Friday, July 30, 2010

Lost, found, lost…found?

Anne Rice The big news on the Intarwebz and on Facebook (at least among those of us who love horror novels) has been Anne Rice's decision to renounce and reject Christianity.

If you've been living in a cave for the past twenty years, Anne Rice is the author of many fine novels, including the Mayfair witches books, and most notably, her vampire chronicles. (Oh, and the Sleeping Beauty novels under a pen name, but that's a story for another day.) Rice's vampires are no sparkly, wimpy vampires; they are complex killers who will tear your throat out as they profess their love of your beauty. They appreciate art and music and are driven to tears by such beauty...but make no mistake, they are as likely to kill you as they are to admire you. They love humanity even as they want to kill it, they treasure it as they destroy it.

The epitome of the Rice vampire is Lestat de Lioncourt, a young Frenchman born to a noble yet destitute family. Lestat is truly a beautiful killer, and as Anne Rice's own story unfolded, it became obvious that Lestat's struggles with good and evil, God and the devil, mirrored her own doubts and struggles about religion.

Rice was born into a Catholic family, but her social views led her away from the church. After several devastating losses (including the death of her husband of several decades), she returned to the church. I followed her on Facebook for a while, but I eventually had to stop. I found her constant contorted efforts to excuse the Catholic church for its centuries of molestation and abuse very unpleasant and hard to stomach. You see, I admire Anne Rice very much. I find her intelligent, interesting, daring, fierce, an incredible writer, and just generally fascinating. (I got my copy of Servant of the Bones signed by her back in 1996!) I had a really hard time seeing someone that I admire so much try to justify such abuses by the Catholic church; it was almost as if I were watching a friend struggle to make excuses for something she had to know was wrong. It hurt me to see her in such a state. It hurt me to see her go against what I know she knew was wrong, because it was required of her by the Catholic church. She never condoned the abuse, and in fact spoke out against it. But she still adhered to her Catholicism. I had to wonder how such an intelligent person could continue to be subject to such a corrupt institution.

This week, she renounced Christianity. She wrote on her Facebook page:

For those who care, and I understand if you don't: Today I quit being a Christian. I'm out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being "Christian" or to being part of Christianity. It's simply impossible for me to "belong" to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I've tried. I've failed. I'm an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.

I quit being a Christian. I'm out. In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.

My faith in Christ is central to my life. My conversion from a pessimistic atheist lost in a world I didn't understand, to an optimistic believer in a universe created and sustained by a loving God is crucial to me. But following Christ does not mean following His followers. Christ is infinitely more important than Christianity and always will be, no matter what Christianity is, has been or might become.

I very much empathize with Ms. Rice. I have gone through my own struggles with faith; raised in the church, dealing with various issues in life and with those who would force me to believe the way they do, rejection, a semi-reconciliation to some sort of spirituality...I eventually came to the logical conclusion for me. It has not been an easy path, and I understand her dilemma and why she was driven to find solace in some sort of faith. It is not my place to disabuse anyone of their faith, at least if they don't ask my opinion on it. (You won't see atheists knocking on people's doors trying to convert them, believe me.) It is never easy for anyone who struggles with justice and equality and the inconsistencies of what some insist is the literal word of God, not to mention family members who would never accept such heretical thinking.

We all have our own path we must navigate. Faith or lack thereof is a very personal decision, and I know all too well that it can be a very rocky path, indeed. I suspect that Ms. Rice is still finding her way. We all are, because our journey doesn't end until we do. I wish her safe travels, and I applaud her for standing true to her convictions concerning societal justice rather than falling into the party line. I hope she continues to question and explore, as we all should. I hope she can eventually look at things from a scientific and rational viewpoint and perhaps change her views even further.

Having said all that...Welcome back, Anne! I missed you!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Reason prevails, as does the Constitution

A big victory for justice today when Judge Susan Bolton struck down the most offending parts of Arizona's immigration law.

I wrote about Arizona’s law back in April when it was signed, and I stand by my initial thoughts. I still feel that it is unconstitutional and bigoted; far too many are making those with brown skin a scapegoat for our national woes. (The majority of the people responsible for our problems are Morticia Addams-white.) As I wrote back then, we definitely need to work on immigration reform. I do not deny that we have a problem, and I have never denied that. But suspending our Constitution in order to focus on and go after a certain group of people is simply wrong.

In her ruling, Judge Bolton wrote:

Requiring Arizona law enforcement officials and agencies to determine the immigration status of every person who is arrested burdens lawfully-present aliens because their liberty will be restricted while their status is checked. Given the large number of people who are technically “arrested” but never booked into jail or perhaps even transported to a law enforcement facility, detention time for this category of arrestee will certainly be extended during an immigration status verification. Under Section 2(B) of S.B. 1070, all arrestees will be required to prove their immigration status to the satisfaction of state authorities, thus increasing the intrusion of police presence into the lives of legally-present aliens (and even United States citizens), who will necessarily be swept up by this requirement.

I wholeheartedly agree with that. The possibility that someone who is here legally, or a U.S. citizen, might be detained for even a few hours in jail is abhorrent to me. (That is why I am against the death penalty; even a remote chance that an innocent person is executed is too much.) I can't remember where I wrote this previously (maybe on Facebook), but imagine being in a foreign country, let's say...Turkey (I'm thinking "Midnight Express"), and being stopped by their police for some minor infraction. When they ask you for your passport, you realize that you've forgotten it in your hotel room. Because you don't have your passport with you, you get to spend a couple of days in a Turkish jail until they can contact the American embassy and sort out who you are. I suspect they might not be in a huge hurry, either. I suppose you could yell at them about how you're an American and they have no right to treat you this way. I'm guessing they wouldn't be moved by your pleas or impressed by your professed citizenship.

A nightmare scenario? Of course. And it's one we are creating in the sunny climes of Arizona for residents who aren't obviously white. (If you think that Arizona cops are going to suspect that someone with blonde hair and blue eyes is here illegally and ask them for their papers, well...that's just dumb. Yeah, those darn Canadians just keep pouring across our borders, don't they?)

Of course, we need to fix this problem, and I look forward to the Obama administration tackling it next year. In the meantime, we still need to adhere to our Constitution. C'mon, people. You know we need to do that and protect the rights of everyone within our borders. That goes for citizens as well as non-citizens. Anyone on American soil is afforded the basic rights outlined in our Constitution.

Also, here are a few things to think about, if you're gung-ho on the "ship 'em all out" philosophy.

As with anything else, please take the time to find out more about an issue, rather than seeing only black and white. There are always shades of grey, and there is always more to the story. And please, please take the time to learn and read about our Constitution rather than buying into the teabaggers' fallacies about it. They profess to love it, if not worship it...but they sure don't seem to grasp the full meaning of it. If you would like to do a little research and reading, I highly recommend Text and History, a site that writes about various constitutional matters, including the teabaggers' claims about them. It's some good reading.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A brilliant plan

Michelle Bachmann caught reading! Perhaps you've heard about bat shit crazy Michelle Bachmann's latest endeavor: a tea party caucus in Congress. I'm embarrassed to admit that a couple of Indiana Congressmen have already joined. Thank science that neither are my Congressman.

I have to wonder about what sort of influence she and they think they will have in Congress; do they really think they’ll have the ear of Democrats, or of more moderate Republicans? (I use that term loosely. We are truly living in a Bizarro World when John Boehner and Eric Cantor are moderates…but compared to the teabaggers, that is the case.)

Although it seems the Republican party was none too keen on her going off the reservation in forming this caucus, I suppose that there will be plenty that see her efforts as bucking the system. Hey, I'm all about questioning authority, but you might want to pay attention to what Bachmann thinks the Republicans should do IF they regain control of Congress this fall.

Here is the pertinent part of what she envisions as the GOP's agenda:

"Oh, I think that’s all we should do," Bachmann said. "I think that all we should do is issue subpoenas and have one hearing after another. And expose all the nonsense that is going on. And it’s very important when we come back that we have constitutional conservative leadership because the American people’s patience is about this big."

That's right. “That’s all we should do.” Forget all that pesky stuff like introducing legislation in order to better our country or make things better for our people; never mind the actual governance of our country and passing bills to help those who are wanting; please ignore funding our troops. (Although I am sick of our wars and want us to get out as soon as possible, it is still up to Congress to make sure that our military is funded.) Ignore any attempt to rein in rampant greed on Wall Street. Ignore the energy crisis. Forget about funding for NASA and any further space exploration. Screw appropriation bills for libraries, education, infrastructure repair, the arts, museums, or any of that silly elitist crap.

So yeah. Fuck all that noise.

By all means, folks...go with the GOP and Bachmann's teabaggers and focus on spending every bit of time in session on issuing subpoenas and having hearings to investigate the "nonsense" going on. The nonsense of running our country. That is exactly what the American people want, Bachmann, and that will really generate respect around the world. Everyone will just love seeing you and your asshole friends wasting time on pursuing such things rather than actually running the goddamn country.

If you support Bachmann and her ilk, feel free to leave here and never return. I prefer to gather those around me who believe that our government can still govern, and indeed, that is their job. It is not to endlessly legislate in the name of revenge, or to stick it to those they feel have wronged the country. (If they want to correct such wrongs, they'd be better off pursuing the prosecution of Bush and Cheney for allowing torture to take place.) While President Obama has been going about passing legislation that actually makes a difference in our country, idiots like Bachmann are sitting back and planning how they will conduct hearings on things that have taken place under the rule of law according to the Constitution (no matter what the teabaggers say), and they will be using your taxes to run such a futile witch hunt.

If that is what you want, go ahead and vote for them. But don't come crying to me when nothing gets done.

Monday, July 26, 2010

No quarter and no quitter

Kiefer I'm sure we've all had to deal with a bully or two in our lifetime. Unfortunately, they're everywhere, in school and in the workplace, as children and as adults, online and in real life.

I've never had a tolerance for bullies; I'm not sure if it's because of a sense of injustice, or if I learned early on that people would try to intimidate me because of my small size. I remember being on the school bus when I was in high school, sitting with someone I cared about very much, and some pipsqueak in the seat behind us making a few remarks. I'd finally had it and whipped around and said, "Why don't you just SHUT UP?" Silence.

I got called a pit bull a while back based on some comments on Facebook. I don't know about that, but I do know that any sort of condescension or patronizing behavior, whether because of my gender or my lack of height, really gets my dander up. I worked hard to learn my profession, and when it comes to that, I do know what I'm talking about. I don't have all the answers, but I'm certainly not an idiot about it. As for being vertically challenged, there are still people out there who think that because I'm petite, I'm not to be taken seriously, or that I'm easily intimidated. Even if they're not much taller than me, if they've got a couple of dozen pounds on me, they think that somehow makes their opinions more...weighty. (Ha!)

Quitters I've known people who seem to have based their whole lives upon intimidation and bullying. Threats of lawsuits, threats of telling someone deep dark secrets about you, threats of trying to get money from you, threats of harassment, threats of...I don't know, blowing up the world if you don't bow to their demands and submit to their control? Give it a rest, Dr. Evil. When someone practices this as a way of life, it becomes laughable. I suppose there are people that cower under such treatment, but that person isn't me.

When someone tries doing that to me, or even worse, tries doing it to someone else I'm close to, my instinct is to get all five-foot-nothing of me right up in their face. I honestly don't know what the best tactic for dealing with a bully might be, but in my world, passivity is not an option. Over the years, I've found that most bullies back down in the face of a direct challenge. I've never gotten into a fist fight because of it, but I suppose I would if I had to. Usually the crazy-ass fury in my eyes will do the trick. I don't lose my temper often, but when I do, it's not pretty. I'll get on a step stool if I have to so that I can get in your face. I've also found that words are a highly effective tool, especially with those who are a little challenged in that regard.

Bullies seem to thrive on controlling a situation, and I've found that a confrontation can really help to defuse whatever power they think they have. They do not like to be unmasked for what they are; if they are used to getting their way through intimidation, they will not appreciate being called on it, and they will not react well to such scrutiny. They also don't react well to rationality and logic; they focus on the emotional and will do their best to draw you into their hysterics and drama. Keep your will make them even crazier, which will lessen their power over you even more.

Most bullies will end up being quitters, much like Sarah Palin. She has said that the media scrutiny is what caused her to quit as Alaska's governor. If you can't handle a little scrutiny and deal with that sort of pressure, Sarah, how in the holy hell do you think you'll handle the questions if you run for President? Oh, please do. It would be ever so much fun!

Quitters2 I've found that when confronted with reality, facts, and the truth, bullies will usually cut and run. I know of someone who has had a serious problem with me for several years now. It's been a lot of fun to watch them go through serious contortions as they've attempted to deal with my writings and handle my challenges to their own distorted reality. The funnest of all has been seeing them try to deal with matters of science, especially Microbiology. That's kind of my deal, and it's really sort of stupid to try to out-Microbiology me, unless you have a similar degree or experience. (Again...confront the bully and they will fold.) Over the course of a few years, they've burned through multiple blogs, at least a half a dozen. When something bothers them, they flame out and either take the blog private or delete it completely. I don't even remember how many blogs they've gone through, coming up with different cutesy names, attempting to get more readers, and ending up with a couple of family members, at the most, reading them.

I'm still hanging in there, and I'm closing in on four years of blogging.

Nutwood Junction, like the Dude, abides.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

They call me Mellow Yellow

TheAmericanPlague I've had this book for a while and finally got around to reading it.

I've written before about how one of my favorite subjects is infectious disease and its effects on history. It has had a profound effect, from the obvious (the massive die-off of the native population due to smallpox when the Europeans arrived contributed to the Europeans' easy land grab of the Americas) to the sublime (powdered wigs, heavy face powder, and faux beauty marks of the 1700's, all designed to hide signs of mercury poisoning from syphilis treatments and syphilitic lesions). I love books like this, and The American Plague by Molly Caldwell Crosby focused on the 1878 yellow fever outbreak that stunted that city's growth as an expanding post-Civil War metropolis. At that time, Memphis was poised to become a major city in the South, but the massive deaths and frantic desertion of the city due to the epidemic brought that growth to a shrieking halt.

In that regard, that part of the book was interesting. I also enjoyed the tale of Walter Reed and his Yellow Fever Board that did research in Cuba at the turn of the 20th century. At that time, human experimentation was common, and not only among volunteers. A few members of the research team chose to infect themselves with yellow fever in order to study the transmission of the disease. That seems barbarous and inconceivable now, but such experiments were common in that era.

However, I was horribly disappointed in this book. I've read numerous books on the subject of disease and its effect on history, or on the threat of emerging diseases, and most were written by doctors or research scientists. Ms. Crosby's biography states that she has a graduate degree in nonfiction writing from Johns Hopkins. She's not a bad writer, but I found her endless adjectival descriptions a little much. There was much about how incoming storms looked, or the yellow color the fever's victims develop, or anecdotes about family outings in Cuba. (Maybe that's why last night I had a dream in which I was sitting outside and thought about the “blueberry pie sky.” Interesting phrase, but who really writes that way? She actually described one victim as having “eyes like sunflowers.” What a horrid, hyperbolic description!)

Maybe this would be an interesting read for someone who has a casual interest, but I wanted much, much more. Where were the descriptions of the virus itself, its virulence factors, and speculations from scientists about why the Memphis outbreak was so severe? Why not more narrative from Reed and his team about figuring out that the mosquito was the vector? Towards the end of the book, there was a jarringly out of place short chapter that spoke of a case in the States in 2002. There was no follow-up, no description of the CDC's inevitable and full involvement, and nothing but vague, ominous cautions about how viruses have taught us one thing throughout history: "that their will and ability to survive may be stronger than ours." Really? That's the one major thing that viruses have taught us? Nothing about DNA, RNA, transmission, vectors, immune response...just that their will to survive is stronger than ours? I call bullshit on that, by the way. Viruses have no will. They are not sentient organisms. They are packets of protein. They simply exist, and they exist by replication in humans. They have no ill will towards us; they merely do what they must in order to survive.

Another thing that bugged me was that when Crosby wrote about Reed and his team in Cuba, she began talking about the yellow fever virus...but this was well before any researchers knew that yellow fever was caused by a virus. The prevailing thought at the time was that it was a bacterium. I found it very out of place to read about these researchers thinking of yellow fever as a virus when they had no real idea yet what what actually causing it.

I know I'm a hard taskmaster when it comes to books about microbiology and infectious disease. I want details, I want analysis, I want to hear about research. I won't go so far as to say that non-scientists shouldn't write about such subjects; I thought Richard Preston did a great job with The Hot Zone. But I will say that Ms. Crosby should find a subject other than science. I found this book boring and uninformative and very unrewarding. Oh, and about 40 pages was devoted to detailed notes about her sources. It's one thing to provide a bibliography. I don't need a detailed description of where you found every single thing you wrote about in the book. I skimmed over all of that, but I might have missed how she was sipping an iced coffee at a charming little sidewalk cafe when she read one of Reed’s letters to his wife. Seriously…WAY too much background!

If anything, this book made me resolve to consider my words more, and to try to use adjectives, descriptions, and metaphors judiciously. I'm sure Ms. Crosby had several courses in creative writing during her college studies. If such courses teach you to write like that, I think I'll pass. If anything else, it made me think that if she can get a book like this published, I could certainly get one published, too.