Free Will vs. Compelled

Church-2678We had Easter at Michele’s familial home the weekend after the Indiana pizzeria said they wouldn’t cater a gay wedding. Sitting around, what I like to think of as the typical American family table, we had a couple of interesting conversations about politics that spilled over to religion (or religion that spilled over to politics). We were, very roughly, evenly split between Liberals and Conservatives and the Conservatives were spit between those who had gone to church that morning and those who hadn’t.

One thing we did agree on, surprisingly, is that people should have the right to be assholes, within limits, but that governments shouldn’t. To be clear, I wouldn’t say that we completely agreed, but we did come close to agreeing that there were differences between public acts in public spaces and private acts in private spaces. We all agreed that if a store is open for business, they have to serve everybody that walks in, but we differed on how restrictive they could be in the hypothetical catering of a wedding.

That conversation drew us into a – unexpected, for me – minefield. Maybe it shouldn’t have been unexpected, because I was the primary wanderer, owing to my fascination with religion’s special privileges. It is illegal for me to take peyote because I enjoy it, but, under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, I can take it if I am taking it as part of my religion. My question was Why should religion get special privileges? The only answer I got to this question was something along the lines of We are a Christian Nation, as if that would answer it. As the conversation staggered on, however, my question did get answered in a fashion.

To back up, when we are in Napa on a Sunday morning, or around a religious holiday like Christmas, Michele usually goes to church with her step-father, Jim (who was one of the church goers in the group, duh!). During the conversation, Michele’s stepfather said something, I don’t remember what, that led to Michele countering that she wasn’t raised as a Christian and wasn’t a Christian now. Jim was surprised, If you aren’t a Christian, why do you go to church with me? Michele said that she went because she enjoyed it. That was even more surprising to Jim.

Isn’t that why you go? asked Michele. No, I don’t go because I enjoy it, I go because, as a Christian, I have to go, Jim  said, laughing in a dismissive way as if that should be self-evident. In a way it was the answer that I had been looking for.

Still, not being a believer, Jim’s answer shocked me. Actually, I am a little reluctant to say Not being a believer, because I think of myself as a believer in A Divine that transcends what we know of the ordinary world. I don’t believe that science knows all the big answers and we are now only working on filling in the details, I don’t believe the world is all material and we are only a result of our DNA. I do believe that there is A Mystery, I’m just not a believer in any particular religious dogma (and I especially don’t believe that there is a personal God that cares how we act, that holds a grudge if we don’t go to church, that is interested in how we have sex or what we ate for lunch).

My life is not governed by a god telling me to live it a certain way. Not being a believer in that dogma means that I don’t get my morality from somebody’s interpretation of what God wants us to do. The church goers were pretty adamant that, without God telling us the rules or providing the moral guidelines, to say it in a little less dogmatic way, we would have no morality. Michele said that she is a Scientist and her morality is based on the scientific principle that acts have consequences. I sided with Michele and added that I liked the Buddhist Eightfold Path that includes don’t harm others and the Church goers looked at us like we must not have any moral principles at all, like maybe we were OK with serial killing.

Looking across the table, I could almost understand that somebody could believe that they weren’t homophobic, but their God is and they have no choice but to follow along. That gulf between our beliefs between our belief structures,  seems much bigger than I had imagined.

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They are not the only bad guys

Farmer's MarketIn about 1968 my best friend came back from Seattle. I remember him showing up at our flat in – what was known as – Lower Piedmont after being gone about a year. There are two things I remember about that first visit, he brought the first joint I had every seen and he kept saying It takes two to tangle. I was reminded of that a couple of days ago, when I friend posted a online petition to the Republicans in Congress.

The petition may have been telling – asking? – the Republicans not to invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to Congress, or may have been on Tom Cotton’s stupid letter. I don’t remember. But I do remember thinking that a Democrat, in a Blue State, signing a petition to the Republicans was a waste of time. It got me thinking why would someone put out a petition like that.

Often, the email or linked website wants you to send some money after signing the petition, so I think the petitions are often a pretext to raise money. That does not diminish their outrage, however. Sometimes they are just for the outrage, usually the outrage they want us to get. Usually over some stupid thing the Republicans did. Don’t get me wrong, at this point my disdain for the Republicans is almost boundless. But sometimes I get a email that is just a sky-is-falling scream. Oh my God! look what some sheriff in Texas did to some poor black woman.

Today, a got a petition for the Koch Brothers. Really! It said Our Message to The Koch Brothers. Your reckless spending is doing nothing for our country – in fact it is hurting our democracy. Now, the Koch Brothers are not going to look at that and say, Oh my God, Steve Stern is against us, let’s change our behavior, even if there were five million Steve Sterns. This is really a message for Steve Stern, Let’s make him afraid so he will stay on board.

Fear is the ultimate motivator and, every day, I get messages trying to scare me. Every day, I get a mailbox full of anti-rightwing propaganda saying be very afraid of bigots, be afraid of gun loving killers, be afraid of rich tax cheats. Everyday, they are telling me how bad the other side is, They are lairs. They are not Liberal and Fair and Open to diversity like we are. They are not kind and gentle like us. They are Bad, maybe even Evil. Dislike them, More!

I like to think that it is just the Right that campaigns on fear, but my side is just as virulent. Apparently, It does take two to tangle.

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Reading about Tom Cotton


In reading about Tom Cotton, the unhinged Senator who authored the truly wacko letter to Iran inferring that the Obama Administration couldn’t negotiate a permanent deal, I realized that what most disturbed me was that he had been an officer in the Army.

I was in the Army and know, first hand, that the Army is chock full of idiots, so being bothered about Lieutenant Tom Cotton surprised me. I was  was disturbed that a person so lacking in common sense, would be charged with leading troops into the meat grinder but I hadn’t been disturbed that he was a Senator. That’s what surprised me, my low standards for a Senator, my lack of surprise that a person of such low common sense would be a Senator.

That is more than a little sad.


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Where did that come from?

Charlotte-3017I went to watch granddaughter Charlotte play basketball over the weekend. When the game first started, Charlotte played a pretty good defensive game but she seemed to be playing offense at a much lower pitch.

To back up. Charlotte is what we used to call a jock (your mother will explain that to you when you get older, Charlotte). She just likes sports: so much that she is playing basketball in the local Catholic Youth League.

That did not come from my side of the family. My parents were not jocks – the rumor was that my father had been a boxer at Cal but he went to Cal from about sixteen to almost nineteen and I never saw the killer instinct he would have needed to beat up on students who were older and, presumably, bigger – so I am going to stay with no jock. I am not a jock; I liked to to ski and hike and even some lightweight mountaineering but those were ways to get outside into the wild (or semi-wild). When I was young, in grammar school and then, later, highschool I  played the required football and ran track and never particularly enjoyed it. My daughter, Samantha, ran the Bay to Breakers, a couple times – in informal costumes – but quit playing soccer way sooner than I would have liked. None of us had the intensity that Charlotte seems to channel.

Maybe it comes from Charlotte’s father. I don’t know.

Well, that’s not quite true, I don’t know, but I do have a theory and a hint lies in the word channel.  I think the world is evolving, maybe not the whole world, but the elite West Coast world and probably the entire Western world (and elite Eastern world). Leisure is increasingly becoming busting your ass at sports just like it was in 750 BC Greece. When I was a kid, there were jocks and nerds, but now the nerds are the jocks.

Today’s mechanistic theory of life is that everything is physical. We are little, self contained machines, influenced only by our DNA strands. Even our minds are in our brains. There is alot of evidence that the mechanical theory is not true – or not complete – but it is the accepted dogma and most scientists, especially older scientists, are dedicated to guarding us against any heresy. Still, I don’t think that Charlotte’s athleticism and competitiveness only comes from her DNA, I think she is tuned into a new, different, world.

Watching Charlotte playing basketball, she seemed different from the Charlotte who was the star of the game the last time I watched her play Soccer. Here she was more hesitant, more willing to let someone else shoot. Watching, I began to think that this was a gift, she experienced being the star at Soccer and here she was able to experience being a supporting player. I don’t think her coach must have felt the same way because she pulled Charlotte out for a good part of the first half.  When Charlotte came back, however, she started channeling her Reshanda Gray.Charlotte-2999

She started to charge and shoot and make baskets. Her team won 18 to 12 – these are little girls shooting at ten foot high baskets,  18-12 is a pretty high score – and she was the biggest scorer (at one time, I think Charlotte had scored as much as the entire other team). Standing there, in a Catholic Boy’s School gym, the noise so loud it was hard to talk, I kept thinking, Now where did that come from.

Charlotte-3036 Charlotte-3037

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Michael Graves

capistrano2Michael Graves died a couple of days ago and I feel a loss from it that is bigger than I expected (that is if I had thought about it at all). I think that I have only been in one building designed by Graves, the Capistrano Library. It was one of the most interesting interiors I have ever been in. As good as a Frank Lloyd Wright house and, unexpectedly, almost as completely designed, right down to the table lamps. Even more unexpected was that the library was packed on a mid-week late afternoon.

It was a soft thrill, for lack of a better way to describe the hour or so, walking through and around the building. Good architecture – which, for purposes here, I’ll define good as original, thoughtful, and appropriate to its location – influences us in a positive way. Most architecture is neutral, but Graves was anything but neutral. He designed the stuffing out of everything. I once talked to a City Planner who had worked in the Portland City Hall, one of Graves’ signature buildings, and he said that it was an almost impossible place to work and I believe him. I just not sure that I care how well it works as a machine but how well it works at enriching Portland.

Architecture, good architecture, great architecture – which isn’t always good, certainly Frank Lloyd Wright’s great building weren’t always good – has nurtured my life as long as I can remember. It is a gene, or interest, that I think I got from my Daddy, maybe when he took me to see Frank Lloyd Wright. It was one of the few things we did together and that has emphasized its importance. I don’t particularly care what style the architecture is, I love buildings from Baroque to Mid-century Modern, from the San Francisco City Hall complex to the Oakland Museum. The Capistrano Library is one of my favorite buildings, just walking around it has enriched my life, and I bet that it still enriches the community of Capistrano. That is a nice legacy.