Wednesday, July 8, 2015

What's in a Name? Baggage, Very Often

            Pop Quiz.  "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet" is from:
1.      The Rose starring Bette Midler
2.      The Purple Rose of Cairo written and directed by Woody Allen
3.      The Rose Tattoo by Tennessee Williams
4.      Sweet Devotion Roses by FTD
5.      Romeo and Juliet by W. Shakespeare
            You don't really need me to tell you the answer, do you?  (*If you do, it's at the end of this piece.) 
            So, what's in a name?  A lot, if the name is "atheist."  Much negativity attaches to that label.  By definition, in fact.  The term "atheist" seems to have made its appearance in France in the late-1500s in the form of athéiste.  It evolved from the Greek atheos, which was assembled from:  a (without) + theos (deity or god). 
            My beef with the word "atheist" is that it suggests one is lacking something, one is without.  How can one be lacking or without something that does not exist?  Should one be labeled an aclausist if one believes there is no Santa Claus?  Or an apanist if one denies the existence of Peter Pan?  Silly, right?  If one rejects the existence of Santa Claus or Peter Pan, one is considered sane and a realist.  But, to one who does not believe in the existence of a god, no such latitude or respect is granted. 
            Synonyms for "atheist" include such euphemisms as:  nonbeliever, disbeliever, unbeliever, skeptic, doubter, doubting Thomas, agnostic, nihilist, and so on.  All of them negative to one extent or the other. 
            "Nihilist" I find particularly disturbing.  Google "nihilist," and the first definition provided is:  the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated.  It is often associated with extreme pessimism and a radical skepticism that condemns existence.  A true nihilist would believe in nothing, have no loyalties, and no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy.  Gulp! 
            A nihilist is pretty much of necessity an atheist; but an atheist need not be a nihilist.  Far from it.  I am an atheist, and I ascribe to the basic values of human decency.  About most things I am not pessimistic, nor do I condemn existence.  I believe in love and friendship and family and community and art and the New York Rangers.  I strive to be a good citizen and to help others where I can.  I just don't need the supervision of a supreme being or the threat of everlasting punishment for me to be ethical.  Being a good citizen and good neighbor simply comprise the logical, responsible, and ultimately satisfying way to live. 
            So, back to "atheist."  There have been numerous attempts to come up with a word or label that better captures what it means to be liberated from superstition and the supernatural.  They include secularist, naturalist, secular naturalist, humanist, secular humanist, rationalist, free thinker, and "bright" (for the curious: http://www.the-brights.net). 
            My preference is "secular humanist," although, granted, it is neither catchy nor self-explanatory.  Over the centuries, greater minds than mine have been wrestling with this appellation issue, so I doubt very much the conundrum will be resolved by anything offered by this blog.  Consequently, next time you use or consider the term "atheist," do remember that the negativity is in the eye of the beholder.  An atheist by any other name very likely will be a cultured, community-minded, considerate, and caring person.    

            (*The quote is part of Juliet's rationalization of her love for Romeo, who bears the name of an enemy family.)  

Monday, June 29, 2015

Dating "Under God, Indivisible ..."

            It was more than 40 years ago that I gave up the notion of a god.  In the intervening decades, my position concerning believers and non-believers has been, to put it colloquially, "whatever floats your boat."  If the belief in a god or the Buddha or the Great Pumpkin gets you through the day, who was I to interfere? 
            In those rare instances when the subject of religion came up among friends or family, I would simply say, "I'm not religious," and leave that to the listener to decode.  Occasionally, I humbly and somewhat disingenuously would add the palliative, "I envy those who have faith, someone or something to turn to in tough times, but I just don't have that in me."  If the result was a "poor Angelo" sentiment, that was fine with me so long as the matter was concluded and the conversation moved on to a less dodgy topic, like politics. 
            All by way of saying, yes, I'm an atheist, but I never felt the need to wear it on my sleeve.  I was not about to go door to door, with Darwin's The Origins of Species under an arm, to knock and inform the annoyed, mid-meal resident of the good news: there is no god!  Proselytizing has never been my thing.  Not to mention I'm not particularly clever on the spot.  As a playwright, I can sit down to think things through, organize my thoughts, and then set them down in the form of scintillating dialogue.  Standing at the door of a master of the house who's still chewing on his pork chop, I would not be at my best. 
            A person's religion was always irrelevant to me.  In the wild and crazy 20 years between marriages, I dated Christians, Jews, a practicing Buddhist, and even flirted with a Muslim woman.  I couldn't have cared less how or what a person worshiped.  All I looked for were the three "Ys":  pretty, witty, and sexy
            Nevertheless, on one occasion religion did rear its ugly head, when I was living in Park Slope, Brooklyn.  One sunny late afternoon, I packed up my portable folding picnic table, some snacks, a couple of stemmed glasses, and a cooler containing a bottle of chilled white wine, and headed out to nearby Prospect Park for a free concert in the park.  When I got there, I set up the table, popped the wine bottle cork, and poured two glasses of wine. 
            A few yards away, on a picnic blanket, sat a blue-eyed blonde.  I strolled over to the young lady, introduced myself, and asked her if she'd care to join me for a glass of wine.  (Yes, I really did that.)  She smiled, said yes, and joined me at my table. 
            The young lady, let's call her Betty, and I began seeing each other.  But it wasn't long before she told me she was a Presbyterian or Lutheran or some such Protestant denomination, very much involved in Sunday services and Bible study groups and other church activities. 
            No problem, I told Betty.  I'm not religious, but I do respect the beliefs of others.  Naively, I thought that would be the end of the matter.  Not so.  On my next phone call to arrange a date, Betty told me she couldn't see me anymore.  Why?  Because she could not imagine being involved with someone who did not share her religious convictions.  Period.  Since we'd only been out a handful of times, it was far from a crushing blow, but it certainly was irritating.  
          Today, thanks to the Internet and TV marketing, we know that there are online match-making services that can prevent that kind of religion faux pas.  I'm talking about JDate (for Jews), ChristianMingle, and CatholicSoulmates, among others, helping to "find God's match for you."  Really?  Lotsa luck with that.  It wouldn't surprise me if, somewhere in cyberspace, one might stumble across GreatPumpkinPartners.com.

Friday, June 19, 2015

How it All Began ... or, More to the Point, Ended

            I don't recall exactly when it was I gave up the notion of a god.  It was not one of those epic moments about which one later says "I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when" thus and so took place.  Though it was an event that shook me, it would hardly have disturbed the dust on a seismograph. 
            I can, however, say for certain that it happened late in my four years of high school.  A Catholic high school, ironically, Cardinal Spellman high school in the Bronx.  And, in retrospect, the incident feels embarrassingly naive. 
            Along side of literature, algebra, Latin, and gym classes, religion classes were required in Catholic high schools (there's a surprise).  And, while most of the academic courses were taught by brothers (the male equivalent of nuns) and lay (civilian) teachers, the religion classes called for the big guns – priests.  The perpetuation of faith could be entrusted to no one less. 
            In one of these classes, Biblical miracles came up, specifically with respect to the story of Moses and the escape of the Jews from Egypt.  Fun!  It was always impressive and comforting to hear how God intervened on behalf of his chosen people with timely and awesome miracles. 
            But there it began.  Someone (perhaps I) marveled aloud about the mighty hand of God parting the deep, turbulent waters of the Red Sea to allow Moses and his horde to cross and escape the pursuing Egyptian chariots (Charlton Heston as Moses in The Ten Commandments rendered a stirring reenactment of that awe-inspiring moment).  Father (let's call him ... O'Hara) smiled tightly, and said:  "Wellllllllll ... not exactly."  Huh?  "You see there are times," he continued in a voice that rose an octave or two, "when the water level of the Red Sea is so low, so low you could just amble across it."  You mean walk across it?  Low tide?  Then where was the miracle?  "Wellllllllll ... the miracle is it happened just when Moses needed it," he replied. 
            Okay.  Then, of course, there was the miracle of the manna from heaven.  The edible substance that, according to the Bible (and the Quran), came snowing down from God's pantry to feed the Israelites during their travels in the desert.  God again looking out for his own.  "Wellllllllll ... not exactly," Father O'Hara intoned.  "You see this manna is vegetation in the area that blew in from nearby trees."  What, like pollen?  "But the miracle was that it happened," he hastened to add, " just when Moses and his folks were hungry." 
            And the Nile water turning to blood?  Don't tell me ...  "Wellllllllll ... there's these organisms in the water, you see, that turned the Nile water red," the discombobulated cleric conceded with a shrug, "and the bugs killed the frog-eating fish, which in turn caused a population explosion among frogs and ..."  Okay, got it.  There were no real miracles, just good timing. 
            I left that class with a heavy and unshakable feeling of betrayal.  If Father O'Hara and presumably the brothers and the lay teachers and the nuns and everybody else, except for me maybe, knew that there are natural explanations for the Biblical miracles, then why teach us these events enrobed in myth and hyperbole to begin with?  Why not teach the episodes as naturally explainable but miraculous in their timing?  That would have been enough for me.  But not anymore.  All bets were off.  Everything was now open to skepticism and challenge.  No more taking things "on faith."  For me, faith had become the self-deluding practice of believing in something against the evidence of your eyes and brain and common sense.  I found I could no longer drink the Kool-Aid. 
            Whether or not I was naive to be as scandalized as I was about the non-miracle miracles, the fact is that the shock opened my eyes and knocked some sense into me.  From that moment on, religion became irrelevant and, though I'm not crazy about the label (a discussion for another time), I have been a confirmed atheist.  What you see is what you get. 

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Coming Out ...

            Several days ago, I took a baby step toward outing myself as – no, that's not accurate – toward making it more widely known that I am ... an atheist. 
            Every few weeks a group of friends, mostly fellow playwrights, meets for breakfast in the coffee shop of a Best Western Hotel in Nyack.  We chit-chat, gossip, and we each, in turn, relate what's going on professionally and, sometimes, socially and familially. 
            The group, which I dubbed the "Breakfast Bunch," includes five or six playwrights, a couple of prose writers, and a painter.  Longtime friends are we. 
            A part of our informal get-togethers involves book swapping.  We bring with us books that we've read (or have no intention of reading), and give them away to each other.  It's a practice I initiated (not to mention founding the Breakfast Bunch to begin with some 15 years ago). 
            That morning, as I was bagging some books to take with me for giveaway, my eyes fell upon a copy of Christopher Hitchens's God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.  It's a book I'd read a couple of times for its intelligence and its razor-sharp satiric humor.  It gives elegant and persuasive voice to the conviction I've had most of my life – that there is no god or gods.  Since I possessed two copies of the Hitchens book (I must have picked up a duplicate at a library book sale or something), I decided to include one in my batch of books to go. 
            What did that augur?  Clearly, my friends could infer from my ownership of the book that I'd read it.  Further, it might be surmised that I am a non-believer.  Two of our group members are staunch Catholics.  How would they react? 
            I've never made any secret of my atheism.  Naturally, my wife knows.  Though raised as a Lutheran, she today professes some vague mystical pantheism which she has described but I've never understood.  Other than that, religion, or the lack of it, just never seems to come up. 
            I don't know what my parents or my brothers and their families know or do not know about my atheism.  Essentially, my family is Catholic in name.  I don't believe there are any regular churchgoers among us.  Religion seems to have little place in the Parra clan, except for baptisms, weddings, and funerals. 
            When I must attend a baptism, wedding, or funeral, or any other religiously encumbered life event, I usually situate myself off to the side or in the back of the church so that my unwillingness to mouth meaningless prayers – or to stand, kneel, sit, stand, kneel, sit, stand, kneel, sit – is not conspicuous.  I refuse to go through the motions; to do so is to tacitly endorse the absurd and insidious superstitions. 
            When I'm logistically unable to blend into the surroundings, I employ another tactic.  I unholster my smart phone and use it as a camera.  Moving around and taking pictures from all angles gives me something to occupy my mind, and camouflages my non-participation in the rites and rituals. 
            That morning at breakfast, pulling books out of my bag, each accompanied by a brief oral description, I eventually came to God is Not Great.  I held up the book for scrutiny.  It was clear that some of my friends knew of the book and its author.  Only one of the unfaltering Catholics was present that day (the spouse was traveling on business).  I said: "whether you're a believer or not, this is a book you ought to read."  No one took the book ... or the bait.  As I moved to return the book to the bag, one of the prose writers did ask to have a look at it.  I handed it to him, and he ended up taking it with him.  Out of my staunchly Catholic friend came nary a peep. 
            So my first – and rather meager and tentative – foray into public self-disclosure as a flaming atheist ended "not with a bang but a whimper."  Still – pardon my mixing allusions – "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."  

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

"San Andreas" - Best for Disaster Movie Freaks

San Andreas is eye-popping for those who love special effects (I happen to be one of them). You leave feeling you've actually seen California devastated. Cool. Story-wise the film is nothing special. Same generic plot that you find in most disaster movies: family/friends separated by the tsunami, earthquake, volcanic eruption, hurricane (you name it) need find each other and get to safety. Dwayne Johnson, playing a fire department rescue specialist, is the main character. Johnson handles the action scenes well, but, when it comes to the scene or two where we're supposed to feel his pain over his family problems, it ain't happenin'. He's too macho to shed a tear, and so he resorts to screwing up his face to indicate emotion. That being said, like the movie Titanic, you don't buy the ticket to get warm and fuzzy with the characters; it's about seeing the computer-generated ship sink or, in this case, computer-generated cities crumble. On that score, I give it four our of five stars.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Gypped ... almost.


I just visited a nearby CVS pharmacy, and I left glumly reminded how rampant ignorance is in the world around us. 

My visit was prompted by a 30% off coupon I had received by email.  Seemed like a good opportunity to stock up on stuff.  List in hand, I cruised the CVS aisles, grabbing dental floss, Alka Seltzer, and so on.  As I dropped items into my cart, I kept a rough running total in my head.  When I was done, my estimate came to $70.  I headed for the checkout counter, contemplating with gratification the amount of money I would be saving. 

At the computer/register, I waited a while as the young man behind the counter apparently had some problem in the transaction with the somewhat perturbed woman ahead of me.  When he was through with her, I handed the unsmiling fellow (hard to tell his age, but he certainly was no more than a teenager) my CVS Extra Care card, and proceeded to pile my selections on the counter.  I watched the mini-screen on the credit card apparatus as the kid scanned the items.  Grand total before taxes:  $70 and change.  Score one for my mental acumen. 

Now here’s where things went wrong.  The young man pointed his handheld scanner at the coupon I had printed out.  The scanner failed to read the barcode.  Next, he keyed in the numbers printed below the barcode.  Apparently that didn’t work either, because he picked up a small calculator, and began hitting buttons.  All this in absolute silence. 

On the mini-screen, I saw that my cost reduced to $65.  I’m no mental Stephen Hawking, but $70 times 10% is $7 times three is $21.  I told the young man that the discount had to be near that amount, and not $5.  He looked at me with barely concealed exasperation.  He began re-scanning all my items to un-purchase them back down to zero, at which point he repeated the scanning until we were back at $70.  No explanation, of course.  Again, the young man picked up the calculator, and got to work. 

I glanced around at the customer waiting behind me.  He nodded solemnly.  He was in my corner.  Finally, on the mini-screen, the discount showed up as $19 and change.  Knowing that sometimes certain items are exempt from discounts (and to avoid dragging out the process), I quietly decided “close enough.”  I swiped my credit card, and completed the transaction. 

It boggles the mind – my mind at least – that people are hired to handle cash and credit card business when they seem to be, to be kind, clueless.  And, what irritated me, as I toted the overstuffed white plastic CVS shopping bag back to my car, was my belief that most people don’t pay attention when they shop.  I’m willing to bet the farm that, had that young man been the customer, he’d have headed home carefree and unaware that he’d been gypped of something around $15. 

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Dr. Zhivago and Scaring the Poop out of Charlie


Charlie the Dog has been scratching and chewing around his rear end for a week or two, so today was trip-to-the-vet day.  As Sandy and I were getting on our heavy coats for the short drive in frigid weather to the Vet at the Barn, Charlie freaked out.  Charlie suffers from separation anxiety, and won’t eat or drink or play with his toys while we’re not home.  How do we know what he does or does not do when we’re out?  Because not a thing is eaten or moved until we return home.  (The lone exception is an unfortunate, now torn sofa pillow that takes one for the team.) 
 
But today Charlie outdid himself.  Sensing something was up, he went into a whining, squealing, crying, yelping fit, and refused to calm down.  It got so bad that he crapped.  In the house.  Fortunately, it was on the old rug in the basement, and the poop was firm enough to easily pick up with a plastic baggy (yeah, I know, poor rug).  In Sandy’s car, the dog continued his meltdown, even in Sandy’s arms; his high-pitch yelping hurt my ears, making it hard for me to focus on my driving.  I could see myself being pulled over by a cop for swerving and driving while under the influence ... of a panicked dog. 
 
We were the first of the morning at the vet.  Even so, we had to wait 20 minutes while the doc had her morning coffee, I assume.  The wait was an ordeal with devil dog barking and whining, squirming, trembling, and pulling, worse than ever before.  Finally, Charlie was examined by the vet, and led away to some unseen back torture chamber where he got his rabies shot, a blood sample drawn, his rear end attended to, and a sedative administered.  The doctor gave (or should I say sold) us a bottle of the doggy downers.  To be fed to him two at a time with meals. 
 
As we left the building, even with a somewhat high Charlie pulling, Sandy and I breathed sighs of relief that it was over.  So we thought.  When we got to Sandy’s car, it too whined and squealed, but, unlike Charlie, it wouldn’t go anywhere.  The battery was dead.  Apparently, in the frenzy of our arrival, I had neglected to turn off the headlights when I parked at the vet. 
 
We stepped out again into the freezing air, and back to the vet’s barn we three plodded.  I asked if anyone had jumper cables.  The pleasant young receptionist nodded, got on her coat, and pulled her car around near Sandy's Honda Accord where I met her.  With hands trembling from the cold, I attached the cables from her battery to ours, and ... nothing.  Well, not nothing; sparks were flying.  I detached the cables, thanked the good Samaritan, and again went back into the building. 
 
Sandy got on her cell phone to her auto club.  A recording told her that the wait for service was 90-minutes.  Ninety minutes!?  Who goes out in weather like this?  I told Sandy that I would walk the mile or so home to get my car and my heavy-duty jumper cables.  She smiled a mixture of appreciation and pity, reminiscent of Katherine Hepburn’s sad smile at Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen as he climbed back into the shallow, swampy, leech-infested water to continue towing the boat. 
 
Bundled in my winter parka, with scarf and bunnet (a taxi-driver type cap with ear flaps down), I half walked and half jogged south along Route 45, careful to step as far as possible off the road as cars bulleted past me, apparently having no doubt that the bundled up pedestrian would manage to get out of their way in time. 
 
The temperature had to be in the low teens, and I chillingly realized I had underestimated the cold.  The wind was in my face.  My cheeks were stinging.  I began to worry about frostbite.  With my nose running, my moustache froze.  I tugged my scarf up to cover my face to my eyes.  My eyeglasses fogged, and the fog froze, limiting my visibility.  I thought of Omar Sharif as Dr. Zhivago trudging his way to Lara, similarly bundled up, falling over in the deep snow of Siberia, almost freezing to death.  But he made it home, and so did I. 
 
I started up my new Nissan Rogue parked outside, turned the heat up high, and entered the garage to get my jumper cables.  They were not to be found.  I searched for 10 minutes until I literally stumbled over a plastic milk crate containing items from my old car, including the cables.  I zipped back to the vet, the Rogue holding the icy road fairly well.  I attached the cables, started up my car, and then Sandy’s.  I gave Sandy, standing warm inside at a window, the thumbs up. 
 
When we got home, I let Sandy’s car run for a short while so that the battery could recharge.  Eventually, I shut off the Honda, opened the door to get out, and the car alarm went off.  I sat back inside, closed the door against the cold, and hit the alarm button on the Honda key.  The alarm silenced.  I opened the door, and the alarm went off again.  This time I shut the door from the outside, hit the button, and the alarm ceased.  Another thing to have a mechanic look at. 
 
As I took off my coat in the house festooned with Christmas wreaths and lights, my eyes fell on the jar of Charlie’s sedatives.  I wondered what his two-pill dose would translate to for a creature seven and a half times his weight.