I Now Pronounce You

It is now legal in the United States to marry anyone who also wants to marry you.  I’m not exactly sure why we needed a Supreme Court decision to bring us to this place, especially in the 21st century, but here we are.  In spite of the apocalyptic forecasts I have seen on Facebook over the last few days predicting that God’s wrath is now at the explosive point and ready to cover the country in steaming magma, we seem to have turned a corner where human relationships are concerned.  Of course, there have been the occasional displays of defiance we would expect from certain pockets of the country, namely the Deep South Bible Belt communities where homosexual activity is hidden, along with the whiskey bottle, K-Y Lubricant, the porn websites, and the patch of marijuana tucked neatly between the rows of tall corn stalks or mixed in with the soybean plants.

By far the most often-cited reason I have seen for those objecting to gay marriage is the idea that such an arrangement is in direct opposition to God’s intention for humanity, where marriage is the union of one man and one woman in holy matrimony . . .  period.  Not a woman with a woman, not a man with a man, not a man with a goat, not a woman and her cat, not a man and his voice-activated computer operating system.  The Supreme Court decision merely affirms what a majority of states had already decided on their own, which thankfully at this point only deals with marriage between two human beings — probably about as far as we need to push it and still have a reasonable assurance of consent from both parties.

God apparently has fairly strict and narrow rules for marriage, not to mention sexual positions, contraception, and Sunday alcohol sales.  If the one-woman-one-man plan is what the Bible or any other religious text teaches you about God and marriage, then you have every right to live your life according to those guidelines as long as you can do so without infringing on the rights of others.  You can encourage your family and friends to do the same.  If you are influential enough to have a whole congregation of people who voluntarily abide by your religious convictions, that’s just peachy.  However, what you should not be able to do in this country is use those convictions to create, sustain, and enforce public policies that are no longer upheld by a good portion of the population.

Marriage ceremonies are no doubt an important part of religious practice all around the world, which is perfectly fine.  But here’s a news flash: marriage does not BELONG to religion.  Atheist couples should be able to publicly proclaim their love, devotion, and commitment to one another, free of the interference of a church, synagogue, temple, or mosque.  Their union should be recognized by local, state, and federal governments as a legally-binding contract, even if the marriage is performed by a secular, government official instead of a priest, minister, rabbi, qazi or madhun.  Oh wait, that is EXACTLY what happens with many atheists couples, and it has been happening legally for a long time in this country.  Wonder what God’s view of an atheist marriage is?  Hmmmmm.

There is no place for legislation in the United States based solely on religious teachings, which is obviously the source of objection to same-sex marriage.  If you are in such a position of authority, either through election or appointment by elected officials, you have an obligation to put your personal wishes and desires aside to serve your constituents, and this includes your religious views.  If doing so is too difficult for you, then I suggest you either find some other job where your religious beliefs won’t be compromised (and keep in mind that not all private-sector jobs will accommodate your faith either), OR you should find a country where your religious beliefs are enforced.  Good luck with that second option.

I hope same-sex marriage is here to stay.  The benefits to loving gay and lesbian couples is only now being fully understood by the heterosexual community.  One of the main objectives of our Constitution is to protect the dignity of our citizens and to secure their right to pursue happiness.  While it seems a bit embarrassing that we needed a Supreme Court decision to make it official, I am relieved that ALL people who want to be married in this country can now do so, complete with the accompanying privileges, obligations, and benefits.  You may kiss the . . . spouse!

I Love Waterfalls

As I have mentioned before on this blog, I enjoy hiking.  I am also attracted to water – mostly water that is moving fast enough to make sound.  I have hiked along the coast, through the mountains, in the desert, in deep forests, along rocky peaks, and in suburban areas.  More often than not, I select a place to hike that is either in sight of water or has running water as a destination.  My family takes advantage of state park trails which are frequently near the shoreline of a lake or wind along a creek or river.

The ultimate culmination of a hike to me is a waterfall — the bigger and louder the better.  One of the tallest I have seen recently is just outside Cherokee, North Carolina.  Mingo Falls is on the Cherokee Indian Reservation (Qualla Boundary), just outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park.   At 120 feet tall, the waterfall is one of the tallest and most spectacular in the southern Appalachians.  The hike on Pigeon Creek Trail to the waterfall is only 0.4 miles in length, but is considered moderate in difficulty because it is largely composed of steps and a fairly steep climb up to the falls.

2014-12-27 14.40.15

I took this photograph in December, just after Christmas.  It was a great time to get a shot because the foliage was gone from most of the trees, which revealed a good portion of the width of the falls as well as the vertical expanse.  I was standing on the small bridge at the base of the falls where the creek continues cascading down the hillside.  The sound is mighty but not deafening.  I love waterfalls, and this is one of my favorites.  In fact, it is currently the home-screen photo on my iPhone.

The Best Insult I Ever Received

Insults can come in a multitude of forms and are spoken for a wide variety of reasons.  They can be subtle, or they can even come in the form of backhanded compliments, which seem to me the worst of all.  Most of us give and receive insults, even if we are only joking and serve them up to people we really love and admire.  Insults are quite often irritating and can invoke emotions of anger, resentment, embarrassment, humiliation, or sadness.  But there are rare occasions when an insult is so perfectly timed and delivered, so incredibly appropriate, that it sticks with us for a long time and is worth sharing as a self-deprecating anecdote.  Here’s mine.

I worked in a public library for fifteen years in a small town in Georgia.  One day the library director and I and another employee took a trip to Atlanta to talk with a vendor about a software package we were considering purchasing for the library.  We were all in my car, and I was driving.  On the way back from Atlanta, we were traveling through a very rural area, largely made up of dairy farms — lots of trees, pastures, and barns.  The speed limit was 55, and I was cruising along at about 70 or so.

I felt a powerful wave of muscle contractions in my lower abdomen when I saw the flashing lights in my rear-view mirror and pulled over to the grassy shoulder of the state road.  The car was the familiar blue and gray style used by the Georgia State Patrol in the late 1980s.  I had met a few state patrol officers, and for the most part, they were tall men with wide shoulders and stern faces.  I am not a big guy, so even their presence is intimidating and makes me feel like I’m guilty even if I haven’t done a thing wrong.  To my surprise, the person that I saw stepping out of the patrol car had a more curvaceous body form and shoulder-length blond hair pulled back into a ponytail.  It was my first encounter with a female state patrol officer, and when she reached my rolled-down window, I was thrown off-guard again by how attractive she was.  I was in my late twenties, and she looked to be only a few years older than I.

Of course, she asked for my license, politely verified the pronunciation of my last name, and then she began the conversation that I will probably never forget.

Officer: “So, where are you headed in such a hurry today, Mr. _________?”

Me: “We’ve been in Atlanta all day and are heading back to work.”

Officer: “I see. And where do you work, Mr. _________?”

Me: “At the public library.”

Officer, after an outburst of laughter: “Oh my goodness, Mr. __________, this is probably the most exciting thing that’s happened to you all year!”

Me, smiling and slightly hanging my head: “Yes, I suppose you’re right.”

Officer, in a playful patronizing tone: “You promise me you’re going to slow it down for me the rest of the way back to the library, Mr. ______________?”

Me: “Absolutely.”

Officer: “Alright, Mr. ____________, you all have a good afternoon and be careful, okay?”

Me, sheepishly: “Yes mam.  Thank you.”

This was my first and only warning for speeding.  I am now in my mid-fifties and, since I began driving when I was fifteen, I have never been issued a speeding citation or another warning.  When I say “absolutely,” I mean it.

Facebook: The Filterless Forum

There are now close to a billion daily active users on Facebook, which represents about 15% of the world’s total population.  All age groups are represented, along with just about every race, socio-economic level, political persuasion, sexual preference, religious affiliation, and geographic location on the planet.  Facebook users are a fair cross-section of the developed world.  Without a great deal of effort, this star of social media sites allows us all to have a personal website that is dynamic, entertaining, informative, and intimate.  One of the most attractive features of Facebook is how it encourages us to be spontaneous, quickly posting photos, videos, memes, quotations, and links, along with our own commentary, with just a few clicks.  Because we have these capabilities with our mobile devices, we can practically broadcast our lives to the Facebook world if we choose on a minute-by-minute basis (extremely annoying to many of our Facebook “Friends” perhaps, but nevertheless most easily accomplished).

Another aspect of the Facebook community is the significant impact the platform has on social discourse.  We are able to post opinions, either our own or those with which we agree, and launch discussions that can go on for hours, even days, and involve dozens of people from around the world if our Facebook “family” reaches that far.  I find it interesting how Facebook provides us with a perceived sense of anonymity when we engage other people, especially about controversial issues, and how so many of us become bold and even aggressive in defending our positions, most likely with an intensity that we would not exhibit in person or in a letter or even in an email.  Our reactions through Facebook posts seem more immediate, urgent even.  We write sentences that we would be hesitant to say if we were looking into the face of the listener(s).

While I’m certain that many Facebook users present a persona on their page that merely masks their true identity, I think more often than not Facebook users reveal who they truly are in their posts, how they feel, what they hate, love, fear, and desire.  Facebook removes the filters that we employ under most other circumstances of human interaction.  At the same time, at least from my own experience, this type of filterless forum clearly illustrates to me how deeply divided our society is on so many issues.

All my Facebook Friends are in the U.S., so my experience is limited to political, social, and religious hot buttons in this country.  I have intentionally kept Facebook Friends whose opinions differ from my own, sometimes rather heatedly, to specifically remind me of these deep divisions and to help me understand why they exist.  While I do see plenty of extreme posts from the left and the right that are intended to do nothing more than incite anger and protest, I also see thought-provoking posts that warrant serious consideration and discussion.  Even posts that are reactionary in their origin can lead to productive exploration of the underlying issues.  The political climate in America seems to have lost its center altogether, and the raw nature of Facebook often provides evidence of the fact.  Perhaps it is also establishing a forum that can lead us away from the outer limits and back to a place where we can all find some common ground.

We Liked Grandma So Much Better Without Teeth

I introduced my maternal grandmother in an earlier post.  From my description of her then, it should be apparent that my grandmother had an incredible sense of humor, a trait I would like to think I inherited.  She had five grandchildren.  I was the last and the only male.  She absolutely adored me.  For most of my childhood, she lived in the house with my family (my parents and my older sister and me).  Both of my parents worked, so she served as a live-in nanny.  She also did a good portion of the cooking, cleaning, laundry, etc.

She received a great deal of pleasure from making my sister and my cousins laugh to the point of losing our breath.  If we wet our pants, she probably secretly considered herself victorious — mission accomplished!  She would stop at nothing to entertain us, including removing her teeth, putting a nylon stocking over her head, and then pulling it up while dragging the skin of her face up with it to distort her features to almost frightening proportions.  Some years after her death, my memory of these times became almost nostalgic, and I decided to write a funny song about her.  It must be fairly entertaining, as I have been asked to perform it many times for groups of people who never knew my grandmother or any other members of my extended family.  I include it here as a way of recording it and as a tribute to someone whose impact on my life was far greater than I realized when she was still with me.


I recall the trips to Grandma’s house when we were little boys
Lots of food, candy, cakes, and pies, and she always gave us toys
And she told funny stories that would nearly split your side
But when she pulled her dentures out, we laugh until we cried

Gums on the bottom and gums on the top
If she talked real fast her lips would flop
Her nose hooked over and touched her chin
And we’d start laughing all over again
And when she sang her mouth was just as round as a wreath
We liked Grandma so much better without teeth

Now there’s something about a toothless grin that I just can’t explain
But when Grandma turned and gave a smile, we nearly went insane
And if she used her Polygrip her speech was never slurred
But Lord when she forgot it we couldn’t understand a word

Gums on the bottom and gums on the top
If she talked real fast her lips would flop
Her nose hooked over and touched her chin
And we’d start laughing all over again
A handmade set of ivory chops just simply can’t be beat
But we liked Grandma so much better without teeth

Now I know you love your grandkids and I’m sure they love you too
So if you want to see them giggle, then here’s what you must do
It sure can be depressing when your hair gets gray and thin
But when your molars start to go that’s when the fun begins

Gums on the bottom and gums on the top
If she talked real fast her lips would flop
Her nose hooked over and touched her chin
And we’d start laughing all over again
I’m sure it was a challenge when she tried to chew her meat
But we liked Grandma so much better without teeth

Gums on the bottom and gums on the top
If she talked real fast her lips would flop
Her nose hooked over and touched her chin
And we’d start laughing all over again
Couldn’t have loved her better had she been cursed with stinkin’ feet
We liked Grandma so much better
Oh I wish you could have met her
We liked Grandma so much better without teeth

What Separates Us from Dogs and Cabbage

Advanced communication is one of the achievements of human beings that sets us apart from the rest of the living world.  To paraphrase one of my most influential college professors: “Language is what separates us from dogs and cabbage.”  As humans, we have fairly sophisticated language skills that take the form of speaking, singing, gesturing, signing, etc.  But other members of the animal kingdom possess forms of these skills too, and some of them have surpassed our own capabilities.  What truly distinguishes us intellectually as a species is the higher brain function we have acquired, and I believe the best illustration of that gift is in written communication. The ability to pass along information from one person to another through writing was one of the hallmarks that transformed homo sapiens into civilized human beings and paved the way for rapid advancement.  Sadly, literacy is a privilege that is terribly under appreciated in this country, especially when we consider that 774 million adults around the world cannot read or write.  In the United States, most people over the age of fifteen can read and write at a very basic level, but we live in one of the most advanced countries in the world.  Shouldn’t we expect much more than just basic written communication skills?

Most of us know that, in order to write well, we must read — a lot.  To write better, we need to read more and read good writing (this is beginning to sound like a first-grade reader, in fact).  I think it is at this crucial point that we fail.  I am shining the light primarily on the United States, although this problem likely extends to a good portion of the developed countries around the world.  In this country, the masses don’t spend much time reading at all.  There are far too many other sources of information and entertainment available other than the written word.  I am not referring to the Internet necessarily, because there is plenty of writing, and even good writing, available on the Web.  Then again, the Web offers so many alternatives to writing also, which do present quite a distraction.  I am certainly not referring to e-books either, which in spite of their dubious reputation in the eyes of some traditionalists and obsessive bibliophiles, are another source of writing.

So now let’s narrow it down to the folks who DO like to read.  According to Pew Research Center, as of January 2014 some 76% of American adults ages 18 and older said that they read at least one book in the past year.  The typical American reads about five books a year, which isn’t extremely impressive, but at least they’re reading . . . something.  However, 24% of Americans don’t crack a book at all, and the number of non-book-readers has nearly tripled since 1978.  Again, we have more distractions to pull us away from reading.  As the comedian John Caparulo says in one of his more ridiculous routines, “Books suck!  That’s why they invented movies.  Who the hell reads?”

Now, before the 76% of American readers starts to get too cocky, I will make one final disturbing observation, and it relates to Caparulo’s point.  Most Americans who read do so only for one purpose: to be entertained.  Before going further, let me say that reading should  be entertaining, but if reading is going to continue to raise us above the levels of dogs and cabbage, then what we read should do more than just entertain us.  It should change us, challenge us, move us, and sometimes even call us to action. This standard not only applies to nonfiction — it goes for novels, short stories, poetry, and drama.  The embarrassing truth is that far too many Americans judge the merit of a book by whether or not it has been made into a blockbuster movie. I would venture to say that the majority of people who went to see the movie The Color Purple when it came out in 1985 had not read the Pulitzer-prize winning novel by Alice Walker, but after seeing the movie praised the book as a masterpiece.  One has to wonder if Gone with the Wind would still be the best-selling book of all time if it had not been made iconic by the motion picture that followed.

We have access through numerous vehicles to the world’s greatest works of literature — from ancient sacred texts to modern classics from various cultures.  Why would we waste what little time we have in this life on anything less precious?  Of course, I phrase that question knowing full well that I am guilty of seeking shallow entertainment all the time, but I have not forsaken the pursuit of fine literature in the process.  We can have both.  But, to spend a lifetime completely absent of serious writing seems to me such a tragic existence for a species with the mental capacity to appreciate it and pass it on to the next generation.