Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Our Katrina Expedition--New Orleans to Texas to Florida, and Stops In-Between

Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from god.

(Bokonon, Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.)

I don't think any of us who were involved with Katrina will ever forget those chaotic times. We watched the storm approach the city, as we'd watched so many in the past. At first, she looked like a little thing, especially compared to some we'd weathered. We were having some troubles at the time (but then, don't people always have troubles, especially at the worst of times?). We were pretty broke, we didn't have a car, and I'd had a hysterectomy ten days before, and had only been out of the hospital for a little less than a week. I was still taking lots of pain medicine, and moving around a little every day, but mainly just resting, trying to heal. As a diabetic and a massive heart-attack survivor, all surgeries were, and are, serious and difficult with me. My OB/GYN called on Friday, to tell me she had a new prescription of Percocet waiting for me, just in case Katrina got worse. I am so very, very grateful she did.

As it happened (or, as a Bokononist* would say, as it was supposed to happen), my husband's job sent him home early that Friday, so that everyone could prepare for the coming storm. He stopped and picked up my prescription, since it wasn't one that could be called in but had to be rewritten for every refill. We wrote a check to the local grocery for what tape, batteries, flashlights, water, tuna, peanut butter and pet food we could find, and decided to ride it out. But when we got up on Saturday, the news was growing worse by the hour, and mandatory evacuations were being called by the city.

We are truly blessed with some very special friends. Despite having recently gone through a divorce, our good friend Rick offered to take us, our big dog, and two cats with him, his two sons (one older, one younger than ours) and their big dog in his minivan. We talked for a while, and decided to evacuate to somewhere in the Houston area. Despite feeling lousy, I spent the day on the phone and the computer, talking to hotels, and Rick, trying to find a place that would take us. About 2am on Sunday we finally found a place that still had openings, and took pets, in Navasota, Texas. Rick immediately reserved two rooms, and we decided to all get a good night's sleep, planning to head out late Sunday morning.

With so many bodies, we all packed very lightly, just a couple of days worth of clothing, water, pet food and the cats' carriers. We had one standard cat carrier, since we rarely took both cats anywhere at once. But we did have an old guinea pig cage. My husband and son cleaned it thoroughly, and lined it with a towel. I packed up my insulin and heart medications and medical history list that I keep updated on the computer. We needed a cooler for my insulin, and other than that just took one small suitcase. We all thought we'd be back home in a couple of days.

The ride wasn't too bad, all things considered. We'd evacuated only once before, again with Rick and his family, for Hurricane Ivan. At that time they had two cars, and also evacuated their tenant, who had no place to go. That time too we'd headed for Houston. That was a nightmare trip, 26 hours on the road in bumper-to-bumper traffic, pulling over to pee in the bushes, going with out food or water except for brief stops. Finally, we'd left the interstate and had taken the country highways, which, despite being a longer route turned out to be faster. So this year we hit the highways right away. Despite all the people fleeing, it only took us about 10 or 12 hours to hit Navasota.

I took the front passenger seat, climbing in and out of the car, not to mention going down our front steps, were hard enough for me. I took a couple of body pillows, and used one for my back and another for the front to help hold my stitches together. My husband, the three teenage boys, both cats and both dogs all piled into the back. Our dog ended up lying on a suitcase, with her head on either the front cup holder or Rick's lap. Our little female cat was great, not a hint of complaint, and both dogs were good. Our male half-Siamese cat cried his head off in terror the entire trip. At one point Rick's dog, a big Lab/Sharpei mix, grabbed the back of his carrier and shook it, as if to say, "Enough! Shut up you whiny little s.o.b!" While we sympathized with her, none of us could really blame her.

Finally we hit the motel. Despite my pain-killers, I was worn out and in an awful lot of pain, and of course our rooms were on the second floor. So against doctor's orders, I was climbing concrete steps far too soon after surgery. We cleaned up a bit, went to grab a bite to eat, and decided to spend a day in Navasota so I could recover. It was hard to sleep that night, between our crowded room and all our worry over the storm. The last news we saw was hopeful, it looked as if Katrina might not make a direct hit on New Orleans. Still, I woke up very early, around 5am, and immediately turned on the TV. To my great relief, New Orleans was still standing. She'd taken a lot of wind damage, but seemed to be in far less dire condition than we'd feared. So the guys went out for a bit of sight-seeing (not that there was much to see in that little one-horse town), and I managed to get up long enough to go eat. That night, we decided to head back for New Orleans the next morning.

As on the day before, I woke up early Tuesday and again turned on the TV. To my shock and horror and heart-breaking disbelief, I saw our beloved city under water. My sobs woke the guys, who then went to wake Rick and his sons. We all felt shell-shocked. Our first reactions were not to worry about our homes and belongings, but all the people we feared dead. We knew how much of the city was below sea-level, and we knew who had stayed behind. Some stubborn folk, some thrill-seekers, people unwilling to leave their pets, but mainly those who had nowhere to go and no way to get there. New Orleans had great public service, we'd lived there over 20 years without a car. So all the people like us, who hadn't had a good friend, had been left behind. The poor had been left behind, because travel and motel rooms take ready cash. The elderly who'd ridden out Betsy and Camille and thought they could stand Katrina. So we worried, and wept, and spent the day in mourning, all traumatized.

Rick had family in Michigan, so that's where he wanted to go with his sons. We called all our relatives, trying to find someone who would take us and the pets, because we were determined to keep our little family together. My husband's parents in Florida said they could take us, but they didn't think they could make the drive all the way to Navasota. So Rick said he'd take us as far as Nashville, and my in-laws said they'd meet us there. Wednesday we were back on the road, and between the stress and tears, I was doing worse and worse. My son did get to see mountains for the first time in his life, and that was a small bright spot. We'd also passed through Kinder, Louisiana on the first leg of our trip. It was so small that if you blinked, you'd miss it, but it proudly proclaimed itself 'The Crossroads to Everywhere." So we made a bit of a game out of all the places we'd been since Kinder, Paris, Cairo, a slew of other towns with European and Middle Eastern names.

By the time we got to Nashville, we were all sick to death of being in a car. We'd alternated talking and listening to the radio, but the news just got worse and worse, and after a time we had to take a break from it. The in-laws had made reservations in Atlanta, and wanted to go there as soon as possible, so we only spent the night in Nashville. I was in agony, cramping, sick, my wound infected by this point. But everyone felt the need to press on, and so we did. We did take a little more time to rest in Atlanta, a day, I think. Some of my memories of this time are pretty scattered, I was taking more pills than I should have, but then, hysterectomy patients aren't supposed to criss-cross the South in cramped conditions, let alone climb stairs, hold dog leashes, and all the other rules I'd broken. I also broke down in tears oh, about every 15 minutes it seemed.

So we headed for my in-laws home in Fort Myers the next day, hoping to make it in one leg. By this time I wasn't sure I was going to survive the trip, and to this day I feel certain that I would have died if we'd had to have left our pets at home and taken the refuge of last resort in the Superdome. I also suffer from IBS, so after so much worry, so many tears, and so many days in a car, added to the things abdominal surgery does to one's innards, and the effect of narcotics on the digestive system, I was so blocked up that I couldn't pee any longer because my intestines were pressing against my bladder. I don't remember much of this last leg, a kindly lady heard me crying and complaining to my mother-in-law in the bathroom, and suggested some things from a pharmacy that might help. Once we finally reached their home, my husband immediately made a trip to see what he could get from the drugstore. I did manage to finally unblock my system, but that was an agony all its own.

Little did we realize then our journey had only begun. I'll discuss our pets in another blog this week, they did end up being regular little troopers. And I'll talk about where we went from Florida, far earlier than we'd anticipated. I wasn't sure how I'd feel about writing all this down, but it has helped. While many of those memories are fogged by pain and stress and drugs and tears, what I mainly remember is the worry over those left behind, and the kindness of people who saved at least my, the pets, and perhaps all our little family's, lives.

*Bokononist: A follower of Bokonon, the holy man in the jungle in Kurt Vonnegut's, Jr., most excellent novel, Cat's Cradle. If you have not read this book, I urge you to do so immediately. And if you don't get it, or like it, read it again and again and again until you do. Bokononism is based entirely upon foma, harmeless lies.
Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy. (frontispiece of Cat's Cradle)
This site lists just the known Books of Bokonon:

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Living Katrina

The second anniversary of Katrina is Wednesday, August 29, 2007. Most of our local television stations are doing various programs that day about remembering Katrina. But for those of us in New Orleans (and most of the gulf coast), it really isn't about remembering that awful time, because we are still living it.

Fortunately, we are getting nationwide attention again, finally. I couldn't tell you how many times I'm asked online if everything is back to normal here, since we don't seem to be discussed much any more. I know CBS evening news is sending Katie Couric here for a series of specials this week, and Oprah is also doing a new show about us on Wednesday. I'm hoping there is a lot more national attention, and would ask all of you to do your best to watch something about the sad state of affairs in which we still live.

Two years later there are still blocks and blocks and blocks that look like warzones. Many abandoned homes are now so overgrown they look like jungles. There are still piles of debris everywhere, even in the 'cleaned up' areas. FEMA trailers, despite all the health hazards discovered about them (unacceptable levels of formaldehyde, some of them just blow up, some are falling apart, etc.), they are still a ubiquitous part of our landscape. Sometimes in the midst of destruction, one can see one or two brave families trying to rebuild...and they face theft, arson, and worse since they live in practically deserted areas. Other abandoned homes have been taken over by drug lords and crime rings, turned into crack houses, or just used as shelter by the homeless.

Our crime rate is through the roof, with murders a daily occurrence. We don't have enough nurses, doctors, or psychiatrists and psychologists to deal with the depression with which most residents still struggle. Domestic abuse is up. Suicide is up. We are trying to regain our equilibrium, but it is very difficult. I recently read a short story (and don't remember the name or author, I'd be glad to give proper citation if anyone who reads this knows) in which he said, "New Orleans was struggling along, pretending it was still the Big Easy," or words to that effect. We want to be the Big Easy again. We want to be fun and funny, happy and healthy, goofy and good-crazy and not quite understood by the rest of the world the way we were...before. But it is very hard.

Prices have gone up on everything. Rents are so high, up hundreds of dollars from prices before the storm, because too many people still don't have viable housing in a neighborhood that isn't plagued by the criminals who've come to town to take advantage of our over-burdened police force. There really isn't any kind of help for renters, homeowners have some options, but renters are just out of luck. New Orleans has always been a lot like Sesame Street, with neighborhoods changing block to block, all of us jumbled all together and getting along just fine. My son's elementary school had students representing 43 different nationalities. His best friends in kindergarten were a boy from mainland China, a boy from Soviet Georgia (who spoke very little English) and a little black girl from a few blocks away. Now much of the diversity is being priced out of certain areas, and it is a loss to all of us. Food costs have risen, insurance is almost impossible to afford, and our utility companies are scrambling to make up lost revenue from a smaller population by raising prices.

I know a great many people gave to the Red Cross and other charitable organizations right after Katrina, but precious little of that money has trickled down to us. Our family got $1000 from the Red Cross, two years ago, and that's it. Meanwhile, our medical insurance has gone up, our co-pays have gone up, our deductible has gone up, gas has gone up, our rent has increased, and we just aren't making it any more. I'm completely disabled, but my husband makes $30 a month too much for us to qualify for SSI. So we eat a lot of beans and hot dogs, my husband and son do without, so they can afford my prescriptions and tests and doctor visits. We want to stay here. We love New Orleans. But we don't know where to turn, or what to do. We can't afford to move, my husband is 54, he can't just go looking for a new job at his age, even if we could afford the move to another city. And my son is a Mardi Gras baby, born in early February. In 2005, his 15th birthday fell on Mardi Gras, and we put him in a parade for his birthday present. New Orleans holds his heart, and ours, and all three break a little more every day.

In my next post, I'll talk about exactly what we went through in the days before and after Katrina, the kindness we encountered, the shock we felt when our government didn't seem to care about all the lives lost, changed forever, ruined. But tonight I'm not remembering Katrina, I'm still living it, every time I look outside, every time I watch the news, every time another bill arrives. Please, send us kind thoughts, and maybe even a little more money. Just be careful what charities you choose, because far too many unintended pockets are getting lined between you and us.

And that may be the saddest part of all. As Sir Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.”

Friday, August 24, 2007

On Creationism

Obviously, I have an interest in how, and why, we and our world came to be. I also have a fascination with quantum physics, but don't have the math or science background (or talents) to understand them on any kind of deep level. That said, I recently read a book (Into the Looking Glass, by John Ringo) in which he borrowed a phrase from the Call of Cthulhu game. He said that anyone who truly understood quantum mechanics had to make regular Sanity checks, or go insane. The game, by the way, is based upon the fictional writings of H.P. Lovecraft, and are about "elder gods" who have malevolent plans for humans upon their return. ( I plan to discuss these ideas in more detail in other posts.

A couple of years ago I read a science fiction series by Dan Simmons sometimes called the Hyperion series. I highly recommend these books (the first two are the Hyperion stories, the second two the Endymion stories, but all are related). Among the things I found exciting about this series is that the core of the message is God is love. (I'll discuss this, too, in a future post.) But he also got me thinking about quantum physics and God, and I believe they are intricately intertwined. So I think it is not only "How Great Thou Art" but also "How Small Thou Art."

Creationism bothers me for many reasons. First, I think it asks us not to use the great big brains God gave us. Is this a test? Is it like the Tree of Knowledge, we have them but if we use them, then we are condemned? That seems to make God very petty indeed. Should we not use the air and water and plants and animals and each other? I never thought being 'used' was such a terrible thing. How far more terrible to, as Vonnegut once said, never be used by anyone for anything. Useful is a good word, it means helpful and effective. So I like people who use their great big brains, especially those who use them effectively.

I find it amazing how the beginning of the story of Creation in Genesis is so similar to the Big Bang Theory. In the beginning God said, "Let there be light." As far as our current science can determine, the first things in the multiverse were photons--light. How lovely and poetic. The next few verses get things a bit out of order, but the general sequence holds. Think ahead to the time when Jesus said, "I am the light..." Could we not all, in some sense, be a part of the light? And could not the very tools of Creation indeed lie in quantum physics, string theory, and the idea that not only are there many worlds, but many universes. Now that would indeed require a pretty awesome architect.

The idea that God was limited to seven 24-hour earth days irritates me as well. What did He do with/on Jupiter, which has much longer days, or on Mercury with its short days? If God is truly all powerful, why should his days be so limited. One day for light...billions of years. One day for animals, billions of years. Can't God have days that are eons long? How sad to be the Creator of the Multiverse, and yet have time, as determined by humans and based on the movements of one sun and one moon, still constrain Him. And of course Creationism makes carbon dating, dinosaurs, the entire exquisitely beautiful cosmos something small and sad. We know the speed of light. The light from the nearest stars takes a very long time to reach us, else we'd be rocketing all over the place by now. How much more elegant and eternal the idea that God as Sculptor made stars, worlds, galaxies that will retain their beauty, slowly but constantly changing, for longer than any of us can imagine.

One of the wisest things the American forefathers did in formulating the Constitution was insist upon a separation of church and state. Theocracies are not a good way for people to live freely. Look at some of the things that rile up many people about the Middle-Eastern countries, particularly those under Muslim rule. The church and government are one. Break a religious law, and you break a state law as well, and are held accountable. For those who think we should mix church and state, I ask: Which religion should be our national religion? Yours? Mine? Should we have Catholic government or a Protestant one? How about a Jewish government? Or Voodoo, it incorporates a couple of religions. Maybe we should move to a Muslim government? Should atheisist and agnostics and humanists be denied citizenship and voting rights? And if the fundamentalists are right, and we should have a fundamentalist Protestant state, which sect should we choose? Southern Baptists? Pentacostals? Seventh Day Adventists? Mormons? Any of the hundreds of smaller sects? We'd certainly no longer be a democracy. Part of what makes America the amazing place that it is is our diversity. We come from countries all over the world, we come in all colors, and all creeds, and we are all free to think, to believe what we want. Should instead our thoughts be dictated to us? Would that truly please God? I think not.

So the next time someone wants to post the Ten Commandments in a courhouse, ask yourself if you'd be comfortable if instead a text from the Koran were posted there. The next time someone wants to return prayer to our public schools, ask yourself it you'd be pleased if it were a Buddhist prayer recited daily. The next time someone wants to put up a creche display on public grounds, ask yourself it you'd be just as happy to see a Voodoo alter next to it. The next time someone wants to replace teaching evolution with a strict seven-day Biblical timeline, ask yourself if it would be just fine to teach that all meals must be kosher, that women are unclean throughout their menstrual periods, and that showing any more of the female body in public besides hands and maybe eyes should be a crime. If we didn't have the *right* to do these things privately, there would be a lot more unhappy Americans. But we do have that right, and there are countless places where you can display your own brand of religion, where you can discuss it, where you can meet with others of like thought, where you can dress, read, speak, pray as you wish. There are private schools who have curriculums decided upon by the schools and parent groups. There is a lot of private property where religious displays can be shown. You have the freedom to teach your child whatever you like. But I have the freedom to teach mine my beliefs as well. Evolution is a fact. Creationism is a belief. There is a huge difference between the two.
Just to whom would you be willing to give up these rights?

The Helix Nebula from CFHT Credit & Copyright: J.-C. Cuillandre (CFHT Staff), CFH12K CCD Camera, CFHT
Authors & editors: Robert Nemiroff (MTU) & Jerry Bonnell (USRA)
NASA Technical Rep.: Jay Norris. Specific rights apply.
A service of: LHEA at NASA/GSFC& Michigan Tech. U.

A Third Story

Genesis 2,4-25; 3, 1-22

When the Lord God made the universe, there were no plants on the earth and no seeds had sprouted, because he had not sent any rain, and there was no one to cultivate the land; but water would come up from beneath the surface and water the ground.Then the Lord God took some soil from the ground and formed a man.

Then the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the East, and there he put the man he had formed. He made all kinds of beautiful trees grow there and produce good fruit. In the middle of the garden stood the tree that gives life and the tree that gives knowledge of what is good and what is bad.

A stream flowed in Eden and watered the garden; beyond Eden it divided into four rivers. The first river is the Pishon; it flows round the country of Havilah. (Pure gold is found there and also rare perfume and precious stones.) The second river is the Gihon; it flows round the country of Cush. The third river is the Tigris, which flows east of Assyria, and the fourth river is the Euphrates.

Then the Lord God placed the man in the Garden of Eden to cultivate it and guard it. He said to him, “You may eat the fruit of any tree in the garden, except the tree that gives knowledge of what is good and what is bad. You must not eat the fruit of that tree; if you do, you will die the same day.”

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to live alone. I will make a suitable companion to help him.” So he took some soil from the ground and formed all the animals and all the birds. Then he brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and that is how they all got their names. So the man named all the birds and all the animals; but not one of them was a suitable companion to help him.

Then the Lord God made the man fall into a deep sleep, and while he was sleeping, he took out one of the man's ribs and closed up the flesh. He formed a woman out of the rib and brought her to him. Then the man said,
“At last, here is one of my own kind
—Bone taken from my bone, and flesh from my flesh.
‘Woman’ is her name because she was taken out of man.”

That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united with his wife, and they become one.

The man and the woman were both naked, but they were not embarrassed.

Now the snake was the most cunning animal that the Lord God had made. The snake asked the woman, “Did God really tell you not to eat fruit from any tree in the garden?”

“We may eat the fruit of any tree in the garden,” the woman answered, “except the tree in the middle of it. God told us not to eat the fruit of that tree or even touch it; if we do, we will die.”

The snake replied, “That's not true; you will not die. God said that, because he knows that when you eat it you will be like God and know what is good and what is bad.”

The woman saw how beautiful the tree was and how good its fruit would be to eat, and she thought how wonderful it would be to become wise. So she took some of the fruit and ate it. Then she gave some to her husband, and he also ate it. As soon as they had eaten it, they were given understanding and realized that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and covered themselves.

That evening they heard the Lord God walking in the garden, and they hid from him among the trees. But the Lord God called out to the man, “Where are you?”

He answered, “I heard you in the garden; I was afraid and hid from you, because I was naked.”

“Who told you that you were naked?” God asked. “Did you eat the fruit that I told you not to eat?”

The man answered, “The woman you put here with me gave me the fruit, and I ate it.”

The Lord God asked the woman, “Why did you do this?”

She replied, “The snake tricked me into eating it.”

Then the Lord God said to the snake, “You will be punished for this; you alone of all the animals must bear this curse: from now on you will crawl on your belly, and you will have to eat dust as long as you live. I will make you and the woman hate each other; her offspring and yours will always be enemies. Her offspring will crush your head, and you will bite her offspring's heel.”

And he said to the woman, “I will increase your trouble in pregnancy and your pain in giving birth. In spite of this, you will still have desire for your husband, yet you will be subject to him.”

And he said to the man, “You listened to your wife and ate the fruit which I told you not to eat. Because of what you have done, the ground will be under a curse. You will have to work hard all your life to make it produce enough food for you. It will produce weeds and thorns, and you will have to eat wild plants. You will have to work hard and sweat to make the soil produce anything, until you go back to the soil from which you were formed. You were made from soil, and you will become soil again.”

Adam named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all human beings. And the Lord God made clothes out of animal skins for Adam and his wife, and he clothed them.

Then the Lord God said, “Now the man has become like one of us and has knowledge of what is good and what is bad.

He must not be allowed to take fruit from the tree that gives life, eat it, and live for ever.” So the Lord God sent him out of the Garden of Eden and made him cultivate the soil from which he had been formed. Then at the east side of the garden he put living creatures and a flaming sword which turned in all directions. This was to keep anyone from coming near the tree that gives life.

2.7 The Hebrew words for “man” and “ground” have similar sounds.out of it; he breathed life-giving breath into his nostrils and the man began to live.

2.9, 2.17 knowledge of what is good and what is bad; or knowledge of everything.2.13 Cush (of Mesopotamia); or Ethiopia.

2.23 The Hebrew words for “woman” and “man” have similar sounds.

3.5 God; or the gods, (and) know what is good and what is bad; or know everything.

3.20 adam: This name in Hebrew means “humanity”.

3.20 eve: This name sounds similar to the Hebrew word for “living”, which is rendered in this context as “human beings”.

© 1994 British & Foreign Bible Society
This website makes use of the Bible site.
Program: ©, OFMCap
Prepared by: The Bible Society of Slovenia.

Another Story

Once upon a time, there was a man who was full of love. He loved his family, he loved his pets, he loved all living things. One day he decided to set up an aquarium. He carefully studied the needs of fish and frogs and snails and other aquatic creatures, how they interacted, which kinds worked best together, how to create the very best environment for them. He carefully selected gravel, washed it thoroughly, and spread it over the bottom of the tank. Some plants were added, for shade and hiding places and food, some rocks for beauty and spawning, and even a little ceramic hollow log, for those creatures who liked refuge.

He carefully filled the tank with water, adding conditioners and biological filtration bacteria, and then let it run for months, so that the tank would grow healthy before he added any creatures. He turned on the light each morning, and turned it off each night. At last, when there were signs that microscopic life was thriving, a little algae was growing, and the plants were lush, he began adding fish.

Guppies went in, for their beauty and fecundity, catfish to scavange what others missed, Zebra Danios for their amusing races around the tank, a Khuli Loach for its unusual shape and wild dashes. Two Angelfish went in, for their friendly grace and lovely elegance, a Red-Tailed Shark, for its benign appearance of menace, some Cardinal Tetras for their neon-like colors, and a Betta Splendons because he was so gorgeous. He also added some snails to help clean away the algae, and some frogs because they were so cute and funny, always posing so dramatically.

And when he was finished, it was very good, and very beautiful, and very soothing.

For a time, all went well. Then one day, one of his cats got sick. It was worrisome, and a little hard to treat, but he managed, even if he couldn't afford the very best care. His dog took ill, and its treatment was even more expensive, but he took it to the local SPCA, which offered veterinary care at a reduced price. But worst of all, his mate fell ill. There was no question now of not getting the best care they could, her very life was in danger. It took many sacrifices and a long time, but eventually she was on the road to recovery.

He turned his attention back to his aquarium. There were problems. Too many snails were being born, and they were taking over the tank, eating too much, fouling the water. So he studied the situation, then got some Swordtails, who loved dining on snail. The Betta and the Shark had taken to bullying the other fish, and nipping their fins. He tried putting in isolation screens, giving them a sort of time out. It worked on the Shark, and when he was allowed to return to the community, he stopped his aggressive ways. But Bettas are bred to fight, and at last he realized he'd have to put that fish in a small bowl, all by itself.

Disease struck next. This was a more serious problem. He bought some medicine, but the label said it would burn the tender skin of the frogs. So, until the tank was healthy again, he had to put them in with the Betta. They got along tolerably well, since the little frogs would fight back if the Betta challenged. The man added the medicine to the tank, and it turned the water blue, detracting from the beauty. Some of the fish recovered, but others began to show signs of severe illness.

He looked at his beloved cat, and his beloved dog, and his dearly beloved mate and children. The fish were very inexpensive to buy, but very, very expensive to take to a Vet. So he allowed death to enter his world. Each day he netted out the fish who had died, and each day he monitored the water and the medicine. Finally there came a day when no more fish were ill. He then started the laborious task of slowly replacing the water, until once again it was sparkling clear, and the frogs could come back home. He bought new fish, for only a few dollars, to replace the ones who had died.

The man had a kind and tender and loving heart. But in the grand scheme of things, the deaths of a few fish were a small matter, and he had far greater worries resting on his shoulders. There was the house to maintain, his need to tend to his spouse, to raise his children, to worry over the cat and dog, bills to pay, work to do, car repairs, groceries to buy. He mourned every fish he had to flush (sometimes even shedding a tear as a favorite went belly-up), but fish were prolific and cheap, and had very small lives compared to the lives of his other pets, let alone the many years his family hoped to have.

Was this man then very good, for all he tried to do, for all the little lives he tried to make peaceful and happy and lovely? Or was he a very bad man, for not saving even the smallest life, no matter what sacrifice that would entail, no matter how it might affect, down the line, his ability to care for the bigger, more important things?

Or is it all just a question of balance?

Monday, August 20, 2007

On Critical Thinking

Of late, I've been thinking about the trends I see in society, and as in many ways the net is a microcosm of real social and intellectual trends, one in particular disturbs me. I suspect that perhaps people have always followed this trend, but today, at the dawn of the Information Age, it is something that I'd truly like to see undergo a change. There seems to be a dearth of critical thinking, online, in America, in the world at large. And worse, critical thinking often comes under attack, the most common statement to that effect being, 'you can do whatever you want, all criticism is only someone else's opinion.' Well, there is some truth to that, certainly most of us here in first world countries live in free societies where we are free to believe as we wish, and I will fight to the death to defend that right. And, as is oft quoted, opinions are like @ssholes, etc. However, these statements are often used to justify everything from sloppy logic to bad writing to prejudice to wildly uncritical belief in almost everything. Do I want to be able to tell you what to think? Of course not. Would I like for you to learn how to think critically, yes indeed.

Critical thinking doesn't mean criticizing *people*, but it does mean thinking clearly about ideas. One of our society's big problems, IMNSHO, is the fact that too many of us seem ready to denigrate critical thinking as some kind of closed-minded, mean-spirited attitude. We are not all created equal, but we should all have equal rights. There's a big difference there. I will never be able to play professional basketball. I can't carry a tune in a bucket. I will never be a gymnast, I trip over patterns in the rug. I'm fascinated by string theory and particle physics, but am incapable of doing the math to truly follow it on the deepest levels. I am a pretty decent writer, I have a few artist abilities (but will never give Van Gogh a run for his money), I'm a world-class cook. I understand that I do not have the talents, or intellect, or eye, or dexterity for some skills. Therefore, it doesn't bother me when someone says, 'Geeze, you are clumsy,' or 'please, sing solo, so low we can't hear you.' Sure, I sing to my pets (and only one of them likes it), but no, I don't think I can be the next American Idol, and I don't think anyone would be doing me a great service by telling my I could. We all have limitations and lacks, and it isn't a kindness to tell people that they have great talent just to spare their feelings. You can be kind about it, you can make reasonable suggestions, but to offer praise where none is due is as cruel, or crueler, than Simon's wicked insults.

I'm older than many people active online. For my generation, praise was generally considered a bad thing for children. It would lead to conceit or swelled heads, or a host of other evils that would set them apart from the herd. In the 60s and 70s we rebelled against this, and stressed the importance of individualism and self-expression. And some of us took that too far. We raised our children so they would never hear the word 'no.' We praised every effort, no matter how mediocre, as incredibly awesome. And we in many ways created a generation who takes any criticism as some kind of personal affront. This leads to shoddy performance on the job, at home, and in the thinking process. Would I go back to an era of never praising a child? Hell no, that was destructive too. What I do wish is that we, as a society, would begin to cultivate self-censorship, good taste, and critical thinking skills. This means educated responses to ideas, to art, to lifestyles. I have many gay friends, and am completely in favor of the rights for them to partner legally as heterosexuals do, including the right to have children by whatever means they choose, from artificial insemination to adoption. Do I think NAMBLA (the North American Man/Boy Love Association) is a good idea? No, because children *are* sexual beings (how many of you remember sexual fantasies from a very young age, or 'playing doctor') but they are *not* adults, and it is the duty of adults to protect children, not to abuse them, or even to take advantage of them because 'the child wants it.' Kids want all kinds of things that are bad for them.

So to claim that someone who doesn't 'believe' in hypnotism, the occult, the dangers of mixing church and state, alien abductions, nationalistic chauvinism (in the pure sense of the word), or a host of other silly ideas as closed-minded is ludicrous. We are so fortunate to have access to so much information that it seems a pity to swallow ideas whole-cloth simply because we like them. In my life, I'm what you might call a humanist Christian. I do believe in greater intelligence than mine, and I believe all the prophets who greatly altered the world were people of exceptional, even 'Godly' insight and empathy and compassion, and I think Jesus laid down an overall pretty good road-map for how to live a decent and loving life. I have no hard proof, and I respect your right to believe otherwise. But in most areas of my life I am a skeptic, and I do my best to research new ideas that seem incredible to me when I first encounter them. My husband is a die-hard skeptic and a regular reader of James Randy's page (, and often brings home articles for me to read. There are times when I think some of the people who contribute to that page go as over-board as those they are attempting to expose, but for the most part it is a sincere effort to educate us, and make us less gullible. I've lately been reading some Bertrand Russell essays, and find him to still be very topical, especially about the world condition today. I highly recommend his Unpopular Essays.

So, open your minds, learn to think critically, learn to do research, learn to embrace this unique time in human history. Just learn.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

A Story

Once upon a time there was a wise and wonderful woman. She was intelligent, creative, and loving. But she felt lonely, and lost in the darkness, because she had no children. Being so wise, she realized that children would bring light and life and wonder to her lonely existence. Because she wanted everything to be perfect for them, she built a beautiful house, with a large, lovely yard. To keep them safe, she built a tall fence around the yard, and filled it with lovely flowers and gentle animals and beautiful toys. When she felt everything was just right, she set about creating her children, in her own body, as mothers will. So, in due course she had two babies, a boy and girl.

She loved these children with all her heart, and she was a perfect mother to them. Night and day she watched over them. They never knew a moment's hunger but that she was there to feed them. They were never cold, or frightened, because she was there to comfort them. She taught them the beauty of storms, from safe within the house. She protected them from frightening stories, from even the smallest hurts, and taught them how to smile and laugh. They were a happy family, where sadness and woe never visited, where danger was banned, where there was nothing her kisses could not cure. To keep them safe, she never took them away from their beautiful home.

One day, when they were old enough to run and play, to climb and roll and jump and sing, she took them to a part of the big yard they had never seen. In it was an amazing playground. There were swings and bars to climb, bouncy fanciful toys to ride, poles that corkscrewed, teeter-totters, sand boxes, wading pools, tunnels, and rope bridges to cross. The children were enchanted, and spent many happy moments exploring all the wonders. Then this loving mother showed them the slide. It had many little steps to climb, and was tall and bright and shinier than any of the other toys. She told her children that they must not play on it. They were free to explore all the other exciting equipment, but they must not touch the slide. Then she remembered the cookies baking in the oven, and went inside to check on them.

As soon as she was gone, a man slipped in through the gate. He was a kindly-looking man, with bright eyes that twinkled with laughter, a mouth made for smiling, straight, even teeth, and a big, booming laugh. The boy was busy building hills and valleys in the sandbox, so the kindly man approached the little girl. He gave her some candy, and told her he had a secret. She, curious as children are, immediately wanted to know what it was. He smiled that friendly smile of his, and said he had a magical pink puppy in his pants. The girl wanted to see the puppy, of course, and the man told her she could. If she would show she was brave enough to climb to the top of the slide, and then slide down, he would let her pet his magical pink puppy.

The little girl wanted very much to see this special little dog, but she remembered that her mother had told her not to play on the slide, and so sadly told the man she could not, for her mother had forbidden it. This puzzled the kindly man, she could tell by the way he crinkled his brow and pursed his lips. “But the slide is the very most fun toy in the world,” he said, “And my puppy is so lonely it wants someone to pet and kiss it. I wonder why she would tell you that you couldn't play with the very best toy in the world?” Then his face brightened. “Oh!” he said, “It is because she is afraid that the slide might hurt you. There are so many steps to climb, without someone to watch you, you might fall. And it is so fast and slick to slide down, she is afraid that without someone to catch you at the bottom, you might fall.” Then he laughed his big, booming laugh. “But don't be afraid, because I am here! I'll watch you climb to the top, and then I'll run around to the bottom to catch you, and you can play with my pretty puppy.”

The little girl instantly knew he must be right. Her mother had never forbidden anything before, and her mother was always so careful to keep her safe from harm, she must only be waiting until she was there to catch her children. The kindly man was big and strong, and he could surely keep the little girl as safe as her mother could. So she climbed the high steps to the top of the slide, sat down on her little bottom, and in a thrilling ride slid all the way down, where the big man caught her.

He opened his pants a little so that the girl could see the puppy's little head. But the puppy didn't look right. It made her feel funny to see it, and so she ran off to get her brother. When she had told him the whole story, he was shocked to hear she'd gone down the slide. “But mother told us not to,” he protested. The little girl explained why, that mother had only been worried for their safety, and the kindly man had made sure she hadn't gotten hurt. Still, the business with the puppy bothered her, and she wanted her brother to see it, to find out what he thought.

So her brother went with her to the kindly man, and asked to see the magic puppy. The man smiled that big smile and said, “If you wish, but first you need to prove you are as strong and brave as your sister. I'll watch you slide, and when you are safely at the bottom, you can see the puppy, and pet it and kiss it.” The boy knew he was as strong and brave as his sister, so he climbed to the top of the slide and slid down. When he got to the bottom, the kindly man caught him and then showed him the pink puppy in his pants. The boy, when he saw it, knew it wasn't a puppy, and that they had been tricked. He grabbed his sister's hand, and they ran to hide from the kindly man.

The children's mother came back out into the yard. When she saw the man, she flew into a rage and demanded that he leave their yard. The boy and girl had never seen their mother angry before, and grew even more frightened. She began to search the yard, calling for them until at last they came out. She was still very angry, and her face and voice, which had always been so sweet and loving, were terrible to see and hear. “Did you slide on the slide?” she asked. Both children were so scared they were afraid to speak. Finally, the boy admitted that he had, but only because the girl had done it first, and asked him so he could see the magic puppy too.

The mother began to rage and shout at the children. Even though nothing had ever been allowed in their little world before that could hurt them, they should have known not to listen to the man. He was a bad man, she told them. The children had never known there were bad men before. They disobeyed, she scolded, even though nothing had ever been forbidden them before. Then she said the most terrible thing of all. Because they were such bad children, they could no longer live in her lovely house, or play in the beautiful yard. She, who had never once raised a hand to them, now snatched a switch from a tree and began beating them with it, until they ran from her crying. “We didn't know,” they sobbed, “we didn't know bad men could lie about puppies. You always told us the truth, we didn't know that lies were possible!” They wept fat, wet tears. “We thought the slide was just one more toy, and you would show us how to play with it. We didn't know it was bad.” Even as they spoke those words, they remembered the thrill of climbing so high, and sliding down so fast. How were they to know that it was wrong?

The mother could not forgive her children for listening to the bad man and for disobeying her. So she told them they must learn to suffer, to hurt, to weep bitter tears for all the years of their lives. And with her switch, she drove them from the yard. Neither they, nor any other children in the world would ever be allowed back into the lovely house and beautiful yard, because she understood now that all children were wicked, disobedient creatures. She got servants with switches to stand at the front gate of yard and the door of the house, lest the children try to sneak back in. From that day on, the children had to find their own way in the world, with no help from anyone at all.

Except, perhaps, kindly men with magical pink puppies in their pants.