Troilus and Cressida – William Shakespeare

“You whoreson cur!” – Ajax

Two things I gained from reading Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida: a correct Jeopardy question and descriptive ways to tell someone how much I hate their guts.

Contrary to all the evidence upon reading it, I did indeed understand enough of the plot to recognize a synopsis and yell, “What is Troilus and Cressida?” to a startled pair of parents and an unfazed Trebek.

Otherwise, I took comfort after finding out I’m not the only one who thought this was a bizarre mix of way too many characters, most of whom were whiny, all of whom I hoped would encounter splendid deaths. Spoiler: it’s more of a bitch fest than a blood bath. This was apparently never a popular play on the stage, nor is it particularly beloved by critics. I feel vindicated in my utter confusion of what the hell was going on and indifference as to why.

At first I tried taking notes to keep straight who loathed whom, then just started writing down the sweet, sweet hisses of hatred and despair:

  • “Cobloaf!” – Ajax, meaning a misshapen, big loaf of a person, or, apparently, a tasty looking bread bowl made for the consummation of various bacon/cheese marriages.
  • “The dragon wing of night o’erspreads the earth.” – uttered by Achilles (and potentially by anyone in A Song of Ice and Fire not named Targaryen).
  • “Frown on, you heavens. … No space of earth shall sunder our two hates: I’ll haunt thee like a wicked conscience still, that mouldeth goblins swift as frenzy’s thoughts.” – Troilus, because letting shit go is for assholes named Elsa.

Speaking of the frowning heavens, this is the opposite of that, though equally unnerving to see in the pre-dawn hours:

smile

Peeping Cumulus likes what he sees. Presumably, he does not see Troilus and Cressida. 

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Great Leaders GROW – Ken Blanchard and Mark Miller

“I know I have a long way to GROW.” – Ken Blanchard and Mark Miller

(And yes, that’s a direct quote.)

If my supervisor hadn’t put this in the stack of books she thought might benefit me, I never would have read Great Leaders Grow: Becoming a Leader for Life.

Spoiler alert, GROW stands for:

Gain Knowledge

Reach Out to Others

Open Your World

Walk toward Wisdom

But you knew that already. Maybe not those specific words in that specific order, but this is all stuff you have heard on an “inspirational” commercial, viewed on a “very special episode of,” or seen bold-typed over a silhouetted glamour shot of a dawn-lit rowing team practice.

There’s nothing wrong with the sentiment of this book, from the authors who apparently brought us The Secret (which I still haven’t found the give-a-damn to read). The presentation, however …

A young man enters the business world and periodically receives advice from his recently-deceased father’s friend. The friend rains down wisdom to a mind-blown son who is usually sitting transcended amongst the brunchers. Incidentally, cheese-covered corn is always on the menu.

I particularly loved how he and he alone used this GROW advice to break through to a hard-ass female boss who eventually tells him about her personal turmoil. There are scenes of weary postures and emotion-choked voices. It’s hilarious. He assists her and his team with wide-eyed optimism and gee-whiz earnestness. Every single interaction slams the ear with a chorus of false. No one talks like these people. No one.

GROW does offer some classic advice: explore your world. Whether that means taking more interest in the people you see every day or stopping at shops/restaurants in your neighborhood for the first time, make an effort to fully engage in whatever world you find yourself in. Or want to be in. Take the trips, learn the languages, enroll in the classes, uncork the wines, seek advice from the respected – whatever excites you should get bumped to the top of the task list.

There. That’s all the book is getting at. It doesn’t require 100 pages and a contrived story of personal discovery (unless you are trying to ride your Secret money train to a fatter portfolio). Leadership means being a good person and taking up whatever cause or job you are pursuing with sincerity and compassion for everyone you encounter along the way.

Good leaders will never need someone else to tell them that.

Looking for Alaska – John Green

“You can’t just make yourself matter and then die.” – John Green

Let’s get this out of the way now – John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars is one of those rare books that flirted with perfection in my mind. A few chapters in I knew it was nothing that I expected. For weeks after I was finished, it was a book I could not forget. More than the parallel of losing a friend in high school, more than being a smartass teenager with a lot of feelings – the book shook away long-honed cynicism and reignited an unfiltered hope and belief that life is truly beautiful, even at its worst.

I tried forgetting all of that when I read Looking for Alaska. It’s the curse of writing a modern classic: absolutely nothing else you do will compare favorably. The book manages to succeed on its own merits.

Green’s superpower of creating authentic teenage characters is on full display. Miles “Pudge” Halter is that smart, cute, unassuming, decent guy wanting to get laid that you can find in any high school. He has his band of buddies with nicknames like “The Colonel”. Their penchant for philosophy talks on the boarding-school lawn are comfortable and inviting.

Then there is Alaska, described as “the hottest girl in all of human history”. Only … she’s not. This was the glaring fault. Physically, sure, but Green attempts to make Alaska that cool, complicated, emotional girl with brains bigger than her substantial rack. He succeeds more than anyone else probably would have, but it ultimately didn’t work. Maybe it does for teenage readers. Maybe I’m too old and have met way too many Alaskas in my travels to be impressed by her. Those people who act like they are the first to notice the sky is blue types. It doesn’t matter that this has been observed throughout human history. For whatever reason, they are convinced that it was never interesting or true until they proclaimed it.

One of those.

So every time Miles would be turned sideways over one of her mysterious, random outbursts, I’d roll my eyes and think, “histrionic drama queen”. Or she would launch into a ‘super-deep’ feminist rant and as the boys would reel at how much they felt enlightened, I’d mutter, “people have been saying that for about three generations now”.

But it wouldn’t be John Green if there wasn’t a passage or ten that stopped me cold in a good way:

“We need never be hopeless, because we can never be irreparably broken. We think that we are invincible because we are. We cannot be born, and we cannot die. Like all energy, we can only change shapes and sizes and manifestations. They forget that whey they are old. They get scared of losing and failing. But that part of us greater than the sum of our parts cannot begin and cannot end, and so it cannot fail.”

Having recently suffered the loss of another friend, these are the words that soothe more than the card-written condolences or the passages of books not holy to me.

I guess because we all meet our version of Alaska. It doesn’t have to be the most beautiful girl in the world or the teenager next door. Just a beautiful tragedy you hope still survives in places you cannot yet go.

Mind Over Money – Eric Tyson

“My bias, and I’ll be the first to admit I have one …” –Eric Tyson

Since money is a frequent weight on my mind, I decided to turn to my trusted method of coping – I started reading a stack of books. This time acquired at my public library because I have a small-town social worker salary these days. No more twenty-dollar spending sprees at Half-Price Books!

I mostly sought a better understanding of how financial institutions work (for rich people, seemingly) and to glean the recurring gems of advice. According to author Eric Tyson – who touts a Stanford MBA and other shiny credentials – money troubles are largely due to moral failings. So let’s say you are not an obsessive workaholic, gambler, drinker, drug abuser, or money hoarder. Then what’s the issue?

According to his advice in Mind Over Money:  Your Path to Wealth and Happiness, the answer is because your ovaries aren’t at home where they belong. This book was written in 2006 and was intended for mainstream readers, not the evangelical set. Yet somehow the faint scent of old-time-religion-fueled sanctimony drifted from its pages. Never overtly because he’s not stupid, but the 20 pages lecturing couples that they absolutely can survive on one income if only they would stop being selfish and love their children never provided a testimonial from a husband so proud of his decision to stay at home. Not a single suggestion that the spouse with the most money-making potential be the one out there working.

Granted, my post-traumatic Mormon disorder always has me a bit twitchy in this area, but my suspicions were confirmed when Tyson began quoting “Dr.” Laura Slessinger and Focus on the Family’s James Dobson. Not because they provided a legitimate contribution to the furthering of financial education. He just digs them.

I wouldn’t even mind if this were categorized correctly in the library’s catalog. It does not belong in the financial section because out of the entire book, there were about three pages that offered legitimate, hard-fact, number-driven monetary instruction. This is essentially a deceptively-cloaked, generic Op-Ed piece on all that is wrong with American families.

Near the end, Tyson ensures I have not judged him harshly by bitching about how places like the YMCA do not encourage family time, rather choosing to reward “lazy” parents who enroll their children in day-camp programs. The pool schedule at his facility prioritized these members, but offered comparatively little family swim time. Presumably because he thinks his family membership dues are slightly more entitled than everyone else’s, though, again, he doesn’t have the balls to say it.

If I were feeling generous, I would certainly point out his intentions seem pure. Tyson genuinely seems to love spending time with his family and that is a wonderful quality. If I were feeling less generous, I would point out he has the income and advanced career that allows him that luxury whereas many Americans don’t. If I were feeling blunt, I would point out most of those Americans are only looking to improve their situation when they pick up his book and, chances are, they kick themselves for wasting money on some blowhard’s wallet-lining bullshit.

Not me, though. Despite my moderate income, unused uterus, and lack of spouse, I managed to toss some synapses in order and read it for free. And yet I still feel like I’m owed a refund.

The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins

“There’s nothing so painful, so corrosive, as suspicion.” 

– Paula Hawkins

As it normally happens, I was going about my boring evening when I see a text with exclamation points from my friend telling me to drop everything because I simply must get the book he just finished RIGHT NOW. We’ve been down this road before, this friend and I. Sometimes he is so correct I feel like I can never repay him (The Fault in Our Stars). Sometimes I feel he owes me a few hours of my life back and maybe a nice Sauvignon (The Bell Jar).

The Girl on the Train sits in the middle. By no means is it a bad book. It is rather fun reading about Rachel, a depressing 30-something suffering from poor life choices, stalking tendencies, and chubbiness. I’m in that club, girl. Like currently. As I type. When I should be P90X-ing away last night’s loaf of garlic bread and bottle of wine.

Paula Hawkins, former journalist/current best-selling novelist, gives us a relatable protagonist that’s broken, but fixable, in a story that is technically supposed to be a thriller. Or at least that’s what the PR folks are saying. Though an obvious plot and generic secondary characters do not a thrilling story make.

The writing style is partly to blame. The character of Rachel is well-developed and we get a good sense of all her strengths and flaws, but the writing diffuses some of the tension and climaxes. The phrasing isn’t rich or particularly artistic. It was frustrating because when you are talking through the perspective of someone at their worst and how they healed their self-destructive wounds, you have the opportunity to set the pages aflame. Rachel’s feelings were described adequately, but not passionately.

But this is a post-Gone-Girl literary world. For (financial) better or (pale-in-comparison) worse, this is being billed as the book Gillian Flynn fans need to read and it’s working. Already a massive success and one Dreamworks has bought the rights to, The Girl on the Train is well on its way. It’s the kind of book people love because we are generally a nosey species. Most of us have sat in a car, bus, or train and looked inside wide-open windows. We wonder about the people there. Sometimes assume we know everything about them and hope we never find out if we are right because it would ruin the fun. Same applies here.

Read it because it is a fun way to pass a snowy afternoon. Read it because you will hear a lot about it in the next couple of years and don’t want to be left out. Read it because you also have a friend who puts lines on top of all his periods. Just don’t expect The Girl on the Train to be Gone.

The Merchant of Venice – William Shakespeare

Merchant

“I am not bound to please thee with my answers.” – Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (and my retort in future arguments)

When left entirely to my own interests, my reading list is largely non-fiction. History, science, sociology, and whatever Mary Roach feels like writing about. I do enjoy the occasional murder mystery, fantasy series, or classic novel that Mark Twain claimed no one actually reads. Deep, deep down on my literary to do – so deep it isn’t even on there – is Shakespeare.

My friend did one of those quizzes so he could finally settle for eternity which literary hero is most like himself and through all the clicks and configurin’s, it proclaimed him a Romeo. Knowing him and his humor, I told him I thought he was a lot cooler than a kid too stupid to check for a pulse before offing himself in grief. We engage in a few passing remarks that pondered if Romeo and Juliet was really Shakespeare’s attempt at smartass comedy when the dreaded friend-of-a-friend-I-didn’t-want-to-know inserted herself into the Facebook conversation and launched a valiant defense of what she loved so dearly, employing that classic tactic of those who take themselves too seriously – she assumed I simply didn’t ‘get it’.

First there was the summary of the story. I said I read the story, that’s why I was making fun of it. I thought that much was obvious. Then came the lengthy lecture about them being kids and it was a tragic romance, snore, blah, repeat. I said I was also familiar with the basic elements of storytelling and again, that’s why I chose to make fun of the story. Because it sucked in all the ways that good stories don’t which was simply my opinion. Curiously, this triggered the second tactic of those who take themselves too seriously – she wasn’t shaming me or eliciting an apology for attacking her beloved, so she told me it was just her opinion and there was no need to be angry about it. I agreed since I wasn’t the one who wrote a dissertation in response to a joke on Facebook, but I was again reassured (with my own point) that it’s just her opinion. Third tactic of people who take themselves too seriously: stay in denial that you lost an argument you picked over something absolutely no one cared about but you.

I share this story to illustrate my experience with Shakespeare. The people who love him do so with an intensity and reverence that I simply do not understand. Yes, I’ve read many of his works. I enjoyed Macbeth. Some of the sonnets. Even in works I hated, some passages are written beautifully. It’s not a lack of understanding or exposure. He’s just not my thing. And no matter what a histrionic friend-of-a-friend with a weird definition of “romantic” may tell you, it’s perfectly okay to think Shakespeare sucks.

So when my friend with the literature podcast told me one show each month would be dedicated to Billy Bard, I hissed a few swear words and rolled my eyes. I told her I’d give it a shot and if it was as boring as much of Shakespeare has been to me in the past, I may have to pull out of that segment.

The Merchant of Venice was the first selection. I didn’t hate it. So much so I reported a willingness to continue in the Shakespeare series. As with a lot of classic literature, I enjoy reading about the historical context more than the work itself.

The character of Shylock the Jew is often discussed and opinions of his role vary depending on your perspective. Now it is deeply uncomfortable anti-Semitism, but in Shakespeare’s day, many had never even met a Jew. Therefore, Shylock is considered by some to be an efficient stereotype the audiences would recognize. Yet, even as Shakespeare used Shylock as a villain for the audience to root against, he was also used to point out the hypocrisy in the Christian faith. The audience is supposed to hate Shylock for so vehemently demanding a (literal) pound of flesh from Antonio, the merchant who failed his end of a business contract, but when lectured in court, Shylock compares his treatment of Antonio to the slave owners who used the Christian Bible as a justification for the turning of human beings into business property. Shylock asks what the difference is and the truly aware in Shakespeare’s audience would have realized the answer is none. Shakespeare totally mocked them to their faces and most probably never knew it. That, I concede, is badass.

It should also be said that Shylock also gives that famous speech: “Hath not a Jew eyes? … If you prick us, do we not bleed?” It’s a great passage, but I laughed because my first exposure to it was on an episode of The Golden Girls where Sophia invests their money in a Cuban boxer who uses the speech (changing “Jew” to “Cuban”) for a Juilliard acting audition. The Golden Girls were deep.

Other happiness in Merchant was found in the women saving the men from their stupid mistakes and the obvious love affair between Antonio and his best friend Bassanio. If Shakespeare didn’t intend for those two to be gay, then I’ll eat his Collected Works.

So now I have a second entry to add on the list of Shakespeare works I actually liked.  This will come in handy the next time I decide to unintentionally piss in a friend-of-a-friend’s Cheerios.

The Lost Symbol – Dan Brown

Lost Symbol

“This idea that there exists some kind of ancient knowledge that can imbue men with great power … I simply can’t take it seriously.” – Robert Langdon in Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol

The Lost Symbol is one of those books where the back cover reminds you of the author’s critically-acclaimed past efforts. In my experience, this means the lightning escaped the bottle. As feared, The Da Vinci Code (or Angels and Demons) this is not.

However, this is still Robert Langdon doing his best Joseph Campbell impression. This is still Dan Brown dropping legitimate, ‘no way!’ trivia crumbs all over our rote-learned history books. Sure, there are a lot of clunky dialogues, plot holes, unrealistic character developments, and repetitive chapter endings, but the pages quickly turned all the same.

As with his past work, I would stop reading and look up more information on whatever building, art work, ancient society, or scientific principle that entered the story. Noetic science, for instance, is the life’s work of the Dan Brown Token Intelligent Female Companion, and the simplest explanation is it is the study of how consciousness can influence the physical world. Think telekinesis. Sounds made up, but nope – there’s an organization for it and everything.

Repeated about 429 times is how the most famous scientists of recorded history used ancient wisdom and mysteries to frame their research and used science to examine their spiritual beliefs. This was mostly defended by discussing how Isaac Newton was an occultist who was heavily influenced by Rosicrucianism – a Christian, anti-Catholic secret society that claimed to have an elixir that granted immortality and a (Harry Potter-less) Philosopher’s Stone that produced limitless time and gold. Sounds like a convenient plot point, except, again, there’s an organization for it and everything.

But largely, this Da-Vinci-Code-in-America story is about the Freemasons and their storied influence in the forming of America and the building of Washington D.C. So much has been written, speculated, debunked, and smoke-screened by and about the Freemasons that it is almost old hat to use them as the framework for a tale such as this. Embrace or reject Brown’s attempt to present them as the good guys as you wish. I have no strong opinion either way except to laugh in derision when the apologetic, obligatory, gender discussion ensues. It is hard for me to buy a story in which humanity’s next age of enlightenment rests exclusively in a sausage fest.  Like a grown-up version of those all-boy forts that put out the crudely drawn sign: “No Girls Allowed”. I’m sure they have all sorts of enlightenment in there, too. I wouldn’t know. Pesky vagina.

Oh, and you know how alluring the Mystery Prize is on game shows? Same goes here. Playing the game is way more fun than winning the inevitable one hundred cans of Cream of Chicken. Gawk at the scenery along the way and savor the tidbits. It will keep you warm when you wish the lost symbol had stayed that way.

The Power of Myth – Joseph Campbell (with Bill Moyers)

Power of Myth

“The virtues of the past are the vices of today.” – Joseph Campbell

Think back on Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Fictional protagonist, Professor Robert Langdon – matter-of-fact, symbologist, impossibly-deep knowledge of esoteric cultures. The dude he was modeled after was much, much cooler.

Joseph Campbell – a mythologist, author, and popular lecturer – spent his entire career in the pursuit of the human experience. It was his assertion that myths, religions, and traditions are, in their essence, the same story, the reason being that we all share the same subconscious needs, fears, and desires from 2015 back to the dawn of time.

A year after his death in1987, PBS aired a six-part documentary of Campbell discussing these ideas with journalist Bill Moyers. Somehow perfectly, the majority of it was filmed on the Skywalker Ranch in California. Campbell credits George Lucas for being one of the modern mythmakers due to his ability to give eternal themes a contemporary face. Mercifully, Campbell died before the collective human psyche conjured Jar Jar Binks.

Portions of the documentary’s transcription were compiled in The Power of Myth. In the Introduction, Moyers offers a warm account of his friendship with Campbell and explained his role in their conversations in a way I have always described my experiences in journalism:  “A journalist, it is said, enjoys a license to be educated in public; we are the lucky ones, allowed to spend our days in a continuing course of adult education.”

The education here is akin to a Comparative Religion class on steroids. Campbell’s knowledge is impressive, but his ability to analyze that knowledge was his greatest asset. As someone who constantly “groups like things” and who seeks the patterns in life, I felt a surge of enlightenment at times, that some of what Campbell said were things I instinctively knew all along. My experience was in line with Campbell’s belief that myths reflect what our spirits yearn, but fail, to express.

Particularly resonant was his contention that religion is failing at its job – to bring people to the divine. He references famed psychiatrist, Carl Jung, who claimed religion, “is a defense against the experience of God.” In my church-going youth (exclusively Christian), I often lamented that the religions I had been exposed to were glorified social clubs that taught you how to be a better member of the club and not much else. My transcending , deeply-impacting spiritual moments occurred well outside any church walls. I’m firmly one of those, “I’m spiritual, not religious” types who seek solace and peace, but usually only find it in nature, experiences, and knowledge.

Campbell appears to have felt the same way, saying, “The old-time religion belongs to another age, another people, another set of human values, another universe. By going back you throw yourself out of sync with history.”  He compares myths to poetry, a language of beauty and symbolism allowing for interpretation, whereas religion turns the poetry of experience into prose that demands a literalness of all things, an exactness that erodes our understanding of ourselves.

Further, that the Bible in particular makes an enemy out of nature, that our natural selves should be rejected. Campbell expounds, “Nature religions are not attempts to control nature, but to help you put yourself in accord with it. But when nature is thought of as evil, you don’t put yourself in accord with it, you control it, or try to, and hence the tension, the anxiety, the cutting down of forests, the annihilation of native people.” In all my years of church attendance, I heard the many lessons on finding peace, yet none of their professed knowledge on how to attain it ever succeeded. Reading Campbell’s philosophies expanded my understanding of why.

But this was a personal read for me. By no means is the book meant to preach or convert or disrespect. Campbell truly had a passion for our collective story. Why it matters and how it continues to matter. This is evidenced by his foundation’s website, which has an extensive amount of resources to further his work (both free and for sale, of course, because money is a popular god in its own right).

Campbell was a man famous for saying, “Follow your bliss.” Find your own purpose, make your own path to happiness. Some argue it is impractical, reckless advice in a cutthroat, capitalistic world. Others find the audacity of a structure-less approach to spirituality offensive. I’m inclined to believe it is eternal wisdom too important to ignore.

The God Delusion – Richard Dawkins

Full disclosure: I’m too analytical to fall in love completely (so far as I’ve experienced). I have no blind-faith or unquestioning-allegiance capabilities. So after years of trying to make it work, I broke up with religion ten years ago. I made sure they knew it was them, not me.

I suppose now I’m classified as agnostic – that fence-straddling position that irritates both your atheist and religious friends in equal measure.  Mostly, I find solace in truth and reason so that’s where I choose to spend my time. This has led to an autodidactic exploration of the much-lauded “freethinkers” of our day, which in turn has led to a long list of influential freethinkers throughout time I have yet to meet.

I only mention this to establish that I didn’t go into Richard Dawkins’, The God Delusion, with a pre-established adoration or any expectations. Just the knowledge it is an influential and frequently-referenced book and it followed logically down my reading trail. It did not disappoint. Anything I’m about to say will only be a sniff, not even a taste, of the juicy meatiness he presents.

Dawkins has a writing style that is largely effective and quite good at explaining complex science when needed. His passion for the subject is undeniable in tone, though he doesn’t mind putting too fine a point on it:  “I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented.”

My personal preference isn’t nearly as combative, but I appreciate Dawkins’ willingness to present the heavy argument that religion can be, and is often, abusive, particularly in children. He calls bullshit on the political-correctness of respecting all religions equally, even if a religious practice causes real psychological or physical damage in the acolytes. I’ve often said that if someone told you their significant other repeatedly told them how worthless they are without them, you would advise they escape and offer to drive the get-away car. Yet most religions operate under this bullying tactic with little repercussions. Because of my religious experiences, I found this portion of the book as Dawkins at his most passionate and most potent.

There are a few moments I felt his feelings got away from him and he spoke more through opinion than fact, but mostly I was impressed with his documentation and research. Dawkins’ scientific approach lent itself perfectly to a topic that is so often buried under sentiment and tradition. Author Matt Ridley, author of Genome, perfectly expressed my experience reading this:  “Oh, it’s so refreshing, after being told all your life that it is virtuous to be full of faith, spirit, and superstition, to read such a resounding trumpet blast for truth instead. It feels like coming up for air.”

A particularly interesting portion explores the theories of evolutionary science that attempt to explain what compulsion or instinct has preserved humanity’s yearn for religion. He compares it to the moths who fly into flames while we look on and cheer (well, I cheer). Dawkins explains we never see the countless moths successfully guided by the moon and bright stars, only the ones who are fatally-wooed by our artificial lights. Dawkins explains, “It was never right to call it suicide. It is a misfiring by-product of a normally useful compass.” He offers an interesting argument that religion is a similar malfunction of instinctive, evolutionary traits humans needed to survive.

It is a fascinating discussion, yet left me unconvinced that’s entirely where the answers lie. And that’s ultimately the beauty of this book for me. I cannot imagine anyone could read it and believe 100% of everything Dawkins said, even if they share his views in all things. It’s that detailed. Some parts I read and felt a surge of conviction that usually gets expressed as:  “Oh, HELL yeah.” Other parts I politely strolled down and thought, “I can sit in this park, but that particular tree is all yours.”

Early on, though, I confess I wondered what the point was. Why waste time writing a book to counter what you do not believe exists? Then I started noticing the philosophy he slips in between points. Dawkins maintains atheists are “life-affirming and life-enhancing,” arguing if you do not believe in an afterlife, then you cherish the one life you get that much more. Essentially, he says to appreciate the moment you are in and acknowledge that in a vast expanse of space, our planet won some cosmic jackpot that allowed life to be. That we can accept the universe at measurable and observable face value and still stand in genuine wonder and awe.

It was an unexpected parting gift, but one I gladly accept. Dawkins hasn’t pulled me off my fence, but he certainly helped me better appreciate and understand the beauty of his side.

Sugar Cookies and Lead – A Christmas Tale

Lead

Phobia is fun. The kind of paralyzing, irrational fear that can turn a stroll through a park into shit-losing panic in the two seconds it took for that clown to round the corner and honk that fucking death horn in your screaming face. Phobia is also a misused and misunderstood word. Most people do not appreciate monster spiders popping up in their cereal bowls or snakes making guest appearances in the shed. It’s startling and scream-inducing, but it isn’t really phobia. Depending on the poison level of said horror, the fear we have for these things is somewhat justified and instinctual, in other words, proportionate to the threat. Hyperventilating when you drive past an airport because the very look and sound of a plane causes terror, that’s something altogether different. Such was my level of fear over guns. I had very little exposure to them growing up. No one in my immediate family hunted and I only saw the stacks of venison on the kitchen table at my aunt’s house, never the rifle that provided it. My stepdad and his lot changed that. Pistols, revolvers, rifles, bigger rifles, whirlygiggs, and thingamabobs. I had no idea what any of them were called, I just knew I had to leave the room when one was brought in for cleaning or bragging. Even the cases of bullets would cause my hands to shake a little. Everyone knew to cue me in advance so I could exit stage left when the gun show started. It was a mystery to them, but they respected my bizarre inability to breathe around their favorite toys. I psychoanalyzed it because it is one of my superpowers and also, I wanted to know why. The best I could figure was the gun phobia started when I was watching Cops in grade school and saw a re-enactment of armed men pushing inside a living room and blowing the family away. I also caught a particularly brutal scene in Robocop around the same time. Then a kid in high school blew half his face off in a gun-cleaning accident. All negative images for a very impressionable child. My brain associated guns with nothing but death until I started watching the History Channel’s “Top Shot” shooting competition. The contestants were having a great time; the obstacles were really well-planned. It looked … fun. Fast forward a couple of years and I’m completely broken by the weight of my brain’s incessant whirring. It’s the Gravitron effect – the faster it spun the stronger the force pinned everything in place. When it stopped, everything in me fell limp to the floor. It can be a traumatic experience that some cannot overcome, but I felt enlightened. Free. When everything is torn away, your mind is released from the ruts it dug. You only pick up the pieces you want back. Anxiety and fear controlled me for so long, I was inclined to pile it all up and watch it burn. The chance came at Christmas. For years, friends and family kept telling me they’d take me shooting and I’d make a Tardar face and Marge Simpson grunt of disapproval. Then my stepbrother sat across from me and the sparkly sugar cookies and asked me to shoot with him, my stepdad, and my niece the next morning. Somehow my whiny refusal registered in his mind as a whole-hearted, ‘see you tomorrow!’ The following morning brought sunshine and a slight nervousness. I held the empty gun and unleashed my other superpower – asking questions. With the patience reserved for a toddler learning to walk, the instructions, answers, and corrections began. How it loads, how it works, how to hold it, ‘no, the finger goes here’, ‘no, it will not explode inside the gun and blow your hands off’ – the tone of voice never varied. I’m decades older than my niece yet we were receiving the same instructions with the same reverence and respect for the rite of passage that preceded us for generations. Then holding my breath and resolving not to be controlled by fear any longer (or to be outdone by a kid), I slowly pulled the trigger of the Henry Golden Boy (I learned its name – you never forget your first). Then a revolver and another .22.  Again and again. As long as felt polite. I sucked ass at aiming, but I loved knowing I sucked ass at aiming, because, as my stepbrother proudly rebutted, “yeah, but you’re shooting.” All it took was a mental breakdown, a phoenix-esque rising from the ashes, an offer from one of the few people I never want to disappoint, and some Christmas magic, but I shot my phobia dead. Or rather the ground all around its feet because, again, I suck ass at aiming, but my phobia totally got the hint. 2015 fear conquering goal:  swimming. I’ll work up to clowns.