Thursday, October 31, 2019

Losing my Religion

By Michael Nettleton 

While shelving videos at my library-subbing job, I happened to spot The Life of Brian the Monty Python sendup of the story of the central figure of Christendom. I first saw it back in the early eighties when it was newish. On a whim, I took it home to watch again. It’s still laugh-out-loud funny and thought-provoking movie. Unless you’re a Bible literalist. In that case it’s high heresy, anti-Christian, and perhaps the spawn of Satan. Or perhaps you take yourself too seriously. 


It started me thinking. (This is the point where my wife Carolyn jumps in and says “Uh-oh.”)

I feel the need for music to accompany this next part. How about REM?

I am a fervid agnostic. Which is like saying I’m a well-organized anarchist. An agnostic is a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena; a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God. Fervid might be the wrong modifier. We don’t proselytize much. 

To paraphrase former Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld, who was trying to defend the lack of proof that Iraq was involved in 911: “There are known knowns, there are things we think we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say we know there are some things we do not know.” Now there's some state-of-the-art gibberish, yes?

Maybe I’m a born skeptic. I was the kid in Sunday school who asked questions like, “Why did Adam have a navel?” and “Adam and Eve had sons. Where did they find wives?” I was sent home with a lot of notes for my parents to read. I’m not sure what they said. I’m guessing the word “heathen” might have been included.

So, what led to me losing my religion? If indeed I ever had one. A couple of incidents come to mind. One of the teachers of my small town Sunday School class, a pillar of the local community, banged his bible and ranted about the “wages of sin,” and “burning eternally in hell,” for our transgressions. Because of him, I learned how to pee without touching myself. A bit messy, but apparently necessary. Until . . .

One day my friend Donny and I were standing on a corner in a nearby larger town waiting for my mother to pick us up from a movie. Suddenly, the doors of a local saloon banged open and our smug, self-righteous Sunday school teacher tottered out, arm in arm with a busty lady wearing a heavy layer of war paint. They staggered toward a motel with a flashing VACANCY sign. 

From that moment forward my bathroom habits became much tidier.

Later in life, I was a disc jockey in another small town. My immediate boss, the program director, had been a drug-taking hippy until he was “saved” and “born again.” Rod (not his real name) and his wife made it a habit of dropping by the apartment I shared with my future former wife and “testifying” to us and trying to get us to see the light. We began spending evenings with all the lights out and ignoring the knocking on our door. Rod’s most annoying habit was attributing anything good that happened to him as “God’s will.” This included a last minute touchdown that won a football game for his favorite team. Anything negative that happened, even if he had instigated it, was “The work of Satan.”

Rod was also a certifiable paranoic. He was convinced the big boss had it in for him and was poised to fire him. He began picking up the general managers private phone line on the production room console at the same time the boss did and listening in to the conversations.
One day, I got called into the GM’s office. My stomach roiled. This couldn’t be a good thing. “Mike,” he began. “I have some bad news.” Now, my stomach is flip-flopping like Simone Biles halfway through her floor exercise. “I’ve had to let Rod go. I thought he was doing a really good job, but I found out he was listening in on my telephone conversations. I couldn’t have that.”

That sizzling sound you hear is Satan rubbing his hands together in glee.

Following Facebook, I see a lot of people using their religion as a bludgeon: Quoting scripture (or what they claim is scripture) to castigate those who practice a different religion are of a different race, of a different sexuality, possess different political beliefs or, face it, have different anything.

Many of the people I work with, do community theater with, sing in choirs with or have chance encounters with are devout Christians. None of them try to convert me or express scorn that I don’t share their convictions. It seems to me they are living in the spirit of the savior they believe in. Them I like.

And I, it appears will remain an agnostic until my last breath. I won’t let fear of death prod me into believing something I can’t prove. 

I enjoyed my rewatching of The Life of Brian. It made me laugh and think about man’s need to explain the unfathomable. The film is not about ridiculing people’s religious beliefs. Instead, it uses satire to point out the absurdity of listening to people who claim to be prophets or speak directly to God. It is a counterpoint to those who use the Bible to reinforce their prejudices or repay petty grudges. 

A closing note to those people. I am not the spawn of Satan. Honest.  

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Small and Simple Joys

Carolyn J. Rose

I used to wonder about the validity of those quotes about the importance of the little things in life, but lately I get it. I still appreciate big things—like a new car or a vacation. I get a thrill from those. But the little things give me a tiny tingle and a warm and fuzzy feeling.

Here, in no particular order, are a few of the small joys in my life.

A new pair of fleece-lined, snug-fitting slippers for chilly mornings.

A trip to the library to browse the shelves and the pleasure of discovering that a new book I was waiting my turn for is on the lucky-day shelf.

Happy hour.

Peas sprouting in the garden.

Zero problems detected on a dental visit.

Discovering that last year’s shorts still fit.

Having a garage so I don’t have to scrape the windshield on a frosty morning.

Finding a candy bar that got shoved to the back of a shelf and is still good.

Sliding into the pool at the community center when it’s just the right temperature and not too crowded.

Getting a January sunbreak so I can walk without soaking myself.

Finding a thrift store treasure with a half-price tag.

Having my neighbor tell me he has his chain saw warmed up and will gladly do some trimming for me.

Slicing that first ripe tomato warm from the sun.

Having just enough zucchini for us and our neighbors and not so much I have to leave it on doorsteps ring their bell and run.

Good friends.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Unequal Treatment

Carolyn J. Rose

A few times, while subbing at a local high school, I’ve had girls ask me, “Are you a women’s libber?” They make it sound like a bad thing, like it’s all about being shrill and pushy and demanding and running men down. They make it sound like it’s not about rights and fairness and respect for ability and talent.

And, much as I resent those implications, I understand where they’re coming from. These teenage girls hadn’t lived through the 50s, a decade of prescribed roles and limited options for many girls and women. They hadn’t had a misguided guidance counselor tell them their career choices were to be secretaries or teachers or nurses. Period. They hadn’t dressed out to compete in the workplace and found themselves on a playing field far less than level. They hadn’t felt like second-class citizens because they lacked a Y chromosome.

The inequality of that time ran broad and deep. And it ran on for years after the decade was done.

For example, when I enrolled at the University of Arizona in 1965, I wasn’t surprised to find I’d have a curfew. After all, I had one at home—although my parents gave me credit for having some common sense and were usually asleep long before the hour struck. Curfew times in the dorms, however, were strict and enforced with penalties.

As I recall, the times were set at 10:00 PM on weeknights, and later on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights. At the time I believe that all females not living at home with their parents or rooming with relatives were required to live in dormitories. I remember law students having to put up with the antics of girls just out of high school partying in the room next door. I seem to remember a couple of those law students who were 21 and older, challenging the rules and enabling the rest of us to “get out of jail” and into apartments.

As for male students, well, if they had curfews, they were comparatively lax. Apparently the prevailing thought was that girls should be kept safe (under control?) by being locked up at night, locked away from sketchy situations and hormonally charged males. Never mind that it’s possible to get into just as much trouble (have sex?) in broad daylight.

And never mind that it wasn’t fair. The concept of equality may have been on the horizon, but that horizon was a long way off. And between women and the horizon stood the men in charge. And back then it seemed men were in charge of just about everything.

At the time, when I railed against unfairness, I was told I was far better off than many other women in this country and around the world. I was told this was just the way it was, that it was for my own good, and those who made the rules knew best.

At the time, I didn’t find it odd that older female relatives were the ones telling me this. Looking back now, I wonder why these women—some of whom served in the Second World War or lived through the Great Depression or held jobs and brought home paychecks their families depended on—didn’t take my side. Were they just that indoctrinated? Did they honestly believe they didn’t deserve equal treatment? Were they afraid that more rights and privileges would mean increased expectations and more obligations such as mandatory military service? Did they fear change?

My mother is long gone, so I can’t ask what she’d been thinking. I suspect it was a mix of all of the above. I do know she recognized that marriage wasn’t necessarily a sound financial plan. She worked, and she worked hard. She put me through college, expected me to buckle down, and hoped I’d heed her advice and get a degree before I got a husband.

Once the tidal wave of change came, however, she rode it. She picketed, she wrote letters, and she apologized to me for not speaking out in the past.

Maybe I never flew all that high or all that far, but thanks to her efforts and inspiration, I knew I didn’t have to allow my wings to be clipped because I happened to be female.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Tough Stock

Carolyn J. Rose

I like to think I’m not a princess. Unless I’m paying for the service, I don’t expect to be waited on. I pump my own gas. I know how to use a plunger and chop firewood. I’ll trap rats and chase down spiders. I try to solve problems on my own before I yell for help.

But I’m not in the same league as my father’s parents. I’m nowhere near as tough. Especially when it comes to snakes.

My grandmother Elfleda was short and round. She wore gold-rimmed glasses and rolled her long gray hair in a bun. She wore lace-up black shoes with low heels, cotton stockings, corsets, dresses, and aprons. Somehow she managed to coax plants to set down roots in our rocky Catskill Mountains soil. She enjoyed exchanging seeds and bulbs and cuttings and sharing garden lore. My cousins and I enjoyed the fruits of her labors—raspberries and blackberries and apples that became pies.

We also enjoyed racing each other to the small hillside pond to chase frogs and feed the goldfish. We often counted them as they darted about. That’s how we noticed their population was declining.

My grandmother blamed raccoons—until we spotted the snake. 

It emerged from stones laid up where spring water trickled into the pond. It undulated through the water, coming right at us. Screaming, my cousin Renee and I bolted for the house to deliver the news. We did so with high-pitched squeals and much garbling.

My grandmother said nothing, but set off for the pond at a pace we’d never seen her hit before and would have said wasn’t physically possible. She reached the grassy bank, flung down a curse like a gauntlet, gathered up her dress, and waded in. While Renee and I gaped in amazement, the snake retreated and lived to hunt another day.

The next snake I encountered wasn’t as lucky. It was huge and black and slithered onto the diving board as I bounced on the end, preparing to do a back flip into the family pool. I was in my teens and smart enough to know I could easily have turned, dived in, and made it to the far end. I was also smart enough to be able to identify poisonous snakes, smart enough to know this one wasn’t.

But I didn’t do any of that. Instead I screamed. And screamed. And screamed.

My grandfather Ishmael, known as I.J., flung aside the scythe he was using to cut high grass around the apple trees on the hillside. He came on the run—a measured and deliberate run given that he was about 70 at the time. Never mind that he was wearing sandals, he stepped up on the diving board and pinned the snake’s head beneath his foot.

As he put more weight on it, the snake thrashed and coiled around his leg. I screamed. Its tail reached his knee. I screamed louder. My grandfather, saying nothing, ground the snake’s head against the wooden plank until it was dead.

Eventually the snake’s body fell away from his leg and my grandfather stepped from the anchored end of the diving board, picked up the snake, and tossed it into the woods. I stopped screaming, dove in, swam to the far end, and climbed out. My grandfather, still silent, went back to his scythe.

These incidents will play across my mind until my memory is no more. But I often wonder if they were memorable for my grandparents. These were people who came though the deaths of two young children, two world wars, and the Great Depression. They were tough. They’d had to be. And for them, taking on a snake was no big deal.