Sunday, April 11, 2010
Monday, November 30, 2009
While reading this, many of you will think, “My God, Daniel is such a whiner. All he seems to do is bitch about stupid shit that doesn’t even matter.” Perhaps you are right, but that is the nature of a rant. It would be less fun to write (and possibly read) about all the wonderful things in life and everything that makes me happy. Maybe I will make an effort in the future to write about those things that bring me joy, but right now I am bitching so enjoy.
I did some volunteer work at the Boys and Girls Club of Larimer County some weeks ago, and I was astonished at the facilities there. It was a good-sized building with several different rooms. It had a large gym (the staple of all B&G Clubs, I imagine), large foyer with plenty of tables and chairs and booths and a ping-pong table and several foosball tables, a nice big art room with all kinds of supplies, a computer lab with ultra-modern computers, a “teen room” with a pool table and a big screen tv and nice couches, and - here the kicker - A RECORDING STUDIO!! No joke. A fucking recording studio. Of course, it isn’t exactly Electric Ladyland or Abby Road, but still there’s some real expensive equipment in there. There’s a 32 track console and a computer with pro tools, several electric guitars and basses, a piano, a set of congas (Not bongos, congas, and they looked nice), and a decent electronic drum kit that usually runs at least a couple grand. And no rooms were highly restricted. In fact, no room was restricted at all, with the exception of the “teen room” - you had to be at least thirteen to go in there. If a child and wanted to go in the recording studio and play with the drums they could. They didn’t have to ask permission. They were not limited to five minutes. No one was breathing down their neck telling them they were hitting the drums too hard. It was a beautiful thing.
All the children - and there were 30-40 of them and ranging from 6-18 years - were watched over by a team of volunteers. A couple of peeps looked like volunteering may have been part of a community service sentence, but most were older and seemed like they loved children and genuinely cared for them. Also, the Food Bank of Larimer County serves everyone free meals at 5pm everyday. And these aren’t shitty meals, either, like a huge batch of cheap ramen noodles or mac and cheese. These meals were great meals and very nutritious. The day I was there they served a plate of grilled chicken breast, mashed potatoes, a salad and an apple with milk to drink. Not to overstate it, but that is a good solid meal, unlike the shit on a shingle I was served nearly every day at the Azle cafeterias that dripped with grease. **
To be fair the Boys and Girls Club is separate from the schools. It obviously has a strong relationship with the school district, but is a separate entity. The schools could be serving the same shit I once ate, but considering the affluence of this town I highly doubt it.
Which brings me to my point: I hate my parents.†† The most recent reason for this is because they raised me in Azle, Texas. Azle goddamned Texas. Azle. Texas. Think of it: you have the entire world at your disposal, you can pick anywhere in the world to live and you choose Azle, Texas. Now it’s one thing to live somewhere as individuals; if you want to while away your years in a cesspool that’s your business, but when you bring children into the world that’s a game changer. If you’re any kind of responsible parent you have to ask yourself “Where do I want my children to spend their formative years? What kind of environment should I raise them in? What kind of people or culture do I want them surrounded by? What quality of education do I want them to receive?” My parents never asked themselves these questions. The only question they asked themselves is “What’s the cheapest?” I know this because they told me. I asked both of them separately why they decided to settle down in that lovely town and make it their home and mine, and both responded with “It was cheap.” And it wasn’t even like I was the result of some drunken brawl and a busted condom. My parents claim they tried for years to have children, so I wasn’t an unexpected surprise. This had been in their minds for some time.
To be honest, I didn’t even live in Azle. Shit, I wished I was lucky enough to live in Azle. I would have been closer to friends and fast food joints, and my commute to school everyday wouldn’t have been so long. Instead we lived in some nether region way out in the fucking boondocks that was nearly a half hour from everywhere (everywhere being Azle, Springtown, or Weatherford).
I imagine a good number of you reading this are from Azle like me. However, you may have grown to love our little hometown as opposed to resent it like I do. And you are thinking “Hey man, what’s wrong with Azle? Seems fine to me.” I’ll admit that I never traveled much as a child. Sure we took the occasional summer trip to some national or state park (usually in Colorado, interestingly enough) where we would spend a week or two freezing in a tent, but for the most part Azle was all I knew. I would have said the same thing a few years ago: Azle seems fine to me. What’s the big deal? It wasn’t until I moved away from Azle that I began to see things a bit more objectively. I began to see things from a different angle and under a different light.
So what’s wrong with Azle? In a word, everything. That’s right. I said it. Leaving aside for a moment the fact that my entire ideology and worldview (very left-leaning and atheistic) is very much opposed to the dominant culture of Azle and generally most of Texas, THERE WAS NOTHING TO FUCKING DO!! Nothing. Not a goddamned thing. Let’s see . . . you could do meth or beat your wife and kids, which explains why it was so rampant ‘round those parts. I can see now why high school football games are so popular in small towns and rural areas. You wanna know what I did most days? I watched TV and got fat. There was quite literally nothing else to do. My parents didn’t seem to care. They never told me to watch less or eat less, hell, they were right there with me most of the time. I remember when those cheapskates got me the shittiest drum set ever when I was 15. It was horrible. I think it was $39.99 at Wal-Mart or Sam’s, but I didn’t care it was something to do, and by god I did it. I played those damn things everyday after school until everyone came home and told me to cool it because Friends was about to come on.
Another thing wrong with Azle was the school system. It was bad. It had hardly any money, so the teachers that were hired had basically given up on life. I recall one or two in my career that I thought were quality teachers and that I had actually learned something from, but by and large they were terrible. I believe the Texas Education Agency ranks schools on a 1-5 scale based on TAKS (aka TAAS when I was there) scores - 1 being a very poor education and 5 being a very good education. Each level has labels like “Excellent” or “Recognized” but I forget exactly what they are. Anyway, I think we were something like a 2 for most of my tenure and one year we got a 3 and it was trumpeted to the skies. “Yay!! We’re mediocre! Take that Springtown!”
In addition, Azle did not have a Boys and Girls Club as fantastic as the aforementioned. In fact, they did not have one at all. Instead, my parents paid several hundred dollars a month for “After School Care” which usually consisted of a woman watching a handful of kids in the cafeteria for three hours after school everyday. Again, nothing to do really except your homework because you were in the fucking cafeteria. I never got a hot freshly-cooked meal there but I did get an ice cream bar everyday that contributed to my obesity. If I had lived in Fort Collins I could have been playing the drums or painting or burning calories in the gym or something infinitely more exciting than being in the school cafeteria that smelled like old cafeteria ladies and awful food. And to top it all off, my parents would have spent next to nothing for this luxury - Boys and Girls Club membership is $5/year.
Let me also add a few perks that Fort Collins has (and it’s not exclusive to FoCo, many other cities and towns have similar perks and niceties as well): free bikes (you read that right - and nice new ones, too, not cheap or rusty ones, mass transit that is free to most FoCo residents, nice bike trails, something cool going on nearly every weekend downtown, free or really cheap concerts sponsored by the city (artists you‘ve heard of, too, like Sugar Ray, Lifehouse, Shawn Colvin, Melissa Ethridge, and others), kick ass fireworks for the 4th, awesome parks and recreation facilities . . . I could go on. Not to mention a mountain-filled landscape.
I think I’ve waxed on enough about how crappy Azle is. No need to beat a dead horse. Besides, I’m over it. I’m sure I offended some people in the process. My whole point, really, is just to get you to think about your own future. Neither of my parents were very fond of Azle in particular or Texas in general. My father always dreamed of having a cabin in the mountains away from everything. My mother would have preferred a big cultural city like New York or San Francisco. They contemplated the “what ifs” and dreamed of what could have been, and yet they worked jobs they hated and stayed in Azle. And why? Because it was familiar? Because it was cheap? I want anyone reading this to ask yourself what you really want from life. What do you want to experience on this earth in what I believe is the one and only life you have? Take a risk. Make a change. If not for yourself then perhaps for your children.
**On a side note, the food at Azle was a fucking joke. It’s funny how in classes you might learn about the four food groups or the food pyramid or nutrition, but in the cafeteria your choices are limited to greasy godawful pizza or fried chicken strips or cheese burgers. A salad bar did exist, but it was pathetic. It had warm iceberg lettuce, a few fixins like sunflower seeds or black olives and dressing that was so godamned runny that you might as well pour straight water on your pitiful excuse for a salad (a salad, by the way, that would likely cost you 4 or 5 dollars, but if you went with the greasy pizza it was usually under 1 dollar). Coke machines lined all the hallways. And the worst foods were always the cheapest. I remember getting double-decker oatmeal cream pies or double-decker chocolate fudge pies for a measly 50 cents. If you were to ask an administrator why the food was so crummy I imagine the reply would be “Not enough money in the budget.” Of course, there is always plenty of money in the budget for athletics, especially football, but that is the subject of another rant.
†† At this time I would like to point out that I don’t actually hate my parents. I really do love them and I’m quite certain they love me, too. I would also like to point out that I had a pretty decent childhood. I was never abused emotionally, physically (well almost never), or sexually. My parents were somewhat educated and made a decent enough wage to raise a couple of kids on. They were not junkies or alkies, nor starved for drama, sex, or attention. It’s just that as I age the mistakes that my parents made with myself and my sister become increasingly clearer, and I just want to rant about some of them. Is that alright?? Sheesh.
Saturday, November 21, 2009
Here’s the thing about Lady Gaga . . .
I did not really know who this bitch was until a few months ago. I think I saw a music video of her on mtvU while flipping around one bored day. I don’t know the title, but within it was the line “I wanna take a ride on your disco stick, disco stick.” I wasn’t real impressed with the music or the video. The song wasn’t particularly catchy and the lyrics and video were overtly sexual. “How original,” I thought. “Just like nearly every dance pop song.”
The next time I remember seeing her was on the VMAs. She went all out on her live performance. It is even hard to describe, but it was definitely an elaborate set up. Everything was white and I believe at some point there was some swinging from the rafters. Lady Gaga was emoting dramatically (possibly overly so), and toward the end all the white costumes and props were covered in a bloody mess. She was singing the song “Paparazzi” which is just a godawful song. I was impressed with all her theatrics, but I figured the whole show was to make up for how horrible her song was (again, much like any pop song: style over substance). But I saw something this week that made me think twice.
I was listening to Slate’s Culture Gabfest as I do every week while planting some Arabidopsis seeds at work. Their first topic was that of Lady Gaga and what a cultural zeitgeist she is or is about to become. How she was a brilliant visionary and a perspicacious observer of pop culture. They held up as Exhibit A her new video “Bad Romance.” They claimed the video was a shrewd critique of society and consumerism in America. Stephen Metcalf (who kind of plays the curmudgeon because he dislikes almost everything) said “I think I am in love.” I was intensely skeptical for two reasons. 1) Because I have heard her songs and seen her perform and was not moved. And 2) because every time I hear some overeducated white person (especially the Gabfest peeps) recommend music I want to shoot myself. 95% of the time it is some obscure indie soft-rock bullshit made up of other overeducated WASPs that I cannot fucking stand, and the other 5% of the time it’s a half ironic, half I-don’t-want-to-be-exactly-like-every-other-white-person faux infatuation of someone like Taylor Swift or Lil Wayne or Brad Paisley. I’m sorry but that kind of pretentiousness makes me go a big rubbery one.
Anyway, back to my story. After a minute of all this fawning I had to see the video for myself. When I hit play I was a skeptic, but by then end I was a believer. The video was ridiculous, excessive, and fantastic. I’m not even going to try to describe it other than to say it was bizarre, and very well made. The director, Francis Lawrence, is a seasoned director who knows how to make every frame count. And whoever dreamed up that whole sequence is on drugs, but I’ll give them props for creating a pop video that is at once both intensely sexual and very dark - Troy Patterson from Slate described it as Stanley Kubrick meets Paris fashion and I can’t disagree. I can see a little David Lynch in there as well. Lady Gaga was also great in the video. You could tell this idea was not being forced on her solely for the purpose of generating “buzz.” She was eating it up. It was perfect for her.
The song was not really that great, although if you watch the video enough like I did little snippets will get stuck in your brain for hours. I am beginning to think that she is not even that interested in the music aspect of her career. Instead, judging from this video and her VMA performance, it seems to me like music is simply her vehicle for creating her own visual art - it is merely one color on her canvas. I think it could very well be interpreted as a critique on society, on celeb addiction, on any kind of toxic relationship, really, real or metaphorical, although I’m not sure if LG deserves all the credit for that. However, I do think she is the Madonna of this generation.
So if you haven’t seen it yet, here is the video. It’s worth a watch.
Saturday, October 3, 2009
Sunday, August 9, 2009
I’m not gonna name names here, but if you have taken Biochemistry at CSU, you know who I’m talking about. If you haven’t it’s really not important anyway. Note: This is more long-winded than I prefer, but necessary if you want to get the whole picture. Second note: As you read this you will notice obvious bias on my part (and his), however, I try to represent our discussions as objectively as possible. If his arguments are misrepresented, it is purely unintentional.
So I’ll start from the beginning. My first day of summer Biochemistry (doesn’t that just break your heart? “Summer Biochemistry” – those words just do not go together) My prof announced to the class that he wanted everyone to know that he was a Christian, that he believed Jesus Christ died for our sins, yatta, yatta. He also said that he has ontological evidence, cosmological evidence, and scientific evidence to back up his claim, and he invited any student who doubted him or just wanted to discuss religion to speak to him about it.
This irked me a bit, but I was just going to let it go. However, after a few days the idea of discussing religion with this guy took root and was growing. Eventually, I got to the point where I had to know what his “evidence” was for his convictions. Was it going to be the same arguments I have heard a million times by theists? i.e. “Look at the complexity! It has to be designed”, “If there is no God, then why are people good?” and my favorite “Because the Bible says so.” Or was it going to be something fresh and new that I had not heard of yet? I had to know. So I stayed after class one day and asked him.
His argument right off the bat was First Cause. He said that something or someone had to set events in motion. "If we go back to the beginning of what we know as time or the universe we come to the big bang. We'll what started the big bang? What existed before the big bang? You can't have an infinite regression of events. You have to have a supernatural being outside of space and time to bring it into existence. I call that thing God."
I said, "Okay, one could make a reasonably intelligent argument to that end. I personally would not buy it, but it can be argued. However, it is a big stretch to go from a first cause to Jesus dying for our sins and resurrecting."
"True," he said, "it is a stretch, but I have reason to believe that as well. You first have to ask yourself if you believe in miracles, which I do. If you believe that miracles are possible, then you have to examine the bible and determine if it is an accurate account of history." I said that obviously couldn't be done because the bible's account of actual events was sketchy at best. He disagreed saying that if I believed that the works of Aristotle or Plato was an accurate account of what actually took place then I'd also have to take the bible with it. He said that because there have been so many manuscripts of the bible found (specifically the new testament) that scholars generally consider it to be an accurate representation of history, since, he said, the method they use for determining historical accuracy in the number of manuscripts available. I mentioned that at that time all copies would have had to be hand written. He said that the Jews back then used a painstakingly meticulous method of transcribing that was amazingly accurate, and that every account holds up.
I told him of an interview I heard on Fresh Air where Terry Gross interviews one of these scholars he speaks of, who says the exact opposite. He said that the bible is wildly inaccurate, due in part to the massive amount of human error in transcribing the texts. He said that some error was due to honest mistakes and others to the person transcribing writing in their own agenda. I also told him of something I heard on Radio Lab where it was discovered that the "666" in revelations that is supposed to be the mark of satan or “the beast" was actually a typo and the real number was 616. I also told him that I heard on a different Fresh Air interview another guy was interviewed who a bible scholar who read the old bible manuscripts in hebrew or greek (or whatever the oldest texts are in) and that the accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are full of discrepancies and contradictions, and they are widely believed to have not been written anytime near the life of Jesus. Perhaps even 200 years after the fact. He said that he has heard about the gospels being questionable, but does not believe that to be the case.
So I asked if, since he seemed to believe in its historical accuracy, if he thought the bible to be literally true. He told me he did. "Even the resurrection, turning water into wine, Jesus walking on water, and all that?" He said that, yes, all that. So I asked, "Since you believe in miracles, do you believe in all of the miracles that the major religions profess, or do you just believe in the Calvinist miracles?" He skirted that question. I went on to ask him if he had ever witnessed miracles. He said no. I asked him how, as a man of science, he could possibly believe these things. He didn't really answer that question either, except to say that it was difficult.
It was at about this point when another student who had been observing our little back-and-forth so far went over to the teach, shook his hand, and congratulated him for keeping the faith and fighting the good fight.
Then his next point was the argument from design. He said that our existence was tantamount to hurling scrabble pieces into an open field and getting a Shakespearean play. The human body, biochemistry (his field), and DNA are very complex and certainly has the appearance of design. I said that, yes, it certainly does. I can see how one might come to that conclusion. However, there's a Darwinian explanation for this. That being that very complex organisms can come from very simple beginnings. Given very small changes over a large period of time you can produce a highly complex creature from a very simple one. He told me he was still skeptical about evolution, and that intelligent design sounded more likely to him. He said he would never mention or teach ID in class because he would be out of a job, but that was his personal belief.
He went on to say that even if evolution is true, that still doesn't explain how organic compounds ever came together to form DNA. He said the odds of that happening would be staggering and virtually impossible. I came back with perhaps it is improbable, but just because we don't know how it happened doesn't mean that god exists. What if, in the next 50 years, with more sophisticated scientific methods and techniques we discover (or at least have a very good idea of) how the first peptide chains formed? Where is god then? You would have to do more mental gymnastics to make a reasonable argument for his existence. Or just fall back on the hackneyed belief that science has no bearing on the matter and that his existence is based on faith.
Then he asked, "Aren't you hungry? Or do you have to be somewhere soon?" I looked at my watch and sure enough, it was after one. So I said I should be at work right now, but I enjoyed our little debate. It's more fun and stimulating to discuss these ideas intelligently rather than with someone who just regurgitates bible quotes ad nauseum. He agreed, and we parted on good terms. And that, in a nutshell, was our discussion.
About a week later I decided to dig a bit and find out who these scholars were on Fresh Air that I had quoted. I really found their points interesting and I had no doubt that I would be quoting them in future debates with biblical literalists, so it might behoove me to know their names. Turns out both interviews (that were a few years apart) were the same guy – Bart Ehrman - both times appearing on NPR to promote his most recent book. The first being Misquoting Jesus and the second Jesus: Interrupted. I ordered two copies of each from Amazon, and emailed him about getting together a second time to discuss his views. The main reason for this was because shortly after our convo I thought of really great things I should have said – as I do with most conversations I have – and wanted to bring those points up to see how he would address them.
Last Thursday, we finally got some time for round two. I started off by addressing his first cause theory. I told him that I disagreed with his position that there cannot be an infinite regression of events. Why couldn’t time be infinite? I heard the theory advanced somewhere (again, no real citations on my part – “I heard this theory from somewhere . . .” - but I don’t think it’s that important) that the universe might be continually expanding and contracting. Why must there be a prime mover?
“I’m not saying that I definitely know how the universe was created,” I said “But you can’t tell me that X cannot be a possibility. No one could know how the universe was created, and yet you are telling me that it was god.”
He said, “Well there has to be a beginning to time. It cannot be infinite. Space cannot be infinite, matter cannot be infinite. Infinity is a human construct. There has to be something that transcends space and time to create all this.”
To which I replied “Why the hell can’t time be infinite? Why couldn’t the universe be infinite? You say that infinity can’t exist, yet you are invoking the infinite power of an infinite being to bring about the universe.”
He said, “Imagine this: take an infinite amount of numbers, between zero and infinity. Then take all the odd numbers and subtract them from the original numbers. How many numbers do you have left? An infinite amount. So infinity minus infinity equals infinity. OK? Now take the numbers between zero and infinity and subtract all the numbers above four. How many is that? Four. So infinity minus infinity equals four.”
“What’s your point?”
“My point is that we cannot conceive of infinity.”
“I am confused,” I said.
“Alright, how about this: A man is counting to infinity. You go up to him and ask him what he is doing. He says he is counting to infinity. You ask him how far along he is and he says ‘I just finished.’ Think about that. Why did he just finish then? Why not 10,000 years ago? Why not farther into the future?”
“That’s ridiculous,” I say.
“Of course it is! That is why infinity cannot exist, therefore god exists.”
I was monumentally confused. I wanted to move on, so I conceded (again, when I shouldn’t have) that the idea of a deity that created the universe is not an entirely unreasonable position to hold. “But that,” I said pointing his bible sitting on his bookshelf “Is complete bullshit! You couldn’t possibly believe that book is a good and moral one, much less is historically or scientifically accurate.”
“It contains incest, human sacrifice, genocide, genital mutilation, the stoning of disobedient children and adulterers . . . need I go on? All in the name of god and righteousness. Not to mention much of what is in there just doesn’t make any goddamn sense.”
“Now you’re just quoting Hitchens,” he said.
“No,” I replied. “Ever since I was really young I have had problems with that thing.”
“Like what?” he asked.
“Let’s start at the beginning. It took god six days to create the world. If he is omnipotent, why not just create it instantly? Why is there no mention of dinosaurs? Why was Eve created from a rib? And if the entire human population is descended from Adam and Eve, how was procreation even possible? Did the sons fuck the daughters? Did the sons fuck their mother? How can you get human civilization from two people?”
“Well Seth, it all depends on how you interpret it.”
“But you told me earlier that you take the bible quite literally. How can you believe some of the claims made in the bible? How can you reconcile talking snakes and water into wine and resurrection with everything that you know about science?”
“God is just, but we are fallible people trying to conceive of something so great. I just don’t think humans can really understand what god is trying to tell us.” What a cop-out. I wanted to press that thought further, but I knew I would get nowhere. “But what I do know is that, if nothing else, the story of Jesus, especially from the letters of Paul, is unimpeachable.”
“I thought you might say that, so I got you these.” I pulled out the books I bought him. “You probably won’t even read them, but perhaps one day you’ll pick them up. In these books Ehrman discussing the abundance of mistakes - intentional and unintentional – especially regarding Jesus and the new testament.” He seemed grateful for the gifts, if not grateful for their implications.
Anyway, in the interest of not dragging on even further and because I’m just tired of writing I’ll condense the rest of the discussion. So we went back and forth on a number of topics for the next twenty minutes. I asked him about the age of earth and he said he wasn’t sure if he was in the New Earth or Old Earth camp. Need I remind you that he also said he wasn’t sure about evolution either. And this is a DOCTOR we are talking about. PhD in biochemistry from Colorado State. I asked him why he is so sure that his religion is the one true one and all others are lies (he specifically mentioned Buddhism). His reply was that it is by far the most popular; billions of people can’t be wrong. Plus, there were so many people willing to die for Christianity early on and it is illogical to think that they would give their life for a lie.
He argued from experience: “I have talked to god and he talks to me. He has proven to me that he is real.” To which my reply was that when I was four Satan spoke to me in a language I did not understand while my living room expanded exponentially. And just a few years ago I witnessed trees dance, curtains breathe, and the flesh on my arm quite literally boil. Doesn’t mean it was real. In fact I know it was all hallucination. The first case was that of extreme fever. The second of LSD.
It was about that time that the both of us realized that neither could be swayed even a little bit, and that going on this way was futile. So I bid him adieu. Although, the whole enterprise wasn’t a waste of time on my part because I became familiar with some arguments I had not heard (as absurd as they may have been) and I gained a new appreciation for the power of denial and the mental gymnastics one is willing to do to hold fast to their convictions.