Engaged with the World

Category: Reading


Look what my favorite offspring gave me yesterday!

My favorite book is S. Morgenstern's The Princess Bride, good parts edition by William Goldman

“This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it.” – William Goldman

I discovered the Princess Bride in its first edition when I was a teenager in the mid-1970’s. I loved it. LOVED IT. It remains one of my favorite books in all the world, and I have owned many copies and many editions of it. (My favorite back-cover blurb read simply: “What happens when the most beautiful woman in the world marries the most handsome prince in the world and he turns out to be a son of a bitch?”) I usually keep at least one extra copy on hand because this is a book I push on people.

They wave it away dismissively. “I’ve seen the movie,” they tell me. “But you haven’t READ it,” I insist as I make them take the book anyway. The book contains all the good parts and many good parts didn’t make it into the 1987 movie.

Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Poison. True love. Hate. Revenge. Giants. Hunters. Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest ladies. Snakes. Spiders. Beasts of all natures and descriptions. Pain. Death. Brave men. Coward men. Strongest men. Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion. Miracles.

For years I refused to see the movie. I could not bear the thought of my beloved book ruined by Hollywood’s chop-shop attitude toward beloved books.

I need not have delayed. William Goldman was both the author and the screenwriter. William Goldman, who wrote such classic screenplays as Butch Cassidy & Sundance Kid. Yes, THAT screenwriter. My beloved book was in the very best hands for the job. It was in the hands of the brilliant S. Morgenstern himself.

When the swordfight between the Spaniard and the Six-Fingered Count finally arrived on screen during that first reluctant viewing, I probably shouted with delight. Mandy Patinkin got it exactly right – exactly as I had pictured it in my head for all those years. “HELLO. MY NAME IS INIGO MONTOYA. YOU KILLED MY FATHER. PREPARE TO DIE.” And Patinkin delivered the ultimate line when Count Rugen promises Inigo anything – anything! – if Inigo will please not kill him, with perfect anger and finality: “I want my father back, you son of a bitch.”

Billy Crystal’s Miracle Max was spot-on. Goldman literally conceived of Fezzik as Andre the Giant. Very briefly after my divorce, I dated a guy who was a dead ringer for the non-hunchbacked, screen version of the Sicilian Vizzini. The relationship was doomed when he didn’t understand why I kept referring to his need for an immunity to iocane powder or why the word “inconceivable” seemed to slip into the conversation so much. I will admit that I thought Cary Elwes was a little too pretty and not quite muscle-bound enough to be Westley, but Chris Hemsworth was still in diapers. I will also confess that I own a CD of Mark Knopfler’s soundtrack to the movie.

As I flip through the beautiful pages of this edition, I see illustrations straight out of my reader’s memory. I reread favorite passages that I had memorized before I was old enough to drink alcohol legally. Some passages didn’t make it into the movie, like the very beginning of the book:

Chapter One. The Bride.

The year that Buttercup was born, the most beautiful woman in the world was a French scullery maid named Annette. Annette worked in Paris for the Duke and Duchess de Guiche, and it did not escape the Duke’s notice that someone extraordinary was polishing the pewter. The Duke’s notice did not escape the notice of the Duchess either, who was not very beautiful and not very rich, but plenty smart. The Duchess set about studying Annette and shortly found her adversary’s tragic flaw.


Armed now, the Duchess set to work. The Palace de Guiche turned into a candy castle. Everywhere you looked, bonbons. There were piles of chocolate-covered mints in the drawing rooms, baskets of chocolate-covered nougats in the parlors.

Annette never had a chance. Inside a season, she went from delicate to whopping, and the Duke never glanced in her direction without sad bewilderment clouding his eyes. (Annette, it might be noted, seemed only cheerier throughout her enlargement. She eventually married the pastry chef and they both ate a lot until old age claimed them…).

Goldman brilliantly used the device of an editor inserting himself into the narrative to explain “cuts” in the “abridged version”. The movie changed that device somewhat and while Peter Falk still would have been the perfect immigrant father reading to his very ill son in the 1940’s, I deeply regretted the loss of the scenes in Los Angeles and New York, with that sick little boy all grown up and desperate to find a copy in English (not in the original Florinese) to give to his own son.

This is my favorite book in all the world, and I have read it countless times. I will read it countless more, I am sure.

Thank you, Jack! There’s a reason you’re my favorite.

In Which I Briefly Review Some Recently-Read Books


Here are some of the pages I’ve been turning in 2017.

Words of Radiance, by Brandon Sanderson. I finished the first book of this series on New Year’s Eve and immediately started on the second.  Tomes of 1000-plus pages take no time at all when the story is engaging with dynamic characters, a well-paced plot, and high stakes. I’m looking forward to the next installment. Epic high fantasy. Yasssss.

Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance. I galloped through this memoir. The author jarred me with his anecdotes of his own coal country and rust belt roots. Ostensibly his story should at least partially explain current working-class disillusion with current politics and economics. However, he casually accepted extremely abusive relationships. He showed no empathy for the hopelessness felt by people who lacked his resourcefulness, intelligence, and drive to remove themselves from familiar dysfunctional surroundings. Maybe that’s the telling attitude that explains the state of middle America today.

The Fourth Turning, by William Strauss and Neil Howe. My beloved aunt Jackie recommended this book to me after Donald Trump won the presidency. I finished it just hours before #45 issued his disastrous executive order banning immigration from seven Muslim countries. The authors dissect the historical, cyclical patterns of political engagement, economic crises, and social dysfunction. The predicted “hero” generation should save us, but (cue sinister music) the American Civil War cycle skipped that generation to propel us into a disastrous Reconstruction.  If the authors’ prophecy proves true, political matters will get worse before they get better. Kids, hold on to your pants. It’s going to be a rough ride.

Dr. Seuss Goes to War, edited by WWII historian Richard H. Minear. I saw a cartoon online, searched for it, and discovered the existence of this book. I had to own it. Before The Cat in the Hat, Dr. Seuss drew political cartoons. From January 1941 – January 1943, his cartoons covered the political climate of the time. These prescient, recognizably Seussian drawings speak of racism, isolationism, immigration, demagoguery, refugees, and a fearful populace. Like his books that still hold the fascination of 21st-century children, so many of these cartoons are timeless: “America First,” isolationism, and racism went hand-in-hand in 1941, just like they do in 2017. That didn’t work out so well in 1941, and it won’t work out well in 2017. And Dr. Seuss, who explained so many things so very well,  explains why.

The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, by Sam Kean. I like Kean’s enthusiastic, punchy writing style. He clearly knows his topic and uses footnotes well. (I do wish they appeared at the bottom of the page instead of stuck in the back, though.) Tales of brain injury abound, starting with Henri II of France’s mishap with a broken lance through his eye socket and ending with an iron rod shot through Phineas Gage’s frontal lobe. Neurologists trace seizures, language, consciousness, learning, memory,  and bizarre behavior to specific parts of the brain as well as to all parts of the brain. The history of neurological discovery makes a riveting journey. It ranks among the best books our club has chosen, in my opinion.

The Blood Mirror, by Brent Weeks. I really liked the first book of this Lightbringer series, but now in Book 4, I suspect the book’s editor has taken a vacation. The writing itself has become sloppy. The uneven timeline bugged me. At one point, a weekend passes for one character across about six chapters, while months pass in the interspersed chapters focused on another. I have had issues with two of the main characters since Book 2. One guy can’t decide what name to call himself (and neither can the author). Another swings schizophrenically between the terror of ridicule and abandonment and the confidence of charismatic leadership. If the author were in my critique group, I’d strongly encourage another revision.  I keep reading because the story itself is still good. I do love me some epic high fantasy.

Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood. This is the first volume of her Maddaddam trilogy, which I’ve been meaning to read for a long time. My all-time favorite English professor, Fred Busch, introduced me to Margaret Atwood when he assigned her book Surfacing. Possibly her best-known book is The Handmaid’s Tale, that dystopian look at North America in the thrall of a dysfunctional religious right. (For some reason it has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity since November 8, 2016.) Oryx and Crake starts off with eugenics and touches only lightly on dystopia before immersing the reader into post-apocalyptic survival. Science goes horribly wrong, and, terrifyingly, the wrongness was planned.

The Three Body Problem, by Liu Cixin. This extremely popular Chinese science fiction author has won numerous awards. This book won the Hugo in 2015 for Best Novel. Ye Weining, the primary antagonist traumatized by the Cultural Revolution makes one decision after another to set up the inevitable conflict between humans and extraterrestrial intelligence. The author does a great job with the physics of near-lightspeed travel. (I understood about a tenth of it.) I’ve never before in science fiction encountered aliens such as these either in form or in sympathetic substance. The translator, Chinese-American writer Ken Liu,  included extremely helpful footnotes; otherwise, references to China’s Cultural Revolution would have evaded me.

Caleb’s Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks. My friend Gladys knows my love of colonial American history. She was shocked that I had never read this book. While waiting at a restaurant for our dinners to arrive, she placed an order on Amazon. Not only did it arrive, so did every other book by the same author.  (Thank you, Gladys!) The author has taken historical facts and enlivened them into a lyric of time, place, and emotion. From Martha’s Vineyard to the original library at Harvard College, she weaves a vivid tapestry of 17th-century life for English settlers and their attitudes toward their Wampanoag neighbors.

 Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks. (Thank you again, Gladys.) Bubonic plague, a good-hearted woman, orphaned children, incredible loss and abuse, sincerely held religious beliefs, dead rats, an earnest young cleric, angry villagers, accusations of sex with the devil, herbal lore, and quarantine of a 17th century English village. What more could anyone ask for?

March, by Geraldine Brooks. (Thanks, Gladys.) As kids we all loved Louisa May Alcott’s  Little Women books, right? One of the under-developed characters is the father. At the end of the first book, he returns from the Civil War after suffering an illness.  March is his story.  We see Marmee in a new light, and not everything flatters her. Alcott could never have written this gritty story with its raw emotions.

Little Lord Fauntleroy, by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Recently I saw a local musical production of The Secret Garden. Along with A Little Princess, Burnett’s two famous books played a prominent role in the bookshelves of my childhood. I did not find them hidden among the family treasures hoarded by my mom or my sister.  I located and ordered the editions I remembered: the ones with the illustrations by Tasha Tudor.  (Which, I’ll have my mother know, were copyrighted in 1962 and 1963 respectively and therefore could not have been hers when she was a child they’re mine and Susan’s so there.) Along the way, I discovered that Burnett also wrote this little book. It took me almost two whole hours to read it on Easter morning. I should have been out looking for zombies. No kid is that damn good. And who would want them to be?

 Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (revised edition), by James W. Loewen. High school textbook authors continually propagate factually false, Eurocentric, and romanticized views of American history. Loewen collects these popular myths in one place and systematically shatters them. He examined a dozen high school American history texts for accuracy and for their relative perspectives. I’ve read this book slowly because each chapter has independently managed to get my blood boiling. Patent lies and sinister fact-twisting may assuage Euro-American sensibilities, but these white-washed stories of American history taught in schools foment racism and xenophobia. The results pollute social media posts and right-wing “news”.  No other book has so adamantly compelled me to join a protest.

People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks. Yes, another one by the same author. This wasn’t as fast a read as her others, nor was the story as compelling. It did send me to look up the Sarajevo Haggada, though. The book ended too soon. Circumstances threatened the Haggadah again in the last decade without a ministry of culture. Fortunately, the recently reopened National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina displays the book again. I hope the museum makes digital images of the pages available. I love illuminated manuscripts.

Gardening With Silk and Gold: A History of Gardens in Embroidery, by Thomasina Beck. Beck is the author of several books about florals and embroidery. I joined my local chapter of the Embroiderers Guild of America a year or so ago. I’m learning cool things and seeing amazing handwork done by very talented people. The chapter president is clearing out her collection and gave this book to me. (Thank you, Sandy!) Gorgeous images of gardens and flowers fill this book. The author explains the history of the techniques. It’s a lovely addition to my library and suitable for display on the coffee table.

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman. I started watching the series on STARZ and got confused, so I re-read the book. Once again I must remind myself that books are not movies, and movies “based on” books are not cinematic reproductions of books. This time I read the 10th Anniversary Edition, which is a revised edition that includes some things Gaiman left out of the original. It was still an amazing exposition on why we worship both the old gods and the new. Also, his prose is pure poetry. Also, read his other stuff. Also, he’s an amazing writer, did I mention that?

The Anglo-Saxon World, by Nicholas J. Higham and Martin J. Ryan. The Anglo-Saxons invaded England after Rome vacated the premises. Arthur fought them.  They buried a lot of gold in Staffordshire. Alfred was the Greatest of them. William conquered them and now they’re all gone. These half-truths are about as much as most people know about the Anglo-Saxons. I love the maps and high-quality images in this book. Yes, I read textbooks for fun. Shut up.

N.K. Jemison‘s Broken Earth trilogy: The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky. OhmyfuckingGOD rush out and get these books NOW.  Do not hesitate. Do not dally. Get thee to a bookstore and find them immediately. Read them. Caress them. Savor them. There’s a reason the first two books in this trilogy won the 2016 and 2017 Hugo Awards for Best Novel. The only reason the third book hasn’t is that it was just published. This trilogy is world-building and world-breaking at a level most of us can’t even imagine. This trilogy has character development that goes deeper and more multi-faceted than any of the rest of us can even hope to glimpse in real life. The books are written in the second person – a feat very few authors ever in the history of writing have effectively pulled off – and as the reader understands who the narrator is speaking to, who the narrator even is, and why the second person is necessary, the reader also understands the love and pride of parents and the devastating independence of children. This trilogy is sublime. READ IT.

Behave, by Stanford neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky. It’s easy to adore Dr. Sapolsky. He studies stress and publishes serious science books with titles like Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers and Monkeyluv.  His book A Primate’s Memoir is one of the most memorable books I’ve ever read – I push it on people regularly. Part travelogue, part primate behavior, and all solid science, it explores behavior and conflict in contexts that stretch from personal to continental. It’s the only science book that has ever moved me to tears. Behave is almost as good. As the New York Times Book Review put it, this is the book you’ll wish you had in college to understand the brain.  Sapolsky’s writing is always understandable to a layperson. His voice is pleasant, cheerful – at times pretty darn funny – and immensely knowledgeable. He explores the chemistry and structure of the brain, how it changes as it ages, how and why it triggers the reactions it does, and how it controls itself. It also explores the concept of free will. The philosophers among us will like that. Watch his recent TED Talk and watch his graduation address to Stanford students in 2009. He’s engaging, personable, and brilliant, and it all shows in his research and writing.

Grace Without God, by Katherine Ozment. I met the author at the Arkansas Literary Festival and the book was selected for our book club. The author participated by Skype – how cool is that? This book is important because, aside from being written by a former Arkansan without religious faith, it was written for other people without faith. It’s hard to be different. How do we explain to children why we are different and how can we effectively participate in our communities when our communities are organized around religious institutions?

On Costain, the Plantagenets, and History Books

I love all these things. I love reading, period. There is so much to learn, so much to know. If I can come away from a few minutes of reading with one real fact to share at a cocktail party, the magazine rack in my bathroom library is worth the small investment.

I like science books explain concrete things that we don’t ordinarily think about. They engage us in subjects that aren’t essential to our survival or even to our happiness, but that simply interest us and send us off on a quest to know more. They may be the books that explain innovations, technologies, or practices that controlled the civilizations of their time, from the development of agricultural practices to the economy of the Silk Road. They may examine animal behavior, linguistics, migrations, burial practices, or art. They may be the history books that examine the politics and personalities of an era that led to a revolution. The books that stick with us are the books that teach us something.

I know which books kicked open my love of English medieval history. I know when I read them and why. Sometime in the mid-1970’s, my dad was re-reading one of his favorite authors. As he often did, he read the fun parts aloud to whichever of his children happened to be in earshot – he loved sharing his books as much as he loved reading them.

That day, he was reading Thomas B. Costain’s Below the Salt.  I remember asking him what the title meant, and he explained that in medieval times salt was still a precious commodity. Only the wealthy had much access to it. Even in the dining halls of royalty or nobility, only the head table was allowed free access to a salt cellar. At the other, lower, tables sat the hired hands, the retainers, the working people, and the less influential members of the noble house. They sat “below the salt,” or at tables without access to valuable salt.

below the Salt

Salt? Cheap, ordinary salt? I was incredulous. Dad read me more passages from the book about heroic William Marshal, the beautiful and tragic Maid of Brittany, and King John, perhaps the most depraved of the Plantagenet kings of England.

“The stories are true,” he told me. “Mostly.”

Thomas B. Costain wrote historical fiction that was so well researched that even experts found it difficult to discern what was truly history and what was not. When Dad finished Below the Salt, I picked it up and read it for myself. Then I asked for more. Dad didn’t just give me Costain’s novels, though. Costain had written four nonfiction books about medieval England’s Plantagenet rulers. These works are his true gifts to his readers. Those four books about the very real, larger-than-life descendants of William the Conqueror absolutely riveted me. I couldn’t put them down. I was only about 14, and I was fascinated by the battles, the swordplay, the tournaments, the lust, and the alliances.

And I had so many questions! Why was the Count of Anjou called “Plantagenet”? (Because he wore a sprig of blooming broom – “planta genêt” in French). Why were the kings of England named for a French Count? (Because he was their father, and married their English princess of a mother, who used to be an empress before she had to settle for a mere count.) How did the counts from France get to be English kings? (Read the books!)

Then I asked for more. Dad didn’t just give me Costain’s novels, though. Costain had written four nonfiction books about medieval England’s Plantagenet rulers. These works are his true gifts to his readers. Those four books about the very real, larger-than-life descendants of William the Conqueror absolutely riveted me. I couldn’t put them down. I was only about 14, and I was fascinated by the battles, the swordplay, the tournaments, the lust, and the alliances.

A History of the Plantagenets Boxed Set (1962)

Costain’s writing led me on a romp from one English civil war (with the death of Henry I and the usurpation of the throne by his nephew Stephen of Blois) to the next (the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses). I credit these books with making medieval English history roar to life for me. Costain’s vivid descriptions of the personalities and actions of the Angevin kings, their nobles, and their enemies launched my lifelong fascination with this era.

And the writing! These are not dull history books. Engaging, fluid prose exposes the mysteries, romances, political posturing, and betrayals. Anyone who can tell stories like this really should be a history teacher. No one can possibly come away from these books without a new fascination for the Conqueror’s family and their unique brands of turmoil and governance.

I realize that all this sounds like hyperbole, but truthfully, I don’t have enough words to explain how wonderful these books are and how they made such a difference in how I viewed history – and not just English history, but all of it – for a lifetime.

When I looked on my mother’s shelves for these beloved books a few years ago, I couldn’t find them. I set about the business of locating replacements. The books were out of print and resellers charged a premium for them. Apparently no one who owns them really wants to give them up, and others who want them can’t find them.

I finally came across a boxed set of the books online and I ordered it. When it arrived, I devoured every word just as I had done years ago. Costain’s writing and storytelling are every bit as good as I remember. Some of the stories were missing, though, especially those about the fractious, ruthless sons of the Conqueror. In particular I remember a story of a very suspicious hunting accident that brought down King William Rufus…no, dear readers, George R.R. Martin wasn’t the first to think of a boar hunt as cover for regicide. I realized that the first book of the set I now own was edited rather heavily before its inclusion.

The boxed set holds Costain’s own explanation as to the revision:


I began these books of English history with the hope of carrying the series forward, under the general title of The Pageant of England, to a much later period than the last of the Plantagenet kings. Pressure of other work made it impossible, however, to produce them at the gait I had hoped to achieve. And now the factor of time has intruded itself also. Realizing that my earlier objective cannot be reached, I have decided to conclude with the death of Richard III and to change the covering title to A HISTORY OF THE PLANTAGENETS.

This has made necessary some revision in getting the four volumes ready for publication. The first five chapters in the initial book, which began with the Norman Conquest and covered the reigns of William the Conqueror, William (Rufus) II, and Henry I, had to be dropped. The first volume in this complete edition of the four begins with the final scenes in the reign of Henry I, whose daughter married Geoffrey of Anjou and whose son son succeeded in due course to the throne of England as Henry II, thus beginning the brilliant Plantagenet dynasty. The title of the first volume has been changed to THE CONQUERING FAMILY. In addition to the deletion of earlier chapters, a few slight cuts and minor revisions have been made throughout the series. Otherwise the four books are the same as those published separately under the titles, THE CONQUERORS, THE MAGNIFICENT CENTURY, THE THREE EDWARDS, and THE LAST PLANTAGENETS.


The boxed set of the four Plantagenet books is available at a premium – it’s out of print and only available in the secondary market. The lowest price I found a full set for was $175.00 at Amazon, although a seller on Facebook is offering it at a bargain for only $164.99.

Barnes & Noble doesn’t even have the full set, but does have then as eBooks and is even offering free downloads of the first two volumes – the first volume is the original title of the first book, so I downloaded it and have hope that it contains the missing parts that were edited from this final version contained in the boxed set. I’ll be reading it tonight, looking for clues as to who killed William Rufus. (Spoiler: the culprit was likely a minion of his brother Henry, grandfather of those fascinating Plantagenets.)

How Did You Arrive at Non-Belief?

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.

Agent to the Stars, by John Scalzi

There actually was an upside to being assaulted in my own home and held at gunpoint while thugs ransacked my house.  By being a victim of crime, I met neighbors I had not encountered in the seven years I’ve lived here. Oh, I’ve known the neighbors who live immediately next to me. Jean, who lives across the street, was my friend long before I moved here.  But beyond one house on all sides of me, and the dread Townhouses in the Park below me, I really haven’t encountered any other of my neighbors.

Until disaster struck, of course. Then I met all kinds of great people I didn’t know I shared a neighborhood with. One of these new friends, Andy, happens to be a reader. A couple of nights after the robbery, we had a conversation on Facebook that ended up with me over at his house and us talking about books. He thrust three into my hands before I left a couple of hours later. I’m very glad to have met this neighbor, because his taste in fiction is wonderful. I can’t wait to find more books from his shelves.

The three books he gave me were Agent to the Stars, by John Scalzi, The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross, and Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter. I’m about to give up on the nonfiction Godel, Escher, Bach – which is fascinating, but I’m getting bogged down because I don’t know enough about music, and I keep taking breaks to listen and learn more. It’s taking me forever to read, and I’m not sure I’m taking it all in. The other two I finished in really short order – they were both so good I couldn’t put them down.

The first of the three that I read was Agent to the Stars, by John Scalzi. Scalzi wrote this book on his website in 1999, just to see if he could actually write a book. In 2005, a literary agent found it and offered to publish it. The original version is still available online.

The story is a campy take on first contact between humans and alien intelligence. I have never bought the notion that alien life forms are going to resemble us or any living creature we think of as having sentience. Enter John Scalzi and his eminent good sense. (He agrees with me.)

The aliens in this book are described essentially as amorphous gobs of snot. No, make that morphous gobs of snot.  The snot morphs into the shape of an aquarium, the shape of a water bottle, the shape of … other things. Its morphability (is that even a word?) and its uncanny resemblance to that which comes out of our runny noses (or what is left behind in the wake of a snail) form the backbone – the completely invertebrate backbone, yes – of the plot of this story. The aliens recognize that we humans will find their appearance disgusting, so in the interest on good inter-species relations, they decide to hire an image consultant to break the news to humanity of their existence.

Not just any image consultant will do, of course. As we all expect, the aliens have learned all about our species and civilization from the cacophonous roar of radio waves and television signals emanating  from our planet. They already speak idiomatic English fluently, they know how our culture is organized, they know how we interact with each other, and they know how we are likely to react to them. These aliens are smart.

Being beings of higher intelligence, the aliens have recognized that the very best image consultants are those who successfully sell vacuous people to the rest of the world. These consultants expertly package their clients in such a way as to persuade the public to overlook their flaws. Knowing that they will appear to us a snot-based life forms, these aliens decide to hire the best for their public relations. The aliens bypass Madison Avenue for the true experts in the field. The aliens bypass Madison Avenue for the true experts in the field: Hollywood agents.

I can’t talk too much about the story without giving away important plot points that, when revealed through the natural course of the book, will literally leave you laughing out loud and searching for someone to share it with.

What I can do is tell you to find this book and read it. It will buoy your mood, make you think about things as heady as the ethics of eugenics and things as light as the stuff encrusting the tissue of your winter cold. And when you blow your nose while reading it, you will suddenly find yourself examining the results for sentience.

The story is original, mind-bending, heartwarming, and hilarious.

Seriously, find it. Read it.


Sanal Edamaruku Proves, Once Again, No Miracle

So, there’s this statue of the Madonna that sits in a small grotto near Ballinspittle, County Cork, Ireland, that allegedly started breathing and gesturing when it was approached by some worshippers back in 1985. “It’s a miracle!” cried devout Irish Catholics, who flocked to observe the moving, floating statue by the thousands. Since then, more than a quarter of a million people have made pilgrimages to the little grotto. “Even skeptics go away converted!” enthused a BBC report, despite the on-camera skepticism of the local Catholic bishop. “Seven out of ten people really see it move!”

As I reported last week, Indian skeptic Sanal Edamaruku is on the lam from the blasphemy charges leveled against him in India for exposing the bloody toes of the Jesus getting washed by physics instead of by miracles. He was in the neighborhood of Europe, so Atheist Ireland invited him to visit Ballinspittle to check out their local miracle. Not having anything more interesting to do, Edamaruku accepted. Geometry and magic laser beams ensued.

I truly hope he continues going around debunking miracle silliness while he’s on vacation from India’s ridiculously medieval laws.

(This post originally appeared on WWJTD.)

The Week in Review – Law and Atheism

This week’s roundup of legal news:

A judge in Oklahoma sentenced a juvenile who was convicted of manslaughter to church instead of prison. Tyler Alred’s friend was killed when the car Alred was driving crashed. The teenagers had been drinking. While I don’t think prison is a healthy place for anyone, and certainly not for a juvenile, I can’t help but wish something could be done about this aspect of the young man’s sentence. If the juvenile appeals his sentence and it is found to be unconstitutional, he might be re-sentenced and sent to prison. So this judge, who has apparently sentenced other defendants to church, will not only get away with it but keep on doing it. A 16-year-old who accidentally kills his friend will live with that horror for the rest of his life, anyway. Alred has a laundry list of other requirements to meet that are common to rules of probation or parole: things like finishing school, finding a job, and more. If he doesn’t do as he has been ordered, he’ll spend up to ten years in prison. The victim’s family did not want him to serve time. “We don’t need to see two lives wasted for a mistake,” said the victim’s sister.  How many of us might agree to suffer through ten years of church?

They’re just words.

In response to the 9/11 attacks, the Kentucky legislature made an official “finding” in 2002 that the “safety and security of the Commonwealth cannot be achieved apart from reliance upon Almighty God.”Aided by American Atheists, secularist plaintiffs won at the trial level when the trial judge agreed that the state had “created an official government position on God.” But the state appellate court said something to the effect of “oh, those are just words, you know?” so now the plaintiffs are asking the United States Supreme Court to weigh in. When Alternet reported this story yesterday, its article, which got widespread attention, said that the state’s citizens had to acknowledge the existence of “Almighty God” or be prosecuted and punished with up to a year in prison. That’s not exactly the case.  The article corrected itself later, by accurately reporting that a plaque with a religious statement attributing public safety and homeland security to Almighty God had to be placed on the wall of the state’s homeland security building, or the executive director of the agency risked a year in jail for a misdemeanor violation. Kentucky Revised Statute 39G.010(2) says, in relevant part:

The executive director shall: (a) Publicize the findings of the General Assembly stressing the dependence on Almighty God as being vital to the security of the Commonwealth by including the provisions of KRS 39A.285(3) in its agency training and educational materials. The executive director shall also be responsible for prominently displaying a permanent plaque at the entrance to the state’s Emergency Operations Center stating the text of KRS 39A.285(3)[.]

The legislative finding referred to in the above statute is in KRS 9A.285. The italicized words are what the Executive Director of Kentucky Homeland Security is supposed to post on the wall of the building:

The General Assembly hereby finds that:

(1) No government by itself can guarantee perfect security from acts of war or terrorism.

(2) The security and well-being of the public depend not just on government, but rest in large measure upon individual citizens of the Commonwealth and their level of understanding, preparation, and vigilance.

(3) The safety and security of the Commonwealth cannot be achieved apart from reliance upon Almighty God as set forth in the public speeches and proclamations of American Presidents, including Abraham Lincoln’s historic March 30, 1863, Presidential Proclamation urging Americans to pray and fast during one of the most dangerous hours in American history, and the text of President John F. Kennedy’s November 22, 1963, national security speech which concluded: “For as was written long ago: ‘Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.’ “

49 years ago today, about 12:30 p.m., in Dallas Texas

The second statute, with the italicized language, went into effect March 28, 2002. The posting requirements were not passed into law until 2006 when the American Atheists lawsuit was initiated.

Something to point out about this is the fact that the Kentucky Legislature mentions a November 22, 1963, JFK speech about national security. That speech was not given 49 years ago today in Dallas, Texas, by President John F. Kennedy. On his way to the luncheon where he was to deliver it, Kennedy was assassinated.

What the Kentucky legislature chose to ignore was the fact that John F. Kennedy had given another speech in Texas three years earlier, making it crystal clear that, despite his strongly held personal religious beliefs, Kennedy also believed that keeping church and state separate was of absolute paramount importance.

Let’s hope the conservative United States Supreme Court does the right thing.

The Speaker of Uganda’s Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga,  says that Uganda’s new “Kill the Gays” bill will be passed before the end of 2012 despite vigorous and vocal international criticism of the legislation. She called it a “Christmas gift” to Uganda’s Christian population. Uganda already criminalizes homosexual behavior, but the new bill adds different levels of seriousness to the crime of being gay, punishment for which ranges from life imprisonment to death:

‘Aggravated homosexuality’ is defined as gay acts committed by parents or authority figures, HIV-positive people, pedophiles and repeat offenders. If convicted, they will face the death penalty.

The ‘offense of homosexuality’ includes same-sex sexual acts or being in a gay relationship, and will be prosecuted by life imprisonment.

According to one report, Several European countries have threatened to cut aid to Uganda if it passes, with the UK government warning Uganda it would face severe reductions in financial help. President Obama has described it as ‘odious’, and Canadian politician John Baird has said it is ‘vile, abhorrent, and offends decency’.

The preaching and teachings of evangelical American Christians, including Rick Warren (The Purpose Driven Life) and Scott Lively (whose Abiding Truth Ministries are listed as a Hate Group by the Southern Poverty Law Center), have been credited with “igniting” the homophobic rampages.

Uganda is notorious for its superstitions, child sacrifice by witch doctors.  Burningsuspected witches alive is still prevalent in the country. (Warning: This video  is a graphic recording of an alleged witch being burned alive in Uganda in 2011.)

So, yeah, modern American Christian evangelism does serious harm in today’s world, in case there are any fence-sitters out there reading this.

Honest – this pregnant virgin was one of the nativity exhibits in Santa Monica in years past

U.S. District Judge Audrey B. Collins said that the city of Santa Monica, California, did not have to allow any seasonal displays, religious or otherwise, in its park. Last year, to the dismay of the Christians who had previously dominated the annual seasonal display in the park, a number of atheists got 18 out of 21 spaces that Santa Monica regularly let religious groups use to erect seasonal displays. About half of the non-theist displays were vandalized, so the city ended its tradition of allowing the seasonal displays. The city decided to stop all displays in the park. In court Monday, Deputy City Attorney Yibin Shen said the ban had been under consideration for 20 years and was ultimately motivated by the cost to the city after the number of applicants spiked in recent years. The department in charge of running the lottery for booth spaces doubled its staff and spent 245 hours annually running the system and reviewing applications.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State and eight other groups representing Jewish, Unitarian Universalist, and secular organizations have filed an amicus brief in a death penalty case in Florida. Amici curiae, or “friends of the court” briefs are filed by individuals or groups who are not parties to the lawsuit in question, but who feel they have something important to add to the issue under consideration. Frequently these groups want to influence public policy which will result from the decision. In this case, the defendant was sentenced to death after the prosecutor quoted extensively from the Bible, specifically from the book of Romans, in his cross-examination of a minister in the sentencing phase of the case. The passages he quoted demanded the death penalty. The organizations asked to file the brief because, despite their various religious viewpoints, they are “united in the view that the decision between life and death in a capital case should not turn on the jury’s interpretation of religious doctrine.”

Did the originals contain errors, too?

In matters of legal amusement, private funds paid for a monument with the Ten Commandments to be erected on the lawn of the Oklahoma State Capitol. Many are snickering at its misspellings, which are expected to be corrected. Oklahoma’s ACLU is determining whether a legal challenge will be made. Since the existence of the ten commandments on government property has repeatedly been held to violate the Constitution, a legal challenge has a high likelihood of success. The Oklahoma ACLU’s organizer, Ryan Kiesel, was a Democratic House member at the time the law was passed allowing the erection of the monument. He was among 16 absent when the final vote in the Oklahoma House passed the law allowing placement of the monument 83-2. I have no clue why Kiesel was absent that day.

Greece has brought blasphemy charges against the performers, producer, and director of an Athens production of Terrence McNally’s play “Corpus Christi.” The play portrays Jesus and the disciples as gay men living in Texas.

The play’s director told Reuters he was stunned that prosecutors had chosen to go after him rather than pursue tax evaders and others blamed for driving Greece to near-bankruptcy.

“What I see is that there are people who have robbed the country blind who are not in jail and the prosecutor turns against art,” Albanian-born Laertis Vasiliou said.

If they are convicted, the men would face several months in jail. That’s not as dire as the situation faced by Alber Saber in Egypt, but still – to think that a country as advanced as Greece, and a member of the EU to boot, would prosecute people for religious speech and iconoclastic beliefs is beyond the pale.

Obama said that if any petition could gain 25,000 signatures in a month he’d consider it. Will he? I don’t know. You have to create an account to sign the petition, but I did so quite some time ago and haven’t yet received any spam because of it. Yes, most of the petitions look to be pretty far from a reasonable request, and as of this writing, there seem to be a lot of them that, if denied, will result in another Civil War. Like, “ALLOW ALASKA TO SECEDE FROM A DYSFUNCTIONAL UNION.” Yes, it’s all in caps. There seems to be one or more of those for each state. But seriously,  Here are a couple of Petitions you might consider signing.

  •  First is one that asks that the law be changed to require religious organizations to pay taxes. It has been posted for a week, and as of yesterday had 5,880 signatures. It’s short and sweet. It will remain posted until December 14 to gather the necessary signatures. Let’s blow the doors off the thing. This one is important.
  • The second one asks to remove references to God from our money and the Pledge of Allegiance. It expires December 12.  When I added my name, this petition had over 11,000 signatures and had only been posted since November 12. I don’t have a lot of hope that this will go anywhere since we have 533 people in the halls of Congress who claim to believe in that whole God thing, but the more noise we make, the more attention we’ll get. Right?
  • The third is one to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). This one is getting close. It closes December 7, and as of this writing has more than met its quota. I’d like to see this one make a point, though, and garner lots of extra signatures.

A point about all three of these petitions: they all ask for laws to be passed or repealed, which is something only Congress can do. Just because the President is asked to take action does not mean that Congress will go along with it. The President can’t make or repeal laws by himself. He can issue executive orders, which set his administration’s policy and occasionally – and temporarily – take on the quasi-character of a law, but an executive order and a “pretty please” to his supporters in Congress is about the best he can do.

(This post originally appeared on WWJTD.)

The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho: Pondering the Soul of the World

It’s no secret that The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, is one of my favorite books. I’m leading the discussion in my book club this month, and The Alchemist is the book we’re discussing. I feel fortunate, but overwhelmed at the same time.

I’ve re-read the book during the past week to get ready for the book club discussion. Reader’s Guides are readily available for The Alchemist. The tenth anniversary edition, which I have, contains one after the epilogue. Its discussion topics seem so obvious to me. There is so much more to this book than those canned study guide questions point out.

For instance, there are two different types of alchemy: scientific alchemy and spiritual alchemy. While the gold that scientific alchemy yields is tempting, Coelho’s beautiful fable teaches us that the spiritual aspect of alchemy is the important one. The tale of Santiago the shepherd boy underscores that without achieving the Master Work of spiritual alchemy, no one can attain the Magnum Opus of scientific alchemy.  The discussion of both types of alchemy is a discussion of the book itself, as well as a philosophical discussion that may never end.

Santiago’s quest for his Personal Legend is full of lessons. Santiago’s wisdom, and the wisdom of the people he meets in his travels, must have been sound bites that Coelho collected for years then wove seamlessly into this tale. All of Coelho’s books seem that way, though. But the wisdom and joy of The Alchemist makes it the only one of Coelho’s books that literally makes me cry.

Each time I’ve read this book I’ve cried, and each time I’ve cried at the same point. For me, the climax of the book comes twice. The first is not when Santiago finds the physical treasure of his dream, but when he first lays eyes on what fabulous wonders men can achieve.  Yes, this is when I cry, and I’m crying with the profound joy the book has given me.

At the moment when Santiago thinks he should find his treasure, he is attacked by several refugees from the tribal wars he has dodged all across the Sahara. One attacker announces that it is stupid to cross a desert to look for buried treasure  just because of a recurring dream. The attacker doesn’t know it, but Santiago has done exactly that, and is at the point of realizing that dream when he is beaten bloody and left nearly dead by these attackers. As outside observers we readers laugh, knowing that whether or not Santiago finds his material wealth in the desert, his journeys have resulted in a spiritual wealth beyond most people’s imagining. He has learned that if he wants to, he can become the wind.

Coelho uses phrases and terms of his own making, but they are philosophical terms necessary to understanding the spiritual alchemy he presents in his book. The Soul of the World, the hand that wrote all, the Language of the World, and one’s Personal Legend are concepts Coelho deftly teaches us with this story of a shepherd’s quest, undertaken because of a recurring dream. Without initially understanding those terms, though, we struggle along with Santiago to grasp the concepts of spiritual alchemy.

Fear hampers our quests for our Personal Legends. The fear presents itself in different ways. First, it is a fear of leaving the familiar comforts of what we know to go in pursuit of a dream. But when we take those first few tentative steps toward our dream, beginner’s luck encourages us to keep pursuing the dream. Eventually, though, our initial success creates another fear within us. We have achieved so much. No, it’s not what we set out to achieve, but it is enough. We can die happy because we got this far and we are comfortable. But, if we listen to our hearts, we know that this temptation to settle for less than our Personal Legend is really a fear: a fear that we have had so much success that we are bound to fail soon.

The fear of failure prevents many people from realizing their Personal Legends. Settling for “good enough,” these people stop listening to their hearts and listen instead to the comforts of having come this far and achieved this much. They feel blessed to have done so much; to try to do more tempts fate, does it not?

Yes, it does.

That’s part of the pursuit of the Personal Legend, though. We aren’t rewarded with the realization of that legend unless we show that we have truly learned the lessons along the way to achieving it. Proving that we’ve learned the lessons means we have to be challenged, and the challenges aren’t supposed to be easy. If we want something enough, if our goal is our dream, and our dream is our Personal Legend, the path gets harder, not easier, the closer we get. Nevertheless, if we step carefully and read the omens sent to us, we will achieve success. We will recognize and live our Personal Legends.

I’m making four presentations to make on this book this month. In each, I want to examine a portion of the story, and a portion of the philosophy of spiritual alchemy. I don’t know if I can limit myself to just four!

I’ve come up with a list of omens Santiago notices in his adventures. Some of them have layers of meaning. I want to talk about them.

Throughout the book, Coelho sprinkled concepts from the three Abrahamic religions. I want to talk about each, yet I know that those in my audience who know me not to be a follower of this religious tradition will want time to challenge me on my interpretation, and will want to offer their own. There must be time for that.

There are mystical elements that defy being categorized with something else, so must be treated separately.

Each major character, plus a couple of minor ones, have wisdom to share. I want to examine their profound observations – ALL of them!

Then there are the literary aspects of the book. Coelho’s writing style, the format of the story, foreshadowing and other literary devices, character development . . . I’m babbling already and I haven’t even begun my presentation.

And then there is alchemy, both scientific and spiritual, to tackle. To be fair to each, they should be dealt with separately, then addressed together so as to underscore the similarities. There are specific alchemists mentioned in the book whose biographies might be interesting to my audience, yet I fear boring the masses with my enthusiasm.

But wait: Santiago’s strengths were his courage to do what he wanted, and his enthusiasm in the process.

His strengths were what enabled him to become the wind.

The Mote in God’s Eye – 35 Years Later

The Mote in God s Eye, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

I have always considered The Mote in God’s Eye a seminal book about initial contact between humans and another sentient, advanced species.

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, both true masters of hard science fiction, collaborated on this book in 1974. I read it in high school – so sometime shortly after it was written. I remembered it clearly as cutting edge stuff. In one scene that has popped into my mind on multiple occasions throughout the years, the humans react with horror to the speeding vehicles used by the Moties for individual ground transportation. I was glad to know my ever-unreliable neurons hadn’t messed with my memory when I found it on pages 252-253 of the new copy I bought recently:

Tall, ugly buildings loomed above them to shoulder out the sky. The black streets were wide but very crowded, and the Moties drove like maniacs. Tiny vehicles passed each other in intricate curved paths with centimeters of clearance. The traffic was not quite silent. There was a steady low hum that might have been all the hundreds of motors sounding together, and sometimes a stream of high-pitched gibberish that might have been cursing.

Once the humans were able to stop wincing away from each potential collision…

Motie, found on Rocket Ship Pajamas

Motie (source)


The first time I read that passage, many years ago, I imagined the reaction of an 18th century sophisticate to riding in a modern New York taxicab or merging onto an urban freeway at rush hour. I thought about how a Cro-Magnon might respond to riding in a car down a quiet street in a small town. What if the Cro-Magnon was on a motorcycle?

Thirty-something years later, as someone who writes speculative fiction – sure, merely as a hobby, but, hey, a girl’s going to dream – I noticed this classic story didn’t seem so cutting edge any more. I realized that a book written during my own lifetime, a book that blew me away when I first read it, has become dated.

I’ve noticed this a time or two before. Robert Heinlein’s books about Lazarus Long, for example, are very dated in some of their sexist, chauvinistic attitudes, even though the stories and the science are not. Heinlein makes multiple references to the pleasing shape of his female characters’ anatomy, but never to the sexual attributes of male characters. The worst offenders of these books were written near the end of Heinlein’s long, prolific career. Oddly, the character noticing the anatomy didn’t rub me wrong, perhaps because we all are capable of noticing pleasing physical characteristics of the opposite sex; the author himself struck me as a dirty old man. (I know, I know. I have no basis other than my gut for even saying that. And I revere Heinlein as one of the everlasting gods of the genre. Really, I do.)

Something similar struck me on a number of occasions while rereading The Mote in God’s Eye. For instance, when Sally explains human birth control methods to a Motie, she says that “nice girls” don’t use birth control. She explains that they simply abstain from sexual relations if they don’t want to become pregnant. Her words shock the Motie, but not for the same reason they shocked me.

Even of those I know who are relatively prudish, I doubt very many, at least the people I know, would actually think that “nice girls don’t take birth control.”  Nope, not even my devoutly Catholic best friend. (Of course, to hear the abstinence-only sex education crowd talk, that’s all it takes for birth control. I submit that those folks are completely unrealistic, and statistics belie their position. But that is a topic for another day.)

I guess I’ve become accustomed to the progressive social portrayal of the future that modern speculative fiction tends toward. Except for futuristic dystopias such as The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984, which feature government-imposed sexual repression, sexuality’s treatment in speculative fiction over the last half century seems fairly universal – all sex, all the time, anything goes. Certainly that was the case by the mid-70’s.

The sexual revolution was in full swing in 1974. Attitudes and social mores toward sex heaved and groaned in those years. Roe v. Wade had been decided the year before. The Equal Rights Amendment had passed both houses of Congress two years before, the same year that the Joy of Sex, which was still in the top five bestsellers in 1974, became a sensation.  Birth control was in wide use, and the Summer of Love was almost a decade in the past. In 1961 – thirteen years before the Mote sun gleamed in the middle of the Coalsack, Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land paved the way for these attitudes when Valentine Michael Smith created a new religion incorporating free love.  By 1974, co-ed college dorms commonly dotted campuses across the nation. Penicillin cured everything but herpes and hepatitis; no one had heard of AIDS or HIV.  Hair was six years into its run on Broadway, complete with full nudity.

The attitudes that dated The Mote in God’s Eye extended to the personnel on the two ships that visit the Mote world. With the exception of Sally and the perpetually pregnant Moties, every single character in the book is male. But, there’s more. I remember this book as one of the truly inspirational ones in my adolescent library, packed with action and tension. Reading it this week, it hasn’t felt the same. At first, I couldn’t figure out why the book just didn’t hold my attention the way I remembered it doing 30-something years ago. Now, less than a hundred pages from the end, I think I may have figured it out.

Olivetti Typewriter

Poster issued by Olivetti Typewriter Co. featuring the Olivetti Lexicon 80 typewriter, Marcello Nizzoli, about 1953. Museum no. CIRC.634-1965
Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum

The book needs red ink. Had Niven and Pournelle not banged out this novel on an Olivetti typewriter, if they had used a word processor, they probably would have tightened their prose and eliminated things like lists, awkward scene transitions, jerky dialogue, and other things we can now avoid by revising a million times without rewriting the whole darn thing page by tortured page. Editing just isn’t what it used to be, for which we probably should be grateful. Otherwise our eyes might still cross, reading post-Victorian verbosity.

And then there’s the passive voice. The book doesn’t read like a scientific treatise, but still, a lot of the descriptions employ the verb “to be.” Characters interact actively, but they tend to observe their surroundings in a list. I wonder if I noticed this only because I’ve been writing more myself, and try to use E-Prime unless it just sounds silly. I wonder if I notice it because I have critiqued the work of other writers in recent months.

I hope critiquing hasn’t led to this. I like reading what other people write, making suggestions for improvement, and getting good feedback from them on my own work. If critiquing means the joy of reading suffers, then I’ll have a big hole in my life.

But now, now I have a book to finish. And even if it isn’t as good as I remember, it’s still good.


Another Day Gone

This is My Brain on Migraine

I wake up; the pounding in my head forces me to. I drag my sandy eyelids up and try to focus on the clock. 4:45 a.m. My mouth tastes like dirty socks and my stomach wants to heave. I make myself sit up and the room reels. The telltale rush of saliva into my dry mouth warns me that I don’t have much time. When the room stops moving I put my legs over the side of the bed. Somehow I’m vertical and staggering toward the bathroom.

I keep the shots of Imitrex ready to go. Finding the injector in the dark is not a problem. The container is on the bottom shelf of the bathroom cabinet, right where it’s supposed to be. My fingers fumble and pry up the lid on one of the twin ampules. The only reason I can do this now is years of practice. When my doctor first gave me the shots I was slower. The novelty meant I sometimes couldn’t prime the injection device properly and a spray of precious triptan would shoot across the room instead of into my flesh. When the headaches are really bad, sometimes that still happens. Migraines steal fine motor coordination. Gross motor skills are pretty much out the window, too, but it’s the fine motor I need now. And the dismay of seeing an injection that costs over a hundred dollars wasted into thin air has no equal. This morning I manage to load the syringe and press it to my flesh. My thumb hits the button on the end of the device and I can’t help but hiss as the sting of the medication hits my intramuscular tissue. It takes a couple of tries, but I manage to cram the injector into its holder and prime it for the next shot. Then I stagger a couple of steps to the sink.

Surely I will feel better if I get those nasty gym socks off my teeth. My hands tremble as I load my toothbrush. Applying toothpaste to my toothbrush takes extra time and effort. It’s hard. I turn the water on and wet the brush, then bring it to my objecting mouth. No sensation is good, because every sensation is amplified with a migraine. The sharp taste of minty-fresh explodes in my mouth and I rinse the brush again. I just want to peel off the cotton that coats my mouth, not breathe on anyone. I don’t want to sanitize myself yet. I just need to get rid of the grimness of first waking up.

Afterward, I grip the sink with both hands. The Imitrex still isn’t working, and even the slightest head movement is agony. Maybe if I lean here for a moment the drug will kick in. But not yet. The jack hammer in my skull subsides with stillness. When I think I can bear it, I move tentatively toward the toilet. Whether or not I really need to go, I need to sit down, and, at a distance of twenty feet, my bed is too far away. I miss the three-foot-tall stacked cube shelf that I used to have in my bathroom. I could sit on the toilet, pull it close, and rest on it, my head lying on my folded arms. Sometimes I would drift into unconsciousness that way and my husband would call to me, asking me if I was all right. If I had assumed that position, I was never all right. Now, though, the shelf lives at his house and the twelve-inch distance to the tiled wall is to far to lean, no matter how good the cold tiles might feel on my skin. I sway as I sit there.

My eyes are closed. I lose track of the minutes. I beg the drug to start working. I wait for the sensation at the back of my neck that signals its effectiveness. Nothing happens.

Eventually, I think I can make it back to bed. The nausea is a reminder that the meds aren’t working, and I know that on my way I need to get the Phenergan. Dr. Archer has prescribed it in a cream. Philip at the Drug Store compounds it and puts one dose into a syringe without a needle. A plastic cap at the tip of the syringe keeps the cream from drying out. It’s hard to get those caps off. I dread the effort, but I know it is necessary. If I start throwing up, I won’t stop. Vomiting with a migraine doesn’t make anything better.

I stand before the door of the medicine cabinet again, reach into the Ziplock bag that contains the Phenergan cream syringes, pull out a syringe, and start wrestling with the cap. Not only do I lose coordination with migraines, I lose strength. It takes me more than a minute to pry the cap off. With a grateful sigh I push the plunger and spread the cool cream on my wrists. I aim the syringe at the trash can and let it go. Of course I miss. I’ll pick it up later. Now it’s time to stagger back to bed and hope that the combination of drugs will stave off the nausea.

Too late, I forget that I have a bead of blood on my skin from the Imitrex injection. I know I smear the sheets with red as I lie down. I hope it has dried and I can brush off the crumbs of blood easily. I washed and changed the sheets just yesterday, using strong spot remover on the blood stains from last week’s migraines. They never seem to come out completely unless I use bleach. I care, but not enough to do anything but pull myself into a fetal position. My pillow is too hard. There’s nothing I can do about it except keep very, very still. My body is covered in a sheen of sweat from the nausea. I don’t want under covers yet. Warmth amplifies the pain. When the Phenergan kicks in, the sweat turns clammy, then evaporates, leaving a salty residue. Once my skin is dry, I find the coolest spot on the smooth sheets. I tug the top sheet over me, and a few minutes later pull up the quilt, too. The Imitrex still isn’t working. I am grateful for Phenergan’s fortunate side effect of drowsiness. I lie there, waiting for the Imitrex, and waiting for sleep.

Sleep evidently came. I am wake again. It’s 7:40 now, and the Imitrex has only dented the migraine pain. The nausea is mercifully gone, but even though every shift of my head doesn’t bring waves of agony, a full-blown migraine still actively assaults my head. I try to sleep again, lying still and letting my mind drift hypnotically. It’s no use. I’m awake and alert, pain and all.

I can dose myself with Imitrex again. After two hours, if I don’t have relief I can take one of the tablets. I carefully leave my bed and make for the bathroom. The blackout curtains in my bedroom don’t close completely, and the shaft of daylight stabs my eyes as I pass through it. I need a ladder to reattach the last drapery hook to the rod.  Not now, though. I can barely walk steadily. Climbing a ladder is out of the question.

Imitrex’s packaging is intended to be impossible to open. Insurance only pays for nine pills a month, and they come in paper and foil-backed blister packs. Normally I take all the pills out of the blister packs and transfer them to a pill case as soon as I get home from the pharmacy. Stupidly, I neglected to do so this time. It’s a new box of pills, and I fumble even to tear away the box top to get at the blister pack. I still have no fine motor coordination, and tearing away the paper and foil backing is beyond me. Finally I stab the back of the pack with tweezers to get it open. The pill breaks as I extract it. It will leave a horrible taste in my mouth because of that. I swallow it anyway, and take a long drink of water to wash away as much of the residue as I can. Now for the other weapon in my migraine arsenal.

Hydrocodone. I hate it. I love it. I hoard it. Dr. Archer allows me twenty pills a month, but I rarely use them all. It scares me. The last thing I need is an opiate addiction. My tolerance to it is high. For all I know, I’m already addicted. I don’t know. What I do know is that hydrocodone is an extra lifeline for when the triptans don’t work. Today, I need it. Maybe I can go back to sleep. It will be an hour before either it or the Imitrex tablet will take effect. I shake the fat tablet into my palm and wash it down with water. I go back to bed.

I doze, but I don’t go back to sleep completely. After an hour, there is no change. I am tired of my bed. The cats have been anxiously head-butting the door and crying. They’re hungry. Their water dish is probably empty, too. I debate taking another hydrocodone tablet, but decide to wait. I want to see how the effort of climbing the stairs affects me, and if I take one now it will make me itch. Of course, I can always take Benedryl with it. The antihistamine will help with the itching and make me drowsy again. No, I’ll wait.

I should have taken the second pill. In my kitchen, I sink onto a stool at the breakfast bar and lay by head on my arms. The cool granite of the counter feels wonderful. The pounding in my skull does not. When it subsides, I reach for the bottle of hydrocodone I keep on my lazy Susan. The cats are sitting next to their empty food bowls, expectant. “Just a minute, guys,” I whisper. I run water into a dirty glass sitting in the sink and swallow the pill. I stand at the sink for a moment, waiting for the pounding to start again because of the movement. Thankfully, it does not.

The cats’ food dishes are on the floor. I squat slowly, not wanting to bend or even tilt my head for fear that blood will rush into it and the throbbing will begin again in earnest. I nearly lose my balance, but I’ve thought to hold the edge of the counter to ease myself down, so I have a lifeline. I’m shaky as I rise. The three steps to the bin of cat food in the pantry go well. I scoop food into one of the bowls. No wet food this morning, kitties. Sorry. I can’t bend over to get the can, and the smell of it would destroy me. I can smell the litter box across the room, and I know it needs attention, too. There’s no way. Not now. Not yet. Please understand and don’t do your business in the house plants, I beg them silently.

I sit on the stool again to recover from this round of activity. I need to eat something. Lack of food will only make things worse in the long run. I keep coffee in the fridge. Caffeine sometimes helps, sometimes hurts. As bad as this headache is, I decide to give it a try. Iced coffee with a bit of hazelnut-flavored sweetener and a dollop of milk. It isn’t as sweet as Starbucks, but then nothing really needs to be. My sister says those sweet coffee drinks from Starbucks are “a candy bar in a cup.” She’s not far wrong. I sit and drink. It tastes good. I feel stronger after sustenance. I mix myself another iced coffee, and munch on a few strawberries. The carbs will give me strength and energy.

It’s 8:25 now. I move to my computer, which sits in an alcove off the kitchen. I bring my coffee with me. I can sit relatively still, reading blogs and news, and wait for the hydrocodone to do its magic. Eventually, the itching starts. I keep a back scratcher next to the computer because my perpetually dry skin always itches. Itching from too much opioid  is not satisfied as easily. I read. I sit. When I get up to forage for more food, my head reminds me that I need to stay still. I return to my computer chair with a small chunk of Havarti cheese and rice crackers.

A little after eleven, my phone rings. It’s Jan, wanting to go to The Full Monty at the Weekend Theater. She’s not sure we can get tickets. Tonight is the last night. Even though I tell her I am not up for it, she is determined to go. She will have to drive in from Hot Springs, so if the show is sold out then she’ll have a wasted trip and an hour’s drive home. I turn down the volume on the phone, because the conversation is unnaturally loud. I tell her I’m not feeling well, but that she is welcome to come by if she can’t get a ticket. I hope the show is not sold out. I hope she can go. I realize I need to go back to my bed. We hang up, and I take a deep, slow breath to steady myself. The phone call has brought back the raging throb.

I get a glass of ice water before descending the stairs to my bedroom again. I climb into bed. The sheets are smooth and cool, and I think again that I need to rehang that drapery hook so the curtains close completely. The shaft of midday sun coming through the opening stabs my eyes. My head hurts too much for me to turn my back to the windows. Besides, the light bounces off the wall; it doesn’t really go away if my back is to it. I close my eyes and hope for sleep.

I haven’t yet started to doze when I hear the garage door open. Jack is home. Lora is with him. They’re going to hang out in the basement. He brings me an icepack. I’m glad he’s come home, because I can really use that icepack. I drape it over my forehead, pressing its ends to my temples. The kids go to the basement. They know to be quiet when I have a migraine. Poor Jack. His whole life, his mother has been sick. Sometimes, she’s sicker. Like today. He has told me that by the time he was eight, he could read the labels on my meds and even spell hydrocodone. I don’t doubt it. I sent him to get them from the cabinet often enough.

I doze, and finally I sleep. It’s almost 5:00. The migraine has receded to the back of my brain. It’s still there, but right now it’s not attacking me. It doesn’t hurt. I go upstairs again. If I don’t eat a meal, I’ll suffer for it. I need protein, vegetables. I make a sandwich and chew it slowly. I don’t really want it. I’m not hungry. The consequences of not eating will be worse than forcing myself to eat now. I sit at the kitchen counter and read a  magazine while I take unenthusiastic bites. I hear the kids come upstairs. They’re leaving. They chat cheerfully. Their good moods and the sandwich have combined to lift me up. Lora tells me she’s reading The Princess Bride, and I am delighted. It has been my favorite book since I was sixteen. I refused for years to see the movie, because I was so afraid that Hollywood would ruin it. I shouldn’t have worried. William Goldman wrote the screenplay for his own great book, so everything was as it should have been. Miracle Max and Valerie. Fezzik and Inigo Montoya. The Man in Black. Buttercup. Prince Humperdink. The Six-Fingered Count. Talking about it with Lora, I feel animated for the first time today.

The kids leave and I return to the computer. I need to sit still. If Jan comes tonight, I need to be functional. I’m functional now, but I don’t know how long it will last. I start writing this blog post. I feel myself tiring, but Jan calls at 7:30 to say she could not get a ticket to the play. For the last hour I have been checking the clock, wondering if she will call. About fifteen minutes ago I had decided that she must have gotten in, or I would have heard from her. “No, no, it’s fine,” I tell her. “Come on by.” I go downstairs to get the skirts I need to alter for my niece’s school uniform. They are hand-me-downs from her sister, who is shaped differently. As Jan and I visit, I rip out the hems. By 9:30, she says she’s tired and is going to get back on the road. I’m glad, because I’m fading, too. The headache isn’t back, but it’s skulking in the recesses of my skull, waiting to strike. And all those meds exhaust me. I’m happy to have seen Jan, though.

After Jan leaves, I rip the hem out of the last skirt, and I head downstairs with a fresh glass of ice water.

I read a little in Sacré Bleu, the newest book by Christopher Moore. I’ve had it since its greatly anticipated release, and I keep getting distracted from it. I love Chris Moore’s books. I wish I had his wild imagination. I want to keep reading, but my brain won’t let me. I’m too tired.

Another day sacrificed to migraine. Another day, gone.




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