A chance meeting with a passing soul

His name was Christopher, and he was sitting on the sidewalk outside of Trader Joes. I was doing a grocery run because Teri was busy with something, and I got off work early. One of the first things I learned about Christopher was he was going to the hospital. He had a hurt wrist, so he said, had a few possible broken ribs, and sclerosis of the liver. The second thing I learn about Christopher, before I even learned his name, was he was going to die.

“They told me I have 61 days,” he said to me, “I’ve been counting. I still have 40 left.”

When I came back out of the store, both arms loaded with groceries, I stopped to give him some cash. We talked about riding the bus and a few other things. His companion, very much not a homeless man, was named Pedro. Pedro was the kind of guy who ended every sentence with Praise God, or Praise Jesus. I knew the type, hell, I’d been the type. He seems to care, and was apparently going to take Christopher to the hospital, so I didn’t complain, although why they hadn’t gone in the time I was shopping I don’t understand.

Christopher was 51, and looked pretty good. His beard was long, but clean and well trimmed. His eyes were that color of electric blue that are startlingly pure. They were arresting eyes. His hair was turning from blonde to grey, but he had less grey in it than I do. Had his clothes been slightly cleaner he could have passed for an eccentric, and not a homeless man. His wore bright blue tennis shoes on his feet. One lay on its side on the sidewalk, the leg coming up at a strange angle from the foot, like he was woking on turning his ankle further so bottom of his foot could bend in more. The pose was both comfortable and awkward. He didn’t smell much of urine.

We talked about God and such. Christopher didn’t realize the meaning of his name, and when I told him, then Pedro wanted to know right away if I was a Christian or not. Somehow I seem to always do this with born-agains, I pepper the conversation with enough knowledge to make them ask, and then get to tell them I’m no longer a believer. It’s a stupid compulsion on my part. It stems in part from my need to be smarter than everyone else, and also possibly as a way to signal to them that their firm belief is not all that firm. A few times I’ve able to simply ignore Christians, or mouth the “christianese” enough to not draw attention, but today I didn’t.

Pedro wanted to know why I walked away from the faith. They always do. There’s no good answer to that, as least one a christian will understand. Knowing all about the faith, but not being of it doesn’t compute. It’s not a thought that fits within the christian meme. He asked if I was turned off by the church, but the truth is it wasn’t just the church. It was the whole thing. The whole memeplex is a mess. Too self-referential, and offering almost zero room for ideas outside of a very narrow set of beliefs. To me its like trying to build a giant apartment complex in a tiny sandbox with carefully guarded borders. There’s no room. It just doesn’t fit.

In any case I wasn’t there to discuss religion, and I wasn’t the main event. Sooner or later the conversations going to come back to Christopher, he was a drunk, this is how it goes. So I kicked the conversation back to him, and let it run its course.

We talked about a few more things, but I had frozen groceries in my bag, so I wasn’t exactly prepared for a long conversation. I wished Christopher well, and that he’d find sobriety. Then I give a mini lecture on the sacredness of work, explained how Jesus thought work important enough to even quote the OT on the topic (one of the few times he did), and wished him the desire to work hard on his life. For Pedro I wished him nothing, but left him with a pleasant greeting. Like me, Pedro is one of the lucky ones. Finally I wished Christopher luck. He’s going to need it if he wants to live past Christmas.

Then I drove home and put away my groceries.

Here’s the thing. We all have the knowledge that death can come at any moment. This week we had this concept strongly reaffirmed by the horrible shooting in Las Vegas. But the human mind naturally elides thoughts of death. If you try to force someone to pay attention to their future date with the grim reaper it will just piss them off. But occasionally one can approach the idea of their looming demise from an oblique angle, and not have a negative reaction. Christopher is a reminder that we all will die soon. I don’t mention this so you’ll be ready to meet your maker, since I don’t believe in one, but to point out the value of death is life. Death is a reminder to be what you want, to be who you are. If you were given 61 days would you spend it so drunk that you could trip on the sidewalk and break some ribs, or would you do something that made your life count?

Now here’s the real question, why wait?

If it doesn’t have an MOE, its not the Truth

We talk about “truth” a lot, especially in politics. And what I’ve noticed is that we seemed to have blurred the lines between the things that are true, and things that are not. That is, there appears to be little separation between the things that can be verified as facts, and the things that are opinion. My secret pet theory about the fruit on the tree of knowledge (you know, the whole Adam and Eve story with the Serpent and the fruit) is that by eating it, it allowed us to mix up fact and opinion.

On outsiders crossing the wrong lines

…or an alternate explanation as to why Phil Robertson got into trouble.

There are lines in the world that don’t appear on any map. You will not find them in a travel book or a website, but they exist as ways of dividing otherwise comfortably homogenous areas, and if you cross them they can cause you harm.

The first time I can recall crossing one of these lines as an adult was just after I moved down to LA.  My roommate and I decided to got clothes shopping at a store called International Male. For those that don’t know, IM started as a clothing catalog. For all I know there’s still one today. At the time I first noticed it, I thought IM was just a catalog for trendy men. It was only later, when I visited the store in West Hollywood, that I realized there was something more to the store. Perhaps is the was unusually large number of good-looking young men on the streets, perhaps it was the absence of women in the store, but I think what clued me in the most was the giant billboard featuring two attractive men and advertising a gay cruise line. I had one of those, “I think we’re not in Kansas anymore”, moments, and did my best to act cool.

See I grew up in a smaller, more midwestern town. A town where you could openly call someone a faggot, and never be mistaken by your meaning. Nor would anyone stop you because you weren’t being political correct. This is because that was how the town’s social structure worked. There were no jack-booted thugs (presumably with red necks) wandering around making sure everyone was sufficiently homophobic. You didn’t need that. All you had to do was pay attention to those around you, and mimic how they acted. And in that town, at that time, being gay was an insult. In other words, it was politically correct to be homophobic.

And yet in parts of Los Angeles, only a few hundred miles south of Clovis, calling someone a faggot would earn you stares, and social rebuke. Everyone spoke the same language as they did in Clovis, wore (for the most part) the same clothes, but judging by the billboards it was such a different town that it might as well be another country. Just like in Clovis, there were no jack-booted things (presumably in pink satin with shirts reading “fag” on the front) wandering around keeping the PC standards in place. There were just people with slightly differing expectations of social intercourse.

And that the important point here. The lines were drawn by the people. It was the people who chose what was acceptable and what wasn’t. And it was the people who enforced these unwritten rules. There were no signs, there was no way to tell, except by close observation, but there were some places where “faggot” was an insult, and other places were it was only used for irony.

So yeah, for those that don’t know, there are places in the US that have been staked out by homosexuals. Again, they don’t rove the block in well-appointed gangs, but they do enforce their own community standards, and if you happen to cross those standards you can expect to get in trouble.

Which leads me to Phil Robertson, the guy from the show Duck Dynasty. Much ink has been spilled lately over his words in an interview, and his subsequent firing, and rehiring. I don’t have a lot to add to any of what has been said except to say, “so what?” I disagree with his expressed opinion, but I’m also old enough to understand that there and many people who feel the way he does. As a gay friend of mine said, “my skin is thick enough for the Phil Robertson’s of the world.” Indeed, it is.

But in the brouhaha over this incident, I’ve also read a lot about the gays taking over, and making everything PC. I don’t see that either. I think there’s another explanation, a simpler one. One which has the benefit of being easier to prove.

Much like that part of West Hollywood I mentioned, earlier, the city of LA has its own moral code. And while there are places which are exceptions to this rule, most of LA frowns upon homophobia. This goes double for what they call in this town “The Industry”, which is short for the entertainment industry. There’s a reason for this, and it shouldn’t be a surprise for any one near my age.

We all grew up with that special guy in high school who maybe liked musicals a little too much, hung around the drama club, or spoke in a high voice. Or maybe it was that gal who was a bit large for her size and excelled at sports, or wore here hair a little too short. We all knew people like this. You can’t escape this experience in high school. The point is not that these people exist, but what happened to them after high school. You see, a lot of them left their home towns, and moved to the big city. LA, NY, SF, and the like. Places where they would feel more at home, where they’d fit in. Places where knowing all the words to every Rodgers and Hart musical made you a star, not someone to be scorned.

And when these self same people moved to the big city, they needed to get jobs, because, well all those fancy close and trendy haircuts aren’t cheap. Amiright? And have you ever priced a good interior designer? OMG!

So where I work, meaning advertising for The Industry, probably one quarter to one third of the men I work with are gay. Maybe one quarter of the women are as well. Not enough to organize into squads in pink jack-boots, but enough that calling someone a faggot could very easily cost you your job, and would certainly earn you rebuke. Again, this may not be your social standards, but they are mine. They’re not enforced by thugs, but they are enforced all the same.

And this is where I think Phil Robertson caught so much hell. From what I can tell, Phil was merely expressing his own social values, values that honestly come from the place that he lives. Unfortunately for Phil, he doesn’t just work where he lives. A large percent of the people who work to make his show a success live in towns like mine, with social rules like mine. And this, I think, is where the people at A&E got mad. Phil had crossed one of their lines, crossed the unwritten contract that says, “that shalt not act the bigot, unless its against conservative politicians.” In short, he was an outsider who crossed the wrong line, and said faggot when he should have said, Republican.

This, I believe, is an easy mistake to make. Phil can rightly believe his show is an invention of his social structure, and not that of Hollywood’s or New York’s. After all, it is almost entirely shot on location, isn’t it? Except…except, its not just a show from his duck hunting swamps. Its also a show that is edited, advertised, sold, and distributed by people living in gay friendly cities. Moreover, I think Phil should know this too.

Perhaps he does. Perhaps Phil was just doing the red-neck version of using controversy to increase his value right when it was time to renegotiate his salary with the network. Personally, I hope this is the case. I would rather think of Phil Robertson as being calculating and shrewd than your garden variety bigot. But whatever he thinks, I doubt he’ll cross this line again. Or as the old adage goes, “Don’t shit where you eat.” Phil may work in the swamps of Louisiana, but his paycheck comes from an office in New York. And the odds are very likely that his paycheck was cut, ironically, by a faggot.

And that, I think, is the best irony of all.

How being a witch looks an awful lot like being a Christian.

I’ve been reading a wonderful series of books by a guy named Terry Pratchett. Rereading really. I read them once, and now I’m reading them to Trevor. Most of them take place on a planet (if you can call it that) named Discworld, and most of these books use the same 8 or 10 characters. Recently (as in 5-6 years ago) Mr Pratchett developed a new character. Her name is Tiffany Aching, and she is a witch. Only she’s not like any witch you’ve ever read about before. She is young, smart, resourceful, and talented at working. She also does the magic stuff well, but that is really a rather small part of the novels with her in them. Mostly what she does is grow up and learn from other witches, and its what these other witches teach here that I find amazing.

Below is a long quote from the second Tiffany Aching book (out of four) called A Hat Full of Sky. In this scene she is having a conversation with Mistress Weatherwax, who everyone agrees is the best witch around. In this conversation they refer to two different witches who are polar opposites. They are Miss Level who is the kind, long-suffering witch that Tiffany is now training under, and Mrs Earwig, who is selfish, conniving, and not the least bit helpful to others.

Miss Level’s life is difficult because she is so self-effacing that no one respects her, they literally walk all over her. Mistress Weatherwax understand this, mentioning it at the beginning (its her speaking at the start), but look at where she goes with it.

“Respect is meat and drink to a witch. Without respect, you ain’t got a thing. She doesn’t get much respect, our Miss Level.”

That was true. People didn’t respect Miss Level. They liked her, in an unthinking sort of way, and that was it. Mistress Weatherwax was right, and Tiffany wished she wasn’t.

“Why did you and Miss Tick send me to her, then?”

“Because she likes people,” said the witch, striding ahead. “She cares about ’em. Even the stupid, mean, dribbling ones, the mothers with the runny babies and no sense, the feckless and the silly and the fools who treat her like some kind of a servant. Now that’s what call magic – seein’ all that, dealin’ with all that, and still goin’ on. It’s sittin’ up all night with some poor old man who’s leavin’ the world, taking away such pain as you can, comfortin’ their terror, seein’ ’em safely on their way . . . and then cleanin’ ’em up, layin’ ’em out, making ’em neat for the funeral, and helpin’ the weeping widow strip the bed and wash the sheets – which is, let me tell you, no errand for the faint-hearted – and stayin’ up the next night to watch over the coffin before the funeral, and then going home and sitting down for five minutes before some shouting angry man comes bangin’ on your door ‘cos his wife’s havin’ difficulty givin’ birth to their first child and the midwife’s at her wits’ end and then getting up and fetching your bag and going out again. .. We all do that, in our own way, and she does it better’n me, if I was to put my hand on my heart. That is the root and heart and soul and centre of witchcraft, that is. The soul and centre!” Mistress Weatherwax smacked her fist into her hand, hammering out her words. “The . . . soul. . . and . . . centre!”

Echoes came back from the trees in the sudden silence. Even the grasshoppers by the side of the track had stopped sizzling.

“And Mrs Earwig,” said Mistress Weatherwax, her voice sinking to a growl, “Mrs Earwig tells her girls it’s about cosmic balances and stars and circles and colours and wands and . . . and toys, nothing but toys!” She sniffed. “Oh, I daresay they’re all very well as decoration, somethin’ nice to look at while you’re workin’, somethin’ for show, but the start and finish, the start and finish, is helpin’ people when life is on the edge. Even people you don’t like. Stars is easy, people is hard.”

So Mistress Weatherwax thinks the most important thing about being a witch is helping others. Obviously the author does too because this is a theme that is constant through all of the Tiffany Aching books. Work hard, help others, measure your value by how you help people, don’t waste your time on material things, its the people that count.

To give you an idea, here’s a quote from the first book in the series, The Wee Free Men. In this quote a very young (9 year-old) Tiffany is talking to Miss Tick who is a witch finder (a lady who looks for girls showing unusual signs of power). All of this is done partially in secret; where Tiffany grows up, they don’t like witches. In fact they kill an old woman because they think she was a witch. But I digress.


“Witches are naturally nosy,” said Miss Tick, standing up. “Well, I must go. I hope we shall meet again. I will give you some free advice, though.”
“Will it cost me anything?”
“What? I just said it was free!” said Miss Tick.
“Yes, but my father said that free advice often turns out to be expensive,” said Tiffany.
Miss Tick sniffed. “You could say this advice is priceless,” she said, “Are you listening?”
“Yes,” said Tiffany.
“Good. Now…if you trust in yourself…”
“…and believe in your dreams…”
“…and follow your star…” Miss Tick went on.
“…you’ll still be beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren’t so lazy. Goodbye.”



Notice how the traditional advice given in movies (trust in yourself, believe in your dreams, etc.), all those things we like to tell our children, the author happily tramples with hard work, and an education. This is a kids book, and yet the advice is so absent of fantasy, and so full of practical good advice that it tickles me pink.

And you know, every time I run across these words I am reminded how much they sound like Jesus. Which I find fascinating.

The god of the handy

I was riding our exercise bike out in the garage (meaning, in the cold) this morning. I had a good book, and everything was going fine for the first 6 minutes, up until it got to the “steep” part of the program. Then the darn thing started slipping like an elephant on ice skates. There is a belt that transfers the pedaling force into something the computer can use to tell you how you are doing. It was this belt that was slipping, no doubt because of the recent cold temperatures around here. Well I tried pushing for a while to see if it would warm up some, but it didn’t. The darn thing was slipping so much that every push was too easy. So cursing my luck, I got off, and looked at the bike. There’s only a few screws holding the case, I told myself. This should be easy.

Famous last words.

An hour and a half later, I had the whole thing opened up, the pitifully antiquated bearings were soaking in gasoline, and most of the parts were clean. (As an aside, when was the last time you broke down an open bearing? For me it was on an old bike over 25 years ago. Were talking metal races holding a dozen large bearings. Huge gaps in the side with nary a bearing seal in sight.) While I was trying to tighten down the old style bottom bracket I was forcing the wrong wrench on a part while my knuckles kept brushing the last plastic guard I had left on the bike. That last piece was held on by only 6 screws. I knew because I had taken off it’s opposite, mirror-image piece on the other side. 6 screws was just that much more to break down, and I really was trying to finish up. Those of you who are handy will know the rest. Sure enough, the wrench slipped, and wham! I got a pressure cut across the back of the knuckle. Damn.

Funny enough, after that, it was smooth sailing.

All this has lead me to conclude that the god of small repairs must be Hephaestus; the crippled Greek god of the forge. On little projects he does not care as his help is not as needed. But on big jobs, he likes to see a little sacrifice in order to get things to work well. Blood mixed with grease or oil must be his thing. I cannot tell you how many times I bloodied a car engine, or a lawnmower engine, or pretty much anything that takes an hour or two to break down, and put back together. And it is usually after the hand has slipped, and the blood has flowed, that the project begins to snap.

When I got the whole thing back together, I discovered that the belt was still slipping. (insert sound of face palm) A few twists on the belt tensioner seemed to do the trick, and I finished the rest of my ride, 2.5 hours later, in peace.

But it sure pedals nice now.

Don’t know. Create

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Tree of Knowledge, you know, the one from the bible. The fruit tree that if you plucked one, and ate it, it gave you knowledge, and a free trip out of paradise.

You know what I think? I think that is all horse shit. You see I’m pretty damn sharp at times, and I know a thing or two. I don’t know everything mind you, and sometimes the lack (not knowing everything) drives me crazy, but I do know some things, and you know what? Knowing ain’t worth shit. Really.

Think about it. What do you know? If your average, then I’ll bet you know a little bit about a lot of things, and a lot about a few things. Maybe even a whole funking lot about one or two things. So what has that knowledge gotten you? Did you ever get laid because you knew about Socrates? Did you ever earn a good meal at a restaurant from knowing romantic neo-classicists? Ever got a broken car to work because you could conjugate French verbs? Yeh, me neither.

See I don’t think that tree in the garden was about knowledge. I think it was the Tree of Creativity. Think about that for a moment. Creativity is the thing God starts out doing. His first job in the bible. It is his main gig, his bona fides. If you ask, “are you qualified to be my God?” He’ll respond, “Well, ah hum, I did creates the universe,” all while buffing his nails on his shirt.

Creating is right there on God’s turf, his main thing. When you create, you are actually being a little God like. Remember Man was created in his image. I think that means, we could create like he does. Not on anything like his scale, mind you, but we sure as hell can create.

And man, is creation the coolest thing or what? It is the best drug, the only cool high, and there is never any hang-over. Making cool shit up is just the bomb! With nothing but a computer, and a little bit of time, I can make up people out of thin air. Try that, mofo. I’ll bet you can too. I can put scars on people who are flawless, or remove their flaws and make them sexy. I can make them look like anything I want. Hows that for power?

Creation is the only thing that could get poor Lucifer to give up his cushy day-job, and move on down to hell with a third of the angels. You think they gave up Heaven for knowledge? Dream on brother. They gave it up to create. No wonder God gets jealous. No wonder he kicked out Adam and Eve. He couldn’t hang with the competition.

So I may not know shit any more, but watch out, because I sure as hell can create. I am a fire-breathing, book reading, mind bending cre-a-tor. I can make up cool shit at the drop of a hat, for a deadline, and pull it off on time, and under budget. Beat that bitch. And you know what, that is the power of the gods.

Here’s an apple kid, Wanna bite?

The Mark of Cain

Yesterday I made an unscheduled trip to the Laundromat. Our clothes washing machine was acting wacky (it turned out to be the timer), so while we were waiting for our excellent repair man to come, I decided to kill off a few loads to get our looming pile of dirty clothes back to manageable levels.

While I was waiting for the machines to wash, I ran across a guy who was homeless. His name is Michael, and he lives under a nearby bridge, or so he told me. Mike is not a small man (6’3″ and every bit of 200 lbs.), and is somewhat handsome in a rugged sort of way. He didn’t smell, but could use a shave. He also needed to eat as he had spent his last few bucks getting high. He looked to be in his mid-early thirties, but exposure had weathered his face to make it appear somewhat older.

I met him when he started talking to me about God. He must have included the words God or Jesus as least a dozen times in his first couple of sentences. Subtle as a brick, this one. Since I was a God-bot in the past (or as I like to say, a bored-again), I find mysef immune to this type of language/reasoning, and I’ve spent enough time around the mentally ill to not be afraid of the harmless ones, so I figured I could, at the very least, keep him from pestering others while I waited for the the machines to finish.

Mike saw God in everything. He heard God in every car horn (which he happily pointed out every time someone set the alarm on their car), saw God’s hand in the finding of an ink pen, and had wonderful ways of looking at numbers and telling you how God was related. Nothing was in the least bit happenstance to Mike; everything showed the hand of God.

Those of you who know me, know I spent a fair bit of time studying God, and trying to be good at it. That I have so demonstratively failed at the attempt, does not reflect the earnestness of which I attempted it; which is to say I used to be a real asshole for God. However, this experience has given me some insight into the “logic” of Christianity, and more importantly, the “logic” of extreme poverty, having at one time in my life been both homeless, and a Christian. So I have some real empathy for Mike, or any man who slowly takes the road from family man with a good job to penniless and living under a bridge. At one point Mike had a business, a wife, ran an AA half-way house, and was a tax paying citizen anyone would be happy to have as a neighbor. Now he is the kind of guy one instinctively shuns while passing on the street. The twin daemons of mental illness and addiction (or maybe mental illness brought on by addiction) have ripped this poor man apart to the point where he has to see God in everything; any other explanation for his life would simply be too cruel to contemplate.

The sad part is that for all his talk, Mike does a much better job showing the absence of God, than the proof thereof. That any creator would bestow upon one of his creatures a sickness so profoundly disturbing that only ruinous self-medication, and delusional ramblings, could alleviate the pain, is cruelty beyond all scope or belief. That he would then demand that this creature proclaim undying love for him, is vile and grotesque.