Smokey and the Water Pipe

Sometime during the winter of 1969, the Twin Oaks water pump stopped working. The pump was old, and was submerged more than 40 feet in the ground, attached to lengths of 4” white PVC pipe that brought the water to the surface. The well was located in a small fenced area adjacent to the barn, and which a friend of the community was using to corral his horse, Smokey.

By the time we were able to obtain a pump, it was late evening, and the temperature was falling rapidly. We assembled a crew to lift the pump out of the ground, careful not to bend the pipe too much, which was brittle because it was PVC and it was cold. Inevitably, the pipe fractured in several places, requiring the broken ends to be sawed off and rejoined with couplings and glue. Fortunately, the community had the required fittings and I gathered what I needed into a brown paper bag and set out to repair the broken pipe.

Did I mention that it was cold? By the time I had gotten everything together and started to make the repairs, the rest of the crew had disappeared, except for Smokey. Smokey was lonely, and, as I discovered, pretty smart, and had a sense of humor.

As I began my first repair, Smokey wandered over and watched. I was a little worried that he might step on the pipe lying on the ground and create new breaks that would need to be repaired. That was not his intent. Instead, he followed me to the next break site, and when I dropped the paper bag containing the couplings, he grabbed the bag in his teeth and trotted to a distant corner of the corral, turned around, looked me in the eye, and dropped the bag. When I approached, he picked up the bag and trotted to another corner. After several iterations of this game I finally got smart enough to go get some help.

With someone to hold the horse, and others to assist with the repairs, we had the pump back in the ground and filling our pipes with water within an hour.

I still remember how cold it was that night. And I still smile at the memory of Smokey and me playing keep away with a paper bag full of PVC couplings.

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Ministers, Mediums, and Mystics, Oh My!

I don’t believe in ghosts, spirits, wraiths, or goblins. I also don’t believe in angels, demons, devils, or gods. And since I don’t believe that those things exist, I certainly don’t believe that there are people in this world who can communicate with those non-existent beings. However, there seem to be many people who accord reality to these ethereal creatures and put their trust in those who claim to be their interlocutors.

Harry Houdini searched earnestly for a true medium, one who could communicate with the souls of the departed. All he found were fakes and frauds, charlatans who preyed on those hopeful of staying in contact with deceased loved ones. If Houdini was not able to discover an actual medium, I am willing to accept his findings.

Until recently, I have assumed that all mediums and mystics are frauds. Now I’m not quite so sure. Not long ago I had a Facebook dialog, quite by accident, with a woman who advertises herself as a psychic.

The psychic had posted the following notice on her Facebook page:

It’s a go!! May 13th I will be offering a FREE one day workshop!! It will be a 2 hour online event. It is an Intro to my Psychic Development class series
RSVP in a DM
I need a min of 4 or 5 people to run this so feel free to share

The post showed up on my feed because my daughter-in-law, Joy, had “liked” it. Being somewhat ignorant of how Facebook works, I added a sarcastic comment, thinking I was responding directly to Joy:

And by the end of that 2 hour free workshop she will predict, because of her psychic powers, exactly who among the attendees she will be able to fleece for some real money.

That’s when I discovered that my comment was actually on the psychic’s page. She responded:

that’s rude. although it illustrates a problem facing Highly Sensitive People-a lot of hostility thrown at them. If this happens to you, don’t accept the psychic whack. For whatever reason people choose to disrespect you, it is about THEIR fear and attempt to invalidate you i.e. oppress you

To which I replied:

You won’t change my mind and I won’t change yours. But there is hope for others, no hostility or disrespect intended.

She answered:

Do I even know you?

My concluding comment was:

No, you do not. I stumbled onto your site via what I thought was an off-the-cuff response to one of my daughter-in-law’s “likes” of one of your posts. I also do not know you, so I don’t know if you seriously believe that you have psychic sensitivities or if you are a cynical charlatan preying on gullible people. Since I am a cynical realist, I am disinclined to favor the former possibility.

While I am not particularly proud of my role in that interchange, I started thinking about people I have known who are “highly sensitive” (without capital letters): people who are more aware of their surroundings than most of their peers; people who perceive extremely subtle clues and cues in the actions of others. With appropriate training, these people can become skilled engineers, detectives, therapists, artists, or writers. Without special training, someone with those gifts might come to believe that they are seers, psychic, or seek some other supernatural explanation for their abilities.

I am almost persuaded that it is possible that some people who identify themselves as “psychic” or “sensitive” are among those individuals who are at the top end of the continuum of normal perceptual abilities. While they mistakenly ascribe their faculties to paranormal causes, they seem to take their talents seriously and use then in ways they believe will help other people. I guess that is a possibility.

I will allow that some, but not all, may be serious and truly believe they are mediums, or psychics, or whatever. But the rest still fall into the cynical fraud and charlatan categories, preying on gullible people for their own enrichment.

As I was thinking about this issue, it occurred to me that the Christian ministry is on a track parallel with psychics and mediums: there are some who take their religious beliefs very seriously and arrange their lives to comport with their beliefs. Then there are those who appear to be motivated more by obtaining money, power, or personal adoration than by spiritual convictions. I have known quite a few of the earnest type – my father was one, as are my ministerial cousins.

I have no trouble distinguishing the well-intentioned ministers from the self-enriching charlatans: the religious quacks have their own television shows (or networks), stage huge “revival” rallies, or establish mega-churches. Although it makes me uncomfortable, it occurs to me that I should perhaps afford the same courtesy to the “good” mediums and mystics as I have to their earnest counterparts in the ministry. Or does all this mean that I should begin to regard the ministry with the same disdain that I feel toward mediums?

Oh, my!

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I Scream, You Scream…

I am an unabashed fan of Haagen Daz ice cream, not because of its fancy name, but because it is by far the best tasting ice cream available in the supermarket. The reason it tastes better than any of its competitors is the absence of certain “natural” ingredients that all other so-called “quality” ice creams contain.

The ingredients of which I speak are the additives that allow the product to maintain its shape even though it may partially melt after it leaves the manufacturer and before it is placed in the supermarket freezer. In short, these ingredients are added to cover up for sloppy handling of the product. The result, though, is an oily or greasy coating on the tongue to which most people have become accustomed as part of their regular ice cream experience.

Real ice cream, I learned many years ago when I began cooking my own custard and hand-cranking home-made French vanilla ice cream, has a short list of ingredients: milk, cream, eggs, sugar, and vanilla. That’s all. The list of ingredients on a Haagen Daz carton does not vary much from that simple recipe. But be prepared to see many other items on cartons of other ice creams.

Here is my list of “things to look out for” in so-called “quality” ice cream, along with a little information about each one (the sources for this information can be found in the hyperlinks):

Corn Syrup


Corn syrup is a food syrup which is made from the starch of corn (called maize in some countries) and contains varying amounts of maltose and higher oligosaccharides, depending on the grade. Corn syrup, also known as glucose syrup to confectioners, is used in foods to soften texture, add volume, prevent crystallization of sugar, and enhance flavor.”


Guar Gum


Guar gum is a fiber from the seed of the guar plant.

Guar gum is used as a laxative. It is also used for treating diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), obesity, and diabetes; for reducing cholesterol; and for preventing “hardening of the arteries” (atherosclerosis).

In foods and beverages, guar gum is used as a thickening, stabilizing, suspending, and binding agent.”

“In hydrofracking, guar gum is used to thicken water, which allows it to move grains of sand underground more effectively than water alone would.”


Xanthan Gum


Xanthan gum is a substance used in making some foods and medications. It has different effects in these products: It can add thickness, keep textures from changing, and hold ingredients in place.

Xanthan gum is produced by fermenting a carbohydrate (a substance that contains sugar) with Xanthomonas campestris bacteria, then processing it.”




Carrageenan is a common food additive that is extracted from a red seaweed, Chondrus crispus, which is popularly known as Irish moss. Carrageenan, which has no nutritional value, has been used as a thickener and emulsifier to improve the texture of ice cream, yogurt, cottage cheese, soy milk, and other processed foods.”


Soy Lecithin


Soy lecithin is a fatty substance that is extracted from soy beans. It is a common food additive that helps oil and water mix, and also works as a lubricant, an anti-foaming agent and a wetting agent.

The primary purpose of soy lecithin is as an emulsifier in food products. Salad dressings, spreads, chocolate and other fatty processed foods contain soy lecithin to keep the oil from separating from the other ingredients. Non-stick sprays contain soy lecithin as a lubricant, and bakers use soy lecithin on their dough to prevent stickiness.”


If you need a graphic illustration of how these additives affect the ice cream, put equal amounts of Haagen Daz and another brand of ice cream into separate bowls and let them melt at room temperature. You will see that the Haagen Daz melts into an actual liquid, resembling eggnog. The others will be gooey, lumpy messes that are neither liquid nor solid. Is that what you want from your favorite dessert?

Other ice cream brands may be more popular, less expensive, or offer cleverly named flavors, but they can’t beat the taste or mouth feel of good old Haagen Daz. I hope the Nestle company can maintain the purity of this superior product. Otherwise, I’ll have to go back to hand cranking my home-made French vanilla ice cream.


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Religious Belief, Conspiracy, and Science

It occurred to me recently that religion might be at the root of all conspiracy theories.

The thought first occurred to me as I was reading a novel in which the main characters have a deep faith in some sort of “higher power.” More than several times in the course of the book, one or another of them says something like, “God works in mysterious ways,” or “Everything happens for a reason.” If you believe that there is a reason for everything, then it follows that it should be possible to discern that reason by closely examining the events leading up to and surrounding “that thing.”

We often obsess over reasons behind natural events – we even call them “acts of God.” How would you explain why a tree fell on your car? You would start looking at why you parked your car in that particular spot…was it your normal spot or did you deviate for some reason (God [or the Devil] made you do it)? Was the tree unhealthy or damaged? When was the last rain and how soaked was the soil? Did the wind gust especially hard or was it steady but unusually strong? What did you do wrong and is God is punishing you for it? Did God total your old car because He wanted you to get a newer, safer car? Do you lean toward attributing events to natural causes or supernatural causes?

While the foregoing doesn’t sound much like a conspiracy theory, it contains the same elements. The Wikipedia entry on “Conspiracy Theory” cites political scientist Michael Barkun, who wrote that conspiracy theories rely on the view that the universe is governed by design, and embody three principles: nothing happens by accident, nothing is as it seems, and everything is connected. The very same descriptors accurately apply to most religions.

Another source defines conspiracy theory as “an explanation that makes reference to hidden, malevolent forces seeking to advance some nefarious aim.” Drop the words “malevolent” and “nefarious” and you have a fair description of many religious beliefs.

I don’t think that religion, per se, is the cause of conspiracy theories. I think, instead, that both religious beliefs and conspiracy theories are consequences of the way the human brain (and to some degree, perhaps mammalian brains in general) is wired. That the issue of “causation” has occupied thinkers since the beginning of time speaks forcefully for the existence of a strong need to understand the connections between events. Paradoxically, it is that very same need that pushes scientific advance.

Perhaps this explains why science is so often rejected as some sort of conspiracy or as an affront to religion…each view is a conflicting alternative expression of the same desire to understand the universe.

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To Whom (or What) do Atheists Pray?

In order to answer that question it is necessary to establish that atheists DO pray. Of course we do. Everyone prays, at least on certain occasions and under appropriate circumstances. It is said that “there are no atheists in foxholes,” implying that praying obviates one’s theology. It has also been said that “there will be prayer in schools as long as there are tests.” The clear implication of these clichés is that people use prayer in an attempt to improve the odds of a better outcome.

This became strikingly clear to me recently when a niece posted on Facebook that her husband was about to undergo surgery to replace an arthritic knee. Thirty-seven people commented on her post: thirty-two offered prayers, four others expressed wishes or hopes that everything went well. Only one failed to mention hope or prayer, offering instead advice for improving recovery based on having had similar surgery (full disclosure: that comment was from me).

Prayer is seemingly everywhere. While searching recently for a specific passage from Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King,” I stumbled on this eloquent discourse on prayer:

More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice

Rise like a fountain for me night and day.
For what are men better than sheep or goats
That nourish a blind life within the brain,
If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer
Both for themselves and those who call them friend?
For so the whole round earth is every way
Bound by gold chains about the feet of God.

(“Idylls of the King,” A. Tennyson,
A Victorian Anthology, 1837–1895,
Edited by Edmund Clarence Stedman,

 Ancient Romans and Greeks prayed to their Gods. Hindus and Buddhists pray, in their own way, to theirs, as do Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Those who believe that their God answers prayer are convinced that He (I’m following Judeo-Christian stylistic conventions in gender assignment and capitalizations here) hears and responds to each and every prayer: sometimes you get what you ask for, and sometimes God just says “No.” Thus it is impossible to convince such a person that outcomes are explainable without recourse to Divine Intervention.

Gods in many mythologies have been cruel; responsible for a great deal of human suffering. Even the Old Testament God had a cruel streak: He was quick to anger and prone to vengeance, and demanded sacrifice and unwavering devotion. The New Testament God tempered cruelty with love, but promised that unrepentant sinners would suffer eternal damnation in the flames of Hell.  In this context, prayer is often a feeble attempt to mollify an angry or capricious God.

I’m not against people praying. It seems to make them feel better for having prayed or being prayed for. I just don’t think it does anything to change the world. Prayer in itself really doesn’t do much for victims of floods or fires. Providing food or clothing or shelter would be much more helpful.

I am all for sincerely wishing the best for one’s self or others. After all, as a people we need empathy for those who suffer in order to motivate us to truly helpful actions. Perhaps that is how prayer functions best, in expressing a desire for improving conditions in the world in which we live.

So, do atheists pray, and if they do, to whom or what do they pray? Of course, atheists pray: we pray to Hope, the cruelest god of all.

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Troubling Times

I doubt if there is a real conspiracy behind these happenings — they may simply be a fortuitous confluence of events — that could easily lead to a peaceful takeover of our government by less than idealistic people.

  1. As Republicans won control of more State legislatures and Governorships, they have moved to consolidate their control by rearranging voting districts to ensure that Democratic candidates can’t win.
  2. As a parallel effort to maintain political control of their States, Republican lawmakers have steadily advanced measures to make it more difficult for poor people and minorities to vote.
  3. Local and State police forces have become increasingly militarized, replacing “Officer Friendly” with faceless cops hiding behind armored riot gear, shields, masks, water hoses, smoke grenades, tear gas, mace, and deployed via tanks and armored vehicles, thus escalating situations toward violent confrontation rather than peaceful resolution.
  4. Leaders of the “Religious Right,” largely by infiltrating the Republican Party, have succeeded in insinuating many of their own beliefs into laws, thus encroaching on the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Constitution.
  5. Republican-run States have lowered educational standards by systematically attempting to substitute the teaching of dogma in the place of science in their schools, while simultaneously eliminating funding for art and music education.
  6. The rise of the so-called “Tea Party” Republicans has signaled an end to rational governance, resulting in obstructionism, halting any form of progress toward accomplishing National goals.
  7. By not holding their presidential candidate to any standards of human decency, the Republican Party has given tacit approval to crass hooliganism by members of white-supremacist and other intolerant splinter groups,
  8. By putting Party above People, the Republican vendetta against all things accomplished during the Obama administration, attacking environmental protections, restraints on egregious financial transactions, careful diplomacy, public education, military restraint, (and the list goes on and on), they have placed the future of our Democracy in serious jeopardy.

The Executive Branch is in disarray, and the President has already moved to decrease the counterbalancing influence of both the Legislative and Judicial Branches. It won’t take much to strip any remaining power from them and to declare autocratic rule.

Is this the result of a conspiracy or just a series of random events that got us to this point? I don’t have an answer, but either way, we live in deeply troubling times.

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August 28

August 28, 1988, was hot and humid, and a perfect day to join thousands of sweaty bodies around the reflecting pond in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Our nephew, Mike, was in town, helping us paint the walls in our dining and living rooms, but he and I took a break to join the 25th anniversary celebration of the rally at which Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I have a dream speech.”

The podium was full of dignitaries — celebrities, politicians, and civil-rights leaders — all of whom seemed to feel compelled to say more than a few words, usually self congratulatory. As the afternoon wore on, a few folks fainted from the heat and were transported to cooling tents by EMT personnel standing by. And after the echoes of the last speaker’s voice faded, the multitudes drifted away, leaving a handful of us loitering by the pond, resting our feet from having been standing for several hours.

Mike and I were reflecting on the event, marveling at the number of people who could stand so close together, not knowing, or caring, whose elbows were rubbing their own, without rancor or impatience. Just then a familiar voice came over the PA system, resonant, perfectly modulated. It was Dr. King’s voice, delivering the “I have a dream” speech, just as he had 25 years earlier. Most of the people who attended the anniversary missed it. For Mike and me, it was the highlight of the afternoon. Here was the voice, the words, the passion, that Dr. King had spoken from this very podium, sounding just like it would have sounded at the original event.

I challenge you to take a few minutes, close your eyes, and picture yourself on a hot August afternoon, standing in the midst of thousands of hopeful people, listening to this speech from start to finish. Put on your headphones, temporarily block out today’s world, and hear the words, feel the hope, and experience the dream that Dr. King expressed in that mighty speech.

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