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.