Friday, January 18, 2008

On Religious Freedom

WARNING! This post makes no attempt to be fair and biased about religion--a topic near and dear to people's hearts. If you're easily offended when someone attacks religions in general, please skip this post. I think my points are valid, but if your faith is of that silly 'unassailable due to righteous indignation' type, we're going to be unable to hold a discussion here. kthx

So I'm an ordained minister. I've been one for a week and a half now, ever since Tuesday, January 8th, 2008. I figure I should remember a date like that, because ordination is supposed to be a pretty big deal, one of those things that you remember with a piece of paper and maybe a party but you certainly remember the date.

In becoming ordained, I guess I've chosen a religious affiliation. So, as of the time of my ordination, in perpetuity, I am a member of the Universal Life Church (ULC). The ULC is not a Christian organization, though they welcome Christians. I suppose that in the truest sense they are nondenominational. All people are welcome to join, no matter their faith or beliefs. There are no dogmas to the Church, and there is little in the way of official services/facilities in the traditional sense.

What they do offer is instant ordination to anyone who wants it. You join the ULC, provide your name and address, and they will officially ordain you in their faith. In doing so, you have all of the various pluses of being an ordained minister (monetizing your practice you're taxed like a minister, which is good and bad), among which is the legal ability to perform wedding ceremonies.

If this sounds a little shady and underhanded, instantly being ordained online, then perhaps you're looking at it the wrong way. The ULC has won through multiple legal battles the right to ordain whoever they wish into their faith and for their ordination to be as valid as that of any church, be they Jewish or Catholic or Protestant all the way down to Pastafarian or Jedi (do we really have official ministers in these religions? Doubtful).

What is important is the bias of our government and lawmakers towards religious institutions. Marriage can be conducted by a Justice of the Peace, but the power also resided in the ordained ministers. In fact, marriage is one of the only legal powers granted to an ordained minister over Joe Blow on the street. However, the criteria for ordination are typically conflicting. Many religions force someone to adhere to a strict credo, go to seminary or other similar religious school, and then devote their life to a congregation in exchange for little more than an inflated sense of self-importance and one more legal right.

The ULC wishes to take this power out of the hands of the few, and into the hands of the many. When we believe that to be an ordained minister requires that kind of time and dedication, we set up a state of power in which there is a religious elite that we feel should have more. That kind of mindset states that we should be subjected to the decisions of a religion minority who not only are more entitled than we are, but also deserve to have more legal power because of the strength of their religious convictions.

I believe this to not only be false, but harmful to society and the individual as a whole.

Religion is an inherently very personal thing. And one that has forever been entangled with the legal systems of all countries, despite efforts to pull the two apart. However, when God is on our money and in our Pledge of Allegiance and our highest governmental leaders regularly point to their faith as a guiding factor, we know that those efforts are more or less superficial. They claim religious ambivalence, but we've already shown that they're willing to grant superior legal status to a religious official over a 'normal' person.

However, in doing so they perpetuate the system of the religiously devout being pulled into a higher state of power. As a mostly Christian country, it's no surprise that the Christian special interests hold significant sway over the workings of our government. That is because on some level, people are raised to believe that those men and women who go through religious indoctrination are somehow more valid in their opinions than anyone else. Ordination grants legitimacy, a holy sanction that makes them freed from the confines of most secular concerns.

This could not be further than the truth. Ordination is not a structured thing. A religion might enforce schooling and devotion to weed out all but the most faithful (and most controllable) but there are options to grant the same legitimacy in 5 minutes sitting at your computer. In the eyes of the law, my ordination and that of a man who paid thousands of dollars to go to a seminary are entirely equal in rights and legitimacy.

And the same rights and privileges are open to everyone. We do not have to exist in a state where the religiously devout are granted greater rights in the eyes of the law. I want to be clear on this; ordination IS NOT a matter of faith or religion. It's supposedly tied to that by traditional religions, but that's mostly as a way to further the legitimacy of its ordained ministers in the eyes of the laity.

Instead of seeing it as an enlighten minority, see it for what it is, a system that grants rights based on supposed faith. This system of allowing greater rights to a religious official just undermines the separation of church and state that our government purports to be under (and I believe should be under). And it's not picky about it, mostly because it couldn't afford to be without angering too many people. In the eyes of the government, any religious official is inherently granted higher rights than a normal person; for no reason other than a religious institution says they are worth granting rights to.

This is why the ULC exists. It does not enforce a faith, because it isn't about faith. You can be whatever faith you are and be a member of the ULC. It opens its doors to all peoples of any walk of life. It does not require you to go to school for your faith. While it might be important to do so in more dogmatic religions, in ULC your personal beliefs are inherently your religion and there is no way to teach you what you believe.

And most importantly, it has no qualms about granting you rights that are supposed to belong to a privileged few. You sign up, and it will give you what is supposed to not be for you, but those in power. And you have just as much legitimacy (if few resources, admittedly) as a Catholic Priest or a Protestant Reverend or a Jewish Rabbi. You have the exact same rights as these people instantly, should you choose to take them.

It's only when we choose to take freedom for ourselves that we show that we truly value it. I believe that the more people who accept their freedoms and as much autonomy as they can, the further we can wrest power from the minority and into the hands of the majority. The best place to strike is at faith, that supposedly unassailable bastion. When we take true religious freedom as an individual, instead of under the control of those who took this freedom and didn't tell you you could do so, too, we say essentially 'I will not allow someone to have more rights than me because they claim to be more pious.'

Religious freedom, the freedom to practice as you believe and the freedom from control by people who would abuse the religious cracks in our legal system, is an essential step to freeing oneself from oppression by those who would gladly subvert your freedoms for you when you remain silent--or ignorant.

More information on the ULC, ordination, the legal status of ordination, and the various requirements to perform marriages legally ( some states have more requirements than simply being ordained, but the ULC offers services to help meet those requirements ) please visit the ULC website at or

Thursday, January 17, 2008


I don’t normally deal with everyday things here. Movies and music and books and games are so highly individualistic that I can’t claim to have an opinion that anybody would find worthwhile. I like a lot of things that nobody else does, and I understand that. So I make a conscious effort not to review every little thing that comes across my plate.

However, sometimes something is so good, and at such a risk of being overlooked, that I can’t NOT say anything. I must spread the word of good choices, and hopefully let people see something they wouldn’t otherwise. Today’s is a game. Not just a game, but a game for ipod.

I see you rolling your eyes! And yes, it’s true that most iPod games alternate between mediocre and crap, but this is different. This is amazing. This is a clash of gaming and music such as the world hasn’t seen save a few other times (and never done portably so well). This is Phase!

Phase is currently on sale in the iTunes store for $5. It’s made by Harmonix, those same wonderful people who brought you Frequency, Amplitude, Guitar Hero 1, 2, and 80s, and the new and temptingly large and shiny Rock Band. For the three of you who have never heard of these things (especially Guitar Hero/Rock Band) they are music games that take you through songs that you hit buttons in accordance with on-screen prompts. A rhythm game, for the gaming inclined among you.

Phase has a few features going for it most do not. 1) it’s much cheaper than Guitar Hero, I don’t care how used and abused the copy you’re looking for is. 2) it’s portable, which is nice if (like me) you’re always running about and not always in plain view of your gaming console of choice.

It’s 3) that’s the real clincher—you can use your own songs.

Let me explain. If/when you purchase Phase, it downloads into your iTunes. It also creates a Phase playlist for you. Now, before you sync your iPod, you have to put songs into the Phase playlist. Pick a song, any song. Once you do, iTunes will spend a few seconds analyzing the song and generating a note chart. Do this with as many songs as you’d like (between :30 and 30:00 min in length, up to 1000 songs) and then sync your iPod. Also, in a weird move, you have to manually sync the game. Once done, you’re ready to rock!

Phase plays similarly to most rhythm games. You select a single song in Quick Spin mode or a song followed by four others in the difficult Marathon mode, and you’re thrown into the game. Three lines drift off towards a simplistic, colorfully drawn landscape that unfolds before you. Circles come up, left right and center, which correspond to the Back Forward and Center buttons on your iPod, respectively. Also, there are swoops of dots that snake across the lines. These indicate a swipe across your touch pad. Whether it’s a quick swoop or a serpentine line of a song, it’s surprisingly visceral to play music circularly as opposed to the rigid binary-nature of the normal note-hitting.

When the circles hit the circles on the bottom of the screen, you hit the note indicated. Line it up, and you did it! Miss, and you suck. The game makes you know this, too, as the volume gets knocked down a notch on the song (similar to the misplays that happen in Guitar Hero). The more circles you hit, and the higher your score goes, and the more stars you gain at the bottom of the screen. If you don’t make enough stars to meet the quota before the checkpoint, you lose health. Lose enough health, and you get a game over.

It’s all pretty straight forward. Which is exactly what it should be. Consider it Guitar Hero lite. The real gem here, though, is being able to use whatever song you want to power the game. The generated note charts don’t have quite the consistency or elegance of a pre-constructed one, but they’re very adequate, and sometimes even brilliant in their execution. Especially with the addition of the touch-ring swoops. Shifting from the very old-fashioned button-matching staccato input style to the sweeping legato that the touch ring brings is surprisingly intuitive and feels musically accurate.

There are three initial difficulty levels and an unlockable fourth and fifth level. But even Hard will be sufficient for most people. I have yet to pass five songs in a row on Hard to unlock the next level. But I keep trying. However, Easy is appropriately Easy and Medium is a nice middle ground for those people who insist on playing Guitar Hero with three fingers. You know who you are.

My only complaint, and it isn’t game-breaking, is that sometimes the background animation can cause a bit of slowdown. You learn to adjust, and look ahead to the notes and anticipate, but I’ve missed a note or two due to a stuttering display before. Nothing game-breaking, and it could easily be because my iPod is a year old and has been treated fairly harshly in that time (I won’t tell you how many times I’ve dropped it).

All in all, Phase is worth it for ANYONE who regularly uses an iPod and has some time to kill now and again. Waiting for a bus, or after school, or on break at work, sometimes you just need some music in your life. With Phase, you can carry it with you. So you’re always just a reach away from being a miniature rock star.

Just don’t smash your iPod after a particularly good (or particularly frustrating) run. Seriously. Those things are expensive.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Holding Fast

So myself and Tony agreed a few weeks ago to try fasting. Nothing super serious, just a liquid diet for 24 hours on the 15th of each month in 2008. For those of you keeping track with that calendar thing at home, that means yesterday was fasting day.

Now, we didn’t decide to fast for religious reasons. Not even really for medical ones. It was mostly just because we hadn’t done so before, and I at least was interested in what it would be like to go a day without my precious and dependable sustenance.

So I came equipped with tea and fruit juice, some health conscious balanced liquid that contained more vitamins and whatnot than was healthy for me to consume in one sitting. And so began the great fast of January 08.

I will spare you the messy details, let’s just say that there’s some planning that needed to go on that I neglected. 1) I love sugar and my body does too. Without it, I started coming down at the end of the day really hard. Probably because I didn’t bother to 2) Sleep. Lots of sleep. Going on 6 hours in the past two days into a fast is a BAD IDEA. I started getting double vision and all sorts of other weird unhealthy things.

However, all in all it was a worthwhile experience. It is so rare that I experience genuine hunger that I forget what it really feels like. Deprivation does breed a certain sense of appreciation. I made myself a turkey and havarti sandwich this morning, on wheat bread with brown mustard. I could have been biting into ambrosia, for all I cared. It was heaven. It was paradise. It was wonderful.

It’s upset my stomach.

I’ve also learned that the less I eat the less I need. The sandwich was a huge monstrosity, well suited to how my mind perceived the pit of my stomach to be. Now I’m full and feeling a little gross. No, a lot gross. So I’m going to go with a light lunch today, so I don’t feel quite so bleh.

But there were other factors of the fast. There are times when your body just forces you to think about food, and you can’t concentrate. That’s at 24 hours. I wonder thinking about a longer fast. We are creatures of intellect and thought and emotion, but the moment we don’t meet the needs of our machinery that takes precedence for a little while, even after a time as small as a day. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs sometimes seems a little silly, but stop getting one of the bottom ones and see how well you worry about the top ones.

I won’t even pretend that I know what it’s like when you CAN’T eat and there’s no way to. My fasting was a choice. But if I felt what I felt and didn’t have the knowledge that I could choose to end it at any time? I would have been in an awful mess. The kind of mess that borders on panic. Because not being able to have something as important as food would be horrible.

But at the same time, I’m reaffirmed of human survivability and adaptability. Sure, you get hungry and sometimes you find it hard to ignore, but it doesn’t end your life. It’s perfectly possible to carry on with day to day activities in a state far from ideal. Why? Because you choose to. Your environmental factors don’t have to be ideal to achieve. I spent my day discussing complex philosophy and my evening on music theory and writing analysis. Because I was hungry, did it negatively affect those things? No. If anything, I threw myself into them more as a means to distract myself from my state of being.

Adversity breeds harder will. I am glad that I only had a day, easy and straightforward, but at the same time I would love to try more sometime. Be left in a place with only liquids for three days. I say left, because if I had a choice I’m sure after three days my resolve would crack. As it should. A man who ignores the needs of his body is a man detached from life. But at the same time, I look at the daily schedule of meals and wonder “why do I bother processing all this? It can’t be that necessary, can it?”

Interesting questions, but those in the end become nutritional ones and I’m not looking at discussing that. Right now I’m nursing a resentful stomach and some new perspectives. And looking forward to next month, where I’m hoping the whole ordeal will be easier (though more tempting, as it’s on a Friday and Friday is my day to go out and have fun). Looking forward to seeing if there’s a compounded interest in doing this semi-regularly.

I guess we’ll just have to see.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

What the?

cash advance
What the crap is this? Apparently, my blog is for junior high school reading level. I think this is crap. Shite! SHITE AND BOLLOCKS! I will have my revenge, just you wait. I don't suffer these sorts of slights lightly. When I strike, it will be swift and decisive. Until then, I'm going to go sulk.

What I Learned With One Night of Poetry

I've always been kind of skeptical of poetry. It's the ghetto-slum of writing to a guy like me. I like books full of people doing and saying things. Rambling about feelings of picturesque pastorals doesn't appeal to me. Exploring the complex workings of your psyche takes more than blank verse in my world. I've always liked my poetry like I like my zombie movies: epic, with lots of people doing deeds both nefarious and noble, never faltering to go forth to fight and fornicate ( and as an aisde, we're looking at a x12 alliteration score there, hypar combo!!1 )

But I've known that I was wrong. I mean, I disliked the pretention and 'high art' of poetry that was touted as the word-usage for 'enlightened people'. Screw that elitism. I just hate that shit. But I knew that wasn't the whole story. I knew that out there was a place where poetry was different and options were available and people threw themselves at the poets work with a kind of sick abandon that was part counter culture and part pacifistic revolution and part near-religious zeal.

So when I heard about Omaha having a poetry slam scene, I was instantly intrigued.

I'll admit, part of me was expecting crappenstance (that curious mix of the mediocre and random or crap and happenstance). And I was certain that it was going to be a bunch of tree-hugging hippies speaking about terrible metaphors they only half understood. It was going to be Moreen's one night engagement at the eleventh street lot. Ridiculous. Terrible. Frustrating.

But that wasn't the case. I wandered into the Omaha Healing Arts Center and smelled patchoulli for the first time (and despite what Angela said about it being hippy stink, I thought it smelled very good) and I had a drink that contained plant ingredients I couldn't recognize that was hot in that insidious way plant matter gets but was nourishing in a way I had forgotten liquid could be. I talked to some people about the show before hand, and then went and sat down.

This evening, I saw the best explanation of pirates vs. ninjas I have ever heard, a metre-perfect shakespearian sonnet to calculus delivered by a girl in a shirt with hex codes on it, poems of love like I hadn't expected, a well-written feminist rant, a crazy Kung Fu piece about Mushuu Beef fighting Lo Mein and Plum Wine that brought the entire house down, a Maori haka (if you don't know, look it up, those things are absolutely spell-binding), and more.

And when I listened to these people get up and speak their speeches and talk about what they had to say, I remembered something. I remembered that words still have power. That what we say and how we say them matter. That words are the most powerful and dangerous tool we have in our arsenal as thinking, living, loving and breathing humans.

And I realized that somewhere along the way I had forgotten that.

HELL NO! I can hear someone saying that now. Probably me. I don't have people who have that much faith in me in my life. 'You have more faith in words than anyone I've ever met,' someone might say. Or I hope they'd say. But I realized that while I used to think that, somewhere along the way I had forgotten it.

I've been writing books and dealing with ideas and concepts and theory and practice and work so much that ... I lost sight of the bigger (or smaller) picture. In the end, what I'm doing isn't just writing, it's a validation of hte power of words. I could easily write a movie, or a song, or paint a picture, or a bunch of other things. But instead I write words. I make stories. I create and I put it out there using the language that you and I think in and speak in and read in every day. Words words words, the world is words and I tap into that most primal part of us. The part that filters everything through words.

For a while now I've been opposed to poet-thought. That being defined as seeing the words as more important than the content. But that was short-sighted. What I had forgotten was that there were poets who were fucking poets. They put words together for the best effect. They aim to inspire and wound and hurt and heal and live and die and a thousand other things. They are brave and frightened and love every minute, even when they don't. They are full of fun and joy.

And that's what I've been missing. Fun and joy. I've been so wrapped up in the steps to achieve success as a writer that I've been unable to see the real issues here. We do it because we love it. If we're not having fun, then why bother? If I can't love my writing and work on it with passion and joy and all those other things, then why bother? It's not worth it. Better to do nothing than to waste it all so pointlessly.

I've lost my way again. And my complete angst over the past week has just been a symptom of that.

Tony and Ange were right, in their own way, but they weren't communicating the issue correctly because I don't think they understood the problem specifically enough. My goals aren't completely unreasonable and the demands I make on myself aren't impossible. But I can't do it like I've been doing it. It's a job, but it's also got to be a dream and a passion and a life.

I need to rediscover my love for the words. I need to recapture that joy. I need to remember that poetry has a place in prose. That poet-thought and author-thought aren't opposites, they complement each other, and I should take from it and use it and learn from it. If not, what am I? Just a writer who doesn't truly love being a writer. And that man is not who I want to be.

So I'm reassessing. Continuing my mission, but on different terms. I will hold as true to my purpose as I can, but if the timeframe slips a little then it slips. I can't keep forcing untruth into myself. I'm starting to feel it and react to it.

It's time to refind truth. It's time to refind emotion. It's time to refind the words.

So thank you, poetry and poets. You've made an angry, disillusioned fool into a more open, accepting fool.

I can't wait to hear you all again, and maybe even join in.

PS: For anyone who's interested, poetry slams and open mics happen all across the omaha metro area (and Lincoln) on a regular basis. Anyone who cares to see what it's like should check out I will likely be at the Om Center next month for this monthly slam, but there are other options as well. Go and watch and enjoy. The donation suggestion is small and the crowd is good and the poetry's entertaining. Who knows? Maybe you'll be inspired, too.