Archive for the ‘Best of Occam’s Razor’ Category

The Thinker

It’s better outside

I have a blessedly short commute to work, about three miles each way. The fastest way to work involves driving through a suburban, tree-lined neighborhood. This neighborhood is a lot like mine: single family homes with a third to half acre lawns, streets with sidewalks, trash collected on Tuesday and Fridays (I know because I am often dodging the trash truck), mailboxes on posts along the street, and lots of SUVs and minivans in the driveways.

I have been driving this route for years but only recently have I focused on a particular house I pass. It is peculiar in a way that should not be peculiar, but it is. Pretty much every time I pass it, in almost all sorts of weather except for rain or snow, there is at least one adult in a lawn chair parked in front of the garage. She looks like the mom of the house, and there are usually a couple of other neighbors in lawn chairs chatting with her as well.

If school is out, the kids are outside as well. They are mostly on bikes. The smaller ones are on Hot Wheels or pulling red wagons by their handles. Some are just running around the yard, sometimes with a dog in tow. Some are drawing on the sidewalks or driveway with colored chalk. The parents (usually mothers) sit in the lawn chairs, keep an eye on the kids (but not vigilantly), and chat while drinking coffee or iced tea. The kids, being outside and hollering, attract other kids. In fact, it appears that kids from blocks around are there, driven by the energy of other kids being outside.

Yes, this does happen, even in extreme weather. Northern Virginia gets more than its share of scorching hot summer days, with oppressive heat, humidity and bad air quality too. Those kinds of days drive me indoors. I get sweaty just thinking about being outside on days like that. It helps that this particular street is lined with tall trees that provide plenty of shade. Me? I have a porch that faces south and also looks out onto a street. The tree that used to anchor our front lawn was taken down this year, a victim of age. But even when it was in its lush prime, it wasn’t quite leafy enough to wholly block the sun and provide some measure of coolness under its canopy. This house, and most of the street, sits in the shade, which invites children to be outside comfortably.

To make a real kid-friendly neighborhood like this in the 21st century seems to require a mom, or maybe a bunch of them, plus a few neighborhood dads that I see from time to time, often with a can of beer. They seem to like being out there. And they are out there a lot. Mornings. Afternoons. Occasionally I will drive by in the evenings and I see kids and a parent or two out there. In fact, it seems like the mother of this particular house spends more time each day outdoors than she does indoors, and she is mostly parked in a lawn chair in front of her garage door.

In this environment, kids start playing with other kids who might otherwise be indoors on a Gameboy or zoning out on television. They start riding bikes relentlessly up and down the street, often in small gangs of four or six, getting plenty of natural exercise. Sometimes there is a lemonade stand, sometimes even in 2012 some are wearing roller skates, but they always wear helmets of some sort when they are on wheels. They all seem happy, healthy, whole and gloriously alive.

As for the adults, between their iced teas and cups of Starbucks or other brews they are laughing and chatting in the lawn chairs under the trees. They are interacting too, pretty much every day, weekends included. No doubt they are discussing their children and the issues of the day. Matters great and small are likely discussed, but if I had to guess more small than great. They are quite literally shooting the breeze. They are taking life as it comes, mostly outdoors. They are imbued in nature.

Nature can do that to you. It does it to me, at least when the weather is nice, like it has been this week. My doctor’s office is a short half-mile walk from my office, so there is no reason not to hoof it when I visit him. It takes no more than fifteen minutes to walk there, but the simple act of doing so usually perks me up. The view from my fifth story office window look out on trees and mountains, but it is not the same as simply being outside with nature. I don’t hear it. I don’t smell it. I don’t feel it. I just see it through a pane of thick glass.

Even when the weather is not optimal, there is something to be said about the value of being outside. When you are outside, nature fills your senses, whether you want it to or not. Most of the time, even in inclement weather, I find that being outside actually is preferable to being indoors, providing nature’s pests don’t use me as lunch. These days, if you still want the Internet, it’s not a problem. You take along your smartphone.

I’m wondering if that’s what the parents and kids in this neighborhood near Glade Drive in Reston, Virginia have also discovered. Life lived mostly outdoors can be a connected life: with nature, with neighbors, with children, with gardens, and with life. Perhaps we live so much of our lives indoors at our own peril, tuning out the world and seeing life through a filtered prison.

How would our lives be different if most of us spent most of our days outdoors? On a shady street off Glade Drive in Reston, Virginia the answer seems to be that life is a lot better.

The Thinker

The Antichrists have arrived and they are called Christians

Sorry, Jesus. But it appears that most of the people who claim to follow you are more in line with Satan than with God. At least that’s the way it seems lately. Yes, I know my observations are judgmental and you warned us not to judge others. So I’m judging. So are, best as I can tell, most of the so-called “Christians” out there.

The most recent and egregious example is “Pastor” Charles Worley of the Providence Road Baptist Church in Maiden, North Carolina. He wants to exterminate all gays and lesbians, not just shooting them outright but through starvation. He’s got a plan: build two big pens and make each, say, a hundred or 150 miles long. Put all those homos and lezzies inside, one camp for each. Don’t call it a concentration camp. That might be too good for them because at least the Jews in concentration camps got fed, at least some of them, before eventually going to the gas chambers. No, put all our gays and lesbians in big pens and don’t feed them anything. They eventually die. Thus endeth our problem with those sinful gays and lesbians. And his congregation cheers “Alleluia!”

Gah! As if killing gays and lesbians will mean there will never be another gay or lesbian again? Where does he think they come from? In vitro fertilization? Maybe in a handful of cases, but clearly at least 99% of gays and lesbians come from heterosexual parents. Oh but that’s right, he also believes that your sexual orientation is a choice. Like you can turn heterosexual with the right prayer or something. Clearly, science doesn’t matter much to him, but he also probably believes the world was created six thousand years ago as well.

It seems that most Christians here in America are doing the complete opposite of what Jesus preached. If there is one word that defined Jesus it is simply this: love. More specifically, love broadly and universally. How on earth can someone like Charles Worley become a pastor and not get that? Love, love, love! Love people! Love everyone. Jesus was very clear about this. He made this clear in numerous parables, but particularly in the parable of the Good Samaritan. At the time most Jews in Judea scorned Samaritans. They thought of them as apostates. Jesus went out of his way to make sure his followers understood that they were brothers too. You had to love those who are very different from you, and everyone has the same capacity to love.

Jesus was not about exclusion; Jesus was about inclusion. He hung out with the dregs of Judea: the lepers, the thieves and the prostitutes. About the only thing he hated were the moneychangers at the temple. Jesus was not about hate; Jesus was about toleration. Jesus was not about getting rich, he was only concerned about spiritual riches. In fact, he told us it was hard for a rich person to get into heaven, perhaps because their priorities were misplaced. The currency that really matters, he told us, was your ability to live a compassionate life and thus model what God believes.

How on earth could such an overwhelming message get totally missed? “You will know we are Christians by our love,” we used to sing as a youth when I was a Catholic. Now the Catholic Church is sending goon squads to make sure its sisters spend their time keeping women from getting health care.

This is all so terribly wrong, so antithetical to everything Jesus preached. You can argue about whether Jesus thought homosexuality was a sin or not, but his approach would not be to cast judgment (he specifically said do not do that) but to love them unconditionally instead.

I think it might help if Christians threw away the Old Testament. Trying to resolve the dichotomy between the Old and New Testaments seems to be driving “Christians” crazy, and the Old Testament seems to be winning. “Christians” seem crazily focused on select passages from the Old Testament, like killing homosexuals and adulterers, while selectively ignoring the ones that should bother them, like their self imposed views against polygamy. (Look up how many wives David and Abraham had, just for starters.) There is plenty in the New Testament to throw away too. Paul said we should be kind to our slaves. Doesn’t that imply it’s okay to own slaves? Paul said it was better to marry than to burn. Doesn’t that imply we should avoid marriage to prove we are sufficiently spiritual? Or that marriage, rather than being sacramental, is kind of a moral failing?

I am not a Christian. I am not a Christian in part because I don’t believe Jesus was divine, just very wise. But also I don’t want to be associated with most Christians because like Charles Worley they march off in a completely different direction than the one Jesus tried to lead people toward. However, if I did believe in Jesus’s divinity, I would be a member of the United Church of Christ. It’s one of the few denominations out there that seem to get real Christianity.

Christianity as Jesus preached it is about loving universally, sharing communally, being tolerant, open and accepting and giving your whole heart and soul to all people. You do this so they can be free of misery, to help them find God and to understand Jesus’s true message. Real Christianity is about a welcome table.

So yes, I, a judgmental non-Christian (but in some ways a follower of Jesus) must say simply that most of you Christians are not the least bit Christ-like, but are modeling the Antichrist. You have a twisted and frequently sick theology based on exclusion, hate and misery, rather than universal love and brotherhood. If you want to experience real Christianity, the closest you are going to get to it will be at a United Church of Christ congregation near you. So why not attend a service and get the real Jesus?

The Thinker

Googly-eyed at the Googleplex

At least some of the Left Behind crowd think that Rapture means that the Earth will become paradise, a perpetually blissful Garden of Eden for the virtuous where death is banished. The raptured get to live forever on a happy, lush Earth singing praises to God and effused with eternal bliss.

Stan the Dinosaur near the center of the Googleplex

Stan the Dinosaur near the center of the Googleplex

Well, I got news for the Left Behind crowd: if you are a geek lucky enough to be hired by Google and work at its headquarters in Mountain View, California (officially called The Googleplex), there is no need to wait for The Rapture. You can have it today. Yes, paradise is already available on their campus. Heck, you might even have a hard time finding the motivation to go home, which I am sure is by design. What is the point of ever going off campus? I mean, going off campus you have to deal with bills, your cranky spouse, and your Ritalin-laced kids. Stay on campus and there are none of these bothers, just all the gourmet food and smoothies you can eat for free within a short walk, exercise rooms galore, seminars by leading luminaries in various computer and scientific disciplines, twenty percent of your time (if you are an engineer) to play creatively, discount massages just down the hall, and a room or two on your floor filled with snacks and drinks (all free). There are even free classes in how to dance that are specifically tailored for us left footed engineers.

I know this from visiting the campus first hand on Wednesday. The tour came at the end of the meeting, but we got a prequel at lunch. Paradise could not have been any more picture perfect: blue skies, dry air, light winds, and with the temperature hovering about seventy. Crossing the street we had to beware not just of automobiles, but also of bicyclists on the many bike paths. Most of the bicyclists rode on the ubiquitous Google campus bike, with its big basket on the front and decked out in Google’s signature fluorescent colors. Of course the campus was perfectly manicured with palm trees rising nearly a hundred feet in the air framing the background. The closest cafeteria was just across the street. To get in you had to have the official Google badge. Our official nametags would have to suffice, but fortunately our hostess had an official badge and let us in.

The ubiquitous Google bikes

The ubiquitous Google bikes

The cafeteria was more than a bit overwhelming. Maybe you like a good salad bar and Ruby Tuesdays comes to mind. Multiply that salad bar by about ten and stock it full of organic produce, cheeses, nuts, all attractively arranged and constantly restocked. The salad bar was just one feature of this cafeteria. There were many, many entrees to choose from. I sampled the pork with almonds and regretted not taking seconds. It was delicious. About the only part of the cafeteria that was understated was the dessert section, but each dessert was organic, unique and of those I sampled, beyond delicious. And yet you did not want to gorge. None of the desserts spiked your blood sugar. When you have Google’s billions in profits, you can hire chefs who know these sorts of secrets. Also oddly missing: the cash register. Lunch, like almost anything on campus, was free.

I could find no part of the campus untouched by the Google creative team. You would think a trip to the loo would be safe, wouldn’t you? I was in for a start when I sat down and the seat was almost hot: no need to suffer the indignity of having cold buns. Looking for something to read in your stall? Each stall has a collection of Google newsletters (oddly issued on paper) that you can read. It looks like they have a whole team working on newsletters for their toilet stalls. Google will use every opportunity to communicate information, and if that means a newsletter in a stall or healthy eating strategies written on the walls of the cafeteria, so be it.

Idea boards along the corridors

Idea boards along the corridors

It’s hard to look anywhere without seeing the Google design team’s touch. In the building we were in the walls were covered with what look like bubbles of Braille. Just down the hall from the snack room was a massage room which, when I peeked, had a note saying that a session was in progress. If you are not important enough to warrant an office, you can still personalize your cubicle. There must be some things you cannot do to your workspace. Perhaps putting up Playboy centerfolds is against regulations, but I doubt it. Personalizing your space (and this includes your laptop, almost universally Apple, often festooned with logos) is encouraged. It might stimulate a creative thought when someone passes your space, and that’s good.

When the bulk of our work was behind us, we got a somewhat hurried campus tour. Much of the campus is built on top of a landfill. You can see methane pipes to allow the landfill to vent. Some of this methane is captured for energy use, but the campus also has lots of solar panels. About a third of its electricity is generated from renewable sources on campus.

The campus is fairly new since Google is a fairly new company. This gives the campus a feeling of impermanence, but it is undeniably gorgeous. Food is everywhere and free. When you have Google’s deep pockets, you don’t want to waste your highly productive engineers’ time by making them go off campus to get it. It’s not only free, it’s terrific and high quality stuff: the best foods, the best coffees and smoothies, and even the best desserts often just a short walk down the hall. Got to go somewhere on campus? Take a bike. There are usually a half dozen parked next to each building. Working in exercise during the day is encouraged, but if you prefer more formal exercise, there are plenty of enormous exercise rooms, allowing both structured and unstructured exercising.

Engineers like to show off their works. It’s hard to go far in any building without seeing some of them. Go into a 3D Google Earth simulator. See real-time global simulations of Internet traffic (with most of Africa in the dark). In one building we saw a vintage server rack (1999 is vintage), stuffed with commodity hardware you could have picked up at a Best Buy, which forms the nuts and bolts of Google’s enormous hosting platform.

We wandered by seminars in progress, free to anyone on campus, a hall of pictures of dignitaries, all posing with Google’s largely unknown “Jolly Good Fellow” Meng Tan. It’s hard to find a dignitary who has not visited the Googleplex, and they include President Obama and the Dalai Lama.

Suffice to say us decently but not obscenely enumerated government employees were impressed and more than a bit jealous. While we pay to attend our own Christmas parties, Google employees have practically every convenience of life available to them within, at worst, a short walk, much of it for free. While our time is metered like lawyers, they are allowed to have time to goof off. They are constantly stimulated by the presence of so many brilliant people, an infectious working environment and are given practically any freedom on the assumption that it will all contribute to the bottom line. Given Google’s enormous profits, it’s hard to argue with success.

If my pictures don’t suffice, try watching the YouTube video:

The Thinker

God is a verb

Those of us who believe in God tend to think of God as a noun. As you may recall from elementary school, a noun is a person, place or thing. God is probably not a person, unless you count Jesus Christ. Nor is God a place, except heaven is assumed to be some physical or ethereal space where God’s presence is overwhelming, sort of God’s home, you might say. Calling God a thing sounds sort of churlish since by definition there can be nothing grandeur or more magnificent than God. Given our poor definition, if we have to define God as a noun, saying God is a thing will have to do.

A sentence is made up of many parts of speech. God cannot be an adjective because adjectives modify nouns. Adverbs modify verbs or adjectives, and since God cannot be an adjective it cannot be an adverb. You can look through all the parts of a sentence and using God for anything other than a noun mostly doesn’t work. God can be part of a word and be something else. Goddamn, for instance, is an adjective and sometimes an adverb. There is only one other part of a sentence where God could work: God could be a verb.

For many of you, you are wondering what the heck I am talking about. A verb expresses action, state or a relationship between things. defines a verb as:

Any member of a class of words that are formally distinguished in many languages, as in English by taking the past ending in -ed, that function as the main elements of predicates, that typically express action, state, or a relation between two things, and that (when inflected) may be inflected for tense, aspect, voice, mood, and to show agreement with their subject or object.

When you think about it though, using God as a verb makes a lot of sense. Granted it is hard to use God as a verb in a sentence, but what is fundamental about our notion of God is the notion of being in a relationship with God. If there were nothing else sentient in the universe, would God exist? Who can say, since no one would be around to detect the presence of God, but for sure it would not matter. God though only has meaning in the context of a relationship. Many of us seek to find God, and those who believe they have found God then try to understand God. This leads to a lot of confusion, however, because so many people have different interpretations of what God wants from us.

Yet if God is understood as the relationship between people, places and things, i.e. God is a verb, then clarity can emerge. This notion of God though will trouble most of us because we tend to see God as something external, all powerful, all good and unique, i.e. a noun. Saying God is a verb simply suggests it is what holds us in relationship to everything else. In this sense, we are literally part of the mind of God. In this sense, God becomes neither good nor bad, but simply is the relationship between all things, physical and spiritual. God in some sense is energy, or whatever forces exist, whether simple or complex, that hold us together in communion. This notion of God answers the riddle: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, did it make a sound? If God is a verb then the answer is yes. The tree falling in the forest impacts in some measure all of creation because God as a verb posits as an article of faith that everything really is interconnected with everything else. So yes, it made a sound, even if we did not hear it personally.

You will get no argument from scientists and not from quantum mechanics scientists in particular. Certainly no scientist will argue that every action is deterministic. Things are deterministic at the macro level. We know with confidence that our planet will be subsumed into the Red Giant that our sun will become someday, because we understand physics well enough. We also understand physics well enough to know that at the subatomic level outcomes can only be expressed in terms of probability, not certainty. Scientists have yet to find evidence of any phenomenon that can exist independently of anything else. A hurricane, for instance, requires heat and lots of water, so it is in relationship with its environment. Everything is in relation with something else, and the evidence is that every action affects everything else in the universe as well, not instantly, but over long periods of time.

Perhaps expressing a reverence for the relationship between all things is worship, and the relationship itself is God. Perhaps God is not a destination, but experiencing God is simply a matter of tuning into the relationship between all things, seen and unseen. God may feel most God-like when we feel a sense of awe from our interconnectedness. I feel it regularly. I felt it last year when I was traipsing around South Dakota’s Black Hills. I could feel it in the life of the soil at my feet and hear it in the brisk wind whistling through the pine trees. I felt it on Friday at a rest stop between Richmond, Virginia and my home in Northern Virginia when I stepped out of my car into stifling hundred plus degree heat. I feel it when the cat is on my lap, and is purring and looking at me with its adoring eyes. I felt it on Friday when I saw a broke, pregnant and homeless woman with a cardboard sign on the streets of Richmond and I felt a pang of remorse by driving by her without giving her a dollar or helping her to a homeless shelter. I feel it in the life cycle in particular, and my experiences of my encroaching mortality. I felt it when as an infant I was nuzzled up to my mother and drank milk from her breasts.

Perhaps God is simply what is. Perhaps our religious struggle is simply to come to terms with and accept what is, and to magnify and glorify the connections between all things. There are many ways to do it, but the principle method is to practice love as much as you can. This is because love certainly is a verb, and has god-like powers.

Perhaps we just need to accept the truth that God is love, and nothing more than that. Love is about enhancing the connection between all things so we are in greater harmony and understanding with each other. It works for me.

The Thinker

Never enter hell on a full bladder

While a new year has arrived, there is plenty of evidence that as we begin the second decade of the 21st century, for many of us our minds have not evolved past 33 A.D. That is the year that some Christians believe Jesus died on the cross, was resurrected and later that year ascended into heaven. Since 33 A.D., Jesus has been cooling his heels, presumably at the right hand of The Father, waiting for the moment for his return to Earth. Then, according to the Bible, the faithful get raptured and depending on which Left Behind book takes your fancy all sorts of things that are really nasty will happen to the rest of us. The bottom line is that for us damned either (a) we will descend into Hell for all eternity (not a pleasant prospect) or (b) we die, and not just our physical body but our immortal soul as well. Poof. We turn into nothingness. We are declared a factory reject and discarded like used toilet paper.

As for The Saved ™, it’s off to heaven for all eternity I guess (although some think they will dwell here on earth, which will become an earthly paradise). There life must be wholly spiritual, you are never too far from God or Jesus, you can be pals with St. Jude, harp and lute playing is all the rage, and days beyond count will be spent in rhapsody singing Hosannas. It’s sort of like having an orgasm forever, only better because it’s clean, not dirty and it lasts forever. Remember that cheerleader you nailed behind the bleachers in high school, who threw her legs over your shoulders while you plunged away into her like Superman? Heaven is much better than that.

Now we can put Judgment Day on the calendar. Mark yours now. Put it in your Google Calendar as an all day appointment: May 21st, 2011. At least that’s what Harold Camping of Oakland, California believes and he ought to know because he runs an organization called Family Radio. It is true that the Bible says that no man knows the exact date of the Last Judgment. It turns out that if you study the Bible it’s a solvable problem. A convenient calculator helps with the math. Here’s how he figures it:

The number 5, . . . equals “atonement.” Ten is “completeness.” Seventeen means “heaven.” Camping patiently explained how he reached his conclusion for May 21, 2011. “Christ hung on the cross April 1, 33 A.D.,” he began. “Now go to April 1 of 2011 A.D., and that’s 1,978 years.” Camping then multiplied 1,978 by 365.2422 days – the number of days in each solar year, not to be confused with a calendar year. Next, Camping noted that April 1 to May 21 encompasses 51 days. Add 51 to the sum of previous multiplication total, and it equals 722,500. Camping realized that (5 x 10 x 17) x (5 x 10 x 17) = 722,500. Or put into words: (Atonement x Completeness x Heaven), squared. “Five times 10 times 17 is telling you a story,” Camping said. “It’s the story from the time Christ made payment for your sins until you’re completely saved. “I tell ya, I just about fell off my chair when I realized that,” Camping said.

Yep, it’s all there! Camping is a former civil engineer, but he sure has studied his Bible. Apparently, Jesus left little breadcrumbs that enlightened Christians could follow. It’s all so clear now. No point in paying any insurance premiums beyond May 21st. You will need a different kind of currency in the next world, and it has to do with the purity of your soul and how much you grokked Jesus as your Personal Lord and Savior ™.

I should be quaking in my boots because, no, I have not accepted Jesus Christ as my PL&S. Which means if Camping and his amazing math are correct, in 132 days my life of reckless hedonism is over. It’s hell and brimstone for me and my Buddhist wife, my daughter, my cat and my siblings. My father, age 84, will probably make it as he has lived a very virtuous and religious life and presumably my late mother is already there, ready to hold the gate open for him. My Dad ushers at church and attends Mass faithfully. He is Catholic, however, and I’m not sure but I suspect Mr. Camping doubts any Catholics will make it because of the papal infallibility thing. Or something.

132 days. I was thinking that since I put on a few pounds over the holidays, it’s time to take them off. Now I’m thinking it’s time to put more pounds on. If I only have 132 days left, I need to eat plenty of chocolate, and the good kind. I’m talking Godiva and Ghirardelli. I also need some serious debauchery because, alas, my life is sadly absent of fleshly sins. It’s time to put an ad in the Craigslist Casual Encounters section for a sleazy hookup with 420, which I have never tried. In general, I need to refresh myself on the Seven Deadly Sins because I forgot what most of them are and I need to make sure I sample them all. Times a wasting.

I feel so foolish for donating all this money to charity recently. With the end of the year, the pleas arrive in the mail and perhaps anxious for a few extra charitable deductions, I start cutting checks. In December, checks went out to So Others Might Eat, Friends of Homeless Animals and more prosaic places like Washington Consumers Checkbook. I hope they spend my donations quickly because after May 21st apparently it won’t matter. Presumably, all but a handful of those homeless bums and families being fed and sheltered in D.C. in part with our money are damned like me. Homeless cats and dogs may be nice creatures but don’t get to entertain us behind the pearly gates. How can a nice purring fuzzy thing top The Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

Hopefully, there is still time for me to accept Jesus as my PL&S, but not according to Allison Warden. Today’s Washington Post shows a picture of the fine looking young woman. She has had her car professionally detailed to make sure we know the date, which conveniently provides a link to the web site where I am sure all these things are made perfectly clear. According to Warden, it’s probably too late for me. Despite Jesus’s teachings that “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first”, she says it’s too late for me and probably for you if you are Unsaved ™. So you should definitely join me and consume large quantities of Godiva chocolates while you can.

The sad reality for the Allison Warden and Harold Campings of the world is that come May 21st I will have forgotten all about the end of the world. And the truth is, on May 21st I am infinitely more likely to die from a lightning strike than because of Armageddon. Moreover, even if Jesus did populate the Bible with clues like these, me thinks that Harold Camping’s calculations are probably a bit off.

Nowhere in the Bible does it say that Jesus was 33 when he died, and the year 1 A.D. is an estimate anyhow of his birth, if he existed at all, which we have to take wholly on faith. The number zero did not even exist back then, so maybe he died in 34 A.D. Then there is the minor matter that calendars were all askew back then, we switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, then there are all those leap years, some of which we accounted for and some of which we did not. All those leap seconds over the years must have added up to an hour or two. Moreover, his calculations for all their precision don’t address the time of day when Armageddon is to commence. I’m guessing Christ will split the difference and make it when the sun is at the prime meridian over Jerusalem, as a courtesy to his followers who might want to make one last stop to the bathroom before The Rapture begins. God probably won’t save you if you are taking a crap during the big event.

No matter. Come May 22nd, 2011 Harold Camping will doubtless discover a small error in his calculations so the time and date will be reset once again for the next group of devout suckers. As for me, I will be sleeping in late because that’s what I do on Saturday mornings. Just to be on the safe side though, I will try to hit the bathroom before the sun reaches the prime meridian in Jerusalem. If I am going to hell, I don’t want to do it with a full bladder.

The Thinker

Let’s throw those bums a bone

Merry Christmas to you, particularly if you happen to be Christian. Presumably, the birth of Jesus means more to you than it does to me. Because I do not believe in Jesus’s  divinity, I cannot claim to be a Christian, except perhaps in spirit. Like most Americans, I participate in many aspects of Christmas anyhow. I am not beyond festooning my house with Christmas lights, putting up a Christmas tree and even putting an angel on its top. Aside from the usual presents under our tree for loved ones who rarely need nor want what I buy them, I was a real Santa Claus this year. It did not involved donning a red suit, but it did involve spending about $100 on presents for a 3 year old girl named Jaylee, for whom I am a Secret Santa. I won’t meet her but she will get things she really wants but which her family cannot afford, including a Dora the Explorer doll and a three wheel scooter. We also spent a few hundred dollars on food for the homeless that we donated to a nearly empty community food bank.

Nuclear moneyed families will use the occasion of the season to tune into various holiday TV specials, some of which are actually religious. Most of these turns out to be feel-good shows, like the latest Hallmark holiday special starring my heartthrob Jewel Staite. In it, apparently two people and a motherless boy find love, not in Jesus, but in each other. Many of these specials are animated, and many are frankly dreadful to watch, even for children. Many contain more saccharine than saccharine itself. Most people would say that A Charlie Brown Christmas is the holiday special that most closely evokes the religious aspects of Christmas. For me, How the Grinch stole Christmas is most appropriate for our modern times. It is clear that Jesus was no fan of the rich. The Grinch epitomizes the soulless, possession-obsessed, anti-poor overlords about to overrun our House of Representatives, people so soulless they cannot wait to cut unemployment benefits and food stamps, even for their own constituents.

If ever there were a time when we needed more of the true Christmas spirit, 2010 would be it. Food banks are bare. Homeless shelters are overflowing. The only way to get Congress to extend unemployment benefits is to continue to borrow obscene amounts of money to give tax cuts to millionaires who don’t need the money and have been living on government largess for much of the last decade. 99’ers (those unemployed for 99 weeks or more) are now out of luck and will get not even coal in their stockings, which at least would provide a little heat. Instead, they will likely soon be found standing in a cold queue for a cot in their local homeless shelter. Letting them eat cake is clearly too rich for them, but apparently cheaper than buying them fruits and vegetables. With their food stamps benefits exhausted and their food pantries empty, their next dinner may come courtesy of the dumpster behind the local Wendy’s restaurant. To add to their misery, Lord, it’s cold out there, at least here in northern Virginia. We’ve gone weeks without seeing forty degrees and today we are getting gusts of wind up to forty miles an hour. It has only occasionally crept above the freezing point.

Not that we, especially us purported Christians, really will care all that much. We will comfort ourselves with the fantasy that through ensuring that our citizens are miserable, we are providing the virtue of self-reliance, all at no cost to our wallets. We are teaching them to fish, so to speak, although many of them are reeled in like fish. Our legislators whine that we cannot afford to put them on Medicaid or give them emergency housing. The social safety net is so yesterday. The homeless can spend their days shuttling between the dumpsters at Wendy’s, the line at the homeless shelter and the emergency room for their pneumonia, which is fine with us because none of these are on our commutes. Out of sight, out of mind.

Surely, all this recession-fed self-reliance and austerity will eventually bear fruit, although so far in Ireland, Greece, England and elsewhere the evidence that austerity has any advantages beyond making the less moneyed more vulnerable and scared cannot be found. All this is necessary because we have been living beyond our modest means, but also because while the rich like being rich a lot, they like being richer even more, and have no qualms if it is done by making the middle class impoverished. It’s good to be a creditor and if you threaten to stop loaning money, even first world countries get scared and start cutting spending.

It would be great if the so called Christians and humanitarians among us would practice what we profess. In two days, we celebrate the birth of Jesus who implored those of us with possessions to give them to the poor. There is little sign that the rich will do so, unless they can be bribed to write it off on their taxes. With the top one percent of the country owning over 42 percent of the national wealth (as of 2007), the rich can afford to pay much more to feed, house and cloth our abundant poor. Much of our national misery is self-inflicted because wealth redistribution is now anathema. It has to be voluntary, but the rich at least cannot seem to summon the will to pony up some small measure of their vast treasure at this miserable time. In short, the vast majority of them are apparently as Christian as Attila the Hun.

So Merry Christmas to all of you who are food, sleep and/or shelter deprived. With luck, the winter won’t leave your old coat too threadbare. As for the rest of us, while raising that glass of eggnog, let’s acknowledge our true feelings about the poor and the homeless, as found in this Bob Rivers’s parody of the of tune “Home for the Holidays”:

Oh there’s food for the homeless on the holidays
‘Cause no matter how filthy and uncombed
If your down on your luck, you can really graze
For the holidays we throw those bums a bone

I met a man who drank and smelled of pee
He was headin’ for the local mission for some homemade pumpkin pie
Pan-handlin’ folks are always hangin’ round by the discount liquor store
And they’re not too brand specific
Gee a buck would be terrific

But there’s food for the homeless on the holidays
There’s a turkey just like Mama made at home
If they pine for redemption from their heathen ways
Come the holidays we’ll throw those bums a bone

Take a piss in your pants til you smell like you’re from France
Put some vino in a crumpled paper sack
Though you’re smellin’ like a beast you’ll treated to a feast
want second? Come right back!

There’s lots of food for the homeless on the holidays
Have some pumpkin pie and ham with provolone
We don’t care if they eat dog food on the other days
When you call a cardboard box your home sweet home
For the holidays we’ll toss those bums a bone

The Thinker

God as a gecko

Looking for God but having a hard time finding him? Most people claim to know where he (sometimes she, occasionally it) lives and what you must do to know God. They will be glad to lead you to their local church, temple or place of worship so you can find God too. Others will be glad to give you their holy book of choice, whether it a Quran, Bible or Torah and say that you can find God by pondering the words therein.

None of these approaches will render a tangible God. Rather you will find that you need an intercessor or intercessors of various sorts. The intercessor may be Jesus, or Mohammad, or Buddha (although Buddha did not believe in a deity in the classical sense) or a televangelist. You are invited to try to find God through them.

The problem with this approach is that unless you are consumed with an unquestioning faith, you can never be quite sure the God you believe in is the genuine thing. Recognizing this paradox, a number of people have decided they don’t believe in God at all. Christopher Hitchens is a prominent atheist who is inconveniently dying of stage-four esophageal cancer, the same cancer that killed his father. Curiously, his imminent demise has certain people (principally dyed in the wool Christians) busy praying for Hitchens. Specifically, they are praying that before Hitchens passes into the great unknown he finds God and especially for him to accept Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. (For some peculiar reason, the chance to know God can occur only during life, not in the thereafter.) Hitchens, as you can imagine, is not too happy with these religious people. He has the weird idea that he should be allowed to die in peace and respected for his convictions, rather than listen to a torrent of well meaning religious folks convinced they know the truth and passionately praying for his quick conversion.

Clearly there are no lack of folks that due to their passionate religious beliefs would like to introduce you to their idea of God. However, suppose you want to find God independently. Where could God be hiding? Why is your sight so veiled?

It could be that God is not who you think he or she should be. Humans have anthropomorphic tendencies. If this word does not ring a bell, it means we like to endow on things human qualities. For example, I treat my cat Arthur much like I would like to be treated myself. I talk to him (in English, not in meows), pet him and hug him when he is on my lap. Arthur’s way of communicating with me is to treat me like a fellow cat. Basically, he would prefer to lick me with his sandpaper tongue. For most of us humans, we expect God to have human-like characteristics. That’s why, arguably, intercessors are required to understand God. Could any human have found the Christian God without Jesus? It seems unlikely. The same is true with Muhammad. How were we supposed to know there is but one god and his name is Allah if Muhammad had not told us so? Were we supposed to read it in tealeaves?

It may be, as I believe, that God is indifferent to us as individuals because we are part of an immensely complex universe unfolding according to his plan. In my opinion, if God exists, it is as futile for us to try to understand him as it is for an ant to try to understand calculus. (Understanding nature, however, is a different matter.) We are all trapped within the boundaries of a finite life, our limited senses and intelligence, our culture and our biosphere. By definition, God must be greater than these finite boundaries but those boundaries frame our level of understanding. Some claim that certain practices, like meditation, allow momentary escapes from these constraints. Others claim that certain practices, like prayer, allow us to hear answers from the Almighty.

It could be that God simply does not speak to us at all. Does this mean that God does not exist? If you see God only in the terms prescribed by the major religions, then maybe not. This version of God is authoritarian, and personally vested in human affairs and cares uniquely about you. In other words, this type of God is anthropomorphic. Yet, God could just as easily be remote and hidden. In fact, God could be nothing more than this tableau we are in called The Universe. God may be just the universe and to the extent that we understand the Universe, we understand God.

Or perhaps God is hidden in plain sight. Like a gecko that blends into the brick façade on our house, maybe he is there but we have to look very hard to see him. That’s sort of what I believe. This was brought home again to me last week when I traipsed through the Black Hills of South Dakota. From the grandeur of the stars at night (normally unseen because of our light pollution), to the beauty of Sylvan Lake late on a sunny autumn afternoon, to the light whispering of the winds racing through the pine forests of the Black Hills, to the largely barren lands of Custer State Park where the buffalo roamed, it was hard to escape the feeling of being surrounded, if not by God, then by the sacred. It was like God was pouring out his essence. All I had to do was choose to feel God’s majesty.

Arguably, humans have learned to survive through wearing blinders. Our lives tend to be rigorously prioritized, because if we don’t put first things first, we may not survive. When you live your life this way, it is easy to tune things out. You may find though that if you can move the importance of survival to some corner of your brain, and feel the presence of nature and the now, that you will experience something far larger than yourself. If you ask me, that is God whispering in our ears.

I feel this God. For me God is not personal, but instead God is the entity that simply is and fills up all time and space. It does not speak to me directly, but reveals its majesty through nature and my senses. It has no special message directed at me, but God speaks nonetheless. God speaks in the splendor of creation in all its manifestations, a work of immense complexity and beauty. This God is found in between things and in moments of time when I choose to be aware of its majesty. It is worthy of awe and worship, although it has no particular message to me other than, “Behold, this universe!”

I believe that God is neither a journey nor a destination, but is always around us. Perhaps in order to find God rather than rifle through our holy books, we should put them down, take a long walk, and revel in God’s presence.

The Thinker

Real Life 101, Lesson 14: The meaning of religion

This is the fourteenth in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthda

America seems overrun by religion. It’s hard to traverse more than a couple blocks without running into a church, temple or other place of religious worship. Even those who are not particularly religious can feel the need to congregate in places that seem somewhat like a church or temple. For example, many states have ethical societies where, if you are not religious, you can still participate in a congregation of similar people. Your children can even get something akin to a religious education there.

Despite our abundance of places of worship, Americans are becoming more secular. Youth in particular are leading the trend, in part encouraged by their parents who often gave religion short shrift growing up. Others (like me) as children had religion crammed down their throats and had to break away from it as adults. Young adults these days are particularly irreligious. If they went to services growing up, it was generally because they were required to. Once independent, it seemed so unnecessary and kind of dorky. It felt much better to sleep in late on Sundays, assuming you were not rushing off to the Wal-Mart or the Target to put in an early morning shift.

Nonetheless, even if you thought you had enough religion to last a lifetime, in adulthood you may find yourself feeling a bit lost. You know you are missing something important in your life, but you are not sure what it is. Perhaps you are getting an early taste of your mortality as the drudgery of adulthood sinks in. Perhaps your circle of friends is a few classmates from high school and college plus some buddies at work. Perhaps you just read the news online and feel hopeless about how messy and discordant our world is and need to feel hopeful.

For myself, when I was in my thirties, despite having a wonderful wife and flourishing daughter, I felt somewhat hollow inside. I think at some point in life the feeling is universal and we tend to address it in various ways. If we did attend church or temple regularly growing up and we found it a worthwhile experience, it is easy and comfortable to pick up where we left off. Some Sunday you may find yourself back for a service with the same denomination. If you hit some major obstacles in your life, such as the premature loss of a parent or close friend, you may find out you need a religious congregation to help you sort things out. On the other hand, you could like me fall into one of these not very theistic but spiritual types and still feel the calling of religious community.

Here in America, we tend to associate religion with God, but that’s not necessarily what religion is about. Here’s’s definition of religion:

A set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

Notice that religion is principally about understanding the universe, not about memorizing Bible or Torah passages or salvation or being born again. Human beings are driven to ponder the imponderable, and since we are finite, it is in our nature to ask questions like, “Why are we here?” Through religion, you can discover myriad possible answers to these questions. Most religions are glad to assert they have the correct ideology. A few of them, like Buddhism and mine make no such claims.

If you investigate a religion, you will find one of two things to be true: either its teachings and values will resonate with you, or they will not. It may well be that, as I was taught, the Catholic Church is the only correct way to understand God and achieve salvation. It really doesn’t matter to me if this is true or not, because Catholicism does not resonate with me. So for me, it will never be my religion of choice and any proselytizing by the Church directed at me will be for naught. If that means I end up in hell, well, it’s in my nature, I guess.

Like it or not we are all on a spiritual path and each of our paths will be a bit different. Some people are on a very independent spiritual path. They feel no need for religion and seek guidance from within. However, the desire to make sense of the chaos that is life remains as much in them as with anyone. That is what drives most of us (at least here in the United States) toward religion.

Worship in some form goes back as far as we can trace humanity. It has evolved from worshiping a golden calf and sacrificing virgins to the volcano god. Today, we may choose to worship The Goddess. We may express worship as a pantheistic appreciation of our complex universe. The common thread is that people of similar spiritual values find a need to come together, express those values and ponder those values with other similar people. Many will find at a house of worship at least some balm for the angst that they carry in their souls. Those that do not may feel free to shop around until they find a religion and congregation that matches their spiritual needs.

I think another reason that is more primal exists for why we affiliate with houses of worship. Basically, we need a community. A real community. There is probably a thriving community where we work, but it is unlikely to resonate with our spiritual needs. Friends also provide community and may provide the spiritual sustenance that we need too. Growing up, most of us live in small nuclear families. Families are the foundation of our society, but as great as they are they are not the same thing as a genuine community. If you don’t have real community in your life, it is hard to forever ignore the call to acquire it.

Some weeks back I was reading about the Dark and Middle Ages in Europe. Community in that time had a much deeper meaning than it has today. It did not take a village to have community; it took a manor. A manor was essentially a large community house, hall, kitchen and mass bedroom, which were overseen by a lord and lady. You were born in or close to the manor and you died there. At night, particularly during the long dark season when light was scarce and not very luminous and cold killed, you bedded with all your fellow citizens in the safety of the manor hall, often sleeping cheek to cheek. You were intimately a part of a real community. Your survival depended on the success of the manor and how well all of you held up your part of your community’s covenant.

Most religions are selling or promoting salvation and/or some grand understanding of the universe, but what most are really doing is creating real communities. Unlike medieval manors where you largely stayed for life, today you can shop around for the manor/religious house of worship that feels most comfortable to you. In your house of worship, you will find similar people. You will find stories and guidance (sermons) and a spiritual leader usually trained in your theology (generally, a minister). You will have the chance to contribute to community life (such as teaching Sunday school). You will have opportunities to embrace a larger community, perhaps by providing food to the poor or by helping to run a homeless shelter. If you are doing it right, you will give and you will get. Everyone in the community should feel spiritually enriched.

Houses of worship are thus gateways for connecting with real people and the real world. They are also (or should be) places of safety and refuge. That’s why even today a house of worship is considered a sacred place. It’s why a church can shelter an illegal immigrant under its roof and know with some confidence that the immigration police will not storm the church. Houses of worship then are really refuges for the soul, places to heal from complicated problems, find strength in others, get guidance to life’s many problems, and a conduit for you (if you want) to stretch your humanity. It is difficult if not impossible to get this complete enfolding experience anywhere else.

There are certain denominations and houses of worship that may be more toxic to your soul than helpful to it. Most strive to emulate higher authorities, but all at their core are human institutions. In my mind, this is fine because I see the real purpose of houses of worship as building real community, not spreading salvation. You will often find giant egos and toxic people in churches and temples, as is true of anywhere else. Most houses of worship though strive very hard to be welcoming, spiritually uplifting and balms for restless souls. Like yours. Like mine. Like everyone who is a human being.

So if someday you feel the call of church or temple, understand that there is nothing wrong with you, that the call is entirely natural. You will probably grow as a human being by scratching that itch. I am glad that I did.

The Thinker

The downside of sobriety

So I am having lunch with my new friend Valerie at a local Red, Hot and Blue. We are enjoying the food and enjoying getting to know each other a little better. Our relationship so far has consisted of my patiently building a website for her business. We started to trade brief synopses of our lives. As two white Anglo Saxons as well as Unitarian Universalists, we discovered that we had a fair amount in common. We are both married and with children, although in her case there is also a grandchild. I’m still involved in a long process getting my twenty year old daughter out the door.

Val, a seeming model of decorum, at least confessed to having let her hair down a few times growing up. In the early 70s, like many of her classmates, she had smoked some weed and did other naughty things. I went back and frantically examined my childhood, and adolescence looking for similar naughty things I had done. I couldn’t turn up anything other that would qualify as more than a minor venial sin.

It’s not that I am without sin, because like most sinners I have done my share of it, but I could rarely find anything egregious to confess to the priest. There were times I was forced to go to confession when I made sins up. What priest would believe me if I said I hadn’t sinned since my last confession? I was blessed/cursed with two freakishly sober and responsible parents. They didn’t smoke. They didn’t drink, except perhaps a sip of wine at a wedding or at communion. Neither had ever been drunk, although my mother had brothers who were drunks. That is in part why she married a teetotaler. Moreover, I had little in the way of older siblings willing to be bad examples. I had one older brother who developed a taste for European beers and for a brief time smoked cigars in college. That changed of course when he met his wife and reverted to a more natural clean and sober style. He did so with such a zeal that he made my father look like a sinner. Vice was just not part of our upbringing. The neighbors did not help either. They did most of their sinning indoors, rather than in the streets.

When my turn came to grow up, I too stayed unnaturally unsoiled. To this day, I have never put a cigarette to my mouth, lit or unlit. I do drink alcohol, but only a few times a year, occasionally to the point where I feel slightly lightheaded, but never to the point of public drunkenness. I occasionally smelled pot in the hallways at school and saw students take furtive tokes. Yet, I never felt the desire to join them; in fact, I felt something like disgust watching their behavior. While I never embraced puritanical behavior, even in the days before AIDS I felt little desire to jump into bed with any woman on the first date, no matter how attractive she was. It was not like I saw any virtue in chastity. It helped I suppose that I inherited my parents’ natural shyness, so I was not particularly inclined to make the first move.

So here I was this afternoon, age fifty plus, in many ways unsullied by vice, being clean and sober (not to mention proper) with my new friend Val enjoying a meal at a Red, Hot and Blue and wondering whether I had missed something. It is likely I will never know. I did suggest to Val that perhaps it was not too late and she should take me to a bar or tavern and get me stinking drunk and silly. Perhaps once in my life I should get in a bar fight, or puke out my guts into a filthy restroom toilet, or engage in some weird indiscretion I would later regret.

I am not sure I could. Because the downside of all that righteous living and sobriety is you are afraid to take many chances. Most people who gamble lose and often lose big. Sometimes they win big, and revel in their momentary wealth. In any event, whether they win, lose or both, they seem to be living a broader life than the one I lead. Instead, I live a risk-averse life, usually moving toward an area that I perceive to be safer. Six years ago, this need for safety caused me to switch jobs from one in downtown D.C. to a much safer location a few miles from home in the Northern Virginia suburbs. With my window looking down on the National Mall (where I daily watched freight laden trains running in and out of the city), it did not take much for my imagination to conjure up a vision of some terrorist stuffing a boxcar with explosives, and taking me out, much like Timothy McVeigh took out over a hundred people in Oklahoma City in the mid 1990s. Better to find another job.

“Be prepared,” is the Boy Scout motto. That was also my father’s motto (an ex Boy Scout himself). It seems to have worked well for my father, who is in remarkable health at age 83. Yet, is there any point to making it to 83 if you spend much of your life simply trying to optimize your survival and comfort, rather than grasping life by its reigns? Is it better to have a shorter life lived well than a long live lived in a pedestrian fashion? How many others have an earthquake and sewer backup rider on their home insurance policy and umbrella insurance just in case someone wants to file a lawsuit against them?

Since alcohol no longer agrees with my wife, I am hoping my new friend Val will finally be the one to corrupt me. I have no idea where the local bars are, but I suspect she can find out. Perhaps she could introduce me to a drink that is both tasty and likely to have me quickly lying on the floor. Perhaps under the influence I could let my mouth get the better of me by trading political opinions with the Republican by my elbow. Perhaps I would wake up in the morning hung over, hurting and regretful, but knowing for some small period, I had walked outside the bounds of my self-imposed safety zone.

I hope Val will hurry up. I’m not getting any younger and I don’t seem to be able to do it by myself.

The Thinker

Father’s Day

This original work of fiction was first written in 1981 for my mother, long before I met my wife or had any idea I would be a father. I was all of 24 when I wrote it. It has been revised a few times since then, most recently in 1993. I know one grown man who said it made him cry. It may be the best work of fiction I have every written. I should write more fiction. Enjoy. (c) 1981, 1988, 1993 by [email protected]

His vision was breathtakingly real.

His heart pounded. His heaving chest, anxious for more air, throbbed in furious pace with his heart. He felt the bite of cold metal bars sear his hands. A crisp Fall wind on his face felt like a peppermint in his mouth. He was hanging, hanging from parallel bars. His hi-topped monotoned sneakers fell like deadweight toward the wrinkled blacktop of the playground below.

Suddenly he was up to his ankles in water. He walked slowly up a sparkling brook bounded by grassy knolls. A lock of his dark curly hair swayed back and forth in front of his eyes as he walked. He looked through the water and found his feet were tightly buckled inside a pair of black galoshes. They carried him slowly upstream, disturbing sediment and minnows where he walked. A powerful undertow made his every step slow and laborious. He raised a boot to move forward but the current nearly made him lose his balance.

Now the brook vanished. His heavy eyes cast a sleepy glance over a windy and snow covered suburban street. His torso was warm despite the arctic weather, thanks to a new wool sweater beneath his husky overcoat. But his uncovered head offered no comfort from a savage northerly wind which flowed through his hair. “Crimeanetties! It’s cold!” his boyish voice said. There was nothing he could do but stumble forward with both gloved hands buried deep into his coat pockets. He wondered how long he could negotiate four heavy textbooks in the crock of one arm before they spilled onto the snow. He forced himself forward again. If only he had remembered his stocking cap! A tear involuntarily emerged with the full force of another gust on his face.

He was in school and inside it was gloriously warm. Even so he found himself pressed against a radiator grate. Its heat desensitized him to the frightful noise from his arriving classmates. A cold, half opened eye noted his fourth grade teacher, Miss Devonshire, hunched over her desk grading papers. He glanced out the window. Row upon crooked row of townhouses wound around the nearby hills like a terraced garden. Virtually all of them put out a trail of white smoke into a frosty blue morning sky.

A cry from somewhere … shrill … insistent. He turned away from his class, only for a moment.

It was too late. They had grown. Their half-innocence, their soft-as-cottonball faces were supplanted by long chins and studious expressions. Their hair was much longer and unkempt. But it was their clothes which really seemed strange: bell-bottom trousers for the boys and tightly wrapped miniskirts for the girls. And beads, lots of beads draped around the neck. The boys had long and powerful legs with huge bony feet stuffed inside suede shoes. Their legs flopped out from beneath their small desks and into the aisles.

It was incongruous to keep hearing this muffled but insistent crying…

So he stepped back.

For an indefinite moment he was delicately suspended between two worlds, both real. Each had the firmness of a cobweb. In one world Mary Alice Jordan was fiercely scratching her leg above her sandal strap. In the other an unfocused eye dimly read a luminous dial saying it was just before two in the morning.

Someone next to him was slowly turning in bed. From far away a shrill cry was piercing the silence. His wife was turning in bed again. Her semi-conscious hand fell comfortably over his shoulder.

The crying was continuing, distant but still insistent.

“Honey. It’s your turn.”

Snap! The cobweb gave way. He was sitting on the edge of their bed, his two bare feet apathetically but dutifully planted on the floor.


Gary Howell had no intentions of settling down. He had dated many women but he felt both intimate and distant with them. For the most part his dates were satisfied with simple things like heartfelt whispers and passionate embraces. They never mentioned the word “love”, which suited him fine. He had plenty of school ahead of him. He had no time to fall in love.

But there had been special moments. One had been a moonlit summer stroll with a coed named Wendy along a quiet wooded path close to campus. His third date with Evelyn Offenbach recalled only the heady rush of manliness he felt when he rushed around the front of his car to snatch her door open. Once, for one fleeting and terrifying moment, he believed he was in love with Evelyn. But the feeling passed.

His first date with Sara Ann Coughlin had been an afterthought, a way to pleasantly unwind after concluding a tedious project at the lab. Sara struck him as an over-average sort of lass, and therefore an ideal date. Fun to be with, but no fuss. Her jet black hair was inordinately curly. She had a lean frame, deep sunken eyes and a too pointy nose. And Sara Ann had absolutely no taste in clothes. She preferred muted colors, rumpled sweaters and clogs (when they were in season.) Perhaps it was her consistently dismal apparel that made him think she was at the brink of poverty. That or the way her heels had become so worn she stood crooked.

During the dinner one of her false eyelashes made an unexpected appearance in her salad. Gary found himself trying to restrain a laugh and not succeeding. Sara gasped then threw her arms up in mock dismay at her horrible faux pas, much like an actress of the silent screen. Then she smiled sweetly, straightened herself and deftly removed her other eyelash. “Gary, you’ll have to forgive me. I will never be very good at being pretty. And I keep swearing I’ll never wear these things again. This is why, in case you’re interested!”

On their next date they journeyed to the cinema where they shared a large bucket of popcorn and each other. Their buttery fingers inadvertently found each others in the darkness. Instantly Gary forgot the movie. All he could think of, all he could feel was the joyful press of her hand in his. It was small and delicate hand and somehow familiar. Like Sara herself. It seemed impossible to remember any time so fantastically far in the past that she had not been there.

Their dates were riotous fun. They joked, they poked each other in the ribs, they pigged out on ice cream cones at Baskin Robbins, they talked, Lord they talked! But not often in words. A thousand lovely and delicate feelings were spoken from a mere sideways glance or a broken sentence. Some part of him was infuriated with Sara for causing this elation within him. He was a confirmed bachelor, dammit. He was studying for his Masters Degree, and it was good that Sara was graduating so he could concentrate on his studies. But a day apart from her was an eternity. A few minutes between classes doing something as dopey as holding hands sent him overflowing with energy and his spirit soaring.

How could it be that he could be so enamored by a woman, such a plain woman, as Sara Ann? So swiftly she grabbed hold of his heart yet so gently that he was hardly aware it was happening. The girl of his dreams was supposed to be tall and intellectual and refined. Sara Ann was none of these things.

He was not in love with her.

Oh god yes he was hopelessly in love with her.

In time his feelings did lessen slightly as familiarity set in. But they never went away. And one day he was surprised to find himself saying that he loved her, and she smiled shyly back and said she loved him too. He knew of no reasons to marry her except that he loved her and wanted to always be with her.

And even after a marriage and a child nothing really dimmed their magic.


Until he discovered his mortality.

His death was something he had always been intellectually certain would happen someday. But he did not worry about it because he had never felt old.

There had been warning signs. Getting married was in itself a sobering experience. It had been very strange to suddenly be referred to as “her husband”. When Sara announced she was pregnant he spent the better part of a week trying to accept the fact that he was capable of something so fantastic as reproduction. Adolescence had clearly come to an end.

But this feeling was altogether different. It was so powerful it caught him in mid stride as he ambled down the boardwalk by the lake. For a terrified moment he thought he felt his heart stop. Then it began to race abnormally. An involuntary shiver shot down his spine. His prescription bag spilled onto the dock. He stood for one long and painful moment hardly able to move with one hand cupped over his palpitating heart. From his brain the message was urgent and insistent. You are getting old, Gary. And you are going to die.

This is silly, he thought. I am still young! I am only twenty seven! But the message was overwhelming. You are getting old. You will die someday.

On a bench overlooking the lake, amid the squawk of the ducks and the splattering from the fountain, he grimly forced himself to do the arithmetic. He had lived over a quarter century; a full third of his life was over and unrecoverable. What he could remember of his past seemed squeezed into his brain with the brevity of a Fox-Movietone newsreel. The lesson was obvious: the rest of his life would fly by just as fast, maybe faster. And there was nothing he could do. He could not even slow it a bit.

“I’m not getting old,” he decided uncertainly. He stumbled forward, almost forgetting to retrieve his prescription. Alone in his living room, sunk deep into the loveseat, he stared blankly out into the cluster. The room was quiet although he was dimly aware of the chirps from the birds behind the open window. He was alone. God, he was so alone. He wanted Sara’s caresses on his cheek, he wanted to be held tightly and told that he was special and he was loved and especially that he was not going to die. But Sara had gone with their daughter Vicki to the pediatrician and would not be back for hours. And he also knew even Sara could not really help him. Nothing was forever, not even Sara.

His heart continued to race for a long time. But the utter terror of that moment would never completely go away.


“Gary. Please. The baby.”

With considerable effort he got on his feet. One hand firmly clasped the nightstand to secure his balance. With a conscious lunge he moved through the darkened bedroom and hallway and into his daughter’s room.

He cautiously lifted his child into his arms, subliminally aware of the press of her hot and vibrant flesh against his. He stroked her on the head while she continued to cry. “Don’t fuss. Bottle’s coming soon, I promise. It’s okay. It’s okay.” With his free hand he found her formula and placed it in the microwave. The timer rang. He tested its temperature with a dollop of milk on his hand. Just right. Into her tiny mouth. Her crying finally abated into grateful swallows.

Now they were in their darkened living room. Vicki was cradled in his arm busy swallowing her formula. There was a delightful pattern of moonlight on the carpet, otherwise the room was as dark as it was quiet. What little light filtered through the trees seemed as soft and gentle as his daughter’s suckling. She was then as he would always remember her: close and snug against his chest. In the dark room she was mostly hidden deep in the shadow, yet there were hints of her angelic appearance. He could make out faint impressions of her tightly sealed eyes and her small pouty lips. She hugged the bottle so gratefully.

And — how sweet! — she placed one hand around his small finger. She knew him even at six weeks: the man who gives her food, the kind gentle man who hold her bottle so steadily, the man who loved her so dearly: her father.

Father. He expected for a moment this thought would again unleash the terror of his mortality, but it did not. The gentle press of his daughter’s impossibly tiny fingers overwhelmed this morbid reflection.

It was two-fifteen in the a.m. and time had finally frozen. Just my daughter and I, he thought. The silence was as beautiful as a symphony. The oddball hour was curiously invigorating.

And as he sat nursing her he suddenly felt the warmth of his Mother’s arms and the moist, half-forgotten press of her lips on his cheek. How many years had that been? How long since she had died so suddenly? He was not sure; he knew it did not matter. Mom was here now. He sensed her gentle kiss again, now on his forehead.

He withdrew the empty bottle from Vicki’s mouth and gently smothered his daughter with his own gentle embrace. She reached forward and pawed at the stubble on his cheeks, but his abrasiveness did not seem to frighten her. Suddenly she was full and wanted to yield to instant sleep. She did not want to be put over her father’s shoulder. She was oblivious to her own burping and the stream of saliva flowing onto her bib. She fell asleep in mid pat.

At length she was back into her crib. He gave her a gentle kiss on her forehead. Would she someday remember too?

“Gary? How is she?”

“She’s fine.” Their words were swallowed up by the silent walls.

“Umm, did she take her formula?”

“Uh huh.” He slipped between the sheets again and unconsciously snuggled up to his wife. Oh! The press of her warm flesh against was still lovely to feel!

The silence and her warmth yielded to sleep.

And slowly he felt the cobwebs of the other world again and he had returned.


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