Friday, February 17, 2017

Random Thoughts 13

I was behind a vehicle yesterday with an official state license plate identifying the owner as a veteran. This, in and of itself, was not unusual as I have seen veteran plates before (often denoting the conflict they served in). However, instead of identifying the occupant as a participant in Desert Storm or Vietnam, it simply said “Honorably Discharged.”

I had always assumed that to receive a veteran’s license plate (and any well-deserved perks that come with it) one would have to have been honorably discharged. Since they have made a point to clarify this on the plate design, does this mean that there is a line of veteran car tags with phrases like “Still AWOL” or “Summarily Court-Martialed but Won on Appeal”? 


For the past several months, my son awakens into what we have dubbed his “Quasimodo” phase. He will run from his bedroom and loudly order everyone to “stop looking at me!” Ironically, were it not for this announcement, his emergence from his room would have gone unnoticed. I am working at compiling footage of this and pairing it with the chorus of Iris by The Goo Goo Dolls.


I was recently taught an important lesson on stereotyping. While in the mall with my son, he announced that he needed to use the restroom. We walked down the long corridor and entered the men’s room. Since the urinal was at NBA-draft height, we decided to wait for one of the two occupied stalls to open up. After a few moments, both doors opened simultaneously and I was faced with two young men whose dress, demeanor, and volume of tattoos above the Adam’s apple suggested an organizational affiliation with something other than the chess club.

Instinctively pulling my preschooler slightly closer, a number of scenarios ran through my mind: Were they dealing drugs? Were they concerned my son might turn state’s evidence and wish to silence him? Had there been an illicit exchange of human organs for a 2004 Pontiac Aztec?

So imagine my surprise when, having taken in the situation, both of their scowls gave way to smiles and they immediately began discussing which stall would be the cleanest for my son to use. Gentleman A advised me that his stall appeared to have some urine on and around the seat and inquired to Gentleman B about procuring a disposable seat cover for my son to use. They both lamented the lack of common courtesy in public restrooms and wished my son and I a pleasant day before thoroughly washing their hands and depositing the paper towels into trash. Lowlifes.


One Saturday morning, our home received an unsolicited visit from two elderly women representing a local Jehovah’s Witness congregation. I answered the door unshaven, disheveled, and flanked by my two young children. The lady closest to me asked if I was “babysitting for the owner” and had she not been so sweet I would’ve mentioned something about the kids already being there when I jimmied open the back door this morning.

They proceeded to tell me give me an Awake! pamphlet and read scripture from their copy. My son - visibly disappointed that the visitor was not wearing a UPS uniform and brandishing an Amazon box - rudely interrupted her scriptural recitation and asked if she had any toy magazines. I apologized and let her finish telling me that this issue featured articles on disease prevention and clownfish. I have to give them credit for branching out. If they had thrown in a few movie reviews and an expose on North Korea I might have asked for a subscription.


The last time I filled my tank with gas, a sign informed me that my fuel was infused with proprietary “marker molecules.” I love it when vague scientific terms are used for marketing. I have some more suggestions for meaningless fuel additives:
      ·         Swedish emulsification stabilizers
·         Ionic triangulation polymers
·         Viscosity purification enzymes
·         Adhesional displacement solvents
·         De-polarized gamma fractals 


Our local grocery store has implemented a system that allows you to place your order ahead of time and have an employee bring all of the items to your car and load them for you. They will usually come to your window, have you pay for the items, and inform you of any substitutions to your order (you wanted 2% Milk but all we had was Boone’s Farm).

Then they will ask you to pop your trunk so that they can load the items. They always seem to be nonchalant about anything they find back there that I really want to try to get a reaction from them by having a trunk full of boxes labeled “Anthrax Lozenges” or someone dressed in an Alf costume with their hands and feet bound. 

Sunday, January 29, 2017

God vs. Science

I have been on a science and physics kick lately, watching the entire rebooted Cosmos series and reading “The Big Picture” by Sean Carroll. I recommend both works as they are well-presented and challenging. They are both, decidedly, dismissive of theism. In some ways, I believe this is why it is important to expose myself to them. If I coddle my own faith by refusing to consider persuasive contrary evidence, it becomes a static heirloom rather than a living journey.  

Science has and continues to play an integral role in explaining the mechanism of our reality, but it becomes overextended when it attempts to make sense of why there is a reality at all (or why that reality found itself inhabited by beings capable of contemplating it). Please do not misunderstand me, I am not a young-Earth creationist and my belief in God is not predicated upon the acceptance of a 6,000 year-old planet. I do not believe that Darwin was the anti-Christ or that he proposed a framework incompatible with the idea of an omnipotent Creator. If my child becomes ill, I pray and take them to the pediatrician because I can find no compelling evidence that those are mutually-exclusive courses of action.

I have never understood the hostility between religion and science. For centuries, scientists and those who dared to challenge their society’s prevailing views concerning our physical world have been persecuted by religious authorities. When scientists had the audacity to claim we did not inhabit the center of the universe, we interpreted truth as apostasy. When dinosaur bones were discovered, many dismissed the idea as fraudulent since they were not mentioned in scripture and were not identified as passengers on Noah’s Ark. As science has methodically uncovered humanity’s role in affecting the way our planet operates, we reflexively push back against any suggestion that we have control over the creation we attribute to our God.

The frightening truth is that these reactions tell us far more about the strength of our faith than the influence of science. Does our God’s reputation suffer when a universe we attribute to Him is constantly being revealed as more complex than we dared imagine? Should I be troubled by the implication that complex emotions can be identified through the interactions of millions of intricately-woven neurons and synapses? Should I be ashamed that I would rather err on the side of caution than treat God’s creation with apathy?

Meanwhile, many scientists have dismissed faith in God as a philosophical crutch required to steady the weak-minded and the uneducated.     

At this point in history, the brightest minds in cosmology believe that there was a Big Bang and that in that exact moment there were equal amounts of matter and anti-matter. Despite this, matter – and over eons – consciousness prevailed to become what it is today. Logically-speaking, that shouldn’t have happened. What long-term survival value does conscience bring to the table for humanity? Why would a random collection of molecular material reacting to the forces outlined by scientific inquiry develop the ability to grieve, hate, and love? Why was their ever a single-celled organism to evolve from? Why do we allow ourselves to become so enamored with the architecture that we miss the architect?

This is commonly known as the fine-tuning theory. The idea is that there are so many variables that must interact in such a specific way in such a narrow window of time to produce life, that the most logical explanation is that there must be a greater intelligence behind it. In other words, complete happenstance is harder to prove than the existence of God.

If you hear an orchestra playing a symphony, you would logically assume the resulting sound is the product of skilled musicians reading from the same piece of music under the direction of a conductor. Is this the only possibility? No. It is also possible that an unrelated group of novices stumbled upon the same room full of instruments at the same time and all began independently emitting random noises which sound like Beethoven’s Fifth. But we can all agree that is far less likely.

At present, the scientific rebuttal for this line of thinking is the multiverse theory. It states that there are endless realities all occurring simultaneously and we just happen to inhabit the reality where the novices got lucky. After all, there are trillions of other realities where the non-musicians sound as discordant and awful as we would expect them to. Of course, we are no more likely to prove this than we are the divinity of Christ. Even more maddening is the possibility that the fundamental laws of physics we observe here might only exist here on not translate to an alternate reality.

Religion owes science a debt of gratitude. It was science that dared to suggest birth-defects and infertility could be genetic phenomenon rather than punishment by God. It is science that reminded us that tornadoes and hurricanes are the result of meteorological conditions rather than supernatural judgments. It is science that differentiated depression and bi-polar disorder from demonic possession. Science whispers in our ears each time we open a pediatric cancer research center instead of attributing the diagnosis to “God’s will” and giving up.

I believe the world we inhabit was designed and created by an architect. I believe that same architect is the reason humans and consciousness exist as they do today. I believe that architect cares about what happens to us and the creation we inhabit. I believe that the clearest view of that architect’s hopes and intentions for His creation can be seen through the words and actions of His son, Jesus Christ.         

I also believe that the clearest way to understand and appreciate the world of that architect is through the lens of science. I believe that God rejoices each time someone receives a life-saving vaccine or a smoke alarm prods a family to safety. I believe that His will is done when an amputee receives a bionic limb or contaminates are removed from a community’s drinking water. There are always going to be some points of contention between these worlds and I understand the difficulties in reconciling sacred texts with observed reality, but I believe there is far less dividing us than we think.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

An Ode to Toys R Us

My Dearest Toys R Us,

I want to personally thank you for inundating my children’s existence with television ads and Christmas toy catalogs featuring Toys R Us “exclusive” items that you lack either the will or infrastructure to actually make available to them. Case in point:

My three-year old son is a fan of the Disney Jr. series PJ Masks. Yes, I realize that the premise of three Kindergarteners utilizing the power of evening-wear to fight crime is absurd, but the heart wants what the heart wants. I digress. So between the multiple copies of the catalog we received at our home and the holiday activities he performed at school, he compiled a very important list that he showed Santa.

One of the items that made the Santa short list was the PJ Mask Headquarters Playset (Item #579374). Given that there were several big ticket items on Santa’s shortlist, St. Nick made an executive decision to provide The Lion Guard Training Lair Playset (Item #432302) instead. While this proved to be well-received, Chris Cringle had apparently not picked up on the subtle indications that the PJ Masks Headquarters was at the top of his holiday hierarchy. He expressed some disappointment on Christmas morning, but the whims of a three-year old are fickle.

Just as we had finished reinforcing the ideas of choosing to focus on all of the gifts we received rather than the select few that were omitted, there was an unexpected reprieve. His great-grandparents had sent a card with a generous amount of cash for him to spend. Immediately he latched onto the idea of taking this money and purchasing the PJ Mask Headquarters Playset (Item #579374) he had been pining for.

The next day we drove to our local Toys R Us, rushed to the PJ Masks section, and were disappointed to discover that the item was not in stock. Believing that there is no way that a pre-schooler would walk out of a toy store with money in their pocket, I asked him to look and see if there was anything else that he wanted. He browsed in earnest but finally came back to me and declared that he would rather wait for us to order it than get anything else.

“Don’t worry,” I consoled my son; this is a multinational corporation and I am sure we can have it shipped to the house in no time. So I opened the website on my phone, went to the item and selected Checkout. When I enter my zip code, I was told that they cannot send it to my home. Undeterred, I restarted the process and tried to select the “Ship-to-Store” option. This was also unavailable.

Somewhat miffed, I walked up to the customer service desk and spoke to an employee. I was informed that not only was the item not available to ship to my home or store, but that it could not even be shipped to a store within 100 miles of my location. They added that they were not sure if they would ever get the item back in.

When we got home, I opened the chat window on the Toys R Us website and explained my dilemma. I was told that what I experienced was a glitch and that I simply needed to call the customer service line and have an attendant place the order for me.  

After calling the provided number, I was connected with a female associate to whom I explained the chain of events that had led me up to that moment. Having been provided the part number, she took several minutes before informing me that the chat windows associate had been incorrect and that I could not get the item. Our conversation continued:

Me: So I cannot send it to my house and you will not send it to a store within four hours of my current location?

Her: As you can see on the website that item is not available for “Ship to Home” so you will need to select the “Ship to Store” option and chose a Toys R Us location that the item can be shipped to.

Me: The only store in my state that I can ship to is 5 hours away and already has it in stock so why would I want to ship it to store that already has it?

Her: I realize that it might be inconvenient….

Me: Across town is inconvenient, an 800-mile round-trip qualifies as a quest.

Her: Perhaps if you had a friend or relative in that town who could go to Toys R Us, buy the item for you, and pay to have it shipped to your home…

Me: Am I to understand that the official recommendation of Toys R Us customer service is for me to call up my second cousin and ask him to do me a solid by fronting me the $85 to purchase and ship one of your products?

Her: It was just a suggestion..

Me: Let’s start again. Let’s say that I want to hand your company $75 in exchange for an item that they sell. How do I go about doing that?

Her: Again, if you have a friend or relative…

Me: What about a transfer from another store?

Her: We can’t do that.

Me: Can you request one be sent to my store on the weekly shipment?

Her: Sir, I know it may seem odd, but as someone who has worked retail I can tell you that there is no way for us to control or predict what gets shipped to what store.

It was at this moment I began to suspect the inventory control system for Toys R Us was akin to the sorting hat in Harry Potter. I had a mental image of a dozens of warehouse workers standing around a forklift while a magical artifact declared “The Paw Patrol Action Figure Set will be awarded to……. Store 5876 in Bridgeport, West Virginia!!!!”

I made several other feeble attempts to procure the playset and aside from phone-a-relative the only other option I was given was to call the local store back and have them “leave a note” to call me if the enchanted delivery truck saw fit to bestow one upon my city.

Finally accepting defeat, I was able to locate one on Amazon at $30 above retail – probably sold by someone who lived in one of the zip codes favored by the sorting hat – but it was still cheaper than an overnight trip. So I swallowed my pride and ordered the item. I told my son that in two days he would be the proud owner of a PJ Masks Headquarters Playset (Item #579374).

So after two days, imagine my mild chagrin when I was informed that there was a delay in the shipping of my “Two-Day Prime Item” and instead of 2 days it would be two weeks. I cancelled that order, found another one at the same price, and it should be here tomorrow.

While writing this, just for funsies, I got on Toys R Us’s website and when I put in my zip code they offered to send it to my home and cover shipping costs. I am toying with the idea of ordering it from them, defecating in the box, and returning it for a refund……..

Monday, December 19, 2016

Toddlers and Bell Ringing

Last weekend, my wife had the idea for us to “ring the bell” for our local Salvation Army chapter. We also thought it would be a tangible way to teach our three year-old son about the meaning of Christmas. It was only a one-hour shift, so we felt certain that the allure of holiday service and charitable giving would keep his attention for sixty consecutive minutes. We were wrong.

We began by explaining to him that the objective was to solicit money for the red bucket by ringing the bell as people entered and exited the store. Situated between the two automatic sliding doors, there was very little space to maneuver. We had two bells between the three of us so naturally we gave one to him. His first strategy was to ring the bell at people in an accusatory manner while shouting “give money!”

Once we explained to him that we might need to scale back the armed robbery vibe, he warmed up to the idea of constantly ringing a bell while “holding” the automatic sliding door for people. He was so adorable that customers started handing him their donations to place into the bucket. While this was well-intentioned, it broke one of the cardinal rules of Salvation Army bell-ringing: never touch the product.

This parameter is important because it prevents any charges of financial impropriety by the bell ringers. It also prevents a situation where a preschooler is handed a wad of paper currency and takes it to be a gratuity for his service. The following scenario repeated several times:

1.  Customer hands child money, waits expectantly for adorable reminder of Christmas spirit

2.  Child frowns at crumpled bills in his hand and meticulously counts them while making no indication that he plans to do anything with the bills other than keep them.

3.  Parent plasters grin on their face while reminding child through clenched teeth that they need to put the money in the bucket “like we talked about”

4.  Child voices strong displeasure at parent’s suggestion, recounts money, mentions Toys R Us

5.  Customer’s grin fades slightly

6.  Parent stops ringing their bell and reaches for child’s hand to “assist” them in depositing the money.

7.  Child recoils / parent’s voice takes on a more threatening tone / customer is now visibly uncomfortable.

8.  Parent wrestles money away from child, deposits money, and thanks the customer over child’s loud protestations.

9.  Just as child calms down, someone else hands child a donation    

It was after this happened several times that I offered to place my son on my shoulders. This, I reasoned, would place him out of reach of most patrons and prevent a meltdown. The downside to this idea was that I was struck in the head several times by a metal bell and suffered some temporary hearing loss on my right side. Soon enough, the novelty of riding on shoulders wore off and he wanted to be posted at ground level again.

A few instances of bell-throwing and one unauthorized use of the store’s complimentary wheelchair later, our shift had ended. Perhaps we made a difference. I probably should have checked his pockets……