Thursday, 3 July 2014

God Has Teeth pt 1

There are some stories we need to tell.  How we came across a particularly rugged scar, how it felt to hear your first child announce itself to the world, or a brush with death as examples.  From the moment they occur these stories itch inside of our bellies like a handful of dancing caterpillars.  We navigate through conversations in the hopes we might stumble into the territory of our story and we can proudly throw down our banner and put the caterpillars to rest for a time.
There is another story we need to tell.  There is a story I need to tell.  Few watershed moments are so well hidden, so conveniently stuffed into a nook inside our minds only to be examined at dark and lonely hours.  It is a coming out of sorts and if you’ve read this far I hope you will stick around a bit longer.
God was an unseen family member living in our house throughout my childhood.  That is to say God was a presence, a specter wandering the halls.  Most Sundays we would pile into the station wagon and take him to his favorite place, church.  Scriptures weren’t quoted in the course of discipline in our home.  We weren’t forced to memorize the Bible.  But, God was around.
The last time I attended church I was thirteen years old.  My ex-stepfather and I sat in the upper levels of the Evangel Temple and watched as the pastor implored all minorities to come to the front of the congregation so he and the other church elders could apologize for discrimination.  My stepdad was black and I am mixed white and Latino.  This amounted to about twenty people out of one thousand.  The sentiment was in the right place, but I don’t know if the pastor understood what it would feel like to be a black or Hispanic boy gazing out upon a sea of white faces as other white faces gripped his small hands and apologized to him.  For reasons I did not fully understand I did not go to church the next week, the week after, and the eighteen years following.
Bear with me.  My caterpillars are just now waking up.
One thing I understood very well as a young Christian was guilt.  I felt so guilty about stealing a quarter from my brother I would lose sleep at night.  I would keep a mental tally of all the quarters I had stolen from him so that I could repay him when I was rich at some point in the future.  I don’t remember the final tally, but the next time I see Jimmie I’m going pass him ten bucks without explanation.  I felt guilt about my own thoughts.  God reads minds after all.  If he was reading mine from the age of about eleven onward he was likely disgusted more often than not. 
I worried.  It hurt my stomach.  Every impure thought might not have been a nail in Jesus’s cross, but it was at least a thumbtack. 
When I got away from church I carried the guilt with me for a couple of years.  I still prayed each night.  And then, slowly, I lost touch.  It’s like when you move from your hometown and leave behind your best friend.  You swear you will keep in touch and you do.  But life gets in the way.  New friends come along and, before you know it, you’ve forgotten how that old best friend made you feel.  You forget what was so special about him.
I started to forget God in my mid to late teens.  With him I forgot that I was supposed to feel guilty about that pizza I purposely made wrong so that I could take it home at the end of my shift.  I forgot that I was supposed to feel guilty watching Wild Things very late at night with my door locked.
My apologies to Oprah, but I did not have an “Aha!” moment.  At some point in my early twenties I surveyed my Godless surroundings and found that it made a lot more sense than the alternative.  I started to read books by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.  Before you raise your finger at me and claim I have been corrupted, keep in mind that I had been reading the other side’s offering for most of my life. 
Over the past several years, and out of necessity, I attended a Christian college.  Though the university is open to all religions I was the only atheist in every one of the twenty-four or so courses I took.  Sorry if I didn’t adequately prepare you for that A-word I just dropped.  Like I said, there was no “Aha!” moment.  It just sort of happened.  For my Personal and Social Ethics course we were required to read Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis and engage in weekly threaded discussions about it.
For the uninformed, Mere Christianity is a Christian apologetic work, which advocates for the existence of God stemming from the author’s worldview.  It’s basically C.S. Lewis saying God must exist because this is what I see in the world.
So, the following is me saying God does not exist because this is what I see in the world.  Like C.S. Lewis, I don’t plan on getting up from my chair to conduct any research, though I might reference scientific principles from time to time.
I am writing this in part to purge myself of my stomach-dwellers, but for another, more important reason.  It is my opinion that faith in God, the Christian god or any of the others, is dangerous.
Before I begin I will establish a few truths regarding God from the Christian perspective.  God is perfect.  God is eternal.  God is omnipotent.  I must also say that, though I’m presenting these ideas as my own that does not mean they have not been offered by others, perhaps even more eloquently crafted, previous to me.
Wasted Effort
Genesis tells us that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  So, God created the earth and everything outside of it.  Everything.  With the naked eye we can see a few thousand stars on the darkest night far away from city lights.  The estimated number of stars in our Milky Way Galaxy is around 300 billion.  Our neighbor galaxy, Andromeda, may have as many as 1 trillion stars.  Most of those stars will have planetary systems of some kind.  As we have only recently been able to detect planets outside of our solar system, it is impossible to say if our planetary system is a good representation of the rest of Universe.  Since the sun is considered to be an average star we can just assume that it supports an average number of planets, that being eight (sorry Pluto.)  There might be 2.4 trillion planets orbiting stars in our galaxy, 8 trillion for Andromeda.
Before I explain why this matters I must add in the concept of rogue planets.  These are planets that have been ejected from their planetary system and float freely through space.  Current estimates for the number of starless planets in our galaxy are in the realm of 400 billion.  This is just a guess as we are in the infancy of detecting these wandering orphans.  There could be trillions.  Using these estimates Andromeda would host about 4 trillion rogue planets.
Let’s look at our total so far.  We have 1.3 trillion stars and 14.8 trillion planets between the Milky Way and Andromeda.  With the naked eye we can see somewhere around .000000001% of all this matter.  (Not going to lie, I just hit 0 until it felt right)  That is 1.3 trillion suns, many much much larger than our own sun just converting hydrogen into helium like it’s no big deal.  That’s 14.8 trillion planets, many much much larger than Jupiter just hanging out.  And we can see practically none of it. And we interact with one single star and a few planets.
What if I told you I wanted to build you a house with one large room (sun) and eight smaller rooms (planets.)  But, in addition to those rooms I was going to build more than 16 trillion other rooms that you would never ever see.  Seems like a lot of wasted energy.  These 16 trillion stars and planets are shared between two galaxies.  There may be as many as five hundred billion galaxies in the Universe, possibly more.  The house just got a lot bigger, beyond quadrillions.   
If the earth was all of the matter in the Universe we would be severely overrepresented by an ant fart.  We would be less than a grain of sand.  This is wasted energy on an unfathomable level.  This is setting the world on fire to light a cigarette.  This is dropping a hydrogen bomb to kill the bacteria within a termite.  That God was the creator of the Universe made sense when the Universe was what we could see with our own eyes.  There was the sun and moon, a few planets, and a couple thousand pinpricks of light in the darkness.  We didn’t know there were billions of galaxies hosting billions of stars and trillions of planets.
This brings us to a few possibilities.  God created all of it as the bible says.  God created some of it, which comes with a new set of problems.  God created none of it.
If God created some of it that puts him in the realm of other creator gods, thousands of them, found in all cultures throughout time.  Christianity cannot withstand this possibility.  It allows too much mysticism into the equation.  If God only created our galactic neighborhood, say the solar system and visible stars, who created everything else?  The Christian god could be one of many, perhaps a very small and unimportant god as gods go. 
Though we will never know for sure, estimates (very rough estimates) suggest that there are more stars in the Universe than there are grains of sand on all of earth’s beaches.  At the low end of star estimates and high end of sand estimates the numbers are very close.  For the reverse, the number of stars is many times the number of grains of sand.  Accepting the possibility that God did not lovingly craft each star and planet but just set things in motion with a wave of his hand, the idea of wasted energy remains the same.
In my experience, there are a lot of mysteries about God that believers go out of their way to avoid considering.  God is too perfect to understand, too vast.  It is not the place of mankind to endeavor to understand the mind of God.  His power is a matter of faith.
If this is how you are going to live your life, raise your children, and build your society why would you not be curious?  I am curious. 
According to the bible, God created Man in his image.  For the purpose of my next example this is convenient.  If I understand the story of the bible there was a time when there was only God and nothing more.  There was God and the void.  If God created the heavens and the earth he either did so upon a blank pallet or he was building on someone else’s work.  Once again, Christianity does not allow for companion gods, so it can be assumed that God created everything from nothing.
Picture God in the void, snowy beard or youthful, your choice.  There is no color, no sound, nothing to smell or to touch.  There is nothing.  There is God and nothing else.  No air.  No stars.  Nothing.  Just God.  There was nothing before God.  There was only ever God.
Where did his creativity come from?  This is not a question of perfection or majesty.  It is a question of logic.  Every thought any person has ever had was inspired by experience.  That you can imagine a ten-armed, fang-toothed creature is because you have seen arms and teeth in your life.  Everything we create or imagine is built upon previous creations and what our senses have been telling us throughout our lives.
Remember, at one time there was only God and the void.  Where did the idea of nuclear fusion come from?  If God is all-powerful there is no need for something so complex.  God could point at a point in space (after he created space) and say, “Big hot thing there.”  Why create atoms instead of one solid mass?  Why make it necessary for a star to explode in order to create heavy metals? 
There is perfection in the Universe, but it’s a random sort of perfection.  It’s the kind of random perfection you would expect to happen over billions of years instead of just all at once.
Come to think of it, if there was only God and the void and we were created in God’s image, why did God need arms?  What was God holding?  Why did God need eyes?  What did he see?  Did he create his own eyes to see the nothingness and then create matter to have something for his eyes to see?  What did God need to hear with his ears?  Did he create ears and then the Universe and then us so he could hear us sing his praises?
If we were created in God’s image and after his likeness then God has teeth.  What the f-ck is God eating?  What was he eating in the void?  We can pick apart the language of the bible and search for meanings that make more sense to a modern world, but these will only ever be excuses.  Take the bible for what it is and accept it or don’t.
My apologies.  I derailed things a bit there thinking about God’s teeth.  My point is perfect is not equivalent to creative.  Sure, God is perfect.  Whatever.  That does not explain how God’s mind was able to think of anything when there had only ever been nothing.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Mr. Vince

A little shy of seven years ago I hopped into my dented, sometimes smoking Ford Focus hatchback and set off to liberate an animal from the hellhole of Oklahoma.  My bride and I, in our newlywed wisdom, decided to get a dog, specifically a boxer.  This was despite the fact that she already had a dog and a cat and she was out of the state.  Also, our house was about the size of an apartment with a backyard you could traverse in three giant steps.  We found a family who bred boxers and decided ours didn’t need to be as flashy.  (And also the flashy ones were more expensive—flashy is boxer lingo for white on a boxer’s chest)
            It went down a bit like a drug deal.  I called on my cell phone as I neared the agreed upon meeting place, a Wal-Mart parking lot.  I exchanged cash for dog and within five minutes I had a bag of food and an eight-week old male boxer, nameless at that time in the seat next to me.
            We spent the night together on my inflatable mattress.  I remember he howled the first couple of days, missing his siblings most likely.  For the first few weeks it was just the two of us.  I remember walking into the house on a lunch break and smelling something unmistakable.  I found the shit but did not find its creator.  After a couple of minutes of searching (a very small house mind you) I found him cowering in the closet.  Poor little guy.
            Miranda arrived in June with her elderly English springer spaniel and tiny orange cat in tow.  By then our little boy had a name, Vince, it was the first we both liked, an ode to Texas Longhorns great Vince Young.  Vince was enthralled with Lacey the spaniel, and Lacey was annoyed an equal amount.  I can’t blame her.  By then she was nearly ten years old and here was this energetic brown thing constantly trying to take her food.  She put him in his place a time or two.
            Vince is so special to us because he started as a divisive force, Miranda wishing we would love her as much as Vince and I loved each other.  As our early marriage struggled he became the glue that held us together.  During times of sadness and loss, when we argued seemingly just to see who could yell the loudest, Vince was there to stand before us and place a single paw on our laps.  I would look into the chocolate pools of his eyes and feel a sort of calm come over me.  He would insert himself, physically between us when we fought.
            We climbed mountains, literally and metaphorically.  We ran out to the flight line and back, unclipping Vince’s collar so he could sprint as fast as he needed.  To those who knew Vince later in life it might seem a shock that he was a runner.  Having never seen a greyhound at work I can say Vince was the fastest dog I’ve ever seen.  We went to the dog park, played in the snow, and eventually got fat together. 
            I don’t know why I thought it was a good idea at the time, but I do not regret it now.  I bought Miranda a boxer girl she named Ivy.  Vince and Ivy were like peas and carrots.  As soon as she was able to traverse the folds and flaps of his body she set up residence on his head, a habit that would continue for the next five years.  As a family we had grown to three dogs and two cats.  That’s a lot of fur for a tiny house.
            The Air Force sent me to Guam and through the chaos of moving across the ocean our biggest concern was how our puppies would adjust.  Visiting Vince and Ivy in quarantine, or prison as we called it, became a daily event.  Then for a few months Vince and Ivy became jungle dogs, disappearing into the thicket surrounding our house for hours at a time.  Right about the time our worry turned to panic we would hear their less-than-delicate footsteps crashing through the branches and brambles and Miranda and I would promise to never ever let them go out alone again, until the next time we did. 
            Vince made our time in Guam tolerable.  He made Miranda feel safe when I was not around, which was doubly important when a little firework named Magnolia Jean exploded into our lives. 
            Any loving, doting owner develops a private language with his pets and I mourn the fact that I will not get to use those words with Vince. 
            Who wants a butt scratch, a butt scratch?
            Oh Mr. Viiiiinnnceee!
            What is it boy?  You my special boy?
            And our favorite thing to do was to squeal or yodel to which Vince would respond by howling mournfully.  I will miss the weight of my best furry friend, when he bulldozed his way through all obstacles to mount the couch and hover over me.  I will miss his wide, slow tongue, his butt flap, his ears that never folded the right way.  I will miss the comfort of his presence, the stability and peace he brought to the house.  I cherish our memories together, and I will never stop missing you.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Puppy Dog Tails

Puppy Dog Tails

    A dog conveys so much through its tail: joy, fear, caution, and so on.  Two of our four dogs are docked lest they break their tails in a fit of overenthusiastic wagging, but the nubs do the job.  Ivy's nub is usually alert, especially when she is waiting for me to throw a ball for her to pursue.  Vince's tail is more like a rudder, a flap to muffle occasional flatulence that surprises him and everyone else in the room.

Today as I drove my typical route to work I saw a different tail.  The puppy was white with brown patches.  He lay in the middle of the road in a small red pool.  He was completely still except for his tail.  I can only hope that his tail, lazily rising from the bloody asphalt to hang quivering in the air for a moment, was a nerve response and not an indication that he was alive and suffering.  The tail pointed to the sky twice in the time I was able to see him.
Perhaps it wasn't a death spasm.  It was such a deliberate motion, measured though weak.  Maybe as enough blood leaked out of his wounds to render him unconscious he saw something beautiful in his mind.  Maybe he'd once been loved.  There might be a boy in school waiting to see his dog after the last bell, but probably not.  Maybe he'd dreamed of a kind person who tossed their restaurant leftovers out the window as they passed by him one day.  I try to be that person when I can.
Down the road a few miles I saw another tail.  The dog was large, mostly white.  She lay on her side, her swollen teats prominent against a short, smooth coat.  There was a collar around her neck that looked fairly new.  The tail was still, pointing crookedly at the road.
 I've seen a lot of dog tails on my daily trek to and from work.  A couple of months ago there was a small, white dog, probably somewhere between puppyhood and an adult.  It howled in pain, propped up in the middle of the road on its front legs, staring with confusion at the broken, unresponsive lower half of its body.  A boy walked into traffic and grabbed the dog.  He had no expression on his face and I can only hope he intended to put the dog out of its misery.
A couple of years ago, before we had a fence put up around our house, a pit bull wandered through our yard.  She was robust, muscular, and trailing eight or so feet of chain behind her.  A month later, the same pit bull, now bony and the chain full of brambles and debris, meandered through our yard again.  My wife and I took her in, or tried to.  She allowed us to bathe and feed her.  Despite her condition she had the disposition of a puppy and her tail showed it.
We would have kept her, but the instinct to survive was too strong within her and she saw our female boxer as a threat.  We left her at the shelter and it broke our hearts to see her labeled as a dangerous dog.  The shelter has an 80% kill rate.  A dangerous dog must have a much higher rate.
There are two other tails I'd like to talk about.  Around Halloween 2011, my wife was on her way home from school.  She took classes at night and drove the same road I use to get to and from work.  It was raining and very dark.  She saw two shapes in the very center of the road and stopped.  There were two dogs huddled together in the rain.  A couple of men were outside a nearby house smoking.  My wife inquired about the dogs and the men said they didn't belong to anybody.
My wife loaded both dogs into the car, knowing the very next car to drive by would probably not see them quickly enough to stop.  Having lived here a couple of years we know it is possible the driver might go out of his way to strike the dogs.  
One dog resembled a dachshund and the other had the length of one but looked more like a fox with long hair.  The dachshund was very obviously pregnant.
Mama and Nemo, as they would come to be known, have been a part of our family for over two years now.  Mama is a daddy's girl.  She does everything within her power to make certain my face is clean, or at least her version of it.  Nemo is a little hairy shadow.  She follows my wife anywhere she goes throughout the house, even if it's just to turn off a light in another room.  Mama's puppies have all found homes.
 Mama and Nemo have happy tails.  Nemo's waves grandly, with hair much longer than the rest of her fur.  Mama's wagging is so vigorous at times her whip-like tail actually stings when it strikes you.  I can't help but wonder about the white dog with brown patches and his reflexive wagging.  He could have found a master to lick or to follow throughout the house.  He could have had a name.
I can't change his fate.  I can't repair this island's relationship to these animals.  I can't liberate the hundreds or thousands of dogs tied to posts or fences, serving as nothing more than a cheap alarm system.  I wish I had been there a minute earlier, but I wasn't.  
My heart ached for you today.