Pain As a Monument to Life

The question always comes up: What do you say to someone who’s lost a loved one to death? How do you comfort them? Maybe the only useful answer is that there is no real comfort, and that that’s a good thing.

A few days ago I found a microcassette tape of my Cowboy Dad talking to me. The tape is nothing special, it’s just him sitting there in his living room talking. Teaching me something … and that was so HIM.

I wish I had more such tapes. I wish I had video. Jeez, I want HIM back. But I know I’m not going to get that. The rotten realization hits me yet again: I’ll go the whole rest of my life without him in it.

But I’m also thinking, you know, he had his moment in the sun. And this moment, THIS one, is mine. This is the moment in the sun of all of us, all we living people. And yeah, sadness is a part of it. We’ll always have that, those of us who feel real love, and lose it.

But this brief Moment, our moment, is also the only time we get for creating joy, for living our lives as our own selves, and discovering how much we can do with that.

That’s what we’re really about, isn’t it? Not just getting through the day, not just slinking through our lives making as little fuss as possible, not just dragging ourselves from one place to another and back over and over, but creating joy. DOING something joyous and big, and sharing it.

I suppose it’s irony that each next generation most strongly feels the sadness of losing us when we have created an environment of love, of the joys of life, for them to live inside. The sadness we feel at the loss of a loved one is the monument to a life well and lovingly lived.

In my view, nothing should be allowed to diminish that sadness, that monument. Not drugs, not religion, not well-meaning fantasies about better places and rainbow bridges.

When you lose someone you love, it should damned well HURT, and keep on hurting … until you rediscover the joys of life in your own time, hear the music of life again and find your feet dancing to it.

Every generation carries within it the darkness and pain of death, and yet manages to dance in the music and the sunshine of life.

It will happen for you.

Beta Culture: Don’t Teach the Controversy (repost)

Thinking about some of the things Beta Culture will entail, I know education has to be an early and definite part of it.

I’ll talk about one aspect of that. We secularists have been almost frantically hands-off when it comes to the intersection of religion and children. Something you hear extremely often is the bit about “Well, let’s give them both sides and let them make up their own minds.”

I’ll tell you where I think that comes from. It comes from fear of being wrong. Of telling kids wrong things.

(And, well, fear of blowback from the godders. But if we are ever going to get over that, this is the time. There’s too much riding on this to be faint-hearted.)

Even most full-on atheists will back away from telling young people explicitly that there are no such things as gods. But we should be including that statement in every course that deals with real-world matters. It should be stated on Day One of every class.

“Everything we’ll be doing here this semester is based on this bedrock principle – that the real world exists, and that all the supernatural, goddy, mystical, fantastical stuff doesn’t. There really are no such things as gods. There are no ghosts, no demons or angels. There is no afterlife, no Heaven or Hell. No spirit mediums or psychic powers, no flying saucers or free lunch. Physics works, chemistry works, geology works, astronomy works, and it all works because reality is reality. What we know of reality, the principles and specifics of it, has been discovered by hard-headed realists who worked their asses off to figure things out.”

But we don’t do that. Because most of us don’t know that we can, or that we should. Instead we say “Well, maybe you and I don’t believe in God, but you can’t KNOW, with 100 percent certainty, that a god doesn’t exist somewhere.”

That statement right there leaves open the door to a HUGE wash of nonsense.

What we’re faced with is our own striving for perfection being used against us. We don’t want to say no gods exist because we’re not sure we can justify the statement … by OUR standards. We don’t want to slide down the slippery slope and get to where we’re as sloppy and false as the people on the goddy side of the claim.

But meanwhile, we act as if the question is wide open. We leave kids with the impression that we’re not SURE whether or not a supernatural superbeing exists. That it may exist.

Of course we’re sure. Every confident realist is totally comfortable with the idea that nothing of the sort – nothing that’s ever been described by humans, anyway – is even possible.

After all, do we think there’s a giant man with a white beard sitting on a 50-ton throne of gold somewhere in the sky? No.

Do we think there’s an actual red-skinned Devil, all horns and pitchfork and evil laugh, capering around underneath us in caverns of fire? No.

Do we think two naked people, a man and a woman, lived in a luxurious garden 6,000 years ago and spent their time having conversations with a snake? And they were the only two people alive, the first two people to ever exist on Earth? Hell, no we don’t.

Just as we KNOW there are no magic beans that will grow a stalk up into the sky and open onto the cloud-foundation of a giant’s castle, we know all of these religious fantasies are absolutely false.

We’re just afraid to say so, directly and emphatically, because we think it goes against our basic principles of absolutely accurate judgments of reality.

But look, there’s this line we’re asked to take sides on.

If we think there’s a 0.00000001 percent chance one of these supernatural suberbeings thing might exist, we can’t bring ourselves to stand on the side of the line that says “Nope, no way, doesn’t exist.”

Instead, we feel obligated to stand there saying “Okay, yes, it MIGHT exist.” Hell, we’ll even argue for its existence among ourselves, not only allowing ourselves to leave the door open, but insisting others leave the door open too. “But if you say you’re  absolutely convinced there are no such things as gods, aren’t you being just as irrational as the ones claiming they do exist?”

No, you’re not. Because there’s another position regarding that supposed dividing line, a third choice that says …

“Hell, there’s no way these things exist. No rational person would spend two minutes evaluating the non-evidence for them. You’d have to be crazy to hang there in indecision, when there are so many more important issues to deal with.”

… But that also leaves the door open, as any rational person would, for the believers to offer more evidence.

I’m not saying wait around for that evidence. Just as none of us is holding off on judging the existence of magic beans, patiently waiting for more evidence, and meanwhile saying “Well, they MIGHT exist …”

I’m saying, make the bald, emphatic statement “There are no such things as fucking magic beans, and no sane person believes there are.”

And THEN, if by some remote chance the magic bean people want to actually show up with beans, we yell out “Plant those suckers! When we can see the stalks from 50 miles away, we’ll be over here like a shot. Count on it!”

We really can say there are no gods. We can say it out loud, we can say it in public, we can say it confidently, without waffling or qualifying.

No God. No gods. Not now, not ever, not anywhere. Period. The question is closed.

What we face is a double standard. And we let it be used against us.

The double standard is that the one side can make any claim at all, with no evidence, like a teenaged writer making up elves or dragons to populate a second-rate fantasy.

But that WE, the rational side, are then expected to operate by ten-decimal-place certainty before we turn down the possibility.

Get it? There’s this fluffy, indeterminate, marshmallow domain of fantastic supernatural claims, and there’s this diamond-hard domain of physics and decimals.

An argument advanced in the marshmallow domain does not require an answer in the domain of diamonds.

They can’t expect us to hold off on deciding until THEY produce more evidence. On the other hand, we CAN expect them to deliver more evidence before we spend one more second on the thing.

If they want to argue it with us, let THEM cross over into the domain of diamonds, and produce some diamond-hard, diamond-durable evidence.

On the question of a supernatural superbeing, we should always say “There’s nothing there. The thing does not exist, and we won’t spend two seconds thinking about it. If someone says it does, if they say we’re wrong, they must damned well PROVE IT.”

And that’s what we teach kids. We don’t hold off, giving them “both sides” and then “letting them decide.” We teach it to them the same way we teach math, or physics. We teach them the facts. We teach them to CARE about facts and to laugh at silly fantasies. And we teach them starting in kindergarten.

Anything less and we become accomplices to the spreading of the lie. And damn, NOW is the time we stopped doing that.

As I see it, Beta Culture would call on all educators everywhere to begin simply telling kids the bald facts. No sugar-coating, no waffling.

“To the best of all human knowledge, this is how it is: No gods, no ghosts, no souls, no magic, no luck, no psychic powers, no supernatural, not anywhere, not anywhen. The universe just doesn’t work like that. Anyone who tells you different is lying to you.”

Beta Culture: Self Defense in the Age of Fuck You

Say there was this place you could live. Call it FairWorld. It would be a place where businesses and government officials dealt with you honestly and fairly. Where nobody would think of lying to you, and where every deal was transparent and open, with no unpleasant surprises built into it, so you’d know exactly what you were getting, what you were paying for, what you were agreeing to. Where you were neither lied to nor manipulated by business, but dealt with as a partner and an equal.

Wouldn’t you like to live there? I know I would.

Because say there was this other place you could live. A place where every deal was suspect, where there were nasty little surprises hidden in every purchase, every business transaction. Where you were lied to and manipulated as a matter of course, a place where the lies and manipulation were so constant and so expert that most of the time you didn’t even know it was happening. Where unfair, predatory treatment was so much the norm that when you did notice it, you expected to have to wage a prolonged fight to get fair treatment, a fight you knew you’d often lose. A place where nothing was exactly illegal (usually, anyway), but where you’d feel cheated on an almost daily basis by the dishonesty, the trickery, the chicanery that regularly came your way.

Call this place FuckYouWorld. Would you like to live there? I know I wouldn’t.

But we sort of do.

Here’s a little slice of FuckYouWorld:

I flew into Las Vegas a few weeks back. The trip was partly vacation, but largely devoted to arranging and conducting a long-delayed memorial service for my Cowboy Dad. I rented a car so I could drive into California’s Eastern Sierra for the main event.

Let me introduce you to one of FuckYouWorld’s rental car agencies, Payless Car Rental of Las Vegas, Nevada.

If you’ve ever dealt with a car rental agency, you already know you have to be on your guard. In the first few minutes at the rental counter, you will be offered a half dozen things you don’t actually need, things that sound good but come at a whale of a price.

For instance, this time I needed a GPS. Oh, they’ll rent you one. For the 13 days of my vacation, I figured a GPS would be, say, $5 a day, for a total of $65. Pricey, but what the hell, I was willing to pay it.

But no. The GPS units Payless rents are quoted at close to $12 a day.

Wait, $156 for a gadget you can BUY for less than $100? I needed the damned thing, so I agreed to it, but I wasn’t about to let things stay that way. I set the rental GPS for the nearest Wal-Mart, about two miles away, went in and bought a brand new GPS for $90, and took the rental back.

Props to Payless for giving me a refund, but listen to this bit: The refund they gave me was for $218. So the REAL cost of the GPS rental was a few coins shy of $17 a day.

Payless policy is a very expensive Fuck You for the GPS, and Fuck You a second time by not telling you the true cost of the thing when you sign for it.

Yes, yes, yes, I get it that they’re in business to make a profit. And I get it that I could have asked and maybe gotten the true cost of the thing. BUT … they also could have charged a reasonable price, or told me that the things were so expensive it would be cheaper to just drive a few miles and buy one.

Here’s more Fuck You from Payless: The place you pick up the car is in a surprisingly dark garage. You get a little form you’re expected to mark showing visible damage to the car at the time of rental. With past experience well in mind, I went over the exterior of the car, the interior, and even the trunk (to verify the spare was there). I marked every tiny scratch and ding, on a form which is designed for nothing so detailed.

The deal is, if you bring back the car with a dented fender, you get charged a hefty repair fee for it. But if the dented fender was there when you rented it, and you failed to notice or mark it down, I’ll bet you would still get charged for the repair … even if the rental agency knew it was there.

In fact, I’d bet money there’s someone who WANTS you not to notice damage, and to drive away with it, so it will be your costly fault when you come back. In a business which carefully inspects and cleans returned cars, so that they would KNOW of each new ding and dent, I’d bet that form was created to Fuck You renters. When the possibility exists for them to get paid twice for the same repair, good luck getting them to check the records of previous renters, or of the car itself, to find out if the damage had already been reported and paid for.

[ Payless people, if you happen to read this, don’t get distracted by this supposition about your damage policy. DO pay attention to the real Fuck You of the GPS. And by the way, the reason I’m using your name here is because I’ve called three times and left messages about my final bill, which was $50 more than I was quoted – what looks like yet another Fuck You – but nobody has bothered to call me back. ]

I probably barely need to mention banks as an example of Fuck You. Those “cascading overdraft fees,” you’ve either had it happen to you, or you know someone who’s had it happen. One large check written two days before payday will bounce, and cause smaller checks written several days before – checks which would have cleared if they’d “come through” ahead of the big one – to bounce, all at a $35-a-whack overdraft fee.

I’ve paid as much as $140 for one bad day at the bank – at a time when I was already squeezed. And yes, of course it was my fault. That’s sort of the point – that one small miscalculation on your part can open the gate to the bank giving you a Fuck You that you can’t even justifiably complain about. Even you will feel they were right to gouge you. You’ll pay, and walk away feeling that it really was your fault.

The entire field of marketing is based on the Fuck You business model. If you’re a marketer, you exist to get people to buy things they wouldn’t want, don’t need, and might be better off without.

Put the candy next to the register, and Fuck You mom on getting through that line without your kids pestering the hell out of you to buy them something. Make diamonds seem like the definition of true love, and Fuck You young men for needing to spend thousands to prove your love, but also Fuck You young women for allowing yourselves to be brainwashed with the same idea.

Fuck You from the auto industry (among the MANY Fuck You’s of the auto industry) by selling you an all wheel drive car that you might – MIGHT! – need once or twice a year. You not only pay the Fuck You price of the car, you get the Fuck You of the extra mechanical weight on the drive train that will suck down your gas mileage every day you drive the car, and not just the one or two days when you actually need it.

How about this one: You’re probably too young to remember the age of S&H Green Stamps

S&H Green Stamps (also called Green Shield Stamps) were trading stamps popular in the United States from the 1930s until the late 1980s. They were distributed as part of a rewards program operated by the Sperry & Hutchinson company (S&H), founded in 1896 by Thomas Sperry and Shelley Byron Hutchinson. During the 1960s, the rewards catalog printed by the company was the largest publication in the United States and the company issued three times as many stamps as the U.S. Postal Service. Customers would receive stamps at the checkout counter of supermarkets or department stores, and gasoline stations among other retailers, which could be redeemed for products in the catalog.

… but I vividly recall my mother and all the local housewives fanatically collecting the things – planning shopping expeditions based on how many Green Stamps they’d get for purchases, so they could fill out those books as quickly as possible and get a new iron, a bicycle or skates for a beloved child, or a complete set of cast iron cookware.

Green Stamps were one of the first retail loyalty programs.

Which means they were engineered to manipulate shoppers into buying certain products, or shopping at certain stores, without adding any really certain value to the picture (where did the money for the catalog items come from, after all? It was added into the prices of the store products). How many women never redeemed those books of stamps, faithfully collected and pasted into the stamp books, or never got anything whose value matched the amount of effort they put into the game? Thousands. Millions. Carefully ensheeped, they shopped and collected and pasted anyway, as they were bidden to do by the shepherds holding out the hope of those wonderful “free” gifts pictured in the catalogs.

Which brings me to the Lottery, one of the most transparent Fuck Yous of the modern age. Millions and millions of people will give money – GIVE money, hundreds or thousands of dollars a year – for nothing but the carefully engineered and entirely illusory hope that their miserable lives will be bettered by some fantastic stroke of blind chance.

The ugly hidden truth of the Lottery – the same truth that holds sway in the casino industry – is that even IF you win, you don’t win the casino’s money, or the state’s money, you win the money of those legions of other poor suckers, the losers whom you are now helping to Fuck You by crowing about your “win.”

But even aside from that, Fuck You, you poor sap, every time you say “If I won the Lottery, I would …” or “When I win the Lottery, I will …” As long as you think someone other than you is going to reach down and save you, pull you out of the neck-deep shit, neither you nor your entire gullible class has a chance in hell of ever getting out of the tragic sump of your life. But it doesn’t even matter how bad things are for you. In FuckYou World, as long as someone can make money off you and people like you, and as long as it’s LEGAL, it’s all good. That idea of that one saving Lottery ticket was SOLD to you, and nobody involved thought this was a bad thing.

Fuck You in the job market. I worked for a local supermarket for a couple of years. For more than two years there, I did a bang-up job, but I was a part-timer the whole time. Which means no benefits, no vacation for more than two years, nothing but that low hourly wage. I’d wager that more than half the store was staffed by part-timers. A few full-time department heads to keep things together, and a lot of low-paid fill-ins to actually do the work. Why? For good economic reasons, obviously, but also because Fuck You.

Fuck You isn’t just the philosophy of business. It’s often government philosophy too. The strategy of today’s GOP, for instance — whether gerrymandering voting districts, eliminating reproductive rights of women, or disenfranchising voting rights of minority voters, not to mention wasting time in Congress voting for bills that have no chance of passage while important business goes wanting — is pure Fuck You. Not just to every voter who doesn’t happen to be a rich white male Republican, but to every American.

Once you start thinking about it, Fuck You is everywhere. Banks. Advertising. Insurance. Cars. Mortgages. School loans. Software. Computers. Phones. Cops and courts, judges and laws. Fox News. The History Channel (Ancient Aliens? Ice Road Truckers? Really??).

Life is not all Fuck You, of course. My own social universe is made up of a great deal of kindness and generosity. As to business, oh boy, I do appreciate being able to go into a supermarket and buy foods from all over the world. I love being able to use my charge card. I like my phone. I love the Internet. Hell, I even like government — the part that holds things together, and paves the streets and so forth.

But even these indispensable services and conveniences are often designed to contain just enough useful features that the Fuck You can be slipped in quietly so as to appear to be just part of daily life.

After all, you NEED insurance, right? So what if the damned stuff is so complex you can hardly tease out the Fuck You part of it from the good bit? And computers … who cares if it’s all so complicated nobody can really understand it? The parts that you can understand are fantastic! As to software, so what if you can never get a real human being on the phone for help when you have a problem? You can always Google support groups, and maybe get an answer after a few weeks of quizzing semi-literate others who’ve suffered the same problem.

Off the top of my head, the only thing I can think of, right this minute, that ISN’T at least partly based on Fuck You is libraries. But that may only be because I’m sitting in a public library as I type this, thinking about how wonderful it is that all these books, all this knowledge, is here for the borrowing, with only a library card as the price of it. It’s possible that the non-Fuck-You model is everywhere around me, and it’s only cynicism that makes me see its opposite so clearly.

I’d have to say the level of Fuck You is down in many ways over previous eras. After all, churches can’t burn you to death for being a witch or an apostate, cotton farmers can’t buy and sell you, children aren’t forced to work in factories at the age of 8, and the government can no longer conscript you into the military to die in some useless foreign war. Certainly we’re not FORCED to buy Lottery tickets.

But in some ways the Fuck You level is way up … because the techniques of Fuck You are so much more sophisticated now that most of us feel confident that we’re free and in control of our lives. That being Fuck You’d by the bank, or by student loans, or software companies, or a televangelist, or the Lottery, is all voluntary, and by our own choice.

But the truth is, we all know Fuck You is out there. And given a chance to think about it, we hate it. A lot. We just think we have no choice.

Sadly, that belief, that grim conviction that we have no choice, no power, is yet another Fuck You, but it’s a Fuck You we do to ourselves.

I suggest there’s a solution staring us in the face. Something like, but more than, a union.

Most of my early life, I never cared much for unions. Healthy and male, young and bright and adventurous, I had no need for them. If something in my work environment made me unhappy, I could just leave. And so I did. I switched careers like some people change outfits, happily digging into new endeavors or moving to new places at will.

If I had a job that required me to belong to a union, I grudgingly accepted the dues taken out of my paycheck, but I never attended a meeting, or voted in union elections. Eventually I always moved on to something freer, something – as I saw it – less forced.

Even better, I was self-employed more than once. The boss that made the rules, that bastard slave-driver I worked for, was ME. I had to work damned hard at times, but I also got to enjoy the profits. It gave me one more way to whack at unions: If a complete idiot like me could start a business, anybody could. (I still strongly favor the idea that anybody can start a business. Also, come to think of it, that I’m a complete idiot.)

But as life goes on, I’m seeing more and better reasons to favor unions.

The basic reason is this: A wolf can eat a mouse and there’s not a damned thing the mouse can do about it. But a wolf faces another wolf only with great caution.

Likewise, a corporation can screw you over – legally, financially, physically, medically, emotionally – and eat you alive, little mouse, when you try to get fair treatment.

But if you band together with others of your same small stature, you can become big enough together to present a counter-force to large-scale organizations. Thousands or millions of individuals combining their small allotment of personal power into a wall of determination can approach the status of equal with the corporation. As one wolf to another, such organization can pose a threat to the corporation, a threat that has to be carefully and diplomatically dealt with.

This is not to say that individuals can’t make big differences. It is to say that it’s never a bad idea to have a supportive team around you. Hey, corporations have their team. Why shouldn’t you have one too? Why should it be the rule that individuals-only can treat with large corporations? Or with government? Or with other powerful forces in society?

After all, every organization people create is just PEOPLE. Get enough other people together, with the same organizational model, and your people can do anything those other people can do. Anything one large collection of people can do, another large collection of people can do, or resist, or change.

Being atheists, we’re already doing some (nowhere near all) of that in the field of religion. But we lack greater heft in the larger social sphere, mostly because we see ourselves in this one way: We’re ATHEISTS.

The very idea of Beta Culture is that we’re more than that. We’re a People, with a great mass of shared values. What we don’t have, because we’ve never grasped it, is this great mass of shared power.

As LGBT supporters, we’ve held rallies, pushed for legislation, and made strides toward acceptance and equal rights. As feminists, on the other hand, we’ve fought on the Internet and in our own atheist conferences – raising consciousness, hopefully changing things, in the field of women’s equality and rights – but we’ve also lost ground. Abortion, or just women’s health counseling, is in many ways harder to get than it was 20 years ago.

Worse yet: Fighting as the Occupy movement, even though we’ve marched and held up our signs, raising consciousness in the field of economic justice, we still face an apparently unstoppable juggernaut of banks and corporations. The U.S. government bailed out banks and bankers and left debtors hanging, with rampant foreclosures and forced bankruptcies. Profits are higher than ever, and CEO salaries still soar into a stratosphere over those of we wage slaves at the bottom.

Half of our government is in the grip of vicious clowns who will stop at nothing to eliminate Obamacare, and to block economic recovery for all but bankers and the superrich. Also, long after Woodward and Bernstein, today’s whistleblowers are called traitors.

As a culture, a group of people who hold not only these values but many others, we could have greater social power. Far from just resisting the power of religion, for instance, Beta Culture could resist or reverse the Fuck You policies of business and government, simply by refusing to tolerate them.

We could have our own non-Fuck-You member-owned bank, our own non-Fuck-You insurance company, our own non-Fuck-You software companies (we sort of do, already, we’re just settling for the Fuck You software giants), our own non-Fuck-You phone company.

If 30 million people suddenly decide not to deal with any bank but their own, or phone company but their own, or software company but their own, things will change. Fast.

The power of nations is in our hands, if we only first realize we ARE a nation.

Beta Culture is that nation, the nation – the only nation – that ends Fuck You.

If we want it.