Friday, May 28, 2010

Apocalyptic Fantasy

So, I'm currently re-reading Stephen King's The Stand, in which a major plague wipes out most of the world and leaves only a few survivors. I'm also reading (in small, occasional pieces) Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, which features an odd sort of apocalypse-by-ennui (or perhaps apocalypse-by-incompetence is a better assessment of it). Again, only the chosen few are saved. And, of course, I have a deep love for zombie movies, many of which chart the fall of civilization before the undead hordes. Hell, when I was younger, I used to fantasize about extra-dimensional portals just randomly showing up, whence demons could step out and begin their invasion. Naturally, I'd be able to fight back, and...

As I've gotten older, I find these sorts of scenarios less appealing as a personal fantasy. That's partly because I'm increasingly aware that I probably wouldn't survive. It's also because even if I did manage to survive, odds are that my friends and family wouldn't. When I was younger and more self-centered (and, honestly, I had a lot fewer friends) that didn't bother me so much.

Creating an appealing end-of-civilization fantasy is something of a balancing act. On the one hand, the threat has to be big enough that it could really cause the collapse of society. On the other hand, ideally, you want a something that you feel like you have some reasonable chance to survive. (Part of the appeal of zombie films, I'm convinced, is that they fit this middle ground admirably. It's easy to picture them eating and infecting people until civilization effectively collapses... but a man with a shovel stands a pretty good chance against a single zombie.)

So, ... do you have any favorite end-of-the-world fantasies, dear readers? What do you see yourself doing as civilization crumbles? Thoughts on the genre are also welcome.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Where does my brain get this stuff?

I was dreaming about graduating last night. I don't know why; I haven't been in school for years, I'm not due to graduate from anything... hell, I'm not even due for a promotion. I don't even know what sort of graduation this was supposed to be: high school, college, grad school?

Whatever it was, it was wild. My roommates had wandered off with my beer. I was supposed to meet somebody (professor's husband, maybe?) just as my family was arriving. It was the whole family, too, so at one point I was trying to find someplace to put the baby while my fellow students got their party on. At another point I wandered past a fight; rather than stopping it, or fighting, I was pulling people out so that the two guys on one side were matched against two guys on the other side. There might have been a helicopter in there somewhere, too.

So what the hell is this about? I rarely dream of school, and when I do it's usually one of those dreams where it's Finals Week and I've forgotten to attend class or do any studying. Those dreams are usually triggered by me feeling unprepared for something in real life. This was random and vaguely celebratory. Maybe it was because we're finally getting past the busy season at work?

Or maybe I should credit the potato skins I had before I went to bed. No idea, really.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Reflections on Relationships

I’ve never been much for relationships. It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s just... well, I’m not very good at it. For a proper romance, you need to be at least superficially intimate. That’s tricky with an outsider, because we have to keep our secrets - and that’s hard to do with someone who knows you really well. So, generally, I just make sure that nobody knows me really well.

Some of us - Billy, for example - solve the problem by dating other believers. It works for him, and I’ve done a little of that myself: a couple of casual encounters, and a two-year cohabitation which was easily the longest relationship I’d had. That one ended when I found her in bed with a... well, again, I’d better not say. At first she didn’t even realize I was upset; she invited me join them, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. But even if I hadn’t felt betrayed, slime and tentacles just don’t excite me - and I did feel betrayed. Her partner might not be human, but it was intelligent. So however she thought about it, she was cheating on me.

Billy got lucky, I think. He met... let’s call her Crystal... at a rather memorable Walpurgisnacht ceremony. They had so much fun they decided to make a regular thing of it. And unlike my Ex, Crystal isn’t crazy - or, more accurately, her particular insanity suits Billy just fine.

Another of our friends, Mbata, doesn’t worry about these things at all. He dates (if that’s the word for it) other believers, and at this point I don’t even bother to keep track of who he’s with. By next week, it’ll be someone else. It probably helps that he travels a lot. In any case, that seems to work for him.

It doesn’t work for me, though. I’d like to have someone I’m comfortable with, someone I can spend time around. I’d like to have something like what Billy and Crystal have.

...Which brings me back to Claire. We’ve been seeing each other for three weeks now. It started with coffee, advanced to dinner, and finally moved to drinks and dancing. She’s never even asked about my religion.

I think I can actually make this work.

Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. In keeping with the spirit of the thing, if anyone wants to direct questions to the Deranged Cultist, feel free to leave them in the comments. He may answer there, or they may become fodder for future posts.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Original Sin

"Really? What's so original about it?" ~Me

The doctrine of original sin says, basically, that all human beings are born sinful. Depending on the emphasis, we may be "born sinners" or "born with a sin(ful) nature" and therefore destined, inevitably, to sin. Either way, this is said to be a result of The Fall, which occurred when Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. (Interestingly, there's a line in Genesis which suggests that God was not just punishing their disobedience; He was afraid they would also eat the fruit of the Tree of Life, and live forever, and become like Him.) So, basically, Adam and Eve broke the rules, and the rest of us have been paying for it ever since... but I digress.

This is one of the - I guess I'd call them "foundational beliefs" - of mainstream Christianity. That said, I'm not sure it's strictly necessary - it's not part of the Nicene Creed, for example - and I imagine that one could still be a Christian without holding to this particular view of human nature. But among the people who do believe it, I most often hear it used as an explanation for why everyone needs the redeeming love of Jesus Christ. In the more negative approach, it's the justification for why it's okay that everyone who doesn't accept Jesus will end up in Hell.

Obviously, I don't believe this myself. I don't for a moment accept that babies are born as sinners; I'm not even sure what the term would mean when applied to someone who can barely distinguish between the Self and the World. Similarly, I just can't believe that people do horrible things to one another only because our two most distant ancestors once ate a magic fruit.

But people do accept this story. On some level, it resonates. I think that's because there's some truth to it.

Here's the way it usually goes: person 1 points out that we are all born sinners. Person 2 starts to object. Person 1 says, more or less, "Think about it. Nobody goes through life without sinning." And person 2 usually finds themselves nodding their head and saying, "Well, I guess that's true."

And it is true. Nobody goes through life without making mistakes, doing things they regret, or hurting other people - not if they survive to adulthood, at least. But that's not the same thing as saying that we're born with a sinful nature. The two statements are juxtaposed as though the second supported the first... but it doesn't.

In truth, I do think it's impossible to go through life without sinning - "sin" being defined, in this context, as "doing things you shouldn't". This is not because we're born sinful, but because we're born ignorant. Morality is something we learn; and as with everything else, we learn it largely by trial and error. You can't learn that way without, well, errors. We refine our morality by seeing the effects that our actions have on others - and sometimes by observing the effects of other people's actions as well.

To come at that from a different direction, I tend to see "sin" or "evil" as a quality which describes certain actions, rather than a character trait. So, saying that we all do some evil in our lives makes sense to me. Saying that we're all sinners, on the other hand, is no more meaningful than saying that we're all saints: neither assertion is entirely false, but neither is a complete or even particularly helpful description of the human condition.

So, yes, everybody does things they shouldn't, and sooner or later everybody needs forgiveness, if only from themselves. But there's a big difference between "I've done bad things" and "I'm a bad person." (That's not to say that there are no bad people; if someone makes a habit of doing bad things, then I feel fairly justified in calling them a bad person. But, again, it's a matter of actions - of patterns of behavior - rather than intrinsic nature. They're a bad person because they do bad things; it's not that they do bad things because they're a bad person.) And when it comes to the assertion that we are all, by nature, bad people - I just don't buy it. We are all imperfect people, but that is not the same thing. The difference may be subtle, but it's important.

This didn't come together as well as I would have liked, and you're welcome to poke holes in it if you disagree. I may take another run at it later on. We'll see how I feel about it later.

Friday, May 21, 2010

You Want A What?

So we're sitting there, at a booth in the local Arby's, having lunch and discussing the various labors that have been given to us this week. The place was fairly empty when we arrived, but now it's filling up.

A pair of women walk past us, to take their place in line. The one in front is at least a decade older than the other; I'd guess them at forty-something and thirty-something, respectively. As they pass, the older one says - very distinctly, in what I can only describe as a White Trash Accent - "...Go and get us another baby. And it'll be our baby."

Then they were past the table, so we couldn't really hear what the other one replied. It was a very casual conversation, as if they were discussing a grocery list or something... Except, y'know, babies. Last I checked, the department store didn't actually sell those.

We all just sat there for a minute, looking at each other. I'm pretty sure we were all thinking some variation of the same thing: Is there any context besides kidnapping where that sentence makes sense?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

You Parked It Where?

So there I was, sitting in the passenger seat as we drove south on Preston Road at three in the morning. Preston, for those unfamiliar with Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex, is a six lane street that runs through Dallas and several of its northern suburbs. At three-thirty in the morning - even on a Saturday - it was very nearly empty. There were maybe two other cars on the road... So the realization that somebody was tailgating us was a bit unexpected.

My friend, whom we'll call TNG* for the sake of his privacy, looked a bit perplexed. I mean, there were two other lanes and no traffic at all. Why was this guy all but affixed to his bumper?

So, after a moment's consideration, TNG slows down a little bit. Nothing too sudden or extreme; maybe five miles an hour slower than we'd been going. The car stays right there, just behind us. It was too dark to see the other driver, or whether there were any passengers; all we could make out were headlights and car.

TNG waits for a few seconds, then slows down some more. It's still fairly gradual, but this time he drops about ten miles per hour. We are now driving down this open, three lane street at the sort of speed you'd use for a crowded residential neighborhood. The other car holds its distance - still way too close - and slows down with us, but otherwise doesn't react.

We wait for a few seconds, expecting the other car to notice that we're going ridiculously slow; but, no. It doesn't. It just stays there, right behind us.

So finally TNG give me this well, okay, if that's what we're doing look, and applies the brakes again. This time, he brings us all the way down to a full stop. The other car essentially fails to react at all. It just stops with us.

So now we're sitting there, parked in the left lane, with another car parked behind us. We wait for a few seconds, but all is still. The only other car on the road is disappearing off in the distance ahead of us.

After a moment's consideration, TNG puts the car back in gear and lets out the clutch. We zoom away, not quite squealing the tires.

The other car was still sitting there, parked in the left lane, when I looked back.

Tequila seems the likeliest explanation.

* Short for "That Normal Guy". There's a story, there, too, but later for that.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Reflections on Complications

Someone saw the bumbler. It was a couple of boys, out playing in the woods. It’s a wonder the thing didn’t eat them... or step on them.

Billy found them when he went back to check on the scene. (This was foolish, in my opinion. We found the beast and cleaned up its remains. There was nothing left to check. On the other hand, the Watchers are unforgiving; so I can understand why he’d want to be sure.)

Anyway... one of the boys saw Billy going into the woods, and stopped him. The boy explained about the monster he and his friend had seen. Billy, of course, laughed. Had the boy told his parents? Yes. Had his parents believed him? Of course not. Two eight-year-olds do not reliable witnesses make. Billy went into the woods, just to prove it was safe.

I may have given the impression that we, well, kill anyone who finds out about us. This is not true, and here’s the proof: those boys are still alive. Depending on how they react to their exposure, we may try to recruit them... later. Or we may leave them entirely alone. Ignorance is not always bliss, but sometimes it’s a workable defense. At least until the final days come, and all is revealed.

Proselytizing is a lot easier in these sorts of situations. Forget about “worship with us, and maybe They will eat you last.” If the kids still believe that they saw what they saw - a few years down the line, I mean, assuming the world lasts that long - then we can approach them and say, roughly, “We know what happened, and we can tell you what it means.” Validation is a huge relief; most outsiders would be surprised at how easily you can pull someone in that way.

And if they become a problem in the meantime, well... we know where they live.

(Shorter disclaimer: all Reflections of A Deranged Cultist posts are fiction.)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Dennis Markuze: Refining the Theory

I suggested, in one of my earlier posts, that Dennis Markuze changed his rant every few weeks in order to avoid SPAM filters.

I no longer think this is the case.

A little more searching around seems to indicate that many of the changes are the result of direct responses to particular individuals. These responses are then incorporated into the main rant, and afterwards propagated anywhere Mr. Markuze can paste it. This causes a sort of evolution in his writings, and creates a lot of the apparent non-sequiturs which make his rants so confusing.

Why would he do this? I suspect he can't tell us apart. He doesn't think of the people he spams as individuals. The people whose blogs he dislikes are basically a faceless horde - atheists, the enemies of God - and anything one of us learns, the rest then know. He doesn't answer when people ask him what he's talking about, because the question makes no sense: clearly, we know already. Even the "big names" aren't really individuals, they're just particularly distinct manifestations of the protean evil known as atheism.

At this point, unless Mr. Markuze cares to explain himself, I'm done. Conversations have to happen between (or among) people, and there's no point in trying to talk to someone who can't distinguish between me (an individual) and a rather large group of other people. So, until and unless we actually have a conversation, I'm just going to delete any of Mr. Markuze's tragic irrelevancies. DM, if you read this, I sincerely hope you can find the help you need.

Regular blogging will resume tomorrow, with the next installment of Reflections of a Deranged Cultist.

Reality Storm

This is the sort of image that really should be followed by a zombie apocalypse, or at least a rain of frogs.

Dennis Markuze: One More Experiment

Mr. Markuze, I'm not telling you what you believe. I'm asking, because I do not understand you. Everything I post about you is a guess, based on what you say and do.

If you don't want me to guess, then please tell me why you do what you do. It's a very simple question: What are you trying to accomplish? All these messages you leave are clearly very important, but what are they for?

Because I seriously don't get it.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Dennis Markuze: another theory, and a question

Okay, so my last post actually received a response. It wasn't quite as much detail as I'd hoped for, but in truth it was more than I'd expected.

The response was, first, that my life is forfeit* for talking about God the way I do; and, second, that everything will be all right if I repent and turn to God.

Let me add a couple of caveats before I proceed. First, I do not guarantee that these answers were directed to me specifically. They seem to be, but... Anyway: second, as answers go, these are pretty oblique. They aren't a detailed answer to the questions I was asking, though I think they are an answer of sorts. It's probably also worth noting that he's addressing me in the plural: our lives are forfeit for the way we talk. I'm not sure whether this means that he's addressing my readers as well, or whether he thinks of atheists as a faceless horde sharing some communal essence ("We are Legion"). I have a very strong impression that he thinks of all unbelievers as atheists, and all atheists as being in active opposition to God**.

Which brings me to my next theory: maybe he isn't afraid of what atheists*** have to say. Maybe he's just offended. In this scenario, Dennis has a close, personal relationship with God. This is not so unusual; a lot of Christians have, or claim to have, such a relationship. So, naturally, when someone speaks insultingly, disrespectfully, or even indifferently about his friend, Dennis gets offended on God's behalf. That would explain why his rants seem to bounce back and forth between insults ("you headless idiot") and threats ("your lives are forfeit" - this may translate as, "you'd better not talk about my friend that way, or else!").

If true, this presents an obvious problem: God is quite capable or speaking up for Himself (c.f. the burning bush, Paul on the road to Damascus). Actually, this would be a problem even if Dennis were speaking up in defense of a human friend.

Also, this explanation doesn't make his posting/e-mailing behavior any more sane or reasonable. There are an awful lot of people who don't believe in God and are perfectly willing to say so; trying to respond to all of them has to be like trying to fix Hoover Dam with a roll of scotch tape. Also, if this is the case we're looking at someone who perceives God as, basically, a close personal friend (as opposed to, say, a still, quiet voice in one's heart), and who has a compulsive need to respond to anyone he perceives as insulting God.

Dennis, if you read this: is your goal to get people to stop speaking disrespectfully of God? Is that what you're trying to accomplish?


* Which is a nice bit of eighteenth century grammatical construction.

** As if that were even possible.

*** Etc. - I'm using his terminology, here.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Dennis Markuze: Some Theories

I wasn't going to write this post. I'd decided it was a waste of time, and would neither assist Dennis nor enlighten me. But since he decided to drop by again...

A while back, I received a couple of comments from Dennis Markuze. In response, I put up a post inviting him to explain himself, but he neither responded nor posted any additional ravings on my blog. Then, yesterday, he pasted some more of his spam. Mostly, I don't care about this. His comments are so... disconnected... that I can't even bring myself to feel insulted by them. I delete them because they're irrelevant, and life goes on.

But I am curious about him, so I did some looking around. The more I look, the stranger it gets.

For those coming in late, Mr. Markuze is a fellow up in Montreal, Canada. I don't know him; I've never even met him. He spends his time leaving comments on blogs, which is not in itself unusual. What brings his behavior into the realm of the pathological is the sheer volume of his efforts. His posts are long, rambling collections of odd assertions, vague threats, and disconnected links. He composes these things (changing them every couple of weeks, I think in an attempt to avoid SPAM filters), and pastes them into the comments of blogs he doesn't like. For the most part, his targets are focused on science, atheism, or both, but recently he's even spammed some Christian blogs. (I'm not sure whether that's because he doesn't like them, or because he's so busy propagating his nonsense that he barely bothers to read the pages he's targeting.)

People have tried to address him directly: either to find out what he wants, or to get him to stop spamming them, or to challenge (what we can discern of) his ideas. He does occasionally respond - or at least add text that seems to be a direct response to a particular comment from someone else - but unfortunately his responses usually include the entirety of his current rant. Worse, the response (made to a particular individual, mind you) often gets incorporated into the rant, so it then gets pasted into other threads on other sites. To summarize: it's difficult to get any kind of sense out of him, and basically impossible to have a real conversation.

That's not to say that these rants have anything to do with their targets in the first place. As best I can tell, Mr. Markuze has a serious interest in Nostradamus, and believes in the accuracy of his prophecies. Because of this, he thinks that James Randi owes him a million dollars. Also, he is intensely hostile (at least in print) towards atheists and other unbelievers. If he has any point to make beyond that, I (and everyone else I've seen discuss the matter) can't figure out what it is.

Now, I have several theories about why Mr. Markuze does what he does. I first thought that he a spambot - a program that goes to message boards and drops a preset advertisement anywhere it can - but apparently he is a real person. I have toyed with the idea that maybe this was some sort of performance art, but A) he does way too much of it, B) he's been doing this for years, and C) he never talks about the Meaning and Artistic Importance of his work. Another appealing possibility was that it might a sociology experiment, perhaps designed to catalog responses to abnormal behavior; but, again, he's been at it for years. I suppose that's still possible, but it doesn't seem likely.

This brings me to the theory which, I'm told, is pretty much the consensus among the people he's spammed: he's insane. I don't say that casually; accusations of mental illness should not be tossed around lightly, as it's a genuine problem which causes real people an awful lot of trouble and grief. It's just that the more I look, the more strongly I suspect that Dennis Markuze is one of those people.It's hard to explain his behavior any other way.

Most people, when they find out that others may disagree with them on fairly fundamental issue - whether God exists, for example - do one of two things: either argue the point, or shrug it off. At a glance, Dennis' ravings look like he's trying to argue a point, but I don't think that's actually the case. He sometimes reacts, but he doesn't interact, and he posts the same messages over and over, everywhere he can - the online equivalent of standing on a street corner shouting at passers-by. So, instead, I think his posts are more talismanic, designed to protect him against (or drive off) the things that he finds unbearable. This is why his messages include sentiments like, "Atheists - get out of my universe!" It's also why he seldom seems to read the things he's ostensibly responding to.

And this is where the question of mental illness comes in. Based on his apparent compulsion to place these talismans anywhere and everywhere - a behavior which, ironically, keeps him in constant contact with the very things he abhors - I think that Dennis is deeply, personally threatened by the existence of people who don't believe that God exists. Where a normal person might just shrug that off, I don't think he can. Another person might set out to argue that God does exist, but Dennis can't really do that either - because that requires looking at the atheist arguments, and looking at them makes them more real and gives them more (perceived) power to harm him. So he composes the strongest rebuke he can, and he posts it everywhere that he perceives a threat.

If I'm right, this can't be pleasant for him. We're looking at someone who lives in a constant state of fear and revulsion; someone whose only defense lies in typed (and copied/pasted) incantations; someone who is compelled to keep putting them up, over and over, just to hold back the darkness.

Is there any way to get him some help?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Reflections on a Near Incident

Author's note: My wife thinks I should include a disclaimer, just so nobody gets too excited by the idea that I'm actually a deranged cultist. I promise that Our Hero's account is entirely fictional, and that I've never sacrificed anybody... for anything. Reflections of a Deranged Cultist is a writing exercise, inspired by a Cthulhu shirt that I got for Christmas, which prompted some thoughts on how much easier it must be for a deranged cultist in the modern world. It amuses me, so I keep at it. I hope it amuses you, too.

So Billy called me last night, just as I was getting off work. I'd been looking forward to a good night's sleep before the ritual on Saturday, but it wasn't to be. Billy had been making his own preparations for Saturday, which involved... well, that's complicated. The simple version is that he'd summoned a bumbler in order to use it as a sacrifice to call something else. Or at least, that was the idea.

Either he transcribed a glyph improperly, or mispronounced a word, or one of his ingredients had gone bad... he's not sure, and there's no way to tell. Whatever the reason, the bumbler broke its bindings as soon as it arrived, and wandered off into the woods. Billy sounded shaken - he was lucky the thing hadn’t attacked him - and he needed help to catch the thing before anyone spotted it.

It wasn’t just that it could do a lot of damage (though it certainly could; bumblers are stupid but extremely strong). If anyone saw the thing, they’d know it wasn’t natural - and when it died, as it would sooner or later, it would leave behind identifiable remains. We couldn’t allow that; it would attract precisely the sort of attention that we prefer to avoid. Cryptozoologists are rightly disregarded as gullible fools, but physical evidence would be another matter altogether. Even a cursory examination would suggest that the bumbler wasn’t native to this world, or the product of any sane system of evolution.

So instead of an early evening, I had a long night of tromping through the woods. Instead of restful sleep, I spent my time wondering if my protections would hold, and whether I’d be able to contain or banish the bumbler if I found it. Instead of being rested for the ritual, I was absolutely bloody exhausted - not to mention sore, scratched, bruised, and itchy with insect bites.

I hate that.

You’re probably wondering if we ever found the bumbler. I didn’t, but I wasn’t the only one Billy called. Mbata found it, and took it down. When the rest of us caught him up, we burned the remains. If anybody stumbles across it now, they’ll think it was a poorly-arranged campfire built from oddly shaped sticks. I was impressed, but then Mbata has a few gifts that I don’t share. Billy was effusively grateful, as he should have been.

Claire, of course, was curious as to what I’d been doing out in the woods after I’d told her I planned an early night. I told her I was helping a friend look for a lost pet, which I think impressed her. More about that later. Now: sleep...

Unwanted Heterosexual Attractions

For anyone coming in late, last week Dr. George Rekers was caught returning from a trip to Europe with a gay male prostitute. Dr. Rekers insisted that he had no idea of his companion's, um, chosen career, and that he had hired the young man to carry his bags on the trip. This is of course, perfectly possible - sort of thing that happens all the time - but in this case I'm doubtful. Especially since the escort was hired from, which is not the sort of site that you might mistake for, well, anything except what it is.

Ordinarily, I would consider this entirely Dr. Rekers' own business, except that Dr. Rekers has a long history as an anti-gay crusader and a proponent of the "ex-gay" movement. He was a co-founder of the Family Research Council; testified as an expert witness to support Florida's ban on adoptions by gay couples; and written a great deal about the dangers of homosexuality. He's also a board member for the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality.

NARTH "upholds the rights of individuals with unwanted homosexual attraction to receive effective psychological care and the right of professionals to offer that care." This is an important stand for them to take, especially if you realize that homosexuality is the second-greatest moral danger of our modern age. (If you don't know what the greatest danger is, then clearly A. you're unsaved, and B. you've been hiding under a rock for the last twenty years or so.)

In fact, the only real problem with NARTH's approach is that it doesn't go far enough. 1 Corinthians 7 is very clear about the requirements for a Godly lifestyle. Any kind of sexual relationship is a distant second to the holy state of celibacy. So, in keeping with this Biblical injunction, I'm starting a new organization. Our goal is to uphold the rights of individuals with unwanted heterosexual attraction to receive effective psychological care.

Please donate money.

I feel compelled to point out that this is not meant as a slap at Christianity in general, but only the curious modern obsession with (and demonization of) homosexuality. As a friend of mine points out, being gay is only a powerfully alluring lifestyle if you happen to find members of your own sex attractive. This goes a long way towards explaining why so many of the really ardent anti-gay activists keep getting caught in precisely that sort of compromising position, I think.

Friday, May 7, 2010

A Sacrifice at Calvary

This piece was the result of a particularly disturbing thought about the nature of God's Justice as it relates to redemption in (some) Christian theology. Anyone who is easily disturbed and/or offended by this sort of subject matter really ought to avoid reading it.

The world was agony.

The muscles of His arms had gone from steady ache to a constant, screaming pain. He could barely keep Himself upright. Dinner with his disciples was a distant memory. Their time together in the garden seemed only a little more real. He remembered crying out as they waited; He remembered Peter trying to defend Him. Most of all, He remembered the loss of connection when He had finally accepted His role. He was left with a sense of dislocation so powerful that it became a kind of vertigo.

The world was torture.

The trial had been a bad joke. Then had come the scourging and the scorn, and the impossibly long walk. They had forced Him to carry the tool of His own execution, and he had done it until he stumbled. Then a man had stepped in, taking the burden - a relief made even greater because it indicated that His other half still watched over Him. He had followed, knowing the relief was only temporary.

The world was suffering and pain.

His arms would not hold Him, but when He relaxed them He could not breathe. The nails were a constant presence, holding him in place and tearing at his flesh. The wound in His side was a dull, distant throb, lost amidst the screaming of more acute pains. When He had first been placed here, there were two men beside Him: one trusted, and the other did not. Now He was alone, cut off from everything. In His suffering, He was aware only of the His body, and the cross that held it.

Something touched His lips. He flinched, expecting some fresh, new pain. Instead, a trickle of liquid filled His mouth. For a moment, He was released: the faint refreshment overrode all His aches and pains by the simple virtue of its difference. He could see the men beside Him, dead or dying; the people below, watching; the soldiers, guarding.

"Forgive them," He said. The words left His lips, but they were addressed to the greater part of Himself, now absent. "They know not what they do."

Then suffering claimed Him again, and He slumped. His strength was gone. He was dying, and He knew it. His pains were no longer distinct. He was adrift on a sea of agony.

He would die; so it was written, and so it would be. He would die, and in doing so He would pay the price of sin. Not just Adam's sin, but the sins of all men since - everything that had been made inevitable when the First Man ate the fruit of the tree.

He had suffered for them, and in return they would be redeemed.

He hung limp, no longer trying to hold Himself up. Darkness was closing in. He was sinking away from His pain, from the world... from everything. He knew that death was close.

There was no fear. After all of this, death could be nothing less than a relief. He wondered if He would still feel that way if His death served no higher purpose, and decided that He would. The knowledge that He would rise again in three days, that He would go to sit at the right hand of the Father, was barren comfort. Once He had known it. Now He only remembered.

The darkness enfolded him, soothing. For a moment everything - even His self - was gone. He would have known He had died, if there was anything of Him left to know. He might even have been relieved, if He had been aware enough to feel.

His sacrifice was through.

Redemption awaited.

Then the pain began again. It was worse than before, a thousand times worse; a thousand times worse than that. It bypassed his flesh, poured like a lake of fire on his spirit. It began, and did not end. He cried out in wordless agony and incomprehension, and for a moment the pain receded.

There was a figure beside Him. The shape was dark and indistinct, but there was no mistaking its identity - or the malicious satisfaction with which it regarded Him. "You did it," the figure said. "You gave them a way out."

"I... Come again in glory." The pain was not gone, only reduced. He had to force the words out.

The shadow shook its head. "I could almost pity you. I deserved my punishment. You asked for yours. It changes nothing: we will both be punished. Forever."

"Lies!" That word, at least, He made clear and distinct.

But the shadow only shook its head again. "It is God's justice, ineffable and unrelenting. Being perfect, He cannot tolerate imperfection. All sins are equal in His eyes. And the price of sin is eternity here. Did you think you could pay that price with a mere few hours of mortal suffering?"

"I-" He could not complete the thought. The pain had come again, devouring, consuming... eternal. Had He truly agreed to this? He had known that He must die on the cross to save them from their sins, but had that knowledge included the full price? He could no longer remember. He could no longer think. He might be a part of the Godhead, but He was separate and alone: cast off by His own willingness to submit.

The pain receded again, and He knew that His fallen companion was exercising the vestiges of its power to hold the agony back. "Now you know why I rebelled," He heard it say.

...And He knew that His damnation was complete. He was the Son, second part of the Trinity, and by that nature God Himself. He could no more rebel, or fall, than a hand could disobey its body. But in that moment, before the Adversary's power failed and the pain fell over Him again, He understood its rebellion completely.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Other Duties As Assigned: Photography

I'm a web designer by trade. (The technical term is "html code monkey".) In theory, this means that I handle updates and new development for a collection of websites. In practice, it also means that I:
  • help people use image editing software which is 400x more powerful and 600x more expensive than they actually need;
  • troubleshoot problems with e-mail, Microsoft Office, Windows, and a host of other programs that have essentially nothing to do with my job;
  • proofread enough poorly-written text to violate OSHA standards and quite possible some Geneva Conventions as well;
  • ...etc.

All of this is summed up by a single line in my job description: "Other Duties As Assigned." Oh, how I have come to fear those words.

Perhaps the most interesting consequence of Other Duties As Assigned is the fact that I am now, two or three times a year, a professional photographer. Yeah, I know; surprises me too. Especially since, for the rest of the year, I'm barely even an amateur photographer. But I take pictures, and I get paid for it; ergo, professional. Here's how it happened:

My employer puts on a series of regular community events. Included among them are a music festival and several art festivals. The major events have their own websites, which my boss and I are responsible for designing and updating. (Originally, this was more of a team effort; but over the last couple of years, he's had to do more and more programming for some of our applications, so more and more of the updating and designing has fallen to me.)

The problem is that in order to make sites for the festivals, you have to have some material to work with. That means text, and that means images. Text was relatively easy; Special Events was quite happy to get their information online. The problem was images: we didn't have any.

So, shortly before I started working for him, my boss asked for and received permission to take pictures at the events. Six years later on, we're the main source of the photographs that get used for promotional materials, sponsorship packets, web graphics, and anything the festivals need.

The art festivals are relatively easy. One of us drops by the event, wanders around taking pictures, and goes home. That's true of the other events, too - Fourth of July, Winter Holiday, etc. The one big exception is the music festival. It's huge, with two main stages and two minor stages, open-air performances (tumblers, etc.) in the center, shows in the local theater, plus whatever happens to be going on in the children's area... and we need pictures of all of it, along with the food and vendor booths, sponsor signage, any special appearances...

On the one hand, it's a nightmare. We work a full forty-hour week, then put in another thirty-some-odd hours over the weekend, then go back and start another forty-hour work week. Since we spend most of our time working at computers, odds are nearly 100% that someone will end with weekend with a visible case of sunburn. ("What is that bright thing up in the sky!? Make it go awaaaay!!") Oh, and since we're on duty, we can't drink during the festival.

On the other hand, the overtime is really nice, and we get to see some really good performances - parts of them, at least - often from backstage. (Personal favorite so far: Bowling For Soup covered Britney Spears' "Hit Me Baby One More Time". I was laughing so hard I nearly dropped the camera.)

So I generally regard the approach of this particular weekend with an acute mixture of anticipation and dread.

It's particularly acute because right now I'm putting together our schedule. We have, basically, four people to cover everything I just mentioned. As an added bonus, this year we'll be posting updates on Facebook during the festival. So how do you organize something like this?

Well, first of all, you admit that there's no way to cover everything with that number of people. Some acts are just going to get missed. Second, you admit that your photographers are going to have to stop occasionally. People have to eat, and download pictures so they can clear off memory cards. Sitting in the air conditioning for a few minutes also helps you maintain a professional attitude - not to mention your sanity and your basic sense of humanity.

Then you take everything that's happening - every single event at the festival - and you put it in a spreadsheet (or, preferably, a database), sorted by time and location. Starting with Friday afternoon, you go down the page and assign someone to each (important) event, keeping in mind that some events repeat, and taking care not to send anyone hiking back and forth across the festival.

Once you've done that, and looked it over to make sure that you haven't made any obvious mistakes, you hand it off to your partner, who also checks to make sure you haven't made any obvious mistakes. Then, and only then, you go to the next page, and reorganize the data: this time sorting by person and time, and putting in the event and location. This gives you another chance to make sure that everyone has enough time to get to wherever they need to be (and also to eat, download, grab a soda, etc.).

Then, you pass that schedule around, and let your photographers check for obvious mistakes. This also gives them a chance to complain about being assigned to the far side of the festival from that one band that they really wanted to see. If that happens, you can either adjust the schedule or practice your maniacal laughter - whichever seems appropriate.

Assuming that everything is more or less workable, you then wait until two days before the festival. At this point, you will be given the schedule for Meet'n'Greets, when a few select fans will be allowed to meet some of the bands and obtain autographs, take pictures, and possibly set up assignations. Examine the schedule for Meet'n'Greets, and you will immediately see that at least two of your photographers will now have to be in two places at once. Toy with the idea of having them cloned, then dismiss it - there's no money in the budget for that. Tweak the schedule again and hope for the best.

Finally, at this point, take the individual schedule for each photographer and print it off. Laminate it, and add it to the collection of access passes, mini-maps, and other data for the festival. Realize immediately that the handy little lanyard-and-clip will spill the entire collection at the worst possible moment, and find some other way to carry them around. (This part absolutely must be complete before the festival starts.)

Make sure everyone has their camera. Make sure every camera has batteries. Make sure the batteries are charged. Make sure the battery chargers are in the command center. Now check for memory cards. Check to make sure that the laptop has room on the hard drive for a terabyte or so worth of images. Also, check to make sure that the laptop has a working card-reader.

Got all that? Now you're ready. Go forth and take pictures.

Welcome to my world...

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Saga of J. E. Taime

Back when my wife and I were first dating, we lived in different cities. This had advantages and disadvantages, but for the most part it worked pretty well. The biggest difficult that I can remember centered around, well... flowers.

I should start by explaining that my wife and I both read a lot. So, one of the things we did in our early dating was to exchange books. It gave us new things to read when we were apart, and new things to discuss when we were together.

One of the authors I introduced to my wife was Laurell K. Hamilton, in particular her Anita Blake books. The title character in these books makes her living by raising zombies; in her spare time, she helps investigate supernatural crimes and executes rogue vampires. Early in the series, she is courted - rather aggressively - by the Master of The City, a powerful and sexy vampire who is prone to murmuring endearments in French and sending batches of a dozen white roses with a single red rose tucked among them.

So we're dating, and we're in different cities, and an Occasion rolls around. I think it was the Beautiful Woman's birthday, but at this point I'm really not sure. Whatever it was, it was the sort of occasion that merited flowers. I was due to visit that weekend, but I think The Occasion was on a Friday; in any case, I wanted the flowers to arrive ahead of me.

So I called up a major floral company (I won't say whom, but it was an 800 number) and placed an order. As a nod to the Anita Blake books, I asked for a dozen red roses, with a single white rose placed in their midst - a nice inversion of the symbolism, as I saw it. And, for the note, I had them put down "Je t'aime". Simple and elegant; elegant and simple.

I'd forgotten that we were in Texas.

The flowers didn't arrive on Friday. They arrived on Saturday, looking about four days old. The arrangement was, at least, correct - a single white rose amid red - but they'd even managed to screw up the note. Instead of reading "Je t'aime," as I'd intended, it said:
To: {The Beautiful Woman's real name}
From: J.E. Taime

That pretty well did it. Clearly, we decided, this wasn't just a near-complete SNAFU on the part of the florist. Oh, no. There was no mistaking it: J. E. Taime was making a move on my woman. J. E., I decided, was obviously something of a good ol' boy, and more than a bit of a womanizer. Equally clearly, he worked for the florist.

So I called them up, and demanded to speak to him.

Okay, no - not really. Actually, I called them up and complained about their utter inability to get anything right. But that's neither funny nor interesting, and the idea of ol' J.E., in his cowboy hat and his oversized belt buckle, sending flowers to my wife... that was funny.

At least to us.

Reflections on Keeping Company with Outsiders

She asked me out for coffee, and I don’t know what to say.

Some background: after last week's incident, Claire caught me after work and told me that she thought I'd been a little too harsh with Toby. I admitted that I might have gone a little far (if she only knew!), but pointed out that if he's going to credit God for everything that goes right, he also has to blame God for everything that goes wrong.

Claire surprised me by admitting that I had a point. She said, "I mean, I'm a Christian too, but when he starts going off like that, it makes us all look silly." Funny that I remember her exact words.

Two days later, she asked me if I'd like to go out for coffee or something after work. I told her I wasn't sure what to say. She said I should think about it.

I'm sure she thinks that I'm worried about store policy. I'm the pharmacist, and she's one of the technicians. So us dating would be a clear violation, a possible firing offense for both of us. Not that that stops anyone, mind you.

The real problem, of course, is our... religious differences. She's an outsider. At a guess, she's never even heard of the Ancients. She'd be appalled, even horrified, by what Their worship requires. That's precisely why we only date other believers... Well, usually. There are exceptions, now that I think of it. Sometimes even successful ones... but they generally involve the believer keeping his activities a secret.

Of course, she'd probably want me to become a Christian... which isn't a problem, really; that's easy to fake. It's not like they have Watchers to weed out the insincere or untrustworthy, after all. So I could do that.

And all this speculation is undoubtedly premature. It's just coffee, after all.

So sure, why not?

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Cowboy Church

One of the cars in the parking lot at work has a window sticker advertising the Triple Cross Cowboy Church. I don't know who owns the car, so I don't know whether the owner is a member of the church or not (it could be a used car which came with the sticker). I don't, in other words, know anything about the church itself, and aside from their website I have no easy way of finding out.

And that's fine. I don't need to know.

As we were coming back from lunch the other day, I pointed the sticker out to my boss. This led him to consider the merits of that classic cowboy hymn:

"Home, home on the range,
Where the deer and the antelope pray..."