Archive for the ‘ Thoughts & Musings ’ Category


Did you know that religions call for peace and understanding, not violence?

Except for the parts where they don’t, but those aren’t the parts good believers obey, at least according to the peaceful (or just hypocritical) practitioners that get cable news spots and write op-eds. So let’s not blame the whole bushel for a few bad apples here, or expect the good and peaceful practitioners of faith to apologize for the bad and violent, all right?

We have heard this a lot, from a lot of people, since the terrorist attacks in Paris last week, and I’m not sure everyone making that argument recognizes how aggressively and radically libertarian it really is.

hashtagI mean, think about it. We can basically boil this school of thought down to #NotAllFaithful — just as #NotAllMen are rapists, misogynists, harassers, whatever, #NotAllFaithful are judgmental, fundamental, dominionist, terrorist, or violent.

And that’s true. But just as, to continue borrowing the language of trend, #YesAllMen are part of and continuers of a systemized inequality, #YesAllFaithful belong to a culture that calls for the privileging of some beliefs and the oppression of others — and, in most countries, to one that has succeeded in achieving that goal with legal force.

As uncomfortable as it is for the faithful to recognize their oppressive presence, the existence of institutionalized religions really does harm people — and yes, kill them — whether #NotAllFaithful want it to or not. And affirming membership or belief in a religion really does mean being part of that system, whether you actively encourage the inequality, work from within to lessen its impact, or, like most people, don’t think about it much one way or the other.

That doesn’t make any individual practitioners of faith bad people, or even doing a bad thing by practicing their faith. But I think people who concern themselves with structural violence and systems of oppression need to realize — if you’re arguing #NotAllFaithful, you’re also arguing #NotAllMen, and #NotAllCapitalists, and whatever other opt-outs you want.

So maybe pause and think before reminding us that the vast majority of religious believers are good, peaceful people. Because they are, they really are. Just like the vast majority of men, of employers, of property owners, of politicians, of police…

It’s Time to Stop Venerating Religious Beliefs

athiest-empty-setHere is a thing that may not be comfortable to hear, but that is by any evidential standard true, and that deserves more public acknowledgement:

Codified religious beliefs are fiction

The things described in works like the Vedas, the Torah, and the Bible are stories. Some are, at times, historical fictions, although most are for the largest part purely fantastical, but they are not true records of any real events.

Most people can grasp this, at least at the literal, factual level. Apart from the genuinely delusional, most of us understand that there is no cosmic entity that exists and identifies itself as the God of Isaac and Abraham, and that personally delivered stone tablets to Moses on Mt. Sinai at a specific date in history. Likewise, no Indra ever killed Vritra and set rivers free thereby, and at no point did a divine father-god impregnate a Jewish woman named Mary, whose son died and then physically rose from his grave.

Those things never happened in any way more real or meaningful or verifiable than the defeat, in a magical world just beyond a London alleyway, of an evil wizard named Voldemort by the plucky schoolboy Harry Potter. All fall into the same category: fictitious, fantastical fables.

That being the case — and regardless of what feels comforting or empowering to believe on a personal level, in terms of factual truth that is the case — we need to recognize that religious ritual is functionally an expression of fandom, no different from the expressions of fans of other forms of fiction. If you’re really into the Torah, maybe you wear a tallit and cover your head; if you’re really into The Hunger Games, maybe you get a mockingjay tattoo and do that three-fingered salute thingie. It’s all the same.

Only of course it is not the same, culturally or legally. A faddish diet like veganism or paleo is just that — a fad — but a religious diet like keeping halal or kosher is something that public institutions are typically required to accommodate, and that private institutions will be criticized for failing to accommodate. A burqa or a turban may be worn to school (although there is at least debate over that, from time to time); a Spider-Man costume or a baseball cap most certainly may not.

It is considered rude to point out this inconsistency. The fact (and again, it is fact) that religious texts are not true records of any real events goes largely unspoken in modern life. This is a useful reminder that “rude” is usually whatever threatens to undermine the cultural capital of the people who have the most of it already. It is also something that needs to change.

To be clear, this is not a call for a ban on religious expression. People should believe whatever irrational things give them comfort, and practice those beliefs in whatever way they see fit, so long as it does not harm others. There’s nothing inherently wrong in covering your head and praying to God, any more than there is in donning a plush suit and claiming to have the spirit of a wolf. It’s easy to see how either or both could help a person through life, and neither should be prohibited — though by the same token, neither should be privileged.

But let’s stop pretending that one is spiritually superior to the other, or that the plush-suited furry is in any way less rational than the pious churchgoer who dresses up sharp on Sunday.

The Strange Trade Secrets of Christmas Tips

I tend to both despise tipping as it’s practiced in modern America and to do it excessively because all other options would make me a terrible human being. This is not, I think, an uncommon sentiment, at least among people who stop and think about it for a moment.

So it’s in that mindset — already grumpy at the institutionalized passing-on of wage costs from the employer to the customer, and further aggrieved by its current seasonal tie-in to a religious holiday mutated and metastasized into a ritual of consumption — that I have to admire whatever genius thought up the Christmas card (with handy return address) left by the newspaper deliverer around the holidays.

holiday-tippingFor those of you who have never received a physical newspaper delivery, the system works something like this: year-round, you see more or less (generally less) of the person who puts the newspaper on your doorstep, or at least flings it in that general direction. Come Christmas time, you’re expected to find this person and tip them a little bonus cash by way of gratitude for an undeniably thankless job, adjusted up or down depending on how close to the doorstep the paper actually gets most days.

Since the odds of your delivery person catching you face to face on any given day in December are already not great, even before you start ducking back inside to avoid them when you see them coming down the street, most deliverers nowadays will leave a nice holiday card along with the paper some day in late November or early December, with their home address printed in nice, clear letters on the envelope and often on the inside of the card as well. Hint, hint, hint.

At this point you, unless you are a terrible person or your papers have just straight-up gone missing for most of the year, reply with a card of your own that contains at least $20, and maybe more if you’re conspicuously living the good life. (Remember, they see your house every day, and have a pretty good idea how flinty you’re being if you lowball the tip. If starving writers like me are coughing up $20 from run-down apartments in the city, people with sprawling suburban lawns should probably aspire to do a little better than that.)

It’s a neat and efficient way of cutting out the random-chance-encounter element, and I really have to wonder how that particular trade secret got spread. Like, do the paper deliverers say to the new guys, around the water cooler or whatever they have, “Oh, be sure to do the Christmas card thing for Christmas tips!” And just what does the cost/benefit analysis work out to once you balance the cards and envelopes against the inevitable jerkwads who don’t tip?

I marvel at this deeply entrenched system, and wonder how it first came to be. Is the initial author of the Christmas card with return address scheme remembered in his profession as an innovator, perhaps even a savior? Should we pause to shed a tear for the database workers who, rather than delivering physical papers, organize and hotfix the streaming of online subscription news services, and who will never see a holiday tip unless they steal it directly from your bank account using your payment information? Am I overthinking this just a tiny bit? Whatever — tip your delivery person, if you get a paper delivered. They’re making it easy on you.

Kentucky’s Troubled Relationship with the Secret Ballot

I grew up in the Midwest, where everyone knew all the dirt on everyone else, and was therefore expected to pretend they didn’t and to espouse a great respect for personal privacy — sort of a social Mutually Assured Destruction scheme reinforced with good old-fashioned Protestant guilt complexes.

It’s not a system I’d necessarily recommend, but it did have some beneficial side effects, like an obsession with secret ballots. Asking how another person voted, I learned at a very young age, was both rude and an insult to our democratic tradition. People fought and died for the right to vote privately, the argument went, so don’t use it to score cheap conversational points or to stir up shit. (Iowans, even in the days before hog megafarms started exploding in geysers of burning manure, had strong opinions on the subject of shit-stirring.)

But like most patriotic lessons learned in the Midwest, that was based more on fancy than on fact. America didn’t start adopting the secret ballot for major elections until after the Civil War, and even then it took a while to catch on. It’s more accurate — albeit more uncomfortable — to say that lots of people died from the lack of secret ballots, most of them black.

alison-grimes-secretary-of-stateCue the biggest non-story out of Kentucky, the last state in the Union to adopt secret ballots for national elections: because talking about actual policy bores viewers to tears, TV reporters and anchors have suddenly become obsessed with Democratic candidate Alison Lundergan Grime’s refusal to say who she voted for in 2012.

This is, I kid you not, being spun as a scandal. Eager to tie Grimes to the unpopular-in-Kentucky President, political and media figures have been characterizing her refusal to say who she voted for as “evasive” — rather than, you know, how our electoral system works.

Whether we buy into the old-fashioned notion that it’s a rude question or not (it is), Ms. Grimes is currently Kentucky’s Secretary of State. Ensuring a private ballot is literally her job right now. Who she voted for in 2012 doesn’t have any bearing on how good a Senator she might make, but discussing it publicly would certainly reflect on how good of a Secretary of State she makes.

Mitch McConnell reminded viewers in a debate Monday that there’s no “sacred right” to privacy at the ballot box. That’s certainly true, in part because America doesn’t have “sacred rights” of any kind. But Kentucky, reluctant though it may have been to follow the trend, does guarantee citizens a private ballot, meaning it very much is a right until the law is changed. And it happens to be a law that Alison Grimes is personally responsible for enforcing.


Gun Crimes Have One Common Factor, and It’s In the Name

Here are some things that other developed nations have:

    • people with untreated mental illnesses
    • social stigmas against seeking help for depression, alienation, etc.
    • violent video games
    • violent movies
    • public spaces where people, by law, may not carry guns

Here are some things that no other developed nations have:

    • virtually unrestricted access to all kinds of firearms
    • our insanely high rates of gun killings (by an order of magnitude or two)

It’s not actually that complex.


I overshare my happiness. I undershare my sadness.


I overshare my rage with structural and systemic injustices, and undershare my anger at wrongs done to my person specifically.


I overshare my food and my drink and my hospitality. I will overshare yours, too.


I overshare the fact that I think you are pretty, and that I would be delighted to make out and/or go to bed with you (although usually not until I have had some beer for courage), and I wish that you would do the same. I undershare the amazing extent to which said making out and going to bed is smiled upon by all current participants in my romantic and sexual life, but only because it seems rude to talk about them when I am with you.


I will probably overshare “the deets” with said participants, but purely from a mental and physical health standpoint.


I overshare on digital spaces that feel like they are mine: my blog, my own Facebook feed; my writing. I undershare on all other social media.


I think you should do the same. Especially re: Facebook.


I overshare about anything pretty willingly, but only if you ask me directly. I undershare when I’m making my half of the conversation up as I go along.


I overshare about things I have read recently that I thought were interesting. This is not to show off; it is because I cannot carry all the interesting things I have read recently around with me all the time to give to you when it seems relevant. I would be happy to clip an article or e-mail you a link if you would rather read the full text and form your own opinions.


I overshare clippings and links, too. This seems to be embedded on the paternal gene.


I undershare the degree to which I worry that you have not contacted me recently because you are angry with me, or have decided you do not like me for some reason, rather than because there has been no real reason to contact me and you have other things to do with your time. Or I did until now.


I overshare my business cards. Why not? FedEx sells them in lots of like 250, and I don’t meet that many new people.


I overshare love.


I undershare love.


But I am, on the whole and when you come down to it, generally in favor of more sharing rather than less.

What about you?

People Who Do Stuff are the Peoplest People (A Reunion-Inspired Ramble on Self-Betterment)

College reunion! That magical moment when those battered and bruised by real life can crawl briefly back to the sheltered academe, where the most stressful decision is whether to go to the 2:30 lecture or just lie on the grass in the sun and make out with someone cute for the next hour.


A time for seeing old friends and meeting new ones, drinking like you’re 18 and getting hangovers like you’re not, testing whether the dorm beds can still hold an intensely active two or even three or more (they can), and finding out whether you can ride a mattress down a flight of stairs standing up without hurting yourself (you can’t).

The re-creation of our college days was pretty faithful, I guess is what I’m trying to say here.

Reunion is also a time for everyone to polish their “what I’m doing now” speech until it gleams. You spend a lot of time repeating the basic catch-up schtick, in greater or lesser circles of people who thank god they’re wearing those dorky nametags because you remember them as “dude who was super quiet and dorky in class but then always ended up right at the center of the loudest and craziest dance parties” or “girl who was always crossing the train tracks heading west when I was coming back east from my history seminar that one semester,” and what the hell were their real names again?

So having heard an awful lot of those thirty second life-summaries and the conversations that followed them, I have come to a fairly obvious conclusion, no less true for its simplicity: if you do stuff, you are a better person to be around.

grinnell-college-honor-gBy “do stuff” I mean get out in the world and interact. With the world, with people; whatever. Having things that take up your time and that aren’t specifically designed as entertainment (TV shows, games, whatever) is really fucking good for you.

This was observable from the conversations. It wasn’t just an issue of having more things to say words about; it was that the people who spent a lot of time on the road or engaged in their community or whatever were better at saying words. There was more give and take. Conversation flowed more naturally.

Grinnellians being, by and large, a go-out-and-do-stuff bunch (I felt woefully under-travelled by the end of Reunion), that meant that nearly all of the catching-up conversation circles were great. They were lively, fun, and very equitable, with lots of genuine interest in what people were doing, mostly because what people were doing was awesome.

I have had other conversations with other social circles that make a noticeable contrast. People who do not go out and do things, and who mostly interact via products designed specifically for entertainment, are much more prone to lapsing into silence or forgetting to offer the basic conversational prompts that keep things moving along.

Go out and do something.

Seriously. Whatever you want, but make it a thing, for its own sake, and get into it.

Hike a bigass trail somewhere. Go to Burning Man, or a foreign country, or a meditative retreat, or anything/where that’s not a business trip. Volunteer with a non-profit. Work a political campaign (no, just kidding; that was an utterly shitty experience in my brief brush with it, but at least it was a thing!). Join an improv group. Play rec-league sports. Whatever.

Because the corollary to my observations this last weekend is that it doesn’t seem to matter too much what you do. If you’re out doing a thing, you’ll come back from it ready and able to engage with other human beings.

And if you’re not out doing thing, you’re kind of not ready. So maybe work on that.


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