Friday, January 5, 2018

How do you like being on the butt-end, Mr. Trump?

The man who has lowered the bar on presidential civility and, well, maturity by calling competing candidates and world leaders childish names, disparaging the appearance of women (not to mention boasting about pawing them), telling so many lies that fact-checkers are having meltdowns, et cetera, et cetera, is so stung by criticism, perceived insults, and alleged lies that he wants to stop publication of the Trump inner circle tell-all book, Fire and Fury. He’s sicked his snarling shysters on the author, trying to intimidate him in order to derail release of the book. Trump’s legal storm troopers are making the spurious claim Trump is libeled and slandered. So much for the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech.
A President, or any other public official for that matter, cannot be libeled or slandered. A public official is fair game, even for lies or misinformation. If that weren’t the case, almost every candidate for the presidency in recent years would be awaiting sentencing. There’s only one narrow exception, and three things – all of them - must happen for that exception to kick in. 1. It must be proved that the statement about the President is untrue. 2. Then it must be proved that the source of the statement knew it to be false. 3. Then it must be proved that the source intended to do damage to the President’s reputation or livelihood by making the false and defamatory statement. I don’t think Mr. Trump would get past step 1.
There is hardly a precious Constitutional freedom that the current “Leader of the Free World” has not threatened or ignored. We need not delve deep into history to see representative governments overthrown and dictatorships arise. For a long time we have deluded ourselves into believing that the rise of a Nazi-like cabal (or 1984 dystopia) could not possibly happen in America. But, unfortunately, it most certainly can if we sit by idly, turning a blind eye to the goons as our rights are toppled like so many bowling pins by a clueless and vindictive chief executive.

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: 
            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

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.