Category Archives: Religion

Reading ‘Sapians’ while watching the Tahoe Iron Man Race

Iron Man (1 of 1)[As] human societies grew ever larger and more complex,while the imagined constraints sustaining the social order also became more elaborate. Myths and fictions accustomed people, nearly from the moment of birth, to think in certain ways, to behave in accordance with certain standards, to want certain things, and to observe certain rules. They thereby created artificial instincts that enabled millions of strangers to coöperate effectively. This network of artificial instincts is called ‘culture’.
Sapiens A Brief History of Mankind by Yuval Noah Harari

We went to Michele’s family cabin at Squaw Valley over the weekend just to have a change of pace. When we got there, we realized it was the weekend of the second annual – they call it Second Annual but it is the third year as smoke from fires cancelled last year’s event – what is billed as IRONMAN LAKE TAHOE. On Sunday, after mistakenly not recording the Singapore Grand Prix – in which Hamilton DNF’ed – and not liking the start of a bad 49er game, we walked along part of the course to the finish area. It was a warm day, probably in the low 80°s, and the air had the familiar dry smell of the East Side, atleast until we got to the golf course. It was a perfect day for a walk

The Tahoe Ironman starts with a swim in Lake Tahoe of 2.4 miles, then a 112 mile bike ride – it’s not really a ride ride, the contestants are the peddlers – and ends with a marathon. (In my old, out-of-shape opinion, any section would require an Ironperson.) The first finishers started drifting in a little after four in the afternoon, after starting with a 6:45 AM swim!, and they looked to be in shockingly good shape. The winner had a time of nine hours and thirty nine minutes and he did a little jig as he crossed the finish line. Ironman (1 of 1)-2

The most memorable moments – and by moments, I mean sights in time – were not the guys at the front of the race but the guys at the end of the pack. The marathon is two laps from Squaw to almost Tahoe City, on the bike path by the Truckee River, so there are people going both ways for a large portion of the race. After watching at the finish line for a while, we started wandering back to the cabin, stopping to admire the high tech bikes, Ironman (1 of 1)and then walking back to the cabin along the race route. It was getting towards evening and we watched one guy – who looked to be in great shape – ride in on his bike. That meant that he still had a marathon to run and it was almost 6.

As we walked, I began to watch the runners. It was impossible to tell if they were on their first lap with about sixteen miles to go or on their last lap with one mile to go and in my imagination I thought about how discouraging it must be to be that far back. It was getting dark and the runners left were few, they looked beat. In my imagination, they were discouraged by how much longer it took than they expected. It got darker and as we walked by the lonely water girls, Ironman (1 of 1)-3

something amazing started happening. Runners started putting on headlamps. My imaginary runner disappeared, replaced by the real runner who knew, when she started, that she would be running in the dark, in the mountain cold, on an almost empty course, on an almost empty tank. That takes an amazing spirit, I think more than the guy who won.

But that spirit is not enough because people are not equal – they are not born with the same abilities or have jobs that allows for equal training time – and an amazing spirit is not enough to overcome that.

I have been reading Sapiens A Brief History of Mankind by Yuval Noah Harari and parts of it have rocked me. When Harari compares The Code of Hammurabi to the Declaration of Independence, by comparing If a man destroy the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye. If one break a man’s bone, they shall break his bone. If one destroy the eye of a freeman or break the bone of a freeman he shall pay one mana of silver. If one destroy the eye of a man’s slave or break a bone of a man’s slave he shall pay one-half his price to all men are created equal, and then says that both positions are equally valid from a biological or evolutionary point of view, I am rocked. When he says neither is more moral, I think, How can that be?.

Years ago, I did a little bit of volunteer work on several Spiritual retreats for shell shocked, body bashed, veterans and their equally shocked families. During a break, a guy I was working, another ex E-5 type, said something like There is no morality without God. I wasn’t particularly shocked even though the group leader was a Buddhist, but I was a little offended. My world view does not include a God who makes rules about morality – or chemistry for that matter – and passes them down to mankind. But if neither biology or evolution make rules on morality, if the only natural rules are what works to pass on DNA, where do I get my rules? (And, man! do I have rules.)  Where do those rules, that I believe in the core of my being, come from?

If they are only constructs and those constructs are no better than, say, a Afghan tribesman’s construct, let’s say a tribesman who is trying to sell his thirteen year old daughter who he owns, where does that leave me? It is hard to be morally superior if those morals are not morally better. Without God, where does that morality come from? It obviously isn’t self evident. If nature gives different individuals different abilities and different chances, who are we to say that people are equal and should thereby be treated equally? Where does the authority for the morality we know to be right in our very being – in our soul, if you believe in that sort of thing – come from? Surely it must be more than just culture.

Charlie Hebdo and censorship

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Almost everybody is against killing people over a cartoon, especially if the cartoon doesn’t push any of our buttons. That is because we believe in free speech. Of course, if a Muslim cleric in Yemen is instigating violence against us, then we think it is OK to kill them, especially if we use drones. As an aside, according to The Guardian, In Yemen, 17 named men were targeted multiple times. Strikes on them killed 273 people, at least seven of them children. At least four of the targets are still alive. End aside.

About a week ago, I posted two cartoons from Charlie Hebdo and, now that I have thought about it, I am sorry. Making fun of the weak and disadvantaged may be easy, still it is closer to bullying than I am comfortable with. The jokes that work best are jokes about the powerful – especially if they are pompous as well – and jokes on the joke teller. It is easy to make fun of religion, to a non-believer like me, the facts just seem so goofy. I like to think that the bedrock of Love, Compassion, Tolerance, which, I am told, underlie all the religions, are not goofy but the details are. Jokes about the details, especially when they are told by somebody who is a member of the religion, can be funny – I think that is why Stephen Colbert’s jokes about Christianity are so funny, he is a Catholic who even teaches Catholic Sunday School – or not.

The problem is who decides if a joke is funny?

I contend that it should be the person being offended. If a person – a Methodist, say – doesn’t like being called a Methoddy, they have the right to not like it. Of course, I also have the right – the absolute right under our constitution – to call them a Methoddy, I just don’t have the right to judge if they are offended or not. If the Methoddy is offended , I don’t have the right to say they shouldn’t be, no matter what my intent. If I continue to call them a Methoddy, if I am going to be honest with myself, I have to admit that I just don’t give a shit about them or admit that I want to be offensive.

A lot of Muslims – I have no idea how few or how many, there are about 1.6 Billion self identified Muslims in the world so a few can be alot of people – are bothered by any image of Mohammed, some are very bothered, just like some Christians were bothered by the Piss- Christ and, as I recall some were very bothered. I don’t understand it, these are not things that rattle my cage, but that doesn’t give me the right  to say it shouldn’t rattle theirs. It also doesn’t take away my right to say pretty much anything I want, it doesn’t take away my legal right to be as boorish as I damn well please.

Coming back from the Mullin Show, thinking about evolution

Mullin-2135The sweet spot of any drive up the California Coast, south of San Francisco, is the section between Morro Rock and Big Sur. Of course, that is if the purpose of the drive is the drive, if the purpose of the drive is to get north as quickly as possible, stay off of this section of road. Here the highway turns into a two lane road that follows the contours of the land. As much as anything else, driving this section of road in Michele’s car, with the top down, was the reason we had made the trip south in the first place. (BTW, all the shots from in the car are Michele’s as is the lovely bridge/surf picture near the end.

The two lane section starts after Morro Bay, goes inland for awhile, then gets serious. Mullin-2078
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Mullin-2136But, before the road got serious, we passed the Elephant Seal rookery near the Piedras Blancas Light Station. Neither one of us even knew that the Elephant Seals had moved in south of Ano Nuevo , so we decided to stop for ten minutes. It was more than an hour later before we left and our visit to the Elephant Seals was the surprise highlight of the drive home.Mullin-2133

It seems that a couple of Elephant Seals moved into the area in 1990, first to an offshore island and then to the beach right next to the highway, both north and south of the lighthouse. Now there are about 17,000 animals in the general area.  To back up, Northern Elephant Seals were almost hunted to extinction in the 19th and early 20th Century but they are now protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and they have bounced back. With a vengeance. It is estimated that there are well over 150,000 animals breeding from Baja to Point Reyes and they take up alot of beach space.Mullin-2088

Elephant Seals really are Seals. They are distant cousins to Raccoons, even more distant cousins to Bears, and they probably evolved from Otters. Their ancestors were land animals and the Seal side of the family, for some unfathomable reason, wandered back into the ocean sometime around 25 million years ago.

To me, that is pretty amazing and it took some drastic changes to make it happen. Not just giving up legs and feet for flippers, the problem of no fresh water in the ocean also had to be solved, and to make the changes even more improbable, the Elephant Seals have chosen a life that requires being able to stay underwater for as long as thirty minutes. They are mammals, carnivores, able to dive as deep as 5,000 feet to get food and unable to move – move for lack of a better word, they sort of half flop, half inchworm along, their body jiggling like jelly – more than a couple of hundred feet from their real home, the ocean.

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At Piedras Blanca, we stand on a wooden deck just above the beach, captivated by the hundreds of huge animals just below us. As they go about their daily lives, it is hard to watch them without wondering how they can even exist.

One theory is that  God made the Elephant Seal, along with all the other creatures that live in the water, on the fifth day of Creation (or, maybe, the sixth day because Elephant Seals were land animals that returned to the water, but let’s not quibble over a day). I find that hard to believe; it goes against all the evidence except the Bible (and it is pretty easy to argue against the Bible with its dubious origins, translations of translations, and its assembly by committee three hundred  years after the fact).

Darwinian Evolution says that it is only a result of random change over 25 million years. I like this theory better, but I found it less satisfying than I had hoped when I went on an Evolution binge about 30 or 40 years ago. The time line is fact, or at least fits all the evidence. And the same with change; what I find hard to embrace is random. The Universe clearly has a direction, from Chaos to Order, from stray particles to atoms, from atoms to molecules. About 3,600,000,000 years ago – somehow – life came along and some molecules became cells. About 600,000,000 years ago, some of those cells became simple animals. Those simple animals became increasingly complex, filling empty econiches. Somehow those stray particles became armadillos and kale. They became sowbugs and flamingos. They became elephant seals and us, wondering how we got here.

To me, this direction, even progression, seems important. I don’t believe in a personal God and I certainly don’t believe in a God that cares how I worship or have sex. But I do believe that the Universe is Connected and Alive, a Self-organizing System rather than a machine.

As an aside, I have long wondered why Fundamentalist Christians – mostly Christians, but also Fundamentalist Jews and Muslims – resist the billion year timeline, insisting on a literal six day Creation. After all, without that time line, Creation and Evolution are not really competing theories. God could have made the Universe over billions of years just as easily as six days (maybe God’s days are longer).  The problem, it turns out is not time, it is change. Because evolutionary change requires destruction of everything that came before, it is hard to square with a just, fair, and caring father. How could this just, fair, and caring God destroy millions – maybe billions – of Bambis and Thumpers, how could a merciful God  wipe out the dinosaurs to get to chickens? End aside.

One of the things that makes Piedras so much fun and what made it so surprising is that you get very close to the animals. And up close and personal, a nursing mother facing off a horny bull becomes high drama and a two and one half ton animal becomes an individual. Mullin-2104

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We finally tore ourselves away from the Elephant Seals, hoping to get to Nepenthe at Big Sur by sunset.

Mullin-2137  The road was as good as I remembered, but it was much busier making it hard to pass without going into full traffic jamming mode and I am getting too old for that.

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We did make it in time for sunset, or as the case was today, in time for the sun to go down behind a cloud layer. So, instead of a sunset, we rewarded ourselves with their Famous Ambrosiaburgera, a couple of glasses of a very nice red wine, and a side order of brussel sprouts.

It ain’t terrorism if the non-terrorist uses a gun or isn’t a Muslim

Asswipe Miller

This morning I woke up to a New York Times headline of Drive-By Attack Leaves 7 Dead in ‘Work of a Madman’.  The Times went on to say Seven people were killed and another seven injured on Friday night in a bloody drive-by shooting on the crowded streets of a small college town near Santa Barbara, as what police described as a mentally disturbed gunman methodically opened fire in a 10-minute spasm of terror. Of course he was mentally disturbed, he killed people at random; that could be one of the definitions of mentally disturbed.

A month, or so, ago, an old white man named Glenn Miller, killed three people at random. He was trying to kill Jews only because they were Jewish. The killing of people because they are all identifiable – preferably self-identifiable as well –  as a distinct group, is terrorism. Group isn’t the right word, but either is race or religion – maybe an identifiable other is the right way to put it – but terrorism is the right word. When Timothy  McVeigh killed 168 people on that April morning in 1995, only because they happened to be in Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, it was an act of terrorism.

When Miller, 73 and the founder of a Ku Klux Klan group called the White Patriot Party, killed people with a gun nobody said he did it because he is white and nobody called it an act of terrorism. McVeigh was a Roman Catholic and a Gulf War veteran. Nobody says that McVeigh’s behavior typifies Catholic behavior. When a Christian kills 168 people, he does not do it because he is a Christian, he does it because he is fucked up.

When two Muslim boys blow up a bomb, killing people in Boston, it is also terrorism. But they did not do it because they were Muslim, like McVeigh they did it because they were fucked up. It was no more about Islam than McVeigh was about Christianity.

 

The Monuments Men and Ted Nugent

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Michele and I saw The Monuments Men, a story about trying to save art looted by the Nazis, a couple of days ago. I kept thinking, How did these thugs take over Germany? As I type that question, it seems more rhetorical than an actual question because I do know the rough outline of how Hitler went from the failed Beer Hall Putsch to Chancellor. I somewhat know the facts, but I have a hard time understanding the undercurrent. They were thugs, afterall, and used the language of thugs; acted like thugs.

I really only know Germany through her artifacts; Audis, BMWs, and Mercedei, Leicas and IWC watches. The Germany of refined passion, of Bach and Run, Lola, Run. Her artifacts are so thoughtful, for lack of a better word. How did that Germany let itself be taken over by thugs?

One of my main tenets is that cultures are different but that people – worldwide – are more or less the same. I have a much better sense of The United States than I do of Germany and it doesn’t seem possible that thugs could take over here. It seems impossible that the Ted Nugents or the Duck Breath guys could gain real power. But, when I really think about it, I think that the first step – to take them seriously – is already here.

Why does the press – what we call The media, now – even acknowledge the ravings of a Ted Nugent? He is like a lunatic screaming in the street – the kind of guy we scurry by, heads turned away – except that he is not in the street, he is on the radio or TV. The media acts as if he actually had something to say. Part of it, I think, is that the media loves conflict, even manufactured conflict. It sells newspaper and airtime.

However, there is something deeper going on here. Huge numbers of Americans – and people worldwide – feel that their lives are getting worse and there seems to be no governmental plan as to how they will improve. Our government seems to be incapable of  solving the problems. Problems that I consider real problems; income inequality, gun violence, and climate change. But also problems that I consider phony problems or, even, actual improvements – but lots of people consider them real – like the diminishing influence of the Bible and Gay Marriage.

I listened to Nancy Pelosi on Jon Stewart and he kept asking her what were the systemic reasons that resulted in income inequality, the failure to control gun violence, and climate change, she kept blaming the Republicans and Stewart kept coming back to the question of the systemic reasons. I don’t think she even understood what he was asking, she just seemed completely befuddled. The crowd even booed her, this is the Daily Show crowd who are liberal, who should be her constituency. I like Nancy Pelosi – in March of 2010, I wrote With all the credit that should go to President Obama – and he has done an extraordinary job of getting the Health Care Bill pushed through – without Nancy Pelosi it wouldn’t have happened. Period! – and I was embarrassed, even pissed, and turned off the TV thinking She is not the solution.

When government loses people like me, when I lose confidence that government is going to solve income disparity or set a rational gun policy or forge a coalition to end destroying the world, it is easy to imagine, that people that didn’t like government in the first place, will look someplace else. Someplace where the people with answers are not part of The Establishment. Somebody who has answers that are easier to understand.

All over the world, people are finding those people. We see it in the anti-gay votes in Arizona and the Stand Your Ground laws in Florida. We see it in the resurging Nationalism movement in Hungary and Vladimir Putin being illegally reelected,  in the new wave of persecution and harassment of the Roma in Europe . We see it in the rise of Old Testament-hate-Christianity and old-time Mormonism, in Fundamentalist Islam and ultra-Orthodox Judaism. Against all that I would have predicted, growing up in the 50s and 60s, a growing minority is becoming more religious and superstitious, less scientific. They are more willing to accept the simple, clear answer over the complex muddled answer.

We are herd animals, it is in our DNA, and we want leaders, most of us want to follow somebody. When our leaders leave a void, the screamers in the street, the Ted Nugents, the Pat Robertsons, the Rush Limbaughs, have room to move in. They get taken seriously.

What I kept forgetting, as I watched The Monuments Men, is that thugs can be smart. Being nasty is not the opposite of being smart, they can go hand in hand. Also going hand in hand with thuggery is the crude – as in simple – answer.