Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Election Day In America

It's Election Day in America and policy is an internet meme. I know this because I made more than a few of them myself.

What will Medicare be?

Who feels more deeply the plight of the middle class?

Who loves Christ the King?

Who will represent whiteblackmuslimlatinoasian America?

Why do less than half of us even care enough to fill in a sheet, pull a lever or punch, too softly, a hanging chad?

Maybe it's because Mr. Smith can never go to Washington.

Maybe it's because our politicians send pictures of their stiff cocks to Twitter followers or are so ashamed to admit they're gay that they troll Craigslist for transsexual boytoys.

Maybe it's because no matter who becomes the President, there will always be football on Sunday (rightafterchurchamenpraiseGodandtheDallasCowboyshallelujah!)


Maybe it's because we're a nation of homeless veterans and impoverished children and no one here seems to give one tinylittlemarginal fuck about it anymore.

Maybe it's because our education system is out of money and terrible and our health-care system is drowning in money and even worse.

Show me a candidate who will spend a trillion dollars on feeding the poor and homeless.

Show me a candidate who will tell the naysayers to go fuck themselves when he does it.  


Show me the man or woman who will stop the wars to pay for better schools and bridges and clean energy and healthcare that won't bankrupt families.

\

Show me a candidate who will stop forcing eighteen year old American children to kill eighteen year old Afghan and Pakistani children.


Show me a way to a better world and I will show you a reason for more than less than half of us to care again. 

Monday, August 13, 2012

Chris Collins Thinks Substance Is For Suckers



Submitted for your skepticism.

That's an email sent by Chris Collins to supporters just a few days after GOP Presidential candidate Mitt Romney chose Medicare hatchet-man Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate. It's not surprising that Collins would attempt to find an attack avenue using Medicare as an issue in the NY27 race since the Ryan budget plan of 2011 received most of the credit for Congresswoman Kathy Hochul's easy victory in last year's special election in a heavily Republican district.

Collins refused to take any position whatsoever on Paul Ryan's plan for Medicare, but that didn't stop him from attempting to turn the issue into a ham-fisted attack on Kathy Hochul. As usual, Collins' latest release is so full of misdirection, fantasy and outright lies that we'll need to break it down point by point.

1:
"Typical Kathy...

She's at it again.  After voting to cut $700 billion from Medicare and Medicare Advantage, Kathy Hochul is back to scaring seniors with half-truths, lies and distortions." 

No one is going to accuse the Collins campaign of having a sense of irony. The cuts Collins is discussing here have zero effect on benefits to seniors. They are aimed at disbursements to providers and the Medicare bureaucracy. The real fun fact about this attack is that the Ryan plan for Medicare contains the same 700 billion in cuts. Collins knows this and even told the Batavia Daily News that the Ryan plan doesn't go far enough with its cuts.

2: The second portion of the Collins email is a donation ask. This is typical for a campaign email from any candidate, a simple link to a donation page that says their opponent is killing puppies and if you want to help stop such disgusting behavior you need to send five or ten or twenty-five dollars right now.

3:
That’s right - she’s the only candidate in this race who voted to cut Medicare - by $700 billion.
That’s the kind of hypocrisy typical politicians like Kathy are known for.  They say one thing at home, but do another in Washington. 
 Kathy Hochul is the only candidate in this race who has ever voted for any bill. She's a Congresswoman, that's sort of what they do. We've already addressed the $700 billion myth, so let's just move on.

4:

We have serious problems ahead of us.  As a result of Barack Obama and Kathy Hochul’s reckless policies of massive debts, skyrocketing taxes and economic failure, our country is at a tipping point.  
Their failed policies have jeopardized the very programs they claim to protect - like Medicare.

There is nothing true about this statement. Taxes are at a 30 year low. Allow me to repeat that: Taxes are at a 30 year low. This cannot be denied. Collins, much like Mitt Romney is attempting to run against a fictional opponent rather than the one standing right in front of him. 

5:

But even worse, their failed policies have jeopardized the the future of our children and grandchildren.
We need to get serious about cutting our spending, reducing the debt and fixing our economy.  To do that, we need serious leaders who will tell us the truth, and not use scare tactics like Kathy Hochul. 

Right, Collins for the kids. What does that statement even mean? Nothing, nothing at all. I'll let you decide who's using the 'scare tactic' here.

6:

We deserve a real debate about the solutions to address these problems.  But with typical politicians like Kathy Hochul who campaign based on distortions and half truths, we won’t have that debate. That’s why we need a change. 
This little gem is the crowning achievement in this communication from Candidate Collins. A fundraising email full of distortions and half truths sent out at the direction of a candidate that refuses to have an public opinion about the issue being discussed is finished off by accusing Congresswoman Hochul of engaging in the same behavior without providing a single example of her doing so.

Chris Collins continues to be a willfully ignorant and purposefully non-substantive candidate. He uses poorly thought out e-mails and press releases to define a platform that doesn't appear to have any planks.


Thursday, August 2, 2012

Taxation Misrepresentation The NY-27 Way

Last night in Washington D.C, members of the House of Representatives voted on two separate tax relief extension bills.

First up was H.R. 15, the version introduced by House Democrats. The highlights of this bill were extensions to tax cuts for the middle class through December 2013, a 5% increase in the capital gains tax that would have moved the current rate on self-replicating wealth from 15-20%, a reset of the tax rate on income over $250,000, and extensions of the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit. Local representatives Kathy Hochul, Brian Higgins and Louise Slaughter all voted in favor of the bill which was eventually defeated by House Republicans.

After defeating H.R. 15, House Republicans introduced their own, much shorter, tax bill, H.R. 8. It is shorter because it is simply a continuation of what we're doing now with some minor adjustments to specific amounts. Hochul, Higgins and Slaughter all voted against this bill, but it passed the House 256-171. It will not pass in the Senate.

Now that the background is done, let's look at how the votes on these bills are being used as campaign fodder in the NY-27 Congressional race.

Republican candidate Chris Collins wasted no time before making outrageous and barely factual statements about Kathy Hochul's votes. His statement also included a poorly constructed populist narrative that would only be construed as sincere if you didn't know anything at all about Collins.

First, the substance. In his statement, Collins accuses Hochul of voting 'against extending the Child Tax Credit and the Marriage Penalty Tax Relief which were included in the package passed by the U.S. House of Representatives today.' This, while not exactly a lie, fails to address the fact that Hochul voted for extending the Child Tax Credit in the Democratic version of the tax relief bill. This signifies that she is not opposed to the Child Tax Credit, but instead to the extension of tax breaks for millionaires. Marriage Penalty Tax relief is a misnomer at best. There was never a tax penalty for being married, only a lack of incentive to file jointly if spouses had significantly disparate incomes. Hochul supports what is essentially a return to the Clinton-era tax structure, with some extended benefits for the working class. Collins is apparently demanding that she support the status quo, which is an unbelievably dense position since the only thing we can all seem to agree about is that our economy sucks and things are terrible.

Collins then goes on to say that 'Official records show that Kathy Hochul may be one of Congress’ more wealthy members, having disclosed assets that total between $1 million and $2.3 million. In addition, Hochul and her husband, an Obama political appointee, together jointly earn over $325,000 annually, placing them in the top 1.5% of earners in the United States.' I'm not sure I've ever seen a more ironic statement from a candidate, so let's break this down.

Collins seems to be donning his populist costume here, but it doesn't fit very well. This attack on Hochul probably needs to be fisked sentence by sentence so let's drag our Bull-Shit-O-Meter up from the basement and get to work:

Sentence 1:  'Official records show that Kathy Hochul may be one of Congress’ more wealthy members, having disclosed assets that total between $1 million and $2.3 million.'
On a bullshit scale of 1-10, this statement ranks a 9.5. The only reason it wasn't a perfect 10 was because there actually is a financial disclosure document that details Hochul's assets. The rest of this sentence is nonsense. Although 2012 comparisons including liabilities were not readily available, using the best information at my disposal, it took me about ten seconds to learn that the 'official records' referenced by Collins when compared to other members of Congress actually show that Hochul is most likely in the bottom third of House members when it comes to wealth.

Sentence 2: In addition, Hochul and her husband, an Obama political appointee, together jointly earn over $325,000 annually, placing them in the top 1.5% of earners in the United States.
When I applied my Bull-Shit-O-Meter to this statement, something strange happened. The needle swung back and forth between 0 and 10, metronome style. I was confused until I realized what the problem was: I had the wrong tool. I opened my drawer and there, nestled between the Sarcastoguage and the Snarktimeter, lay my Irony-ometer. It was just what I needed and when I applied the tool to this statement, it promptly exploded.

As it turns out, the numbers used in Collins' attack on wealth are correct, but the sentiment is not. Collins seems to want you to believe that he is both Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham. There is no sincerity whatsoever in the Collins position on this issue, in fact, it assumes that you, the voter are a misinformed, zombie, coma patient...but I digress.

The Collins statement goes on to accuse Kathy Hochul of working for the government. We'll have to assume (since we are all morons) that Mr. Collins actually loathes the idea of being a Congressman and that he's just doing it because Jesus told him he had to...or something...

After that, Collins prints a list of generally bullshit talking points that were prepared by his party's majority on the Ways and Means Committee.

I feel like I'm going to be doing a lot of these little pieces on the nonsense coming out of the Collins camp between now and November, and I'm not going to let Congresswoman Hochul slide either. I absolutely detest inanity and obfuscation in political campaigns.

The Siren call of bullshit, smirking accusations seems to be too much for Collins. He simply can't help himself. He and many members of his party think their wobbly platform is enough to win as long as they can get their rabid base foaming at the mouth and the under-informed centrists to believe the nonsense.

Sadly enough, they may be right.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Chris Collins Writes A Letter

It's almost August. Too soon for anyone to care much about local elections, but not too soon for candidates to start making ridiculous statements about one another.

Enter Chris Collins and a letter he wrote to Kathy Hochul dated today, July 31st, 2012. In it, he calls on Democratic incumbent Kathy Hochul to support an extension to the 2001 and 2003 middle class and small business tax cuts and to break with the President 'just once' in order to do so.



Apparently, Mr. Collins, despite all of his self-proclaimed business acumen, has failed to learn how to count. Representative Hochul was one of only 18 house Democrats to vote with House Republicans in favor of a $46 Billion small-business tax cut last April. 

In fact, Representative Hochul, according to her congressional voting record is actually one of the most conservative members of the Democratic Caucus, voting with her party only 82% of the time. By the numbers she is the 24th most conservative Democrat out of the 192 currently serving in Congress.

As for the middle class tax cut extension, it was Representative Hochul who issued her own press release four days ago calling on Mr. Collins to support tax cut extensions for American workers.

Now, here's the important part: Middle class tax cuts don't mean the same thing to both candidates. The 2001 'middle class tax cuts' that Mr. Collins is referring to are commonly known as the Bush tax cuts that reduced tax rates on income over $500,000 roughly 3%.. When you watch MSNBC or listen to liberal talk radio, you will hear this rate commonly paired with the phrase, 'The wealthiest one percent of Americans.' These tax cuts were originally scheduled to expire at the end of 2010, but were extended after President Obama made a deal with Congress that included an extension to his own payroll tax cut as well as guaranteeing long-term unemployment benefits.

When Representative Hochul, who supports a marginal tax increase on top earning Americans, calls for extended tax relief for the middle class, she means the payroll tax cut, in place since 2010, that reduces the amount you pay the Social Securtiy Administration by about 2% and puts roughly $20-40 per week back into the pockets of  work-a-day Americans. Extended out over a year that's up to $2000 dollars extra for the average wage earner, or, in layman's terms, about 100 big boxes of diapers. This cut can accurately be described as 'middle-class' because no one in America pays a dime in social security taxes on income earned over $110,100. I doubt the Collins family ever worried much about the cost of diapers.

This game of dueling press releases cuts directly to the core of modern American politics. Our politicians do their best to run out a string of banalities designed (by professionals) to appeal to the lowest common denominator. In short, this stuff isn't complicated, but you have to want to understand it. Politicians and their handlers assume, correctly, that you don't want to understand it. You're getting what you paid for with regard to our level of debate.

Candidates like Collins and Hochul are becoming the norm.

Collins is a wealthy, empty suit who came to the fight armed with talking points about an economic policy that only works in a vacuum or an Ayn Rand novel. He's not John Galt, and neither, by the way, are you. You're not even Hank Reardon.

Hochul, like many Democrats, is bad in a different way. She makes the same assumptions about voters that Collins does, but instead of challenging them to raise their level of understanding she relies heavily on cliche. The tragedy here is that Hochul is actually very good at her job as a Congresswoman. She genuinely cares about constituents and she never misses an opportunity to communicate with people directly. Sadly, the Hochul campaign differs dramatically from the Hochul reality because she has chosen to fight on Collins' home court. No one ever told her that you can win an argument against a person who stubbornly refuses to have any clue what he's talking about.

What's the result? Two separate communications from candidates coming four days apart that look nearly identical but are addressing completely separate points.

We're not having a debate about the benefits/drawbacks of certain economic policies. We're not talking about the wars we fight. We're not talking about the weakening American middle-class. We pretend to talk about those things, they are listed as issues, but honest discussion isn't happening and it's your fault.

Don't let Chris Collins pretend to be the savior of the middle class when his entire platform is essentially a plan to protect some bourgeois notion that a wealth class hoarding money is also creating jobs for the poor. Don't let any candidate for office get away with answering your questions with a talking point from their own website. Life in America is bad and getting worse for almost all of us and our political class is being intentionally useless while we drown.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Doltification of America

Today I was going to write a piece on equality as it relates to the fervor over the Affordable Care Act (aka ObamaCare) I think we need to start somewhere else, though. Americans aren't ready to have a debate about equality in opportunity without the added decoration of taxation arguments, little girl with cancer memes and all the visceral, emotional rhetoric that comes along with it.

I said Americans aren't 'ready.' I should have said Americans aren't capable. There is something wrong with us culturally. Something is stopping us short of accepting factual material and forming an opinion of that material based only on those facts. We seem to need external input and injections of drama in our political soup. Without that stimulation of our entertainment nerve, we just don't seem able to pay proper attention to important issues. We need someone to root for or we change the channel. Are you on Team Sparkly, Angst-Ridden Vampire or Team Angry, Angst-Ridden Werewolf? Green Bay Packers or Chicago Bears?

Teenage love triangles and football games are not good examples of how to run a government, but the American electorate has come to expect behavior from its politicians that is eerily similar to the two. We want grand gestures and long, meaningful eye-contact from our electeds. We want them knock the other guy out. We don't want boring trips to the library, chaste kisses and post-game handshakes. We want our team to win.

Politicians aren't stupid and neither are the people who manage their campaigns. The trend has been picked up, the gauntlet has been thrown down and elections stopped even pretending to be about ideas and cultural advancement. Instead of debating the cost/benefit/cultural equality implications of a national healthcare plan, paying our bills or even whether or not to fight wars, these people we elect immediately choose a team and go to the mattresses. They do it because that's what we've told them we expect, they do it because they are victims of our drama-crazed culture. We made them that way.

We are the good guys, they are the bad guys.


Don't be on the wrong side of history.


(Insert idea here) is un-American.

Politics is not a teenage drama. Politics is not a sport. Culturally, we have to come to terms with that. We must prepare to be bored by our government or we will be doomed to hate it. Government should be a documentary, not an action film, brain-surgery, not Jersey Shore.

The jokes about politicians being liars, thieves and insipid mouthpieces for special interests have been around forever. Vicious, American self-efficacy perpetuates the narrative.We have set the bar at the level of terrible and corrupt. There has been no need for our representatives to raise themselves up above our expectations. In fact, we punish the ones who try. Why? What is it about our culture that wants the worst of what we are to govern us both literally and figuratively? Are we too dumb to understand the kind of damage we do to ourselves? Are we too lazy to fix it?

Maybe.

A 2003 OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) study ranked America's 15 year-olds 25th among the 30 participating countries in problem solving skills. I'm using the 2003 study because these children are now 24-25 years old. They are voters, college graduates and members of our labor force coming into their own as citizens. On a related note, The United States ranks 26th among those same countries in the ratio of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) to teacher salaries and 15th in total education spending as a percentage of GDP.

Here we have the perfect unsolvable problem, a voting population that isn't great at viewing data and making decisions about it responsible for electing representatives whose job it should be to create policy using that same data. Instead of well constructed debates about how we should go about improving our public education system so our children are better prepared to compete in a world that is surpassing us, our system has left us with two emotional arguments that in no way challenge the electorate to make a decision about reality based on fact.

On one side there is the conservative meme that this is all about money and government spending. Because it is the conservative meme, we understand it to mean that if we join this team we are signing up for less of both. So, despite evidence to the contrary, if we side with the conservatives we are telling the world that we think spending less money on teachers and public education, somehow our 15 year-olds will get smarter.

The progressive side has given up on talking about education entirely and instead uses an argument about jobs e.g. employment rates, etc. in order to counteract the conservative meme effectively turning their education policy debate strategy into a numbers game rather than arguing about the quality of our teachers and schools.

Neither side's policy views have anything to do with the real American educational product. They don't address the quality of schools, teachers or students; there is only some ethereal argument about cash and job numbers. Meanwhile, our kids are having trouble deciphering the information contained in the basic graphs that outline the real problem.

How did we get here? It's your fault. Yes, you. You bought tickets to the football game.

Somewhere along the line, one team realized that people don't really like paying taxes, at least not if you can convince them they're not getting a return for their money. This ad campaign worked so well that the other team jumped on defense, but they weren't defending their own policies. Instead, they bought into the other team's game plan and rearranged their own accordingly. Suddenly we weren't having a conversation about what level of government spending on teacher's unions, salaries and public schools had a related benefit to the education product, we were arguing about whether any level of public expenditure on education was just a bad thing or the worst idea possible.

Even a populace as prone to bad ideas in good packaging as ours wouldn't fall into that obvious trap without a little extra help. The emotional idea of bettering our children through education is too strong even in the older demographics that no longer have children in school. The best way to counter an emotional response that you don't want is to introduce an issue that will create the emotional response that you do want. Enter religion.

The public education system had already been vilified for spending a enormous amount of taxpayer dollars and the progressives had already given up defending those expenditures in lieu of a more esoteric argument designed to counter the opposition rather than defend their own philosophy. The conservatives were suddenly able to say things in public like, "Well, we can all agree that the public education system is too expensive," without being argued with or corrected. With that battle won, they were free to attack from another emotional angle. Suddenly it wasn't how our kids were taught, but what.

Conservatives reached out to the fringe of their base and created a new meme: Not only are you paying too much for your kids' education, you are also sending them to public schools that teach them that your personal beliefs are wrong. They are taught in science class that the things they learn in church on Sunday are incorrect so, logically, they are learning that their parents are incorrect.

Once again, progressives failed to argue the correct point. Instead of defending our secular society as laid out in the law of our land, they came back with a mealy-mouthed argument that sounded something like this: "Look, we love God just as much as anybody else, but...., hey, we're Christians too, don't accuse us of being anything else," and down went the American educational system.

We chose teams. We fought about spending money, not about where and how, but about how much. We slipped further down the rabbit hole after a huge voting block decided that the education debate was also about faith vs. fact. The entire argument was suddenly emotional and divisive and no one wanted to talk anymore about the best way to teach children how to read or do long division.

We are living inside the American idiom, while the literal, fact-based world passes us by with incredulous looks on their faces.

Every debate we have about policy devolves in the same manner as the one we had and are still having about education. Healthcare, military action, the economy, drug laws, gun laws and even our established electoral process are now subject to these arguments where emotions are the proof and opinion is favored over fact.

It's more fun that way for an American citizenry that is getting provably worse at critical thinking. We are caught in a web that we created for ourselves and we are not going to escape it without shifting our thought process completely and I'm not sure this is a society that is capable of doing such a thing.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Pssst... NY27 Republicans, We Need To Talk

Grab a chair, make yourself at home.

Listen, we really need to talk.

Wait, where are my manners? Would you like something to drink? Beer? Single malt? Fine, have it your way, let's get down to business.

You know primary day is tomorrow. You also know that I'm not into your agenda, but for just one day I want us to be on the same team.

What I want, what I've always wanted from government, is honest representation and I'm still young and stupid enough to believe that that there isn't an inherent contradiction there. I don't define 'honest representation' as having a President/Senator/Congressman/Dog Catcher that agrees with everything I think. I don't need my representatives to spend all day doing the bidding of my personal ideology and I hope we're all adult enough here to agree on that point...at least in theory.

What I do need from my representatives is a standard of professionalism, intellectual honesty and an understanding that their only duty is to their constituents and their country. There are no noble bloodlines in America. The people we elect to serve us are raised up from our neighborhoods and cities. We send them off to the seat of power with our trust and hopefully our good will because that is how a representative republic like ours functions and thrives.

There is no noble class in America, no single person is born to serve in government, our representatives choose to do so and we, in turn, choose them.

Tomorrow, your party will be making a choice. It's not a simple one, at least not on the face of it. I've spent a fair amount of time trying to distance myself from this thing because I didn't really see it as any of my business. It doesn't matter to me ideologically who wins tomorrow. When asked about it, I've generally said that the difference between Chris Collins and David Bellavia as potential Congressmen will be maybe a few votes no one will ever hear about deciding issues that no one cares about. In essence, you're choosing one suit and pair of dress shoes over another if all that's important to you is a party line vote.

I already told you, though, that those things are secondary.

Republicans, you have an opportunity here.  You are being presented with a choice between two men who will do the same job. You don't have to make difficult issue decisions, so you are now afforded the opportunity to make a simple personal one. You get to choose the better man.

Whatever you may think about your current representation, you have to know in your heart and your mind that Kathy Hochul has conducted herself with class and dignity during her first term in Congress and you also know that she'll continue to do so if she is re-elected in November. Obviously, you folks will be trying to unseat her but only one of the two men you are choosing between tomorrow has a track record that proves he will match Congresswoman Hochul's comportment.

David Bellavia is a person who understands honor and integrity. He knows what those things mean and more importantly, he knows that conducting himself in a manner that both extends and accepts respect is the most basic function of a person who is selected to represent so many of his fellow citizens.

Chris Collins is none of that. There is no noble class in America, but Collins lives his public life like an entitled Prince sneering at the peasantry. His behavior has been well documented. He has demeaned female members of his staff in public. He has conducted private business in his government offices. He even parks in handicapped parking spaces to save his dainty feet from having to make a few extra steps. He puts on a costume, specially purchased, in order to relate to the plebeian farmers in our rural towns and he barely deigns to acknowledge that primary voters have a choice other than he.

There is no noble class in America. Money buys a lot of elections, but it doesn't have to buy this one. You don't have to worship the businessman if the businessman represents the worst of human nature. A prince may be a member of the nobility, but that doesn't make him noble.

Go. Vote tomorrow. Vote for a man who served his country honorably. Vote for a man who shares your ideals and will not stray. Vote for a man who will serve with dignity. Vote for David Bellavia.

If you do that, we can spend the next five months discussing the issues that are important to us. We can fight about whether Bellavia or Hochul is better for our district and we'll know that whoever wins, we'll have an honest and dignified representative in Congress. Government will roll along forever; nothing is going to change that. Let's take this opportunity to enter a general election season where we know that we'll be able to be proud of our congressperson, whether we agree with them or not.

Monday, June 18, 2012

One Week to Primay Day, Does Anyone Care?

No debates.

Almost nothing on the advertising front.

Somewhere there is a man in a chicken suit. Cluck, cluck.

Chris Collins' strategy may be working. Bellavia and his people have been tossing legitimate bombs at the former Erie County Executive for weeks now, but no one seems to care. Christ, I love this stuff and I can barely force myself to muck through a blog post about it.

Sigh.

What happens next Tuesday? A few thousand septuagenarian Republicans will shuffle off to the polls. Maybe some will wheel themselves to an afternoon game of bridge afterward. Big doings on Primary Tuesday.

Among the conversations that won't be had between now and the 26th:

"What's for lunch, Myrtle?"

"How the fuck should I know, Herbert? I'm too busy comparing all the information I have about these two candidates so I can decide who to vote for."

No debates.

These poor, iron-haired party faithful have no idea who they're voting for.

Chris Collins' strategy is working.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Fatherhood

I wrote this for my father last year. I'm posting it again because nothing has changed:

Father’s Day is this Sunday and I thought I might take some time to to talk about my dad and share some of the things he taught me.
 
Patience:
I can count on one hand the amount of times I’ve heard my father raise his voice in anger. He’s not stoic and he’s not a wimp, he just knows it’s better to control yourself than lose your temper. This is a lesson that has served me well throughout my 30 years and has probably kept me from getting my nose broken on more than one occasion.

 Respect:
Respect comes in many forms and my dad is a master of all of them. He treats everyone equally and does his best to keep his personal judgments to himself. My dad was never the kind of guy who would sit you down for a father/son chat about this sort of thing, but I watched him set thousands of examples while I was growing up.
 
Stand up for yourself when you’re right, apologize when you’re wrong:
After patience and respect have reached their limits and the other guy is still an asshole, you do what you need to do. After patience and respect have reached their limits and you realize that you’re the asshole, apologize. The only exception to those rules is family. Patience and respect never reach their limit when it comes to family.

 Sometimes buying a boat is a bad idea:
We had a boat for a while, then we didn’t. I think this is self-explanatory.

 Fishing is always a good idea:
There were some fairly bad days in our house when I was a kid and my dad had a real knack for knowing when I needed to get away. Every once in a while he’d hand me a spade and say, “Go out back and dig up some worms.” I’d do it and we’d go down to a pond about a mile from the house. The entrance to the pond was down a stone and dirt road. To get there, you had to know to follow the train tracks and which patch of overgrown weeds to push through to get to the fishing spot, but we knew just where to go.
 
No matter how bad a day it had been, I always felt the weight lift when we got to those broken down tracks and by the time I hooked a worm and cast my first line I felt good again. So we’d fish, and talk about what it would be like to catch a frog and cook it, or what species of huge fish might be dwelling in the deeper parts of the pond (oh, if only we had a boat to get there) or whatever things fathers and sons talk about while they sit and fish. It wasn’t really about the fishing though. It was about a little boy whose dad was there, just there, on the worst days.
 
I could go on, I’m not sure there’s really an end to the things my dad taught me and I learn more from him and about him every day.
 
I’m a father too and all of those things that I learned growing up are the things I’ll do in my own attempt to raise my daughter.
 
I’ll always be patient, and when I’ve reached my limit, I’ll take a deep breath and find more.
 
I’ll treat the people around me with respect and I’ll teach my daughter to be a strong and confident woman.
 
I’ll make sure she knows how to stand up for herself and how to admit when she’s wrong, and she’ll grow up knowing that love of family trumps both of those things.
 
I will never buy a boat.
 
I will take my daughter fishing, or shopping, or wherever she wants to go. I will always be there when she needs me and I’ll learn to back away when she doesn’t, but I’ll never be far away.
 
Most of all, I will love my daughter as best as I can. I’m not perfect, (my dad taught me that too) but I will strive every day to be a good man and live up to the standard my father set for me.
 
Thank you, dad, for everything. I hope this beats Hallmark. See you Sunday.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Thoughts: Missing My Uncle On Father's Day

Sometimes I write these things at work, the real ones at least. I do it because when I'm in public with people who expect a certain decorum from me I know I'm not allowed to lose control. Not tonight though. Tonight I want to feel it, all of it, and if I end up screaming, crying, breaking all my things I don't care. That's how I want it. That's what will be right.

Fathers Day 2008: We're at my family's place on Lake Ontario and my Uncle says to me over breakfast, “You know, next year at this time, you'll be a Father too,” Capital 'F.' Father. I'd never felt pride like that, happiness. My wife wasn't with me; she was sick...or something; anyway, I'd made her excuses for her. She's my ex-wife now and she missed a million of these moments. So many little asides that I can't ever really share with anyone because no one was there, so many...fuck it. Why bother now?

We took a picture that Father's Day. At least I think it was that one. Four generations of us, my grandfather, my cousin and his two boys, my father and I. We were happy. It wasn't all of us. My other cousin was in Syracuse and, of course, it was just us boys. My grandmother wasn't in it, or my aunt or my stepmother. Four generations of men and boys who loved each other in the way that only a family could.

Fast-forward almost four years and I'm standing in the lobby of a funeral home telling my ten-year-old second cousin that it's all right to cry. His father has an arm around him. His father and I, we're waiting for instructions on how we're supposed to carry our grandmother's coffin outside and what we're supposed to do when we get to the cemetery. Meanwhile his father, my Uncle, that same man who smiled at me about the future is on his way home to die a little more. We get in the car and while we're waiting for the priest I tell my cousin and his brother about the time Gram heard that I was hurting for money and sent Gramps in to work with a check for a thousand dollars. Here we go, time to scream, time to lose it, time to break things...

Let's go back to that perfect Father's Day. That's what I want to remember.

It's before breakfast happened and we're playing catch, my cousin, my Uncle and me. I decide to see if I can still throw a curveball but it hits the dirt. 'Nice throw, sissy,' he laughs. I'm not embarrassed, but I explain myself anyway. That's how it was with him. I was always explaining myself. I wanted his approval. I wanted to walk into the room and have him think: This is a man I respect. He always called me nephew. It's like he knew what I needed from him and he was always reminding me that it didn't matter. We were family; it didn't matter.

I remember the first time he laughed, really laughed, when I told a joke. He said, 'Usually, you don't have much of a sense of humor, but that was funny.' I thought he was dead wrong, but I was proud anyway.

It's four years later and I'm walking up the endless incline to the elevators at the local hospital. Grandma's been dead for two weeks but it's his turn now. He's in a special room, the one you go to when it's the last time you go anywhere. I don't know that yet....I think they're just trying to make him comfortable enough to get well, to go home for a few more months. I'm looking forward to Christmas even though I know in my heart it will be his last. I'm skipping work for this even though I know he wouldn't approve. My father is sleeping on the couch, he wouldn't approve either, at least if he was his normal self, but right now I’m not sure he even knows what day it is. “Hello, Nephew.”

We talk for a while and he tries to give me advice. He’s always trying to say something prophetic these days. He knows he’s dying and he want the things he says to be remembered. He does this so much that it’s almost funny to me so I start calling these little outbursts Skippy’s Last Words. I mean it with love.

It’s about a week later, same hospital room. There is an old man in this hospital bed. This time he calls me Christopher and I make fun of his hospital socks. I hold his hand for a while and promise to smuggle in some booze and loose women.

Back to the best times.

After breakfast we all want to take a walk down to the beach, so we do. You can't just walk right to the beach, there's a cliff in the way...well, not really a cliff, it's only about twelve feet down, but you wouldn't make the jump. At the top there's a small, grassy park with a couple of benches and a stairway that will take you down to the water.

My Uncle, my grandfather and I opt for a bench while my father, my cousin and his two boys take the stairs that lead down to the water. My Uncle and I have a conversation. We talk about the heat. We talk about football and why the Bills are going to be terrible...again. I smoke cigarettes and he tells me I have to quit before Morgan is born. I know, I know. Why isn't your wife here, really? Well, she wasn't feeling well. A knowing grunt. She's never feeling well when there are family things to do. Excuses. It's all right, things will work out or they won't. He spreads his arms out toward the sun and the lake and the children playing “Look at all of this.” He smiles and rests his hands on his belly. “Look at all of this...”

He watches his grand-kids with their father. The eldest is being scolded and the youngest is collecting rocks. "You know, this time next year, you're going to be a Father."

"Yeah, I know. What's it like, raising children?"

He chuckles...I always thought he laughed like Santa Claus. He really felt it. "You'll see." He pats me on the knee twice like Uncles do and he stands up. He walks down the stairs to be scolded and collect rocks with his grandsons.

There are enough pallbearers. Some third or fourth cousin of ours is going to be here soon, they don't need me. I volunteer, you know, just in case. We're in the church....again...I didn't even have time to have my suit dry-cleaned, but I'm wearing a pink tie. Pink tie, black suit. He would have given me a look over that, maybe a comment, but definitely a look. "Nice tie." He would have been joking. My father said later, "Nice tie, by the way." He was serious, but my Uncle wouldn't have been. That's why I wore it. Maybe you wouldn't understand, maybe you would.

That third or fourth cousin didn't show up so I headed to the back of the church. I wanted to carry him. He carried me. He was my Godfather; he called me Nephew. Capital 'N.'

"Will I see you this Sunday, Nephew?"

"Yes, Uncle." I say it sarcastically, but I mean it differently. I don't have much of a sense of humor.

The last conversation we had before we both knew he had cancer was after a nasty fight we had at work. He told me he was sorry and he cried a little. I told him I was sorry and I cried a little too. We were family first and that's how it should be. He went on vacation then and he came back a month later, dying.

I carried his coffin and it was heavy. I wanted to carry the thing. I wanted to feel like I was close to dropping it and I wanted to lift it anyway. I'd have done it alone if I had to...I wish I could have done it alone just to prove that I could.

A year later I was a Father. My daughter was this little spike-haired, red-headed thing and my Uncle laughed when she soiled her diaper on Father's Day. "You'd better change that, do you even know how?"

"Yes, I do it all the time, Uncle." He nods his approval and I love him.

When my wife and I bought our first house, he built us a cabinet with drawers and shelves. My wife wanted to paint it, but I told her no. "it's just right the way it is."

When my daughter was born he made her a toy duck on a string, the same one he made for his grandsons. The wings flap as the wheels turn and it holds a place of honor in my home.

For my daughter's first birthday he and my aunt bought her a toy car that she could ride. She still plays with the thing even though she's too big for it. I'll never throw it away.

In her second year, it was a talking book. We read it all the time.

Last year it was a folding, cardboard house that is still assembled in my living room and the last card that will ever be signed with his name.

No more games of catch, no more conversations on the bench. No more fights at work, no more snoring in hotel rooms on business trips. No more belly laughs, no more 'Nephews."

Loss isn't a thing that happens in an instant. It is a series of small moments where you expect someone to be there when you turn around to say something, but they're not and you cry every time.

Happy Father’s Day , Uncle. I love you.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Politics Aside, The Anniversary of the 19th Amendment

"The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation."

On June 5th, 1919 the course to women's suffrage was set when Congress submitted the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution to the states for ratification. America took one more step on the path to true equality when the Amendment was officially ratified just over a year later. The 19th that gave women the right to vote was about 143 years late, but the wheels of the civil rights movement turn slow.

The GLOW region of Western New York is bursting with strong female leadership that would never have been possible if the Suffragettes hadn't stepped up to fight for gender equality over a century ago. Public service is a calling and we are lucky in this region that so many women have had the opportunity to answer that call.

Here is a list of women in the GLOW region that represent you at the county level and higher. No political labels, no commentary, just pride:

United States Senator Kirsten Gillibrand

Congresswoman Louise Slaughter

Congresswoman Kathy Hochul

NYS 8th District Supreme Court Justices Hon. Tracey Bannister, Hon. Deborah Chimes, Hon. Janice Rosa, Hon. Diane Devlin, Hon. Donna Siwek, Hon. Sharon Townsend, Hon. Penny Wolfgang, Hon. Deborah Haendiges and Hon. Catherine Nugent Panepento

Political Party Chairwomen Lorie Longhany, Judith Hunter, Jeanne Crane, Debra Buck Leaton

Genesee County Legislators Marianne Clattenburg, Esther Leadley, Annie Lawrence, Mary Pat Hancock and Rochelle Stein

Orleans County Legislator Lynne Johnson

Wyoming County Board of Supervisors members Ellen Grant, Jean Totsline, and Rebecca Ryan

Livingston County Board of Supervisors members Brenda Donohue and Debora Babbitt Henry

I apologize if I forgot anyone.

I'm unable to take the time to list all of the hundreds of other women in public service in the GLOW region. That inability is a testament to the wealth of female leadership we enjoy here.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Homeless Veteran Interviews Revisited: Fred Part 2

Homeless Vets: An Interview with Fred (cont.)

Friday, June 1, 2012

Interviews With Homeless Veterans Revisited: Fred's Headaches

Once again re-publishing interviews with the homeless veterans at Loyola House. This interview with Fred was the second one I did and it comes in three parts, the third of which never made it out for public consumption. I'll be putting up part two of Fred's interview Monday and I'll post, for the first time, the final part of his story on Tuesday.

 

Homeless Veterans: An Interview with Fred: ‘I've had a headache everyday since 1990′

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Interviews With Homeless Veterans Revisited

Last March, I started doing interviews with homeless veterans at a recovery/transitional house in our community. I never got to do as many as I wanted, but I did manage to publish a couple of them at WNYMedia.net. I really wanted to retrieve those interviews and re-publish them, but the archives over there haven't been working properly for some time. Well, the archives are fixed and yesterday I dove in for a bit of nostalgia.

Today I am going to re-publish the first interview I did with the gentlemen from the Loyola House minus some fluff. When I first wrote the thing, I felt this strange need to describe the house, it's architecture, what the residents were having for dinner. Reading that opening again yesterday was almost embarrassing. I guess I wanted to convey to readers that the house was very much a home to these men, but the reality is that Will, my interviewee did it better with more meaning. Doric columns need not apply.

So, without further ado and minus some unnecessary adjectives, here is the interview:

My First Evening With The Homeless Vets and An Interview With Will


I met Jeffrey Smith in January. He came in to my place of business to buy some pots and pans and, like I always do, I asked where they were going to be used. He told me the merchandise was headed to a transitional house in Pembroke for homeless veterans.

Homeless Veterans.

I told Jeff that I wanted to help. I’ll mop the floors, I’ll do the dishes, what do you need?

Jeff: ‘Well, they do all of that themselves.’

Of course they do. I should have known better.

Me: ‘Well then, maybe there’s something else I can do. I’d like to let people know that there are millions of homeless veterans in need of help. Can I maybe come up to the house and talk to the guys? If it’s alright with them, I can publish some of their stories.’

Jeff: ‘Sure, come on up.’

So I went. The result is the first in what I hope is a long line of stories about and interviews with the men who come to the Loyola House in Pembroke.
Will showed the room where he lives full time. As soon as he opened the door I experienced a bit of deja vu. It was just like every dormitory I ever lived in when I was in the Air Force, a bed, a couple couches, a T.V. Small but cozy. Orderly, but well lived in.
As Will led me around the house, kitchen, quarters for fifteen men, three bathrooms, dining room, living room, he also filled me in on some of his experiences in the Navy and with Loyola as a recovering addict. I found myself hoping that Will would let me speak with him and he didn’t disappoint. After the tour, we settled in to the small office and talked for a little over an hour. Here is the result.


The interview with Will:

Can you tell me about Loyola’s program? What are some of the expectations of the residents here? What steps does Loyala take to help them meet expectations?
Will: Well, our main objective is to get them housing…this is a house for homeless veterans and we’re not going to send them out to be homeless again. Our main objective is to work with their case managers. We’re in daily contact with them and sometimes they come out here. We work with [the case managers] get a game plan, basically.
Are these case managers from the VA?
Will: Yes. We have case managers in Buffalo, Bath, Canindagua and Albany. We work with them. Each resident that comes here is assigned a case manager as a point of contact with us. We have one guy who got an apartment already. The VA will pay the securitydeposit, through the homeless division, to get them set up. They’ll help them get some furniture, you know, small things to help get them on their feet.
So that’s the main objective here, to end their homelessness and help them continue in their treatment plans as far as any medical issues, mental health issues or drug addiction issues.
When a guy leaves, they go into some type of continuing treatment, can you give me some examples of what that might mean?
Will: Well, once they leave here we want them to have their own place, that’s our main objective. From there, they’ll continue through the VA hospital to deal with their medical issues, their mental issues or their drug addictions. That’s maintained by the VA Hospital.
Does Loyola help with employment?
Will: We buy the newspapers. Residents have access to three computers that they can use to look for employment. In fact, two of the residents here work. They go to work, they come back here, have their dinner… They have their HUD vouchers so they’re actively looking for apartments. So, working on the outside? We encourage it.
Tell me a little bit about how you came to be here.
Will: Well, I’m 48 years old. I was born and raised in the South Bronx. I was in the US Navy and in 1983, Beirut, Lebanon…I was there during the bombings. When I got out I was working Emergency Medical Services (EMS) in New York City. I was involved in rescue operations on September 11th, 2001.
That incident there brought on my…I’m diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD.) I started having flashes when I was in September 11th. It was basically the same scenario of what happened in Beirut, it just brought on…old memories.
I got involved in drugs and everything. My dad died September 11th, of all days, 2005. From there, I was off to the races; I didn’t care about nothin’. I became a full time drug addict, using crack. My life turned around on May 26th of 2009. I saw a reflection of myself; I was down to 130 pounds.
So I went to the Bronx VA Hospital. I spent about thirty days there in detox and psych evaluation. Then I was transferred to Bath VA and I did a six-month rehabilitation program there. From there, I was transferred to Albany where I went to a VA transitional house and started working Compensated Workers Therapy (CWT). I was fortunate at that time that Loyola was making a detox unit in the VA Hospital, so I applied for housekeeper and I got the job.
From there, I worked housekeeping, but they also had me speak with the patients there about my recovery. It is possible, it’s not the end of the world. We understand people have relapses and stuff like that, and you just have to get back on your feet and try it again, you know. Don’t quit because it’s a bad demon…drugs, let me tell you…thank God I’m going on 21 months now. I haven’t had relapses. My family’s back in my life, my children, my grandchildren, my brothers and sisters, they all gave me the best support I could ever ask for.
So, back to Loyola. In November I was asked if I wanted this job here. I mean, it placed me further away from my children and my grandkids; I was used to seeing them every weekend, but now it’s like every six months, so it’s kinda hard…it’s very hard, but it’s worth it. It’s worth it. I got promoted to residential manager here. I live here full time. I interact with the residents here; they’re like my brothers.
So, as a recovering addict, is it hard to spend time with other recovering addicts, to talk about those experiences?
Will: No. It makes it easier. It’s therapeutic. I mean, hearing their stories…I have cried with some of the vets hearing their stories. They hear my story…I get strength from it and I’m pretty sure they do also. They talk freely about it, we don’t try to intrude in their personal lives, but we also let them know we’re here to let them speak. Sometimes when they speak they open up when they hear my story and…most of the guys who work here were military. I’m a combat veteran, my supervisor, Jeff, hes retired Army. Our big supervisor, Mr. Frank Ryan, he was a Navy S.E.A.L. in Vietnam. So, me? I’ve been through what they’re going through I know exactly what they’re going through, I went through it. It gives me so much joy and I’m proud to be working with them, to help them. Just like the VA and Loyola helped me get my life together.
Loyola took a chance on me when they hired me. I had less than a year’s sobriety and I was on probation.. They took a chance on me because usually they don’t hire unless you have full time sobriety. They took a chance, mostly [it was] Jeff and the Vice-President of Human Resources. They’re glad they did and I’m glad they did also.
How do you think things would have turned out for you if you hadn’t gotten this job or any job for that matter?
Will: Well, if i would have had NO job after CWT…I don’t want to dwell on things I don’t have to, but if I wasn’t hired by this company and given the support and love of a family…Loyola’s like a family to me…I think I would have relapsed. My chances of relapse would have been higher, but in Albany, the counselors, when I was feeling jittery or whatever; they were always receptive. They were always there, not only for the patients we had there at the VA detox, but also with their employees. From headquarters all the way down, if I needed to speak to anybody, they were always there. I’m telling you, this company is just like a family..not ‘like’…it is a family.
All of this here, this is veterans only. That’s something that only veterans know. So it’s like…it’s a unit, we all work with each other. It’s a fantastic place to be.
I’m a vet myself and one of the reasons this place is so important to me is that I consider myself lucky. When I got out, I had options. I had a place to go and a good job waiting for me etc.. so when I hear about homeless veterans, it makes me a little sick to my stomach. The Vietnam guys, the Desert Storm guys, the Iraq/Afghanistan guys…it makes me fucking sick…
We have a huge problem in the United States. Jeff goes in there, he looks at all the different states and stuff like that on the computer and homelessness among veterans is to damn high, It’s unacceptable. These guys fought, they wore this uniform for the security of our country. I love my country, I’m glad I love my country, but sometimes I feel like they let us down. There’s no reason why a veteran should be homeless.
Will and I engaged in a side conversation about the military’s treatment of returning combat veterans and the stigma of mental issues in the active duty military. That conversation turned into a discussion about about mental health issues in general and although he gave the VA glowing reviews throughout our interview, he did have this to say about the VA’s difficulty in quickly diagnosing and treating discharged veteran’s with PTSD:
Will: The VA hospitals… I mean…you go there and you ask for an appointment and you go, ‘This happened to me.’ Well, they changed psychiatrists on me so, I make an appointment. She spoke to me briefly just to get a handle on my record from the previous psychiatrist.She says, ‘Oh, we need to make an immediate appointment for this young man. Make him an appointment as soon as possible.’
You know what ‘soon as possible’ was? Four months later. Four months later to see my psychiatrist. Now, if I was suicidal or whatever? Then what? That’s the problem with the VA. They’ll give you an appointment, but…I mean, the VA is great, but they’re overwhelmed. They’ve got a lot of veterans and now a lot that are coming in with mental issues because the war in Afghanistan and Iraq…it’s crazy. It’s really destroying a lot of these young guys. Most the guys that go in there, they’re 17, 18, 19, 20 years old going into a war zone.. I mean, I was a little more prepared. Born in the South Bronx, gangs and all that. Killings? I was used to it. When I went in it wasn’t too big of a deal, but you’ve got these guys coming in from the Midwest who’ve never seen anything like that being shipped off to kill people and seeing their friends get killed. How in the heck are they not gonna have problems?
We’re supposed to be tough though right? You know how it is.
We’re human. Just because we put on a uniform doesn’t mean we’re immune to what we see. They never diagnosed me with PTSD in the beginning.
Will credits a sympathetic nurse at the VA for bringing him in. After six months homeless, living in the subway in New York City, he contacted the VA. The nurse he spoke with told him, ‘Come right in, do not deviate.’ He believes his time living destitute made him stronger and gave him the ability to help others who have shared his experiences.
Basically from September 2005 to May 2009 I was hardcore, high every minute. I sold drugs, did whatever I had to do so I could get high. If I had to go through all of that again so I could end up exactly where I’m at…for some reason I’m here. I think it’s to help other veterans to make the transition, that’s why this is a transition house. It’s to make the transition from a homeless veteran that nobody cares about into a productive veteran that everybody can be proud of. I can say my family, my children, they all can be proud of me.
That’s the whole interview minus some smalltalk and a discussion about what constitutes a boat and what constitutes a ship. If you’ve ever had a serious discussion with a Navy vet, you know what I’m talking about.

The word ‘catharsis’ is is overused. So overused, in fact, that I’m convinced it’s becoming cliche. Regardless of my own prejudice toward the word, I’m tempted to use it here, not just to describe my own experience with Will and my desire to go back and do it all over again, but to describe in the most accurate way how Will came to be the man he is today. Will relives his worst days, every day in order to help other men like him and to help himself. I’m convinced that he is no saint, but he is courageous.

I haven’t met many men in my life who have the guts to grip a demon by the tail and force it to do his bidding. Will does that and I stand in awe of him.


Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Read This Shit, Motherfuckers: The Path To Atheism (Part 1)

It's a working title, but it got you here, didn't it?


I am an atheist. I'm not an agnostic. I'm not 'spiritual but not religious' or whatever the hippie girls are calling it these days.

This isn’t going to be an angry debunking of religious beliefs or a history of Christian violence. I don’t hate religion or religious people. I do think they’re a bit silly and at some point I think I’m going to make a comparison between hard-core religion and drug addiction, so you might want to stick around for that.

No, this isn’t a hate piece even though I thought it was going to be when I started. It is too easy to just point at a thing and call it silly and archaic or to point out the hypocrisies within the world’s religions. Even the strictest adherents of religion know that certain parts if not most of their belief systems are silly, archaic and hypocritical. This hasn’t changed their outlook even a little, so why waste the time? I think it’s more interesting to revisit the process of questioning that led me to two simple, logical conclusions:

There is no God. That is OK.

When I was fourteen and attending a Catholic school I asked my religion teacher, "What if a person doesn't believe in everything the Church teaches us?"

She answered, "Those people go to hell."

I am, above all else, myself, so after that I started telling everyone I was a Buddhist and spent the rest of the year trying to convince the very attractive brunette who sat next to me in the back corner of the classroom to give me a hand-job in class. If I'm going to hell, so is everyone else.

The next year I went back to public school, but my time in the parochial education system had piqued my interest so I spent a lot of that summer reading books about religion. I love books, even the terrible ones.

If you ever want to meet the Creator of a universe, talk to an author of fiction.

I read the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and some of the Koran. I read the I Ching, as much of the New Testament as I could stomach and all of the Old Testament. (Angry God was always a much more interesting character.)

The book that changed my life that summer wasn’t a religious text, but it was about religion. It was called Sacred Origins of Profound Things. The book’s author, Charles Panati, managed to get about a quarter of his references wrong in one way or another, but the conclusions were, for the most part, undeniably correct.

What were those conclusions? Well, religious observances are almost always the result of socioeconomic drivers or current cultural phenomena. In other words, (mine, not Panati’s, he was very careful not to make a judgment) religion is fiction.

Religion, for better or worse, is made up.

My fourteen year old mind paused right there. You have to remember that I’d been brought up with a belief in God and though we didn’t go to church very often, religion was a part of my life. So, there I was on a summer evening sitting in my bedroom and finding out that it was all made up. I had suspected that some or even most of it was bullshit, but every time I peeled back another layer of ritual and belief I’d discover that it was fictional too. What did that say about the foundation of my religion? What would happen when I got to the center? Was God made up too?

I didn’t want to answer that question so I chose to ignore the subject altogether. I could have become a happy agnostic at that point, but something happened that caused a religious relapse in me.

In late spring the next year my Uncle Gary died. He was a high functioning alcoholic who worked at nuclear power plants. I didn't meet him until I was almost a teenager because he and my mother hadn't spoken to each other for years. I loved that man instantly. Everything about him made immediate sense to me and when he died in his forties of liver failure my mother wouldn't let me or his own children attend his funeral. She is a strange and horrible person but that's another story.

I wanted to have a chance to say goodbye to my uncle and I wanted his kids to have the same opportunity, so I called the priest who used to teach me Latin at that Catholic school I was talking about earlier. He agreed to conduct a funeral for no money because he was the sort of priest who understood and adhered to his own religion...that's a rare thing. I was so overwhelmed with gratitude and grief that I took my first communion at the funeral mass. I'll never forget the way that felt, I was full of non-belief and doubt and grief, old enough at sixteen to understand all of those things, but too young to properly deal with them. I sought what comfort was offered and it was freely given to me.

That memory is the thing I return to when I really start to hate religion and belief in a fictitious God. For a few moments back then, when I was being forced into becoming a man sooner than a boy ought to, I understood what comfort was and what belief could mean to a person who had nothing else. I wanted to have faith so badly back then and for a while I did. I remember sitting in class a few days before the funeral and daydreaming about Gary sitting on a cloud looking down at me, protecting me, being happy in Heaven and loving his nephew here on Earth. I know, it is the worst kind of clich├ęd and conceptualized idea of the afterlife, but it made me feel good.

Comfort for the sad and desperate is the most wonderful thing about God and religion.

Comfort isn't the end of reality, though. The Earth isn't flat.

I remember seeing a billboard around that time. It was just text, a quote attributed to Thomas Jefferson or Ben Franklin or George Washington: 'How can one look up at all the stars in the sky and not believe in God?' I thought that was nice and real and right. This was a thing that was perfect and unarguable, the way things must be. Then I went to chemistry class and everything changed again.

In chemistry class there were electrons for every proton, perfect little atomic solar systems. There were electromagnets dragging metal filings across a piece of paper and there was a day when the teacher told us that if you mixed certain acids with certain bases they would create a poison gas that would kill us all before we could leave the room.

I started to think about poison gas and religion.

There are layers to science in the same way that there are layers to religion, but the layers of science aren’t the machinations of powerful men and superstitious peasants, they are the result of facts stacked on top of one another. These facts lead to discovery, which in turn leads to more facts and more discoveries ad infinitum. When you peel back the layers of biology and sift through cell walls and mitochondria, you find chemistry. When you shake out the structure of an atom, you learn about the forces that hold it together and arrive at physics. When you attempt to understand those forces and finally reach the center you have math.

There is comfort in math and science. It isn’t the comfort of choirs of angels singing your name or a warm and loving God welcoming you into His Kingdom when you die, but for the prepared mind, it is even better. It is the knowledge that one plus one equals two, every time. It is knowing that when two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom combine they will make a single molecule of water, every time. It is knowing that all events are predictable as long as we have the tools to measure them. It is the acceptance of knowledge, and faith in the fact that when your chemistry teacher tells you mixing a certain acid and a certain base will create a deadly poison gas, he is absolutely correct. It has been proven and those two chemicals will react the same way, every time.

Religion is the denial of knowledge. No, that’s wrong. Religion is the denial of the search for knowledge.

This is a thing that is unfixable within the confines of modern, monotheistic religions because, according to them, the order to turn away from understanding came from God himself.

There are two perfect, biblical examples that explain the origins of the religious culture’s denial of knowledge. The first is the origin story and the other is the post-flood tale of Babel.

The tale of Adam and Eve lies at the base of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Practitioners of modern monotheism view the origin story in many different ways; some see it as a morality play, a fable, and others accept it as fact. No matter how it is viewed the moral is the same: Knowledge belongs to God and you can’t have any. Do not eat the fruit. Do not be curious.

Later in Genesis comes the story of Babel and its tower that reached the heavens. Once again the religious will view the story as either allegory or fact, but the conclusion is the same. The post-flood residents of Earth and their tyrant king, Nimrod built a great city. These people, the entire population of the world all spoke the same language and worked to improve themselves and their city. They began to view their ability as something that belonged to them and not to God and so they built a tower in their city that was supposed to stretch high enough to challenge God directly. The Islamic version of the story has two angels, Haroot and Maroot residing with the people and teaching them ‘magic’ while at the same time telling humans that this magic was an evil thing that, if practiced, would anger God.

No matter which version of the story you read, God was angry enough to punish his people for seeking knowledge. Every version has God spreading the people throughout the world and confusing their language so they could no longer communicate with each other. Some versions have God smashing the tower and others end with God turning one third of Babel’s citizens into demons and banishing them to another realm.

Every iteration of both the creation story and the story of Babel has the same moral: Seek knowledge and you will be punished.

Those two stories lie at the crux of the belief vs. non-belief argument and I return to them often in my mind

As a sixteen-year-old boy, this is what I knew about God: If there is a God he doesn’t want us to seek knowledge. Seeking knowledge is a central part of being human; therefore, if God created us then he set us up to fail. This is an immoral act; therefore, if God exists, God is not moral.

As a sixteen-year-old boy, this is what I knew about the universe without God: There is an ordered system of physical law. Human beings are capable of understanding much of that physical law. Seeking knowledge is a central part of being human; therefore, we will continue to seek knowledge. Knowledge is neither moral or immoral, it just is.

That's the end of Part 1 folks. I promise Part 2 will have less bible references and more sex references.