Two Excerpts from "Eyes Wide Open"

Crystals Lite

When Public Television broadcast "Healing and the Mind," Bill Moyers' thoughtful foray into alternative medicine, I thought of my Auntie Kay, who believed in the power of crystals. Convinced that her crystals could cure a host of afflictions, she kept her home sparkling from pantry to porch. However, her lovely collection now graces my shelves, for her gems proved useless against the staph infection that wrote an end to my Auntie Kay.
These converts to New Age holistics include seekers like Marie, who sports a sliver of barite in the inflamed flesh of her pierced nostril, and her boyfriend, Keith, who is hooked on malachite. Marie and Keith are the New Age version of the folks who still ignore Mr. Barnum's warning - "There's a sucker born every minute."
Although I, too, love their color, their glitter and shine, and admire gems for their beauty alone, I prefer a science that calmly says 'pyrite' to a fraud that promises GOLD! What, then, does science say about gems, and how does New Age respond? Well, since some savant has declared it the stone of my birth, let's consider aquamarine.
Science, with its rational, analytical approach, informs us that aquamarine is beryllium aluminum silicate, and that some of its siblings are emerald, morganite and heliodor. It reveals that the beryl children run from deep blue-green to yellow, and can be brown or purple or clear, depending on how much sodium or cesium color lies in their crystalline cores. It reports that aquamarine is softer than corundum but harder than quartz, and that its hexagonal crystals line the pegmatites of North Carolina, Colorado and Vermont.
Science has a great deal more to say, but having sampled its approach, let's examine the New Age view, where reality wavers twixt here and there, and truth is whatever one says.
Our leap vaults us from the bedrock of science to a makeshift raft propelled by wandering currents while opposed by a countering wind. Its occupants are most remarkable, for they are captains all. Using various charms and a flexible course, they sail on a spiritual sea.
Our raft, which is a part of the New Age fleet, has chosen its cargo well, carrying implications, promises and religions anew - an ideal cargo: so light, yet so profitable.
The home port of our New Age raft is the typical store/sanctuary found in your town, in her town and mine. In its windows and cases lie eye-popping gems and crystals that prompt sighs and aaahhhhs. Stepping inside, I say to myself, "this is my kind of store,'' as I gawk at its pyrites, its calcites and its bounty of baubulous delights. In a soothing touch, a gentle nocturne stirs the earth-scented air. How pleasant; how relaxing. And then I notice the little messages, a different one for each display.
"Calcite," one proclaims, "will enhance mental balance and alertness." (I could use a tad of calcite.) Citrine is pledged to "help unblock congestion on emotional and physical levels." (Nothing needed there.) As for my birthstone and her siblings, this emporium stocks only emerald and aquamarine, which is, as I'd expected, an absolute marvel.
Aquamarine, my birthstone, not only treats "ailments of the head, neck and throat," it offers "protection for sensitive people" and should be worn to "calm fears, ease anxiety and to ensure a good night's sleep."
I am truly impressed! Once again, I can stroll the streets in safety, protected by just a bit of aquamarine, my pockets freed from stun guns and mace. And for a good night's sleep, I'll simply slip a crystal or two beneath my pillow and remove the old .38 - no more anxiety, no more fear, and no more "Smith & Wesson" embossed upon my morning cheeks.
Suddenly, my skeptical mind revives. "Would a more expensive stone be more effective?" I ask.
"Oh, yes!"
"And at what velocity must I throw this stone to protect myself?" I pleasantly inquire.
The clerk's smile fades, replaced by a look of battleship gray.
Sensing our dwindling rapport, I offer thanks for her time, pick up a pamphlet on the "Uses of Gemstones and Minerals for Personal Transformation" and head for home. "What a shame," I muse. Perhaps she should revise her chakra stone layout for increased harmony, or wear a pound or two of ... What's this? No crystal to "liberate laughter," no gem to "expand one's sense of humor?" Here, indeed, is a niche to fill, a void that seeks my soul.
And so, to repair this gap in crystal holistics and to bolster the humor impaired, I now offer Menckenite. Distilled from the essence of snicker, Menckenite is synthesized in a secret lab in Smiley, Minnesota, population 666. Menckenite is reasonably priced at $1,200 per carat, and is absolutely guaranteed to enhance one's sense of humor and pleasant nature, as it has my own, ensuring that with every purchase you will receive not only a friendly smile, but a pat on the wallet, er, back, as well.
One caution: Overuse of Menckenite has been known to cause a serious complication called PMS or Post-Menckenite Syndrome, also known as "skepticism," the intensity of the symptoms being proportionate to the amount of Menckenite purchased. We therefore urge our customers to limit their expenditures to modest sums, perhaps three or four hundred dollars per week.
Those who follow our advice will be spared a depressing revelation concerning the New Age, or any age. It's about a system known to Las Vegas, to psychics and religions as well. A few spot it quickly; others never catch on. Known as the FIRST LAW OF REALITY, it goes like this: "YOU GIVE ME MONEY; I TAKE IT."
"I will believe the most preposterous claim, but the more preposterous it is, the better the proof must be!" - Isaac Asimov


And a Little Mouse Shall Lead Them

The literalist beliefs of the Southern Baptists who have boycotted Disney for refusing to discriminate against gays brings to mind Galileo, who said that humankind is composed of two types: " ... those apt at inventing fables and those disposed to believe them." He's still right, but, unlike the religionists whose exhortations and complaints clutter airwaves, I side with the millions of Americans who are attuned to realists and educators like Roddenberry, Asimov, Edison and Twain - and to pleasant characters like Mickey Mouse.
Early Christians didn't like education much, some of their various saints having declared it irrelevant, vain and distracting. Would that they had been content to merely ignore education, rather than oppose it, for they persecuted or killed dissenters. And when secular governments finally made that impossible, they retarded science and education for centuries, opposing Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and Darwin and all the great minds who have repeatedly proved them wrong.
In murdering Michael Servetus, the spiritual source for Unitarianism, early Christian leaders set a precedent that would bury millions more during the Crusades, the Inquisition, the European witch hysteria, the Thirty Years War and the ghastly Holocaust, when German Lutherans and German Catholics murdered German Jews. "But," you say, "that was then, and this is now."
Look, then, to Ireland, where Protestants have clashed with Catholics. In the Middle East it's Shiites against Sunnies, who both hate Jews. In India it's Hindus vs. Muslims vs. Sikhs. In the former Yugoslavia, Muslims warred against Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics, who, when not fighting Muslims, warred against each other. Religion-inspired zealots bombed the World Trade Center, go gunning for Planned Parenthood doctors, withhold medical care from their children, decree death sentences on authors, sexually, mentally and physically abuse children, preach against population control, fleece the gullible and give special meaning to once-ordinary places like Jonestown, Waco and Rancho Santa Fe, California, site of the Heaven's Gate cult suicide.
In the United States, these extremists fight science while seeking public funds for church schools where science can be replaced by creationism, where contraception can be a dirty word, and where books and ideas can be banned.
And yet, I will say that none of this is the fault of the man they call the Prince of Peace, for their zealots have chosen to follow his path in name, but not in deed.
Fortunately, there are still a few havens from the schemers and proselytizers. One, believe it or not, is located in the Deep South, on an island of secularity near Orlando, Florida. They call it Disney World, and I call it wonderful.
The Magic Kingdom makes no attempt to pass off fantasy as fact or to convert delight to devotion. At Epcot, where imagination and humanity are emphasized, no evangelists hold forth.
Every morning, thousands of fun and knowledge-seekers like my wife, my grandchildren and me pour through the gates of Disney World to laugh at the horseplay of the Diamond Jubilee Revue, and to scare ourselves when confronted by the wicked Queen and Snow White's luscious, lethal, blood-red apple. Wherever we went, we laughed and learned.
As we strolled the sidewalks between China's impressive exhibit and Norway's Akershus restaurant, people of all origins and religions bustled past, all intent on those marvelous secular pastimes of learning and enjoying their lives.
At MGM we gaped at stunt scenes from Indiana Jones, sat riveted to the trials of the Little Mermaid, and were dazzled by a stage show of "The Beauty and the Beast.'' At Epcot's The Land, we found nutrition and sustenance. Across the way, we smiled at "The Making of Me,'' a factual, humorous movie about the source of babies.
We watched stunning films of France's Alps and the Eiffel Tower, of Norway's fiords and of Canada's beauty, from Newfoundland to the Arctic to Vancouver. And at the close of each day, with the street lights dimmed, we enjoyed IllumiNations, a spectacular fireworks/laser/fountain display highlighting the many nations of Epcot, its brilliant conclusion accompanied by the thunder of Tchaikovsky's 1812 overture. Never have I seen so many people so relaxed, so happy. And all without a single, intrusive, "Have you been saved?"
We each had our favorite Disney character. My wife was taken with the Muppets, and my granddaughter became fascinated with Figment, a character from the Journey Through Imagination show, which she had to see FIVE times.
As for me, I'm one of the kids who will always love Mickey. Like the vast majority of Disney characters (don't forget Grumpy) he has a smile and an embrace for everyone. Just being a friend is his religion. Not surprisingly, Mickey's tolerance and secularity rankles the haters in the Southern Baptists.
Misled by literal belief in an ancient, erroneous book that's interpreted many ways, the Southern Baptists seek to injure those they dislike with new laws and economic pressure, which makes me wonder if their Jesus, their holy child-grown-to-man, would support their unloving discrimination. I doubt it.
Given a choice between Mickey, who embodies Peace on Earth and Good Will to All, and the Southern Baptists, who enthusiastically support GW's fraudulent war, I'm convinced that the Prince of Peace would happily don a Mickey Mouse shirt and sport a Mickey Mouse watch, so, in response to the Southern Baptists, I think I'll buy three Mickey Mouse ties - one for Mickey, one for me, and one for the Prince of Peace. "


Decisions

Like most of our nation's 30 million progressive freethinkers, humanists, agnostics, rationalists and atheists, my wife and I opposed the fraudulent Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld/Rice war, and although we constantly try to improve the lives of others with our time, our money and efforts, we are too frequently denigrated by TV preachers and even public officials.
Today, I face two of those efforts: The first, the irritating-but-easy one, requires me to write a check to the IRS, part of which will still go to pay for G W's trumped up war in Iraq. The second is to evaluate 38 scholarship applications to my local Community College - applications that will mix pleasure with pain because I can only afford to fund three. I'll be seeking the three with acceptable grades, the greatest need and the probability that they'll use the training. The end will satisfy, but getting there is always an emotional task.
"Katie" has a 3.1 grade point average and lives with her mom. She wants to be a psychiatrist, but her need is marginal, so her application joins the rejected pleas of a diabetic vo-tech applicant, a 32-year-old waitress/nursing home worker with no husband and three kids who seeks a nursing degree, and a Fundamentalist who has all the answers but needs a degree.
As the applications fall to my feet, it occurs to me that the three trillion dollars consumed by the "war on terror" (or the millions in tax cuts G W gave to the super-rich) could fund the education of all of these people—and not just here, but all across the nation - with money left over for national health care.
An hour passes. Twenty-one applications lie spread across my floor, leaving seventeen for further review. One by one, I winnow them down, rejecting some despite glowing recommendations and great GPAs because they have no crushing financial need.
The seventeen dwindle to six as I reluctantly say "no" to a man of 38 who lost his job when his factory closed, to a bright high school senior who has been working since he was 12, to a girl on anti-depressants with a father and brother in Iraq and a mother who can't quite cope, to a victim of rape, and to a 23 year old single mom who wants to give her child "all of the opportunities I missed while I was growing up."
The hard (and sometimes even tearful) part, is selecting the final three. In an attempt to isolate myself from their stories, I try to become an indifferent calculating machine, but every time, I fail. With regrets, I reject "Patricia," who received a Nursing Assistant Certificate at age 45 after being abandoned by an abusive husband who called her "stupid," and having learned that she isn't, now wants to return at age 50 for a 2-year business degree.
"Richard", who has a fiancée, two kids and a part time job, is also rejected. Why? Because his impressive recommendations imply that he'll probably work things out.
The last to fall is a freshman named "Cory," who admits that he "used to be a trouble-maker. "I never finished high school, but now I've got my GED and last semester I even made the Dean's list. I don't like the stress of paying only the priority bills while going to school and worrying about the rest."
So here the three I've chosen in my attempt to find the most needy and deserving students who will relentlessly persevere.
Twenty-eight year-old "Jan," after graduating from the Job Corps, had been bartending and cooking until her arms required several surgeries. After a long list of low-paying, part-time jobs, "Jan" is now completing her first year at college (with great recommendations) and has made the Dean's list. I'll pay for year number two.
"Ruth," who began her bio with Bon Jovi's "It's my life. It's now or never." is wheelchair-bound by scoliosis and spinal muscular atrophy. While still in high school, she enlisted Social Services to help her leave her alcoholic parents and live with her sister. Ruth's grades are barely acceptable, but her recommendations are strong, so we'll bend the rules to help Ruth attain an elementary education degree.
The third applicant, and the one that I'm least sure of, is "Mary", who, despite miserable grades, graduated from high school thirty years ago because her teachers "took pity on me." Born with a cleft lip and palate, Mary has overcome drugs and alcohol and has worked as a nursing assistant for almost 20 years. She needs bifocals, and a computer wouldn't hurt. Now, while living in an adult foster home and taking medications for depression, she is completing her first year in college with acceptable grades and average recommendations - and hopes to return next fall. Her goal is to become "a self-sufficient, self-reliant nurse who doesn't need Social Security." I'll take a chance on Mary. Go for it, girl!
A year from now, I'll receive a similar stack of requests. When that time arrives, people like me will still be the target of religious bigots who fault us for not sharing their supernatural beliefs, and I suppose I'll still be angry, knowing that all of the applications that have fallen at my feet could have been funded by the cost of a single Hellfire missile fired in fraudulent wars caused by those who claim to follow the Prince of Peace.


The author donates all of his book profits to educational charities.


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