Wednesday, October 31, 2007

H. L. Mencken

Tonight I attended the second of five lectures by the Professor David Domke on the subject of religion & politics. I came home with a renewed interest in H. L. Mencken, so for tonight a reprint of "Mencken's Creed":

  • I believe that religion, generally speaking, has been a curse to mankind--that its modest and greatly overestimated services on the ethical side have been more than overcome by the damage it has done to clear and honest thinking.
  • I believe that no discovery of fact, however trivial, can be wholly useless to the race, and that no trumpeting of falsehood, however virtuous in intent, can be anything but vicious. . .
  • I believe that the evidence for immortality is no better than the evidence of witches, and deserves no more respect.
  • I believe in the complete freedom of thought and speech . . .
  • I believe in the capacity of man to conquer his world, and to find out what it is made of, and how it is run.
  • I believe in the reality of progress.
  • But the whole thing, after all, may be put very simply. I believe that it is better to tell the truth than to lie. I believe that it is better to be free than to be a slave. And I believe that it is better to know than be ignorant.
-- Mencken's Creed, cited by George Seldes in Great Thoughts

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Low Biorhythms

My energy level has been much too low lately to stay up at night typing away on my blog. Justin has entered a new phase of whining and crying, especially at bedtime. Jen and I keep saying, “we need to sit down and read a book or two. Figure out some kind of game plan.” When he’s wailing like a banshee at bed time going into his room just seems to exacerbate the situation. Tonight I promised myself that I was not going to go into his room in an attempt to sooth him to sleep. I did go up once after about five minutes of screaming. But after that one time I did not go back up and he actually seemed to fall asleep a little more quickly. It’s just past eleven and he hasn’t woken up whining for attention yet. Because of Justin’s erratic sleeping patterns I haven’t been getting much rest either. Jen is also filling in tonight for her boss, so my time off schedule is screwed up this week.

Yesterday was the fourteenth anniversary of my first date with Jennifer. She had answered a personal ad that I had placed in the local alternative rag called The Stranger. We met at a restaurant in Bellevue called Twelve Baskets, which I mistakenly thought was a vegetarian restaurant. It was actually a biblically themed restaurant. I think that meant that the dishes were all based on some biblical origin. Lots of fishes and loaves! I remember that the heretic stew was quite good. The previous week I had been talked into attending a Christian singles weekend by a coworker, at a campground in central Washington. Needless to say, I spent most of my time in the woods reading a book. At the first opportunity I left early with someone else, who had to get back to town and pick up their kid. On my first date with Jen at the Christian themed Twelve Baskets, I recognized two women at an adjacent table from the previous singles weekend. I noticed them sneaking looks my way. I wondered if they overheard Jennifer when she proudly exclaimed that she was an atheist. Fourteen years ago. Last night we celebrated with champagne and pumpkin pie

Tomorrow night I’ll be attending the second of five lectures at UW entitled Religion, Politics, and the Modern American Presidency. I believe that professor Domke will be covering the Scopes trial. That should make for an interesting evening. Now I need to creep upstairs past Justin’s crib and hope that he continues to sleep soundly through the night.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Julia Sweeney and Spamalot

Last Saturday evening I saw Julia Sweeney perform her latest monologue entitled Letting Go of God. It took place at a new performing arts center in Bothell, which is actually housed in the local high school. I would have liked to have seen every seat filled, but that wasn’t the case. I didn’t see much publicity ahead of time, but I happened to see a listing for it on I had bought the CD version of the performance earlier in the summer and thought it was brilliant. It’s very funny, but also very poignant at times. Having grown up attending church regularly as a United Methodist protestant, and even considered the clergy at one point, I could relate to Julia Sweeney’s journey out of faith. I have also read through Buddhist texts and studied Native American beliefs on the look out for a belief that felt more comfortable with my own world view. The radio show This American Life did a feature piece on Julia and Letting Go of God and it was one of their most popular shows, generating enormous amounts of e-mail. I had the good fortune of seeing Julia Sweeney speak just last weekend at the Freedom From Religion Foundation convention, which took place in Madison, Wisconsin. If you are not able to catch a live performance of Letting Go of God, the good news is that a film version is now in post production. It’s a wonderful celebration of the mind and what it feels like to be a human in this vast universe.

On Sunday evening Jen and I attended a performance of the road production of Spamalot. I had read all the publicity about this show while it ran on Broadway. It’s based, for the most part, on the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but the writers did a great job of inserting other elements from Python’s repertoire. They even include the song "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" from the film The Life of Brian. I grew up watching Monty Python on my local PBS station and my high school was filled with kids like me, who were constantly quoting lines from the Holy Grail. I remember taking my dad to see it and the fact that he didn't laugh once during the entire film. While the audience was laughing uproariously during the killer rabbit scene he leaned toward me and whispered, This is stupid! I suppose that he was right, but does that lessen the humor? Certainly not for a fourteen-year-old. My dad didn't get the British humor of Monty Python's Flying Circus, but he would guffaw loudly while watching Benny Hill late at night. It was fun to be sitting in the Paramount theatre amidst throngs of other Python fanatics. Spamalot gave a fresh face to our nostalgia for the carefree days of youth. (Which, if any of us take a moment to ponder, we quickly realize was anything but carefree.) For any fan of the Holy Grail this musical adaptation provides over two hours of fun and laughter.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

A Matter of Taste?

“You’ve got chocolate in my peanut butter!” “You’ve got peanut butter on my chocolate!” Robert Plant and Alison Krauss have recorded an album together called Raising Sand and it’s produced by T-Bone Burnett. Burnett has become a producing guru like Brian Eno, or Daniel Lanois. Krauss and Plant first worked together at a 2004 Lead Belly tribute. On Raising Sand they sing tunes by writers such as Tom Waits, Townes Van Zandt, the Everly Brothers and Sam Phillips (wife of T-Bone Burnett.) Somehow the whole thing sounds as if it should have been filed under the “Never Sounded Like a Good Idea in the First Place” category of artistic collaborations. It seems to have been getting good reviews with much praise heaped upon Mr. Burnett. I’ve listened to a few brief clips and I’m not immediately impressed. I prefer Plant’s voice of yore with its high pitched wail. I realize he cannot duplicate those sounds anymore, but somehow this project seems off the mark. Kind of like that album by Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach. Of course, the critics loved that one too. But what the hell do they know? You know that old saying: “Those who can’t do teach. Those who can’t teach become critics.” Recent CD releases on my want list are: Nellie McKay - Obligatory Villagers, Stacey Kent - Breakfast on the Morning Tram, Lyle Lovett and His Large Band - It’s Not Big It’s Large, Dwight Yoakam - Dwight Sings Buck, Steve Earle - Washington Square Serenade, and Jim Lauderdale’s The Bluegrass Diaries.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Back Home

I arrived back in Seattle just before 6pm on Tuesday, October 16th. Last night I started attending a lecture series at UW called Religion, Politics, and the Modern American Presidency. This lecture series is the reason I'm now reading American Gospel by Jon Meacham. I'm still readjusting to west coast time and to being back in the role of the full time parent at home with my son Justin. I'm sure that I'll have more thoughts on my recent attendance of the Freedom From Religion Foundation's annual convention as the days go on. Yesterday I drove north to Third Place Books to pick up a signed copy of Stephen R. Donaldson's latest tome entitled, Fatal Revenant. It's the second of four books in the "Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant." The original series is still one of my favorite fantasy tales and I hope to reread them all in the near future. I also bought the latest book by Tom Perrotta, author of Election and Little Children, entitled The Abstinence Teacher. Perrotta continues to probe the lives and mores of middle-class suburbia.

I'd like to close with a recent quote from one of my favorite film directors, David Cronenberg:". . . as an atheist, I believe that your body is you. That's the first and only fact of human existence."

Sunday, October 14, 2007

A Rainy Sunday

This morning was the members only meeting of the FFRF. It was the last event connected with the convention. Members voted on new board members (all running unopposed.) We also heard financial reports and updates on legal battles. The best news was the FFRF's membership has doubled in the last two years. At the end there was time for an open mike for questions and comments. Of course, there was still some residual anger left over from Hitchens appearance. FFRF is a nonpartisan organization, but it's obvious that the majority of the membership is comprised of liberal minded folks. One complainer compared inviting Hitchens to inviting James Dobson. A comment I found way off the mark. After the meeting I met up with someone from Gig Harbor, Washington, and we went to the Chazen Museum of Art, which is on the campus of the University of Wisconsin. It was quite an impressive museum, especially considering that there was no entry fee. There was a special photographic exhibit called Small Arms: Children of Conflict that was quite moving. Maybe Christopher Hitchens should have taken in that exhibit, but I doubt if it would have changed his mind about bombing innocent citizens. Somehow I think that his intake of Johnnie Walker Red over the years has taken its toll on his compassion. After spending a few hours admiring artwork I went back to my hotel room and slept just over three hours. I'm certainly looking forward to being able to sleep in tomorrow, which is my last full day in town. I think that I may trek on down to the campus again and take in the geology museum there and tomorrow night there's a showing of Superbad at the Orpheum. By Tuesday morning I'll be ready to get back to Seattle to see my family.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Hitchens Hits Hard

For the most part, today was the last day of the conference. There is a members only meeting tomorrow morning at 9am to vote on issues relevant to FFRF, but other than that it's over. It has been most inspirational. This morning we began with Ellery Schempp, whose complaint as a high school student led to the landmark Supreme Court decision barring prayer and bible reading from the public schools. He received the "Hero of the First Amendment" award and gave an exceptional and moving acceptance speech. Next up was Matthew LaClair, who is a seventeen-year-old high school student from New Jersey, whose history teacher was proselytizing during class, declaring evolution to be unproven and therefore false, and informing the class that nonbelievers would be going to hell. All of this in history class! Luckily Matt LaClair was smart enough to record his teacher in the act. If only all everyone was as brave as this seventeen-year-old this country would be a lot better off. Matt LaClair was followed by Stephanie Salter, a liberal columnist, who had worked out for the San Francisco Chronicle for a couple of decades and then ended up moving back to her home of Terre Haute, Indiana, when her father took ill. She gave an interesting perspective on being a outspoken supporter of the separation of church and state (even though she herself is a believer and goes to church regularly.) She read a couple of her columns including one about a 50 foot red and white striped cross with a flashing red light on top and the words "Jesus Saves" on it. Somehow, an evangelical church was able to bypass all kinds of laws and restrictions to erect this cross. Ms. Salter was sure that they wouldn't have bent the laws that way to allow a 50 foot tall Mickey Mouse. She suggested how fifty foot tall question mark might be more appropriate. She also has a web site going up about the matter of state sponsored "In God We Trust" license plates that are not considered vanity plates as they should be. I'll put up more information about this when I have time to do the research.

After a break for lunch we returned to Monona Terrace for the main event: Christopher Hitchens. He received the Emperor Has No Clothes award and was, as expected, combative and argumentative, even among the atheist crowd. He likes to push people's buttons and he knew that he was in a room full of liberals. Atheists, but liberals also. He bemoaned the fact that there was no literature for sale on the evils of Islam and told us that we couldn't consider ourselves serious opponents of the dangers of religion without examining Muslim extremists. He's right, but I certainly don't agree with his suggested methods to take care of the problem: bomb Iran back into the stone age. If there are no Muslim children then wouldn't it be wrong to kills thousands of innocent children, because of the backward beliefs of their parents? Hitchens switched from hard left to hard right when the Iraq war began and he hasn't wavered. No comment on Abu Ghraib or the lawlessness of private security contractors. No comment on the jobs handed over to Bush cronies with no experience, whose tasks were to rebuild a country. Yes, Muslim extremists are over the top and Islam is just another false belief, but war breeds war and isn't it about time we started to develop some alternate methods of solving international problems besides death and destruction? Just wondering. After he sparred with questioners, Hitchens sat down to sign books and I stood in line for about ten minutes to get my copies of God is Not Great and The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice signed. After the signing I returned to my hotel room to take a brief nap before returning for tonight's dinner and entertainment. I've been on west coast time since I've arrived and haven't been able to get to sleep until at least three in the morning for the last two nights. I don't think I'll have that problem tonight. After dinner the entertainment was Tunes and 'Toons, which was Dan Barker at the piano and Steve Benson (editorial cartoonist for the Arizona Republic.) It was a lot of fun. The entire convention has been a lot of fun and I think I've finally have found a club that I would want to be a member of (to misquote Groucho Marx.) I feel comfortable among these independent freethinkers and found everyone to be very kind and engaging. I've met lawyers, doctors, lobbyists, ex-boxers and ex-priests. I think I may have found my calling.

It's nearly midnight here and even though I don't think I've had eight hours of sleep in the past 48 hours I wanted to jot down some thoughts about today. Currently the Red Sox and the Indians have just gone into extra innings with the score tied at 6-6. I've already predicted to my dad that the Red Sox will go on to win the World Series in 5 games. Let's see if I'm right. Now I've got to get some rest.

Friday, October 12, 2007

The Convention Begins

Tonight was the official opening of the 30th annual FFRF convention. Earlier in the day there was an open house at the FFRF offices, but before going to that I spent an hour in the Madison public library reading American Gospel by Jon Meacham. It was a pleasant time and I may end up going back there tomorrow just to find some quiet space to read. Once I got to the open house there was quite a crowd waiting to get in. While waiting in line to enter the building I struck up a conversation with a gentleman named Bill, who had driven up from Illinois for the event. Once inside it became a little awkward moving through the small building balancing small plates of food. I grabbed a cup of punch, but skipped the free food. (Can you believe it?) I ended up in the library upstairs talking to Bill about politics and the history of the Middle East. Heavy stuff. I left after about an hour and on the way back to the hotel I stopped at Capitol Kids to pick up a little something for Justin. At first I thought I'd get him something that represented Wisconsin, but all they seemed to have in that respect was a Wisconsin football jersey, or a stuffed badger wearing a football jersey. I ended up getting him a shirt with an elephant on it and a small plastic elephant to go with it. I was a little dismayed when I saw that the price of the shirt was $23 yet it was made in Vietnam. Somehow I don't think the wages of the textile workers in Vietnam merit the exorbitant price.

This evening conference events started at 7pm, so I left the hotel about 5pm and went to a bar & grill called Nick's for a chicken gyro. I was surprised when it arrived on my plate deconstructed. I'm used to eating my gyro like a sandwich, but I ended up using a fork. I couldn't finish the fries, because they were quite rich . . . as if they were fried in lard. Tasted damn good though. After dinner I walked to the Monona Terrace where the evening's events were taking place. I had a little time to browse the freethinker products on sale and picked up a copy of Dan Barker's book Losing Faith in Faith and Katha Pollitt's Death or Virginity. Ms. Pollitt was the first speaker after some musical entertainment provided by Dan Barker and local jazz singer Susan Hofer. Katha Pollitt was very inspiring and political. In fact, she stated at the beginning of her talk that she wanted to be hopeful for a change, because a lot of good things have happened for secularists in the past couple of years with no small thanks to FFRF. Julia Sweeney was up next and first she commented on an item that Katha Pollitt had mentioned. Katha Pollitt talked a little about the ineffectiveness of abstinence programs and one of the programs she mentioned was the "silver ring thing." This is someone's ridiculous idea of having teenagers wear a silver ring to signify their virgin status and they are only to take the ring off once they are married. Julia's comment was "How hot would it be for a teenager to have sex while wearing the silver ring? Didn't they learn anything from those Catholic school girl uniforms?" After the talks I stood in line to get a couple of items signed by Julia Sweeney and Katha Pollitt. I mentioned to Julia that I'd be seeing her perform Letting Go of God in Bothell next week. She replied that a friend asked her, "where are you performing? In a brothel?" She commented on the copy of Dan Barker's book that I had in my hands, talking about a particular moment when he is lying back on his bed contemplating the whole idea of disbelief. I then had Katha Pollitt sign her book Virginity or Death. In her talk she had mentioned going to communist summer camp and I told her that my wife had had a similar childhood. I told her who my father-in-law is and she said, "Oh, I get e-mails from Clark all the time!" Small world. Once I had my items signed (I also found Dan Barker and he signed my copy of his book) I made my way over to the tables to have a piece of cake. By chance I ended up sitting by a woman from Capitol Hill in Seattle. We had a nice conversation. In fact, I was so involved with being social that I left my signed copies of Losing Faith in Faith and Virginity or Death on the table in the convention center. My only hope is that someone found the books and noticed that they are both signed "to Mark" and turned them into lost and found. I'll be back at Monona Terrace tomorrow for more events, so I'll check then. There was a time when that little mishap would have me beating myself up for the rest of the evening, but somehow it just doesn't seem that important.

When I had gotten back to the hotel I met the gentlemen from Gig Harbor, who I had met the first night, coming out of the hotel restaurant. He told me that he and Christopher Hitchens were the only patrons in there and he was sitting there with a copy of Hitchens' book. He contemplated asking Hitchens to sign it, but thought that would be intruding. These nonbelievers are so damn considerate. That's why somehow I think that the books that left behind will be turned in to lost and found. He then told me that Hitchens was in currently in the bar (who would have guessed?) I went to my room and deposited my stuff and then head back down to the bar with visions of a pint of Guinness in my head. Unfortunately, the bar was packed and there was an annoying jazz band filling the room with sound. I think that I did spot Mr. Hitchens at a table by himself. In fact, he looked up as I was scanning the room for a seat. I decided to pass on the bar and went downtown in search of a quiet spot to enjoy a stout. I soon realized that there is no quiet pub on a Friday night in a college town. I was soon back in my hotel room, setting my alarm clock for 7am, so that I can go downstairs for the non-prayer breakfast tomorrow morning. I have to admit that I wish I was flying home a day or two earlier than Tuesday morning. I suppose that I can head back to the public library for some quiet time. There is also the geology museum and the museum of modern art that interest me, so I have some options.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Spotted Cow

I have landed safely in Madison. Jennifer got me to the airport by nine this morning and my flight didn't leave until 10:44, which meant that I didn't have to rush around like a crazy commuter. After finding my window seat I was slightly dismayed when a rather large older women sat in the aisle seat and plunked her hefty bible (the "red letter" edition) on the seat between us. Here I am on my way to an atheist's convention and I'm seated next to a full-fledged Christian. Fortunately for me the middle seat was filled by a rather hirsute gentlemen, who played solitaire on his cell phone the entire flight. I had about an hour layover at O'Hare until the small jet plane left for Madison. Soon we were taxiing out of the terminal, but we soon stopped and the captain announced that something was wrong with his chair and we would need to return to the terminal to allow a technician to board the plane and make the necessary repairs. I don't think the captain's chair was reclining, or something. After an hour delay we were on our way to the "Berkeley of the Midwest." I'm told that's how they refer to the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Upon arriving I called the hotel from the courtesy phone, but I needn't have worried, because about three or four other passengers had already called for transport and the shuttle bus arrived at the airport within five minutes. Check-in was quick and easy and I was soon in the Ovations restaurant on the first floor of the hotel waiting for a someone to pay attention to me. My waitress finally arrived and apologized for leaving me hanging. I ordered a local beer on tap called Spotted Cow, which was quite good, although I had to dispose of the lemon wedge that accompanied my glass. For dinner I ordered roasted chicken breast with a chutney topping and rosemary polenta. I guess the presentation was what made the dish worth $18, because I was still hungry after the meal. I stopped at the bar (which is called The Bar) and ordered one more Spotted Cow, while I continued to read Angels Flight. The bar was cursed with two TVs. One was stuck on the weather channel and the other was obviously glued to a sports channel. A table near me was filled with four women of Indian descent. There's something about an Indian accent. I could have sat there and listened to them talk all night. Another table was filling up with wine drinking men in business suits. I also realized that the bar menu was more suitable to my tastes: burgers, fries and pizza. But that's for next time. I left the bar after one beer with about ten pages left to read. I got up to my room about ten o'clock and the message light on the phone was flashing. Jen had already called and left me a message. I think she was hoping that I would get to talk to Justin on the phone before she put him to bed, but no luck. I called her back, but the phone info in the room states that an average 4 minute long distance call costs about $7.80, so I think I have to have Jen call me back next time to save a few dollars.

I met one gentlemen from Gig Harbor on the shuttle bus to the hotel that is here to attend the FFRF convention. We chatted some on the ride to the hotel. This is his second convention. He attended last year's event in San Francisco. While I was eating dinner I couldn't help overhearing the elderly woman in the hat at the adjacent table, who was talking on her cell phone during my entire meal. She was talking about the FFRF convention, the latest insane rant by Ann Coulter, and the fact that she was on her third glass of Shiraz and hadn't decided what to order for dinner yet. She was the main reason that I decided to take my second beer at the bar, rather than in the restaurant.

I'm looking forward to tomorrow and the first official day of the convention. It starts off with an open house at the FFRF building, where I hear that there will be complimentary hors d'ouevres and desserts. How can I resist?

Madison on the Horizon

I'm leaving for the airport in about fifteeen minutes. This evening I'll be in Madison, where I'll be staying for the next five nights. I'm expecting to have time to blog from there, so I'll catch up with this then.

Friday, October 5, 2007

The Red Sox and Religion

It’s nearly a quarter past eleven on a Friday night. Tonight I split my attention between the Red Sox winning their second straight game of the playoffs and finishing the Christopher Hitchens book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. It was a fine book, as far as anti-religious screeds go. It’s the third books that I’ve read of the so-called “big four.” The other three being The End of Faith by Sam Harris, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, and Breaking the Spell by Daniel C. Dennett. The last title is the only one so far that I haven’t read. I might get to that weighty treatise early next year. The evening after my return from Madison I’ll be starting a Wednesday night lecture series entitled: Religion, Politics, and the Modern American Presidency. In addition to a packet of relevant excerpts and articles, there are a number of books recommended by the professor. I’ve picked up a couple of the titles including American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation by Jon Meacham. It was only a week or so ago that I saw Mr. Meacham debating Mr. Hitchens on a show moderated by Tim - “What’s your favorite bible verse?”- Russert. Meacham’s book is purportedly a evenhanded history of religion’s role in the shaping of our nation. I’ve seen him on a number of shows and he seems to be a pleasant enough guy . . . for a believer. All of the books that are recommended for the lectures seem to take a unbiased view of the subject and I suppose that’s pretty much mandatory in a university setting (contrary to the ravings of David Horowitz.)

The Saturday evening after my return from the FFRF convention in Madison I have a ticket to see Julia Sweeney perform her latest monologue, “Letting Go of God.” I listened to the CD recording of it recently and, yes, I laughed and cried. I have a lot of the same sentiments that she has had along this journey to unbelief. She’ll be speaking on Friday night of the convention, and the latest news is that they will be showing the soon-to-be-released DVD of “Letting Go of God” after her speech. That showing will be from 10:45pm to 12:34am, so I may take a pass since I will be seeing her perform it live the following weekend. My life has recently become busy and, more importantly, full of thought provoking ideas. The effect of parenting and possibly the prospect of reaching 50 years of age. Whatever the cause, I’m enjoying the effects.

Sometimes it’s difficult to give up what little solace I have in an evening, so instead I stay up much too late reading, writing, or trying to catch up on my movie watching. Justin was quite cranky after going to bed tonight, basically whining for about an hour and a half before dropping off for any length of time. When he woke up screaming at ten o’clock, I decided to give him some Motrin. He’s still congested from this cold that we’ve all been battling over the past week. I’m going to miss the little guy while I’m away next week. Oh, you can be sure that I’ll enjoy the solitude and peacefulness of that first night, but I’ll soon miss his smile and quirky antics that usually fill my day. Maybe I’ll be lucky and he’ll finish up any serious teething that needs to be done while I’m away. I can dream can’t I?

I think the next book I’ll read will be Michael Connelly’s Angels Flight. It’s another in his Harry Bosch series and I’ve been reading them in order over the years. In the last installment Harry got married in Las Vegas to a former FBI agent that Harry himself had sent to jail at one time. Of course, in the start of Angels Flight the marriage is already on the skids. Surprise, surprise! Any reader of the series knows that Hieronymus Bosch is destined to be a loner. It’s the nature of the hard boiled thriller. I’m in need of some serious escapism after some of my recent reading, and looking ahead at what I’ll be reading in the near future. This book may even last me through my flight next Thursday.

This is a photo I snapped of Justin during our recent trip to Vancouver Island.

October’s Rainy Entrance

Summer is over. It’s like a giant switch has been pulled and we are now immersed in the rainy gray season. This lasts until late next spring, with a sunny respite usually appearing for a short stretch at the beginning of the year. I used to be able to depend on a few hours of playtime for Justin in the backyard, but now I have to get creative. We’ll both go bonkers if we’re forced to stay in this house during the dark season. We’ve now all officially been afflicted with our first cold of the season. Actually, Jen and I have been hit harder by the bug than Justin has. Maybe it’s because he eats more vegetables than we do. My cold started off as a headache beginning just hours before I was to see Jethro Tull last Sunday evening. This headache was centered at the occipital area of my skull. It dissipated enough by show time, so that I was able to enjoy the concert that evening. Well, as much as you can enjoy a troupe of sixty-somethings, playing prog-rock that’s nearly forty years old. And Ian Anderson’s voice seems to have suffered over the years. He seemed to be struggling to get the notes out. Maybe they should have turned his microphone up.

I haven’t posted on this blog in a week. I think part of the reason for that is that I’m thinking instead of writing. I’m mulling things over. A week from tonight I’ll be asleep within the walls of the Concourse Hotel in Madison, Wisconsin. My reason for being there is the 30th convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. It’s a foundation that works to ensure the separation of church and state in this country through legal action and activism. Appearing at this upcoming event will be Julia Sweeney, Katha Pollitt and featured speaker Christopher Hitchens, who will be receiving the “Emperor Has No Clothes Award.” I’m about fifty pages from finishing Hitchens’ diatribe entitled God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

As I said, I’ve been mulling all of this stuff over and I’m still trying to come up with the words to describe what my thoughts about all of it is. The debate about religion is as old as the practice itself, but it feels fresh to me. I grew up going to Sunday school and church every week until I was about sixteen years old. It was not too long after I was confirmed a member of the church that I began the see the membership was rife with hypocrisy, behaving in one manner on Sunday and differently through the rest of the week. I began to realize that the practice of religion — or at least the United Methodist version of Christianity that I was accustomed to — was no guarantee of ability of one to lead a “good life.” Pastors — right along with their believers — were human and hence fallible.

The final break from organized religion for me involved a meeting with an air force chaplain, who told me that he believed Jesus Christ would have no problem working on a nuclear missile site. I didn’t know whether to laugh or vomit into his smug visage. Instead I left his office quietly with his list of scripture passages to read. Stuff about following orders and respecting authority. You know, bullshit. I started to compile my own collection of biblical quotes to counter his position, but alas, we never had another meeting. From there I went on to read about the religious practices and rituals of Native Americans and that led to studying Buddhism. It’s only been within the past year that I’ve ventured into the literature of skepticism and it’s been quite enlightening. I’ve learned more about the actual contents of the bible than I ever had while a member of the church.

I could go on all night in this vein, but I’d rather ruminate on these ideas a while longer. I will go so far as to state that I’m agnostic about the existence of any type of supernatural being. I consider myself a “freethinker,” unfettered by dogma and able to pursue the true nature of the world around me without the filters of some ancient tribal superstitions. But that’s just me. So rather than stay up all night blathering on about this, I’ll end with some banalities

I got myself out to a matinee showing of Jodie Foster’s latest flick, The Brave One. Jodie plays intense better than just about any actor out there today. Sometimes that intensity is misplaced, so it takes just the right vehicle for it to work. The Brave One is a fine piece of filmmaking by Neil Jordan (Mona Lisa, The Crying Game and The Butcher Boy to name but a few of his other films), but I’m still wrestling with the theme of vigilantism. I think it’s trying to be Death Wish with a conscience, but it doesn’t quite succeed. I’m hoping that while I’m in Madison next week I’ll have a chance to see a movie or two. On my to see list are: 3:10 to Yuma, Into the Wild, In the Valley of Elah, and I still wouldn’t mind catching the latest Bourne film while it’s still in the theaters.

As I’ve been writing this my soundtrack has been songs of the old west, or at least of western themes from film and TV. Marty Robbins and Tex Ritter. Eddy Arnold and Gene Autry. The mournful yodeling makes me want to be out on the vast prairie with a crackling fire to keep the dark night at bay. Coyotes yip and howl and in the distance I hear the rattle a train rolling over its tracks. A star-filled evening when the struggles of existence seem but a distant memory.