Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Please help Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Tuesday, November 27th, 2007

One of the most courageous people of our time, or any time, is Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The guy who killed filmmaker Theo Van Gogh planted a note on Van Gogh’s body that said Hirsi Ali was next. And death threats continue to come in from all over — all to stop her from speaking her mind.

The Dutch government encouraged Ms. Hirsi Ali to run for parliament, promising her a security detail if she did so. Now they’ve announced they plan to stop paying for it. Amsterdam is a great town — they tolerate everyone. But this stance dims my enthusiasm for the Netherlands.

Filling the void, the great writer Sam Harris has started a fund to pay for Ms. Hirsi Ali’s security. I had the honor of shaking Ms. Hirsi Ali’s hand after a debate at the New York Public Library, and am happy to contribute ten bucks a month. I wish I could give more. If you care about the status of women in the Muslim world (i.e., the entire world), or just don’t think people should be told to shut up under threat of death, then please help Ms. Hirsi Ali stay alive.

PKD is important, of course. But so is the life of Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Entertaining voice mail

Thursday, November 1st, 2007

The following is a word-for-word transcript of a voice mail I got from a friend:

“Hey, Bill – it’s X. Um, I just wanted to say that what we talked about today probably shouldn’t be, uh, commented on … not that I even really said anything, but um, just — you know, if you do end up talking about it, maybe … not that you would, but, you know — obviously I’m not involved, so … I shouldn’t be. All right, uh, just wanted to talk you about that. If you get a chance, call me back.

Johnny, Have You Ever Hung Around in a Turkish Prison?

Monday, October 15th, 2007

I finally saw “Midnight Express” last night – the 1978 movie about the American kid who tries to smuggle hash out of Turkey and ends up in a tough prison with a life sentence. When I was in high school my classmates cited that movie as *the* reason not to ever try to smuggle drugs out of a foreign country. (I’m sure there are other reasons, too. But when you’re young, concrete penalties really stick out.)

Two things struck me. One was that aside from John Hurt, the acting was terrible. Brad Davis just wasn’t convincing, which was a problem because he was on camera almost the whole time. Even Randy Quaid, who went on to do some decent work, seemed able to inhabit his character only for brief snatches of time; the rest of his performance felt very actor-ish. So that was a shame.

Much more important than the acting, though: When “Midnight Express” was made, torture was something *other* countries did. The whole tone of the movie was “Wow — some countries are really primitive. Look how the Turks treat this naïve American boy.”

In the five-minute “featurette” accompanying the movie on the DVD, also made in 1978, this tone was made explicit. Over pictures of a crowded Manhattan street, the narrator said that none of these people would be imprisoned without due process. With amazement in his voice, he said that other countries sometimes imprisoned people after shoddy trials, and even — gasp — *tortured* people.

As Frank Rich noted yesterday, the United States under George W. Bush has become a nation that tortures people. Most of its citizens look the other way. We think extreme measures are necessary, just as the citiznes of Turkey undoubtedly did in 1970. Just as the citizens of Germany undoubtedly did during the Second World War.

It would make little sense to make “Midnight Express” today. Americans wouldn’t be shocked by the rough way justice is meted out in other countries — or shouldn’t be. We’ve seen the photos of Abu Ghraib, and have heard about Guantanamo. We know that our own people, in U.S. uniforms, paid with our tax dollars, are capable of everything that was done in the movie’s Turkish prison — and worse.

How Baseball’s Steroid Scandal Is Like the War in Iraq

Wednesday, August 8th, 2007

Barry Bonds now owns the home-run record, much to the chagrin of Hank Aaron and most non-Bay-Area baseball fans. It’s pretty clear that Bonds took steroids, whereas Aaron got those amazing wrists carrying large blocks of ice as a boy. Who wouldn’t prefer the non-drug-aided hero?
But when the role of steroids in baseball first became clear, pointing it out seemed like negative thinking. When Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were chasing Roger Maris in 1998, it felt like Christmas in July. When androstenedione was found in McGwire’s locker that year, most people decided that because this testosterone precursor was legal in Major League Baseball, it was hardly worth worrying about. There was reason to worry about steroids, too, with both McGwire and Sosa, but it seemed churlish to dwell on the possibility. Much more fun to watch those baseballs fly out of the park.

Likewise with Iraq. As George W. Bush made his big push to invade, most Americans supported him. Saddam Hussein was a bad man, and the U.S. military is strong; it seemed churlish to point out that Hussein was far from an imminent threat to the United States, or that Iraq was a sovereign nation, or that removing him was likely to bring chaos. Many people did point these things out, but they were not listened to, even those who worked in the State Department; they seemed like negative thinkers.

Now the crowd, the great slow-moving mass, has moved on both issues. After McGwire’s evasive performance in Congress on March 17, 2005, no one could feel safe anymore with the idea that baseball remained pure. And nearly 4 1/2 years after invading Iraq, most Americans now feel uneasy with the whole idea.

It’s not that we have more information now. But the information we had before, which seemed excessively negative, has spread. It no longer looks like negativity. It looks like reality. But in both cases the damage has been done. Obviously, the damage in Iraq is incalculably worse. Horrific civilian casualties — tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis killed for our mistake, and thousands of American soldiers killed long after we thought we’d “won.”

Eventually the majority catches up to reality. But sometimes it catches up too late.

Meeting Scott Beale

Tuesday, February 13th, 2007

Sooo late on this, but I was very glad to meet Scott Beale of Laughing Squid when he came by the FM office on February 1st. In addition to his primary role of hosting my blog, Scott also posts photos of me (well, one), writes his own blog — about other people of note, in addition to me — and hosts blogs for other, less important people than myself.

That night a few of us FMers (Joe Kressaty, John Shankman) attended a book-signing-and-prank-video event at Bluestockings, and I allowed Scott to sit down and have a beer with me. He seemed to enjoy it. People usually do.

Picking on Psychics

Wednesday, April 12th, 2006

I like almost everything the NYT’s Dan Barry writes. He’s got a real way with words, and a feeling for the people he writes about. Except today.

In today’s column(Times Select; sub. req.) he writes about a psychic named Yolana, an older woman who once made a pretty good living predicting the future and now faces an uncertain retirement. To ‘balance’ the column, Barry talks with the managing editor of The Skeptical Inquirer, who asks, “Why don’t Yolana, John Edward, Sylvia Browne — why don’t all the psychics — summon their powers and find Osama bin Laden?”

The question seems reasonable. And this is what respectable newspapers do: They use reason to make fun of psychics. This reassures their readers, who feel smarter for being in on the joke.
But on April 1st, just 11 days earlier, Barry wrote about two other older women who face an uncertain retirement: nuns whose church was being closed as part of a broader ‘realignment.’ (Times Select; sub. req.)

This time, Barry didn’t interview the managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer about the faith of those nuns. If he had, after all, that managing editor might have asked, “What good is the faith of those nuns, if it can’t save their church from closing? And while we’re at it, why can’t the Pope find Osama bin Laden?”

May you forget your first book

Monday, April 10th, 2006

I love the Literacy Site, and all the sites associated with it. Simply by clicking on the button in the middle of the page, and those of its sister sites (which are tabbed at the top: The Hunger Site, the Breast Cancer Site, the Rainforest site, the Child Health site, and the Animal Rescue site), broadband users can
* provide a cup of food to a hungry person,
* help fund a mammogram,
* preserve 11.4 square feet of endangered rainforest,
* help fund basic health care for kids,
* help provide reading material to kids, and
* help animals in distress,

all in less than a minute, from the comfort of their own chairs. The Hunger Site launched during the dot-com boom, and busted when everything else did. But now it’s back, along with the peers described above, and it’s simply the most ingenious use of advertising dollars I know.

It’s great. But today, when I got to the Literacy Site, I cringed. Appropriating the old ‘You always remember your first _____’ motif (kiss, lover, car, etc.), someone at the Literacy Site wrote, “You always remember your first book.”

Actually, if parents are doing their jobs, their kids should have no idea what their first book was. They should have encountered it when they were too young to form serial memories, and it should have been followed by countless others, so that the first one faded into the dim past. Of course, that’s not how it always is for kids – but it’s how it ought to be.
So please remember to click on the Literacy Site each day, to ensure that kids get enough books, early enough, so they have no chance of remembering them.

Love Beats Fear

Wednesday, April 5th, 2006

Originally published by The Guy Code on January 25, 2001.

The nuns at Catholic school were kind enough to teach us a number of things we could do, and a few things we had to do, to avoid going to Hell.

Receiving the sacraments – holy communion, confirmation and so on – helped. But it was mandatory to go to mass each Sunday and each Holy Day of Obligation – i.e., the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary on Dec. 8, the Feast of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven on Aug. 15, Christmas and a few others. The sisters taught us that missing even one of these services without a really good excuse put a black mark on our souls that would outweigh any good deeds we might have done.

Unless we went to confession and received a priest’s absolution for missing a particular mass, the stain of that sin would pull us straight down to Hell when we died. There we would be tortured for all eternity, even as we retained the awareness that we would never see our saved loved ones, or our loving Creator, again.

Because touching a woman below the belt counts as a mortal sin unless she’s your wife, we had to confess each of those acts, too. I sometimes wonder if certain sins were declared “mortal” simply to make confession more interesting.

Reinforcing authority

In any event, it was certainly no coincidence that the moral teachings of the Church focused on activities that reinforced the Church’s authority. You had to go to mass, on average, more than once a week; had to confess mortal sins to an accredited priest; had to receive the sacraments, including that of marriage, within the Church’s walls; and so on – all to avoid burning eternally. In addition, you could earn a bonus by doing extra church-related activity – going to Mass on the first Friday of each month for nine consecutive months, for example, or attending special sessions of the rosary.

What strikes me about all this, now, is how little any of it has to do with love. Yet, according to Jesus, upon whose words and deeds the Church was purportedly built, the greatest commandment is to love God, and the second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. (He never listed a ‘third-most-important commandment.’)

Nowhere in Jesus’ words will you find a commandment to attend mass, or even to pray in public. Nowhere does Jesus command his followers to tell a priest each time they touch a woman, or themselves, below the belt. Nowhere does he list the sacraments that have come to seem so necessary – all requiring the assistance of a priest. Nowhere does he speak of the importance of the Pope, or of wearing elaborate vestments or of building elaborate churches or of making chalices of sculpted gold.

Moreover, while the nuns used a lot of words to tell us about the love our God felt for us, it was hard for some of us to feel the “love” of a God who was ready to roast us forever just because we didn’t feel like going to a particular mass. Rather than love, the God they described was worthy of our terror.

No nunsence

I don’t blame the nuns, by the way. One of my aunts was a nun, and many of the nuns I’ve known were and are kind individuals. They taught me a great deal that was valuable. I’m focusing on the harsher aspects of the system into which most of them had been born. It was all they knew, and they had sworn to uphold it. They cared enough about us to want to keep us out of Hell, and that’s a kindness. From their perspective, instilling a fear of Hell was even more important than teaching us to be wary of cars.

Eventually the fear and authority of the Church stopped making sense to me, and I began to move away from it all, looking over my shoulder every so often as I went. Since leaving the Church I’ve made some progress, I think, in learning to love my neighbor. I haven’t learned as much about how to love God, in part I think because the original model I received was so frightening that I often prefer not to think about Him at all. I just have to hope that the nuns don’t turn out to be right. Time will tell.

One thing I’ve learned outside the Church’s embrace is that the priorities Jesus actually listed – be kind to others, visit the sick, forgive those who have hurt you – is the wisdom that is central to most other religions, too.

In our era, empirical evidence has come along to support that wisdom. As it turns out, many of the people who have had near-death experiences come back in full agreement with those values. Over and over, they talk about the importance of love.

That’s nice, isn’t it?

I’ve spoken with five or six people who have had near-death experiences, and have read thousands of accounts. I have yet to find a single one that mentions the Pope. I’m still looking for a reference to missing mass, or sensual touching, or mortal sin of any form. If I find one, I’ll let you know.

God wants love, not fear

Meanwhile, I’m relieved to see the happy evidence pile up. One hellfire-and-brimstone preacher who had such an experience actually went back to the pulpit and apologized for misleading his flock. “God wants us to love,” he told them, “not to fear.”

Again and again, such people talk of the importance of not harming others or yourself – and, while avoiding such harm, learning to love.

These lessons first went public in Dr. Raymond Moody’s “Life After Life.” Subsequent research by psychology professor Kenneth Ring, Evelyn Elsaesser Valarino and others has reinforced Moody’s findings, as you can read in “Lessons From the Light: What We Can Learn From the Near-Death Experience,” among many other reputable sources.

The evidence indicates that when people die, the questions of how well they had loved, and how much they had learned, matter far more than the name of their religion.

So maybe we ought to work on those things, instead of scaring each other.

The Un-Godfather

Wednesday, April 5th, 2006

Originally published by The Guy Code on October 16, 2000. Story’s doing great; she just turned five. I saw her just a few weeks ago. She’s a gem.

Hey, congratulate me – I’m a godfather! You can think of this column as me buying you a cigar. If I could see you, I’d ask you to shake my hand. Then I’d blabber to you, in a disjointed, excited way, about an infant you don’t know and I haven’t seen.

If you were polite and had a minute, you’d hang in there, pretending to listen, and try to find some way that any of this relates to you.

Best of luck. I’ll try to help, of course. I want to be polite, too.

My friends Diane and Rick had a baby on Monday, October 9. A little blond-haired girl, seven pounds and change. What do you think of that? Pretty good, huh?

Sure, I know – babies are born every day. They all look the same to you, and the ones who know them all insist this one’s different.

Really, what’s different is how the ones who know the baby now think of themselves. Older people who had been feeling tired, out of touch with the times, on the way out, can now see themselves instead as grandparents, aunts and uncles. People with a job to do for the baby – people who now have a stake in the future. It revitalizes them. They can’t stop smiling, and talking about the source of their joy is a way for them to keep the good feeling going.

That’s how I feel. I’d love it if you’d let me dwell on it for a moment.

Diane and Rick named their baby Story Frances. Nice name, don’t you think? Diane has a master’s in English literature, and as a journalist, she’s forever chasing stories. Now there’s a Story she’ll never stop telling.

Rick’s been looking forward to the birth in his own way. A week ago, he showed me the pager he was carrying. “When I get the call,” he said, “if I’m at work, I’m going to tell my co-workers, ‘Hey – I have to run. My old friend’s coming to visit.’”

As it turned out, he was at home when his wife’s contractions began to increase; there was no need to page.

Rick’s a big fan of the Beatles. It pleased him to learn that John Lennon was born exactly 60 years before Story was.

But enough about them. Let’s talk about me. I’m the godfather, after all. Yeah, just like Marlon Brando. (Yeah, that’s a good impression you’re doing right now. Very nice – thanks for the effort on that.)

Well, it’s a tricky situation, really, because of the religious leanings of Story’s parents.

Who put the God in Godfather?

See, usually it’s Catholic families that request godparents. A godparent’s job is to nurture the child’s faith, particularly in the event that anything happens to the parents. At the infant’s baptism, the godparents answer the priest’s questions on behalf of the baby. The questions are fairly straightforward, such as, “Do you renounce Satan and all his works?” (The correct answer is “You betcha, Padre.”)

Thing is, Diane and Rick were never Catholic. Diane grew up as a Latter-Day Saint. Rick was raised as a Jew. Neither religion embraces the concept of “godfather.”

But it goes further than that. I doubt it would shock their relatives to learn that neither Diane nor Rick is particularly, um, observant. Technically, they’re atheists – although Diane has shown some recent interest in astrology. So you might want to call me the ungodfather. Or the godlessfather.

That works for me. I grew up Catholic, so I have experience with godparents, but I’m not sure I’d qualify anymore to be a godfather under those guidelines. Priests encourage Catholic couples to choose godparents who accept the authority of the Pope; they’re sticklers that way.

So, as the formerly Catholic godfather of the offspring of an unbelieving Mormon and a nonpracticing Jew, what’s my role?

Glad you asked. I was afraid I’d lost you for a minute.

I’m not sure, myself. But I have a pretty good idea of what I might do.

In a memoir called “Between Heaven and Earth,” the Jungian therapist Robert Johnson recalls the influences of various ‘unofficial godparents’ in his life. For Johnson, a godparent is one who guides a child’s inner life. Parents order the external life – when to go to sleep, go to school, do chores, and so on. While they’re busy with that, a godparent can talk to the child about the deeper questions.

That sounds pretty good to me.

But wish me luck.

What I Got, When I Gave Up Homphobia

Wednesday, April 5th, 2006

Originally published by The Guy Code on September 18, 2000.

I’ve been thinking about this issue of homophobia, lately, from a purely selfish point of view. I haven’t been trying to defend political correctness, or to change society by instituting liberal policies. I just found myself wondering how my own life might have been different, if I had kept it closed to gays and lesbians.

I used to keep it solidly closed. I called people “faggot” for years, even after I knew what it meant. (As a young boy, I’d thought it meant only “a bundle of sticks” – a mistake that left me very confused when, after I used it to describe a fellow student, a teacher kicked me into a wall. Later that day, my mom told me that the word meant more than I had thought. I kept using it – we all did – but I was more careful after that.)

As a freshman in high school, I inspired a friend of mine to help me tease an effeminate classmate. We bullied him, scared him, made fun of the way he said the letter ‘s.’ The whole nine yards. We did not regret it, afterward; we laughed about it. That we had tormented someone together made us closer friends. Probably we felt safer as friends, now that we had warded off the demon of homosexuality. Maybe that’s why soldiers and male athletes tend to show more homophobia than others: Doing so enables them to become closer.

In some ways it would have been natural for me to continue behaving that way. The Catholic schools I attended were not hotbeds of tolerance. Nuns and monks taught us that homosexuality was a grave sin. Who was I to say I knew better? And if God hated gays, then maybe I was doing them a favor by teasing them – maybe my nastiness would show them the error of their ways, and they would come back to the straight side before it was too late. I don’t mean to exaggerate my hostility; I was never in a situation that approached the brutality with which Matthew Shepherd and others were treated. But I certainly was not very nice.

(By the way, that idea – saving someone by hurting them – is not as absurd as it may sound to someone who has not grown up under a religious cloud. If you are taught that no punishment meted out by humans could ever approach the tortures of the damned, then it can feel like an act of kindness to try to scare the hell out of people by using tactics that an atheist would consider cruel.)

In addition to the religious worries, I had to worry about pleasing my parents. My father worried that a friend of mine who had an earring and long hair might be queer. The fact that he wasn’t – the fact that the pretty girls in our class liked him more than they liked me – did not undo the lesson that a queer friend was not the right kind to have.

Get over it!

At some point I got over it. By and by, the evidence accumulated that what I had been taught was just so much bullshit. And now, here are some obvious and tangible ways that my life today would be different if I had believed the B.S.:

* I would be paying a lot more rent and living in a crappy apartment. My broker, who is gay, appreciates my friendship, as I appreciate his. When a better apartment than the one I had first rented from him became available, he let me know about it before a single ad had run. Had we not been friends, I would never have known that such an apartment existed as the one that is now my home.

* I would never have had a chocolate martini, or seen the original “Dracula,” with musical accompaniment by Philip Glass.

* One of my oldest friends would not have told me the truth about himself. As a result, our friendship would have undoubtedly deteriorated in a way that would have confused me; I would never have learned why he was no longer comfortable with me. I would probably have said ‘Oh, well, friendships die, c’est la vie’ – or the equivalent to ‘c’est la vie’ in a language that sounds more masculine than French. ‘Asi es la vida,’ probably.

* I would never have become friends with a woman I know whose parents both left each other for same-sex lovers when she was a child. Again, I would not have known why we were not friends; it just would have seemed to work out that way.

* A very good friend of mine would not have been there for me a few years back, as a listening ear and an erudite sounding board, as I went through a time that was emotionally very painful. His compassionate guidance showed me that there might be meaning in my suffering; without his guidance, the trip would have been much lonelier.

* I would not have gotten such good advice about avoiding law school, as a lesbian friend of mine gave me during a frank discussion about how to figure out what you really want in life and why.

* I would have missed out on hours of laughter. One example that jumps to mind is watching the John Waters movie “Polyester” at a party thrown by a gay friend. Again, I would never have known that the party existed, had we not become friends.

* I would never have known a man named Francisco, who died of AIDS some years back as I visited him each week over a period of months. Knowing him deepened my life in ways that are hard now to measure; concretely, knowing him meant that my brother and I could stay with his family, in a small town in Mexico, years after his death; we saw life there better than we could have done as tourists.

* I would not have felt the admiration for Bill Clinton that I felt during the 1992 campaign. When a young woman asked him about gays in the military, he said, “We need all Americans, working together.” My admiration for that strong statement stands, no matter how disappointed I was by his lies during the Lewinsky investigation.

* I would have missed out on knowing what it was like to have a man hit on me at a gay bar.

Why would that be a loss? Here’s why: I have hit on a number of women, and I will probably hit on many more before I’m done. I have tended to see this experience from my perspective only, so that the awkwardness of my target’s response has often felt personal.

To get hit on by a strong man in whom you have no interest is not the same as being hit on by a woman. The difference in physical strength increases one’s need to remain polite while trying to convince him to let you be. I suddenly appreciated, in a new way, the gyrations some women have gone through in order to reject me without causing me to lose face.

I also saw that it was often not personal: My rejection of this man had nothing to do with his face, or his approach, or his level of physical fitness, or his soul, or his clothes. It was simply that he wasn’t my type, because my type is female.

* I would have missed out on simple, cordial relations with nurses and patients in the psych hospital where I once worked and at the magazine where I now work. There are many people in our lives whose smile is important to us even though we will never become close friends. The ability to comfortably greet someone, in the course of your day, without having to feel anxiety about that person’s “lifestyle choice,” should not be minimized.

* I would have missed out on a funny, external affirmation of my heterosexuality. Not long after meeting me, one friend said, “I could tell you were straight because you were so comfortable with me. If you were, on the fence, shall we say, my presence would probably have made you agitated.”

In short, the increasing comfort I have felt with gays and lesbians has improved and deepened my life in a way that is no longer possible even to measure. I cannot imagine how my life would look now without these friendships. It would certainly be narrower, and would certainly be lonelier.

Fewer of my friends would be my friends – and this extends to straight friends, too, because most people in my social circle find homophobia, like racism, rather off-putting.

As well they should.

A few years ago, I tracked down the boy I had tormented as a high-school freshman. I called him at his home in Montana, where he lives as an artist. We talked for a little while, and I told him how sorry I was for what my friend and I had done to him. I wrote him a letter afterward, underlining what I had said awkwardly on the phone. He sent me a postcard, saying that he appreciated my efforts to make things better. It was also clear that he remembered my cruelty quite well; I was unable to comfort myself by telling myself that it had been no big deal.

It had been a big deal, and I’m only glad I didn’t create too many others before I knew better.