Category Archives: Atheism

Oxford to St. Louis via Festus

This is the latest post in a series about a road trip to New Orleans that starts here.

While Lynn slept, I explored the breakfast bar at the Quality Inn in Oxford, Mississippi.  It offered weak coffee, powdered “milk”, white bread for toast, single serving boxes of corn flakes, single portion bags of instant grits and oatmeal, and … do-it-yourself waffles.

These weren’t toaster-ready waffles. I watched people try to figure out the waffle maker one after another as I ate my instant grits.  Where was the batter?  How did it come out of the container?  Where did it go into the waffle maker?  Then what?  How long did you keep the lid closed?  Where you supposed to flip it over?  How did you get the waffles out?  It looked simple, but to someone from…oh, let’s say China, it must have been about as familiar as I would have felt trying to make dim sum.

Meanwhile, I was keeping an ear on the conversation of two guys at the next table, who appeared to be truckers.  I had heard the word “Jesus” and “Bible” and assumed they were fervent Christians, so I avoided eye contact.  One was flipping through a pile of magazines.  Maybe they were having a bible study at the Quality Inn.  Finally I was able to pull my attention away from the Chinese guy fumbling with the Made-in-China waffle maker and was able to listen in on the conversation next to me. “These born agains are fucking crazy,” the guy with the magazines said.  “They don’t reason.  They cain’t tell the difference between opinion and fact.  They only know what they’ve been told to think by their preachers.”

“Ah know, ah know,” replied his companion.  “They’re wreckin’ ar country.  We used to be superior for our inventions and idee-urs but now everybody’s laughin’ at us.”

“Everybody but Saudi Arabia,” replied the first guy.  “They probably love that we’ve stopped using our brains.”

This went on for some time and I was able to very subtly—I hope—get a look at the magazines, which included Popular Mechanics and National Geographic.  So they must believe in evolution!  Did you know that 42% of Americans believe God created the world in seven days?  I can barely bring myself to type that, it’s so embarrassing.  That’s an average, of course, and a much higher percentage of young people, urban dwellers, and yes—northerners believe in evolution.

I’m aware it can be irritating when I reproduce people’s accents in writing, but I did it above to make a point.  Well, two points.  First, I’m aware I’m prejudiced against southerners and second, there are southerners who don’t fit my stereotypes.

I had the urge to reach across and introduce myself, “Hi, I’m Anne!  I’m from Minnesota, and I’d just like to say how thrilled I am to discover free thinkers in Mississippi!”

Instead I went next door to Starbucks and got a decent cup of coffee.

We headed north again, toward St. Louis.  This would be a short day: we would only put around 400 miles on the odometer.

The drive was uneventful. We passed by Memphis, then veered northeast near the town of Marked Tree.  We passed Osceola, Tennessee; Blytheville, Arkansas; Hayti, Missouri; then Portageville, Tiptonville, Sikeston, Cape Girardeau, Pocahontas, Ste. Genevieve, Prairie du Rocher, and Festus.

St. Louis was the first place I used Air B&B.  We were staying in the upper part of a fourplex on Flad Avenue, in the Shaw neighborhood, chosen because it was a short walk to the Missouri Botanical Garden.  Shaw appeared to be a historically African American neighborhood that was being gentrified.

Flad ave

We had been instructed to park behind the building, but a pack of bearded, plaid-shirted hipsters who resembled Neanderthals were unloading a truck in the alley.  They smiled dumbly at us and clearly weren’t going to put themselves out to get out of our way, so we parked on the street.

I had received several texts from the Air B&B owner, Yuri, about gaining entrance, and it went without a hitch.  There were two bedrooms, a bath and a kitchen that would be our base for exactly 17 hours.

Hail, Prince

I’m interrupting the series about the road trip to New Orleans to write about Prince’s death.  It’s very sad, and we in Minnesota will miss him.  He had a huge impact on the local music scene.  In the Minneapolis Star Tribune today, Doomtree rapper P.O.S. credited Prince with making Minneapolis “a city full of musical weirdos.”  That’s a good thing. You want artists to feel free to experiment.

Prince

Bob Dylan, another tiny weirdo superstar from Minnesota, lives in Malibu, California.  Prince stayed here, and like most locals I had gone to First Avenue, the club he founded, hoping he would show up for one of his impromptu concerts.  Last year I went to a party there celebrating the 30th anniversary of Purple Rain.  They showed the movie on a big screen and local musicians, including P.O.S, played songs from the album.  Lots of people I know have stories about hearing Prince at some small local venue, or meeting him at a restaurant, and they all describe him as friendly and warm.

1st ave Ist ave stars

The headline in the Star Tribune today was irritating: “Lonely death scene despite legions of fans.”  Yes, he was alone when he died, but does that mean he was lonely?  It’s just such sloppy writing.  Probably the person he would have most wanted to be with in his dying moments would have been a paramedic.  The Strib also referred to his “passing,” which is one of my pet peeves.  It’s sad enough that he died. Can’t we just say it?

I once had a tangential connection to Prince.  I dated his ex manager for a while.  He and I hung out with Prince’s ex drummer, ex driver, ex chef … you get the idea.  Prince was not an easy boss.

I’ll call my ex Larry.  Back in the late 90s there was still a matchmaker for the Jewish community in the Twin Cities.  She also ran the Big Brothers/Sisters mentoring program.  She had matched me with my Little Sister, and after a rocky start it had turned out to be a perfect fit.  Almost 40, I went to her to see if she could do as well with a man.  She was a tiny lady named Bobbie Goldfarb.  She peered at me and said, “Honey, at your age the odds are good, but the goods are odd.”  That turned out to be true.

She set me up with Larry and it was great for a couple years.  Larry had all sorts of Prince and other music memorabilia in his basement, including gold and platinum records.  He told of how Prince came to live with him when Prince was a teenager.  Prince could play the piano with one hand and a guitar with the other at the same time.  He could do it standing on his head.  Well, slight exaggeration but that’s just to say he was a whiz bang genius musician.  Prince also had a wicked sense of humor.  Larry told me a story of how he’d lifted the toilet seat, put plastic wrap over the bowl, and put the seat back down.  You can imagine what happened to the next person to use the bathroom.

Larry rented a converted garage in Los Angeles that was his second home.  It was a lot nicer than that sounds.  You can live in a converted garage in Los Angeles and be perfectly happy, because you can sit outside surrounded by fragrant night-blooming jasmine and all the other lush growing things that can’t survive in Minnesota.  And there was a pool. I love staring at a pool even if I never get in it.  I have Larry to thank for my love of L.A.

New Year’s Eve, 1999.  Larry and I went to a party in a house on the beach near Santa Monica.  There was a sushi chef.  There were fireworks over the pier.  It was a nice night.  Two months later I turned 40, Larry dumped me, I was fired from my job, and I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.  I was devastated and played Sinead O’Connor’s ‘Nothing Compares 2 You” (written by Prince) over and over and smoked and cried…such a great wallowing song.

Thanks, Prince, for the music, and for inspiring weirdos and sad people everywhere.

Feelin’ the Bern

Before I leave the series on Cuba that started here, I have to tell you about the Bernie Sanders rally I attended last week. I was vaguely aware that it was happening, when my cousin called and said her two youngest kids (ages 14 and 18) were begging to go. So they drove the one-hour drive from Wisconsin to see Bernie. We bumped in to another nephew; he’s 18, too. The 18 year olds are looking forward to voting for the first time, mainly because of Bernie.  Vince won’t be able to vote for at least seven years.

The rally was at the Roy Wilkins Auditorium in downtown St. Paul. I was also vaguely aware that Roy Wilkins had been an African American civil rights leader but was wowed when I Googled him later and read his bio: He was a leader with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for 40 years, where he succeeded W.E.B. DuBois as editor of Crisis Magazine. He was an advisor to the War Department during World War II and a consultant to the American delegation at the United Nations conference in San Francisco in 1945. He led the fight to end school segregation. Lyndon Johnson awarded him the Medal of Freedom, the US’s highest civilian honor. When he died, Ronald Reagan ordered all government flags be flown at half-staff.

What a cool guy. And what a perfect venue for Bernie to hold his rally, since he’s way behind Hillary on support from African Americans.

I wondered if many in attendance had ever heard of Roy Wilkins. When I walked in, I must have lowered the average age by about 20 years. Bernie drew a crowd of almost 15,000 people, and my guesstimate is that 90% of them were under the age of 30.

We found seats in the overflow room and watched on a big screen while Bernie was introduced by a young Somali American woman. Then, Bernie himself walked into the overflow room—and the crowd went wild. We were on our feet, chanting, “Ber-nee, Ber-nee Ber-nee!” and “Feel the Bern!” I hadn’t been paying much attention to the race until now and was hesitant to stand up and cheer a candidate I knew next to nothing about, but the enthusiasm was irresistible.

Bernie delivered a brief but fiery speech, even though he was clearly on the verge of laryngitis. Then he headed for the main auditorium to the accompaniment of more stomping and cheering. Back on the big screen, Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison was introducing Bernie to the main room. I was surprised. Endorsing Bernie was, in my opinion, a move of conscience, one the Democratic Party will not be happy about. But Ellison, who is the first Muslim member of Congress, seems to be a man of principle. I’ve heard him referred to as the Muslim Paul Wellstone—our beloved, principled Minnesota Senator who died in a plane crash a decade ago.

Like Wellstone (and me), Bernie is a Jewish Atheist. I didn’t think anyone in the crowd would be put off by that, but having Ellison and the Somali woman introduce him can’t hurt with African American and Muslim voters.

Bernie’s message was loud and clear: We need a revolution! We need to stop all the money flowing to Wall Street. College should be free for everyone! The minimum wage should go up to $15 an hour! And so on with a long list of drastic reforms.

As usual, I’m skeptical. Bernie’s ideas tap into a deep anger among many Americans who feel they’re being screwed by the system. I get it. But would he be able to accomplish much, pitted against an oppositional Republican majority in Congress? Also, economics is complicated. You pull a string out of a tangle and you can’t necessarily predict what other strings are going to become more tangled or come loose as a result.

The day after the rally, I read this article about US relations with Cuba which laid bare our opposing systems: the US wants to do business with entrepreneurs and small businesses, while Cuba insists that we deal only with their government. Bernie calls himself a Democratic Socialist. Is that some sort of hybrid system? I need to educate myself more.

The Slog

This is the third of three posts, the first and second are here. If you started reading this blog for the prison theme you may be wondering, what does any of this have to do with Vince going to prison? I don’t know if it does—you tell me.

And so I informed people of my decision, which I had known from the moment I’d found out I was pregnant again: I would give the baby up for adoption.

I told Judy, the Catholic Charities social worker, and her eyes lighted up. “I do have a few reservations,” I told her about what I had learned about adopted people in my Abnormal Psychology class. Judy laughed lightly and handed me a clipboard with forms. While I was signing them she said, “We have to trust that God knows what’s best for us. Even if it’s painful—especially if it’s painful, we just have to put ourselves in God’s loving hands.” I thought this was muddled but made a mental note to try to pray in my spare time.

I told my college advisor. “My due date is right before finals but I promise there won’t be any interruptions in my attendance.” She looked a little stunned and said, “We’ll understand if you need to take some time off.”

“No, no—that won’t be necessary,” I cut her off. I didn’t want them to cut me any slack. I would graduate on time. The whole point of this plan was to do what was best for all three of us, so I needed to graduate and get a job.

The other point of the plan was to keep it all hush-hush. I would stay away from the family, my friends, and the whole neighborhood where they all lived. If my grandma called and asked if she could visit me, I would make an excuse to keep her away. It would only be for six months, right? It wasn’t as extreme as the case of Margie, a girl I knew in high school, who went through her whole pregnancy and adoption while living in her family’s house. None of them ever talked about it. Now that was weird.

So there Vince and I sat, alone, on his first birthday. I had called The Creep and invited him but he had “some really important business” to take care of. In other words, a drug deal. I only saw him once again in the ensuing 36 years.

V 1st Bday

I did what you’re supposed to do for a baby’s first birthday. I made a cake with one candle and let him eat it with his fingers and smear it all over the place. And I cried…and cried.

Then I stiffened myself and plunged my feelings way down into the deep freeze and didn’t feel anything again for a year. That’s the thing about avoiding negative feelings—it makes you unable to experience positive ones, either.

Life went on as before. I trudged through the snow to the daycare, studied furiously, and cleaned the house as though I was in boot camp. As happened during my first pregnancy, perverts tried to pick me up at the bus stop, in stores, in the elevator of my building.

The student who had pressured me to have an abortion was disappointed when I told him I was going the adoption route. “That’s…I’m sorry, but that’s just selfish,” he said. “That poor kid,” he said, staring at my belly.

Sometimes students I didn’t know would try to strike up a conversation.

“When’s your baby due?” they would ask brightly.

“April,” I would respond flatly, giving them fair warning that proceeding with the conversation would be a mistake.

“Do you want a boy or a girl?”

“I don’t really care, since I’m giving it up for adoption.”

This would result in sputtering and something like, “You’re so brave—good luck!” as they backed their way out of the room as fast as possible. I hated that line—“You’re so brave.”

Now that I had set my course I didn’t second guess it, but if you had asked me I might have said I was just being practical.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Today is the third day of Hannukah, a minor Jewish holiday that has morphed into more than it was ever meant to be because of its proximity to Christmas.

And that’s fine with me.

Hanukkah, which is spelled many different ways, marks the miracle that took place in what remained of the Second Temple in Jerusalem after the Maccabees (Jews) rebelled against the Greeks, who destroyed the temple.  This was 200-some years before the first Christmas.  Got that?

The story goes that the temple was purified with an oil lamp which miraculously burned for eight days even though there was only enough oil for one.

Most Jews, even the atheists like me, own an eight-branched candelabra called a Menorah which they dig out once a year for Chanukka.  Where I live, Jews comprise only one percent of the population, and so I have to drive across town to the one store that carries Hanuka supplies.

It’s a challenging time of year for families where part of the family is Jewish and another is Christian.  I say, why not enjoy both?  My tradition with Vince has been to wrap eight gifts and let him choose one each day.  Every year he gets a $2 bill, a pair of socks, a bag of Lemonheads, a couple other jokey little things, a thoughtfully chosen book that he’ll never read, and then a “real” gift like a Target gift certificate.

So we lighted the first candle on Monday night, and Vince got his $2.  I opened his present to me and it was an LED light bulb.  Clever!  Perfect for the festival of lights.

As I drive home in the dark from work, I am loving the Christmas displays on the big houses along my route.  Some are garish, some are tasteful, but they are lights–that’s what matters.

LightsLights2Lights3Lights 4

I’ve been meeting friends for happy hours in the most beautifully-decorated watering holes, like the lobby bar of the Commodore Hotel.  I organize a family outing or get together of some sort every year.  Last year the female relations got dressed up and went to Anthony Scornavacco Antiques and Heimie’s Haberdashery, which is located where my grandfather’s haberdashery was before he lost it during the Great Depression.

This year, I’ve invited my nieces and nephews over for a Cousins Cookie Baking Party.  Yep, we’ll make Hanukkah hedgehogs, gingerbread men/women and perhaps some transgendered persons or hedgehogs, and there will be some kind of dairy-free cookie for the vegans.

hedgehogs

Obviously I’m doing everything I can to make the short cold days of December more bearable.  I thought I was doing pretty well.  But then I got an email from the Rabbi who is the chaplain for Minnesota prisons.  She had contacted me shortly after Vince’s release to offer various kinds of support to him.  I don’t know if he responded to her, and I don’t need to know.

She was just writing to wish me a Happy Hanukkah and to say she was thinking of us and hoped we were doing well.  I was at work, at my desk with dozens of people around, and I got all choked up.  Why?  Because she was kind.  It’s always kindness that gets to me, not meanness.

She didn’t have to contact me, after three months.  By doing so, she acknowledged that our situation is challenging.  She offered to help in whatever way she could, but just knowing that someone was thinking of me and Vince was enough.  I’m starting to tear up again now, just thinking about it, so if there is someone you are thinking about but you haven’t told them, think about doing so today.

A Crazy Idea?

I woke up in the dark at 5:40 am and wished I still believed in God.  Fourteen people dead at a center for developmentally disabled people in California.  I wished there was a higher power to whom I could appeal for help.  Help for us all.  For a moment, I thought I could feel something, then … nah … wishful thinking.

It’s up to us, people.  What “it” involves is a matter of dispute.

Someone asked on Facebook, “will this turn out to be a mentally-ill person?  Someone with extreme ideology?  A workplace grudge?”

There’s still a lot unknown, but it looks like it could be all three.  And I’m curious to learn if post-partum depression played a role in this latest incident, where a young mother dropped off her baby then went on a shooting rampage which she knew would result in her death or life in prison.

Here’s the liberal argument I hear: “Why do we label the white attackers mentally ill but the Muslim ones terrorists?”  I think what is really being expressed, by the conservative “side”, is that white attackers are deranged while Muslims are evil.

I’d like to flip that around and suggest that instead of considering every horrendous act an act of murder terrorism, we consider it an act of mental illness.  Hear me out.

I’m not a mental health clinician, but I have worked at two mental health clinics, where I have observed that mentally ill people often have religious fixations.  They think they are Jesus, they hallucinate angels, they hear demons telling them to do bad things.

A number of members of my family have suffered from Bipolar Disorder.  One was convinced that the Catholic Church had a conspiracy that had something to do with the numbers on the clock.

Anne, haven’t you noticed?  The numbers on the clock—there are 12 of them!  It’s so obvious that the Catholic Church is behind it.”

“Behind what?” I would ask.

He could never explain to my satisfaction what the numbers on the clock had to do with the Pope and the Catholic Church, but I would hear him out, hoping he wouldn’t call his parents next and burden them with his ranting.

If mentally ill people can have wacko Catholic theories, why wouldn’t they have wacko Muslim theories?

I was in the Middle East for work in February.  We were in Bethlehem on a long lunch break between meetings.  My two Palestinian colleagues and I were smoking shishas while my colleague from Minnesota gagged.

I had arrived in Amman the day ISIS released a video of them burning to death the Jordanian pilot they had captured.  The streets were packed with people waving the Jordanian flag and shouting.  They were angry, and I didn’t blame them.  I wish Americans got angry about wrong doing and demonstrated more often.

Omar turned to me.  “Tell us, what do you think about ISIS—these people who do such things?  We really want to know what Americans think.”

I had been thinking about this a lot.  “I think there’s an element of mental illness involved.  Who is it that most often gets schizophrenia and other serious mental illnesses?  Young men.  Who is it that is almost always behind violence?  I’m sorry, but it’s men.  And then you get them in a group—call it group think or herd mentality or whatever—and fire them up with ideological rhetoric, and put an AK47 in their hands…”

My Minnesota colleague disagreed.  She asserted that poverty and hopelessness were to blame.

Of course those are factors.  But I’ve been poor and hopeless, and I’ve never even shoplifted.  Millions of people around the world are desperately poor and they don’t kill people.  Many members of ISIS and Al Queda are not poor—they’ve got engineering degrees and come from middle class families.

If we do assume that mental illness is behind sadistic killings by ISIS or mass shootings in California and Connecticut, this does not mean the murderers are not responsible for their actions.  It does mean we can have hope, at least in the US, because there are effective means to identify and manage mental illness.

Jew Be a Verb

ANNE

A story line throughout the third season of Orange is the New Black is the character Cindy’s conversion to Judaism.

The corporation that runs the prison is cutting costs by purchasing brown, lumpy slop in giant bags that they pass off as food. One prisoner figures out that the frozen kosher meals are pretty good, and soon a group of prisoners are claiming to be Jewesses in order to eat kosher.

When the prison notices the uptick in kosher requests, it sends in a rabbi to suss out who is a genuine Jew. Cindy, who is Black, begins to read up on Judaism. At first she just wants to pass so she can keep eating kosher. But then something grabs her, and as she studies she becomes serious about converting to Judaism, and well, this is one of the few happy endings in the series. It wouldn’t be a happy ending to born again Christians, and we Jews aren’t in to converting people, but I am moved when anyone finds meaning.

I heard in this scene many of the same things that led me to Judaism. Like Cindy, I was raised in a faith in which pretty much Everything was A Sin, and fear and guilt ruled the day. You didn’t ask questions, you did what you were told by the men who ran the show, some of whom were molesting your friends. If you sinned, you went to this same man to ask forgiveness and it was granted by him and after I mumbled three Hail Marys.

I think there’s a perception that Judasim is just like Christianity, except without Jesus. It’s not.

In liberal Judaism, which includes the vast majority of Jews in the world, there is no hell and little emphasis on sin. The idea is to do the right thing today, because it’s the right thing—not to avoid hell. If you screw up, it’s your responsibility to make amends to whoever you have hurt and to make your peace with God, if you even believe in god, because a lot of Jews are atheists. Confused? Well in Judaism it’s your responsibility to study, ask questions, and wrestle with all the big issues to figure out what makes sense for you. No one tells you what to think or do. Rabbis, who include women and gays and lesbians, are teachers and have no authority to forgive you.

Judaism doesn’t prosthelytize. We don’t care if you agree with us or not; we don’t care if you are a Christian or a Buddhist or a pagan. Just don’t try to convert us, thanks.

Instead of using the word charity, we talk about justice. It’s not an option, and it’s not about writing a check. It’s about doing, fighting, and pursuing justice. These principles are one reason why I’ve been able to look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from all sides.

Of course there are plenty of Lutherans and Catholics and pagans and agnostics who are also motivated by social justice.

There’s more, but like Cindy, the main thing that attracted me to Judasim was an inexplicably strong feeling of recognition. Like Cindy said, “I feel like I found my people.”

After I had studied for several years with a Rabbi and a group of fellow seekers and yes, learned elemental Hebrew, I converted—which is a five-minute ceremony. My mother attended the Friday night service in which this took place. Just before we left for synagogue, she said, “I guess it makes sense, you converting to Judaism, since your father’s family was Jewish.”

What!? She had known I was studying all along. She didn’t have any details, and since my dad died 47 years ago and we’re not close to his family, and I have no time or patience for family tree research, it will just remain a question mark.

When I told a rabbi this story once, she said that she hears stories like this often, and that there is a theory that all the Jewish souls lost in the Holocaust have sought refuge in the people who are converting, whether they’re in prison (Cindy) or are unwed teenage moms living in subsidized housing (me, nearly 40 years ago).