October 17th 2013

Miracles

Miracles

I have been very fortunate in my life, despite my perhaps frequent grumbling. Among the things I am grateful for, the top of the list has to be that I not only have two amazing children, but I have also been allowed to share in the growth and development of (now) eight stepchildren. I was only present for the miracle of birth twice—both times amazing and transformative—but there are additional miracles as each child grows and changes (and changes me). For all my faults as a father, and I am sure they are many, I have never not loved any of my children.

Tomorrow, I get to participate in another miracle of sorts—I get to become a father again! Linda and the boys and Sophia and I will appear in Superior Court, Department 204, at 1:30 to witness a sort of legal miracle: Sophia’s birth certificate will be altered to insert me as her legal father; her last name will change and it will be as if I had been there for her birth eight years ago.

As this event has neared, many emotions have welled up in me. The catalog of my parental errors and shortcomings runs in an endless loop, for one. Worries, too; the future is never certain. But last night, after her bath, Sophie picked a book for me to read, The Princess and the Pig, a book I bought her and for which she is perhaps too old, now. But I read it and she looked for the goofy dog in the pictures and I read things “wrong” and she corrected me. As I read to her, I remembered reading to my other children in all the different bedrooms and pajamas and after-bath wet hair. If I can do nothing else, I can at least read well. When I finished, she asked me to brush her hair, and I did, as I once brushed my daughter’s hair—and they are both my daughters, and every hair-brushing is special.

So this is just a note to all the children I have shared a bit of time with. Each of you is a miracle; my connection to you is a miracle. In our entwinement, please celebrate one more.

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March 12th 2012

Who Would Have Thought Religion Would Hold So Much Sway In 2012?

Who Would Have Thought Religion Would Hold So Much Sway In 2012?

A colleague of mine, in his blog, recently posted on the controversy surrounding contraceptive coverage in the Obama Health Care plan. In his Facebook link he wrote, “Who would have thought contraception would be controversial in 2012?”

Who indeed? Well, the religious right, the Catholic Church, and the Christian orthodoxy to name just a few. It got me thinking… 2012! Haven’t we outgrown religion? Or at least orthodoxy? Why is it that we aren’t mature enough to face life on our own?

People don’t like Richard Dawkins. Fine. I don’t know the man, only his writings/videos. But in the following video, after describing the roots/basis of Mormon theology (“in the 19th Century a man named Joseph Smith dug up some golden tablets, which he translated and then conveniently lost”), he asks, “do you want to vote for somebody who is capable of holding in his head such unrealistic nonsense? Do you want a president who believes such palpably foolish things…?” And I, frankly, wonder myself how is it that there are those who do.

But I would not want to stop there (and of course Dawkins does not). People believe in the Mormon church, they believe in Scientology. There are Branch Davidians, Heaven’s Gate devotees, the Unification Church (Moonies), the Children of God, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, you name it. There are Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Lutherans, Calvinists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Amish, Evangelicals, Baptists, Anabaptists, Mennonites, etc. There are Buddhists, Confucianists, Neo-Confucianists, New Confucianists, Taoists, followers of Shinto, Shao-Lin and Zen Buddhism. There are Sufis and Hindu, Sikhs and Bahá’í, Shiite and Sunni Muslims. There are indigenous religions throughout the world. What is it about invisible, unknowable beings that we need them to rule our lives so desperately?

Dawkins discusses this at length in his books, likening the process of religion to the survival value of children’s obedience. “For excellent survival reasons,” he writes,

child brains need to trust parents and trust elders whom their parents tell them to trust.  An automatic consequence is that the ‘truster’ has no way of distinguishing good advice from bad.  The child cannot tell that ‘If you swim in the river you’ll be eaten by crocodiles’ is good advice but ‘If you don’t sacrifice a goat at the time of the full moon, the crops will fail’ is bad advice.  They both sound the same.

He further notes that, as can be seen in even a cursory examination of the lineages of modern religions,

On this model, we should expect that, in different geographical regions, different arbitrary beliefs having no factual basis will be handed down, to be believed with the same conviction as useful pieces of traditional wisdom such as the belief that manure is good for the crops.  We should also expect that these nonfactual beliefs would evolve over generations, by either random drift or following some sort of analogue of Darwinian selection, eventually showing a pattern of significant divergence from common ancestry.

Thus, there is a sort of evolutionary explanation for the beliefs people hold, although Dawkins’ argument is that religion “has no survival value for individual human beings, or for the benefit of their genes.  The benefit, if there is any, is to religion itself” (“What Use Is ReligionFree Inquiry Magazine v24 n5).

But I am not satisfied, because those beliefs I mentioned aren’t merely benign childhood fantasies. Belief systems such as Catholicism, Islam, Judaism, Protestantism, and a host of sub-sects are or have been involved in, linked to, or openly have encouraged heinous acts of racism, sexism, pedophilia, homo-phobia, genocide, fratricide, and terrorism. They actively promote ignorance, both social and scientific. It isn’t a defense to say that secular ideologies can and have proven often enough to be just as bad.  At least, such systems cannot justify their excesses through (nor hide behind) reliance on invisible, controlling beings.

And even if these belief systems don’t have outward agendas, what am I to think of those who 1) organize their lives around what is, essentially, fable, and 2) tithe into multi-billion dollar international institutions which must first support their administration and management before “doing good work” with the funds? I work with them, put up with the occasional “Everyone” email espousing their Christian beliefs, let their Facebook posts of praise go unremarked. I do my fair share of atheist posts–like this one!–and I hope they put up with me. But wait, is it really the same?

If your child came home one day and said the Boojoogly Monster helped him or her score well on a test, or score a goal in sports, would you praise the behavior? Is there any difference when Tim Tebow acknowledges his god’s help? What if your child came home and said a good teacher or coach and good studying/practice helped him or her? Isn’t that enough? Isn’t it, in fact, what really happened? That’s why my atheist posts are not the same. I don’t claim to be smarter or better than anyone else, I just claim that what there is of me is my responsibility, my effort.

It is not, actually, really controversial to hold such a position. Or at least it shouldn’t be, because it is reasonable, scientific, and can be universally applied. What ought to be controversial is that we have presidential candidates, on all sides, who believe absolutely preposterous things about magical, invisible entities. It is 2012, isn’t it?

Post image source: http://wp.patheos.com.s3.amazonaws.com/blogs/unreasonablefaith/files/2012/03/house-on-religion-600×450.jpg

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June 10th 2010

Summer

Summer

The grey long-haired cat from next door runs for the tunnel he’s created in the thin leaves of the deer grass in the front yard. I have startled him–nothing else is moving in this heat. I would follow him if I could.

Summer has arrived at last. I could stand perfectly still and sweat. Today, though, I am moving boxes from the garage to storage and I am soaked with myself. If I give it an hour or so, think only of the shower I will take afterward, I can do this chore. This is how summer passes: I negotiate with my body, promise it future reward for present discomfort. As long as I’ve lived in the Central Valley heat, I’ve done thus. My body is quick to forgive–it lives in the moment. But I remember, and I’m ashamed to mistreat it so.

I worked 13 years for an ice company. Summer was measured from Memorial Day to Labor Day and every day between was a Wednesday–there seemed to be no end to demand. I would step into the freezer and steam would coalesce around me. Later, when I stumbled upon the works of Andres Montoya, his iceworker persona resonated with me. It was the way the iceworker spoke up for those who don’t speak, who aren’t allowed official speech. Montoya’s iceworker was a champion; my experience was the opposite: long demeaning hours away from family, corporate disregard for employees, the Rockwell image of the iceman and cart, children running behind for ice chips, hiding the predatory nature of business. One summer, on a Sunday, there was a massive blackout in California. I was at my then girlfriend’s apartment with my kids when I was called in to work. I was told we were helping people keep food fresh and survive the heat, but we were getting top dollar for every bag sold. Meanwhile, I lost time with my family. When they fired me several years later, none of those sacrifices mattered.

My body has long forgotten those iniquities. My whole life has moved on–I have a career so different now that I wonder how it happened. I used to think I would leave the Central Valley and never return. Many of my friends did so, but I didn’t. I married, raised kids, went back to school; now I have a new career and friends here. I like that I empower people in my job, instead of contributing to their continued servitude. I like that I’m valued for my intellect and critical thinking skills instead of punished for them. My new job is like a grass tunnel–a retreat from the capitalist blast furnace. I no longer have to negotiate with my body to get up for work.

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May 29th 2010

The Letter

The Letter

Last week a letter arrived for my son from the National Guard. I did the same thing with it that I’ve done with the others, the Army, the Marines. I buried it in the kitchen trash. I even arranged the trash over it on the off chance he’d see his name and fish it out.

My father used to ask me, “When are you going to join the army, sweet boy?” I know he knew how much it needled me; I was always visibly uncomfortable. I never had the rejoinder that would shut him up. He was a tall man, fit and robust–I was a teenager and shy and my spirit cowered in his presence. He’d ask, “Where’d you get that hippie philosophy?” in a sneering voice. “Stuff I read,” I’d say, which only made it worse. He’d go on and on. He’d been a general’s guard in the Korean War and he credited that time with turning him into a man. He collected guns and one of his prizes was a Russian Luger he’d gotten off a prisoner and which he’d brazenly smuggled out of Korea. He even collaborated on books about the conflict.

Once, when I’d said something about the “enemy” being human, he said, “Down the barrel of a gun, those gooks ain’t human.” He held up an imaginary rifle and let off a few rounds. I remember vividly where my dad and I were when he said that, the smell of the restaurant, the look of the fake plants behind my father’s head. I was so stunned, I just sat there. I kept thinking of my girlfriend, who he’d met. She was Korean, adopted by a couple here in the states. I became sick to my stomach. I kept wondering how it could be that she wouldn’t be human–what circumstances could ever make anyone not see her as beautiful, full of life, human.

The war machine is getting better at dehumanizing the enemy. The latest move is to separate soldiers from their targets. War by drone, or by long-distance imagery. It is impossible for me to watch the footage of the Reuters reporter gunned down by US helicopters (you can watch the video on WikiLeaks and read the Reuters story). I start, but it overwhelms me. And the New York Times is reporting that 23 Afghan civilians were killed by, as the army puts it, “unprofessional” reporting from drone operators. We fight more and more via remote video and what then separates the “enemy” on the screen from the video game “enemies” my son’s generation spends so much time conquering?

Ironically, when my father passed away, I inherited his gun collection. They are all safely locked away and I made sure every gun had no ammunition in it. But they belong to me–me, who has never knowingly allowed a real gun in my house in my life. I remember when I was a kid my dad cleaning the guns (religiously) every weekend. He’d show me how to hold them, how to check to see if they were loaded, what never to do. He wanted to teach me to value them as he did, but we moved to California and I developed a hippie philosophy. I did not carry his values forward.

I have talked to my son about my actions. He’s seen me throw away the Army letters. He knows what all of this means to me. I have checked the box denying the Armed Services the right to send my son literature via the school or to use school records. A lot of good that does, apparently. I also preview my son’s video games and movies. But he is 17 now. I can’t shield him forever–and I’m aware that I am probably not shielding him now. I remember being that age. I just hope, if someone ever asks him to target another human being, however much they might seem like game avatars, he’ll say no. If asked why he won’t, maybe he’ll say, “My dad taught me.”

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May 16th 2010

Depression

Depression

Is anyone’s life free of stains? Not mine; in reflection, I turn up the rug and all that’s been spilled over the years has dried in accusing layers. My house is dirty. I have not kept it well.

Of course, this is a conceit. My viewpoint is a choice and, like most depressives’, it evidences a strange sort of narcissism. Woe is me, etc. It is a viewpoint that feeds on itself too–that recognizes its own conceit as further evidence of the dirty house, of the general worthlessness of the beholder. Self-knowledge does not necessarily improve the depressive illness.

And illness it is. I take medication to improve the serotonin levels in my brain. Serotonin is a chemical that we know a lot about and nothing about at the same time. It has been linked to sudden infant death syndrome and regulates a variety of cardiovascular and endocrine functions, muscles, and breast milk production. According to WebMD, “Of the approximately 40 million brain cells, most are influenced either directly or indirectly by serotonin. This includes brain cells related to mood, sexual desire and function, appetite, sleep, memory and learning, temperature regulation, and some social behavior.” Clearly, if there’s something wrong with my serotonin, it would explain a lot.

Except, like most advances in science, the more we learn, the more we realize how little we know. There is no way to measure serotonin levels in the brain or even to be certain exactly how increasing serotonin levels affects mood. Scientists aren’t sure if reduced serotonin levels cause depression or the other way around. One theory holds that a suppression of brain cells from stress causes depression. The theory suggests that increased serotonin in the brain stimulates the growth of brain cells and that these new cells are what mitigate depression, not the medication itself.

It doesn’t really matter, I suppose. My current depressive illness has something to do with stress, which I don’t handle well, but also with shock. The triggering event itself is not important to this post, but I am in deep grief and shock and this has triggered a downward spiral of emotions. I must have killed off or suppressed quite a few cells to feel so uninspired by the world around me. Suddenly all the stains are visible: layers of them.

I’ve been here before. It will pass. I’m exercising more, practicing yoga breathing, distracting myself. It’s the AA way–fake it ’til you make it. Last night my son had some friends over and I busied myself driving for pizza, taking my stepdaughter to work and back, ferrying about. All their conversations were animated, excited. They barrel forward toward an uncertain future with their brain cell factories at full production and they are high on the serotonin of youth, the dance of friendship, the courtship of possibilities. I could learn something. My son, after dropping a pizza slice on his shirt, exclaimed to his friend, “That’s gonna stain!” And with that they took off laughing, grabbing a broom to sweep their treehouse.

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August 22nd 2009

Passages

Passages

Driving home from the store this afternoon, I passed a crew working on some part of a closed lane of the road that had been recently repaved.  Hard at work, bent over as only a small child can bend, fat diaper butt in the air, was a little boy digging at the asphalt, his watchful dad nearby.

I flashed back to my daughter when she was just a baby–I used to bundle her up, strap her in the car seat and go to work at the ice company in the middle of winter for one or two deliveries each week.  We were a small outlet–this was 1989 or 90.  I was the only employee/manager through the winter and I delivered dry ice several times a week and wet ice even less.  I remember setting her in her seat near the rear of my pickup, wedged under coats and propped up carefully, to watch as I hoisted the 50lb blocks of dry ice from their bins, cut them into strips on a band saw, and loaded them for delivery.  I talked to her and tried to make her laugh so she wouldn’t cry from being cooped up–she hated car seats.  Sometimes, after the delivery, we just sat together in the truck and I watched her sleep or played with her to hear her laugh.

I didn’t do that with my son–the ice company was much bigger by then and I took him to work sometimes so he could walk in the huge freezer, but I worried more because I had employees then and more machinery.  It just wasn’t safe.

But now they are both grown, or nearly so and all those times are in the distant past, it seems.  I turned to my son the other day and realized with a shock that he was almost as tall as me.  He will be 17 in December.  I can’t fathom that.

And soon, tonight, I will have to pick him up from his friend’s house.  The friend is a girl, but he’s not calling her a girlfriend.  They text each other 40 billion times a day and were  in constant contact while she was in South Dakota over the summer, but they are not labeling the relationship as of yet.

I’m afraid for him, the same way I was (still am?) afraid for my daughter and stepdaughters–love is an awful and transcendental feeling.  And hurt is inevitable.  The first love so often does not last.  It belongs to the realm of human rites of passage which must be endured, which must, in fact, consume us wholly and thrash us and lift us up and thrash us again.

I too am going through a rite of passage. I can’t save my son; I couldn’t save my daughters.  It is my lot to sit helplessly by while they tread this path, to take them in my arms when they sob the tears of inconsolable loss, to try to make them laugh and live so they will love again, and maybe even lose again.  And that little boy, working so hard beside his dad will grow up and never remember any of this day except, perhaps, the residue, the aura of a real love that will never let him go.

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