Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Reading and Writing

My biography as a published writer doesn't fill up more than a sentence. A speed reader could blink and miss it. A few of my poems were published in local and school newspapers and I won first place in a college poetry contest. There it is, the total output of a literary underachiever. I began writing what I called poems in advanced composition class in high school, although there was nothing advanced about them; they were short goofy poems that rhymed until I learned that rhyming was for greeting cards and country western songs and not to be used if you wanted to be taken seriously by real poets. Also, I learned at least some of the basic differences between prose and poetry, so I threw in more esoteric symbols and metaphors to elicit the appropriate emotional response. From the mundane to the arcane (forgive the rhyme). It was during my college years that the poems were published and the contest won. After the award, I wondered if it meant that I was then a real poet like Coleridge and T.S. Elliot.
Seconds ticked by until the answer became clear; that I was to Coleridge like Spiro Agnew was to Abraham Lincoln. Looking back on it now, how my poems were judged by the English Dept. as superior to the dozens of other entries, without the advantage of making a surreptitious cash donation to the department is a mystery to me. I never wrote another poem. Prose is what I wanted to write: plays, short stories, novels, jingles for McDonald's commercials, anything and everything. Instead, I wrote nothing. After college I applied for a job writing commercials for a radio station. The application required that I write two sample commercials for a mini-mart grocery store. I thought I did well considering the uninspiring subject matter but I didn't get the job. Someone told me later that the boss was a lesbian and I thought it better to accept that as the reason for not being hired than to doubt my ability to create clever syntax.
After college, the demands of the real world chewed up chunks of my time that could have been spent writing, like work, romantic relationships, television and recreational drugs. When I was approached by my first pot dealer I asked him if it would help me write better poetry. He said yes, the lying bastard. Questions I've asked myself through the years but have never been able to answer to my satisfaction are: what should I write about and why write at all? It's always been understood that I would write for others to read, so writing for my own approval was not enough. In fact, in the process of examining my possible motives for wanting to become a writer,
it became clear that fame and fortune were the compelling stimuli, NOT a burning need to express the angst in my tortured soul. What angst? What soul? I didn't believe I possessed knowledge or wisdom that few others had, nor believed my opinions were absolute truths for others to live by, so nothing was written. Early on, I rejected the notion of writing to entertain. People were entertained by beer commercials and Larry the Cable Guy and I didn't want my writing in that category. Seeking knowledge of ourselves and the world around us and how we might improve each has been replaced with seeking vacuous entertainment to "escape" from using our brains. For the last twenty or so years, I have not read fiction. I don't want to read fantasy, myth or stories BASED on actual events; I want to read about the actual events without the embellishment of imagination. I don't read to escape from the unpleasant realities of Man's behavior, but rather, to become MORE aware of the full range of human capabilities, from the malevolent to the magnanimous. I don't remember if the words were spoken by a college instructor in comp class or I read it somewhere, but the words, "write about what you know" have stuck with me all these years. Several months ago, I began writing again. Just prior to that, I began corresponding with my thirty year-old niece, the daughter of my sister who died of brain cancer not long before. My niece and I never got to know each other beyond information gleaned from small talk at sporadic family reunions, so we agreed that it was time we did. Since I have a great deal more leisure time at present than she does, I began the process by emailing her bits of autobiographical recollections from my first memory to my most recent. It is, as per my standards, as authentic as my memory will allow. Since she wants to know the real me, adding fictional details and hyperbole to enhance her opinion of me or as an attempt to make reading about my life seem more worthy of her attention, would be disingenuous and a violation of trust.
Of course, that means that I am revealing information of a personal nature, closet skeletons if you will, with no wart left unmentioned. There is risk, but the satisfaction gained from trying to live an authentic life is no small consolation.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Hitler and Ghandi Together in the Afterlife

In a previous blog, I wrote about the moment I KNEW to my complete satisfaction, that there was no physical or spiritual existence after death. With no omnipotent absolute moral authority dispensing rewards or punishments, all of us share the same after death fate. Hitler and Gandhi have been reduced to the exact same state of nothingness. There is no "Hall of Fame" or "Hall of Shame" after death, no eternal reward for good deeds, no penalty for cruel ones. Does that mean we can steal, maim and murder without Cosmic retribution or Karmic justice? You bet it does. Fortunately, the laws of Man prevent most of us from engaging in these activities. Empathy exists in most of us, independent of a belief in a higher power, and helps keep us from violating the rights of others. Am I happy that there is no chance of a pleasant state of being after I die? A few years after my revelation, I experienced what I later identified as a panic attack, a powerful surge of anxiety and feeling of doom at a time when I was contemplating death. I wasn't thinking in the abstract or superficially. I faced the terrifying, overwhelming realization of my inevitable non-existence head on and my nervous sysytem went haywire. My heart raced for hours, my thoughts controlled by the ultimate fear. My father took me to the hospital emergency room where they hooked me up to the machines. It was not a heart attack I was told and the staff didn't identify it as a panic attack but my own research later left no doubt. Even now, as I write this, I know that if I think too deeply about my own personal death, it could happen again. I WISH heaven was a real place, a place we could go after our physical death for a stress-free existence, retaining our self-identity, and mingling with family and friends. But pretending it exists won't work for me no matter how much pain the truth inflicts...

Saturday, October 31, 2009

God, Man and Blue-Green Algae

Science, not religion, had become my teacher. The Universe took billions of years to create our planet as we know it today NOT Monday through Saturday with a rest on Sunday. Complex life took hundreds of millions of years to evolve from simpler life forms, from primordial single cells to blue-green algae to fish to amphibians to dinosaurs to mammals. Man, with the most complex brain of all, evolved by the same mechanisms as everything else, just another species going forward. To the Universe, we are no more significant than that blue-green algae. That all men and women are descendents not from lower primates but from Adam & Eve, was the Christian explanation before Science had a clue. To believe, at this time in history, that all life began simultaneously and in essentially the same forms that exist today and that the incestuous relationship of Adam & Eve's offspring produced the common ancestry of us all defies common sense and the scientific evidence.
I discussed this issue with a Presbyterian minister recently and he admitted to me (I'm sure not to his parishioners) that he didn't believe in the biblical explanation of creation and instead believed that evolution was God's method of populating the planet. We were interrupted at that moment and unable to continue the exchange so I didn't get to challenge him on that but let's examine his opinion. It's an opinion I've encountered before from those who were educated enough not to try to deny the overwhelming evidence of the fossil record which supports evolutionary theory yet still believed the world was created by a supreme being. If God chose evolution more or less as we know it, he must have been content with just algae for a million years or so, then amoebas for a million more and so on at this inexplicably languid pace until FINALLY, he allows Man to make an appearance. Gee, could we really be that important after such a long wait? As Man evolved, differentiating himself from the lower primates, from ape-like to Neanderthals to Modern Man, God put no demands on him in terms of loyalty or servitude, no threats or warnings about needing to believe in Him or risk third-degree burns in Hell. No, that would come much later in history when presumably, Man's brain was sufficiently advanced to understand the concept with the ability to make an informed decision as to which Master to follow. If he chose God and lived by His commandments then he might enjoy everlasting life in heaven after death, although an exact description of the place and how it all works has never been revealed. But, if he chose the Devil as his Master, he would spend eternity with Mr. D in a state of perpetual combustion. The stark absurdity and utter unbelievability of the biblical explanation of the beginning of life and its system of reward or punishment should be blatantly obvious to anyone who has ever stepped foot outside a church.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Born Again

It was an epiphany. After three and a half decades of seeking the answer, it suddenly became known. I admit that I had been leaning heavily in that direction for a long time, virtually convinced and yet, could never proclaim it with absolute assurance. After that day I could. I don't remember what stimulus triggered the revelation that day, I only remember that one minute, like the millions of minutes that went before, I didn't know the answer and the next minute I did. I KNEW at that moment to my complete satisfaction, that there is no God; no Christian God, no Buddhist God, no Hindu God, no Greek or Roman God(s), no heaven, no hell, no absolute moral authority, no supernatural giver of reward and punishment, no spirits, no ghosts, no reincarnation, no Karma, no life after death.
Did my life change from that moment forward? Not in any obvious ways at first. There were no profound changes in my daily routine, or how I interacted with the rest of the world. I didn't shout it from the rooftops, figuratively speaking, like so many evangelicals do when struck by the opposite answer. But after so many years of searching for the answer, from that moment on, I've been able to live my life according to how I truly believe the way things are. And that is precisely why this quest began so many years ago...

Thursday, October 29, 2009