Sunday, September 14, 2014

Corporal Punishment In The Home

The issue of corporal punishment has arisen once again in the social consciousness by way of Minnesota Vikings star running back Adrian Peterson. Two sides are being parsed ad nauseum: one in favor of hitting children and one against it. Yet again, my mind is boggled by the fact that there is even the possibility of a second side to this circumstance.

As I see it, there are three groups of people or three viewpoints that make their way into this conversation: those who were not hit as children and who do not condone the act or who will not hit their own children, those who were hit as children and who do condone the act, and those who were hit but who will not perpetuate the violence. Clearly there should be a fourth side--folks who were not hit but who elect to strike their children--but I've yet to hear any voices from that camp resounding in great number. That's not to say that there aren't those folks but the fact that they are not heard as loudly as the other three is telling to me.

Physical violence represents the ultimate last resort in terms of situational resolution. What makes our society civilized, in great part, is the fact that violence among its citizens is not only discouraged in the majority of situations but rendered outright illegal; there's a reason for this that I will get to shortly. It's the most primal, neanderthalic approach to conflict: when someone refuses to do something that you want them to do then just overpower them physically until they relent and concede. The effect is undeniable as the weaker party will invariably kneel to the abuse but what is overlooked by advocates for corporal punishment is the long-lasting emotional and psychological consequences of this approach.

This, I believe, is the key to why there are two sides to this issue.

Again, you very rarely hear of people who weren't hit as kids making excuses for why the parenting approach is acceptable. The vast majority of folks who are giving it the O.K. are those who were hit themselves. You'll hear the same arguments echoed eerily among these people, whether they're former NFL players (like Keyshawn Johnson and Coach Mike Ditka), teachers, white collar workers, or any other profession--trite, vapid reasoning such as, "If my mother/father didn't do that to me then I wouldn't be the man/woman that I am today; I needed to learn those lessons; things would have been different if it wasn't for those whippings I took." These people think that they're offering sane, logical explanations for why it is perfectly fine to perpetuate this cycle of violence and yet all that I'M hearing is the practiced subconscious self-preservation mechanism that's likely been in place for their entire lives.

There are those who were hit who come to realize as adults how egregious that parenting approach was--guys like former NFL stars Chris Carter and Tom Jackson. Earlier today the former wide out spoke about how much he loved his mother but how wrong she was for doing what she did, he damn near broke into tears; Jackson was equally as impassioned as he opined about the issue. What I heard from those gentlemen was drastically different than the aforementioned script stuck to by guys like Ditka and Johnson: the terrible realization that what happened to them was both unreasonable and uncondonable. When they became fathers they saw what these child abusing parents fail to own up to: there are other, better ways of parenting.

The reason that people defend their right to hit their children stems clearly from the fact that they themselves were hit. What is important and often overlooked though is the reason that this defense even exists. In my eyes, it comes from the fact that they've never faced the brutal reality of what happened to them as children. They learned to fear their parents and have coated that fear with a terrible approximation of what should be called "love." The only way that they have been able to move forward in their lives is by convincing themselves that what was done to them was not only acceptable and justifiable but warranted and necessary. How many people who say that it's okay to hit their kids were hit themselves AND will stand there with a straight face and tell you that, at times (if not every time), that their behavior was worthy of the resulting punishment?

Here's the rub: no matter how bad the behavior, that type of physical abuse is never warranted.

It's about to get pragmatic and ugly so be prepared. Let's look at these scenarios and see if we can't determine the level of fucked-up-ness from the results, okay? A grown man hits another grown man in the privacy of his home--what's the end result? An assault charge and jail time. Society and the law deem it illegal and refuse to allow such violent behavior. How about if a grown man hits a coworker at work? The above result is likely AND he loses his job.

For those of you keeping score at home, let's sum it up: a fully grown, adult male physically engaging another fully grown, adult male who is fully capable of defending himself will go to jail if the reasoning behind the assault is simply "he wasn't doing what I wanted him to do."

Moving on, a grown man hits a grown woman whom he is seeing romantically in the privacy of his home. What's the end result? A domestic violence charge and jail time (or some sort of legal ramification). Society and the law deem it illegal and refuse to allow such violent behavior. The adult male who hits the fully grown adult female who might or might not be capable of defending herself (depending upon the size of the male) without provocation goes to jail.

Lastly, a fully grown adult male hits his defenseless child in the privacy of his home. What happens? Nothing if the violence doesn't "cross the line." As long as it is somehow within an unwritten realm of acceptability then it's deemed permissible. People will throw their hands up and say, "Hey--a man has the right to do what he wants in the privacy of his own home."


Man hits man in home: jail.

Man hits wife/girlfriend in home: jail.

Man hits child in home: permitted.

Two of the three have the possibility of defending themselves AND they are fully capable of understanding what is happening to them and why it is happening. The ONE instance where the victimized party isn't and doesn't is the one time where it's somehow okay?

You've got to be fucking kidding me.

The bulk of the defenders of this type of behavior, again, are ones who have experienced it themselves. How is it that when a woman is abused by her husband--violently assaulted with regularity--and she turns around and says, "He does it because he loves me" or "I deserved what I got"--people look at her with pity and shake their heads as if she's crazy...and yet when survivors of childhood abuse say THE SAME THING they are viewed merely as the other side to this so-called debate about parenting approaches? How can that even be remotely possible when we all (potentially) have the same capacity for logic and reason?

Hitting your kids is a goddamn cop out. It doesn't just say that you're not trying hard enough--it screams it. I'm a parent of three children and at times they drive me absolutely crazy. That urge to strike them might arise just as it does when I get cut off by an asshole on the highway or when someone is talking extremely loudly on their cell phone at the movies or the library...but just as in the latter cases it's not something I would ever dream of acting on. Why? Because it's a violation of an innate human right to a peaceful existence. When I decide that it's alright to hit them I am reaching that choice without their permission. I am choosing to deny them their right to an unaccosted existence and am instead asserting my own dominance. I am effectively saying that what they want is of no consequence to me and that ultimately what I want is the only thing that matters. The only difference with a child is that their right is not guaranteed the way that it is with adults. Adults don't need the protection of other adults for their survival; children, instead, cannot survive without us. They trust us implicitly because they have no other choice but when it comes to one's own parents there is undeniably the factor of love that comes into play.

When children are struck--whether it's a spanking on the butt or a switch across the back--their sense of love is forever warped and damaged, bent and broken beyond the ordinary.

What bothers me the most about people who hit their kids is that it's so goddamn lazy; it's the easy way out. It requires no mental or emotional effort whatsoever. Hell, it barely requires any physical effort either since you're dealing with someone who is a fraction of your size and strength! The psychology involved is of the most basic variety. When children are hit it is usually either to get them to do something or to get them to stop doing something. Either way, they fail to understand the reasoning behind what is expected of them when they are hit. Instead, they are taught to fear the physical violence and (the parents assume) come to associate that as a consequence for that action. On the surface, it appears quite simple: if I do X then Y will happen. I don't want Y to happen so I will not do X.

The problem though is that it's not that simple. They fail to grasp the understanding behind why Y is wrong. They are unable to complete that circuit within their minds--to figure out what makes one act acceptable and another undesired or impermissible. They learn to fear rather than to think. The violence causes nearly irreparable damage to the vulnerable psyches of these children as well. If the fear instilled is powerful enough then the hatred that often grows is subjugated and but not altogether eradicated; it is repressed but still ever-present deep within the mental subcutaneous layers. It will find its way out in other ways as the children continue to grow but fail to address their feelings. They ultimately become unfulfilled, non-self-actualized adults. That's not to say that these people will not go on to be professionally successful or lead enjoyable lives but rather that that enjoyment fails to be maximized; there will always be something lacking because of what has gone untended to.

Then there are the individuals whose fear is not matched by their hatred or resentment. These are the ones who go on to find other outlets for their anger--and are most often the ones who perpetuate the violence. Remember--there's the issue of degree here. Some folks were spanked and they in turn will spank their kids with no greater or lessened level of violence. Others who were hit with belts, switches, or other items--these are the ones who tend to be damaged the most and who will escalate that violence; consequently, they're also the ones who are most likely to break the cycle. The severity of their experiences might be so great that they find that they are incapable of functioning fully and ultimately seek answers, understanding, or psychological restoration.

My issue is with the middle-ground folks--the ones who make it seem like it's no big deal to spank a kid or to hit them "as long as it doesn't exceed the evanescent, widely-agreed upon norm." The other, more violent folks are clearly damaged and are incapable of seeing the error of their ways or their victimization on their own. That in no way justifies what they do but it makes it more understandable. The out-and-out hypocrisy of the middle-grounders is what kills me. These are the people who would offer the following answers to the set of questions:

"Do you think it's okay for a man to hit his wife (or vice versa)?"
No way. Domestic violence is a serious issue.
"Do you think that it's okay to be violent to animals--say, kicking or hitting a dog that won't listen?"
Cruelty to animals is never acceptable.
"Do you think it's okay to hit your kids?"
Absolutely. It's my right as a parent to decide how to discipline my kids.

(Yeah--and it's also your right to decide whether or not you should shoot up heroin, drink and drive, steal from the register, and do any other number of things. The only difference is that you'll go to jail if you get caught doing those things.)

People nowadays will choose to "agree to disagree" rather than engage in an open and honest debate where they are forced to understand their viewpoint and to defend it rather than simply to state it. They are effectively burying their heads in the sand like ostriches or shoving their fingers in their ears like children. Therefore, the most I can hope for is this: the consideration of equity and the request of consistency. You want it to be deemed acceptable to hit your kids? Great--but let's make it acceptable across the board. No more "domestic violence" or legal assault. If you can hit your kid because he won't clean up his room then shouldn't you be allowed to throw your girlfriend around for leaving dirty dishes in the sink? I mean, at least she can maybe fight back, right? Or if little Debbie refuses to do her homework and you give her one of those homestyle whuppins, shouldn't you also be allowed to smack the shit out of Greg for not filing his TPS report on time? 

Hitting your kids belies a lack of self-control, an alarming lack of compassion, and an inability to exhaust the myriad constructive ways of handling any given situation as a parent; failing to understand why that viewpoint is erroneous, honestly, is one of the only things in this life that eludes my comprehension. There are plenty of words to describe these people: hypocrite, monster, and barbarian. Ultimately, there's only one that should matter:


Monday, November 25, 2013

Band Evolution Versus A Complete Departure In Sound

I've heard some people say that you should never listen to a band beyond their third album.  Fortunately, I rarely follow absolutes and have seen many instances of bands hitting their stride later in their careers.  Many if not most modern bands wind up being one hit wonders with either a smash hit single or, if they're lucky, an album rife with solid material; it is when they release their sophomore efforts that they begin to fade slowly into the ether (The Calling and Crossfade are two great examples).  Some manage to repeat their success and have either a remunerative followup or simply sustained support with a string of solid singles later on (The Wallflowers, Goo Goo Dolls, and Vertical Horizon).  Fewer, of course, are those who write an unforgettable album--one that assures them a spot in music history--but who fail to find that magic a second time (Nine Inch Nails' "The Downward Spiral" is one of the most amazing albums ever written but, despite Trent Reznor's musical brilliance, he's failed to write anything remotely comparable to that opus).  Fewest are the bands who craft not simply a great album but a legendary one and who go on to duplicate that fame and fortune later in their careers.

Bands who manage to create a sustainable writing career often do so with a particular sound--something that they are recognized for instantly and that serves to define them.  They become the best at what they do, which ultimately proves to be a double-edged sword: they grow to be inextricably linked with a particular genre and set themselves up for failure should they try to break free of those classifications.  Some manage to find success by working within the confines of their genre but many others struggle to break free, often to their own detriment.

There are numerous instances of bands with an identifiable sound resorting to a formulaic approach.  To an extent, every album sounds the same and there is little evidence of the band pushing musical boundaries.  Nickelback is arguably the best example of this approach.  It's not unreasonable to declare that every Nickelback album sounds the same because, essentially, they all do.  There are a few heavier tracks, the requisite (see: money making) ballads, an oddball acoustic track here or there, and a slew of filler.  Of course, the Nickelback sound is not limited to the actual music but the lyrics as well.  Nearly every song is about sex or is sexualized to some degree and few if any have any remotely memorable quality to them.  That is not to say that the songs and their words are not catchy just that there is nothing redeemable about them.  On the contrary, it's Nickelback's infectious sound that has generated the insane level of success that they have enjoyed over the past decade.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are bands who suffer from musical A.D.D..  Their sound is mercurial at best, shifting constantly either from one song or one album to the next.  Weezer is emblematic of this approach but in their case it works to their advantage; Rivers Cuomo's inability to sit still, musically, is part of what Weezer fans love about the music.  The problem with this approach, consequently, is that there is no rhyme or reason to the albums and thus no stability.  Fans of these bands rarely if ever know what they are going to get and many often lose patience and interest in the long run.

Arguably the most successful and interesting bands are those who will dabble within the parameters of a particular style, branch off to something different but still related, and ultimately make a return to the sound that made them famous, putting a new spin on it that only years of experience and experimentation can provide.  The first band that jumps to mind that fits this description is Metallica.  The metal mogul's first few albums were quintessential thrash, even following a particular formula (e.g. the mega-hit, the Em based song, and the instrumental track).  There was an evolution of sorts towards a cleaner, more listener-friendly sound that culminated with The Black Album.  From there, though, things got a little bumpy with the release of Load, ReLoad, and then St. Anger.  These three albums serve as the experimental members of the Metallica canon, causing derision and division among longtime fans of the band.  A return to form with Death Magnetic gave the sleeping giant new life as the much anticipated followup album looms in the distance.

Part of what rubbed people raw about the aforementioned Load and ReLoad is the fact that both seemed like a huge departure from the sound that made Metallica famous.  As a music fan and musician myself, I find this point highly salient and love contemplating the question that it engenders: when does a band's evolution become a complete departure in sound?  For me, I would say that the answer lies in the motivation behind the change and in the execution.  Many rock bands are releasing albums that are heavily influenced by electronic sounds and are incorporating elements of styles like Dubstep.  Again, for me, this seems more like a pathetic effort to stay relevant and to cash in on a current trend rather than a form of evolution for the band.  That's not to say that there aren't instances of brilliance but rather that most do not seem to jive with the band's identity to that point.

Evolution, of course, is a slippery slope when it comes to music.  I cannot say with any degree of certainty where evolution ends and experimentation begins; it is something that needs to be determined by the individual listener.  I find bands like Incubus and Linkin Park to be excellent examples of evolution gone awry.  With regards to the former, most fans who encountered Incubus with their album S.C.I.E.N.C.E. have hated everything since because of how different the sound is.  Ordinarily, that would represent less of an evolution and more of the aforementioned departure but in this case I think it's a little more nuanced than that.  Incubus was heavily influenced by the Red Hot Chili Peppers and, having gained confidence in themselves from the commercial viability of S.C.I.E.N.C.E., they wanted to establish themselves in their own right rather than being labeled an R.H.C.P. ripoff. 

What followed were four of my favorite albums and the core of the Incubus canon.  Make Yourself was phenomenal and is an album that demonstrates extensive musicianship despite being written off as another piece of nu-metal garbage.  Morning View, the followup to Make Yourself, is one of if not the greatest album I've ever heard and is a clear evolution from its predecessor.  A Crow Left of the Murder and Light Grenades, in turn, are easily linkable to the other two albums despite showing considerable changes in sound.  There are fewer heavier tracks on the later albums but the complexity of the arrangements improved to an impressive degree. 

I absolutely abhor the latest album but many feel like it is yet another step forward.  I felt like the lyrics were insipid and that the music was uninspired.  To me, the heavy aspect of the music is part of what made Incubus great and to see it replaced with mellower, almost muzakian elements saddens me.  Still, as I see it, the band made one left turn after S.C.I.E.N.C.E. and has followed a relatively straight path since then without playing it too safe.

As someone whose introduction to Incubus came after S.C.I.E.N.C.E., I have an easier time appreciating all of the albums than someone who began with it.  An extremely latecomer to the world of Slipknot (I first became familiar with them in 2012), I have a similar appreciation for their body of work and can see a clear progression from their inimitable self-titled debut and their most recent effort.  Fans of the Slipknot and Iowa albums, though, often hold Vol. 3 and All Hope in Gone in disdain because of a lack of edge and aggression.  I see them both as being the pinnacle of their musicianship despite the aforementioned beginning efforts serving as their defining works.  So perhaps when you encounter a band might also influence the conclusion of evolution versus exploitation.

I can think of no better example of that exploitation argument than Linkin Park.  I was a huge LP fan when they came out and was with them right up until A Thousand Suns came out.  The first two albums were amazing and incredibly similar.  Not wanting to be pigeonholed as a rap rock band, Linkin Park then shifted towards a more mainstream rock sound with Minutes to Midnight.  For me, the focus on the musical instruments and the move away from the rap-centric tracks represented an evolution; the guys seemed to have grown as musicians.  The problem came with the fourth album, A Thousand Suns.

Experimental at best, A Thousand Suns took a long time to grow on me.  I can now appreciate it as an excellent album in its own right but I have a difficult time accepting it as part of the Linkin Park canon.  It sounds like nothing else that they've done and it just doesn't seem to fit among the collective of their work.  Thus the problem with that complete departure in sound.  See, I feel like an album like A Thousand Suns would fit in the canon if it was portrayed as being an intentional experiment--an album in its own right but one that was meant to serve as a pet project for the members rather than the next link on the album chain.  I can see a sort of bond between their most recent release, Living Things, and the first three albums but still do not feel like there is any relationship with A Thousand Suns. 

The band risks further alienating its fan base--one that is clamoring for a return to form of sorts--with its next release.  To date, Linkin Park has released two rap rock albums, one rock album, one ethereal experimental album, and one electronic album.  There is little relationship between the later works and the earlier ones and, frankly, it feels like the band is losing sight of who and what they really are.  That's the danger with too much experimentation within the brand of the band.

When a band is known for a very particular sound it can become extremely difficult to produce something new that doesn't sound stale and contrived.  Green Day became legends with the release of Dookie in the early '90s.  The problem for them was that they tried to stick to the pop punk formula without ever really hitting it big within the genre.  It wasn't until they released arguably their most prolific hit, "Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)" that the opportunity for evolution presented itself.  Suddenly, this high-energy punk band was known worldwide because of an acoustic guitar-based track (much like Plain White Ts with "Hey There Delilah" of recent fame).  They tried the Dookie formula one more time before drafting their magnum opus, American Idiot, in 2004.

Touching upon my initial point, that's precisely why you cannot give up on a band you love, even when it seems like all hope is lost.  Their legendary status solidifying album was their third but their best work to date didn't come until their seventh record.  And how did they follow that up?  With one of the most ingenious moves in music history: they released an even more different-sounding album under a fake name.  This deflected the insane level of expectation that American Idiot generated and allowed the band to write another phenomenal album (though one that I admittedly dislike).  Rocking the boat one more time, they followed THAT up with three record releases in a single year.  Granted, none of the triad was particularly good but it shows that the band is not content to rest on their laurels.

And then there are the Foo Fighters.  Easily my favorite band of all time, the Foos are fronted by one of the most brilliant musical minds we've ever seen.  How do you follow the demise of one of the most beloved, successful bands of all-time?  You go out and do your own thing.  The honesty of the first Foo Fighters album showed that Dave Grohl was not content to cash in on the fame of his previous band but was intent instead on blazing a new trail for himself.

Here's the great thing about the Foo Fighters: they have an instantly identifiable sound but one that is not easy to define.  I can hear a single note and know that it's from a Foo Fighters album and, in some cases, if it's a b-side, know which album it was connected to.  The band's sophomore album featured numerous tracks of which any single one could have made their career and was followed up by two more excellent albums.  The danger at that point though was releasing another record like numbers three or four.  Instead, what followed was the best example of musical evolution I've ever encountered.

After penning There Is Nothing Left To Lose and its mega hit "Times Like These," Dave Grohl decided to flex his musical muscles and to demonstrate both his and his band members' instrumental prowess.  The band released In Your Honor, a gargantuan album almost unrivaled in its scope.  One disc was electric-based, heavy, uptempo rock while the second featured stripped down, sparer acoustic tracks, exclusively.  The collective serves to define who the Foo Fighters are with each disc standing alone as its own incredible album.

On the heels of In Your Honor came Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace--a sleek, slick studio effort that produced some of the band's most popular songs.  Not content to craft another polished record despite its success, Dave Grohl and company then went to work on the quintessential, career-defining album Wasting Light.  Recorded analog instead of digitally, in a garage instead of a multimillion dollar studio, this album stands as the band's crowning achievement.  Heavy, soft, complex, catchy, it has all of the elements of the perfect album...and the scary part is, when the Foos finally lay down their instruments for good, it might not even prove to be their best.

And that's just it.  You can never count a band out no matter what changes they make if it's a part of their evolution.  The ones who try to ride on the coattails of current trends will ultimately fail if that's the only thing that they do; it's those who draw from those experiences in an effort to sharpen their definition further that will ultimately succeed.  The best bands, then, have an easily identifiable sound--one that varies but never completely changes as they move forward through their careers--and an insatiable desire to push themselves to new musical heights without selling out to the lowest popular denominator.  They release extremely different music as EPs or side projects without tainting their legacy.  And, ultimately, they find their way back to who they are if ever they lose sight along the way.

Linkin Park, Foo Fighters, Green Day, Incubus, Slipknot

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Story Of Echo

Echo at the Manitoba Welcome Center up the road
from the Canadian border

One of my favorite experiences as a kid was going on road trips with my parents; few things excited me as much as the prospect of seeing a new state welcome sign.  Part of it was the fact that visiting a new state felt akin to stepping foot on foreign soil--embarking upon a journey to a new world.  I mean, to a seven year old, Virginia or Maine might as well be halfway around the globe!

Through my adolescence, I often dreamed about the trips that I would go on when the freedom of adulthood would finally wrest me from the bondage of high school.  The cross country road trip always held a special allure, reaching Colorado in particular partially because it was something my father had done before I was born.  There was just something invigorating about the idea of having nothing but open road ahead of and behind me while I cruised towards whatever destination lie in wait.

Sometimes, the realization of our dreams leaves us wanting--aching for the expectant anticipation rather than the underwhelming realities we experience as adults.  In a few rare instances though the actuality of that attainment far surpasses anything we could have dared to imagine.  Looking back on all of the journeys that I have been blessed to have undertaken, I can only smile and be thankful that the latter proved to be the case time and time again.  Each of those trips had its own identity and none would have been the same without the woman sitting across from me and the car that we drove in.

This is the story of our 2001 Toyota Echo.

At first glance, she might not seem like much.  An atypical shade of blue (supposedly "sea foam blue," which, to this day I argue makes no sense whatsoever!  I've always heard sea foam green but, apparently Google agrees with the paint namers since there are more results for sea foam blue than green.  Whatever!), the Echo served for years as the stalwart sentry of the entry level economy market for Toyota.  Thusly priced, named, and colored, it would prove to be the ideal car for my wife as she graduated from high school.

I can still remember hearing people talk about Heather zipping along in "that little blue car of hers" early in our relationship.  Separated by the Verrazano Bridge, we spent a fair amount of time traveling between Staten Island and Brooklyn in Heather's first and only car.  It was the site of long talks and daydreaming sessions, of late night, after-movie snacks, and of course the requisite amount of making out.

During those early years, Heather and I would often go driving aimlessly around at night, happy just to be spending time together and to be away from our respective situations.  It reminded me of nights spent in "the van" with my best friends towards the end of high school.  Though that was a brotherhood in its own right, there was undoubtedly a relationship of sorts being fostered between Heather, her car, and me.  Then in my early twenties, I once more enjoyed the thrill of exploration as I learned the lay of the land in Staten Island, sharing in Heather's history when we visited certain places and forging our own as we encountered things neither of us had ever seen before (like the lighthouse and the South Pole on Staten Island).

One day during a petty argument, I took out the Starburst that I had been chewing and placed it on the outside of the windshield while Heather was driving.  I don't remember the exact context of the moment but I will never forget the vehemence in Heather's demand that I take it off and the obvious hurt that I had caused her by essentially defacing a part of her.  Until that point, I hadn't realized just how much her Toyota Echo had meant to her and it was only then that I began thinking of how integral a role the car was beginning to play in our lives.  I had gone to visit Heather a handful of times in Staten Island but anytime she came to Brooklyn, either to pick me up or to drop me off, it was in that car.  In a sense, it was what literally and figuratively brought us closer together.

It wasn't until 2005 that my relationship with Echo began.  As graduation loomed on the horizon, Heather and I discussed a number of trips that we wanted to take together in the future.  Ultimately, we decided that since I had never been to Florida before and that she loved Disney World as much as she did, that we would head down there following our commencement from Baruch.  Now, though I had taken driver's ed in high school and spent some time practicing with my Dad, I ultimately never went for my license. With the road trip of my dreams dancing tantalizingly close, I decided that I would freshen up my driving skills and go for my license so that I could partake in the driving.  To that point, Heather had done nearly all if not all of the driving for us including a day trip (!) to Niagara Falls that took nearly 22 hours round trip.

Though I learned the mechanics of driving from both my coursework in school and from my Dad, it was through my experience with Echo that I really learned how to be comfortable in the driver's seat.  I brushed up on all of the technical aspects while learning the nuances during the dozens of hours I spent practicing with Heather.  I had already learned how to drive but my then-future wife had taught me how to drive.  I made it through the tollbooths at the Verrazano, drove for the first time on the highway, and laid the seeds of all the future miles ahead of me under Heather's tutelage with Echo's pedals beneath my feet.

If you're reading this wondering why I'm spending all this time on explication then it's probably worth taking an extra moment or two for something more direct.  Heather and I have gotten all kinds of comments from people throughout the years about our car and, no matter what's been said, we each just silently shake our heads because it's obvious that people just don't understand.  I've been asked how I can possibly be comfortable in "that little thing," we've both been asked about how many miles she has on her, followed by a shake of the head and an "isn't it time to upgrade?"  We've been ragged on for the no-frills design--mocked for the lack of power windows and power locks.  Echo's even been referred to as a "clown car."

The thing that people fail to understand though--and the overarching point of this entry--is that neither Heather nor I consider Echo just a car; she's a part of our family.  I've mentioned this from time to time to people and have been met with polite eye rolls or hostile laughter--something that never fails to amuse me in this era of pet parents and rescues.  If a pet can be considered a family member then why not a car?  If home is where the heart is and our Echo takes us wherever our hearts desire, then how can she not be considered home?  Hell!  With all of the time we've spent traveling in her, she basically is a home of sorts.

To me, Echo's the type of car from a bygone era--a time when cars were given names and had personalities.  No, I'm not referring to those ridiculous eyelashes that you see on cars or the myriad decorative stickers, ribbons, and decals that adorn vehicles these days.  I'm talking instead about the days when a first car mattered--when it offered the opportunity to build a personal history with its driver(s).  Momentous events that occurred in the lives of these owners were made all the more special because of the involvement of that car.

See--that's it.  It's the history that we share with this car that makes it so cherished.  That Toyota Echo took me and Heather on our first date to Chevy's at the Staten Island Mall; she's driven us on every single road trip that we've embarked upon within continental North America (the only three drives we've gone on without her were in Hawai'i on our honeymoon, from San Francisco to Carson City (also during our honeymoon), and throughout Puerto Rico during our trip a few months later); she was present for every one of our amazing Adirondack adventures with Dick Doux and the crew up north--all seven trips into the mountains during the heart of winter; she helped both Heather and I move out of the houses that we had spent our respective childhoods growing up in and then again helped to move our growing family into our first home.  It was within Echo's friendly confines that Heather and I had the discussion that helped us to realize that we could get engaged after all and it was Echo's front passenger seat that held the ring on my way home from the jeweler, rife with a torrent of excited emotion.  She drove us home from our wedding reception and twice to the hospital for the deliveries of our children.  We brought each of our children home from North Shore LIJ in Echo--one to Staten Island and one to Hazlet.  She was there when we dropped off our son for his first day of school and when we picked him up later that morning.

Sure plenty of people experience those things...but to be able to do them all with the same vehicle?  To me, that's priceless.

But that's the serious stuff!  My personal relationship with Echo has been forged through long, long hours spent driving along the highways of the United States and Canada.  I've listened to countless minutes of music and passed innumerable mile markers as the macadam moved beneath our feet and enjoyed a nearly equal amount of conversation with Heather on our trips.  I mean, people know that we've traveled a lot but I'm not sure that they're quite aware of the extent of our journeying.  Here's just a sampling of the experiences that we've had with our Echo or the things that she could knock off of her bucket list were she to have one:

Echo has driven us to 19 of the 21 Major League Baseball parks that we've been to.

She's been across the U.S. Rocky Mountains three times and the Canadian Rockies twice.

She's been to the Everglades and the Bayou, the Nevada desert and the Colorado mountains including up and down a 14,000 foot mountain during which we lost the brakes (Mt. Evans), up a volcano (Mt. St. Helens), and over the Mississippi River four times.

She's driven through a blizzard with complete white out conditions, a hurricane, impenetrable fog, and complete and utter darkness in Arizona, she's hit tumbleweeds while thunderstorms rolled in across the vast valleys of the southwestern United States, and she's had the red dust of Wyoming on her tires.

She's been to all 48 contiguous states and 42 state capitols.

She's been to the Jack Daniel's distillery twice, Central High School and a yard sale in Arkansas, Disney World, a Pony Express station, and more than a half dozen lighthouses including those at Montauk, New York and Ponce Inlet, Florida.

She's driven up a magnetic hill in Moncton and over the world's longest covered bridge in Hartland, New Brunswick.

She's driven through Times Square on a Friday night in the summer, to the September 11th memorial lights a few days after they first blazed towards the heavens, to Boston on Patriot's Day, and in Indianapolis during the Indy 500.

She's driven on both an official NASCAR track in Watkins Glen, New York and on the very beach where auto racing was born in Daytona Beach, Florida.  She even dipped her tires into the Atlantic Ocean while on said beach!

We've driven to places that many people have flown to like Seattle, Washington and Las Vegas, Nevada... well as a few places that we've all heard of but few people I know have gone to...

She's been as far southeast as Key West, Florida, as far northeast as Halifax, Nova Scotia, as far west as Fullerton, California, and as far northwest as Fort Nelson, British Columbia.

She's seen Mile 0 on Route 1 in Key West
Route 66
Four Corners State Park

And, most impressively of all, the first 250 miles of the Alaska Highway including Mile 0 in Dawson Creek, British Columbia!

She's driven on 46 of the 66 official Interstates in the continental United States:

I-84* (separate highway in a distant state)
(separate highway in a distant state) 

She's also seen her fair share of adversity on the road having been involved in one collision in Brooklyn and a hit-and-run at the Staten Island Ferry parking lot.  She got stuck in the sand in Daytona when the local roads' commission decided to open up a stretch of beach previously reserved only for AWD vehicles.  She had a 70 mph encounter with a runaway construction barrel in Tennessee.  And, most notably, she survived driving through a mudslide on the Alaska Highway.

So from Route 1 to Route 66--the Trans-Canadian Highway to the Alaska Highway, we've covered A LOT of ground in our Echo.  Not counting the scores of mini-road trips that we've gone on throughout the years, Echo has endured a full dozen trips of 1,000 miles or more including SIX of 3,000 miles or more and, of those, THREE were 4,000 miles or more with TWO eclipsing 6,600 miles apiece.  Our longest took us through fifteen U.S. states and four Canadian provinces, covering over 8,500 MILES in a mere FOURTEEN DAYS!  When we finally made it home, I took this shot of our trip odometer:

8,583.6 miles--the LONGEST single trip we've ever done!
That's a total of more than 36,183.6 miles of road tripping completed in only 69 days of driving (a few trips had built in lounging days that had minimal driving to no driving involved so that total reflects the number of days where the majority of the time was spent driving).  That means that over the course of those dozen trips we averaged over 524 miles per day or approximately 9-plus hours of driving a day, every day.  Amazing that there was nary a stretch that felt that long!

We recently completed our first long road trip with our daughter Sarah.  It was Timmy's third such trip but also his longest as well.  I'm sure if we would have discussed our intentions with people they would have scoffed at us and declared that it couldn't be done.  "There's no WAY you're going to fit all of that stuff into that tiny car!"  Well, not only did we manage to survive two seventeen hour-plus days of driving (the first and last days of the trek), we also were able to fit the strollers, luggage, souvenirs from Downtown Disney, other souvenirs, and almost two cases' worth of beer for ourselves and our friends back home.  Comfortably, I might add.

Still, though, successful as our trip had been, I had and continue to have the sense that it might very well be our last long one with Echo.  Despite our ability to make things worth with the spacial restraints we face with her, it is undeniable that our family is growing and will likely someday outgrow what she can offer.  We're already eying a larger vehicle that will likely be purchased next year or the year after.  When that time comes to pass, it will make all of the past experiences with Echo all the more special.  Despite the suggestions we've been given about trading her in, I have absolutely no intention to do anything other than put Echo on a pedestal when her driving days are done.  We wouldn't trade her in or put her down any more than any of you would do the same with your respective pets/family members.

Her place in our family has been solidified through years of service--long miles up mountains and through deserts, across two countries and back again.  Revisiting my earlier maxim that home is where the heart is, I made one important request when I surprised Heather with a customized ornament after we moved in to our first home last year.  The ornament was meant to be a miniature representation of the first space that we could truly call our own.  Thankfully the artist honored my request as you can see from the picture below.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Why Heavy-Handed Parenting Is A Self-Perpetuating Cop Out

Part of what amazes me about being a parent is the fluidity that defines each day with my children: one moment we're all laughing and playing, the next I'm putting one or both of them in timeout, and then it's back to homeostasis.  Adaptability is certainly a parent's most valuable tool, positioned only slightly ahead of patience.  Of course, the latter will invariably run out and that's when one must rely upon the former.

It goes without saying that, at some point, your kids will get on your nerves.  They'll act out, engage in behavior that you wholeheartedly disapprove of, and, frankly, will make you want to strangle them.  Most parents draw the line there at the "want" moment but there are plenty who don't.  A large contingent of American parents spanning all sorts of cultural and socioeconomic lines advocate the use of corporal punishment and employ it as part of their parenting style.  This can range anywhere from a single spanking episode to a full-blown beating of their children. 

It's a touchy subject to say the least and is one that I have a very strong opinion about.  What stirred up my feelings on the issue was a post I read on a guitar forum (of all things) earlier today.  The original post was from a boy asking for advice about handling his one year old cousin who would be staying with his family a few days a week.  He didn't want the tot fiddling with his amp settings but, since babies love knobs and dials (and an amplifier is replete with both), he knew it would be a battle to keep the boy away from his equipment.  One of the responses was as follows:

1. Tell him no and move him to a different activity.

2. Repeat as necessary.

3. When that doesn't work (and it usually won't, regardless of what the self-styled 'experts' tell you...)

4. Tell him no sternly, slap his hand, move him away. Repeat as necessary but stay consistent. This WILL work, again notwithstanding what you might read elsewhere.

(Anyone that has a problem with my suggestion that he use mild physical punishment as a demotivator is free to go f*ck themselves, I don't want to hear it. I've raised my kids and had what I consider good results, you're free to go and do the same...)

I was and still am perturbed by this individual's point-of-view but it's an important one to explore because, sadly, I feel like it is representative of many a heavy-handed parent's perspective.  Beginning at the bottom, it's evident from his aggressive choice of words that he's likely had an argument about his parenting before--possibly numerous times.  My issue begins with the "if you don't agree with me you can go fuck yourself" mentality.  To me, this is indicative of someone who is incapable of defending his or her position and so will turn to shoving their fingers in their ears and going "LA LA LA LA LA" in an attempt to ignore the opposing side.  Again, it's been my experience that many parents who employ physical punishment take this stance because they're self-conscious about the choices they've made in terms of their parenting and don't like discussing why they don't go for alternative methods.

The problem persists with bullet point number three.  Self-styled experts (no need for the improperly used quotation marks since they really are experts) often engage in thousands of hours of research either first-hand or through literature, thus warranting the moniker.  I wouldn't deign to call myself an expert because I'm not.  My parenting experience is limited to my own kids and to my teaching experience (which, I believe, represents a crossover point between the two closely-related positions).  What I am, however, is someone who is capable of recognizing patterns in behavior, analyzing situations and data, and drawing reasonable conclusions from the aforementioned information.  "When that doesn't work (and it usually won't)" tells me that this person did not have success with more humane, higher-level parenting techniques.  Rather than employing the adaptability that I referenced earlier, he opted for the lowest, most basic approach possible: hitting.

Here's the funny thing about parents who defend their decision to hit based upon the fact that they get "good results."  Of COURSE you're going to get results!  How could you argue that you wouldn't?  You're applying physical abuse to someone who is incapable of defending him- or herself so, sooner or later, the odds favor that whatever your intended outcome will come to pass.  If you want a kid to stop doing X and you keep hitting him or her, sooner or later they'll stop...but not for the right reasons.  There's a detrimental impact on the psyche and emotional well-being of children who are hit and, such parenting tactics leave an indelible imprint on their future social interactions.  Kids who grow up with abusive parents will, in turn, take one of two routes with their own children: either they'll vow not to lay a finger on their kids or they'll perpetuate the behavior.  Put another way, parents who hit their kids more than likely were hit as children themselves.

The biggest issue that I have with parents who hit their kids is the fact that it's the easy way out and it's completely and utterly unnecessary.  There is not a single, solitary situation in which hitting a child is THE only approach to take.  It belies a lack of creativity, of discipline, of restraint, and, above all, it intimates a person incapable of exploring a macrocosmic parental viewpoint.  Let me say though that I am not condemning the desire to hit but rather the actual act itself.  We all want to hit someone at one point or another but, in most situations, we're able to hold ourselves in check and recognize that it's never the best course of action...but for some people, not when it pertains to their kids.  Think about it: you're a teacher and you have a kid who refuses to stop talking, who won't sit in his or her seat, or who is verbally abusing you.  As an educator you absolutely cannot place your hands on that child.  Good teachers will find a way to get the kid out of the room but great teachers will find a way to keep him or her there and to deal constructively with the situation.

Now, for those of you who advocate this parental approach, I'd like to ask that you humor me for a moment and genuinely consider the things that I'm about to say.  How would you react to being hit at your place of employment for misbehaving?  You forget to refill the copier with paper or perhaps you botch a presentation.  What would you think about having your pants pulled down and your ass pummelled by a belt?  My guess is that you wouldn't like it very much.  Would you avoid that behavior in the future?  I'd think so.  But wouldn't you also harbor resentment for your boss or whoever administered the punishment?  Wouldn't it make you seethe and wish that you could hit them back?  And what would you really have learned from the experience?  Not much, more than likely.

How about all of you pet lovers out there?  What would you do if you saw someone beating a cat or a dog for not complying?  It's sad but I think that the truth is that some of you would be more perturbed by witnessing that than watching a child get spanked in public!

Hitting children falls wholeheartedly under the "just because you can doesn't mean you should" umbrella for me.  It's not even the last resort because, frankly, it shouldn't be a resort at all.  There is always a better way of handling a given situation with a child and just because YOU haven't found it yet doesn't mean that it isn't there.  What it does mean is that you have to look harder--you have to expend more effort at rolling with the mercurial nature of parent/child interactions and figuring out what will a) teach the child constructively what not to do and, more importantly, why they shouldn't be doing it and b) help to bolster their self-confidence, self-esteem, sense of independence, notion of accountability, and overall well-being.  Hitting children serves to do the exact opposite of all of the latter-listed things.

Remember: if there's a small stone in your way you can figure out a non-destructive way to move it or you can drop an h-bomb and obliterate it.  Either way, the rock is gone but the lasting impact of your course of action will differ greatly.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Why I'm Raising My Kids Without Religion

There are many events that parents look forward to experiencing with their children: first words, first steps, first bike rides.  Most of these are moments that will ultimately mean more to the parent (after all--who among us remembers taking our first steps or uttering our first words?) but the indelible imprint of that experience will forever alter the life of the child.  As children age, the nature of these moments alters, growing ever more complex and critical, requiring greater amounts of effort and consideration on the part of the parent to ensure that proper preparation and direction are being administered; these are moments of burden and responsibility more so than they are ones filled with unending pleasure and joy.  Some of these are well-documented--a part of our collective pop culture conscience--with "the sex talk" standing as exemplar.  Others though are discussed to a far lesser degree despite the fact that their impacts are longer-lasting and farther-reaching (besides--by the time the sex talk comes around, most kids are already well aware of what it means to bump uglies having learned from their friends and classmates).

I have been ruminating on one in particular for quite some time and am only now understanding my position and plotting my future course of action:

Who is God?

It seems like an innocuous, straightforward-enough question but when I began thinking about it, I realized that my answer was nebulous at best.  I mean, I want to give my kids the best possible answer--one that resonates loudly and clearly within the innermost chambers of my being; then again, who doesn't?  As a lifelong Catholic, it would seem pretty cut and dry that I would just give the company line and be done with it.

Then a funny thing happened: I realized that, in good conscience, I just couldn't do it.  Suddenly (or perhaps not so), my notion of "The Lord" seemed unutterably altered, as if the infallible being that I had been groomed to worship appeared to be anything but.  I realized that I didn't even know how I truly pictured God.  I mean, the first thing that came to mind was the antediluvian besandaled giant rocking the flowing white robe and grey beard...but that's just not going to cut it.  Then again, there's always Jesus--a fairly clear-cut image (what is it with Christianity and white guys with beards?  Old Testament God, Moses, Job, Jesus--the list keeps on going!).  In a way, Jesus represents the simplest solution and the easy way out.  I could go into any Catholic church and point him out.  I could say, "See that?  That's God." and if my kid(s) asked me "Well what makes him God?" I could go into the whole "God is love" diatribe or explain the holy trinity...

...except that I couldn't.  And, more importantly, I won't.

I've had an evolving relationship with religion (ironic, no?) since I made my First Communion many moons ago.  Every Wednesday, I would leave my public school early to head over to the local Catholic school for "religious instruction."  The year that I made my First Communion, however, the curriculum had changed a bit.  Suddenly, for some unknown reason, we were doing math and reading in the classroom and very little study and discussion about our faith.  Perhaps this is telling in its own right but what bothered me wasn't the fact that we weren't delving into the spiritual realm but rather that I was being consigned to an additional thirty minutes of schoolwork that I wouldn't have had to do if I wasn't going to CCD.  In other words, instead of getting out of school around 3 and heading home to do my homework and play, I was going to a different school and staying there for almost an additional hour to do math and reading work that was wholly unnecessary.

After making my communion, I asked my parents if I could stop going to CCD based upon the aforementioned grounds.  Though my Dad was initially against the whole scenario, he eventually conceded since I could always choose to make my confirmation as an adult.  Now, at this time, I was still attending church albeit irregularly.  While I cannot recall the specific frequency with which I went, I can remember quite vividly Father Schmidt.  Of all the priests, Father Schmidt was by far the most popular among the masses.  The congregation was thrilled when he would be presiding over the mass but it wasn't because of his inspirational sermons or his inimitable piety.  No--the allure held by Father Schmidt was the fact that he would usually finish mass in something like a half an hour to forty-five minutes depending upon the service in question.  You know--a quick, "get in and get out" drive thru church service in a sense.  Unsurprising when I reflect upon that time and realize now in hindsight that, for many, it was more about simply being seen and counted among the masses rather than achieving a level of spiritual enlightenment.  Indeed, for many, attending church was a stultifying endeavor that repeated ad nauseum simply because it was a part of the routine.

The penultimate experience that served to shape my relationship with religion occurred when I worked at the local deli in high school.  It sickened me to see the slithering underbelly of my neighborhood rear its ugly head on Saturday nights.  I would see people of all ages--tweens to adults--heading towards or coming from any number of hedonistic fêtes, engaging in bacchanalian revelry as if the night itself were on fire.  We would all but sell out of Visine before closing time as paranoid (or perhaps overly-cautious) burn outs wished to hide the evidence of their pleasures from parents and loved ones.  I would watch people head off into "the weeds" for some carnal antics or, more likely during the warmer months, to hit up some jungle juice at a keg party.

These behaviors in and of themselves aren't necessarily worth condemnation (after all--none of them were technically hurting anyone else).  What drew my ire however was the actions that were taken the following morning and later in the week.  Over time, I grew disgusted with the hypocrisy that I perceived.  I'd see girls that only hours earlier had gotten down on their knees in the dirt and darkness to give blowjobs to a gaggle of miscreants (either simultaneously or on a delay, it didn't really matter) getting down on their knees once more, only this time in acts of supplication instead of sucking.  I'd see men who were notorious drunks--wife abusers and children beaters--swaying gently to the hymns amid their battered kin.  The best though didn't occur until Monday morning when I'd be on the bus heading to school.  That was when I got to see all of the self-crossing, ring-kissing as we passed in front of the church--the same fingers that engaged in unspeakable filth and self-destruction barely a day and a half earlier.

It was at that point that I stopped going to church.  I got nothing out of attending mass and chose instead to focus upon developing my own personal relationship with what I thought of as God.  I began praying more and found myself opening up spiritually in ways that had theretofore seemed impossible.  I continued along this path between 1999 and 2006 when I embarked upon the journey towards marriage with my then-fiancee, Heather.  As part of the deal with getting married in the Catholic church (something that we both wanted), at least one of us had to have met all of our sacramental requirements.  Since I had only one more to go, I decided to enroll in the R.C.I.A. back home in Brooklyn while my future wife did the same in Staten Island.  In a show of support, I decided to attend Heather's classes with her; it proved to be a wonderful decision on my part.  For one, it afforded me the opportunity to get to know better the priest who would be marrying us.  For another, it supplemented the streamlined experience that I was having in Brooklyn.  Don't get me wrong--I was thrilled not to have to do much of anything to complete my course back home but at the same time I felt like I was missing out on something--something that I ultimately found with our pastor in Staten Island.

With all of that said, I did receive one critical experience--indeed the ultimate moment that has led me to where I am today in my relationship with religion.  I stayed behind after my first night of R.C.I.A. to speak with the Monsignor who happened to be around.  As a kid, priests were men to be feared and respected--a position that had been only amplified when my father was a boy.  To my surprise, the Monsignor was a normal man who was incredibly generous with his time.  I had absolutely no intention of engaging him in the conversation that ensued and yet, there I was, spilling out everything that I just laid out to all of you about my anger at the hypocrisy I saw.  To my even greater surprise, the Monsignor smiled and welcomed what I thought of as negativity.  He assured me that my inquiries were inspiring because it showed that I was thinking and, more importantly, that I was questioning.

If there's an overarching theme to everything that I've written and have yet to write, it's that: questioning.

See, over the past seven years, I've done a lot of questioning, a lot of thinking, and a lot of observing.  The conclusion that I've come to, naturally, is purely my own; I can speak to no other man or woman's own beliefs nor would I deign to judge the validity of a chosen faith.  Still, I've come to find that I care very little for organized religion--in truth, I almost abhor it for reasons that shall be elucidated shortly--but that I remain powerfully vested in the idea of God.  Through my collective experience, I've come to realize that God and religion are not inexorably, inextricably linked.  In fact, I'd go so far as to say that, in most cases as it pertains to the major organized religions, the notion of God has very little to do with the supposed faith inherent in their belief systems.

The problem with religions is that, by their very nature, they are at once contradictory and exclusionary in their compositions.  I can already here the appalled ejaculations of the righteous (mostly Christian).  "How can you say that!?  God is love!  God is acceptance!"

Yeah--if you fit the bill, that is.

To me, the major religions are nothing more than popularity contests that have everything invested in proving that their purview is the "right" one.  People today--Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike--scoff at the polytheistic and anthropomorphic religious perspectives of yore.  They laugh and roll their eyes at the lunacy that they perceive in ancient Greeks and Egyptians ascribing deities to any number of roles from Apollo dragging the sun across the sky to Anubis escorting the dead to the afterlife.  After all, how antiquated and ridiculous is the idea of the Greek gods and goddesses residing on Mt. Olympus or the Native American beliefs in Nature as a living, breathing entity who exerts her influence through the various flora and fauna--hell, through the very earth itself?  These folks fail to recognize the fact that, at time when said religious views were contemporaneous with the people believing in them, they seemed perfectly normal.  For the past few thousands of years, monotheism has ruled in various incarnations with nothing truly challenging it outside of various sects of paganism, most if not all of witch (ha!) are viewed as being "on the fringe."  This, again, despite the fact that, less than a thousand years ago, places in the United Kingdom were filled with those very same views along with druidism and other similar religions.

Just to get it all straight: those religious views are ridiculous but yours make perfect sense, right?

That very point speaks to the exclusionary natures of these main religions.  Islam offers perhaps the strictest lines of demarcation between "us" and "them" though Judaism and Christianity aren't far behind.  The thing with Muslims and Jews though is that they are, by and large, markedly insular in terms of their membership.  Essentially, they're not as blatant or over-the-top as Christians are when it comes to recruiting folks to their team whether it be through missionary work or simple pandering and proselytizing on the street.  Still, each religion clings fervently to the notion that its way is "the" way and that other ways are wrong, misguided, or perhaps even dangerous.  The concept of otherness is powerful in all three religions to varying degrees further dividing the playing field.  Though Christians are easily the most bigoted and most free with their prejudices, the other religions aren't above reproach.  Here's a quotation from a recent article featured in a Jewish periodical:

"A top rabbinic dean of Yeshiva University has warned rabbis about the dangers of reporting child sex abuse allegations to the police because it could result in a Jew being jailed with a black inmate, or as he put it, “a shvartze,” who might want to kill him.

Read more:

Christians however are hands-down the most exclusionary group of folks out there with Catholics leading the charge of the proverbial self-righteous brigade.  Naturally, there is a substantial amount of hypocrisy interlaced with the belief system that certain types of people are "bad."  I recently witnessed a pathetic number of grandiose, religious-oriented Facebook statuses about marriage being "between a man and a woman" or similar diatribes essentially saying that gay couples shouldn't be allowed to get married.  Many of the people proffering this misguided, misanthropic tripe have friends and relatives who are gay and about whom they would likely say, "Well I don't mean that so and so shouldn't be allowed--just the others!"  If you'll allow me a brief indulgence, I'd like to point out that marriage is first a civil union--something that exists in the social and legal senses beyond the realm of religion.  By its very nature, it's meant to promote social stability and procreation within a society whilst offering a slew of legal benefits (with joint tax filing being perhaps the most obvious of the bunch).  As such, the Catholic church should have ZERO influence over the law because of the supposed separation of, lo and behold, church and state.  The Church is well within its rights to refuse to provide the ceremony of marriage to folks that don't meet their stringent criteria for acceptable human beings (child fuckers clearly need not apply) but it should have absolutely no power to prevent people from enjoying their civil right as living, breathing human beings.  Here's a sample of the definition offered for marriage on  Note that the most common/important usage of the word is defined first, moving along with a sliding scale of relevancy (note also what's listed first):

1.a.the social institution under which a man and woman establish their decision to live as husband and wife by legal commitments, religious ceremonies, etc. separation.
  b.a similar institution involving partners of the same gender: gay marriage. separation.

the state, condition, or relationship of being married; wedlock: a happy marriage. matrimony. single life, bachelorhood, spinsterhood, singleness; separation.
3. the legal or religious ceremony that formalizes the decision of two people to live as a married couple, including the accompanying social festivities: to officiate at a marriage. nuptials, marriage ceremony, wedding. divorce, annulment.

You've gotta love the dichotomies though that exist within the Catholic realm.  Things like:

"Gays are sinners! / I have gay friends!"

"Pederasty is one of the most egregious sins there is! / Hey...d'you hear 'bout that priest!?"

"It's wrong to engage in sex outside of marriage / WHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!"

Contradiction seems to be one of the fundamental building blocks of Christianity though.  Aside from the well-documented mixed messages lampooned above, there are plenty of salient bits of evidence that speak to this as well--things that many Catholics fail to spend any time thinking about.  There's no better piece of conjecture than Biblical God.  You've got fire and brimstone, violence-fetish Old Testament God and then you've got hippy dippy peace and love Jesus God of the New Testament.  Same deity, mind you, just packaged in a more marketable way.  I'm too tired to delve into the nature of these two very different beings and so will sum up the argument succinctly: each served his purpose based upon the times and locales of the original authors.  Earlier times called for more fear-mongering and, when that eventually proved ineffective, a kinder, gentler god was brought into the mix.  This was supplanted once more by the threat of eternal damnation until the perfect blend of religion and capitalism was born in the Middle Ages in the form of indulgences.  Since then, it's been a focus on guilt more than on anything else. 

George Carlin famously condensed the Ten Commandments and Corey Taylor offered a revised list of the Seven Deadly Sins but I'd argue that there are only two sacraments that are essential to Catholicism: guilt and sin.  You can't have one without the other but the former certainly fuels the latter.  You can't masturbate because it's a sin--can't drink to excess either.  You put your soul at risk of eternal perdition by so doing though, naturally, you can alleviate this sin simply by telling it to a priest and performing the perfunctory penalty ascribed to your particular case thereby assuaging your guilt and balancing the moral scales.  God keeps track of every teensy tiny minor infraction (called venial sins) just as carefully as he does the major no-no's (mortal sins) but you probably won't go to hell for the former, just purgatory--a place from which you can escape only through the concerted efforts of those you've left behind--the prayers of those yet to join you in your unending limbo until you can magically break free and enter a realm beyond space and time with billowing white clouds, golden harps and gates, and where your greatest wishes and dreams will come true and where you will be whatever age you want to be because that's just how it will be.

But no, really, how about those poor, misguided "Ancients"?  AMIRIGHT!?

Most Catholics who would be rankled by this lengthy, lugubrious attack on religion will rely on their tried-and-true fall-back: faith.  "Well a TRUE believer doesn't NEED anything proven.  Their faith is strong enough to carry them through."

::Slow claps::

funny gifs

The problems with this line of thinking are legion but what pisses me off the most is the sheer petulance of it; it's almost like you're dealing with a child who claims that the sky is green but who refuses to lift his head to take a look.  Most of the flock are just that: sheep who move through their lives without question.  They take what they're given at face value without so much as questioning an iota of it.  Abortion is evil?  Got it.  Hate gays?  Youuuuu betcha.  God--if only I were able to amass a Midas-like fortune.  I would give ten billion dollars to the Catholic church under the single condition that it alter its stance forevermore on any one of those hot button issues.  With its insatiable appetite for money, I'm convinced that they would take the deal but at the same time, I'm sure that the greater issue at hand would be missed by the masses.  After all, they just do as they're told.

Now, it might sound like I'm an atheist or an agnostic but I'm neither.  To reiterate an earlier point, I believe firmly (emphasized not just in italics but in bold too so you REALLY know I mean it!) in the idea of God.  Truthfully, I don't see how anyone couldn't see the logic in a creator.  After all, the idea of God is where science and religion coalesce--the singularity from which both sprung forth.  Science can offer theories about how everything came to be and religion has its stories but, ultimately, no one can really know for sure.  Me?  I wouldn't be surprised if the universe itself was actually God...but that's a story for another entry.

No, no--my problem is with groups--any group, really.  The Christians piss me off because they're constantly vying for your vote, trying to get you to see things their way (the "right" way, right?).  Atheists and satanists piss me off almost as much because they're just as bad as the Christians with how vociferously they defend their positions BUT how many of them hold their perspectives BECAUSE of proselytizing Christians?  They get a pass to some degree on those grounds but it's grating to observe their antithetical ranting and raving either on billboards or elsewhere.  The other ones bother me simply because their makeup excludes non-believers and condemns them in various ways and to multiple degrees.

Don't get me wrong--I'm not standing here upon my soapbox attempting to lambast the various religions by accusing them of being purely evil, malicious entities when in fact they are anything but.  The Jewish and Muslim communities show amazing resolve in the face of tragedy, rallying around their own in times of need.  I need look no further than up the block to see evidence of the good that the Catholic Church can do given the outpouring of unerring support that they offered to residents of Union Beach and surrounding areas in the days, weeks, and months following Hurricane Sandy.  Of course, that same church could probably do a lot more given the insane amount of money it holds but that doesn't and shouldn't take away from the acts of mercy and good deeds that are performed in light of terrible circumstances.

Then again, historically speaking, Slayer does have a point in their song Cult when they say:

Religion is hate
Religion is fear
Religion is war

I mean, how much needless bloodshed has occurred over the past few millennia in the name of one god or another?  How much hate has been fostered by those who profess to love?  Hate for supposed brothers and sisters who have the audacity to believe in something different?  Fear keeps people in line and organized religion is all about control.  Get people to fear for their afterlives and they're sure as shit going to start behaving (conforming) to a greater degree.  For every ounce of love there's an equal serving of hatred; for every gram of comfort there is a balancing quantity of fear.  This supposed renaissance in the Catholic realm--the one that's resulted in a "kinder, gentler Church" is simply the men at the top (because women are worthless in any religion, can I get an aMEN?) recognizing the coming Götterdämmerung of their beloved institution and, like any sentient organism, it is struggling to adapt to ensure its survival.  With parishes recording ever-decreasing attendance and new generations losing the ability to maintain attention spans of any considerable duration, the Church has recognized that the last thing it needs is to push people away.  Rare is the sermon in which you'll hear about eternal damnation and the fiery pits of the underworld.  Instead, it's all raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens.  And why not?  In our modern Sodom and Gomorrah, if people don't like what they hear, they simply turn it off.  Since there's no mute button for the Church, they'll opt instead to stop attending.  No attendance means no parishioners and no parishioners means empty coffers and empty coffers means...

Did I mention that this is a real thing?

Did Satan put dinosaur bones here to turn us away from God? 

For years I wrestled with the idea that I would raise my kids Catholic because they needed a foundation--something to build off of in a spiritual sense.  I've had both of my children baptized but it was only recently that I forced myself to think about why I did it.  Was it for the preservation of their immortal souls?  Embarrassingly enough, it wasn't.  If I'm to be brutally honest, it was a matter of tradition.  Everyone in my family (or damn near everyone) is Catholic with some degree of Irish heritage (for those of you that don't know, the Irish and Catholicism go hand-in-hand).  We were all baptized and, at one point or another, just about all of us made our sacraments (I'm probably the last one to have done it because I think everyone else made their confirmations when they were kids).  It seemed strange to me not to have Timmy and Sarah baptized and at the same time, I knew that it would be perceived as unusual, even offensive if we hadn't.  Still, in my heart of hearts, it really doesn't make a difference to me if their Catholicism ends there or if it's something that they pursue on their own.  I guess I wanted merely to set them down some sort of path--sign them up for a team with an opt-out clause in the contract.

And thus the point.  I've decided that what my kids need is exposure.  It's my job as a parent not to inculcate my own views upon my children--to shove repressive religious perspectives down their throats--but rather to take a more liberal stance.  I'll lead them to the table, explain to them what the meal is all about, and do my best to point out the different dishes available to them.  What matters to me isn't that they decide upon what I or anyone else want(s) for them but rather that they follow their own hearts and discover their own personal truths.  I think it's important to have faith in something and I find that prayer (not in the strictly Christian sense) is incredibly rewarding but also immensely personal.  It's something that I came to on my own and something that I keep to myself, so it's not something I would force upon them per se--it's just another aspect of a spiritual existence that they could choose to embrace or to overlook.  Whether they become Christians, Buddhists, Taoists, ascetics, agnostics, or simply a-religious people is of no importance to me.  If they ask me how I feel about religion, I'll be perfectly honest with them but I will also stress that those are my views and that they should only serve to influence their own perspectives rather than replace them.  Even if I love the song by Slayer, I don't believe wholeheartedly in the lyrics and would even argue against some of the key tenets that drive the band's religious beliefs.  Essentially, that song, just like everything else that has influenced my understanding of myself, religion, God, and the universe, is merely another piece to the puzzle.  To act as if any single component is in and of itself the totality of my perspective would be both foolish and disingenuous; to consign myself to any single religious group would be the greatest hypocrisy because it would mean that I would be giving my inherent, unadulterated endorsement that that is the one true way--something that none of us can possibly know.

From the earliest days when man and woman first gazed at the great expanse above them and wondered just where they were and how in the hell they got there to our modern era where God comes in the form of technology, religion has proven to be only an ancillary, even virulent aspect of our quest for spiritual understanding.  Far too many people are content simply to go with the flow, not bothering even for a single moment to question the validity of their beliefs; I hope to hell that I instill an innate, insatiable curiosity in my children and that, while so many of those around them march like lemmings with their eyes pinned to the hooves of the sheep in front of them, they will choose instead to lift their heads and to ask, to inspect, and to seek the truth for themselves.

"We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars." --Oscar Wilde