Category Archive: Social

Jan 08

The Great Snake Oil Sermon

Snake Oil SermonYesterday, we had a service for my brother Eric “Randy” Shultz, who died on 21 December 2016 at the age of 59. We did it at his conservative Baptist church. And I thought it was perfect — for Eric. It actually annoyed me a great deal. But before I get to the Snake Oil aspect of the whole thing, let me tell you something a bit more personal about the Good Christians™ who spoke at the service.

They all made a point of telling this story about how Eric had told them on first meeting them, “My friends call me Randy, you can call me Eric.” And then after they got to know him, they could call him Randy. But here’s the thing: that wasn’t really true. Everyone really crying at the service called him Eric. Whether you called him Eric or Randy depended on when you met him.

Eric vs Randy

When the first person brought up this “his true friends and family called him Randy” nonsense, it caused a slight stir in the church because his caregiver (and really, effectively his mother the last decade of his life), my younger sister, and I had already spoken with great emotion while referring to him as Eric. I got the impression that the man who first said it realized that he had blown it. But then two other people told the same story. Not one of these pretenders showed a hint of any emotion.

I am very often struck at just how callous Christians are. They’ve found their entry into heaven so they don’t really have to give much of a damn about other people. Oh, they’re nice enough. When I talk to them, they treat me the same way I would a terrorist at the birthday party of their child. There’s really only one way that they “care” about others and that is to get them to buy into the bankrupt spirituality of easy redemption. And need I remind everyone that this would been seen as sacrilegious by the early Christians who didn’t actually believe in the “one weird trick” to get into heaven.

The Sermon

And that leads us to the sermon that the pastor gave. By the standards of these things, it wasn’t that bad. For one thing, it was only about 20 minutes long. And there was a fair amount about Eric in it. But all the Bible quotes were from the Book of Revelation. I’m not fond of that book. You will note when I wrote about my brother, I culled from Matthew — about the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the gentle, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Those are the things that sum up Eric. So why Revelation?

Well, part of it is the whole “salvation on the cheap” that I so hate about most modern Christianity: Eric is with God, just as Hitler is now if he let Christ into his soul in that bunker. But mostly, it was all a big sales pitch. Pastors know that most people who go to funeral and wedding[1] ceremonies are not Christians, so it’s a great opportunity to make the sales pitch. “Today I’m offering you such a deal: just “believe” and Tinker Bell will give you everlasting life!”

I don’t need to be sold on the concept that Eric is a better place. His life was painful. Death is the absence of pain except in the minds of evil theists who think that not “believing” means you will be tortured for eternity. And I don’t like the fact that Christians use these mournful occasions as sales opportunities. I especially don’t like it when I know that I’m expected to make a pretty sizable donation.

As the sermon went on, I kept adjusting the amount of money I was going to give. But in the end, I gave the amount I had decided to give at the beginning. That’s because it was a sermon and service that Eric would have liked. And ultimately, it wasn’t about me. But I couldn’t wait to get out of there. I should have been medicated.

Afterword: Ignorant People

At one point during the sermon, the pastor said, “Most people think that AD stands for ‘After Death,’ but it actually stands for…” And my younger sister and I said, in unison, “Anno Domini.” That is Latin for “year of our lord.” And after the service I heard some people talking about how interesting that was. It boggles my mind. Even at 8 years old (when I independently came up with the “After Death” idea), I understood that it would leave about 30 years that are in this no man’s that no one ever talked about. No one ever said, “Oh, that happened in 12 DL.”

Am I a sinner? Sure. But I’d rather be an arrogant bastard than a simpering idiot.

[1] As Rick says, “Weddings are funerals with cake.”

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Jan 07

Eulogy for Eric Shultz

Eric as a Child With Family

[My brother’s memorial will be happening as this is published. I will read this at it — if I am able to. I have yet to be able to read much of any of it without breaking into convulsive sobbing. -FM]

I am not a Christian.

Having said that, I read the Bible an awful lot. I like the teachings of Jesus — in his calm reflections and in his fiery rhetoric. I would pick up a sword for him, because his cause was just. His cause was that of my brother Eric, who is, I think, a symbol for us all.

Please forgive me for quoting a bit of scripture from may favorite part of the Bible: The Sermon on the Mount. Even in translation, its poetry is unmistakably brilliant. But it is the content that I want to focus on. (This is from the New American Standard translation, which my seminary friends tell me is about as close to the Greek as one can find.)

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.

He opened his mouth and began to teach them, saying,

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

“Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied…”

It’s hard to know where to stop. I would like to continue on to, “You are the salt of the Earth” and then, “You are the light of the world.” And I could get very political as Jesus does later in Matthew 5 and throughout Matthew 6. But I’m not here to complain that it is the evil world that killed my brother with a thousand cuts.

Eric was the gentle. That, I always knew. But as I became reacquainted with him over the last several years, I saw that he was also poor of spirit, mournful, and starving and thirsting for righteousness.

Bonding With My Brother

We bonded over film, comic books, even sports. These were the few areas where he would still let me in. And it was with much pleasure that over the years — it was a slow process — that he allowed me more inside his inner world, which was rich.

We made a curious pair. Eric was extremely smart — as smart as I am but without the ostentatiousness, which is my shield as much as reserve was his.

This caused some annoyance on my part, although I look back on it now and see it as charming. We would go and see a movie together. And afterward, as we waited for the bus, I would ask, “So what did you think of that?” And his response was, “Good.” I would push it, “What did you think of the part where Iron Man has to fix a turbine and Captain American has to pull the red lever at just the right time?” “Good.”

But his whole approach to seeing a film was different than mine. When we sat down in the theater, I saw a film. Eric entered another universe. He became lost in the film — to the point where I often had to jab him to get him to stop talking to the characters. He was especially prone to scoffing at the hubris of evil characters. You know the kind of scene in a James Bond film where the villain explains his evil plan for world domination. Eric would mutter, “Yeah, right!”

Meanwhile, I was focused on the jump cuts, bad bits of dialog, poorly rendered CG, and theme — oh, how critical I am on that score. I was offended for all of Christendom by the film Man of Steel.

Eric’s Special World

But I envied Eric. He not only got lost in the films, he was also aware of all the technical aspects of the films. He was just far more forgiving. I know this because over the years, he had more to say. If he’d been given another five years, he might have turned into as big a blabbermouth as I am.

Indeed, our last conversation was the liveliest that we had ever had — just a few hours before he died. It was about how Jack Kirby was the true brilliance behind Marvel Comics and how Stan Lee was an evil hack. Okay, that’s my side of things. Eric was sympathetic to both men. But he was generally a nicer guy than I am.

I know that the gentle are blessed in a metaphorical sense. And I hope that they are blessed in a concrete sense. Eric deserves that.

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Jan 02

Teaching Don Octavio How to See Reality

Don Juan DeMarco and Don OctavioI haven’t seen a deed, but I assume this villa is yours… [Someone who says otherwise] has a rather limited and uncreative way of looking at the situation.

Look, you want to know if I understand that this is a mental hospital? Yes, I understand that. But then how can I say that you are Don Octavio, and I am a guest at your villa, correct? By seeing beyond what is visible to the eye.

Now, there are those, of course, who do not share my perceptions, it’s true. When I say all my women are dazzling beauties, they object. The nose of this one is too large. The hips of another, they are too wide, perhaps. The breasts of a third, they are too small. But I see these women for how they truly are: glorious, radiant, spectacular, and perfect — because I am not limited by my eyesight.

Women react to me the way that they do, Don Octavio, because they sense that I search out the beauty that lies within them until it overwhelms everything else. And then they cannot avoid their desire to release that beauty and envelop me in it.

So to answer your question: I see as clear as day that his great edifice in which we find ourselves is your villa. It is your home. And as for you, Don Octavio del Flores, you are a great lover like myself, even though you may have lost your way… and your accent.

–Don Juan
in Don Juan DeMarco

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Jan 01

The Joke of Existence: Happy New Year!

The Joke of Existence - The Nihilist by Paul Merwart

I generally think in terms of days. This is why I manage to make at least 365 foundational errors every year: each day I choose to continue on being conscious of the universe. But today, let’s consider this whole year that we look toward. Are we really all going to sit through the whole thing? I think it makes the question of continued survival more stark. Yes, I can make it through the next day. But the next year? Given that we know it will be much like last year, it’s hard to answer in the affirmative.

The Meaning of Life

Many people ask, “What is the meaning of life?” That’s a stupid question. Can you honestly look forward or back on your life and see any meaning in it? I don’t want to upset anyone who really hasn’t been paying attention, but life is meaningless.

For most people, I stand as an object lesson for never allowing a teenager to read Schopenhauer. So I’m on record — repeatedly — about my belief that the continuance of life — the will to live — is an irrational thing. But one needn’t be rational in all things. Indeed, I write more about the irrationality of humans than I do Schopenhauer. One of the easiest ways to annoy me is to tell me that humans are rational. They aren’t — even in little ways.

It’s because of this that I have a thin reed to hang onto as I continue into the future. Perhaps you will find it helpful.

You Make the Universe Worse

I have a great love of anti-art. This is the kind of art that is created only for the process itself. So an example of anti-art might be a digital music device programmed to destroy itself before playing any of the music it was programmed to play. It is art explicitly created for no one. And I am a work of art created for no one. (When you get into ontological matters, it gets hard to distinguish between the implicit and the explicit.) I like to learn things, gain skills, create stuff — all while knowing that they are all ephemeral.

An enormous amount of the universe’s energy has been used to fight entropy and create me. And then I exist for a period of time before giving into entropy. Ultimately, I will have taken very useful energy and turned it into heat, which is a decidedly poor energy source. The universe will be more chaotic after I’ve gone than it was before I existed. So the universe has greatly harmed itself for the purpose of creating a machine that understood for a short period of time that universe was doing this.

And that is hilarious!

More Than You Think

It’s even more hilarious when you consider that the vast majority of people on earth are too caught up in their delusions of meaning to even know the joke exists — much less to get it. And that’s to say nothing of billions of years of evolution of creatures that didn’t get the joke.[1] So why not hang around for another year?

Think of yourself as conscious toxic waste. Wouldn’t you want to hang around as long as possible soiling your environment? But if you don’t like that analogy, you can feel good that most of the damage that your existence has done to the universe has already been done. Maintaining your wasteful machine is pretty cheap. And depending upon how funny you think your existence is, maybe it’s a net positive.

Existence Is a Joke

We are all a joke. If more people understood that, maybe we would live in a more just society. Because when you know that existence is a joke, you also know that it has nothing to do with justice. Your existence is a waste of elementary particles. In this next year, thousands of children will be burned alive. And a trust-fund baby will get the biggest ego stroke on the planet by being the leader of the “free” world. Try not to think of that. Focus on what a waste you are in this universe. That might get you through to next year when I promise I’ll have a whole new reason for irrationally continuing on.

[1] Or maybe all these “lesser” brains did and do get the joke. Maybe this whole self-awareness thing makes the joke harder to get. Maybe when a female mantis is biting the head of her mate, she is laughing up a storm, thinking, “Can you believe this?!” The male might be thinking the same thing in its final milliseconds of consciousness. For the record, I suspect that no mantis, dog, or cat actually gets the joke. But they do have us beat in not thinking themselves rational. Biting the heads off your mate is just what you do.

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Jan 01

William Blake on Birth — For the New Year

William Blake - BirthThe Angel that presided ‘oer my birth
Said, “Little creature, formed of joy and mirth,
“Go love without the help of any thing on Earth.”

–William Blake
“The Angel That Presided ‘oer My Birth”

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Dec 31

Random Ramblings On Sports Fandom

SportsIt’s that magical time of year when Minnesota’s city park employees turn tennis courts and baseball diamonds into hockey rinks.

How do they perform this amazing transubstantiation? (H/T: Catholicism!) Well, there are several complicated steps. I shall endeavor to describe them as best I can.

  1. Remove tennis net or baseball bases. Put in storage.
  2. Get fire hose. Attach to fire hydrant.
  3. Spray court or field with water.
  4. Wait a day.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 as necessary.
  6. Get hockey goals out of storage. Place in park. Number of goals depends on size of park; however, number must be divisible by 2.
  7. Empty park trash cans weekly.

How to Make Friends Through Sports

I am from Oregon, originally. So I grew up playing baseball, basketball, and football. Hockey? Not so much.

When I was about to move here, I stopped at Powell’s Books, a wonderful store in Portland. I found a book titled “50 Ways To Make Friends In Your New City” (or something like that).

I am terrible at making friends (largely because I don’t trust humans, which is a prejudice, but not an unjustified one). So I picked up and read the book. In Powell’s, it’s completely acceptable to grab a book, sit at the cafe, have coffee, and read the whole book. Pay for your coffee. And put the book back where you found it. These are the rules.

The book had lots of advice I couldn’t use. “Join a local church.” That’s a fine notion for some, not really my speed. “Change your political views.” For example, if you’re moving to Houston, become a Republican; if you’re moving to Seattle, become a Democrat. Well, I’d rather join a church than switch my party loyalty. My cultural background is quite mixed: Québécois, Irish, English Catholic, and some Native American. All have different traditions. One thing they have in common: they don’t switch political sides. That’s a no-go.

But this was a piece of advice I liked, “Root for the home team.” Yes! I can do that! And I did.

Minnesota Sports Are Cool

I had many fun evenings cheering along with Minnesota sports fans, in stadiums and bars. The Twins were quite good for a long while, and rekindled my childhood love of baseball. The Timberwolves are never good, but it’s kind of a shared misery thing.

Even the Vikings were fun. At least they were until I heard one too many fans complaining about “Culpepper & Moss”: a quarterback and wide receiver “team.” Daunte Culpepper, the quarterback, had a crazy strong arm. Randy Moss, the receiver, had the eyes of a wary small mammal. They’d glower out from under his facemask. He had a bizarrely balletic mid-air grace.


Imagine a clever chipmunk watching two dogs snarl at each other over some piece of meat. As they pace around and bristle their fur, our chipmunk friend dashes in, grabs half the meat, and disappears up into its tree before the dogs know what hit ’em. The dogs, furious, bark like mad. Tough luck, guys! Dogs can’t climb trees!

This was Culpepper-to-Moss. It was, as one writer put it, the pro football equivalent of every kid’s favorite football play drawn up with sticks in dirt, “You go long, and I’ll hit you.” The skinny kid runs as fast as he can. The quarterback throws a bomb. The skinny kid jumps in the air, and, even if about to get tackled by three guys around him, he corrals the ball with one hand and cradles it to his body.

This happened almost every Vikings game! And it was fantastic! But Vikings fans started complaining about “Culpepper & Moss.” I didn’t get why, at first. Then I did: they were both black. Football fans are pretty damn racist. So I stopped watching football.

(The Vikings also gave me one of my favorite sports memories. Another receiver, Cris Carter, had a contact lens pop out. As Carter was one of the football’s most respected players, referees paused the game. For two full minutes, giant behemoths from both teams were crawling around, looking in the turf for a contact lens. This was a wonderful thing to watch.)

But Not Hockey

I’ve enjoyed the Minnesota Wild, too. Or enjoyed other people enjoying them. Because, honestly, I don’t “get” hockey.

Not that I don’t appreciate the sport! It’s full of skill, drama, tension. Players do amazing things while skating at high speeds — even while skating backwards!

(My favorite hockey players are the goalies. People are hurtling a harmful projectile at you. Your job is to go “No! I can’t be hurt! Stop, projectile, stop!” For similar reasons, my favorite baseball players are catchers.)

However, I don’t “get” hockey: for the same reason anyone “gets” anything, whether it be a religion or cuisine or whatever. I didn’t grow up playing hockey! If you fire-hose-spray a city park in Oregon, you have a muddy park. In Minnesota, in winter, you have a hockey rink. So everyone plays hockey. That’s one subject in the fine Pixar film, Inside Out, directed by Minnesotan Pete Docter.

I don’t ice skate, and never will. I’m not training for any hobby which includes, as a practice requirement, “falling down repeatedly.” Fallen on ice lately? It’s very hard. It kills people! No ice skating for me. So I’ll never “get” hockey. (Or sadly, curling, which is much more up my alley, but still requires ice skating.)

Other Ways To Enjoy Sports

I used to work helping take care of disabled adults, and there was one guy I’d bring to Twins games. The guy didn’t talk and didn’t sign ASL. It was virtually impossible to communicate with him. He’d allow you to help him with some things, resist other attempts to help, that’s pretty much all the feedback you’d get.

He’d agree to let you load his wheelchair in the van for a Twins game. I don’t know why. With people who don’t talk or sign, I’d still talked to them. My reasoning was that it doesn’t take any effort to do so, and I have no clue what they’re picking up on the other end. It may be pure syllabic gibberish. They might understand every word. Or something in between. If they want me to stop talking, they can push me away.

So we’d go to Twins games, and who knows if this guy actually liked baseball. But there was one thing he clearly liked. (Keep in mind, this guy had a grumpy expression 99% of the time.)

If the Twins scored — and the crowd went wild — this guy would crane his neck around, look at all the cheering people, and start laughing. Belly laughing. He didn’t make laugh sounds, because he didn’t make sounds, but his chest would heave and his mouth would smile and tears pour from the corners of his eyes.

I suspect, though I do not know, that he found sports fans hilariously ridiculous. As, indeed, we are.

Nothing At The End

Now’s when I’m supposed to wrap this all up and make it come together, right? Nope. That’s for real writers. I’m posting on a blog!

There’s a local minor-league baseball team, the St Paul Saints. Yes, uninspired name, but they have a long history of inspired promotional gimmicks. At one, Mascot Night, there was a mascot from a pre-employment screening clinic. The mascot was a pee cup. Cup-shaped, yellow on the lower half. This was one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever seen.

Some years, the Saints do Atheists Night. It has various skits in-between innings. One had two random fans racing around the foul territory, with obstacles to overcome. As they raced, the PA announcer described what symbolic meaning each obstacle represented. Such as, for a mudslide, “it’s the primordial ooze!”

When one was first to the finish line, our PA announcer said, “The winner gets…” and froze. For 15 seconds. Then intoned, “What?! Did you think there was a reward at the end? It’s an atheist race! There’s nothing at the end!”

Nothing at the end here either, I’m afraid. Enjoy sports if that brings you closer to others. Remember, they are a bit silly. (But most hobbies are. Nothing wrong with that!)

Skate in the park if you live in a frozen place — if your home is warmer, enjoy it being not so damned cold. And have the merriest New Year you can.

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Dec 24

Not a Society for Walking

No WalkingRain brings out the worst in drivers. It’s curious. You would think it would be otherwise. They are, after all, inside warm and dry cars. And the roads are slippery. So it is the time when drivers should slow down and take it easy. But they do just the opposite. They drive faster — more recklessly. A storm is the worst time to be walking around — because the drivers are so awful.

It isn’t a news flash that we live in a society designed for cars. But unless you spend a little time walking around, you will no see just how bad it is. Watching drivers as they often literally tap their fingers waiting for you to cross the street, you would get the impression that they are the ones being pelted with rain as they move down the road at three miles per hour. Really: I live roughly a half hour’s walk from the nearest store. It takes roughly two minutes to drive there. But most drivers are deeply annoyed that they can’t cut it down to a minute and a half.

Walking Near Construction

In downtown Santa Rosa, Court House Square is completely fenced off — apparently being remodeled or something. Today, I was doing some Christmas shopping and this required that I make my way to the bank in that area. But absolutely no concern was given to walking. I found myself in what was very much like the worst maze ever designed. In addition to endless unmarked dead-ends, there were numerous areas where I had to backtrack because a sidewalk simply ended on a busy street without a crosswalk.[1] In order to walk two blocks, I ended up walking at least eight.

I run into this kind of thing quite a lot. When construction is going on, little if any thought is given to how it will affect those walking. If a car has to go around the block, big deal. But today, what would normally have taken me three minutes to walk took more like a half hour — just to get from where the bus dropped me off to the bank that used to be two blocks away but that is now blocked by the post-apocalyptic no man’s land of “Coming soon!” urban renewal.

The Speed of a Worthless Life

The other issue is the speed of life. I just don’t have hours and hours to run errands. We’ve created a society that is the worst that it can be. No one has any time. And everything takes forever because our lives are designed around the idea that oil companies need to make a lot of money. So it’s not surprising that in addition to things being designed to be bad for walking, they are even worse when any construction goes on.

This is no way to live a life. But it probably does explain why I avoid going outside most days.

[1] I never jaywalk for two reasons. First: I always assume that drivers are trying to kill me because they are. Second, I don’t want to give some psychopathic police officer a reason to harass me.

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Dec 23

Commerce, Cremation, and the Rituals of Death

CremationI spent much of yesterday making arrangements for the body of my dead brother. The death of a loved one is not a time when most people are up for comparison shopping. But I actually think it is the perfect time for it. I deal best with my brother’s death when I’m managing practical matters. When I think of our past and the things that we aren’t now going to be able to do is when I tend to fall to pieces. But dealing with getting his body moved from the facility where he died and managing the details of his cremation have been easy — and a welcome respite from the feelings of loss.

It turns out that there is a huge variation in the cost of such services. We choose Adobe Creek Funeral Home in Petaluma. The reason was simple: they are inexpensive. A basic cremation costs roughly $1,200 there. At another facility about 15 miles away, the cost was almost twice that amount. And I can’t imagine that we could have received better service. My fear in such matters is that the people I deal with will be too accommodating — something I would find fake as if they were pretending to feel something they weren’t. Instead, we dealt with a young man who respected the solemnity of the occasion without a hint of co-opting our experience.

What Is Cremation, After All?

When it comes to the technical matters, well, I can’t say. I don’t wish to be coarse, but I see a funeral — when it comes to the technical side of things — as really just a matter of garbage disposal. That corpse is not my brother. So it’s hard for me to imagine why anyone would care about the technical side of things. Are there better or worse ways to cremate a dead body? Maybe. But they certainly don’t matter to my brother. Funerals are for the living and their memories of the departed. So what mattered yesterday was the experience that my sister and I had. And it was a dignified and solemn experience that honored our brother. It definitely was nothing like the scene in The Big Lebowski.

The Business of Death

But a funeral home is a business. I assume that there are business aspects to funerals in all forms — even sky burial. But it is a business much in the same way that medicine is a business. We all feel that it is more than just a business. It is something people make money doing but is also something that we can’t help but consume. Thus we expect that practitioners are in it for more than just the money. I think this is another reason for doing comparison shopping at this most difficult time: an inexpensive funeral home is not a place where you likely to be preyed upon.

Just the same, if you did want to spend a lot of money at Adobe Creek Funeral Home, you could. (And don’t get me wrong: I don’t see anything wrong with people spending lavishly on a funeral if they find it helpful in their grieving process.) You could spend anywhere from $995 up to $9,000 for a coffin. A basic urn was included in the price of the cremation, but they had a very nice wooden urn for $150 and you could spend up to a few hundred dollars on more fancy models.

A Very Special Cremation

Of more interest to me was the selection of coffins that are for sale for the cremation process itself. This too is included in the price of the cremation. But because our brother was a very large man, he would not fit into the standard box, so we had to pay a bit more for a special box. That made sense. But I was shocked to see that one could spend as much as $2,195 for a cremation coffin. Clearly, these coffins are for something else. And I think it is a beautiful thing.

If you pay extra, you can take part in the cremation. This involves either just watching the coffin enter the incinerator, or being present for the whole procedure. I’m sure many people would find this ghoulish. I think that I would find it edifying — certainly much more so than going to a burial.[1] And I like the idea of following my brother as most of his body is vaporized and then taking his shredded bones and personally scattering them. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, indeed! It strikes me as a final act of love — taking him by the hand and walking him to the edge of eternity.

Where Commerce Meets Spirituality

But to do this would have cost us another thousand dollars. It strikes me as a bargain, actually. But there are a number of reasons why it simply is out of the question — one being that something can be a bargain and still be out of your price range. Still, its an interesting nexus of commerce and spirituality. Indeed, the whole experience was like that. But I’m amazed that I don’t feel soiled by it. Our family has no expert on such matters. So we hired people to help us with the final step of turning my brother from a living part of our lives to a pure memory in our hearts. And that seems entirely fitting to me — even beautiful.

[1] I say this not least because everyone always leaves before the burial has really even begun. When the burial is “over,” there is just a coffin in a ditch.

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Dec 22


Eric“Eric.” It sounds like the title of some claymation film. But more Mary and Max than A Close Shave. But I thought it might be a compelling title to this article. I had been thinking of trying to make these 8:05 posts more often little personal essays where I talk about the things that are on my mind or conscience or whatever. I was really thinking about that.

Then last night, as it must to all men, death came to my brother Eric. It was not a shock, because he had been ill. But it was surprising, because he had been on the mend. In fact, he died in a physical therapy facility. But maybe the doctors were lying to us. Doctors are actually more scummy than lawyers. But I spoke to him within 12 hours of his death, and he sounded great — better than he had sounded in a very long time — eager to get back home.

And then I got the call. That’s when all hell broke lose with calls to and from everyone involved. And then there is the practical side of things: getting him to a mortuary, making “plans,” and so on. These are the only things I can even vaguely manage with the slightest amount of composure.

People who have been reading this blog for a long time know Eric. He’s my older brother who I used to take to the movies to watch films that almost always offended me. That’s because he liked action films. He was also a hardcore Christian and politically conservative. It’s amazing to think, because my brother was fragile, and part of my liberalism is about taking care of people like him. He was no more in control of his life than any of us are — that is: not at all.

It was nice over these years to get to know him. But now it seems downright creepy, because I reacquainted myself with him to a large extent because I knew that he wouldn’t live long. And it was great to see him open up to me over time. Eric was not one to let people into his world because he had be so badly scarred from the past. I could explain that more, but it seems wrong. Let it rest at this: some people are born to be abused and other are born to abuse. And they always find each other.

The last time I was actually with Eric was at his apartment. We watched the new Star Wars film together. I had been planning to bring over the 3-hour cut of King Kong (2005) for us to watch. I know he would have loved it.

He was some kind of a man… What does it matter what you say about people?
–Tanya in Touch of Evil.

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Dec 21

I Apologize

Frank Moraes - I ApologizeIt’s 8:05 am. Normally, there would be some quotation here. But instead, I thought I would take a moment to apologize to you all. I’ve always seen this blog as a community. And a big part of that is interacting with you all in the comments. But I haven’t been doing that. In a sense, I don’t need to. James is an amazingly good simulacrum of me. I often find that I respond to a comment only to find that James has already responded as I did — but more thoughtfully. Also: in a nicer way. James is a much nicer guy than I am.

But I do miss all the interaction. And I am making my way back to the way things used to be. I’m back on a regular publishing scheduling, which is the first step. But really, this last month and a half has been hard on me. And when I’m under stress, I do what all reasonable people should do: I withdraw. I really can’t believe the world I’m living in. Just yesterday morning, as I was coming into consciousness, I realized, “Donald Trump is going to be our next president!” How the hell did that happen?

Of course, when I’m more awake, I think, “Of course Donald Trump is going to be our president!” Really, as terrible as I think it will be, I have to admit: Donald Trump is the president that America deserves. And I only say this because America really is the country built on chattel slavery and native genocide. So people who are members of “minority” groups feel most of the time like I do now. And members of the “majority” feel that every problem in their lives is due to “minority” groups — and not sleazy capitalists like Donald Trump.

But most of the time I see myself as those very cultured Germans who thought that the land that spawned Beethoven could never give rise to Hitler. I know that’s a joke. The land that spawned John Steinbeck is very much the land that brought us President Donald Trump and Republican control of Congress, the Supreme Court, and the state legislatures.

I just want you to know that I apologize for pulling back. But that’s what I do. I’m not a good commiserator. But I’ll try to be better. Once Trump is inaugurated, it will help. Then I can count down the eight years of his presidency. Of course, I believe it will be eight years. That’s because I have a well earned low opinion of the people of this country.

I apologize.

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Dec 18

Dark Triad: The Key to Success

Machiavelli - Dark TriadDigby wrote an article yesterday, A Quick Test for The Donald. To be honest, I think she’s lost much of her edge. Even before the election, she wrote almost exclusively about Donald Trump. And this article was especially dumb. She suggested, “In case you had any doubts about our new president being a sick piece of work, take the following short test as if you were Trump.” But do any of us really need to take any kind of test to find out that Trump is a narcissistic Machiavellian psychopath? But I was pleased that there is a name for this group of pathologies: the dark triad.

Learning about the dark triad made the article worth while, of course. And the fact that it linked to a single test for all these of these things — In just 27 questions! — made it all the better. As regular readers know, I love tests like these. I think a big part of it is that they are so difficult for me. I have to fight with myself. The tests are never hard to figure out. So I have to use my limited power of objectivity against my super-power of wanting to look like a Good Guy™.

Dark Triad Test

You can take the Short Dark Triad test at the Open Source Psychometrics Project. It tests for “Machiavellianism (a manipulative attitude), narcissism (excessive self-love), and psychopathy (lack of empathy).” I’ve already tested myself multiple times for narcissism and psychopathy. It reminds me of a David Mitchell joke, “I don’t have OCD. I know — I took a test — about a hundred times.” Strangely, I too don’t have OCD, despite taking multiple tests to find out. But I do — and think this is important — score higher on OCD than everything except for straight anxiety, which is connected.

I’ve never tested myself on Machiavellianism, so I was curious how I would come out. I knew my score on narcissism would be low because I’m going through a depressive phase and that always lowers my score. And I always test low on psychopathy, either because I really am empathic or because I am such a clever psychopath that I always fool the tests. But I could see myself testing high on Machiavellianism — as long as the test didn’t distinguish between successful and unsuccessful Machiavellianism.

My Machiavellianism

As I took the test, I felt sure that I would get a high score. It contained questions like this, “It’s not wise to tell your secrets.” Well kiddies, I have some advice for you all: It’s not wise to tell your secrets! I have learned this from extremely painful experience. The test only contained 5 choices, ranging from disagree to agree. If I could have entered, “agree to the googolplex power,” I would have. So maybe the test just wasn’t up to power of some my answers.

There were more standard Machiavellian questions that I agreed with. For example, “Avoid direct conflict with others because they may be useful in the future.” It’s not exactly something I live my life by, but it makes good sense. And how about, “There are things you should hide from other people because they don’t need to know.” You can take this statement in a negative way, but I consider it an act of kindness. There are too many things people have told me that I didn’t need to know. Why do they do that?!

Vague Questions

There were also questions like, “I like to use clever manipulation to get my way.” On those, I tended to disagree — but not completely. And the questions are vague. I assume this particular question didn’t mean entering the right numbers in your television remote control to watch the shows you want. But still, don’t most people like to manipulate situations to their benefit rather than find themselves dumped on for no good reason?

The answer appears to, “Yes!” I scored at the 20th percentile in Machiavellianism. That means 80 percent of you all are working the world more than I am. And it explains a few things in my life — like my relatively low success despite having really very good opportunities in life. It also explains, I think, my low credit rating. But we’ll leave that to another time.

Pathologies or Key to Success?

I scored at the 6th percentile on both narcissism and psychopathy. You can post your results, if you like. But I already know they will be low. That’s because Frankly Curious readers tend to be pathetic losers like I am. What is interesting is Digby’s relating this test to Trump. But it isn’t really about Trump; it’s about most of our society’s “winners.” It’s curious that our society rewards the behaviors that it teaches children to eschew.

The dark triad is a bad thing!

Also: the dark triad will make you rich and famous!

Your choice kids.

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Dec 16

Ta-Nehisi Coates on the Obama Presidency

Ta-Nehisi CoatesSince the election, I’ve been clinging to voices of sanity. Anyone with a brain. I like imagining they aren’t outliers. Scientific lectures, comedy, even politicians talking — if the author has something to teach me. So, I’ve wondered, where has Ta-Nehisi Coates been? After all, Trump ran the most overtly racist campaign since George Wallace. Coates is one of our finest essayists — especially on racism in America. He would certainly have a unique way of viewing the election.

As it turns out, he’s been preparing a richly-layered analysis of Barack Obama. It appeared earlier this week in The Atlantic, My President Was Black. It features both interviews with Obama and Coates’ views on the President’s legacy. Like most of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s writing, it caused me both to question and accept many of his conclusions.

Why Was Obama So Centrist?

He notes, “I came to regard Obama as a skilled politician, a deeply moral human being, and one of the greatest presidents in American history.” Skilled and moral, yes. But among the greatest? I’m not so sure. He didn’t pass all that many laws after 2010.

Coates continues, “He was phenomenal — the most agile interpreter and navigator of the color line I had ever seen. He had an ability to emote a deep and sincere connection to the hearts of black people, while never doubting the hearts of white people.”

Obama Was Constrained by Racism

This is unquestionably true. It gets at both my primary criticism of the Obama administration (not liberal enough), and Coates’s ongoing examination of the role racism plays in America. It’s unlikely Obama could have been much more liberal. Any such effort would have been excoriated as “Giving Free Money To Shiftless Negroes” (many Republican voters believe this falsehood).

Obama says as much to Ta-Nehisi Coates, talking about being approached by activist groups: “You feel like saying to these folks, ‘[Don’t] you think if I could do it, I [would] have just done it? Do you think that the only problem is that I don’t care enough about the plight of poor people, or gay people?'”

And here’s the conundrum of Obama — the devil’s bargain anyone who seeks power inevitably makes. The key factor in a “deal with the devil” story is very like the Midas legend; be careful what you wish for, you may get it. Obama was elected on a populist platform he had no hope of enacting. Racism will out.

Election 2016: The Unblackening

Ta-Nehisi Coates unflinchingly describes the myriad versions of racial backlash Obama’s mild-mannered demeanor inspired, and quotes the President in a frank observation of why New Deal politics may now be unsupportable:

But what I do believe is that if somebody didn’t have a problem with their daddy being employed by the federal government, and didn’t have a problem with the Tennessee Valley Authority… that all helped you build wealth and create a middle class—and then suddenly as soon as African Americans or Latinos are interested in availing themselves of those same mechanisms as ladders into the middle class, you now have a violent opposition to them—then I think you at least have to ask yourself the question of how consistent you are, and what’s different, and what’s changed.

Obama and Coates (And you and I!) all know “what’s changed.” Wealth redistribution was fine when it went from richer to poorer white people. After the civil rights movement secured legal racial equality (theoretically anyway), suddenly redistribution became an evil. An assault on freedom. This reaction was in place long before mythical legends of Welfare Queens driving around in their Cadillacs.

I have struggled with the election results. There are two primary reasons. First, I am simply afraid of their practical ramifications for people inside and outside the country. Second, I know the hideousness that produced the results. This is both the hideousness of rapacious corporate greed that’s erased our safety net and the demonizing of the Other, which capitalism is quite happy to exploit. This is America’s fascism. Perhaps it always was.

Being Wrong About the Comforting Narrative

“Racism is never simple,” Ta-Nehisi Coates succinctly observes. Earlier, he delivers a solid refutation of my own previously held position:

One theory popular among (primarily) white intellectuals of varying political persuasions held that this response was largely the discontented rumblings of a white working class threatened by the menace of globalization and crony capitalism. Dismissing these rumblings as racism was said to condescend to this proletariat, which had long suffered the slings and arrows of coastal elites, heartless technocrats, and reformist snobs. Racism was not something to be coolly and empirically assessed but a slander upon the working man. Deindustrialization, globalization, and broad income inequality are real. And they have landed with at least as great a force upon black and Latino people in our country as upon white people. And yet these groups were strangely unrepresented in this new populism.

It’s what scientists call a positive feedback loop. Racism gave Republicans their first opportunities to chip away at the New Deal. That erosion made life for working people worse. That made them blame “government” (for presumably wasting their tax dollars on minorities) more. So it enabled further-right politicians, who slashed the safety net more — and on and on and on.

It’s not “chicken and egg,” because we know what came first. Racism did. But it is a self-strengthening mechanism. A Danish friend once told me their saying is “a screw without an end.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates Makes Me Think

Ultimately, Coates’s article made me reconsider Obama’s time in office. I wanted him to be more liberal. I still want Democrats to be. And yet, even the conservative ACA was seen as a giveaway to Those People. How much more could Obama have done? How do we end the screw?

Can we fight inequality without being accused of racial favoritism? Can we fight inequality without a dedication to alleviating the great injustices done to so many of our citizens? These positions seem contradictory. Since the disease of racism poisons all of us.

And Coates made me aware just how much darker Trump’s election was for people of color. What a slap in the face it is that the centrist, elegant Obamas incurred so much hatred. Even the “talented tenth” (or thousandth) of a percent are never acceptable enough.

Ta-Nehisi Coates noted of an Obama appearance at the storied Howard University, “Six months later the awful price of a black presidency would be known to those students.” What a price! What moral debts we have accrued. And what terrible interest we continue to pay.

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