Wednesday, April 23, 2014

10 years of teaching Hamlet

I've been meaning to write a blog about Hamlet for a while now, and I was hoping to get to it during my Spring Break (where I have had more "me" time than I've had in a long time). I suppose the ghost of Hamlet's dad must have been trying to send me a sign, as my uncle sent me this link from NPR about Shakespeare's 450th birthday and how the Globe Theater is planning on bringing Hamlet on a world tour. What finally clinched it is that while out on a bike ride this morning, I passed a "Hamlet Drive". The signs (are everywhere. (Shakespeare would appreciate that pun, no doubt.) Plus, I just finished up teaching the play with my seniors right before Spring Break, so it's pretty fresh on my mind.

I've written about the play before, or more specifically, the movie adaptations. You can check that out at this link here and that link there. Plus, here's a write-up about a live performance that I saw. I have a lot of things to say, obviously, and for this one I think that I will hit on a variety of topics and observations that I've had after teaching it for ten years. The best part about the play is that it continues to surprise me, and every year I feel like I'm pointing out stuff that hadn't occurred to me before. Here's what I have to say about the play now. (Warning: I'm writing this with the assumption that anybody reading it is already pretty familiar with the play.)

Claudius kinda sucks, and he might be a bit of a drunk as well.

I was once at a comic book convention and attended a panel for the creators of Kill Shakespeare, a comic book series that brought together many of the playwright's characters in a huge meta-adventure. Hamlet is the main character, so he was a central focus of the discussion at the panel. With the creators was a college professor who taught Shakespeare and offered some expert advice. For the most part, I found her comments to be enlightening, but one of them has really stuck in my craw. She said, in so many words, that the text hints that Claudius, while an evil bastard for killing his brother, may have been a pretty decent ruler.

Say what now?

First of all, I have no idea where one would get that. The character traits that I get from Claudius is that he's a schemer, perhaps a bit of a drunk, and not really engaged with the affairs of state. Hopefully the bit about him being a schemer is self-evident to anybody who reads the play, but where do I get the bit about him being a drunk?

For starters, after trying to console Hamlet in the second scene of the play, he drinks a toast to Hamlet's decision to stay at Elsinore. He's not just enjoying a glass, as his toast-making will echo in the very heavens:
in grace whereof,
No jocund health that Denmark drinks to-day,
But the great cannon to the clouds shall tell,
And the king's rouse the heavens all bruit again,
Re-speaking earthly thunder.
Okay, so the guy's getting his drink on since he just got married. That doesn't make him a drunk necessarily. I guess what makes me believe this is that I take Prince Hamlet as a reliable source when it comes to describing his uncle, and he makes several suggestions that indicate Claudius's rummy disposition. He tells Horatio that "We'll teach you to drink deep ere you depart" and when Rosencrantz (or is it Guildenstern?) tells him that his uncle is "distempered", Hamlet immediately assumes that it's "With drink, sir?" Plus, there's a whole bit where Hamlet bemoans the drinking game that the king is engaged in. According to him, this tradition makes all of Denmark look bad.
This heavy-headed revel east and west
Makes us traduced and tax'd of other nations:
They clepe us drunkards, and with swinish phrase
Soil our addition; and indeed it takes
From our achievements...
Maybe one can be a drunkard and still be a good king, but Claudius doesn't strike me as though he's got his act together. First of all, when told that Fortinbras is going to march his army through Denmark in order to attack Poland, the King's only response is: "It likes us well!" Seriously, dude? Fortinbras originally raised that army to invade Denmark, and now you just trust him to just pass through your country? I think that Kenneth Branagh really improved upon the text when he made Fortinbras's entrance a full-scale invasion, unless there's something about medieval Scandinavian political strategy that I just don't understand.

The guy also doesn't seem to have the people on his side. The whole reason why he doesn't just punish Hamlet directly is because the prince is "loved of the distracted multitude" And then what happens when Laertes comes to town to find out what happened to his father? He's able to storm right into the palace, a huge crowd behind him, all of them chanting  that they want Laertes to be king. Call me crazy, but that doesn't sound like Claudius has the loyalty of his constituents if the son of the adviser can rally the people to his side like that.

Claudius is motivated by an obsessive love for Gertrude

The fact that Claudius doesn't seem to be too engaged in the running of his kingdom indicates that his motivation for killing his brother had more to do with his wanting Gertrude than wanting the kingdom. Sure, becoming king is a nice bonus prize, but it's all about Gertrude, as it's pretty much directly suggested that their "overhasty marriage" within "less than a month" was due to the fact that the "adulterate beast" and the Queen were boinking each other on the side before King Hamlet was "stung by a serpent".

The guy may be a villain and an "arrant knave", but he does love Gertrude with all his black heart. Another reason he gave for not punishing Hamlet directly was that:
...The queen his mother
Lives almost by his looks; and for myself--
My virtue or my plague, be it either which--
She's so conjunctive to my life and soul,
That, as the star moves not but in his sphere,
I could not but by her...
So, he's not going to do anything to upset her. Having her is one thing though, but having to share her love? Oh no. He's not going to have that. The fact is that he was scheming to kill Prince Hamlet all along. One might make the mistake of thinking that Claudius was only planning on killing Hamlet after the death of Polonius. The plan, for those who don't quite remember, was to have Hamlet's companions deliver a sealed letter to the King of England. The contents of the letter ordered the King to have Hamlet's head cut off.

Now we know that Claudius was planning on sending Hamlet to England before Polonius's death because he revealed that much to Polonius himself during the scene where the two of them spied on Hamlet and Ophelia's "get thee to a nunnery" scene. Also, immediately after the death of Polonius, Hamlet explains to his mother that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were going to be bringing "sealed letters". Unless Claudius wrote up a new letter between finding out that Polonius was dead and sending Hamlet packing, which is unlikely considering the rapid pace from those two points, he was planning on getting rid of his nephew all along.

Some folks might argue that he only schemed Hamlet's death after Hamlet started acting all crazy, but we know from the beginning that he wanted to keep Hamlet close by.
...For your intent
In going back to school in Wittenberg,
It is most retrograde to our desire:
And we beseech you, bend you to remain
Here, in the cheer and comfort of our eye,
Our chiefest courtier, cousin, and our son.
Is it really such a stretch to think that he wanted to keep him close so he could have him killed? This is the guy who killed his own brother, isn't it? Claudius is a guy who had to have the Gertrude all to himself, and he wasn't willing to share it in any sense of the word.

That ghost is a ghost.

When it comes to some of Shakespeare's other ghosts, one could make the argument that we're only supposed to take them as a figment of the character's imagination. In the case of Banquo's ghost in Macbeth or Caesar's in Julius Caesar, they could be the product of Macbeth's and Brutus's (respectively) fevered imaginations, and it would serve the same purpose if it was a literal ghost. In the case of Hamlet though, Shakespeare wants us to take that ghost for exactly what it appears to be.

The first indicator is that the ghost's appearance is confirmed by Horatio, a "scholar" and a skeptic who thinks that it will not appear, but when it comes along again, Horatio declares:
Before my God, I might not this believe
Without the sensible and true avouch
Of mine own eyes.
We also can trust Horatio because Hamlet praises him to his face:
 ...Give me that man
That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him
In my heart's core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee.
This, coupled with the fact that what the ghost reveals bears itself out, is Shakespeare's way of letting us know that we should just go with the flow. Sure, it's only Hamlet who sees his father's spirit in that scene in his mother's bedroom, but why would it be a real ghost throughout and just in his head that one time?

Hamlet is an introvert

He gives long speeches, which in a Shakespeare play indicates that he's got a lot of thoughts in his head. Plus, he can't stand nosy, intruding people like Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern. As Shakespeare used to say: "'Nuff said."

Hamlet's character arc is about accepting life and finding the will to live

When we first meet him, he wishes that his "solid flesh would thaw, melt, and resolve itself into a dew" or that God hadn't made a "no killing yourself" rule. When he gets the mission to avenge his father, he is given a purpose, and even though he doesn't act, he is moved to question himself and explore the deepest questions that remain with humankind to this day: How can you know when it's time to stop thinking and time to start acting? Why do we keep ourselves alive when we can so easily end it all? What is the meaning of it all when we're all just going to wind up as a pile of bones?

Hamlet wants to die at the beginning of the play, and by the end, he's fighting to live. More importantly, his journey has enabled him to accept that end with dignity and heroism.

It gets better with age.

At 30, I was able to understand it in a way that I couldn't when I was first introduced to it at 20 while in college. Now that I'm 40, I feel that I get it in a way that my 30-year-old self missed. Here's hoping that I'll be able to write an addendum when I'm 50. Also, if you think that I'm totally off-base with any of this, please share your thoughts.

It's boring.

Hella boring.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Book review - How Jesus Became God

When I was a kid, the theology of the Jehovah's Witnesses provided much of what informed my belief system. Lucky for me, my parents never fully joined, but we basically had their belief system - like the whole bit about no birthday parties or "pagan" holidays. (You know, like Christmas.) Two things that really separated my beliefs from most Christians I knew was that I didn't believe in hell (at least, not as a place of eternal suffering) nor did I believe that Jesus and God were one and the same. From what I was taught, Jesus was a separate being - a "created" being by Jehovah. (That's the Latin version of Yahweh for those who don't know.)

I'm sure a lot of Christians find that idea to be ridiculous. After all, Jesus IS God. I mean...duh. Trinity. Same substance. All that stuff.

Turns out that the JW's would have been in good company back in Christianity's early days, as that was a point that took more than a few centuries to settle. Ultimately, the "Jesus is God" crowd won out, and that became the standard belief for the majority of Christians worldwide. I've learned all about this in many of the books by Bart D. Ehrman, who has written extensively on the historical Jesus. (I recommend Misquoting Jesus) as a good starting point.

Ehrman was an evangelical Christian who took it upon himself to study the New Testament and its historical roots. The more he learned, the more his faith began to slip away, as he discovered many problems with those books. What sorts of problems? Well, we don't have the original copies of any of them. The older copies don't match the newer copies (suggesting that scribes changed - deliberately sometimes - the text). We don't know the authors. And, some of the books we think were written by Paul probably weren't - yet they still made it into the Bible.

Ehrman is now an agnostic, but he very firmly states that we can be sure that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person who was crucified by the Romans. I understand that there are quite a few "mythicists" out there who have written books demonstrating that Jesus was a complete fabrication, and they have taken Ehrman to task for his assertions. Personally, I'm totally agnostic on this issue. I haven't read the arguments for a mythical Jesus, and I think that even if I did, it would take a great deal more studying to have an informed opinion. Let's just say that I have no problem accepting the idea that there really was a Jesus, even though much of his story has been embellished with miracles and all that good stuff. I feel the same way about Heracles though.

In How Jesus Became God, Ehrman goes back to the earliest writings on Jesus and makes a pretty convincing case that early Christians did not make the claim that he was one and the same as the God of the Old Testament. It was an idea that evolved over time. Not only that, but even the concept of "Son of God" evolved, as it didn't necessarily mean the same thing in its original context that we would think it means today.

Even if you haven't read Ehrman's other books, I think that this one is pretty accessible. He covers a lot of territory that he has elaborated on in his other books. (Lost Christianities is another good one.) But overall, this one stands on its own if you're primarily interested in learning how an apocalyptic preacher transformed in the minds of his followers into the Creator of the Universe. Obviously, if you're a Christian, you're probably going to dismiss what he has to say outright unless you're really open-minded to completely changing your world view. (I'm a bit skeptical in parts myself though. I don't take the man's every word as fact, but I think that he makes a pretty solid case for most of what he says.)

I was really glad to see him address the evidence of the empty tomb in this book. That's one of my pet peeves when it comes to Christian apologists. Many of them will assert the empty tomb of Jesus as "evidence" of him being God. There are many problems with this, including: they don't know where this tomb even was, the report of an empty tomb wasn't written by an eyewitness, there are plenty of natural explanations as to why a tomb would be empty, etc. What's even more important, and Ehrman brings it up, referencing one of my favorite scholars on this subject, John Dominic Crossan, is that it's highly unlikely that Jesus would be given a tomb in the first place. Part of the whole punishment involved in crucifixion is that you weren't given a proper burial - your body was left out for the birds and wild dogs to devour. It's not too hard to see why this particular part of the story would have been changed - as nobody wants a Dog Food Savior.

If you're like me, and find this whole topic interesting while not having any particular attachment to it - allowing your opinion to shift with the evidence - then I recommend checking it out.

Monday, April 21, 2014

I'm a patriot, dammit!

I consider myself a patriot.

I have an American flag in my backyard, but that's only because I got one for free at a pro-gay marriage rally. My son has played with it almost to the point of ruining it, and I haven't really made a very big deal out of it.

I don't like saying the Pledge of Allegiance. Why? Because it's nonsense right from the get-go. "I pledge allegiance to the flag..." Huh? I don't pledge allegiance to a flag. Pledging allegiance to the Constitution might make more sense, but if our Constitution was amended to, for instance, take away the rights of certain people, then I wouldn't pledge my allegiance to THAT either. Besides, allegiance pledges just aren't my thing in general.

I detest Lee Greenwood's "Proud to be an American" song. It's filled with a bunch of jingoistic blather that perpetuates the myth that every soldier who fought in a war was somehow fighting for our "freedom". Did some of them in some wars? Yes. Were some of the wars we fought for just causes? Arguably. Are the men and women in our military the ones who are going to lay it all on the line should this country ever be legitimately threatened? Absolutely. Should we take care of and respect those who have fought for our country? Definitely. Is Code Pink a bunch of nutters for picketing recruitment centers? Hell yes. But let's stop pretending that napalming the Vietnamese jungle to stop a bunch of rice farmers from becoming communist was somehow about protecting my freedom over here in California, okay?

Toby Kieth's "Angry American" song? Give me a break. I'm an angry American because a doofus like that shares the same nationality as me.

I don't wear American flag-inspired clothing (unless you count my Captain America T-shirt), I don't think that my country is always on the right side of history, and I don't think that my country is necessarily greater or "more free" than every other country on the planet.

Now, before you think that the first line of this - "I am a patriot" - is to set this all up as an exercise in irony, let me tell you that I sincerely believe that none of the above disqualifies me from being a patriot. I find things like the pledge, cheesy songs, unjustified wars, and tacky clothing to be things that are detrimental to my country. In other words, I care about my country, and I don't like things that are bad for it.

Want to see the patriot in me really come out? Let some person from another country (from my experience, mainly certain Europeans are guilty of this) accuse America of having "no culture" (as though such a thing was possible.) My defense of my country and its very rich, important, and diverse culture will come pouring out from every vein in my body. Seriously, I can't stand that particular meme - especially when it's from somebody who enjoys American music, movies, and television shows. For Pete's sakes, where do they think rock and roll came from? It sure as hell wasn't Germany.

You'll also see me brimming with pride when I talk about the American craft beer scene. Did you know that there are brewers in various European countries (including Scotland and Germany, based on some articles I read some time ago) are looking toward what's going on in America in order to get their customers excited about beer again? Yeah, sure, the most popular American brands are pure swill, but the best stuff is now being brewed here - which just goes to show, when we set our minds to it, we can make some great stuff.

I realize that beer isn't everybody's thing, so how about outer space? While I realize that the United States isn't the only country whose inhabitants have led to an increase in understanding about the cosmos, it was an American who first stepped on to the moon. How cool is that? That's right - I belong to the tribe that got a guy from the big blue marble on to the little grey one.

I'm also a fan of comic books and superheroes, and while both of those have their roots in older art forms and mythology, the comic book superhero is an American invention, and from what I understand, the movies based on them are doing quite well overseas, so it's not just us who likes them. (In Europe, superhero comic books aren't the most popular genre. What outsells them are Disney comics. I think that there's something vaguely American about them.)

I could go on, as I genuinely love my country. However, I don't feel that I need to repeat mindless chants over and over again to prove it to anybody. I also don't think that it means that I have to downplay what's great about other countries or somehow think that my country is the best. Nationalism? That smacks too much of unquestioning religion as far as I'm concerned, so that's not for me. But feeling good when the people of my country do the right thing and caring enough to speak out when we're doing the wrong thing? That's patriotism to me.

P.S. U.S.A. is #1

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Noah - Movie review

I don't get to go out and see movies as often as I like, but I was curious about Noah when I first heard about it. When I got the chance to go out and see a movie with the wifey today, this is the one I chose, and lucky for me, she agreed to it.

I suppose I should start by addressing a few things, seeing as how I often write about religion in general and my atheism in particular. You might be wondering why I'd ever be interested in watching a Bible movie in the first place.

Well, I have nothing against a movie based on The Bible. To me, it's mythology, and I only get annoyed by it when people try to insist that it's something more than that (which in my mind, ironically makes it something less than mythology, as I think that myths are important and literalism cheapens them). There's been some internet chatter on the atheist communities where many of my fellow nonbelievers don't even want to give this one a chance. That doesn't make sense to me though. After all, I saw the latest Thor movie, and I'm not a practitioner of Asatru, so I can see a Biblical movie even though I don't subscribe to any of the Abrahamic faiths. Actually, one of my favorite movies is The Last Temptation of Christ, and I have some pretty cool comic book adaptations of Bible stories. I also like the occasional religious song by the likes of Johnny Cash and Al Green. Oh, and I also recently saw The 10 Commandments for the first time, and I thought it was a hoot.

I'm not interested in seeing every religious movie out there. For instance, Son of God holds no interest to me, mainly because it looks kinda uninspired and a bit too "been there, done that". I'm also not going to go and see obvious religious propaganda like God's Not Dead (which, from what I've read, doesn't seem to know the difference between atheism and maltheism). This one got my interest because I've really liked the works of the director Darren Aronofsky that I've seen. From my understanding, the man's an atheist himself (although he hasn't ever specifically used that word as far as I know - let's just say he's not a "believer" at least). I figured that would give him a bit more leeway to take some risks with the material and therefore say something interesting about it. I was interested enough to pick up the graphic novel, which is based on an early draft of the movie's script. I liked that quite a bit, so seeing the movie was the next step.

So, what did I think? I liked it. A lot. More than I figured I would.

Let's get a few things out of the way if you're trying to decide whether you want to see it. First of all, if you believe that the story is literally true, then please just stop reading and go find something else to do. I'm not going to get into all of it right now, but believing that story as literal truth is akin to believing in The Three Little Pigs. Seriously. It's ridiculous.

Also, if you're the kind of person who can't take off his skeptical glasses even in the context of a movie, where one is required to suspend one's disbelief, then maybe you shouldn't watch it either. It's a myth, and as I often tell my students: "Don't go looking for logic in myths. It will just give you a headache." In other words, don't sit there and nitpick it. Nobody's trying to tell you that this is a true story. Looking for logic in myths is like looking for metaphors in algebra.

If you're like me though and can watch this in the same way that you'd watch something like Pan's Labyrinth or the aforementioned The Last Temptation of Christ, and you'd rather see them say something new about a very old story than be absolute purists, then this just might be fore you.

There is a whole lot of stuff in this film that's not in the original text. Now, some of the stuff that you might think wasn't there (like Noah getting drunk - although the movie is the first time that ever made sense to me) actually is Biblical. And while there were no giant rock creatures in the book of Genesis, they are based on the Nephilim - one of those interesting ideas in The Bible that the writers didn't give a whole lot of information about - so why the hell not make them giant rock monsters? Not any sillier than a talking snake, eh?

One thing that some people have praised and others have criticized is that there's a very obvious pro-environmental message to this. Put me in the "praise" camp, because like I said, I wanted them to make this story relevant to a modern audience. Sure, it borders on preachy that one of the sins of the evil people is that they eat meat though. (There doesn't seem to be a whole lot of vegetation - what the heck is Noah eating if not meat? But there's that thing about logic and how it doesn't apply again.)

Even better is how you've got a God who seems to be more consistent with what you actually find in Genesis, rather than the retconned version of him that's been given to us by Christianity. He's mysterious - almost unknowable. He communicates to Noah, but only through visions. He doesn't answer direct questions, and you don't necessarily feel that He's "good" so much as the mystery of the universe. In this, it's not about having Noah build the ark because he's a good man but because he's the best guy to judge whether humanity should continue or not. He's one of them, but he's not exactly a part of the rest of his species.

It also let's some difficult issues rise to the surface without providing some kind of cop-out. Drowning is brutal, awful, agonizing and horrific. Also, the idea that EVERYBODY was evil and deserving of death is almost as absurd as an ark with all the animals. There's at least one person you see die where you don't exactly feel that person had it coming.

I suppose the only easy-fix was how Noah managed to take care of all of those animals. Basically, he's able to figure out a way to get them all to sleep during the whole experience. That's fine with me though because otherwise the movie would have had to constantly address how he and his family were being zookeepers.

Like I said, I really liked this. I sometimes describe myths as true things that have never happened. I think that this movie brings that idea to life. If you take it as a myth, even if it's a myth based on what you consider to be a "real" story, it still brings an important truth to the surface.

And that's that the human race can be awful, brutal, and violent, but there's just enough good in us to make us worthwhile.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier Review

Watching the new installment from Marvel Studios reminded me of something that I've thought many times before: are superheroes a genre unto themselves? I've been meaning to write a blog post on this topic, and perhaps one day I'll get to it. However, for now I just have to point out that this film really doesn't feel like it's the same genre as Thor: The Dark World or even any of the Iron Man films. It also doesn't feel like it's in the same category as the previous Captain America movie. The only thing that really ties all of these films together, other than The Avengers, is that they're action movies, and the only thing that ties this one in with the last one is the main character.

Basically, this feels more like one of the Bourne movies (in a good way) mixed with a hero who's got some superhuman strength. Throw in a little bit of future tech and paranoia about the government, and you've got Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Anybody who read the original comic book storyline by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting will recognize the tone, even though many of the plot points have to be changed to accommodate the movie. (All of the major ideas and themes are there though, so I'm not complaining.)

What really made me happy about this movie is that they did exactly what I hoped that they would do with the sequel. Captain America is a character whose origin is fun, but he's even more interesting when he's the "man out of time" and placed into the present day. While there were certainly references to the fact that he had a lot of pop culture and history to catch up on since the time he was frozen in ice, it doesn't get too bogged down in that though. What works best about him is when he's a symbol for when (whether it's more mythology than reality) America was clearly on the good side, and putting him in the present day, where things are not so clear, helps to bring an interesting bit of inner conflict to a character who runs the risk of being one-dimensional.

I was also pleased with how they were able to cram as many characters and villains from the comics into the story without it feeling like they were being crammed in there. Batroc the Leaper? Hell yeah! Do we really need an origin and character arc for him? No. Just show him giving Cap a challenge with all his fancy kicks, and you've done the job. Crossbones? Got enough of him to set him up for the sequel. There's also a surprise villain in this, and I don't want to spoil it. While his appearance is brief (but significant) he also has some potential for a sequel.

I found myself really liking Anthony Mackie as The Falcon. Much like Cap, you've got to get a guy for that part who's able to convey a believable, yet morally upright, guy. Mackie pulls this off, and he also handles the action scenes really well, making him believable as somebody who can be Cap's wingman (pardon the pun). He's always been more of a partner than a sidekick in the comics, and it felt that way in this film as well.  I say put him in The Avengers. Also, Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow made a lot more sense in this story than she did in Iron Man 2, and she serves as a great character foil for Cap.

I suppose that I should say something about The Winter Soldier himself. I don't want to say too much, as I don't want to spoil anything. Let's just say that fans of the comic won't be disappointed, and it was great how he was able to convey a real sense of unstoppable menace every time he was on the screen.

I'll say again that despite my initial hesitation about Chris Evans taking on the lead character, but he won me over in the first film and then even more in The Avengers. I also wasn't sure what to make of The Russo Brothers directing when I first heard about them (as they're more experienced with comedy) but this film shows that they can direct action with characters that the audience can invest in. I hear that they're signed on for the next one. I'm looking forward to it.

So, where would I rank this considering that I recently ranked all the comics adaptations? It's hard to tell with just one viewing. I'm tempted to say that it would crack the top ten. The top fifteen? That's probably pretty safe to say.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Tales of Employment - The Layoff and the Bicycle

Photo: Jonathan Maus - Bike Portland
I had this bright idea back in 2011 that I would write a series of blog posts entitled "Tales of Employment". I kicked it off with one of my favorite stories from my teenage years, and then I never wrote another entry on that theme. Honestly, I only have about two other stories off the top of my head that are worth telling, so here's one of them, about two and a half years later.

I was reminded of this story just recently when I bought my wife her (much belated) birthday present: a new bicycle. She had been talking about how she wanted one for some time, so I figured that it would make for a good gift. Unfortunately, I had to wait until I had some money to spend. Luck also favored me, as I recently got a raise (expecting a back-pay check next month) and I was able to get one for myself as well. When I got mine, I rode it back from the bicycle shop, and my mind flooded with memories. Since I basically live in the same area in which I grew up, it reminded me of riding with my friends when I was a kid. However, it also reminded me of the day I got laid off from my dotcom job.

I worked a lot of different jobs before I became a teacher, the last of which was as an Assistant Product Manager at (At least, I think that was my job title - we're talking over thirteen years ago now.) I had been working there for about a year, as I had quit my previous job at LookSmart. (There is still a but I don't think that it has any connection to the company for which I once worked.) Basically what I did there was write a lot of copy, and I created pages for the merchandise section of the store. I'm sure that I did some other stuff, but my memory is getting hazy.

I'd probably never say it back then, even though I was thinking it, but my salary was ridiculously high considering my skill set. I'm pretty sure that they figured this out as well considering that I'm pretty sure that some of the folks who were hired after me weren't making quite as much. Still, I guess I must not have been a completely useless twit, as I survived the first big round of layoffs that the company had. The way I remember it, there were a few people trickling away from the company at first, one after another. Each time they laid a few people off, the CEO would make some kind of a speech about how we "finally have the team we need". Then there was a big cut - maybe about a third of the company. After that, there were a few more, and then one day...

At the time, I was living out in Martinez, California (that's the left side of America, for you non-'muricans) and the company was (still is?) in San Francisco (in the North Beach area). It would take me about an hour and a half to commute there by BART. Fortunately for me, I got to telecommute three days a week. I usually would go into the office on Mondays and Fridays. I suppose that I should have suspected something when my boss, Victor, (who was a cool guy - no knocks on him) emailed me to make sure that I was there on Friday, as there was going to be a "meeting".

Turns out that the meeting consisted of me, Victor, some other guy (can't seem to remember who - but I remember there being somebody else) and the CFO. They gave me a folder and let me know that they were letting me go. In the folder was all kinds of information about how to continue my health benefits and contacting unemployment. Plus, they gave me another two weeks pay. (And once again to Victor's credit, he even managed to hook me up with some freelance work for the company for some time after I had officially made my departure.)

This was a crappy day for me. Not long before that, Kirsti and I had bought our first house, so worries about paying the mortgage sprang instantly to mind. Plus, I absolutely detest job hunting. Something about it just feels so degrading, especially when I have to pretend that I care about stuff that I don't care about - because the truth is that I just wanted to make some damned money. It took me about a month until I finally got my first teaching job - but that's a story for another day.

The things that I remember are as follows:

1. I was listening to Weezer's "Green Album" when I drove home. I can never hear the song "Island in the Sun" without thinking of that day. I also can't think of that day and not think of this song.

2. I spent so much damned time looking through Craig's List trying to find a job, and I started falling into despair when I simply wasn't qualified for any of them.

3. It was a real blow to my self esteem. I'm intensely self-critical, and it basically made me feel like I was completely worthless. Even though I have the Most Supportive Wife in the World, I still couldn't shake the feeling that I was pretty much useless, and I dreaded the thought of working in something as horrible as retail again. (I'm okay now, folks. Teaching is the only job where thoughts of doing it until retirement don't scare the hell out of me.)

4. I knew that I would be stewing on it and slowly driving myself crazy if all I did was sit around the house. After doing a bit of job hunting online the first day, I went out on a long bike ride. (See! There's the bicycle connection.) I rode and rode and rode all over the town of Martinez. Also, it was in June, so it was hot, and I was sweating like crazy. I essentially rode myself to a point of exhaustion, as that was the only way I'd ever be able to get some sleep.

When I went for my first ride on my new bike, I remembered that day. It reminded me of what great exercise riding a bike can be, and what a great way it is to clear my head.  Even more importantly, it made true the words of Aeneas, as written by Virgil in The Aeneid: "haec olim meminisse iuvabit" or “Maybe someday you will rejoice to recall even this.”

That's a good thing to keep in mind the next time I'm faced with a hardship.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The power of Satan

When I was a kid, the idea of Jesus definitely resonated with me. However, when I look back at it all, it seems like the idea of Satan resonated even more. I'm not saying that I liked the idea, but the fear of Satan felt more palpable than the love of Jesus ever did.

As I've explained in past blog posts, much of the theology I grew up with came from the Jehovah's Witnesses, and they make a big deal out of old Lucifer and his band of demons. See, they're out there, and they're always looking for some kind of way to influence you, but if you just call upon God, then Jehovah/Yahweh/Jesus will send them packing. As a result, I spent many nights under my sheets saying "Jehovah" a few extra times just to make sure that all the demons were gone.

(Side note - I sometimes get grief from my fellow nonbelievers for supposedly wanting to take away the "comfort" of religion from people. That bears another blog entry on its own, but let me just say this - not every religious idea brings "comfort". In fact, some of them bring quite the opposite of that.)

Things are different now, obviously. I attended a church service a few years ago, and the pastor mentioned about how some of the folks there were currently undergoing struggles with Satan. I successfully managed to not roll my eyes, but it took some effort. Sorry, but it just seems funny to me now. I also find it oddly amusing when people on Facebook refer to him as "the enemy" as though he's flippin' Voldemort or something.

With all that said though, while I obviously don't believe in a literal Satan, I do believe that there is a lot of power in the idea of Satan.

No, I don't think that he works very well in the context of Christianity for several reasons. For starters, he's a mish-mash of concepts that don't quite come together. The whole thing with him being the serpent in the Garden of Eden, for starters, is a total retcon. Yeah, he's in the book of Job as well, but go talk to a Jewish friend - he's hardly the evil being who Christians make him out to be. He's more like an employee of Yahweh, tasked with bringing up challenges. Obviously, he's an evolved concept once he gets into the Christian scriptures, perhaps having an influence from Angra Mainyu of Zoroastrianism. (And let's not forget that his look is derived from a satyr, who represented sexual pleasure (often sporting an enormous phallus) that the pagan Greeks prized so much and the Christians poo-pooed.  Even within the context of Christian tradition though, his role has changed. According to the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law's Douglas O. Linder, it wasn't until the 13th Century that the role of Satan went from that of a "mischievous spoiler" to the Prince of Darkness we all know and love today.

Even if we take him at his present roll within the faith, he has to be the absolute lamest villain ever. He's supposed to be really smart, yet he's dumb enough to think that he can challenge an omniscient being and somehow win. When we take the prophecies at the meaning that many Christians would have us take them, the only thing Satan would have to do in order to beat God is to not do anything - thus nullifying any prophecies about what he's supposedly going to do and how God will ultimately defeat him. Shoot, Satan could devote his time and energy to feeding the starving, and that alone would make him beat God and even make God out to be a bit of a jerk in the process. But no, he's going to do exactly what God says that he's going to do - making him either stupid or a willing participant in some sort of epic farce that God has planned out for the universe. Seriously, it's not a very threatening ultimate villain when the average person is able to out-think him.

Speaking of Satan being a willing participant though, that's exactly how he works when it comes to propagating Christianity. (Or Islam, as I know that he plays a role in that religion as well.) For many Christians, when they come to start doubting their faith, Satan is a convenient entity to blame. In other words, it's a good way to stop questioning, as the very idea of it is evil, so why would you even want to go down that road?

If such an evil entity exists, and the only thing that can protect you from it is God, then why take chances on abandoning the belief that's protecting you from such a malevolent force? This is why many Christians will insist that there's a Satan who's a very real being indeed. I know that I used to be one of them. I would argue with people who claimed to believe in God but didn't believe in Satan. I remember thinking that the "The greatest deception of Satan was convincing people he doesn't exist" argument was really clever. (If you still think it's clever, try replacing "Satan" with "Darth Vader" and realize that it works just about the same.)

In an odd sort of way, I kind of hate Satan more now than I ever did when I actually believed in him. Obviously, I don't hate the being, but I hate the concept of him, as it's obviously designed to prevent people from thinking.

(And yes, I know that some Christians will protest and say that their faith allows them to question. And what are they told to do when they question? Go pray about it. In other words, go reconfirm your bias.)