Friday, March 31, 2006

40 Days of Lent - Day Thirty-One

The Other Hand

After having had the revelation I wrote about on Day Thirty, I was left with a feeling of "now what?" Sink into despair? Plunge into decadence? Oddly enough, backa**ward person that I am*, the idea that there may be no God made me want to be a better person. Walking around I would watch people, thinking of them, of us, as being equally doomed. All their concerns and little struggles aren't getting them anywhere in this world or the next. A curious thing happened: contemplating this fragile life, watching how busy everyone seemed, making time until they end up in a grave, I could feel a lightness, a warmth within. Seeing existence this way made me happier, more content than sitting in a church ever did. I was filled with a compassion for all living creatures that the best sermons could not install in me. I was edging towards bliss.

The entire experience struck me as funny. Rejecting spirituality and focusing only on the material world, I could feel my soul soar. The sensation didn't last. Like Icarus we do have to eventually come back down to earth. But it was enough.

Today's reading from the Faithful Words Promise Box:
What things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ.
- Phil. 3:7

*It's no accident that this site is named after someone who's upside down.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

40 Days of Lent - Day Thirty

Atheist Day!
The Numbers, or Why I Don't Believe On The Days I Don't Believe

Back on Day Seven, I wrote:
My friend Bob once said "I read a poll that shows most Americans believe in God. That just shows how out of mainstream culture I am, because I don't know anyone who does." I sheepishly (and not in the "The Lord Is My Shepard" sense) raised my hand and explained that my belief pretty much depends on what day it is. If there is a God, I think it supersedes our puny earthling attempts to comprehend It, and I don't think It is actively involved in our affairs at all. But that's all for another posting, another day.

Every believer has their moments of doubt. But revelation came for me when I was reading some statistics about the standard of living of people on Earth. There were just some simple numbers but they changed everything for me (some stats I found online are below). The large number of people suffering becomes an abstraction and makes the mind shut down. Despite the luck I've had in this life, despite the weird experiences I've had that make me think that there's something beyond us, I just can't reconcile the concept of a God with the suffering that several hundred million people endure every day. This isn't a situation that started yesterday, but has pretty much been a fact of life on this planet from the start. From the dawn of time, suffering has been the rule, peace has been the exception.

I can remember in school Mr. Kurpis explaining the Judeo-Christian concept of one God as "omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent." "And omni-benevolent" he would add. Okay: all-knowing, all-powerful, all-present and all-good...wait a minute. I just can not accept a supreme being as "all-good" that lets so much of his creation suffer. Not suffer in the way of "I'm so upset - Jimmy didn't ask me to the prom!" or even "what do you mean I've lost everything?" But I mean ongoing torment without respite. Perhaps there is a Prime Cause, and It may know everything, have ultimate control and be everywhere. But I don't think It is too concerned with how human beings feel. More numbers: three out of four isn't bad.

Any being that permits ongoing suffering on such a scale does not deserve worship. People have filled countless books trying to reconcile the contradiction of a good God who permits so much bad. I have a simple explanation and it's only two words.

No God.

World Hunger facts (outside the U.S.)
852 million people are hungry

Developing nations
815 million people are undernourished
1.2 billion people live on less than $1/day
153 million children under age 5 are underweight
11 million children under age 5 die every year, over half of hunger-related causes
1 in 6 people is hungry
1 in 4 people lacks safe drinking water

Industrialized/developed nations
9 million people are undernourished

Transitional nations
28 million people are undernourished

Today's reading from the Faithful Words Promise Box:
The Lord hath heard my supplication; the Lord will receive my prayer.
- Psalm 6:9

(It looks like the Promise Box is a little bit of a smart a**)
Appearantly SpellCheck was designed by Republicans. "Undernourished" wasn't recognised. Suggested replacement? "Underemployed."

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

40 Days of Lent - Day Twenty-Nine

Thwacked with the Buddha Stick

Several years ago, I went to a Buddhist center in Manhattan. The center was open to the public for meditation on Thursday nights in exchange for a small donation. My meditative practise was a little "off," shall we say, meaning I hadn't been doing it at all. I figured going to the center would get me back on track.

As with most things in my life, I thought about learning to meditate for a while (several years) before I actually did it. I learned at a TM center while in grad school down in DC. I had expected it to be an earth-shattering (or at least John-shattering) experience, but it was not. The sensation was familiar to me: calm, slightly groggy, less chatter in my head. My main memory is when my instructor mentioned those who are enlightened and I asked if she was. Appearantly, this is a spiritual faux pas. My instructor curtly informed me that "we do not ask about the state of other people's enlightenment." Oops.

As I mentioned, despite the sense of calm it gave me, after several years my practise had dwindled. It just never seemed like was enough time in the day. You wake up, and at first you're too sleepy to do it. Then you have to get to work. You shouldn't do it shortly after eating, and you shouldn't do it right before going to bed. When I was a student I could schedule meditation without any trouble, but once I joined the working world, it was difficult.

So I went to a Buddhist center. Now, TM is different from Buddhist meditation, but only in that you are focusing on a word (a mantra) instead of a breath, candle or riddle. Buddhist meditation also requires a certain posture, whereas TM just requests that you are comfortable, preferrably sitting. At the center we sat crosslegged, shoes off, listening to a brief lecture about Buddha, the soul, meditating, blah blah blah (this is not my mantra but it might as well be) . The procedure for the night was explained to us: we'd go to a room, a bell would sound, monks would enter the room, meditation would begin, try not to make any noise. Oh yes: there is a tradition in Buddhist monastaries to hit those meditating with a paddle or stick, the pain serves to induce the meditator to deeper practise. "But I understand that some of you are new and that some Americans don't like being hit. So I ask that when the gong sounds, anyone who is would like to be hit, please raise their hand."

We entered the room and I began focusing my attention on my breath. Eyes closed I heard the monks enter. I didn't feel ready for any spiritual hazing, so when the gong sounded, I kept both hands in my lap. Each THWACK! was so loud, they echoed and filled the small room in a way that the gong could not. I remembered the times as a child when I would be in trouble and those agonizing seconds before punishment (either physical or verbal) was meted out. THWACK! You couldn't help but jump a little at the sound and wait in suspense for the next beat. They could see that my hands were in my lap, right? My hands are in my lap, aren't they? Oh yeah, there they are. The last THWACK! was administered and we continued to meditate. The noise focused my attention on my breath in a way that just sitting in the room had not.

After the session, we were putting our shoes on in the foyer. The big topic of conversation was the stick. Did you get hit? You did? It was so loud. I couldn't believe it! One guy said it hurt more than he expected. H knew it was gonna hurt, but it really stung. I can't believe how loud it was, was all I could say.

Today's reading from the Faithful Words Promise Box:
His delight is in the law of the Lord; nd in his law doeth he meditate day and night.
- Psalm 1:2

(Finally the Faithful Words Promise Box has something to do with the topic of the day, or at least uses one of the words of the topic of the day.)

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

40 Days of Lent - Day Twenty-Eight

This made me laugh out loud. In case you can't read it, the packaging say "He who may not be shown." It's almost like buying someone a pet rock, except that I guess a pet rock would refer to Peter, the rock on which Christ said he would build His church.

I started two entries today and got stuck with each of them. I will work on them later and post them this week. I thought the above toy does fit in with one of the essays which is a further consideration of word versus image in religion.

A friend just called about having dinner together - Praise the Lord! But first:

Today's reading from the Faithful Words Promise Box:
Thou art coming to a King
Large petitions thou must bring
for His love and power are such,
None can ever ask too much.

Monday, March 27, 2006

40 Days of Lent - Day Twenty-Seven

Good for the Soul

I haven't been to confession in years decades. As a child, the logic of the ritual escaped me. You could do the most heinous things but as long as you were sorry, confessed and did penance, the sin was forgiven by God. It seemed a little too easy. Although I couldn't figure out why, something didn't feel right. I didn't like the idea that people could get away with the bad things they did, especially mean older kids in the neighborhood. I wanted them held accountable.

I can remember waiting in line outside the confessional for what seemed like hours. Appearantly those ahead of me in line had a lot to confess - was that the norm? I didn't have so much to say and felt bad. Some cursing, some disobeying my parents: I would be in and out of the confessional in no time flat. It was embarassing. So, in order to spend more time in the confessional, I would make up sins to confess. Nothing outlandish: I never copped to a murder. But I would admit sins I figured other kids my age would have: stealing, skipping church on a Sunday, etc. Then the final sin I would confess would be lying, figuring that would include the lying I had done in the confessional.

I stopped going to confession not because of any conflict I had with the church, but because of my faulty memory. My last time in confession, I began the creed the ends the ritual...and realized I couldn't remember the words. The priest feed me a couple of lines which I repeated but then I would fall silent. Unlike my sins, I knew I couldn't make up the closing prayer. So my penance was: learn the creed before I go to confession. I haven't learned the prayer and I've never been back to confession.

Just one more reason I'll see you all in Hell!

Sunday, March 26, 2006

40 Days of Lent - Day Twenty-Six


I was at Kinsale Tavern last night eating a delicious chicken curry (over a bed half of which was rice and the other half french fries) and reading The Trouble With Islam by Irshad Manji. I certainly didn't think anyone is the pub would have a problem with what I was reading. I'm sure if anyone found out, I would have been treated to a half hour beer-breathed lecture on how evil the Arabs are. But no one asked. The games were on - soccer, basketball and hockey all represented on the pubs' various screens.

While traveling on the subway, an older man got on who was wearing one of those muslim-style small knitted caps. I wasn't in the mood for an argument or any attention at all, so I strategically place my hand over the book's title on the spine and continued reading. I remeber once, several years ago when I had Elaine Pagels' The Origin of Satan on the subway and someone asked me what I was reading. When I showed him the cover, he said disdainfully "why would somebody write something like that?" I didn't feel like explaining to him that it was a scholarly reading of the four gospels, tracing how anti-semitism corresponds to when the books were written and the early Christian sects were trying to separate themselves from the Jewish powers that be. He obviously thought it was either a cheesy horror novel or a born again tract (which is a horror of an other kind).

I've mentioned before how informative I've found Manji's book, but one section in particular stuck out last night. Manji has been invited to visit Israel, no small honor considering she is a Muslim woman. However, despite being an invited guest, there are conflicts and arguments at every site she wants to visit. While visiting the Al-Aksa mosque, an old man blocks her path and prevents her from entering even though she has permission and is there with a guide. Only when she demonstrates proper knowledge of the Koran does the old man relent..."with one last condition. While inside the mosque, he says, I must relinquish my camera because photographing any creature who has a soul promotes idolatry." (Italics mine.)

What is it about the image that bothers people so? Yesterday on this site I wrote about the different versions of the Ten Commandments and that the Catholic version doesn't include a law against graven images, which both the Judaic and Protestant versions forbid. According to Islamic law, you are not allowed to make pictures of any of God's creations. Why? I understand the historical context for these laws. The Jews and the Muslims were reacting against pagan idolatry. Protestants were reacting against the Catholic church. But there seems to be a distrust of images, a discomfort with the power of images.

Several years ago, I began (but haven't finished) Leonard Shlain's The Alphabet Vs. The Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image. Based on studies that show words and images being processed by different parts of the brain (simplifying for the sake of argument: words are the domain to the left half of the brain, the seat of reason, logic, linear thinking, cause and effect, stereotyped as "male" values. Images belong to the right side of the brain, along with intuition, holistic thought, associative thinking, all considered "female" traits.), Schlain examines how literacy changes societies. As writing becomes more important within society, the left half of the brain dominates and its associated attributes become the "norm," whereas the values of the right half of the brain are mistrusted or dismissed. Schlain's book is speculative - there's no way to "prove" what his thesis, but he provides enough examples to make a compelling case. (Oy, does he provide examples! That's why I'm not finished with it yet).

But it has had an effect on how I see things. This notion that images are "bad" fascinates me. This wariness is not restricted to patriarchal religions, either. One of the most famous and influential essays about cinema is Laura Mulvey's Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Mulvey argues that the inventions and products of a patriarchal society will be phallocentric and see "male" values as the norm. She applies this idea to cinema, saying it is a vehicle for the male gaze, that gaze mainly concerned with women as objects of desire. For examples, she looks at the cinema of Hitchcock. How could she not? His movies were often about looking and watching, and featured a male character's desires. Even his name is phallocentric.

Mulvey has since qualified her argument, saying she was more interested in working out her thoughts in essay form than in writing a manifesto. But a manifesto it has become and with it, a suspicion of images and their "power." Except that this suspicion comes from progressive feminist writers rather than patriarchal religious leaders.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

40 Days of Lent - Day Twenty-Five


Guess who might be in trouble? I was looking for biblical quotes to take out of context and mock and ran across the following:

Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the LORD. – Leviticus 19:28

I've never cut myself over the dead or due to great angst, and printing any marks upon me? Oh...yeah...tattoos. Uhm, yeah, I got one of those. It's of the same tarot card this journal is named after. Yes, it looks great.

The above passage is why tattoos are taboo if you're a jew, which sounds like something Dr. Seuss might have written. (If you do go to the link, make sure you check out the Tattoos May be Addicting article).

Of course, it gets worse. There was the short-lived fad in college for tackling your friends, holding them down and writing "TURD" on their forehead in big letters. There was the time my sister Julie brought her newborn son TJ to the house, and I drew a smiley face on his belly and then discovered we couldn't remove the smiley face. I thought I was safe because I wasn't using a permanent marker, but as it turns out, regular ball point pens are also pretty permanent on human skin. I remember the confused look on TJ's face as his mother and I kept rubbing his belly trying to get the ink off. "I really don't want to get a divorce when my husband sees you drew on his son, John" was how my sister admonished me.

Trying to calm the "Uh-oh" sensation, I thought I would review the 10 Commandments to see how I'm doing. As this website points out, there are actually multiple versions of the commandments. Even more surprising? The simplest and most direct version of the commandments is the Catholic version. Imagine that. The church that has a ritual for everything, is ruled by an intricate hierarchy and follows the most twisted logic to justify its faith has managed to whittle down the decalogue into easy to remember topic sentences. Also of interest is that the Judaic and Protestant versions have a separate law against graven images which the Catholics do not. This is apparent to anyone who studies art history and is one of the best things about the Catholic church. To make up for this missing law, the Catholic decalogue adds "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife" -- thy neighbor's wife being just one item on the other versions' Do Not Covet" list (along with his ass -ha ha ha). I can remember as a child thinking it was redundant. Isn't "do not covet thy neighbor's wife" the same as "do not commit adultery?" I suppose one is a sin of thought whereas the other is a sin of action. Still, it's nice to see ladies considered as distinct from goods.

So which commandments have I broken?

1. I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt not have strange gods before me.
I can honestly say I've never worshipped any other gods. But accepting the God of Old and New Testaments? That depends on what day it is and what my mood is.

2. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
Oh, I've done this.

3. Remember thou keep the Sabbath Day.
I don't do this.

4. Honor thy Father and thy Mother.
I would have to say I've honored my mother and father.

5. Thou shalt not kill.
I have not killed anything. (Vegetarians, I know what you're saying and you can shut up.)

6. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
Not married so this one isn't a problem.

7. Thou shalt not steal.
Yeah, I guess I've stolen, if you define "stealing" as "taking something you haven't paid for and doesn't belong to you."

8. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
I can't recall every lying about someone. When you're able to speak the truth in such a way that you can make your low opinion of someone obvious, why bother lying about them?

9. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife.
Yeah, I've done this. (I don't mean "neighbour" literally. As much as I like Barb Wilson, no coveting was going on there.)

10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's goods.
Yeah, I do this.

I'm 50/50 as far as the commandments are concernced. Conclusion: some time in Purgatory for this boy. On the other hand, while looking for fun scripture, I ran across the following:

The Son of man is come eating and drinking; and ye say, Behold a gluttonous man, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners! - Luke 7:34

Jesus, a gluttonous man and a winebibber?

Maybe I'm more like Christ than I thought...

Friday, March 24, 2006

40 Days of Lent - Day Twenty-Four

Good vs. Evil Comics
Who will emerge victorious?

A special tip of the crown of thorns goes to Karl for bringing "Son of Satan" to my attention

My favorite religious comic is Justin Green's underground classic Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary. When I first heard about it, I thought it would be a blasphemous satire on all things Catholic. "All right!" Then when I learned it was one of the first autobiographical comics and an influence on Art Spiegelman's Maus and R. Crumb, I figured it would be a tale of a Catholic childhood and a coming of age, similar to Joyce's Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man and old George Carlin routines. The book begins that way but subtly shifts halfway through.

As a teenager, Justin Green developed an obsessive compulsive disorder, although that term did not exist in the 1950s. He thought that having his penis point in the direction of any image of the Virgin Mary was a sin. Good boys don't sully the mother of Christ with the instrument of their pubescent "dirty" thoughts. He would turn his body so that his penis was never "pointing" at her, sometimes contorting himself ridiculously in the process. A situation where he couldn't help but point at Mary brought on great anxiety.

The compulsion grew worse. Soon, it wasn't just his penis that Green would re-direct, but any phallic part of his body: fingers, toes, arms, legs, feet, nose. Imagine trying to sit in church so that all of the above body parts point away from any picture of the Blessed Mother, and freaking out when you discover that part of you was pointing at her without knowing it. These accidents would lead to lots of guilt and desperate prayers.

It sounds funny unless you the one experiencing it. The compulsion continued to expand. Green would rearrange phallic objects (pens, pencils) so that they pointed away from churches, just on the off chance they might "hit" a picture of Mary. He began to memorize the location of all churches in his neighborhood so as to avoid any accidents. Since people weren't diagnosed with OCD, Green was left to fend for himself. It was only through willpower that he was able to maintain some measure of control over his obsession. In the first edition of Binky Brown, Green is fairly caustic about a religion that caused him so much pain. But later editions show him as more appreciative of the church, now that his compulsion is in the past, although he remains non-practising to this day.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

40 Days of Lent - Day Twenty-Three

The 12 (actually 13) Apostles And How They Died

Peter: crucified upside down

Andrew: crucified on an X shaped cross

Paul: beheaded

John: apparently the only apostle who died of natural causes

James the Greater: death by sword, his execution ordered by Herod

James the Lesser: either death by stoning or beaten by club

Matthew: cause of death unknown, though there’s a cool apocryphal story that a group of eunuchs forced him to fight a dragon

Judas : committed suicide by hanging

Philip: crucified upside down; also rumored to have fought a dragon

Bartholomew: skinned alive then beheaded

Labbeus (aka Jude, aka Thaddeus): cause of death unknown, assumed executed

Simon: cause of death unknown, assumed martyred

Matthias (who replaced Judas when he could no longer fulfill his apostle duties): various accounts give his death as being killed with an axe, stoned or beheaded

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

40 Days of Lent - Day Twenty-Two

Ten Plagues of Egypt Finger Puppets
Available at Bed, Bath & Beyond

Nope, I did not make this up, although I wish I had thought of it. I don't think I can express how much I love these. Looks like this weekend's task will be to build a little display case for the puppets. Or theater. I haven't made up my mind.

If your local Bed, Bath & Beyond doesn't carry them, check out the company's website. There is a warning on the back of the package that states "packing materials are a choking hazard for children." Safety first while your child plays with puppets based on lice, boils or a deceased first born.

Today's reading from the Faithful Words Promise Box:
Let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.
- Gal. 6:9

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

40 Days of Lent - Day Twenty-One

My Favorite Heretic

When I was in Rome, I made a point of visiting Campo dei Fiori. It's a charming plaza known for its flower markets and cafes. However, I was interested in seeing the statue that dominates the square. It is of one of my favorite heretics, Giordano Bruno.

Born in Nola, Italy in 1548, Bruno became a priest in the Dominican order, but seems to have been both blessed and cursed with a restless mind. He was interested in ideas for their own sake (rather than serving God or the church) and in how our brains work. He pioneered a mnemonic technique for memorizing large amounts of material. He would create an image for each piece of information, eventually building an imaginary house or village populated by these images. In doing so, he translated verbal information into images, thus forging links between different sections of his brain. This ability was considered "natural magic" and brought Bruno great reknown.

A restless mind often inspires the body to follow. Or perhaps it was the combination of Bruno's inquisitiveness and the Inquisition that lead him to Europe. He traveled to Paris and London, was influenced by new ideas both occult and scientific which he then incorporated into his writings. He seemed to possess a natural talent for pissing people off and getting into arguments. In "...France, in 1585, he got into a violent quarrel about a scientific instrument." (I find the preceding sentence, from this site hilarious). He joined the Calvinists, then was excommunicated. He joined the Lutherans, then was excommunicated. The Catholic Church said they would take him back on the condition that he return to his order. He refused.

What were his ideas? According to the Catholic Encyclopedia :
[Bruno's] system of thought is an incoherent materialistic pantheism. God and the world are one; matter and spirit, body and soul, are two phases of the same substance; the universe is infinite; beyond the visible world there is an infinity of other worlds, each of which is inhabited; this terrestrial globe has a soul; in fact, each and every part of it, mineral as well as plant and animal, is animated; all matter is made up of the same elements (no distinction between terrestrial and celestial matter); all souls are akin (transmigration is, therefore, not impossible).

Eventually the Inquisition did catch up with him. He spent six years in jail before being condemned. It wasn't his scientific views that did him in but his theological errors, including the Holy Ghost is the "soul" of the world, the Devil will be saved, and (my favorite) Christ was not God but merely an unusually skilful magician. To the Church's credit, they gave him two grace periods of 40 days each to consider his dilemma and, if he chose, recant. He never did. He was burned at the stake in Campo dei Fiori in 1600.

Bruno's theories mix the scientific, the speculative and the mystic. The cliche "ahead of his time" is entirely appropriate. The idea that this world has a soul fits in with current Gaia view of the Earth. The belief in the interconnectedness of all things is echoed in Buddhism. The infinite universe fits in with current scientific theories about the big bang.

I read the following in one of my travel books: appearantly in the 19th century the pope demanded the statue of Giordano Bruno be taken down, arguing that it was not proper to have a statue of an unredeemed heretic so close to Vatican City. People protested and demonstrated and the statue remained. Bruno still stands surrounded by food and flowers, cafes, bars and bookstores, tourists and locals and children who play "Volare" on the violin for spare change.

Monday, March 20, 2006

40 Days of Lent - Day Twenty

Where's Jesus?
John's Apartment Edition

The votive candle and statue were gifts from Mr. and Mrs. Collins. The address book was a gift from Ms. Stambaugh. The Last Supper rug was bought at Mammalicious in Lancaster PA; the auto league plaque at a bazaar in Louisville KY; the nightlight at a dollar store in the Outer Banks NC; and the tall candle at a bodega in Brooklyn NY. Proof that Jesus really is everywhere.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

40 Days of Lent - Day Nineteen

I Heard It Through The Grapevine

I received a pleasant surprise Friday. My friend Carol Speranza (nee Sulcoski) sent me a gift: the book The Trouble With Islam by Irshad Manji. The book is Ms. Manji's attempt to reconcile her faith (Islam) with her social/political beliefs (liberal humanist). Needless to say, she has trouble with a religion that condemns her because she is a woman, a lesbian and a free-thinker. Actually, she finds just being a thinker a source of conflict in the Muslim world. Her essays accomplish what I had hoped to do by reading the Koran, except she knows what she's talking about.

I haven't finished the book and will post more thoughts when I do; however, there's one passage I wanted to share now. Manji is describing the possibility of mistranslations and ancient transcription errors being in the Koran. This isn't something that is often discussed. There are entire books about how the Bible and its meanings have changed as it moved from one language to another (the most famous example: "Virgin" Mary may actually have been "Young Girl" Mary), but the Koran is usually not subjected to the same linguistic investigation.

Manji is discussing the famous "seventy virgins" waiting in paradise for male martyrs to Islam:
But we have reason to believe that there's trouble in paradise, a human error that's made its way into the Koran. According to new research, what martyrs can anticipate for their sacrifices aren't virgins but raisins! The word that Koranic scholars have for centuries read as "dark-eyed virgins" - hur - might be more accurately understood as "white raisins." (Don't laugh. Not excessively, anyway. Raisins would have been pricey enough delicacies in seventh-century Arabia to be considered a heavenly treat.) Still, raisins instead of virgins?

I have many words for suicidal terrorist martyrs, most of which I can't use because I've given up cursing for Lent. But now I can add one more.


Fun with Spellcheck: it suggests Carol's maiden name shouldn't be "Sulcoski" but should be "Salacious" and, more interestingly, "mistranslation" should be "masterminding." Hmmm....

Saturday, March 18, 2006

40 Days of Lent - Day Eighteen

These Are A Few Of My Deadliest Sins

Several years ago, I was playing the "What's Your Deadly Sin?" game in which you decide which of the Seven Deadly Sins is your greatest weakness and guess the deadly sins of the others in the room, or better yet, those who aren't around. It's not really a game per se, but an interesting source of discussion. I'd much rather talk to people than play some lame game anyway. I'm not competitive by nature and I have little use for "rules."

Then as now, I see myself ruled by two deadly sins: a tie between sloth and gluttony. Though I sometimes exhibit the other deadly sins, I think I have them under control and don't consider them fundamental parts of my personality. Sloth and gluttony on the other hand are definitely part of who I am.

Sloth in this case refers to my inability to complete a project on my own without some deadline imposed from outside. I am simply not a self-starter. I've been wanting to paint two of the rooms in my apartment for a couple of months now. Have I done so? Of course not. I had an excuse a month ago when I was working; however, I'm not working now but always seem to find something else to do. I know the pattern: I will think about it for a while, then decide I want the job completed by a certain date (say, a weekend when someone is coming to visit) and frantically get it done the day before the deadline. I've mentioned trying to write a book inspired by my travels in Europe -- guess how much I've gotten done? I printed out that section of this journal for easier editing, and the pages sit on the table in my (ironically named) work room. The reason I'm posting every day for Lent is to force myself to work and get some writing done each day.

But it is gluttony that seems to truly define me. Not just gluttony for food, though anyone who knows me knows my love of eating. But gluttony for things: books, cds, dvds, artwork, etc. I'm lucky the objects of my desire are fairly inexpensive. I still have unopened cds that I got for free when I worked at Columbia House eight years ago, yet still buy new cds. When I discovered free movies online at, I gorged myself, downloading educational films, Betty Boop cartoons, and old television commercials with the plan of burning them to disc. However, I haven't found time to watch them, let alone make dvds. I have piles of unread books that I'll get to "eventually," yet if I don't stop in a bookstore or library at least once a week, I feel funny (this is not hyperbole). I ususally don't leave empty-handed, either.

My trip to Europe was inspired in part by a gluttony, but a gluttony for experience. My office job had left me bored, my sloth prevented me from looking for work I enjoyed. Plus the job paid well. A hunger for new experiences, new images and sounds, drove me on. It was an impulsive drive, acted act in slow motion over several months. I indulged and wallowed in this aspect of gluttony and I'd do it again in heartbeat.

See you all in Hell!

Friday, March 17, 2006

40 Days of Lent - Day Seventeen

Happy Saint Patrick's Day!

Guess what? Catholics in the New York Metropolitan area have gotten special dispensation to eat meat today, even though it's Friday. The New York Post didn't mention if there was special dispensation to indulge in whatever you gave up for Lent, so it's looks like it will be a curse-free St. Patty's Day. I will probably celebrate by going to see V for Vendetta, about a vigillante inspired by Guy Fawkes, the Catholic who tried to blow up the British Parliament in 1605.

St. Patrick is famous for introducing Christianity to Ireland, using a clover to explain the Holy Trinity and driving the snakes from the island. Had St. Patrick been luckier he would have picked a four-leaf clover and forever altered Christian theology. It seems doubtful that there were ever any snakes in Ireland. The story may actually be a reference to Christianity's triumph over paganism on the Emerald Isle, the snake being a symbol of many druid cults.

Something interesting I found online:
Now it's not just out of a whim that St. Patricks Day is on the 17th of March. The festival was designed to coincide, and it was hoped to replace, the pagan holiday known as Ostara (pagan holidays are called sabbats). This is the 2nd spring festival for pagans and occurs each year at the Spring Equinox. This year, that's March 20th. Ostara is a celebration of the rebirth of nature, the balance of the universe when the day and night are equal in length. For pagans, it is the time to honor the God who comes to join the Goddess in her Maiden form and bring new life and fertility to the growing season. Pagans then and now, use this day for not only spiritual preparation by balancing the energies of the self, family and home for the coming season, but also to prepare for the working of the divine in their daily lives. Reconsecrating tools used in planting, blessing seeds and garden areas are common practices today.

"Join the Goddess in her Maiden form" made me think of the Goddess in a bra.

Mormons and the Salamander
Thought I would post an email I received from Heather Hunter to illuminate yesterday's salamander discussion.


I did a little blog-skimming today. I didn't have time search for the comment about Mormonism and a salamander... but having been raised Mormon, and faithfully practiced until I was 22, I gotta say, I never heard such a thing!

I can answer your question about Mormonism in other countries -- yes, they've been doin' alright (like, fastest growing world religion I read recently). They do best in Latin American countries where people already dig religion and place high priorities on family, etc.

Anyway, just thought I'd offer up some info,


Thanks, Heather. Much appreciated.

Today's reading from the Faithful Words Promise Box:

But they constrained him, saying, Abide with us...And he went in to tarry with them.
- Luke 24:29

I have no idea what this means. I know what the words mean individually, but together as a significant piece of scripture, they mean nothing to me. It reminds me of the Alan Bennett skit about a minister who spins an entire meaningless sermon from the quote "but my brother Esau is an hairy man, but I am a smooth man."

Thursday, March 16, 2006

40 Days of Lent - Day Sixteen


Most of what I know of Mormonism is based on heresay (as opposed to heresy) and, sad to say, South Park. There was an episode that explained the story of Joseph Smith and some of the core beliefs of the Church of Latter Day Saints. The words "Mormons actually believe this!" would be superimposed on the screen while depicting some of the odder articles of faith. For those who missed it, below is a nice site that compares the episode with what Mormons really believe. I was going to do a little re-write and post, but I can't improve upon the original site.

South Park Mormons

I certainly can't assume an air of superiority to any system of belief*, given that I was raised in the Catholic church (which has its own crazy ideas) and I named my online journal after a tarot card.

In the comment section for Day Fifteen, Carol asks about the talking salamander, a notion the Church of Latter Day Saints is currently challenging. I don't know anything about it, but it did start me thinking about the fundamentally American quality of the religion. Has the Church of Latter Day Saints had success converting those in other countries? A quick internet search didn't reveal much of an answer. The talking salamander also makes me think about the impact that landscape has on indigenous religious beliefs. Julie's comparing the burning bush to the talking salamander points out an idea that prophets find God talking to them through whatever vessel happens to be around. Not too many salamanders outside of Egypt, so a bush it has to be. There's plenty of greenery in America, but a talking fish is special. Could Islam have flourished in a jungle? Could Buddhism ever have originated in a tundra? When the landscape is bare, is it necessary to teach non-attachment to things of this world?

Believe me, this isn't Trash Mormonism Week. I had planned to post more about the Koran, but when it comes time to read it, I always seem to find something else to do. I watched The Testament of Dr. Mabuse last night. Great movie. The night before it was the first episode of Elizabeth R, the BBC series from the early 70's. God, Glenda Jackson rules. Well, she does by the end of the episode, anyway. Tonight I'm going iceskating in Central Park. God is wherever you want to find It.

Unintentional Spellcheck Humor: Suggested replacement for "Tarot" was "tardy." As in "re-tardy," I can only assume.

*Although, let's face it, I still do.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

40 Days of Lent - Day Fifteen

Pam Whitelsea(sp?)
No, that's not Pam, my former roommate who smoked so much that whenever I quote her, I feel it necessary to drop my voice an octave and growl. This is a different Pam.

Bill's comment from Day Twelve "I feel duty-bound to defend Mormons, who I worked with and hung out with whilst in grad school. Sweet, decent folk, and no more weird than, say, my suburban neighbors" has made me reminisce about my friend Pam, who I knew while in college. Pam was one of those people you knew first by reputation. The fierceness of her mind, the sharpness of her tongue and her intolerance for other people's nonsense made her a little intimidating. One of her roommates, Mary, was feuding with Pam at the time, and would stop in my dorm room to kvetch aplenty.* "You just don't want to get on her bad side" was what I usually heard, but I decided to keep enough distance so as not to get on any side at all.

This worked about as well as most of my plans. Pam and I had a friend in common, Jane-The-Tuba-Player. By the algebra of college friendships (in which people hang out not in twos or threes but actual packs)** there was no avoiding the formidable Pam. It didn't take me long to discover, however, that Pam was delightful. Not as tough as everyone said, but as sharp, funny and direct as they had hinted. She was a little guarded (which fits because she was on color guard) but one of those friends who, if she liked you, would lay waste to half the earth on your behalf. She and her friend Lisa closed out most every party, and if you were lucky*** enough to still be around, they would usually perform their dance to AC\DC's "Big Balls," in which they would pose and move like 18th century fops. Those parties were some of the happiest times of my life.

But happiness isn't contagious. Like many caustic people, Pam was deeply unhappy with her life. My first inkling of this was while at, no surprise, a party. There are those who, while at a party, always make a point of looking in their hosts' bathroom cabinet. Medicine cabinets don't interest me that much, despite having peeked in a few. But I always inspect what books are on their bookshelves and what records they have in their collection. It was while flipping through stacks of records in the bedroom that Pam came in and asked if she could ask me something. "Uh-oh" I thought, because I liked Pam, but I didn't like Pam, all our flirting aside. However, Pam liked someone else who didn't like Pam either. This guy liked pot, and that was about it. It didn't take long for her frustration over a boy to turn into "what's wrong with me?" I talked to her as best I could, agreeing that he wasn't worth it (he really wasn't) and before long Lisa came in and helped calm Pam's tears.****

Not too long after that, Pam converted to Mormonism. The news was such a surprise that all her friends shared a common look of blank shock whenever the subject came up. Pam's joining the Church of Latter Day Saints entailed major changes, the biggest being no more drinking. Back in college, nobody quit drinking. There were those who never drank and then there were the rest of us. Pam's friends tried to be supportive while negotiating the new rules regarding her change of life but the results were not always graceful. No-one was ever cruel, just confused. Pam had added something new - a serious belief in religion - and none of us were interested. In the end it was easier for Pam to simply remove herself from the algebra equation that made up "our group."

Like all organisms, a clique has a life cycle.***** Pam becoming a Mormon introduced a gravitas we weren't ready for. Her absence was felt even when we stopped talking about it. We didn't really hang out as a pack anymore, but in groups of twos and threes. When I talked to Pam about Mormonism (even then I was curious about religion) she would say what attracted her was the faith's strong emphasis on family.****** It wasn't long before she was dating someone from the church. None of her friends ever met him. We wondered how a woman as independent as Pam would manage in a religion that states the husband is head of the family. But she seemed happy, or if not "happy" then more at peace.

*What were the feuds about? Mary had a habit of eating her roommate's food and lying about it.

**One of the things I miss most about college is the sense of the campus as a large village where everyone's job is to take classes and then hang out with each other. I miss having a large pool of people to hang out with in the immediate vicinity.

***"Luck" being a relative term, because if you closed out the party, that means you hadn't picked anyone up. However, Pam and Lisa dancing to AC/DC made a nice consolation prize.

****Lisa was studying to be a nurse. No surprise there.

*****This was something I realized with my group of friends in grad school. I witnessed a clique form, become strong then fragment and break apart within the space of two semesters. The high point of the friendship came, appropriately enough, exactly at the middle point between the two semesters at a party. I was saddened to discover that some people prefer bickering to getting along.

******This conversation with Pam is linked in my mind to one that I had years later with my friend Mick. I had to buy a suit for a wedding and while out on a Sunday morning, I saw large numbers of black people leaving church dressed beautifully. The men wore tailored suits and the women had a style that you associate with people from the 1940's that we have since shrugged off. But it wasn't just the clothes. As I commented to Mick later "I wish I had a community. I wish I was part of some group." Mick said "You know what I wish I had? A family." One of her parents had died and she wasn't really in touch with the other or her brother. At that point I stopped crying over my shoelessness.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

40 Days of Lent - Day Fourteen

Fun Facts About Martyrs

The word "martyr" comes from the Greek word for "witness."

The first Christian martyr was St. Stephen. He was stoned to death. He was also the only martyr the Grateful Dead wrote a song about.

The first Islamic martyr was Sumayyah bint Khabbab. She was the seventh person to convert to Islam and died when she was speared in the groin by Amr ibn Hishām, a Meccan leader who sought to repress the new religion.

The term "matryr" does not appear in the Koran, but some passages have been interpreted by later muslims as being about martyrdom.

In Judaism, the concept of martyrdom is referred to as Kiddush Hashem: "sanctification of God's name." This means not doing anything that might bring disgrace to God, including renouncing his word for convenience sake or to save your life.

My favorite title for book about martyrs: The Bloody Theater or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians who baptized only upon confession of faith, and who suffered and died for the testimony of Jesus, their Saviour, from the time of Christ to the year A.D. 1660

Book about martyrs that sounds like it was written by Beatrix Potter: Foxe's Book of Martyrs

Relics of martyrs I got close to in Italy, but didn't actually see: pieces of St. Peter and St. Mark.

Monday, March 13, 2006

40 Days of Lent - Day Thirteen

Lottie Schutlz

Kate's remembrances about her snotty Church of Latter Day Saints neighbors telling her red was the color of the Devil (see the comment section for Day Twelve) made me think about some of our neighbors when I was growing up. Apart from the fact that it was all white (not by design but by the times), our street was fairly mixed with regards to ancestory, class and religion. We had working class families, hippies, college professors, and lawyers all living on the same street. There were Protestants, Catholics and Jews on the block. Everyone got along, or rather, when they didn't get along, it was because of personality conflicts rather than religion or class.

One of the families that lived on the street was the Schultz family. In general they didn't mingle with the rest of the neighborhood, having moved onto a street where families had lived for years and had gone through the common experience of a flood (Old Testament sounding as that may be). They were working class and seemed to have the innate "toughness" that implies. As a child I steered clear of their sons who I imagined would do me harm "just because" if given half the chance. I would pedal past their house just a little faster and feel relief when I got to the end of the street.

To be honest, the Schultz boys never even talked to, let alone bothered, me. The talker of the family was their teenage daughter Lottie. I can remember being spellbound one summer night at Lottie's monologue about "the demons coming to get you." People had been sleeping when suddenly their mattress would flip over and throw them to the floor. The victim would get up, groggy, wondering what had happened. It was demons, Lottie explained. Coming to get you. Her talk kept the group of younger children around her enthralled. She obviously knew much more about the subject than any of us. In addition to their reserve and their toughness, the Schultzes had something else that added to their aura of mystery. They were Jehovah's Witnesses.

I didn't know much about Jehovah's Witnesses and my mother wasn't too much help. "They believe in the end of the world. They believe the world is going to end soon and they'll be the only ones saved. If they want to talk to you about religion, don't. They always want to convert people." Had my mother mentioned that Jehovah's Witnesses don't celebrate holidays - which means no Christmas or birthday presents - then she wouldn't have had to worry about any possibility of my converting.

Lottie's belief in a crazy religion only added to her appeal as an authority on demons. But those were the times. The occult and strange beliefs were big in pop culture in the early seventies. The success of "The Exorcist" had inspired lots of tv movies and books about demons and occult happenings. It seemed everyone believed in something crazy. It was fertile ground that inspired the imagination of a child like myself, brought up in a religion that fascinated and terrified him.

As it turns out, the snotty Church of Latter Day Saints kids were right. Red is the color of the Devil. Everybody knows that.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

40 Days of Lent - Day Twelve

Jesus Sports Statues
Okay, I know ballet isn't a sport, but you get the idea...

A couple of years ago, everyone was forwarding pictures of religious statues of Jesus playing sports around the internet. Out of curiousity, I checked to see if you could still buy the "Jesus playing soccer" and discovered that not only is it still available, but they have added new sports to the collection.

Today's reading from the Faithful Words Promise Box:
Ye shall be witnesses unto me.
- Acts 1:8

Friday, March 10, 2006

40 Days of Lent - Day Eleven


Contrary cat that I am, I decided to read The Koran for Lent. Actually, I've been thinking of reading it for a while - it's one of the many books I've acquired with the thought that I will get to it "eventually." But my interest has been renewed after my trip to Morocco and the recent riots over the political cartoon of Mohammed published in a Danish newspaper. The perverse little punk rock snot in me enjoyed the fact that all this havoc was being caused over a cartoon. People died: 15 in Nigeria, 10 in Libya, 4 in Afghanistan. I had a dark fantasy of this escalating into a holy war, nuclear weapons being used, life on Earth exterminated...all due to a cartoon. It somehow seems an appropriate statement for how stupid the human race is.

I was bemused each day to see "Cartoon Riot" headlines. It conjured images of people running off of cliffs but staying in mid-air for a beat or two before falling. Anyone hit on the head would see stars (perhaps three stars and a quarter moon?) and when surprised, their eyes would ZING out of their heads. Sadly the truth was just more unfunny craziness and useless destruction. There's not enough Tex Avery in the world.

So I began to read The Koran. I read because I believed our notion of Islam is deliberately distorted in the west by our media and government. I wanted to see for myself, by going to the source, what the religion had to say. I respect several of the Five Pillars of Islam:
1. Belief in one God, Allah and Mohammed as his profit
2. Pray 5 times daily
3. Give alms to the poor
4. Purify the self by fasting
5. Try to visit Mecca once in your life

Any religion that includes helping the poor as one of its core beliefs wins a certain respect from me. I've fasted and think it's a good idea, and I also like a religion that values travel. Praying 5 times a day...mmmm...well, contemplation of the infinite daily, not a bad idea. Having to drop whatever your doing and pray to a God? Not too hot on. The first belief, Mohammed as profit, well, that's why I was reading the book, to see if I could justify it.

I should point out that I have no interest in converting to Islam or any other religion. I will always be a lapsed Catholic. However: no matter what set of beliefs may interest me, I will never call or label myself according to any religion ever again. Against this background, I began the Koran. "Let's see what Islam is really about." I was looking for more evidence that governments lie to people to keep them separate and themselves in power.

I wasn't too far into the book when I started getting that sinking feeling. "Oh...some of this is a little messed up." I reminded myself that the book has a historical context, but historical context couldn't shake the growing sense that parts of the Koran are as bad as "they" say. Let me put it this way: any holy book that proscribes rules for menstruation before it declares that murder is forbidden isn't a holy book to me. As well as being a religious guide, it was also a legal guide, in which all financial matters (according to Allah) can be simplified as: men always entitled to twice as much money as women. The Koran gives specific instructions for the inheriting of wealth, said instructions always favoring the men. What surprises me is not that this is in the book, but that it is so blatantly spelled out. I got tired of reading the adjective "unclean" applied to women.

I'm continuing on with it, but I feel more like a lawyer conducting due diligence. I'm looking now for further evidence of ugly attitudes in the book, and overreacting to messages of compassion and love. "Whew! The Koran says we should take care of orphans! That's so GREAT!"

I'll post more thoughts as I get further into the book.

40 Days of Lent - Day Ten

Devil Doll!

Fifteen years ago, I lived in the Italian market district in downtown Philadelphia. My apartment was on a side street. Our building was one of the few rentals -- most of our neighbors had lived on the block for a number of years. This familiarity lead to old ladies sitting on the sidewalk in folding chairs on summer evenings, watching and chatting about everyone who walked by. It also lead to feuds with origins so long ago that the initial cause was forgotten but the anger remained.

One Sunday morning I heard a ruckus outside. I went to the window and was surprised to see the police talking to my neighbors and the couple across the street. Appearantly, my next door neighbors had found on their doorstep a little devil doll...with a steakknife sticking through it. When the police were summoned, their immediate suspect was my downstairs neighbor, Jody. Jody was the Zen Artist and resident freak on the block. He also invented the "new wave" haircut, but that's another story. Although one rarely dealt with Jody without entertaining thoughts of strangulation, the look of fear on his face when he suspected he was in trouble with unsympathetic Philly police for something he didn't do won him much sympathy.

"Not him" the neighbors intervened. "They did it," pointing to the house across the street. The couple across the street admitted to it, and went into a litany of grievances against my neighbors, finishing with "Look at this threatening letter you wrote us!" (I think the letter contained a threat to burn down their house, but I can't be sure).

"I didn't write that!" my neighbor yelled.

"Yes you did - you signed it!" Which indeed they had.

Oh Philadelphia. I'm not sure what today's lesson is. Perhaps if you want to threaten someone with a felony anonymously, don't sign the letter. Or, if you really want to freak someone out, leave an impaled devil doll on their doorstep.

I'm not sure if the people across the street ever got their steakknife back.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

40 Days of Lent - Day Nine

Blast From The Past

I've mentioned before that this is the second time I've celebrated Lent by posting on the internet each day. Below is the logo from my first series of posting.

sniff I'm getting all nostalgic just looking at it...

Today's reading from the Faithful Words Promise Box:
I know a Friend who sticketh fast,
Keeps His love from first to last,
And JESUS is His name.

Today's reading reminds me of the old "And Bingo was his name-o" song we used to sing in grade school.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

40 Days of Lent - Day Eight

Religious Hypocrite Of The Month

No, it's not George Bush. He was last month's, and the month's before, and before that...

It's Thomas Kincaide, bad painter, bad person.

from the LA Times:

Dark Portrait of a 'Painter of Light'
Christian-themed artist Thomas Kinkade is accused of ruthless tactics and seamy personal conduct. He disputes the allegations.
By Kim Christensen, Times Staff Writer
March 5, 2006

Thomas Kinkade is famous for his luminous landscapes and street scenes, those dreamy, deliberately inspirational images he says have brought "God's light" into people's lives, even as they have made him one of America's most collected artists.

A devout Christian who calls himself the "Painter of Light," Kinkade trades heavily on his beliefs and says God has guided his brush — and his life — for the last 20 years.

"When I got saved, God became my art agent," he said in a 2004 video biography, genteel in tone and rich in the themes of faith and family values that have helped win him legions of fans, albeit few among art critics.

But some former Kinkade employees, gallery operators and others contend that the Painter of Light has a decidedly dark side.

In litigation and interviews with the Los Angeles Times, some former gallery owners depict Kinkade, 48, as a ruthless businessman who drove them to financial ruin at the same time he was fattening his business associates' bank accounts and feathering his nest with tens of millions of dollars.

Kinkade — whose solely owned Thomas Kinkade Co. is based in Morgan Hill, Calif. — denies these allegations.

Last month, however, a three-member panel of the American Arbitration Assn. ordered his company to pay $860,000 for defrauding the former owners of two failed Virginia galleries. That decision marks the first major legal setback for Kinkade, who won three previous arbitration claims. Five more are pending.

It's not just Kinkade's business practices that have been called into question. Former gallery owners, ex-employees and others say his personal behavior also belies the wholesome image on which he's built his empire.

In sworn testimony and interviews, they recount incidents in which an allegedly drunken Kinkade heckled illusionists Siegfried & Roy in Las Vegas, cursed a former employee's wife who came to his aid when he fell off a barstool, and palmed a startled woman's breasts at a signing party in South Bend, Ind.

And then there is Kinkade's proclivity for "ritual territory marking," as he called it, which allegedly manifested itself in the late 1990s outside the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim.

"This one's for you, Walt," the artist quipped late one night as he urinated on a Winnie the Pooh figure, said Terry Sheppard, a former vice president for Kinkade's company, in an interview.

(article continues here)

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

40 Days of Lent - Day Seven

Hanging With The Unbelievers

Two weeks ago I was having dinner with a friend of mine who doesn't believe in God. Perhaps I should narrow this down, because I don't think any of my friends are believers. My friend Bob once said "I read a poll that shows most Americans believe in God. That just shows how out of mainstream culture I am, because I don't know anyone who does." I sheepishly (and not in the "The Lord Is My Shepard" sense) raised my hand and explained that my belief pretty much depends on what day it is. If there is a God, I think it supersedes our puny earthling attempts to comprehend It, and I don't think It is actively involved in our affairs at all. But that's all for another posting, another day.

Back at dinner, my friend, who is not just an unbeliever but an angry unbeliever, commented that he thinks the world would be much better off if people never came up with the idea of "God." No-one knows better than I the abuses that have been inflicted by organized religion...well, except for those tortured in the Inquisition, burned at the stake during the Salem witch trials, victims of Fatwas and the Palestinians...okay, lots of people know the abuses of organized religion better than I do. But the point is this: without the concept of God, things would have been much worse. I don't see how civilization could have advanced to where it has without the idea of an Ultimate Accountability for your actions. Religion teaches us to make peace (as opposed to war) with fate when things don't go the way we want. It also teaches us to act for the good of others in the community even when it is not in our best interest. This "acting for others" may have been easy when humans lived in small tribes, but as communities expanded and grew, it became more difficult. Sacrificing your best interests and your instinctive drive for the good of the community is one of the cornerstones of religion and necessary for civilization.

This brings up another point: I don't know of any civilization that doesn't have a concept of a "God" or "gods." I imagine it is hardwired into us, dating from when our ancestors looked at the sun, the moon, the ocean or fire and realized it was more powerful than they. This doesn't constitute proof that God exists, just that humans seem to have a need to believe.

All this is important to keep in mind when reading upcoming entries and it appears I'm trashing religion or the Almighty.

Today's reading from the Faithful Words Promise Box:
"Great Advocate, Almighty Friend!
On thee do all our hopes depend:
Our cause can never, never fail;
Thou dost plead, and must prevail."

(sounds like dialogue from an old Superman comic)

Monday, March 06, 2006

40 Days of Lent - Day Six

We Don't Really Die, but Live Again! Reincarnation Finally Proven!
with assistance from ebay

Proof that reincarnation -- the idea that after death your soul returns to Earth and you are born as another person -- exists has finally been discovered. All it took was a quick search on ebay.

As with many discoveries, however, this one creates as many questions as it answers. First of all, why don't I remember my previous existences as a milkman, footballer, circus performer or Australian hippie? Secondly, why do I keep getting the same name? I suppose naysayers would claim that it's all coincidence, but the evidence is just too compelling. The name is spelled the same and everything.

Today's reading from the Faithful Words Promise Box:
Work! -- work for Him is blest;
Work as a favoured son;
Work till He gives thee heavenly rest,
And His own sweet "Well done."

(let me just point out the irony of today's reading, given that my job ended on Friday. I think my Promise Box is broken)

Sunday, March 05, 2006

40 Days of Lent - Day Five

Just When You Think You've Gotten Away...

I knew it was coming eventually, but it looks like the time has finally arrived: I have to start going to church again. I am my nephew Eric's godfather, which apart from being an honorary thing, means I have to act as his "spiritual advisor" ie. if anything happens to his parents, I'm in charge of making sure that he continues to live as a Catholic. This is a pretty easy gig, seeing as his parents are still alive. The only time it gets tricky is when any of the seven sacraments come up, and Eric will be confirmed in another year or two. This means his godfather has to be a Catholic in good standing, ie goes to church. So I have two years of going to church consistently enough to establish my Catholic credibility so that a priest will write a letter on my behalf so that I can "stand" for my nephew at the service.

Incidentally, this is the same nephew who tells everyone that his Uncle John is "really the real Devil."

I'm not kvetching about going to church again, although perhaps if I'm to be a good Catholic perhaps I should stop speaking Yiddish. There's a church across the street from me, but they don't have English masses: Lithuanian and Spanish only. A church in midtown Manhattan has Latin mass in one of their halls every Sunday, and I would certainly go just for the pleasure of hearing the language every week. I assume it would really impress my nephew's parish priest if the letter on my behalf was written in Latin. St. Cecilia's is a great church in my old neighborhood of Spanish Harlem. There's a great warm spirit and a sense of community there. I remember one time when the priest began his sermon by mentioning that it was the 20 year anniversary of the AIDS epidemic and how many people still needed help. "Would never hear a sermon begin that way in Wilkes-Barre" I thought. However, St. Cecilia's is a 45 minute subway ride away.

The last time I faced this dilemma was when my nephew was baptized. I did what any real Devil would do: I went to my local priest and lied. When he said that he didn't recognize me from the parish, I assured him that I had been going to Mass there. He wrote the letter, to which I am eternally thankful. At the time, I even promised myself I would start going to Mass there. Of course I never went back.

I suppose I could try the same thing at St. Pat's, a church so large and so famous as a tourist attraction that I could go every day and still be lost in the shuffle. However, when I was there Wednesday getting ashes, I noticed that they have security cameras around the cathedral as well has monitors so that people in the back could feel closer to the service. I just have a feeling that if I tried to convince the pastor that I attended mass there regularly, he would check the security tapes and discover I was lying.

So it looks like the path of least resistance entails just being honest and going to church. I guess I'll start shopping around in the next few weeks, hoping to find one nearby where I can make an appearance and stand out without having to actually get involved.

Oy gevalt.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

40 Days of Lent - Day Four

Faithful Words Promise Box

Today's reading from the Faithful Words Promise Box:

We pray...that the name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified in you.
- 2 Thess. 1:11, 12

I have no idea what a Faithful Words Promise Box is. It was a gift from my friend Coleslaw Lynn. It's a small plastic box, 2" x 3" and contains a number of small pieces of thick paper, about the size of fortune cookie fortunes, but with quotes from the Bible on one side and inspirational verse on the other. I guess you're supposed to pick one at random, and contemplate it during the day. Or perhaps when you need guidance or have a question that needs answering, you turn to the Faithful Words Promise Box. It's kinda like tarot cards, except tarot cards work (ha ha).

All an online search for "faithful words promise box" revealed was that it was once one of the objects in a treasure hunt, along with a Kids Pooh Bear Notepad, 2 books ("The Tale of Peter Rabbit" and "101 Ghost Jokes"), a Rugrats watch, a Temperature Guage and Keychain, a Kids Noise-Maker Keychain, 2 Soap Samples, Matches, and 1 Can of Grapefruit Juice.

There is, however, an electronic version for those who find pulling pieces of paper out of a plastic box too tiring:

Friday, March 03, 2006

40 Days of Lent - Day Three

A Drawing a Day For Lent

My friend Andrea is doing a drawing a day for Lent. She had done this several years ago; in fact, it was the inspiration for my posting something every day during this holy season.

Her drawings are available at:

There is no archive or way to see previous days' drawings. Each picture is there for one day then replaced, not to be seen again. Unless you're like me and you save them. Posted below, with Andrea's kind permission, are several of the pictures from her last Lenten project.


Today's reading from the Faithful Words Promise Box
And Moses cried unto the Lord, saying What shall I do...And the Lord said unto Moses, GO ON!...and Moses did so.
--Exodus 17:4-6

Thursday, March 02, 2006

40 Days of Lent - Day two

What I Gave Up For Lent


We'll see how well this goes. I've already messed up a couple of times. But through my conscious effort not to swear, I'm beginning to see how often I do curse. Appearantly I'm quite the little foulmouth. Who knew?

It felt odd to substitute "jerk" for "a**hole" in conversation last night. "Jerk" just doesn't convey what "a**holes" some people can be. I also referred to something as "M.F.-ing" (as opposed to the Oedipal curse it stand for) which got a laugh from my friend Gretchen, who decided she likes the initials better and will use those instead of the actual curse. Gretchen is an actress, and it reminded me of when I was a child, I asked my mother that if an actor curses in a play or movie, does it count as their sin? Wise theologian that she was, she said no, that God would understand that that was part of their job and would not count it as a sin against their soul.

Today's Reading from the Faithful Words Promise Box:
"Touchiness" is a most undesirable complaint; let us be quick to judge it in ourselves and very tolerant of it in others.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

40 Days of Lent - Day One

Ash Wednesday!

Ash Wednesday is the day of one of my favorite religious rituals. There's something about getting to wear dirt on your forehead in the name of the Lord that's always appealed to me. It's also the day the Catholics are out of the closet. As I kid I would walk around amazed -- "Oh my God, he's a Catholic! And that lady is too!" However, now I realize that it makes us easy targets for anti-papist snipers.

I got my ashes at St. Pat's Cathedral (possible t-shirt slogan? God knows they sell everything else at St. Pat's) this morning and the priest really schmootzed me. On some people the ash looks like a thumbprint but on me it's a cross big enough to burn on somebody's front lawn. Perhaps he figured I needed a little more of the sacred ash than the other people in line.

The mark is right over where Hindus say your third eye resides. Is this a way the Catholic Church blocks and neutralizes the third eye? There's another possibility. In the Bible, Jesus makes a paste of mud and spit, rubs it in the eyes of a blind man and makes him see. Can the ash be seen as a reenactment of that healing, performed on our normally blind third eye?

I don't have my camera with me at work, so below is a fairly accurate artist's depiction of what I look like today.