Friday, September 30, 2005

what the --?

Ontario Christian Schools in California reportedly has expelled a student because her parents are gay.

Not all that surprisingly, the school has a FAQ posted about the situation where they expelled her. Having read their FAQ, I suppose I can understand where they're coming from -- they say it's because they're partners with the family in educating the child, and a same-sex couple is contrary to what they want from their partner, morally and spiritually speakings -- but I have to say I disagree with the decision. Not just because it appears as though they're treating homosexuality as a worse sin than others, but because I feel they're missing something essential in the character of Christ. He was someone who welcomed sinners freely to his company, and I can't see any evidence in the gospels that he insisted they start cleaning up their act either before they came to him, or afterward. People did that on their own.

Ontario Christian School has chosen to set a purity bar for people to be members of their school community, and they've defined it in such a way that they're saying the parents are members of the community as much as the child, and therefore the decision is made to remove them from the community. Although I'm sure this is a legally defensible position, I don't think it's particularly Christlike, especially since the punishment is being meted out on the student. They can regret that the parents' behavior forced the school into this action, but unless that regret finds outward expression in action, I don't think it counts as more than a semantics exercise, similar to the president's "I take full responsibility."

A private school is free to set criteria for admission, of course; usually these are academic in nature, although I'm aware that some Christian schools use a faith-based screen in order to minimize secular or un-Christian influences. That, I suppose, depends on the guiding philosophy of the individual school, which may or may not be hideously flawed.
But basing a student's enrollment on the PARENTS' morality seems wrongheaded to me. Expelling a student already admitted because of something that hasn't changed is just plain wrong.

still sick

I wonder if I have walking pneumonia. Dawn Goodwin had that once, down in Haiti, for about three months and never knew until she finally went and got it checked.

I've been sick about a week now. Physically I feel much better, but the amount of phlegm is driving me insane. I ended up having to skip a tremendous business networking opportunity last night because I was feeling awful all afternoon and evening, and ended up throwing up about a football's worth of mucus into the sink. (And isn't that a pleasant image?)

And today, it feels like it's back, but worse. My ears feel like they're stuffed with cotton, and I feel like sometimes I'm coughing so hard that I can't breathe and feel like I'm going to pass out. It's impossible to get to sleep at night, because as soon as I lie down I start coughing so hard the room shakes.

Enough is enough. I'm going to the doctor's on Monday.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

it's the little things in life

Stat Counter, the Internet service I use to measure the traffic on my blog, just revealed to me that for the past 100 web searches that led people to my site, about 25 percent were done by people looking for information on rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

tom delay

So ABC News is reporting that House Majority Leader Tom DeLay has been indicted as part of a campaign finance probe. Wow, what a shock. You mean a prominent politician may have been engaged in something unethical that was meant to raise money for his political party? I'll bet everyone was surprised by this.

Seriously, isn't this fairly old news in a sense? The indictment may be new, but I remember allegations about this surfacing quite some time ago. If memory serves, the GOP majority even rewrote the ethics rules so DeLay could could stay on as House majority leader, even amid the lingering questions about his alleged involvement in questionable practices. Now someone'll probably say they should rewrite them to allow him to stay on until something's actually proved.

Nothing's been proven, of course, although I can't help but note that the Republican response so far appears to have been to resort to ad hominen attacks on the prosecutor, rather than addressing the substance of the charges.

When the municipal GOP chairman in Clark was formally accused of using his position to get a job and pay increases for his girlfriend, he gave me a blow-by-blow account of his side of the story, provided me with documentation and gave me a person who could corroborate his story or shoot holes in it.

But even if DeLay is guilty of a crime here, I don't think it's appropriate to gloat, as MSNBC quotes prominent Democrats as doing. It's more a cause of mourning, because the rot at the heart of our political system is so widespread and the people caught in it are so quick to deny or sugarcoat it.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

down and out

Evangeline, Rachel and I have caught the flu or some other sort of cold that has had us laid up the past few days. yesterday was especially brutal. Evangeline and I developed fevers, with hers reaching 102.5 degrees in part because (I discovered) she wasn't drinking enough. We were sluggish and lethargic all day, and kept taking naps. (I very shamelessly seized the opportunity for a quick siesta while they watched "Lilo and Stitch."

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

liberals, unite!

Your country needs you. (Someone has to slap some sense into it.)

Or does the idea of taking the Christian fish symbol and putting the president's name in it not seem like a really idiotic thing to do? That's exactly what the folks at have done.

I don't think they're claiming that Bush is God, but they sure are co-opting the religious imagery to shore up Bush and make supporting him not just a moral obligation for all Americans, but a religious observance for Christians. Infusing religion with such rank nationalism leaves me fit to be tied.

One friend of mine described it as the most offensive thing he's ever seen on the Internet, so I guess he agrees with me. And another friend said, "That is wrong in so many ways," which about sums it up.

But you know, since they seem to be sharing all the comments they get,whether positive or negative (and kudos to them for that), I decided to send them the following compliment on their most amusing product web site. I don't know if it'll make them reconsider the wisdom of their position, but I'd like to think it will.

Hey, I have to hand it to you for having an absolutely sublime sense of humor. You obviously put a lot of work into this joke, not just creating a fake product but creating pictures of people apparently using the product on their vehicles too. I'm impressed when I think of the amount of work you must have put into this. (You ought to consider doing some stuff for -- they love religious humor like this.)

I doubt anyone on the Left could have skewered the Fringe Religious Right better than this -- sometimes it really does seem as though people believe that supporting President Bush is an act of religous devotion, and assume that those who criticize his policies are bad Americans and bad Christians too.

Infusing religion with that sort of nationalism (what C.S. Lewis called "Christianity and") can be a frightening and dangerous thing, since it often leads to Christians putting their faith and hope in the kingdoms of this world, expecting them to bring the deliverance that will come only when Christ returns.

Anyway, I didn't mean to go on like that. Like I said, it's an amusing site, and I've shared the URL with a number of other Christians who I thought would get a kick out of it.

Keep the laughs coming,

David Learn

Moments like this make me yearn for the good old days of the Evil Christian Fellowship back at college.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

more on the weirdness

Just thought I would keep everyone posted on the visualization exercises Evangeline's class is doing at school.

At Back to School Night on Monday, I managed to get a minute with the teacher and asked her about the meditation exercise Evangeline had told me about. Evangeline's description was fairly simple, but essentially correct. After lunch and recess, the children are supposed to settle down and relax as the teacher reads to them from a book of meditation exercises for children.

During this exercise -- Evangeline told me they didn't finish it Monday, because some of the boys kept talking and couldn't keep their hands to themselves -- they visualize a ball of pure light filling their bodies, and then their guardian angel takes them to their special garden as described, where they hang their worries on a worry tree.

I thought it was amusing that the teacher, obviously aware that I was concerned but not yet knowing why, tried to reassure me that there was nothing religious about the exercise. There can't be, since it's a public school. Still, as I responded, it's undeniably spiritual, and it's a fallacy of our generation that you can be spiritual without being religious. (Though I'll definitely grant there are plenty of religious people who aren't at all spiritual.)

She showed me the story they're using right now, and is going to make me a photocopy so I can read it more in-depth at my leisure, and she also offered to remove Evangeline from the class if I was concerned, but as I pointed out, exclusion can cause other problems.

What it boils down to is the teacher is trying to provide the children with the skills they need to relax and settle down, and meditation is a fairly ancient way to do that. I joked, "Well, at least you're not having them write down the messages they get from their guardian angels" -- and regretted it almost immediately as she said, "Well, that's next."

Duh! Of course it is -- it's the step I'd have next too. Not the messages from guardian angels, which isn't what she meant, but the idea of writing down what they visualize. It's a school, innit? The kids are supposed to learn how to express themselves through writing.

In the meantime, my christocentric interpretation holds, and I told the teacher I had provided Evangeline with that understanding of the exercise, but I still feel a little uneasy about this. Almost everyone else I've spoken with or heard from does too, including non-Christians who are bothered by the use of the guardian angel. I'm going to hold off saying anything else until I've had a chance to read the exercise for myself and decide based on that information if it's worth pressing the issue, and how.

Did I mention I'd rather be homeschooling? At least then I only have to worry about racism in Bob Jones University textbooks, the lack of critical thinking in A Beka books, and other problems you find in homeschooling curricula.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

okay, i'm weirded out

Okay, tell me if I'm overreacting.

As Evangeline was winding down at bedtime tonight, we talked a little about her experiences at the charter school, where she started first grade two weeks ago. Since I homeschooled her last year, I'm understandably interested in how things are going and how they're ranking her academic abilities. (For the record, she'll be doing second-grade level math and something similar for reading and writing, I think. Her art skills are also way above grade level.) Tonight she told me they've been doing some sort meditation exercise.

Now I realize that meditation is a biblical concept, but I can't help it. As soon as I hear a word like "meditation" coming from the mouth of my 5-year-old, the slumbering Pentecostal within me begins to stir uneasily. I can't help it. Whether it's from reading Frank Peretti novels when I was 19, indoctrination against ideas perceived as ungodly when I was in the Assemblies of God, or legitimate concern over occultic concepts, it lights the first step on the path to what could become a full-fledged wigout.

Here's the exercise as Evangeline described it to me: The children lie down on the floor and look up at the ceiling, and then close their eyes. As their teacher reads a story, the children are supposed to imagine their own special star, which comes down into them and fills their whole bodies. Then their guardian angel takes them to their own special garden, where there's a worry tree that they can leave all their worries on.

Is this harmless imagination stuff or am I right in thinking it's a little creepy?

The good stuff I see: It helps the kids relax, it encourages their imagination (Evangeline explained her own star is speckled), and it may even give them coping skills for when life seems kind of rough.

The bad stuff: This whole idea of a star filling their bodies, and a special guardian angel just seems uncomfortably occulty to me.

I didn't want to let on to Evangeline , since she was about to go to sleep, that her father was having a Pentecostal anxiety moment, so I did what I once did with Easter eggs and jack-o'-lanterns. I reinterpreted everything as christocentrically as I could on the spot. That worry tree? It's the Cross, where Jesus died. He tells us to take all our worries to him and leave them there. The Garden? This was a stretch, probably, but I reminded her that when Jesus died, he reopened the way back to Paradise, the Garden of Eden, and that when we get there, it will be beyond our imaginings.

The star I just said was her imagination (weak), which is always a good thing to use, and that she should feel free to use her imagination with everything she's got. And while Evangeline understood the idea that God does ask angels -- or, "people with wings," as she put it -- to protect us, she said that she knows Jesus is watching over her too.

So I encouraged her to use these meditation times to pray to Jesus, and talk with him about anything that's bothering her, but man, this definitely gave me a case of the spiritual willies.

So what's the vote: Am I overreacting to this, or should I ask the teacher about this on Monday? And if I do, what do I say? "So what's with this weird channeling stuff you're teaching my kid? I want her out of this exercise for religious reasons!" That'd be just brilliant.

Natasha, whose feathers generally get ruffled less obviously than mine over such things, also thought this was a weird classroom exercise, and felt that it would get uneasy reactions from other parents too, regardless of their religious background.

And of course, the added irony to all this is that if it wasn't "spiritual warfare," it probably is going to be on Monday. Evangeline thought my explanation of the worry tree was really neat, and said she wants to tell her classmates all about it when she sees them again.

So, one way or another, I've managed to become a trouble maker already, and we're not even at the end of September.

Friday, September 16, 2005

not all his fault

Hadn't thought of it before, but there really has been a lot of crap coming down out of the rafters during Bush's presidency, hasn't there?

Not to say it's all his fault: 9-11 is owed primarily to Clinton's lousy performance on foreign policy and his failure to deal with al Qaeda well in Somalia, after the embassy bombings and after the U.S.S. Cole (though Bush did a good job of ignoring terrorism until 9-11).

Invading Iraq was his decision. To an extent, perhaps that can be blamed on faulty intelligence, but there's been plenty of testimony that Bush wanted early on to invade Iraq.

The hurricane, though, I can't see what he could have done to prevent that, aside from a) appointing a FEMA chief with actual disaster management experience, and b) doing whatever he could have done as chief executive to ensure that relief was ready to go once the hurricane hit.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

not in the news

Another Brothers Grinn piece. Is it just me, or does it bother anyone else that politicians have had this trend for about 20 years now of taking "full responsibility" for something but not actually doing anything beyond saying that? I thought responsibility for something meant that you would take care of it, or make amends or something. When did it become a set of empty words?

Bush resigns amid Katrina scandal

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Grinn News Service) - His face heavy with remorse, a somber George Bush today announced his resignation from the presidency amid accusations that his administration had bungled relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

A palpable aura of grief and stunned disbelief blanketed the capital as news of the announcement spread. Bush, who has enjoyed record approval ratings in the wake of his largely successful war on terror, which has resulted in a free, democratic Iraq and the stabilization of the Middle East, said his resignation will be effective Nov. 20, when Vice President Dick Cheney will replace Bush as president.

"I take full responsibility for the federal government's failure to brief aid and relief to the New Orleans victims of Katrina," Bush said in a televised address from the Oval Office. "Our failed efforts to provide relief stem from decisions and appointments made during my presidency, and I believe it is essential that the right person be held accountable at times like this, and not a scapegoat. I am that person. The fault is mine.

"Therefore, I hereby resign as president of the United States. I will work closely with incoming President Dick Cheney to ensure that the transition is a smooth one and that the people of the United States and the people of the world will have no need to fear instability or an unsteady hand at the nation's helm."

Political analysts nationwide were stunned by the day's events. Bush's willingness to admit mistakes and his forthrightness in humbly taking responsibility for those errors have been hallmarks of his administration, but evidently few expected such drastic action, even considering the horrifying delays in the federal response to Katrina, which caused billions of dollars of damage in New Orleans, reduced the city to anarchy, claimed an estimated thousand lives and left thousands of others stranded with no food, water or medical attention.

Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic Party, wished Bush good fortune in the twilight days of his administration.

"I wish he really wouldn't go," said Dean, who sought but failed to secure the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004. "President Bush has been a uniter and not a divider all five years he's been in office, and it's hardly fair to place all the blame on his shoulders. He's being made a scapegoat."

Some political analysts believe Bush's resignation was inevitable once the news reports started rolling in about the situation in New Orleans. Jonathan Hanks, a professor of political science at Princeton University, said the pressure of precedent weighed too heavily upon Bush for any other decision to be possible.

"Just look at the spate of high-profile resignations in the past 20 or so years," Hanks said. "Clinton resigned after admitting to perjuring himself about the Lewinsky affair, and before that, Janet Reno took full responsibility for the Branch Davidian deaths in Waco, Texas, and resigned from being attorney general. Ronald Reagan, held as the example of what a Republican president should be, took full responsibility for the Iran-Contra scandal and resigned.

"The only president in recent history to take 'full responsibility' for something without taking any sort of redemptive action was President Nixon. Nixon acknowledged a role in the Watergate coverup, but refused to resign. True, he was able to complete the remainder of his term, but his legacy was tainted forever," said Hanks.

"Bush could follow that example and claim to take responsibility without actually doing anything, in the hopes that the American people will be satisfied with mere semantics," Hanks allowed. "But doing that would make a mockery of honor, responsibility and integrity. Who could respect himself after doing something like that?"

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

le phantom de l'opera

Well, my wife and I finally saw the "Phantom of the Opera" on DVD, and I have to say that, despite my initial concerns when I saw it was a Joel Schumacher film, I was impressed.

"Phantom" is arguably one of Andrew Lloyd Webber's finest musicals, along with "Jesus Christ Superstar." It tells the story of an impressionable chorus girl named Christine Daae who receives musical instruction from an unseen Angel of Music who turns out to be a brilliant but dangerous man who lives inside the Opera Populaire, and whose presence and actions have given birth to the legends of a ghost who haunts the opera. Based on the novel by Gaston Leroux, the musical is a neat blend of the Faust legend with the fairy tale of Beauty and the Beast.

I read Leroux's novel in September 1992, when I was living in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and saw the musical at Pantages Theater in Toronto in 1994 with my family. Lloyd Webber made some drastic changes to the story (as is to be expected), moving a few scenes around, eliminating Raoul's older brother, and combining the character of the Persian detective with Madame Giry, who manages the chorus girls.

Still, even though Lloyd Webber eliminated Leroux's twists and turns as Raoul descends into the opera house to find Christine, he made one hell of a musical. Despite my initial disappointment at the changes in the story, the soundtrack became one of my favorites pretty quickly, enough that my wife knew the soundtrack long before she ever saw the musical performed. (Which would be the other night, incidentally, on DVD.)

I'm usually leery of watching musicals put on film. The two media don't blend well, in my opinion; you can suspend your disbelief in Jean Valjean's singing his innermost thoughts on stage, but it's kind of hard when you see him do it on screen. One of film's great strengths is its illusion of realism, just as the stage excels at provoking the imagination.

Well, Schumacher got around that problem somewhat by adding a few bits of dialogue, such as when the old manager of the opera house introduces Carlotta to the new owners of the opera house, or other character-building bits that come out in snippets of dialogue. A few of the shorter exchanges that in the libretto are done to music, like when Christine begs Raoul not to make her play the bait in a mousetrap they're setting for the Phantom, Schumacher instead had delivered as dialogue. Unfortunately, I thought these came off as kind of weak, since the words have a lyrical rhythm to them that remained, so they sounded like lyrics being recited rather than lines delivered.

That was pretty minor, though. The casting was excellent, and the woman who played Christine absolutely blew the rest of the cast away, with the two fortunate exceptions of the actors playing Raoul and the Phantom. Schumacher also moved a few scenes around -- such as Christine's visit to her father's grave, which in the movie comes right after the Phantom delivers his opera score during the Masquerade, and not right before the performance of the opera -- and did it in such a way that I felt it actually enhanced the flow of the story.

The biggest change of all, though, was the falling chandelier. In Leroux's novel, the Phantom drops it about halfway through the book, a lead that Lloyd Webber followed, since it corresponds with the end of the first act. Schumacher followed the lead of the other cinematic adaptations of Leroux's novel, though, and moved the chandelier-dropping scene to a more climactic moment, namely, the abduction of Christine.

In other words, everything happens all at once. The Phanton kills the tenor Piangi and takes his place on stage, where no one in their right mind would expect him to be. Christine unmasks him at the end of a very racy "Past the Point of No Return," and he drops the chandelier and makes his escape as the theater catches fire and Raoul chases. It's much more intense this way, and it makes Firmin's lament "We're ruined, André, ruined!" less comical than it's always seemed to me in the musical.

The woman who played Christine in the movie was absolutely tremendous. It's not just the vocals, which are understandably a challenge for any soprano, it's her acting too. She absolutely nailed Christine's characterization dead-on, with the wavering between Raoul and the Phantom, and the powerful draw she feels for each man.

Excellent movie, really. I suppose we shall have to buy a copy at some point.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

frighteningly prescient

I just read an article from National Geographic that my wife sent me. It describes, in stunning detail, the effects of Hurricane Katrina -- and it was written more than a year ago.

We were warned. The Cassandras among us saw the whole thing coming, and told us. But, true to form, their warnings went unheeded.

Friday, September 09, 2005

scripture paraphrased

A great paraphrase of 2 Corinthians 4:7-11:

We're dying. Life is full of pain and perplexity. We have Christ, and so, in the future, his life will manifest in us in resurrection and glory. In the present, that life manifests in us in this very odd, contradictory experience. We are dying, afflicted, broken, hurting, confused...yet we hold on to Jesus in all these things, and continue to love him and believe in him. The power of God is in us, not in making us above the human, but allowing us to be merely human, yet part of a new creation in Jesus.

It's from another essay at Internet Monk.

still messy, still faithful

Got some pretty nice feedback today on my "A Messy Faith" mailing list, owing to the most recent entry, "Trapeze Act." In that particular piece, I write about realizing that I've reached a turning point in my faith, principally that it's gone from being something dogmatic or intellectual in nature to one where it's matured into that relationship thing we talked about in college but I don't think I ever really understood at the time.

I remember in particular how nuts it used to drive me when someone said the Bible was inconsistent. When I was a member of the Assemblies of God, I remember hearing several times from the pulpit that the Bible is not a history text, a science text or what have you, but when it speaks on those points, it is infallible and inerrant. I can't buy that, I'm afraid; the Bible is a collection of stories about God, and there's little evidence that the ancient Hebrews regarded it in the vein of infallibility that American fundamentalists, evangelicals and Pentecostals do.

There's enough inconsistency in the details -- how many angels were at Christ's tomb, how many demoniacs went by the name Legion, whether it was a Canaanite or a Syrophoenician woman whose daughter was afflicted with a demon -- that I can't believe it's completely accurate as a historical document, down to every detail, as it's often presented by believers. Leviticus and Deuteronomy, for instance, describe the same exact sacrifice and each one specifically says that the other's way of preparing the sacrifice is wrong. (One says the meat must be boiled, the other says it must be baked.)

We're right to point out that these are small things, and they don't contradict anysignificant doctrines about God, Christ or anything big like that -- but they're still there, and that raises questions about more fantastic elements of Scripture. What about Noah's Ark? What about Jonah? I don't know. By faith, I'm a creationist, but I no longer feel a need to pretend that creationism is scientific; it's just something I accept on faith, even though I can present you with intelligent arguments about how a creation model fits data that evolution doesn't, as well as much of the data that is held up as support for proof of evolution.

I choose on faith to believe that the events of the Fall, however mythic, still happened. Death entering the world through the sin of Adam is an important point as Paul relates it in Romans. If death already existed as part of the pre-Fallen world, I can't see that there's much hope for a world without death after the Second Coming, since it's already part of God's creation. But that's a faith-based argument rather than one based on science.

I think I really reached the turning point when it was obvious we were going to lose Chris. I was on the phone with my best friend, a total bonehead named David McCandless, and I was in tears I was so upset. I said point-blank that if this was how God treated kids like Chris, I really wasn't sure I wanted any part of him. David asked, without any judgment or rancor in his voice, where I would go then, and I realized just how thoroughly screwed I was -- there was nowhere else I could go. I'd seen enough of the real thing, and had enough of full-contact Christianity to know that even if this wasn't as bad as it could get, Christ was still worth following.

But I've never viewed Christ the same way since. He's grown inestimably bigger in my sight.
One of the lessons that's stuck with me since has been the role of community. The entire experience with Christian was rougher on my wife than on me in part because our church fell apart and she was left without a real community to support us as we were going through everything. I still had McCandless and my fellow weirdoes over at CHRefugee, though even then things like my job at WCN became a way to escape the pain (which of course made things worse for my wife).

There were mercifully few people who told me to buck up and have faith that God would work things out -- although there are always a couple people like that waiting in the wings.

One of the holiest responses I received was that September or October, just before the ax fell. We were trying out/helping out a little at a new church in the Princeton area, and a friend of ours from our old church was also there. Maura asked how things were, and when I started to tell her, she must have seen some of the pain in my face even though I kept it from my voice, because her heart broke right then and she gave me a hug. I started bawling on the spot because of the honest compassion and concern she was expressing. That, I think is what Christ does. He doesn't tell us how to behave or give us proper perspective. He sees that we're in pain, even if we won't admit it to ourselves, and he lets us cry.

McCandless, whose opinion of my writing I hold in tremendous estimation, writes, "Just wanted to let you know that you are doing an excellent job writing your articles... They're very good. Perhaps someday you'll have enough that you could compile them and see if my agent wants to market it as a book."

Actually, as I admitted to him, that's one of the reasons why I'm doing this as a blog/mailing sort of thing. I'm hoping that the writing will market itself to an extent, as people forward links and articles to one another. I put the link in my signature file, but that's about the extent of the marketing I'm doing. When I started this, I invited about fifteen people to sign on,and that was about the extent of the promotion. Only seven people signed up right away, and one person has joined since. I've pretty much taken the view that if God intends to use it, he will, and trying to push it is more likely to bring frustration to myself and other people. I'm reminded somewhat of David, who ran from Saul with no intention of building an army to fight him, but soon found himself surrounded by men who would prove to be the basis of his army when he became king later on. He just hid in the wilderness, and people flocked to him.

So far, it's paying off a little. I'm keeping track of the traffic through Stat Counter, and I'm noticing that there are a few people coming to the site through links in their e-mail, and a number of people are taking the time to read more than one blog entry at a time. And when they leave comments on the blog, I make sure I keep them there. Later on, I figure I can use those posted comments as evidence that I have a readership/platform/audience.

i love writing humor

This is from an upcoming Brothers Grinn mailing, pending any changes or additions by my co-smartass. I can almost imagine someone in the oil industry trying to put this sort of spin on the current state of gas prices:


Americans not only enjoy paying $3 or more per gallon at the pump, many of them would like to pay more, a recent survey has found.

The survey, conducted by ExxonMobil, asked viewers if they would prefer to spend their life savings on gas over the course of six months, or if they would rather be locked in a closet overnight with Ernest Borgnine while he recites his lines from "McHale's Navy" using the voice of Miss Piggy.

The survey showed that 84 percent of all male motorists prefer to spend their extra money on gas, with the number dropping significantly, to 4 percent, if they were locked in the closet with Scarlet Johannsen instead of with Ernest Borgnine.

The number of women who preferred to spend their money on gas hovered around 80 percent whether they were locked in a closet with Ernest Borgnine or with Scarlett Johannsen. The number of women who would rather pay at the pump rose sharply to 98 percent when the alternative was to be locked up with Ashton Kuchner.

"America will never allow itself to be locked in a closet with anyone," said analyst Ron Milton of Catasauqua University in eastern Pennsylvania. "It's our right to squander natural resources, waste our wealth and poison the air. Buy more SUVs! We're Americans."

Survey results have a margin of error of plus or minus 50 percent.


A group of Kansas bicyclists have joined the debate in that state over whether to teach Intelligent Design as a viable scientific theory alongside evolution.

The group, a wide mix of professionals who have decided to save gas by riding their bikes to work, have rallied together under the banner "Natural Selection, not Intelligent Design." The bicyclists are taking their message to the state's hoghways, where they expect to get the widest possible audience.

"It's the only way I know how to get to work anyway," explained Robin O'Connor, as she pedaled her bike onto a busy interstate and was immediately hit by a tractor trailer going 90 mph.

So far, about 40 percent of the group's founders have given their lives for the cause. The remaining members explain that they will continue to carry the mission forward until they have proven that natural selection has guided the human evolutionary process by eliminating those unfit for survival, such as those who ride their bikes on highways with no shoulders.

Despite their unorthodox method of argument, their efforts have received attention from the Kansas State Board of Education, and caused a few members to reconsider their position.

"I had always thought that life was so complex and wonderful that it had to be the work of an intelligent designer," said one board member who has supported the Intelligent Design position in the past. "But these idiots sure are making a good argument against any intelligence being involved in any way in their origin."

Thursday, September 08, 2005

another stupid "gas out" idea

Remember the stupidity behind the Gas Out six years ago? The idea at the time, when gas was probably temporarily around $1.20 a gallon, was that if everyone went one whole day without buying gas, it would force the oil companies to drastically lower their prices. There was no actual change in people's gasoline consumption or driving habits, mind you. There was just one day when everyone was supposed to avoid buying gas, and either fill up the day before or the day after.

Well, I guess it's still easier to blame Big Oil for gas prices rather than making changes in our driving habits. A friend of mine named David McCandless, who found the idea about as ridiculous as I do, forwarded me the latest Gas Out idea. What's appalling about this is that it almost contains a modicum of understanding about market forces, but not enough to actually create an intelligent plan.

The new Gas Out involves boycotting ExxonMobil, which may or may not be a bad idea, but certainly would be useless for driving down the cost of gas. True, ExxonMobil is the biggest of Big Oil, and a major boycott might drive down the price of a gallon of gas at the local Exxon and Mobil stations, because the decreased demand (for those brands) will force them to lower their prices in order to remain competitive with other brands.

Unfortunately, the decreased demand at ExxonMobil would lead to an increased demand for other brands of gas, whether they be Lukoil, Sunoco, Amoco, Chevron or Sheetz, and therefore theoretically would drive up their costs slightly. At best, ExxonMobil prices would drop a few pennies, everyone else's would go up a few pennies, then people would switch back to ExxonMobil because of the lower prices there, thereby leveling out the artifically increased demand at the other stations.

Since the overall appetite for oil would remain the same, I think we could expect the price of gasoline to remain fairly steady.

Is this what's passing for logic these days? No wonder America's falling so far behind the other nations in terms of academic achievement, and losing its edge in the sciences. This is really stupid. Whoever came up with it definitely has a rudimentary understanding of supply and demand, and how they affect economics. Unfortunately, he's not applying the rule properly. To lower gasoline prices, we need to use a lot less of it, period. Not just buy less of it from ExxonMobil, but buy and burn less of it overall.
I read that for hybrids to meaningfully affect gas consumption (demand), 20 percent of our cars need to be hybrids. Right now we're closer to 2 percent. The high price of gas is forcing people to eschew gas-guzzling vehicles in favor of hybrids, but we have a long way to go before we're at the one-in-five mark. Maybe more people should just actually ride their bikes to work, even if it means a longer commute.

"footprints" revised

I still like the version I wrote for Chicken Soup for the Soulless about five years ago, but this one is also excellent. I received it via e-mail from someone who found it on a livejournal blog:

One night a man had a dream. He dreamed he was walking along the beach with the LORD. Across the sky flashed scenes from his life. For each scene he noticed two sets of footprints in the sand, one belonging to him and the other to the LORD.

When the last scene flashed before him, he looked back at the footprints in the sand. He noticed that for many times in his life there was only one set of footprints. He also noticed that it happened to be at the very lowest and saddest times in his life. At still other times in his life he could see only a single footprint, with a circle-print where the other foot should be, and a straight line between them. This really bothered him and he questioned the LORD about it.

"LORD, you said that once I decided to follow You, You'd walk with me all the way. But I have noticed that during the most troublesome times in my life, there is only ONE set of footprints. I don't understand why when I needed You the most You would leave me."

The LORD replied:

"My son, my precious child, I love you and I would never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you."

The man felt much better, but was still perplexed. He asked: "But what of the footprints with the line and the circles? Where did they come from?"

"My son," said the Lord, with compassion in His voice, "that was when we were joined by a one-legged pirate with a wheelbarrow."

if thine ear offends thee

So I'm one of the organizers of Arts in The Park, an upcoming arts festival over in Highland Park.

Last night, at one of our nearly-there meetings, we had a brief discussion about the live entertainment we're trying to schedule for two stages. We're down at least one, possibly two, acts because of a cancellation, and we're trying to find some bands to perform on the day of the festival. During the meeting, one of the other committee members mentioned that an R&B/gospel band had expressed interest in performing, and there ensued an awkward discussion about whether an explicity religious band would be appropriate.

Now I'll be the first to admit that most Christian bands aren't appropriate for concerts outside church, mostly because they stink. The melodies are flat and uninteresting, the choruses are uninspiring and dull, and the time spent listening to them could be put to better use weeding the garden. That's not what we were discussing -- in fact, I have no idea if anyone on the committee even know what the band sounds like -- no, what was expressed was concern that a religious band might offend festival attendees.

This may seem appalling since I'm so deeply religious, but I really didn't say much at the time. Having given it some thought now that I'm home, I wrote an e-mail to the group's Yahoo! list to voice my concern that we are considering not going with a group just because their lyrics are religious.

I can understand the concern about people taking offense, but I don't think the reactions people might have should be a consideration in whom we invite to perform and who we do not. It may sound a bit facile to put it this way, but no one is being forced to listen to any particular band; except for vendors and some of the volunteers, people will be free to come and go from the festival as they wish, to move around the festival, and to do any number of other things that will remove them from earshot of any bands they don't want to hear.

And really, using a person's beliefs, rather than the quality and nature of their music, as a litmus test for acceptability seems especially odious to me. It's the nature of art to explore themes and to express the artist's inner beliefs and thoughts; I hope it would be unthinkable for anyone to ask someone not to display artwork that expresses her faith, whether in God, Christ, Buddha or the importance of eating fresh fruits and vegetables. By the same token, I would hope that we would not want to discriminate against hiring a live performer simply because their lyrics or musical structures reflect their beliefs.

There are, of course, any number of other perfectly legitimate reasons to reject a band, some of which may apply in this case. What concerns me, though, is that we were actually discussing making that decision based on the religious content of their songs.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

back on the bike

I got the bike out of the basement this evening to go to an arts festival committee meeting in Hoover Point.

I've been taking the car to the Wednesday meetings, but since gas is now past $3 a gallon, I'm trying to use the bike more. I'll be taking it to Bible study tomorrow night too. It's a great feeling, but I honestly can't believe how out of shape I've become in the past several years. I used to commute to Hillsborough, about 15 miles away from here, on my bike back when I was the editor of the the local newspaper there.

It was an odd feeling at first, being back on the bike after about four years off it. I was a little unsteady with my balance, and kept braking because I would wobble when I went too fast. When I got down to the highway, I walked it across and then rode on the bike path that goes through the park by the river. That was a nice trip, and even though it was a little off-roadish at a few points, I did all right.

Actually, the whole trip went pretty smoothly. There were a few points where I felt a little tight up against the cars in traffic, but I never had to get off the bike and walk it up the hill like I had to do back in college when I rode up the hill past the AGD house toward Easton Hall. Despite leaving the house only fifteen minutes before the meeting started, I managed to get there just five minutes late, maybe less, and before the meeting had even started.

I was a little winded, but not worn out. This is definitely something I need to do more of. Plans call for using the bike to make trips to the supermarket for one or two items, to Target for a couple returns and to buy a bike lock, and other short trips around town. I'm trying to figure out a way I can use the bike to get Evangeline to school in the morning so we can save the gas there too, since the trips to her school and Rachel's preschool are likely to be our biggest regular gas uses.

Thankfully, I didn't take a spill on my bike this time, and I didn't have any near-death experiences either. (That's what the next few months will be for.)

Monday, September 05, 2005

back in business

I sent out the first Chicken Soup for the Soulless piece for the first time in over a year, yesterday. It feels good to be back in the saddle.

Chicken Soup for the Soulless grew out of those annoyingly saccharine e-mails that people forward to everyone in their mailbox, about the meaning of life, footprints in the sand, and how God loves America more than any other nation in the world. I started making improvements and sending them back to the people who had first shared them with me, sold a few to The Wittenburg Door, and soon found myself running a mailing list with my friend.

The highlight of our run when was when Chicken Soup for the Soul threatened us with a lawsuit.

In addition to the lawsuit (which got us attention from The Home News-Tribune, The Times of Trenton, NJ Biz, the Christian Humor site, and a Trenton-based legal journal), we were getting links from all over. We had readers in the military, the government, Youth Specialities, and God only knows where else. Plus, we had readers in Cambodia, China, Singapore, Russian, the United Kingdom, Australia and probably more than a dozen other countries with Internet access.

For various reasons, having to do rather somewhat with the labor-intensive nature of the list -- we wrote all our own stuff, and never made any money on it -- we took a long break, starting about two or two-and-a-half years ago. We wrote a few and distributed a few things during that period, but mostly the list was silent.

Not surprisingly, we lost about 250 readers during the most recent hiatus, an attrition due simply to people changing their e-mail addresses. I'm wondering if we'll take an even bigger hit when people check their e-mail and find themselves subscribed to a list they barely remember, if at all.

Well, I have hopes of getting the list's momentum back. I sent out a new mailing on Sunday evening, a little piece that turned an inspirational vignette about how heaven wouldn't be heaven without your dog, into a piece about SUVs and the people who drive them.

I'm working on a mailing for Tuesday or Wednesday about the Bush administration's solution to the growing energy crisis. After that I have plans for a murder mystery that I might be able to stretch into a couple weeks. We'll see.

My job at WCN was a bitch, and really ruined writing for me. It's good to be getting past that at last. I hope I can stay the course this time and get over them.

By the way, if you want to subscribe to the Brothers Grinn, we're hosted by Topica.

Copyright © 2005 by David Learn. Used with permission.

chief justice roberts?

So, according to ABC News and dozens of other news outlets, President Bush has nominated Roberts to replace the recently deceased Rehnquist as chief justice.

What the heck is up with that? He's not even on the Supreme Court, and he's already being considered for the top post? It doesn't really bother me that Roberts is considered a conservative, as long as he's qualified to be on the Supreme Court, but it really seems over the top to be nominating him for the chief justice spot. His experience on the Supreme Court is nonexistent. What makes him more qualified than the other justices, all of whom have been sitting there for more than a decade?

That's just crazy.

Still, give Bush credit for sheer ballsiness. Roberts generally has been considered a shoe-in for the court, with virtually no objections lodged so far from the Democrats in the Senate. Now that there are two justices to replace, since O'Connor is retiring, he may have made it unpalatable for the Democrats to fight him on this appointment, since there's another, potentially bruising confirmation hearing coming once a new replacement for O'Connor surfaces. If the appointment goes through, Bush's legacy on the nation will be considerable because of the hearings his justices will hand down.

But I'd still feel slighted if I were Scalia or one of the other justices being passed over.

Friday, September 02, 2005

just wacky

There's nothing funny about Hurricane Katrina, but this fellow seems determined to give us a laugh. It's a blog that claims Hurricane Katrina was aimed at New Orleans, as part of a hyperdimensional weather-terror war.

And -- from what I can tell -- this guy is completely serious. I think we should all link to him and forward his URL around to see if we can make him the biggest Internet phenomenon since Tourist Guy did the
ham[p]ster dance.

Oh, and in addition to Hurricane Katrina being an artificial construct, it also was created by someone in the United States. Doubtless this is part of President Bush's war on New Orleans. (Reminds me of the people who blamed Clinton for the Oklahoma City bombing.)

hurricane katrina

One of the other things that just bites about this is the inhumanity of the authorities. People at the Superdome discovered that there was a supply of food and water there, and broke in to prepare it and distribute it. The National Guard showed up and they were ordered out of the kitchens, at gunpoint, with the stated threat that they would be shot if they didn't go.

I heard a guy showed up with 500 hot dogs at the Superdome to give them, and he was turned away, because police said they had no way of knowing whether the hot dogs were safe to consume.

Or there's the kid who was being evacuated, and they made him leave behind his dog because there was a no-animals policy. The kid begged, pleaded and cried so hard he started to throw up, and they wouldn't budge. Gee, do you think the kid might have lost everything else he had and was clinging to the one shred of his own life that was left? Would it have been so unthinkable to have some basic human compassion? Had the kid suffered so little that they had to take even this from him?

Disasters always bring out the best in humanity, but they also bring out the worst.

I hope to God that these and the other bureaucrat-from-hell stories I've heard are false, because they're making me furious. I know we shouldn't resent petty people for their pettiness, just as we shouldn't resent the bee for stinging us -- each acts according to its nature -- but that's just awful.

pain at the pump

Gas prices here in New Jersey and throughout the United States have been positively painful latelyevels. I filled my car's gas tank on Tuesday, even though it was three-quarters full, because I was passing a gas station where regular fuel was $2.55 and I had no idea when I would see gas that cheaply again. Since then, when I took the car out on Wednesday, I saw gas going for as high as $3.19. I'm sure it's even worse in other states.

So, in a fit of civic-mindedness, I actually wrote to my elected officials Thursday night and asked them, not to lower gasoline prices, but to encourage greater conservation efforts and, more importantly, to encourage our nation's auto manufacturers to produce the alternative-fuel vehicles we have heard much about but seen little of.

On the first front, I believe Congress could do much to encourage greater conservation simply with an appeal to our nation's industries to allow telecommuting when possible, and even providing a financial incentive such as a tax credit or other recognition for businesses that encourage telecommuting. They also could prevail upon Bush to stop flying to Crawford, Texas, all the time, ground their limosines, and encourage the use of more fuel-efficient vehicles, like hybrids, for starters.

It would also be nice to see more options in terms of fuel. Internal combustion engines can be modified fairly easily to run on natural gas, as I witnessed firsthand in New Zealand in 1987, and again in Haiti during the ill-conceived embargo of the previous Bush and Clinton administrations. Aside from the post office trucks and a few other government-type vehicles, I'm aware of no such vehicles here in the United States, let alone places for people to fuel them.

More to the point, I've heard reports of prototype fuel cell vehicles for years, but I'm not aware of any efforts to put them into mass production. It would be nice if our elected officials exerted some effort to encourage these alternatives. Left to the market, these changes are going to be disastrously slow in coming and horrendously expensive when they do.

This current presidential administration has been extremely friendly to the automotive and oil industries, through measures such as relaxing fuel-economy standards in early 2001. It's past time we as a nation took seriously our obligation to consider the environment and the economy we will be leaving our children. Any incentive the government can give the auto industry to break our dependence on imported oil can only be a good thing.

Thursday, September 01, 2005


I was at three-quarters of a tank the other day, and filled up anyway because gas was selling for $2.55 a gallon and I didn't know when I would see it that low again.

I've seen it ranging from $2.61 to $3.19, all on the same day, at stations no more than five miles from another. It's bad, and it's getting worse. Between Bush's war in Iraq, the disruption in supply lines caused by the hurricane, and the world getting close to peak output just as China and India are coming online to consume gas in record quantities, the piper's fee is coming due. We're well past the point that we should be using alternative fuels for cars, but no one wanted to hear that for years. It may be my imagination, but I think I've been seeing fewer cars on the road the last few days.

I'm planning to take my bike to get places by myself that I would have taken the car for other days, and I'm trying to convince Natasha that we can walk to church instead of driving. (We already dropped the church that was 20 minutes away, but we were going to do that anyway.)

Honestly, I've no idea how this is going to pan out for us as far as travel goes. Natasha walks to work, which helps tremendously. We use natural gas for heat in the winter, which I'm extremely grateful for.

I've read of some gas stations that are selling gas at a loss just to stay competitive with the other stations -- the price depends on when you got your last shipment, see -- only to still be accused of price gouging.

It's a wake-up call to responsibility. Gas-electric hybrids, biodiesel, hydrogen-powered and natural gas engines are long past due not just to be available but to be in widespread use. But for years we've been deluding ourselves that oil is the second most abundant liquid in the world, and shortages are all manufactured by OPEC in order to enrich the Arab world. Yeah, there's undoubtedly some manufactured element to shortages, but it should have been obvious years ago that our levels of consumption were past ridiculous.

I'm wondering if Bush is going to enact rationing like Carter did, or if he's going to stand by his policy of letting the market deal with it. (Gas prices are supposed to correct themselves somewhat and drop back down 50 cents in another month or so, to the mid-$2 range, once the supply routes get straightened out, supposedly, but we're talking major disruption of the transportation setup in the meantime, with prices for EVERYTHING going through the roof. I see massive cutbacks in retail spending, leading to job layoffs and a shrinking economy. If this goes on long enough, we're looking at a recession or another depression, with more mortgage foreclosures. And it's not like people have oodles of savings they can tap. ...)

Not all of this is Bush's fault, but he's lucky he's not running for re-election this year. Even Doug Forrester could beat him in a run-off.

telemarketing bastards

Dear American Fidelity:

I'd just like it if you people would just take a clue from the Federal Trade Commission and STOP CALLING ME. I signed up for the federal Do Not Call list when it was launched, well over a year ago, and your New Jersey office (908-364-0496) has been amazing in its disregard for federal law. We have received three phone calls in the last three days from that office.

Rest assured that if we should decide to refinance our mortgage, American Fidelity is the LAST brokerage we would consider doing it with. Any firm with that little regard for federal law, a family's stated desire to be left alone, and just basic human decency is not fit to be in business, let alone to receive our hard-earned money.

We've been keeping track of the phone calls. If they continue, I will be filing a harassment suit.

Yours truly,

P.S. You'll note that I didn't provide you with valid contact information. That's because I don't want you to take this as a legitimization of your business tactics. Chances are good that I'm not the only person being harassed. Maybe you should just crack down on the entire office and discipline your telemarketers. (Actually you'd be doing your firm a tremendous favor in terms of publicity if you gave everyone in telemarketing a more useful, and publicly acceptable job. Annoying the public is a lousy way to build your clientele.)

new orleans

Things are really bad in New Orleans. People are dying now, infants and the elderly, because there's no drinking water, and no effort to get it to them. People are being tossed out of the Superdome with nowhere to go, since people are unwilling or afraid to drive buses into that part of the city to help evacuate refugees. It's going to be even worse in the next two days if there is no water taken to them. To quote Harlan Ellison, "We're going to see people eating their own babies, for chrissake."

There's going to be disease and hunger and loads of terrible things we can't even imagine yet. A friend of mine said, he was thinking, "Wake up, America, this is what the rest of the world encounters daily." No. Not like this, it doesn't. This is a wholesale disruption of the entire social structure down there, worse than you find in many third world countries. There are looters entering stores just to get food and water, there are anarchists pillaging because they can and shooting at police, rescue workers have been slow to get there, there has been rising tension in the refugee camp at the Superdome, and relief/evacuation efforts have been hideously slow, with no food or water brought in to help these people. We knew the hurricane was coming, and people were told to go to the Superdome, and there was nothing done to prepare for when they got there.

What the fuck were the civil leaders thinking?

My aunt lives in Louisiana. She's now with her son in Atlanta, but I'm sure her house is gone now, and it wouldn't surprise me if my late uncle was exhumed by the flood. (What a cheery, uplifting thought.) My brother-in-law also escaped, but we've no idea what condition his house is in right now. I suspect it's ruined. News reports are saying that more than a thousand people are dead, the survivors who didn't evacuate are being removed, and that it will be more than three months before the city will be inhabitable again. Property damage is in the billions, which is going to affect everyone's insurance premiums. My own prediction is that the New Orleans area is pretty much finished; there will still be a New Orleans, but many of the evacuees are not going to start over again in that area because there is so little to start over with.

My wife is torn between despair and fury over the situation there, and I've told her if she wants to, to call the American Red Cross and see if she can volunteer in any way.

By the way, if you're reading this, visit the Mercy Corps web site and see what you can give. Yeah, it's money and not yourself, but it's something, and Mercy Corps is one of the best nonprofit organizations I'm aware of.