Questions I can answer

How come you’re not writing cat columns any more?

To tell you the truth, the cat thing was becoming a drag. I have 12 insights into cat behavior, and I used them all up in the last century.  And lately we’ve been down to one cat, Pancho, and he never does anything interesting.

Bucket died a few years ago, literally looking into my eyes as the fatal shot took effect, but I disapprove of maudlin “my pet died and here’s how bad I felt” columns. People will cry, but the tears seem unearned. Any writer or filmmaker can kill a beloved pet and make people sob, but so what? I don’t like being manipulative about a personal sorrow.

Also, by writing it I would diminish my own experience. Writers should take time to stop writing and participate in their own lives.

Come to think of it, Pancho did learn recently how to fake a limp. He tottered into the house one day, right front foot lifted off the ground. We poked around tentatively, but he didn’t seem to be in pain. The next day, the limp was gone. It came back a week later, and he looked pathetic, but the limp went away again. This pattern continued. Once, he forgot and lifted the other foot.

And yes, we took him to the vet. Don’t ask. That’s another reason I abandoned writing about cats: Every time I mentioned some cat eccentricity I’d be deluged with suggestions from people about diet, toxic environmental chemicals, and/or diseases frequently (or infrequently, but you never know) contracted by cats. Or, in one case, the possibility of cat poisoners operating in the neighborhood. Those readers all meant well, and I could hardly insult them, but God I wanted to.

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Bucket, not dead yet

What was it like to be a semi-famous columnist?

It was great. What did you think? I was never so famous I had to hide from the paparazzi, but I was famous enough to get seats in restaurants that were theoretically booked up, or tickets to sold-out shows. Also, I got to do insanely cool stuff, from swimming with the dolphins at the Academy of Sciences to speaking to the graduating class of the English Department at Cal Berkeley.

Also, people would come up to me, sometimes literally on the street, and say, “I bet you hate hearing this all the time, but I really love your work.” Oh my yes, I did hate that, because who wants to hear that they’re doing a good job? I hate praise. Particularly when it’s delivered with a little bit of what might be called flirting.

Gradually I got unfamous. People slowly stopped coming to my writing classes, or sending me pleasant emails, or even recognizing my name. I wasn’t the flavor of the month anymore, and I wasn’t sure why, but it probably had to do with my personal failings. I kinda missed being semi-famous now that I wasn’t.

On the other hand, I learned who my friends were.

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The heartbreak of anonymity

What’s it like living with a rage potato as president? I’m sorry, that was inappropriate. What’s it like to live with a shitweasel as president? A douchenozzle? A witless fucking cocksplat? 

I’ll get to that.

Can we agree that greed is the problem? Maybe not the problem overall (that would be racism, right? Or war), but the vice that’s put the United States into this chaos of dangerous stupidity. It’s why Donald Trump became president: People have been trained by half a century of propaganda that, in the immortal words of Gordon Gekko, “greed is good.”

So Trump, with his bogus trappings of wealth, his gilt rooms and his plush plane and his idiotic “You’re fired” parlor trick, and his obvious lack of both sophistication and information, seemed to represent the American dream. Anybody could get rich, even this guy. And everyone wanted to get rich, because that would solve all the problems caused by amoral capitalists who could give a shit why you fell behind on payments.

So, at the risk of sounding like a 1975 Troyskyite publication with a picture of huge capitalist surrounded by bags of money swallowing workers whole and drooling corpses, our government is, now, largely a money-making scheme. Policy is about maximizing profit.

Of course, Trump is doing the nickel-and-dime hustles, forcing the taxpayers to pay for his stays at his own golf club, raising the rent for the Secret Service offices in Trump tower, and shamelessly suggesting that people who stay at the Trump hotel in Washington might get favorable treatment. Also he raised the room rates there. Trump steaks! Trump airline! Best of all, Trump University!

He’s a grifter. They’re all fucking grifters.

So now we have a new Afghanistan policy which is largely indistinguishable from the old Afghanistan policy. Why continue this war that we will never win? Why not just stop? But that would leave in the lurch the arms manufacturers and the military vehicle manufacturers and the uniform manufacturers and the companies that set up fast food outlets in war zones (nothing like a Big Mac before your die). War is, after all, an enormously successful profit center.

A profit center, I should emphasize, that is managed by the government, where cost overruns are celebrated in song and story.

Am I being too cynical? Absolutely not.

Everything is monetized. Everything. Trump’s secretary of education  wants to monetize schools. (And don’t forget student loans, which monetize adolescents). Trump’s attorney general wants to monetize prisons — and fill those prisons with jaywalkers and marijuana smokers. (As someone said, “America’s justice system runs on the exchange of money for freedom.”) Trump’s Secretary of the Interior wants to open up national parks and monuments to drilling and mining, thus monetizing scenery.

And our drug prices are the highest in the world, thus monetizing us.

And we let that happen. There are so many distractions, sports and television and music award shows and two-hundred-dollar shoes, and meanwhile our government is being looted, and information about this looting is derided as “fake news”. The rules have changed, and we haven’t noticed until right now, and maybe that’s too late.

It’s entirely surreal. It’s like living inside a Terry Southern novel. It’s like living inside “Guernica”. Truth is imaginary, and rapey Mexicans are streaming across the border, and imaginary illegal voters are influencing elections. Did I mention that goddam wall? Plus, the Russians are doing God knows what, something shady involving Kushner and spies and unlaundered money and hotels in Georgia, not that one, the other one. Russia is the biggest kleptocracy in the world, but take heart. We’re catching up.

I own a garden full of plants. My plants are providing oxygen for a choking world. My fucking plants are do more good for the country  than the entire government. What? I am not yelling. THIS IS YELLING.

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Not yelling

 

 

 Photography by Tracy Johnston

A soothing voice amidst the chaos: Michelle Mizera

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Atheist power!

Being an atheist is not an easy thing. We are never given respect by politicians, not even those touchy-feely kind who celebrate a country in which Christians and Jews and Muslims and Hindus can all worship together in harmony and peace and blah blah. Atheists? We don’t get to worship in peace.

Oh, wait. You say atheists don’t worship? I was out on Pt. Reyes last week, walking through the insane proliferation of wildflowers at Abbotts Lagoon, I several times stood and gazed and marveled and, yes, worshiped nature in all its unexpected bounty. You gonna say my worship was somehow less profound than yours?

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Actual Abbotts Lagoon wildflowers. Give laud!

(Here I am speaking to imaginary religionists I have brought along to be yelled at from time to time. But, well, read Psalm 139. They really really don’t like us. There’s also an alt-right website called “God Hates Fags,” so, well, lotta hatin’ goin’ on.)

Worse than that, an international poll revealed that most people believed that serial killers were more likely to be atheists.  Sure, atheists are more prone to violence. Just think of the havoc we unleashed by the great atheist Crusades of the Middle Ages. Or the terrible atheist Jihad that has ripped up the Middle East. Oh, and we also have opinions about eating pigs. And cows. And shellfish. Oh wait, no we don’t.

We figure that, since God doesn’t exist, he is unable to have opinions about your food choices. (Although atheists are suspicious of sugar, but for entirely rational reasons). Oh, and here’s the really good news: Atheists do not care about your sexual activity. I mean, you should try to be safe at all times, and try not to have sex with anyone with a tattoo that says, “God wants me to fuck you up.”  But in general, atheists have enough to do just trying to get to work on time.

And there are 9 million atheists in the United States. And that’s just self-described atheists. Roughly a quarter of Americans identify themselves as “religiously unaffiliated.” I surmise that most of those are atheists who are afraid to say the word out loud. And do you know what that means? Eighty million atheists in the United States. We could elect presidents if we stood together.

But we won’t. Why? Shame. People don’t want to be called atheists, any more than they want to be called likely serial killers. Atheism needs a makeover. It needs branding. It needs a slogan.

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God’s choice and an engineering degree!

Alas, slogans are hard to come by. “Have you heard the good news about the yawning void?” doesn’t really have crowd appeal. I thought of “You’re not going to be saved because saving isn’t a thing,” but that doesn’t have the proper gentle tone. “Every person a godhead” has some charm, and pagans might like it. (Paganism is of course a religion,  too. They’re really serious about the Solstice.)

Atheism needs a name that isn’t, well, “atheism”.  Something like “Beautifulism,” which doesn’t mean anything but sounds fun. Or “Mountain Lupine,” because everybody likes mountain lupine.  Or “Dr. Kilgore’s Very Fine Alternate Belief System and Doo-dah Band,” which I was pushing hard for until the experts set me straight.

“We really don’t have the resources for a doo-dah band at every service,” they said.

A lot of your more dogmatic atheists will insist that atheism isn’t a religion. But my definition is of a religion is “a group of people who have a common opinion about God.”  So atheists absolutely qualify.  Indeed, the fact that there are dogmatic atheists should be the tip-off that there’s religion going on. Soon there will be schismatic atheists and perhaps a eventually a not-holy war with absolutely nothing at stake.

Which is too bad. Atheists have never looted the art treasures of the world, nor have they taken over a random nation or two.  Although, a more enlightened atheist (“Enlightened”! Religion or not, eh?) might say that we should be proud of our lack of appropriated art and political power. You want a pure religion? Atheism is without flaw or error. Enter into the temple of unbelief and rest your burden down. We will show you pictures from the Hubbell telescope that you really won’t believe. The universe: So very cool. Atheism allows you this joy. Celebrate!

(Yes, China and Russia are avowedly atheist countries who between them killed 80 million or 100 million people between them. But they each had leaders who wanted to be thought of as a god, so it was basically that old-time religion except with lots more marching.)

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The righteous wrath of widely read people

My point is that we need to remake atheism to appeal to the masses — without losing our essential belief in a lack of god or any other higher power that steers the stars, blesses wars, renders wine holy, controls who gets cancer, and thinks murder is an appropriate punishment  for young girls who’ve been raped.

So let’s at least come up with some talking points for our poor misunderstood god-denying way of life.

I’ve already mentioned some of them. The sensual passion of freedom of thought has much to recommend it. You can approach the great mysteries of life without an annoying Abrahamic God giving you orders. So relaxing!

(I am aware that every religion is not monotheistic. Hindus have more gods than Catholics have saints, and it’s anybody’s guess how many Buddhas there are. Nevertheless, I live in the United States and we got a lotta Christians and a fair number of Jews and Muslims, so I should deal with religious reality. Plus, I was raised Christian so I know where the jokes are).

But let’s consider the political implications of atheist visibility. There have been numerous lawsuits over the years about school prayer and other religious expressions. Mostly, those arguments center around the First Amendment guarantee against government expressing opinions on matters of faith (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”).

The meaning of that clause seems evident, but it can be cut and sliced in so many ways, because lawyers. But here’s a legal approach that hasn’t been used before:  Promoting religion in  public schools is unfair to the atheist children.

Did you feel that frisson? Atheist children. Americans do not believe in atheist children. They think of atheism like lust, or back problems — diseases of adulthood. Children are closer to God and therefore know him intimately, emotionally, and are happy to lisp out sentiments of praise. Children failing to die are seen as an example of God’s grace.

That’s not the real world. Lots of kids are atheists; lots of kids are just pretending when they go to temple or mosque or church. Instead of pressuring them to conform, we should celebrate their ability to form independent opinions.

All 80 million (est.) atheists in this nation will feel vindicated. They will understand that they are members of community, people with no sexual guilt and free weekends. We just need some nice singable hymns. Oh, and a creed, which the atheists could refuse to follow.

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Happy atheist with her spirit animal

This column grew out of a conversation on The Well,  a small social network with no ads, no trolls, no bots, no Kardashians anywhere. Are you a person of mature years who thinks discussing Game of Thrones or arguing about gluten might be amusing? Come on down!

 

Photography by Tracy Johnston

Useful options and public relations by Michelle Mizera