Thursday, October 05, 2006

Gee, Thanks

In the US, there are 6 basic holidays, days that you are virtually guaranteed to have off from work. Unless, of course, you're a policeman, firefighter or convenience store clerk. Three of these holidays, Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day, are purely secular in nature. New Years Day is arguably secular, but hasn't always been so. Christmas, as we all know, was at one time a pagan festival of the winter solstice, co-opted in the 4th century CE by the Catholic church to help boost membership. Thanksgiving recalls the feast of thanksgiving held by religious separatists in 1621, making it the only truly Christian holiday in the US.

As an atheist, you might think that I wouldn't observe Thanksgiving, but you'd be wrong. It's not simply a matter of continuing a family tradition of over-eating and watching football, but that happens too. As a living, breathing, productive and moderately successful member of the human race, I have plenty to be thankful for, I simply don't find it sufficient to thank an imaginary deity for these things. There are plenty of real people and institutions more deserving of my gratitude.

So, what do I have to be thankful for? Plenty:

I am first thankful to my parents, for, well, me. And for instilling in me a healthy sense of humor, ethics and responsibility, but not necessarily in that order.

I am thankful to my wife's parents for, well, her; and to her adoptive parents for raising her. And to my wife for being funny, loving and supportive, and for putting up with me. It can't be easy.

I am thankful to people like my brother, a former Marine, and current firefighter, who do jobs that are clearly necessary, but that most people, for obvious reasons, don't want to do.

And of course, to my brother, for being my life-long best friend.

I am thankful to my doctors, and to the medical community in general, for saving my life on at least two occasions, probably many more.

I am thankful to the state of Texas, the University of Texas system and to the University of Texas at Arlington for making available to me an excellent education at a manageable cost.

I am thankful to the founders of my church and to its members, for restoring in me the sense of community I feared I had lost when I became an atheist.

I am thankful to Abraham Lincoln for countless difficult decisions, which ultimately not only preserved the Union, but made it stronger than it had been prior to the Civil War.

I am thankful to the 1st Congress of the United States, and particularly to James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, for the 1st Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which all at once allows me not to profess a belief in a supreme being, and also gives me the right to write this blog without fear of political reprisal.

I am thankful to the 80th Congress of the United States for the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

And finally, I am thankful to you, reader, for reading this far.

Thank you.

Monday, October 02, 2006

I'm Weird

My first semester freshman composition professor once warned against the cliche of beginning an essay with a sentence like "Webster's dictionary defines widget as ..." I'm sure he meant that warning to apply to the entire essay, and not merely the first sentence. For instance, if I were to say that Merriam Webster's Online Dictionary defines "weird" as "strange or extraordinary character; odd; fantastic", I probably would still have gotten an F on the paper, even though it's only part of the third sentence in this paragraph. Or just maybe I'd get that elusive A because of the clever way I slipped in the definition of the word I wanted to focus on later in the essay, technically without violating the word of his proscription. Or I might have gotten only partial credit for said cleverness, since I used the second definition rather than the first - did you know that the first definition actually is "of, relating to, or caused by witchcraft or the supernatural; magical"? I did, but then I'm weird, according to Webster's second definition.

How am I weird? I'm glad you asked. First, I knew the first definition of weird. In fact, I have an enormous capacity to remember useless trivia of all sorts and recall them at the most inopportune moments. For instance, just last week, I remembered that "Gremlins" was the first film ever to earn the rating of PG-13. The question at hand was whether or not "Ghostbusters" had been rated PG-13, so remembering that "Gremlins" was the first served no purpose other than to baffle those within earshot as to why I would bring it up.

In contrast, I have a lousy memory for names. I'll eventually remember one, but usually not until I'm about to nod off to sleep, when it won't do anyone any good. This incapacity is probably due to the same cause as my capacity for understanding mathematical concepts. One particularly important principle in my preferred field of algebra (and others of course) is called "isomorphism" (Greek for "same shape") - the principle that the name given to a thing doesn't have any bearing on what that thing is. Shakespeare knew the principle as well and stated it pretty clearly in "Romeo and Juliet". So names fall low on the importance meter for me, making them easily forgotten. I even forgot my own name once, ultimately causing the US Navy to miss out on one of the best math and physics instructors they could have gotten. My bad. I made up for it later, but I'm not at liberty to write about that.

My memory, in general, is just plain weird. Ever hear of photographic memory? I have phonographic memory. I can remember with uncanny accuracy how things sound. In fact, that's typically how I remember things, by how they sounded when I learned them. When I read, I hear the words, and when I remember the words, I'm remembering how the words sounded when I read it.

I never know what to do on a vacation. If I can find a quiet place to sit down and read, I'm happy. In fact, I'm a lousy tourist. I'm actually a decent photographer, but I don't really care to go anywhere interesting enough to need a camera. I did, however, travel to Germany and surrounding countries several years ago, and had a (mostly) great time. But someone else did 95% of the planning.

I like almost all kinds of music, but not Jazz Fusion or most C&W. Opera, Dixieland, Ragtime, Celtic, Classic Rock, Progressive, Metal, Industrial - it's all in my catalog. Fusion isn't in the list, never has been and it never will be. But I really like Johnny Cash. And get this - I'm an atheist, and I even like some Gospel music. It doesn't make much sense to me either.

There are a handful of television shows I like to watch, but I don't watch any of them with faithful regularity. If I miss it, I miss it. I don't own a TIVO or anything like it. The VCR burned out a couple years ago and I haven't bothered to replace it. If I'm awake and at home, I watch The Daily Show when it comes on. But I'd rather turn off the TV than watch a reality show. Or a talent show. Or a talent show disguised as a reality show. And don't get me started on award shows. I just don't get the attraction, and I don't want to, so don't think you're helping by trying to explain them to me.

I don't like ketchup on my french-fries, unless they're too hot. I prefer them plain. And I prefer Wendys' fries to McDonalds'. I like ketchup, but I'd rather put it on my burger than my fries. And speaking of food, I'm not particularly fond of pizza. Or ice cream for that matter. I don't dislike them, mind you, I just wouldn't be heart-broken if my doctor told me that I had to eliminate those two foods from my diet. He hasn't (yet), but he could and it wouldn't bother me a bit. I like a good beer or a whiskey now and again (and I make the meanest margarita you've ever tasted), but if I was told I could never drink alcohol again, I'd have no problem with that. I think I actually prefer a virgin mary to a bloody mary anyway, so no problem there, either.

And I actually like vegetables. I'm weird, go figure.