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Today is for Smiling

26 February 2010

As I walk down the street today, I’m going to make sure there is a smile on my face.

I have one of those faces which, when at rest, looks at best rather serious, and at worst unhappy and anxious.  I can’t count the number of times a total stranger has passed me on the street and told me to smile. “Things aren’t that bad” they say (which seems rather presumptuous to me, I mean, how would they know? My mother could be dying of cancer or something). Generally this takes me rather by surprise, because typically I’m just trying to make a mental list of all the things I need from Walgreens, or am trying to decide if it would be better to call a friend before or after dinner.  It’s almost gotten to the point that when a complete stranger stops me and says “smile” I kind of just want to punch them in the face. Which is a strong reaction, and I’m exaggerating, but it’s weirdly irritating to have strangers essentially tell you to be happy, when you are not, in fact, unhappy.

Today, however, I’m going to make an effort to keep a smile on my face.  Yesterday as I was walking to Potbelly’s for lunch, I encountered a young man exiting that provider of ever so delicious sandwiches (and AMAZING strawberry milkshakes). He didn’t look at me – I doubt he even noticed me – but he had a smile on his face that was positively contagious. It looked like on the inside he was laughing at the funniest joke he’d ever heard. His good mood was positively catching… so much that I couldn’t keep a smile off my face (and I actually did try, I was worried he’d see me smiling at him and think I was laughing at him or something). I immediately felt ten times better (not that I’d been feeling bad before). I’d been feeling fine, but suddenly, I felt BETTER than fine. That small event brightened the rest of my day.

So today, I’m gonna pass it along. Hopefully, someone will see me smile and “catch” happiness too.


Ignorance and Insult in the Local Rag

4 December 2009

I managed to get all steamed up today when I read my town’s weekly publication, the Wednesday Journal.  Ms. Virginia Seuffert’s piece, School’s wrestle with ‘December dilemma’, is what got the blood boiling.

Ms. Seuffert manages to offend in the first sentence:

This column is being written right after Thanksgiving, when even atheists — who do not acknowledge the existence of a deity to give thanks to — are happy to soak their employers for a paid day off.

Considering that her opinion piece is about the use of religious holiday symbols in the classroom, particularly Christmas decorations, I don’t know why in the hell she felt it necessary to bring up Thanksgiving at all, let alone atheists’ relationship to the holiday. Incidently, I always thought Thanksgiving was more about “being thankful” than “giving thanks”. But what do I know? I’m just an atheist eager to squeeze my employers for free money. Well, if I had employers. Oh crap, I guess there was no point to my celebrating Thanksgiving this year, since I’m currently unemployed and can’t get a paid day off.

She then goes on to basically say that people only want to keep Christmas decorations out of the classroom because they are afraid their non-Christian children will convert, and that in Italy people were outraged about when they tried to take the Crucifix out of the classrooms, and that really, the United States is a Christian nation founded by Christians on Christian principles (despite what our current president says!) and that “symbols threaten no one, but their loss threatens us all”!*

So I wrote the following in response; we’ll see if it makes it into the paper:

This column is in response to Ms. Virginia Seuffert’s opinion piece entitled “Schools wrestle with ‘December dilemma’”.  Ms. Seuffert appears to be laboring under the misapprehension that a push for secularity within the classroom, or the keeping Christmas trees out of it, is done in the “fear that a lit-up evergreen with shiny bulbs might be seen as an enticement to embrace Christianity.” It seems unlikely that many people, if any, object to Christmas trees in the classroom on these grounds.  The objection to religiously-themed holiday decorations arises from the need to make schools welcoming and inclusive.  Just because children “practically trip over Christmas-themed decorations at shopping malls” doesn’t mean they should be subjected to them at school.  Most students already suffer the feelings of being out of place, of not “fitting in” or not being “normal”. They don’t need schools putting up Christmas trees and angels to add to their stress, and make them feel even more like “outsiders”.  Students deserve to be able to learn in a comfortable and welcoming environment; one that doesn’t emphasize that some of their beliefs or certain aspects of their lives exclude them from the majority.

In addition, it is inappropriate to compare our public schools to Italy’s schools.  Italy is a nation that for the majority of its existence has had a state religion.  Only recently has their government moved away from officially endorsing Catholicism.  The United States has NEVER subscribed to a particular religion, and despite what Ms. Seuffert claims, our Founding Fathers were NOT Christians, most of them were Deists, and they did not found the country on “Christian principles”.  In fact, many of them had negative things to say about Christianity. Benjamin Franklin stated that “I wish it (Christianity) were more productive of good works … I mean real good works … not holy-day keeping, sermon-hearing … or making long prayers, filled with flatteries and compliments despised by wise men, and much less capable of pleasing the Deity.” (Benjamin Franklin, Works, Vol. VII, p. 75) and Thomas Jefferson, in his conviction that religion and politics had no business being together, said “History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance, of which their political as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purpose.” (Thomas Jefferson to Baron von Humboldt, 1813) James Madison makes it clear that he believes a just government has no need of religious organizations, “What influence, in fact, have ecclesiastical establishments had on society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the civil authority; on many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wish to subvert the public liberty may have found an established clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just government, instituted to secure and perpetuate it, needs them not.” (James Madison, “A Memorial and Remonstrance”, 1785)

In response to Ms. Seuffert’s claim that “symbols threaten no one”, I would ask how she would feel if a symbol of Islam, or an Atheist manifesto, or a statue of Ganesh, were put up in the Capitol building instead of a Christmas tree.  Would that symbol threaten you? Or at least make you feel uncomfortable?  Keeping symbols out of schools will not make them “lost” as Ms. Seuffert seems to fear, so let’s keep symbols where they belong: in churches, mosques, temples and our homes.

*I wonder if Ms. Seuffert has ever seen a Klu Klux Klan robe? Now there is a symbol that threatens! I’m in no way suggesting that a Christmas tree would be like a KKK robe, but to say unconditionally that symbols don’t threaten is ridiculous.  I’m as white as they come, and the one time I saw a real KKK robe I felt chills of horror. I’m not Jewish either, and the swastika fills me with a kind of dread. Symbols can be VERY threatening, even terrifying.


Update: My article was posted with a few revisions (all discussed with and approved by me) on December 16, 2009.

Is That an Acceptance Letter in Your Pocket, or Do You Just Want My Application Fee?

4 December 2009

I’m in the process of applying to law school right now, which seems to mostly involve filling out the same information on forms over and over and over and over again, as well as gently harassing my professors to send their recommendation letters in.  I’m frankly looking forward to getting it all over with (although then I’ll just have the stress of waiting for acceptance or refusal letters).

I was almost all done with applications too, when I got an e-mail from Harvard Law encouraging me to apply.  I wasn’t even going to bother; I thought I didn’t have a chance in hell (my GPA in undergrad, while decent, wasn’t the best).  Then the following arrived in my inbox:

Dear Prospective Applicant:

The Law School Admissions Council has informed me that you may be considering law school this year.  I invite you to take a closer look at HLS and the unparalleled opportunities that are available in our legal metropolis.

Admission remains highly competitive at Harvard Law School, but each application receives individual consideration by our team of faculty members and admissions officers.  We believe that a student body with a wide range of experiences, interests, and backgrounds helps to create the best teaching and learning environment imaginable.  While this message in no way ensures your admission, we encourage you to apply.  Every year, we end up admitting students who never thought they had a chance at getting into Harvard.


Josh Rubenstein

Assistant Dean for Admissions

I don’t know if it’s just a ploy to make more on application fees (although that seems unlikely, since they still have to pay people to review my application) or if I actually have a chance of getting in, but as a result of that e-mail I sent along one more recommendation letter for my professors to fill out.  And now of course I’ve got my hopes up. Maybe I’ll be unique enough to get in!

After all, my personal statement is a little about becoming an atheist and a lot about protecting the civil rights and freedoms that religious fanatics always seem to be attacking.  I have to think that most people don’t write about that in their personal statements… at least not the atheist part. And while confessing to atheism might doom me to rejection, I have to think that the good people at Harvard are probably more open-minded and accepting of it.

So it seems I’ve put myself in a position to hope against which no logic or reason can sway me.  Odd isn’t it, how we can’t always make our brains act the way we’d like?  Things like this make it a little easier to understand how people can cling to religion.  If someone hasn’t figured out how that works already, you future biology types should look into it.  Hopefully I’ll be busy expanding civil rights!

Is there a Holiday Survival Guide?

27 November 2009

…Because I sure could use one.  The holiday season is officially upon us, and instead of the joy and delight I used to feel at the onset of this season, I now am simply filled with dread.

I can remember when the holidays meant at least a month of amazing food and delicious cookies, a break from all things school, and lots of presents.  There was nothing quite like the sensation of joy and felicity I used to feel when the stores all started decorating and every place that served food started incorporating pumpkin into their menus.  But now I spend the lead up to the holidays plotting with my mother about how we can avoid certain of her relations.  Because the holidays mean family, and while there are some alien creatures out there who actually LIKE their extended family, I’m not such a one.*

Unfortunately, this year my mom and I didn’t quite manage it, and I just spent an agonizing Thanksgiving trying to deal with the less sane factors – well, FACTOR really – without going totally nuts myself.  I have an uncle that I was unsuccessful in avoiding this year; one that I haven’t spoken to since he likened my supporting Obama to being a Hitler youth.  I mean, really, what other response can you give to that kind of crazy?  He revels in starting arguments and “getting a rise”, particularly out of myself and my mother, but he’s happy to start an argument with anyone available.  And if you try to drop the subject? Unfortunately he starts an equally loaded conversation about something else.  He took the opportunity at dinner this year to ask for people’s opinions when he said a name like “Ann Coulter” or “the Bear-pig man”…which apparently refers to Al Gore.  (In passing, has Ann Coulter even been a factor since like 2004? Talk about outdated.) After telling me it was a good think I’m pretty because…otherwise he wouldn’t love me/my opinions would be intolerable/God would smite me with lightning/etc.**… he proceeded to lecture me on the importance of considering both sides of a debate.

THEN he cornered (literally) me into a “debate”, which really just turned into a lecture when my uncle’s wife’s brother (a doctor) and his father-in-law decided to join in and gang up on me.  After being told by my uncle that “What you don’t understand is…” about a dozen times and having an actual doctor start to debate me about health care I was somewhat overwhelmed and at first unable to respond.  I’m not completely educated on the whole health care thing… I certainly don’t know the ins and outs of the proposed legislation.  Luckily for me, they all poked huge holes in their arguments for me, so all I had to do was point them out.  Did you know that the public option will put all the private health care companies out of business?  The public option will simply push them all out.  And on top of that, public health care will be inferior!  In England they have a hybrid system and anyone who can afford private health care gets it because the public care isn’t as good.


Besides, we can’t possibly afford it! When hospitals serve the insured, they operate at a gain; when they serve Medicare patients, they operate at a slight loss; and when the serve the uninsured they operate at a TOTAL loss.  Now, I know the logical mind might come to the conclusion that if we put the uninsured on a Medicare-like health care plan, it would reduce the loss (because after all, a slight loss is still less of a loss than a TOTAL loss), but that’s just not how it works.

But I couldn’t possibly understand this… I’m just an underinsured recent collage grad who can’t get a job, especially not one that actually provides benefits.

Anyway, as a result of this lovely little interlude I’m wide awake at 3 AM, too wound up to go to sleep and dreading the thought of further engagements as the holiday season progresses.  And I haven’t even yet had to tangle with my aunt who for some unknown reason likes to debate religion when I’m around!  The only comfort I take from the evening is that I got to explain to the afore-mentioned doctor why everyone was making fun of the Republican “teabaggers”.  How often do you get to tell a 60-something male doctor that “teabagging is a sexual act whereby a man sticks his testicles into another person’s mouth”? Although I think I said “balls”, but whatever. It was pretty amazing.

So how do you survive the holidays? Or more importantly, the nuts in the family tree?

*This is unfair, and not entirely true.  I quite love my dad’s family… possibly because my dad’s immediate family is quite small… but probably because they are delightfully sane.

**Note: it’s a good thing I’m pretty or else I’d be TOTALLY without value.

The Price of Potions

2 November 2009

There are further developments in the albino-killing saga that has been taking place in Tanzania for over a year. Four men were recently sentenced to death for murdering an albino man last year; just one of many such killings in an area where witchdoctors sell good-luck potions made from the body parts of albino people for thousands of dollars.

In September, the first ruling of this type took place when three men where sentenced to death for murdering a young albino boy. Now four more men have been sentenced, but it doesn’t seem that the albino community is really any safer.  While the death sentence will act as a deterrent to some, and BBC’s Eric Nampesya in Shinyanga says many Tanzanians are happy with the ruling because they believe it is sending a message that such killings will not be tolerated, it seems that nothing has been done to destroy the incentive to kill albinos.

The people there are very obviously concerned that there is body-part trafficking going on, but I’ve seen no reports that these Witchdoctor brews are being outlawed, or that people are facing any sort of punishment for purchasing them. As long as people continue to buy these ghastly “potions” (and they will so long as they believe such things are actually efficacious) there will be people crazy or desperate enough to commit murder.

9/11: Never Forget…. to Pray?

11 September 2009
tags: ,
by kansasexplorer 3128

by kansasexplorer 3128

There are at least two groups using today to encourage people to pray: the Cry Out America prayer team, which is encouraging people to gather in court houses and pray.  According to their website:

On September 11, 2008, Christians across America gathered at county courthouses from noon to 1:00 p.m. in all 50 states to remember the tragedy of September 11, 2001, and to pray for a Christ-awakening in the Church and in our nation.

I have no problem with people praying, but I cannot figure out why they are going to be doing it in courthouses.  And while I fully support everyone gathering together, remembering our moment of tragedy, and drawing strength from each other, I don’t think that the events of 9/11 should be used as “the catalyst for a great Christ-awakening in our nation”.  According to an article on the Christian Post Billy Wilson, executive chairman for Awakening America (the group organizing the prayer gatherings) claims:

Our stated goal for Cry Out America is to claim this day of prayer to fully awaken America to return to the Lord and to mark this significant day in its history with powerful prayer for every state, every county, and every heart.

Am I wrong? Shouldn’t this day be about remembering those who tragically lost their lives when the planes were hijacked and the Towers were destroyed (by religious fanatics no less)? About remembering how, for a short period of time, we came together as a nation, and despite varying ideologies stood behind our nation’s leaders as a united whole?  I don’t think Jesus really has much to do with that.

Unfortunately, even the Presidential Prayer Team doesn’t seem to think so.  While President Obama is merely observing a moment of silence and participating in a wreath-laying ceremony to pay respect to those killed during the attacks, the Presidential Prayer Team – a national ministry that encourages Americans to pray daily for the nation, its leaders, the president and the troops – will host an online event on Friday during which people can honor the victims and pray online. Now, that’s not so bad, as I said, I think honoring those lost is important.  But the fact that they are calling the online event “Never Forget…to Pray” is weird, and that Scott Fehrenbacher, president and CEO of the Presidential Prayer Team, thinks that this event will serve as “a ‘catalyst’ for Americans to return to praying for the nation” makes me uncomfortable.

“As Americans, we can all remember how we reached out to God in the face of the 9/11 attacks,” said Scott Fehrenbacher, president and CEO of the Presidential Prayer Team. “We didn’t worry about red states or blue states, but we rekindled the spirit of America as a vulnerable nation that depends on God.”

I didn’t think that was the lesson we learned – I certainly don’t remember reaching out to God – but I do remember reaching out to my neighbors.  If I don’t pray, does that mean I don’t love my country and care about the victims of 9/11?  And really, it’s sort of ironic to be calling on God for an event that was to all intents and purposes caused by an overzealous belief in him.

Gift from God?

3 September 2009

My mother recently created a website for her artwork… at the age of 60, she’s finally doing what she loves as a career.  One of her friend’s decided to share the website as a link on Facebook, which is pretty cool, no problems there.  But the first comment on the link?

Beautiful work. She has a definite gift from God.

This comment is by someone who doesn’t even know my mother, no less.  Really… a gift from god? Are you sure she didn’t take tons of drawing classes and practice her ass off for the past forty years or so?  I guess maybe this should not irritate me so much, but it’s my mom’s hard work they’re talking about here, and frankly it is kind of insulting that people who don’t even know her would attribute it to some supernatural being.

I felt like I couldn’t just let that pass, but especially as it was on one of my mom’s friend’s posts, I didn’t want to be rude, so I left this comment:

Actually she’s just worked her whole life at being amazing 🙂

Does that get the point across while still being friendly and polite?