Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Pinch of Nerve

"I look so cool," the boy thought, as he checked out his image in the bathroom mirror.

Black shoes, black slacks; turquoise shirt with silver braid glued around the cuffs. The key piece, and the item he was most proud of, was the Starfleet badge he had fashioned from cardboard and masking tape, and covered in gold paint. His hair was plastered down with the black hairspray his mom had picked up at the costume shop - the sole item he had needed to purchase to make his costume complete. Except for the ears. No one in Arizona sold pointed ears; at least not that a seventh grader could afford for a mere Halloween costume.

Taking one last, long, admiring look, he wiped the smile from his face, and arched his eyebrow and froze his expression into a cool, appraising blankness. The boy was gone, and Mr. Spock stepped out of the bathroom.

Spock strode to the boy's desk, and picked up his tricorder (which said "Panasonic" on the side, and held a cassette of pre-recorded sound effects lovingly recorded off the three inch speaker of the small TV set in the boy's room). He clipped his phaser (Legos, wrapped in masking tape, and painted) to his belt, and beamed himself downstairs to the waiting Datsun shuttle in the garage.

The pilot and other passenger - the boy's mother and sister - chattered excitedly about the Halloween party at the school. Spock answered them with a crisp "Yes," "No," or "Fascinating" as the social situation required, but otherwise gazed analytically out the window. He breathed deeply, and used ancient Vulcan meditation techniques to control his emotions - Anticipation! Excitement! - that threatened to surge and break his carefully cultivated character.

The shuttle docked in the front lot, and the landing party approached the entrance to the carnival. Mom - the pilot, rather - bought tickets for the games and divided them between Spock and Snow White, and he thanked her briskly before turning on his heel and striding off to observe the local population's harvest rites.

He noted the knotted clusters of friends - females clinging and giggling in groups of five or six; males lurking and sulking in smaller groups. The costumes chosen seemed to follow a theme, again along gender lines: girls varied between younger pastel princesses and older rock goddesses and vamps while boys favored gore-spattered corpses or maybe occasional movie characters.

A fat boy, painted green and wearing a cardboard box on his back, broke off from one of the small clusters and approached Spock. "What are you s'posed to be?" he demanded.

"I am Commander Spock of the Federation Starship Enterprise," Spock replied. He arched his eyebrow. "May I inquire as to your identity?"

"I'm Michaelangelo," the fat boy said, brandishing a pair of plastic nun-chuks. "Kevin was supposed to be Donatello, but he decided it was too gay for both of us to be Ninja Turtles." He gestured toward a boy who seemed to be dressed normally, except for eye-makeup and uncomfortable looking plastic fangs. "Wanna check out the cakewalk?"

"I will merely observe," Spock said.

The fat boy - whose name was actually Leonard - won the cake. He, Spock, and Kevin began wandering past the music building toward the area set aside for rides. Spock excused himself to use the sanitation facility. When he came back out, his companions were nowhere to be found.

The boy - no, Spock - forced down the panicky emotions and assessed the situation coolly. There was no need to feel abandoned, as he was here to learn the native customs and evaluate these people for membership in the Federation. He would continue his investigation alone.

Not quite alone. A voluptuous animal with long, furry ears and an adorable little nose mask (adorned with whiskers that only accentuated the sprinkle of freckles across her nose) hopped in front of him. A brown leotard with a fluffy tail pinned to the back completed the bunny costume of Loree VanDorn. Spock nearly melted away completely, leaving the boy to gibber self-consciously on the sidewalk, but he resisted the red haze of the Pon Fahr long enough to take another deep breath.

"Hello, Loree," he said. The bunny grinned back at him.

"So, what are you supposed to be? Dr. Spock?" she chirped.

He sighed. "No, actually. Dr. Spock is the child-rearing expert. I am *Commander* Spock, of the Starship Enterprise."

"Okay," she sighed, rolling her eyes. "Did you want to go to the cafeteria? They're having a dance in there..."

Spock's vision blurred at the prospect of dancing with Playboy Bunny Loree VanDorn, but before he could reply, there was a commotion behind the music building. Shrieks of indignation and loud, whooping laughter preceded a ninja turtle, a vampire, and a hail of flying chunks of cake. They ran up to Spock and nearly collapsed in hysterics.

"Omigod, omigod, omigod! Julie Hunt was back there..." one began.

"...with Bobby Sweet, and they were..." the other continued.

"...going to do IT!"

"No, they weren't! They were just kissing!"

"She had her costume off!"

"Just the mask!"

"No, they were gonna go all the way!"

"But she wouldn't..."

"She would to... she's a total flooze..."

"No, way! She's so tight she squeaks..."

"Well, if you hadn't thrown the cake at 'em..."

Loree's face had turned hard and cold. "Julie's my friend, you jerks." She cast a baleful glare at Spock, and turned to go find Julie. Spock watched her go, mouth hanging slightly open. He had been so close...

" shoulda seen her face!" Leonard was saying. "It was so FUNNY!"

"I need to go," Spock said, and turned to follow the huffy rabbit...

...and ran straight into an angry wall of cake-covered football jersey. He looked up into the red, sweating face of Bobby Sweet - known in gym class as Bobby Sweat. Bobby glared down at him, and took note of the cowering pair behind him. Leonard and Kevin were already poised for flight, and took off headlong when Bobby grabbed Spock's arm.

The pain in his arm focused his attention away from his emotions, and Spock spoke to the seething adolescent in front of him: "Your anger is not logical. It was not I who covered you with pastry."

"Stuff it, Geek-boy," growled the angry boy in the soiled Roger Staubach jersey. "You're their friend, so you're going down, too!" His voice broke awkwardly, but that stole none of the menace from his threat. Spock snaked his free arm upward, and reached for that point where the spinal column joins the skull. His fingers pressed into solid, ungiving steel.

"Shoulder pads?" Spock asked, re-thinking the use of the Vulcan nerve pinch.

"Nope," said Bobby, drawing back his fist.

Spock's mind raced. There was no logical counter-argument to the bully's rage. He knew, intellectually, that there were species that did not share his distaste for violence, and times when it was most prudent to perform a surgical strike and evacuate. This situation required the unexpected. Spock bowed his head, and let the boy inside him take over.

The boy looked the bully dead in the eye, a small grin playing on his face. He lowered his hand from its futile grip on the bull-like neck, and with his fingers still forming the painful Vulcan Death Grip, he asked about another standard piece of football equipment: "Cup?"

Bobby's eyes gave him the answer by widening in surprise and pain. The grip on the boy's arm loosened, and he dove out of reach and started running, leaving logic behind on the wind, along with a peal of triumphant laughter.

He stopped when he felt he was safely away, and turned to make sure he wasn't being pursued. He wasn't. Bobby was coiled around the pain in the center of his being, and Julie had appeared from somewhere to console him. Loree was by Julie's side, and glaring photon torpedoes at back at him. The passing crowd was either staring at him with shock, or ignoring him completely. No one seemed impressed with his handling of the situation.

He spotted his friends-by-default, the ninja turtle and vampire, and headed their way to seek camaraderie, and perhaps their thanks for his quick thinking.

"Nice grab," they sneered. "Jealous of Julie?" They howled with laughter, heaping more abuse on him as they collapsed against each other with mirth, both denigrating his combat prowess and questioning his sexual orientation. He felt his face flush, and the heat of building tears pressed against his eyes; but then Spock returned, slowly.

He mustered what remained of his dignity, straightened his posture, and clasped his hands behind his back. "You," he said, "are HIGHLY illogical!"

And with that, Mr. Spock turned his back on the crowd, and stalked off; the only one surprised at the unrepentant fickleness of middle-schoolers.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

You Wouldn't Believe It

"Is there anyone who 
Ever remembers changing their mind from 
The paint on a sign? 
Is there anyone who really recalls 
Ever breaking rank at all 
For something someone yelled real loud one time?" 
     - John Mayer, Belief*

I used to believe a lot of things that are different from what I believe now.

Some things I held as beliefs out of ignorance and apathy.  "I don't know anything about climate science, but Al Gore makes me not care about it."  Once I did some research and assessed the biases of those arguing about it, I came to my own informed conclusion.

Some things I believed because I was brought up believing them.  "There just HAS to be a God, and my world won't make sense if there is not!"  Once I realized how little sense my world made anyway, and began asking myself objective questions, it wasn't hard to drop this - but the cultural pressures working against making that change were a different story.

Some things are very clear to me, even if they are hard to explain to others. "You can choose how to respond to everything; so I choose to be happy, even in worst situations."  My outlook on life has been called "ablist" (still not sure what that is supposed to mean), but I describe it as an aggressive and defiant joyfulness.

Some things are extremely murky and confusing, but I do the best I can. "I really have no idea how financial or economic systems work; I just know who has tried to screw me over in the past, and avoid dealing with them."  I am not a mathematics person; I am a language person.  If you start trying to work your number-fu on me, I will get semantic on your ass.  That way lies stalemate.

Obviously, I have changed my mind about many things over the years.  Some of these changes were trivial, and others were deeply painful. Most importantly, none of them had anything to do with you.  It doesn't matter who is reading this essay, it is not about you - or what you believe, or why.  It's about me, and how I came to make the choices and changes that led me to where I am.  It's up to you whether you make those choices or not - and as long as you don't choose to tilt at my windmills, I don't care what you choose.

In other words, don't try to make this about you - I'm not trying to change your mind.  I am being intellectually generous when I take you at your word that you even have one.

So how have I gone about making these changes in myself?  It depends on the topic and how much I know about it, but there are two important things that I have made every effort NOT to change which have driven a lot of the other changes over the years.

    1. I value reason and evidence, and change my position when new facts arise.

When I was a kid, as you may read in other posts here, I was a devout Southern Baptist. I considered myself to be a Christ following, born-again believer, and I believed in many of the positions that tended to go along with that description: that God created the world in 6 days; that morality meant what God (via my pastor or Dr. Dobson's radio program) said it meant; that America was based on good Christian values of freedom and liberty; and that while there were millions upon millions of other people who *call* themselves Christians, there were only a relative few who were "real" Christians.  Not only did I believe, but I insisted that all of this was logical and consistent with objective reality.

I was taught this by all of the religious authority figures who mattered to me - taught that we did not simply adhere blindly to all of these positions, but we also had proof.  Our proof mattered, and was only ignored by those motivated by Satan to destroy us and keep us down. This basis in reason was important to me, at first because it was important to those who taught me.

Later, when the fallacies and lies that most of this belief system were built on began to unravel, the only thing that I could count on was myself; and following the advice of I Thessalonians, "test everything, keep only that which is good," I found that I could honestly only stick with those ideas that could stand up to scrutiny.  I found that most of the things I believed in were built on fallacies - circular logic, semantic tricks, or "gotcha" gimmicks.

As an example of one of the most basic of these: saying "You can't prove that God *doesn't* exist!"  or in other words, insisting that someone else "prove a negative," when the Burden of Proof clearly rests on the believer.  Some of the less obvious examples require honest research into claims that the believer does not want to disprove. I insisted for years that there was physical evidence supporting the existence of Noah's Ark and plenty of evidence that Jesus existed as a real person when, in fact, the tiny amount of "proof" that exists is unverifiable at best, and outright fraudulent in most cases.

You don't have to take my word for it - just find anyone who claims there *is* proof, and insist that they show it to you.  Where is it?  What is it? What tests have been done to verify it?  I would have loved to have been armed with that proof back in my youthful days of "debating" my atheist friends in school, and yet, strangely, it never materialized.  There is probably a good reason for that: it doesn't exist.

     2. I do not hate anyone. Ever.

Following logic and reason to reach difficult conclusions is (by definition) hard to do.  It requires a lot of discipline and work - and frankly, I have neither the skills nor the time to explore or know everything there is to know about the world. No one does.  And that means trusting others who look into things more deeply.

Unfortunately, since I have to trust the work that others do, that means that I have to allow others to do the same, and they don't always trust the same people or accept the same margin of error that I do along the way. And sometimes, of course, I will learn that the person(s) I trusted were wrong or lying. That can be maddening.

From where I sit, though, figuring out the basis for someone's opinions and establishing how reliable their facts are is the whole point of any argument. Those who get along with me best are the ones who recognize that; others seem to assume outright that I am ignorant of the topic at hand, while they hold some magically reliable Answers or Truth. That can be frustrating - especially when you get into arguments that provoke strong emotional responses with someone who clearly hasn't done any research or thinking about the topic at hand.

Most of the "political" posts on this blog are about dealing with this phenomenon of trust, background, and POV. They are usually told from my point of view - since I'm the one writing them - but always represent my attempt to understand the friend or opponent - and their position - as objectively as I can.  Some examples don't end well, at least not if my goal was to change someone's mind (as opposed to just making them understand my position better).

But there are lessons to be learned from the people involved in all of these different situations, and at the end of the day, no matter how heated the words may become, I can't hate them for essentially being what I was when I was a kid: confident, opinionated, and dead wrong.

In fact, while most of the losers in arguments that I have will dispute me on this claim, I always allow for the fact that I may still be quite wrong about any or everything that I talk about.  But by now, anyone who hopes to convince me should know better than to walk into the conversation with bumper sticker ideas and shallow memes to back themselves up, because even if I agree with your premise or principle, I will still poke at your logic.  Sometimes, people accept this humorously - which is honestly the reaction I am looking for; others resent it, and I apologize for stirring up that resentment.

But I don't hate anyone.

Hate, like love, is a choice you make.  In my faithful childhood, I learned to hate Satan and Evil.  That was the focus of any hatred I felt, and I bought into the whole "love the sinner/hate the sin" idea because I had that focal point for my hatred.  When I grew up and found that "Satan" was a fictional symbol for all the Things We Don't Like(tm), and that Evil was usually just the accumulated effect of a lot of flawed people rationalizing their small-e evil, it was hard not to transfer that hate to all of the individuals around me - the "sinners". If there is one universal truth that believers and non-believers agree on, it is that people can be despicable.

But I learned that I had to find a way to not hate others, because like love, hate can get wrapped around your passions and drive you to ignore important things - like your morals, your reason, and your compassion.  I argue passionately with people because from my point of view, many of their ideas are things that used to poison me, too, and I want to help them. Even if they reject that, I try to make them realize that even if they don't choose to let go of things that I think are silly beliefs, they can at least rest assured that I'm not a threat to them for making their choice.  All I really ask is that they are honest with themselves; about me, about my ideas, and about their own motives.

I expect that I will rarely see any "wins" come out of this.  I'm not arguing with you, hoping the light will dawn and you'll come around instantly to my way of thinking.  But I am hoping that I will force you to think.  I am hoping that, if I'm right, you will save yourself and others a lot of pain in the long run by abandoning your bad ideas.  And if you're right, I'm hoping you'll be able to prove it - because wouldn't it be a shame if you were right, and you failed both of us by failing to show your homework?

I learned from my childhood that you should never take anyone at their word.  You can never rely on assurances of belief or faith - those things are vapors and illusions.  They are useful for imagination, and if you explore them, there are things to be learned.  But always question them.  And don't expect me to change my mind just because you said you did and you were satisfied by the answers you pulled out of nowhere.

The point is, I have changed before. I may change again.  But along the way, I've learned to be careful about it. I want you to be careful, too.

But ultimately, only I can change my mind - and only you can change yours.

*Here - I Googled it for you already:

Saturday, October 27, 2012


I was up in the air, looking down, and my world was tilting back and forth.

I saw my dad, frowning, off to one side, as the rest of the men in the family gathered around, laughing and stacking the metal trash cans inside of each other... while my cousin and I sat in the topmost can.

We hooted and shrieked with screams of delight as we waved around more and more drastically, the creak and scrunk of the cans growing louder as the stack grew taller.

Dad was already a firefighter, and had already begun to worry more about physical damage; but the ringleader of the can stackers was Uncle Dick. Dad's Uncle Dick had been in The War; he'd had two fingers shot off by a "Jap sniper". Uncle Dick was a Maricopa county Superior Court Justice. A man of respect and dignity, and well respected in the community.

And Uncle Dick said there was no harm in boys' rough-housing.

So my cousin and I sat in a trash can, and let the grown-ups lift us higher and higher. After all, what harm was there in it? Ted's a firefighter, isn't he? They'll be safe!

And at some point, the tilting and wavering became the fall. Slowly -- at least in my memory -- we eased to the ground, which seemed to stay distant until the very last second, when it rushed up all at once and slammed the sides of the cans.

We tumbled, laughing, in hysterics from fear and thrill, into a meager stack of leaves. I don't think it hurt... but that's probably because I was Superman.

At five, who isn't?