Monday, September 29, 2008

Did It Make a Difference?

Today began like most other days. It saw me starting out, as usual, with a fresh coffee at Dunkin Donuts - one extra cream, no sugar. I traded the usual good-morning barbs with my boss and co-worker: "It's amazing you and I aren't sick of each other, Bob." "Speak for yourself, Bill," Bob shot back.

"Oh just great! You're still here, Cindy?" Her warm reply: "You just worry about yourself, Bill. And if you don't stop delivering flowers to the wrong address, Bob is going to let go of your ass!"

All was right with the world. I was resoundingly insulted and abused getting my day off to its familiar start. My first few deliveries came and went without a hitch, and before I knew it my 11:00 a.m. caffeine craving was surfacing right on schedule. But this day was about to take a turn for the unusual. As I neared the entrance to, where else - Dunkin Donuts, a man approached me - disheveled, unshaven, and obviously down on his luck.

"Buddy, can you please buy me a sandwich? Please? I'm havin' a tough time here." He was actually escorting me into the coffee shop when I stopped and said to him, "Look, they may not take too kindly to your accosting their customers in here, so just wait outside. I'll be right back." He gave me a funny look for a moment - as if he didn't know what the word "accosted" meant. But the look on his face revealed an emerging hope that the rest of my words must have given him, and he dutifully retreated to the street corner to wait and see if his desperate plea would bare any fruit.

In the few moments I had waiting to be attended to, I weighed my options. My decision was an easy one. Disregarding the risk of promoting panhandling, I thought the right thing to do was to buy this man a sandwich. Hunger is such an immediate need.

I saw my friend's plight as a direct consequence of the financial meltdown on Wall Street. It was having an effect on everyone, from the CEOs of Lehman Brothers and AIG having to so sadly forgo a few million dollars in bonuses, to hedge fund managers becoming apoplectic at the thought of not being able to bring a 30% return on some clients' portfolios; all the way down to Mr. & Mrs. John Q. Public having to weigh not paying this month's mortgage because their heating bills for the winter are coming due; and finally down to my street-corner hobo friend needing something to eat - right away. Maybe this was what they meant by trickle-down economics.

It's possible my hungry associate gave up hope as I had to go looking for him when I came out of the coffee shop. He was meandering in the opposite direction so I picked up my pace and caught up to him to give him his small but important gift. His face lit up at the sight of my approaching carrying a take-out bag from the shop.

"You didn't! Oh thank you, buddy. Thank you so much."

Being the nut case that I am, I couldn't stop myself from offering a few words of advice: "Look, the Social Services office is just down the street. Go there and tell them you need some assistance. That's what they are there for. You're just going to get yourself in trouble if you stay out here panhandling like this."

You're not going to get me in trouble are you, sir?"

"No. no. Of course not. But, you know, some people might not be so kind," I said to him giving myself a virtual pat on the back.

I was left to ponder the value of my deed of generosity. Did it make a difference? I thought it did. It wasn't exactly your average $700 billion bailout, but for a precious moment, we eased a little suffering. And we satisfied not only a craving for food, but almost as importantly, a craving for intimacy. My friend gave me a firm hug before crossing the street to settle at a bench and make a feast of his sandwich.

Isn't it always the way? You set out to do something kind for someone and you end up being the recipient of an even greater act of kindness in return - from the very person you helped! For a fleeting moment, I saw myself as a panhandler, too, groping for a smattering of intimacy from my fellow man - and being willing to pay for it in the currency of a ham, egg, and cheese croissant.

My friend and I were there for one another in this encounter of reciprocity, and each of us came away with that which we hungered for: he, something to fill his stomach, and I, something to fill my spirit.

Such wonderful symbiosis!

Friday, September 26, 2008

Is Morality Natural?

In a scene from the movie Good Morning Vietnam [I stand corrected; it was the final episode of the TV show M.A.S.H.], a bus full of villagers stops by the roadside to avoid detection by enemy soldiers. Among the villagers are a woman and her crying infant. Fearing the loud crying will alert the soldiers to their presence and lead to their killing, the mother suffocates her child. The ensuing silence assuages the soldiers' concerns and they move on. The villagers on the bus are spared.

What does the decision by this fictional young mother to kill her own child have to say about moral dilemmas? Is the killing morally defensible?

One of the more petulant arguments from many people of religious faith is one which claims that without God there are no morals. Many skeptics, however, make the point that our morality is not only not derived from anything supernatural, but that its origins appear to be encoded in nature itself.

A recent Newsweek magazine article, Is Morality Natural? (Sept. 22, 2008 Issue), reports on studies which "suggest that nature provides a universal moral grammar, designed to generate fast, intuitive and universally held judgments of right and wrong."

When presented with various moral dilemmas, people of diverse backgrounds, including atheists and people of religious faith, remarkably respond in the same way. When asked why they made the decisions they did, most cannot articulate an answer with any conciseness, yet they are confident in their choices. These findings reveal what appears to be a moral intuition embedded into the natural fabric of our consciousness.

One of the main purposes of organized religion most certainly is that of administering what it believes to be this moral charter, an admirable undertaking. It is the origins of this morality that we skeptics doubt derive from a supernatural source. It makes the task of promoting morality by people of faith no less honorable, but this task is not unique to people of faith. We atheists are also keenly attuned to the need for achieving a better sense of right and wrong in our everyday lives. It is a shallow and indefensible myth that atheists, by virtue of their godlessness, are lacking in a moral code to live by.

That this sense of what is right and what is wrong may derive from a natural source - or Darwinian source, as some suggest - actually gives me comfort. It gives one reason to have faith in man's instinctual self.

Maybe we can't all agree on the origins of morality, but hopefully we can agree that whatever they are it is very important to seek out its meaning, seek out its purpose, and attend to its ideal.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Legacy of Pain, Part II

Some may be wondering why the title, "Legacy of Pain." Certainly, this does not refer to the loving legacy of my dearly departed brother Vinny. Of whose legacy am I speaking? Sadly, it is that of my parents. I nonetheless try very hard to achieve some understanding - not just assign blame - as I contemplate their roles as "guardians of the spirit" in raising their children.

Over time it has become abundantly clear that each of my parents was burdened with substantial mental and emotional maladies. Only this can explain the legacy of pain inflicted upon their children. The alternative is to condemn them as willful abusers, which I know in my heart would be unfair. The crude reality, however, is that abuse is quite rightly the appropriate depiction of so much of what we endured. And because they were each in their own way so very religious, I drew the understandably inescapable conclusion that God, religious faith and superstition in general were all very unhealthy ideals to aspire to. If this was where commitment to God leads one, I wanted no part of it.

My parents lives speak to a legacy of pain endured as well as imposed. My ongoing enlightenment regarding the issues of mental illness, mental health hygiene and emotional well-being has allowed me to achieve and extend forgiveness toward my parents for their misdeeds. The illnesses they themselves no doubt were afflicted with mitigate the moral culpability they own for their shortcomings.

The most profound repercussion of this legacy of pain has been the near incapacitation of its victims (we sons and daughters) with regard to accepting ourselves, accepting others, negotiating conflict and achieving intimacy in our lives. In a sad sort of irony, some of us have come to accept these limitations as the price of admission to the theater of life. But I want a refund. A full life is not without these qualities. Moreover, I would like to free myself from this burden of righteousness we siblings seem to share. Another useless gift from the emotional estate of our parents.

To be frank about it, I feel as though my siblings are laying a thousand dollars down on a near-sure thing: my mother never getting the help she needs and dying having never experienced the joy of giving or receiving love from her family the entire duration of her golden years. Whereas, I am placing two dollars down on a thousand-to-one long shot: she accepts her mental health as frail and gets the professional care she so desperately needs. I submit the payoff on my wager - here at the emotional racetrack of life - is infinitely more rewarding.

Like the unfortunate young victim who has been sexually assaulted but is too afraid to report the incident to police or seek the help of a therapist, some people cannot accept that a greater good is achieved when we are willing to pay the price for healing in the form of confronting, with a purpose, some of what transpired. It is the surest way to get beyond it. Avoiding this reality is downright unhealthy.

One thing I thought I might do to deal with my anger over this week's events was to see my therapist ahead of schedule. Fortunately, she found a time to work me in, and I was able to get centered and achieve some perspective. On the down side, I think I made the mistake of speaking from my anger in one or two phone conversations and emails with siblings prior to seeing my counselor. Specifically, I was quite unforgiving toward my sister for the way she handled things at Vinny's service. I am having much difficulty rationalizing her actions, and yet I still feel called to forgiveness. At the moment, I am an abject failure in this regard.

The big-picture view of these events speaks to the level of discrimination and intolerance still aimed at those of us who dare to reject generations of religiosity. We atheists remain quite marginalized in our societies as well as within our families. Though most people hesitate to express overt hostility with their words, their actions nonetheless reveal much about their true feelings. Ironically, had I spoken my words of tribute to Vinny at his service, those who were aware of my skepticism would have been disappointed had they been anticipating anything offensive, while those who were not would have noticed nothing but the love that inspired my words.

It hurts being possessed of so much ambivalence regarding my parents, but feelings have no right or wrong. They are valid because they exist. Our quest to understand them, however, is most certainly a noble endeavor.

Flawed though my own legacy will no doubt be, I can still think of nothing more important than passing on to my daughter the desire to succeed at this very quest for understanding. It has given me - purpose.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Legacy of Pain, Part I

It has been a turbulent few days - emotionally - since my brother, Vinny passed away. Not for any reasons having to do with Vinny - he and I have always been square - but as is so often the case, having to do with tensions among surviving family members. Ain't it always the way?

As I try to make sense of all that transpired, a few things reveal themselves to me. Some I am already painfully - or not so painfully - aware of; others have a newness or freshness about them; a few even provide further insight into my own state of being and continued need for introspection and support.

It is quite clear to me that the source of all the bruised feelings and burdened communiqués was simply - intolerance. The details can bog one down, so I will make every effort to be economical with my words in providing them.

A few of you were very kind to me when I revealed my brother's death here on Living Without God - A Life of Reason in my last post, Good Bye, Vinny. This post - or tribute - to Vinny was at the very center of the firestorm. When I shared it with a couple of siblings, they were equally kind and positive in their reactions. My sister so much so that she suggested I read it at the end of Vinny's funeral service when people are invited to say a few words in remembrance of the one lost. My response was quite agreeable and I thought it would be both a loving gesture as well as emotionally valuable experience.

Then came the hitch. My sister made what now appears to be a mistake in retrospect. She told my mother that I had written a very lovely tribute to Vinny and that I was going to read it at the end of the service. (It was to be a religious service - a Catholic one - to be precise.) As I have revealed in a few of my posts, I believe my mother to be seriously burdened with mental illness, much of it in the form of religious delusion; but I have been equally adamant in my belief that her condition would likely respond favorably to the attention of competent and caring mental health professionals.

Reading this tribute to Vinny did not sit well with my mother. It wasn't the message - she hadn't even read it - it was the messenger! Because I am self-professed in my atheism, my mother did not think it right that I speak at Vinny's service. Then she suggested the only way she would allow this to happen would be if she could speak after me. My mother either did not want the words of an avowed atheist to go unchallenged or to be spoken at all within the confines of a Catholic funeral service. Her response reeked of intolerance. I will say this: If celebrating kindness, compassion, love and triumph of the human spirit is a secular evil - then I plead guilty.

My sister felt, or claimed, that given my mother's fragile state, my words could possibly invite a tit-for-tat and inappropriately escalating response - sort of like the beginning of a nuclear war, I suppose. One of my brothers even wrote to me in an email that I should "not go out of my way to inflict this gratuitous hurt on someone who has already seen so much pain in her life." This brother, who did read Good Bye, Vinny, either honestly believed that not reading my gift was the sensible thing to do, or as I suspect, was merely kowtowing to my mother's perverse conditions because he is, as all of my siblings are, afraid to stand up to her. (Just last week my sister very proudly told me she recently stood up to my mother for the first time in her adult life. Sadly, my mother intimidates these people.)

My brothers and sisters believe my mother to be the virtual equivalent of a sociopath - beyond even the reach of medical professionals. I don't think they understand that geriatric psychiatry is a medical field unto itself or that religious delusion is a symptom of mental illness; or, if they do understand these things, they simply feel she can survive without intervention. Maybe she can. But what kind of life is just surviving? Appropriate care would open up the possibility of not just surviving - but thriving.

Cutting to the chase . . . Toward the end of the service, one of the two celebrants presiding invited anyone who wanted to say a few words about Vinny to do so. Believing my mother would be just fine, I left my seat and motioned toward the lectern to share my brief tribute. My sister, from just a few feet away, very loudly blurted out, "No, Billy, no. We're not doing that." Not believing my ears, I glanced toward the inviting priest and said, "I'm sorry. Were we invited to say a few words?" The priest calmly nodded in the affirmative. But again my sister loudly objected, "No. No. Nobody is speaking." You can't make this stuff up! (I convinced myself that maybe I didn't hear the priest say what I thought he said - he wasn't speaking very loudly - so I returned to my seat. Had I been certain we were, in fact, invited to speak I would have continued on and read my tribute.)

The priest seemed bewildered by what had just transpired in front of him. At least one other person, a cousin of mine, who also motioned to speak, retreated in mild disbelief. If we were allowed to share our feelings, I'm sure others no doubt would have been made to feel comfortable enough to share one or two remembrances of their own. A golden opportunity for a few intimate moments was lost - all because a sibling or two felt tiptoeing around my mother was the sensible thing to do.

My daughter was so upset at what she witnessed, she immediately left the service, went outside and began crying on the church steps. After the service a few people tried to console her telling her that "we all have to forgive [Grandma]. We know how sick she is."

Lost in all this is, of course, my brother Vinny. These unfortunate events took focus away from the real purpose of the gathering which was to celebrate his life. Being denied the opportunity to do this very thing left Jami, Alycia and I feeling mistreated. We had to move on, however - I had to move on. Only I wondered how I would do this and yet still do justice to all that my anger was telling me.

I'll soon share how I began this process in Legacy of Pain, Part II.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Good Bye, Vinny

He was never a normal child. Restricted by obesity and burdened with special emotional needs, the mental and physical deficits of his early life left him at the mercy of the unkind. Bullying, name-calling, and taunting all rained upon him mercilessly as he navigated his way from early childhood through adolescence and onto adulthood.

For a long time, he feared the mere shadow of his fellow man. He was not given to trust, lest he be assaulted by disappointment yet again. He was driven into emotional exile by some of the worst that humanity had to offer. He appeared defeated.

But something happened. A strength began to emerge. It came from within. Suddenly he found the ability to forgive, and the healing began. Slowly, humanity earned its way back into his trust and faith. A sibling here, a sibling there. A friend here, a friend there. And supported by the kind of affection only a mother knows how to give, he found his way back among the living - and the loving.

How does someone beset by so many challenges and possessed of so few conventional tools find the courage to love again? How does someone so weathered by malevolence end up the very picture of goodness?

My hunch is that the best of what humanity had to offer found its way into his heart. Kindness, compassion and love. Three qualities not given to defeat. And for that we are grateful.

Who was this man? He was my brother. His name was Vinny. He died today at the age of 56 after a long and courageous voyage through life. I know he loved me and the rest of his brothers and sisters because he told us he did every time he spoke to us. And because he taught me how, I was able to love him the way a brother should.

To my precious brother Vinny: Thank you, and . . . Good Bye.

Ping Pong Across the Connecticut River

Living near the Connecticut River means sometimes having to cross it to get where one has to go. It's a long, wide and beautiful, tidal river. Very picturesque. Every once in a while, I'll cross the river via the rustic Rocky Hill/Glastonbury ferry - said to be the oldest continuously operating ferry in the country - just to enjoy it more intimately.

Then again, there are those times when just thinking about having to cross that river one more time nearly drives me to the brink. Consider the following:

We live on the west side of the river. My job is on the east side of the river. Sometimes for work, I go back over the bridge to make deliveries on the west side. And because our daughter still doesn't have her license, I have to drive her to school which is back on the east side - and of course pick her up. Toss in one round trip caused by a momentary brain freeze and things start to get dicey.

Today I made 10 trips across this river. When I arrived home, Jami said to me, "Ten times! And you didn't just pull over and jump off the bridge? I'm so proud of you!"

Thank you, Jami. And that very idea did cross my mind by the way. But when I thought of how much I still had to live for - how many more priceless bridge-crossing years I still had ahead of me, I just couldn't do it.

Besides, the Putnam Bridge is a sentimental place for me. Each time I cross it, I am reminded of crossings past, most of them uneventful, some adventurous. Like the time I skidded out of control one wintry morning and bounced off the Jersey barriers like a tennis ball earning me that dreaded joy ride in the back of an ambulance; or the time a couple of my coins missed their mark at the toll gate and the state police pursued me like a felon; and how could I ever forget the time my tire went flat right in the middle of the span causing not only a mile-long backup, but also serious risk to life and limb as I hastily performed my matinée, tire-changing sideshow for the early rush-hour crowd.

Yes, I crossed the Connecticut River 10 times today, and I'm nearly sea sick because of it. Some days, just getting out of bed is the wrong thing to do.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Real Reason George Will Annoys Me

The social and political stripes so boldly emblazoned onto my persona are not something I have much success at hiding, so it should come as no surprise that it's something of a chore to commit to regularly reading conservative columnist George F. Will. As with most sources I might not politically identify with, I at least try to learn from him what I can.

So abrasive to my sensibilities do I find Mr. Will's most commonly held views, I often do not get past the initial sense of revulsion I experience when I first set eyes upon his photo atop each of his columns in Newsweek magazine. Given that I usually read periodicals from back to front, his back-page column in Newsweek always gets my reading of that publication off to a rocky start.

On those occasions when I'm able to put aside Mr. Will's political orientation, I'm usually glad I did. Besides having a soft spot for him because he did his undergraduate work at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, the city I grew up in, I find him to be a virtual font of information as an observer of the political process. And when the situation calls for it, he will roundly criticize those of his own conservative ilk. He's also big on baseball. (His name has even been tossed around casually as a possible future Commissioner of Baseball.)

Those of you who read George Will regularly also know something else about his columns. They are usually spiced with uncommon words. It's one thing to be erudite or scholarly with one's vocabulary; it's quite another to be just plain annoying. If I don't have a dictionary readily at hand when I read Mr. Will, chances are a few things are going to go right over my head. Whether referring to Bill Clinton's preternatural neediness or Mike Huckabee's charlatanry, I find I need at the ready to make sure he doesn't lose me altogether.

I figure there are two ways to look at this phenomenon. Either my vocabulary is sorely in need of a booster shot, or Mr. Will is on the verge of being unnecessarily sesquipedalian. (See how it feels?)

So what's the real reason George Will gets under my skin? Is it simply the fact that no matter what the subject I already know that what I'll be getting is an unrelenting, conservative spin on the topic of the day, or is it the way he makes my vocabulary seem so jejune? Truthfully, it's a toss-up. But if I had to choose which one annoys me more, I'd have to say the vocabulary thing. I can tolerate someone's political analysis being predictably conservative, but looking down their nose at me and my vapid vocabulary is more than I can bear. It's so pestiferous.

Take that, George.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

There's No Crying - Or God - In Baseball

One of my favorite scenes in all of movies occurs in the 1992 film, A League of Their Own, directed by Penny Marshall. When one of the players on the all-women's baseball team starts to cry after being excoriated for a misplay on the field, Jimmy Dugan, the drunken, gruff and disheveled manager charmingly portrayed by Tom Hanks, looks at her and incredulously exhorts, "You're crying? Are you crying? There's no crying in baseball! (View the scene.)

The Hanks character's derision at the sight of tears on a baseball field is probably something most of us would also feel if we tried to imagine a dejected Derek Jeter sobbing uncontrollably after hitting into a double play costing his team a run at a critical moment. We understand baseball, and we understand crying; but we also understand that little voice inside our head that tells us the two don't mix very well.

Which brings to mind the idea that maybe something else should be left out of baseball as well. In September of 2001 - right after the infamous date of 9-11 to be more precise - the New York Yankees, in a proud display of patriotism, began having the song God Bless America sung during the seventh-inning stretch of all its home games at The Stadium. Its unifying and healing effect on a hurting city was plainly evident. The Irish tenor Ronan Tynan delivered on repeated occasions his masterful rendition of this anthem which Kate Smith made so popular in her glory days. (Watch Ronan Tynan sing God Bless America at Yankee Stadium)

But seven years later, I'm left to wonder: Has this new tradition already outlived its usefulness? The appeal of God Bless America is one of nostalgia. It hearkens us to a time when the country was more a country of Christians than not, when God was right up there with baseball, motherhood and apple pie as signatures of that which we held dear, and many people don't want to see those days go away. The reality, however, is that our doctrine of religious freedom has evolved and matured. It now respects not only the multiplicity of religions practiced in America, but also respects - or at least should - the ranks of us not inclined toward religion at all.

Truthfully, my aim is in no way to see God removed from public life altogether, but more precisely to see religion removed from institutions of government. But the Yankees are not an institution of government, so why my trepidation?

This is a valid question. If the Steinbrenners (owners of the Yankees) want to have God Bless America sung during the seventh-inning stretch, my hunch is that they have every right to do so. One leg I might have to stand on in favor of returning to Take Me Out To The Ball Game may lie in the fact that baseball does, in fact, enjoy a special social status in America, to say nothing of a special legal status (owing to its exemption from antitrust laws). Given that baseball is that unique institution in America whose appeal is so broad it permeates virtually every segment of society, in the course of its business it should refrain from identifying with any constituent that does not share its broad and inclusive philosophy.

Being a Yankee fan, I watch a lot of their games on television, and whenever the seventh-inning stretch of a home game comes around these days, I find myself suddenly in need of a comfort break. This is the same person, mind you, who couldn't tear himself away from this spectacle in the weeks immediately following 9-11. It was strange. I was comforted, not by the singing of God Bless America, but by witnessing the comfort it gave others. I was struck at just how uplifting and healing this song was to so many people, especially when the inspiring sight of a bald eagle flying through the stadium air was employed to even further incite the patriotism already swelling amidst the crowd.

It concerns me that those of us who do not believe in God might be considered less patriotic than those who do, which is, of course, a myth. We're only asking whether or not this one swatch from the fabric of our culture is best left outside such a universally appealing phenomenon as baseball.

It would be foolhardy to dismiss the enormous impact God, faith and religion have had on our culture. But for the sake of their very own survival, it would be wise to refrain from ostentatious displays of God, faith and religion in certain cultural arenas.

In the meantime, we don't need to repeat the spectacle of Yankees manager Billy Martin going to pieces after being fired for the fourth time. It was not a pretty sight.

Some things are best left out of baseball.

Losing Sleep Over "Supersede"

A long time ago, my father, who was a Linotype operator for the old Hartford Times newspaper before he went to law school, told me that during my lifetime I would not believe where I would see the word "supersede" misspelled. "Everyone spells it -cede. The correct way is -sede," he told me. Wow. That's interesting pop.

Sure enough, I noticed it spelled -cede one day in the fine print of a software licensing agreement one sees when installing a new computer program. What do you know? My dad was right.

Then, earlier today, I was reading an article in The Progressive magazine - Fists of Freedom by Dave Zirin - and there it was again: supercede! I was so excited about coming across this errant submission I called my friend Eva (the one from my last post, Longing For A Little Country Life) just to tell her the exciting news. Apparently it was still a little early in the morning in Missouri.

"You woke me up to tell me you found a misspelling in a magazine?" Following a protracted sigh of utter exasperation, she muttered, "OK. What's the word?"

I then told her which word it was. There was a conspicuous silence for about 45 seconds. (For a moment, I thought maybe she fell back to sleep.) Then came the bombshell: "I hate to be the one to tell you this, Billy, but there IS a word spelled supercede." Apparently there's no shortage of dictionaries in the Ozarks.

"What are you talking about?" I shot back. "You must be mistaken."

"Look it up for yourself," she implored me. So I did. And what do you know. She was right. Thirty-five years of arrogant assuredness on this subject was shot to pieces in a blinding flash.

Not at all happy with this situation, I decided it was time to Google my way out of this conundrum. I told Eva I would get back to her in a few minutes. "Fine. Go ahead. I can see this is eating away at you," she said.

What I found was very interesting. The definitions of the two words were virtually identical. One source alluded to the plainly preferred option of -sede, while another didn't even mention the existence of the -cede form of the word. Furthermore, the spellchecker monitoring this very post keeps highlighting the -cede version every time I type it (indicating a misspelling). Maybe I wasn't out of my mind, after all. I then informed Eva of my findings on the matter.

"You have to let it go, Billy. This obsession is not good for your health."

"I cannot just let this go. As a matter of fact, I'm going to write about this serious situation in my next blog post."

"If it will make you feel better, Billy, by all means - alert the blogosphere!"

So here you have it. The whole sordid state of affairs regarding supersede and supercede. I don't know about you, but I'm sticking to my guns. The -cede version is a hoax. The only reason it can even be found in the dictionary is that the word has been misspelled by so many for so long the lexicographers of the world simply decided to capitulate and present both options in their updated word bibles.

I feel better having gotten this off my chest. In the meantime, to the precious few who might read this, stand up for what is right. Spell this word the way it should be spelled. You'll feel better, too, knowing you have put your stamp on this dialectic dilemma.

Long live SUPERSEDE!

Friday, September 5, 2008

Longing For A Little Country Life

Being born and raised in a Northeastern city was great. Or so I thought. About 12 years ago, I befriended a person from Missouri via the modern medium of the Internet. My friend lives in the country - the Ozarks, as she likes to call them. In the time we've known each other, she has disabused me of nearly every feeble myth I had come to believe about people who live in the country.

Even so, a few of my preconceived notions about living in the sticks have been thoroughly validated. Recently, Eva was telling me the story of when her town had to be moved a few hundred yards to accommodate the new railway that was coming through. Yes, the entire town! (I wasn't sure, but I thought she was talking about this having taken place during her lifetime.) That's when I got to thinking this town had to be very small. "Oh, no. This was a bustling town. We had three doctors and four saloons," Eva said. Kinda gives new meaning to the word bustling.

When she told me her address was P.O. Box 2, 'Small Town', Missouri, I was curious as to how she got such a low number for a post office box. She told me she'd had it ever since the town was really small, when there were only 11 boxes in all. Today, of course, the town is much bigger and the post office, too, is bustling with over sixteen boxes. My wife is a postal employee, and she supervises 96 routes in just one of six zip codes in the city where she works. Something tells me the postmaster where Eva lives has a slightly easier time of things.

And forget about being wired for cable tv. The only way to receive the 200 mindless channels we city dwellers get is to install a satellite dish, which Eva hasn't bothered to do as of yet. Poor Eva. She can't get the twenty-one different versions of the Republican National Convention that are clogging my cable lineup right now. On this score, I have to say, she's probably better off.

When I asked Eva if her roads at least had painted lines running down the middle of them to guide traffic, she replied, "Not really. Dirt doesn't take too kindly to paint in these parts." That answers that.

My friend once even had to set me straight about this idea I had in my head that there was no crime where she lived. "Oh you'd be surprised. We see some pretty bad things around here. Some people actually have the nerve to siphon milk from your cow or steal fresh rhubarb from behind the barn (apparently whenever the dogs have been oversedated by the demands of their own canine country living.) And there's not much you can do about it. They're still working on installing that 9-1-1 thingy. Can't wait til that's up and running."

Eva's probably going to kill me for this satirical objectification of her rustic existence. But the truth is I'm jealous. I've had my sensibilities offended long enough by city life. I would love to get away from the concrete jungle, silence the sirens of police cars and ambulances, slow things down a little and live in the middle of nowhere for a change. If there's one thing Eva has that I don't, it's a pleasing disposition. Something tells me she got it from living the life of a country bumpkin.

I want some of that.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The Litmus Test Lives On

If there's one thing this year's election process has reinforced, it is the notion that presidential candidates must submit themselves to a virtual religious litmus test before they can realistically entertain hopes of winning the election.

Both John McCain and Barack Obama should have said "no thanks" to their invitations from Mega Pastor Rick Warren to appear at his church and submit to an interrogation by a religious leader, but political realities demanded that each of them capitulate and attend. Obama no doubt acquiesced lest he be perceived as minimizing the political clout of religious constituents, while McCain likely went along because the Saddleback audience provided understandably friendlier confines for his more conservative disposition.

Fortunately, the Constitution prohibits overt religious tests as qualifications for office, but the spirit of this doctrine should extend voluntarily to society as a whole especially during the election season. The reason for this is simple: When a powerful and popular religious constituency - namely Christian evangelicals - involves itself in the political process of elections, the overall effect is the further marginalization of minority religious constituencies, suggesting their support to be of little or no consequence. Since government is essentially prohibited from promoting or favoring one religion over another, accordingly, no religious organization should impose any test upon those aspiring to the highest levels of government.

At the very least, any religious organization wishing to hear from a presidential candidate should restrict their engagement to that of simply inviting them to speak and not anoint their powerful and sharply biased representative as inquisitor.

Until such time as the privileged status of religion is moderated in this country and a more secular mindset permeates our collective thinking, major candidates for national office will likely see themselves having to continue to weigh the cost of not bowing to pressure from religious constituents to answer to their cause.