Thursday, April 21, 2005

My Brief Dalliance with Intellectual Greatness or Tales of a Fourth Grade Something

In my school days, I never considered myself the “scholarly type” or the “academic sort” or even really a good student. There was, though, a certain period – in my younger days – when I was allowed to brush my prepubescent lips across the cheek of the great Goddess of Academia and I shall relay that story presently.

I wasn’t much of a learner in my early days. I was a good boy, I suppose. Yes a good boy - a good boy who liked to leave school early, sometimes under the auspices of a sudden and suspiciously short-termed sickness, sometimes not. Mostly the former. I was in the school office to call home sick often in the early days, so often that I recall that one of the kind office ladies who would often be the channel through with much of this elementary school psychosomatic cloak and dagger drama took place had a sticker on her desk that read, “A clean desk is a sign of a sick mind.” I didn’t get it then and I’m not sure I get it now. Anyway, I would usually place my sick plea calls before the noon hour for the following reasons: there was more time to make a miraculous recovery in time for playing with my friends or sisters when they returned home from prison…er school; I could have lunch at home and eat something palatable that didn't include Tater-tots as an ever-present side dish; and finally, because the cartoons on television in the afternoon were more watch-able than those that aired after 3:30. Occasionally, though, I would call my mom at around 2:45 to see if she would come pick me up and take me home. She would try to reason with me that there was only a half hour or so left of school and couldn’t I wait until the day was over. I could not be moved by such logic. I had had my fill of school that day and that was that. I was ready to go home. Besides, I knew that I had to go straight to the dreaded “day care” immediately after school, which wasn’t home, but some other halfway house parents stick you when they are off doing grown up shit.

So, my schoolwork suffered. Well, it didn’t “suffer”, per se. It got done. And it was done pretty much correctly, give or take a few misspellings and factual confusions. But the work that was school suffered. I suffered. I just didn’t have the patience for putting “work” into “school”. Then one day, my fourth grade teacher happened to notice that I was always the first one done with my in-class assignments and they were (more or less) usually pretty satisfactory-ish. She decided, for whatever reason, that I must be some sort of super-genius. (Ha! Finally someone sees my potential.) This decision lead her to consult the school counselor and the two of them colluded to subject me to a battery of tests – mostly regarding readin’ and writin’. (Math was never my strong suit. I nearly failed high school Geometry, which is typically the poor math student’s favorite class. I much preferred study hall myself.) Unfortunately, the nature and extent of this testing, I cannot recall. But what I do recall is the results indicated that as a fourth-grader I was reading at a 7th grade level (or was it 5th or 6th – shit, I can’t remember)! This put me into a league above the other poor, unfortunate, less intellectually endowed and consequently academically inferior fourth grade students.

I was alerted to this fact and likewise notified that I would be undertaking an independent reading course seperate from my contemporaries that would offer me more of a challenge than the current curriculum. It was going to be a scholastic journey, wherein my talents of extra-ordinary reading and comprehension skills would be cultivated so that they would reach their fullest potential, instead of withering away with the rest of the Joe Sixpack 4th grade class. (An appropriate analogy, I might add.)

Suddenly, I was an intellectual elitist. I can recall looking at 6th graders, and thinking to myself, “I probably have more in common with that person than I do with all of these lame 4th graders.” Or, looking at 5th graders, awash in scholastically average playground filth and thinking, “I wonder what he would say if I told him my reading and comprehension skills were superior to his? He probably couldn’t even comprehend what that meant!”

As part of my new advanced academic course load, I was locked into the library during the regularly allotted class reading time, also known as “story time” in those days. Funny that they should call such a quaint and claustrophobic room a “library” when most sane people would equate it with a broom closet, only somehow smellier and full of about 500 books that you never wanted to read. So, while my classmates were busy (barely) reading and (barely) comprehending “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing”. I was deeply affected by such intellectually engrossing classic literature as “Where the Red Fern Grows” and the likes. (I say “the likes” because I honestly can’t remember what else I was to have read.) The point is: I was actually a fourth grade something!

But then, a weird thing happened: from my study room, I could hear the laughter of my classmates, story-timing away in communal joviality as together they enjoyed the splendor of the pinpoint accurate elementary school wit of Judy Blume. I began to feel isolated. It was then that I realized that to be gifted was to be different and to be different was to be alone. I then began to think that my gifts were a curse. I writhed on the floor cursing my maker, (or something similar but no less dramatic) asking why he had left me to suffer with such superhuman reading and comprehension skills.

Epilogue/Happy Ending: So, this whole experiment lasted a very short while, probably only until I finished the first book. My memory is sort of foggy here, but I seem to remember the cultivation of my superior reading and comprehension skills being ruined because the parents of Heather, who had the best grades in the class, caught wind of my isolated study time and demanded that she be allowed the same. That didn’t last long because we couldn’t share the broom closet of a library for more than one session, so we returned to normal class routine, which just goes to prove that if you have the best grades, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are the smartest or the most gifted, just the nerdiest and the person who is the most desperately seeking the approval of his parents-est. Anyway, I was more than happy to have returned to my class, to sit with my fourth grade comrades of significantly inferior reading and comprehension skills and enjoy the magic that was story time.

The moral of the story is: don't be different...ever. You'll miss out on story time.

Monday, April 11, 2005

An Open Letter to My Friend, The Great City of Los Angeles,

Dear Ms. Los Angeles, Greater Metropolitan Area,

Are you mad at me? Did some unsavory or irresponsible and untoward action of mine cause a reaction of ill will amongst us? Have I wronged you in some way? I was just wondering because you seem to have a way of snubbing me when we chance to meet on the sidewalks. Furthermore, you even fail to grant me ample room to pass when I beg a pardon in tight spaces. What did I do to you? Whatever it is, I am very sure that I am very sorry and I shall not let it happen again. It is my full intention to return to your good graces as soon as humanly possible (though I sometimes get the feeling that I was never really in your good graces in the first place!).

I’ve been racking my brain trying to figure out what I could have done to piss you off. Did I see you and not say “hello” at So-and-so’s party. Or -oh dear - did I not say “good-bye” when I left? The reason I ask is that you seem to be pretty pissed off all of the time and I’m wondering what I can do to ease your burden. I try to catch your eye so I can offer a nod of acknowledgment or a smile of good will, but you turn your gaze elsewhere. Are your feet tired from treading the streets all day long? Can I offer you a soothing foot rub? Will that do the trick? Or maybe you’re short on cash this week; in which case don’t be afraid to ask for a twentyspot. I’m unemployed, but I know you’re good for it ; )

Perhaps my very existence is an inconvenience to you. Maybe my personal being just gets on your damned nerves. Do I take up too much of the space that you consider to be solely your own? It would seem so, given your penchant for drinking beer on the street corner and then occasionally relieving yourself in the gutter, right in my path when I come your way.

I feel very bad that things have taken such a sour turn. I acknowledge that our relationship has been tumultuous at times, but we’ve known each other for a while now and I feel like we should be coming around and getting used to each other. We have to rely on one another because, after all, we’re all we’ve got (or some such patronizing nonsense).

Well, I said really all I had to say. The ball is in your court, so to speak. All I ask is that next time you see me on the street, don’t be afraid to exchange a quick glance or even risk a “hello” or – and I know this is crazy – maybe (gulp!) flash a smile. You might be surprised at the result. I think in the end, you and I could end up being pretty good friends. If only you cared about me as much as I care about you. Please consider what I have said.

Thanks for your time.

Your concerned pal,


Friday, April 08, 2005

The Rise of the Poli-Christians

"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference."

-The Serenity Prayer (I learned this through some weird association to Alchoholics Anonymous when I was about 10. It is to this day the only prayer I know by heart, unless I have misquoted it here, which means I don't know any.)

Conservative evangelism has a grip around American politics and the rest of America is beginning to feel the squeeze. When do we, as sensible constituents of our elected officials declare that enough is finally enough? Organizations exist whose stated purpose is to infuse religion into politics in order to gain ground in the political arena. The watchdogs of the conservative right are attempting to dictate policy in order to promote a predominantly religious agenda including teaching creationism in our schools. Separation of church and state has never been so gravely threatened as it is now.

There are many dangers in infusing religion and politics. The first, and most obvious, is the influence that such beliefs could have on policy and not just of a moralistic nature, but also on domestic and foreign affairs, finances and education. Secondly, common religious beliefs could be culled into statutes of law, thereby all but eliminating jurisprudence and impartiality based on societal moral trends.

The church, from a political standpoint, insults its constituents. The notion that any one person needs as a guide a religious figure is insulting beyond all reason. The prevailing ideology amongst the Poli-Christians is that most Americans are not morally sound enough to make their own decisions. One cannot adequately express how alarming it is that the church is quickly gaining power and influence in our governmental institutions. Surely there are citizens out there who are good Christians who recognize and acknowledge this disturbing trend towards a more puritanical society.

And what of us who don’t believe in organized religion or those are not Christians? Aren’t we becoming underrepresented and/or misrepresented? One might point that out to the Poli-Christians, but they would only ignore the facts and say that they’re not speaking for all religions, just Christianity and each religion (though already at a disadvantage) has the opportunity to do the same.

Where does this infusion end? When is enough enough? When does the average Christian admonish the religious leadership in this country and distance himself from the absurdity of their political ambitions?

One thing is abundantly clear: there is an increasing gap in values both demographically and geographically in this country. However, we of common sense must transcend this gap and let common sense prevail. No religious doctrine belongs in our government. Keep the religion where it belongs – in the church.

Many neo-conservative Christian leaders of the so-called right are called religious fundamentalists. The 9/11 terrorists were also called religious fundamentalists. Clearly there are some very stark differences between these two groups. But there is one commonality and that is the shared belief that God – however different their definitions may be - should be omnipresent in every aspect of life. However, the founders of this country were wise enough to foresee the inherent hypocrisy and inevitable corruption such a melding of church and state could bear and chose to allow citizens the freedom to practice whatever religion they chose as long as it was kept separate from and had no direct on influence the policies of the American government.

One needn’t argue that Christianity doesn’t or shouldn’t have any affect whatever on the social and moral fabric of this country. As the primary religious belief for most Americans, there is a strong undercurrent and indirect influence of Christian moral philosophy present in American policy, which is to be expected. Christianity has and will continue to serve a moral purpose in America in that it allows a frame of reference from which to draw when such policies are being debated, especially in the theater of national politics. However, an increasingly theocratic government would lose sight of any fault in the sometimes hypocritical and impossibly dogmatic Christian doctrine and would therefore be weighted on the side of blind acquiescence to an often times archaic and sometimes morally reprehensible code of conduct.

A government that is predicated on religious doctrine is known as a theocracy.

We must stop giving religious leaders political clout and credibility in the media. Politics is supposed to be approached with an objective, analytical and socially conscious frame of mind. Christianity has predetermined bias certainly against those of other religions and also against those who choose to live outside the strict boundaries of Christian doctrine. True political discourse does not exist in the presence of religious convictions.

Morals, and values are good for any citizen. In this country we are generally quite free in deciding how to conduct ourselves. Each individual is unique in her assessment of what kinds of morals she would apply in her life and pass down to her family. There may be some stark contrasts, but morals, no matter how they derive, are basically the same across the board. People know right from wrong and they don’t necessarily need a religious reference to facilitate the process.

Religious institutions exist so that we may freely explore and decide for ourselves which avenue of spiritual faith we would prefer to pursue. It is not in the best interests of our country to allow any one religious institution to dictate any kind of moral conduct whatsoever, for then our laws will have lost the impartiality which our forefathers held so dear. Many fundamentalists are quick to point out that those who first came upon these shores were doing so to seek asylum from an increasingly repressive and discriminate religious regime in Europe. Perhaps this is the best point they make, though not necessarily in their own favor. Let us not forget this fact. Yes, this country was founded by those who not only sought out the right to practice their own form of religion as they saw fit but also to practice it in a country whose government was untainted by the rhetoric of dogmatic religious law to which they did not subscribe.

I believe I am consistent with the writers of our Constitution when I say: God has no jurisdiction in the government of the United States of America!

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Trudging Ever Onward Towards Oblivion

I make a concerted effort to walk these days, testing the LA pavement with each weary step. The streets are dirty and unfamiliar, but it’s the best way to learn how the city breathes and moves, ebbs and flows. I usually drive around town, which doesn’t give you much of a sense of how the street feels at ground level. With driving, it’s almost like you’re flying over some speck of a town in an airplane, the minutia of everyday life dissolved into a solitary dot on the landscape. You don’t concern yourself with your immediate surroundings, but rather what’s going on in front of you, and behind you. But, given the currently obnoxiously high gas prices, I prefer to hoof it nowadays.

Walking can very nearly be surreal at times. It forces you to notice or face things you normally wouldn’t or would just as soon ignore. You are forced to acknowledge the harsh realities of the urban world; the cracks in the sidewalks; the junk piled up against buildings; toothless bums on dirty street corners, howling to some unseen entity for forgiveness. The prayers fall on deaf ears and hence, go unanswered. “I’m no saint,” I want to say these poor, wretched, hollow souls, “I can offer no salvation.”

Walking makes you face your own mortality in a way. As you pass the lurkers and the workers and the single mothers with kids hanging off of every possible extremity, it dawns on you that no matter how different you are from these people, they are no worse, no better. We’re all pretty much the same. They share concerns about the same things, but maybe have less time to dwell on them. “I worry about the environment and high taxes,” their faces seem to be saying. “Just not right now. Just not right now.”

You can see the pain in the contorted confines of concerned faces; struggling towards hope, grasping at some sense of purpose and deluding themselves into denying the immediacy of death. It almost makes you wonder: how many failures, how many glowing successes and disappointments, highs and lows can one soul take before it all dissipates into one general and all-encompassing concern for general humanity?

We are all like ghosts, I suppose. But we can all see and hear and feel each other. And we walk amongst each other as apparitions, spectral shadows, eyes cast downward nobly disregarding each other, politely damning one another to ignorance of self. But we trudge ever onward, through the dirt and the smog and the garbage towards those golden arches…of McDonald’s.