Wednesday, November 09, 2011

This whole Penn State sexual abuse story has my stomach churning as I try to understand how multiple men, both in leadership positions and non-leadership positions, could turn a blind eye to a child's rape.

It is especially gut-wrenching for me because the age of the boys who were raped is close to the age of my own two boys, and the association of knowing my boys and the unbidden imagination of what I would do if anyone ever harmed them in this way fills me with rage and disgust and makes my heart heavy for the boys who had no one to protect them.

I honestly don't know how any of these men live with themselves. How do you sleep at night knowing that   this horrendous crime was not reported to the police and that the perpetrator is likely still raping children?

How can people disassociate from responsibility and justice so completely?

Monday, October 31, 2011

Musical Monday

If that was too mellow and melancholy to start your Monday, here's another from Adele....with a little more of her personality showing through at the beginning.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

What Influences the Influencers?

Simultaneous with my reading of Confessions, I wandered off somewhere through hyperlinks and began reading through other early Christian writings. This happens to me frequently.  I begin reading one thing which makes an obscure reference to something else, which leads me to look up that piece of writing, which in turn references another text etc., etc. Before I know it I'm chasing rabbit trails...possibly tangential rabbit trails, but still slightly off of my original path.

During this frantic, hopping process, I came across 1 Clement, an early Christian epistle believed to be written around the turn of the first century by Pope Clement 1. You can read the text, in full, here.

For the most part it's what you would expect from a church leader writing to a congregation of believers, exhortation, warning, encouragement, and the reiteration of doctrine and practices and the faithfulness of the biblical characters. In the middle of all this, though, there is this nugget:

Let us consider that wonderful sign [of the resurrection] which takes place in Eastern lands, that is, in Arabia and the countries round about. There is a certain bird which is called a phoenix. This is the only one of its kind, and lives five hundred years. And when the time of its dissolution draws near that it must die, it builds itself a nest of frankincense, and myrrh, and other spices, into which, when the time is fulfilled, it enters and dies. But as the flesh decays a certain kind of worm is produced, which, being nourished by the juices of the dead bird, brings forth feathers. Then, when it has acquired strength, it takes up that nest in which are the bones of its parent, and bearing these it passes from the land of Arabia into Egypt, to the city called Heliopolis. And, in open day, flying in the sight of all men, it places them on the altar of the sun, and having done this, hastens back to its former abode. The priests then inspect the registers of the dates, and find that it has returned exactly as the five hundredth year was completed.
Do we then deem it any great and wonderful thing for the Maker of all things to raise up again those who have piously served Him in the assurance of a good faith, when even by a bird He shows us the mightiness of His power to fulfil His promise? For [the Scripture] says in a certain place, "You shall raise me up, and I shall confess to You;" and again, "I laid down, and slept; I awaked, because You are with me;" and again, Job says, "you shall raise up this flesh of mine, which has suffered all these things."
I was not expecting an early Christian leader to use the phoenix as a proof of God's resurrection power. Clement speaks about the bird as a real, factual, natural example of resurrection. It's intriguing because it is so removed from the Gospel accounts, or even Paul's description of resurrection. Instead of directly appealing to the Resurrection story, or Paul's assurances that 500 people witnessed a resurrected Jesus, Clement is using examples in nature as proofs for the resurrection of Christ and resurrection in general.  He discusses the renewal of the sun each day, or the growth of plants from "dead" seeds and ultimately goes on to this final example with the phoenix.

First, it's interesting to note that Clement doesn't reference the miraculous in any way.  He's writing to the Corinthians, a congregation with whom Paul spends a lot of time discussing tongues and healings and miraculous powers. Yet, now, there is no whiff of the supernatural in this letter. The transition is being made from a belief system based on experiential, emotive, supernatural events to a belief system that is moving towards an authoritative, literature-based system. The text's subtle feel places it in a different category than Paul's writings.

I'm not sure what it means. It seems somewhat removed from the immediacy of the apostles even though  Clement supposedly was alive when some of the apostles were still alive and is claimed to have been installed by Peter himself, though, as always, there is much uncertainty when it comes to dates and succession during this time period.

Second, it's always disappointing to come across these bizarre examples or reasoning in the founders of the Christian faith. Intellectually, I know that Clement believed that phoenixes were real and he was probably not strange in doing so and it shouldn't bother me.  However, it does make the point that many of Christianity's founders were incredibly credulous, maybe no more so than the average person in their culture, but still.....the implications further erode my confidence.

I experienced a similar deflation when reading St. Augustine's Confessions. One of the many pivotal moments he writes about concerns St. Anthony and the book Life of Anthony, which Athanasius wrote. He and his companions are set on fire by the book and its tales of Anthony's battles with demons and the strong, radical faith which caused Anthony to seek a solitary existence in the desert.

Off I went to read Life of Anthony in order to get a better understanding of what was so moving for Augustine and his friends.  What I read sounded like the ravings of a schizophrenic experiencing hallucinations. Demons spontaneously appear to Anthony and torment him, not only mentally, but also physically. It's one extreme episode after another.

Discovering this text as a seed of inspiration for Augustine is disturbing. What does it say about his mental state?  About what motivates him? About the credulity with which he accepts these tales?

When you find that those who hold such prominent influence over the shaping of Christianity have faulty premises and facts at the inception of their faith, how do you walk with them further down the path and take what they say with unpolluted trust?

Reading the early writings has become an act of torture for me. I'm always finding stuff that I wish wasn't there, and I'm frequently appalled at the influences which guide the influential.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Was Augustine Bi-Sexual?, The Conclusion


What does it matter?

It doesn't, depending on what a person thinks of the implications. Because Augustine converted with a simultaneous vow of celibacy, all of his sexual activities are strictly pre-conversion.  It would be hard for GLBT groups to use him as much of a poster boy for their causes considering he in no way condones his own sexuality, or hardly anyone's sexuality for that matter.  In Augustine's eyes, sex is worldly, temporal and usually lustful, so any attempt at expressing acceptance of any kind of pleasurable sexuality is cut off before it even begins.

For some Christian groups, it might be unsettling to imagine their patron saint engaging in sexual acts with other men/boys and I would think many would resist any idea speculating about Augustine's bi-sexualty.

On the other hand, I can imagine that some Christian groups would gladly take Augustine as the prime example of an "ex-gay/ex-bi" person whose behavior was changed by belief in and commitment to the Christian God.

Augustine could be co-opted by either side of the divide.

Was Augustine Bi-Sexual?, Part 3

I have mostly finished Confessions, and as of yet, haven't been swayed to think that Augustine was solely heterosexual.  My reading of him is that early in his youth, upon moving to Carthage, he probably was involved in same-sex sexual relationships.  He doesn't say it outright, which I don't perceive as unusual. Even when discussing his relationship with his mistress he doesn't go into much detail.  He is much more descriptive about his feelings and perceptions of guilt rather than being descriptive about specific acts.

I think the strongest case for Augustine's early bi-sexuality still remains in carefully reading how he writes about women, in general, and, specifically, his most significant heterosexual relationship. I don't see how the passages I quoted in the original post could even remotely be applied to women by Augustine. Augustine simply doesn't describe his relationships with women, on the few occasions he mentions them, with any sense of love, or friendship, or emotional depth. All of these emotions he expresses quite freely towards his male friends.

I'm not saying that every male relationship that Augustine had was a sexual relationship.  I'd venture that most weren't and that any affairs that he had were well in his youth.

This lack of feeling expressed towards women, combined with the fact that Carthage seemed to be known as tolerant place for homosexuality, and that Augustine directly connects his adventures to the city of Carthage, I find compelling.

After my first read-through of Confessions, I went back and read the Introduction. I don't like to read Introductions ahead of time because I find they color my reading experience. In the Introduction of the the translation of Confessions which I am reading, I found this:
There was however, a snag to baptism. Anyone who took it seriously knew that post-baptismal sins were unforgivable, if they were big ones, although most pre-baptismal sins would be wiped out by baptism itself. There was then room for calculation. If you delayed baptism and avoided the most unpardonable sins like murder (some writers included adultery) you could be baptized in old age and be destined for heaven in the life to come. If you were baptized too soon, you might damn yourself to hell by sinning badly later. Those who thought hard could see the attractions of remaining a "catechumen": Monica saw them and because she suspected that her son might sow wild oats and be a promiscuous young man, she preferred to keep him as a catechumen. (pp xix,  The Confessions, translated by Philip Burton)
I found this intriguing because when Augustine writes about the death of his close, male friend, he mentions that after he fell sick, those who were taking care of him baptized him, assuming that he was going to die soon.  His friend has a brief rally in his sickness and is coherent enough to talk to Augustine.  Augustine relates the baptism in a joking way, assuming that his friend will laugh at the involuntary, unconscious baptism, and is surprised by his friend's response:
He, however, had learnt beforehand of the baptism he had received, and shrank from me as if from an enemy. In a remarkable and sudden burst of plain speaking he warned me that if I wanted to be his friend, I would have to stop talking to him like that. For my part, I was astonished and upset at this, and put all my own feelings on one side until he had recovered and had regained the full vigour of health; then, I thought, I would be able to deal with him as I wished. But he was rescued from my madness, so that in you he might be reserved for my consolation; a few days later, when I was away, the fever struck again, and he died. (pp 70, Confessions 4.3.8)
This is intriguing because of the change brought about in his relationship because of the baptism.  If baptism was taken so seriously, then it would have natural repercussions in the relationship that Augustine might have had with his friend and the friend's response may not be one merely of annoyance at being mocked, but the realization that the relationship would have to change.

That's speculation, but I think it's fair speculation.

The delaying of baptism, and Augustine's vow of celibacy once he decides to be baptized, may make more sense if we realize that for Augustine the Christian life was an all-or-nothing prospect on the issue of sex.  He would have to completely avoid sex of all kinds in order to live in way that he considered faithful. Any sexual pleasure, even within the bonds of marriage, was something he couldn't handle in combination with his faith.  All non-pro-creational sex was giving into lust in his eyes, and perhaps, knowing his own proclivities, it was easier to go "cold turkey".

Monday, October 24, 2011

Let it Rip!

That's the battle cry for playing BeyBlade, a game of dueling, adjustable, spinning tops which are launched into plastic "stadiums".

This weekend we attended a local tournament at a nearby Toys-R-Us that The Intuitive found out about from the website.  We weren't sure what to expect. The event didn't seem to be advertised anywhere else and, other than my son, we didn't know many kids who were obsessed with BeyBlade.

Apparently, they don't need to do much advertising these days.  By the time the tournament started, there were about 60 kids, almost exclusively boys, crowding around tables with stadiums set up for battles.  They writhed with energy and excitement, opening their overflowing plastic carrying cases and carefully examining their stock, thoughtfully choosing their instruments of war.

60 boys, from ages 5 to 13, managed to behave pretty well considering the first hour was informal chaos with boys introducing themselves to each other and seeking out battle partners. The Intuitive glowed with enthusiasm taking his losses well, but taking his wins with victorious joy.

Ultimately, he didn't make it too far in the tournament. His collection of 5 or 6 BeyBlades couldn't compete with the serious challengers who seemed to have at least 20.

He still managed to have a great time.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Was Saint Augustine Bi-Sexual? Part 2

The plot thickens.

Whenever something novel occurs to me about a text I am reading, novel enough to pique my interest, one of the first things that I do is try to see if anyone else has ever thought the same thing, or researched the idea. When I read Gilgamesh, I noticed certain images that reminded me of the book of Daniel. When I researched this further, I found that many people had already explored the connection and written obscure papers and books about the subject. It turns out my insight wasn't unique or incredibly insightful.

Oh Well.

The possibility of Augustine having had same-sex affairs was thought-provoking, in large part because the idea was totally unexpected.  I had in my mind a rough sketch of Augustine's life and the purpose of Confessions through general exposure in my reading and miscellaneous passages which are frequently quoted, usually in theological discussions. I went into Confessions with pre-conceived ideas about what I was going to find. I decided to read it because it's one of those things that people use and refer to without actually having read the work, in full, for themselves.

So, what did I find out about this possible aspect of Augustine?

I discovered that very few people discussed this aspect of Augustine, or were even aware of the idea.  I found a few GLBT sites which listed him as one of their own on the basis of some of the passages I have already quoted, but some of these sites also tended to have an agenda, trying to claim prominent Christians from the past as fellow homosexuals or bi-sexuals. It doesn't mean they are wrong, but it does taint their assertions with a self-serving motive.

One paper kept coming up as a reference in several books and articles; Correcting Some Misconceptions about St. Augustine's Sex Life, by Alan Soble. Although it was frequently showing up as a reference, I had a difficult time finding the actual text of the paper. It was listed in bibliographies and footnotes, but no one ever quoted it and every link I followed had only the abstract available to the public. Eventually, my husband got access to it through his university in order for me to read the entire article.

I was hoping for something more informative than what I got. The article goes into a lot of detail about what other historians and biographers of Augustine have said and even addresses the issue of the GLBT community trying to co-opt Augustine, something I had already come across. Ultimately, the author concludes that it is silly to think that Augustine engaged in same-sex relationships.

The author is wrong as far as his reasoning goes.  His arguments rest on these points: that Augustine was an exaggerator, that Augustine expressed interest in women, and Augustine never clearly says that he has had same-sex relationships.

Claiming that Augustine was dramatic, and therefore we must take what he says about himself with a grain of salt, undermines any attempt at unearthing the truth from Augustine's own words. When Soble goes looking for evidence, he doesn't look for evidence in Confessions, he looks for evidence in what historians and biographers have said about Augustine and his sex life.  This is a misstep.  What do historians know about Augustine besides what he has said about himself in his own work?  Ignoring the tone of Confessions, and going to second-hand interpretation from other authors will muddy the water on the issue rather than add clarity to it.

Soble acknowledges that some historians intimate that Augustine did have same-sex affairs, but he rejects these intimations out of hand. He believes that people are reading bi-sexuality into the text for their own reasons.  I think Soble is reading Augustine's relatively chaste heterosexuality into the text.  When Soble addresses the texts in question, he just baldly asserts that they refer to women.  When Augustine talks about polluting friendships, Soble believes he's speaking about male-female friendship:
First, Augustine was looking for and talking about love with a woman for he immediately says that success in his search soon came and he was probably referring to the pact he made with his mistress. Second, Augustine speaks in this sentence only of desire, not behavior. Augustine knew Matthew 5:28 well, according to which Jesus said,"But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." Augustine's taking  Matthew 5:28 seriously might very well explain his critical remark in Confessions 3.1 that he "polluted" friendship with sexual desire, for the point of Matthew 5:28 is that mere desire by itself, without sexual activity, is condemnable. (pp 554 Journal of the History of Sexuality, Volume 11, Number 4, October 2002)
Soble's first contention is simply assertion and circularity.  How does Augustine saying that he was successful in his search prove that he was looking of and talking about a woman? The text doesn't say that in any way.  Soble connects what Augustine wrote to Augustine's mistress, but the information about Augustine's mistress comes much later in the text and isn't connected to Augustine's elaborate descriptions of his lust and pollution of friendship. What Soble says simply doesn't follow.

Sobles' second contention is just more of the same.  There is no reason to assume that Augustine is speaking of desire and not actions.  How could Augustine consider himself "successful" in obtaining love and consummating lust if he is only speaking of desire? Augustine makes it clear when he is talking about desires and when he is talking about actions. While he may be vague about the specifics of his actions, he is clear that there were actions.

Soble is inserting his own assumptions onto the text. Because Augustine declares that he was monogamous with his mistress, not knowing any other woman during his time with her over the course of 15 years, Soble assumes that means Augustine didn't have any other sexual relationships, which is not exactly what Augustine says.  In fact, Augustine goes out of his way to say that he has not been with any other women, rather than saying that he has only had sexual relations with her.  It may seem rather pedantic and persnickety to note this difference, but I think it is relevant to the context of Augustine's cultural surroundings.  Same-sex relations were not viewed as unfaithfulness to wives and women.  They existed in an entirely different class.

I have continued to read further into Confessions, wondering if I would come across material that would either strengthen or weaken my intuition about Augustine, and so far I haven't found much to change my leaning towards Augustine's having had same-sex affairs.

Augustine's attitude towards women was wholly utilitarian.  Throughout Confessions, in the context of Augustine's lust, Augustine floats the possibility of marriage as a cure for his sexual wanderings. His parents don't want him to marry at a young age because they are trying to further his academic career and don't want him to be tied down, which is why his mother simply asks him not to commit adultery.  They leave his libido unchecked rather than have him take on a wife as a "cure" for his sexual appetites.

At one point in Confessions, when Augustine is older and leaning more towards conversion, he considers the benefits of finding a woman with money to marry as a way to advance his career, there is no mention of love or companionship.  When he considers creating a co-op with his closest male friends and colleagues, living together and sharing everything in common, the fly in the ointment is that several of his group have wives and this will ruin it:
6.14.24..But when we began to consider whether this life would be possible if our womenfolk were present (some of us already being married, and others, myself included, hoping to be), all our noble plans fell to pieces in our hands, and lay utterly shattered on the ground. (pp 129)
Just after this section Augustine refers to his mistress as his familiar bedfellow, certainly not a term of love or tenderness or friendship or any of the emotional connectedness that he relates with his male friends:
6.12.25...My familiar bedfellow was torn from my side as being an impediment to marriage; and my heart, to which she had fixed herself, was torn and wounded, and left a trail of blood. She returned to Africa, vowing to you that she would never know another man, and leaving behind the natural son she had borne me. But in my misery I could not even imitate her, a woman; although after two years I was to receive in marriage the girl for whom I had made my suit, and, being not a lover of marriage but a slave of lust, I got myself another--and not a wife--so as to maintain my soul's sickness as it was, or if possible to make it worse, and convey it, with an escort of enduring habit, into the realm of matrimony. Nor did I find any healing for the wound caused by the severance from my previous partner, but after the inflammation and the grievous pain, gangrene set in; it was as if the wound were numbed, but it was even more incredibly painful. (pp 130)
And, that's it. Notice how Augustine says that she had attached herself to his heart, placing the attachment  under her power, not his.  Also note his little jab that he couldn't do something that a woman could do.  While he is certainly pained to see her go, he doesn't say much about his love for her and in fact never uses the word love in relation to her.  He was also willing to dismiss her for the utilitarian marriage being secured for him. This is not a man losing the love of his life.  This is a man losing access to a regular sexual partner who has become a part of his life through habit and no more.

Augustine was heartless when it came to her. There was no prestige or advancement to be made in marrying her. He lost her because she wasn't useful to him in his academic, financial, or social life, and the loss he feels for her is not rooted in his love of her.

I'll continue more of this discussion later......

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Was Saint Augustine Bi-Sexual?

I've continued reading The Confessions, by Saint Augustine, and part of the way through the first few "books" I began to wonder whether Augustine's references to lust and sin and giving in to low vices included a homosexual, or bi-sexual, element to them. He talks about an incident at a public bath that made his father recognize that he is coming of age sexually, but there is no mention of a girl or woman, or even much in the way of remonstrances about his sexual activities from his Christian mother other than a warning to not commit adultery. His social life seems to revolve around his boyhood friendships and the idea that being with this social group has induced him to sin in ways which he wouldn't have sinned individually.

From the beginning Augustine writes:
2.2.2 And what pleasure did I know except loving and being loved? But my love did not keep within the bounds marked out by the shining border of friendship, the affection of one mind for another. (pp 31)
He describes moving to Carthage and its effect on him :
3.1.1 I came to Carthage and a frying pan of sinful loves was spitting all about me.  I was not yet in love, but I was in love with love; such was my inner need that I hated myself for not being more in need. 
...Loving and being loved was sweeter to me if I could also enjoy my lover's body. So it was that I defiled the well of friendship with the filth of concupiscence, and clouded its clear light with the infernal fog of lust; crude and boorish as I was, my vanity was so excessive that I longed to be smart and sophisticated. I rushed headlong into love, seeking to be swallowed up in it. O God ever merciful to me(Ps. 59.19 [Ps. 58.18]), what gall you in your goodness smeared over my sophisticated pleasures; for I was loved in return, and came secretly to know the chains of carnal enjoyment.(pp 45)
So far, Augustine has only used the word friendship in relation to his male peers.  There is no indication that he had female friends, in which case is he defiling his male friendships with lust and sexual longing? Other than his mother, Augustine hasn't described any relationship with a woman in detail, or with the loving language he uses for his male peers.

Further on, he describes the death of a close, male friend in devastating terms, describing how inconsolable he was, how he had lost half of his soul and loved him as an immortal. The language he uses is very flowery and emotional and romantic.
I was astonished that other mortals lived, since he, whom I had loved as if he were immortal, was dead, and even more astonished that though he was dead, I, his other self, lived. He spoke rightly who said that his friend was "half his soul". I felt that my soul and my friend's were one soul in two bodies, and life filled me with horror as I had no wish to live on, a mere half of myself.  Perhaps, too, I dreaded death for this same reason, fearing that he whom I had loved so much would die utterly. (pp 71-72, Book 4.6.11)
And later on, when analyzing the response to the loss of friendship and camaraderie when someone dies, he writes:
These and other such tokens, which proceed from the hearts of those who love each other and express themselves in the face, the speech, the eyes, and a thousand gestures of good will, are, so to speak, the kindling of the fire which melds minds together, making one out of many. 
4.9.14 This is what we cherish in our friends, to the extent that a man's conscience feels guilty, if he does not love one who loves him in return, or love in return one who loves him, seeking nothing from his lover's body except these tokens of good will.(pp.73)
The use of the word lover in the midst of a treatise on close friendship jumps out at me. It seems very odd that so far in my reading of Augustine he's written less then a paragraph about his 15 year relationship with a woman, in terms of his sinful life, and yet carries on about the close friendships he has had for pages. He does mention lusting after women at one point, but even that is a cursory statement, buried in a list of the general misguidedness he felt ruled his life at that point in time.

It could be that I am simply misreading Augustine. Women weren't seen as emotional and intellectual equals in Roman times.  Maybe the closeness with which Augustine described his friendships is simply typical for his culture.  On the other hand, homosexuality and pederasty weren't unknown in Roman culture.

When I first started to wonder if other people had explored this part of Augustine, I came across the Wikipedia page here, which had a quote from Plutarch about homosexuality, specifically being the passive partner:
"we regard men who take pleasure in passive submission as practicing the lowest kind of vice."
This set off a bell in my head, because when Augustine first begins elaborating on his sinfulness in The Confessions, he mentions the low forms of vice in which he engaged.
More than once in my youth I burnt to satisfy myself with the lowest things; with reckless daring I ran wild, overgrown and overshadowed by my various loves.  And all the time I pleased myself and sought to be pleasing in the sight of men, my beauty wasted away and I was foul(Dan. 10.8) in your sight
Plutarch, a biographer of many prominent Greeks and Romans, had written about Cicero, the person whose work Augustine credits for the beginning of his spiritual turnaround.



Augustine was fully immersed in rhetoric, literature and philosophy and would have been exposed to a great many ideas and people which were all connected through the "canon" of his studies.  The similarity in language may not mean anything.  On the other hand, because Augustine places such an emphasis on Cicero, it isn't a stretch to imagine that Augustine would have read Plutarch's biography and other works and been influenced by what he had to say.

It's hard to judge with Augustine.  He is frequently overly dramatic when describing any type of sin and knowing whether he really means it when he says he participated in the "lowest things", or if he is exaggerating for effect is difficult to sort out.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


"A banker is a fellow who lends you his umbrella when the sun is shining, but wants it back the minute it begins to rain."
-Mark Twain

Friday, October 14, 2011

9-9-9 Example

My mind was thinking more about Cain's plan, so I threw together this rough example from the statistics provided by the Consumer Expenditure Survey.

Assume a family of four with an annual income before taxes of $94,807 and the after tax income of $92,147. That's about a 3% tax of their gross income.  Under a flat 9%  their after taxes income would be $86,274. They would pay $8,532 in annual income tax. That's 3 times what they currently pay.

The average annual expenditures for this group is listed as $69,536.

Removing non-taxble expenditures for housing, food, utilities, and the cost of health insurance, etc.....which account for over 70% of the listed expenditures, that leaves about 30% of expenditures on things which would be subject to sales tax.

30% of $69,536 is about $20,860.  9% sales tax on those expenditures would be $1877 annually.

That is over and above the normal state sales taxes that everyone pays.

This particular family would be paying the federal government $10,409 in one year.

Under Cain's plan, this family would be paying $7,749 more than it currently does.

Cain's plan not only would hurt the lower and middle classes, it would hurt the upper classes even more.

Over 31%, and the top 31%, of the "consumer units" fall into the $70,000 and above income level, with the average(or mean?) income listed as $129,151.  These households also make up to 52.4% of the annual aggregate expenditures for the country.  A 9% sales tax would hit these more wealthy people as hard as it would the middle and lower classes because of their higher consumption of goods.  Maybe they wouldn't feel it quite as hard as a family living on $40,000 would, but that is all relative.

Viewed in this way, Cain's plan is actually a disproportionate tax on "the rich" and all those "job-creators" Republicans keep trying to protect.

It's an awful, awful plan. Going over these numbers convinces me that Cain has no clue about how taxes work or the actual breakdown of how his plan would affect the country.


Here are a few articles that touch on the same things I've been posting about.

P.S.  I swear that I hadn't come across any of these things until after my posts. Most of these articles(there are more I didn't list) came out today or the day before.  Things like that always make me wonder if there is some sort of meta-cognition process at work in the world. ;-)

Cain's 9-9-9 Plan

Herman Cain, one of the Republican candidates campaigning for the Republican nomination, has what he calls the 9-9-9 plan. It consists of a 9% flat income tax on individuals, 9% flat tax on business income, and a 9% federal sales tax.

While I have heard some Republicans deride the plan as simplistic, there hasn't been much of an outcry about the idea of a national sales tax, especially a sales tax as high as 9%. The only state sales tax that comes close to 9%, actually over 9%, is Tennessee, and the only reason that isn't too awful is because Tennessee is one of the few states that doesn't have state, county, or city income taxes, except for tax on interest/dividends.

9% is high. 9% is even higher when you consider that it is only one source of income for the federal government under this plan. A 9% tax on income, which would probably be put in place with fewer deductions overall, plus 9% in sales tax would be an enormous amount of revenue streaming into the government.

Every time a person bought a pair of shoes, clothing, an appliance for their home, materials for running their businesses, supplies for schools, and so forth, the government would be getting a cut.  Prices on consumer goods would experience a 9% increase from the perspective of the buyer. This would crush the economy more than a general increase in income taxes, or the removal of deduction loopholes.  If the average person had to pay 9% more for their annual purchases, excluding food, it would put the brakes on consumer spending almost immediately.

Currently, a large portion of the population, once deductions and credits are taken into account, doesn't pay anything close to 9% in income taxes. Suddenly removing those deductions while simultaneously creating a 9% sales tax would decimate the middle and lower classes. Not only would people be bringing home less money, but when they went to use that money, it would buy fewer goods at a higher price.  It would squeeze people at both ends.

This is a horrible idea and I don't understand why Republicans, overall, aren't taking Cain to task on this.

Thursday, October 13, 2011


Keep two pieces of paper in your pockets at all times.
One that says, "I am a speck of dust."
And the other, "The world was created for me."

-Rabbi Bunim of P'shiskha

October's Overly Ambitious Reading List

1. Gilgamesh, A New English Version, by Stephen Mitchell

I've actually finished this.  It was an enjoyable read and easily finished in about a day or two. The Introduction took longer than the actual epic to read through, but it was very informative.  There were some interesting images in the poem that I found to be echoes of images used in the book of Daniel, though I guess it would be more accurate to say that Daniel contains the echoes of Gilgamesh-ian images because Gilgamesh existed long before Daniel.  I may have more to say on that later.

2. The Post Office, by Rabindranath Tagore

Another quick read. This short play about a young, sick boy longing to explore the world just outside of his window would be interesting to see performed rather than read. I picked this up on a whim merely because it was shelved in close proximity to Gilgamesh.

3. Yearnings; Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life, by Irwin Kula with Linda Lowenthal

I've only begun reading this and there are immediately some refreshing points made in the first chapter.  On the other hand, this is more of an inspirational book and I might soon tire of being inspired! I can only handle a certain amount of encouragement at one time.

4. The Confessions, by Augustine.

This is a second attempt for me.  The first version I picked up was translated into a KJV-type English and it was too much for me to slog through.  This is a more contemporary translation and much easier to read without being distracted by the anachronistic English of the other version.

5. The Republic, by Plato

This is the truly ambitious part of my reading list. I have never directly read Plato, or any of the Greek philosophers. I have been made familiar with some of their ideas through other works, or in a general way, but I haven't taken the time to read the original material. I don't know if I'll get through it because I find reading philosophy boring and obtuse beyond a very general presentation.  Diving into endless details and arguments about the preciseness of terms and the perpetual "if-then" soon tires me.  We'll see if I actually complete it.

On a side note, it was very odd that Plato's Republic was shelved near current political books, most of which I wouldn't consider serious works, like a book by Pat Robertson and other "authors" of his caliber. It seemed out of place to have Robertson and Plato side by side. Poor Plato, unable to defend himself or request better quarters for his works!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

14 Years

Hard to believe, but DH and I have been married for 14 years.  We celebrated yesterday with a low-key but special dinner with the kids, leafing through our wedding album and reminding them they wouldn't exist if we hadn't married each other.

I've got to use those parental cliches whenever I can!

My mother-in-law sent us this to mark the day:

Personalize funny videos and birthday eCards at JibJab!

Wrong era for us, thank God. We don't make very hot hippies.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Romney's Mormonism

In my Evangelical days, I would have been on board with Robert Jeffress assessment of Mormonism as cult and his urging to vote for a "Christian" candidate.

My, how my thoughts have changed.

Lurking behind Jeffress assessment of Romney's Mormonism and political candidacy is the assumption that   having a "real" Christian in the White House will automatically increase the odds that the United States will be closer to God's will and favor. It won't be worded that way in the media, but that's what underlies Jeffress statement. All things being equal, a bona fide, officially approved Evangelical will always be better, in Jeffress eyes, because they have an inside line to God, while other candidates have to rely on their own powers and qualifications.

All things being unequal, even if Romney has better qualifications or better political ideas, the fact that he isn't a bona fide Evangelical just naturally means that he is more prone to being spiritually deceived and leading the USA down Satan's primrose path.

That seems over the top for me to write....but it is an entirely accurate portrayal of what Jeffress and those like him think. It has nothing to do with whether or not Mormonism is a cult. That's simply a way of phrasing things for the larger public.  Even secularists and atheists don't want to vote for someone who might belong to a cult. The cult language is a way to sway those outside of Jeffress' particular version of Evangleicalism.

Jeffress doesn't need to invoke cult language in order to influence his followers, because his followers don't believe in a spiritually neutral universe. People who think like Jeffress will automatically infer that Mormonism is a false religion, probably started and sustained through demonic influence and ergo, its followers, who may seem moral, are the under the influence of demonic teaching and false beliefs. Even if they seem nice, they are deceived.

Rmmney is not alone in this classification. Obama, as a member of a liberal Christian denomination, doesn't qualify for "real" Christian status in Jeffress version of Evangelicalism, either.

Is Mormonism a cult?

No. At least, it isn't any more. It definitely may have originated as a cult, following the teachings of Joseph Smith and his "discovery" of the golden plates. A cult usually revolves around a single personality, or a very tight circle of authoritative leadership which is not open to the larger grouping of religious followers.

There are certainly splinter groups of the Latter Day Saints which would qualify as cults, Warren Jeffs group providing a prime example. And there are other groups like his, with compounds full of women and children dressed in pioneer-like clothing, separated and closed off from the world through purposeful self-isolation.

However, mainstream Mormonism has moved beyond cultism. Regardless of what a person thinks about the dubious origins of Mormonism, as a religion it has normalized itself to a certain extent. By abolishing polygamy and establishing broader leadership and openness it has done what all religions must do to move beyond cult status; it has compromised and changed what it could to fit within the larger culture surrounding it.

In fact, mainstream Mormonism looks quite similar to Evangelicalism. The average Evangelical could walk into a Mormon ward and hardly tell the difference between one of its services and a traditional Baptist service.  Evangelical mothers could talk with Mormon mothers and discover that the same focus on being a good wife and mother, which prevails in conservative Evangelical culture, is virtually identical in Mormon circles. The same attitude and arguments for male-only leadership that the Mormon church espouses could have been written by any conservative Southern Baptist pastor. The same effort to engage youth groups, to encourage tithing, to require service to the is virtually identical to how many Evangelical churches work.

The reason that most Evangelicals don't realize this is that their only exposure to Mormons and Mormonism occurs when they hear a knock at the door and find two young men in black pants, white shirts and black ties patiently combing neighborhoods, handing out the book of Mormon and trying to convert anyone they can. That is no better of a way to know what Mormons are like than to know what Baptists are like through their evangelism efforts.  It's only a small peak into their world.

Many Evangelicals would honestly be more comfortable with Mormon friends than they would with Catholic friends, they just don't know it. Behind the weird theories about Jesus, and the more sensational Mormon beliefs, the core of Mormon culture is made up of family, work ethic, and being willing to not conform to the world for the sake of God. The "feeling" of mainstream Mormonism is congruous to the "feeling" of conservative Evangelicalism.

That's why Glenn Beck can be so popular in conservative Evangelical circles. Even though his religion is not the same, the things he says, the views he holds, the way he comports himself  is familiar and second nature to conservative Evangelicals. Listening to him is like listening to one of their own.

Will Jeffress' comments mean anything in the way the election pans out? Only if his comments influence those who are outside of his group and who take his comments at face value.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

james, from  i don't know, but  has a brief story that I found amusing. Google may not be happy, though!

Thursday, October 06, 2011


Dr X, a psychiatrist, had a brief post after this video of Rumsfeld discussing the nature of Rumsfeld's attitude towards the interviewer. Watch the video. It's cringe-worthy.

My husband who was in the room while I was watching, but couldn't see the computer screen from his vantage point, exclaimed,"Who is that?!" Even he could pick up on the nasty tone of Rumsfeld without knowing who he was, or what the context of the video was.  Rumsfeld is manipulative and downright mean,  objecting not just to the interviewer's questions, but making some pretty nasty personal comments about the interviewer.

It gave me flashbacks to a co-worker with whom I had briefly worked.  We had been thrown together for a couple of weeks in my last job as a puppeteer/public speaker at elementary schools.  I was taking the position of her former partner in the next year and was merely filling in the last few weeks of the current year.  During our program there were specific points at which each of us were responsible for addressing the audience and either introducing the program, or concluding it. Each time I would be in the midst of my concluding presentation, she would interject things out of the blue.  It was very distracting to me, especially because there was no rhyme or reason to it.  She never interjected at the same point in the presentation, and she never said the same thing.  It kept me off-kilter.

After we concluded one of the shows, in which she really threw me off and I stood there dumbly for a moment trying to remember where I was, I tried to explain to her that I was having a hard time keeping track of things when she interjected.  I had switched parts from the time I had previously performed in this position and all of the material was new to me.  I wasn't quite comfortable enough with the new material to easily get back on track if I got distracted.

I tried to make it sound as if it were my problem and I needed her help with it.

What happened next was quite similar to that Rumsfeld video.  You would have thought that I killed her dog.  There I stood, in the middle of a school cafeteria, with this lady going on and on about me and how I was so confrontational and she couldn't work with people like me and she didn't want to hear anything I had to say and she was "done" and on and on and on.

It was the most bizarre experience and baffling personal interaction I had ever had.

She took my request and made it into a personal attack and then raised her voice at me, slandered me, and accused me of all the things she was doing to me.

This all occurred between two performances.  She stormed off while I tried to assure the school counselor that everything was fine and we would be ready for the next show.  I figured she just needed to cool off.

She came back and we icily performed our second show.

As we packed up, I made the mistake of trying to make peace with her or talk about what had happened.  Worst. Mistake. Ever.

She just moved back into Rumsfeld mode with more personal attacks and over-reaction.

I spent the last two weeks of working with her trying to kill her with kindness and refusing to let her drag me into any more of her crazy-head-space.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Random Advice for Better Living

1. Never use Lowe's Signature Valspar paint.  It sucks.  Period.  The regular Valspar has never been a problem for me, but the more expensive, supposedly better Signature line made life a living hell when I was painting my front hallway red.  The pain was thin, runny and kept leaving drip marks all over the walls. And the color comes off when you wipe it. After noticing a mark on the wall, I wiped a wet paper towel across it and it came back pink.  This was a month after I painted it.  It should have been cured by then.

2. If you'd like to download some free music, check and see if your library system is working with freegalmusic. You have to gain access through a library's website and have a library card number handy in order to use it. It's great. You get 3 free downloads per week from Sony-affiliated artists of your choice.

3. Have more than one e-mail account.  I have at least 3.  One is affiliated with my blog.  One is an account that I use for joining websites or internet shopping. One is an old one from when I used to sell jewelry online.

The older one was originally my only account and is still the only one some people in my life have.  The reason I never upgraded those people to my blog/official e-mail is because those particular people are always sending e-mail forwards, stories, cutesy videos, or chain e-mails.  Once someone does that to me, I officially cross off the possibility of upgrading them to my "new" e-mail.

It's rude, especially when they forward the e-mail to 100 other people who now have your e-mail address in the long list of forwards.

The second e-mail address I use for my blog and for any official correspondence from schools, banking, insurance companies, etc.  Organizations that aren't going to spam me or release my e-mail to spammers in Russia who want to sell me Viagra.

The third account is strictly for promotions and internet shopping.  It's full of thousands of "free offers" and enticements to shop more. I also let my kids use the address when they sign up to play online games at cartoonnetwork, or nick.

4. Never assume that someone else is going to handle a problem for you. Someone else never shows up when you need them and rarely understands what the problem is anyway.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Evolution as Theology, Part 3; Calvinism's Twin?

(I contrast Calvinism with evolution in this post...but any religious belief with a strong emphasis on a God who uses nature and events for some greater purpose could be interchanged with Calvinism.)

One of the most basic presuppositions of Calvinism is that God is sovereign and nothing ever happens without His direct knowledge and will causing it to happen. Whatever happens was meant to happen.  The appearance of "free will" is just that, an appearance, not a reality.  This applies to not only people but also nature. Earthquakes have a reason.  Premature death has a reason. Coincidences have a reason.

Somehow, someway, everything works together to bring about what God wants and we are powerless to resist it, or exert our will upon it.

Taken at face value, this can be a comforting idea. If one surrenders to the idea, then every bad event has a good purpose.

Because a Calvinistic God is a constantly active God, guiding history and nature, there is a connection in how Calvinists use nature to uphold their doctrinal beliefs. Paying close attention to how Calvinism handles gender differences, it's possible to see how, besides Scriptural input on the matter, much is made of the nature of men and women.  Arguments will frequently veer into the biology of men and women, emphasizing the hard wiring of traits and tendencies into the physical body/mind.  Men are the way they are because God created them that way and set a universal pattern for them to be that way. Women are the way they are because God made them to be that way.

This is why conservative Calvinists get up in arms about masculinity, femininity, and gender roles.  Stepping outside those roles is not only going against God's will, but it is denying the inescapable nature of biology. In Calvinist theology, one could say that we know God has fixed roles for men and women because historically, and naturalistically, those roles have existed for millennia.

In other words....If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

The interesting thing about this framework is how it could be tied to evolution.  We are the way we are because we could be no other way.  We were formed by our world and selection pressures to develop into what we are. The environment, food sources, and our relationship/interaction with other competing animals formed us. Different pressures would have caused different results.

In this case, Nature made us and there is no resisting Nature.

In reality, Calvinists could readily incorporate evolution into their theology because it would allow for a portrayal of evolution as God's sovereign, guiding hand. They usually don't, not because it couldn't be done, but because it would have implications for how they read and interpret Scripture.

In Calvinism, everything has a reason.  In evolution, everything has a result.

Calvinism assumes a purpose moving forward according to plan.  Evolution assumes a purpose discovered through the past. Calvinism assumes an intentional progression towards a finite, determined end.  Evolution assumes an infinite progression without an end, sprouting from a finite beginning.

They are mirror images of each other in a strange way.

Monday, September 26, 2011


Truth exists within a specific context. Outside of that context, the truth content of a particular claim or idea is decreased. 

This is an idea that is not new, but is recent to me.

Terms like "conventional wisdom" and "subversive readings" get tossed about in the area of religious studies. While understanding them in their most basic sense is fairly easy, the terms have stayed with me for some time as I've tried to meditate on them.

Commonly, conventional wisdom gets a bad rap. Like a poster child for bourgeoisie values, "conventional wisdom" is visualized as the witless, dull wisdom of the status quo; terribly boring and unimaginative. Creative people aren't interested in conventional wisdom. No.  They must all be ground-breaking rebels shaking the prison bars of conventional minds.

That's the stereotype anyway.

Yet, conventional wisdom is what guides our lives on a daily basis.  It's what society depends on in order to be stable and peaceful, a collection of commonly held ideas and attitudes holding things together.
Inevitably, though, conventional wisdom either fails a large minority of the population, or directly undermines it. All of the people who don't fit into conventional modes can find themselves stuck and despised by the rest of their society.  There is no place for them, no acceptance of the issues they face, no acknowledgment of how convention has contributed to their problems.

These people have no hope if they can't find an alternative means to live and think. They must find a way to validate their own ethos and being, a way to value their own history in the midst of the conventional majority, or risk living at the mercy of the group.

So, subversive wisdom is usually directly opposed to conventional wisdom and is formulated in direct response to it, answering specific questions and addressing particular differences created in the clash.

What does all of my word salad mean?

It means that religious teachings and claims are highly contextualized. They rely on the foil of the opposing viewpoint in order to become fully formulated.  Take the foil away, and they lose much of their meaning.


I often have had the experience, when reading the gospels, of siding with the Pharisees and Sadducees. They make a lot of sense in some areas. Jesus comes along and skewers them, overturning their traditions, undermining their authority, generally rebuking them.  We are supposed to feel exhilarated by his revolutionary take on things.

And, we do in some cases. The value placed upon the poor, the sinful, the "less than" individuals that make up Jesus' followers is freeing. It gives hope to those who previously had none. It paces worth within people who were considered worthless.

Jesus' proclamation gives the individual a path towards redemption over, above, and apart from the community in which they had no path. Joining the invisible Kingdom of God meant cutting ties to the earthly community if necessary; hence all that talk about hating mothers and fathers, and giving up the world to gain one's soul.

In order to grant value to those deemed valueless, the entire system must be declared fraudulent.  Value is gained by rejecting the core beliefs of the oppressive system. Freedom is obtained through rising above the system, refusing to be subject to it any longer.

Within that brief period when revolution occurs, subversive wisdom is at its peak essence.  It is poignant and powerful.

However, inevitably, if the revolution is won a new kind of conventional wisdom is established.  The system returns with a few tweaks and the roles of who is valuable, and who isn't, are switched around and dressed up a little differently.

The symbiosis continues with the roles reversed.

It reminds me a little of this image:

Sunday, September 25, 2011

4 times less wise

Expect my posts to make even less sense.  I just had my wisdom teeth yanked.  That has to have set my wisdom quotient back quite a bit.

That, plus the Vicadin they gave me, must account for my brain fog.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Evolution as Theology, Part 2

I picked up Thank God for Evolution at a steep discount when our local Borders was going out of business.  I'd read about it on other blogs and was curious enough to read it for myself and see what I thought of it.

I'm not sure what exactly I was expecting. The subtitle, How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World, should have given me a clue about the optimistic giddiness I would frequently encounter in the book. It was so overwhelming, that Pollyanna optimism, that after reading the first chapter or two, I put the book down and didn't touch it for several months.

Dowd's own description of himself and his mission in the prologue to the book made me roll my eyes:
Itinerant Evolutionary Evangelist
Since April 2002, Connie and I have been full-time "evolutionary evangelists." We live permanently on the road, offering a spiritually nourishing view of evolution throughout North America. In the tradition of traveling preachers we gave up our worldly possessions, left our home and now carry everything we need in our van. We go wherever we are invited. Our goal is to inspire people of all ages and theological orientations to embrace the history of everyone and everything in personally and socially transforming ways. (pg.4)
It goes on like that for a few paragraphs with the following graphic inserted into the text:

It was just too much for me. I have an instant distrust of anyone who describes their particular view, and themselves, in such glowing, self-promoting, pat-themselves-on-the back terms, followed by a cutesy picture.

The whole prologue rubbed me the wrong way in terms of its presentation.  I wasn't looking for cutesy optimism.  I was looking for serious engagement with the issues at hand.  Disgusted and annoyed by the approach I practically gave up on the book.

A few months later, I decided to give it another go, moving past Dowd's personal commentary and into the heart of the book. What I found was sometimes interesting, sometimes very similar to thoughts I had already had about certain theological themes, and sometimes more giddy optimism.

In general, what Dowd does is re-frame traditional religious themes, usually Christian themes, in evolutionary terms.  "Original sin" is a remnant of our reptilian brain, our base, selfish instincts which had their place at one point in our evolutionary history, but which are counterproductive now that we are social animals with higher cognition and desires which don't directly rely on simple instinct in order to be fulfilled.  "Salvation" is an acknowledgement of the Whole of Reality and submission of our lower selves(reptilian brain) to our higher selves and the world at large.

Being "in Christ" and being " in evolutionary integrity" (or, deep integrity) are different ways if saying essentially the same thing.  One uses night language; the other, day language. To speak traditionally, deep integrity is the way, the truth and the life that Jesus embodied. "Christian, : after all, originally meant "little Christ." When I trust like Jesus, love like Jesus, live my truth like Jesus, take responsibility like Jesus, and serve the Whole like Jesus, I know heaven--even in the midst of the chaos and crucifixions of life.(pg 184)

When Dowd analogizes this way, it leaves me with diverging reactions. One part of me essentially agrees with what Dowd is saying while another part of me feels as if he is trying too determinedly to make things fit within a Christian frame.  It seems untenable to me, trying to shove new concepts into pre-determined shapes.

I can't help but think that Dowd has simply moved the conversation to a more abstract level without acknowledging what must be left behind once the move is made.

More on that later.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Evolution as Theology, Part 1

(This is a brief intro to my thoughts about reading Thank God for Evolution, by Michael Dowd)

Accepting evolution within a Christian mindset isn't an easy thing to do.  I have always suspected or believed in some form of evolution, or at the very least would have thought of myself as an Old Earth Creationist or maybe an Intelligent Design sympathizer. I don't think that I ever qualified as a true YEC believer.

I settled on an evolution-as-a-means-to-creation mindset for a while, with humans being perhaps the only spontaneously "created" creatures.

Eventually I had to face facts that, scientifically speaking, that idea didn't have traction.  At this point, the theory of evolution is the best explanation we have for the existence of human beings.  It's what fits the data we have so far.

The theory of evolution presents many problems for the average Christian.  It means reinterpreting Scripture and it's themes, placing all references to creation by God within a mythical realm meant to propose a manner in which the present world could have come to be. It's possible to do that, to sift and measure theological approaches throughout Scripture and take a metaphorical slant; but it always results in trouble with clashing metaphors and themes.

Outside of the Scriptures, evolution presents other theological dilemmas.  While it would be possible to think of evolution as the "how" of existence and Scripture as an attempt to explain the "why" of existence, thereby separating the influence of one over the other, it doesn't quite work.

Why not?

It doesn't work because theology and Scripture are actually based on what the theologian sees in the world around himself. Theology isn't created in a vacuum, meant to explain a non-material, unseen world.  It is meant to explain the world we see around us every day. Whatever we learn about our physical world has to be incorporated into our theological world.  Failing to do so creates a disconnect between what we can see and what we are supposed to believe.  The more we retreat from the physical world, the more elaborate and confusing theology becomes. Eventually, it loses all sense and we wind up with mental gymnastics tying us up in knots.

If evolution is true, what does it say about the kind of God that might exist? This would not be a God who planned every detail.  This would be the kind of God who was interested in unleashing life and seeing where it led.  This would not be the kind of God who was worried too much about death.  Death is a natural part of life and most creatures, especially those with the biggest brains and best cognition, can only survive by eating other living things.  They only develop in symbiosis with their food source; other living creatures.

Cheetahs become faster in order to catch fast prey. Snakes become more poisonous in order to more quickly immobilize their food. Owls develop night vision in order to sneak up on rabbits, mice, and other animals.

These traits develop because they help animals survive.  These traits are honed at the expense of other creatures. Inflicting death on fellow creatures keeps other creatures alive.....otherwise we would all be plants surviving on sun, water, and chemicals.

Well, that's very different than the God we have conceived of.

The God of evolution would also be a God whose work was never finished. Instead, there would be a constant, perpetual motion in all living things.  There would be no day of rest, no period at the end of the story.  If evolution is true, then we are not the end; we are only one form in a chain of possibilities, one step leading to who-knows-where in a million years, one permutation of sentience in the universe.

Evolution makes us small and fragile and not entirely sure of our own long-term survival. And that is vastly different from the type of God which Christians imagine.

Underneath the complicated theology of Christianity that exists there a couple of important points:

That we are important...the crowning, final achievement of Creation.

That we will live forever...that our survival is/will be eternal.

That the story ends with us...there won't be higher, better beings on Earth.

Evolution says "meh" to least in the way that we think of it.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

One more by Weird Al:

Making murder, mayhem, and torture funny again!

Thanks, Al!

Weird Nostalgia

The Dead Puppies video that my husband sent me yesterday reminded me of the Dr. Demento radio program, where I first heard that song.  My older brother and I used to listen to Dr. Demento on the weekends.  The bizarre, dark, demented humor was just funny enough to be appealing without going too over the top.

Wandering through Youtube reminded me of this bizarre song and video, which I recall MTV playing quite frequently.

the music starts around 2:20

The eighties fostered out and out weirdness...Devo, for example:

And then there was Weird Al:

Weird All still makes parodies.  This parody of Lady Gaga's Born This Way is slightly disturbing, mainly because of the effect of Al's computer-generated head on a female body is creepy. The proportions are all off.

It's not hard to parody Lady Gaga.  I looked up the original video for Born This Way and the sci-fi narrative intro is so dumb and pretentious that it made me laugh more than Weird Al's version.

I guess the weirdness of the eighties isn't any stranger than Gaga.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Keeping the Bar Low I watched about 15 minutes of the Miss Universe contest the other night and couldn't stop the snarkiness pouring out of me.  It reached a peak when one of the ditzy commentators said about Ms. Australia,"She likes to stay on top of her health and reads the newspaper's Health section everyday! She's not only beautiful, she's so smart too!"

Apparently, reading the newspaper puts one ahead of the pack for Ms. Universe.


Trying to analyze how exactly I have wound up where I am in terms of my current beliefs, I wondered abut a few things.

I started to think of my religious beliefs as a world that has been carefully constructed in order to be conducive to an altered state of mind.  By altered, I don't mean crazy.  I mean groomed to respond in a certain way. I mean trying to achieve a detachment, or peace, or serenity that belies the current circumstances in one's life.

Prayer, worship services, reading Scripture, listening to the right speakers, reading the right books, carefully checking one's conscience....these common religious practices are used to try and shape one's mind and character in the hopes that a person's mind and attitude will be transformed.  It is a constant exercise in achieving a certain state of mind.

This is common in most major religions.  Fashioning one's life along a certain path, giving it definite borders and limits and direction becomes a means to inner peace.

The pitfalls of this common approach is that it instantly puts religious practitioners on the defensive.

When I posted about belief a while ago, it was because I had wondered to myself why people become so vehement and hostile in the face of having their beliefs challenged or overturned.  Why do we have such emotional, angst-ridden responses? Why does making sure that all of our beliefs are right become such a consuming driver for us?

I think, partly, that it has to do with our social groups, which I hinted at before.  I also think it has to do with these meticulously crafted thought-worlds that we erect.

Once a person accepts a belief of any sort--and by belief I mean an idea that cannot be fully proved or disproved, a way of making associations in the world around us that may be plausible but is not airtight,--they are in a position of having to defend that belief, having to make data fit into the overarching belief, and having to justify to other people why they believe what they believe.


Partly because no matter what a person believes there is always disconfirming, contradictory evidence; ideas and events which go against the grain of a carefully constructed thought system. No system is completely airtight, and whiffs and breezes from other systems usually waft in unbidden and unwanted.

Defensiveness is a natural stance, an automatic response from an invested mind.

That natural defensiveness can become a barrier.  It keeps us from seeing the other side of an argument.  It keeps us from having open discussions....because once you start defending an idea you have committed yourself to it.  You have already made up your mind and want only to convince other people to follow suit.


Originally I was thinking that practicing the art of defenselessness was a Buddhist idea that was appealing to me, a sort of detachment from the emotional trigger that can set us off.  Then, I was reminded of the portrayals of Jesus as defenseless, refusing to defend himself vigorously to current Jewish leadership, the emphasis he placed on non-retaliation, and the portrayal of him as taken to trial and crucified without a defense.

Defenselessness is just as easily construed as a Christian spiritual practice as it is a Buddhist one.

Is learning to not be defensive a key to either spiritual, or mental, maturity?

I believe it is. It requires us to not react emotionally when we feel threatened or fearful or angered.

Social Security...a Ponzi Scheme?

Rick Perry made some waves recently by calling Social Security a Ponzi scheme.  Others have called it a scam. It's popular right now to disparage the program.

John Stossel is screaming the same thing.

What I have realized, however, is that most people don't understand Social Security for what it is.  Many average people think that Social Security is like a retirement fund that they are paying into, that somehow they will be getting back what they have put into it. If someone starts with that assumption, then the prospect of lower benefits, or no benefits, feels like a bait and switch. It feels as if they have been ripped off. They have invested in something that has been devalued or bankrupted.

It's not too far of a jump from that feeling to comparing Social Security to a Ponzi scheme.

Social Security is not an investment fund.  It isn't even about saving up money for people. Social Security is a current benevolence fund run by the government for those who currently need it.

We pay into it to sustain the elderly and disabled in this day and age.  The idea is that when we become elderly, or disabled, there will be other young people paying into the benevolence fund for us.

For churchgoers who have tithed, Social Security is like the tithe one pays consistently over time.  You don't expect to get anything back from that tithe other than the continual running of your place of worship.  And, when you are old and need the services of the church/synagogue more intensely, or have less income to give, you simply move along the continuum of giving.

In many ways, I would think that religious conservatives would "get" Social Security better than the secular public.  They should be used to the idea of giving without future gain, giving to help out unknown people without seeing any return on the "investment".

Now, people may object to the idea that they bear any responsibility to elders and the disabled, collectively speaking, but that's an entirely different point.  That has nothing to do with retirement, Ponzi schemes, or disappointing investments.  Instead, believing that each person is responsible for their finances once they are elderly or disabled in the same way they were when they were young or healthy is an objection based in libertarian, self-sufficient values.

Some people argue that people need to fund their own retirement accounts, or have the government direct their taxes to private pension funds or investments.  That sounds well and good until one considers how the stock market has played out in the last few years.  Many retirees have seen their retirement investments tank because of the decline in stock prices and the volatility of the market.  Combined with declining house values, leaving them little equity to tap for emergencies, many retirees who did all the "right" things face uncertain futures.

Additionally, as an anecdote, there is my mother who worked for a company for over 30 years.  She works part-time now because of health reasons and is able to draw the pension she earned from a private company, supposedly one of those paths that conservatives hype all the time.  Yet, she has received letters indicating that the company that she worked for all those years may declare bankruptcy, and if they do so she will lose the pension she was "guaranteed".  Legally, if they go out of business, they can't be required to pay their pensions.

The question looms....what are people to do when facing retirement? There are no "secure" options for anybody. We forget that much of our livelihood can disappear in a moment, whether it is through losing a job during a recession, having a 401K, or IRA, dry up because of a down market, or having a pension fund disappear into the ether through no fault of our own.

Comment of the Day

Read elsewhere on the interwebs:
I’m still reeling from the Tea Party debate. My favorite was Bachmann’s rant about all the innocent little girls who are now irreparably immune to a carcinogenic virus, because the government won’t allow them the freedom to get cervical cancer.
Oh, this made me laugh so wickedly!

So true, so true.

I don't know how Bachmann can go on about government mandated injections by executive order as if the majority of the nation's children don't already get those between the ages of 0 and 18.  They're called vaccines and they have saved millions of lives over the years.

The objection about this vaccine revolves solely around the fact that it is for a sexually transmitted virus. That freaks people out. However, even if your daughter remains pristine and virginal, there is no guarantee that her future spouse will have remained that way, or that her future spouse won't cheat on her, or that she won't make a mistake and give into temptation at some point.

This is one of those times when people shouldn't let their worries and hang-ups trump the future health of their children.

My Husband's Advice for a Career Path

Maybe I should submit to my husband's guidance for my career path like Michele Bachmann did.

After perusing my county's civil service board for employment opportunities, I mentioned to my husband that they're looking for someone for the animal euthanize the unwanted, ferocious puppies picked up off the streets and to "Surgically prepare deceased animals for rabies testing."

In other words, the Animal Care Assistant gets to kill dogs and then cut them open to be tested for rabies.

Here's the e-mail he sent me this morning:

Your new career: 

mmkay...thanks hubby.  You, sir, are one sick puppy!

Friday, August 19, 2011

This Little PIggy said,"Wee, Wee, Wee", all the way to the ER

Rushing madly through outside school hallways--which are open to the torrential, afternoon, Florida rain--a toddler darted out in front of me and caught my naked pinky toe, unprotected by my flip-flops, with his apparently steel-toed tennis shoes.

After limping around the elementary school, and then the middle school for two hours, while holding back tears towards the end, I realized that my toe was probably broken instead of only badly stubbed.

One trip to the ER, and a few X-rays later, I am the proud owner of shiny metal crutches.

My husband thinks I have become a self-inflicating injury hypochondriac looking for extra attention.  I told him not to say things like that to a woman who has two new, long, metal clubs with which to strike him.

He's lucky that I can't chase after him! ;-)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Pale Blue Dot

Last weekend the boys and I went to a planetarium and attended several of the shows offered. One of the presentations, Extreme Planets, explored the possible environments of planets that have already been discovered outside of our solar system.

This and the Live Star Talk by the Planetarium's astronomer were pretty spectacular.

The Rationalist said afterwards,"Watching those shows made me realize how small Earth is and how easily it could be destroyed."

I concurred. Imagining the immensity of space, the vastness of our galaxy and the prospect of billions of other galaxies, it does make a person seem pretty insignificant.  It also makes me think that somewhere out there there has to be at least one other planet with life.

Functionally, it doesn't really matter.  Even if there are thousands of planets with life, they are so far from us that they may as well not exist.  Theoretically, though, how amazing would that be?

Why Belief?

Why do humans believe things? Why do we venture into thought worlds that can only exist through exerting a high level of belief that can't be substantiated by materialistic, visible processes?

Because we evolved that way.

Part of what makes humans successful is the ability to teach and receive information and ideas without having personally experienced the knowledge firsthand. We learn from each other, not just through observing another person's actions, but through the other person recounting a lesson, or a bit of knowledge, or a new way of doing things.

We store up all this information in our relatively large brains and it gives us an advantage we wouldn't have otherwise.  We survive because we are good at information storage, retrieval, and analysis.

A large portion of that information we must accept on faith. There's no way we could personally check every fact or idea for veracity.  There must be a level of trust present in our learning; trust from our teachers, from our fellow humans, and in the process of learning itself.

This trust is self-reinforcing.  When we receive a new bit of information, or advice about something, and we follow it and it turns out to be true and right, then we have strengthened the level of trust we have for secondhand knowledge.

Multiply this by a million instances and it's easy to see how trust and belief become natural human tendencies. Because we are social animals living in complex social hierarchies, it is a necessity that we trust each other and build upon a base of knowledge that is shared across our social group regardless of our ability to prove that the conglomeration of ideas that guides our lives is true in every detail.

Belief, then, is just a normal outgrowth of our development and survival as a species.

Of course, that's the positive side of belief and trust, but belief and trust can go horribly awry. It's possible to believe things which are false. It's possible to be manipulated and have belief and trust misused and abused by a devious person. It's possible for belief to become our main way of viewing the world to the exclusion of the reality around us.

In turn, it seems to me that belief--the acceptance of ideas that we haven't personally verified--is directly tied to our social groupings and loyalties. And, when our beliefs are challenged, the ramifications are enormous for us because of what it does to our sense of unity and trust in the larger system in which we exist.

Logically, it would seem silly to be so critically affected by an overturned belief.  After all, everyday we have to adjust to new circumstances and learn from our failures. If I think the best way to get across town is route A and I've been going that way all my life, and everyone I know swears by that route,  I don't get upset or feel ashamed if I learn that route B is actually faster and more convenient.  I simply start using route B and wind up happy that I learned something new.

Yet this doesn't happen when we experience it in our religious or personal beliefs. Changing or losing belief in these areas is monumental because of what it says about our trust and attachment to a particular group of people, people we feel close to and love and interact with every day. People who we used to listen to uncritically and trust implicitly.

Because what we have learned in life has always come down to us through our closely knit social groups, there is no way to overturn a deeply held, core idea without it appearing treasonous to the group, without seeming to undermine the authority of the very group which produced us.

more on this later.....

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Comparison as Consolation

My *extended family member's mother passed away this past weekend after suffering with Huntington's disease for years. She had spent the last 3 years in a nursing home, unable to talk, eat, walk, or communicate in any way by herself. See had been pretty badly off for some time before that.

I called to express my condolences and talked with my extended family member--a very gentle, sweet person--for a few minutes.

In the middle of that conversation I realized, once again, that people say all kinds of things without really thinking about them. In order to express her consolation that she and her brother and her father were all present when her mother passed, along with their families, she referred to my father's death, making a comparison about the comfort of one death over another.  She went further bringing up the comfort that her mother was in Heaven while we didn't have that comfort about my father. We were left with "uncertainty".

My father died alone from what the medical examiner thinks was a massive heart attack, with the phone still in his hand.  He never made the call that he was probably trying to make to 911.  That's how instantaneous his death happened...not enough time to even press three numbers on a phone. It wasn't discovered that he had died until at least a week or two later.

He also died an atheist.

I didn't respond to my extended family member's comments.  I know that she is hurting and has no intention to offend . I know that she is just expressing ideas that my own brother still struggles with.  I know exactly what she meant by her comments, because I might have made those same comments a few years earlier.

So, this post isn't about ranting and outrage over my extended family member's comments. Instead, I wanted to merely mark down the idea that so much of our comfort comes from having a concrete example to compare things to.  It seems as if we can only feel good about ourselves and our circumstances when we have other people and disasters to view as horrible examples.

It's as if goodness and happiness joy can't exist if it doesn't have an evil by which to define itself.  We are "good" people because we are not like those "bad" people. Our choices are good choices because they are different than those bad choices...etc.

My extended family member found comfort that God had brought them all together to be present at her mother's death, as if it were some grand design that coincidentally happened when really, it was due to the nurses calling and telling them that her mother didn't have much time left and everybody should come if they wanted to say goodbye to her.

But we take comfort where we can find it and dress up the ugliness behind how we get that comfort. Most of the time we don't even see the ugliness because it isn't important to us.  It's just a vehicle we use to move us along to a better emotional place.

The ugliness behind my extended family member's comment is the idea of my father being eternally in hell. From such a thing she stole a moment of consolation that her mother wasn't suffering the same fate.

It would be an easy thing to be upset about....except for the truth that we all function in this way at times.

* I edited this to remove some identifying information.

Stewart on Ron Paul

Saw this somewhere and thought it was funny.

This is one of several videos lately in which Stewart spends most of his time aiming at the media instead of the actual politicians. Interesting change in targets.