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For an UPDATE on this issue, scroll down to the section heading that reads UPDATE: September 9, 2010.

After an extended summer break, I’ve returned to the blogosphere with a story that has been burning up the airwaves … or whatever passes for them anymore. Pastor Terry Jones of Gainesville, Florida, has fallen into the media spotlight with his ultra-controversial plan to burn copies of the Koran on September 11 (and for the uninitiated, the Koran is Islam’s holy text, equivalent to Christianity’s Bible). This bonfire is set to take place on the grounds of his church, the Dove World Outreach Center, and he has encouraged the participation not only of his congregation but of any and all Christian persons. Now, this has raised two main issues: 1) does he have the right to burn a holy scripture, and 2) should it receive media coverage.

I say “yes” on both counts. First, the Amendments to the United States Constitution (the Bill of Rights) clearly allows the freedom of religion and freedom of speech. That includes religions you don’t agree with, like radical factions that preach intolerance and sow the seeds of hate. Likewise, the freedom to express oneself should be recognized. If protestors can burn the flag and I can rally a group to burn, say, L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology doctrine, then Jones should be allowed to burn Koran.
Second, I think this is a good topic for media coverage, when done properly, as it shows the ugly face of intolerance within our borders. Every nation and every religion has its extremists, its radicals, its zealots. I think it’s good to expose them for what they are, to publicize their inexcusable acts so that we can try to move forward, to progress away from narrow-minded bigotry and toward goals of common decency and respect.

Islam gets a lot of bad publicity but let’s not forget that Christianity has a long and sordid history of violence, prejudice, and intolerance despite the peaceful teachings of its prophet Jesus. Does that make every Christian violent, intolerant, prejudiced? Of course not. And not every Muslim is a terrorist. It’s ridiculous to think otherwise. And I think Jones’s plan is completely reprehensible. What would he say to a group of Muslims burning Bibles and denouncing the Christian faith as evil? I dare say he wouldn’t care for it. I think he is, at best, a misguided fool and, more likely, a religious zealot with more mouth than brains. That this pageant of prejudice is set to occur on the nine-year anniversary of the September 11 tragedy further illustrates his poor judgement. Instead of focusing on the people injured and killed, he wants to focus on those who perpetrated the attacks, a radical faction that preaches intolerance and sows the seeds of hate. Hmm, sounds familiar.

It’s obvious to me that Jones isn’t familiar with Islam. Nor am I, actually, but I’ve spoken with several Muslims and read part of the Koran (or Quran, as it’s often known) and not once was there mention of bombing people. It advocates spreading the word to others, of course, as religions generally do, but Islam is as peaceful a faith as Christianity. Perhaps moreso. At any rate, I think the best advice for Jones comes from the New Testament when Jesus says all the teachings of all the prophets boil down to two commandments: 1) love God. 2) love your fellow man. In taking those two things to heart, you cannot fail.

UPDATE: September 9, 2010
My local evening news reported that Pastor Jones has cancelled the Koran bonfire. I find that good news indeed. An ABC news article relates that the change in plans came after Jones spoke with Imam Abdel Rauf, the Muslim leader proposing a mosque and multi-faith religious center near Ground Zero in New York. They are due to meet Saturday, September 11th, in New York but Jones said the Imam has agreed to move the planned center elsewhere. The proposed mosque and cultural center has become a point of contention, with some saying a Muslim-based center should not be allowed so near the site of the Twin Tower tragedy. (Which I think is bollocks, but freedom of speech clearly allows them to say so.) Other sources do not agree that the Islamic center is being moved, and the ABC Evening News reported that the Imam had not yet even spoken with Jones. So we’ll have to wait for more information and clarification on that. But as long as there aren’t any organized book burnings this Saturday, I think it will be a step in the right direction.

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After suffering through seven endless games of the NBA finals, I have never been so glad to see a trophy handed out. I understand the idea behind the popularity of sports, the opportunity for people to transcend political differences and language barriers and, at times, the human condition itself. But it seems to me that sports has become far too like a religion. And I don’t see how people get so wrapped up in a silly game.

Yeah, I said it, a silly game. Football, hockey, bowling, golf, water polo – pick your sport – it’s all supposed to be for fun, for recreation and entertainment. Kobe Bryant is, in fact, not the patron saint of basketball (and God forbid there should ever be such a thing) but you wouldn’t know it from watching his flock. People do everything but bow to him and ask his blessing. Sports are taken way too seriously. They are, quite bluntly, an opiate. They are an escape, a diversion from everyday life in the same manner as movies and TV.

And yet when I watch sports, I am only reminded of the everyday. Rampant advertising aside, most players seem much more interested in their checks than their performance, more interested in their off-field frivolities than the nature of the game. Movies and television can at least bare incredible truths and tell great stories. Who hasn’t seen part of Casablanca or been touched by the evening news? But what great truths do sports reveal? That people with money can do as they please? That people are replaceable, can be sold to the highest bidder, or, once past their peak, are no longer of value? That’s not a very nice legacy. Granted, there were amazing feats in the early days of organized sports in the U.S., from men like Babe Ruth and Roy Campanella, Jim Thorpe and Bronko Nagurski. But those days are long gone. And what remains? A tired, cheap display built on fabulously overpaid athletes of only mediocre talent.

I can almost hear the cries of blasphemy at those words. But who among all our major sports will be remembered in seventy or eighty years? What new, worthy show of goodness, or even of human endurance, have they brought to the world? It’s not even fun to watch anymore. A game that was supposed to last a little more than an hour now takes three to five, to make room for commercials and time-outs and fouls and a lot of nancying about without any real purpose. Most of the games have no real consequence, and the players are as uninterested and uninvested as high school seniors with spring fever.

What fun is that? What good is that? And contrary to popular belief, being six-foot-three and 350 pounds doesn’t automatically make you a good linebacker. Being seven feet shouldn’t bring NBA agents busting down your door. Those things have nothing to do with talent or determination or heart. And that’s what sports are really supposed to be about. Until those things work their way back into sports, count me out.

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As promised, a bit of eye-candy to hold you over until I get the “feature” post finished. (I’m shooting for Monday.)

O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.
The crows above the forest call;
Tomorrow they may form and go.
O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow,
Make the day seem to us less brief.
Hearts not averse to being beguiled,
Beguile us in the way you know;
Release one leaf at break of day;
At noon release another leaf;
One from our trees, one far away;
Retard the sun with gentle mist;
Enchant the land with amethyst.
Slow, slow!
For the grapes’ sake, if they were all,
Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,
Whose clustered fruit must else be lost–
For the grapes’ sake along the wall.

– Robert Frost

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I believe agriculture has failed us. Or, more aptly, that we, as a species, have failed the practice of agriculture.

I picked up a few melons from a farm stand. It being summer, and having a penchant for melon-meat anyway, I could not resist the lovely array of melons the stand offered. I picked a quintessential seasonal trio of watermelon, cantaloupe, and honeydew, each which I was assure was “ready to cut and eat” as early as that very evening. They looked wonderful. They smelled wonderful. I could hardly wait to dig into the soft flesh and find out whether they also tasted wonderful.

Long story short, they didn’t. Not one of them. Even after picking the ripest of the lot, the only one actually “ready to cut and eat” was the watermelon, which turned out to be very juicy (a good thing) but almost flavorless (not a good thing). But watermelon is finicky, I understand, and depends a great deal on both rainfall and soils (similar to the grapes of vineyards, I suppose, which is how some connoisseurs can hone in on what region produced a wine from a single taste). So okay, no harm no foul, on to the next melon.

The cantaloupe aged three days before I cut it, even though it already had a large soft spot on one side (which allowed me to get it for a fraction of the asking price). Again, after picking through the lot and going with the ripest one, it simply wasn’t ready. But after waiting as long as I dared, I cut it with a watering mouth and eager taste-buds, ready for that sweet soft orange flesh to practically melt on my tongue. The first sign that my plans were going awry came when the melon fell in two halves and I stared at its white innards. White, not orange, like every other cantaloupe I had ever cut that was even remotely near ripeness. Uh-oh. It wasn’t soured (my primary fear from that large soft spot on the side) but was, again, almost flavorless. The hue of the heart deepened to a pale peachy color and tasted as though someone had lightly drizzled it with the juice of an actual ripe cantaloupe … and the rest was bland. Not sweet, not sour, not bitter, nothing. And the meat itself was actually tough. For the first time in my life, I fought to scoop bites of it out with a spoon. “Well,” I reasoned, “the farm also grows gourds so maybe this one accidentally crossed with one of them.” I try to play devil’s advocate, but it was disappointing. Ah, but the honeydew still awaited. I love a good sweet honeydew and I thought if it were a fraction as good as it should be, all would be forgiven.

I waited 10 days on the poor honeydew and it never did ripen. Ten days! But it, too, was developing soft spots so I reluctantly cut it and discovered … a multi-color melon. The green around the rind was still three-quarters of an inch thick (which I take to mean it would actually have needed another week or two to fully “ripen”), and that layer was topped with light orange region comparable to – guess what – cantaloupe. The third layer, the heart, was indeed the pale greenish-white expected of a honeydew. And the flavor was non-existent. Half a dozen bites of the heart had a faint trace of something like honeydew and cantaloupe mixed and the rest was simply wet. And tough. So tough I eventually gave in and used a knife to carve the meat up. I was disgusted and ate only one slice; the rest was cut and thrown to mulch.

You can say it was just one farm, just one stand and a bad year and maybe all kinds of produce were cross-pollinating … but I don’t believe it. I haven’t had a good melon from grocery stores in years and roadside stands are hit-and-miss at best. I had hoped a farm stand, from a commercial farm, operating only a few scant miles from the farm itself, open daily, would have melons picked within a few days of being full ripe. Silly me. Why pick them ripe when you can gather them green and let them lay about for weeks on end while endless streams of gullible customers file by?

But more than that is the meat. Granted, the toughness of those latter two melons was unprecedented, but ignoring all that for the moment … where is the sweetness? Melon is a fruit, a sugar-laden fruit at that, and should taste so. It’s called a honeydew because the flesh is supposed to be sweet as, you guessed it, HONEY! What in god’s name have these melons been crossed with and genetically modified by that they can barely be eaten, let alone enjoyed?

I was never a great gardener, by any means, and can in fact unintentionally kill just about any plant known to man, but even I grew better melons than that from volunteer sprouts that came up at the edge of our garden for years. They weren’t great melons but they were good. And sweet. And we enjoyed eating them. And I know if I can (unintentionally) do it from the seeds of store-boughten cantaloupes past, these large commercial farms should have no problem at all producing a worthwhile melon. I realize that the produce needs to be picked green enough to withstand shipping and then lay on display in a store for days for potential customers to browse … but come on. Seriously. This is getting ridiculous.

When I go to the store, the tomatoes are hard and generally pink at best and subsequently all but tasteless. The apples can sit on the counter for weeks and still be bitter when you bite into them. The bananas are so green I’m afraid I’ll die of old age before they ripen. Why are third-world countries eating better produce than we are?

I have fresh-grown tomatoes in the refrigerator, right alongside my fresh-grown onions, and I’ve decided that next year I’m growing my own melons, come hell or high water. And then if they turn out gourd-tough and dirt-bland at least I’ll have tried.

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I’m going to come right out and admit that I was an avid fan of Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. (I won’t feel too bad if you’ve never heard of them; it’s been roughly a decade and a half since they first appeared on our small TV screen late one night and the niche they fit was fairly limited.) I had tuned in to watch the requisite Star Trek episode that aired every Saturday night when, suddenly, it had been replaced by a yodeling woman in armor and a strong man in leather. I was intrigued. And, hey, there were pretty people in every other shot, so what was there to lose?

To back up a bit, I’m not exactly the nerd that first paragraph may portray me as. Yeah, I watched the mythical shows, and before that I was a Star Trek watcher of old … but I was never a trekkie (or trekker, whatever the difference is supposed to be), never played Dungeons & Dragons, and never felt the urge to dress up like the characters from TV. It just so happened that I cut my teeth on the original Star Trek (a la Kirk and Spock) which aired as re-runs late at night every weekend I can remember right up into the 1990’s. At some point it switched over to mostly Next Generation series re-runs, but it had long since become customary to stay up Saturday night and check out the adventures, whether I had seen them a dozen times before or not. And then in the fall of 1995, a new show appeared. Two new shows, really, and I met Herc and Xena for the first time. It was love at first viewing.

I blame Spiderman for all this. The old Saturday morning cartoons of our great hero Spidey were crude, cheesy, predictable, repetitive, and almost plotless. And, of course, I loved them dearly. I think it’s important for children to have heroes, even fake ones. Perhaps especially fake ones, because real heroes are just people, with real problems and shortcomings and flaws, and children rarely elevate a real person to true “Hero” status. But a cartoon character, a comic book sensation … they are already Heroes to begin with (the narrator says so, and the narrator wouldn’t lie), and children accept them unequivocally as such. These Heroes are constant companions, wellsprings of goodness and morality to help steer a child down the right path. Spiderman never killed. He never punished. He never lost his temper or gave in to temptation or compromised his ideals … not my good ole Saturday morning Spidey. He took dangerous people off the streets, saved innocent bystanders, and brought criminals to justice. He was a Hero. How could you not love him?

Herc and Xena hit the same sweet spot, but for a somewhat older and slightly more mature audience. While Herc was very much like Spiderman (except that he did occasionally lose his temper and often dealt out non-lethal punishments), Xena’s was a classic tale of redemption, of the sometimes daily battle to be the better person we all know we can be. If the shows also happened to be partially crude, cheesy, predictable, repetitive, or almost plotless in places, it didn’t really matter. The better points always shone through. Both shows also strongly encouraged fighting the good fight and putting the greater good before your own wants and needs. But perhaps more than anything else they stressed the power of friendship. Hercules and Iolaus, Xena and Gabrielle. Their relationships weren’t perfect and they sometimes quarreled, but when push came to shove they always backed one another up. That was the very heart of the shows; the rest was just entertainment. Like watching Spidey swing on his webs from skyscraper to skyscraper. It’s the main reason I kept watching. They pushed good morals and were imperfect heroes I could almost believe in.

And now I want more. I want another hero I can put some faith in, someone who’ll meet me every week and remind me to fight the good fight, to keep my nose clean and stay out of trouble and consider the consequences of my choices.

And to never ever give up hope. That’s the biggie. That’s what Superman, Mighty Mouse, Batman and Robin, and all those other heroes were really selling, hope. And really, I sometimes think that’s what we all need.

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As you probably heard, Michael Jackson died yesterday. The proclaimed “King of Pop” suffered a cardiac arrest and could not be revived. Flowers and memorials crowd the Hollywood Walk of Fame near his star and headlines around the world pay him tribute.

But why all the fuss? I liked Thriller, too, but let’s face it, Michael Jackson was a mess. The biggest surprise, for me, was that he didn’t die on an operating table getting yet another cosmetic surgery of some kind. For the last decade or so he’s looked like death warmed over and, I don’t care what his fans say, there was something inherently wrong with him.

I never wished him harm, and certainly never wished him dead, but I honestly don’t think it’s that great of a loss. He recorded some good songs and… Well that’s really all I can come up with on the “pro” side of things. As for the “con” side, well, that’s a little easier, isn’t it? He was so emotionally and psychologically unstable that he bleached his skin, had numerous cosmetic surgeries on his lips and face, and changed his nose more than a Mr. Potato Head toy. He was implicated in molestation cases, endangered his own son by dangling him over a balcony railing, and perhaps worst of all, married Lisa Marie Presley.

If not for his singing career, if he were just a “normal” man wandering the streets of say Topeka, Kansas, he would likely have been institutionalized. I’m sure a lot of people called him a freak, a pedophile, maybe even an abomination … but whatever your thoughts, it is clear that he had serious issues. And it was perhaps his very stardom that kept him from getting the medical treatment he needed. He was too accepted, too revered, his sometimes grotesque eccentricities too quickly disregarded. The news reported that Michael Jackson had recently passed a thorough physical in preparation for his planned tour, but when was the last time he passed a thorough rundown with an objective psychiatrist? When did he last speak with a psychologist or therapist who wasn’t star-struck or paid to not make waves? Never, I would venture. I don’t think he could have spoken truthfully to any decent medical professional in the last thirty years and not been hospitalized or committed.

And now he’s dead. His heart stopped. And, you know, it’s probably better for him that the CPR didn’t work, that the hospital couldn’t revive him. He’s been killing himself for years anyway. If anything, it’s probably overdue. But maybe wherever he ends up will finally satisfy him, comfort him, and he’ll find peace without screaming crowds and flashing cameras.

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How about some photos to easy the wearied mind? Courtesy of Flickr, a bit of respite.

Happy Valentine’s day.

1. No limit for the frost
2. details
3. how, why, when, where?
4. Why I Write
5. Why me?
6. Day 97: Why?
7. Why if?…
8. Why?
9. Why am I here?

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