Monday, April 30, 2007


C.S. Lewis once pointed out -- I think it was in his book "Miracles" -- that once we acknowledge a belief in God, particularly the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, then anything else possible.
And therefore, a friend argues, we should accept the biblical account of Jonah, that he was swallowed by a giant fish, stayed in its belly for three days and then was spit out to preach repentance to Nineveh. It's a great story, but I have a hard time accepting its historicity.

With all due respect to Lewis, I don't completely buy his argument. By that reasoning, we could assert that the sun is a giant marshmallow that provides us light and heat through some incredibly miraculous provision of the Almighty. Or we could believe that that the sky is a dome on the other side of which is a giant reservoir of water (Genesis 1), and that God makes it rain by opening floodgates (Genesis 7). We also should accept that the solar system is geocentric (Joshua 10:12-13), that the sea is contained by doors (Job 38:8), or that God has warehouses full of snow and hail (Job 38:22).

But of course we don't. God gave us eyes, ears, and hands, and minds to study the world that he created, and our study of the world has shown us that the solar system is heliocentric, and that snow, hail, and rain are formed by natural, observable processes that involve an endless recycling of the water on the earth.

And in all the cataloging we have done of the creatures of the sea, we've yet to find a fish (or other large sea creature that falls under the Hebrew term for "animal that lives in water") with a gullet large enough to swallow a man and keep him alive for three days so that he can be coughed up on dry land. Maybe there's something out there we haven't found yet, but I doubt it. Not on that scale.

And given the Hebraic love for storytelling to communicate great truths, and given that the notion of taking Scripture at face value in the manner under discussion is a relatively recent phenomenon -- i.e., early 20th century Christian -- I don't have any qualms in saying it's a work of divinely inspired fiction.

occam's toilet paper

Bad news for fundamentalists of both theistic and atheistic stripes: God's existence is something that lies beyond the realm of proof, because everything can be interpreted two ways.
If we consider that God may be an intellectual construct unconsciously created for our comfort and inspiration, then we also must consider the reverse. If we consider that Christian theism is manmade, then we also must consider that non-Christian atheism also could be manmade. And therein lies the problem of wanting some sort of certainty on the God question. The solid ground does not exist for either side. No matter how you cut it you're having faith in something.

The experience we have during during worship -- whether excitement, emotion or sobriety -- could be a reflection of a legitimate encounter with God. Or it could just as easily be a natural reaction to the music itself, which is why people who have been to both have said that attending a Grateful Dead concert is like attending a Pentecostal worship service. Is God behind the music, or does music trigger a part of our brains that makes us think of God

And since you can see a substantial development in the understanding of God just in the Tanakh, from an arguably moral but still decidedly tribal deity who kicks Gentile butt because the Gentiles are picking on his people, to a deity who transcends national boundaries and desires all the nations to live by love, there is some credence to the notion that we've been making it up as we go along. Or maybe God's been revealing himself steadily by degrees all along, and Christ is just the final and ultimate expression of that revelation. (But then even there, there've been some pretty striking developments in how we understand, interpret and incorporate Christ into our lives over the last 2,000 years.)

Occam's razor suggests the simpler, more obvious explanation is probably the true one. Unfortunately, that bastard Occam has shaving cream too, and that makes it so it's impossible to say which explanation really is simpler and more obvious, except by personal bias, and so once again we see an eponymous philosophical principle walking around with bits of Occam's toilet paper stuck to its face.

assorted thoughts

Someone asked me this evening at church how I was doing. I said, "Got an hour to go for a walk? I can tell you then."

We didn't, but as I explained to him, I'm at a point in my faith where I've stopped putting off questions I've had for years. Some people enjoy the certainty of knowing and they see doubt as an evil to be avoided or as a monster to be silenced; I see faith and doubt as walking hand in hand, and I've lived for years at the point where the two mix uneasily like masses of cold and warm air.

The storm has been brewing for a long time, and the wind is starting to blow something fierce.
During the service, we had a period where people were supposed to call out something descriptive of God as an act of worship. Back in college, we would do this and say things like, "Lord, you are wonderful" or "Lord, you are gracious." Tonight, I wrote:

Lord, you are inscrutable
    an escapist fantasy?
    the personification of our hopes, our fears, and our metaphysical aspirations?
Are you the source of our meandering concepts of Truth, Beauty, Grace and Love, or our explanation of them?

It's curious, really. I've been a believer for 18 years, almost 19. I spent two years on the missions field, and though I've had moments where I've questioned God's goodness and moments where I've wondered if he even exists, I think this past week or so has been the first time in those almost 19 years that I've seriously considered the possibility for a rather extended period that it's likely -- not possible, but likely -- that God is an extrapolation by humanity from the nontangibles of our world, such as love and truth, to identify an external Prime Mover from which they come. I feel like all around me, and not just in church, that people are claiming to have all the answers, and no one's even bothering to ask any questions.

Am I making sense?

So tonight, I didn't take Communion when it was offered, and I didn't join in the prayer groups, and I didn't even really sing any of the worship songs. Instead, I wrote on the back and the inside of my bulletin and complimentary visitor's card, and when I filled those, I took one from the vacant seat beside me. Here's what I wrote, somewhat disjointed yet still an honest reflection of my thought processes at the time:

God is dead.

Was he ever alive?

Did God create us, or did we create him to inspire ourselves to be better?

Ordinary stuff happens, and we credit it to miracles or blame it on God, when it's completely ordinary in nature and easily traceable to natural causes. The credit is due to timing, good or ill, and yet we attach it to God.

What reason is there to believe? What gain? In committing to follow an inscrutable god whose very existence lies beyond the realm of proof, we bind ourselves into a lifetime of servitude to the expectations of others who claim to be following that same god. In exchange for this supreme act of self-abasement, we're promised something no one reasonably can assure us of, and yet when we break from this conformance to others' expectations, we're reprimanded, shunned or even worse. All we have to do is believe an impossibility, leap beyond any source of logic.

The canon is a fascinating collection of stories, but half are fiction and the rest differ, disagree and carry the pathologies of a score or more different authors. And that's our basis for faith?

Is this all a crock? In our hearts, do we know that we toss our prayers into an empty sky beneath an indifferent sun, yet tell ourselves otherwise to give ourselves hope and comfort?

Is the struggle between Christ and Satan nothing more than being caught between the inner burning of our personal beast and the celestial light of our aspirations to be better people and to build a better society for our children?

I do not believe in God
I do not believe in God
I do not believe in God
I do not believe in God

I see no evidence that Christ transforms us in ways that other religions or gods do not.

You know, some people feel tremendous relief when they walk away from the Christian faith, and I can understand that. The unholy pressure of the church to be match its standard of righteousness and to live a certain way, and the petty vindictiveness the church crowd can have for people who fail to match up, is so far outside the nature of Christ, that it would be a relief to leave it behind, to stop pretending to be something I'm not, and to plunge headlong into the fountain of honest self-expression.

I'm having a hard time right now seeing validity to the Christianity, not just as it's practiced in church but in what I understand its foundations to be as well. And I find no relief in that assessment.

still at mount carmel

A common defense of the belief in God among Pentecostal Christians, is to point to some of the miracles that God has performed in our midst. That would be great if I saw hard evidence of miracles even close to the scale the Bible reports: lepers being healed, the lame jumping for joy, and the blind seeing without the benefit of glaucoma surgery.

Alas, the only people I'm aware of regularly to make claims of healings are snake-oil salesmen like B-nny H. A few years ago, I understand Paul Croch (on air) "healed" Oral Roberts of chest pains he was having; four hours later, Roberts was at the hospital after suffering a major heart attack. Wow. Some healing. It's almost as impressive as the kids who report that their mouth stopped hurting 30 or 40 minutes after the pastor prayed for it.

A friend of mine, reading my recent post of assorted thoughts, focused on the ones pertaining to God and his nature, and asks, "Sounds like it's time for Mount Carmel again, isn't it? If YHWH is God, follow him, but if Baal is God, follow him."

Mount Carmel is where the prophet Elijah faced 400 prophets of Baal before an assembly of Israelites and made just that challenge. The Bible recounts Elijah and the prophets of Baal agreed that whichever God answered by fire and consumed the offered sacrifice would be considered the winner of the contest.

When Baal failed to answer, Elijah poured water all over the altar he had set up, offered a prayer, and then stood back as fire consumed the offering, the wood, and the stones. It's a great story.
Anyway, my response:
  1. Sounds great. Pile up stones with a high potassium content to make an altar, pour water on them, and explain how your superior knowledge of chemistry proves anything.
  2. I'm not interested in following Baal, really. What I've read about his cult is pretty icky.
  3. One of the names of Shechem was Jobaal, which literally means "Yahweh is Baal." I suspect there was more overlap between the cults of Baal and Yahweh than the Yahwish and Elohist writers wanted their readers to suspect. Because of the close proximity the Israelites had with the Canaanites, a lot of beliefs about their deity El and their worship styles ended up being incorporated into Yahweh worship as well. It's similar, I suspect, to the way Christians in predominantly Muslim lands might not play musical instruments in church, will enter church barefoot, and so on.

mount carmel

When Kurt Vonnegut died a week or two ago, the book I thought of wasn't "Slaughterhouse Five." It was "Cat's Cradle."

"Cat's Cradle" gave us Bokononism, a satirical religion whose adherents knew that it was a satire and were in on the joke. Its founding prophet, Bokonon, acknowledges that everything about the religion is foma, lies that serve a good purpose; and views God with a sort of bemused contempt. His message: God is useful if he gives your life and purpose, but don't take the old bugger too seriously.

I read "Cat's Cradle" back in 1990, as part of James Woolley's class "Satire and the Comic Absurd." My eventual conclusion was that Vonnegut looked into the void, saw nothing there, and walked away with a bitter laugh and a view much like his prophet's. If it makes you a better person, knock yourself out and believe, but keep it real.

There are times I feel I have a lot in common with Vonnegut. I also looked into the void, saw nothing there, laughed, and have decided to believe anyway. Navigating between the two poles is impossible; the only solution is to grasp both of them at the same time.

Welcome to my world; this is where my faith lives, and here it is in this realm of shadow that I have followed for years.

Alas, where to turn for illumination, the Bible? Perhaps if we view the Bible as having talismanic qualities. But if you've studied its history and how it may have been compiled, the Bible only illustrates what I'm talking about.

Several months ago, my older daughter asked me why God doesn't speak as clearly and audibly to her when she prays as he did to men like Moses or Job. As I once noted, Job never got a direct answer to his complaint, but he did get some tremendous poetry out of the deal.

A friend of mine who's a pastor, when I told him about this, groaned and started rattling off some of the big theological explanations. I told him I had a simpler answer: the biblical authors were writing in a story their perception of what God's statement had been, much like we will say today things like "I prayed about this for a long time, and God has told me not to buy the stereo" even though we never actually, literally heard God say any such thing.

We believe instead that he speaks into our hearts, and we translate that into speech we can share with other people. It wouldn't surprise me if some of the fantastic miracles in the Bible are of the same sort; literary devices used to convey an important lesson about God's authority, his purposes, and his plan for his people.

I'd lump the story of Jonah into this category. It's a story about God's love for the Gentile nations as well, even vicious ones like Assyria, a story that was included in the canon not for its historicity but for the divine truth it carries. The same principle would apply to the book of Esther, although there aren't any miracles per se in the story it tells.

The Truth of a story (as opposed to its truthiness) belongs more to the author of the story than to the reader. Authorial intent is key.

We don't have much in the way of biographical information about the biblical authors, but we do know that the Hebrew culture that produced the biblical texts was big on storytelling as a means of teaching. It's also evident from other stories that they told that it was not a requirement for the stories to be real (i.e., actually to have happened) in order to be true (i.e., to communicate something important).

Sometimes a rabbi would use a familiar story to make a point, as Jesus did when he used the story of the anscension of Herod Archelaus to the throne to illustrate something about the Kingdom of God, or when he took the familiar story of the wounded man on the road to Jericho and surprised everyone by making the hero of the story a Samaritan instead of a Pharisee.

And sometimes they just made stories up, as Jotham did when he told a story against his brother Abimelech, about the trees of the forest looking for a king.

Given the far-fetched nature of the story of Jonah -- a man is swallowed by a fish, stays in its belly for three days, and then is spit out, alive? -- I have a hard time believing it's describing an actual event. (So do serious Bible scholars.)

I also am hard-pressed to believe that the book of Esther describes actual events either. There is no extrabiblical record of King Ahasuerus of the book of Esther, to begin with, nor of a minister of Persia named Haman, nor even of a Jewish queen of Persia for that matter.

As Esther is the Aramaic name of the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, and Mordecai means "worshiper of Marduk," a pagan deity of order who created the world by defeating the chaos goddess Tiamat, the book of Esther likely represents a fusion of a couple pagan myths, retold and assimilated into the culture of the Babylonian exiles.

It's evident from the texts themselves that the authors of the texts knew they were writing "Scripture"; that is, they were writing about God and about their history, and they intended to communicate certain truths about him in their writing.

Some, like the book of Esther, wanted to communicate the special place that the Israelites had in God's plans, and so their stories are all about Israel kicking Gentile butt. Others, like the book of Jonah, depict God not as a tribal deity who delights in kicking Gentile butt but as a transcendent deity who is too big for Israel alone and who wants all peoples to know him.

So does that mean the people were growing in their understanding of God and his nature, or does it mean that they're simply filling an existential void in their lives in a more enlightened way?

Given the number of other things that have evolved in some really unusual ways -- the growth of ha-Satan from an agent of God, his prosecutor, so to speak, who helps to sift the hearts of men, into a decidedly evil being with an entire extrabiblical mythology about how he fell from heaven -- well, it does give the "made it up as they went along" view some credence, doesn't it?

Where does this leave me?

interstellar neighbors

I'm sure by now everyone's heard about the Earth-size planet that's been discovered, only 20 light years away, within the habitable range of its sun. Like everyone else who's ever read sci-fi, I was thrilled by the discovery.
Unfortunately, I've learned that closer surveillance has revealed that the planet is only partially habitable, and already has been colonized by humans from the twelve lost colonies of man. Worse, even now they are engaged in a bitter and protracted war with Cylons.

It's best if we keep our distance.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

kryptonite discovered

I don't know about anyone else, but I've heard from a few people now about the recent discovery of kryptonite, specifically the chemical sodium lithium boron silicate hydroxide," which is how it was identified in the 2006 movie "Superman Returns." Disappointly, it is not a green mineral, and it emits no measurable radiation.
That is, it emits no radiation that is harmful to humans. Lone survivors of the doomed planet Krypton may be another story, however.
But please recall that in addition to green kryptonite, which weakens Superman and effectively gives him radiation poisoning; pre-Crisis there was also blue kryptonite, which would produce random side effects on him, such as causing him to grow to gigantic heights or to grow extra arms; and gold kryptonite, which would take away his powers completely. If you've ever read Alan Moore's "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" you'll remember that Superman on Earth-2 (a pre-Crisis Superman) exposed himself to gold kryptonite after a tremendous struggle with oldtime supervillains at his Fortress of Solitude, and became an ordinary human under the name Jordan Elliot.

So perhaps this is a hitherto undiscovered "white kryptonite," whose properties have not been discovered, because the radiation it emits is on wavelengths beyond our ability to measure.

Friday, April 27, 2007

random thoughts

Why did Jack jump over the candlestick? I wonder if he knocked it over and inadvertantly started the Great Chicago Fire. And all this time poor Mrs. O'Leary's cow got blamed.
I wonder if God is dead.
No, actually, I wonder how we can claim to know anything about God, really. Many of the self-evident characterisitcs of God are self-evident only because we are accustomed to seeing them, from a particular vantage point of faith. A skeptic, or even a believer with a different perspective of faith, will see other self-evident truths.
Even a person of faith has to admit that there is a progression of revelation about God's nature and personality in the Bible. Although there are psalms and passages in the prophets that bear out the same transcendent qualities of God that Paul writes about in his epistles, there's no denying that by the time of Christ, Judaism (and Christianity, its offshoot) have arrived at a very different understanding of the nature of God than was held by the ancient Hebrews at Mount Sinai. God had a moral quality even then, but he was far more nationalist and comes across as far more vindictive than he does by the time of later writers, such as Second Isaiah.
Was God drawing us to a greater understanding of himself all along, or have we been making it up as we go along and feeling ourselves drawn toward a "higher consciousness" or some such other popular psychological bullshit?
Why is "Peter Peter Pumpkineater" such a morbid tale? It sounds like "Boxing Helena" or something else just twisted and sick, where he kepts his wife locked up in a pumpkin shell. Did he kill her and hide the body, or is he doing this because he's a small man who suspects his wife of infidelity and therefore asserts total control over her?
I think my oven is seriously messed up. This bread was supposed to be done in 45 minutes. I just checked ten minutes ago, close to the 8- minute mark, and the crust is only just starting to brown.
I love sourdough baking. So does my daughter Rachel, apparently. Yesterday she asked to start her own sourdough "pet," so we poured a little of the main starter into an empty peanut butter jar, fed it some flour, and let it sit in the fridge. Last night I added about half a cup of flour and some water, left it out all night, and this morning we made sourdough pancakes. She loves her pet, and named it Coma. She even wants to give her pet a birthday card when Coma turns 2.
My Uncle Dick died about a week ago. I'm going to his funeral tomorrow. Today, actually. Friday morning. I'm making that loaf of bread for his widow, my Aunt Barb.
Why doesn't anyone read nursery rhymes any more? I tried reading Mother Goose to Rachel last year, and they sucked. Maybe I should wonder why anyone ever read them.

I hate it when my computer crashes. I had a great, funny piece yesterday on how stupid it is to buy topsoil, and I lost the whole thing when the computer crashed.

Damn you, Bill Gates.

My brother complained that he doesn't like political jokes. I said, "Don't blame me. I voted for Kerry."


I was downstairs this evening around 9 p.m. We had put the kids to bed and I was trying to get started on making some sourdough bread for my aunt when I see her Friday afternoon. I was just pulling up the recipe when I heard Natasha scream bloody murder and the entire house shook as she slammed the girls' bedroom door.
She came downstairs, so livid that she was still shaking, and ready to scream about the disrespect the girls were showing her. She had stayed upstairs a few moments longer to say goodnight to Evangeline, and when she told the girls it was time to go to sleep and to stop talking, they started chatting even louder. Rachel even started laughing at her.
I started to go upstairs to deal with it, and heard Evangeline screaming -- not in pain, just that sort of shrill, whole-hearted scream kids make when they're mindlessly excited -- and of course Rachel was echoing her right back. This was past the sort of quiet chitchat you allow and even expect when it's time to settle down for the night. They were having a grand old time after they were supposed to be in bed. I opened the door in time to hear Evangeline telling Rachel's fortune: "You're going to die of a terrible disease."
(I don't know where they got that particular line, but even though you just busted out laughing when you read that, you have to agree it's a pretty ugly thing to say to your sister. Natasha's told them not to say it any more, but of course that just adds fuel to the fire and makes it that much easier for them to remember to say it.)
I ended up yanking Evangeline out of her top bunk, and took her into my bedroom, where we talked for about ten or fifteen minutes about how she was being incredibly disrespectful to her mother by not listening to her, and how upset her mother was by the bad choice Evangeline had made, about things we shouldn't say, and ... well, you know the drill.
I was fairly pleased with how well I handled it. I don't want to micromanage Evangeline so that she can't talk a little as she and Rachel power down at bedtime, but they've both been getting wild and rambunctious at bedtime a lot lately, and they're not making the connection between that and how tired they feel in the morning. (Evangeline actually asked me yesterday if she could take a break and rest on the couch after she walked downstairs.) And I think I was able to stress that it's her poor bedtime choices we're having issues with, not with her, because she's a good kid, and we know she knows better than she's been showing lately.
She definitely knows she crossed a few lines too. Natasha had come up and was sitting there with us, and when I asked Evangeline to repeat for her mother what she had told her sister, she was too ashamed to do it. So she knows it's wrong, and that's good. Now it's just a matter of getting that moral awareness to translate into a little more self-restraint.
Afterward, I let Evangeline get back into her bed, I tried to have a similar, age-appropriate chat with Rachel. She, predictably, turned her head away whenever I broached the subject of her own poor choices and how they had made Natasha feel -- which I see as evidence that she's aware that she was in the wrong, but doesn't want to have to face up to that yet. It's a start, at least.
Now the next thing is to make some inroads with Evangeline on her sarcasm.

alien: the next generation

Actually, now that I think about it, this one was pretty good too. I especially love the way the author, also uncredited, has the characters so clinically studying the alien's predatory nature, not to mention the fight scene between Worf and the alien when it breaks out of its victim's chest. I used to publish an e-zine of Star Trek fanfic and parodies back in college, and this was definitely one of my favorites as well. And no, I don't believe I altered this one at all.

Scene 1
Some planet deep in the Federation that no one has been to. Riker, Data, Geordi are checking out the flora.

RIKER: What do you make of it Data?

DATA: It appears to be a large pod, but there are no roots. I am not sure what it is. I think we would be better able to examine it in a lab.

GEORDI: Data's right. There's movement inside, but I can't see it.

RIKER: Of course not. You're blind. Transporter room, three to beam up.

Riker, Data and Geordi dematerialize with the pod in Data's hands.

Scene 2
Biology Lab: Riker, Picard, Data, Crusher and Wesley are examining the pod.

WESLEY: Let me see! I want to see!

PICARD: Shut up Wesley! Data, what do you make of it?

DATA: It appears to be dormant at this time, Captain. I am not quite certain whether it is harmful or not.

PICARD: Hmmm. You mean it could be dangerous.

DATA: I believe that is what I said.

WESLEY: Let me see! I want to see! Why are adults always so big?

PICARD: Shut up Wesley!

RIKER: It's my fault, Captain. I let him have ice cream for desert. It won't happen again.

Riker backhands Wesley.

PICARD: See that it doesn't. (to the intercom) Picard to bridge.

WORF: Worf here, Captain.

PICARD: Worf, is the decontamination circuitry working on the transporter?

WORF: No sir. I believe an engineer is working on the transporter. Apparently, the decontamination circuitry is inoperative. Do you want them to fix it?

PICARD: Oh. Oh, yes, of course. Make it so. (to the rest) I think it would best if we isolated the pod. I think we should leave the lab until we know what we are dealing with.

Everyone turns to leave except Wesley who moves closer.

WESLEY: Let me see!

PICARD: Shut up Wesley!

The pod opens and a strange alien creature attacks. It attaches itself to Wesley's face and coils its thickly muscled tail around Wesley's neck.

WESLEY: Urghhh! Gluck! Guhhhhgghhh!

PICARD: Thank you!

CRUSHER: Oh my god! It's got my son.

RIKER: Wesley, I thought I told you no "seconds," remember?

DATA: How interesting. It appears to be predatory, Captain.

PICARD: Indeed. I think you are right.

CRUSHER: Will somebody do something!!!!

The door opens and Yar bursts in.

YAR: Wesley, didn't I explain to you about using aliens? Stand back everybody.

Yar sets her phaser on full power and fires, blowing a hole in the alien creature. Fluids from the alien flow all over Wesley's face, melting it down.

CRUSHER: Oh! What have you done! Wesley, speak to me!!!

DATA: Wesley is unable to speak, doctor. As you can see, there is a strange tubular appendage protruding down his esophagus. I doubt the flow of air would be sufficient to permit speech.

PICARD: Good. Now let's get back to work.

CRUSHER: I'm not going to let this happen. I'm going to save my son, no matter what.

Scene 3
The bridge. Normal crew members. Data and Geordi are sitting at their consols; Riker, Picard and Troi are spreading in their seats; Yar and Worf are playing Space Invaders.

PICARD: Who farted?!!

RIKER: Not me. (looks across at Troi who turns red)

TROI: (recovering) I feel guilt, but it's not mine. (looks over to Data)

DATA: I am an android, I do not fart. (looks at Geordi)

GEORDI: If it had been me, I would have seen it. (looks at Worf)

WORF: Klingons fart only in airlocks. (looks at Yar)

YAR: As your Chief of Security, I'd know if it had been me, sir. (looks at Picard)

PICARD: Shall we take a vote on it? (everyone looks at Picard)

CRUSHER: (On the intercom) Crusher to Bridge!

PICARD: Picard, bridge here, er, I mean....

RIKER: (smiling) You mean bridge, Picard here, right sir?

PICARD: Yes! Thank you number one. What is it Dr. Crusher?

CRUSHER: I think you better come down here, Captain, it's the alien, its gone!

PICARD: It is, oh, is Wesley dead?

CRUSHER: No, he's alive.

PICARD: Damn. Just what does it take to get rid of him? We'll be right there. Mister LaForge, you have the con.

GEORDI: Aye, sir.

Picard, Riker, Data, Yar and Worf leave the bridge. Various other individuals enter from several different doors.

Scene 4
Sickbay. Wesley's lying on the couch, as he sits up, half his face falls on the floor.

DATA: It appears Wesley has been picking his nose again.

RIKER: It's my fault. It won't happen again.

CRUSHER: Wesley hasn't been picking his nose, it was the body fluids from the alien that did this.

YAR: Found it Captain. (Yar picks up a rather large, beige crab with a lizard's tail attached to it) It's dead.

WORF: Too bad. I would have enjoyed fighting it.

PICARD: By the way, what about the decontamination circuits, Worf?

WORF: They are still inoperative, sir. If there are any diseases, it would be an honor to fight them for you, sir.

PICARD: (looking at Wesley) I would not think that ice cream would not be inappropriate for young Wesley, don't you think so Number One?

RIKER: I agree, sir.

DATA: (looking a bit puzzled) Captain, I tried to follow all your negatives, but I am not sure I understand what it was you said.

RIKER: (returning with the ice cream) Here you go, Wesley.

WESLEY: Oh boy! (Wesley begins eating, but stops after a while) I don't feel so good.

YAR: You see Wesley, ice cream makes you feel good while you're eating it, but when it's done, you don't feel so good. So say no to ice cream and you can have a figure like mine.

Wesley's stomach pulsates, and then erupts in a mass of blood and ice cream. A small head appears and flashes its teeth. Worf flashes his teeth back.

ALIEN: Keeee-yeaaaahnnnn!!!!

WORF: Aaaaarggggghhhhhh!!!!

YAR: Watch it Worf! Don't make him mad.

Worf grabs a laser scalpel from a tray and attacks. The alien retreats into Wesley's body cavity and Worf attempts to pursue. There is a loud cracking sound as Wesley's rib cage is broken up.

WORF: (sounding like Curly) Wub wub wub wub wub!!!!

WESLEY: (sounding like he's in pain) AAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHH......

DATA: Worf is now exhibiting the Klingon cry of glorious satisfaction.

PICARD: (looking at Wesley's dead body) I concur.

CRUSHER: Ohh..hh.hh.hhhh....hhhh! (sniff) He.. waszz huh huh.. my only suh..huhhnnnn...uhhh!

PICARD: (slapping Crusher) Get a hold on yourself doctor. There are a thousand passengers and crew on this vessel. They need you. I don't think anyone needed... "the boy."

YAR: Worf, did you get it?

WORF: No, it got away.

Scene 5
The Bridge. Only Picard is there.

PICARD: Captain's log, stardate 35.77. This alien has killed my entire crew. I have tried to reason with it, but to no avail. I have no other choice but to do a saucer separation and make my way to the nearest starbase and inform Starfleet. I have located the alien on deck 12, and will have the warp engines self destruct, killing this most horrible beast, this creature formed from some malevolent force, oh thou art such a cruel... uh, ahem... Captain out.

Picard separates the saucer section and blows up the other half of the Enterprise. While snoozing in his chair, he becomes aware of a presence on the Bridge with him. He becomes alert and readies his phaser.

PICARD: You!! You!! You've killed my crew, but I'll defeat you!!!

ALIEN: (drooling and picking its teeth)

A flash of light behind Picard causes him to turn.

Q: Go ahead, kill it. It's an unknown, it's dangerous. What's the matter, Picard, hair growing on the inside of that chrome dome caused your brain to malfunction?

PICARD: Q!!! So you're behind this. Where's my crew? What have you done you murderous scoundrel?!!!!!

Q: Oh come now, mon Capitan. I'm just observing. I didn't bring the alien aboard. You did. Shoot it. It's dangerous.

PICARD: No, No!!! I won't do what you want. We're civilized. We aren't barbarians anymore.

Picard lowers his phaser and the alien attacks, biting off a chunk of Picard's head.

Q: Jean-Luc, I wasn't joking this time. I really meant it, it's dangerous. I can't believe you fell for the oldest trick in the book. Oh my. You foolish humans will never amount to anything. Even Microbrain was smarter than you!

PICARD: (dying) Whaaat.. what did you mean you weren't joking...

Q: (looking like Wesley) Shut up, Picard.

who's on first

This remains one of the best Star Trek fanfics I've ever read, doubtless because of the strength of the Abbott and Costello routine. I have no idea who wrote this particular adaptation, though I did modify the ending myself to its current form, back in college, in order to take things to their ultimate conclusion.

"Who's on First?"

Kirk, McCoy, and Scotty are huddled in a corridor near a transporter room, talking with one another, in the distance, Spock rounds a corner and heads toward the group.

McCOY. Shh! He's coming! Scotty, go act like you're adjusting the transporter or something.

SCOTTY. Aye, doctor.

KIRK. Ah, hello Mister Spock.

SPOCK. Good day, captain.

KIRK. Are you familiar with the game "baseball," Mr Spock?

SPOCK. Baseball is a tactical game played on a geometric pattern of four sides with a spherical object. The purpose is to deflect the object with a long wooden stick called a "bat," amidst loud verbalizations of "Hurrah" and "The umpire must be blind!" Is this correct?

KIRK. Indeed. We are in the process of learning about one of the baseball teams from old Earth.

SPOCK. Oh? I am quite versed with old Earth history. Perhaps I may be of assistance.

KIRK. That's the idea.

SPOCK. Very well. Proceed.

KIRK. All right. Who's on first.

SPOCK. I am unable to determine who is on first without proper information concerning the team and year, sir.


SPOCK. Perhaps we could start with who the team is, and I can test the accuracy.

KIRK. No, Who's on first.

SPOCK. I do not know.

McCOY. Third base.

SPOCK. Who is?

KIRK. No, he's first base.

SPOCK. Who is?

KIRK. Correct.

SPOCK. Who is correct?

KIRK. Sometimes.

SPOCK. Who is sometimes?

KIRK. No, Who is first baseman. I'm not familiar with Sometimes' identity.

SPOCK. Whose identity?

KIRK. No, him I know -- he's first baseman.

SPOCK. Who is?

KIRK. That's right.

SPOCK. Perhaps we can discuss the identity of the second baseman.

KIRK. What.

SPOCK. I said the second baseman.

KIRK. What.

SPOCK. This is highly illogical. You have no apparent auditory disfunction, sir. Now, as I asked: who is the second baseman?

KIRK. No, you didn't ask that, and Who is the first baseman.

SPOCK. Very well. Captain, I ask you politely: Who is the second baseman?

KIRK. No, Who is the first baseman. What is the second baseman.

SPOCK. That is incorrect, captain. The second baseman is obviously a sentient being, and therefore should be referred to as who, and not what. "Who is the second baseman?", not "What is the second baseman?"

KIRK. Wrong, Spock. Who is the first baseman, and What is the second baseman.

SPOCK. That statement is most illogical.

KIRK. Wait a minute -- we'll get Scotty. He's Scottish, he must love baseball. Oh, Mister Scott?

SCOTTY. Enters from the transporter room. Aye, cap'n?

KIRK. Who is the first baseman of the team we were talking about.

SCOTTY. Aye, cap'n. It ain't never been any other way!

KIRK. You see, Spock?

SPOCK. Yes ... very well. Mister Scott, who is the second baseman?

SCOTTY. Ach! No, Mister Spock! That be What you're talking about!

SPOCK. I know that be what ... er ... is what I'm talking about. I am very intelligent, and rarely lose track of what I am talking about.

SCOTTY. Ach! Dinna bring track inta this! That be a bloomin' field event.

SPOCK. What has this got to do with field events?

SCOTTY. Ach! No! What's the second baseman.

SPOCK. Again, I note that a person should be referred to as "who" and not "what," Mister Scott.

SCOTTY. Only if he's tha fairst baseman, Mister Spock.

SPOCK. What you are saying is most illogical.

SCOTTY. Ach! No! What's a real bright fella.

SPOCK. Who is a "real bright fella" Mister Scott?

SCOTTY. No, sir. Who ... now he's a real dope, sir.

SPOCK. Who is?


SPOCK. Captain, this is most illogical, and I do not feel as though we are getting anywhere. Perhaps we can discuss the identity of another player, such as the pitcher?

KIRK. Tomorrow.

SPOCK. Tomorrow? If you are genuinely interested in this discussion, today would be much better.

McCOY. Well, Spock, Today is good, but he's the catcher.

SPOCK. Who is?

SCOTTY. Nay, Mr Spock -- Who's the first baseman.

SPOCK. I do not know.

KIRK. Third base!

SPOCK. What?

KIRK. No, he's on second.

SPOCK. Who is?

KIRK. No, Spock, Who's on first.

SPOCK. I do not know.

McCOY. Third base!

This continues on for quite some time until finally we see a medical team in the corridor, gathered around Spock, who is bound in a straitjacket. Spock is babbling incoherently.

KIRK. Bones, do you think maybe we went too far this time?

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

this is just wrong

There's an article on MSNBC about the high-pressure nature of early elementary education:
Brian And Tiffany Aske of Oakland, Calif., desperately want their daughter, Ashlyn, to succeed in first grade. That's why they're moving—to Washington State. When they started Ashlyn in kindergarten last year, they had no reason to worry. A bright child with twinkling eyes, Ashlyn was eager to learn, and the neighborhood school had a great reputation. But by November, Ashlyn, then 5, wasn't measuring up. No matter how many times she was tested, she couldn't read the 130-word list her teacher gave her: words like "our," "house" and "there." She became so exhausted and distraught over homework—including a weekly essay on "my favorite animal" or "my family vacation"—that she would put her head down on the dining-room table and sob. "She would tell me, 'I can't write a story, Mama. I just can't do it'," recalls Tiffany, a stay-at-home mom.

The teacher didn't seem to notice that Ashlyn was crumbling, but Tiffany became so concerned that she began to spend time in her daughter's classroom as a volunteer. There she was both disturbed and comforted to see that other kids were struggling, too. "I saw kids falling asleep at their desks at 11 a.m.," she says. At the end of the year, Tiffany asked the teacher what Ashlyn could expect when she moved on to the first grade. The requirements the teacher described, more words and more math at an even faster pace, "were overwhelming. It was just bizarre."

And we thought the charter school assigned too much homework.
Geez, what is it with people? I'm proud of how well our kids have done in school, and of their academic achievements. I like it that they're at the top of their class, but really, do we have to rob kids of the chance to be children in order to make them read, write and do math before they're ready? (Yeah, I know I've been guilty some times of putting too much pressure on our kids. The fault is mine as well.)
As a reporter I saw how much of an onus No Child Left Behind was placing on schools, and often in outrageous and unreasonable ways. There's a lot of ways American public schools are failing to educate our children -- though, to be honest, the fault doesn't lie entirely with the schools, as parents and TV have a lot to do with it too -- but overworking and overtesting kids hardly seems to be the way to go about fixing it.
I wonder how long it will be until No Child Left Behind gets scrapped.

Monday, April 23, 2007

bad news for the bees

Big-size problems are brewing for agriculture in the United States: The honeybee population is dwindling dramatically. From the Star-Ledger:
Jean-Claude Tassot felt the sunshine spilling over his shoulders. It was unseasonably warm for January -- a good day, he decided, to check his honeybees. So Tassot jumped in his truck and rumbled over the back roads of Morris County to the first of the eight farms where he stores his boxes of hives.

"When you first take the cover off, usually you can see the bees," said Tassot. "But when I looked, there was nothing. I kept looking (but) the hives were all dead."

It's tough to say what the culprit is, whether it's pesticides, bioengineered corn, mites or some previously unknown disease, but what's bad for the honeybees is bad for the entire agricultural industry and everyone who eats food that requires pollination. (That would include the human race.)

Best thing to do? Stop using pesticides and messing with the DNA of our food, plant a vegetable garden, and give part of your lawn over to wildflowers, so that wild honeybees, if there are any near you, can start to make a comeback.

Who the heck needs grass? Most of us wouldn't have a clue how to eat it, it's dull to see if for acre after acre, and it doesn't do much for biodiversity if everyone's growing turf on their corner of suburbia. I'll never understand how it became our chief crop in the first place.

sourdough bagels

So I found a recipe to try for sourdough bagels that I think I shall try tomorrow, since we have just one bagel left and they are Evangeline's premiere choice for breakfast. The recipe, which I've already modified to reflect some of our eating preferences, including Evangeline's preference for miniature bagels, goes like this:
1 cup fresh sourdough starter
¼ cup vegetable oil
¼ cup warm water
2 teaspoons salt
1¼ cups all-purpose flour
1¼ cups whole wheat flour

Mix all ingredients in a large bowl and knead until smooth. Let the mixture rise until it has doubled. (I'm guessing this will take about an hour.) Divide into 16 portions, and roll each portion into a smooth ball.  Punch a hole in the center of each and stretch evenly until about 2 inches across.  Place on a lightly floured surface and bring a large pot of water to a boil. Boil the bagels for three minutes on each side. Drain and place on a greased baking sheet.  Bake about 15 minutes at 450 degrees.
Will they be any good? I don't know. I found other bagel recipes that use metric measurements, which puts them beyond my use, since I lack a metric scale, and other recipes that claim to be sourdough but require a yeast packet. There's a ton more recipes, including sourdough pancakes, on a page owned by Richard Packham
And the girls assigned a sex to the sourdough pet, and gave her a name. She's Eternal.

Sunday, April 22, 2007


Friday went like this:
7 a.m. Time to get up and to wake up Evangeline.
7-8 a.m. Get Evangeline her breakfast, pick out her clothes, make her lunch. Take Synthroid.
8 a.m. Take Evangeline to school.
8:30 a.m. Get home from dropping Evangeline off. Grab some breakfast.
8:45 a.m. Go with Rachel and Natasha to Rache's preschool.
10-11 a.m. Watch Rachel and her classmates perform a circus.
11:30 a.m. Return home. Prepare lunch for everyone.
Noon. Go outside, dig up goldenrod, chrysanthemums, Rose of Sharons, and possible forsythia to take to Evangeline's charter school for planned flower bed, saving school a small fortune on plants.
1:15 p.m. Pick up Evangeline at school. Work with her and Rachel to transplant aforementioned plants into pots with enough potting soil for them to survive until planting time in a few weeks. Also, water the seedlings in the greenhouse.
2:30 p.m. Parent-teacher-student conference with Evangeline's teachers.
3:10 p.m. Back home. Get the children a snack, then finish grocery list.
4 p.m. Go shopping.
6 p.m. Time for dinner. Wimp out and eat premade food.
7 p.m. Start load of laundry.
7:15 p.m. Fold previous load of clean laundry and put it away.
8 p.m. Begin cleaning dishes to put into dishwasher.
8:30 p.m. Bedtimes! Assist with bedtime rituals, including teeth brushing, stories, and goodnight kisses and prayers.
9 p.m. Put laundry into dryer.
9:15 p.m. Resume cleaning dishes.
9:40 p.m. Start dishwasher.
9:42 p.m. Oh boy! Time for myself!
I suspect this complaint is universal to housemoms and housedads everywhere.

sourdough baking

Rachel has turned into a tremendous fan of sourdough, perhaps in part because I keep referring to our sourdough mixture as "our pet." Today, after we used a generous donation from our pet to make some sourdough pizza, Rachel told me that she wanted to use our pet to make pretzels sometime.
So I have gone and found myself a recipe for sourdough pretzels. They look delicious. We'll have to try them on Tuesday, when she's home from preschool anyway.
If I can figure out how to convert bread recipes that call for active yeast packages to use sourdough sponge, I'll really be set. I'm hoping now that we have such a well-established pet that we'll never need to buy yeast again. Fifty-seven cents a packet's not a huge amount to spend, I suppose, but eliminating it from my expenses makes bread cost less than fifty cents a loaf now, about a fifth of what I used to pay at the supermarket.
Thank goodness for S. John Ross, whose web page on sourdough baking turned my passing interest in making bread the old-fashioned way into the new way to make bread products in our house.
Next step should be to find a good recipe for sourdough bagels, since bagels are about the only bread product I'm still buying at the supermarket. Although of course I don't want to end up baking nonstop, since there are other things I have to do in life. (But this is fun, and I can't deny a certain appeal to making bread the way it was made for thousands of years. I'm probably going to break off some of our pet to take camping next month so we can try making fresh bread over the campfire if we're up for it.)
The sourdough pizza, by the way, had a very strong flavor to it. I had put our pet out on the table overnight Friday, and when I came down Saturday morning, she had swollen to twice her earlier volume. It was a very striking contrast to what had happened when I made the sourdough bread, and I now suspect that it was too chilly the other night to proof the starter properly which is why the bread tasted kind of bland and floury.
I need to stop referring to this as "our pet." I need to ask the girls to give the yeast a name, since they've already decided that it's a "she."


A few months ago I saw a helium balloon, released into the open air, get caught in the branches of a tree. The balloon stayed there for about a minute, its string kicking furiously in the wind, while a cluster of us on the ground, too far down to do anything but stand there, wondered if it would get free. After a moment it did, and before long, it passed out of sight.
I thought of that balloon tonight while I went along with Evangeline, who was out riding her bike after dinner.
Evangeline is about 7½ years old right now, and she has a great spirit within her. She devours knowledge like grilled cheese, she loves to create, and she's always suggesting and trying new ideas of things she can make or do. And she's learning to leave her limits in the dust, whether they're limits that someone else put on her or that she imposed herself.
Last year she had a moderate interest only in riding her bike. It was something she did willingly enough when I suggested it, but it wasn't something she cared about all that tremendously. She was terrified to go downhill, even slightly, and would brake over the least provocation. She lacked either the stamina or the desire to pedal the bike up a hill, and invariably would ask me to give her a push, even to go up the cut in the sidewalk from the road. About the only time she really pedaled hard was when she was on level ground, and even then, I could keep pace with her on foot with just a little effort.
At the end of our block is one of the busier streets in our area, since it leads in just three blocks to a state highway where cars and trucks can go 55 mph with no lights for several miles. It's not a road I want the kids crossing without an adult's help, and even then they need to be extravigilant. I've generally discouraged Evangeline from riding her bike on the sidewalk that runs along this particular street, and she's always been fine with that.
Tonight, she decided she wanted to go across it. I was uncertain, but when I was unable to redirect her along another, more familiar and less trafficked road, I agreed. She went a block, and instead of turning left as I suggested, she wanted to press on another block. When she asked me what street we had reached, I realized the game she was up to: She had decided, on her own, that she was going to ride her bike to her friends' house, about a mile away.
I also realized what a putz I've been. She's asked before if she could ride her bike that far, and with premonitions of hearing "I'm tired" and "How far is it?" I've always said it was too far. (Which, in all fairness to myself, it usually was because of how dark it was getting.) Tonight, I saw the enthusiasm she had for the trip, so I cast my reservations to the wind, and we made the trip, her racing along from corner to corner on her bicycle, and me alternately walking and running to keep pace.
Her confidence at the bike is a lot better too. She zips along the sidewalk, not even slowing in her pedaling when the sidewalk is uneven or broken or when she's headed downhill. She carefully steers around people and obstacles in her way, she works her way up steep slopes without pause, and she manages to avoid falling on things that before would have been too difficult for her.
Like that balloon, she's breaking free of the tree, and she's determined to go as high in the sky as she can. I just hope that I can be the wind that carries her, and not the tree that holds her back.

the old woman in the shoe

A woman is in jail and her nearly 20 children are in state custody in what Nurseryland officials are calling one of the most horrific and systematic cases of child abuse in record.

Authorities entered the home of Geraldine Hubbard, 38, known throughout Nurseryland as The Shoe because of its distinctive architecture following a report by neighbor Peter P. Pumpkineater that Hubbard was subjecting the children to a regimen of starvation and physical abuse.

Inside The Shoe, authorities discovered that the cupboard was bare.

"There wasn't even a bone for Hubbard's old dog," said Anthony Williams, a spokesman for Child Protective Services — and found signs that the children, desperate for sustenance, had chewed on the drywall, eaten the potted plants in the house, and in the case of the youngest child, even taken bites from the pots themselves.

Officials have said only that they removed 18 children from The Shoe this morning. They declined to release the names and ages of the children, except to say that they are all minors.

"From the information we have been able to gather, last night Hubbard gave them some broth and gave them some bread," said Williams. "This is the only meal we have been able to verify that she gave the children in the past three days."

Hubbard's children are undergoing thorough medical exams. In addition to the long-term risks to development caused by malnutrition, authorities also are investigating allegations of physical abuse, including that Hubbard spanked her children as part of a bedtime routine.

Jack Horner, an attorney for Hubbard, claims that Hubbard is the victim of a bureaucratic failure on the part of the Nurseryland government, and predicted that she ultimately would be exonerated of all charges.

"It's like the time CPS accused the king of harboring dangerous animals because a blackbird pecked off the nose of his laundrywoman," Horner said. "They're coming in, trying to grab headlines and painting my client as outrageously negligent and even cruel. The record will show that Geraldine had the best interests of her children at heart the whole time."

During the last six months, Hubbard petitioned Nurseryland officials several times for financial assistance in managing that her household, but never received any help at all. Records at the Department of Human Services verify that Hubbard did request help, with the notation that her case was "pending consideration."

"She had 18 children, including two sets of twins, with five children under 6 years old," said Horner. "The record will show in the end that she is not an evil woman; she just had so many children she didn't know what to do."

Copyright © 2007 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Thursday, April 19, 2007


I'm beginning to think that adolescence, for American teenagers, is childhood extended for too long.

American society for some reason views the teen years as seditious, immature and dangerous, something that parents should be happy just to survive. How did we get there, from what most cultures see as an arriving point into adulthood, where teens step forth into their own identities, lay the foundations for adulthood, and become fully active members in the community?

I didn't feel like anyone started listening to what I had to say until I was a senior in college, which was ridiculous. What did I have to say at 21 that I hadn't already been saying in some form when I was 20?

Our church youth group growing up at Saunders Station Presbyterian Church was pretty much into a nondescript sort of wholeness. It didn't have anything particularly spiritual about it, nor was it much fun. I briefly tried a youth group at a Pentecostal church in Brush Creek, and found that it was big on gross games, charismatic worship, and closely knit cliques. It wasn't much fun either.

Personally, I'm looking forward to when Evangeline becomes a teen five years from now. Maybe teens can be overconfident in their own perceptions and abilities, but one of the things I see most clearly is the passion that teens bring to life. They believe fervently in their causes, they can't stand hypocrisy, and they're not afraid to call B.S. when they see it.

Maybe instead of hiring youth pastors to try to act like teens' friends and playing dorky games, churches should hire youth pastors who will show teens the kind of faith that doesn't believe nodding your head in agreement shows radical obedience to God, but the rubber-meets-the-road sort that fights poverty by fixing up homes, running farmstands, and things like that.


Trying something new today -- sourdough bread.
I came across a fairly straightforward how-to guide on the Internet a while ago, and so a few days ago, the girls and I put a cup of flour into a clear plastic container, mixed it with a cup of warm water, and let it sit out on the kitchen table as a makeshift science project. A day later or so, a brown liquid, called hooch, had started to pool on top of the project. We poured it off, tossed half the mixture, and added another half-cup each of flour and water, and repeated the process for another two days.
Yesterday we used half the science project -- or "our pet," as we're calling it -- to make a pizza dough. And added more water, and more flour. I left the stuff sit out again overnight last night, and this morning took half of it, added some more flour and started making bread out of it. The rest, as you can guess, we put back into its plastic container, which we had washed out, and gave it more water and flour.
It took about twice as long to rise as bread I've made with packets of yeast I bought at the supermarket, but the sourdough is growing pretty well. I'm planning to bake it this evening, and have it for dinner with whatever else we eat. It's bread, the way people made it for thousands of years, with a slight beer taste.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

preventing premarital sex

Best way to prevent premarital sex among teens:
  • Lower legal marriage age
  • The B.F. Skinner approach -- apply painful shocks whenever they think of sex
  • Abstinence-only sex education
  • Strict segregation of the sexes until adulthood
  • Remind kids that their parents have sex, and make it "uncool"
Vote in the poll!

Despite the silliness of the poll answers, it's still a serious question. What is the best way to prevent premarital sex among teens? STD's and unwanted pregnancies seem pretty straightforward -- safer-sex education that teaches about condoms and reliable birth control methods -- but what about getting teens to set the bar higher than losing their virginity on Prom night or when "you've met the one"? That is still a laudable goal, isn't it? I would imagine that breaking up with a sexual partner is going to carry with it a whole new dimension of heartache beyond what already comes with losing a boyfriend or girlfriend.

I have to admit, I'm a little disturbed by the comments I've read by some critics of abstinence-only education. While I can understand and even agree with comments based on the program's failure to make any difference, it seems like some people find the idea of abstinence itself to be fatally flawed and laughable.

And I find that disquieting. Do we really see "friends with benefits" as a good thing? Do we really think that serial monogamy is equal to or better than waiting until marriage and having one partner for life?

I know the abstinence option isn't an easy one to take -- it never has been, as shotgun weddings throughout history will attest -- but it can be done. I'm sure it can even be done these days, even though our society increasingly is saturated with sex. And I have to agree with my friend Rykie, who points out that it's "silly and a touch hyprocritical" to tell young adults to delay marriage until their late 20s and 30s, when their parents probably didn't wait until they had established themselves professionally before getting married.

In any event, while I'm no moralist, I do think the biblical exhortations against premarital sex are there for our good, not just to ruin our lives, or to leave us feeling hot, bothered and frustrated for years on end. And if we want to use the nature argument, it does seem contrary to nature that our culture enforces delayed maturity -- emotionally, psychologically, professionally and educationally -- when our biology is still signalling full maturity by 20 at the latest.

(As a tangent, I note with interest that societies traditionally either try to suppress female sexuality, like Islamicist cultures and some branches of Christianity; or they enthrone and worship it, as our society increasingly is doing. And yet either way, women are denigrated as objects of lust, rather than valued as human beings created in the Divine image. What's up with that?)

So the question is, what can be done that actually will encourage people to wait until marriage for sex? There's always the control option that gets a lot of push from fundamentalist groups and those who are angry at the way society has gone, but I've never felt comfortable with the notion that Christ wants to push us back into an imagined Golden Age, as much as that he wants to lead us forward into a new and real one.

What can be done? Or is it stupid even to try?

Monday, April 09, 2007

first awakening

My earliest memory of God has less to do with church than it does with a bicycle accident the summer I turned 10.

I've never had a particularly good relationship with bikes. They're a bewildering concoction of gears and wheels, handlebars and chains, spokes and frames. I rode a bike daily on my Pittsburgh Press newspaper route, but I never felt completely at home with it. Ours was an uneasy relationship, born of necessity, rather than a match ordained in the stars.

Read the entire essay

Sunday, April 08, 2007

odd facts about brucker

I recently came across this information and knew at once that it was about my good friend Bart Brucker. I share it here for everyone's edification.

His Proper Place in Philosophy and Religion
  1. When God said, "Let there be light," it was Brucker who said, "Say please."
  2. Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. Brucker ate the snake.
  3. When there's no more room in hell, Brucker will still walk the earth.
  4. There are three sides to the Force: the Light Side, the Dark Side, and Brucker.
  5. On the seventh day, God rested. That's when Brucker stepped to the plate.
  6. Brucker is the sound of one hand clapping.
  7. Fear can hold you prisoner. Only Brucker can set you free.
  8. Brucker IS the meaning of life.

His Relationship to Food

  1. We had a bachelor party for Brucker before his wedding. He ate the entire cake before we could tell him there was a stripper in it.
  2. Brucker doesn't need to swallow when eating food.
  3. Brucker can believe it's not butter.
  4. Brucker once ate a banana without having to peel it.
  5. When Brucker eats a Rubik's cube, it comes out solved.
  6. Brucker consumes 87 jars of mayonnaise in a week.
  7. Brucker once ate an entire wheel of cheese. On rye.
  8. Brucker is the reason Jell-o jiggles.
  9. Brucker ate a live bear once.

Health, His Own and Others':

  1. Brucker's tears cure cancer. Unfortunately, he has never cried.
  2. Brucker is the leading cause of childhood obesity in America.
  3. Brucker drinks napalm to quell his heartburn.
  4. One drop of Brucker's sweat can cure you of anything.
  5. Brucker goes to the bathroom once a month, whether he needs to or not.
  6. Brucker has never been sick. Ever.
  7. Brucker's heart beats once every full moon.
  8. Brucker snorts Vitamin C.

On his Physical Prowess

  1. When Brucker looks into the Abyss, the Abyss never looks back.
  2. Brucker doesn't believe in guns. He doesn't have to.
  3. Brucker defeated Godzilla in under two seconds. The rest was just Hollywood.
  4. Brucker once shot down a plane by pointing with his finger and saying, "Bang!"
  5. Brucker sleeps with a nightlight, not because he is afraid of the dark, but because it is afraid of him.
  6. Brucker can run four miles in under a minute. Backward.
  7. Brucker once skipped a rock across the Pacific Ocean. Left-handed.
  8. Brucker can cut onions without crying.
  9. Brucker can bend steel by looking at it.
  10. Brucker can hold his breath underwater for seven hours.
  11. Brucker has beaten more people in hand-to-hand combat then you have seen in your entire life.
  12. The only real weapon of mass destruction that matters is Brucker.
  13. Brucker once folded a dollar in half, and then folded that in half again. He did this seven times. Then he tore it. With his bare hands.

Special Areas of Knowledge

  1. Brucker knows how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie pop.
  2. Brucker knows where in the world Carmen San Diego is.
  3. As well as being a writer, a philosopher, and a poet, Brucker is also a world-renowned physicist. It was in this capacity that he once had a disagreement about steady-state theory with Stephen Hawking. Hence the wheelchair.
  4. Brucker can tell if an aircraft landed on the ground soil by tasting the dirt.
  5. Brucker can divide by zero.
  6. Brucker can count to infinity….twice.

His Place in the Order of Things

  1. Brucker is known for his modesty but, if pressed, he will admit that he is the Eighth Wonder of the World.
  2. Brucker is the man who is keeping you down.
  3. Brucker taught the beaver how to chew through trees.
  4. Brucker defies every law of nature. Even the ones he created.
  5. Brucker has put 30 species on the endangered list just by thinking about them when he goes to the bathroom.
Appearances in Pop Culture
  1. Brucker commands all five lions of Voltron simultaneously.
  2. Brucker was the original treasure in "National Treasure."
  3. Brucker was a hidden playable character on Mortal Kombat 2 on the Sega Genesis.
  4. The movie "The Ring" is actually just an unauthorized Brucker biography.
  5. Brucker is Luke Skywalker's father.
  6. Brucker did not shoot the deputy or the sheriff, but he did beat the snot out of them both.
  7. Brucker performed all the stunts for fight scenes in "The Matrix."
  8. "Stairway to Heaven," played backward, says "Bart Brucker."

Participation in Sports and Games

  1. Using his legendary poker face, Brucker won the 1983 World Series of Poker with nothing but a Joker, a Get out of Jail Free card, a 2 of clubs, a 7 of spades and a Green 4 from UNO.
  2. Brucker plays Russian roulette with a fully loaded gun, and wins!
  3. Lance Armstrong has won the Tour de France seven times only because Brucker hasn't tried to stop him.

His Hobbies

  1. Brucker volunteers at retirement homes just so he can push old people in wheelchairs onto the freeway.
  2. Brucker can burp the alphabet. Backward.
  3. Brucker frequently donates blood to the Red Cross. Just not his own.

Brucker throughout History

  1. Dinosaurs are extinct because Brucker woke up one morning on the wrong side of the bed.
  2. The Titanic sank when it ran into Brucker, who was making his daily swim across the Atlantic Ocean.
  3. Brucker made a sandcastle once when he was a boy. We call it the Great Wall of China.

Other Bits of Trivia

  1. Brucker is the most venomous creature on Earth. Within three minutes of being bitten, a human being experiences the following symptoms: Fever, Blurred Vision, Beard Rash, tightness of the jeans, and the feeling of being repeatedly kicked through a car windshield.
  2. Brucker once burned down an entire forest when he was experimenting with water.
  3. Brucker is the reason Waldo is hiding.
  4. Brucker does not read books. He stares at them until they crack and give him the information he wants.
  5. Brucker is the only man who will NOT save money on car insurance by switching to Geico.
  6. Brucker is writing a book about recent experiences. He calls it "Around the World in 80 Milliseconds."
  7. Brucker turns on the lights by opening his eyes.
  8. Brucker once called tech support during a funeral. His own.
  9. When Brucker rides a roller coaster, it screams.
  10. Brucker can refuse an offer from the Godfather.
  11. Brucker has never blinked in his entire life. Never.
  12. Gravity doesn't apply to Brucker. He just doesn't like to fly.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

first bloom of spring

It's not the warmer days or the sunlight that make spring beautiful. It's the flowers, and it always has been.

By the time those first flowers appear, the color has been leached out of the world for long that it hardly seems possible that there ever was a deep green the color of grass, a white as pure as a daffodil, or a pink as vivid as a rhododendron. For as long as I can remember, the world has been a weaker shade of bland: gray skies of mottled clouds, gray lawns pocked with barren gaps, and a cover of lifeless brown that blankets flower beds where last fall's leaves have gone unraked.

When the first green shoots poke through that dull and tepid mulch, it's like a kind word after a week of indifferent silence. And when a crocus the color of royalty bursts into bloom, it is the gentle touch of a lover's hand on your arm during the night.

Spring, which comes after a long and barren winter, is a miracle and a gift of God. Never fail to treasure it.

Copyright © 2007 by David Learn. Used with permission.

color blind

Yesterday I read my younger daughter a book of poetry by Langston Hughes.

Rachel sat on my lap, lost in the cadence of "The Weary Blues," warmed by "Aunt Sue's Stories" and deepening as I read "The Negro Speaks of Rivers." This little girl, who has trouble sitting through a Bible story, dived headfirst into the Harlem Renaissance and let the current carry her far downstream. When her mother came home, Rachel couldn't wait to tell her about  the book of story poems we had read.

I never cared for poetry until I discovered Emily Dickinson, well into college, but her discovery -- at the age of 4 -- isn't what touched me most.

No, what I loved most is the way Rachel saw her life in the art that accompanied Hughes' poems. She saw a black woman in a headscarf, telling stories to a child cuddled in her arms, and she felt the connection immediately.

"Look, daddy. It's mommy holding me!" She saw the family that stood next to "My People" and knew at once that they were her people as well -- her father, her mother, her sister, and herself, all painted in black.

To Rachel, the color made no difference, nor did she seem to see that it should or even could. And I thought to myself, "Maybe there's hope for us yet."

Copyright © 2007 by David Learn. Used with permission.

take three

I saw a house today that made me weep.
In happier times, it had been a shelter.
The wind would blow and the rain would fall,
But those who lived there felt no cold,
And knew no fear. The floors were sure
Beneath their feet, the walls secure,
And over their heads there hung a roof.
Living there made them strong.

Now its name is Desolation.
The walls had seen everything,
And now they tell it all
With wordless sighs borne
On empty winds that slip
Down barren halls like ghosts.
No one sings to the tune
Of freshly baking bread.
No one gathers around the table,
No one says grace, and no one speaks.
Those who live there wear heavy clothes,
Hoping to keep themselves warm,
And huddle all alone to give themselves comfort.

Alone, they seek refuge from what once gave them shelter,
And find together that their greatest strength
Has become their greatest source of grief.
You are strong as a tree and as mighty as an oak
That has been eaten from the inside.
On the day that your strength is gone
And you break from the burden you will not give voice,
I will be there for you, even if this house is gone.

Copyright © 2007 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Friday, April 06, 2007

human rights now

Good Friday is almost over, but before Easter comes in just two days, there's something I want you to do.

Think back on the news pictures we saw of Abu Ghraib and the scandalous mistreatment of the Iraqi prisoners there. Think of the men who were imprisoned there, humiliated, leather hoods pulled tight over their heads, led on leashes like dogs. It's been a few years since the scandal broke, and we did our best as a nation to express outrage, sacrifice a few low-level soldiers on the altar of accountability, and then move on, but I want you to think back and recall those news pictures as well as you can.

Okay. You see the Iraqi in the picture? He's Jesus. Offended? Don't be. I'm just getting started.

Think of the hundreds of detainees our government has gathered as part of the war on terror. Four hundred of them have been kept under lock and key at Guantánamo Bay for five years, denied legal counsel or due process of law, under our government's supposed right to hold them indefinitely.

Allegations of torture abound. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed acknowledges his role in planning in 9-11 and in the murder of journalist Daniel Pearl; he also claims to have been compelled to make the admissions. Canadian-Syrian citizen Maher Arar was tortured for two years with cables and electric cords, and ultimately was found to be innocent of any wrongdoing.

Perhaps Arar's situation is unique, and every other prisoner of the "war on terror" is as guilty as sin. If so, I don't deny that they deserve to be punished, but not until their guilt has been established in a fair trial of the sort our society supposedly prides itself on.

When Jesus was arrested by the agents of the Sanhedrin — in the name of national security, no less — he was beaten, mocked, humiliated, insulted and demeaned, until he finally was executed, without ever once having got a fair trial.

When we take a suspect and deny them a trial or even legal counsel — when we do things like put Joseph Padilla, the alleged "dirty bomber" in a nine-foot cell and leave him there for four years without sunlight, bombarded by harsh light and pounding sounds and no human contact but his interrogators — we assume the role of the Sanhedrin.

And every prisoner becomes as Christ. To abuse the least of them is to abuse him as well.

Copyright © 2007 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007


The ancient Greeks had some pretty morbid ideas of what hell would be like. In the Greek view of things, which influenced later Christian writers like Dante, hell was populated by people who knew they were dead and who continued in death to be punished day and night for the sins they committed while they were still alive. So we had men like Tantalus, who would reach for grapes to end his hunger, only to have the branch move out of his way; or we had kings like Sisyphus, who had schemed against and outwitted the gods, and was punished accordingly.

Sisyphus' punishment was particularly grotesque. He was placed at the bottom of a hill in Hades and given a large boulder. All he had to do was to roll that boulder up to the top of the hill, and his punishment would be over. It's an effort doomed to failure, for with some pathetic fallacy the rock doesn't want to get to the top. It fights back with every tortured step he takes. No matter how he strains his muscles, no matter how far up the hill he manages to get the boulder, it wrests itself out of his grasp and rushes downhill again.

How wearying this must be! I imagine for the first few months, maybe for the first several years even, Sisyphus bore this in good humor. After all, he has all eternity before him to try and try again. So he learns from his failures, sees the missteps that incite the rock to work against him, and he does everything he can to avoid repeating his errors. He coaxes the rock, speaks kindly to it, tries to understand the particular gravity that pulls the rock down with such force just when they're almost at the top, and perhaps he even grins and laughs at his own folly when the rock tumbles past, smacking his shin or crushing his foot.

But the sun never sets in Hades, and there is no rest as the years turn as slowly and painfully as Ixion's wheel. Sisyphus begins to realize that he's not going to get that boulder up to the top of the hill as easily as he first thought. Does he try to carry it? Does he throw his whole self into it, scraping arms, legs, chest and back as he bodily lifts the boulder over one rock and another? Does he ever curse himself for the choices he made in life that led the gods to partner him with this rock for all eternity? Does he curse the rock, or rail at the gods? What does he do when, no matter how he tries, he just can't progress past a certain point? What does he do when it becomes evident that there will be no relief gained by getting to the top of this hill, because the rock will not consent to go there with him?

I wonder if Sisyphus ever wants to say "to hell with it" (perhaps he even appreciaties the irony of such a sentiment, given his situation) and tries to leave the rock. I wonder, too, if merely saying "to hell with it" would suffice. He's been pushing that rock for so long that he probably can't imagine existence without it; he's practically married to it. Even if he wanders off through Hades and finds happiness in the Elysian Fields, he'll probably still be haunted by memories of that rock, and he'll wonder if he could have found peace and happiness the way the gods had promised, if he hadn't given up. I imagine a sense of failure would haunt him, even in Elysium, if he walked away from the boulder.

And there's the matter of the gods. Didn't they decree that he was to get that rock up the hill? Maybe in their mercy and understanding, they'll allow him to leave the rock at the bottom of the hill -- surely they knew when he took the task that it was beyond his ability, and they'll forgive him his weakness. But then, these are the gods we're talking about. Unless they're just cruel without limit, there must be a way for him to succeed, and if there is, surely in their wisdom, they saw that he could do it, and they truly have kept their best waiting for him for when he completes the task.

I wonder if Sisyphus ever wants to just give up and sit at the bottom of the hill for all eternity, next to that rock that the gods put with him. It's not like he'd be leaving it, so you'd have to give something for integrity and perseverance for not deserting his post. But I can't say it would be much fun to sit at the bottom of a hill, next to a rock that's going to run over your foot every few minutes if you don't move, for all eternity, in hell.

The Greeks saw Sisyphus forever trapped in this cruel arrangement, where nothing he could do would improve his situation. The rock for its part provides no companionship, and every time he nearly gets it to the top of the hill, it rolls back down again, until numb and unfeeling, he staggers back down to get the rock and start moving it uphill again. If that goes on long enough, he's going to reach the point that no longer believes that anything will happen when he reaches the top of the hill, that there are Elysian Fields waiting somewhere for him. Keep it up long enough, and not only won't he believe in the gods, he won't be able to feel anything either. All he'll know is that he has to get the rock up the hill, but he wouldn't be able to tell you why if you asked him.

For my part, as I consider all these different options -- walking away, falling into despair, and doing the same damn thing every day -- I can't help thinking there must be something else he could try. And I wonder what it is.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

take two

The house is falling apart
Once the walls were sturdy and offered support,
Once the roof was solid and it gave me shelter
when the rain fell and the wind blew.
The floors were sure under my feet.
I was at home here -- secure, safe, and comfortable.
Being here made me strong.

Now I bundle on clothes to escape the drafts,
And I shiver as the rain comes through the roof
and invades my sleep.
I seek refuge from what was meant to give me shelter,
And find that my greatest strength
has become my greatest source of grief.

You are strong as a tree,
mighty as an oak that is eaten from the inside.
On the day that your strength is gone
and you break from the burden you will not give voice,
I will be there for you
Even if this house is gone.

take one

My house is falling apart

I saw your tear today
It was a tear you hid,
A tear you didn't want to say

Death keeps touching you
Pam's sister
The grief that others feel gets into your head and breaks your resolve.
You are strong as a tree that is eaten from the inside.

On the day that your strength is gone,
And you break from the burdens you will not voice,
I will be there for you.

i am humbled

Today, I recevied in my e-mail the following message from The Wittenburg Door, pretty much the world's only magazine devoted to religious satire, which I have subscribed to for the past 10 years, give or take. It is a forward of an e-mail they received from James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, who is widely known for his statements same-sex marriage, abortion and other hot-button issues of the Religious Right.
I rather doubt that Dobson has changed his views on same-sex marriage, or abortion, or many of the other things he has taken a stand on over the years. But what I see in this letter is a remarkably contrite spirit, a humility that allows him publicly to admit to error, and a desire to undo some of the damage he has done.
God grant that I be willing to do the same when I am in the wrong.
Here follows the letter:
                We have tweaked our friend the Rev. James Dobson pretty regularly in the past, particular for his involvement in politics. And when Dr. Dobson called for the resignation of the Rev. Richard Cizik, president for the National Association of Evangelicals because he believed that Cizik was spending too much time worrying about global warming and not enough time spent on "core" Religious Right issues, such as abortion and same-sex marriages, we gigged him pretty hard then, too.
                However, we received this e-mail this morning from Dobson's Focus on the Family ministry and we think it is a remarkable document. It is probably the most honest, most revealing statement ever made by the normally carefully controlled Dobson.
                So, in the spirit of Christian reconciliation, we're making available Dr. Dobson's complete statement, without editorial comment. (If you would like to send Dr. Dobson an e-mail of support for his courageous reassessment, we've kept his contact information at the end of his statement.)
Perhaps he should rename it FICUS on the Family
Robert Darden, Senior Editor

Colorado Springs, CO – Dear friends and supporters:
Since my ill-advised attack on my dear friend Dick Cizik a few days ago, I have had an extraordinary week of reflection and spiritual enlightenment.

Through the counsel of godly men, such as the Rev. Dr. Jack Hayford, the Rev. Rick Warren, Richard Stearns (President, World Vision), David Neff (Editor, Christianity Today) and other members of The Evangelical Climate Initiative (, I've come to see that my assessment of Dick's motives and, in fact, "global warming," have been in error as well.

I have been guilty of a particularly pernicious form of short-sighted Dispensationalism, believing that since the earth has no future with the blessed Second Coming nigh, we, as Christians, have no responsibility to care for Creation.

Through loving testimony, instruction and careful study of the Bible with these and other mentors, I no longer believe that Dick is -- as I said earlier, much to my regret -- guilty of a "relentless campaign" to save the planet at the expense of what I called more "serious" issues, such as same-sex marriage. I see now that I have strictly exploited those issues and others like them to manipulate my audience and as a calculated and callous form of fund-raising.

As part of my penance for my unmerited attacks on a courageous, godly man, I have initiated contact with both the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Don Wildmon, with the earnest desire to convince them of the error of their ways as well. While both continue to condemn what they call "earthism worship," I will continue to pray that this revelation will be made available to them as well.

As for the rest of my penance, I will devote the rest of my career -- however long the Lord sees fit to continue in this capacity -- to working with my Christian brothers and sisters to insure that all life on the planet, God's first and greatest gift to us, is protected and cherished.

God bless you all,

Jim Dobson
Focus on the Family
8605 Explorer Drive
Colorado Springs, CO  80995
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