Jack String and the Case of the Strange Influence

It’s been a busy couple of months for me. In addition to my two day jobs, I’ve been working weekends as a server and teaching an ESL class one night a week, all while trying to write (rare), study Spanish (rarer), and have a social life (so rare, it’s still mooing).

Of all those demands on my time, I’m finding teaching the most rewarding. For about three hours every Monday night, I volunteer at El Centro de Educación de Trabajadores in Hell’s Kitchen, an organization that provides a variety of services to help immigrants and those whose first language isn’t English. They provide a good community service, a necessary service, and I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to play a small part in it – as well as a little sad that next week will be the end of the quarter.

Partnered with a co-teacher, I help adult learners with first level English, teaching essential grammar and vocabulary. The students are at varying skill levels, and almost every week we’ve had a new student arrive, so there’s a lot of on-the-fly adaptation and rejiggering of lesson plans.

Every Monday morning, I leave my apartment at 8 to work a full 9-5 (5:30, really) and then immediately take the train a couple stops north to start teaching just after 6. The class ends at 9 and then I have roughly an hour ride home back to my apartment in Crown Heights. Then another six straight days of work. Sunday nights, I go to sleep exhausted just by the thought of the next day.

The strange thing – or not so strange, based on the admissions of my fellow volunteers – is that by the time class has started, I’m re-energized, excited to engage with the students, to hear about their weeks and learn more about them. They come from Venezuela, Brazil, Mexico, Iran, and other locales. Every week we talk about what life is like in their home countries, what they enjoy about New York, and what differences they experience in American culture. These are the conversations I live for.

When it’s my week to lead the lesson, there’s always a wee nervous stirring in my stomach, the weight of responsibility, a sense that there’s more at stake than whether a cheeseburger comes out at the right temperature. The glimmer of excitement in someone’s eye when they understand something that only minutes before they had not is the ultimate gratuity.

I’m sad that I won’t get a second chance to work with El Centro or my co-teachers. I hope to someday return to a similar type of program, either abroad or when (if) I return to the United States. Until then, I’m grateful for the opportunity. I don’t yet think of myself as a teacher, not really, but this was an important stop on that journey.

snowflake

A Puzzle with No Solution

Ms. Drake turned out to be a surprisingly pivotal person in my life’s direction. I say surprising because, when she was my sixth grade teacher, I always found her teaching style to be a bit juvenile. She decorated her classroom with color paper cutouts that looked more appropriate for kindergarteners. We also had a midday break where she would read different books to us, some of them well below my reading level. I was mostly bored in her class.

Hell, I’m providing her the pseudonym of “Ms. Drake” not to protect her identity but because I genuinely don’t remember it. She only lasted at the school one year.

And yet, Ms. Drake, my Ms. Frizzle-esque sixth grade teacher absolutely changed the course of my life.

Up until sixth grade, when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said a “mathematician.” I didn’t really have a concept of what that meant or how exactly doing math could manifest as a career. I just knew that I liked math problems, any math problems.

When I was still in single digits, I used to borrow my sister, Debra’s, algebra textbook and solve problems from her homework. I enjoyed all math, but algebra appealed to me the most because each problem was like a little puzzle, and boy, I loved puzzles. One summer, I took a school math book home with me to do homework so that I could advance the next year. By the time I was in sixth grade, I had leapt ahead in my math course to be in the same class as my older brother, Daniel. He loved that.

So, every day, usually coinciding with Ms. Drake’s reading period, I and another student, a much brighter boy than me named Juno, would leave our sixth grade classroom and go upstairs to join the upper level math class (our school was a private Christian institution that housed K-9 grades all in one yellow, metal barn-shaped building).

I took great pride in my math proficiency, and was more than a little bit of a shithead about it with my older siblings. But since I was a mortally shy and uneasy kid, it’s all I had; it was my entire identity, other than being the youngest boy from a messed up family – which I also took a weird kind of pride in.

Having that one thing to hang my hat on was very important because sixth grade was also the year puberty body slammed my groin like a Republican congressman and I discovered the most magnificent of life’s horrors: falling in love.

Her name was Laura. She wasn’t the first girl I’d had a crush on. That was Melanie in kindergarten, and there’d been others. But Laura was the first girl for whom seeing her enter the room made me feel like I was dying and being born at the same time. My crush on her is probably the reason I can’t remember Ms. Drake’s real name or most other things going on in my life from sixth grade through much of junior high: she outshone everything else.

As a chunky 11-year-old, I was not a smooth talker, and I was not cute, at least not to sixth grade girls. I was confident that Laura – and every other girl for that matter – was in love with my best friend at the time, Aaron, an athletic, naturally popular kid. That’s how I envisioned him; I’m sure his memory is far less charitable, as no one remembers their pubescent years fondly.

I went through that entire year in complete devastation, certain that I was invisible to Laura, though I know for sure that she actually did notice me: I was the jerk who made up some stupid, rude nickname for her. That’s right, I was the cliché, the boy who didn’t know how to talk to his crush so he insulted her instead. This was the beginning of a phase where, when I couldn’t think of anything funny or witty to say, I would just be mean. I expect that phase to end any day now.

There I was, in love with this incomparable beauty (there are few comparison points for an 11-year-old, Christian boy), and completely unable to break through the barrier between us. I’d met the unsolvable puzzle.

This is where Ms. Drake comes in.

In addition to the reading period, Ms. Drake would also set aside a portion of the day for us to write in our journals. We could write whatever we wanted, and at the end, those who wished to could read what they’d written aloud to the class. I’d never really done any personal writing before, never had a diary or anything, but I took to this activity with gusto.

During one of these writing periods, I created my first character: Jack String, a bumbling idiot of a private eye who always managed to solve his cases by pure dumb luck. I’m not sure where the character came from, but like most everything else about me at that age, I’m sure I stole it from something I watched on TV.

Feeling confident one day, I volunteered to read my Jack String story to the class. That’s when it happened, the most perfect, most beautiful, purest life-sustaining moment of my paltry existence: I read the silly story and the class laughed. Nay, Laura laughed. That was it. Fuck math, I was a writer.

Writing was powerful, it was world changing. It made me funny. Once Jack String came to life on the page, he became all I wanted to write about, all I wanted to do. Entering his world offered the briefest of respites from my uncertain real life. (Years later, when I unearthed the original Jack String pages, I was shocked to find that these “short stories” where barely two paragraphs long.)

As I grew older, Jack String transformed into a more dour detective until I abandoned the character altogether. Though I had loved reading Encyclopedia Brown and other detective stories, it turned out I was lousy at manufacturing meaningful mysteries of my own. My fiction grew less plot heavy as I developed as a writer, more character based. The humor also changed, from pratfalls to sardonic quips that are really only funny to me. It turns out, my sixth grade self knew how to entertain an audience better than current me.

Laura and I became “friends” throughout high school but it was always a walled off kind of relationship. At 18, when I read my poetry for the first time in front of an older, rowdy audience at the Jazzhaus, I invited her as my guest, hoping not too subtly that my exquisite words would wow the audience and capture her heart.

We were the only under-agers allowed in (my brother, Steve, ran the show) and we drank Cherry Cokes together at our separate table. When it was my turn to read, I sheepishly worked my way through the narrow passages between the swiveling chairs and up onto the spotlighted stage.

There I stood, a stick figure child with the blondest of long blond hair, standing before a drunken crowd of adults. I cleared my throat in preparation of reading truly terrible poetry, but before I could get any words out, a disembodied voice from the darkness hollered, “Hey, Hanson!” The crowd exploded into hoots and guffaws. I turned beet red, and then grew redder. Apparently I could still get a laugh as a writer.

Dripping sweat, I managed to mumble out my angsty couplets before leaving the stage to polite clapping. I sat through the rest of the show, every few minutes looking at Laura with a twitchy smile, but there was nothing to be done, nothing to salvage. I’m pretty sure that was the last time I saw Laura.

In School (Album)

For all that humiliation, for all the social anxiety, I have Ms. Drake to thank. But, sincerely so. Getting up on that stage and being roundly embarrassed was a necessary experience. I went up almost every week for the next three years, and eventually grew more comfortable performing before an audience, even if the poetry didn’t improve. It was facing that fear that led the groundwork for other major leaps that I would make in my life, particularly 10 Cities/10 Years.

It’s a strange influence that a teacher can have on a student’s life (and a preposterous society that doesn’t revere and support its teachers). If you were to ask me which teachers I’ve learned the most from or who I had the most admiration for, Ms. Drake wouldn’t be the first to pop into my head, and yet, truly, no other teacher sparked such a fundamental and lasting passion in me.

It’s crazy to think, if not for Ms. Drake, I might be an engineer instead of a writer.

I hope she’s sorry.

 

 

A photo of Brooklyn Bridge in black and white

The Art of Jumping

X

[Names are whatever I want them to be]

I spent much of my youth with a group of boys, which explains why I was such a surly kid. Following church one Sunday afternoon, where the message had been “Good Ideas vs. God Ideas” (your wisdom or God’s wisdom), a group of us gathered at a buddy’s place to hang out and be teenage boys.

From a tall tree in that friend’s backyard, a zip line had been attached that shot across the yard to a patch of grass a dozen or so yards off. This bright summer day, the boys were taking turns riding, but there was a hold out: Dylan. No matter how much the other boys badgered him, Dylan wouldn’t ride the line.

“I don’t think it’s safe,” he protested.

“Well, maybe that’s a good idea,” a kid named Chet intoned, “but is it a God idea?”

It says something about Christian youth that, even as a joke, that line still worked: Dylan climbed the tree. I surmise the jumping off spot for the zip line must have been roughly three stories, though details are fuzzy: let’s say at least 25 feet. By the point Dylan was stepping up to the ledge, at least four or five other boys had already ridden the line.

Effectively goaded, Dylan stepped out of the tree, putting all of his faith in the strength of the line, and immediately dropped. The line snapped. He hit the ground like a rock.

There is an art to jumping out of a tree, and Dylan apparently had forgotten it: Instead of bending his legs and rolling with the momentum, he locked his knees and came straight down on his feet. Following that fall, Dylan spent the next few weeks in a wheelchair, though nothing was broken, only bruised.

When Dylan hit the ground, he went fetal, writhing in pain. The rest of us were frozen in a mixture of shock and awe until Chet broke the silence with the soundest theological statement I’ve ever heard:

“Maybe it was a God idea.”

Meet Cute

I met Sophie the way all New Yorkers meet: outside a Williamsburg coffee shop after attending an independent movie premiere. This short film, about the Manson Family, had been created by a friend and his theater troupe. At 30 minutes, it was an artfully shot re-enactment of rape and murder, a feel good romp if ever there was one.

Sophie, not part of the troupe but involved in theater, had a role in the film. The post-screening party was being hosted at a nearby Starbucks that also served alcohol. When the only two people I knew were otherwise engaged, I wound up outside conversing with a group that included Sophie and another woman, Amy.

With the party unwinding, Sophie, Amy, and I, joined by some guy named Stan, continued our night at Rosemary’s around the corner. As tends to happen with the male of the species, once in a booth, Stan brashly hijacked the conversation and soon the ladies and I were communicating telepathically to make our escape.

After telling Stan we were calling it a night, the three of us regrouped outside and Sophie suggested that we prolong the night back at her Greenpoint apartment. Though late, her place was just past McCarren Park, so we hoofed it. Along the way, spurred by the admission of my Kansas youth, we turned to the topic of climbing trees, as you do.

“Everyone climbs trees in Kansas,” I probably said, because this is factually accurate.

“I never have,” Sophie admitted. Since alcohol was involved, her confession became a challenge.

The London Planetrees lining the park weren’t as sturdy as the cottonwoods I had grown up with, but they’d do. Showing surprising dexterity, I scurried up one and straddled the lowest hanging limb. Proud that I could still get up a tree in my 30s, I jumped out with ease, a height of maybe eight feet. It was Sophie’s turn, now.

We selected a suitable option and with a little assistance from Amy and I, Sophie scampered up the tree’s white tree trunk. As she settled into the nook between its three branching limbs, her expression was a mixture of relief and mild terror.

Reveling in the glorious absurdity of our endeavor, I neglected to mention the most important part of climbing a tree: the dismount. Leaving Sophie in her perch, Amy and I chatted a few feet away when, in our peripheral, we saw Sophie come sailing down.

The art of jumping out of a tree is best learned when you’re a child and your body is made out of rubber. You might start by cautiously sliding your ass along the trunk until you’re on the ground with a scratched up back, or maybe you just take a haphazard leap and limp off the impact. Eventually, having done it enough times, you develop a second nature for it.

Having never climbed a tree in her youth, Sophie wasn’t practiced in this particular skill. Landing firmly on her ankles, she crumbled to the ground. Amy and I raced to her side and helped her up. Attempting to put weight on her right foot, Sophie yelped in pain.

“I think I broke my foot,” she fretted.

Imbued with the confidence of manhood and alcohol, I replied, “I doubt it. You probably just bruised your ankle.”

Though she was in evident pain – just how much, I didn’t realize at the time – we continued walking to Sophie’s apartment, she directing from the rear. Once there, we poured more drinks while Sophie elevated her leg. Removing her boot proved a struggle as her foot had ballooned inside. Now a discolored rainbow, I nonetheless surmised with my expert medical opinion that it was a minor injury. With enough ice, she’d be fine in a day or two.

A little later, I passed out on the couch while the two women talked. In the morning, Amy urged Sophie to see a doctor, but she was reluctant and I was still confident that it was unnecessary. However, since Sophie was struggling to walk and Amy had to go to work, I volunteered to hang out for the day. It was Friday morning, I didn’t work again until Saturday afternoon.

We whiled away the hours conversing and watching television on her couch. We ordered Chinese food for lunch. When the dog needed to go out, I walked him. There was such an easy, natural tempo to our conversation that we never hit a lull, whether we talked family, politics, or art. We delved into our pasts, those dark passages that few others ever saw. The sun rose and fell across her apartment’s bay windows.

It was almost dusk and the progression of the day had brought us together, our legs touching as I argued with myself whether or not I should kiss her. It seemed a foregone conclusion, but I’d been wrong before.

Glancing at me sideways, Sophie inquired, “So… is it wrong to fuck a cripple?”

I laughed.

Friday became Saturday. I made a few half-hearted efforts to exit throughout the morning, eventually leaving some time after noon to return to my Bed-Stuy apartment and get ready for work.

In my absence, a worried Amy returned and brought Sophie to urgent care. That night at work, I received a text:

My foot is broken.

I’d been in Brooklyn for eight months.

Jay Street Train

Flashback

New York City couldn’t possibly live up to my fantasies, to the extended nine year tease I had put myself through; and yet, in many ways, it somehow did. Every free afternoon, I walked the borough, barely scratching Brooklyn’s 97 square miles. There was art and music and the quintessential melting pot of diverse residents. My first full weekend in the city, I saw Spoon play a rollicking concert in Central Park while the sun set over the treetops. Purely cinematic.

Shortly after my arrival, I attended a rooftop party at my apartment and met a young French photographer studying in the city for the semester. We had a brief, caustic affair and then she returned to Paris. Meanwhile, I served tables in Park Slope, one of the many neighborhoods in Brooklyn where the locals will proudly tell you how it had once been a much different, rougher neighborhood. Now, their dog walkers make six figures a year.

Naturally, New York tried to kick my ass. That’s what it does. It’s impatient and unkind, expensive and exclusive, unimpressed by anything you’ve ever done. The city doesn’t need you or want you, thank you very much; although, it’ll gladly have another meal.

And this is the easy version of New York City. Most everyone will report with nostalgia how much harder – and better – this city used to be. Nothing will ever be greater than the past.

Montage

Sophie’s broken foot complicated matters. She could no longer continue her theater internship, her main reason for being in the city. A job was out of the question and she was essentially immobile, Brooklyn being hostile to the hobbled. When not working, I was invariably with her.

After a few weeks, we attempted a visit to my apartment, a fourth floor walk-up. Our collective restiveness induced Sophie to push herself – and her foot – sooner than she should have. Every time Sophie thought her cast could come off, a new complication extended her recovery. As the weeks turned into months, my guilt grew exponentially, her every grimace a reminder that I had played an active role in her agony.

Sophie was immensely frustrated by her lack of mobility and her inability to take advantage of New York City’s lucrative theater network. She sought other avenues for pursuing her artistic ambitions. Having no great affinity for the city, no reason to chain herself to New York, she figured “why not?” and applied to numerous graduate schools, most of them in England where she had spent much of her childhood.

Though we were simpatico on most every level, our nights occasionally flipped from romantic to adversarial seemingly on a dime. We shared ideals, but some conversational tangents could splinter us, as tends to happen with any two headstrong people. Scotch might have been a factor.

Everything between us felt emotionally charged, whether discussing our pasts or our ill-defined futures, during physical intimacy or a heated argument. She challenged me, as a writer, as a thinker, as a man. She could infuriate me – and I her – but conversations with her never ended without me questioning my assumptions, and that’s a rare talent.

She was just as talented as a writer. Every grad school she applied to, most of them prestigious, accepted her. She had her pick of the litter. She was to be in England by September.

At the end of July, not even three months after we met, and less than a week after having her cast removed, Sophie flew to Washington to spend time with family before her next journey.

I don’t suppose either one of us thought we were built for the long-term. We’d both been nomads. So much of the fire between us was in the immediacy, the sense that neither one of us had ever known permanence – maybe we never would – but at least for a few hours together the outside world’s beckoning wasn’t so loud.

I would have taken more time with her, but she couldn’t stay. New York City wasn’t where she belonged; it wasn’t where she was going to make her mark. And she’ll make her mark. She’s a resolute woman, audacious in her convictions. She was always going to jump; I can’t wait to see her land.

Like few others, Sophie’s voice continues to ring in my ears. It’s the voice of my conflicting internal monologue, challenging my opinions and making me step back from my preconceptions. It’s telling me to listen more, speak less. I’m still debating with Sophie in my head, and she’s still winning.

The Final Reel

Emily in SilhouetteFor the final week of 10 Cities/10 Years, as my first year in New York City came to an end, I hit the road with Emily. She was moving back west, from Boston to Los Angeles, after graduating from nursing school. Our route this time took us through Kansas where we spent a night with my family before continuing to see her brother in Flagstaff and on to Long Beach.

I stayed with Emily’s family for a couple days and revisited Costa Mesa where I met up with Selene who’d recently moved back home. After all the cities, all my experiences over the past decade, it felt like the pieces were being reset with the project’s conclusion. Maybe there would be nothing to show for the effort. No matter, that’s life.

On the last Saturday of August, I returned to New York to be alone.

There’s one detail I left out of Dylan’s story. Another kid didn’t ride the zip line that day: Me. I was just as scared as he was; more so, because not even God could get me up that tree. No one ever called me a particularly adventurous child, which is why I’m sure it surprised more than a few people when I embarked on this journey.

Ten years of constant uncertain, of impending financial ruin and personal angst – of being out on a limb – and I am no less afraid than when I set out. Anxiety still roils my gut when I enter an unfamiliar social situation, whether it be a new job or a packed bar. The self-doubts, the fear, it never abates.

I live with that fear every day, and I always will. It’s my main reason for climbing trees: so I’ll have to jump.

Read from the beginning

I Want An Atheist President

#Iwantanatheistpresident

It’s May, now, which means only 4 years and 7 months until the 2016 presidential election.

Of course, before that, we have to survive this one.

Since Mitt Romney is the Republican Nominee (yes, I know, not technically, but…) and we have a 2-party system in which a 3rd party can never hope to be anything but a minor nuisance to one or both candidates, I will be voting for Barack Obama.

I don’t want that to sound like I’m ‘choosing the lesser of two evils’ or something of that nature.  I like Obama.  He’s my president.  I am by no means enthralled with everything that has happened under his presidency and he has definitely punted on some issues when he should have probably fought harder.  But, I’m a pragmatist and a realist and I know how politics works.  Which is to say, it doesn’t.  You get your guy (or gal) in office and you should be ecstatic if even a tenth of the campaign promises get fulfilled.  Part of that is because politicians lie, and part of that is because our government is an intricate (one might even say, convoluted) system that favors the status quo over change (sometimes too our national detriment).

Some of us who voted for Obama in 2008 were probably a little too naively optimistic for the changes his presidency would bring, but better foolishly hopefully than filled with the paranoia and hatred that marks his most vehement opponents.

One of the most exciting moments of Obama’s presidency, for me, came very early on.  As in, the day of his Inauguration early.  For the first time ever, ‘non-believers’ were expressly mentioned in an inaugural speech.  The pertinent excerpt:

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and non-believers.”

I remember hearing that and feeling an even greater sense of pride in my president, which was already pretty high.  The President of the United States acknowledged that, indeed, there are people in this country that don’t believe in any god, any faith, and they should be included in the conversation and recognized as part of our nation’s heritage.

A Christian has no idea what that moment feels like.  Despite talk of ‘attacks on religious freedom’ and ‘the War on Christmas,’ there has never been a question that Christians are always part of the equation.  Though the U.S. is secular (no matter what David Barton falsely claims), the truth is that this nation is still predominantly Christian in its make-up and politics.

When you’re a person who doesn’t belong to any particular faith and refuses to pretend to believe in a god, you tend to get left out of the conversation, intentionally or not.

Almost every single man who has been President of the United States has been nominally Christian.  We have to go back to William Howard Taft for a President who may have been an atheist, though he denied it (Wikipedia lists him as Unitarian).  The further back we go in history, the more we find that the Presidents were willing to eschew official religious affiliation, though most were still some denomination of Christian.

There are still some who claim that Obama is a secret Muslim, which is ridiculous.  But, I’m interested to see if those people will vote for a Mormon, since most likely in their view Mormonism is not Christianity, and thus a false religion (I was raised believing Mormonism was a cult; from a theological point of view, I do think Mormonism constitutes a different religion from Christianity, but since I’m not a Christian, I feel the point is moot).

For some people this will be an election between a Mormon and a Christian (who’s really a Muslim).  The Evangelical right will likely choose the lesser of two evils as they see it.  Or as pastor David Jeffries said recently:

…Given the choice between a Christian like Barack Obama who embraces non-biblical principles like abortion and a Mormon like Mitt Romney who embraces Bible principles, there’s every reason to support Mitt Romney in this election.

It’s all about principles, after all.  Like, the principle of standing for what you believe.

While Christians may have to wrestle with their faith this year, we atheists will vote on the issues we care about and the policies we think better lead our country forward.  Many of us will vote for Obama.  I’m sure a healthy contingent will vote for Romney, and there will even be a good number who throw their vote away on Ron Paul (aren’t I a stinker). 

Atheists aren’t a singular voting block.  We don’t have a Pope or an Evangelical Conference to tell us which way to throw our vote.  Sure, many of us revere the same men (Dawkins, Sagan), but those people don’t tell us who to vote for, and we wouldn’t listen if they did.

We call ourselves Freethinkers.  Yeah, it’s a self-aggrandizing title, so sue us.

While you will find online groups for atheists and a growing number of organizations attempting to bring some cohesion to a historically disparate group (it’s like herding cats), our very nature tends to make us resistant to unification.  After all, we are the kind of people who critically question everything and many of us at some point intentionally left behind a community of faith.  Of course, even as I write that, I have to admit that many atheists probably don’t fit that description.

And that’s the point.  Atheists only share one thing in common:  We have no belief in a god.  We don’t “have faith that there isn’t a god.”  We simply don’t accept that there is evidence for a god and thus remain at our default position: No faith.

There isn’t an American atheist alive today who has ever seen their lack of faith reflected in their president.  Granted, Muslims and Jews are in their same spot, but as this well-trod survey shows, atheists have a greater hill to climb to the White House.*

I want an Atheist President.  I want an Atheist President exactly because his or her views will be that of a freethinker, and thus not inherently locked into one stance.  S/He could be a Republican or a Democrat.  S/He could be a wartime president or a lockstep pacifist.  S/He could hold any stance on any number of issues without beholding to faith.  That doesn’t mean s/he would oppose faith or religion, only that their stance towards it would be a dispassionate acceptance of it based on the principles of the Constitution (Establishment Clause/Free-Exercise Clause) and reason.

There will always be a portion of Americans who believe that atheists are evil, the scum of the earth, as useful as a third tit.  Atheist President isn’t going to get their vote.

But there is no reason intelligent, moderate Christians should oppose an atheist.  I have Christian friends who support gay marriage, oppose the death penalty, believe in a strong safety net for the poor and are supportive of equal rights across the board.  In other words, if I was running for president (if I could find time in my busy schedule of child sacrifices and depraved sex), a substantial percentage of the non-Evangelical Christians, the same ones who voted for Obama, could vote for me, an atheist.

Now, I have no personal political ambitions (blech!), but there are plenty of atheists out there who do.  As an atheist, I hope that in my lifetime I see an atheist in the White House.  Let’s be clear: I don’t want to see it because I think it’ll mean all of my interests will be represented. 

I want an Atheist President because it will mean that the unofficial religious test for Presidency which has been in effect for at least 100 years will finally be abolished. 

I want an Atheist President because it will mean that a majority of Americans accept that a lack of faith does not equal a lack of character.

I want an Atheist President because it will mean that intelligence, experience and ideas matter more than church affiliation.

I want an Atheist President because it will mean the president will take responsibility for his or her decisions.

I want an Atheist President because it will mean that the promise of Religious Freedom will finally be fulfilled.

You don’t have to be an atheist to want an Atheist President.  You can be a believer and accept us non-believers.  You can understand that what makes me an atheist doesn’t undermine my integrity.  In fact, it strengthens it.

In 2012, the presidential candidates each profess faith in a higher being.  I have no problem with that, I only care about their policies.  Their faith, in my mind, is no more pertinent to their qualifications for president as whether they are left or right-handed.  As long as faith is not a motivation for political policy, you can believe anything at all and be president.  Or believe nothing at all.

It’s okay to vote for an atheist.  We come in peace.

If you want an Atheist President because you know that one faith doesn’t have a monopoly on morality, ethics and compassion, say it with me: I Want An Atheist President.  Tweet it with me: #Iwantanatheistpresident.

You don’t have to be an atheist to be a freethinker.

*The question specific to the presidency was asked in 1999, prior to the 9/11 attacks, so undoubtedly Muslims have taken a hit since then.  But as the other surveys reveal, even after the attacks atheists remain the least trusted group across the board.

EDIT: My suspicions were correct, Muslims did take a considerable Public Relations hit after 9/11, but atheists still remain the least trusted group.

In Support of Jessica Ahlquist

Jessica Ahlquist is a normal teenage girl.  She goes to school, reads Harry Potter and.. oh yeah, challenged her school board on the legality of having a Christian prayer plastered on the wall of her public school.

I recently wrote on the prayer in school debate.  My opinion on it, in my mind, seems pretty uncontroversial.  After all, I don’t believe that Christians should be barred from praying in school.  I don’t think that a Christian student who holds a Bible study on school grounds in any way impedes on the rights of non-Christians (whether they be Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Atheist or whatever).

However, Christianity stands on the rights of others when it imposes its particular belief system on the grounds and walls of publicly funded property.  How often do we hear, “I don’t want my tax dollars to pay for welfare babies” (or something in that line), but rarely do these same people have a problem with tax dollars being spent on public displays of faith.

A public school is a secular school.  If you don’t like that, send your children to a private school of your religious preference.

Yes, some public schools once used the Bible as a textbook.  And our country used to condone slavery.  Just because it happened in the past doesn’t make it right.

Jessica Ahlquist is expressing her 1st amendment right.  Most certainly, the government cannot step on the free expression of religion in private life, but at the same time, it cannot respect the establishment of any religion in public life.  Before you argue that the government has no place telling people of faith how they can express their beliefs, tell me, how do you feel about Sharia Law?  Hypocrite.

As a 16-year-old, Jessica is probably prone to the same types of immature mistakes that all teenagers are.  She will post on her Facebook an overly-emotional lyric from a pop song because of a boy that broke her heart.  She will fill a journal with silly, trite expressions of individuality.  She will say things she regrets and wish she could just disappear.

But, as a 16-year-old, Jessica Ahlquist is standing up for one of the most basic rights of American independence, and if you can’t feel pride in that, you probably believe that your religious freedom is more important than other people’s religious freedom.

Here’s to you Jessica Ahlquist.

America was built by the fighters.

I Am An Atheist

I’ve just picked up two plates from the table, the remnants of a mostly eaten meal still on them, and I’m balancing them in my left hand as I ask if there will be any dessert for my guests (there will not), 60-something-year-old visitors from Louisiana who have been very pleasant all meal, a friendly and talkative couple.

The husband, a gray-haired gentleman with kind eyes looks at me and, knowingly, asks,

“Are you a Christian?”

No, no I am not.

Having read this blog (or knowing  me personally), you know that I am an atheist.  What this means is that I do not believe in God.  Or god.  Or gods.  Or the Easter Bunny.

This is my blog, this is where I share my personal beliefs, my views and opinions, my random thoughts and my intricately thought-out diatribes.  If you come to my blog and are offended by the words I write, I can empathize with you, but I do not apologize.  The internet is a big place, no one has forced this page upon you and a blog, at least in its most elemental sense, is a place for a person to openly share who they are.

In contrast, if you have ever served me at a restaurant, helped me in a store or bagged my groceries, you have never been asked by me, kindly or  not, “Are you an atheist?”

There are literally hundreds (thousands?) of people who have had dealings with me in some form or another, and have never known my personal state of non-faith.

This, to me, seems like a perfectly agreeable circumstance.

Awkward

Another scene:

I’m sitting at the job I took when I first moved to Nashville, a job that requires I call up former customers of a certain initial-based phone service (that shall remain nameless) and run them through a survey of their experience with the company.  This is, almost exclusively, unpleasant.

The woman who sits in the cubicle next to me for 4 hours out of my 7-hour shift is a sweet thing, probably in her 40s, homely but goodhearted with a voice and manner that, presumably, puts people at ease on the phone (though she has a halting way of reading the script on her screen that drives me a bit nuts).

One day, as we’re both waiting for the auto-dialer to connect us with strangers across the country, she leans over and without words hands me some sheets of paper.  They are poems.

Specifically, they are ABAB rhyming poems about the grace of God and Jesus’ redeeming sacrifice.

They are, objectively, not good poems.

As a person who considers himself a rather mediocre (one might even say, derivative) poet, I am not claiming to be a master of the form.  I am not even claiming to be able to define what makes a poem ‘good’ or ‘bad’.  In fact, what appeals to me about poetry is its elusive qualities.

That said, like pornography, we know bad poetry when we see it.

This woman wrote the kind of poetry that most every ‘poet’ writes when they first start out:  Simple-minded, filled with cliched phrases and obvious rhyme and completely devoid of risk.  The other women-of-a-certain-age in her Bible Study or home group may very well have enjoyed them for their faith-affirming message, but otherwise it was unremarkable to a clinical degree.

But, here I was, in my cubicle, knowing that I had to sit next to this woman 5 days a week, her Christ-glistening poems in my hand.  I smiled, whispered, “they’re good” to her after the requisite 3 minutes of reading time and handed them back to her with a benign smile.  She beamed back to me and that, thankfully, was that.  One of the few times I was glad that the job required we not talk with our neighbors.

Go Ye Into All The World…

I get it, I do.  One of the fundamental tenets of Christianity is that, once accepted, you should (nay, must) spread the Word.  After all, if Jesus Christ offers hope out of despair, eternal life instead of death, peace over pain, shouldn’t you want the world to know about it?  And if having the Good Lord in your heart is like being in love, it’s only reasonable that you will feel the desire to gush about Him the way you would about the pretty, sweet thing you share a malted milkshake with at the local diner (I may be predating myself).

But, the thing is, if you’re gonna be spreading the word and asking if other people share your faith, you should recognize that you are going to run across some non-Christians:  Muslims or Buddhists, Scientologists or Pastafarians.

Or me, your token Atheist.  Secular Humanist, if you’re nasty.

And I’m okay with it if you’re okay with it.

I don’t worship any other gods (this was a question the elder gentleman asked me at the restaurant).

I don’t lack morals.

I don’t sacrifice babies (I mean, really, what would I do with the diapers?).

I do drink too much, but that doesn’t make me evil (it might make me Catholic, though; *rimshot*).

I am, for all intents and purposes, a decent human being.

In fact, the intensity in which Christianity was bred into me as a child has left an indelible mark on me.  I am a man who believes in respecting others, in doing no harm to innocents and turning the other cheek (as much as I can, although I admit there are a few people who I do not forgive).  As an Atheist, I live this way not because of a belief in God, but because I feel that it is decent.

If you wish to get into a semantic battle over what is decent and not decent in a world without an objective standard of good (i.e. God), I suggest you go back and read my Good Without God post.  Personally, I have no interest in rehashing the topic.

Frankly, I don’t want to know about your faith.  You know why?  Because I am a white male from Midwestern America.  I’ve heard of Jesus.

I’m not saying I begrudge your faith or that you can never talk to me about it.  If we are friends then I fully expect that your faith (and my lack of it) will come up in conversation.  I don’t see this as a point of contention, merely a point of divergence.  I would never, say, not date someone because of their faith (in fact, all of my girlfriends have been Christian); though, I suspect, my being an atheist would eliminate me from some dating pools.  So be it.

If you use your faith to justify reprehensible actions (abusing homosexuals, subjugating women, diluting science education, etc.), I will protest, pointedly.

Otherwise, there is no issue.

I Am An Atheist

You probably are not.  I’m okay with that.

Are you?

The face of an Atheist

This is what you get when you mess with us

Note:  I try to keep my philosophical musings to a more theoretical/universal level so they don’t fall into the trap of anecdotal irrelevance.  However, on this particular topic, my recent experience is too fitting to ignore.  Considering the voyeuristic nature of our culture, this is probably the type of thing that I should be writing about regularly if I want more readers.

Phew, for a minute there, I lost myself

Oh, karma (karma karma karma karma chameleon).

In my experience, even for people who claim to be agnostic or spiritually skeptical, the idea of karma still holds weight.  They will not subscribe to the larger Buddhist philosophy behind the concept, but they’ll freely ascribe events to the rules of moral cause and effect.  The idea, stripped of all of its broader implications, can be simplified to this:  If you do bad things, bad things will happen back to you (the less often mentioned corollary is that if you do good things, good things will happen to you).

“Karma” is the lazy shorthand for the juvenile but persistent belief that there is universal justice, and even the most hard-nosed rationalists among us (myself included) indulges in the fantasy when we are faced with an unpunished injustice, whether personal or global.

There are two frequent times when I hear people bring up karma.  The first is when straight arrows explain that they don’t ever break the rules because they just know the moment they go rogue, the universe will punish them.  The second is when friends are trying to comfort a mistreated friend by claiming that the universe will rectify the situation.

The first situation is the kind of self-fulfilling prophecy that offers apparent support for the concept.  In my experience, ‘good’ people (to be simplistic about it), are pretty lousy at being ‘bad’.  Either their guilty consciences cause them to give themselves away, or their relative inexperience at acting outside the bounds of their normal moral code leads them to screw it up.  It’s a classic case of misattributing the cause of the effect.  They aren’t being punished for doing bad, they just suck at it.  People who are routinely bad are better at it, thus they don’t get punished as much.  We know this is true because if ‘bad’ people were consistently punished for their deeds, there wouldn’t be any.

The second situation gets more traction in the popular imagination.  We all would like to think that people who hurt us will get their just desserts.  Unfortunately, it just isn’t the case.  Think about everyone’s favorite example of evil: Hitler.  The man who committed the most atrocities of the past century certainly should have been on the receiving end of the mother of all Karmic Retribution.  So, what happened to him?  He died.  By his own hand.

That’s hardly a punishment.  We all die.  If death is karma at work, then I guess we all lose.  (For the purposes of this post, I’m ignoring those people who believe in hell.)

But Hitler is too evil to grasp.  A topic of this level needs street level malfeasance.  We need personal wrongs.

Let me introduce someone:

My ex is a woman who cheated on a succession of boyfriends with multiple men over the period of years, I being one of the boyfriends.  Having opened up my unusual life (and my 10 Cities project) to her, I thought I would be the corrupting force in her life.  Certainly, her parents treated me as if that were the case.  How naive I was.

In the karmic version of the universe, her actions would warrant retribution.  It’s not that her misdeeds are so much more severe than others, or that infidelity is the unforgivable sin (though it is deeply traumatic in its violent abuse of trust).  My interest is in the pattern she has established.  Quixotically convincing herself of her pure-heart, she acknowledges the hurt she causes while justifying it for the sake of love.  It took a dramatic showdown between the two us for her to even grasp, slightly, how much harm her actions produced.

Cheating once is a horrible mistake.  Repeated infidelities represents a character trait.

The Karma Police claim that she (and her ilk) will reap what they sow.  Certainly in some cases, this is true.  But in plenty of other examples (and this one in particular), it is not so.  Her actions have led her from one man to the next, each one (including myself) willing to overlook the obvious warning signs, blinded by the overwhelming devotion she pours onto them.  She does not suffer for her actions.  She finds herself in the welcoming arms of another man, and if anyone will be punished, it is likely to be him.

Now it is possible that Justin Timberlake got it right and what goes around truly does come around, but all evidence suggests that there is no pattern to the splatter paint distribution of good and bad in our universe.  There is no cosmic force putting things right that once went wrong (and hoping each time that his next leap will be the leap home).

It is true that her character flaw may lead her to wreck yet another relationship, but if the pattern holds there will be yet another man in the wings (the benefit of cheating, there always is), her every loss countered by a gain.  This is the balance of the intrinsically corrupt:  The resulting backlash from their selfishness is offset by their gain, and at worse they break even.

Reality doesn’t support the belief in karma.  There are undoubtedly counterexamples from your life of wrongdoers who felt the sting for their actions.  But if karma is a capital ‘T’ truth (and as a religious doctrine, that is its claim), then even one exception disproves it.  The anecdotal histories are littered with bad people getting their comeuppance, but to truly unravel a universal concept, one must open the floodgates to the universe of examples, not just the ones that support your view.

The appeal of karma is obvious.  It’s the same as the belief in God, or in heaven and hell.  It provides us an ordered version of  the universe  where decency is rewarded and sins are punished.  In reality, the universe is random and if there is any sort of pattern, it’s that “Hurt people hurt people.”  Unfortunately, the abused person rarely gets the opportunity to punish the abuser.  They lash out at someone else, and that innocent person (at least in this particular matter) is punished for another person’s wrong.

Religious belief (whether it be formalized and organized, or the new agey pick-and-choose type) persuades people that the universe is ordered and logical, and ultimately fair.  But when life reveals that this isn’t true, moral foundations rot.

(That ex of mine?  She is a Christian.  Devoid of any deep theological understanding of the religion, but still nominally so.  What does she take from that religion?  Comfort from Jesus in her dark hours, but no reason to treat others with respect unless it benefits her.)

Morality based on unseen forces will always prove less resilient than morality based on justifiable respect for human (animal, global) value.

I’m not claiming all atheists have this.  Atheism isn’t a moral system.  Personally, my moral foundation hasn’t changed much since I was a WWJD-bracelet wearing Christian.  I’ve hurt people, of course I have, and I will continue to do so. I am not blameless:  I was one of the men my ex cheated with when she was with her previous boyfriend.  (I guess Karma got me.)

As with everything I write, there is an ideal and a reality, the latter never living up to the former.  I want to be a better person than I so often am, as most of us do.  My motivation for improvement, though, isn’t fear-based.  My unpunished wrongs don’t teach me, “No one’s watching, it’s a free-for-all!”  My desire is always to be a better person, even if my rough edges and crude language sometimes portrays me as a moral relativist.*

My morality is simple:  Do the best you can for the most people, regardless of artificial boundaries (class, race, state, country, etc.)  It’s the Golden Rule for the Global Age.

For every example of Karmic Payback, there is an example of shitty people getting away scott-free with being shit.  I have to accept that the universe may never punish my ex** (and in fact, it likely will reward her duplicitous nature with more willing bedfellows), just as you have to accept that the asshole in your life will likely slide in the cosmic court.  If revenge is your bag, I’m not totally opposed to it (I’ve indulged), but it’s the slipperiest of slopes and unless you’re completely in control, you’re playing a dangerous game.

For better or worse, no one is watching your back.  The true test of your character is how you act once you accept that.

*Here is where the religious trolls come out and say, “Better is a term of relations.  Better than what?  If you don’t believe in a central moral truth given by God, then everything must be relative and you can’t have any morality.”  There have been a myriad of books written on the biological view of ethics (for instance, this one), and I don’t feel the need to go into it in this post.

**This is not to say that she hasn’t had her fair share of hurt and pain in her life.  This speaks to the ‘Hurt people hurt people’ point.