Happy. Healthy. Heathen.

Traveling, training, thinking, talking, typing


March 2013

Sometimes you just get lucky

I’m at the American Atheists convention and I have a blog queue that is about to bubble over.  There have been great speakers, big laughs, a costume party, old friends, and I have every intention of posting about all those things.

However, something happened last night that bumped all that down the list.  I met Earl Smith.

This American Atheist convention is the 50th anniversary of its founding, and it’s being held in Austin, Texas, where Madalyn Murray O’Hare began the organization in 1963, after the landmark ruling of removing prayer in public schools.  It’s 4 days of activism, socializing, speakers – all the usual that go along with conventions.  We’re meeting and staying at the Hyatt in Austin, which is one of the subjects I want to post on.  I have been astounded at the job they have done in accommodating us is so far beyond what is usually expected.  I have tried to express my gratitude to the waiters, check-in staff, and security as the opportunity presents.

Earl Smith is the director of security at the Hyatt hotel in Austin, Texas.  He’s a tall, snowy-haired, good-natured African American, and we (Eliott and I) warmed to him immediately.  Last night, he shared the following story with us.

Earl was drafted in 1966, and served with the 173rd Airborne brigade.  That unit sustained losses of over 10,000 American lives, and Earl returned home weary and lost at 22 years old.  He struggled to find his way, and was sent to prison a year later for a 5-year sentence for robbery.  He was given clemency in 1977, and when he was released, he set about rebuilding his life at age 25, with a war, a prison term, a broken marriage, and the racism of the south in his past.

Earl started with the Marriott in Chicago, and began working his way through the hospitality industry, finally taking the job as the head of hotel security at the Hyatt hotel in Austin in 1998.  In 2008, as you may remember, the final debate of the Democratic primary was held at UT Austin.  In a stroke of logistic hilarity, or maybe staff ineptitude, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and their respective debate teams stayed at the Hyatt in Austin.  When Earl was telling this story, he couldn’t stop chuckling relating the efforts the hotel staff went through to keep distance and peace between the groups in the hotel.

Earl found himself on an elevator with then-senator Obama.  In Earl’s pocket was his military patch from the 173rd Airborne, which he had carried in that pocket for 40 years.  Earl asked Mr. Obama if he could give him something, and of course Mr. Obama said he could.  Earl handed him the worn, frayed patch, and told him that he wanted to offer it to him on behalf of the American people.  When Earl told me this part of the story, using hand gestures that spoke even more than his words, he said, “I just felt so relieved to give it to him”.

The story now has to take a leap through time, to January of 2013.  One morning, when Earl arrived at his office, his staff was all atwitter about a phone call he had received – from the White House!  President Obama’s assistant chatted with Earl on the phone and via email over the next few days and arranged for him to come to Washington DC for the inauguration.  Earl was delighted, and set about arranging his budget and time schedule in order to go.  Earl’s employer, surprise surprise!, arranged for him to have a room in the packed and expensive Hyatt Hotel within walking distance of the Washington Mall.  When his tickets to the inauguration were delivered to his room, they came with a little more news:  President Obama wanted Earl to visit him at the White House the following day.  The question was also asked:  What else did Earl want to do while he was in our nation’s capitol?

Here was Earl’s list:  he wanted to go to the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, and the brand new Dr. King Memorial.   On a cold January day, Earl Smith attended the second inauguration of the first black president.  He said he loved every freezing minute of it.  Then the former Army private visited the memorials.  In telling this story full of emotional highs, at this point Earl became emotional, describing the feeling he experienced walking that sloping sidewalk, along that cold, reflecting granite, far too full of names.  40 years vanished, he said, and those names and faces came right back to him, reminding him of where he had come from, why he was where he was, who he had lost.  When Earl then visited the Dr. King memorial, he said moments from the past – JFK’s assassination, the war, the civil rights struggle – all came to him as he stood there, taking in the monument.  But there was still one more highlight.

It was time to go the White House.  Earl found himself sitting in a chair in a hallway, not really sure what was in store for him.  He said after he returned from a nervous trip to the bathroom, his escort was nowhere to be seen, so he just took a seat in the chair, and just then, walking down the hall, was a tall, thin, African American man extending his hand saying, “I’m so glad to see you again, Earl.”  Then, at the end of that hall, Earl walked in to the Oval Office, that iconic rug on the floor, the desk, all of it.  Earl and his President chatted for a bit, 20 minutes in fact, and Earl repeated to him the purpose of the patch; that he wanted the president to have it on behalf of the American people.

Please take the time to visit the link and watch the video.  What an honor and privilege it was to have met Earl and hear his story.  He’s a lovely, kind, gentle man, and if you are ever in Austin, go out of your way, even if you don’t stay here, to visit the Hyatt and ask to meet Earl.

I'm so proud of this picture!
My friend, Earl Smith

Thanks for reading!

Edit 4.1.13

Awesome level:  Maximum
Awesome level: Maximum

Bookshelf Post

Never fails.  I’ll go months without writing,  then I’ll write 3 posts in a week!

I’m going to have to come up with a new category, maybe called:  Cottage Living.  I’ve already posted about my plumbing experiences, and now I have the most wonderful experience to share!

To review:  I live in a 75-year-old country cottage.  My family lived here when my children were little for several years while we were building the big family house on the farm.  This house was a little crampy with 4 children and 2 adults; now that the children are grown and gone, it’s just the perfect size.  Some of the time it’s just me and the dogs, some of the time the Squeeze blows through as he can with work, some of the time we have friends who come stay a bit, and when I’m really really lucky, one or more of the kids comes for a day or two.  This precious house is perfect for all of that, even if it does only have one bathroom!

It’s got a big open kitchen, a large living room and master bedroom, a cute office for school, and a sweet little guest room.  It has a back porch with a swing, a front porch, a carport, and a patio where we have Cocktails at Sunset.  The yard is huNORmous, with room for the bonfire ring, big old trees with perfect limbs for climbing, even blackberries across the back fence.  Here it is in springtime:

Freethought Cottage
Freethought Cottage

It’s located on 8 acres of paradise, with barns and a pond, farm animals…stay tuned for the Spring Break post when daughter Glenda comes home to help with springtime farm stuff – fencing, chicken-coop mucking, garden tilling.

All of this preliminary description to try to get my point across:  I love this home.  It’s cozy and comfy and mine and I am so happy to live here.  Having said all that, there is a need I have that this house hasn’t been able to fulfill.  Til now.

I try not to be too materialistic.  I try to value people and relationships over things.  I try not to be too attached to my possessions, and most of the time I’m successful.  I love my car, I admit it, but I recognize and realize it’s just a car.  I’ve already said I love my house, and I know how fortunate I am to have this lovely place to live.  But the thing I own that probably means more to me than anything else I own is my book collection.

I have books from my childhood, books from my adolescence, and books from my adulthood.  I have history books, and philosophy books, and books on humor, and nutrition, and economics, and the environment.  I have mysteries, and thrillers, and horror, and science fiction.  I only part with a book with a good reason, and “because I’ve read it” isn’t one.

After the plumbing affair, I asked for a reference for a carpenter from the wonderful plumber, and he referred to me Earnest Stem, cabinet maker.  After a few phone calls and a visit to the house, we came to an agreement, and shortly thereafter, Earnest set to work.  Now we’ll let the pictures tell the story, again.

Here are the temporary bookshelves I had lining the walls
Here are the temporary bookshelves I had lining the walls
Books on shelves, books on top of shelves
Books on shelves, books on top of shelves
Books on books
Books on books

Here’s the point in the story when Earnest enters.

This is a fun shot of the guest room with all the books crammed in to make room for construction
This is a fun shot of the guest room with all the books crammed in to make room for construction
Here's the maestro at work
Here’s the maestro at work
and here's the work in progress
and here’s the work in progress
Here's another In Progress shot (you see I couldn't wait to start putting books out)
Here’s another In Progress shot (you see I couldn’t wait to start putting books out)

And now….Here’s the finished product!!

Look at this sight!
Look at this sight!


Aren't they beautiful!?
Aren’t they beautiful!?
This is the children's section
This is the children’s section
The Lewis and Clark section
The Lewis and Clark section

So here’s the link to Earnest’s page.  I unreservedly endorse and recommend him.  He got this work done in 2 days, he was there exactly when he told me he would be, his rates were very reasonable, and he did a fabulous job.  Tell him Gayle sent you.

One more shot.  We had to move a built-in corner unit in order to install the shelves.  This corner unit must have been in place before the carpet was added, because when we moved the unit…

There's a real possibility that the next installment of Cottage Living will involve this floor.
There’s a real possibility that the next installment of Cottage Living will involve this floor.

So check back!

Thank you Earnest, for my beautiful library,

and thank YOU for reading!


My first Blog award!

This will be a very short lesson on why you don’t give an award to an obnoxious overachiever (think:  Hermione).


My internet friend, Marisa, nominated me for this award.  Here is her blog, so check out her work.  She writes about art, music, cinema, plus she’s funny and smart and has impeccable taste in blogs.


Part of the dealio is that I am to tell 7 things about myself.  Because I’ve had this blog going for so long, I’ve told almost everything, so some of this may be a repeat.

1.  I have an extensive nutcracker collection.  I started it accidentally, and now it’s out of control.  When I put them all out at Christmastime, sometimes in the light of the tree, with all their sparkly clothes, and swords, and movable chins, they creep me the hell out.

They're amassing behind me
They’re amassing behind me

2.  I don’t like chocolate OR ice cream.  I just don’t.

3.  Since 1990, I have ridden my bicycle across Iowa at least a dozen times.

This line stretches for 70 miles
This line stretches for 70 miles

4.  I would rather read than watch television.  Anywhere, anyplace, anytime.

5.  I hate country music, but I love the titles:

If You Want to Keep Your Beer Ice-Cold, Keep It Next To My Ex-Wife’s Heart

How Can I Miss You If You Won’t Go Away?

Her Teeth Was Stained, But Her Heart Was Pure

6.  I backpacked through Europe when I was in college, complete with Eurail and hostel pass, and went to Greece without telling my parents.  Because I went by myself, they wanted my itinerary before I went (this was the dark ages of phones – you had to go to a telephone building to make an international phone call).  Greece was nowhere on the list.  My dad’s still mad about that.

7.  I have an insane, irrational fear of cockroaches.  Dad was a Navy man.  I grew up in Jacksonville, Key West, Pensacola.  In a trailer.  With giant, flying palmetto bugs.  Me, 4 years old, the sheet pulled over my head, eyes squeezed shut, hearing those hideous things flying in my room at night.  **Shudder**  Not so irrational now, huh?

Another part of the deal is that I have to link to 15 of my favorite blogs.  Here you go:

1.  JT’s Patheos blog

2.  Greta’s blog

3.  My girl Susan’s blog

4.  Son Sam’s blog

5.  The Bloggess

6.  Drs. Mike and Mary Dan’s Protein Blog

7.  Ted’s Blog

8.  Bookshelfporn

9. Joe. My. God

10.  Jesse and Julia’s Blog

11.  Neil de Grasse Tyson’s Blog

12.  Whole 9 Life Blog

13.  Dr. Peter Attia’s blog

14.  Pharyngula

15.  Eggton

And there you have it – thank you again, Marisa – this was fun!  I thought I’d have a little trouble coming up with 15, but I actually had to struggle to edit it down.  I’ll try to do another post with another 15.

Thanks for reading!

No, Believer, what if YOU’RE wrong?

I gave blood today.  I won’t say that it’s entirely altruistic.  I believe our bodies accumulate too many heavy elements, iron is one of them, and an occasional bloodletting helps keep those levels down.  I like that – doing a good deed that’s good for me too!

As you know if you have donated blood, the process takes a bit of time – paperwork, interview, vitals, then the actual bloodgiving itself takes a moment or two.  I had my Kindle with me, but my bloodtaker was chatty, so once I saw where the conversation was going, I put my Kindle aside, and, as a captive audience, and taking a deep draw from the well of patience, I engaged in the 398th version of this conversation.

It started with a question about my tattoo.  When I don’t have time to engage in a protracted conversation, I say that I got my tattoo as a celebration of completing my Ironman (partially true).  When I have time and the situation lends itself to conversation, I give the more accurate answer:  that it’s a symbol of my embracing science and reason over faith and religion as a guide for life.

Because I’ve had this conversation so many times, I know how the rest of the conversation will unfold.  A little more back and forth about what that means, a little personal history, and then realization on the part of my companion that I am serious about my unbelief.

And then it comes.  They look into my eyes, and with an earnestness that I know comes from fear, because I had it myself, they say it.

“What if you’re wrong?”

Pascal’s wager.


I gather my patience (I may have explained it several hundred times, but they haven’t heard it, ever).  I explain who Pascal was, and what the entire premise of their question is:

If you erroneously believe in God, you lose nothing (assuming that death is the absolute end), whereas if you correctly believe in God, you gain everything (eternal bliss). But if you correctly disbelieve in God, you gain nothing (death ends all), whereas if you erroneously disbelieve in God, you lose everything (eternal damnation).

So I go through my explanation, like thousands of my fellow atheists have through the years.

1.  I cannot simply will myself to believe in something for which there is no evidence.  If I told you I had a magic cricket in my purse that talks to me and advises me, that you can’t see, or hear, could you WILL yourself to believe that?

2.  If your belief is based only on gambling against a loss, how do you know you’ve picked the right god?  How do you know you’re not offending the REAL one by throwing in with this one?  There are THOUSANDS of gods in thousands of religion, all with some variation on hell and heaven and eternal punishment.  And wouldn’t believing in the WRONG one be even worse than not believing in ANY?

3.  If I’m just believing as an exit strategy for this world, with god’s omnipotence and omniscience, would he not see that I’m faking it?  Would that not be MORE offensive that being honest about my disbelief?

In this particular version of this oft-repeated scenario, my kind bloodtaker listened while I talked it through, nodded her head as I explained my position, then concluded with, what else:  “I’ll pray for you, Gayle.  By name.”  Alrighty, then.

As I got my sticker and bottle of water (I passed on the cookies and crackers), I was already writing this post in my head, and this is what I want to say:

“Christian, what if you’re wrong?”

What if you’re wrong about spending your life waiting for guidance, not acting for lack of divine message, missing an opportunity to experience something or someone?

What if you’re wrong about how to invest your time and money in alleviating suffering in the world, not based on what the bible says about that, but on real, genuine, compassion for the hurting, the hungry, the homeless?

What if you’re wrong about how we are to treat the earth, not as something over which we have dominion, but as something we are to respect and care for?

What if you’re wrong about your role in judging the decisions other people make about who they love and who they want to marry?

What if you’re wrong about heaven and hell, and about how fast and fleeting this life is, and about what you should say to those you love, and how you resolve struggles in relationships?

What if you’re wrong about the importance of science, wrong about denying evolution, wrong about using prayer instead of medicine?

What if you’re wrong about assuming it is god’s plan that people suffer and die from disease, hunger, war, famine?

What if you’re wrong about how you’ve spent your limited funds giving to a church to pay electric bills and staff salaries, instead of investing in your family’s future, improving education, raising the quality of life for everyone in your community?

What if you’re wrong about spending your Sundays getting up early, getting your children up early to spend the day inside a building convincing yourself to believe something for which there is no evidence, convincing others to believe something for which there is no evidence?

What if you’re wrong about what you’ve taught your children about values and compassion and humanity?

What if you’re wrong about what sin is, about what is okay to enjoy and with whom to enjoy it?

What if you’re wrong about the usefulness of prayer, and about how you can truly help someone who is in a bad place, or at a bad time, or in a bad set of circumstances?

What if you’re wrong about thinking you are a sick, worthless, disgusting being in need of a cure, of salvation?

What if you’re wrong about thinking anyone who doesn’t believe as you is a sick, worthless, disgusting being in need of a cure?

What if you’re wrong about believing that because you’ve followed the rules and have experienced good fortune, that those who experience misfortune have obviously fallen short of being worthy of god’s blessings?

What if you are wrong about endorsing a book full of misogyny, divine murder, ethnic dominion that has tremendous potential to be interpreted as literal, applicable, and appropriate for THIS time and THIS place?

What if you’re wrong about using your feelings about what an invisible, undetectable being might be telling you about how to treat yourself, your spouse, your parents, your children, your money, your neighbor, your world?

So. believer, please understand what Pascal’s wager is before you ask us that question.  Understand that’s it’s a weak position in the first place; an admission that there really is no good evidence upon which to base your beliefs.  Understand that it’s one of the first things we had to deal with when we began to doubt our faith, and in fact, kept a good many of us in the faith for a great long time.  Understand that we have a response to it, a reasonable, practical, rational response.

Then turn it around and ask it of yourself.  And answer it.

Thanks for reading.

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