Category Archives: Religion

The day we faced down the Phelps gang

When thinking of people who have no purpose on earth but to hate and harm–real, true emotional terrorists–everyone but about fifty or so Americans agrees that Fred Phelps and his gang take the cake. Out of respect for my Christian friends, I’m not going to dignify the Phelps gang by calling them a Baptist church except in quotes (and tags). As much pain and indoctrination as real Baptists have inflicted on me in life while I was defenseless, even those involved in those abuses would not approve of the Phelps gang. Thus, I’m not cooperating with fake ‘Baptists’ in the effort to steal the title of authentic Baptists. I may not agree with much of anything that comes from the latter’s ecclesiastical leadership, but when it comes to Phelps, I’m okay singing a stanza of Onward Christian Soldiers with the real ones. (With my atrocious singing voice, they may not think of it as much of a joyful noise.)

Being a non-Christian here is actually pretty painless, because the Tri-Cities live by a quiet ethic of staying out of your face. It’s the same way with regard to homosexuality. If one doesn’t wash everyone’s face in one’s difference, and simply lives one’s life in peace, one is left in peace here. My gay, pagan and gay pagan friends living in other states tell me I shouldn’t take that for granted, and I believe them.

On 2 Feb 2007, Marine SGT Travis Pfister of Richland, WA died in Iraq. Always sad, but also an ever-present part of war. A memorial service was scheduled in early March for SGT Pfister at the TRAC (a trade show and expo center) in Pasco, to which one could presume his family, friends, and supportive community members might join in honoring his life and sacrifice. The Phelps gang announced that they were sending a picket.

Where there is a Phelps gang visit, counter-protests appear. For this one, attendance was triply obligatory. Phelps’s gang lives in my home state, in gutless Topeka which snivels and cowers before its barratry rather than taking concerted action to encourage them to find a new state. A civilized Kansan thus had to represent. Considering how many of my good friends are gayer than the 90s, I couldn’t look them in the eyes if I didn’t show up. I’m no patriot, but I respect service and sacrifice, and I don’t appreciate anyone–especially outside thugs–showing up to offend the family of someone who died keeping his oath of service. Deb, of course, was as dead set on attending as I.

We had company.

It was a pretty spring day, though I’m sure it didn’t feel springy for those who came to mourn. The law in Washington is that protests may not approach within 500′ of a funeral. The Pasco Police decided to confine the Phelps gang to a vacant lot across the street from the TRAC, well away from the main entrance and avenue of approach for mourners. A thin line of police officers manned the street with obvious reluctance, to prevent the crowd from physically tearing the Phelps gang to pieces. The air was filled with the sound of big motorcycles, for the Patriot Guard Riders had shown up with about 140 bikes. In most situations, to put it mildly, I am not a motorcycle enthusiast. For that day, I was happy to hear the rumbling sound. This organization travels around organizing counter-protests where necessary, and presumably doing other things associated with veterans’ causes. They do add a sense of muscle to the event, just by looking the way they look, not that we needed extra muscle. There were about two thousand people there, and it was a little difficult to get up the front of the police line. There was no way the family and attendees could see the protesters unless they worked at it. There was no way they could fail to see the rest of us, as there was barely room for cars to get around in the parking lot.

Across from us on the vacant lot were five pathetic individuals. I only remember a wild-haired adult male and a little girl. They were holding up their usual disrespectful signs, insulting military service, Christianity and homosexuals. What struck me was the great diversity of the crowd, a full representation of the Tri-Cities. Black, Hispanic, Asian, white; male, female, somewhere in between; straight, gay, still not sure; old, young, middle-aged; atheist, evangelical, Catholic, pagan, Mormon, Unitarian, agnostic; veteran, union, average joe or jane. At last, something we could all agree on and get together about! I am not a person for whom a sense of belonging or membership comes easily. I truly felt like part of the Tri-Cities that day, and proud to be so. We were supposed to turn our backs to them, or at least the Patriot Guard Riders tried to get us to, but not everyone did. I guess that’s the train wreck factor: it’s hard to look away.

In case you have never seen a Phelps gang protest, it works like this. They only send a small group (they’re a busy bunch, with a lot of people to offend nationwide). Their goal is to get attacked, or have some other event happen that will get them media time. If they do not get it, they lose. So they keep ratcheting up the outrage, in order to see what they can provoke, with increasingly offensive yells and signs. At the end, they had the little girl angrily stomp a U.S. flag into the dirt, which I gather is their ultimate step: if that doesn’t get them assaulted, nothing will. In this case, it didn’t. When it becomes obvious they won’t get what they came for, they leave. They may even have been gone before the family arrived at the memorial, which would be an added bonus. I think four squad cars of Franklin County Deputies escorted the Phelps gang’s car to the county line, off to whatever mission of antipathy awaited them next.

On the way home, I wondered if we’d done any good. I decided that we had. We couldn’t prevent the Phelps gang from doing what they did, but to whatever degree knowing of their presence made it worse for the family, perhaps a 400:1 support:hate ratio made it more bearable for the bereaved. It had gotten us all together, in all our different forms and ways of being and living, in good spirits. I didn’t see anyone showing disrespect for the police, who were doing a necessary and unpleasant job in a professional manner, and deserved cooperation from the good guys and gals. It must have been a moving experience for the gay counter-protesters, seeing so many of their neighbors so forcefully rejecting homophobia–which, after all, is the whole basis for this Phelps crap.

If nothing else, at least a few people learned that the Phelps gang is not representative of Kansas or Kansans. The heavy-bearded character in the KU t-shirt, looking like Gimli the Dwarf after a growth spurt, had something to say about that.

My telemarketer FAIL

This needs some backdrop. I am of the following beliefs/persuasions:

  • Non-Christian, and disinterested in reconsidering that.
  • Committed to leaving people alone about that, if they leave me alone. I thus consider all active proselytizing very offensive and annoying, one of the worst social misbehaviors there is.
  • Some businesses and jobs are not legitimate employment, and that practice of a bad job liberates me from social obligations of courtesy and honesty when it intrudes on my life. I’m not moved by ‘they’re just doing their jobs.’ So are drug mules. If your job is to bother people who did not ask to be bothered, that’s a bad job.

So not only do telemarketers annoy me, they are fair game within the confines of law, just as are missionaries who dare bother me on my property. It does not follow that I am always necessarily dishonest or mean to either. It simply means that, within the confines of the law, I may be so if I choose, and I feel I’ve done nothing wrong. They always had the choice not to bother me. I wasn’t bothering them.

The only enjoyment I can get from a telemarketing effort, therefore, is a sense that I made it less worthwhile for the telemarketing company and its employees. To some extent, whether I do that through comedy, annoyance or venting depends upon the conduct. Obviously-read scripts offend me. Scripts that imply insults to my intelligence offend me. Illegitimate questions offend me, and since the querent has no right to ask me anything about my whole life, all telemarketing questions are illegitimate, especially if the individual has not even asked whether s/he may start asking them.

I’ve handled it various ways over the years. I actually got a robocall operation to leave my cell phone alone when, after about eight hangup calls from them, I called back and strongly implied that I had the power and will to traverse the electronic medium and cause grave physical infirmity. (That’s illegal, and not normal for me, but I was pretty tired of what amounted to crank calls. Oh, and it worked.) With males, I have been known to attempt a sultry tone hinting at seduction. I often take charge and say “I’m asking the questions here. How did you get my number?” I’ve pretended to have comprehension disabilities, or to speak little English. I give stupid answers, or make up a bunch of baloney. If I’m feeling lazy, I just say I’ll go get the person they want, pretend to call someone to the phone, lay it down and just not return. A minute wasted, some other person somewhere spared a call, the company’s money wasted, my little good deed for the day.

One time, some twenty years ago, I decided that I had the perfect screw-you planned out. I would preach. I was raised around a lot of that, for my father loved the 700 Club and religion was rammed down my throat by emotional and physical abuse all through my teens, until I (predictably) threw up. I know how to imitate a televangelist. So, next time the phone rang, and it was someone telemarketing me, I had all tubes loaded with canister. This was going to be my most successful, obnoxious telemarketing response ever. This would be for the ages.

“Good evening, sir, I’m Susan with Suchandsuch Co. Who is the main decis–”

“You know, I’m going to give you something better than a sale today,” I blared in my outside voice. “I’m going to give you the truth of your Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ! It says in the Bible…” I went on. And on. And on. I pontificated for minutes; no hangup, no interruption. I turned up the heat: “…because the alternative is the fires of Hell, and there is a real Hell, and it’s even worse than you imagine…” I quoted John 3:16 and offered interpretation. I began to wonder why she hadn’t just hung up, or butted in to bring the conversation around to what she wanted to sell, or responded in any way. I did this for about five minutes, getting a little curious, but starting to run out of wind.

When I began to slacken, she finally spoke up. “Wow, this is so wonderful. I also am born again, and it’s so great to meet someone who believes as I do and isn’t ashamed of the Gospel. Sir, this has been the best call of my day, and thank you so much for sharing your faith with me. I’m at work though, and I have to get going on other calls now, but God bless you, and have a wonderful evening. Good night!”


I never did find out what she wanted to sell me. I stood there, blown-out, dumfounded, struck silent, my whole plan having backfired about as back as a plan can fire. It was like the South Carolinians had tried to fire on Fort Sumter, but due to incompetent artillery direction, had shelled downtown Charleston instead.

Then I did the only thing that a sense of justice or humor would allow. I laughed until I was incoherent, red-faced and gasping for breath. In fact I’m tearing up laughing just thinking about it.

I haven’t pulled the preaching stunt since.

On religion and society

My comments on religion
Something I just blurted on Facepalm, made into a graphic by Magdalena Åkesson.

I didn’t make this graphic. My friend Mags Åkesson took a post I wrote on Facebook and assembled it.

The reaction caught me off guard, and in a positive way. I had anticipated some contention. Instead it has that vague feeling of something that’s about to get away from one, be associated with one.

Good. I don’t want control. If it resonated, then I am glad. I fling it joyfully onto the winds.

People who seek to control you, well, that’s the bad guys and gals.

Athena’s owl

Clear caution: if references to religious faith bother you, you won’t care for this post.

We live on a quarter-acre of hilly property, about half of which is grass that I must irrigate and mow.  Lately times have been a bit discouraging for Deb and I, owing to some life setbacks that relate to business and the law (no, we aren’t in trouble with it or anything).  Most of you probably know that she and I are pagan, as in, we profess faiths that make us not People of the Book (Muslims, Christians, Jews).  This means that we see evidence of the divine in nature, most times, and while her beliefs and mine differ, they have a fair bit in common.

Lately I am lamed somewhat with knee trouble, but in at least some basics of yard maintenance, the show must go on.  Irrigation is one such, and a couple of weeks ago I was doing the annual test and startup rituals.  It was a good year, with no failed valves and no yard-high gushers of water.  I was making the rounds of the yard as the timer went through all six stations, periodically rewarding me with a surprise soakdown.  Since our piping is set up with great inefficiency–the same pipe waters a couple spots in the front yard and several in the back–this means a lot of walking around to observe results, adjust misguided sprinklers, and generally figure out what will need help.

One of my favorite parts of the property is a magnolia tree.  It’s odd.  The patio is poured around it.  In winter, it develops little pussy willow pods that in spring will break into lovely violet, magenta, pink and white flowers.  Also in spring, it produces little seed pods that will grow to the size of hot dogs, then fall.  Inside them are bright orange seeds.  If not watched, Fabius (our Labrador retriever) will eat them, as he will eat nearly anything just to see if it’s any good.  A great joy of spring here is to sit on the patio shaded by a spreading tree full of flowers; they had come and gone.

On the day I was testing the irritation system (as I usually call it), I was making my way across the patio past the magnolia when I saw several splotches of bird droppings, brightest white, on the patio under the magnolia.  We get a lot of birds on the property, attracted by various fruit trees and vines (plum, apple, cherry, grape), so I am rarely surprised but always pleased.  I leave a lot of dense underbrush around the edges, to enable the quail to find impenetrable shelter to raise their little quail families.  Ah, I thought, a new nest in the magnolia!  Hurrah!  Wonder what kind of birds they are? I went over to the obvious spot, saw a dark shape on the branch.  Didn’t look like a nest at all.  I was maybe five feet from it, almost directly below, when I saw the eyes.

It was a small owl, maybe 8″ high, just looking at me.  She didn’t scare.  I just gazed up at her (I think it was a hen Western screech owl based on the size and later research; thank you, Rob and Jennifer) for a bit, and she back at me.  In eleven years of residence here, we have never before seen or heard a single owl, much less in broad daylight, much less perched in the magnolia and willing to let people approach so near.  Without making sudden movements, I went to the house and called Deb to come out with her camera.  Out came my wife, camera in hand:  “Oh, my god!  We never had an owl before!  She’s beautiful!”  Deb hurried to snap a lot of pictures; the owl followed us with her eyes but did not scare.  Hi.  I’m an owl!

Then I realized that this was bigger than simply a treasured moment sighting an extremely cool little owl in our yard.  Deb’s tutelary is Athena, Greek goddess of a lot of things:  business, warfare, victory, law, crafts, wisdom.  All of which, of late, come very much into focus for Deb and I as we deal with some adversity.  Rather more regularly devout than Deb, and though I am Asatru (Germanic heathen…we are the Viking pagans, in essence), in my regular nightly homages to my gods, I continue also to honor the Hellenic gods.  Athena among them; Athena’s symbol is the owl, seen on much ancient Athenian coinage and art dedicated to the city’s tutelary and namesake.  It would very much seem I might not have just been talking to the midnight wind.

I mentioned this to Deb and suggested she go in and get some raw meat and a glass of wine.  Maybe the owl wouldn’t want the meat, but it was in the nature of offering.  We did a small observance of welcome and blessing as the owl watched us.  If there were any sprinklers malfunctioning, I’d just have to find out about them later.  We watched for a while, then left her in peace.  Either way one looks at it, it was a marvel.  If one is not spiritually inclined, we got to see a wonderful owl, and got closer to her than one ever logically expects.  I myself am not the type to believe in coincidences that are too multi-faceted.  To Deb and I, this owl symbolized favor, hope, support and guidance in difficult times, a sense of being less alone against adversity.

For those who read this far, here’s one of Deb’s pictures of the owl.

A Western screech owl that visited us.

Why I don’t wear green on March 17

It’s something I get every year, especially with a last name that’s more Irish than a spraypainted sheep.  It’s easier to just explain it this way.

  • St. Patrick’s Day is not merely a Christian holiday; it celebrates a Christian victory over paganism. I’m not a druid (though some of my dear friends are), but I am a Germanic Heathen–thus more akin than not. I don’t think it’s anti-Christian to say I can hardly cheer for its vanquishing of indigenous beliefs. For me to celebrate this would be like UCLA fans getting together to remember and celebrate all the times USC beat them. In what universe would I be glad for this?
  • It’s more an Irish-American holiday than an Irish holiday. I have that on good authority from the Irish themselves, who surely are greater authorities on Irishness than Irish-Americans. One Irishwoman told me about her horror at an Irish festival in California, watching people collect money for ‘the struggle.’ She called them ‘the shamrock people.’ Remember, these are her words, not mine. Her further comment:  “Either the shamrock people are Irish, or I am, but we both can’t be.”
  • Because of that, what you get is millions of people going as overboard as possible on what they see as Irishness: leprechauns, green beer, green stripes on roads, green clothing, red hair, freckles, alcoholism, and so on. There are bits of truth in that, sure, but it’s not how I see Ireland. I see Irishness as hospitality after a brief period of caution, eagerness to talk to strangers, a passion for all arts (musical, literary, visual), and yes, a history of suffering and in some cases terrible violence. Leon Uris got it right: a terrible beauty. To me, St. Patrick’s Day doesn’t look very Irish. As an editor, even if I were not part Irish, anyone sending me a manuscript full of stereotypes would enjoy a flood of margin comments.
  • Speaking of alcoholism, do we really need to push that stereotype harder? In the past, it was part and parcel of oppressive stereotyping by the British occupiers (and the Americans who looked down upon Irish immigrants: the drunken Mick, face shaped in simian fashion, feckless, slumped in an alley, presented as proof that Irish were a lower form of life. Here’s one for you: alcoholism in Ireland has all the same consequences it has in the United States. Shortened lives, failed commitments, bad decisions, battered wives, beaten kids, damaged families, avoidable road fatalities, cirrhosis, addiction battles, stupid sayings, and so on. It might seem funny from here, maybe not so much so if you think about the families it harms. If a foreign country celebrated July 4 with parodies of random school shootings, would that amuse us?
  • What of the Irish whom the orange bar on the flag represents? They are Protestants. They too are Irish; their relatives also emigrated here. How can they be left out? How can one think this will help promote unity in the old country? If you care about Ireland, how can you not want its differing faiths and ethnicities to get along, united in Irishness? St. Patrick’s Day claims to represent all things supposedly Irish, and all the Irish groups make a big deal of non-sectarianism. Ask an Ulster Protestant how really part of it she feels. When she does feel like part of it, it’ll be a win.
  • Finally, I’m not much moved by part-time Irishness. Therefore I am prone to say: “Tell you what. I understand some Irish (Gaelic). If you can lecture me in Irish as to why I should wear green, I may not do it, but I will hear you out. If you want to get down with your bad Irish self, study the Irish language in all its complexity and beauty. And when you do, and you want to pressure me about this, we will have that discussion. In Irish.  Until then, I’ll pass, thanks.”

Not to be a stick in the mud, though. If you’re observing the holiday, have a happy one. Honestly.