The Meming of Life: on secular parenting and other natural wonders

Cee Lo Green receives Facepalme d’Or

For rewriting a line of John Lennon’s Imagine in his New Year’s Eve performance in Times Square, Cee Lo Green has been awarded the first Facepalme d’Or of 2012.

While singing the traditional year-ending anthem, Green chose to replace the line “Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion too” with “Nothing to kill or die for / And all religion’s true,” thereby angering Lennon fans (for messing with perfection), evangelical Christians (for implying other religions might be true), and atheists (for precisely reversing Lennon’s clear intention).

“The committee was a bit conflicted on this one,” said Facepalme committee chair Patrick Stewart. “Not about whether it deserved the award, of course. But this marks the third time an edit of this precise lyric has earned the Palme — and it’s not even the worst example, not by a long shot.”

An entering college music student in St. Paul, Minnesota earned the 1993 award during her audition (in front of the author of this blog) for singing, “Nothing to kill or die for / And more religion, too.” But neither of these comes close to the performance by a singer on Jimmy Swaggart’s televangelical program in 1985, who changed ” Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion too” to “Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion, too…except your own.”

“I couldn’t believe that one Myself,” said a prominent source.

You say jump, we jump: Bernadette now an ebook

After posting about my satirical novels Calling Bernadette’s Bluff and Good Thunder, I received a flurry of emails asking why (the hell) Bernadette wasn’t offered as an ebook.

Good question, since it once was.

I wrote to the publisher, and boom, it’s available again in ebook form. For reasons unclear, they are only offering that version through their own site.

Okay, I’ve met your demands…now please, release The Dawk.

P.S. In apparent response to the increase in orders, Amazon has also lowered the price of the print version.

Ten years of Calling Bernadette’s Bluff

My 500th post goes back ten years to the beginning of my public freethought life, before Parenting Beyond Belief, before Foundation Beyond Belief

Spring 2001. I’m a mostly closeted secular humanist on the faculty of a Catholic women’s college in Minnesota. It’s Friday afternoon, so I’m sitting with a small, sad knot of St. Kate’s faculty men at The Dubliner, a pub in St. Paul. Guinness in and bile out.

A sociology prof and good friend named Brian Fogarty tells about seeing two students on the quad earlier that day, having a pitched argument. No contact, but plenty of heat. As Brian slunk by the two, another student leapt out from behind a column and thrust a slip of paper at him:

You were just a witness to lesbian domestic abuse.
WHAT DID YOU DO ABOUT IT??

“You know,” he sighed after describing it, “if I did stick my nose in, it would have been ‘a male thing to do.’ You just can’t win.”

He was right about that. The campus was laced with these double-binds. “Somebody has to write a satirical novel about this place,” I said.

“Yeah yeah, you always say that. So write it.”

“Wha…me? I was actually thinking of a writer.”

“Write one scene,” he said. “See what happens.”

That night I wrote an eight-page scene in which a faculty committee discusses what to do about the school song. The meeting is called to order by Jack Kassel, who is, by the most extraordinary coincidence, a closeted secular humanist male professor at a Catholic women’s college:

Well then, we meet again to discuss changes to the college fight song.” Audible gasps around the table. Jack’s eyes inflate as he realizes his mistake. “I mean, the college song,” he sputters in a rush. “The song. The Hymn to Saint Bernadette.”

Oh goody, he thinks. Now I get to start in a hole. Shit on a stick.

The next day I laid out the storyline. Jack is already at the end of his rope when his oldest partner in disbelief shows up — as the campus priest, no less — and he finally plunges over the edge when his ex-wife enrolls their brilliant young son in a Lutheran school and the boy begins quoting Scripture in response to Jack’s questions. Back against the wall, Jack starts to come out as a nonbeliever at what turns out to be the worst possible time — as visions of the Virgin Mary begin appearing on campus.

I wrote for ten weeks straight, a fun and feverish thing, finishing up ten years ago this month. After months of refining, I published it through Xlibris, and in January 2002, just seven months after Brian’s taunt, Calling Bernadette’s Bluff went public.

The book was stocked in the college bookstore and sold out repeatedly. The local paper did a nice feature, and reviews have been good. The resemblance of “St. Bernie’s” to St. Kate’s (and the presence of characters said to resemble actual carbon-based people on campus, including the president, the dean of faculty, and half a dozen profs) was duly noted. The dean of faculty even asked for a signed copy. What fun.

The next year…not so much. That’s when my slow-burning conflict with the administration began over free expression on campus, leading eventually to my disgusted resignation in ’06.

Hard to believe how much has happened in ten years. Along the way, in addition to the parenting books, I wrote Good Thunder, which picks up three days after Bernadette ends. But I didn’t release that one until last year for various reasons, then didn’t announce the release to anyone until now. There’s just been too much going on.

And even now, I’m mentioning it only in the context of Bernadette’s Bluff because Good Thunder would be incomprehensible without reading Bernadette first. Don’t even think about trying.

I’m really surprised at how well both books hold up for me as a reader after all these years. I usually hate who I was and what I did over nine minutes ago, but these still say what I wanted to say.

It helped that so many characters are based on real people. The deeply nutty aspects of Catholicism are on display, but (as several reviewers have noted) the strongest and most likable character is Genevieve Martin, the Catholic dean, who was based on the actual dean at the time. So when Dean Martin butts heads with spineless Jack, it’s hard even for nontheists to entirely know who to root for. Likewise Leslie, the militant feminist with the blinding Grin, manages to make sense and nonsense and to convince and infuriate at the same time. I don’t think I could have written that character convincingly from scratch. Fortunately I’d known her in person, and been convinced and infuriated by her for years. She was one of several people at St. Kate’s who helped turn me from a passive feminist to a deeply committed one. But she also showed me, quite unintentionally, just how silly it could get at times, resting as it does in human hands.

The weirdest thing about Bernadette is the fact that several things in the story ended up happening on campus the next year. My favorite: A construction project on the fictional St. Bernie’s campus unearthed bones, and the Lakota Sioux claimed they were sacred and halted the project. A year after publication, a construction project on the non-fictional St. Kate’s campus unearthed an underground spring. The Lakota Sioux claimed it was sacred and halted the project.

Like they say, you can’t make this stuff up.

Calling Bernadette’s Bluff on Amazon
Good Thunder on Amazon

Merry Krismas to all

Originally posted Dec. 20, 2007

nikOh, how completely I adore this.

I had an interview [back then] with Rev. Welton Gaddy for the Air America program STATE OF BELIEF. Among the questions was the classic “How do nonreligious families celebrate Christmas?” My staple answer usually includes phrases like “Many different ways, there’s no need to all conform to a single expression,” “The winter solstice celebration is as old as humanity,” “Food, folks and fun,” and “Oh, there’s a religious version, too?”

Three hours too late, I learned from a comment on the PBB Discussion Forum that I don’t celebrate Christmas at all, and never have. I celebrate Krismas. As Jacob Walker, one of the namers of the holiday, put it:

Krismas is a secular holiday that celebrates the myth of Kris Kringle, commonly known as Santa Claus. It happens on December 25th of each year, and is also closely associated with Krismas Eve, which occurs December 24th… Krismas is about giving gifts, especially those “from the heart”; it is about the magic of childhood; it is about peace on earth; and it is about goodwill towards humankind, and anything else you wish it to mean that does not involve the Jesus as a savior bit.

Apparently this idea is three [now eight] years old. Leave it to me to miss it. This is not merely cute; the more I think about it, the more genuine brilliance I see. Here’s more from Jacob:

I loved Christmas growing up. I treasure those memories. I treasure the mythology of Santa Claus, Rudolph, Elves, etc. I treasure the idea of giving gifts, the beauty of Christmas lights and the smell of Christmas trees. This is what Christmas was about to me. These are the secular mythologies and symbols that we have made Christmas about.

I really didn’t think much about the birth of Jesus while growing up; it was just another mythology surrounding the time, and I never believed in Jesus as a savior. As I have grown, I have come to believe that the notion of Jesus being a savior, and many of the ideas of fundamentalist Christian churches, and the Catholic church to be detrimental to peace, acceptance and love in our world. So I didn’t want to support them any longer. It also would not be true of me to celebrate Christmas when I really don’t follow what many people consider the MAJOR tenet of that holiday. So I decided to create a new holiday that would support the tenets that I believe are good and righteous.

In recent years there has been a movement by many fundamentalist Christian groups to “pull” Christmas back to being a religious holiday only. I think that is fine. We can have Krismas, they can have Christmas.

(Many thanks to BornAgainHeathen for the tip!)

Dazed and confused

confuciusErin (12) is in the middle of a nice comparative religion curriculum in her social sciences class. Looks to be much better than the usual slapdash.

The units are tied in with geography and culture. They’re currently on Southwest Asia, so at the moment it’s the three Abrahamic monotheisms. As usual, minority religions — Bahá’í, Gnosticism, Druze, Zoroastrianism, et al. — get the short straw, with no mention that I can see. I’d especially like to see Zoroastrianism covered, if only for all the yummy Christian parallels.) But three is ever so much better than one.

I know from Connor’s middle school years that they’ll get into the other two of the Big Five as they move east, and I told Erin as much.

“So what religion is in China?” she asked. She’s taking introductory Mandarin at the moment, so it’s a natural first place for her mind to go.

“All of them,” I said. It’s an annoying answer that happens to be true. I try to resist the tendency to paint countries with a single religion, a practice as misleading as Red and Blue states.

Most people equate China with Buddhism, but the country has a long history of pluralism of belief. Buddhism, Taoism, and various folk religions account for about half the population combined. Christians and Muslims are estimated at 2-4 percent each, with a metric smattering of Jews, Hindus, and others.

And the rest? I told Erin the largest single belief group in China is the nonreligious, clocking in at 40-50 percent — not a consequence of Mao, but a strong tradition going back 2200 years.

“A lot of those follow a philosophy you might hear about next year when you study China,” I told her. “It’s called Confucianism.”

She puzzled on the word a moment.

“Is that because they don’t really know what they believe?”

Tooth and claw

Copperhead
copper

“Rachel and I can’t decide whether to go down to the creek or not.”

Our home north of Atlanta has a fantastic backyard. A little lawn near the house drops away dramatically into a wooded slope of sixty-foot trees before plunging to a creek at the property line.

After two years of admiring the creek from a distance, Erin (12) began to take a more active interest in the past year, spending long hours exploring it with friends. During the winter, they could retain the illusion that they were the only living things present. But spring has brought the return of tangible biodiversity, and in recent weeks, Erin’s least favorite living thing has re-appeared on the property — snakes. That’s what had her second-guessing her fantastic new pastime.

“What’s the problem?” I asked, knowing.

“Snakes.”

“Ah.”

“Seriously. What should we do?” She and Rachel sat on the couch, dramatically-knit tween foreheads fully deployed.

“You should go to your room and curl up in a ball on the floor.”

She switched to Unamused Tween Expression #4. “I’m sure you have a point.”

Silly thing to be sure of, knowing me as she does. But she was right.

“If your only goal is to be safe, it’s your best move. But if you want a good life, you need to spend some time figuring out which fears are worth having.”

“Snakes, Dad, duh. It’s a fear worth having.”

“Not if it isn’t going to happen.”

“But it might!”

She’s right. It might. But I want her to learn to balance risk and reward — to recognize that too manic an obsession with safety wrings all of la joie out of la vivre, that we too often worry about the wrong things anyway, and that a little knowledge can often do more than anything else to put fears in perspective.

Now — before we get to the part where I sagely assuage my daughter’s overblown fear, let me point out that I have fears of my own, that my family has lovely sport with those fears, and that they are wrong. My fears are sensibly directed at an awesome predator, one much larger than myself — the cow.

MOOOO
moo

Okay. I can hear your self-righteous tittering. You know what, forget the word ‘cow.’ Cows are named ‘Bessie.’ Cows jump over the moon. Call them cattle and now who’s laughing? Cattle stampede, don’t they. Why yes they do. And when the bulls run in Pamplona, people run too. Like mad. And cows, you will surely know, have long been associated with human death. Mad cow disease? Look at the middle word. So don’t you sit there and jeer at me. Okay then.

(Back to my daughter’s baseless fears.)

It so happens that I had a quick chat with Google after our first snake sighting last year. “Did you know there are 41 types of snakes native to this part of the country?”

“That’s supposed to help?”

“…and that 35 of them are harmless, that only two of the remaining six venomous snakes are in this actual area, and that both of those have very distinctive patterns? Did the snakes you’ve seen have clear patterns?”

Earth snake
earth

“No. They were just kind of grey. But it was hard to see because they were moving away so fast.”

“Moving where now?”

“Away.”

“Fast.”

“Yes.”

“To getting a running start at you?”

“Dad.”

I know where she’s coming from. We see something wicked in certain animals. Spiders scare us off our tuffets. Snakes hand us problematic apples. We invest them with a kind of evil agency. They WANT to be and do bad. And no matter how much I know about the natural world, I am aware of a tiny sliver of this nonsense, probably wedged in my midbrain somewhere, that still sees them this way. Even though it IS nonsense, it’s really hard to shake. Our conditioning runs deep.

But shaking it was the key to getting Erin back to the creek, and the key to shaking it was thinking adaptively. We had to pry loose the picture of the snake, bwahaha, looking for an opportunity to bite the 100 lb. primate. There’s just nothing in it for the snake — nothing, that is, but a very good chance of getting fatally danced upon. It’s simple selection. Those snakes with a tendency to bite for the evil fun of it wouldn’t generally live to pass on those bitey genes. Eventually you have yourself a population of snakes that will bite the hairless monkey only as a very last resort, e.g. when taken unawares.

I told her these things, and she nodded. “Hm.”

“You both want the same thing, so do yourself and the snake a favor. Make some noise as you approach the creek. Take a stick and rustle the leaves in front of you. Every snake will take off like a shot and have a great story for his friends tonight. If all else fails and you end up next to a snake, it is almost certainly not venomous. And if it is, it almost certainly won’t bite you. It will run like hell.”

“And if it is poisonous, and it does bite me?”

“We’re three minutes from a hospital, and they’ll give you an antivenin, and you’ll be fine.”

She pondered warily.

“And I’ll give you a hundred dollars.”

Big hug, and she was off for the creek, planning how to spend it.

The ultimate Robertson smackdown

robertsonYou may have heard about Pat Robertson’s reliably idiotic response to the Haitian earthquake — that Haiti is reaping the consequences of a pact made with the devil in the 18th century by Haitian slaves.

Sane commentators, both religious and non, have rightly heaped outrage and derision on Robertson’s latest departure from human decency. But the award for most brilliant smackdown of a lunatic goes to this letter to the editor, which appeared in today’s Minneapolis Star Tribune:

Dear Pat Robertson,
I know that you know that all press is good press, so I appreciate the shout-out. And you make God look like a big mean bully who kicks people when they are down, so I’m all over that action. But when you say that Haiti has made a pact with me, it is totally humiliating. I may be evil incarnate, but I’m no welcher. The way you put it, making a deal with me leaves folks desperate and impoverished. Sure, in the afterlife, but when I strike bargains with people, they first get something here on earth — glamour, beauty, talent, wealth, fame, glory, a golden fiddle. Those Haitians have nothing, and I mean nothing. And that was before the earthquake. Haven’t you seen “Crossroads”? Or “Damn Yankees”? If I had a thing going with Haiti, there’d be lots of banks, skyscrapers, SUVs, exclusive night clubs, Botox — that kind of thing. An 80 percent poverty rate is so not my style. Nothing against it — I’m just saying: Not how I roll. You’re doing great work, Pat, and I don’t want to clip your wings — just, come on, you’re making me look bad. And not the good kind of bad.

Keep blaming God. That’s working. But leave me out of it, please. Or we may need to renegotiate your own contract.

Best, Satan

LILY COYLE, MINNEAPOLIS

Good thing I’m happily married or I’d be on one knee in Minneapolis tonight.

(Hat tip to Brian Fogarty.)

The Passion of the Frost

frosty5409

Move while you still see me
You’ll be lost, you’ll be so sorry, when I’m gone.

Jesus Christ, in Jesus Christ Superstar

So he said, “Let’s run and we’ll have some fun
now before I melt away.”

Frosty the Snowman

Last time I drew a parallel between God and Santa. This time we unveil an even more shocking truth: that Frosty the Snowman and Jesus the Christ are one and the same.

Oh you heard me.

Jesus was born improbably (via virgin), loved everyone unconditionally, then saved humanity by sacrificing himself on the cross as Mary wept. He was resurrected and joined God in Heaven.

Frosty was born improbably (via magic hat), loved everyone unconditionally, then saved a little girl by sacrificing himself in a greenhouse. Karen wept over the puddle he had become, then he was resurrected and flew to the “North Pole” with (ahem) “Santa.”

The corker? They both promise a Second Coming:

Do not let your hearts be troubled…I will come back.
Jesus (John 14:1-3)

Don’t you cry, I’ll be back again someday.
Frosty

Why, it’s practically Narnia in top hat and carrot.

In the Name of the Big Guy

hobWent to a classroom play of sorts at Erin’s middle school — a mostly unscripted mock trial. The teacher is innovative and fun, and Erin adores her, so I wasn’t surprised to see that she’d come up with this clever little exercise.

The kids were assigned roles — prosecution and defense teams, jury, witnesses, and so on.  On trial was an alligator, accused of eating the witch in the Rapunzel story (a wrinkle I’d never heard before). 

Various other fairy-tale characters testified — again, unscriptedly, so they had to think on their feet. It mostly went as you’d expect of sixth graders asked to improvise.

Erin was the bailiff. As the first witness approached — the prince, I believe — Erin instructed him to raise his right hand and place the other hand on a fairy-tale book she held out. (Had myself a nice internal chuckle at the parallel.)

It occurred to me casually — I’ve come ever so far — that the name of the Creator was about to be invoked. Sure enough, Erin looked the prince in the eye and said

Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you Grimm?

Is somebody watching Tim Minchin’s cholesterol?

timminchin21109I don’t fall in love as often as I used to. When I was young, I ran into something new to love every time I turned around. Like Kurt Vonnegut, like fresh guacamole. Like sex with others, like Richard Dawkins.

Like deeelicious sentential ambiguity.

I find myself falling in love a lot less often at middle age. I need to be surprised, and it’s hard to do that to me anymore. Everything seems derivative. That’s bad, because though some of my old loves (like sex and guacamole) have staying power, most lose their luster with time. I’m still friends with some of my early loves, like David Hume and Tower of Power, but we don’t bump uglies as much as we used to. I need new meat, and I go years at a time without finding anything worth stalking.

But in 2009 alone, I fell for three very promising things: coconut red curry beef, Radiolab, and Tim Minchin.

I don’t like the fact that the things I love are finite. Peek under the religious impulse and I think you’ll find that exact thing — an answer to the human yearning that shit be mortal and the good eternal. When I first recognized Radiolab as my soulmate, I downloaded the complete podcast archive of 63 shows. A few quick calculations later, I realized that 63 was a finite number and wept. I’m now halfway through that archive, and that realization still sniffles a bit every time I finish an episode. They’re making more, but too slowly.

My wife Becca is also said to be mortal. I’ve made her promise to outlive me, something that required less arm-twisting than I would have liked.

I’m not the only one in this house who hates impermanence. I blogged last year about my youngest, Delaney, hearing that Dr. Seuss was no longer alive:

Erin (9): Is he still alive?

Dad: Who?

Erin: Dr. Seuss.

Dad: Oh. No, he died about fifteen years ago, I think. But he had a good long life first.

As I continued reading, I suddenly became aware that Delaney (6) was very quietly sobbing.

Dad: Oh, sweetie, what’s the matter?

Delaney: Is anybody taking his place?

Dad: What do you mean, punkin?

Delaney: Is anybody taking Dr. Seuss’ place to write his books? (Begins a deep cry.) Because I love them so much, I don’t want him to be all-done!

I scanned the list of Seuss books on the back cover. “Hey, you know what?” I said. “We haven’t even read half of his books yet!”

Feeble, I know. So did she.

“But we will read them all!” she said. “And then there won’t be any more!” I had only moved the target, which didn’t solve the problem in the least.

Which brings me to Tim Minchin’s cholesterol.

Tim is a British-born Australian comedian who (like most great, original comedians) makes that word look flimsy and inadequate. I found him earlier this year through his nine-minute beat poem “Storm.” I listened to it, found it unbelievably smart and funny and posted it on the blog, and then let busyness keep me from finding and having my way with everything he has ever done.

Last week I came across “Storm” again, re-swooned at it, then downloaded the whole live CD on which it appears.

Holy Shi’ite.

If a 15-track CD — music, comedy, whatever — has three good, two great, and one brilliant track, I count myself lucky. Double each of those at least and you’ve got Tim Minchin’s CD Ready for This?

Since surprise is so much of the thrill, I won’t try to describe any of them specifically. I’ll just say that his vehicle is the comedy song, that his musical chops as both composer and piano performer are insane, and that his comic sensibility and intelligence make this some of the most densely rewarding comedy I have found in a long, long time looking.

It’s not all about surprise, though. Yesterday, while listening to one of the tracks in the car for the FOURTH time, I began laughing/crying so hard that I had to hand the steering wheel over to Isaac Newton for a minute. Listen to the developing intellectual and comic curve of this thing:


(I began to lose control at 2:20 and went over the cliff at 2:36. Thanks for the cards and letters.)

It goes on and on. But here’s the thing: Tim Minchin is going to die. I now have a vested interest in preventing this, or at least delaying it until after my own exit. That way I can cultivate the idea that it will be Tim Minchin who kills me in the end — me 85, driving; he 73, singing.

I had hoped for the same lifelong gift from David Foster Wallace, my favorite writer, who was exactly my age when clinical depression hung him from a rafter in his home last year. I’ll be needing Tim Minchin to stick around longer than that — at least twice as long as his great-great-great-great uncleses and auntses, as he would put it. That’s why I hope somebody is watching Tim’s cholesterol and holding his hand to cross the street (TIP: Traffic in the U.K. goes the wrong way!)

I’m a selfish bastard for even asking these things, really. David Foster Wallace didn’t owe me anything after Infinite Jest — didn’t even “owe” me that — and if Tim Minchin never writes or performs another thing, Ready for This? is plenty.

One of the most unexpected gifts on the CD is the last full song. Titled “White Wine in the Sun,” it’s a straight, simple, moving anthem of the humanist heart — more powerful than any other musical expression of its kind that I’ve heard. And I want it played at my funeral — live would be nice — after which, and only after which, Tim Minchin has permission to die.

Download “Ready for This?” from Amazon
(Note to my brothers: You’re getting a copy for Krismas, so don’t click.)