Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Blunderbuss Baby

I visited with my son Andy this afternoon and, while we were on the phone, his wife Lauren started laughing hysterically. Andy began laughing too, so I had to ask, "What's so funny?"

Andy explained, "Abby loves peas and squash. It seems like sometimes we just can't shovel strained veggies into the little girl fast enough. Anyway, Abby just sneezed. She sprayed peas all over Lauren."

Gee, I wish I'd been there.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

True Atonement

In 1966 Gary Lowenmensch* turned 13 and, of course, his family celebrated the event with the traditional rite of passage, his Bar Mitzvah. The Lowenmensches lived just up the block from us and they were members of the reform congregation, Temple Mount Sinai. Gary and I buddied around together, so my family was honored with an invitation to Jerry's big event. Oddly, I don't think the Hochbergs* (who live further up the block past the Lowenmensches) were invited. Jerry and Alan Hochberg told me their parents discouraged them from associating with the Lowenmensches. The Hochbergs were members of the orthodox/conservative congregation, Synagogue B'nai Zion. The synagogue was a dank old structure near downtown El Paso that appeared to be begging for some Russian Orthodox church to make an offer.

In stark contrast, the temple (where the Lowenmensches went) is a stylish work of art perched high on the western foothills of Mount Franklin at (what was in 1966) the end of North Stanton Street. The sunset vistas from that location are truly spectacular, and the auditorium of the temple faces westward. But oddly the temple has no western windows and the widest end of the temple's
paraboloid (the end with soaring stained glass windows) faces eastward where the windows catch virtually no light. Mount Franklin blocks the view of sunrise and the west side of the building affords the congregation no view of the gorgeous west Texas sunsets.

As I sat in the pew at the back of the temple's auditorium I wasn't particularly pondering the building's odd orientation. I was struck by all the beautiful woodwork on display before us, especially the beautiful ark containing the Torah scrolls. During the service the rabbi gave a sermon that spoke highly of unity among Jewish congregations, comparing them favorably with Christian churches that have fought endlessly over "minor" issues. All in all, the guy made a valid point or two, but he failed to shift me from my belief that the Protestant Reformation was a very good idea. Following the rabbi's oration, Gary Lowenmensch demonstrated his facility with the daily portion, and we were invited to join Gary in a reception room behind the auditorium and congratulate him on his ascendancy to manhood. My family (as the outsiders at this extended family gathering) lingered long enough to be polite and then left.

Fast forward two years. My colleagues from Coronado High and I are crammed into Ronnie Peres's* GTO, listening to Jim Morrison screaming "C'mon Baby, Light My Fire ..." on Ronnie's eight-track. I conclude, "Well, I guess 'The Doors' are better than Bob Dylan," but Ronnie is absolutely blown away by the music and keeps the volume knob pegged clockwise. So when we finally pile out of Ronnie's car in the parking lot of the Carousel Club in Anapra, New Mexico, I'm relieved that the assault on my eardrums has finally ended. At this point in the story, you probably have all the wrong ideas about what a crowd of under-age boys are doing in Anapra NM at a place called the Carousel Club. We're the Coronado High School cross country team, and we've decided to do something different for our workout that day. We're going to run up a mountain -- a 1000-foot volcanic outcropping named Mount Cristo Rey.

Near the parking lot of the Carousel Club a winding dirt road exits from the Anapra Highway and snakes its way up the mountain. We pile out of Ronnie's GTO and trot off at a brisk pace straight toward the mountain. Jimmy Bates* lopes on ahead (the freak is nothing but legs and lungs). A half-hour later I drag my gasping body onto the mountain top, ahead of three of our six-person team. Bates, completely rested and leaning against a massive monument, chides me for taking so long. As we stand there surveying the west side of El Paso, I see a building I recognize. It's Temple Mount Sinai about two or three miles away. With that roof of concentric arches, it's unmistakable.

Then it dawns on me: I'm looking straight up the nose of the temple. Aha! Now I understand why the synagogue (even though its pews face westward) doesn't have any western windows. If that Jewish congregation could see beyond those Torah scrolls, they'd be looking straight at "Cristo Rey", Christ the King! And atop that mount they'd see
this monument and they might remember:

Isaiah 65:1-2
"I permitted Myself to be sought by those who did not ask for Me; I permitted Myself to be found by those who did not seek Me. I said, 'Here am I, here am I,' To a nation which did not call on My name. I have spread out My hands all day long to a rebellious people, who walk in the way which is not good, following their own thoughts."

And if this story seems a bit too contrived to be true, just check it out. Here's an image from a
webcam that sits on Ranger Peak. I've drawn a line from Temple Mount Sinai to Mount Cristo Rey.

* All names have been changed.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Morning Chat

Joyce: Is James back from his morning run?

Bob: No ... why?

Joyce: Who were you talking to in the kitchen?

Bob: The radio. There was a really stupid commercial and ...

Joyce: Dear, sometimes I worry about you.

Bob: But I was just commenting on how silly that commercial was. I mean, you sing in the shower.

Joyce: Yes, but I don't sing to the shower.

Bob: Let's chat later -- I gotta go talk to the coffee pot now.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Regarding William

When I first went to work in Fort Worth, I was the new guy in a group of engineers and programmers who'd already been working together for years. Although I'd been persuasive enough to talk myself into a position just when they were gearing up to do a major project, I didn't actually have an assigned job. James, a particularly compassionate soul, took pity on me and mentored me. So naturally I tagged along with James quite a bit until I found my niche.

There were also a couple of programmers (named William and Lin) in the group, who'd apparently started with the company on the same day and who'd worked shoulder-to-shoulder ever since. One day I happened to see William without Lin, so I inquired, "Where's Tweedle-dee?"

Without hesitation William (in homage to my colleague James) replied, "Where's Beavis?"

One day William shared a story about his three-year-old daughter, who was apparently a verbally gifted child. From the moment she rose in the morning until she drifted off at night, she chattered constantly. One evening as they were sitting down for supper, William felt he just couldn’t bear the onslaught any longer.

He reached into his wallet and, pulling out a dollar bill, said to his beloved child verrrry slowly: "Sweetheart, if you can stop talking until we finish supper, I’ll give you a whole DOLLAR!"

Her eyes grew large and she readily agreed. With the bargain thus struck, William heaved a big sigh and visibly relaxed -- that is, until she began humming.

I asked William, "So did she get the dollar?"

He shrugged, "Oh yeah, she was very good; hummed that damned Barney the Dinosaur song throughout supper (even with her mouth full), but true to her promise, she didn’t utter a single word."

My Life of Crime

Before the invention of gummy bears, there were sugar-coated orange slices. To my mind orange slices were (and at least in my memory, still are) way beyond delicious. But they were also waaaaaay up on the top shelf of the cupboard where Mom figured we'd never find them. But in that Mom had underestimated this particular five-year-old. I, being too short to reach the bottom shelf of the cupboard, was in the habit of hopping onto the countertop whenever I needed a jelly-jar drinking glass. And thus from that perch I spied Mom's pogey stash in the space above the drinking glasses. I filched two and slipped out of the kitchen undetected. But though I eluded the kitchen's distracted maternal guardian, I didn't get away clean. Moments after I'd slipped from the kitchen, my two older brothers observed me licking the sprinkles off the gelatinous fruit.

To secure my siblings' silence I was compelled to procure them some of the cupboard's booty, so I fetched three more slices. When they protested that I'd brought them only one slice each but I'd already had three myself (two from my original foray and one on my return trip), I explained that I didn't dare get more than three, since the loss would surely be noticed. And besides, after all, I was entitled to some recompense for risking my life. (Actually, I felt confident that as long as one slice remained, Mom'd be none the wiser -- five-year-olds just instinctively know that all grown-ups are lousy accountants -- but my ruse worked and the brothers grim accepted my argument.)

That evening, long about an hour after bedtime, Joel and Roy got a renewed hankerin' for the spongy treats. So I was dispatched downstairs to forage in the grove of orange slices. You probably figure my brothers were once again taking advantage of gullible little Bobby (e.g., my adventures as a geonaut), making me risk a confrontation with the family patriarch just to gratify their lust. But there you'd be mistaken. I was an eager volunteer. You see, as the youngest of the non-toddling children, I intuitively understood plausible deniability. If I were caught, I'd immediately rat out the forces of evil who'd inspired my larceny. Dad (as a youngest child himself) understood the bullying that little guys fall victim to. On the flip side, my brothers would be technically innocent of committing the crime themselves, so commissioning me to commit the crime made a lot of sense. Joel, Roy and I easily grasped just how practical the Christian doctrine of substitutionary sacrifice can be (though here I might be standing on shifty theological ground).

So just as Peter and his guardian angel strolled unhindered past the guards of Herod's prison in Jerusalem, so my demon and I tip-toed down the stairs -- untroubled by the authorities parked in front of the living room's black-and-white TV. Once in the sanctum of the kitchen, I ascended the countertop with cat-like stealth and secured the booty -- three in sweaty fist and one in mouth. On my return trip along the downstairs hallway, I saw Mom in the living room, bathed in the blue glow of "Gunsmoke" (and listening to the muffled voices of Matt Dillon and Miss Kitty). Mom turned her head, looked straight at me and smiled. I smiled back, flashed her my gummy orange overbite, then disappeared up the stairway.

My return to the upstairs dungeon was greeted with jubilation. I magnanimously shared the orange slices in my tiny paw with my two older brothers -- one for each of us. (The wedge so recently in my mouth was long gone and forgotten.)

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

E.T. Phone Home

It was a dark and stormy night ...

Actually, Fort Worth on the evening of Friday, September 11, 1981 was a bit on the stormy side. The first cool front of the season was blowing through, though your Mom and I were too distracted to notice it much. Throughout our pizza dinner at Gatti's (a meal which Mom was to see more of later [sorry about that, Dear]), I kept assuring her that it was just false labor. However, my self-assurance began to wane as the contractions became more intense and frequent. Finally, around 11:00 PM, I repented of my all-too-obvious heresy and we headed to the hospital. At Harris-Methodist, all the nurses kept assuring Mom that her labor was coming along just fine. Somewhere around 4:00 AM one of the nurses even predicted, "You'll have that baby before I go off my shift (at 8:00 AM)." Sadly, by 9:00 that false prophet was unavailable to receive the stoning the Bible mandates (Deut 18:20).

Around 10:30 a gorilla in scrubs walked in and announced that he'd be filling in for Mom's regular obstetrician and that it looked like you'd be a small baby (though of course, at 9 lbs 10 oz, you turned out to be the rough equivalent of 1.7 small babies). Mom was dilated 5 cm. I very stupidly translated that into inches and Mom was devastated to learn that you'd have to squeeze through a hole the size of a silver dollar. Thereafter Mom was given authorization to "push". The hospital personnel made "pushing" sound like a reward, I suppose for her being so good about refraining from pushing for the previous ten hours -- which, come to think of it, was when the doctor showed up -- funny that. Anyway, Mom was wheeled into the delivery room and the gorilla, doing his best "Pudge Rodriquez" impersonation (although back then it would have been a "Johnny Bench" impersonation), squatted behind home plate and started giving signals to the pitcher.

Mom was magnificent. At 12:39 she strained one last time and Pudge Magilla snagged (low and outside) a purple version of E.T. -- though, of course, no one had ever heard of E.T. before Steven Spielberg released his flick about the extra-terrestrial, but I digress. Then Pudge handed you to the delivery nurse who sucked out your nostrils, counted your toes and declared you a perfect "Apgar score". I had no clue what that meant, but I was thrilled nonetheless. (Though later, when I paid our hospital bill, I learned that a little jaundice might have saved us a few bucks, since our insurance didn't cover "well baby care". But still, the "well baby" was more than worth the bail.) As for your blue hue, that went away in a few minutes -- you just needed a few breaths to get those capillaries oxygenated. Also, your distended head rounded out nicely over the next few days (and thus, later in life you didn't have to go trick-or-treating being hauled around by Drew Barrymore and wearing a sheet -- good thing, too -- you were such a cute little candy-begging cowboy).

When the delivery nurse handed Mom her pretty little brand-new extra-terrestrial, she looked up and told me that even though I was wearing a surgical mask, she could tell I was smiling. She was right.

Happy birthday, Andy! (And please kiss our grandbaby for us.)

Thursday, September 6, 2007


I repent! There really is a God!

I played Scrabble with Joyce tonight and laid down the word "CRUZEIRO" (the monetary unit of Brazil). The Z fell on a triple letter score and the word spanned a double word score. With the 50 additional points for bingo-ing, it was worth ...
136 points!

Wednesday, September 5, 2007


One day, when I got back to the parking lot at the end of the work day, I found an "atheist pamphlet" stuck in my car door. (Yes, such things do exist. I suspect the Baptist gathering at the convention center a few blocks away had something to do with the pamphleteering.) The tract made a convincing argument: "There is no god and only feeble-minded people with deep psychological flaws are foolish enough to believe in one." It urged me to "take off the straight jacket of organized religion and become a free thinker!"

The pamphlet got me thinking. It occurred to me that the ancient Greeks weren't really so wrong by asserting that "Zeus" is a god, nor are the Muslims actually wrong in their claim that "Allah" is god, nor are Christians wrong in saying "Jesus" is God. The error isn't in the name one assigns the Supreme Being, but in the reality of that Being. It isn't wrong to declare Zeus "god" simply because you've assigned him the name "Zeus"; it's wrong because the person you call Zeus doesn't really exist. There is no temple on Mount Olympus filled with superhuman creatures. But in some wildly foreign language "Zeus" might just be the name of a "real god". The error lies not in the name ("Zeus" or "Allah" or "Jehovah" or “Jesus” ...) but in your definition of "god". The question isn't so much whether there's a supreme being, but whether the actual supreme being is anything like the "gods" described by these religions.

Well, that little pamphlet stuck in my car door was plenty convincing. So right here and now, let me take this opportunity to openly declare: “I've converted to atheism.” As I understand my new catechism, I have no supreme authority over me. I might choose to submit to some "higher" authority (parent, teacher, police officer, judge, etc.), but only out of enlightened self-interest. Those in authority are all governed (just as I am) by a social contract, whether that contract is codified as law or not. However, this atheist catechism leaves me pondering another question, "To what is society subordinate?" Who or what governs the government? Here in America the popular answer is "We the People", but that's only true in recent Western societies. That answer would have been universally scoffed at just three hundred years ago and is still considered heretical in much of the world today. But despite that, if I accept the idea that each of us is accountable to all of us, that then again raises the question, "To what are 'We the People' held accountable?"

As much as I like the circular argument that we each answer to all of us (that we are individually subject to the rules that we collectively establish), I find myself troubled by the idea that morality is nothing more than the present consensus of the local majority. I have this nagging suspicion that morality (the question of "right" or "wrong") is based on something more than popular opinion. As I see it, if morality were merely the consensus opinion, then all socially acceptable things (as slavery once was in the South) should be accepted. Likewise, socially repugnant things (as free speech is in Islamic countries) must be rejected. I have this disquieting sense that reality occasionally has a nasty habit of disrupting the popular social order. Socially accepted fornication fuels epidemics; socially accepted governmental corruption jams the gears of the economy; socially accepted corporate malfeasance yields bankruptcies; socially accepted hatred leaves rubble where cities once stood.

So the circular argument, "I'm accountable to us," quickly collapses in on itself. It means nothing more than: "I'm accountable to me" (since I ultimately have to decide for myself whether society's moral standards are correct). So in the end, I am subject to no supreme authority higher than myself. Through the power of my own reason I decide what’s true or false, what's right or wrong. I am the captain of my fate. So now that I’m an atheist, who do I recognize as my supreme authority? Who is my "god"?

That's right, "I am!" My god's name is "Bob". (I think Bob Newhart was the first to announce this discovery when he reported that he and his wife were forming their own religion, "Bob-ism". As Bob Newhart told it, they'd considered naming their religion after his wife Judy, but they soon learned that the name had already been taken by another religion.) So who's the great "I AM" of Bob-ism? Well ... I am, of course. You can foolishly bow to the gods you've created with your organized religions; I bow to no god but "Bob". Am I a good god? I'm good enough for me. It's okay if you don't fall at my feet and worship. After all, you're your own god, too. So if your name is Jesus (or Allah or Jehovah or Zeus), you are absolutely correct when you claim that "Jesus" (etc.) is God. We’re just a bunch of good ol' gods. After meals, each of us can bow his head and recite, "I am good (though not so great). Now I thank me for what I ate." Believe you me, religion just doesn't get much better than this.

I give me all my reverent devotion and in return I give me all my needs. What more could I want? Yet, amid all my self-adoration, I find myself asking, "Isn't there something greater than me?" One part of me recoils at the thought that anything could displace me as "my Lord and my God", but there's another soft voice deep down, saying: "Surely, there's something more. If I'm truly what it's all about, then what's the point of anything? And why all this vast support structure just to provide me food to eat, air to breathe, water to drink, light to see, ... ?" I think I could manage with a million fewer galaxies. And what's with the mosquitoes who bite my skin and the Islamofascists who fly into my buildings? I think I'd do just fine without those. I don't quite know how to put it, but somehow the god "Bob" seem so ... I don't know ... trivial. After all, in the grand scheme, just how much more significant am I than the fly that was bothering me a moment ago (until I swatted it). Do my few more chromosomes really make me better qualified to be a god than that fly is (or, to be precise, was)?

Oh wait, I almost forgot. There are all of you, my fellow gods, out there. Maybe we could find some mutual purpose for our otherwise pointless lives. But then, even as a community of gods, just how much greater are we than all those chromosome-deficient gods that are buzzing over a bloated armadillo? And are some of those gods (even as they alight on the carcass) secretly slipping little tracts under the armadillo's scales, leaving teeny-tiny messages for the other flies: "There is no god and only feeble-minded flies with deep psychological flaws are foolish enough to believe in one.” Do those tiny pamphlets urge: "Pull yourself off the fly paper of organized religion; become a free thinker!"

Nah, those flies aren't struggling with existential questions about us gods. They just don't have what it takes to be gods like us (well, maybe they could be a god like you, but not like me). Shux, those winged carriers of cholera can't even imagine what it's like to have a rich, purposeful life like mine. They probably don't even suspect that there's anyone or anything greater than themselves, but I'm different. I've thought about whether there's a god greater than me, and after giving it deep thought, I've concluded that there is nothing beyond the limits of my imagination. What I can see, hear, feel, taste and smell is all that exists. I should know ... after all, I'm god and my opinion is the final authority.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Lazy Sunday Afternoon

Bob: You win, 325 to 252. It was a tough game; my rack was all vowels.

Joyce: You poor thing. I need to go across the street to Mary's.

Bob: Why's that?

Joyce: Mary and Tom are out of town. They've farmed out their dogs to their kids, but I promised to feed their cats and fish.

Bob: I have a suggestion that'll cut the work in half.

Joyce: You are soooo bad!

Saturday, September 1, 2007


Some months ago James and I went to see the movie "300". Good flick - loads of cool splatters and such. But now, months later, I feel an odd compulsion to nitpick this film adaptation of a cartoon book's revisionist retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae (which if you think about it, makes about as much sense as correcting the inaccuracies in "Pirates of the Caribbean" - a film adaptation of an amusement park ride - but still ... I'm nothing if not compulsive).

In "300" King Xerxes is portrayed as a giant hairless androgynous freak who uses a synthesized voice to drive a vast army of unwilling slaves, and King Leonidas as a burly man's man whose gravelly "Come and get them!" inspires his small force of near equally muscled, testosterone-dripping, freedom-loving he-men.

First of all, archeological statuary portrays Xerxes as a lion with a bearded human head. One may assume that Xerxes was not actually a quadruped, but I'd argue that the artist was probably trying to get the facial features correct. So picturing him as a lip-sticked faggot who forget when to stop shaving that morning has to be wrong.

Secondly, the Spartans weren't merely defending their home turf. They'd been engaged in terroristic raids on Persian cities along the Agean for years. The Persians had plenty of provocation before they finally went to all the trouble of crossing the Hellespont to put a stop to the butchery of the Greeks.

Regarding Xerxes' army of slaves: 100 years before the Battle of Thermopylae, the Persian Empire (under Xerxes' great-grandfather, Cyrus the Great) had abolished slavery. No doubt Medo-Persian society had devolved since its vigor under Cyrus, and perhaps by Xerxes' day the Persian army was manned by mercenaries (though we have only the word of the Greeks to support that notion), but let's keep this in perspective. Portraying the Greeks as the defenders of freedom is pure folly.

Let's remember that the 300 "free men" of Sparta were so designated, not to distinguish them from the Persians, but to distinguish them from the 700 slaves they brought to the battle with them. The free men of Sparta weren't "free" in the sense that we in modern democratic societies mean (none of them had voted for Leonidas the fill the office of king); they were free in the sense that they were slave-owners.

As for the doubtful sexual orientation of the film-version Xerxes, we have nothing to indicate that the Persian king was funny that way. But on the flip side of the battleline, hasn't anyone ever read Homer's Iliad? Guys, I hate to break it to you this way, but Brad Pitt [a.k.a., Achilles] didn't go all nutso and kill everyone in Troy because Hector killed Patroclus, his younger cousin (as indicated in the movie "Troy"), but because Hector killed Patroclus ... his older lover.

The Greeks had institutionalized pederasty as a rite of passage. Patroclus was a pedophile and Achilles was enraged by the untimely death of the guy who'd molested him years earlier. So back to my point, in the 5th century BC, whenever all those buff Spartans weren't slicing and dicing Persians, they were busy boinking adolescent boys.

So as I say, "300" was a good flick. But my sentiments are still with the Persians.

Small Talk

Joyce made ravioli with spinach for lunch today.

After slurping down the last of it, I told her, "That was excellent."

She said, "So are you gonna kiss the cook?"

I answered, "Of course! C'mon, Baybah! Suck the spinach outta m'teeth."

Joyce, pausing in mid-pucker, "On second thought ..."