Friday, September 28, 2012

Thanks For Nothing

Just when I think I'm getting a handle on my recent anxiety regarding guns, Harrisburg and my family's safety, along comes the new mass murder in Minneapolis this morning.  A gunman opened fire in a residential neighborhood business -- a sign-making shop -- and killed four people and then himself.  My deepest sympathies to the surviving families.

Sometimes I wonder if Chris Rock isn't right -- let guns be as common as popcorn; just charge $5,000.00 for a bullet.  The dichotomy of living in a species that is equally capable of such atrocities AND putting a robot on Mars simply tears my mind apart some days.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

WITF and the Islamic World Tension

This morning, the local PBS station aired it's local news-affairs program, Smart Talk, and had as its topic the recent tensions in the Islamic world that resulted from "that" amateurish video that was posted on YouTube and triggered riots, demonstrations, and possible the incident that resulted in the death of the United States Ambassador to Libya.  This is what I told them:

The other day the British comic Ricky Gervais tweeted, "I see Atheists are fighting and killing each other again, over who doesn't believe in any God the most. Oh, no..wait..that never happens." Yes, the video is terrible. So was the desecration of the Buddhist statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. There is a double standard that Islam needs to address. So much of the problem seems to be the intolerance of either side to respect the beliefs of others. I personally try to live my life in such a way that if you want to believe in Allah, or Jesus, or a Flying Spaghetti Monster, go for it. If it fills your spiritual void, then it's what's good for you. Trouble starts with the imposition of one set of beliefs over another. Christians are just as guilty; for example, if one doesn't believe in abortion, one should not get one. But don't impose that belief on others who do not share it. Muslims, I think, need to accept the fact that other faiths are going to depict their Prophet, if for no other reason than to educate themselves about Islam, without going off the deep end about how the infidels are disrespecting them and their Prophet. Please know that I am not saying that the video was in any way educational -- it was despicable as well as amateurish, and was clearly, to my mind, hate speech of the worst sort. I believe it was the intention of the author to incite violence around the world, especially during our election cycle. But the Muslim extremists walked right into the trap. Once, Islam led the world in knowledge and in science, in everything from mathematics ("algebra" is an Arabic word) to astronomy. Now Islamic sects promote beliefs that others find nonsensical, such as the need to cover women to prevent the inflammation of male passions. The Islamic world needs to find their way into a more moderate, modern world, and the West needs to be more accepting of ways that are different from theirs.  Just my opinion -- I could be wrong.

And probably am.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Guns, Guns, Guns

This has definitely been the year of the Second Amendment.  And I'll warn you in advance, I'm not entirely sure on which side of the issue I fall.  I do know that there are too many damned guns in our society, and not enough controls over who gets them.  I also know that, as I said here once, if ever I get the slightest whiff that things are really going to fall apart, be it from class war, civil war, or zombie apocalypse, I will be first in line at Wal-Mart for a shotgun.  There's no other way I can protect my family and my home in a true collapse of civilization.  Certainly not with just the machetes in my garage.

(Although I am damned good with a machete.  Zombies, take note.)

But last spring, during a service at our church's downtown location which was entitled, sadly enough, "Music for the Soul," a cab driver was murdered quite literally on our church doorstep.  When the service was over, we had to exit through the kitchen door because the front of the building was a freakin' crime scene.

Since then, we have had the Colorado Theater shooting, the Sikh Temple shooting, and all manner of greater or lesser gun-related mayhem and murder incidents.  The public response has ranged from a concerned "we have finally got to get rid of these guns" to the idiotic "well, if I'd been there carrying, it would have been different."  (A side note to my idiot nephew-in-law:  No, if you had been "carrying" at the Colorado movie theater, you would not have been a hero, you would have made things infinitely worse.  Anyone who thinks that returning gunfire in a smoke-filled, darkened room full of panicked people AND CHILDREN would be a good idea is an idiot, an imbecile, and a complete waste of human tissue.  Now go complain to Mommy so she can write me a snotty e-mail.)

Without rehashing every incident since the end of last Spring, let me just cut to the most recent incident, back at our downtown church location yesterday.  A young teenaged man was shot dead in the grassy plot our church uses for parking yesterday afternoon at 4:00 PM.  His assailant escaped.

When I first joined the Unitarian Church of Harrisburg, it was solely at a suburban location.  Since then we have changed ministers, grown substantially, and acquired an old brick church downtown in an admittedly terrible neighborhood so that, among other things, those of our congregation who wished to do so could not only talk the talk of social justice work, but also walk the walk.

I am ashamed to admit it, but I am not one of those people.  I do not like the downtown location.  I have not felt comfortable there, ever, but since the murder on our front steps last spring, I no longer feel safe there.  When we must attend services there, I do not find it spiritually fulfilling; I am simply counting the minutes until I can end the panic attack that being there kicks me into and get the hell out of there.

It's no way to attend church.  It's no way to attend anything.

Now an 18-year-old was shot dead where I park my car.  Quite literally, on the spot on the sidewalk next to where I park my car.  And not at 3:00 AM or some other time when I am unlikely to be down there.  It was in broad daylight, during an hour that I might be there.  Since I retired I am constantly pressured to volunteer my time more, and I cannot seem to get across the idea that I do not feel safe there.  It's not a place that I would normally go, not under any circumstances whatsoever.  I worked hard to get out of the similarly crappy part of South Philadelphia, thank you very much, and I have zero desire to go back and help out.  Again, I am somewhat ashamed of my attitude, but it is what it is.  I can appreciate with my head that gun incidents could -- and do -- happen anywhere, and that downtown Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is no more or less likely than any other place ... except we've had two murders right on our corner this year.

And they say lightning doesn't strike twice.  Horse hockey.

At the end of the day, at least for right now, I don't feel safe there, and I won't be going there except under extreme pressure and duress.  It's going to be a long time before I feel comfortable in that neighborhood, if ever.  I had to be there this past Sunday and I about jumped out of my skin when the inevitable police/fire/ambulance/whatever-it's-always-something siren went off right outside during the church service.

My gut feeling is that it's only a matter of time before it's a friend or a family member who's killed down there.  And I'm just not ready to have that particular memorial service.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

September 11th

I was struck by how similar today was to that day eleven years ago, when religious zealots commandeered four airplanes and drove them into the original World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and -- thanks to the bravery and heroic sacrifice of the passengers on that fourth plane -- the ground.  Eleven years ago I was in my home's family room, doing housework, and trying to get finished with it as quickly as I could because it was a simply beautiful day outside.  It was a cloudless, sunny, brilliant day with the mild warm temperatures that used to seem to be Pennsylvania's specialty, but now seem to come with less frequency.  In any event, I remember that I couldn't wait to get outside.

Today was much the same.  Lovely blue sky, mild temperatures, loads of sun.  Once again I found myself cleaning the house.  Different home, different family room, same old routine that I follow every week.  Not as eager to get outside, admittedly -- not with eleven more years of arthritis, not with having to take a dog with me everywhere so that he doesn't get separation anxiety, and so forth.  But still, a lovely, lovely day.

Eleven years ago I had turned on the television to one of the morning network infotainment shows, just to have a little background noise while I worked.  My daughter was at her fourth grade class in her elementary school and my wife was at work.  The only pet in the house was a hamster, and she was pretty quiet.  I happened to glance up at the screen just in time to see the first plane crash into the Towers, over the shoulders of the news anchor.  I actually saw it before the people on the television realized what was going on.  (I'm sure that the camera people and everybody else in the studio facing the anchor desk saw it and were just as upset and puzzled as I was -- how does an airplane plow into a building in midtown Manhattan?  It hadn't happened since an old prop plane rammed into the Empire State Building in the 1930's.)

About fifteen minutes later we saw the second plane hit.  And shortly after that, we heard about an explosion at the Pentagon.  At that point we were all certain something bad was happening, and of course, we were right.  I didn't make it out into that beautiful weather until much later in the day, glued to the set as were so many other Americans, watching the Towers fall, seeing the aftermath in Washington, and generally becoming almost numb with the horror of it all.  I hadn't been so overwhelmed by the news and the media showing the same awful thing over and over and over again since the space shuttle Challenger exploded a few seconds into its launch.

There was something terribly traumatic about seeing it all happen in front of you.  About seeing it "live."  As a kid, I was in fourth grade when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.  We were sent home from school early.  I don't think the administrators knew quite what else to do.  My mother, who was cleaning house without her television or radio on, asked us what we were doing home so early.  When I told her they sent us home because the President was shot, she smacked me for telling such an awful lie.  Then she turned on the TV and realized something bad had indeed happened.  Kennedy's murder didn't affect me nearly as deeply, though, as did the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby, once again, on "live" television.  A man was murdered right in front of me, albeit 2,000 miles away, but I was affected badly by the experience.

In 2001, my daughter came home at the regular time and I had to tell her what had happened.  Of course, being a fourth grader, she didn't get it.  It was too big, too far away, and hadn't happened to anybody she really knew well.  She sort of understood the vague idea that people had died, but I don't think she understood why Dad was so upset.  We finally went outside into that beautiful day, together, and she finally got it a little bit when we both realized how quiet the skies had become.  By mid-afternoon, the airports had been locked down and nothing man-made was flying in the skies of Pennsylvania or anywhere else in the US.  I've never know any quiet like the quiet of the skies that day and in the days that followed, and honestly, I hope I never do again.

Today, I saw the weather, I saw the date, and I started my dusting and vacuuming, and this time, I left the television and the radio off.  And it was sort of OK to do that.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012


As I watched the conventions from the two dominant political parties in this country and listened to all of the incredibly ignorant things being said -- admittedly on both sides, but also admittedly far more by Republicans than Democrats -- about issues like rape and marriage and global warming and so forth.

At first the level of ignorance just simply astounded me.

Then I flashed back to my recent drive home from Pittsburgh.  I took my daughter back to University and had to drive the 200 miles back to my home without the benefit of my own music.  I had forgotten to throw any CD's or my iPod into the car, and so I was forced to listen to whatever I might be able to glean from the airwaves on the radio.  Now around Harrisburg there's lots to listen to, and the same holds for Pittsburgh, but for about two hours you're stuck between the two in what I refer to as "Pennsyltucky."  It's very rural, lots of mountains -- which means lots of interference of radio signals -- and what radio there is, is likely to be country music or what I like to call "Radio Jesus."  Talk radio with a right-wing Christian focus.  Oy.

On my way home, trying to find something to keep me awake, I discovered a Radio Jesus talk show where the interviewee was a "Creation Scientist."  Now to me, "creation scientist" is an oxymoron if ever there was one, but this guy was so wildly out there that I found it compelling.  Here, as best as I understood it, is the "scientist's" explanation of why evolution cannot possibly be right:

• The "false" fossil record, from which evolution gets its evidence, is dependent on death to be right.  Previous generations have to die so that subsequent offspring can adapt and develop their changes.

• The Bible clearly tells us that God created the perfect world back in Genesis.  There was no death until Adam committed the first Sin of eating the Apple in the Garden.  So there could not have been any evolution because there was no Death.

• Besides, if Death existed BEFORE Adam's sin, it would make Adam's punishment irrelevant.  Even worse, it would make the sacrifice Jesus made for us all on the cross irrelevant, because God created Death as both the means for punishing Original Sin AND the means for Jesus to redeem us through self-sacrifice.

•Therefore, evolution could not possibly be correct because it flies in the face of God's plan for us, for Jesus and for Death.

I.  Was.  Stupefied.

I could not believe that in the 21st Century this kind of voodoo nonsense would be spouted on the radio, not even in the wilds of my great Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, much less be taken seriously. By anybody.  There were so many holes and logical errors and false assumptions that in my opinion, you only needed to be of average intelligence to see the enormous fallacies in the argument.  You didn't need to be a student of logic or philosophy.  You just needed to have half a brain in your head.

And yet, there it was.

So I no longer wonder why Republican candidates think, honestly think, that a raped woman's body has ways of shutting that whole pregnancy thing down.  Why they look at you goggle-eyed when you tell them that actually, there were 32,000 pregnancies as a result of rape just last year AND THEN REFUSE TO BELIEVE YOU.  It's why Paul Ryan can lump together ALL of the bankruptcies last year and claim that 1.4 million businesses claimed bankruptcies.  In fact, it was fewer than 50,000 businesses.  The 1.4 million included personal bankruptcies as well.  And in fact, the number of 50,000, while disturbing, is actually down 22% from the previous year -- and the personal bankruptcies are down by 11%.

But you tell them this, no matter how gently, and they refuse to believe it.  They say that they are not going to let their campaign be stalled by fact checkers.

In other words, they don't give a flying crap about the truth.  Hell, Ryan can't even honestly give you the time he ran his marathon.  He actually took four hours plus to run it, but insists it was done in under three.  Clearly the man is a stranger to the truth on every level.  And he's just one guy.

If I wasn't an atheist, I'd pray, "God help us all."  But I think we're going to have to help ourselves.

If you value hearing the truth from your elected officials, if you value having your information vetted and verified before it's fed to you, if you're tired of having to get the truth from Rolling Stone and Jon Stewart and NPR because NOBODY ELSE IN THE NEWS MEDIA IS BOTHERING -- I urge you to really think twice about how you vote this November.  Please.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Labor Day Weekend

It's been nice to have three whole days off with my lovely wife.  It feels like a little taste of what retirement is going to be like in another decade.  And I think I'll be able to do it.  I was afraid that it was going to be weird being around only each other all the time.  But it wasn't.