Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Grand Canyon State of Mindlessness

SB1062 permits the "exercise of religion." The second article of SB1062, which currently sits on Arizona Governor Jan Brewer's desk awaiting a signature, defines the "exercise of religion" as the "practice or observance of religion, including the ability to act or refusal to act in a manner substantially motivated by a religious belief , whether or not the exercise is compulsory or central to a larger system of religious belief."
I'm surprised the obvious gets scant mention: SB1062 literally allows any citizen legal justification of ANY CRIME. I understand the law is meant to primarily allow businesses and wedding photographers to withhold services from the LGBT community, but one could argue that ANY act is motivated by a genuinely held religious belief.
Basically, SB1062 allows fundamentalist Christians--clearly who the law is meant to appease--legal justification to own slaves (Exodus 21), kill those who work on the Sabbath (Exodus 31), kill non-virgins who marry (Deuteronomy 22), kill children of sinners (Ezekiel 9), among a slew of other travesties. For instance, a jealous husband harboring bloodlust could repeatedly stab his wife's secret lover, provided the victim had ever mowed his lawn on a Sunday. The defendant's savvy attorney could highlight Exodus 31 and declare that his devout client was merely serving god's commandment.
Legal chaos awaits.
If Arizona adopts SB1062, the Grand Canyon state must also adopt the golden rule--treat others as you would like to be treated--as the official state religion.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Divine Blesssing or Dumb Luck: The Matilda Dilemma

"Lucky" is the secular word for "blessed."

According to Dictionary.com, and to believers I'm sure, to be blessed means to be "favored divinely or by a supreme being". But to be lucky simply means you won the coin flip.

Luck is largely predictable. If a blindfolded pedestrian crosses a busy highway during rush hour and manages to arrive at the other side safely he should consider himself damn lucky. However, if said pedestrian has a death wish and tries the same feat a second time the law of percentages dictates he will very likely be crushed by a passing sedan. The pedestrian isn't unlucky, necessarily, just ignorant. Now, if that same blindfolded pedestrian attempts to cross a backwoods country road at 3am and is lambasted by a cement truck, he would be damn unlucky.

Determining what distinguishes a blessingspecifically what distinguishes a blessing from sheer luck requires more than applied mathematics. For example: Let's consider the fabricated case of Matilda. Matilda is a single mother struggling to raise three children. She works full time as a secretary for an accounting firm and somehow manages a part-time graveyard shift stocking shelves at Kmart. She struggles to put food on the table, pay her rent, pay her heating bill, buy birthday gifts for her children, etc. You know the story. Also, Matilda is a theist (believes god can intervene in earthly affairs).

One Thursday while Matilda is on a smoke break (she smokes because she is stressed) she notices a scratch-off lottery ticket adrift in the wind. She plucks it midair, scratches it with her sole quarter and identifies three matching pictures of burlap sacks imprinted with dollar signs. She's a winner!

Is Matilda lucky or blessed (or think she's blessed)to have unwittingly stumbled upon a winning lottery ticket? I think the answer depends on the size of the prize. If she wins one dollar, she's lucky, but minimally so. Same deal if she wins five dollars. But any prize of ten dollars or more buys bread and milk. Matilda feels genuinely lucky. $50? This could be the luckiest day of her life. $100? Matilda will retell the story of the lucky winning lottery ticket at water coolers and Thanksgivings for years. $200? $450? Hot shit! Matilda is one luc-kay gal! Or, is she blessed?

At what dollar amount, exactly, does Matilda's dumb luck become an honest-to-goodness "god shined on me today" blessing? We know Matilda's living/life situation. But degree matters: Is she relatively happy? Has she been simply "in a rut" these last few years, or is she completely desperate? Are the utilities in arrears? Rent? Have loan sharks ordered jack-booted thugs to feed her to a wood chipper because she defaulted on a back alley deal? Other variables are at play too: Are the kitchen cabinets or fridge bare? Is Christmas coming up? Did Matilda recently pray, "God, give me a break or I'm going to feed myself to the wood chipper?"

Most likely Matilda's answer to this dilemma will be a knee-jerk reaction; she'll know if she's lucky or blessed the instant her brain registers the dollar amount of her lottery winnings.

For the sake of argument I'll assume Matilda is: happy but not fulfilled, current on rent/utilities but living paycheck to pay check, raising three solid C students, not being stalked by hit men but might be being stalked by the weirdo mail clerk Chauncey who graciously offers the uneaten half of his tuna melt sandwich daily, etc. I'd peg the dollar amount at which a winning lottery ticket transitions from lucky to blessing at $500. If Matilda's situation were more hopeless, I'd drop my estimate as low as $50. If she were in a more desirable living situation I'd go as high as $5,000.00, or more. But on average, I believe that if Matilda happened upon a $500 winning lottery ticket she'd exclaim "Thank you Lord for the blessing."

The wild card factor in the equation is the free ticket prize. Matilda might consider herself marginally lucky for finding a lottery ticket that awards her a second chance at a cash prize, but feel bummed if said free ticket is a loser (or if the original ticket is a loser). Ultimately that scenario is a wash, if not a disappointment. But what if Matilda gets crushed by a meteorite while walking to the 711 to claim her free ticket?  That would make her extremely unlucky (or un-blessed perhaps—more on that later) regardless if the next lottery ticket on the roll is a ten million dollar winner. But if the meteorite lands three feet behind her (which is either extreme luck or blessing in-and-of itself) and the cashier rips off that ten million dollar ticket and hands it to Matilda, no theist would hesitate to claim that Matilda has experienced a blessing of the highest order.  

Believers in blessings need to congregate at a weekend retreat and determine a workable formula in which one can plug in the variables and deduce whether or not an incident is due to luck, or god's intervention.

Consider again if the result of the formula is a negative? What if Matilda's apartment burns down while she's scratching the film on a surprise ticket? If finding a one million dollar winning ticket and returning to an intact apartment equals a blessing, than surely finding a losing ticket and returning to a destroyed apartment equals an un-blessing. God raised Matilda's hopes by delivering a lottery ticket, but dashed Matilda's hopes when only two burlap bags imprinted with dollar signs revealed themselves. Plus, god burnt down Matilda's house. Unlucky? No. Unblessed.

Remember the science adage: Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. I think this should apply to the determination of blessings. If a positive incident is proclaimed to be a blessing, an incident "equally negative" should be proclaimed to be an un-blessing. (The same calculation should be applied to luck, albeit the dramatic takeaway is lacking.)  

If Matilda were not a theist, every incident--regardless of its likelihood--would be a measure of luck. Doesn’t that simply the equation immeasurably? And didn't your 5th grade math teacher always stress the importance of simplification?

Monday, February 24, 2014

Misjudging the Limits of Imagination

Too many people completely misjudge the limits of imagination. One overused phrase that bothers me is "Man, you can't make that stuff up." Normally this ridiculous observation is shared whenever a human interest story involving a far-fetched twist is highlighted by television news. Here's an actual news headline: GOOD SAMARITAN FINDS MISSING WEDDING RING IN BAG OF NURTOMAX DOG FOOD. 
If that unlikely story of the unwitting consumer finding the wedding ring buried in a bag of dry dog food was aired on the news (it probably was), somebody watchingif not the news anchor himselfwould inevitably declare, "Man, you can't make that stuff up."
YES. Yes, you CAN make that stuff up.
Crazier than the wedding ring/dog food story, right? Guess what? I made that stuff up.

The same lack of confidence in the left hemisphere of the human brain is on display many times during pivotal moments of high stakes sporting events. When Eli Manning marched the underdog New York Giants down field for the winning drive against the seeming invincible New England Patriots in Super Bowl 42, I guarantee some nitwit said "Man, even Hollywood couldn't come up with an ending like that."
Comon'. Dr. Stranglelove!? There Will Be Blood!? Even Rocky 5, for what it's worth.
I'm not a Hollywood screenwriter but let's say I scripted the following: Eli Manning's throwing arm is dismembered in a freak on-field blimp crash midway through the fourth quarter, but his shoulder is retrofitted with a makeshift robotic football-throwing cannon during the commercial break before he orchestrates the game-winning drive. The ensuing Gatorade bath enchants Tom Coughlin with wizard-like powers, so he waves his playbook and conjures a portal to Narnia.
You might be willing to admit that my fabricated ending was more unlikely than Manning hitting Plaxico Burress on a fade route for the go-ahead score.
Come to think of it, a successful fade route is highly unlikely. 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014


In the year 2000 the Bower family caught up with the Joneses.

Until then, life for our family could've been measured by whatever shitty vehicle was adorning in the driveway. If the Bowers’ lifespan were represented by a highway, the stalled vehicles on the shoulder—the secondhand Ford Astro vans and sputtering station wagons—would've served as mile markers. Or, if the Bowers' lifespan were represented by the depth of planet Earth from crust to core and I drilled until I hit the year my Little League team won the District 12 championship I would've bored into the coughing-and-hissing, rusty bumper Geo Metro layer.

Despite the succession of crummy vehicles, the Bowers were certainly not a penniless family. But my father was the sole breadwinner and he had 3 children and a wife to support. He drove a jalopy to preserve adequate finances to put well-rounded meals on the table or stuff plenty of Christmas gifts under the tree or take the family to Rehoboth Beach most summers. My father put his family first.

Until the year 2000…


One evening during dinner Dad tapped his water glass with his salad fork. “Wife. Kids. I have an announcement. Your father has finally gotten his big break. I’ve been promoted to the vice president of Sun Bank.”
Accompanying the promotion was a healthy raise, of course. Dad celebrated by immediately trading-in his 89' Ford Tempo Continental for a 98' Chevy Blazer. A Chevy Blazer is an "American as Grandma's apple pie" sports utility vehicle. Now, parked in our driveway was an S-U-V, just like the neighbors, and the neighbors' neighbors. Yes, the Bower Family had caught up with the Joneses. (Footnote: There were no Joneses in our neighborhood. We lived next to the Fries', who lived next to the Stiabbs', who lived next to the Fergusons', etc. Regardless, every family owned a vehicle that was not only roomy enough to transport a family of five, but tough enough to pull a Sherman Tank out of a backwoods lagoon while a Sam Elliot voiceover touted words like "torque" and "horsepower".)

My father was immensely proud of his 1998 Chevy Blazer.


During this time—the start of the Chevy Blazer layer of crust if you will—my friends and me spent many warm weekend nights camping deep in the Tiadaghton state forest. By "camping" I'm not talking about the catch a heap of brook trout to cook over the campfire, pitch a sturdy tent and live like a mountain man variety of camping. I'm talking about the lug two cases of Pabst Blue Ribbon into the woods, pass-out on a stump and live like a frat bro variety of camping.

There was one camping spot in particular we frequented called Sharp Point Vista. Sharp Point Vista is one of the highest points in Pennsylvania and miles from the nearest settlement. The spot was only accessible by traversing miles of rugged dirt roads. Regardless, the view is absolutely beautiful.

We planned to camp there one Saturday night but my friend's truck was having engine problems. I decided to ask Dad if I could borrow the Blazer. He was not pleased by the prospect, but I was persistent. Eventually he relented. I almost required a pry bar to wrest the keys from his clenched fingers.
That camping trip was not unlike other nights at Sharp Point Vista. We tossed empty Pabst cans from the mountaintop listened until they clanked off the rocks below; we sang awfully to classic rock tunes on my battery-powered radio; we woke up with headaches a Sam Elliot voiceover would've described using words like "torque" and "horsepower." Those were the days!

Come morning my friends and I "redded-up" the campsite, packed into Dad's Chevy Blazer, and then began the winding trek down the vista and back to civilization. Along the way the dashboard's red "check engine" light ignited. Until this point in my licensed driving career I'd assumed that a lit "check engine" symbol was simply a reminder to tell the mechanic to peer under the hood the next time the vehicle was in for an oil change. Even then, he'd probably say something like "it's just a little electrical problem in the dash," or something benign. Danger was not imminent.

We soldiered on through the forest until we finally connected with Interstate 220 West. When the engine was suddenly pushed from 15 miles per hour to 55 miles per hour, it began making a faint, yet distinct, grinding noise. I made the conscious choice to ignore it. (Footnote: If the check engine light was personified into, say, my father, it would've reached over the steering wheel, snared me by the collar and shook like the dickens, screaming "Pull the hell over idiot!")

I dropped my friends off one-by-one at their homes. Meanwhile, a sense of looming catastrophe gradually overcame me the longer I ignored the warning light and still-faint grinding noise. All I wanted was to get home, give my dad back his keys and let him realize his Blazer was malfunctioning during Monday morning's commute.

I took the Williamsport business district exit and stopped at the red traffic light above one of the cities’ busiest intersects. Only three miles from home now! The traffic light turned green and I pressed the gas pedal but…nothing happened. I tried again but the engine didn’t roar and the Blazer didn’t budge. That’s when the black smoke appeared from underneath the hood. What began as a few puffs quickly swelled to full-fledged plumes. And you know what they say: where there’s smoke, there’s…

“Fire!” I yelled. I began freaking-out, and glanced into my rearview mirror. A police car had been stopped at the light behind me! What luck! (Footnote: This was the ONE time a police car in my rearview mirror signaled good luck.) The officer sprinted to my driver’s side window and instructed me to put the vehicle in neutral and steer while he and a bystander pushed it across the street into a strip mall's parking lot. Nearby shoppers watched a mobile mushroom cloud schlep toward them. Soon I was parked between Petro’s Jewelers and a Dunkin Donut. I hopped from the Blazer (no pun intended), and sprinted a safe distance away from the flames spewing out the front grill.

The police officer swooped in with a fire extinguisher and blasted the front of the Blazer, but this just pissed the flames off.

“How much gas do you have in the tank?” the cop asked as he back-peddled from the vehicle.

“It’s nearly full, sir."

“Oh my god, son! STEP AWAY FROM THE VEHICLE.” Then he began jabbering into the little walkie talkie in his shoulder, saying things like “dangerous situation” and “need back-up.” I was flat-out mad at this point. I yanked the ball cap of my head and kicked it like a huffy little kid.

By now, several shoppers and bystanders had congregated along the walkway in front of the strip mall, watching my father’s pride and joy succumb. I imagined he was among the spectators, glaring at his dimwit son with a look that would’ve compelled the flames to extinguish themselves out of pure fear.

The police officer began directing the crowd. “Move back, people. Move back.”

I watched too as the flames gradually engulfed the Blazer, like a python swallowing a hippopotamus. Luckily, reinforcements appeared in the form of a fully-capable fire truck carrying a crew of three. The fire fighters quickly disembarked and unwound the cumbersome hose from the truck's back, plugged one end into a nearby fire plug and aimed it's formidable business end at the mounting inferno.

I imagined the struggle between the fire and firefighters as a WWE wrestling match: “The fire is in complete control now. The Blazer is as good as out cold. It's smoldering like…OH MY GOOD! IS THAT TANKER TRUCK #7's MUSIC? IT IS! Here comes a triple threat tag team of the city of Williamport's finest. And they're pulling out a foreign object: THE FIRE HOSE. IS THAT LEGAL? They're unleashing it on the unsuspecting flames now. We're seconds away from a tap-out by the Chevy Blazer. Oh, the humanity! The fire is clearly hobbled and…God Almighty! Here comes another surge bursting out of the front grill! Was the fire faking injury? The firemen are feverishly cranking the hoses' force up to 11. In 22 years of calling Blazer fires I've never seen the likes of this! The fire is wilting under the intense blast. The crowd is stirred to pandemonium at the spectacle. They want blood. The fire is shrinking still. "Soak. Soak. Soak." The fire is sputtering, sputtering…nozzle closes in on Blazer and…"hiiissss" goes the dying breath of the flames. It's all over. The fire put up a helluva fight but in the end three city firefighters and a giant-ass fire hose gushing full-bore was just too much. You're winner…Tanker Truck #7!”

As the victors high fived and re-coiled the hose, and the onlookers dispersed, I knew MY greatest challenge lie ahead—I needed to call my father. I didn’t own a cell phone then, and there were no pay phones in the area. So, I slogged over to Dunkin Donuts and up to the bushy-haired lady snapping gum behind the register.

Women: "Welcome to Dunkin Donuts. What can I get for you?"

Me: "See that out the window there? That's my ride. I need to use your phone."

Woman: "You gotta' purchase something first. Company policy."

Me: "Fine. I'll take a small Coke."

Woman: "We just got Pepsi."

Me: "Whatever."

Woman: "That'll be 89 cents."

I was led behind the register to the push-bottom phone behind the wall of assorted freshly baked donuts. The receiver and my ear resisted one another like magnetic poles. Each "beep" of a pressed button felt like another step toward innocence's cruel end. The phone rang. My father answered.

Dad: "Hello."

Me: "Dad?"

Dad: "Yes."

Me: "Dad, I got bad news."

Dad: (long pause-breathing) "What?"

Me: "Your Blazer caught on fire and the fire company had to come put it out. I'm at a Dunkin Donuts. I had to buy a fountain drink to use their phone."

Dad: (pause again-more breathing) "Fuuuck! Fuuuck! Fuuuck!" Then he just went nuts, like if Frankenstein stubbed his foot. "FUUUCK! FUUUCK! FUUUCK!"

I expected my father to appear at the strip mall harboring a rage that would knock his previous rages 17 years out of fashion. (Footnote: Although he was never a violent man I wouldn't mess with him if I was a VCR that needed programmed or a map that needed folded.) But when Dad arrived he was eerily calm. Even when I told him the red check engine light had been on he remained seemingly unruffled. Even after I'd confessed that I'd driven many, many miles while the engine grinded audibly he didn't utter a word. He didn't chastise me or belittle me or even tell me what I should've done differently. He knew that I knew that I'd fucked up. Instead, Dad and I just stood together and watched as a couple of poor Department of Public Welfare workers loaded the charred Chevy Blazer on to a flatbed tow truck.


I felt guilty about destroying Dad's 1998 Chevy Blazer for about a month until the insurance company paid-out above the Kelly Blue Book value of the vehicle for damages. He immediately used the money to purchase a 1999 Chevy Blazer. Then I got to thinking: A few more vehicle fires and insurance claims and the Bowers might not just be keeping up with the Joneses, they'd be in the passing lane.