The Root Cause

After Friday’ terrorist attacks in Paris, my Facebook feeds have been inundated with liberal rants saying don’t blame Islam, and conservative rants about how we have to send in troops and wipe ISIS out, and how we would be crazy to accept more refugees into our country.

I’ve given it a lot of thought, and here’s what I come up with.  I have to disagree with my liberal friends. Islam is responsible for the attacks.  I understand that the terrorists equal less than one percent of the worldwide Islamic population, and that they are but a small cult with their own extremist interpretation of the religion.

The point is that all the attacks were executed by Muslims in the name of Mohammed or Islam or whatever name they give to their bearded guy in the clouds. Just like the people who bomb abortion clinics in the name of Jesus represent a small percentage of the people whose bearded man in the clouds is the son of another bearded man in the clouds.

Of course I don’t blame the billion or so Muslims who would never commit such atrocities, just like I don’t blame the billions of Christians who renounce violence in their savior’s name.  I blame the institutions.

The problem is religion, more specifically, organized religion. There isn’t one that is better than another.  They are all a collection of superstition and nonsense, and their usefulness has long been negated by the death and destruction carried out in their names. We are well into the 21st century, and we should have advanced past the point of believing in the parting of seas or who has been chosen and who hasn’t. At some point, we need to step back and look at all of the chaos and destruction, all the madness and murder, and recognize the common denominator:  religion.

I have no idea how we rid ourselves of the cancer that religion has become. Even as it grows outdated and marginalized (the majority of young Americans do not attend church or count themselves as members of any specific religion), its power, its influence, expands. It’s easy, it’s accepted, it’s even encouraged to discriminate against different religions. This is why so many Americans cling to the ridiculous notion that President Obama is a Muslim. It’s socially unacceptable to discriminate on the basis of race.  However, it’s acceptable to discriminate against those who don’t “share the same values.”

The fanaticism of true believers is one of the most powerful forces on the face of the earth.  How does any society defend itself against people who are willing to strap explosives to their body and give their own lives in return for hundreds of innocent lives?  It’s the extreme madness that only religion can inspire.

Every day, somewhere in the world, people are murdered in the name of God.  And every day, families bury the victims and pray on their behalf to the same God they died for.

We need freedom from, not freedom of, religion. As long as religion exists, as long as nation-states legitimize religion, the insanity will continue unabated, and the numbers of innocent men, women and children killed in the name of God will rise.

March, 1935

(This is another short excerpt from the novel I’m working on.  This scene takes place in 1935.  Originally, these were going to be minor characters with a short backstory, but they keep talking to me, they won’t shut up, so I’m letting them go until they’re done.

Not much happens yet in this scene, it’s getting too long to excerpt, so I thought I’d share what I’ve got so far)

Randy and Corey were exploring, deeper into the forest than they’d ever been before.  They’d left the three mile out east-west fire road two hours earlier and headed south, toward the noon day sun that shone bright in the sky.  Andy was fourteen, Corey ten years old. At first, the forest was thick with scrub maple and birch, the terrain mostly flat, with occasional short and gradual knolls, the ground damp and black, the March trees grey and leafless. Then, as they continued south, the woods opened up and the trees, mostly oak and ash now, grew taller and older, as the ground rose and fell with undulating hills and draws, covered by a thick blanket of dead leaves and green moss. On the northern slopes of the knolls and rises un-melted snow banks stubbornly clung to the mossy ground.  The previous night’s frost had burned off and lifted in thin clouds of mist that the hungry morning quickly consumed, its satisfaction evident in the rays of warm sunlight that crossed Randy and Corey’s faces.

They were looking for more artifacts of the logging camps that at one time, forty to fifty years earlier, in the last twenty years or so of the nineteenth century, dominated the area. They’d seen the paintings and the old photographs on the wall of the feed and implement store of men with handlebar moustaches and wool coats and misery whips standing dwarfed by the massive trunks of the immense fallen white pines they stood next to.  The white pines were gone now, but the implements, the men’s tools, remained where abandoned, their usefulness passed to all but the slow and steady forces of rust and decay. Randy and Corey had already found, on previous expeditions, rusted out straw lines and springboards and peaveys and grapples, and a pair of abandoned calks, in surprisingly good condition, still wearable, with their soles still intact. Mr. Nelson had partitioned a corner in his old machine shed for the boys to stash their findings. He seemed to be the only one who expressed any interest in them, showing them to his father when he’d visit. Grandpa Nelson, as Anne and Laura called him, was at the time in his seventies, and remembered the times during his childhood that his father worked on a logging operation, as a chokerman and a faller. Randy and Corey would see Mr. Nelson and Grandpa approaching the machine shed and run over to show him what they’d found, and Grandpa Nelson would explain what each piece was and how the loggers used it and how rare or common it was, dismissing the spool of rusted cable they’d unearthed as nothing more than haywire, and getting animated at the site of the steel spiked pole, explaining that it was a peavey and was used to provide leverage when moving large logs.

At about one o’clock, about two hours after having left the fire road and heading deeper into the forest than they’d ever been before, Randy was relieved when they found a stream, choke full of snow melt and gurgling as it rushed south. He pulled out his jackknife and carved a deep gouge into the side of an oak tree.

“What are you doing?” Corey asked.

“Marking this tree, in case we get lost,” Randy replied.

“How would we get lost? We’ve got the sun to go by.”

“Well,” Randy said, “that’s all well and good if it stays out. But what if it gets cloudy?”

“Okay,” Corey said.  “Suppose it does get cloudy.  How are you gonna find one oak tree in all these woods?”

“Cause we ain’t gonna leave this stream now that we’ve found it. And by marking up this tree, we should be able to see it on our way back, and know this is where we found the stream, so this is where on the way back we leave the stream.  We know home is due north from here, and we’re about an hour away from the fire road.  So by reading the tree with the creek, we oughta be able to figure out which way north is.”

“Wish we still had a compass,” Corey said.

“We ain’t gonna need no goddamn compass, cause we ain’t gonna get lost,” Randy said.

“How much further we gonna go?”

“Not much,” Randy said.  “I’d like to follow this stream a little ways, see where it goes.  Unless you’re too scared.”

“I ain’t scared of nothing,” Corey protested.

Randy and Corey followed the stream as it wove its way through the high banks that over thousands of years it’d carved into the forest floor, bending, widening and narrowing as it slipped between the knolls, gathering momentum as it flowed under the cover of the trees, which were taller here.  There wasn’t any scrub brush in this part of the forest, just the trees, wide, wide and tall and far apart, and leaves, dead leaves, several inches deep covering the forest floor.  As they went the sky grew grayer as the sun disappeared behind a veil of darkening clouds.

Then, without warning, the woods opened up and dissolved into a huge, flat meadow, with long brown and gray grasses.  From where they stood, looking out at the meadow, they could see the stream, a thick blue line winding through the brown and gray, and they could see other pockets of blue open water scattered across the meadow.  The meadow was flat and wide, bordered by higher ground of the knolls and hills. A couple of hundred yards beyond where it began, where Randy and Corey were standing, the meadow narrowed, with knolls on both side encroaching in and pinching it, then it widened again, immense and open, the tree line on the other side looking small and distant against the suddenly immense afternoon sky, which was now a study in contrast between ever threatening shades of gray.

Randy and Corey stood looking at the landscape ahead of them, and they both took notice of the sky, devoid of any of the sunlight that had made the morning so warm and welcoming,. They both heard the wind begin to gather cold momentum through the dead trees, and they both felt its chill.


There’s no denying it, I was a weird kid.  I always knew that about myself, but as I grew into adolescence, the middle school years, it started to bother me. I wasted a lot of time trying to figure out why, going as far back as I could remember, that I always had the feeling that everybody else knew something that I didn’t, that they’d been privy to a secret that forever eluded me.

Looking back on it now, it’s obvious. Because of where my birthday, November 4th, fell in relation to the cut-off date for determining when a kid would start school (at the time, November 30th), I was nearly a year younger than most of my classmates, and younger than all but one kid in my class.  This might not sound like a big deal, but when you’re in seventh or eighth grade, a year can make a big difference. The maturation process for boys, both physically and emotionally, is hyper-accelerated in those years. It was like a gun was fired and the race began, everybody sprinting out of the blocks, while I lagged behind, clueless, wondering who’d been shot.

Physically I was always one of the smallest kids in my class.  I remember in tenth grade, I was five foot two and weighed 94 pounds, lighter than all but two in my phy-ed class. Football was not an option. I did okay in little league baseball, but that was because it used a different cutoff date than the public school system used, so when I was twelve, I was playing with other kids who were a year behind me in school but the same age during the baseball season.  You’d think that it would have occurred to me that this was the root of my problems, that the reason I played baseball so well was because, unlike school, I was with kids my own age. But that lightbulb never went on, even in the endless hours I spent trying to figure out why I didn’t fit in with my classmates.

My immaturity wasn’t limited to physical realms. I was emotionally immature as well, manifesting itself in behavior that ran from extremes of manic inappropriateness to near catatonic states of sullen brooding. All the standardized tests showed that I was well above average in intelligence, yet I was a terrible student, plagued by a short attention span that had I been born ten or twenty years later with would have likely led to chemical treatment.

I had two older brothers, six and four years ahead of me, who when I was growing up never seemed to have any problem fitting in.  I always looked up to them, and silently wondered why they were okay and I was such a mess.

At some point I became an unabashed sports fanatic, following the NFL and Major League Baseball and the NBA religiously. I loved playing them all in backyard or driveway games in the neighborhood.  My two best friends at the time were also classmates, Danny M, who was a truly gifted athlete, and Joey H., who was blessed with the gift of being movie-star handsome.

In sixth grade, we all tried out for the basketball team. Try outs were after school and finished on a Friday right before my birthday with a big scrimmage game.  I remember I didn’t play well in the scrimmage, so I wasn’t surprised on Monday morning when they posted the names of who’d made the team that Danny and Joey’s names were listed but mine was not.

But here’s the thing – after that disappointment, in a rare display of maturity, I started working my ass off, practicing my ball handling and shooting every night in my driveway, putting in literally hundreds of hours, so that the following year when try-outs came around, I was ready and confident. When they ended, on my birthday, the Friday night after the big scrimmage in which I scored eight points on four for five shooting and grabbed a couple of rebounds, I went home certain I’d made the team.  At home there was birthday cake and the gift of a brand new Spalding basketball waiting for me. And Danny and Joey came over and we all knew that the three of us had all made the team.

Late the following Monday morning, between second and third periods, and we’re all crowded around the bulletin board reading the sheet of paper with the typed names of who’d made the team. I quickly find Danny and Joey’s names. Soon the crowd disburses but I’m still there, looking for my name until I finally accept that it’s not there. When I do, I start crying. I try to stop myself but I can’t, and I’m late for the beginning of my next class, Science, my eyes red and puffy as I make my way to my seat.

Danny and Joey spend the rest of the day telling me how unfair it is, how I should have made the team, but, as sincere as I know they are, it doesn’t help.  I go home and shut myself in my room and brood, finally venturing out just before supper time. As I walk down the dark hallway I can hear my oldest brother, who for some unremembered reason I was fighting and not on speaking terms with at the time, in the living room, talking to my mom, when I heard him say:

“There’s no way Joey’s better than Dave.  No way.”

I stopped and quietly went back to my room. For some reason it felt important not to reveal that I’d heard what he said. I think it was because if he didn’t know I was listening, then he wasn’t saying it for my benefit, just to make me feel better. He’d really meant it, and that meant everything to me.