Christmas Morning

It is christmas morning at cuttlehouse. I am the only one awake at the moment, aside from the cats who woke me. Years ago, by this time, our young children would have been whispering excitedly back and forth from their rooms, eager to pounce on their presents. Christmas morning was magic for them, and because of that, it was magic for us.

This year, the Cuttlekids are back from college. Sleeping in holds more appeal than the early start on presents. But they are both here, and so there is a new sort of christmas magic for me. Perhaps in a few more years, the cycle will repeat itself. For now, I am enjoying this calmer, quieter magic.

Happy Christmas to all of you, too. I hope it is a good day for you. We all could use a few of those, I’m sure.

Nope, Didn’t Work (It Never Works)

Hush-a-bye puppy
Here on the bed
No need for barking
Lay down your head
I know it’s scary
When everything’s dark
But Daddy’s still grading,
Puppy, don’t bark!

On the plus side, no burglar will ever come within 50 feet of the house without the dogs barking their heads off. On the minus side, I will have habituated to this barking, and will sleep soundly while the burglar relieves us of our valuables. On the plus side, we have no valuables. On the minus side, we have no valuables.

Life Everlasting

There are promises made of a life everlasting,
Though first we bid this one good-bye,
Of a feast up in heaven we all will be tasting—
I’m happily waiting to die.

There is beauty around me—I choose to ignore it—
To heaven I’m casting my eye;
Though heathens fear death, I am eagerly for it
I’m happily waiting to die.

The atheist folks are so angry and bitter
As heaven itself they deny
They fight against death; I am gladly a quitter;
I’m happily waiting to die.

They see beauty on earth, or they look through the Hubble
At galaxies strewn through the sky,
What a miserable lot—why, it’s not worth the trouble—
I’m happily waiting to die.

When loved ones pass on, why, the atheists grieve them
I can’t for a moment see why;
There are stories of heaven—why can’t they believe them?
I’m happily waiting to die.

The atheists all must be daft or deluded
They listen to me and they sigh
I’ve looked—not around, but inside, and concluded
I’m happily waiting to die.

You know, it doesn’t take much translation to turn a perfectly ordinary sermon into the rants of Jim Jones, Charles Manson, or Marshall Applewhite. “Life everlasting”, that extraordinary reward that comes after this miserable existence here on earth, sounds so wonderful. Golly gosh, let’s all go gentle into that dark night!

Except, it’s not just a lie, it’s an insult. My brother died this year; are his daughters supposed to be happy that their daddy is in an even better life now than the mundane one he stumbled through with them? How much happier he must be, lounging around adoring a deity instead of working in the garden with them.

No wonder people like Tim Moyle find that all atheists are angry. I suppose if horseflies or mosquitos were to describe humans in one word, it would be “slappy”.

Maybe Moyle isn’t bitter, himself… but he’s a carrier.

It’s Tough To Be Christian (At Christmastime)

It’s tough to be Christian, when Christmastime comes,
What with Santa, and reindeer, and elves,
With other religions, or secular folks,
And people who think for themselves

The Christian religion has changed, over time,
And it makes us all anxious as hell,
When the season arrives, and it’s not just for us,
But for other religions as well!

My neighbors are having their holiday feast
And it’s making me angry to see—
Devoutly expressing their deeply felt faith…
But a different religion than me!

The Christian majority’s under attack,
When the holidays force us to share—
We need recognition that’s Christian alone;
Without it, we don’t have a prayer.

Oh, yes, Christmas is a tough time for believers, according to the New York Times’ Ross Douthat, in December 20th’s op-ed

Christmas is hard for everyone. But it’s particularly hard for people who actually believe in it.

Mind you, that depends on what your definition of “it” is. I love christmas, but I doubt that I believe in the same christmas as Douthat, or he in mine.

In a sense, of course, there’s no better time to be a Christian than the first 25 days of December. But this is also the season when American Christians can feel most embattled. Their piety is overshadowed by materialist ticky-tack. Their great feast is compromised by Christmukkwanzaa multiculturalism. And the once-a-year churchgoers crowding the pews beside them are a reminder of how many Americans regard religion as just another form of midwinter entertainment, wedged in between “The Nutcracker” and “Miracle on 34th Street.”

These anxieties can be overdrawn, and they’re frequently turned to cynical purposes. (Think of the annual “war on Christmas” drumbeat, or last week’s complaints from Republican senators about the supposed “sacrilege” of keeping Congress in session through the holiday.) But they also reflect the peculiar and complicated status of Christian faith in American life. Depending on the angle you take, Christianity is either dominant or under siege, ubiquitous or marginal, the strongest religion in the country or a waning and increasingly archaic faith.

Oddly enough, it doesn’t bother me at all that Douthat celebrates as he does, or believes as he does. But it does seem to bother him that I, an atheist, have a christmas tree, with christmas presents underneath it, and christmas cookies, and songs, poems, traditions, and the like, and not a bit of it dependent on Douthat’s notions of Christmas. And I suspect that, if he ever actually got the chance to read my blog, he’d have noticed if I had written “Xmas” instead of “Christmas”, but thought nothing of the odd term “Christmukkwanzaa”, since demeaning terms for other traditions are fine.

Yes, it’s tough to be a christian at christmastime.

It Works, Bitches

When we battle slings and arrows
And the path before us narrows
Or when shock or illness harrows
Us, and bedrock yaws and pitches
Though we battle against giants,
We find aid, in our defiance,
When we use the tools of science—
Why? Because they work, bitches.

(click to embiggen!)
(image from XKCD, of course)

At least three times a week, my first stop (after letting the dogs out and making coffee) is XKCD. My guess is, the vast majority of my readers do the same (unless, of course, they don’t have dogs). But in case you hadn’t checked yet, here it is, once again with a message as simple yet powerful as those stick figure drawings. If you are a regular follower, you’ll recognize “this illness” as having particular poignance this time. After this year, I can relate.

When Johnny Comes Marching Home

As published in 1863

When Johnny comes marching home again
Hurrah! Hurrah!
We’ll give him a hearty welcome then
Hurrah! Hurrah!
The men will cheer and the boys will shout
The ladies they will all turn out
And we’ll all feel gay
When Johnny comes marching home.

The old church bell will peal with joy
Hurrah! Hurrah!
To welcome home our darling boy,
Hurrah! Hurrah!
The village lads and lassies say
With roses they will strew the way,
And we’ll all feel gay
When Johnny comes marching home.

Get ready for the Jubilee,
Hurrah! Hurrah!
We’ll give the hero three times three,
Hurrah! Hurrah!
The laurel wreath is ready now
To place upon his loyal brow
And we’ll all feel gay
When Johnny comes marching home.

Let love and friendship on that day,
Hurrah, hurrah!
Their choicest pleasures then display,
Hurrah, hurrah!
And let each one perform some part,
To fill with joy the warrior’s heart,
And we’ll all feel gay
When Johnny comes marching home.

So, after the Senate’s vote last night, I was toying around with a couple of different potential verses (may still work one of them out), including possibly re-working some traditional song. This one came to mind, and I thought about either writing one with a modern, gay Johnny, or perhaps one with John McCain as Johnny (Republicans will whine and pout, that no-one ought to serve while out”), and I realized I needed to take a look at the original lyrics.

They were already perfect.

Amazing what a change of context can do. So, yeah–let love and friendship on this day their choicest pleasures now display! This is a good day for anyone who actually cares about equal rights.

Your Brain On God? (What, Again?)

Add oomph to your writing;
Make science exciting—
Cos everyone loves a nice scan!
Make “neurotheology
Look like biology—
Look! It’s the brain of a man!
Both god-contemplation
And deep meditation
Show frontal-lobe action, it seems;
But scanning a brain
Doesn’t really explain
All that neurotheology dreams.
Whether fishers of men
Or seekers of zen,
In the scan, we can see what we wish;
But now, let’s examine
The brain of a salmon
Is there god in the head of a fish?

From NPR again, a story that combines some of the things I really really hate about the new, sexy machines that neuroscientists can use. A mediocre study that might not get a second glance gets gussied up with a brain scan or two, and suddenly it’s cutting edge science. Humbug. What’s more, a brain image, even an image of a brain at work, is a snapshot. Brains are not snapshots. Looking at a scan of the function of a number of adult brains really tells us very little about what those brains are doing, and tells us nothing at all about what sort of history led to the activity seen today.

The researchers found an increase in frontal lobe activity during meditation.

“They had improvements of about 10 or 15 percent,” [Dr. Andrew] Newberg [director of research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital in Philadelphia] says. “This is only after eight weeks at 12 minutes a day, so you can imagine what happens in people who are deeply religious and spiritual and are doing these practices for hours a day for years and years.”

Yes, imagine. You’ll have to, because the study did nothing of the sort. In fact, brain scans of experts (say, for instance, in chess) show less activity than novices, arguably because they are so good that there is less actual effort expended. So, can we assume that 8 weeks of practice can be extrapolated to a lifetime? I don’t know. Frankly, I don’t much care; others can be interested in what’s going on in the brain–I’m more interested in what’s going on in the interaction between the individual and their environment over the years that shape them. The brain is not the “why”–the brain is part of the “how”.

I Can See Myself (Polluting) In My Sparkling Dishes!

The bloom in the river is turning it green
And it’s killing off all of the fishes,
The river is dying, tree-huggers are crying,
But Mabel, just look at my dishes!

They sparkle! They glimmer! They’re spotlessly clean!
They’re as gorgeous as gorgeous can be!
The scientists may see the cause of the bloom,
I see a reflection of me!

We used to find perch here, and big rainbow trout,
Now it’s carp, gulping air as they spawn;
It’s ugly, so turn your gaze elsewhere, and look
At my beautiful, beautiful lawn!

It’s lush and it’s leafy, it’s weed-free and dense,
A most wonderful deep shade of green;
Sure the chemicals cost a bit more to apply,
But the sacrifice works, as you’ve seen!

The rivers and lakes, and the oceans as well
Are polluted with all sorts of ooze,
From shipwrecks and oil spills and who all knows what—
We’ve watched it each night on the news—

We’ve got to do something! It really looks bad!
This pollution is truly obscene!
But our dishes, our laundry, our car and our lawn,
We’ve been doing our part to keep clean!

From NPR, a story today on why your dishes aren’t as sparkling clean as they used to be. Turns out, it’s not your fault. Dishwashing detergent has been reformulated, without phosphates.

This was supposed to be good for waterways. But it turned a simple chore into a frustrating mystery for many people across the country.

A couple of months ago, Sandra Young from Vernon, Fla., started to notice that something was seriously amiss with her dishes.

“The pots and pans were gray, the aluminum was starting to turn black, the glasses had fingerprints and lip prints still on them, and they were starting to get this powdery look to them,” Vernon says. “I’m like, oh, my goodness, my dishwasher must be dying, I better get a new dishwasher.”

Young’s not alone. Many people across the country are tearing out their hair over stained flatware, filmy glasses and ruined dishes.

But this is NPR, so I’m sure the story will remind us that phosphates contribute to algal blooms, and show this obsession over sparkling dishes for the vanity it is. Right?

But dirty and damaged dishes are turning many people into skeptics, including Wright.

“I’m angry at the people who decided that phosphate was growing algae. I’m not sure that I believe that,” [Sue] Wright [from Austin, Texas] adds.

Um… skeptics? Those who require evidence? NPR, the word you were looking for was “pinheads”. But I’m sure there will be a scientist speaking soon, to set Wright… er, right.

Susan Baba from Procter and Gamble says the company had no choice. It just wasn’t feasible to make detergent with phosphates for some states and without them for others.

“You know, this isn’t really a huge environmental win,” she says.

That’s because phosphates are wonder ingredients. They not only strip food and grease from dishes but also prevent crud from getting reattached during the wash. So she says without phosphates, people have to wash or rinse their dishes before they put them in the dishwasher, which wastes water. Or they run their dishwasher twice, which wastes electricity.

I’m sure an industry spokeswoman is unbiased, though. Who needs scientists to speak for the science?

Anyway, you just know that NPR (NPR!) will close by chastising the people who are more concerned with seeing their reflections in their dishes than seeing the pollution they are dumping into the ecosystem. Never put your outhouse upstream from your well, and all that. Right, NPR?

But not everyone is willing to adjust. Sandra Young figured out a way to undo the phosphate ban — at least in her own kitchen.

She bought some trisodium phosphate at a hardware store and started mixing her own formula.

“It seems to be working pretty good,” Young says.

Other people have given up on their machines altogether and are washing dishes by hand. But some are switching to other brands and making peace with phosphate-free detergents.

Thanks, NPR–I never would have thought of that! I’ll just pop right out to the hardware store, and my problem is solved! It’s now the problem of the people (and other organisms) who live downstream.

Funny thing about an ecosystem. We’re all downstream. Thanks, NPR.

Hang Stockings, Hang Mistletoe… Hang An Elf?

Photo source

The war against Christmas has taken a turn
With the hanging of one of the elves—
No need for a godless opponent, we learn,
The Christians can fight it themselves!

For some, any elf is the work of the Devil—
It’s Satan, not Santa, at play
He’s not making toys; he’s distributing evil
And needs to be hanged right away!

We’ve all hung our stockings, and mistletoe too,
But an elf is a new one on me!
But pastor Jon Knudsen knew just what to do,
So he hanged it, for children to see!

For Christmas is sacred, and solemn, and sad,
So we’re killing off Santa, forthwith!
And the lesson, this season, is “God will get mad,
So you’d better believe the right myth!”

I couldn’t have made up this story; it boggles the imagination. Santa and the elves are the Devil’s work. This we already knew, but what are ya gonna do? Pastor Knudsen did what the rest of us can only wish we had the courage to do; he hanged an elf.

Let me repeat that: He hanged an elf.

The war on Christmas is not fought from without; it is fought from within. What could possibly kill Christmas? Taking it seriously, that’s what could kill it.

Think of the children (won’t somebody, please?)–little Bjorn has a choice between a Santa Claus who brings him presents, or “the truth about christmas” for which a pastor hanged an elf. Game over, man. The believers have scored, but it’s an own goal.

The good news?

The executed elf was originally supposed to remain hanging from the church until Sunday, and the church had set up a night watch in order to prevent it from being stolen.

One offended resident took action Monday afternoon while no one was watching, however, and pulled down the elf. He left a message with the pastor that the elf was being “kept safe until after the New Year”.

Knudsen reported the theft to the police, and the culprit confessed. The police, however, refused to press charges, stating that their “caseload was too heavy to make investigating theft of a stuffed toy elf a priority”.

Cuttlecap tip to Noadi, via twitter.

On Freedom Of Speech

Freedom of speech offends me
And I hope it always will,
Till the sun explodes, or worlds collide,
Or hands of time stand still.
If I hate what you are saying
And you hate my words as well
That’s the way we know it’s working,
Or as far as I can tell.
You are free to be offensive,
Rude and crude and vile and mean—
It’s a radical idea,
But the best I’ve ever seen.

Strange… someone was looking for a particular verse of mine last night, and couldn’t find it. Looking through my computer files around the date in question, I found this one, which google tells me I never posted anywhere. Not here as a post, nor anywhere else as a comment. Not terribly surprising–I wrote it the morning my brother died, in the time when we were still optimistic that he’d recover. I know there have been times I’ve started on a verse, then set it aside when, say, the dog needed walking. I wonder how many orphaned poems there are on various computer drives (including dead drives) scattered around my life-space.

What with the WikiLeaks stuff going on, freedom of speech is being tested in a different way–not so much offensive speech, as speech that a person or party in power does not want to be made public. But I’ll put this verse up today anyway, and you can probably guess my stance on today’s issue as well.