Monday, June 30, 2014

Who's a True Scotsman?

Don't you just hate those Westboro Baptist jerks? You know, those folks who picket funerals with signs that read "God Hates Fags". What a bunch of jerks. They claim to be a Christian organization, but don't worry about that - after all, they're not True Christians. See, True Christians would NEVER do the stuff they do, nor would they go around condoning such behavior. Would you believe that True Christians even support gay marriage and full equality for LGBT citizens?

Of course, some True Christians would tell you that no, there is no way that True Christians would support marriage equality. Sure, they wouldn't go around picketing funerals like Westboro Baptist, 'cause that's too over-the-top, but God clearly set out rules for what He wanted marriage to be, and Adam marrying Steve just ain't what's happening.

Whatever you do, don't ask the extremists in Westboro what a True Christian is because they'll go and tell you that it's THEM! Can you believe that? Just because they can point to various Bible verses to support their cause, they somehow think that trumps the more equality-minded Christians who can also point to Bible verses to support their cause. Clearly, The Bible is unambiguous as to this issue, just like it was with slavery. After all, it was Christians who led the abolition movement, and there was absolutely NOTHING that slave owners could have pointed to to support their cause. To say that they could would be as ridiculous as saying that The Bible says it's okay to beat your slave, so long as you don't beat him to death (Exodus 21:20).

The thing is, if you want to know what a True Christian believes, you turn to the Book of Who's a True Christian in The Bible. (Muslims, check out the Surah of Who's a True Muslim in The Koran so you know whether it's okay to blow up infidels or not.) It clearly lays out what you should and shouldn't believe. This is why we only have one denomination of Christianity, known as the True Christians.

Okay, just in case you're about to explode from all the sarcasm, my point is this: lots of Christians believe a lot of different things, and as far as I can tell, there's no real way to tell who's believing it the "right" way. The differences aren't what I'd call insignificant either. But each side will point to the verses in The Bible that helps their cause while either completely ignoring the verses that argue against it. (Or more infuriating - telling you that it actually means the opposite of what it says.)

Meanwhile, the simplest explanation doesn't seem to occur to any of them, and that is that The Bible doesn't even have a consistent message. Is there good stuff? Absolutely. Is there screwed up stuff? Yes. Is there stuff that contradicts other stuff? Yes, and that's the problem. Even Jesus, the guy that some wishy-washy freethinkers will praise, insists that all the Old Testament rules count. He also says that you have to hate your family if you want to follow him. Remember, he came with a sword, or so he says, but nobody likes to quote him on that (except maybe the True Christians, depending on who you think that is). Yeah, there's a lot of stuff that Jesus says that I like, but at least I admit that I pick and choose the bits that suit me.

You know what you never get from atheists? You never get the "He's not a True Atheist" line. All one has to do to be a True Atheist is not believe in any gods. From there, he can be anything else he wants. Of course, there are times when we have to point out that Hitler wasn't an atheist, but that's not because he was evil but because he spoke of things like divine providence - something that doesn't make a whole lot of sense for an atheist to believe. Also, we'll point out that the Communistic regimes that led to the deaths of billions of people weren't about atheism, even though much of it was led by self-proclaimed atheists. They did what they did in the name of nationalism, industrialism, worship of the state, etc. There's nothing about being an atheist that leads one to support those ideas. In other words, that would be like blaming Christianity for the actions of BTK, a notorious serial killer. Turns out that he was a regular church-goer. However, he didn't do what he did in the name of Christianity. So, his being Christian is as relevant to his crimes as Stalin's supposed atheism (one of his biographers apparently insists that he actually was a main of faith - whatever, I'll just give it to you that he was an atheist for the sake of argument) was to his.

So, who are the True Christians? I don't know, and I don't think that anybody else does either. All I know is, it's an easy way for some of them to disassociate themselves from the ones they don't like. Meanwhile, I'm stuck with all kinds of murderous atheists who are as True Atheists as I am, but that's just because the definition is such a clear one. Personally, I would be fine if everybody agreed that a True Christian was one who believed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. From there. I think that umbrella would be a bit too wide for the comfort of many people though.

Oh - and in case you're wondering what Scotsmen have to do with this, I'm referring to the "No True Scotsman" fallacy.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

GMOs and chemicals!!! Agh! Agh! AGGGGHHHHHH!!!!!!

I was hoping to write some sort of a through analysis when it comes to the whole controversy over GMOs, but I just don't think that's going to happen. I feel like I've already spent so much time looking into the debates over subjects like evolution, global warming, and gay marriage, that I'm just not sure that my brain can handle one more topic to analyze. So, if you're hoping for some sort of definitive guide of what to do regarding GMOs, you're just not going to get it. However, I think that I can add a few thoughts and observations that might be of some use:

1. Shut up about Monsanto - Just like how you can't get into an argument about climate change without the other side bringing up Al Gore, you can't discuss GMOs without somebody talking about Monsanto. It's frustrating with the Al Gore thing because I don't give a crap about him one way or the other. Let's say that everything that Gore's critics say is true just for the sake of argument - it still doesn't have crap-all to do with whether climate change is real or not. Al Gore can be a major dickwheel and it doesn't change the fact that human activity is having a major impact on the world's climate.

Same goes for Monsanto. Supposedly they're an evil corporation that makes GMOs. For the sake of argument, I'm just going to go ahead and give you that. They're the most evil corporation in the world, and Satan himself is the C.E.O. However, that has jack-all to do with whether GMOs are safe or not. These are two separate conversations.

2. Watch out for the bullshit - Something about GMOs has people so freaked out that they'll believe anything about them so long as its negative. One that pops up into my mind is a meme that I saw on Facebook that showed a couple of rats with large lumps on their bodies. The text stated that GMOs were to blame. This quickly had my skeptic-senses tingling, as I used to own pet rats. Guess what you can expect if you're going to own rats? Those things are going to get tumors as sure as most cats will get hairballs. I did a little bit of reading, and sure enough, the whole thing is bogus.

Look, if GMOs really are as awful as the critics will have you think, then I want to know about it. I have nothing to gain by eating food that's not safe. However, if they really are so bad, then why spread stuff that's not true? I don't have to make up crimes about Charles Manson to make him look like a bad guy, do I? Of course not.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not making a definitive statement about the safety of GMOs one way or the other. I just know that I've run into a few of these bogus rumors. I'm just saying to not believe everything you hear.

3. Everybody's trying to make money! - I have no problem believing that big corporations want to use GMOs to help their profit line. However, their critics are selling crap too with their "all natural" products. It's just like when practitioners of "alternative" medicine criticize "Big Pharma" for trying to make a profit and then turn around and try and sell some homeopathic snake oil.

4. Consider the source - This could be a blog post in and of itself. But generally speaking, avoid sites like Natural News where the writers obviously lack basic scientific literacy. (I'll admit that this point is probably my weakest one - like I said, it could be an entire post, and I want to move on. Perhaps I'll return to the subject more in-depth soon.)

5. Nature is trying to kill you! - Is there any more ridiculous of a buzz word than "natural" or the phrase "all natural"? Guess what? Nature wants you dead. The entire history of our species involves us fighting nature and trying to control it so it kills us less often. If nature had its way, we'd all still be dying at around the age 40 of all kinds of illnesses (not to mention starvation). Nothing you eat grew that way without some kind of battle against nature, so stop thinking that nature equals good.

6. Everything is chemicals! - This isn't necessarily GMO-related, but I recently saw a post on Facebook that contained the phrase: "Stop using chemicals and start supporting organic farmers." Stop using chemicals? How the hell are you going to do that? EVERYTHING IS CHEMICALS. Using that word as a catch-all for "stuff that's bad" is ignorant at best, downright dishonest at worst. Should we avoid chemicals that harm us? Absolutely. Should we freak out because something's a chemical? No.

We shouldn't even freak out about every supposed "harmful" chemical either, as some are only harmful in large doses. For instance, apple seeds contain cyanide. Cyanide is a poison that can kill people. However, you'll have to eat an orchard-full of them to kill you. So, keep eating apple seeds if it makes you happy - your body can handle it.

So there you have it. Obviously, I'm writing this because I'm a shill for Monsanto (not to mention Big Pharma). Seriously though, I'm not making any declarative statements about GMOs and/or what constitutes healthy eating. I'm just saying that if we're going to make smart decisions about these issues, we need to use reason and logic - not buzz words and hysteria. If the anti-GMO crowd is right, then I want to know it. As of now, I hear a lot more hype than facts - but maybe I'm not hearing from the right people.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Show the other side!

I've written a lot about religious issues, and just when I think that I've said all that I have to say about it, I find one more cockroach in the corner who needs to get stomped. For those who've never read my stuff before, I'm an atheist and a skeptic, and I'm not very generous when it comes to religious beliefs. Don't get me wrong, I fully respect people's right to believe, and I don't believe in banning religion, but I haven't anything good to say when it comes to believing in miracles and stories of the supernatural.

I was asked one time why I don't show both sides of the issue when it comes to whether a god exists or not. It's a fair question, I guess. I claim to be open-minded and willing to change my mind, so it might seem like I'm completely closed off to even examining the idea that a god might exist. The truth is, I used to believe in a God, and I'd even argue with people over His existence. I wish that blogs existed back then, as it would have been cool to have a written record of my journey, as I no doubt would have blogged about it as well.

My point with bringing up my former belief is that I am familiar with some of the arguments for God's existence because I used to use them! I remember arguing with an atheist friend, trying to point out how "perfect" the solar system is arranged to allow life on this planet - totally ignoring her when she brought up things like asteroids that can destroy all life as we know it. I also used to insist that there HAD to be a creator because the universe couldn't just come from nothing. (Lawrence Krauss's science senses are no doubt tingling right now.) And then I went on to dismiss her when she pointed out that if God doesn't need a creator then why can't the universe not need a creator?

Anyway, when I was asked this question, my response was basically that I didn't feel the need to present arguments from the other side for the simple fact that I didn't think that those arguments were very good! If I did think that they were good, I'd be a theist of some sort, perhaps an agnostic deist at the very least. It's not that I decided that I was an atheist and then determined that all of the arguments for God's existence were bad arguments. I decided that I didn't believe in God because I found the arguments for His/its existence to not be very good!

Still, I was toying with the idea of writing a series of blog posts where I go over all of the various arguments for the existence of god. I would attempt to sincerely examine each and every one of them, and no doubt I would be accused of being closed-minded if I didn't find any of them to be good. However, I've abandoned this idea for the simple fact that I just don't know where to begin. Do I just go with arguments for a general sort of deity that may or may not be the Abrahamic God? Do I tackle specific Christian apologetics? Why not Muslims? They have their "proof" that the Koran is the inspired word of God too, ya know!

This is a project that would take forever, especially if I took on EVERY argument I found. For instance, check out Charisma News's "7 Things that Prove God is Real". Their first "proof" is babies:
I watched my wife give birth to our four daughters, and last month I visited my new grandson. I’ve stared at little Hananiah’s cute face and tiny fingers—and the cleft in his chin that resembles mine. How can anyone deny the reality of God when they see a baby? The amount of information encrypted in one cell in the human body is equal to that of 1,000 books. The total amount of information stored in your DNA is 40 times more than that of the largest set of encyclopedias in the world. King David felt this sense of awe when he wrote, “You wove me in my mother’s womb. ... I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:13, 14, NASB). Life is truly a miracle!
Does anybody REALLY want me to take the time to dissect this argument? I imagine many of your more thoughtful theists are groaning at this reasoning as well, and if I did take the time to dissect it, I'd probably get responses like: "Oh, sure! You go after the obviously ridiculous arguments! Why not the arguments of (insert revered theologian here)?"

For the record, I have a son, and as awesome as it was to look into his eyes the moment after he was born, it didn't do anything to make me suddenly believe in a God - much less the Christian one. I can appreciate the mountain without believing in the fairies underneath it, to paraphrase Douglas Adams.

Okay, so let's assume that debating ridiculous points like that is a waste of time. Why not try out the deeper, more complex arguments? How about the cosmological argument?
1. Everything that exists must have a cause.
2. If you follow the chain of events backwards through time, it cannot go back infinitely, so eventually you arrive at the first cause.
3. This cause must, itself, be uncaused.
4. But nothing can exist without a cause, except for God.
5. Therefore, God exists.
I'm sorry, but I find this totally unimpressive. Why does God get to break the rule of how everything needs a cause? Just 'cause? It's a huge leap to make. Besides, do we even know for sure that the first statement is even true?

I just don't have the patience to go through all of these arguments. Look, if you're reading this and you want to submit something that you think is the be-all, end-all argument for the existence of God, the please feel free to do so. However, don't be surprised if I readily reject it if it falls into the following categories:

1. Personal experience - While I'd love to take everybody's personal relationship with the deity of their choice to be "evidence", this simply isn't practical due to the fact that we have many people all over the world with personal experiences of belief systems that contradict the other belief systems. In other words, logically they cannot all be right. However, there is no logical problem with them all being wrong. Until stronger evidence comes for any of these beliefs, I shall assume the latter.

2. God of the Gaps - This is basically an argument from ignorance fallacy where a lack of understanding is used as evidence for the existence of a God. I've had a couple of Christians take me to task for this, accusing me of using an "evolution of the gaps" to explain the natural world. The reason why this doesn't work is that there is independent evidence for evolution. The gaps in our understanding aren't taken as evidence for evolution being true. To use an example: if my keys go missing and I posit that my son taking them is a likely explanation, I am not using a "my son of the gaps" argument. After all, I have independent evidence for the existence of my son that I could show you. He has also been known to relocate my stuff. So, that's not an argument from ignorance. However, if my only "proof" for the existence of my son was my missing keys, then yeah, I'm using ignorance as evidence - which is a fallacy.

Honestly, I find that the vast majority of arguments from the existence of God can be dismissed with the "God of the Gaps". Theists get frustrated that I dismiss these sorts of proofs, but unless you can convince me that logic is not a good way for ascertaining reality, I'll always point it out when it's there.

3. Stuff that just ain't true - Not every theist, and not every Christian, engages in this, but there are a lot of things said that are simply false. Don't tell me about prophecies that have come true from The Bible, and don't tell me about eye witnesses for Jesus - because all of that is as debunked as the claims of L. Ron Hubbard. (Unless, of course, you have some actual evidence of these claims - then bring them on.)

4. Pascal's Wager - I think that most thoughtful theists realize the problem with saying "Believe in God, just in case he's real!" but I still get it every now and then.

5. Shifting the burden of proof - Don't tell me that I can't prove that God doesn't exist. I can't prove that werewolves don't exist. That doesn't suddenly mean it's worthwhile to consider the existence of supernatural lycanthropy. I find this argument to be one that automatically elevates the argument for God's existence to a level where it hasn't yet earned.

Does anybody else find it odd in the first place that when it comes to the existence of God, all the believers have are arguments? I mean, who believes in the sun because of arguments for its existence? You believe in it because it's evident. And yes, I'm aware that theists think that there is "evidence" for God's existence, and if it's out there, I want to know about it. However, in my limited experience, I have found that all of the "evidence" fits one of the five categories I listed above - which isn't actually evidence at all.

Even when you take topics that are controversial, like evolution and global warming, advocates don't present arguments - they present evidence that one anyone can examine for themselves. (To be fair, some bits of evidence are easier for the layman to examine than others.) Nobody makes a case for evolution by coming up with a series of premises, each one building on the other until you get the answer you want.

I have been accused of having standard for proof that's unreasonable. Maybe that's true, but it's not like I invented logic and the scientific method. It seems to me that when it comes to what's potentially the greatest issue of our human existence, the truth should be able to stand up to the most rigorous of inquiry. As of now, I find that the god question doesn't even stand up to the lightest of inquiry.

As always, I'm willing to be proven wrong.

Oh, and here's some suggested further reading:

Jerry Coyne tackles the question as to what the "best arguments" for God are.

Iron Chariots dissects arguments for the existence of God.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Movies! - "I've never seen so many men wasted so badly."

With today's unfortunate passing of Eli Wallach, you'll probably find a lot of tributes to both him and his most famous work, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, all over the internet that are much better written than this one. For instance, go check out Roger Ebert's entry as part of his Great Movies series.

Still, I've been meaning to write about The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly ever since I bought the remastered blu-ray "Man with No Name" collection. I did write about it a little bit last week when I was telling about my inexplicable bout of sentimentality. Still, I've been hoping to write about some more movies this summer, in the tradition of "Movie-a-Day Month" from back in 2009. (Was it really that long ago?) I figured that Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Western classic seemed like a good fit for that sort of a thing. After reading about Wallach (who played Tuco "the Ugly") I figured that I should just go ahead and write up a little something about my fondness for the movie.

I wish that I had some sort of nostalgic story to share with all of you regarding the first time I saw it. Unfortunately I don't. I'm not even sure exactly when I saw it for the first time, but I know that it was when I bought the special edition DVD with a gift card that I got for my birthday. I had only read about the movie before, and I figured that I'd take a chance on it. I found myself really liking it, and then I quickly sought out the other two movies in the so-called "trilogy": A Fistfull of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More. Neither one of those movies did a whole lot for me though. (Although I'll admit that when I recently re-watched them, I liked them a whole lot more. Still, they're both in a completely different league with the third film.)

What can be said about this movie that hasn't been said a million times before? Honestly, I'm not that well-versed in Westerns, and when I watch some of those old American ones, I find myself quickly losing interest. However, something about this film stood out to me. It's odd, because it feels like I'm watching some cheaply-made B movie, and yet it transcends the genre and its origins to be a real piece of art.

I once saw an interview with Clint Eastwood where the star said that the director, Leone, wanted to be like David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai). The influence is obviously there with this film, as Leone takes his time to set the scene. Nothing ever feels rushed, and while some directors might have pulled the camera away, Leone lets it roll and moments that might have felt trite (like when "Blondie" - Eastwood's character - shares a cigarette with a dying Confederate soldier) wind up involving the audience as any good film should. Don't be confused - You don't feel like you're watching a poor man's version of Lean. However, the influence is clear and blends with Leone's own style.

The only thing that's slightly off-putting is the audio. The film was originally made by an Italian company (and financed by Italians, Germans, and Spaniards) and filmed in Spain. The cast is an international one, and everybody dubbed in their lines after filming was done. When it comes to the English-speaking actors, it works okay - but with the Spanish and Italian speakers, it kinda takes me out of the movie a bit.

Anyway, there's so much that's great about this movie. Eastwood turns in a signature performance. Lee Van Cleef as "Angel Eyes" is menacing as hell. Tucco is a scumbag but hilarious. The music is brilliant. The three-hour runtime zips right by.

While I'd love to say that the remastered blu-ray is a revelation; unfortunately it's just a step up or two from the DVD. The movie looks faded, but perhaps that's how it's supposed to look. This is not a romantic picture of the West. It's a hellish landscape where only those who can handle a gun can survive. Still, I don't regret buying the upgrade, for if nothing else, it gave me an excuse to watch the movie again. It's certainly one that gets better with repeated viewings.

P.S. Like the artwork? Check out artist Kevin Graham's site.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Perhaps I should update you

Considering that I had a few people express (much appreciated) concern over my last blog post, I figured that I'd give a bit of an update as to how I'm doing.

First thing's first - the blood test results came back in and they're clean. So, those of you who had your money on a thyroid problem, it's time to pay up. I guess that's good news, but sometimes I want an easy answer. I have a feeling that's just not going to be the case here.

Another bit of good news is that I haven't broken a fever yet today. At least, I haven't had one any of the three times that I've checked my temperature.

Stuff that's still bothering me includes a virtual lack of an appetite. It's an improvement over yesterday, where it wasn't just a lack of an appetite but a feeling of nausea; however, the only meal that I actually really craved today was my morning cereal. This is kind of a tough thing because I'm the one who does all the cooking in my house; and when I'm not hungry, I don't feel like cooking - which means that my wife suddenly has one more responsibility thrust on her.

My biggest problem today is that I just wanted to sleep the day away. I felt both physically tired and totally unmotivated by anything. I even took a nap, but I also found myself nodding off afterward while playing with my son. (We were wrestling on his bed. Yeah, I got too comfortable and fell asleep for a moment or two.)

I guess you can just say that I'm still a bit off. I guess what's frustrating for me is that I used to bounce back from an illness so quickly, but I guess when you hit 40, you can pretty much forget about that ever happening again.

I think tomorrow that I'm going to set some goals for myself. I'm going to get up a bit early to walk the dog, and if I get tired, I can just go ahead and take a nap afterward. (I've been taking her when it's about 10:00, when it's starting to get too hot. I'm going to try and aim for a 7:00 walk instead.) My other goal is to finish cutting up this ridiculous Palestinian Lime tree in my backyard. Why? Because the thing is growing like Poison Ivy is using it to take over Gotham City. Plus, have you ever had a Palestinian Lime? Well, imagine what a lemon would taste like if it tasted like nothing. There you have it. On the plus side, it has huge, sharp, spikes that stab the hell out of me whenever I go to trim it.

So, once again thanks for reading - and to those of you who sent your encouragements and kind words last time, thanks for that.
I have of late, (but wherefore I know not) lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition; that this goodly frame the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o'er hanging firmament, this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire: why, it appeareth no other thing to me, than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. 'What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals! And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me... (Hamlet, Act 2, scene 2)

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

I know not why I am so sad

I don't often get too personal on my blog, but I'm thinking that it just might be therapeutic for me to write all this stuff down. If you don't think that you can deal with that sort of a thing from me, you might want to stop reading now.

I went to my local urgent care today because I've had a low-grade fever for about three days now. Just when I start to think that I'm feeling better, it comes back again. When the doctor came in and asked me what was wrong, I broke down crying.

As some of you reading this may already know, I'm a high school English teacher. School got out last week, and this is the first full week of summer break. It seems like there's always a bit of an adjustment period when the year ends, as suddenly my routine is completely thrown off. Even though I've been yearning for all of this free time and even a bit of time to myself, it feels weird to be making my own schedule. Still, I tend to get over it after about a week and then I get used to my new routines.

This week I've found myself getting teary-eyed at just about anything. This isn't normally too strange for me, as I always get a little misty-eyed with my students when finishing Cyrano de Bergerac, and To Kill a Mockingbird. (The "Alas, poor Yorick!" scene in Hamlet seems to do it to me too.) Yeah, I'm a sentimental schmuck, I'll admit it. However, I've found myself getting genuinely teary-eyed at all sorts of things. For crap's sakes, I started crying while watching the scene in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly where Clint Eastwood shares his cigar with a dying soldier.

Yeah, what the hell is wrong with me? Honestly, I'm not sad about anything. I have a great wife, a great son, a job that I enjoy, etc. I feel like I have a lot to be proud of as well, which is a sharp contrast to about ten years ago when I had a breakdown on my wife because I felt like I was an absolute failure at everything. That time, I knew exactly what was making me sad. This time, I don't know what's going on with me.

I feel a bit bad for the doctor who saw me because she certainly wasn't expecting it when I started crying on her. However, she did a great job of talking to me. Unfortunately, she couldn't find exactly what was wrong with me on a physical level, as I don't seem to have any other health-related symptoms. She ordered some blood work for me, and I'll get the results on Saturday. Aside from that, she suggested that if I feel up to exercising (like walking my dog, riding my bike, etc.) that I should do it. Also, she suggested that I avoid isolating myself. That's going to be tough for me, as I often WANT to isolate myself, but sometimes the things that we want aren't really the things that are good for us.

She also said that I was showing signs of depression, and she asked me if I was feeling suicidal or having any violent thoughts toward anybody. I can assure you, just as I assured her, that those types of thoughts weren't anywhere in my head. Like I said, I feel good about my life, yet I can't stop crying about everything.

Egads. I'll try to write more on this as I get it sorted out. Thanks for reading if you've made it this far. I'll leave you with a bit of Antonio from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, as it pretty much describes my feelings perfectly:
In sooth, I know not why I am so sad:
It wearies me; you say it wearies you;
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff ’tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn;
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me,
That I have much ado to know myself.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Cal Shakes - A Raisin in the Sun

My wife and I bought season tickets to the California Shakespeare Theater (otherwise known as Cal Shakes) this year, and the first play of the season was Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. Obviously, they don't just do Shakespeare at Cal Shakes. Usually there are two of his plays every year along with two other plays.

I have to say that this one was so good that all of the other actors and directors are going to really have to bring their A-game. I've seen a decent amount of Cal Shakes plays in my time (missed all of them last year though for some reason) and I don't remember ever being quite so moved as I was with this one. Sure, I've seen some great performances that have sunk into my brain, like Julius Caesar and Richard III from years past; however, this was the first time where I wasn't quite ready to leave when it was over, as I just needed to sit for a moment to absorb it all - and give the cast a standing ovation.

I vaguely remember reading the play when I was in high school. I seem to recall enjoying it, but I didn't remember too much about it beyond that. I'm not quite sure why, as the subject matter is one that has always interested me.

The story involves the Youngers, a black family in Chicago during the 1950s. It's basically an ensemble piece, as each of the characters has their turn to reveal aspects of their character - although actor Marcus Henderson's performance as Walter (see the picture above) seems to jump in my mind first.

Considering the subject matter, it probably wouldn't take too great of a guess to figure that racism plays a role in the story. That's true, as the family learns that they're not wanted when they get enough money to move into a house that's in a white neighborhood. (When the white guy who represents the neighborhood association tells them in so many words that they wouldn't be welcome, he insists that it's not a race issue. I figured that the whole denial of racism while it's clearly being practiced was a relatively new thing - I guess I was dead wrong.) However, this story is about what any good story is about - being a human being with all of our hopes and dreams. Even though their experience is totally outside my own, my basic human empathy got me emotionally involved in their story.

I was also impressed, considering the time period in which it was written, that one of the main characters, Beneatha (played by Nemuna Ceesay - see the other photo) expressed her atheism to her mother (and the audience as well). While not actually using the word, what she said rang true to me, which is often what DOESN'T happen when a character expresses a disbelief in God. I was worried that by the end of the story, she's "see the error of her ways" and come back to God. Thankfully, that didn't happen. She was allowed to be who she was without apology. (But even if she did have a "Come back to Jesus" moment, I don't think that it would have ruined the play for me.)

Anyway, I really don't have anything negative or critical to say. I was riveted from the beginning to the end, and it felt like it all went by really quickly. (Although I'm going to have to remember to wear a looser shirt next time, as I was pouring out sweat while sitting in the sun for the first half of the play.)

Sunday, June 8, 2014

I do weddings (maybe even Bar Mitzvahs)

Last weekend, I officiated the wedding of my sister-in-law, Breanna, to her longtime boyfriend, Jon. How did I come to do such a thing, you might ask? I've never done it before. Anybody who knows me at all knows that I'm obviously not a member of any kind of clergy. And who knows if I'll ever get a chance to do it again?

The short answer is that I did it because they asked me to do it. Why did they ask me? Only they could give you their full motivations, but I think that part of it had to do with the fact that neither of them are believers, so they didn't have any interest in any religious figure doing the officiating. Plus, they probably preferred to have somebody who knows them rather than a complete stranger do the job. Aside from that, I'm a decent public speaker, I can write, and I have been known on occasion to make people laugh.

How does one become qualified to officiate? If you live in the state of California, you can take five minutes to fill out one of those online forms via the Universal Life Church or American Marriage Ministries. Honestly though, I don't think that you even have to do that much, as the state doesn't keep any kind of official record of who's ordained. Pretty sure you can declare yourself ordained and that's good enough.

It's probably a good thing that I had a year to let it all settle in, as I got a lot of my more wild ideas out of my system. One of them involved a sombrero. Another involved a cape. There was also an idea to work the name of Satan in there as some sort of ham-handed acronym for what constitutes a good marriage. One of the potentially more amusing ideas was for me to talk about the couple and completely screw up details about their lives. That one got axed because the people who don't know me might get confused and think that I'm a genuine idiot.

A good part of the fun though was throwing out some of these crazy ideas on Facebook. While people knew that I was joking, for the most part, there was a little bit of worry that I might just go through with somethings that were equally absurd. Some of my Facebook status updates in the days before the wedding include:
Officiating a wedding on Saturday - a first for me. Don't think I'm not tempted to do an Andy Kaufmanesque spiel where I read all of "Henry V" or something.

How many references to the fact that we have a Muslim President should I include in this wedding ceremony that I'm officiating?

Okay, finalized the draft for the ceremony, and I'm going to be heading out the door in just a few minutes. I managed to drop the F bombs down to just two, and I've removed almost all of the anti-Semitism. (Much of the racism is still there, but it's subtle, so it's okay.)
When it came to actually writing this thing out, my thought process was to try and write something that was a product of my snarky sense of humor (as I figured that they probably wanted that if they asked me to do this) while still including some sincere bits that were specific to Bre and Jon. When I wrote my second draft, I removed some of the snarky bits, along with some of the references to myself. (I found myself saying "I" too much.)

I figured that actually doing the officiating wouldn't be a big deal, because as a teacher, public speaking is a big part of what I do for a living. However, when I actually got up there and saw everybody looking at me, I got a case of the shaky hands. Also, I had to frequently shift my weight from one leg to the other, as my knees were a bit wobbly as well. I finally did find myself to be relaxed as though I was addressing one of my classes, but by that point I only had a couple of paragraphs left to go. This was because all of the bits that were supposed to be funny were met with laughter. The only thing that I really screwed up is that, even though I had written it down, I forgot the part where I should have announced: "I present to you Mr. and Mrs. Medwid." It seemed like the only person who noticed was the DJ, as that was his cue to start the music.

Forgive me if this comes off as shameless horn-tooting, but the response was better than I could have possibly hoped for. I (and my wife) had a number of people walk up to me during the reception to tell me how much they liked what I did. Also, the groom's father took a moment at the beginning of his toast to offer a bit of praise. Even the DJ complimented me, despite the fact that I botched up his cue. I was hoping that people would like it and that the worst case scenario would be that people would find it to be forgettable.

Okay, enough of that, but I am proud of myself. Every now and then I get stuff right, and I'm glad that I got one of the important things right.

So, what follows is what I wrote. The short underlined bit refers to an ad-lib that I did during the actual ceremony. (The joke was working - decided to milk it a bit.) The bit in italics is what the couple wrote, and honestly I think that it was better than anything that I wrote. As for the part in bold, I got some ideas off of a website, and that's the one that they wanted to go with. The reason why is that they got right one of the key things whenever you write anything - be specific.
Welcome friends and family,

On behalf of Jonathan Thomas Medwid and Breanna Marie Howland, I would like to thank you all for coming. Hopefully you all know why you're here, but just in case some of you weren't really paying attention, we're about to do a wedding right now. A wedding between Jon and Bre. I'm sure that most of you know at least one of them, so this should be pretty exciting for you.

Now, usually this is the part of the ceremony where the priest, rabbi, imam, or guy who took five minutes to get his ordination off the internet asks if anybody has any objections about the two people getting married. This gives everybody their one chance to completely ruin the wedding. Well, sorry, but I'm not going to give you your chance. I was honored to be asked to officiate this ceremony, and I'll be darned if I let one of you ruin what may prove to be a potentially lucrative second career. So, if you have something to say, save it. Nobody's interested.

However, what we do all want to know is who gives this bride to be wed?

We're all here to witness and celebrate as Bre and Jon enter a new phase of their relationship. While they have been together for nearly a decade now, they are soon going to be husband and wife, and they've invited us all here to witness that transition.

Many of you may already know this, but the two of them were brought together by a high and mighty power. That's right – the internet. When the two of them finally arranged to meet in person at a shopping mall, that most holy of holy places, and Jon first set eyes on her, not sure if that was the girl he was supposed to meet, he thought to himself that he would be happy if it was her. As she got closer, and he realized that this pretty girl was in fact the one he was going to meet, he felt extremely lucky.

Similarly, when Bre first set eyes on Jon, some thoughts came to her mind. She worried that this guy might be a douche.

Fortunately for everyone, Bre's first impressions are not as astute as Jon's are. That should be obvious, because here we all are nearly ten years later, getting ready to watch the two of them marry.

There is a lot of talk lately about marriage. What it means. What it should mean. A marriage is an official recognition of a relationship between two people, and relationships are a complex binding of two individuals, each of whom bring their own reasons and motivations to how they live their lives.

We are probably on safe ground to say that at least a great part of this is about love. It's about their love for one another and their love for everybody here. Today's a day where they want to share that with you.

Everybody here who knows Bre and Jon will readily agree that their relationship is a solid and healthy one, and it's easy to see it being one that will stand the test of time. The two of them are good friends, and they both want what's best for the other. One doesn't see any kind of competition between the two of them where one tries to get something over on the other. They're both secure in their own individuality, but it's clear that they are at their most content when in one another's company. I would also go so far as to say, and I think that everybody here is going to agree with me, that I can't think of a couple who are more supportive and accepting of one another than Bre and Jon are. While many of us are older than them, there is much that we can all learn from their example.

Before we begin with Bre and Jon's vows, I would like to suggest some vows for everybody who's watching. You don't need to repeat it all after me – just think it in your head.

Do you (insert your name here) promise to be there for Jon and Bre when they need your help? To support them not just as individuals but as a couple? To provide comfort, a listening ear, encouragement, and a helping hand? To not try and pawn off on them the old knick knacks that you have lying around your house but feel too guilty about just throwing them away yourself? To not bother them about if and when they'll have kids, since that's their business and nobody else's and that sort of thing is really annoying? And if they do have a kid, to not bother them about if and when they'll have a second? Because trust me, that's annoying too.

If you do, say “I do.” If you don't, we know who you are.

Before we begin the vows, Bre and Jon have their own special ceremony that they would like to conduct which involves the foundation of any healthy relationship – hard alcohol. If you don't like this part, send your angry emails to them, as it was totally their idea:

(The couple poured a shot of their favorite drinks into a glass and each took a sip.)

Who ever thought that 10 years ago, a wink on would result in me finding the love of my life, and life long partner. And I bet you thought this day would never come.. but good things are worth waiting for, and trust me... I'm kinda a big deal. But on this day I promise more to you, than just to love you forever. 

I promise to always tickle your feet and rub your back. I promise to always have a shot ready and waiting after a long day. I promise to always love to cook for you... and do the dishes... AND the grocery shopping in the first place... basically anything that has to do with the kitchen... I promise to always remind you who each bearded guy is throughout our endless re-watches of Game of Thrones. I promise endure the monotony of listening to the Hit List music channel while we clean the house. I promise to have an infinite supply of funny faces for our photos. I promise to embrace you, in all your weirdness, and to share all of mine with you. 

I promise to tell you how much more beautiful you look every day. I promise to honor you, and be faithful to you. But most importantly, I DO promise to love you forever and to be the best husband I can be.


I am the luckiest woman in the world to be standing here with you today.  9 and a half years ago, I never imagined I would find such an amazing man, on the internet, nonetheless. From the very beginning of our relationship I knew you were the one for me; there has never been a doubt in my mind.  Thank you for all your support, love and encouragement to grow into the woman I am today. You are the person I want to laugh, cry and share amazing experiences with always!  Not only are you my love, but more importantly my best friend... Someone I want to see daily, wake up to every morning and grow old and wrinkly with…You are someone I just can’t get enough of… I never want to stop falling in love with you.

I promise to always be there to listen, comfort, encourage and support you.
I promise to always flash the “I Love You” sign to you at Arnold Dr. every morning.
I promise to always “clinky” you before eating or drinking… anything... at any time!
I promise to always to love you at the best of times and the hardest of times.
I promise to always love you more than bacon, potatoes and mac & cheese combined... That’s saying a lot!
I promise to always cherish and respect you as a person and partner in life.

Now for the vows:

I, Jon, take you Bre to be my wife, / my partner in life and my one true love. / I will cherish our union / and love you more each day than I did the day before. / I will trust you and respect you, / laugh with you and cry with you, / loving you faithfully through good times and bad, / regardless of the obstacles we may face together. / I give you my hand, my heart, and my love, / from this day forward / for as long as we both shall live.

I, Bre, take you Jon to be my husband, / my partner in life and my one true love. / I will cherish our union / and love you more each day than I did the day before. / I will trust you and respect you, / laugh with you and cry with you, / loving you faithfully through good times and bad, / regardless of the obstacles we may face together. / I give you my hand, my heart, and my love, / from this day forward / for as long as we both shall live.

Most importantly, I promise to always love you and always be the best wife I can be. 

And now, the exchanging of rings.

"I Jon give you Bre this ring as an eternal symbol of my love and commitment to you."

"I Bre give you Jon this ring as an eternal symbol of my love and commitment to you."

By the power vested in me by the extraordinary lax standards of the State of California I now pronounce you husband and wife. Now, kiss one another, so we can all watch.

Friends and family, I present to you Mr. and Mrs. Medwid! (Not actually said by me.)