Sunday, June 24, 2007

Fiction: "Suicide Bomber Training Camp"

Somewhere in the western desert of Saudi Arabia, a group of several dozen Sunni Muslims are preparing for their graduation from suicide bomber camp.

“Oh, this is surely a great day for me and my wonderful family,” said Ahmed, one of the soon-to-be-graduates. “My mom, my dad, and all of my 13 or 14 brothers are in attendance today.”

“My family is here, also,” replied Muhammad. “It’s so exciting.”

“Where is Aasim,” inquired Ahmed. “I haven’t seen him since our last rehearsal. I hope he didn’t blow himself up prematurely.”

“Don’t be silly, my friend. Aasim is over there with his family. They haven’t seen each other since his little sister was circumcised last month,” answered Muhammad.

“I hope her infection is better,” replied Ahmed, as he motioned for Aasim to come join them.

“Aasim, my brother! Are you looking forward to this evening’s ceremonious event?” Ahmed asked.

“Oh, indeed I am,” Aasim replied with glee. “Even my little sister is here to show her support, despite still being in some pain down in her private area.”

“Just why do some of our Arab sisters have to be circumcised and have their vaginas sewn shut?” asked Muhammad.

“You know. It’s so they will remain chaste until such time as they are married,” answered Aasim. “Then, their husbands not only get to snip the thread that binds their orifice of pleasure, they also get to remove the veil and finally see what they’re getting.”

Muhammad looked pensive, then said, “But we, my friends, we will never pick a wife. We will be blessed with something much better than an earthly spouse to do our bidding. Allah will grant us the privilege of 73 virgins (or is it 72?), once we carry out our duties here on Earth.”

“I thought it was 84,” Ahmed said, sort of half under his breath. “But 72 is good.”

“Have you finished your valedictory speech, my friend,” Muhammad asked Aasim.

“Oh yes; I finished it up this morning. But I’m not sure about a couple of passages. What do you think?” Aasim scanned through his hand-scribbled speech to find the right paragraph.

“Let’s see…. Dear friends, family members, and fellow terrorists…. Ah, here we are.” Aasim pointed at his paper.

“How does this sound?” he asked his two friends as he read the passage. “This is a truly great day for me, my family, and for Islam. Our cause now has 89 new recruits to fight in the name of Allah, and to die as martyrs. All of us are so looking forward to a life of privilege, though be it a short one, and to our virgins after we ascend. I, for one, am so excited I could explode.”

“Sounds good to me,” said Ahmed.

“Me too. I wouldn’t change a thing,” added Muhammad. “But….”

“But what?” asked Aasim, looking a little worried. “Was it too pointed?”

“No, no Aasim. It was great. I was just thinking, when you mentioned you’re looking forward to your 84 virgins….”

“72,” interrupted Aasim.

“Whatever. …your 72 virgins, I was just thinking; Why do we have to kill ourselves to get virgins. ALL of our unmarried women are virgins. And since we have dominion over them, why can’t we have them here?”

“Well, my brother Muhammad, our virgins have their vaginas sewn shut, remember? And besides, you never know what’s under those burqas,” answered Aasim.

“You are quite right, my friend,” added Ahmed.

About that time the camp general came around the corner of the tent where the boys were talking. He wanted to give them some final encouragement, and their assignments that were to be carried out after graduation.

“My boys!” exclaimed the general.

“General Abdul! It’s so pleasureful for us that you dropped by,” Aasim greeted. “And how are you getting along with Simon?”

The general looked a little embarrassed and then cleared his throat. “I just wanted to give all my favorite students some final encouragement. I also have an important assignment for you, Ahmed.”

“Really, already? That’s…,” Ahmed paused. “…wonderful, sir.”

“We want you to blow up an embassy for us in Northern Ireland,” explained the general.

“Northern Ireland, of all places, uh, sir?” asked Ahmed.

“You just leave the why to me. You just take care of business and those virgins will be yours for all eternity my young hero.”

“I just don’t want there to be any misconception as to who caused the incident,” Ahmed said. “After all, there have been lots of bombings in Northern Ireland anyway. It’s one Christian faction against another.”

“That’s true,” replied the general. “I don’t understand it. If they’re both Christians, why would they fight each other? You won’t find Muslims doing that. Well, except for those damn Shiites.”

“But don’t worry,” he continued. “Allah will know it was you.”

“Is it ok if my good friends Muhammad and Aasim come with?” inquired Ahmed.

“Say what?” inquired Aasim.

“You want to take them with you?” barked the general. “It only takes one driver to drive a car bomb into a building. Why should we waste three good trainees when only one will do? Suicide bombers don’t grow on trees. They’re not a dime a dinar!”

“With all due respect, sir, there are 89 graduates just tonight, and we’re a small group. I don’t think you’ll run out of recruits too soon,” replied Ahmed.

“Well….”, thought the general.

“Besides, I could really use the moral support since this is my first suicide bombing.”

“Well, alright then. All of you!” So the general acquiesced.

“Now, Aasim, are you ready to knock ‘em dead with that valedictory speech of yours?”

“In the name of Allah, you bet I am sir!”

The general walked onto the stage as the boys got in line for the processional.

“Thanks a lot you camel jockey,” spouted Aasim. “I was looking forward to a comfortable life in the United States, training to be a pilot. You cut that dream short.”

“Why the United States?” inquired Muhammad. “It’s so, so capitalistic.”

“Because, it is where the Great Satan lives, W. Bush, along with his spiritual advisor, Pat Robertson. Besides, everyone knows that country was founded on Christianity!”, answered Aasim.

“Sorry to spoil your plans, my friend,” said Ahmed. “But it’ll be fun killing ourselves together; just wait.”

“Yeah, right,” moaned Aasim.

Something to Shoot Fireworks About

Summer’s only real holiday, Independence Day, the Fourth of July, is quickly approaching. Unlike Christmas and Thanksgiving and more like New Year’s Eve and St. Patrick’s Day, July fourth is less about family closeness and more about celebrations and festivals. But it is also the time of year when family vacations are in full swing.

As a kid, the Fourth of July meant one thing to me: fireworks. Back then, the town’s fireworks display took place at Irwin Park. There were a few more ground displays than I’ve seen lately, but generally, the air show was less than spectacular with sometimes 10 or 20 seconds elapsing between explosions.

Although still less spectacular than what you might see at a larger venue, recent fireworks displays at the athletic complex have been much better than those of earlier years. Although, as then, I still worry about being struck by a stray bottle rocket or firecracker.

I’ve had the opportunity to witness other fireworks displays over the years. One of my favorites has always been the display shot off one of the bank buildings in downtown Indianapolis. And, for a number of years, the outlet mall south of town was the site of a very exciting presentation. It was synchronized with music from a Columbus radio station.

A similar display takes place in Indianapolis at White River State Park, but not on July fourth. It marks the end of summer and is also set to music. It more than rivals the bank tower display.

When I was a teenager, we took a vacation to Mackinaw City, Michigan. There, I got to see a small-town display at Saint Ignace, across the Straights of Mackinac from our campground. The fireworks were shot off at the north end of the famous Mackinac Bridge.

Fireworks displays are more impressive these days compared to those of my childhood not just because of the shear number of rockets that are launched into the sky, but because the individual fireworks are more beautiful. In the old days, there were just different color sparks in the air. Occasionally, one would take the shape of a flower or umbrella.

These days, however, there are hearts, rings, arrows, and those that have individual sparks that twinkle in unison. And unlike the days when volunteers had to light each rocket individually with a torch, most of today’s presentations are computer controlled. Yes, high technology has even encroached upon the fireworks industry. And it makes for much more beautiful, and safer, programs.

July fourth is more than about fireworks, however. It is, after all, Independence Day. The fireworks are not only celebratory, they commemorate the bomb blasts that were unfortunately necessary in order for this country to gain, and maintain, its independence.

In the early days of the country, we didn’t get much global respect. But the more battles we fought and won the more respect we garnered. It’s too bad, but military might is often a measure of how worthy a country is.

That only goes so far, however. Sometimes military might in the absence of a real threat turns a powerful, respected nation into a bully. That seems to be what has happened to the United States, thanks primarily to our current president.

Thankfully, the days of the present administration are growing short. The dim-witted, self-righteous, poor excuse for a leader that has plagued this country for the past seven years will turn the helm over to someone who is far more competent. Whoever it is, democrat or republican, man or woman, white or black, he or she will be much more competent than the lame duck currently in office.

We will then have even a better reason to shoot fireworks.

Monday, June 18, 2007

How I Lost My Religion

When I was a kid, Mom forced me to go to Sunday school most of the time. I hated it, but I didn’t have much choice in the matter, no matter how much I protested.

Later, when I was 11 or 12, I went to Sunday school on my own, at a different church. It was less than a block away, so I could walk. And all my friends went there. It was fun, because we got to play games and sing fun songs.

I can’t say I learned too much about God or religion in general, but I did give it a try. When my Sunday school teacher was praising the wonders of God’s creation I asked her who created God. She couldn’t answer that. Neither could anyone after her.

I was an inquisitive little preteen. I asked all sorts of questions about the bible that troubled me: How did Noah get all those animals on one boat, especially those like penguins and polar bears that come from opposite ends of the earth? Why would God put an apple tree in the Garden of Eden and then tell Adam not to eat any apples under pain of death?

But despite my inquiries, I believed in God and in Jesus Christ, because I figured my preacher and Sunday school teachers were all smarter than I. I may have been wrong.

The preacher at my little neighborhood church warned all us kids that when we got into high school, they would try to teach us that humans evolved from apes. “Don’t believe it,” he warned us.

Then, a couple of weeks later, my Christian grandmother and my mom were having a discussion about what sort of people had populated the Land of Nod, where one of Adam and Eve’s sons moved to find a wife. God had created Adam and Eve, but the bible didn’t say anything about His creating other populated cities. It was always assumed by my family that Adam and Eve sired the whole human race.

Grandma speculated aloud that perhaps the residents of Nod had evolved from monkeys. I corrected her, because of what my preacher had told me earlier.

But as time went on and I grew into a man, I still believed in God, but religion became less important to me. I didn’t attend church anymore, but I still called myself a Christian when asked.

Later, after my father died, I started attending again. For 10 years straight I hardly missed a Sunday. I went to other church functions, too. I was baptized. And I generally enjoyed myself. But as I look back, I can now admit I enjoyed going to church for the wrong reasons. I enjoyed the building, the people, the social hour, the food, even some of the hymns we sang.

But, try as I might, I didn’t really feel all that religious. After I was baptized, all I felt was wet. Something was still missing.

I have come to the realization that what was missing was never there in the first place. I have discovered the bible is chock full of obvious contradictions and errors. And I finally realized that the only reason people know that the bible is the word of God is because the bible says it is. It is the epitome of circular reasoning.

I realize that if God wanted us to have a religion, he would pick one for us and make sure we all knew which one it was. Simply quoting the bible is not sufficient, because if it were, there would not be so many denominations of Christians. The Koran is no different for Muslims. The Torah is no different for Jews.

But that’s not to put down anyone who lives by their religion as long as they don’t use it to harm others. Some do, but the list is far too long to enumerate all the ways religion can harm things in this column. I’ll only mention one way: Pat Robertson.

As for me, I’ll pick reason and logic to live by. If God is the creator of the universal laws of nature, then he is nothing if not reasonable and logical.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

A Trip to the Zoo Disappoints

When I was a kid, my folks took me to Cincinnati to see the zoo there. I don’t remember too much about it because I was quite young, maybe 6 or 7. But I do remember they had trash cans shaped like hippos that sucked in the garbage with vacuums in their mouths. I thought it was cool.

I remember monkeys and other animals in cages, as though they were in jail. It was hard to see most of them and many of the animals were not active. It also stank.

When I became a parent, I took my two kids to the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago a couple of times. It was a nice experience, except that almost everything cost extra. We had to pay more to see the dolphin show, which we passed up. We had to pay more for the petting zoo. The same was true for the St. Louis Zoo, but it was at least free to get in the gate.

At the time, the zoo in Indianapolis was called the Indianapolis Children’s Zoo and it was located on the east side of town. It made for a good visit, but they were a bit deficient on animals. Again most of them were behind bars, but at least they were smaller bars so you could see the animals better.

When the new Indianapolis Zoo opened in the mid-1980s I was excited. Although I didn’t live in the area then, I visited every summer and the zoo was a great place to take my kids. So was the Children’s Museum.

The Children’s Museum added on a planetarium and a CineDome theater that surrounded the audience with the movie. They were awesome treats for the kids and for their parents. The CineDome is, sadly, no longer there.

Since then, the Indianapolis Zoo has added some new animals and exhibits. When I first attended, neither the dolphin pavilion nor the dessert biome was complete. Now, they have a nice walk-under display at the dolphin pavilion. And most recently, they have remodeled the old Waters building, now calling it the Oceans building.

I recently visited for the first time since the improvements. I took my daughter, who is no longer a kid. But I was eager to see the Oceans display.

The Indianapolis Zoo has much better animal exhibits than the zoos I remember as a child or even as I remember at Chicago. Although the St. Louis Zoo and the Brookfield Zoo may be larger and have more animals, the Indianapolis Zoo is somewhat unique in the way it chooses to display its animals. They are separated into biomes, which are large areas of the planet with similar climate characteristics, such as grasslands, rain forests, desserts, and deciduous forests.

Unfortunately, I was a little disappointed during my last visit. The Oceans building was nice, but it wasn’t much different from the old Waters building. The big difference was that the Amazon Rain Forest exhibit has been replaced with a dogfish shark display that allows visitors to pet the small sharks.

It’s fun for the kids, I guess, but I miss the Amazon display. And I was expecting that, since they were remodeling, they would include one of those walk-through ocean aquariums where the fish are swimming all around you. But they didn’t have that.

At $13.50 a pop, and typically a full parking lot, one might expect continuous additions and improvements. But since the 1980s, not much has changed. The horse-drawn tram is gone; that was a nice ride. They’ve added a carousel and a couple of other kiddy rides that cost extra, but nothing stands out as spectacular.

But it’s not tax supported, like the St. Louis Zoo, and it is much better than it was before it moved to White River State Park. And I believe they are planning to add some larger primates in the near future.

But at this stage, one visit every couple of years is enough. Even then, each visit is pretty much like the last one.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Writing without Technology

In one of my columns last month, about how modern technology has made it so much easier to figure out who that actor is or who sang that familiar song, I ended by lamenting that I didn’t have access to the same technology when I was writing my high school research paper.

It was my senior English class. I think now they refer to English classes as language arts, but they still involve a lot of reading and a lot of writing.

That’s the part I hated most about English class, the reading. I didn’t mind the writing so much, but I hated reading. That’s probably why I flunked freshman English and had to re-take it. I had the grade; I just failed to do a required book report. Looking back, it was a pretty bad trade-off, despite the fact that I got an A on the repeat.

Anyway, back to senior English. My teacher was Mrs. Houston. She was stern and proper. And the last thing she wanted anyone to think of her as was colloquial. Her syntax was impeccable, as was her vocabulary.

I actually liked the lady. She influenced me more than I probably gave her credit for at the time, especially the time she flunked me on a test that I actually got an A on if she had graded it properly. Although I had all the answers correct, I didn’t follow the instructions to the letter, so she counted all the matching questions wrong.

Senior English is the class in which all the students must write a, gulp, major research paper. This was no mere book report. It didn’t involve the reading of one single novel or short story. No, I had to actually do research by reading several sources and writing down all I had learned on note cards before compiling them into a coherent paper of at least 1,200 words.

The good news was that I got to pick my topic. I didn’t have to write about one of those stupid classic novels like Moby Dick or Huckleberry Finn. I got to write about what I liked. And back then, as now, what I liked was technology.

In those days technology was a fledgling industry. It was in the days before electronic calculators, and long before desktop computers. It was a time when I was amazed at the electric business machines in the typing lab. One could even do complicated division problems, and it only took a few seconds to divide one number by another.

Anyway, I didn’t take business class; I took typing. I learned on a manual typewriter. I hated it, but I’m glad I took the class. It makes writing these columns go much faster, except for the moments when my brain can’t keep up with my fingers.

And it made writing that research paper much easier, since Mrs. Houston required all final drafts to be typed.

The technology that was in vogue at that time was manned space exploration. It had only been a year or so since the first manned moon landing, and I was still awestruck over the event. So my research paper turned out to be a fun read. I don’t mind reading if the subject is interesting and relevant to me.

So I read lots of magazine articles and books on manned space flight and did my research paper on the history of the Apollo space program to date. It seemed much easier than I though it would be. The note cards piled up and the order they were to go in seemed intuitive. Since I was writing a historical account, chronological order seemed appropriate.

So I got out that old Remington typewriter that I had found in the throw-away bin at the old Edinburgh Daily Courier office and I wrote my 1,200 words, and maybe a few extra just for insurance.

It was a beautiful, marvelous work, at least in my own mind. I read it over and over, making sure there were no stupid errors in syntax or spelling. Obviously, my old Remington didn’t have spell checking.

I got a C from Mrs. Houston. I had expected an A, or at least a B+. But I got a C. When I asked her why, she replied that it was hard for her to read because the letters were blurry and that I should be happy I got a C. She told me next time to clean the keys.