Things I’d Like to Take Home on the Eve of Christmas

The impulse, I suspect, is in all of us.

Put a 5-year-old on a beach with his mother, and he will spend some large part of his time picking up shells, one by one, over and over, running them back to her, proclaiming in awe and delight, “Mommy, look at THIS one!”

You find a great new eating place, you go back and TELL everybody. You discover a beautiful little waterfall on a hike, you take pictures and go back and SHOW people. You hear some juicy, or sad, or amazing, bit of news, your first impulse is to find a friend and SHARE it

So there are some things I’d like to take home. Things I’ve done. Things I’ve seen. Things I’ve discovered, out here in the wide world.

And though I don’t exactly think of the place I came from — that house, that neighborhood, that school, that town — as Home anymore, there are people back there who are home-y, and whom I’d enjoy sharing things with.

Because I’ve seen so much.

I don’t doubt that every person back there, and every person reading this, has lived a life as rich and full as mine is to me. But I’ll bet there are some things, maybe even a lot of things, that I’ve done that none of them have experienced. Because I left home, made my way in a somewhat larger world than the one we all grew up in, while some of them are still living right there, right in their home neighborhoods, right in the same part of town. With those same middle-class, white, Christian, English-speaking, Houston, Texas, CITY people.

Hey, I grew up with people who’d never been on a plane before. People who would never get on one. People who thought (think?) wildlife is for shooting, and nothing else. People who thought tacos were exotic foreign food. People who thought tea came in one style – iced – and to whom the very idea of hot tea was silly and foreign.

So here are some things I’d like to take Home and share with my people:

Sushi. Lagavulin single-malt scotch and George Dickel whiskey. A sip of apricot brandy after dinner.

Sitting in a natural hot spring and watching the full moon rise. Seeing the Great Sky River from the slopes of a 10,000-foot mountain. Lying on rocks at Yosemite National Park and watching a meteor shower. Walking outside and seeing the Aurora Borealis overhead, shimmering, flickering, dancing in the night sky. Rainbow rings around the full moon. Sunrise over the mountains. Sunset over the ocean.

Coyote song. The distant music of the bull elk. The roar of an African lion. The unearthly call of a mountain lion in the night. The bark of a red fox. The quork of a raven. The group howl of a pack of sled dogs under the full moon. The sight of a pika with a mouthful of harvested grass. The slick feel of a dolphin’s skin, and the pebble-grain roughness of a grizzly’s paw. The boom of a blue grouse taking flight overhead.

The smell of a Jeffrey pine. The crisp scent of falling snow. The smell of rain on mountain trail dust. The taste of water cupped from a trailside creek.

Bathing in an ice-cold mountain waterfall on a hot summer day. The view from 3,000 feet, under a parachute. The sound of the wind against the skin of a sailplane. The feel of a steady trail horse under you, patiently plodding along, and the view as you crest a rocky pass and see a mountain lake spread out below you. Waking to pre-dawn firelight, and coffee, and camaraderie on a wilderness horseback expedition. The feel of bone-deep weariness as a day of ranch work ends. The splashy spectacle of a mountain-bred rainbow trout snatching a fly from the surface of a creek, and the taste of it minutes later fresh from a campfire frying pan.

The rush and thunder of a wild river under a rubber raft. The this-is-where-I-belong comfort of a mountain hike with two good dogs.

You people back home, I know you’d love all this stuff. Oh, it might take an effort to get you to try sushi, but if you did try it, I’ll bet you’d like it. The rest of that stuff, even if you never get to do it, I could describe it to you, and if you’d listen, you could enjoy it vicariously.

There’s one thing more I wish I could bring home to you. Something I know most of you wouldn’t believe, wouldn’t accept. But if you trust me just a little bit, if you find any of the rest of this stuff interesting, or alluring, or just thought-provoking, I promise you this thing is a LOT better. Or at least as good.

It’s just this: The freedom you feel when you break away from religion. The cool comfort you get when you understand that the entire world is this honest, trick-free place with no hidden powers, no demons, no eternal torment. The fact that the only person in your head is you, and you can think anything you want; there is no lightning-wreathed fist waiting to smash you for your independent, irreligious thoughts. That there is no such thing as SIN, and that WE get to decide how to be good. That church-inspired charity – bargaining chips for your own selfish eternity – can be replaced by acts sparked by true compassion. That you can put the Bible down and never again worry about what it says … about anything.

That evolution is real, that we are risen apes, kin to every other lifeform on the planet – every bonobo and bear, every redwood and rhino, every dolphin and dingo and dragonfly – and that there is warm, radiant glory in knowing that.

That the fate of our neighbors, and ourselves, and our planet, is in OUR hands, and not those of some disembodied supernatural superbeing.

If I could bring that home to you …

It would be the best Christmas ever.



Back to My Redneck Roots … Maybe

Those of you who knew me as the Blue Collar Atheist, and who lament this high-falutin’ “Citizen of Earth” business, I may be getting back into the red-necky-blue-collary stuff in the near future.

Currently I drive a van for a drug and alcohol rehab facility. Five days a week, I drive more than 350 miles, round trip between my upstate New York town and New York City, to fetch and return rehab clients.

The work is interesting, sometimes fascinating. I’ve expanded my human horizons in that I’m interfacing with a demographic I’d never really dealt with before.

Oh, boy, have I wanted to write about them. But I haven’t, mainly because they’re humans, not … you know, things. Blog-fodder subjects I can casually deconstruct or joke about. Even at several removes on their identities — not telling you exactly where I’m working, not telling you their names, or any specific personal details — I would still feel uncomfortable relating any of their personal stories.

Mostly, as I’ve discovered, these are normal people with this Problem. Alcohol. Heroin. Crack. Xanax. Stuff I never heard of. And some have additional physical troubles such as a positive HIV status or hepatitis or … could be anything. But still, just people.

I have met a very few — maybe 3 or 4 in my 1.5 years of doing this — I might consider sociopaths, someone for whom the entire universe was created so they could be the center of it. You’d think someone like that would be some big ugly guy, but no, not generally. More often (in my sharply limited experience), they seem to be uber-charming, lovely young women. And I say I only “might” consider them sociopaths, because I carefully hold back on that judgment, fully aware that the field of drug addiction contains vast truths of which I am still pitifully unaware. I can’t begin to understand what drives one might come to have under the merciless lash of addiction.

I suppose I’ve known a few alcoholics in my life, but before this job, I can’t say I’ve ever really known a drug addict.  And even among the supposed alcoholics, I’ve never known one who lost a job or had other serious problems from it. So this is mostly subdimensional physics to me — a parade of people who will always be mysteries, interesting and sometimes sad beings who pass through my day, touching me only very slightly.

One part of the larger therapeutic environment is that bit based on 12-step programs, with liberal amounts of God and Jesus and Higher Powers sprinkled in. Knowing full well that my job is transporting these vulnerable people, with no scrap of it containing any right to meddle in their heads, I have given no hint to either clients or co-workers that I have the convictions you know I hold. And though other clients in the van might casually ask them what their drug(s) of choice are, or which prisons they’ve resided in, that’s stuff I’m careful never to do. Mostly I try to be nice to them, and smooth what is already a stressful day — a stressful life! — with music, a little tour-guiding, a listening ear, and lots of companionable silence for the long drive.

I can feel myself already getting tired of it though. There’s a certain strain in interfacing with addicts for many hours each day, day after day, week after week. And the job certainly doesn’t pay enough, even with benefits, to get me through my life in any halfway comfortable fashion.

So: I’m studying to get my CDL license, and sometime later this year I’ll be out hunting for truck driving jobs. Hopefully long-haul stuff, hookup-and-go loads along the interstates. There are a lot of hoops to jump through before it happens, but I think I’m headed that way.

I have to make a living, and I haven’t been very good at that for several years. I want to be able to pay my bills again, and get some dogs again, and live somewhere out of a city, where said dogs can enjoy some off-leash outdoor time and maybe a nearby creek.

I have several books yet to write, as I think I’ve told you, and I want nothing to get in the way of that. But book-writing for most of us is not a bill-paying enterprise. (You knew about this one, right? Hint, hint.)

Even if I break new ground in my book about dealing with death as an atheist (out sometime in 2014), it’s probably going to be anything but a bestseller. Who wants to buy a book about death and dying? Not even me, really … but there are still some things worth saying, and I think SOMEBODY has to do it. You know, for our people. For us.

I also want to carry on writing about — and hopefully speaking about — Beta Culture. Because I think it’s important, really important, and I’d like to see it actually happen.

But anyway, this time next year, I might be a trucker. Brace yourselves.

Hell, I might go all the way — pick my Southern accent back up, and start writin’ trucker love songs.

Baybuh, you done me wrawwnng,
Cain’t even think where to start,
I jist know I’m cryin’ tears,
For how you  jack-knifed my heart.

Whoa. Eat your heart out, Johnny Cash!


Beta Culture: Earthman’s Journey – Part 3 of 8

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After seasons of proving myself at many of the other chores of branding, on this day, I’m in charge of castrations. After the calf slides to a stop and both the heel rope and the top man are firmly in place, I step forward and kneel down by the calf’s belly. I stretch out the scrotum and slice across the lower third of it with a sharp knife. The testicles usually pop out on their own, but sometimes you have to fish around, pressing here and there, to get them to come free. Pulled out several inches, they’re still connected by silvery-blue cords that have to be either carefully scraped through with a knife or cut through with a pliers-like tool that simultaneously severs and crushes them. Skill comes into play here to prevent excessive bleeding. The scraping technique causes the arteries to spasm and close down and takes considerable care to do right; on the other hand the cutting-crushing tool, an emasculatome, is more foolproof, sealing the arteries by intense pressure, and can be used in full confidence by just about anyone with a bit of grip strength.

The bags are sometimes tossed into a pile for counting, sometimes simply thrown away. The testicles go into a separate bucket of water. Depending on whether somebody wants to go the trouble, they’ll be cleaned and frozen later – and yep, people really do eat them.

Needless to say, your hands get bloody right off in this kind of work. The blood dries and sticks to your hands, coats your pantlegs. The testicles are sticky, sometimes adhering to your fingers so that you have to sling your hand vigorously to get them to drop into the collection bucket. Keeping the knife sharp is a constant battle, but as about half the calves are heifers, there’s usually time to keep up with it.

Castration and ear marking is skilled work for two reasons. One is that you want to do the work accurately, and get the calf through it with a minimum of blood and stress. Second is that you are holding a naked razor-sharp blade and a lot of people with other matters taking their full attention want someone they can trust.

The hot hours pass. A dozen or so at a time, we work our way through half the calves.

We break for lunch, shutting down the noisy blast of the propane branding iron furnace, and trooping out to sit on a grassy spot next to a loading chute. Roping horses have their girths loosened, and stand hipshot in the shade of a long trailer. Ranch dogs show up and beg for pieces of our sandwiches, or prospect for edible bits out in the branding corral. We talk horses and heifers (the two-legged kind), old friends and old dogs.

Finally we pry ourselves up from our resting places and go back to the corral, where we rope, drag, tussle, stick, slice, burn. The calves match us move for move with panicked determination – they struggle, buck, squirm, kick, quiver and bawl. We respond by overcoming, enduring or ignoring them.

At the end of the day, all of them are turned out to their still-waiting mothers, and the lot of them are herded off to a distant pasture to rest, graze and recuperate. The rest of us mosey up to the ranch house where dinner’s ready.

I sit down with my plate in a low, loose chair, and am so bone-deep tired that when I discover I don’t have a fork, it’s a good five minutes before I manage to muster the energy to heave myself up and get one.

As I break bread with my friends, again the feeling of kinship – of shared work, of difficult tasks done well, of eating and talking and joking together – washes over me. After a childhood of divorce and moving, a series of different schools and strange new faces, and an eternity with the Stepfather from Hell, here I am in the company of the people who took me in, who allowed me to prove myself. These are people who like and respect me, who value me for my contributions and my company, and who put up with my peccadilloes. Surely no Bar Mitzvah, no tribal rite of manhood in New Guinea or Africa or South America, could do any better job of making a boy feel accepted, validated, even loved.

I am exhausted, but it doesn’t matter. I rest in the comfort of knowing that these are my People, and this is where I belong.

Except …

I have wrestled with more than calves today.

Something has nagged at me off and on for many hours. Time after time throughout the waning day, the picture of a little dog named Molly has come into my mind. I’ve drifted back, over and over, to something I learned from her recently, and I’m no longer sure I can justify enjoying the things I’ve done today.

Thanks to Molly, I’m seeing today in a different light. Something has changed in me, some new channel has opened up, and in through it are trickling new thoughts, things I never knew I never knew.


Beta Culture: Earthman’s Journey – Part 1 of 8

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Somewhere above all this, all the roiling newness of the growing atheist and progressive community, there’s an overview. I’ve tried very hard to see it.

It may be that there are plenty of people smarter than me, more educated, innately broader of understanding, who already know what it is we’re all working towards. But I have yet to read their books or hear their talks.

I look out and see … pieces. A chopped salad of efforts and understanding that forms no coherent whole.

I don’t feel TOO bad about that. I mean ‘feel bad’ in the sense that there are churchy luddites who oppose positive changes, and we have to be a lot better if we want to win this thing. Because they are chopped up even worse than we are. And though they’ve had power over us for thousands of years, it was the power of bullying and cowardice and lies, rather than some sort of coherent strategy or vision or real knowledge, and that power – in the face of real advances on our side – is waning.

I sometimes wish I had a formal grounding in philosophy, so I could have more tools in my head to deal with all this. Yet other times I’m glad I’m an uneducated doofus, philosophically speaking, because the journey I want to make is my own journey, and the tools I do manage to work out on my own … well, they seem to work better – for me, anyway – than the stuff I’ve garnered from more formal philosophy.

I get little glimpses of the Big Picture, from time to time. And it’s not just us in the frame. It’s us and … Earth. The life around us. The way we can fit into it, and cherish it and, well, live with it. I see us coming into a real sense of our own immense power, and finding ways to curb our excesses to create a truly sustainable relationship with Earth (which we do not have and have never yet had) and each other.

Atheism is very much a part of it.

There’s a book I want to someday write that will explain it all. I’ll figure out all the basic pieces, and how they fit together, and will at last understand something of what this is all about.

And yet, when I consider writing that book, I worry.

First that I might need about a hundred more years (and a hundred more IQ points!) to get it.

Second that I’m … well, just wrong. That there is not only no Big Picture, but no Big Picture is possible. Not for human intelligence to figure out, anyway. Which means we’ll never have it, and will never be able to live well on Planet Earth. And will probably wreck most of it, and kill ourselves along the way.

Third is a bit of a sidebar to the second worry. When I first thought of it, it actually scared me, because I was afraid it was a fatal hit at the heart of atheist philosophy.

Are you familiar with “follow-through”? If you’ve ever done any kind of sport, I know you are. Follow-through is the part of the swing AFTER the bat or the golf club strikes the ball. The arm and body motion AFTER the baseball leaves the pitcher’s hand or the bowling ball leaves the bowler’s.

Every Little Leaguer knows that if you swing AT the ball, you get one result, and not a very good one. But if you swing THROUGH the ball, you get both more control of where the ball goes and more power to get it there.

In baseball or golf, the ball is in your control for only a split second, and it is only in that instant that you can direct it onto a path that you deliberately choose. The thing is, you can’t see that path if you’re focused solely on the ball. You have to look beyond — aim beyond, swing beyond — your contact point with the ball, in order to properly send it onto some optimal path.

The thing that I worried about was that Christians had this larger vision for human life, a goal that passed beyond merely human concerns, and that goal supplied the follow-through for living a good human life.

If you swung for Heaven, in other words, you’d hit ordinary human life out of the park. But if you aimed only at your own selfish life, you’d fall short and end in some sort of inward-aimed and lesser life.

I actually worried about that for a good 3 years before I started to figure out why religion was the wrong follow-through, that it couldn’t work. Which is: There’s nothing there. Christians only appear to be aiming beyond their own lives. In reality, they’re aiming in no direction. Or, considering the thousands of religions or personal interpretations of religions, in a thousand different directions. Their aim, if they have one, is disconnected from anyplace in the real world that you can get to.

Besides which, there are a LOT of larger things to care about. Every one of us can find our own larger aims and follow-through to build good lives for ourselves.

What follows is a multi-part essay, a little bit about follow-through and a little bit about that Big Picture. Maybe it’s a prologue to the larger quest.

There’s a place in it – and it comes early – where you’re not going to like me very much. But bear in mind that this is about a journey, not a stopping point, and that we all have to come FROM somewhere in order to get TO somewhere. We change in our lives, hopefully for the better, and that change has to be arrived at along a human path, not a miraculous one.

In the same way you wouldn’t hold a grudge against a recovered alcoholic for getting falling-down drunk on a day 30 years past, I hope you’ll withhold judgment long enough to read to the end and see where I’m going with it.


About 1980

It’s a beautiful spring morning in California’s Eastern Sierra mountains.

The sky is that impossible blue of high altitude places. The normally grayish-green high-desert valley is sprouting the rich shades of spring down toward the sparkling vastness of Crowley Lake, and an azure sea of wild iris, punctuated by dots of golden Mariposa tulips, sweeps out from the near view to vanish into the distance.

A red-tailed hawk circles overhead in the vivid air. Though I can’t see them, I know that off to the west, at the base of the rising mountains, migrating mule deer are cutting dusty tracks through the manzanita-covered foothills, browsing their way along as they trail lazily toward the passes which have yet to thaw enough to let them into the backcountry wilderness.

Fed by pure melting snow, crystal streams chuckle out of those mountains, running down in rocky leaps and bounds. Ice-cold trout lurk in their deep pools, visible from the surface as they dart about after insects and larvae and, to the joy of blissful streamside flycasters later in the season, the occasional artificial fly.

All in all, this must be the best place on earth in which to live, and the best of all possible times in which to be here.

And here I am in the glorious middle of it, covered in blood and dirt, working the spring branding at a local ranch … cutting the balls off bull calves.


Nothing to See Here, Move Along

Deer TracksThis is a little nothing-much, posted mainly to see how I feel about posting. If you’ve been following my recent exploits, you know I’m just a week into recovery from surgery – the minor-but-major removal of my gallbladder – and I haven’t felt much like writing. Or even turning on the computer.

But today I felt pretty good. Woke up at 7 a.m., lay in bed thinking and reading until almost 10 a.m., then got up and … well, got a great deal done. Continue reading “Nothing to See Here, Move Along”

Jeez, I Looked Like THAT??

Good news! Well, for me, anyway.

I’ve been invited to do an article for American Atheist Magazine. I just submitted it today, for the March issue.

Part of the thing was a couple of photos I had to send along. Since the piece is about my recent “atheist deals with death” experience, and speaks of my cowboy Dad, the pics were of me and said Dad.

Most of my life, I actually thought I was rather homely, but looking at this pic from 1975, I’m like “Hey, this kid is handsome! That’s ME??” Continue reading “Jeez, I Looked Like THAT??”

Update on the Dad Thing

I took the donate button out of my Appeal post after getting enough to make the trip. The generosity of the FTB community has been overwhelming — thank you all for the kind words, well wishes, and donations! Special thanks to Greta Christina and PZ Myers for telling their readership about this post.

I have a flight to Los Angeles at 5:30 a.m. I’ll drive from there to the Eastern Sierra, where my Dad lives. I don’t know how many days I’ll be there. I’ll keep you all informed as much as I can while away, but I’ll be on borrowed (or library) computers, so updates may be erratic. Continue reading “Update on the Dad Thing”

An Appeal


My Dad appears to be dying. And I’m pretty much broke.

He lives in a little town in California; I live in a little town in upstate New York.

I haven’t been in very close contact with him the last few years, but it hasn’t been all my doing. The rough-barked cowboy bastard had his phone switched off a year or so back, and his lifelong habit is to never return letters or calls, so most of our contact has been one-way, through the mail. I set him up an email account about a year back, and wrote him the details of how easy it was to use, and where he could access it – the local library, which is on his way to town. His response: “I don’t do computers.”

So, uh, I’m going to ask for donations, so I can maybe get there to see him. Okay? Crap, I hate this. Continue reading “An Appeal”

Charley & Me — Part 1

Touchy-feely time.

I’m actually a little nervous about what I’m about to write. It’s not one of those “guy” subjects a man gladly talks about. It’s not a neutral subject either, like the weather, or geology, or politics. No, it’s definitely one of those girly-girly, Oprah and Dr. Phil subjects.

Yep, I’m gonna talk about my feelings.

I have it figured you should never lie to yourself. You can tell all the lies you want to other people (I’m not condoning it, I’m just using it as a rhetorical counterpoint), but you should never, never, never tell yourself a lie. Continue reading “Charley & Me — Part 1”

Charley and Me — Part 2

Charley’s not a very big guy, but he’s solid, and every inch of him you can see is either burned a deep tan by the sun, or covered in tough hide from a lifetime of hard outdoor physical labor. Below the neck, everything inside that hide is either hard muscle, rawhide-strong tendon or solid bone. And there’s this: Charley has a reputation. He’ll fight anybody, anytime, and he’s never been known, in any town within a day’s drive, to lose. If you catch his hands still for a second, you can count the scars on his knuckles from those fights. As I found out later, even the local cops would back away from getting into a physical dispute with him. Continue reading “Charley and Me — Part 2”