what should be common ground we have a problem to sort out, because of all of this religious imagery and language. Seven Sundays could be a sweet song for your steady girl - or it could be about a relationship with God. And that duality gets more overt when you compare it to the aggressive R. Lee Ermey father that opened the album. Just what exactly are they trying to say about God?

Oh Daddy please
Take me with you, where you going
Oh Daddy please
Come find the time, come watch us growing
Our Father
I used to only listen to the halfway point of this album - something which has changed, or I wouldn't rightly be able to call this a "pound for pound" album. I used to get mad or bored with the more religious and heavily orchestrated songs from Our Father on - but now I don't.

I would get mad because it sounded (in my younger days) as if the band were urging me toward some kind of religious answer. I would get bored (later on), just dismissing this section as an attempt to deal with Daddy issues. Now I see that, like the other sections, we have the same mix of conflicted points of view that we saw in the first half.

So I start off every day
Down on my knees I will pray
(for a change in any way)

But as the day goes by
I live through another lie
if it's any wonder why!

Am I ever gonna change?
If I say one thing then I do the other
It's the same old song that goes on forever
Am I Ever Gonna Change?
After years of listening, pondering, wondering, supposing, and rethinking, I still don't really have any answers. But I do think these guys were onto something 20 years ago. I think there is an important lesson here and that it still applies. I don't pray, but I recognize that prayer is an externalized form of meditation. We humans keep looking for answers outside of ourselves; we keep hoping to change others - whether their minds or just their behavior - as if that alone would make everything better.

But the world keeps spinning, and I keep getting sucked into the same arguments with the same kinds of people. Anger begets anger, frustration breeds contempt, and no one ever feels like their "side" is fairly represented.

Maybe the real solution to the puzzle is to let someone else have the last word.

Am I ever gonna change?
I'm the only one to blame
When I think I'm right, I wind up wrong
It's a futile fight that's gone on too long.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Whole Hearted, Full Throated

If you know anything about me from my writing, or from talking to me over time, or from being around me, it is this: I love my wife.

Loving someone with your whole heart is terrifying.  You don't know in the early stages whether it is safe to dive in, and once you're in and comfortable, you have to guard against taking it for granted.  When I met my lovely bride, it was like a beam of sunlight parted my fog, and I did dive.  At some point, amongst all of the moving, failing, growing, and changing, we began to take things for granted.

Over the last few years, I've learned why people are so very terrified of love.  I've learned the hard way that our love has faded, and she has made it clear that she no longer wants to be married.  Not to me.

If you know anything else about me - and I leave evidence of this quirk of my personality lying around on the Internet - you know I tend to speak my mind.  I speak truth to power, I share my opinions, and I object loudly when I run across a situation which strikes me as wrong. I don't fancy myself as a fading flower who holds back when someone deserves to be told off.

And I have been wronged.

But I haven't talked about this as openly as you might expect.  Some of you know the whole story; it's not like I'm hiding anything.  If you ask me privately, I may tell you.  I just don't want to broadcast details all over the web.  I don't want to say things that my children will see.  And deep down, I want to keep alive the hope that when the dust - or this new patch of fog - clears, I'll be able to reclaim my bride.

So I keep broadcasting the one thing I do want you all to know.  I tell you all with no reservation that when she is ready, I will still be here with my whole heart - cracked, but intact - ready to cry out passionately to the heavens what has been true since the day I dove head first into her life.

Loving someone with your whole heart is terrifying - and no less so when you are taking that risk for the second time.  When you already know what you stand to gain, and what you are missing, it is no less tempting to wonder if you should make the leap.  No less so when you have good reason to expect the worst.  Or when you're making the leap without knowing for sure that you will land safely.  Diving into turbulent waters and realizing how close you are to the rocks beneath - seeing them rush up at you...

If I have misjudged, and if I am headed for the rocks, let my cry be this:

I love my wife. Whole Hearted, Full Throated.

And I am not even putting my hands out to break my fall.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Impact on My Faith

Today, like every day of the last decade, we are feeling the effects of a deplorable act. My family's story is like that of most Americans; we were fortunate not to lose anyone directly, though some of us were close by. One of us could have been in the Pentagon that day; one of us was sent from the Air Force base in New Jersey in time to see the buildings come down and to help guide people away from the rubble to safety. We could have lost much more than we did.

This is about what we gained.

For many, the shock and the aftermath brought them to a place of renewed Faith. They turned to God - whether the God they had been raised to believe in and fallen away from, or the God they had never considered and now needed. "God Bless America" was everywhere in the years that followed the attacks. The ceremonies today are full of scripture, invocation of the name of God, and songs like Amazing Grace. 

But as my friends and family well know, I have not turned toward their God in these years. They've seen me begin to identify myself more as an atheist or nontheist; a believer in nothing, it would seem. To them, this represents a loss. I see it as a gain. While they draw strength from putting a name to the universe, and imagining that it cares about them, I've drawn strength from confronting a cold, indifferent universe in which I can thrive despite adversity.

It has been hard for me - a boy raised deep in the thick of Southern Baptist faith and tradition - to learn a new vocabulary of faith and strength that doesn't require the existence of God. Music has helped. Poetry helps. Keeping hold of the ideas behind faith - love, charity, and mercy as the virtues that should drive us - while shedding the mystical, thought-clouding emotions tied to Faith has been an intense, private struggle. And life streams by, with currents and eddies that make finding your footing seem impossible.

Despite the impossibilities, I go on. We all do. It's impossible that we could even exist, but we do. That is the fact that ties all of us together regardless of the names we give to the world around us. What I've gained in the last decade is a source of strength based on the impossible. I've learned (and am still learning) how my faith drives me. My faith is not in a god that controls the minutiae of my life. My faith is in the always reliable turmoil that generates and destroys life. It makes me choose what is truly important to me more carefully. It makes me fight harder for what I've chosen; for my wife and children. For a career that I think is an important part of preventing future acts of violence like those we are remembering today.

My faith tells me that people, while dangerous and unpredictable, are just like me and are driven by knowable forces - and ultimately, their understanding of those forces is sometimes given names that I don't have faith in. God. Allah. Karma. Jesus. Part of my faith requires me to let them have their point of view, and only contradict them when they truly threaten me, or when I have reason to fear their faith is taking them somewhere dangerous to themselves. We will always struggle with the cloudy grey areas where different understandings bump into each other; but I've learned that "assume good intent" and a general avoidance of revenge and violence can keep those struggles from causing harm.

As a "budding atheist" you might expect me to be uncomfortable with the invocation of God that comes with the ceremony of remembrance. I am. But because I understand that people need to relate to the world in a way that brings them peace and equilibrium, I try to treat the references to God, Heaven and a Higher Power as a code for the same basic things that I do believe in. To me, the names we choose don't matter as much as the stories and the lessons they teach.

It's up to each of us to pull the lessons of life and love from those stories; just as it is up to us to pull the laws of the universe out of observation and experimentation. You might venerate Doctor Who as much as some do Jesus, or your own ego as much as some do Buddha; it doesn't matter to me, as long as you find a way to stand up and face down your challenges. It doesn't matter how you express your faith, as long as you find a way to deal equitably with others.

I haven't become a perfect person in the last ten years. In some ways, I'm as lost and confused as I ever was; I'm certainly just as obnoxious and socially retarded now as when I was a young Christian. I may never reach the goals I've set for myself, and I may still lose the things that are most important to me. That is life.

But no matter what God or the universe have in store for me, I will love and admire my wife and children, and will do my best to lift up those around me. I will do what I can to make things better - even though "better" is a moving target. I like to think I would have gotten here without the influence of the September 11 attacks, but the truth is that they did impact me.  And this is where I am now.

Whatever your beliefs are, I hope your faith is taking you through the turmoil toward something better. I like what Admiral Mullens said on Twitter today: "Living well and for each other -- that is victory."

I hope that, whatever your beliefs are and whatever names you use for the universe, you find peace and strength in your reflections today.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Snip - a Public Service Announcement

Warning: Severe Ick Factor Ahead!

If you are bothered by discussions of medical procedure, bodily fluids, or patients' eye views of urology, then I suggest you skip down to an earlier blog (you might have missed one or two). It's probably very rude of me to recount these events, but I consider this tale to be a public service announcement, and so I'm going to post it, anyway.

I told Bernie the boss, "I'm going to be out Wednesday, and I won't be back until Monday."

My friend Paul asked why I was going to be out (me, the guy known for working 72+ hours a week)... and I told him; time for the vasectomy. "Are you NUTS?" he shouted, then his cheeks colored and he shuffled off.

I understood how he felt; he was a single guy with all of his silly macho ideals still intact. But my lovely bride and I had four little kids in rapid succession. Due mainly to allergies, other options for population control weren't viable. It was hard to make the leap, but we decided we'd both make sure that IT couldn't happen again. And I was going first.

I went to the evaluation appointment, not sure what to expect. I did not expect a very cute, pixie-faced Doctor to explain my choices for the procedure in graphic detail while fanning illustrations of the options before her face. She showed me the three basic methods:
*Two scalpel incisions directly over each tube
*Two incisions made with sharpened shears (jab through skin, open shears to make 1/4 in. opening)
*One scalpel incision in the middle, and fish out the tubes with a probe...

She saw I had turned green, so she showed me the list of six doctors in the practice. "They will each perform whichever method you prefer - except Dr. Herzinger; he only does the sharpened shears. He says it heals better with a ragged incision." That's right, it was pronounced "Dr. HURT-zinger".

In the end, guess who was the only doc available for the forseeable future?

So I showed up the day of, having shaved as instructed. This was an awkward thing for me, and I followed the instructions precisely, marveling to myself that people would do this regularly. Feeling more exposed than I had since puberty, I lay on the table, only to have the Dr. shake his ancient head and say with sad disapproval, "Didn't do a very thorough job there, did you?" Then he seized a straight razor and deftly cleared half an acre I had never seen before. (Strictly speaking, I still haven't seen it.)

Once I was completely shorn, and utterly humiliated, the anesthetizing began. Have you had a dental procedure done? Or heard Bill Cosby's bit about Dentists? The way they jab in the needle, and then slowly wiggle it around while they inject their cold poison, was compounded by the feeling of my testicle being inflated to the size of a basketball. I white-knuckled the sides of the gurney, and just as I was certain he had decided to dispense with "incisions" and just POP the bastard... he stopped. I released my breath and my grip, grateful it had ended without any hitting or screaming.  The Doc nodded at me kindly and said, "Alright... now for the left one."

I survived, though, reminding myself that delivering four children was far worse for my wife than what I was going through was for me. Even watching him "tie it off" (like watching a rodeo bull-roping over the horizon of my own belly) didn't phase me after that.

And of course, I was expected to come back in two or three weeks for the Test. I needed to wait for everything to heal, of course, and then contribute a sample to make sure there were no stray swimmers finding their way out into the world.

Now, I had read "The Water Method Man", and had seen "Road Trip"; I had some preconceived notions (and not a little fear) of what this experience might involve. I was to be severely disappointed.

No "cute nurse" like in the movie; I got your basic Dundalk-bred troglodyte, complete with greasy ponytail and weak, acne-scarred chin, handing me a cup and saying, "Fill this to here, hon, and get it back within 45 minutes."

I was shattered. There was no "special room" for this, with porn or a fake boob or something? I didn't want to ask... there were scads of people in there! And Dundalkella had gone back to nibbling at a crab cake hidden behind her computer monitor. So I turned and left the office.

I went down to the car, and stared at the cup. It wouldn't take much, but where was I supposed to go? I only had (checking the clock) 40 minutes left, and home was twenty minutes away. Even if traffic was perfect, I only had a couple of minutes to try to produce a sample in a house full of screeching children! So I got out of the car and headed back into the building.

The men's rooms on the first three floors were either full of grunting patrons, or cleaning crews. On the fifth floor, I finally found some isolation. It was a dingy, brown-tiled orifice of a room, with peeling paint on the stall doors and no provocative graffiti. And there, despite fearful internal warnings about George Michael's arrest intruding on what I was trying to visualize -- I managed to produce my sample.

Handing the cup to the Gamorrean receptionist, she looked surprised to see me. "That was quick, hon!" I thought she had said I had 45 minutes, though. "Oh, for the love! You have 45 minutes from when you fill the cup!" At that moment, it dawned on her, and a few of the bystanders, just what I had done, and where I had likely done it. So I left.

"Man," I thought to myself. "I'm never doing THAT again!"

Decant the Midnight Lizard

Digging through old posts from 2003 or 2004, I found this:

I plunge my face into my pillow, and feel the cool fabric leach the heat from my strained and weary eyes. Clouds of the Sandman’s magic dust puff up around me, and I am already sailing away into a dream and relaxing into my pose of repose, which is not unlike that of the Coyote upon reaching the canyon floor in a Roadrunner cartoon.

“Did you empty the boy?” The voice of my lovely bride jerks to a halt my descent into slumber, and my body goes rigid as I fight my way back into wakefulness. I should have known I was forgetting something.

The Boy is three, and took to toilet training like a donut to coffee. The only problem he has is remembering to get up in the night to avoid drowning. It has become my job to empty him once before going to bed, and again in the morning before I leave for work. I don’t mind, except that he is an extremely heavy sleeper, as the twinge in my back will attest. I’ve lobbied against the nightly “dink o’walla” with all my heart, but have been consistently out-voted. I seem to be the only one who has made a connection between the 2.5 ounces of water he drinks just before bed and the 2.5 gallon deluge that issues forth from him between 10pm and 4am.

So, it falls to me as the last one down and the first one up to enforce the head call. If I don’t do it, he will awaken, cold and sticky, forty minutes before my alarm is set to go off, and will climb into our bed with his soggy drawers. The changing of sheets and pajamas (his and ours, now), and the wailing and crying (his and ours), and the rinsing off of his soiled body and tucking him into his remade bed generally leaves me with about ten minutes to go until I have to get up again. Not enough time to get any more rest, and too much time to sit and dawdle over my cereal.

This night, I am especially tired. The cold I have been fighting has resorted to guerilla tactics for the last couple of weeks. Gone during the work week, but suddenly appearing on Friday night. Sometimes it’s in my sinuses, sometimes in my throat, sometimes in my eye. I think it has a secret base in my liver, so I’ve been using the Russian remedy: one shot of vodka with a dash of pepper.

I drag down the hall, and grope about in his bed, looking for him. He is a small boy, and the bed seems large in the dark; he could be anywhere! He isn’t. I am about to give in and turn on a light when I feel something underfoot. It IS a foot. It is attached to the wee lad, who has made a nest under his bed out of stuffed animals, dump trucks, and a few Justice League action figures. Batman, devotedly standing guard, dives cowl-first onto my foot as I lift the boy like a sack of rice, and with a stifled yelp, I begin hopping painfully toward the bathroom, all while trying to keep a good grip on him.

Not many people fully appreciate how floppy the body of a sleeping child can be until they try to pick one up in the middle of the night. This one sags in the middle as I prop his head on my shoulder and drape his legs over the elbow of the other arm. It isn’t a problem until he startles awake and begins to writhe like a cat in a bathtub. I manage to prevent him from slamming his head into the door frame by slamming my head into the door frame. He will have an interesting vocabulary by the time he begins school. The blast of cranial pain distracts from the Bat-marks in my foot, though, and that helps me maintain my balance.

“Sh-sh-shh!” I say, trying to sooth him back into immobility. He relaxes a little bit, then suddenly drops back to sleep. I complete the journey to the bathroom with only minor limping, and try to stand him up on the little stool next to the toilet. His legs won’t go down. They waver bonelessly. They curl up under him, and he tucks his chin to his chest and throws his arms up, giving me nothing to hold onto. He almost slips away, but I manage to grab him by the elbows and haul him back up.

Now he’s mad, and his legs shoot out, as he explodes with furious activity. He is a whirlwind, a wolverine cornered, a many-tentacled rage beast desperate to get away from me.

Then, with a plop, all action stops. Something awful has happened. We stand there in the darkness, until realization dawns. He tears the night apart with his shrill, angry scream: “It’s CO-O-O-OLD!!”

He has planted his left foot squarely into the toilet bowl.

Yanking his foot free, he begins kicking savagely, liberally spraying toilet water hither and yon. Fortunately, it didn’t get on his clothing. After a brief tussle, I wrestle him up onto the sink, and jam his foot under the tap. I wash him, pat him dry, and stand him up - finally - on his stool. There, he proceeds to make water for an eternity.

I have time to wash myself up, dry, mop up the floor, check the pipes for wear, tidy the tub toys, and re-grout the tile. When he is done, I gently carry him back to his room, and place him gently in his bed, where he is supposed to be. I kiss him gently on the forehead, and whisper, “Sweet Dreams.”

When he whispers it back to me, all is forgiven, and I limp gratefully back to my own, sweet, welcoming bed.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Deja Vu Again: AFBMT pt. 3

Six Little Words (pt.1)
Three Strikes (pt. 2)

Do you ever get deja vu?

Perhaps you do when you are standing back outside that strange, alien building again, holding all of your worldly possesions in a duffel bag. Five weeks ago - a swiftly receding eternity ago - you were standing here facing the unknown along with 45 others just as scared and sleep-deprived as you. Now you are facing the prospect of meeting 49 new "others" who have been getting used to showering, eating, and learning side by side for three weeks. You are going to be the outsider, now. You are the "Recycle."

For five weeks you lived under the constant threat, which the leadership was always careful to say was not a punishment. "Recycling an airman is just a way of ensuring that everyone gets the training that they need," is the official explanation. You watched carefully when they brought Recycles into your flight; simple boys with slack jaws and glazed eyes who obviously didn't know ass from elbow or shit from shinola. To be fair, you don't know what shinola is, either, but you're pretty confident you could pick it out of that line-up.

Of course, you also thought you could learn to fold your underwear well enough to pass an inspection.

Do you ever get deja vu?

Perhaps you do when you are staring up the stairwell at the door to your new flight, and the only difference you see between it and your old one is the number on the wall. Five weeks ago, you were pretty sure the worst year of your life was behind you. The hard luck, the cruel woman, the indignity of returning to your parents' house and realizing that you were pretty much to blame for the whole mess was giving way to a new life. And in five short weeks you have burrowed your way to rock bottom.

You choke back a hysterical giggle as the dorm guard crisply and efficiently goes through the entry routine - the same routine you watched your old flight botch time after time, sending you here as a result. Well, to be fair, it was that and the underwear. Then you are inside, being greeted by a guy with flinty eyes and the kind of jaw you generally associate with Batman. He is your new dorm chief.

Deja vu never lasts, fortunately.

Dorm Chief is the student commander, usually chosen at random from the ranks of each flight. Your old dorm chief was a soft-spoken boy from West Virginia whose name was quickly corrupted into "Muffins" behind his back. He had always seemed a little overwhelmed. This new guy's name is Shocke, and he exhudes authority. If it weren't for the trainee name-tag and the telltale stubble on his head from his "Welcome to basic training" haircut, you would have guessed he was one of the TIs.

You're actually glad it's him greeting you instead of the TI. This flight belongs to SSgt Perro, a tiny woman with a huge presence. You remember hearing her march her flight and you shudder at the thought of that shrill, vicious voice, yelping like an insane, steroidal chihuahua. No one messed with her. One foolish airman - obviously a defensive lineman from some inner city high school - made a snide remark in her hearing during PT. Something about female airmen being allowed to do the pushups "on their knees." There is nothing as chilling as watching a skinny, five-foot woman bringing a six-foot, 200+ pound black man to tears so quickly.

Shocke seems to be as no-nonsense as SSgt Perro, and wastes no time in orienting you to your new environment. "We're going for Honor Flight," he begins. "I don't know what you did to get recycled, and you don't have to tell anyone, but if you do anything that threatens our chances to win, I'll make sure you disappear again." He manages to say this without sounding confrontational or threatening. "If anyone gives you any trouble, tell your squad leader, or come straight to me and we'll deal with it."

You are shown to your new bunk, and given a general introduction. You can't help feeling like a bug under a microscope, even though no one is paying particular attention to you. All you can do is unload your duffel and put your wall locker in order. When you finish, you turn to find the squad leader, Larsen, has been watching you, and you offer a wan smile.

"You seem to know what you're doing," he says. "Do you have any questions, yet?"

You shake your head, and start to make up the bed. He helps you get the sheets on, but when you spread out the faded olive-green army blanket - known as the "dust cover" - he blanches. There are coin-sized white spots all over it, which you assume to be bleach stains.

"Oh, crap!" Larsen squeaks. "Don't use that!" He calls Shocke over, and takes away the bedding.

"I'm sorry," Shocke says, briskly. "We were supposed to get you clean linens. The guy that used to be in this bunk got sent to the Med Center for psych evaluation yesterday. The guard caught" he fumbles for the right word, and blushes a little "...pleasuring himself." He strides off with the wad of offending linens, and the rest of the group offers apologetic mumbles to you.

Other than that, things go pretty smoothly.

After a day or two of handling your duties competently and staying out of trouble, people start to accept you. You let them believe you were recycled solely for failing inspections, and they offer to pitch in to help you pass the next one. Oddly, you pass with very little help.

Since you already completed all of the mandatory training for week four, you find yourself left alone to guard the dorm while the rest of the flight visits the rifle range and attends classes. You become a minor celebrity with your foreknowledge of the different activities they've heard so many rumors about. You resist winding them up over the number of shots they'll get (only four), and the supposed violation they all fear from some rumored medical exam (no cavity searches), and tell them all about the obstacle course. Excuse me, the Confidence Course.

You are even accepted to the point that your squad lobbies SSgt Perro to allow you to re-do the Confidence Course with the flight rather than stay in the dorm, much to your relief. Not only were you incredibly bored with that duty, but you were starting to have trouble staying awake - a fate worse than Recycle awaited the sleeping dorm guard.

And no way were you going to ask her yourself.

The next morning, when your new flight enters the chow hall for breakfast, you spot a familiar face working behind the food line. The new flight had just finished a week of KP before you got there, and now, it is apparently your old flight's turn to do Kitchen Patrol.

You aren't supposed to talk in line, but you risk a greeting. You old flight mate whispers a quick hello, and leans forward: "They aren't treating you bad, are they man? 'Cause if they're picking on you at all..."

"No," you say, "They've been great."

And then Shocke is there. "Is there a problem?" You tell him who the KP guys are, and his eyes narrow. "If they're picking on you at all..."

It's touching, actually. Fourty-nine people on each side of the line are actually concerned about your welfare. Ninety-eight people ready to jump to your side if you need help. You coast the rest of the day on a cushion of comraderie.

There's only one real problem brewing: you are getting sick. You don't let on that you aren't feeling well, for fear of being recycled again. This close to freedom, you aren't about to risk it; there will be time for illness AFTER week six. But the long days spent on your feet guarding the empty, overly air-conditioned dorm, alternating with the marching in the 104 degree San Antonio heat are taking their toll on your immune system.

After keeping up for a couple of days, your body has had enough; while standing in line in the chow hall, you collapse.

When you come around again, you're sitting on the floor with your head between your knees. SSgt Perro is asking you questions, and you hear yourself answering from ten miles away. "Are you alright?" Yes, ma'am. "Can you get up?" No, ma'am. "Why didn't you go to sick call?" I didn't want to get recycled again.

"I respect your tenacity, airman, but you need to take care of yourself!" She is speaking kindly, and she doesn't sound like a mad chihuahua. She sends you to the clinic, where you get a nap, and some medication. You feel better in the morning, and the last week cruises by.

So now, you've done it. You made it through Air Force Basic Military Training.

In some ways, you aren't sure what you have learned from it. Attention to Detail? Trust in Authority? Rely on your Teammates? Maybe it is all just a screening process to keep out the fatally insane, and the obvious nut-jobs, like the unmourned Reames. All you known is that you are proud, and that you are excited about moving on to the language school.

And that new, proud feeling is the opposite of Deja Vu.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Reality Denial in Children

I have four (4) children. They range in age from 8 to 14. That means that for the last 8 years I have had four (4) people in my home between the ages of 0 and 14. I am well aware that this number is far too small to represent any kind of statistical sample of the general population - but despite that fact, I feel safe in drawing some conclusions about children.

Observation A - A child has an object - such as a toy, a cup full of milk, or socks (on their feet). Later, the child is unable to locate said object, even if it is pointed out to them.

Conclusion 1: When something a child has in their possession loses contact with that child, it ceases to exist.

This object or possession effectively disappears when the child lets go of it. You or I may see the object fall from the child's hand and fall for a very long time and shatter in a spectacular display of destruction and disorder, and the child WILL NOT NOTICE. And when you call attention to said object, they will be surprised to discover it there in a pool of its own constituent elements.

Observation B - The child pours a cup of milk. The adult, witnessing this, cautions the child not to leave the milk on the table (where it will inevitably cease to exist - and also become cheese). Despite this helpful warning (see Conclusion 3), the child will later deny leaving the cup of very new cheese on the table in the sun.

Conclusion 2: The history of a given object has no bearing on its current condition.

This idea manifests itself in a variety of ways. In the previous example, the child will deny breaking the object - regardless of their shared history with that object. Even if they have carried that cherished possession with them for an entire day, singing songs about it and professing their love for it, when they become angered and hurl it away, Conclusion #1 takes effect, and Conclusion #2 allows them to say - with all true honesty and belief, "I didn't do that!"

Observation C - Child sitting on the couch, pulling socks off of their feet, is warned that socks do not belong stuffed behind the cushions, and nods violently with understanding (while craning to see the TV). Later, when confronted with the 5 socks discovered in the cushions behind the spot where they were sitting, they deny loudly and sincerely having ever placed any sock anywhere. The adult will insist on the child removing the socks to their laundry basket. This is declared to be completely unfair.

Conclusion 3: Cause and Effect are not related.

Observation D - You observe a child armed with a dark crayon traversing a room. No other children are home. Upon entering that room a few minutes later, you discover a new work of art not in the Sotheby's catalog, but sure to be worth $24.95 (for the jug of caustic chemicals which will be required to remove it, and the paint to patch the marred spot on the wall). When asked, the child will nod sagely, and cluck with false sympathy that it must have been Sibling A or B - who have both been at school for 4 hours.

Conclusion 4: The existence of Other Children absolves every child of all blame for everything - ever.

If you have an Only Child, you may not have noticed this phenomenon; that is assuming that you also have no pets, cousins, local playmates, convenient adults (like Dad), or imaginary friends for the Child to blame. They don't have to live with you in order to take the rap.

I do hold out hope that these phenomena are limited to the larval stage of human... despite the existence of Doomsday Believers, Global Warming Deniers, and Supply-Side Economists.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Going to Pet the Rabbits

NOTE: This is about me and my discovery of something about myself. It is not intended to be an attack on anyone or their faith. If you read this and choose to be offended, I'm not going to take responsibility for your choice.

I sat in a church this morning for the first time in many years.

It was a memorial service for the little daughter of a friend - a girl who had a degenerative condition which was expected to take her by age two. She made it almost to seven.

I can't imagine the kind of strength it must take to care for someone with a condition like that. I've known a number of people who have carried that burden, including my friend Karen, who didn't develop her condition until she was in her twenties; her mother had to watch her decline from a healthy young woman until she passed away last February. When I think about it all, it hurts; and I'm weak, so I don't often think about it. But my friends who are in that situation don't have the luxury of simply turning away and going back to a life like mine - they need to be strong and face it every minute... and they need to draw that strength from somewhere.

So I sat in a church this morning for the first time in many years, listening to my friend's pastor.

Being a memorial service, it was all about the family's comfort. The songs they used happened to be mostly familiar to me, because I grew up with them; "Amazing Grace" and "It Is Well With My Soul" were featured. The first verse of the latter one is particularly appropriate, and I was struck today by how Zen it is:

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
by Horatio Spafford

That part, at least, is a universal comfort; attaining peace in the tempest is a skill that everyone should learn - and the elemental imagery of the water here is striking. As I listened, I thought about how important that Idea was to me growing up, and how I've held onto it. That, at least, was something good and honest that could help my friend grieve, I thought.

But I sat in a church this morning for the first time in many years, listening to my friend's pastor talk about Heaven.

And I started to feel angry and creeped out. Because listening to him speak, and toss out all of those Great Truths that pastors must keep in their repertoire, I bristled at the undercurrent of what he was saying.

It wasn't just that he kept referring to God and Heaven as if they are real things - like I said, I grew up with that stuff, and came to terms with it long ago. I think of it as the poetic license that grief and comfort require of religion. It was something else. Two things, actually.

First, I felt like this service was being used against me. My very presence was being co-opted by this man to accuse me - not personally, but as part of the group. He took the liberty of declaring that "we are all here to affirm what we know to be true - that there is a God and He is in control" - things that I don't know to be true, and do not affirm. This was a lie, and what's more, his body language and use of repetition and verbal sleight of hand showed me that he knew it was a lie.

This pastor didn't know me or what I believe. His descriptions of Heaven, and his logic for "proving" its existence, while being tolerable in the context of comforting the family, were cheapened by his assertions. His repetition of that idea, and his flowery and alluring descriptions of the things that the little girl would now be doing in Heaven - that all rang even more hollow.

It reminded me of Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" - the pastor was George, spinning the fantastic story of a promised ranch full of puppies and bunnies, and I felt like Lenny. If you take a moment to review the plot summary, I'm sure you'll understand why I say I felt creeped out.

As for the second thing, the thing that made me angry, well that's more complicated... and it has more to do with my "atheist conversion experience."

Remember, I already expressed immense respect for the strength required of people who have to deal with something as painful as what my friend has dealt with. Raising ANY child is a challenge and a non-stop roller-coaster of fear, risk, and heartbreak - interspersed with just enough joy to make it worthwhile. But for these parents, that joy can be bitter and elusive - and even a victory can be tragic.

To do what they do - to survive and thrive as my friend has done - is a pure triumph. We cheapen these things in our culture with our perpetual tabloid stories and Lifetime or Hallmark "disease of the week" movies - but these are quiet, epic heroes who are doing the impossible. I don't blame any of them for leaning on something that I don't believe in. In the past I've made the mistake of referring to their faith as "a crutch," but it really isn't that. A better analogy would be to compare it to weight training or long-distance running; rather than a prop to support them, it is conditioning for facing reality in the long term instead of the short, escapist bursts the rest of us can get away with.

Look again at the first verse of "It Is Well With My Soul" and tell me which is easier - to look objectively at yourself from the middle of your pain and simply "decide" to accept it, or to tell yourself something comforting and poetic that helps you move past it? Most healthy and otherwise happy people I know can't face the prospect of a vast, cold, empty Universe that doesn't care about them; how do you expect people under tremendous pressure to cope without giving that Universe a name (God) and convincing themselves that despite all evidence to the contrary, there is hope and love and joy in it?

There is - but it's hard to see unless you work at it.

So, no - I don't balk at all when people need to draw strength from these ideas, and I don't think it would be helpful or kind to "correct" them when they tell me (and affirm to themselves) that it came from Jesus or God - or the Magic Feather they clutch in their trunk. The truth is that wherever they think they're getting that strength, it's coming from within themselves - and being humans, it is an amazingly deep well. (Doctor Who says so all the time!) So why am I angry at the pastor for playing into this helpful world of hopeful poetry?

My own break with Faith came when I realized what a logical cheat God was. Well, not God, but those speaking on His behalf. (Poetic construct that I believe Him to be, none of my anger is really ever directed at "Him" anyway.) Those pastors love to tell us that everything good comes from Him, and is solely to His credit. Without Him, we are not capable of anything at all. And what about all of our failures and sins etc.? That's all on us. Me, specifically. Or you.

(Today, I heard the pastor lay blame for the tornados and flooding going on in the Midwest on our wicked ways. Very comforting, indeed.)

The important idea here is, no matter what you do, no matter how hard you try - or even if you don't try at all - God gets all the credit for your "goodness" and you get credit for the bad stuff... right down to horrific weather phenomena. It's a logical trap designed to prey on those who need to tell themselves that there is a source of strength outside themselves. To defy the pastor is to put the source of their strength at risk; to question his logic is to risk their faith in themselves. So the pastor tells them their own strength is an unreliable and dangerous flaw, and that they should trust in God - and someday, we'll have a ranch where we can pet the rabbits. Just like Lenny.

As I grew up, and realized that maintaining my faith meant I was expected to surrender to this double whammy of self-denial, I balked. Obviously, I assumed at first that it was just my sinful pride talking, right? Except... I came to understand that the source of my "slackerdom" stemmed from distancing of responsibility from myself, and placing it in this God who seemed not to take care of my homework or my auto maintenance and bills without a heck of a lot of assistance from me.

But I don't mean to trivialize this concept. I watch people suffer through these awful things in life all the time. They call on their God all the time, and sometimes, when they stop crying and dig down deep, they find something inside themselves that gets them through. Sometimes it's just a matter of letting go - of becoming the water, if you will - and they can cope. Then they thank God for it.

You can believe that is God, if you want to, and if it helps you get through whatever you're facing, who am I to rip that away from you? But it still bothers me because denying our successes and only claiming our failures robs us of something vital. It denies that we have that strength in the first place, and by taking away that faith in ourselves, we are weakened.

So I sat in a church this morning for the first time in many years, listening to my friend's pastor talk about God, and about her strength, and I realized that I, as a non-believer could see something in her that no Believer really sees. They pay lip service to her, but then steal her credit and attribute it to God - a construct meant to put a happy face on a cold, brutal Universe.

And while they were doing that to her, I realized that as a non-believer, I can see what is really divine.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

I Don't Understand It, So You Must Be Wrong

I have three anecdotal threads to tug on today. The concept isn't necessarily limited to the discussion of "Global Warming" or "Climate Change" (or whatever we're supposed to call it), but 2/3 of the anecdotes came from that discussion:

1. By coincidence, I was involved in two unrelated conversations at work where the person I was speaking with dismissed the idea of global, man-made climate change/warming (whatever poorly marketed descriptive term you wish to use) in this manner:
I just don't think we should make policy and harm our economy based on bad science. I mean "the hockey stick"? Come on!

2. I was driving my 8-year-old somewhere, and she began telling me what she learned in class about the environment:
When you drive, the gas from your car goes into the ocean and pollutes the moisture; then the moisture from the ocean pollutes the water we drink. And that's like drinking gas.

3. Then this morning I enjoyed this XKCD comic:

These three ideas caused a glimmer of Truth to flicker in my admittedly thick cranium - that glimmer being that despite having the science horribly wrong, the 3rd Grader was basically correct: driving cars does cause environmental damage. She's dead wrong on the mechanisms at work, the chemistry, and even the vocabulary ("pollutes the moisture"?); and she's got no idea what the relative impacts of auto emissions on the hydrological cycle might really be. But car exhaust does have an effect on the planet - and some rough guesses (based on data available at indicate that there are about 62 million cars which might be operated on any given day. So, her basic premise is essentially true.

Of course, what will the 3rd Grader learn if you try to correct her science? (See the last panel of the cartoon again.)

But this is the nature of the "debate" I see going on regarding the impacts that mankind has on our complex systems of atmosphere, water, and biodiversity. Those of us who aren't scientists have to have this stuff explained to us - I don't do the research, I don't have a degree, and I have an admittedly imperfect understanding of what I am told. And when I try to talk about it - especially when I try to figure out what information CAN be trusted in this discussion - I feel like the 3rd Grader being challenged by the skeptical student from the cartoon.

In other words, the more I read and try to figure out "ground truth" in the whole Global Warming discussion, the more I see people dismissing the real science offered by the "professor" because of the poor understanding the other students have of the issue. And that gives me an uncomfortableness.

It seems to me that if everyone who claimed to be interested in a rational approach took a rational approach, we could quickly establish what the "facts" are: that there are a LOT of people on the planet, and that their various activities have a complex, but calculable impact on said planet; that the sum of these activities *might* be causing problems that could put us in danger; and that there might be some choices we could make that would mitigate these dangers. Most scientists agree with the first fact. Even the scientists I have seen cited as "global warming skeptics" don't question that mankind is causing rising temperatures; and then there are the doubters who actually DO their own research and convince themselves in the process.

There are plenty of folks in the general public who will refuse to concede any ground because they see this as a political issue; but the "wacky liberals" are in the company of rational conservatives on this one, and even the solution that our politically motivated deniers attack most aggressively was first implemented by one of their own. I have found that these facts won't protect you from the scorn of those who insist there is no consensus, and that by buying into the idea that humans are damaging their own habitat you are falling victim to the money-making machinations of a vast, environmentalist cabal.

(One has to wonder how the non-profit environmentalists intend to make all of this money, but if one can ignore the multi-billion dollar oil industry's interest in promoting this conspiracy theory, then I suppose one can just as easily find that motive. I think it goes deeper than just the oil companies, though.)

I don't expect anyone to take my word for any of this. The discussion is all Out There - and I'm just a poor 3rd Grader trying to make sense of it. I can recommend a guide to the talking points. I can offer my opinions, and my poor approximations and explanations. But in the end, not understanding the real costs and the real damage that we are doing will most likely cost more than any steps we might try to take to avoid them.

I just hope our skeptical students will give their professors the opportunity to explain it.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Lb4Lb#8: The Unauthorized Biography of Tadmaster

Well, I thought about the Army,
Dad said, "Son, you're fucking high..."
More than 10 years ago, I was a U.S. servicemember stationed in England. I stood a rotation of 12-hour shifts, and had a house full of small children and a pregnant wife. Our unit was remotely deployed, so we frequently had to drive 2 hours to get to our home base - where we had our medical appointments, Air Force admin stuff, shopping for U.S. foods (that we could afford), and what not. Life consisted of long, boring stretches interspersed with ennui and tension, depending on the whims of our leaders.

But we had friends, and we tried to keep each others' spirits up. One of them gave me a pirated cassette tape of a new album he had been digging. He knew I liked Ben Folds Five, and I was happy to give this new album a listen, even with the long, odd title: The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner.

I should warn you,
I go to sleep.
That first line in that first song spoke volumes. God, I knew exactly what this guy was singing about - feeling disengaged from everyone and dropping out, while at the same time feeling turmoil and passion within that you couldn't get out - because it made you shut down.

I remember trips down to base where I put this increasingly battered cassette into the player, and sang at the top of my lungs, tears spurting out of my eyes, fist pounding the left hand piano part on the dashboard. "I know it seems that I don't care/But something in me does, I swear!" That catharsis kept me awake - and probably alive, since Narcoleptic adventures on the roads of England are not conducive to survival.

No, I don't believe in God,
So I can't be saved.
Each track revealed a different piece of my own back story. I was still new to being a father and husband, and being a selfish college prick was still fresh in my mind. The wreckage of relationships, the bemusement of dealing with drama that others felt and I didn't, or the simple honest truths about myself that I was learning to come to terms with - like my skeptical non-theism - had now found a soundtrack.

Everyone knows that music can do this; it's not unusual to find songs that capture some vital thing about you and help you remember it or relive it. But it's rare that you find a whole album that does it. This is music that helps you understand and embrace the things about yourself that you were avoiding. The things that you would be embarrassed to admit were causing you pain, because that sounds like something one of those self-absorbed hipsters would say.

And no one wants to be seen as a self-absorbed hipster, right?

If you're afraid they might discover
Your redneck past
There are a hundred ways to cover your redneck past
They'll never send you home
Your Redneck Past
Everyone has something they think they need to hide. Isn't it wonderful to find that the best way to keep it all hidden is to put it out there where everyone can see it?
These songs were never about me, of course. They aren't necessarily about Ben Folds, either, but they are revealing. The appeal for me has always been the way he is so open, honest and deep in his writing. But at the same time, these songs were funny and self-deprecating. You don't write about what a fool you think you are unless you've accepted that about yourself, and learned to enjoy it.

And that's where this album took me. Through the agony and the irony, it gave me something to relate to, and then held up a mirror so I could laugh at the Mess I was in, and appreciate the good things I had.

And how we just made fun
Of those who had the guts to try and fail
At the end of the day, I realized I was trying. I wasn't doing a great job of avoiding failure, but I was trying. You can always do better - that's the point. You will always have failures, big and small.

And for me, having a biography in song helps get through all of that. That's why I've bought this album several times - making up for that pirated copy that sits in a box in my basement, now.

Sweet dreams, Reinhold Messner, whoever you are!

Just the three of us took flight that night
Uncle Richard, me and James Earl Jones

And the pilot he gave me a blanket
And the tall dark man sang to me in deep
Rich tones...

Goodnight, goodnight sweet baby
The world has more for you
Than it seems
Goodnight, goodnight
Let the moonlight take the lid off your dreams

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Truth About Jobs

Despite all of the hair pulling over "job-killing legislation" and blame-throwing about sending jobs overseas in our national discourse lately, you'll notice that no one has any real plan for getting people back to work. I suspect the reason for this is that unemployment these days has less to do with tax codes or trade agreements than it does with something we tend to like - Innovation.

The thing about innovation is that it is driven by a desire on the part of the innovator to Do Less Work. To be fair, it is also driven by a desire to improve safety and efficiency, but the pressure to come up with new ways to do more with less is ancient. Whoever built the first water-driven mill wanted to save time and strength previously devoted to grinding grain by hand, feed more people, and make more money. It worked. Mills grew into elaborate (and often dangerous) enterprises used in all kinds of manufacturing during the Age of Industrialization, and pressures from labor costs and safety measures drive the need to replace human workers with machinery. That pressure has increasingly driven the story of the past century or two, and isn't going away any time soon.

I'm not here to tell you that the continued and accelerating mechanization and automation of our world is "good" or "bad" - just that it's inevitable. And these are just a few of the obvious ways it's going to change in the next decade or two:

Truck Driving - I've talked with my friends about the Google Car, and how I think that within 5 years of hitting the open market, it will become unreasonably expensive for a human to afford the insurance needed to operate their own vehicle. Many people are skeptical that these self-driving cars are even possible, or that independence-minded Americans would "go for that" - but the technology has been growing up around us for at least a decade (sponsored by DARPA) and Americans have proven time and again that they'll buy anything if you convince them it's "safer" than what they have.

And while driving jobs won't go away overnight (there are nearly 1.5 million Teamsters Union members who will fight it), when it comes down to time, safety, and fuel costs, they won't be able to compete with the progeny of a Roomba and a TomTom in a Peterbilt. My guess is that long-haul cargo trucks will go automatic first, and local Fed-Ex or UPS delivery folks will hold out longest. And somewhere in there Zipcar will launch the first Johnny Cab.

Manufacturing - We've already gotten used to the idea of factory jobs disappearing; it's cheaper to pay a machine that doesn't worry about health insurance and retirement benefits to make stuff, after all. But a relatively simple innovation in 3D Printing is set to take even that away - or decentralize it and put manufacturing into every home. I guess it depends on your point of view.

This is one of those ideas that no one seems to see coming. Applications in food design and medical techniques have begun to creep into the public eye, first; and since plastic is already pretty easy to work with, it's likely that the marketing angle that hooks most of us is that you'll never need to run out to the dollar store to pick up little plastic doodads - just download them on the web, and print them out here. There's even a Makerbot on the market already.

Soldiering Surely this is a profession that will ALWAYS need people, right? Or have you been paying attention? Surely, you don't think the "future" isn't already here?

Just don't tell the U.S. military in Iraq... or the mercenary manufacturers. If that doesn't make you feel safe and secure, remember that they'll always need pilots to remotely guide these robots in the battlefield... oh, wait. Forgot about the Google Car.

Sales - Yeah, you might tell me that the ship has sailed on this one. The whole "Internet will replace stores" thing was debunked in a 1995 Newsweek article, wasn't it? (So, Mr. Stoll, what do you say these days about Amazon, eBay, and PayPal?)

But buying is just the end point of sales; won't we always need people to explain products to people and convince them to buy? Probably not. If anything, the runaway success that Google and Facebook have had in just the last five years ought to make you reconsider that career in retail. Some will still be able to make a living scripting and filming the adverts, but the sales floor will be your house, and when you click the PayPal button your new product will either print out on your 3D printer, or catch the next Johnny Cab to your door.

So what will we be able to do? Are there any jobs left? Are we going to let the robots take over? What will we do?

Small-scale, specialty farming is already a hobby in many places - perhaps more people will do things like this Garden Pool in their yard? Energy generation will likely continue to be profitable; getting decentralized, small-scale solar, wind, and geo-thermal will not only run your fridge and game systems, but provide you with income. Of course, maintaining those things is work, and it wouldn't surprise me to find that most people would rather leave that to machines, too, eventually.

So what's left? Reading, writing, music, gaming; we seem to have an endless capacity for entertaining ourselves. Will all of this mechanization and free time finally provide for everyone and tame our conflicts? Will we start taking serious steps into space? Or will we devolve into one of the many dystopian possibilities?

I don't know. I hope for the brighter visions. But in the meantime, I'm going to enjoy what I do.

Update: If you read this far, you really need to check out this post from Casaubon's Book: Efficiency, Substitution and Innovation isn't All It is Cracked Up to Be.