Saturday, May 29, 2010

A Week

One of my favorite podcasts is Kevin Smith's and Scott Mosier's "Smodcast" which usually ends with Kevin Smith wishing you to "Have a week."  I have had a week.

The dog and I are still adjusting.  This week, while I had to be out of the house with my daughter for just a couple of hours, the dog decided that he would try to follow us by tunneling out of the laundry room into the garage.  In just two hours he managed to destroy a significant portion of the floor -- and this is after we had him groomed and trimmed.  I shudder to think what the damage would have been if he's still had the long nails he had when we adopted him.

So after some tense words, my wife and daughter went out to buy a dog crate.  We now have to lock him up whenever we have to leave him alone.  He does not like it, and at age 7+ it is proving to be very, very difficult to crate train him.  He obviously never had crate training of any kind before.  However, he is not unintelligent; he has already become very adept at snatching the treats we are using to entice him into the crate, and bolting back out before we can even begin to close the door.  For a dog in his fifties, he can be pretty damned fast when he wants to be.

So things are tough.  And I'm still sick.  And since I spent the last entry complaining and moaning about some of these very issues, I really don't have anything much to say of consequence.  I'm still on a number of bandwagons along with the rest of you:  the "Lost" finale made me very emotional; Facebook's privacy is really upsetting me; some of my dearest (and farthest-flung) friends, with whom I have only recently reconnected, are already leaving Facebook at the end of this month because they can't bear to support Zuckeberg's complete lack of sensitivity towards the privacy of others.

Like I said, I'm in the same boat as a bunch of you.  I imagine many of you "had a week" as well.

It's still better than not having a week.  Let's keep telling ourselves that.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

"Life. Don't Talk To Me About Life."

As we approach May 25th, Intergalactic Hitchhiker's or "Towel Day" in honor of the late, great Douglas Adams, I can't help but notice how testy and prickly my recent posts have been -- hence the title for today which is lifted, of course, from Marvin the Paranoid Android's famous line to Arthur Dent in "The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy."  Lately, I have not been a frood who really knows where his towel is.

It's amazing to me how much my perceptions are artificially colored by my health.  I remember the first time I was put on prednisone for Crohn's Disease -- it was an attempt to keep me stable during a major trip out to California for a visit to my sister-in-law's family.  I didn't realize that the sudden flush of well-being was due to the steroids.  It completely colored that trip.  To this day I absolutely love California and find any excuse I can to visit there.  All because I was on ten milligrams of prednisone and pain temporarily went away for the first time in over twenty years.

Lately the opposite has been going on.  The Crohn's is as bad as it has ever been, and the medication isn't working like I'd hoped, and prednisone doesn't cut it any more.  In the short term, it made me feel wonderful.  In the long term and at the higher doses I later required, it turned me from Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde.  I was less of a bastard when I quit smoking, which is saying a lot.  Add to that the constant raging appetite and the consequent weight gain which put me at over three hundred pounds and you might begin to understand why I no longer consider prednisone to be a treatment option.  And the constant rotten health has decidedly colored my outlook on the world.

In retrospect, for example, has the anger I've been feeling towards others, be they fellow drivers or fellow travelers, really been justified?  No, not really.  Is the new dog such an awful addition to our family?  Again, no, not really; he's actually pretty obedient and mellow.  It's just that my comfortable routine has been upset -- minimally -- and I am overreacting to it as a result of feeling poorly.

Well, boo hoo.

I hope that in the coming weeks, regardless of how things pan out with my health, I can have the patience and acceptance to make life enjoyable again.  I need to take stock of the good in my life every single day.  I may feel betrayed by my body, but I still have full use of it.  I may have pain, but it is truly not more than I can stand, most days.  Not everyone can make those claims.  Add to that the cliches of the roof over my head and the food in my belly, the clothes on my back and the love in my life, and even I can see that I need to lighten up.

So, "don't talk to me about life."  I may have to surprise us both with the answer.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Super Deluxe Bonus Entry! :)

First, a warning, and a little background information:  The warning is that this is yet another post about my church, the Unitarian Church of Harrisburg.  So bail here if you have zero interest.  The background information is that last year our church, which for years has existed in a beautiful building in the suburbs of Harrisburg, PA, found itself in a pretty ideal position.  As lovely as our building is, we have outgrown it.  Yes, in a time when congregations are shrinking on average, our church has more than doubled in size in the last decade.  Considering that it is a bastion of liberal religion in a time when fundamentalist mega-churches are thriving, I think this is pretty cool.

So we began looking at the possibilities.  We could try to buy a bigger church if one was for sale; we could explore expanding our current building; we could tear down our existing building and build a new one on the current site.  There were advantages and disadvantages to each.  As to building on the current site, we could have done it if the geologic site survey came back favorably; after all, we would be looking at sinking a considerably larger and heavier foundation structure.  We were told by our architect that a new structure which contained all of the features for which we were looking would cost us between four and eight million dollars.  Ouch.

Remodeling the current building to accommodate the larger congregation would have cost almost as much. After all, our current building was built to accommodate 120 people back when the congregation was about 65 members.  To show that level of foresight with our current congregation, we would have to build a sanctuary that seated at least 750 people.  Big.  Cathedral stuff.

Then, lightning struck.  We became aware of a beautiful old brick church downtown, in the heart of a severely depressed neighborhood, that had a capacity of 400+ but a current congregation of about 20 souls.  We could purchase it for a relative song -- well under half a million dollars -- and actually do the social justice outreach and proverbial "good work" that we had always talked about doing but never had the wherewithal to accomplish, what with being out in the comfortable suburbs and all.  Yes, the building needed considerable work, but it was in the right place at the right time, and all the money we would have spent on a new building could be put to work feeding and clothing the poor in the immediate neighborhood.  We could start walking the walk instead of just talking the talk.  Seemingly a no-brainer, right?

Unitarian churches are famous for one thing, if they're famous for anything, and that is their congregational polity.  Meaning that we don't take orders from a higher organization, like, say, Rome.  Each church pays its own bills, hires its own minister, does its own work, etc.  Our church accomplishes this in an annual meeting.  Our meeting was today.  When the mere possibility of setting as a goal over the next five years holding our weekly services in the (gasp!) downtown church instead of in our too-small church in the 'burbs, the people who refuse to consider change went nuts.  I left in disgust, and I now give you the apology I plan to share on the UCH website and Google group:

"I Apologize"

I apologize to my fellow members of the congregation of the Unitarian Church of Harrisburg for walking out in disgust during the Congregational Meeting today.  I found the discussion of whether or not to amend the agenda, or the timeline, or whatever that discussion was about, to be profoundly disturbing.

I am truly sorry that so many in my congregation are so bound up in the past that they seem unwilling to look to the future.  Make no mistake; I love the Clover Lane church.  It’s where I joined, and where my daughter was dedicated to our faith.  It is also entirely too small for our current needs, and a greenhouse in the summer months.  I sometimes despair of being a member of a church that, after all the time I have been a member, some thirteen years, has never been able to get it together enough to get air conditioning.  But I digress.

The work that we have decided as a congregation that we are called to do is not between two hotels on Eisenhower Boulevard.  It is among Harrisburg’s neediest.  We were fortunate enough to fall into a building that is not only big enough to accommodate many of our present needs, but to acquire it at a price that allows us to spend the monies we might have wasted on a new building on doing good works and improving the current building.  Additionally, the building is right in the heart of the work we say we want to do.

Surely we are not the first church who has outgrown its building.  Surely we can let go of the precious past and still respect that past while moving into a future of social justice and outreach work in our new neighborhood.  It would have been wonderful to have four or eight or ten million dollars to spend on a magnificent cathedral somewhere “nicer” downtown.  It is even more wonderful to have acquired a building at a fraction of that cost so that we can spend that other money in much more meaningful ways -- feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless and clothing the needy.

I apologize for walking out and for allowing myself to get so angry that I could not respectfully articulate the sentiments I have just expressed.  I greatly fear that those of us who cannot look forward to a future that includes the Market Street church will find themselves with a wonderful glass A-frame building on Clover Lane, and little else.

Canine Follies

Well, we've had the new dog for about five days now.  We took in an adult apricot miniature poodle who was being terribly bullied by the other two dogs in his last home.  Prior to that he had been the sole pet of the mother of one of our friends who took the dog in when her mother passed away.  The dog's name is KC.

Having the dog has been...interesting, in a Chinese curse kind of way.  (As in the Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times.")  On the positive side, the dog has definitely accepted me as the "alpha" of our "pack."  He, in fact, follows me everywhere (and I do mean everywhere!) and politely waits for me to go first up any stairs and through any door.  It's a little unnerving.  Most of the literature I have read on dog training indicates that you want to avoid inculcating "small dog syndrome" in your pet -- you never allow it to win any canine dominance games, never play tug-of-war unless you always win, never stare it in the eye unless you are prepared to wait until the dog looks away first, and so forth.  No problems.  It's like having a groupie, or some other mindless hero worshipper.  You would think it would be pleasant, but it's not.  In fact, if there's been any conflict at all, it's been between the dog and my wife, who seem to be battling it out for third place.  He accepts my daughter's "dominance" in my absence, but will growl at my wife, and try to pass her when we walk, and try to sit in her usual spot when she isn't in the room.  There is also much attempting to jump up on her, a canine behavior I do not tolerate.  I have so far been able to immediately put a stop to his shenanigans, and to his credit, he has immediately responded.  But believe it or not, I am finding the pressure of "pack leadership" to be quite daunting.

I was also very nervous about leaving the dog alone in the house when I had to be away, since I did not know what his behavior was going to be like.  Would he be one of those pups who gets destructive from the anxiety of being separated from his humans?  I was able to put that fear to rest when I had to do some grocery shopping; I came home to an intact house with no destruction, puddles or smears.  So far his worst habit has been scent-marking the carpet with his butt.  Unpleasant to look at, but harmless.

No, the biggest issue for me in this first week has been the adjustment to never, ever, ever being alone.  I have to kick him out of the bathroom.  I cannot walk to another room, however briefly, without him being at my heels.  I understand intellectually that this is a good thing, that this means that he recognizes his place in our family hierarchy and that I will thereby be saved from all kinds of canine unpleasantness.  But I am a pretty solitary guy!  I used to spend much of my day alone, and now I feel that I am "on" all the time.

In the next few days I have an appointment with a vet to get his shots up to date, after which the plan is to take him in for a much-needed grooming.  It will be interesting to see, and report to you, how my adjustment is coming along.

Monday, May 10, 2010

We're Thinking of Getting a Dog

Yes, we are thinking of getting a dog.  Apparently both my wife and my 17-year-old daughter feel that they have missed out on something by not having anything furry to love, at least nothing that was bigger than a hamster.  (We have indeed had hamsters.)

I am not happy about the dog.

I admit I had a dog as a boy.  My parents, however, were too cheap to spring for distemper vaccinations and when my dog took sick he had to Go To A Farm To Get Better after which he had A Terrible Accident and Was Not Coming Home.  I was seven.

Most of my pets have been cats.  I adore cats.  Unfortunately, in October of 1990, I became ill with what we thought was a cold that would not go away.  After much wailing, gnashing of teeth and visiting of numerous medical persons, it was determined that I was allergic to cats.  In fact, I was desperately allergic.  I had a stronger reaction to the cat injection during the allergy testing than I did to the histamine control.  I tried several remedies, none of which were successful, and my health further deteriorated as I developed asthma from the continued exposure to our cats.  (We had only two, but it was enough to make me sick.)  We finally had to find new homes for our kitties.  It was devastating.  Since my daughter didn't come along until 1992, she did not grow up in a house with cats.  During her childhood she did have numerous hamsters and goldfish, and even a lizard which was marketed to her as a "baby dragon."  I had to buy live crickets several times a week for years until the lizard passed away.  So we have not been without pets.

Recently I caved in on the semi-constant requests for a dog.  I said that as long as I had nothing to do with the animal's care I was OK with them finding a dog.  Frankly, I hoped that with work, school, the search for a college, etc., the search for a dog would fade into the background.  Instead, the very next day, in conversation with a friend at church, my wife learned of a seven-year-old miniature poodle that was being terribly bullied in its new home and since poodles shed minimally, thereby meeting one of my conditions, he just might be The Dog For Us.


I did remind them that my conditions were, in fact, etched in stone:  I would not care for the dog, I would not walk the dog, I would not feed the dog, I would not clean up the dog's messes; indeed, apart from making sure that I was established as the dog's pack "alpha" I wanted nothing to do with it.  I simply do not want to walk a dog from now until I'm in my late 60's since, at age 57, I already struggle with daily bouts of migratory rheumatoid arthritis.  I just don't want to do it.  Truthfully, I don't want to take any walk in weather conditions that are not pleasing to me just because I have to.  And I don't want to pick up something else's poop.  I can barely deal with my own poop.

Just today my wife said that the tear stains we noticed on the little guy's fur might be caused by something serious.  I remarked something to the effect that she'd have to let me know how things turned out when she took him to the vet.  I think she was less than pleased, as, being a busy physician, she has little room in her schedule for a vet appointment right now.  I, of course, pretended not to notice her reaction.  And at age seven I really worry about training the dog out of any bad habits he might have, although he does seem to have a nice temperament.  And I know, I just know that at some point I am going to be stuck taking it to the vet, to the kennel, shopping for it, and walking it in the sleet and heat and snow and rain.  And I hate the very thought.

I know; I'm a prick.

If it weren't for the fact that I sympathize deeply with a creature who is being bullied by its peers, I would be trying to find every delaying tactic I could, rather than have a dog come into our home.  But I was bullied as a kid, and it sucks.  Nothing should have to live with bullying.  But even that wouldn't necessarily push me into getting a dog.  The reason I'm going along with all of it is simply because I love my wife and my daughter more than I love my own life.  If this gives them pleasure, I will go along with it with as much good grace as I can manage.  I want them to be happy; their happiness means far more to me than my own comfort.

I will let you know how it all works out.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Atheism -- My Path

     One of my favorite quotes about atheism comes from a man named Don Hirschberg, who said, in a letter to Ann Landers, “Calling atheism a religion is like calling bald a hair color.”  As it happens, I am both -- bald and an atheist.  I came to be an atheist in my late teens.  Earlier I’d had a Univeralist epiphany, when I decided that I could not believe in a God who had a place called Hell, which was used as a personal torture chamber from which there could be no forgiveness or escape.  It was a short leap of logic from there to believing in no god at all.  This is the only view that makes sense to me.  I know that many of my friends and family find it difficult to understand.  Which I don't really get.  We are all atheists, in a way; I just happen to believe in one fewer god than they do.  To paraphrase Stephen Roberts, when they understand why they dismiss all the other possible gods, maybe they will understand why I dismiss their god.  I have only to look at the headlines to believe that no loving deity could possibly allow the world to exist in such a state.  War?  AIDS?  Cancer?  Please.  I can no more believe in a god who allows such things than I can believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  (And by the way, you should check out, the website of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  No matter what you believe.  It’s a lot of fun.)  

     No, like it or not, I have come to believe that all we have is ourselves, and all we get is this one life.  And that’s enough for me.  I don’t find atheism cold and comfortless.  I do not miss believing in an afterlife in heaven.  And I don't particularly fear death.  I believe that, like Mark Twain, "I was dead for billions of years before being born and I have not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it."  And I can appreciate the beauty of the structure of our magnificent universe without feeling a need to attribute it to an Architect.  As Douglas Adams said, "I will take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day."

  When my mother was dying of cancer, I had the atheist’s equivalent of a crisis of faith.  That’s when I was most tempted to believe in a supernatural power with whom I could bargain for a better outcome.  I desperately wanted things to work out for my mother.  They didn’t. Ovarian cancer thirty-some years ago almost never did.  I think that was the last time I was tempted to believe in a Greater Power.

  After my mother’s death, I remember huge arguments with my family, mostly after a memorial service which repeatedly told me that my mother was in a better place, was in the arms of Jesus, and with her loved ones in Heaven.  They asked me, “How can you stand there and say that her soul is not with God?”  In point of fact, I had said no such thing to any of them, but my beliefs were an easy target during a time of much suffering for all of us.  It was very hard for me not to be able to grieve for my mother in my own way, with the support of my family.  They simply did not seem to understand how difficult it was for me, believing as I did that her death was the end of her.  Like all intolerance, theirs was brutal.

  In my research for this entry I have read that there are some atheists who want to throw away the crutch of churchgoing, free up their Sundays, sleep in, do the crossword puzzle and face the godless, empty universe with a positive, “can-do” attitude.  

     No, really.  

     So why do I come to church?  Why do I bother, if I have no belief in god, or an afterlife, or the search for the capital-A Answers to any of the so-called Great Questions?  Well, I come for many reasons.  I come for the opportunity to join with people in morally meaningful activity.  I believe that two hands actually working do more good than a hundred hands folded in prayer.  I think that, when I come to church, I am offered valuable lessons in the way religion brings people together with beautiful music and art.  I learn how such a coming together can result in good works and social justice.  And frankly, I also come for help.  Not answers, help.  I come for the support which I find there.  I believe that whatever immortality any of us has is in the minds and memories of those who know and love us.  I believe that when I die, that's the only immortality for which I can hope.  If I want Heaven, I need to help build it it here.  And if I want immortality, I need to live a life that will have meaning and so will be remembered in my community.  And I want God to be simply a metaphor for all that is good and kind and wise in each of us.  I can do those things where I go to church, at the Unitarian Church of Harrisburg.  Where atheists, pagans, Jews, secular humanists, Christians, Buddhists, and every other color in the religious spectrum can get together in an atmosphere of mutual respect, tolerance and understanding and actually do some good in an otherwise maddening world.  Because for all of the pain and horror and suffering that the world can have, there is also incredible beauty and love and joy to be found.  I just have to remember to be open to it.  Thanks for reading.