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Better Grammar for Better Lives

Posted by Aramink on December 9, 2014 in Grammar, Lawyer |

I get teased a lot for my grammar compulsion. Misplaced apostrophes distract me from the content of written communication, and double negatives instantly downgrade my estimation of the person speaking. I have tried, but these things bother me. It’s no secret: I think grammar is important.

I participate in two critique groups for writers. A new writer came to one of those groups recently. His story featured a dystopian society with teenage protagonists, and something significant was about to happen. Dystopias are popular especially among young adult readers, and his premise was interesting, but reading his submission with an eye critical to style was painful. It took me nearly an hour to agonize my way though his ten double-spaced pages. The biggest problem was not his story. It was his grammar.

He committed the usual subject-verb agreement crimes. He butchered his sentences with improper punctuation. Malapropisms peppered every page. Sentence fragments. Ridiculous imagery completed the ghastly picture he painted with his words. He probably has a good story to tell, but until he learns to tell it in plain – and correct – language, he won’t be telling it to much of an audience.

I suggested that he use a grammar checker. Grammarly’s free online grammar checker is a good one. It’s fun to play with, and it’s educational to boot. Anyone who seriously wants to write well can benefit from a grammar checker.

Plain, understandable language lets us communicate succinctly and clearly. The better people communicate, the more likely they are to get what they want and to understand what others want from them. Skilled communicators are more likely to persuade others. Good, clear language reduces misunderstandings.

GRAMMAR-INFOGRAPHIC-570

 

Jargon-filled vernacular and pretentious verbiage are every bit as off-putting as double negatives. As a practicing lawyer, I have spent huge amounts of time rewriting contracts and legal precedents that other lawyers have written in “legalese.” If the people bound by the contract or the court order or the contract can’t understand it, the document is not worth the expense of drafting it.

Bad grammar and poor usage leave a bad impression. While job interviews and sales meetings obviously require concise communication, so do ordinary daily tasks. Understanding how to assemble a new purchase, how to troubleshoot a technical problem, directions for using medication, information transmitted to and from police and ambulance services – some of these communications make life easier, but others mean the difference between life and death. When careful communication becomes habit, everyone wins.

Let’s practice good grammar – for all of us.

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Duggars Accidentally Raise Money for LGBT Kids

Posted by Aramink on November 25, 2014 in Arkansas, Children, Domestic, News, Religion |

A funny thing happens when someone broadcasts hate. Sometimes – just sometimes – love proves itself to be stronger.

I’m sure Jim and Michelle Duggar never intended to give money to any young LGBT people, especially not LGBT youth made homeless when they came out to their parents.

The Duggars (of TLC’s 19 and Counting reality show fame) live near Fayetteville, Arkansas. In August, Fayetteville’s city council passed an historic civil rights ordinance  that prohibits discrimination against LGBT people with respect to employment, housing, and other accommodations. On the eve of the vote, the pre-recorded voice of Michelle Duggar, mother of 19 good and self-righteous Christian children, made robocalls around town. She was panicked that if transgender women used the “wrong” restroom, some of her brood might be subjected to the discomfort of not knowing whether the woman in the next stall maybe had a penis.

Since the ordinance passed, the Duggars have spent $10,000 in an effort to get it repealed.

Last week, their eldest son, Josh Duggar, who works for the anti-gay hate group Family Research Council, hosted a rally of hate at the Arkansas State Capitol against same sex marriage the day before the Arkansas Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the pending lawsuit.

Poor Josh. He never dreamed he’d be giving a helping hand to those same homeless LGBT kids he and his family, along with their sanctimonious ideological minions, like to bully.

But it’s happened. And as a board member of Lucie’s Place, I’m not thanking the Duggars. I’m thanking an outfit called Memeographs.

See, Memeographs got busy and made a graphic and started tweeting the heck out of it.

Lucie’s Place is a relatively new nonprofit in Arkansas with sights set high to help the local homeless population, many of which are LGBT youth who have ended up on the streets because their parents kicked them out for the dubious sin of homosexuality or being transgender. The graphic got good attention, so later in the day, Memeographs ramped up the campaign with this tweet:

Memeographs tweeted the graphic to various groups and it got picked up and retweeted hundreds of times. In just a little over eight hours, Lucie’s Place was flooded with lots of small donations.  Among many others, Dan Savage retweeted it.

Penelope Poppers, the Executive Director of Lucie’s Place, alerted the board members once she realized what was happening. By mid-afternoon, 54 different people in 28 different states and Canada had donated. The campaign was even mentioned on Sirius XM satellite radio by Mike Signorile, the editor of the Gay Voices section of Huffington Post.

Penelope is not a full-time executive director – Lucie’s Place just doesn’t have the budget for that yet. She said, “I was sitting at work and had to turn off my phone because notifications of new emails were coming in quicker than I could check my email.”

And when she checked the Lucie’s Place bank account?

Lucie’s Place had received about $1,000 in the space of about 8 hours.

Right now, Lucie’s Place offers counseling services, toiletries, clothing, bus passes, and phone minutes to as many clients as possible. Lucie’s Place wants to open an actual shelter for homeless LGBT youth in Central Arkansas, and maybe a mentoring program to help give these homeless young people, most of whom are 18-25, a decent chance at a successfully independent life.

If only about 15% of the entire population is gay, but 40% of homeless youth are, it points to a societal problem.

family rejection

Only one shelter in the area will accept openly gay or transgender people, and it is always full. On the shoestring budget it has, Lucie’s Place does what it can. It is raising money and saving toward a facility, which may be years in the future unless something amazing can happen. The organization is still hundreds of thousands of dollars away from its goal.

Can you help make that amazing thing happen? Please donate.

Help Lucie’s Place realize the dream of a real shelter for real kids adversely affected by the hateful bigotry that so often results from the twisted Duggaresque interpretation of religion.

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The Truth Behind My English Degree

Posted by Aramink on November 19, 2014 in Personal |

Fraternity parties, reading and writing. College didn’t consist of much else.

Oh, there were variations on the theme, of course. Maybe instead of Fraternity Row, we headed downtown to one of the bars. Maybe a study group got together to discuss the assignment at the on-campus pub.

I started out in political science. When a Canadian foreign policy professor insulted me in class for being “stupidly southern” – my accent had not yet flattened into the nondescript sound it would have by the end of my college career – I switched to philosophy. Weed and philosophy just seemed to go together, and as a college freshman, I liked weed. The term papers, fortunately, came easily.

Too much of philosophy dealt with religion, though. Kant bored me. Kierkegaard had some good points, but his conclusions disgusted me. Don’t even get me started on Nietzsche and the nihilists. It became hemlock to me. Me, who preferred whisky sours. I felt like a hack pulling an all-nighter to spew existentialist nonsense through my typewriter onto onionskin paper.

At a party at the Beta house just before fall class selections were due, an interesting guy I had just met talked about his passion for history. We drank a hell of a lot of beer that night, and, still hung over on Monday, I signed up for a history major.

History is where all the best stories were, right? Battles, intrigue, betrayal, love stories, revenge, swords, longbows: history had them all. I had a great professor who liked to host parties at his home for his favorite students. We’d go and talk about more history. But why did all of these cultures clash? Over cheese dip and home-made hard cider, the conversations I liked best were the ones that talked about motivation, not just the cold facts.

One spring evening at the history professor’s house, his buddy from the Sociology Department showed up wearing a t-shirt from Belize. Belize had just become independent from Great Britain. (Yeah – now you can tell how long ago this happened.) He spoke passionately about imperialism and colonialism, and I was hooked on a new discipline. I also discovered that Long Island iced teas oiled conversation really, really well.

The next semester, I signed up for every class the Belize guy taught, and I adored his Welsh accent. Anthropology and Sociology ripped my attention away from the details of medieval European wars. Cultural annihilation and tribalism made for much more fertile ground for delving into the mysteries of what motivates people.

Campus was a microcosm of colonialism, tribalism, and cultural annihilation. Some of us resisted the allure to joining Greek tribes; others of us embraced them. None of us would leave the same people we were when we arrived. Intramural rivalries made for every party on the Row outdoing the last. Theta Chi was a very different tribe from Sigma Chi, despite sharing the same last name.

It wasn’t until the spring of my junior year, when I realized that I was writing the same paper for a sociology class that I had written for every other sociology class I had ever taken that I decided I’d had enough. Two days before the end of the drop-add period, I dumped that sociology class and changed my major to English. It was the only major I knew I could complete in two semesters. I still adored that professor with the Welsh accent, though.

I graduated on time, even getting a class in nothing but Kurt Vonnegut novels to count toward my new major. I cranked out papers faster than ever. I soared on the written page. And now when I hung out with the guys at the Fiji House (may it rest in peace), I could talk about any subject under the sun. I had, it seemed, even if only briefly, majored in them all.

On a brilliantly sunny day in May 1984, I got my sheepskin. I had my Bachelor of Arts degree. It claimed to be a B.A. in English, but I knew better. My B.A. in English was actually a B.A. in B.S.

Ah, the humanities of it all.

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Rapert’s Utopian Theocracy Defines Marriage

Posted by Aramink on June 1, 2014 in Arkansas, Domestic, History, News, Politics, Religion, Science & Skepticism |

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette gave significant print space today to state senator Jason Rapert to let him deny that he ever called for Judge Chris Piazza’s impeachment. (It seems the paper printed the story, and then refused to issue a correction despite Rapert’s demands, so they allowed him to submit a “guest column.”)

You may recall that Judge Piazza declared the ban against same sex marriages unconstitutional, which raised Rapert’s Neanderthal hackles. Rapert’s screed focused on the will of the people as opposed to the foundational laws of our country – at least, the will of 753,770 people who voted a decade ago against letting any pair of consenting adults marry.

Oh, and God, God, God. Because God. Or, at least, Senator Rapert’s version of a god.

From Rapert’s essay:

I believe the current culture war on marriage between one man and one woman is a symptom of the degradation of the fundamental principle that is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution–that our government is based upon “We the People.”

We, the people of this country and of each state, do indeed elect those who make our laws. Occasionally, in the case of a referendum (the ban on same sex marriage was a referendum back in 2004), we the people actually vote on whether something should be a law. But we don’t all vote – not even when we’re eligible.

Judge Piazza decided that 750,000 individual citizens of our great state, representing 75 percent of the electorate at the time, were wrong, and their sense of morality and beliefs no longer mean anything in Arkansas. In reality, he rendered a judgment essentially saying that the will of an overwhelming majority of the people in our state means nothing and their votes do not count.

But did the majority of Arkansans, actually reject same sex marriage? Did we, the Arkansas people, actually speak with a strong voice about this matter?

Arkansas has a population of around 3 million people, 3/4 of which are over 18. According to the United States Election Project, 54% of the population eligible to vote in Arkansas made it to the polls in November 2004, when the legislature’s referendum was on the ballot. The total turnout was 1,070,573 – about a third of the actual population of the state. Nearly 2 million Arkansans were eligible to vote.

About 1/4 of the population of the state was sufficiently incensed over the notion that equality might happen that they beat a path to the polls in that election to vote against equal marriage rights for their LGBT neighbors, friends, and family members. Not a majority of the population. Not even a majority of the population over 18 or a majority of eligible voters. Just a majority of people who voted on that issue decided to maintain an unequal status quo.

It gets better:

Judge Piazza and activist judges like him … are saying they no longer respect the values, traditions and mores of the majority of the population in our nation and that they singularly have the right to impose the will of a small vocal group upon the rest of our state and the nation.

More than anything, this quote from his essay underscores Sen. Rapert’s lack of understanding of both the concept of separation of powers and the role of the judicial branch of government. It also tells me that a man charged with the responsibility of making laws does not understand that there is this foundational document called the United States Constitution that gives him – and the judges who overrule him – that authority. The U.S. Constitution and the Arkansas Constitution define the roles of each branch of government and explains how checks and balances work. Where state and federal laws conflict, federal law trumps.

Changing that foundational document takes much more than the proverbial “act of congress,” and ever since Marbury v. Madison was decided in 1803, the judicial branch was confirmed as that branch of government endowed with the responsibility of interpreting how laws should be applied. Therefore, judges like Chris Piazza are doing their jobs – not engaging in activism – when they interpret laws withing a constitutional framework. We don’t have to like their decisions. If we don’t like their decisions enough, we can appeal them to a higher court, until the buck stops with the US Supreme Court. Ultimately, the language of the United States Constitution applies.

Jason Rapert and his ilk don’t like the decision. Rather than wait for the appellate process to weave its constitutional magic, they scream like banshees at the idea that other human beings – human beings who are a tiny bit different from them – will get treated like actual full citizens of this state and country.

Rapert felt the need to make a number of points about how awful it is for the nasty homos to call themselves a family:

As for the context of the debate raging in our nation and now in Arkansas over same-sex marriage, there are a few things that must be said.

First, honoring the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman whether out of a sense of morality or based upon one’s religious faith does not mean that a person hates homosexuals.

With this quote, we see what the problem is. Jason Rapert really wants to live in a Christian theocracy. Of course, not a theocracy defined by, say, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Quakers, or Evangelical Lutherans. Nope – he wants a Southern Baptist or fundamentalist evangelical theocracy. In other words, if someone else’s religious beliefs don’t mesh with Rapert’s, then they obviously shouldn’t have the right to hold those beliefs.

And he doesn’t hate homosexuals – he just doesn’t think they are really “people” and that they shouldn’t have the same rights to the pursuit of happiness as “real” people. Of course he doesn’t hate them. How can you hate someone that isn’t really a person? It would be like hating a doll or a tree or a puppy. It’s like accusing an atheist of hating God. It’s not possible to hate something that doesn’t exist.

Rapert’s claim of a “sanctity” of marriage is the big giveaway. Marriage is a contract between two people. It isn’t a sacred state; it’s a legal one. Sure, the couple can have their marriage blessed, and because that blessing is important to many people the state generously allows religious leaders to file their credentials with the state and empowers them to confirm the existence of the marriage in a religious ceremony. The bottom line, though, is that the state has the final say over whether someone is married or not and over who can sign the marriage license. The legal documents have to be in order. The mere act of blessing the couple’s union is not sufficient to marry them. And by virtue of their elected or appointed office, nonreligious people also have the power to marry people.

Furthermore, to dissolve a marriage is akin to dissolving any other legally binding contract. What the state has joined together, the state must split asunder.

barbados-gay-marriage

This is the sanctity Rapert wants to protect. Seriously.

Rapert goes a step further in his “I don’t hate” insistence:

I do not personally hate anyone who has chosen a homosexual lifestyle and I believe they should be able to live their lives in peace like anyone else.

Really? Then why is he so gung-ho to deny them the basic and fundamental right to form a family with the partner of their choice? Why does he want to deny them the rights that heterosexual spouses have when it comes to matters like health care decisions? Why does he want to deprive them of inheritance and property rights like dower and curtesy? Why does he want to deprive them of the parental rights to children they have raised together? Why does he want to deny them the tax status granted to legally married partners? Why does he want to deny them the ability to obtain insurance as a family?  Why does he want to deny them retirement benefits a spouse would normally get automatically? Why does he want to refuse them the privilege of not testifying against each other in court? Clearly, he does not want them to be able to have the same rights, privileges, and protections “like anyone else.”

Oh, there’s a reason for that, according to Senator Brother Rapert. “[M]arriage is integral to the concept of family, and research shows that children are given the best opportunity for well-rounded social development when they are raised in homes with a mother and father.”

Sure, children do better when there are more adults with a hand in child rearing. The gender of the parent-figure doesn’t matter, nor does the gender orientation of that parental figure. The fact that there is a stable home with the same adults in the household matters.

Not just one, but several factors tend to forecast a happy, successful child. Stability of the family is a paramount predictor of a child’s success. Based on all the research gathered to date, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) has concluded that “[l]ike all children, most children with LGBT parents will have both good and bad times. They are not more likely than children of heterosexual parents to develop emotional or behavioral problems.”

Canada agrees. In 2006, the Canadian Psychological Association reiterated its 2003 position on the issue:

CPA continues to assert its 2003 position that the psychological literature into the psychosocial adjustment and functioning of children fails to demonstrate any significant differences between children raised within families with heterosexual parents and those raised within families with gay and lesbian parents. CPA further asserts that children stand to benefit from the well-being that results when their parents’ relationship is recognized and supported by society’s institutions.

Therefore, if this is all about the children, validating the union of same-sex parents will go much farther to stabilize families than telling the kids that they don’t have a “real” family at all.

Senator Rapert calls a marriage between one man and one woman “natural” marriage. Once again, he displays his ignorance on a sleeve.

Marriage is whatever the law deems it to be. Let’s look at how marriage laws used to be:

Biblical-Marriage-Infographic

Click to embiggen and read this wonderful infographic that comes complete with citations.

 

Out of all that, he picks only one style of marriage to be “natural.” Blinders make the world a lot less expansive, don’t they?

Mildred Loving might find his comments ludicrously funny. She would have noted the irony that completely escaped Justice Clarence Thomas in his dissent in the DOMA and Prop 8 cases that were decided a year ago: but for a US Supreme Court finding that equal protection was violated by the anti-miscegenation statutes on the books of many of the states, his own marriage and family would not be recognized as valid.

US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his melanin-challenged wife, Virginia Lamp Thomas

US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his melanin-challenged wife, Virginia Lamp Thomas

Senator Rapert claims he’s not prejudiced.

Fourth, the tactics of intimidation toward those who object to same-sex marriage, including comparisons to racism, are unfair, unwarranted and shameful. When I was invited to join over 100 African American pastors on the steps of the Arkansas Capitol just a few days ago as they took a public stand for marriage between one man and one woman, that argument began to fall completely apart.

He actually wants us to believe that his embarrassingly solitary white face in that crowd of black pastors was because they invited him, not the other way around.

black rapert

Jason Rapert lies, therefore his argument is invalid.

The comparison to racism is unfair? Why? Because giving equal rights to people born with a different skin color is different somehow from giving equal rights to people born with a different gender orientation?

Let’s imagine for a moment that in 1859, there was a vote in some slave state (just for giggles, let’s pick Arkansas) to preserve the status quo and make it illegal for the government to free the slaves. Heck, let’s take it one step further and suggest that in this vote, any black people who weren’t slaves would automatically become slaves unless they left the state before the end of the year. The state was determined to maintain an unequal status quo.

Impossible, you think?

Nope. That totally happened.

Rapert then claims that the bad press he’s gotten is because people don’t like his “stance on marriage and also as the sponsor of the Arkansas Heartbeat Protection Act.” He is absolutely right. His ideas are completely repulsive to those of us who value our individual liberties, autonomy over our own bodies, and the freedom to make very personal choices for ourselves. He claims that these are the acts of “liberal extremists.”

If only “liberal extremists” are in favor of same sex marriage, then we have generations of “liberal extremists” to look forward to. Liberal policies are the hallmark of progress, while conservative policies tend to be just the opposite. Senator Rapert, like many Tea Party Republicans, goes beyond maintaining a status quo, though. His policies are regressive and authoritarian. Passing statutes for no good reason other that wanting to deny equal rights to a segment of society they find distasteful is a reprehensible way to govern. He does not deserve the office he holds, nor do his like-minded comrades in office. Their policies are fascist.

It’s all about Senator Rapert’s religion, when it comes right down to it:

The America I was taught to honor and respect would never force Christians to do anything that violated the tenets of their beliefs. We have freedom of religion in this nation, not freedom from religion altogether.

No one is forcing anyone else to get gay-married. They aren’t forcing them to go gay-grocery shopping or to gay-teach students. No hate-filled Christian has to have gay sex or even decorate with glitter or rainbows. They don’t have to hire gay interior decorators, get their air trimmed by gay stylists, or wear clothes designed by gay designers. They also don’t have to benefit from the use of computers conceived by gay Alan Turing or read books and plays by gay Oscar Wilde or Gore Vidal. They can switch the channel when Ellen comes on. They can boycott Wachowski films like the Matrix trilogy, Cloud Atlas, and V for Vendetta. They don’t have to patronize LGBT businesses and art any more than LGBT people have to patronize those who proudly proclaim their prejudices and hate.

What they cannot do, though, is refuse service to any LGBT person on account of their hate. As it did upon the demise of Jim Crow laws, the Heart of Atlanta case will provide the precedent to prevent discrimination by businesses through the application of the Commerce Clause of the US Constitution.

Oh, and that dig about freedom from religion? Yes, that’s actually a thing. It’s also the law. If we don’t have freedom from religion, we can’t possibly have freedom of religion. Otherwise, courts would be in the business of establishing religion, and telling us which tenets we have to observe and which we don’t. And the First Amendment to the US Constitution says that can’t happen.

But Senator Rapert feels victimized:

It is very interesting that Christians are targeted so heavily with the venom of the homosexual lobby because most all other major faith traditions do not embrace homosexual marriage either, including Islam.

I would suggest to Senator Rapert that perhaps because they invoke their religion as the reason someone else can’t do something, they seek to establish their religion as the law of this country. And like I mentioned above, they don’t want to establish the denominations that are tolerant of other people’s private behaviors. They want to establish an authoritarian, restrictive, invasive religion. That is entirely, absolutely, completely, and decidedly unacceptable. If the Muslims were the ones doing the screaming and quoting the Qur’an as the reason we shouldn’t allow certain people equal rights, Senator Rapert and his troglodyte cronies had better believe that the American people would object to that, too.

I’m not even going to respond to the whole God thing Senator Rapert spewed on and on about in his column. The United States of America is not a theocracy, and Senator Rapert and his ilk may not cherry-pick their favorite version of the Bible to oppress people with Iron Age laws. If immigration rates continue the way they have been, pretty soon a majority of Americans will be Papists. Does he want a Catholic nation just because the majority of the population attends mass?

If the basis for a law is Biblical, it should immediately be suspect, and it should bear intense scrutiny. The science and research do not support these laws, no matter what they are.

Arkansas voters and legislators have an unpleasant history of maintaining an unequal status quo. When men make decisions for how a woman may take care of her own body, when straight people make decisions for how gay people may create and care for their families, when white people make decisions about whether black people can take part in the electoral process, there is a very real danger that the dominant and privileged among our population can – and will – oppress those whose voices are not as strong. That’s why the constitutional safeguards of equal protection and due process exist.

Oh, and

P.S. It’s not “activism” for a judge to uphold the constitution.

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Same Sex Marriage: Arkansas Just Became Gay-Friendly!

Posted by Aramink on May 9, 2014 in Arkansas, Domestic, News, Politics |
(Source)

It’s a hard climb to the point where Equality is a Thing. (Source)

Arkansas is now added to the list of states that permits same sex marriage. Judge Chris Piazza’s decision did not come with an automatic stay, and the Pulaski County Clerk (the county where Little Rock is located) says that starting Monday morning, his office will be able to issue gender-neutral marriage licenses.

The decision strikes down more than Amendment 83 to the Arkansas Constitution, which was passed by the state’s voters in 2004. It also declared several laws aimed at preventing same sex marriage that were passed by the Arkansas legislature in 1997.

Arkansas Attorney General had said privately that he wouldn’t oppose a ruling striking the same sex marriage laws in Arkansas, but last week said he believed he had to continue to defend the laws on appeal as part of his duties as the state’s chief lawyer.  Among practicing attorneys, there has been hot debate about whether McDaniel would be more ethical to defend the laws or not.

Unless the attorneys on the case get cracking, though, it’s unlikely that there will be a decision before next year, when the make-up of the Arkansas Supreme Court may be more conservative after the mid-term elections.

But come Monday, if any same sex couples want to get married, they should hurry to the courthouse, get their licenses, and let me know. I’d be proud to do the officiating.

Read the court’s decision here.

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How Did You Arrive at Non-Belief?

Posted by Aramink on April 30, 2014 in Children, Death, Personal, Philosophy, Reading, Religion |

Sometimes I am asked how I came to be atheist. The short answer is that I was born that way.

No one is born with a religious belief system – our parents and others have to tell us the stories and indoctrinate us with their religion. That’s why there are so many Hindus in India, so many Jews in Israel, so many Muslims in Arabia, and so many Christians in America. We are indoctrinated into the religion of our parents. No Buddhist kid surprises his Christian parents with his full-blown understanding of the sutras as soon as he can talk, just like no Christian preschooler tells his Hindu parents that the only way to heaven is to accept Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior. We all have to be taught religion.

I think some kids are born skeptical. I think I was, and I see those traits very strongly in my oldest and youngest nephews and in my oldest niece. My youngest niece and middle nephew are plenty smart, as is my son, but they don’t have the attitude of “Nuh-uh, you’ll have to prove that to me!” and the excitement inherent in “That’s so cool! How’d that happen?” that the other three do.

DA Presbyterian Church

Presbyterian Church, Des Arc, Arkansas (Source: Kevin Stewart)

My mom is Presbyterian and my dad was Catholic. There was no Catholic church in Des Arc, Arkansas, where I grew up. The Presbyterian Church had been founded by my mother’s ancestors when they first came to Prairie County in the 1800’s, so naturally, that’s where we were taken as kids. The ceiling was pressed tin, and I cannot begin to guess how many times I counted those decorative squares out of sheer boredom.

In Sunday school, we were taught all the usual stories. One of my earliest memories is of sitting in the Sunday school classroom coloring a picture of Daniel in the lion’s den and listening to the teacher explain that God had closed the mouths of the hungry lions so they wouldn’t eat Daniel. I remember thinking, “Nuh-uh. They just weren’t hungry, or there was some other reason.”

By that age (probably by about 6), I already knew the truth about Santa, and had ruined it for my sister and one of our friends. My sister and our friend Mischelle will say how mean I was – truthfully, I think I was just so delighted and excited to have my suspicions confirmed that I couldn’t wait to tell them. They were about 4 or 5 when I ruined Christmas for them forever, and neither one has ever, ever forgiven me.

When I was a little older, I realized that the weekly sermon was supposed to be based on the Bible readings that were part of each church service. I started opening the Bible and reading the verse along with the minister, then reading the passages that led up to it and beyond it. So many times I wanted to raise my hand and tell the minister that he was wrong – if he had read the verses that came just before or just after, he would realize how off-base he was. He was taking the verse out of context and building a brand new story around it, and assigning it meaning it didn’t have.

Then I started reading other parts of the Bible in church just so I didn’t have to listen to the inane ramblings from the pulpit. I came across Judges 19, and at that point I could not accept that there was anything good about these stories at all. A few years ago, I reinterpreted the atrocities of that chapter in a short story set in the modern era. It won a scary short story contest.

Concordant readings and the hymns were excruciating. Eventually, I decided I wouldn’t say or sing the words I thought were silly or that I didn’t agree with. I refused to say out loud that I was a worthless sinner (I didn’t think I was) or that I wanted divine intervention in anything (because I didn’t think it would happen). Then I realized that the whole thing was vapid and insipid. It was just another Santa Claus story.

Illustration by Dori Hartley

Illustration by Dori Hartley

When I was about 9 or 10, I threw a major hissy fit over church. It was a Sunday morning. We were ready to walk out the door for Sunday school and I had had enough. I remember screaming at my mom, telling her that the whole thing was stupid, that God wasn’t real, that God was really mean and horrible, and that going to church was pointless because praying was stupid and the words we were supposed to repeat every week were stupid and made no sense – hey, I was 9 or 10, so everything I didn’t like was “stupid,” right?

My Catholic dad stepped into the middle of my meltdown and suggested that Mom go ahead to church with my brother and sister. He said that he’d have me watch church on television while they were gone. After I calmed down, he started telling me about the Mover of the First Part. (It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized he was teaching me Aristotelian philosophy and basically regurgitating Thomas Aquinas’s apologetic Summa Theologica.) Of course, my question was, “Who made the Prime Mover, then?” Dad didn’t have an answer, but he said we had to watch church on TV since he had promised Mom.

Oral RobertsHe told me that there was a TV preacher named Oral Roberts who started every broadcast by saying, “Something GOOD is going to happen to you!” That’s who we would watch. Sure enough, he turned on Oral Roberts, and sure enough, those words came out of the preacher’s mouth the very first thing.   As soon as the words were said, Dad switched the channel over to a John Wayne movie.

John Wayne Maureen Ohara

Dad and I spent many Sundays watching John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Henry Fonda while mom and my siblings were at church. I developed a great appreciation for Westerns (including the spaghetti variety), and was introduced to all-time favorites like the Cheyenne Social Club and Paint Your Wagon, World War II standards like Mister Roberts and Donovan’s Reef, and straight-up classics like The Quiet Man.

fonda-kelly-stewart-social-club I still had to go to church fairly regularly, but after that I always sat next to my dad, and we always found something to giggle about during the hymns and whisper about during the rest of the service. We made an effort to twist things to the absurd. Having a secret, fun co-conspirator made me feel better about having to go in the first place.

I don’t think Dad was atheist. He may have been agnostic, but I suspect he made Pascal’s Wager, because he always told us to get him a priest if we knew he was dying. Not a Presbyterian minister, even though he eventually joined the church and even became a deacon – he wanted a Catholic priest. As it turned out, my father died very suddenly, and there was no time to get a priest. Atheist me insisted that we call one, though, just to satisfy that need he had – because that’s what he had always said he wanted. It was a matter of respect.

When I was about 12, Mom insisted that I take Catechism classes – part of the training for joining the Presbyterian church, even though I insisted that there was no way I would do that. I dutifully memorized the Bible verses and the doctrinal responses. The Presbyterian Church in Des Arc had a tiny congregation, and I was the only student at that time. I spent more time questioning the sense of the verses and the responses to the doctrinal questions, asking “Why?”, and demanding answers to the unanswerable than anything else. The minister’s answers never satisfied me, mostly because things like “God’s ways are mysterious” and “We aren’t meant to know” are completely unsatisfactory answers to someone whose brain thrives on and revels in knowledge. When I was given an answer that rested on convoluted or circular reasoning, it drove me further away from belief, not closer. I never joined the church.

ASES Green Hall

Green Hall, All Saints Episcopal School, Vicksburg, MS

My sis and I were sent to an Episcopal boarding school for high school. During the course of the curriculum, and especially in our senior year, we had to take a class that entailed reading the Bible and being tested on it. I actually looked forward to having this class, because the priest who taught it, Father John Babcock, was very approachable, friendly, and related well with all of us kids.

Unfortunately, a different priest taught that class my senior year. He was more academic than Fr. Babcock, and had us write long, college-like essays on exams. For the midterm, he asked a question that started, “Why do you think…?” Silly me took the bait. I told him exactly what I thought about whatever the topic was. I got a C, which, if you know anything about perfectionist me, you will understand really upset me. When I went to talk with him about it, he told me that I was wrong, so he couldn’t give me a better grade. I was totally pissed – my opinion was only worth a C because it didn’t match his ridiculous opinion.

fearandtremblingAt Colgate, one of the first classes I took my freshman year was the Philosophy of Religion. Aristotle, Kant, Kierkegaard, Aquinas – this is the class where I read about the Prime Mover and remembered my dad’s explanation from a decade before. None of the explanations that any of the religious apologists offered were satisfactory. The reading selection in that class that hit me the hardest was Kierkegaard’s explanation of the Isaac story in Fear and Trembling. It seemed to me to be the stuff of tortured logic. If religion was the source of morality, then how could Isaac’s sacrifice be morally wrong but religiously right? There was no answer to this except the “leap of faith.” Nope – not only was that answer not good enough, it was ethically reprehensible.

If none of these religious stories and doctrines made sense to me, how could they make sense to other people? WHY did they make sense to other people? I decided to try to find out. I went to different religious services on campus, both Catholic and Protestant. I talked to a friend who went from Colgate to Harvard Divinity School to be a rabbi. (He told me a few years later that the rabbi thing didn’t work out, because anyone who pays attention in Divinity School ends up atheist. He’s a doctor now in Springfield, Massachusetts.) I spoke with a cousin who is a Presbyterian minister. I’ve spoken with friends who have strong faith.

When I ask people why they believe, they tend to get defensive instead of explaining their rationale. My asking them why they believe is not meant to be antagonistic – I really want to know, because to this day I don’t understand why normally rational, compassionate people would buy into this whole faith thing. “You’ve just got to believe,” they tell me. No. No, I do not.

My mother once remarked that because I went to Catholic and Episcopalian services, I must like the ceremonial flavor of the more ritualized  “high church” sects. I wasn’t going to church so I could get religion. I was going to try to figure out what other people got out of it. What I concluded was that the ritual seems to calm and comfort the people who attend these churches. Ritual is comforting. We know what to expect, we know what we are supposed to do. Ritual, like meditation, has a calming effect on the human psyche.

Rituals need a purpose, though, and I have never found purpose in a purely religious ritual. I see the point of the ritual in a wedding. I can see the point of ritual when it comes to memorial or funeral services. I see the point of other rituals that mark life transitions, like the naming of a baby or graduation or the passage to adulthood. I understand why human beings want these rituals to formalize life transitions. It doesn’t mean they are any less real if there is no ritual, but it does recognize the transition publicly, and we all want our major life changes to be recognized by others. Recognizing those life transitions is one of the main reasons I got ordained with the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and filed my credentials with the Pulaski County Clerk. Those rituals need to be recognized regardless of religious persuasion or non-belief.

When I got married, I agreed to a church wedding. Mostly that was because a church wedding was important to my beloved mother-in-law, who has a very strong faith. She knew this was the only wedding either of her children was likely to have, and it needed to be right for her. Skip and I would have been perfectly happy – and just as married – to have a judge say the words and sign the certificate on our front porch, followed, of course, by a kegger for our law school buddies. Instead, we were married in a giant church and had a reception at a country club.

We had our child baptized for the same reason – not because I wanted to do it, but because it was important to his grandparents. We took him to church when he was about 5 or 6 because we thought he needed to have had that experience. In retrospect, that was an exercise we didn’t need to put him through. I enjoyed the young adult Sunday school class that we went to there, though, and a few of those classmates I still call friends.

I’ll never forget the Sunday the minister of that church decided to teach our class. We were reading something attributed to Paul, and I was challenging at least half of what the blessed apostle wrote.

“Good! It’s good to question your faith!” the minister said to me, and the entire room erupted into laughter. My Sunday school classmates all knew I was atheist, but evidently word had not filtered up to the pulpit.

“I’m not questioning my faith,” I answered. “I’m questioning yours.”

So, I never “arrived” at non-belief. Truthfully, I didn’t have to. I never found a reason to leave non-belief in the first place.

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Zimmerman, Trayvon, and Justice

Posted by Aramink on February 21, 2014 in Domestic, Friends, Lawyer, News |
Trayvon-Zimmerman-diptych

Good Trayvon, Bad George

Yesterday, some friends of mine – all of whom have Big Brains and Big Compassion, argued intensely and passionately about George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. Because my friends are passionate, compassionate, intelligent people, they are more likely to disagree very strongly when they disagree. Yesterday, tempers flared. Folks got defriended and blocked. “Fuck yous” were tossed about. Names were called. It was decidedly unpleasant all the way around.

I’m very glad they don’t disagree more often.

I haven’t said anything about this case because what I have to say won’t be popular: the American system of justice worked in the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case.

Does it piss me off that a 17 year old kid died for no apparent reason? You bet it does. Do I think Zimmerman acted wrongly? You bet I do. Should he have been convicted of murder for his conduct? Not based on the evidence.

The jury did not have enough evidence to convict Zimmerman of murder. The evidence was ambiguous at best, and tended to exonerate him. In order to convict someone of a crime, there can’t be any reasonable doubt as to the criminality of his conduct. When evidence is not clear, when it can be interpreted more than one way by reasonable minds based on the totality of the circumstances, the evidence doesn’t rise to the level of “beyond reasonable doubt.” Therefore, the jury had no choice but to find Zimmerman not guilty. They did not find him “innocent,” mind you. They found that there was insufficient evidence to say he was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

It’s true that had Zimmerman not followed Trayvon, both would have their lives today. He was told by the police dispatcher not to follow the suspicious person and he ignored that instruction. He probably ignored it because he knew police were on their way and he wanted not to lose sight of the person he deemed to be suspicious. George Zimmerman should never have followed Trayvon Martin. Period. But once he did, the facts become much murkier, and the most important question becomes whether he was justified in using deadly force after the situation escalated. And that’s where reasonable minds may differ.

A terrible thing we do as a society is second-guess juries based on media hype. What happened was awful, tragic, and ultimately pointless. Zimmerman was probably the aggressor in that he scared a kid who was just walking home. That kid probably made a mistake when he decided to lash out at a guy who was scaring him by following him. The situation escalated out of control, until ultimately a gun was fired. Whose fault was it? Both Zimmerman and Martin screwed up their engagement, and one of them died as a result.

Don’t get me started on the unreliability of eyewitness testimony. I’m not going to rehash the evidence. Wikipedia and about ten million news stories do that for us, and they are all available on the Google for anyone who wants to look for them. What we absolutely cannot do is armchair quarterback the conflict and the trial.

I’m not defending George Zimmerman. What he did was stupid, ill-advised, and ultimately cost a child his life. I’m also not persecuting Trayvon Martin. Based on the evidence presented, Trayvon acted in self-defense himself. And when two people reasonably believe they are acting only in self-defense, and one of them dies, there should not be a murder conviction. If reasonable minds can differ in the heat of the moment, they can certainly differ as to whether, in hindsight, the actions of one of those parties rose to the level of criminal conduct.

The bottom line is that based on the evidence it was presented, the jury did the right thing – just like they did in the original OJ Simpson case, and just like they did in the Casey Anthony case. Personally, I would rather have a guilty person walking the streets than an innocent person rotting in jail. All too often, juries seem to convict defendants on less evidence than “beyond a reasonable doubt.” When there is room for doubt, and that doubt is reasonable given the known facts and circumstances, juries should never convict. Even if, in the guts of each and every one of them, they think the defendant is most likely guilty. “Most likely” isn’t the standard of proof. “Beyond a reasonable doubt” is.

What Zimmerman did was wrong. Had he not disregarded the dispatcher’s advice not to follow a person he deemed suspicious, we would not know his name and Trayvon would be a freshman in college somewhere. Had there been no “stand your ground” law, the case may well have turned out very differently. Had George Zimmerman not been armed when he and Trayvon confronted each other – whichever of them initiated the confrontation – the entire situation may well have turned out differently. Zimmerman, not Martin, might be the dead person, and Trayvon Martin might have been acquitted after a national media circus. Or he might have been convicted.

I haven’t practiced criminal law since 1991, but as I recall, the person who initiates the conflict is generally at fault if he has reason to believe that things will escalate to the point of physical violence. In Zimmerman’s mind, he was following a probable criminal. It would not have been unreasonable for him to think that criminal was armed – yet he engaged him anyway. At least, we think he did. No one actually knows whether Zimmerman or Trayvon initiated contact. And that’s why the jury couldn’t convict him.

I’m not going to call for Zimmerman to be persecuted, lynched, chased off a beach, or otherwise harassed. I would like to see his concealed-carry permit revoked, because I firmly believe that his gun probably made him braver and less cautious than he might have been had he been unarmed that fateful night. However, I admit to an extreme distaste for guns and the inflated bravado they inspire. (If I had a dollar for every time someone had remarked that a gun would have taken care of the men who robbed me last year, I’d be rich. And if I’d had a gun handy that night I might be dead. Or in intensive psychotherapy because omigod I shot someone.) What I take away from the Zimmerman-Martin situation is that we need realistic gun control laws, and we as a society absolutely must stop romanticizing how handguns protect us. They don’t. They endanger us, whether or not we are the person wielding them.

I want justice for Trayvon Martin, but I don’t think the criminal conviction of his killer is the justice that will prevent this situation from happening again. It certainly won’t bring Trayvon back. Responsible laws and public education about the use of force and weapons will make a difference. Warehousing George Zimmerman in a prison won’t. And if Zimmerman is going to commit crimes, he, like any other criminal, ought to be judged on the merits of his conduct in that circumstance.

I can’t imagine being George Zimmerman right now. He’s a pariah in the media, which delights in scrutinizing every mistake and case of bad judgment the man makes. Is Zimmerman a shitty person? Maybe. Some of the things reported about him sure paint that picture. He’s also under incredible stress – he HAS to be, given the microscope the national press uses to follow him. No one acts completely rationally under intense, chronic stress. The media scrutiny on Zimmerman’s every move is horrific. If someone followed me around and reported everything I said and did for months on end, and then only reported the negative stuff and not the good or boring stuff, I’d probably be suicidal.

If I were George Zimmerman, I’d move, get plastic surgery, change my hair, and change my name.

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Bad Trayvon, Good George

1

Teaching Children Critical Thinking

Posted by Aramink on January 30, 2014 in Children, Conversations With Children, History, Personal, Religion, Science & Skepticism |

I get asked a lot about how I approached the question of religion when my son was young. Did I insist that he follow my lack of belief?

No, I did not. That he has a vivid imagination but a rational and humanistic lifestance is attributable, I think, to making sure he knew how to think for himself.

One of the things we most urgently need to instill in our children is the to think critically about the world around us. Not just when it comes to religion, but when politics, ethics, and personal conflicts are in issue, having the skill to think rationally about things is crucial to a better life.

carlin question everything

I taught my child to question everything. Lots of times, I taught him to do it by asking him questions. Yes, my son was raised by Socratic Method. We had rules, but we felt it was important for him to understand the reasoning behind the rules.

  1. I never said no to him without giving him a reason. “Because I said so” is not a reason. “Because I don’t feel like it” is.
  2. If he calmly and rationally rebutted me, I listened. If his argument was better than mine, I changed my position. That being said, if he was argumentative or rude, he automatically lost the argument and often got sent to his room to calm down. If only this process were observed in the political arena, we’d be in great shape!
  3. We explored his questions and his interests together. We did science experiments in the kitchen and back yard. And because Dinosaurs Are Awesome, we kept a notebook full of dinosaur information, and added newspaper and magazine clippings to it regularly. I still have that notebook.
  4. Bedtime stories were just as likely to be stories from history and science as they were from Narnia or Hogwarts. We told each other stories we made up, and we made up stories together.
  5. When he was preschool and elementary school age, we bought age-appropriate books of Greek, Norse, Egyptian, Native American, and other mythology, which we read right along with the children’s Bible our son’s grandmother gave him.
  6. He played the video game “Age of Mythology,” which taught him about the capriciousness of deities. Later he graduated to “Age of Empires,” and when he told me William Wallace was his hero, I knew for sure that these games were okay.
  7. We played the “what if” game, to imagine how things might be different if one thing about the world was different, and we explored the best possible uses of a time machine.
  8. Magazines full of popular science were in every bathroom and on every tabletop. Discover. Archaeology. National Geographic. Smithsonian. We read those articles together, too. When he got older, he would pick up the magazines himself and read them.
  9. We watched science, nature and history shows together. Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin was at his pinnacle when Jack was growing up, and there was a lot of really good stuff on that show. We grieved his death. The Walking with Dinosaurs documentary series (not the new movie) was on the Discovery Channel – back when the Discovery Channel still was about science. Connections – that James Burke documentary series that combined science, history and technology in wonderful ways – was a favorite, too.
  10. I spent time in his elementary school classrooms, and talked not just to him but to his classmates about how to tell stories, all about fossils, dinosaurs, how the legal system works, how amber is formed, and more. I even organized a field trip to the local juvenile court where his classmates and my lawyer friends put some naughty dinosaurs on trial. After the trial, we visited a real juvenile detention facility.
  11. I took him to Sunday school. I felt like I needed to, because I wanted him to understand where his religious friends were coming from. He went to Bible School one summer, too. He was in about second grade. We only did this for about a year, because I’m atheist and it was on Sunday mornings, when civilized people lounge around the house in pajamas reading the New York Times and doing crossword puzzles. I wanted him to learn, but not be indoctrinated.

This is when I knew I had succeeded:

When he was about 11, I asked him whether I had to do the Easter Bunny schtick again that year. “What do you mean, ‘schtick’?” he asked.

“Your father never helps me and I have to stay up late and I really don’t want to,” I told him. (Yeah, I was kind of whiny about it, I admit.)

“You! What about the Easter Bunny?”

“Son, do you really think a bunny hops around the house after we go to bed hiding eggs and pooping jellybeans?”

“Well, no … but can I still have the basket? And all the candy?”

“Sure, sweetheart.”

Fast forward to summer. He had lost a tooth and I forgot to put money under his pillow.

“Mom, the tooth fairy forgot last night.”

“I’m sure she was just busy and lagged behind. She’ll get to you tonight if you put it under there again.”

The next morning he reported that the tooth fairy had once again forgotten. “Just go get my purse. Get a dollar out of my wallet.”

“What? You’re the tooth fairy, too? First the Easter Bunny, now the tooth fairy – what’s next? Santa Claus?” I could tell he was annoyed, but I needed to get to work.

“Yes, son. And right after that comes God,” I said.

He looked at me in pure shock and horror for about three solid seconds, and I wondered what I would say next. Then he burst out laughing.

“I knew all along, Mom.”

Eventually, I sent my son to an Episcopal school. I did this because, after working in the juvenile justice system for a decade, I was terrified of gangs in our local public middle schools. There weren’t a lot of private school options, so I chose the least religious of the bunch, where I thought he would get a good education (that included evolution as real science, not as part of some non-existent controversy). He was inoculated against religion before he went, because critical thinking was automatic and habitual with him by the time he was enrolled there in 5th grade.

He had to take religion classes for one semester both in middle school and in high school. That was fine with me, because I doubted he’d read the Bible otherwise. Let’s face it: it’s a lousy, poorly-written book with plot holes big enough to fly 747s through, but knowing enough to be able to talk intelligently about it is pretty important in our culture.

In middle school, he pretty much kept his head down and just did his work. In high school, though, Father John wanted more out of him. The very first day of class, the priest threw out a question:

“Jack, What do you think prayer does?”

There were pockets of laughter around the classroom as Jack hesitated.

“Yeah, Jack! What do you think?” asked one of the students.

“What’s so funny?” asked Father John.

“You asked an atheist what he believes prayer does!” one of Jack’s classmates blurted. Jack was probably grinning, too. I hope he was.

He said, “I don’t think prayer does anything, but I can understand how it might be helpful for some people.”

I’m happy with his response. My son the critical thinker is also much more diplomatic than I am when it comes to this subject.

We need to give kids credit for being able to think for themselves – but we need to teach them to do it, too. It’s part of our jobs as parents, to give them the tools to understand and deal with the world, and to be able to determine for themselves what is credible.

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2

On the First Day of Christmas, My Sister Fed to Me…

Posted by Aramink on January 5, 2014 in Children, Humor, Personal |

~~I’m very tardy with this post. It should have gone up on Christmas Day. Oh, well. Christmas isn’t officially over until tomorrow, when Epiphany strikes.~~

 

The year Jack was 15, he and I went to my sister’s for Christmas dinner. When we got there, Susan put a pork tenderloin in the oven and we gathered around the tree to open gifts. Susan’s two boys, ages 15 and 13, were there, as was my mother. We spent a lovely hour ooohing and ahhhhing over what everyone got and gave. It was a very nice time.

We were almost through opening gifts when Su left to check the pork tenderloin we were having for Christmas dinner. She was in the kitchen for a few minutes. The rest of us waited to open any more gifts until she returned.

We were chatting and laughing and not paying any attention to her when Su tip-toed back into the living room and tapped me on the shoulder. “Come here,” she whispered.

I had been sitting on the floor. I got to my feet and followed her into the kitchen.

“Have you ever cooked a pork tenderloin?” she asked.

“Sure,” I told her. “Lots of times.”

“Good. I have something I need to ask you, then,” she said, and opened the oven door. She reached in and pulled out the roasting pan holding the meat. I thought she would ask me about how to tell if the meat was cooked through, or how best to carve it or something. I am always willing to dispense sisterly advice. But that wasn’t what Su wanted.

“Is it supposed to look like this?” she asked.

portk-tenderloin-2

I gaped.

I blinked.

Su put the pan down on the counter and grinned at me real big. “Shhhh,” she said.

We walked back into the living room, and she beckoned to Mom.

I couldn’t help it. I could barely hold in my laughter, and it was obvious. I do not have a poker face at all. When my mother followed Susan into the kitchen, I did my best to keep three large teenage boys at bay, thinking they were too young and … ahem … tender … to witness what had been prepared for Christmas dinner.

I was unsuccessful. The boys barreled into the kitchen just as their grandmother was in the act of looking at the slab of meat that faced her. Their Gran glanced up with a quizzical look. For a second I thought she didn’t get it.

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Then she burst out laughing.

The boys crowded around. “What is it? What’s so funny?” they demanded. Their mothers and grandmother were laughing too hard to tell them.

Su headed down the hall to the bathroom before she wet her pants. When she came back, she suggested that a creamy Bearnaise sauce would be a lovely accompaniment.

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That set us off again. Su headed back to the bathroom.

We females of the family enjoyed every bite. “Mmmmmm.” “Yummy.” “This is delightful,” we said.

The boys, for some reason, opted for a meatless Christmas dinner.

And now, for the crucial question:
If a pork tenderloin is circumcised, does that make it kosher?

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1

How My Family Helped Start a Shitstorm Called “Vermont”

Posted by Aramink on December 31, 2013 in History, Personal, Religion |

During a recent visit with cousins from out of state, I learned that my mother’s family’s Mayflower connection is through Mercy Leonard, the wife of Samuel Robinson. I started doing a little digging to confirm this. I haven’t found the Mayflower connection yet, because, hey, I just started looking, but I found something else that grabbed my attention.

Because I get absurdly excited by all of these family history discoveries, I have to share. Grab a Bloody Mary (yeah, we’re related to her, too, but it’s way distant) or pour another glass of grape juice, and settle in for a little history lesson.

In the mid-eighteenth century, both France and Britain claimed parts of what is now Vermont.  To further complicate matters, three British colonies – New York, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts – laid claim to at least a portion of Vermont’s territory. They argued nastily among themselves as to which colony had the right to issue land grants in the area. In 1741, to the relief of New Hampshire and New York, a royal decree finally prevented Massachusetts from claiming lands north of its current border. But the French and Indian War, also known as the Seven Years War, broke out in 1756 over territorial lines between the American colonies claimed by France and those claimed by England. Vermont lies less than 50 miles south of Montreal. Its territory was very hotly disputed.

The British finally took control of Ticonderoga (New York) and Montreal (Quebec), and in 1760 signed a peace agreement with France to end the North American portion of the conflict. The North American battles between France and England that started in 1756 had spilled over to Europe, where it the Seven Years War finally ended for good in 1763, making it last – you guessed it – seven years.

Even though the European superpowers had resolved their territorial differences, the British colonies had not. Before the ink was dry on the North American peace agreement, New Hampshire colonial governor Benning Wentworth began making land grants in disputed territory. His motivation was part colonial power struggle and part avaricious land speculation. Many of the settlements that sprang up as a result of Wentworth’s land grants were named for Wentworth and his rich and powerful pals who he hoped would support him when New York predictably got testy over the whole matter. The very first of these land grants went to our ancestor, Samuel Robinson, for Bennington.  Samuel knew the area because he had camped there with his troops during the French and Indian War.

Samuel Robinson died in London, England on October 29, 1767. He had been elected by a convention of Vermont towns to go to the king to petition for validation of the New Hampshire land grants. He succeeded, but was stricken by smallpox before he could return home. In a twist of fate, his grandson Dr. Benjamin Robinson (1776-1857), would pioneer smallpox vaccination in America.

The territorial dispute among the colonies was not resolved before the Revolution. Vermont was never a separate English colony. Depending on who was asked, it was part of either New Hampshire or New York. In 1777, during the Revolution, Vermont declared itself to be a separate Republic because of the land disputes between New Hampshire and New York. After the Revolution, in 1791, Vermont became the 14th state. The New Hampshire land grants pretty much prevailed once everything shook out.

My 7th great-grandfather Captain Samuel Robinson was a product of the First Great Awakening, an evangelical religious movement that started in New England in the 1730’s. This evangelical movement championed a version of separation of church and state that was first proposed by Roger Williams when he founded Providence, Rhode Island, along with Richard and Catherine Marbury Scott. (FYI: Catherine Marbury Scott is my favorite of our direct ancestors. Her older sister, Anne Marbury Hutchinson, was utterly amazing, and I’m going to be just like her when I grow up. That means I’ll be run out of Boston and killed by restless natives on Long Island, but that’s another story.)

Roger Williams promoted the notion that freedom of thought, of opinion, and of the press would inspire individual religious belief, not dogma dictated by a ruling hegemony of religious leaders. Naturally, these religiously “free” places – like Providence – permitted their leaders to impose their version of religion on local residents. The movement was born in Puritan New England, after all. (Non sequitur: Massachusetts was the last state – yes, state – to abolish established religion in the United States in 1833.)

Our illustrious forebear did all he could to ensure only the right sort of Christians were his neighbors. Mercy Leonard Robinson and her children are buried in Old Bennington Cemetery, next to the church Samuel Robinson founded there. The original church building no longer exists, but its replacement celebrated its 200th birthday in 2006.

After the Revolution, Mercy and Samuel’s son Moses (named for Mercy’s father – it’s her I’m researching, remember) was a member of the delegation sent by the Republic of Vermont in 1782 to the Continental Congress to work out the territorial dispute with New York. He later served as governor of the Vermont Republic and oversaw its transition to statehood. He served as one of the first pair of senators from Vermont. Several of Samuel and Mercy Leonard Robinson’s sons were prominent leaders in politics and medicine. Religion, not so much. That was their father’s bailiwick.

Thomas Jefferson is credited in legal doctrine with the phrase “wall of separation between church and state” because of a letter he wrote to the Baptist Church leaders in Danbury, Connecticut in 1803. Before the famous Danbury letter, though, he wrote a letter to Moses Robinson in 1801 on the subject. The original is at the University of Virginia among Jefferson’s papers. Jefferson, who had been President for less than a month at the time the letter was written, expressed dismay that so many of the clergy seemed to want to establish state religion, and ended his letter with a complaint that still rings in my ears today – mostly because I listen to my own words, and I pontificate about this a lot:

The eastern States will be the last to come over [to Jefferson’s notion of a secular and scientific nation], on account of the dominion of the clergy, who had got a smell of union between Church and State, and began to indulge reveries which can never be realised in the present state of science. If, indeed, they could have prevailed on us to view all advances in science as dangerous innovations, and to look back to the opinions and practices of our forefathers, instead of looking forward, for improvement, a promising groundwork would have been laid. But I am in hopes their good sense will dictate to them, that since the mountain will not come to them, they had better go to the mountain: that they will find their interest in acquiescing in the liberty and science of their country, and that the Christian religion, when divested of the rags in which they have enveloped it, and brought to the original purity and simplicity of its benevolent institutor, is a religion of all others most friendly to liberty, science, and the freest expansion of the human mind.

 (Today, I’d insert “Southern and Midwestern” for “eastern” in that first line. In fairness to Jefferson, not only was the letter written before the Civil War and Dust Bowl devastated the economies of those regions, thereby providing fertile ground for more religious fervor, it predated the Louisiana Purchase.)

According to a recent Gallup poll, Vermont is now the least religiously-inclined state in the nation. I assume 7th great-grandfather Robinson would not be nearly as amused as I am by this, especially since his own sons began selling land to the wrong sorts as soon as old Sam was room temperature.

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