Thursday, April 15, 2021

Prayer: A Guide for Atheists

            I have come to believe in the power of prayer, but not the way normal people do. My undoubtedly oversimplified view of the way most people view prayer is that it’s some sort of request sent up to the Big Guy in the Sky, a being that William Blake named Nobodaddy. God then considers the request, perhaps evaluating its Goodness and the moral status of the person doing the praying, and then sends down an energy beam to intervene in our earthly human situation. A basketball player prays before shooting a free throw, and perhaps God’s breath tips it off the rim and through the hoop. Or a prayer before getting your CT-scan results works retroactively to change not only the scan but also the tumor that might otherwise show up on the scan. God can do stuff like that, right?

            Perhaps not.

 

            So, why would an atheist pray? What might be a benefit of prayer lies in what happens within the mind or heart (soul?) of the person doing the praying. The person shooting the free throw might simply be asking himself to be his best self, and the act of prayer may generate needed calm confidence.

 

            Another benefit: When people learned of Kim’s cancer, several of her friends told her that she was in their prayers. It helped – not because God beamed down a boost of well-targeted radiation therapy, but because her knowing that folks were and still are praying for her gave her a sense of support in what must be a lonely battle. I’m not sure those prayers would work if Kim didn’t know about them. Difficult to test that one . . ..

 

            And here’s another benefit: If you are praying to God, you are probably bowing your head in a submissive posture, or maybe you are looking upward. In either case, what you are doing is humble (unless you are the kind of asshole who demands divine intervention because of how great you think you are). The act of prayer is an acknowledgment that there is a Something, bigger than us – call it Nature, the Oversoul, God, or whatever. Humility is, almost all of the time, a good thing – good for you, and good for everyone around you. Just think of all the horrors that the opposite of humility has inflicted on the world. It interests me as a Word Guy that “humble” comes from the Latin word “humus,” which refers to the dark organic material in soils that is essential for the fertility of the earth. I’m proud to be so humble. 

 

            But on the other hand, for an atheist the prayer could also be directed to the divine qualities within ourselves. Think of the Greek gods, or other polytheistic theologies. When I pray to Apollo (which I don’t), I am praying to the Apollo in me. When Kim prays to an oak tree (she may), she is praying to the strength of the oak and the generosity in all that an oak tree provides for the world – qualities that she shares with the oak. Seeing the divine as part of us does not sound all that humble, I will acknowledge, but as a humanist, I applaud it.

 

            And after all, what is it that most people pray for? Lord, give me strength. Lord, give me patience. Lord, make me a kinder person (Does anyone really say that one?), Lord, help me remember where I put my cell phone. Not really asking for Outside Help here, right? It’s Inside Help we are after, in most cases, and prayer may be an effective way to gather our internal resources, however we word the request. Does anyone know of a better way to do it?

 

            And then there is the kind of prayer which does not involve praying for something, but rather a prayer of thanks for what you have been given. Again, I see this as a kind of Inside Help, fully available to atheists through prayer.

 

            Prayer, then, is a lot like appealing to the better angels of our nature. But don’t let me get started about angels.

 

 

If you care to share your thoughts about prayer, please contact me at dstring@ix.netcom.com.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Sap

           
            The birdhouse was a gift to us from Scott and Shariee. Modeled after our bark house, it’s about 3’ x 3’ and weighs maybe 150 pounds, plus another 50 or so for the mounting that Scott built. The siding is the same poplar bark that we have on our house.

 


 Our actual house, however, does not have those little round holes in the windows.


            After a lot of discussion, we decided to place it in the large maple tree outside our garage – the first thing we or anyone sees when arriving at our home. In order to mount the birdhouse, Scott and I had to remove a large limb that extended over the garage with the flat surface where we cut it providing the base of the construction. We had to pull the limb with a rope while we cut it so it wouldn’t land on the garage roof, which meant that some of the bark was torn, which meant that there was a place where the sap immediately started to run.

            We are not sure whether this is a sugar maple tree – one guy told us it is not – but just in case we attached a small pail into which the sap could drip. Drip it did. By the next morning the pail was full, so Kim filtered out most of the bark that had fallen in, and then she boiled it for several hours until the half-gallon of sap became about a cup of syrup. We enjoyed it on our sweet potatoes at dinner, and we saved the rest for Scott and Shariee’s next visit.

 

            Our batch tasted like good maple syrup, but that’s not the point. And it’s great that we made it ourselves, but that’s not quite the point, either. The point is that we were communing with our maple tree, taking its spirit into our bodies. We are grateful to our maple tree, and we thanked it for existing and for sharing itself with us in such a tasty form. (“Sharing” may not be the right word, as it did not voluntarily lop off its own limb . . ..) The next day we paused to thank the tree again before pouring its syrup on our waffles. Our maple tree is a person, in a way, and a member of our family.

 

            Thanking the natural world for its gifts is a tradition that goes back to Native American practices, and it’s continued by many hunters today (including Scott when he actually gets his deer). It’s a tradition that should actually spread as we thank all the elements involved when we spread blueberries from California on those waffles, served with shade-grown coffee from Central America, by way of Maine. Our economy is almost as miraculous as our maple tree, and we are thankful.

 

            But that is not the point. Taking maple syrup into our bodies is an act of communion. I don’t know much about communion as part of Christian practice, but I do recall my friend Kent’s description of a conversation with some Iranian kids when he was in the Peace Corps. They were astounded, he reports, that Christians would actually eat their God. Nevertheless, and my skepticism aside, something happens when you take a spirit into your actual body. It may just happen in your mind, or soul if you prefer, rather than chemically. But why do I say “just happen in your mind”? Let’s pause to appreciate the complex dance between food and spirit.

 

            And then, let’s get the very satisfying teamwork involved in getting the 250 pounds of birdhouse up a ladder and into our maple tree, a process that generates more gratitude as the tree becomes even more of our home. And soon, birds will be involved in our gratitude.

 



 

 


Thursday, April 1, 2021

Learning from Movies

            Kim and I have been watching a lot of movies over the past year. Too many, but we really don’t care because the movies and series have been educational. Here’s what we learned from the movies. (I will not give specific examples as it will be more educational for you to come up with your own examples.)

 

·      Lies will be exposed, probably not when you want. And once you are caught in a lie, you will always be a liar. Even if you’re not caught.

 

·      The same is true for secrets, especially family secrets.

 

·      If a woman throws up, it means she is pregnant. Not drinking means the same thing. A man’s throwing up, however, does not mean he is pregnant. It may mean he’s been drinking.

 

·      Don’t be happy too soon – it means something bad will happen to make your story interesting. If you start out with a serious problem, it will most likely be fixed in some way. Or not.

 

·      Don’t get into arguments while driving a car, for people will die. As a matter of fact, keep your eyes on the wheel when conversing with the passenger next to you. Though this seldom leads to accidents, it makes me uncomfortable when I see it in a movie.

 

·      Families can be toxic. But you probably knew this already.

 

·      Everyone looks better with clean hair. If your life is boring, wash your hair so people will have something nice to look at.

 

·      Young people tend to have sex against a wall, on a desk, or on a kitchen table. Sometimes in the bathroom. Old people make love in the bedroom.

 

·      Algebra is very rarely used – at least, in ways you can see.

 

·      You don’t really know your neighbors. They lie and have secrets.

 

·      You don’t really know your spouse or partner. You may think you do, but you don’t.

 

·      You don’t really know your children. Obviously. Knowing “what’s best for them” is not the same as knowing them.

 

·      You don’t really know yourself. You may be keeping secrets from yourself or lying to yourself, or you may have hidden potential that will rise to a challenge.

 

·      You don’t know shit.

 

·      Life would be better with subtitles. Even better if the subtitles explained what the speaker was really saying, and what was being hidden. (I’ve seen that in a movie, but rarely in real life. Kim, apparently, sees them more often.)

 

·      Anorexia is not a disease unless it occurs in a movie about anorexia. Otherwise, it’s OK to be that thin.

 

·      It’s OK to be seen doing your bodily business in the bathroom. Meaningful conversations can take place when one of you is on the toilet or standing at a urinal.

 

·      The experience of drama is improved if you can sip a cocktail and enjoy a salty snack while going through it.

 

·      Life is more enjoyable without masks, both wearing them and seeing them. But you knew that already.

 

            That’s about it. If you have learned anything from movies that you’d like to share, please let me know at dstring@ix.netcom.com.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Small Victories

             Sometimes we old people have to count our small victories:

 

I.

 

If we had bacon, we could have bacon and eggs, but we don’t have any eggs.

 

Sometimes that victory is in capturing the humor of loss in language. The sentence above appeals to me because by the time we get to the end of the sentence, the beginning of the sentence is forgotten. Ever have that happen? It’s a victory of recognition.

 

II.

 

When I taught filmmaking, I asked my students to name the “least memorable movie” they had ever seen.

 

This usually led to a confused pause, then a few smiles. I counted this as a small victory. Over what, I’m not sure.

 

III.

 

I’m not as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I always was.

 

Not at all sure this is true. Perhaps Kim will tell me. I won’t let you know if I find out, either way. 

 

IV.

 

The older I get, the better I was.

 

I’ve said this before in a previous post, but repeating jokes is one of those things you do when you get old.

 

V.

 

            Age 2

 

“Do you want to go outside?”

“No.”

“Do you want to read a book?”

“No.”

“Do you want to watch television?”

“No.”

“Do you want to listen to music?”

“No.”

“Are you being negative?”

“No.”

 

Again, this is a small victory – over Jeff, my two-year old son – but I’ll take it. I did not spike Jeff’s pacifier in the end zone. As an old person, you probably have your own versions of this conversation. We do.

 

VI.

 

I was pleased, the other day, when I put Kim’s socks away in my drawer by mistake. I was pleased that I did not put them in the refrigerator. Small victory, indeed.

 

VII.

 

This morning, I struggled to think of a familiar word, the meaning of which was very clear. Now I’m struggling to think of the meaning and the event that made we want to come up with the word. Ah! The word was “mutation.” Yes!!

 

VIII.

 

Kim and I were working as volunteers at Paynes Prairie State Park, just outside of Gainesville. A guy came in to the Visitor’s Center and asked me if I could identify a snake.

 

“Sure,” I said, hoping it was one of the approximately three species with which I was familiar. “What color is it?”

 

“Green.”

 

“It’s a green snake.” As it turned out, my smart-ass answer was correct.

 

 

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Mute


            Kim and I occasionally ask each other to identify the high point of the day, week or month. (We skip the low point.) Last week I identified my February high point was discovering the Mute button on my remote. I always knew it was there and what it does, but I had never really thought to use it. Now, I do.

 

            We watch a lot of television, primarily news-related stuff, which features too many commercials for drugs – somehow there is an overlap between news-watchers and the ill. (Could it be that watching the news causes illness?) Rather than hearing about all those nasty side-effects, we turn off the sound and watch healthy-looking folks frolic silently with their loved ones. We also have watched a series or two on Hulu (thank you, Beth), and episode after episode repeats the same commercials – probably not a problem if you only watch one episode per week, but who does that anymore? The mute button allows me to tune out the insurance ads that say nothing about the insurance, the phone service team who had become an obnoxious part of my family, and the high-volume folks assuring me how much we would win with Michigan’s new online gambling. Thank you, mute button! I only wish I had discovered it earlier, during the Trump presidency.

 

            In the 1979 movie Being There, Peter Sellers plays a man addicted to watching television. In one memorable scene he is walking in the streets of New York and is accosted by a robber with a gun. Sellers has the remote in his hand and points it at the robber, clicking it to change the channel. The confused robber departs – the remote worked.

 

            Perhaps we could also take our remote, featuring the mute button, into life outside our television. Technology is making huge advances these days, so why not? Kim’s dad had solved the problem by turning off his hearing aid, especially, Kim says, when women were speaking, and some men have learned to do this without the hearing aid – or so I am told. And while we are at it, why not use the channel-changing feature of the remote: Push a button, and tune into a whole new reality. I believe our former president had learned to do this.

 

            I read somewhere (might have been science fiction) that miniaturization would soon bring our computer screen into our eyes themselves, so we would no longer need to carry and thumb or finger a device at all. We will be able to manipulate (wrong word: manus = hand) the screen – our visual experience – by doing something with the eye-brain-microchip connection. You could, I suppose, even do an ocular google search. Well, if you can do that, can’t you also apply Photoshop to reality, doing a bit of editing, cropping the image, enhancing the colors, emphasizing the contrast, or if you are good at it, adding or deleting people from your experience? Far-fetched? No. We already do that, without the use of computer chips. We do it with memories, of course, and if you have mastered the technique, you can edit the experience as you are having it. Come to think of it, most of us can do this already, seeing and interpreting though the filter of Self.

 

            This is a long way from discovering the mute button on my television remote. In any case, here’s how Wordsworth advised that we edit our experience:

 

The World Is Too Much With Us 
               by William Wordsworth

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.—Great God! I'd rather be
A pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreath├Ęd horn.

 

            No, we have not seen old Triton out on Torch Lake – at least, not yet. But we continue to try to stay in tune to what is going on around us, often by using mental editing – choosing what deserves our attention. The mute button helps.

  

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Pants


            When I was working on the book, Pet Loss: A Death in the Family, one of the older people interviewed said, “I’m on my last dog.” With the same reflection on the short future lying ahead for people my age, I can say, “I’m on my last pair of pants.” This appears to be consistent with Thoreau’s famous words, “Beware of any enterprises that require new clothes.”  

 

            To put this in some context: In the last three years I have gotten eleven new pairs of pants. And when we consolidated our two “snowbird” homes into one, we also consolidated two of my closets into one. That’s a lot of pants.

 

            First of all, there are my dress pants, by which I mean pretty much anything but jeans or hiking pants. I donated three of these, and the rest have worked their way to the back of the closet, waiting for the next indoor wedding, so far not immanent. These may or may not fit, may or may not be pleated, may or may not have cuffs. Who cares?

 

            Then there are my pants from The Territory Ahead, which actually fit me, so I was advised to order a bunch more. Three of these are waiting, unused, in a drawer somewhere.

 

            I also have two pair of skinny jeans, a gift from my stepson. I suppose these make me more stylish as I shovel snow or vacuum the floors. With the skinny jeans on I feel like I am wearing an “outfit,” which is another word for “costume.”

 

            That leaves me with two pair of grayish work khakis, which I bought because Kim thinks they make my butt look nice. I’m going to wear them next week.

 

            I also have a couple of pairs of lightweight hiking pants, primarily for birding, with lots of pockets with snap, zippers, and impressive belt-loops. I don’t feel inclined to put on an “outfit” when I go birding.

 

            So, I’m on my last pair of pants – though Kim has suggested that I buy some new Levis.

 

            We are in our last house. We will either end up here or move to some sort of assisted living next. Actually, we both enjoy assisted living now, as we assist each other.

 

            But I am not on my last car. I have a year left on my lease, and I’m thinking electric.

 

            Back to pants: Let’s look at the Thoreau quotation a bit more fully: “I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes. If there is not a new man, how can the new clothes be made to fit?” The point is not to keep wearing your raggedy pants. It’s to become “a new man” – a “new wearer of clothes.” It’s all to obvious that I am becoming “a new man,” and this new man is an old man. This may require new clothes. So, what new kind of old man do I want to become?

 

·      Geezer doesn’t have much appeal – too comical.

 

·      Senior Citizen sounds neutered.

 

·      Retiree? No, that just describes what I’m not.

 

·      Old Fart? Perhaps, but seems deliberately offensive.

 

·      How about a Sage? That sounds good, though according to the dictionary I’d better start accumulating wisdom. This may be possible if wisdom consists of questions rather than answers, for the questions are accumulating.

 

            And how does a sage dress? What kind of pants does he wear?

 

 

            Baggy Pants

 

Gimme them    baggy pants

hangin loose all over mlegs

Yeah them    baggy pants

they smooth    theys mfavorite rags

 

with room in mpockets

for mhans an mkeys

an ahm there hidin inside

no they cant see me hidin

jus mpants baggy pants

cut saggy an flappy an wide

 

Gimme them    baggy pants

hangin loose all over mlegs

Yeah them    baggy pants

they smooth    theys mfavorite rags

 

Yo tight pants is nice

fo doin yo-yo moves

letm see whatcha got when ydance

but fo me makem loose

set me free jus to be

in mblow-ina-breeze baggy pants

 

Gimme them    baggy pants

hangin loose all over mlegs

Yeah them    baggy pants

they smooth    theys mfavorite rags

 

 

 

Thursday, March 4, 2021

70%


            It was my last temper tantrum. I don’t know how old I was – maybe 7 or 8. And I don’t remember the issue that brought on my tantrum. Mom couldn’t get me to stop, so she sent me down into the basement, where I continued screaming from the bottom of the stairs. Suddenly I saw the door open at the top of the stairs. “Yes,” I thought, “at last!” Moments later Mom tossed a bucket of cold water down on me, and my tantrum abruptly stopped. I’ve not had one since (not counting a few technology-challenged moments).

 

            As a possible side-effect from the experience, I have become somewhat guarded in my emotional life. Kim estimates that I usually operate at about 70%, with the other 30% only available through my writing, if at all. I remember at a poetry reading one of my students asked if my wife appreciated my being so emotionally open. I replied that what usually happens is that she asks me how I feel about something, I tell her that I will get back to her in a few days after I write about it. And typically, if she doesn’t ask, she’ll never know. This is not one of my more endearing qualities. Instead, as has been pointed out to me, I spend time living in my head – thinking about the book I’m reading or the blog post I’m working on, or worrying about Kim’s health and the problems of various family members. This does not qualify as “being present.” Guilty, as charged.

 

            Sometimes I feel I am living in the land of Nearly, or Not Quite – that there’s a lot that’s unaccomplished in that missing 30%. I nearly spent my senior year in college touring the East as a drummer with a rock band, but I said no. I not-very-nearly made the Olympic Ice Hockey team, though I did try out. I almost bungee-jumped from a tall building in New Zealand, but I did do some paddle-boarding on Torch Lake. I nearly published a few best-selling books, but I never quite pulled them together or put in the time to market them. On a smaller scale, I’d usually prefer to withdraw into reading and writing rather than going out and seeking adventures. Even small ones. I’m guarded. I don’t easily reach out as a father or grandfather or husband or friend. My sons, and Kim, are learning to take the initiative, which does not raise my score. Pandemic isolation has not caused me to make many uncomfortable changes. Like a lot of guys my age, I’m reluctant to try new things. I often require nudging.

 

            Kim thinks this might be a Guy Thing, though she has plenty of examples of guys she dated pre-me who did not suffer from this kind of guardedness. The Guy Thing defense is not really a good defense. But I do recall seeing a greeting card featuring a smiling couple strolling down the sidewalk, the woman asking, “Do you think I look fat?” and the man answering, “Do you think I look stupid?” Guarded. Or maybe it’s a Canadian Thing, for memory tells me that my dad’s Canadian reserve did not please my mom. That’s no excuse, but still, it’s the best one I have.

 

            One example: We were experiencing what’s known as “a rough stretch” in being confined together, and despite this, or maybe to help end it, Kim fixed me an elaborate and creative meal, featuring orange slices arranged into an interlocking flower-like design. I took a bite and grunted, “Good.” My response did not propel us out of the rough stretch. Perhaps I was worried about that cold bucket of water if I said the wrong thing. Similarly, when Kim dressed up in a non-pajama outfit and a bit of make-up, I acknowledged how nice she looked with a wordless pat on the shoulder. No, I’m not saying I should have rubbed my groin against her, but the wordless pat was not enough. I don’t mean not enough for Kim. It was not enough for me. I did not push through my 70% wall to explore new emotional and experiential territory – for me and for us.

 

            Is living at 70% a good score? 70 is a pretty high number if you ignore the fact that throughout my life, 70% meant a grade of C-. The question, then, is how to find or create that other 30%.

 

            Years ago, Kim dared me to run around the outside of our house naked. I’m not sure why she did this, but because it was a dare, I had to do it, and I did. Fortunately, this was before ubiquitous cell-phone cameras. I was thrilled, partly because I knew I would never do that again. I was living, briefly, in my missing 30%.

 

            It’s probably obvious to most readers that I have not yet come up with the missing 30%. I’m trying. Once in a very-rare while I will phone somebody without Kim suggesting that I make the call. And when we do dishes together, I put on “Proud Mary” and show a few of my dance-like-a-white-guy moves. I wander into Kim’s art studio – a full twenty feet from my desk – to see how she is doing what she is doing rather than just seeing the final product. I sent off for a morel mushroom growing kit – a venture into gardening (though it was Kim who suggested it) that seems like a very small thing because it is. And today we pulled off the road back home from Traverse City to do some “exploring,” which feels a little like being lost, but with a different attitude toward it. I make an effort to notice what Kim notices, which requires a bit of rewiring of my brain. I tell Kim, and myself, about what I appreciate, inching above 70%.

            Maybe if Kim tossed a bucket of cold water on me, or if I tossed one onto myself, I could move into more adventures. 


Note from Kate:

Dave, you are expecting too much of yourself.  You have the Y chromosome, so you are automatically at 70%.  In your next life you can come back as a woman and be able to bounce a kid on your hip while cooking a delicious dinner that you dreamed up in your head, and at the same time plan an adventure for the next day, and even slip in some lascivious thoughts about the sexy mailman that just dropped off a package, all at the same time!  You were created to be the caveman who goes and hunts down the food and laughs when your caveman friends fart or burp really loud, then come home with the food and watch your cavewoman cook while you think about bangin' that ass later on.  God, I'm so glad I'm a woman!  LOL!

And from Steve:

Fascinating blog today, creating many thoughts.  We are in a bit of a different marriage, Deede and me.  She is task oriented; I am people oriented.  I am open; she is private. She needs to get our chores done before we play; I believe chores will alway be there so no rush.  I reach out to friends and acquaintances daily, and communicate with kids and grandkids frequently.  She does not reach out to her friends and classmates, which makes me the family social chairman...but she is thrilled when kids and grandkids contact us.   I say and do things to see how people will react.  Like when people get on an elevator most normally get on, turn around, and face the door.  Sometimes, just to see reactions I will get on and face the people.  Awkwardness and discomfort normally ensue, especially if I try to converse. My daughters have told me that at times past they had wished  I had a better governor's belt.  I embarrass my wife by daily complimenting her about something...things that she believes are routine and not worthy of mention.  The good news is that I, like you, have had temper tantrums...two that I remember: when I was about 4 I had a tantrum in a grocery store,  probably about something my Mom was not going to buy for me.  While I was rolling around on the floor screaming, she just left me there and continued shopping .  I found her a few aisles away after I got scared. The other one, embarrassingly, was as an adult on a golf course when I threw my golf club at one of my law partners. Shameful, but I never did like him, and still don't.  Thanks for your always thought provoking words.  Steve