Ragged Clown

It's just a shadow you're seeing that he's chasing…


Nov
16
2013

Moral Instincts Don’t Scale

Excellent idea that I never thought of before…

The first half of this bloggingheads video is about Paul Bloom experiments showing how very young babies have a well-developed moral sense. In the second half of the video, Paul & Bob discuss how well our moral instincts and emotions like justice, anger and empathy work in our everyday lives but how badly they scale up to interactions between nations.

Nov
7
2013

No Apologies

I’ve developed a habit in recent years of getting so excited after reading the first few chapters of a book that I want to write a provisional review before I even really know what it’s about.

Two chapters into Unapolagetic, I was shouting yes! yes! yes! and couldn’t wait to capture my agreement in digital ink. I even, for the first time ever, used the highlight feature on my kindle so that I could accurately report all the many, many points that resonated with my own experience.

On one point in particular Spufford was singing my life with his words. When he described that transcendental moment when I meditate on the immensity of eternity – Spufford calls it ‘praying’ but, whatever – and I experience a little shimmer in the corner of my mind’s eye and suddenly everything makes sense and the whole universe lines up for my inspection and appreciation….  I didn’t know that other people experienced it too. I thought that was just me and I had no idea that some people called that shimmer ‘God’.

Seeing my secret thoughts in pixels, I was tremendously excited to document my assent to Spufford’s project which, as I understood it from tentatively supportive reviews by a couple of Christian bloggers that I follow, was to describe Christianity’s benefits in words that a non-Christian could identify with. I could get behind that project.

Real-life intervened though and the reviewable moment was lost. An emergency dash down to Santa Barbara later and the blogging window slammed shut. As I ploughed on through the next chapter on theodicy all my admiration fell away.

Spufford concedes that the problem of evil  is not a problem for atheists. It’s only a problem if you believe in one very specific kind of God: that is, a God who loves the world and is in full control of all the outcomes. There is no problem of evil if your God doesn’t care about children with cancer. Without love, there is no problem to be solved.

Likewise, there’s no problem with a God who cares an awful lot about you but is powerless to do much about it. That God would be lame and not much worthy of all the cathedrals that get built for him and he’d create all kinds of problems for his marketing department but he wouldn’t create any particular challenges for philosophers.

Since the God that Spufford worships is allegedly both omnipotent and benevolent, the problem of evil is a big problem indeed and Spufford absolutely demolishes all the usual excuses for why God allows evil to happen to good people. Let’s just say that if Spufford were in God’s marketing department, God would’ve fired him by now. Spufford works in mysterious ways.

I just went back to my Kindle to read over all the sections that I highlighted back when I thought  this was a great book. Spufford really is an astoundingly good writer. He wasn’t just singing my life; he was strumming my secret pain in ways that make me wonder if he isn’t in league with the NSA. I really want his project to succeed but chapters three and four make me despair for the whole liberal Christian project, cuddly new popes notwithstanding.

I’ll report back if I learn anything new.

 

Oct
24
2013

The Priest with the Cold Hands

When Rita was in intensive care there was a moment where it seemed like it was all over and her mother told me to go find the priest.

I went down to the chapel and there was an old, old priest in there. As old as Methuselah. I was frantic and I couldn’t get the words out.

That old priest held both of my hands in his and the words he spoke were like the wisdom of the ages. They slowed the whole world down and we all made it through another day.

Oct
22
2013

It’s all good

lesmisI saw Les Misérables on stage with my wife-to-be on one of our first dates and read the book soon after. I watched it again last night with my daughter after a twenty-something-year gap and I think I spotted something new about the story that I have not heard mentioned before. I even went to check the SparkNotes to see if this was some obvious theme that only I was missing but… nope. No one else noticed it but me.

When anyone mentions Les Mis, there are a few themes that immediately pop into your mind: it’s very long and tedious; it’s sentimental kitsch; the songs are awful; the story is an entirely predictable tale of redemption for Jean Valjean; the scene on the barricades is totally unnecessary and out of place.

All those things are true but I think there is something quite profound about how the characters interact with each other. All of the characters (*with one possible exception below!) are very moral according to their own particular version of morality. Of course, since it’s a liberal play/book/movie, all the ‘good guys’ subscribe to liberal conceptions of morality: everyone deserves a chance; kindness will be repaid; poor people commit crimes out of necessity.

But if that was all there was to the story, it would be a very shallow fable about a very liberal morality — we all get to cry for Fontine and boo at Javert — but I suspect that there might be more to it. We have all been missing something quite shocking.

Everyone in Les Mis behaves quite morally—according to their own understanding of right and wrong. Even the baddies.

Jean Valjean gets off to a bad start but learns the power of love and earns his redemption many times over.

The priest believes that everyone deserves a chance and gives Valjean his at great cost to himself.

Fantine gives up every sliver of self-respect to keep her daughter alive.

Javert believes in the Rule of Law above all and it matters not at all to paladin-types like Javert that Valjean has done good in his life. Valjean has broken the law and must be punished. Javert is willing to devote his whole life to bringing Valjean to justice.

The anarchists on the barricades believe the government is corrupt and should be overthrown. The soldiers who gun them down have the opposite view.

The slut-shaming women that get Fantine fired from her job believe that sexual impropriety and non-traditional families are Very Very Bad and should be punished. The Slut-shamers’ beliefs are probably shared by a majority of People Who Consider Themselves to be Morally Upstanding.

The photo that got Ashley Payne fired from her teaching job.

The photo that got Ashley Payne fired from her teaching job.

The foreman who actually sets Fantine on the road to self-destruction is following an ethical code that has held sway for most of human history and has only recently begun to retreat from the mainstream. In the glorious 50s that conservatives love to reminisce over,  most young women would have been suffered the same fate as Fantine. Even today, young teachers can be fired for inappropriate Facebook photos.

The only exception to the ‘everyone is moral’ rule is, of course, The Master of the House but I bet, if you asked him, even he would say that all those other conceptions of morality were invalid and that the only proper behaviour is to look out for your own interests.

[* OK. That last one is a stretch. The Thénardiers are quite evil]

It’s quite something that all these conceptions of morality still have their champions 150 years after Hugo wrote it all down for us. Will we ever figure out which one is correct?

 

 

 

Jul
12
2013

Fire! Fire! Fire!

Hearing the reports and interviews about the San Francisco plane crash brought back a long lost memory.

HMS Revenge

I had just turned 21 when I joined the nuclear submarine HMS Revenge. I was one of two petty officers responsible for all the sonar systems on board. The other dude, Mark, was a year or two older than me. As you can probably imagine, sonar systems are pretty important to a submarine so it was a big responsibility. But no one on a sub has just one job. I had four. My main watch-keeping position was OPSO.

If you have ever seen a movie of a submarine in action - wait!…. here’s one!… - you may have noticed that there are five key roles in the control room of a sub and one more further back in the engine room.

This is a recruitment film deviously crafted to tempt disaffected but smart young men to run away from home and become engineers in the Royal Navy [they got me! - ed] Skip to 17:10 to see a submarine that may very well be HMS Revenge. Fun fact: The sub on the inside is different from the one on the outside!

The officer of the watch (OOW) – or the captain during tricky manoeuvres - is in charge of the whole boat and makes all the tactical decisions and the other four folks report to the OOW. The after-planesman is responsible for steering and keeping depth, a responsibility he shares with The Panel watch-keeper (open main vents, sir!) who continually monitors the submarine’s trim, opening and closing valves to keep the boat level. Back aft, the stokers take care of the main engines and generators and, of course, the nuclear reactor. Last, and very definitely not least, there is OPSO. Me.

When a sub is underwater – which is most of the time – it is almost completely blind. That thing you hear in movies with the Ping! Blip! of the sonar every 10 seconds does not actually happen these days. Soviet submarines used active sonar but NATO boats didn’t (if you hear a sonar ping in the middle of the North Atlantic, it’s probably from a Russian boat or a surface ship) so the only way to know what was out there was to listen very carefully.

HMS Revenge at dawn

HMS Revenge at dawn

 

Most of the listening was done by 16 year old boys with headphones and they would report everything they heard – carpenter fish; snapping shrimp; underwater pigs; other ships – and (if it was a ship) a guess at their speed from the sound of its propellers. We had no range information at all. We could guess the distance of a ship based on how much its bearing changed but even that was of no use if the ship was coming straight at us. If a ship had cut its engines, we wouldn’t even know it was there. OPSO’s job was to keep track of all the targets reported by the sonar department -including all the whales and dolphins and fishing boats that would start their engines, motor for ten minutes then cut their engines – and recommend a safe course to the OOW. Oh and – this at the height of the cold war remember – listen out for enemy submarines. So, while OPSO was my job #2, and actually took most of my working hours, job #3 was the most glamorous.

Polaris Missile Launched from HMS Revenge

Polaris Missile Launched from HMS Revenge

When a ballistic missile sub is called upon to fire its weapons of armageddon (weapons of mass destruction does not quite capture the extent of the horror) the submarine makes a lot of noise, instantly announcing its presence to every enemy submarine for hundreds of miles and its role changes instantly from dealer of destruction to recipient of it and the boat needs to defend itself to survive. My job #3 was, as torpedo guider, to kill those other submarines before they killed us. Lots of video game practice helped honed my torpedo-guiding skills.

If job #3 was most glamorous, job #4 was the most terrifying as I was in the attack squad of the firefighting team. Fires happen surprisingly often on ships and submarines and they are quite dangerous, what with all the hydraulics and the fuel and the explosives everywhere. We’d be called out to fight a fire at least once a week and maybe once a month it’d be a proper scary fire.

One big difference between a ship and a submarine is that on a ship – at least, on the destroyer I served on – when there is a fire, only the designated fire-fighting team has to react to it. Everyone else just carries on eating their dinner or cleaning the bathrooms or whatever. On a submarine, fires are a much bigger deal and the whole crew joins in the fun of fighting the fire.

There are two main sections to the firefighting team. One team dresses up in  fearnought suits – big woolly suits that keep you toasty warm even when you are not walking into a fire – ready to do the main work of fighting the fire with the main hose and a waterwall. The attack team just grabs a flimsy little mask and a fire extinguisher and runs into the blaze while the main team is suiting up.

I remember my first big, super-scary fire in an auxiliary machinery room (AMR) filled with diesel generators. We had already had several little fires since I joined the boat, but they were little affairs and extinguished quickly. There was always a kind of anti-climax after the excitement of the  Fire! Fire! Fire! on the Tannoy and the scrambling to grab a mask and get to the fire first, when the first dude on the scene was able to put out the fire straight away. This one was different though and it was clearly going to be a big deal.

At the Fire! Fire! Fire! alarm, I ran as usual to grab my mask from the pile but, as I reached for the very last mask and steeled myself for the battle ahead, a burly stoker PO named Mitch, 15 years my senior, put his hand on the same mask. He looked me in the eye and said “I think you’d better let me have that, son”. I didn’t argue and he ran into the burning AMR leaving me mask-less and safely away from the flames. No one died that day and the fire was extinguished without too much drama but, ever since then, I have had a healthy respect for people who run into burning buildings for a living. That memory came back to me this morning when I read the interviews of the first responders to the plane crash at San Francisco Airport over the weekend.

From KQED,

Firefighters said they encountered smoke, leaking jet fuel and passengers coming down on chutes when they arrived. Lt. Christine Emmons said Monday at the news conference that she and her partner ran up a chute into the plane and found four passengers trapped in the back. The conditions in the plane were changing rapidly, with the fire coming down on rescuers and the smoke thickening as the trapped passengers were pulled out to safety, she said.

Lt. Christine Emmons

Lt. Christine Emmons

and

Lt. Dave Monteverdi, who had also run up the chute, said someone had to be extricated after one of the bulkheads fell on top of him. When the firefighters entered the plane, they were surprised to find San Francisco police Officer Jim Cunningham already there, not wearing any protective equipment. Several of the public safety officers who spoke gave him a special shout-out for heroism. Police Lt. Gaetano Caltagirone also entered the plane, following Cunningham. “I couldn’t let him go inside the plane and just be there by himself,” he said.

People who fight fires for a living are amazing but I have a special regard for whose who, like flight attendants Lee Yoon-hye and Kim Ji-yeon have firefighting as job #4 – after handing out ginger ale, picking up your trash and getting unruly passengers to please turn off their electronic equipment now.

From Yahoo News

One flight attendant, Kim Ji-yeon, 30, put a scared and injured elementary schoolboy on her back and slid down a slide, said Lee, in the first comments by a crew member since the crash of the Boeing 777. A pilot helped another injured flight attendant off the plane after the passengers escaped.

Jiyeon Kim

Jiyeon Kim

Lee herself worked to put out fires and usher passengers to safety despite a broken tailbone that kept her standing throughout a news briefing with mostly South Korean reporters at a San Francisco hotel. She said she didn’t know how badly she was hurt until a doctor at a San Francisco hospital later treated her. When Lee saw that the plane was burning after the crash, she was calm. “I was only thinking that I should put it out quickly. I didn’t have time to feel that this fire was going to hurt me,” she said. Lee said she was the last person off the plane and that she tried to approach the back of the aircraft before she left to double-check that no one was left inside. But when she moved to the back of the plane, a cloud of black, toxic smoke made it impossible. “It looked like the ceiling had fallen down,” she said. http://news.yahoo.com/asiana-attendant-describes-dramatic-evacuation-101658097.html

Brave people, firefighters. Especially when they are flight attendants too.

Burning Plane at SFO

Burning Plane at SFO

Jul
4
2013

There’s a one in five chance…

When the big little clown was in fourth grade, he and his friends were really into Texas Hold’em. I regularly hosted a bunch of nine year olds for poker sessions. They couldn’t get enough of it. The Little Clown and I used to play all the time, even when his friends weren’t around.

Texas Hold'em

Texas Hold’em

Nine year old poker players are pretty easy to beat because they tend to be very aggressive, betting on all kinds of crazy hands. After The Little Clown went all in with three cards to a straight for the umpteenth time I decided it was time for a lesson in probability. As synchronicity would have it, The Little Clown’s annual science fair was coming up and we agreed that he would choose as his question:

What should I bet if I draw three cards to a straight in Texas Hold’em?

We filled in the forms and it didn’t take long before his teacher contacted me, appalled that a nine year old would be playing poker, let alone that he would have the audacity to want to study the topic in a science project. After some negotiation, we compromised on a less provocative hypothesis:

What is the probability of getting a pair if you draw two random cards from a deck?

 

Science Project

Little Clown did a science project every year from kindergarden to fifth grade but this one was my favourite as it fulfilled all of my criteria for a good science project.

  1. There should be an obvious hypothesis that is wrong.
  2. The hypothesis can easily be proved wrong by an experiment.
  3. The experimental result can easily be confirmed with maths.

Excuse me for a second while I rant a little about elementary school science projects.

Paper Mache Volcano from Science Project Lab

Paper Mache Volcano from Science Project Lab

Who exactly was it that decided that filling a cardboard volcano with baking soda and vinegar was a good science project? What is the child learning from the experiment?  What is the hypothesis? How come the vast majority of children’s science projects are either variants on the volcano “experiment” or an exercise in building a model out of lollipop sticks and elastic bands?

I predict that if I leave bread out for three months it will go moldy.

I predict that if I make a little car that is jet-propelled by a balloon, the car will be jet-propelled by the balloon.

How is that science? Where is the experiment?

Anyhoo…

What are the chances?

The poker experiment is perfect because 9 years olds (like most people) don’t really get probability and will always get the answer wrong (that’s why they are easy to beat at poker). It’s also easy to demonstrate by choosing random pairs of cards from a deck and recording the results. The maths is a bit harder, but this was actually my favourite bit of maths instruction ever with my budding scientist. We started with a coin.

What is the chance of getting heads if you flip a coin?

We tried it a hundred times and confirmed our intuitions before moving on to something more complex.

What are the chances of getting two heads if you flip two coins?

This was a little bit harder but we figured it out and experiments again confirmed our intuition. We tried more coins.

What are the chances of getting three heads if you flip three coins?

Wrong!

Intuition failed us here but … maths to the rescue! Do 9 years olds know about exponents? *shrug* Mine did and we got the results quickly and confirmed it with experiments. From there, it was trivial to try four coins and five coins so we moved on to dice.

What are the chances of getting a six if you roll a dice?

Intuition was inadequate again, but again the maths held up (hooray, maths!). Exponents still work if the base is 6 instead of 2 and the experiment confirmed it.

What are the chances of getting two sixes if you roll two dice?

By now it was easy and we zoomed through three dice and four dice. Time for cards.

What are the chances of getting a pair if your draw two cards from a deck?

A deck of cards is trickier because you have to deal with the whole take-one-away thing but, luckily, 51 is divisible by 3 and the maths is not hard, even for a nine year old. The experiments are more tedious because you have to deal a lot of pairs to demonstrate a 1 in 17 chance and nine year olds are not famous for their patience. Fortunately my nine year old was already a pretty good Logo programmer as he was already a four year veteran of the business having started to learn Logo in first grade.

I helped him recreate the coin-flip experiment in Logo and then we did it again for the coins. The cards were beyond his programming skills but he followed along OK when I wrote the code and he got a kick out of the results.

Chance of a Pair

Challenger School – where my little clown learned his nine year old skills – gets a bad rap for allegedly teaching rote learning. But the rap couldn’t be further from the truth. Having sent one little clown to Challenger and another to public school, I can attest that only one of them was ever subject to rote learning and it wasn’t the Challenger clown.

Challenger is intensely academic and, while I can understand that it is not right for every kid, mine was challenged in ways that he didn’t experience again until high school. In fact, I wonder whether the transition from high-performing fifth grader to coasting sixth grader wasn’t detrimental to his determination as it taught him that coasting was an option; an option unavailable to him at Challenger.

Fast-forward nine years and my little clown is now all grown up and accepted to UC Santa Barbara and, under protest, Ragged Clown Sr and Ragged Clown Jr are on their first road trip together to go check out Jr’s home for the next four years. It’s a long trip so we brought along Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich for company [editor's note - this post sat in my drafts folder for a couple of months].

Jad and Robert – and their magnificent Radiolab show – have long been our companions on road trips. On this particular trip, the podcast app summoned up the episode “Are You Sure?”

Radiolab episodes have a certain structure. There is always a main theme – in this episode the theme was doubt -  and they do a powerful job of exploring variations on the theme with an  eclectic selection of interviews and zany editing and contributions from psychologists, scientists and moral philosophers – and anyone else who has a good story to tell.

The first segment was interesting albeit not relevant to my theme here. A couple of devout Christians were due to get married until one of them started to wonder whether all that stuff in the bible was actually true. That topic would make a great blog post, but it was the second segment that intrigued me more.

Anny Duke is a decision strategist – a poker player – and won the poker world championship in 2004. In her segment, Annie describes the strategy that professional poker players use for winning poker games: know the odds. But knowing the odds doesn’t just mean knowing which hand is likely to win; it means understanding that the hand that is most likely to win will often lose (and vice versa). The secret is in knowing the pot odds.

Annie:

If there is a $300 in the pot and you have to bet $100 to stay in, you could lose the pot three times and still break even if you win the next hand.

Robert:

So you could lose a hundred dollars on Monday, a hundred dollars on Tuesday, you could lose another hundred dollars on Wednesday, but if you win the hundred back on Thursday, you are good.

Jad:

So you just need to win one out of every four times

In other words, it’s not enough to know your chances of winning. The important thing is that your chances of winning are greater than the pot odds.

The climax of the story has Annie playing against her brother in the final of the World Hold’em Championship. They are playing for two million dollars and she’s holding a pair of sixes and her brother goes all in with a pair of sevens before the flop. Her brother is 82% to win the hand. Amazingly, the flop gives Annie a full house and she wins the $2,000,000.

Pocket Nines

Pocket Nines

Aside from the lessons on how to play hold’em, Annie’s good luck highlighted some fundamentally different ways of thinking in the Clown household. There’s one strand of thought that says, if there is a chance that a bad thing might happen at a particular event, you should avoid events like that in the future. Bad movie? No more movies! Awkward silence or said the wrong thing at a social gathering? No more social gatherings! On the other hand, the more optimistic clowns are willing to tolerate a lot of  crap movies and awkward gatherings in the knowledge that, eventually, you’ll find a movie to enjoy or that a social gathering will sparkle. Even without knowing the pot odds, I’m pretty certain that if you never take a chance, you’ll never win.

Final word from Annie:

It’s not about winning the hand all the time. It’s about winning the hand enough of the time [...] That embracing of uncertainty does some really wonderful things for you.

Jad:

You learn how to avoid that very human tendency to feel ashamed or embarrassed when you lose. You just float right above it.

Annie’s brother:

If you are making good decisions, then you are making good decisions.

Annie:

You have to be somewhat outcome blind.

By coincidence, Annie was a psych major and Little Clown is majoring in bio-psych at UCSB. He’s gonna be a scientist!

UC Santa Barbara

UC Santa Barbara

I hope he’ll learn from Annie and take some chances. I hope he’ll win some too.

Jun
30
2013

They are the waters of March, closing the summer… and the promise of life… in your heart.

My new favourite song is Águas de Março. Pandora found it for me in my “Mas que Nada” playlist where it is sung by four or five different performers so I get to hear lots of different versions. This one – with Elis Regina and Antonio Carlos Jobim - is the best version by a mile.

I was surprised to see how upbeat and happy they are in the video (I am watching it for the first time with you) as I had very different interpretation in my head.

When I first heard the song, I took it to be two lovers exchanging sweet nothings across a shared pillow but after hearing it over and over I had to go google the lyrics to find out what it was really about. Wow. That was a shock.

First of all, I had no idea the song was so famous and important. I thought I had discovered a hidden gem and was the only one to enjoy it. How was I to know that I was the very last person in the world to hear it? [OK, OK. The second to last one.I heard it before you did! - Ed] I am very familiar with Antonio Carlos Jobim and love his music but I had never heard of Elis Regina (which made Gilles laugh out loud). I have since made up for lost time and now she’s a favourite too.

Águas de Março - Elis Regina e Tom Jobim

Águas de Março – Elis Regina e Tom Jobim

Secondly, the lyrics… wow. I was way off.

É pau é pedra
É o fim do caminho
É um resto de toco
É um pouco sozinho…

É um caco de vidro
É a vida é o sol
É a noite é a morte
É um laço é o anzol…

É peroba do campo
É o nó da madeira
Caingá, Candeia
É o matita-pereira…

São as águas de março
Fechando o verão
E a promessa de vida
No teu coração…

Wikipedia tells me that Jobim wrote a completely separate set of English lyrics and I don’t know how much they correspond with the Portuguese lyrics [If only we knew someone who speaks Portuguese! - Ed].

It is wood, it is stone
It is the end of the way
It is the rest of a bole
It is a bit in loneliness

It is a shard of glass
It is life, it is sun
It is the night, it is the death
It is the tie , it is the hook …

It is peroba do campo
It is the knob in the wood
Caingá, candeia
It is matita-pereira

They are the waters of March,
closing the summer…
and the promise of life…
in your heart.

Now I know that the song is about the passing of summer (March is at the end of summer in the southern hemisphere) I hear the song as a wistful reminiscence of beautiful ways and a mournful expectation of the winter to come. For me now, it’s a song about loss. Perhaps the loss of youth and the approach of our autumn years. But then I see Tom and Elis having a fine old time on the video and am more confused than when I started. I have no idea what the song is about.

Before I finish, I’d like to say a couple of things about Mas Que Nada, the song that started all this.

Like most of the northern hemisphere, I was introduced to this wonderful song by Ronald and Co’s delightful romp through the airport during the ’98 World Cup.

And reminded of it by Ronaldinho and Friends, Joga Bonito-ing it up eight years later… which brings me to my second point about Mas Que Nada.

Someone needs to stop the Black-Eyed Peas from covering other people’s music. They peaked around Shut Up (which I used to sing as a duet with my then nine year old daughter) and Hey Mama! and everything they have sung since then has the consistency of mushy peas and I’d rather they didn’t turn other people’s great songs into mush.

Jun
29
2013

Always go to the funeral – redux

A few years ago, the wife of a dude I used to work with died. I didn’t really know him well – and his wife not at all – but word got around and a friend of mine said “are you going to the funeral?” I said “well, no probably not. I didn’t really know him that well. I feel like I would be intruding.” My friend told me “That’s really not the point. It’s not about who knows him. It’s about being there.” and he sent me a link to an essay on the Internet called ‘Always go to the funeral’. It’s an amazing essay and it changed my mind about a lot of things to do with religion.

Here’s a little snippet.

On a cold April night three years ago, my father died a quiet death from cancer. His funeral was on a Wednesday, middle of the workweek. I had been numb for days when, for some reason, during the funeral, I turned and looked back at the folks in the church. The memory of it still takes my breath away. The most human, powerful and humbling thing I’ve ever seen was a church at 3:00 on a Wednesday full of inconvenienced people who believe in going to the funeral.

http://thisibelieve.org/essay/8/

Among my circle of friends, we have have adopted this rule and have a little ceremony when someone dies, that goes like this.

“Are you going to the funeral?”
“What’s the first rule of funerals?”
“Always go the funeral.”
“See you there!”

Now it’s my turn.

My Dad died last week and I am so very, very sad. We now have a big family debate about how to honour his passing. Dad fulfilled a long-standing ambition to retire to Spain (actually – he always said Portugal, but Spain is right there next door) and, after decades away, my family is worried that there is no one left who remembers him to remember his passing. There’s also a bit of a debate as to whether whether a christian memorial service is appropriate for a man who did not have a religious bone, vein or gristle in his body.

The Spaniards were very efficient with the cremation. The cremation was not even a thing but now we want to do something with a bit more significance and the choices at hand are:

  1. Scatter ashes in Footscray Meadows – the scene of many of a childhood memory.  Dad taught me to fish there. Most of my early misdeeds were there. That’s the first place I ever tried to cycle across a river. I have very fond memories of Footscray Meadows.
  2. Memorial service at the church in Rectory Lane. It’s the only church I really know well. My Dad was married there (first time round) and I was christened there along with my brothers and sisters. My grandmother was buried there a couple of years back.

The nub of the debate is whether it is inappropriate – disrespectful, even – to a man who was not so much an atheist as a never-really-gave-religion-any-thought-iest to give him a memorial service in a church. Here’s my response.

I am the biggest atheist I know but I think the one thing that religions do well is a funeral. Secular funerals feel kind of empty to me – like they are missing the point. I think the best kind of funeral connects you with two thousand years of western tradition and then sends you to the pub where you drink Guinness and laugh about the awful couch that your parents had in the 1970s and the good times that you shared and then you cry about the loss that you all feel. That’s a funeral. Scattering ashes in a park is not quite the same for me.

My sister Carol researched our family tree a few years back. She traced our heritage back many generations – back into the 16th century – and discovered that no one in our family moved more than two or three miles from Footscray in all those centuries. But in a generation or two we have scattered to the four winds. I have cousins all over England and Northern Ireland and in France and Australia and we made it all the way to California. My dad’s family was not from Footscray though. His was from way, way north – about 4 or 5 miles north- in Eltham.

So, is it appropriate to give a decidedly non-christian from Eltham a Christian memorial service in Footscray where all his children were born and christened? I can’t think of anything more appropriate.

My sister is a bit worried that it’ll be just us there in that church – four sad children remembering the life of a very special man and the very special lady who took care of him during his most vulnerable days. If it’s just us, it’ll be wonderful. But I’m willing to bet that there will be more than a handful of folks who remember us and are willing to fill the empty pews behind us. I hope you’ll read that essay and remember the edict: Always go to the funeral. I’ll buy you a Guinness if you come. You can buy me one too.

I’ll never forget the moment – at my nephews’ christening where my sister and I had to renounce Satan and all his works and we looked at each other and my sister said something like “This is the bit where we get struck by lightening or arrested for perjury “.  But I feel very grateful for the privilege of being a godfather even if neither I nor more my god sons believe in God. Religious ceremonies are not about religion, they are about ceremony and tradition and the Church of England does those particularly well.

That little church in Footscray is like a Tardis for me. Sitting in those pews transports me back through my memories and even further back into the memories of so many centuries past.

I shared some of these thoughts once before in Don’t Break the Chain. I imagine a chain of tradition and mythology stretching back for a thousand years and we shouldn’t be the ones to break it. It’s too precious.