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Better educated Brexit supporters speak of "freedom" as the reason they cast their vote to leave the EU. My first thought was, Freedom from what? Unless you're going to give up trade with the rest of Europe, the same rules will apply, both the supposedly onerous regulations on bananas and the free movement of people.

Then my mental jukebox cued up a British punk song from the 70s called Power in the Darkness. In the middle, there's a part spoken in a plummy British posh accent:

Today, institutions fundamental to the British system of Government are under attack. The public schools, the house of Lords, the Church of England, the holy institution of Marriage, even our magnificent police force are no longer safe from those who would undermine our society, and it's about time we said 'enough is enough' and saw a return to the traditional British values of discipline, obedience, morality and freedom.

What we want is:

Freedom from the reds and the blacks and the criminals
Prostitutes, pansies and punks
Football hooligans, juvenile delinquents
Lesbians and left wing scum
Freedom from the niggers and the Pakis and the unions
Freedom from the Gipsies and the Jews
Freedom from leftwing layabouts and liberals
Freedom from the likes of you!

That was the 70s. The kids who grew up listening to the Tom Robinson Band (TRB) were the demographic most likely to vote for “freedom.”

This was the rest of the song, just so there's no confusion:

Power in the darkness
Frightening lies from the other side
Power in the darkness
Stand up and fight for your rights
Freedom, we're talking bout your freedom
Freedom to choose what you do with your body
Freedom to believe what you like
Freedom for brothers to love one another
Freedom for black and white
Freedom from harassment, intimidation
Freedom for the mother and wife
Freedom from Big Brother's interrogation
Freedom to live your own life, I'm talking 'bout
Power in the darkness
Frightening lies from the other side
Power in the darkness
Stand up and fight for your rights!

Sunday Sermonette: Plastic Jesus

I don’t care if it rains or freezes,
As long as I’ve got my plastic Jesus
Riding’ on the dashboard of my car.
Through my trials and tribulations
And my travels through the nation
With my plastic Jesus I’ll go far.

— the appropriately named Billy Idol

It's the last Sunday in June.  This is the traditional beginning of the Summer Season for many churches.  Clergy, choirs, even much of the congregation go on vacation.  The pulpits are left to lay Eucharistic ministers, seminarians, and other aspirants to ordained ministry.  

Purely coincidentally, this is also the season that the Gospel readings appointed by the Revised Common Lectionary for most mainline Christian churches turn to what are called the Hard Sayings of Jesus.  What makes them hard is the difficulty of reconciling what Jesus is quoted as saying with the Jesus in whom most believe.  

To most Christians, Jesus is a synthesis of children's stories, snippets of Sunday Gospels, hymns, their own politics and prejudices, Doctor Who, and Hollywood imagery like The Greatest Story Ever Told.  Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, who spent his days healing lepers and blessing peacemakers.  "Suffer the little children to come unto me," and "Father, forgive them, they know not what they do."  An ascetic white man with a soft brown beard and compassionate blue eyes.  You know, Tab Hunter.  

The Jesus of the Hard Sayings, however, doesn't fit that model.  He's got more in common with Jim Jones and David Koresh and Charlie Manson.  Here's how the Gospel appointed for today ends:

And he said unto another, Follow me. But he said, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father.  Jesus said unto him, Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God.  And another also said, Lord, I will follow thee; but let me first go bid them farewell, which are at home at my house.  And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.  (Luke 9:59-62)

This just doesn't sound like Family Values Jesus, does it?   It's not as bad as Luke 14:25-33, in which Jesus amplifies this theme and declares that no one who doesn't hate parents, wife, children, and siblings is worthy to be his disciple, but it's still no picnic for the preacher.    Sermons today will spin on themes of the cost of discipleship. It's not always easy to be a Christian.  There may be persecution (pay no attention to the church on every other street corner and every elected politician clutching their Bibles).  There may be hardship.  You have to believe.  And so on.  

Anyone who looks beyond the pulpit pericopes, however, knows that Jesus didn't care a blasted fig for family values.  The Jesus of the Hard Sayings is a prophet of the Apocalypse.  The world is coming to an end!  The Son of Man is at hand, bringing judgement and wrath to the wicked, and justice and salvation to the downtrodden masses and righteous.  Take no thought for tomorrow, he preached, because there isn't going to be one.  Why stop to bury your father when the whole world will shortly be a charnel house?  Family and career and working  for a just society?  It's too late for that.  Give everything you own to the poor and head for the hills.  The Kingdom of God upon us!  

The poor and oppressed liked this message.  They're the ones who ran with it in the early days.  God's first Chosen people, the Jews, had suffered.  Jesus had suffered.  And God knows the poor had suffered.  But Judgement Day was coming quickly, and payback's a bitch.  Didn't Jesus say that people of this very generation would be alive to see it? 

It's hard to build a hierarchical church around such a character and such beliefs, particularly when the promised End of the World doesn't arrive on schedule.  The rantings of lunatics are disruptive to the established social order.  Over the centuries,  the church has revised and reinterpreted Jesus.  Jesus is the meek and humble Son of God who preached that God is love and always votes for the party in power.  

I think that the image of Jesus has been redefined and reinterpreted so many times that little or nothing authentic can be found, if indeed anything ever existed. If Jesus did preach the end of the world, he was clearly wrong. If he actually did any of the deeds attributed to him, no evidence remains. All we have is marketing myth, Superstar, Colonel Sanders and Ronald McDonald. Jesus™, a polished plastic corporate logo for the biggest, richest, and least productive industry in the world.

You see, you don't know how much people need God. You don't know how happy He can make them. He can make them happy to do anything. Make them happy to die, and they'll die, all for the sake of Christ. Jesus Christ. Jesus of Nazareth. The Son of God. The Messiah. Not you. Not for your sake. You know, I'm glad I met you. Because now I can forget all about you. My Jesus is much more important and much more powerful.  (Saul of Tarsus to Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ)


The man confronted me as I came out of a gay bar. “Homosexuality is an abomination,” he cried.

I’m a peaceful guy, but I’m also a big guy, and I was outraged. How dare he? This wasn’t some wackaloon holding a sign at the fringes of the Pride Parade, this was somebody accosting a complete stranger in the street. I wasn’t inclined to offer any justifications or excuses that I was just meeting a friend. I got very close and warned him in menacing tones about the health hazards of his presumption. I must have frightened him, because he backed off quickly. This was about 30 years ago. Things are different today.

This past week saw the horrific mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Pulse was opened in honor of co-owner Barbara Poma’s brother John, who died of AIDS in 1991, and named “for John’s pulse to live on.” It was just another Saturday night at a perfectly ordinary gay nightclub. And then an armed man came in and shot 102 people, 49 fatally (not including the assailant himself).

LGBTQ people have for the last decade been the most likely target of hate crimes in America. But who encourages it, excuses it, and gives social license for it? Is there a secular case to be made against homosexuality? Some say there is, and roll out a laundry list. In point of fact, I can find only two real arguments, from which all the others extend.

The first non-religious argument against homosexuality is that it is unnatural. The two genders have complementary genitalia. The union of male and female is necessary for breeding the next generation and continuing the species.

I hardly need point out the fallacies to this argument. There are lots of things two (or more!) people can do with genitals and erogenous zones that fit marvelously well, regardless of the gender of the individuals so engaged. That they work so well together for even heterosexuals suggests strongly that reproduction is merely one of the purposes of sex and intimacy, not the sole or even the most important purpose.

Moreover, this naturalistic fallacy threatens opposite-sex relationships. Many people marry with every intention of forming a sexual partnership but no intention of reproducing whatsoever. In a world groaning under the weight of seven billion humans, I think this is a good thing.

The second non-religious argument is from public health. Same-sex activity is a disease vector for such things as HIV/AIDS. Heterosexist apologists will often add bogus statistics concerning the mental health and life expectancy of homosexuals. These arguments are utterly specious. There are many sexually-transmitted infections, and some are very scary indeed, but if you want to make a case for public health, promote lesbianism - they have the lowest incidence of STIs. Otherwise, disease is no respecter of sexual orientation, as is sadly demonstrated in sub-Saharan Africa.

The remaining arguments - that tolerance will increase homosexuality (because everyone is really gay and we’re just being held in check by social sanction), that children will be more likely to grow up queer, that heterosexual marriage will be destroyed - all of these say far more about the person arguing than they do about the truth value of the proposition.

No, the secular arguments are pathetically weak and thoroughly debunked. So what is the biggest cause of hostility to LGBTQ people in this country? Who stands most firmly against civil rights? Who compares same-sex love to bestiality and pedophilia? Who raises and spends millions of dollars to keep lesbians and gays from enjoying the same rights and privileges under law as everyone else?

The church. It’s always the church. Organized intolerance requires organized religion. The hate isn’t restricted to the Westboro Baptist Church or Pastor Steve Anderson. The oft-cited quote of “love the sinner, hate the sin” is just as hateful - it’s saying that you’re perverse and deserve eternal torment for being who you are, for something innate and intrinsic and the most wonderful part of being human - the ability to love and be loved.

Thanks to the gun lobby, the unhinged aren’t just waiting with Bible in hand to harangue strangers in the street anymore. They now have the means to be the Right Hand of God’s Wrath.

Easy availability of firearms with big, easily swapped out magazines made the mass murder in Orlando possible.

Religions scapegoating sexual minorities and the politicians who pander to them made it probable.

The NRA made it profitable.


Sunday Sermonette: Unanswered Prayer

Sen. David Perdue, freshman Republican senator from Georgia, opened his remarks at the Faith & Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority conference the other day by encouraging attendees to pray for President Obama. But, he added snarkily, they need to pray for him in a particular way: “We should pray for him like Psalms 109:8 says: May his days be short,” the senator said.

The necessity for and efficacy of prayer is one point on which all three Western religions agree. All believers are encouraged to pray daily, and some are required to pray multiple times a day.

Christians are urged to pray for their daily bread (Matt. 6:10-14), to ask for anything in Jesus’ name and it will be granted (John 44:13-14, John 16:23), even to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). Scarcely a day goes by without a Facebook friend or family member asking for prayers for some intention or other.

Senator Purdue thought he was being witty. He was half right. Psalm 109 is what’s called an imprecatory prayer - a curse, in other words. It continues, Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow. Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg: let them seek their bread also out of their desolate places. Let the extortioner catch all that he hath; and let the strangers spoil his labour. Let there be none to extend mercy unto him: neither let there be any to favour his fatherless children…

Yeah, Senator Purdue is a shining example of Christian love, isn’t he? Had he just threatened to shoot the President, he’d be answering some hard questions by the Secret Service right about now. But the Secret Service as well as his audience at the Faith & Freedom Coalition all know one thing full well even if they won’t say it aloud: God doesn’t answer prayers.

Even with our human propensity for confirmation bias, counting the hits and forgeting the misses, we know from personal experience that at least most prayers go unanswered. We just don’t talk about it. No one stands up in church and says, “I prayed to God to cure my cancer, and now I’m stage four and will be dead in a month.” “I prayed for work, but I’m still unemployed and the bank is foreclosing.” “We prayed for God to keep this church going, but we still can’t afford to pay the pastor.”

When I began studying for the ministry, this was something I particularly wanted to know more about. What do we say to people when their prayers go unheeded? What words of comfort and wisdom can we share when, despite storming the heavens with prayer, a child dies, or an illness turns worse, or a compulsion is unrelieved, or misfortune follows misfortune? If prayer is unanswered, might it be because it was unheard?

Here’s what I learned: all that the wisest religious people have to offer are excuses, justifications, and rationalizations.

Well, you see, we pray that God’s will be done. We are praying to align our wills with his and trust his divine plan.

So why bother praying at all if God’s just going to do what he’s going to do?

Because God is your heavenly father. You talk with your earthly father, don’t you? Prayer is conversation with God.

Monologue isn’t conversation. I’m praying for an answer, not to hear myself.

You must not try experiments on God, your Master,” wrote C.S. Lewis in an essay on the efficacy of prayer. How dare you expect what Jesus himself said to be true?

And what does it mean when my prayer is ignored, but someone else stands up in church to testify about their answered prayers? Does God like them better than me? Am I doing it wrong? How have I failed? How can it be God’s will that I suffer while a thumping crook prospers?

You must trust God’s ineffable plan.

I sometimes wonder if religion doesn’t so much offer comfort to the person suffering, but to those around him. With a few platitudes, they can discharge their duty to the unfortunate. Terrible about your house burning down. I’ll pray for you. Your children are in a better place now.

Happy chances and coincidences happen to everyone, regardless of their religion or prayer habits. So does misfortune and disaster. Nowadays, whenever I’m asked to pray for someone, I ask if there’s anything I can do. I recently was able to provide material assistance to someone dear to me, and was nonplussed when God got the credit. I wonder who would been blamed had I not helped?

Perhaps it’s just as well that magical thinking can’t affect reality. Can you imagine the chaos if our politicians’ prayers were actually answered?

"When I was a kid I used to pray every night for a new bicycle. Then I realized that the Lord doesn't work that way, so I stole one and asked for forgiveness." -- Emo Phillips

“Hands that help are better by far than lips that pray.” -- Robert Ingersoll

Sunday Sermonette: All You Need Is Love

Happy LGBT Pride Month!

This month in 1969, the modern gay liberation movement began with riots outside a gay / trans bar in Greenwich Village. Same sex marriage as a civil right was first declared by the Supreme Judicial Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts over 12 years ago, and now that right is affirmed in every state of the country. Churches, however, are still wrestling with it. Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and some Methodist and Baptist churches support marriage equality, Catholics, Orthodox, and most Evangelical churches do not.

A few years ago, an essay by Professor P.Z. Myers helped me understand the theological difficulties facing religion. There are really only four options:

  1. There is an all-powerful God who cares very much about what you do with your genitals, and he sometimes changes his mind. Perhaps the only thing more terrifying than an all-powerful being whose ultimate judgement will consign you to an eternity of bliss or never-ending torment is an arbitrary all-powerful judgmental God. George Carlin used to riff on all the Catholics in Hell for eating meat on Fridays before the Vatican liberalized the dietary rules. I mean, here you are, doing the best you can to obey the rules and observe the doctrines and covenants of your religion, and suddenly God changes his mind and pulls the carpet out from under your feet. What happens now? Are all the sodomites currently wailing and lamenting in the Seventh Circle of Hell automatically pardoned and admitted to Paradise? Are those righteous churchmen who condemned people to death for “the abominable and detestable crime of which no Christian should speak” now consigned to the fiery pit, or at least a nice long stint in the cleansing fires of Purgatory?
  1. There is an all-powerful God who cares very much about what you do with your genitals, but his priesthood sometimes misinterprets him. Here’s my old church, which has stood for hundreds of years (ever since Henry VIII needed a son and the Pope wouldn’t let him divorce his wife), and they’ve been dead wrong for most of that time. What else have they been wrong about? Maybe adultery and coveting my neighbor’s wife are perfectly fine. The plural of spouse is spice, after all. How long have they been getting it wrong for? The Catholic church is sure that the Church of England have it wrong, but maybe it goes further back. Maybe the Levites who took the first heavenly dictation were wrong - bacon-wrapped shrimp is delicious!
  1. There is an all-powerful God who doesn’t care very much about what you do with your genitals, he has greater matters like the movement of galaxies to deal with. Maybe this whole focus of what you’re doing with whose genitals is just a reflection of the hangups of Mrs. Grundy and her bluenosed ancestors. Maybe we shouldn’t look to a distant invisible, inaudible, intangible being for rules, but to our fellow humans. After all, we’ve been living in community with each other for 200,000 years, we’ve probably learned a few good guidelines in that time. I mean, we figured out that selling your daughter as a sex slave wasn’t right, despite what those Levites wrote down.
  1. There is no all-powerful God, no judgement after death, no eternal reward or punishment. The priests have been making it up ever since one bright caveman figured out a way to get the best share of the hunt without actually having to work for it. Getting together to sing songs and eat bean suppers is good, helping one another is good, even listening to an inspirational speaker can be good, but you can pitch the rest of it. The Vatican is already a museum, most megachurches are already concert venues, and Mrs. Grundy is dead.
I think this is why we have ranting nutpies like Ken Ham insisting that every word of the Bible is literal truth, that the universe was created between six and ten thousand years ago, that Noah’s flood was an actual event. He knows full well that the foundations of his religion are built of fragile reeds and shifting sands, and is desperately trying to hold back the tide.

We atheists like to think that the greatest threat to religion is reason. Perhaps we’re wrong. Maybe the greatest threat to religion is love.



In February of 1993, we attended a meeting of the New England Herpetological Society. I’m allergic to certain furry critters, but have always loved reptiles. While we were there, a snake breeder offered me a hatchling corn snake (Pantherophis guttatus guttatus), all red and orange and black with a black and white checked underbelly, for $10. I whipped out my wallet on the spot and bought the little fellow, no longer than a pencil, who seemed to want nothing more than to twine around my fingers.

The Unindicted Co-Conspirator was unhappy that I had purchased an animal without consultation. We’d been married less than six months earlier; she didn’t yet know that I can be a little impulsive where critters and computers are concerned. I handed her the snake, who immediately twined around her fingers, looking at her with bright, trusting, unblinking eyes. She melted immediately.

On the ride home, with the snake still cradled in her hand, we discussed names. The one that stuck was Pinkerton. First, for the unblinking eye that was the symbol of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Second, because his diet was neonate mice, which are called pinkies. And last, for the snake-in-the-grass Lieutenant Pinkerton of Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly.

We found Pinkerton a little two and a half gallon aquarium with a tight metal lid - there was nothing else he wouldn’t escape through. As he grew, the tanks grew larger until he was finally in a big 55 gallon breeding aquarium. He had a piece of cork bark to scratch and sun on, a hide box, a water bowl, and a heat lamp. (I attached a thermometer to the hide box.) That was enough. He rejected branches - he was a happy ground-dweller.

Snakes are interesting pets. They don’t ask much, and frankly they don’t give much unless you enjoy watching the graceful arch of the neck as a snake siphons water from a bowl or how perfectly they shed their skin. Snakes basically have a two-bit mind. One bit is devoted to “warm / not warm” and the other to “hungry / not hungry”. When mating season hits in early Spring, they swap out the hungry bit for “girl snake / not girl snake,” putting off eating until after mating season passed. (It took one shed cycle - about a month.)

The life expectancy of a corn snake is six to eight years in the wild, ten to fifteen in captivity. The oldest recorded corn snake lived to be 23. This was in a zoo - pet owners have claimed longer ages, but not by much. By any standard, he was a very, very old snake.

Pinkerton developed some sort of tumor in his lower abdomen, near his vent. It didn’t seem to bother him for a while - he still ate, but lately he has rejected food (he’d kill the mouse, but not eat it) and appears to be straining (and failing) to pass waste. It was time.

We took him to the local veterinary hospital this morning, which has a vet who handles exotics. A sedative was administered, and when he went to sleep, we left. It takes a long time to sedate a snake, and even longer to euthanize it. The vet explained she’d use an ultrasound to locate the heart, and inject the final mercy there so it would be quick.

We never had an emotional bond. Snakes aren’t warm and cuddly. So why am I blinking when I walk into the room and see the dark and empty tank?

Green and Golden

These are the green and golden days on Cape Cod. Just a couple weeks ago, the mighty oak that overshadows our deck began unfurling its pale golden-green leaves. Now when the sun rises, it slants through the oak leaves with its own golden-green light. Everything is gold and green. Everything. The car. The floor. The furniture. The countertops - all is covered with fine golden-green powder.

The pine trees are pollinating.

Cape Cod has a lot of pine trees - white pine and pitch pine, mostly. This is the time of year they desperately try to reproduce, the male trees spreading their pollen with the winds. It’s also the time of year when the temperatures rise into the seventies, causing those of us without air conditioning to throw open our windows, doors, and skylights.

And now everything I own is green and gold. I mopped the floor three times on Saturday, since we were expecting company. They still managed to leave footprints in the pollen coating every surface. The smooth clean white Silestone countertops are gritty and faintly yellow, despite near-continual wiping.

On the bright side, pine pollen is one of the numberless nostrums sold to the gullible as a male performance enhancer. It sounds a little gay to believe that swallowing male pine tree semen will help your own morning wood, but I swear I’m not making this up. Pine tree pollen is said to be an androgen, capable of increasing testosterone levels and containing arginine which is supposed to help with erections. See articles like this one for more information.

As for me, the only thing swelling is the membranes of my nose.

The green and golden days only last a couple weeks, and then things calm down a bit. Except for the goldfinches, which begin mating in June. Hmmmmm…


Sunday Sermonette: Is Your Sin Original?

The very first religious service I ever went to was an exorcism.

I wasn’t born Catholic. No one is born a member of a religion. But my parents were (and are) good Catholics, and second in importance only to my birth was that I be made a Catholic as quickly as possible. So it was that within a few days of my birth, I was carried to a church. The exorcism rite began as my parent came through the door, before getting anywhere near the baptismal font. A priest breathed over me and expelled any lurking demons: Exi ab eo, immunde spiritus, et da locum Spiritui Sancto Paraclito. (Go forth from him, unclean spirit, and give place to the Holy Ghost, the Paraclete.) A little salt was put into my mouth, and then more words of exorcism were spoken: Exorcizo te, immunde spiritus, in nomine Patris + et Filii + et Spiritus + Sancti, ut exeas, et recedas ab hoc famulo Dei William… (I exorcise thee, unclean spirit, in the name of the Father + and of the Son, + and of the Holy + Spirit, that thou goest out and depart from this servant of God, William…)

I was then carried to the stoup, where sponsors (my aunt and uncle) answered for me, renouncing Satan and all his promises and pomps. Then all present recited the Creed, and I had water poured over my head. Finally. I was anointed with holy oil, thus marked and sealed as a member of the One Holy Catholic Church and God’s personal property.

But why was it necessary to cast out demons from a baby only a few days old? Catholics don’t believe, as old fire-and-brimstone Calvinists like Jonathan Edwards preached, that the very floors of Hell were paved with the skulls of unbaptized infants, but they aren’t innocent, either. Infants bear the indelible stain of Original Sin. “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.” wrote the Psalmist.

What was this Original Sin? The Original Sin, it was explained to me, was Adam and Eve’s disobedience when they ate a fruit God had forbidden them. But wait a minute. Catholics aren’t Biblical literalists, at least they haven’t been in my lifetime. Pope Pius XII announced in 1950 that he had no problems with the idea that God might have field-tested the design of man on apes, so long as we acknowledge that at some point God put a soul in man. Pope John Paul II went even further, accepting evolution as an essentially proven fact. Humanity was made in the image and likeness of God, evolution was just How He Did It. Fiat Lux! spake God, and behold, there was a Big Bang.

That means there was no Adam and Eve. So where does this Original Sin come from?

This is where Catholics get inventive. Yes, humanity evolved from earlier forms, but the Biblical description of Creation and of man’s fall from grace is still true, even though it’s not written according to modern literary techniques or respect for accuracy. The Spirit of God who spoke through the Bronze-Age storytellers who gave us Genesis is not interested in mere literal truth that helps no one to salvation, but Capital T Truth, the sort that isn’t really true but is more than true. Is that clear?

Wouldn’t this be a flawed design from the Creator of All? No, because God gave humanity the special gift free will so that we could love him.

Angels don’t have free will, so how did Lucifer and his allies revolt? The Church says I have free will, but clearly I don’t - I’m already guilty of a terrible offense as a newborn babe. That’s illogical, unjust, and immoral.

Ah, says the Church, but all humans are pre-disposed to sin, to willfulness and disobedience. How does that change anything? It’s even more monstrous, because it says that God stacked the deck when he created us. There can’t be free will without complete freedom to choose. This is a heads I win, tails you lose trick.

Worst of all, the Exorcism and Baptism I underwent as a newborn only absolved me of Original Sin. Very soon I’d learn about all kinds of other sins for which I would deserve unimaginable and eternal torment. Not just acts, but even thoughts offended the perverse heavenly tyrant.

No wonder I cried.


And So It Began

Thirty years ago today, a career was born. I bought my first computer.

I’d always been fascinated by computers, ever since using a time shared teletype attached to a distant PDP-7 via an acoustic modem at the Museum of Science. It played a game called Lunar Lander. You had to work out how to budget your fuel to achieve a soft landing on the moon, or the clattering printhead would create a permanent paper record of how deep a crater you’d made. When I was in high school, I used a similar interface to communicate with Tufts University’s PDP-11. In 1984, my office got an IBM PC-XT for running payroll. Unbeknownst to them, I started spending nights working on it, poring through the slipcased IBM documentation for DOS, Lotus 1-2-3 1.1, and WordStar. But it wasn’t until a dozen years after high school that I was able to afford a machine of my own - a floor model Compaq Portable from Sears Business Systems. I wasn’t really able to afford it, but American Express had inadvisedly sent me a credit card a couple weeks earlier…

I remember schlepping that 30 pound sewing-machine case on public transport back to my house. When I got home, I fired up MS-DOS 1.1, played around with MS-BASIC, then proceeded to take the machine apart to admire its innards. It was a remarkable piece of engineering - a sturdy polycarbonate plastic shell protected an anodized aluminum inner skeleton. Its dual double-sided double-density floppy disk drives had rugged rubber shock absorbers where they attached to the frame, as did the nine-inch monochrome long-persistence phosphor screen.

I was fanatically devoted to that machine. I pirated every single piece of software I could get my hands on (and Xeroxed reams of documentation) just to learn it. Based on the skills I taught myself, I was able to get a job as a temp, which led to a permanent job as a financial analyst for a state agency. My qualifications? I knew Lotus 1-2-3!

Fortunately, I did manage to pay that American Express bill, but it was tight. My next purchase was more memory - from 256 K to 512 K, as much as that machine could handle. Then I bought a $100 memory decoder PROM chip that let me access 640 K. Then I replaced a floppy drive with a 20 MB Seagate hard drive - it cost about $400. I was also buying software now: Borland Sidekick, the next version of Lotus 1-2-3, a neat add-on from Lotus called HAL, WordPerfect 4.2, Paradox database… Back then, any business software program had a set price: $495. A big program like Lotus Symphony was $695. But it was worth it to learn them. I also subscribed to industry trade journals like Computerworld and Infoworld - they were fat weekly papers back then - as well as the monthlies like PC Magazine. I read obsessively.

Then my state agency bought a local area network server from Banyan and let me play with it.

It was a great career that I completely lucked into. I never had a college education, never took a computer science course, never really learned to program (though I picked up a few things along the way). Oddly, I never got into computer gaming. Figuring out how computers and networks worked was enough of a game for me. I was sure that one day my employer would find out that I was a fraud and that would be it - especially when deep in the throes of some knotty problem or other. But eventually I'd figure it out, and move along to the next level.

And so it went, up until my retirement last year. I got away with it.


And So It Begins

It is another glorious day in paradise. The dawn chorus is full of birds sweetly singing “Mine! Mine! Mine!” The golden sun is slanting through the brand new light green oak leaves, just unfurled in the past week. The rhododendron in front of my kitchen window is just about to burst forth in bright purple blossoms. The skies are blue, the early morning temperature is cool and delightful, and it promises to be a warm sunny day. Everything is ready for the invasion of tourists tomorrow.

Tomorrow is the first day of the summer vacation season, something we on Cape Cod take very seriously indeed. Many businesses will make all of their money in the next 16 weeks. Young people from around the world have secured precious H1-B visas to swell the workforce of our shops and restaurants. Not far from me, a new stone oven pizza parlor is racing the clock to open on time. It’s located near the popular rail trail bike path, so we have hopes it will fare better than its fine dining predecessor. People are more casual these days, and a lot of people come here just for the bike paths.

The locals will start grocery shopping at 7 a.m. before the hordes awaken. We start planning our travels to avoid the more heavily trafficked roads and dreaded left turns. Sometimes you just have to hunker down, just like in winter. There will be a few grumpy people complaining. “I’m not on your vacation” reads one bumper sticker.

Well, I am on your vacation. I’m delighted to see the happy faces of families riding the trail. I’m grateful you’re supporting my town by buying thousands of beach permits that give you the privilege to vie for 300 parking spots on our beautiful and highly prized beaches with their broad sand flats stretching out for a mile or more. I’m happy to see you’ve discovered my favorite seafood emporium with its icy trays of local oysters and clams. I’m thrilled you’ve found a coveted campsite in our state park. Have you seen the local independent bookseller’s? Our bakeries? One is conveniently located on the bike path and perilously close to my home. Our golf courses? The Natural History Museum? Our miles of nature trails? Our deep, clear kettle ponds? If it’s raining, check out the Brewster Ladies Library. And that’s just the start. There are fourteen other towns on the Cape, each with its own particular delights.

I love Cape Cod. Places at the margins between land and sea have always been magical. I’m lucky enough to be able to enjoy it all year ‘round. I figure the least I can do is be gracious to people who only get to enjoy it for a week in the summer. Welcome!