Friday, February 29, 2008

Leap year: no exceptions!

I can't resist the odd siren call of posting on Leap Day. However, I can't think of a post topic that is apropos.

And maybe that's the topic?

When I was very young, I guess I must have been about eight, I remember being introduced for the first time I recall to the concept of leap years. I was born in a leap year, as of course were many of my friends throughout school, being roughly the same age. In college, I had a friend who was actually born on Leap Day, making today either her 36th birthday or 9th, depending how you choose to look at it. (I did call and wish her a happy birthday, and actually got to celebrate her 5th birthday with her more or less, living with her in the same house at the time.) You'd think having a birthday of the 29th of February would be really cool, but despite the assurance of Cecil Adams, my friend only really felt like she was truly having a birthday on the actual 29th, and so only got a "real" birthday every four years. Thus, you are different, but in a way that isn't so much fun.

But back to my own youth... I recall thinking that it was odd but cool that some years were different. I really had no idea that the year had a (fairly) constant length, and that most years were 365 days, but some years were 366. (My own children, who are four-and-a-half are just now beginning to grasp the concept of seven-day weeks.) Those odd years seemed quite special, and of course, that odd day in itself. I also was quite taken with the concept that while years divisible by four had an extra day, years divisible by 100 did not. And yet, the year divisible by 100 that I eventually would experience would be an exception. So although leap years were an exception to the general rule, 2000 would be an exception to the exception to the exception. Somehow, I wasn't sure whether this was as cool as a regular leap year.

So I often thought, how interesting it would be to live in 1900, when there would be a year that was not in the regular cycle of leap years! Why was this exciting? Simply because it was something different! Of course, I still had something to look forward to in that I would be living through the change to a new millennium! Surely that was cooler than the change to a mere century. But 2000 seemed so far away, and of course then we'd have to live through the horror of intelligent computers killing our astronauts to keep us from knowing about space aliens, or something like that.

Of course now, having lived through the supposed change of the millennium and the actual change on New Year's Day 2001, the concept sinks in to an older and more experienced brain that whether the year starts with a 1 or a 2, whether it's New Year's Day or Leap Day or my own birthday, it's just another day, and these divisions we give to the times we live in are completely arbitrary. The millennium passing was not very exciting at all, even with the specter of the Y2K bug hanging over us. Whether today is February 29th or March 1st, all that really matters to me on a personal level is that it's Friday, and the weekend will be here by sundown.

The thing is, there's something sad about that. Not that we can change it, but there's a beauty to a mind that can look at days, even a day as mundane as a day in 1900 that didn't exist, but fell between the crack of February and March. A few months after that leap year in my youth, I was starting third grade, a new year that happened to be in a new school, with a new teacher, and anything could happen. This month, I moved into a new office, many days I write a new blog post, my children learn new things in school, and day by day I feel what even on the most exciting days is, compared to that excitement of youth, a crushing boredom.

How would it feel to get that sense of awe back? Could you watch the sun set, and not just see it as a beautiful sunset, but with the beauty and awe that you might have had with the very first sunset you ever saw? Could I put my children to bed tonight and look at them with the same profound sense of raw, new love that I felt seeing them for the first time on the day they were born? When you're young, everything is new and exciting, but when you're older, there are so many exceptions to that sense of wonder.

Is it possible to find a way to live life and find exceptions to the exceptions?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The jury is out...

Many years ago, I had an opportunity to serve on a jury. I really do view it as an opportunity, too. I don't understand why so many people bitch and moan when a jury summons appears in their mailbox; for the average person, serving on a jury is the only chance we'll ever have to hold public office. Really, let's not forget that: Chances are about zero that you'll ever be President, probably less than 1% you'll serve as a lesser elected representative, but all you need to be part of the American judicial system is a mailing address.

Funny, while I was waiting to see whether I'd be called up for a jury, I found myself remembering Ned Roscoe. Ned Roscoe doesn't seem to have his own website or even Wikipedia entry, but he is a bit of a second- or third-rate California political celebrity. When I was in high school, Roscoe ran a chain of grocery store/gas stations known as Cheaper! stores. The prices were incredible, and there was some entertainment value in the Libertarian rants that Roscoe put on posters throughout his stores and on grocery bags. Roscoe later went on to shut down most if not all of these stores, and open a mega-chain of tobacco shops known as Cigarettes Cheaper! which I haven't seen lately, so they may have gone out of business. Roscoe was later one of several hundred failed candidates for Governor of California in 2003.

Why was I thinking about Roscoe? Well, one of his grocery-bag rants that I actually read all the way through (they would cover all five sides of the bag) was one entitled "Want to get out of jury duty? Bring this bag with you!" Upon that bag, he expounded at length about how the government doesn't really want you to know your rights as a juror. Though I'm not a Libertarian, a lot of my views about juries have been profoundly affected by what was on that bag, oddly enough. He pointed out that, as I said above, being on a jury made you a part of the government, and that our government, built as it with with those "checks and balances" that we love to talk about in civics class affords you incredible power as a juror. Those checks and balances aren't just for the President and the Supreme Court, but also for individual members of a jury! As juror, you have the right to disagree with the rest of the jury and hang the case, not only if you disagree on the facts, but if you even disagree on the moral basis of the law undergirding the matter. (It's funny, but I've always thought with all the fighting over the legality of abortion, the fact remains that you'd be hard-pressed to find twelve people picked at random out of the general populace that would be willing to put a woman in prison for having an abortion, regardless of the legal status. That's another matter, though.) Sitting in the jury selection room, I assured myself that if I were chosen to serve, I would have no problem hanging a jury if my conscience told me it was the right thing to do.

As it happens (and as I already said) I did end up on a jury that day. The case was actually largely unremarkable. A woman had been injured in an auto accident, and the defendant had already been found guilty; it was only our job to listen to the facts and decide what was the monetary value of the woman's suffering. How do you really put a price tag on suffering, though? This woman had gone through years of physical therapy, and various treatments by a variety of medical practitioners, but the lawyer arguing the defense made the case that the claims made by the plaintiff were frivolous, and had much more to do with her age than the after-effects of the accident. Indeed, the day of the accident she was X-rayed and it was found that no bones were broken, and the problems she had been having with her back since that day had to some extent been caused by osteoarthritis, if I remember correctly. She was claiming a problem with her foot that had developed several months after the accident was indirectly caused by the accident. It was all pretty strange, but she wanted money for time lost from work, pain and suffering, medical bills, and probably one or two other things I don't recall.

As the case ended, and we filed into the deliberation room, I was thinking, "Eh, this woman doesn't deserve squat. Her car was paid for, so at most, maybe a couple hundred for medical bills." Then something strange happened.

One of the older members of the jury (I think I may have been the youngest) was the first to speak up after the door closed. He actually said more or less what I was thinking. "This lady's nuts; we shouldn't give her anything!" Everyone sat down, nodded, and the murmured general consensus was that this would be a pretty quick deliberation.

And I lost it.

Somehow, I just couldn't let it sit at that, even though I largely agreed. "Look, the stuff about her foot's pretty ridiculous, but nobody is disputing the fact that she was hurt, right? Shouldn't she at least get some portion of her medical bills paid and a tad for pain and suffering?" Before I knew it, we were all in agreement that she deserved some sort of settlement.

I don't consider myself a strong personality. I'm not a leader by any means, and I wasn't elected jury foreman. Nonetheless, in the course of the next couple hours, I had the distinct mental feeling of holding the reins of a team of eleven horses and guiding them wherever I wanted them to go. My initial misgivings about holding silent in case there were others who had a dissenting opinion that they were unwilling to voice in the face of opposition gave way to a new misgiving. Was this a group of twelve people who simply would make the decision that aligned with the loudest voice in the room? When the deliberation was done, the plaintiff was awarded a few thousand dollars, but I kept having the feeling that every dollar she got was hung on my own words to my fellow jurors, who, whatever they may have felt about the case in reality, were far more interested in agreeing with my vocal majority of one and getting out of there.

Did I imagine it or was it real? If it was real, which I strongly suspect, does it say something about our attitude towards jury duty, or about our tendency towards a herd mentality in general? Personally, I don't like to think of the implications of either possibility. I fear often that people either don't think for themselves, or they simply don't care to think about anything beyond personal convenience. Like I said, I'm not a strong personality or a natural leader; what happens to our society when someone who is stands up and steers us towards their own personal ends?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Hindsight is 20/20 and color-blind

Sometimes when I write these posts, I mull over a subject for a few days, and then commit my thoughts to the blogosphere, where surely few will read them, but at least they're out of my brain for a while. Today, I'd like to rant on something that either has occupied my mind for less than an hour (I was sparked into considering this subject by something I caught on television less than an hour before I started typing) or for most of my life (this subject has interested me since I was a kid; I guess I've always been a bit of a cynic).

Racism and closely related topics are often difficult to talk about for a number of reasons. It's a sensitive subject obviously. It's something ugly that we would rather just go away. It's something that most of us harbor in some form, although we hate to admit it to ourselves. Let me come out and make an admission: I have a certain amount of irrational fear and hatred towards Germans. I think admitting it to myself helps me deal with it, but it's still there. Being raised Jewish, my older family members and people within the Jewish community talked a lot about Nazis. As a young man, I didn't really understand what the term meant, other than knowing that in my father's lifetime, a lot of Germans killed a lot of Jews. Thus I associated an (arguably) irrational fear of Germans, making an internal association due to a limited grasp of history that rationally I know to be false, in general, but still get the creeps about nonetheless. So there's that off my chest.

(For some people, it's not racism, but some other form of prejudice: I once knew a guy who had had a bad employee who had graduated from a certain college, and ever since had not liked anyone he met who was from that college. A lot of us have a certain degree of sexism as well that manifests in many differing ways.)

Maybe is just that I am a cynic, but I think if we are honest with ourselves, we won't look at racists and say, "I'm so much better than them," but rather,"There but for the grace of God..." The thing that sparked me this morning was a children's program talking about racism (I think; I only caught about a minute while channel-surfing). A young white girl was asked to imagine herself living in the early part of the 19th century, in a family that owned slaves; how would she feel? She responded, "I would feel really bad about it..."

Would you really, though? It seems more likely to me that you would take it in stride. Obviously most of the people who lived in what would later become the Confederate States of America took it as a given that slavery was acceptable, proper and even good. It was necessary for the thriving of the cotton plantations and other agriculture to have a constant supply of cheap labor, and so slavery continued. Tell me, do you feel bad for migrant workers in 21st-century agriculture who work all day in the hot sun for less than minimum wage to feed their families, knowing that they will probably never be accepted by mainstream culture? When you think about it, it's a lot like the early days after the abolition of slavery in the South, when many former slaves had to stay working on their old plantations without pay because it was the only way to make a living in a culture that didn't want you to get ahead, slavery or not.

Why do you suppose it is that it seems so obvious to us today that slavery is wrong, and yet there seems to have been few people who voluntarily gave up their slaves before abolition? In Santa Cruz, there was a local historical figure named London Nelson who was a freed slave. His first master died and left him to his eldest son, who continued to use him for cotton picking. Eventually, Nelson was set free when his new master decided to go west in the Gold Rush. The story interests me because it seems to illustrate the point that on the whole, the way we humans treat our other humans has less to do with what we feel to be morally right, and more to do with what will bring us economic prosperity.

I actually recently discovered that there is a shocking (but perhaps not surprising) strategy that some businesses use to dispose of wastes of certain kinds. Electronic equipment is recognized to be very dangerous and toxic, being filled with lead, mercury, cadmium and other deadly substances. It's illegal to put electronic waste in American landfills, so the preferred method is to break down old computers and extract the toxic substances, recycling them into new computers. That's difficult and costly to do, however, so many companies have found a cheap alternative: ship the stuff to India, where there are no laws about dumping these substances. Thus, our toxic chemicals end up in landfills sometimes literally in the back yards of impoverished Indians. I found myself thinking: the Nazis killed off millions of Jews out of hatred, but if Americans kill off millions of Indians out of mere convenience, who is worse? I don't know, but it really bothers me. If I am a person who stands by and lets this happen, am I any better than the average German citizen who didn't stand up to the Nazis? Heck, my life wouldn't even be put in danger to stand up to this sort of evil!

One of the unfortunate things about prejudice is the fact that most of us don't notice it or confront it unless it's directed at us. Remember the movie Philadelphia in 1993? Tom Hanks plays Andrew Beckett, a gay lawyer with AIDS who sues his firm for wrongful termination because he believes he lost his job in part because of homophobia. On what does he base his claim that his employers were homophobic? In a flashback, we see a group of lawyers together at a gym, swapping jokes as follows:

What do you call a woman who has PMS and ESP at the same time?

I don't know, Roger, what do you call her?

A bitch who knows everything.

Sounds like someone I know.

Hey Walter, how does a faggot fake an orgasm?

He throws a quart of hot yogurt on your back.

The thing that bothered me about this scene from the first time I saw it was the fact that Beckett is laughing along with the others when the sexist joke is being told, but the smile melts away when the gay joke is told. I wanted to step into that scene and ask him, "So Andrew, it sexism better than homophobia? If telling a joke about 'faggots' means they must hate you, does that imply telling a joke about 'bitches' mean they hate women? Why were you laughing before, and why did you stop now?"

I remember a time when I was at work alone with a co-worker who said, "Hey, all the women are gone, let's tell some politically-incorrect jokes." He proceeded to tell a black joke, a Polish joke, and a Chinese joke, laughing up a storm. I laughed too, then I told him an Italian joke. My (Italian) co-worker said, "Ouch..." and joke time was over.

Don't think you're better than anyone else just because you're not a Nazi. Most of us aren't Nazis, and most of us aren't particularly nice.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

If James Madison were alive today...

...he'd be clawing desperately at the lid of his coffin. Man, that one never gets old.

I'm going to try (no doubt in vain) to make this one brief, because, as they say, brevity is the soul of wit. To quote from a fellow blogger (who is an atheist) whose blog I enjoy, some people, such as Mike Huckabee have claimed that the Constitution needs to be amended to make the U.S. a Christian nation as our forefathers intended. When you think about it, "[D]oesn't that, in itself, prove that our constitution wasn't supposed to be a Christian document?"

I don't know if DocMike was the first to think of this question, and he probably wasn't (I myself have mused along those lines before), but in his little comic format, he puts it so well and so succinctly that it suddenly becomes a "Duh!" statement. Sure, there are those who wish the United States was not just a Christian nation in culture, but in law. The laws can be and often are changed, but the thing that so often bothers me is the appeal to how somehow by voiding the laws that the Founding Fathers wrote, we're actually serving their wishes.

Say what you want about how the Founding Fathers were great Christian men (and of course, most of them were), but don't appeal to them as a defense for your own moral choices as you simultaneously aim to tear down what they created. The Constitution is a living document that can be amended, and has been many, many times. If a politician wants to change it, they can freely endeavor to do so, but let's have no nonsense about what the Founding Fathers wanted but somehow forgot to put in.

For those Christians who are still not convinced (and no doubt wouldn't be reading my blog anyway), consider the position reversed. Imagine a politician taking office and making a law that Bibles printed in America be amended to say that any sexual act between two consenting adults is acceptable to God, because "We know that God is love, and therefore we know that God wants the world to have more love in it, especially physical love." That would be crap, wouldn't it? People can and do teach whatever they want about the nature of God, but would it make sense to change the words of the Bible because you feel you know that God wanted it that way, although He didn't clearly state so?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

And the LORD saith: Be thou my Valentine!

By the way, don't forget Valentine's Day!

Does a hairless ape have the Buddha nature?

I spend a lot of time thinking about things that atheists say about the world and how so often it doesn't seem to make sense to me. Case in point, something that I love to bring up is the question of how evolutionary theory (that is, of the sort that claims humans evolved from "lower life forms", that's the interesting stuff, right?) is often claimed to have solid basis in scientific fact, and yet, I've never heard of any specific evidence. Those who truly understand science realize that science never "proves" anything anyway, and that's an apparent weakness and yet in many ways truly the strength of science that at its core, science is eternally skeptical.

Not so theists, obviously. A common claim made by theists is the concept that the existence of God is simply self-evident. The mere fact that atheists exist would seem to be a compelling counter-argument, but my fellow theists insist. Usually, the claim is the if one simply looks at the world around us, sees how amazing it is, one cannot reasonably reject the concept of an all-powerful creator. Okay, if you really think so.

Something always seems wrong with it to me, but it's hard to put a finger on specifics. Then I remembered a fascinating little observation I've heard a few theistic anti-evolutionists make: Ever seen a dog say grace before digging into a bowlful of chow? Of course not, dogs don't have religion, nor do any other animals, and clearly, that's what sets us apart and makes us superior.

I find that to be a much more interesting and perhaps far more astute observation, although it may not be so clear what conclusions we can draw from the fact. I realize that I have repeatedly talked on this blog about how we really are not well served in comparing humans to animals, yet I think it is a wellspring of philosophical, sociological and biological insight to note anything that does actually clearly delineate us from the rest of the living creatures in the world. We're not the only animals to use tools, build structures, or even use language, so while those things fail to fully set us apart, the fact that we are somehow fundamentally religious is striking. Even atheists are likely to occasionally ponder the possibility that God exists, even if they easily reject it out of hand. Does this really make us somehow superior, however?

While an atheist might say no out of sense of surety that theology is a waste of brain power, it occurs to me that theists themselves are implicitly putting forth a very good argument that something is wrong somewhere. Maybe you personally disagree, but I have never doubted that many animals are thinking, feeling beings. Our favorite pets, dogs and cats, seem to be very able to observe the world around them and evaluate what is going on. Their thought processes may be somewhat more simplistic, but I don't believe they are completely unable to abstract from sense data. When I was growing up, I had a dog. Surely that dog could have looked up into the night sky and seen the stars twinkling away across the galaxy. Surely that dog could have looked at the natural world about him and seen the beauty of nature. Yet all of these things that are supposed to inspire us as humans to realize that there is something greater than us in the world simply fail to elicit such a response in animals. Why is that?

Think about it: If the existence of God is supposed to be self-evident by simply looking at the world around us, so much so that in order to deny God's existence one would supposedly have to fool oneself into denying it, then why do we not see any evidence of Godly reverence among other species? Is it lack of intelligence? I don't think so. It's an oddity that one has to be intelligent before one can be fooled. Ever try to play a practical joke on a dog? It doesn't work. Either you fail completely, or you're successful in a mere mechanical way while the dog has no idea what's going on. Who fooled the animals of the world into ignoring God?

Really, in my mind there are only two possibilities. Either claims that the existence of God is self-evident are fundamentally flawed, or the fact that animals are non-religious shows us that we as humans are inferior. If you can look at the stars in the sky and "see God", not in a supernatural way, but in a mundane sense of it being simply self-evident, then you're deluded. Our ability as highly intellectually evolved creatures to imagine infinite possibilities from the limited information we gather with our senses has caused a glitch: the imagining of God.

That's not to say that God does not exist. Don't mistake me, I'm still a theist. The problem here is a short-circuiting of reason, but that doesn't automatically imply that the conclusion is wrong, just logically flawed. If I believe that every time I wash my car, it will rain within 24 hours, it may in fact be true, but that doesn't imply causality, only that I have poor timing in washing my car. I think God exists, but not because the world is so beautiful.

It may be that there is something supernatural to it, like God opening the eyes of a person in the Bible and letting them see the realm of the spirit for a moment. Even then, however, one cannot say it's self-evident, as divine intervention is needed. Is a special kind of sight that which has set us apart from the animals? If so, it may not be given to all, and we cannot say that an atheist is fooling themselves for not seeing what we see; for better or worse, they simply aren't experiencing that same glitch.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The Third-Party Guru

So yesterday was our so-called "Super Tuesday" here in America, the day that most of the country has its preliminary round of voting before the official election. Often, it's a day that campaigns make final decisions as to how far they are going to be run, and candidates can either make a definitive statement that they fully expect to be the official candidate for their party, or they drop out and declare their work to be done. I suppose sometimes a losing candidate can be happy to simply have made it through a lengthy campaign without any major scandals. Although you may have not heard it on the news in the midst of talk about, there was another campaign afoot that had a major contender who dropped out of the race yesterday. I am of course talking about the death of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

It's a fascinating thing to me that to a great extent, religion and politics have a lot in common. Despite the efforts of various interest groups here in the U.S. such as the so-called "Moral Majority" (I say "so-called" as some have pointed out that this is a phrase like "Christian Science" in which two words are used to describe something in which neither word describes it at all.) there is not an easy mix between religion and political ideology, the now-defunct Natural Law Party notwithstanding. Even in ancient societies, we see struggle between religious movements and political movements: In the New Testament, Jesus, the Pharisees and the Sadducees represented differing religious viewpoints, but struggled not just against one another, but against political powers such as the Romans and the Herodians. Today, even in a country that supposedly supports freedom of religion, we argue about whether a Mormon or a (falsely-rumored) Muslim is fit to hold national office. Many have chided the silliness of the notion that somehow putting one's hand on a Bible while taking a vow makes that vow somehow more unbreakable. While the Bible is of supreme importance to a Christian, physically, it's just a pile of paper, and the moral law within a politician's heart is infinitely more important than the moral law under his or her hand.

But what of the Maharishi? Why do I bring him up, other than the fact that he has recently passed the way of all humanity? Well, although I don't really know so very much about the man, there was a comment made about him in the news report of his death I heard this morning that struck me as fascinating. It is very rare among either politicians or religious leaders to go through their entire career without being plagued by scandals, but the Maharishi is one of those rare individuals who seems to have done it. Other than an alleged sexual advance on Mia Farrow that seems to be unproven (and considerably less of a scandal than it would be for a Christian political leader, as Hindu sexual standards are somewhat different), his life and the Transcendental Meditation movement he founded seem to have a pretty clean record.

I remember that there was a TM center near the place where I grew up, and there was a teacher I had in junior high school who often passed on rumors to her students that these weirdos were somehow dragging off young impressionable souls and brainwashing them. I always found the stories rather improbable, myself, and whereas another Christian teacher I had in high school later was definitely part of what inspired me to look into Christianity, this particular Christian teacher was the sort that made me say, "If that's what Christians are like, I don't think I need to have anything to do with it, thank you." There's no doubt to me that as a Christian, there is a certain disdain one must have for all that is not of Christ, but choosing to see the deepest evil in any religious activity outside of your own narrow views isn't so much Christianity as paranoia. Later in high school, I had a friend who had a part-time job as a janitor at the TM center. His view on these people was that they were a bit odd, but mostly friendly and honest, and they never tried to push their views on him, an atheist.

I think that honesty and good-natured kindness that seems to have always been very present in the Maharishi and his followers is admirable. Sure, we may disagree with their spiritual beliefs, but when we look at their aims as a group, I can't find anything to criticize. The Maharishi believed that his methods brought not just peace to the practitioner, but also to the world around the practitioner. The Maharishi and his followers, although surprisingly influential for such a small group, don't seem to have been self-seeking, living modestly and quietly.

As a Christian, I suppose I am obligated to call the Maharishi a "cultist" or an "infidel", and technically, either or both descriptions fit. Still, on a personal level, as someone who tries to look at the world both from within and without my religious belief system, I'd have to say that if all cultists and infidels--and even many Christians--were more like the Maharishi, this world would be a much better place for it.