Friday, April 28, 2006

Check your Oil?

I get my oil changed at those quick-change 10 minute places. The mechanic and I always play the same game—How much Money can I get this Guy to Spend?

My cars have reached the age where, apparently, they need regular maintenance that I am not adequately providing. Our routine is familiar:

“That cheap $15 oil change, please.”

Furious tinkering under the hood of my car.
“Sir, your air filter is dirty. For $15, that should be replaced.”
“Uh……Okay.” (doubling my price)

More furious tinkering.
“Sir, your transmission should be flushed, for $79 we can get that squared away.”
Calculating how much my $15 oil change is costing me, “No, Thanks.”

Never one to be daunted by a “No,” he attempts another attack.
“You know, every 30,000 miles we recommend a complete oil cleaning system that would clear out any of the deposits left. It is only $39.”
Now I am in that half-way spot of pleased I did not spend $79, and fearful that if I don’t commit, my engine is sure to quit in the middle of an emergency trip to the hospital.
“Er….go ahead. I guess.”

Recently they have cleverly increased the tactics by introducing a computer. They take me out of my car, walk me over to the computer, and point out how IT is demonstrating with lovely colored charts and graphs all of the maintenance I am neglecting with my poor car. It is as if my mechanic is saying, “I am just a simple human that could make a mistake, but here — HERE is a computer making billions of calculations per second, and within those tiny seconds has determined that your automobile will DIE unless immediate treatment is administered, and how can you argue with a computer?”

The simple answer is that you can’t—I cough out more money.

One day, just for fun, I think I will agree to everything and see how far they are willing to go.

“Sir, you need a radiator flush.”
“Sure, go right ahead.”
“We also recommend a brake pad re-adjustment, and light replacement.”
“Knock yourself out.”
“Transmission flu---“
“Yep, one of those too!”

I figure the conversation would develop to the point of:

“Sir, we further recommend the Executive package, in which we remove your entire engine, power-wash it with acid, dry it with an airplane engine, and then completely replace every single part that could possibly be replaced.”
“Why not? Go ahead.”
“Oh. HEY, JIM! We got an ‘Executive’ on bay Two.” *wink, wink*

Jim would pipe up, “Good thing, too! From here I can see the right side of the car is not lined up with the left side. Better throw in a full car body alignment, or else that Executive won’t last two weeks.”
“Sir, do you have time for this?”
Having prepared in advance, I brought my sleeping back, a month’s worth of reading, and provisions to feed a camp, “Sure, go ahead.”
“Then step this way to our finance department, and we can get you all fixed up.”

Instead I dance between what to pay, what should be done, always with the hope that somehow I am money ahead by not spending too much, and getting away with a few extra miles before spending the real money. I dread that final day when he opens the hood and sighs:

“Oh, dear. Harrumph. Hmmm….”
”Anything wrong?”
“Be with you in a minute, sir. Just checking ‘er out.”

I see him pull out a few sticks, continue to furrow his forehead, and start consulting manuals.
“Is there---“
“With you in a minute, sir. HEY JIM! Can you look at this?”

The shocked looked on Jim’s face is not comforting. Nor is his statement, “Wow! Never seen that before!”

Gary walks by. (I assume it is Gary, since his shirt proudly proclaims, “Gary” but no one has ever yelled out at him, and he never says a word.) Gary takes one look, pulls out a kazoo and softly plays taps. “Ta. Ta. Taaaaaa.”

They close the hood, and my mechanic approaches me, rubbing his hands on a towel.

“Try to look at it this way, sir. Don’t think of it as a loss of an automobile, but focus on the good times you had together. The drives, the laughs, the open road.”
“Is it…..?”
”Yep. Time to take that final journey to the Great Crusher in the Sky.”

Many of us drive our cars around, never thinking about what needs to be maintained on them, hoping that everything under that engine is running smoothly, and occasionally taking them in for the mandatory check-up, performing the minimum amount of repair work for the maximum benefit until the next mandatory check.

I wonder if many theists do the same with their spiritual life. I see believers and non-believers working hard for promotions, trying to find the perfect mate, attempting to raise children, getting groceries, taking children to hockey, basketball, cheerleading, band and soccer. Both get up in the morning to alarm clocks, drive to work, take lunch breaks, catch a baseball game with friends, and come home to clean their house.

We all encourage our kids to do well, spend time with our families, work in the yard, and help the neighborhood paper drive.

We all look exactly alike in our ambitions, activities, and living day-to-day. We are so used to quick check-ups. Fast oil changes. Drive-though food. Those that do cook, use a microwave to get it in 3-5 minutes. If we need a safety pin, a shovel or a steam engine, we can “run right out and get it.”

What I see is the exact same human reaction to theism. Every Sunday believers attend a church for their “check-up.” Saturday they got an oil change and a transmission flush in 30 minutes. Sunday they get an attitude change and bitterness flush in the same time. And, just like that oil change only lasting for a short time, so, too the spiritual-change.

By Sunday afternoon, they have returned to looking just like me. Same problems, same resolutions, same humanity. Amazingly, we have come to expect it! Just like needing a tune-up, it is assumed that “tapping into God” only lasts so long, and eventually wears down. Need to give it a kick with a daily devotion, or a prayer, or a meeting together. Constant maintenance must be administered, or the God-power runs down like an old battery.

And it is always the human doing the jolting. The human going to church, the human reading the Bible or praying, and if the human stops—God stops. The only time God re-starts is if the human restarts. All of the impetus is on the human.

No matter how much I stay on top of keeping my car maintained, there is always something more. Being a human creation, it won’t last forever, and the only way to make it last as long as it can is by constant attention. It is the same with theism! I could pull story after story after story of people striving to “know” God, working to keep their relationship with God, working to stay out of sin, working to be more like God, and every single time it is the human performing the effort. And it always, always, ALWAYS requires a little bit more. More time. More reading. More work on the part of the human.

God is doing none of the work. Just like my car is not trying to maintain itself, and is, in fact, doing the exact opposite, God is sitting on the sidelines, forcing humans to come to him, and if they do it wrongly, or not enough, or stop, God stops. Just like my car.

“What a friend we have in Jesus.” Heard the song? Imagine if I was a friend like Jesus. I would tell you that you must do all the talking to me. I sent you a letter once, but that is all you get. You must continually work to have a relationship with me. If you stop, I won’t have a relationship with you. If you do it wrongly, I won’t be your friend. But I won’t tell you how to do it right.

If anything good happens in your life, it is because of me. If anything bad—it is your fault. You can ask me for anything, but I only provide the same things others get that aren’t my friend.

Oh, and if you aren’t my friend, I will hate you so much that I will torture you forever.

What kind of relationship is that? I wouldn’t want that out of my car, let alone a friend!

I wish theists would think about this, next time they get their oil changed. Are they doing the same thing with a God? Listening to what a human has recommended they do to maintain this relationship? And waffling between what is the minimum requirements to keep God happy, yet not have to pay with taking care of the poor, loving others, giving up of time, labor and money? If they really believed in a God, why are they doing the bare minimum to keep it? If I truly was convinced my car needed the maintenance to operate, I would (reluctantly) spend the money. Believers are willing to sacrifice for their car, but not their God.

At least with my car, if I stop repairing it, it conks out. With God, once I stopped maintaining the relationship, I recognized that I was doing all the work—there was no God. He didn’t conk out; He was never there in the first place! I didn’t need to maintain a non-existent relationship.

A car needs its human to continue to perform. So, too, a God.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Anybody see my morals?

I woke up one day to find I had lost my morals. Oh, I didn’t know it at the time. Looking back, I could not even tell you what day it exactly was. But to my chagrin, I realize now that sometime ago they left me.

I felt the same. Dressed the same, went through the same morning routine. And I sat down before my computer with my coffee, reading the happenings of the night before. And I read a theist say:

“If I was an atheist, there would be nothing to stop me from robbing a bank, and murdering the guards.”

This, of course, did not move me in the slightest. While I am an atheist, I certainly have no intention of ever committing such acts. My retirement plans most definitely do not include prisons and long, hot showers with an angry mob of men. All I could think is that I am glad this theist believes in a morality based upon some God-concept, or else they would be a raving lunatic. I could only imagine the frustration they felt, sitting in church Sunday after Sunday, champing at the bit, wishing to kill someone and being restrained by that moral system.

And more and more, as I read on-line, and books by certain authors, I read how they, too, if they were atheists would have the opportunity, and even the desire to completely disregard morality, and become raving criminals. It amazed me how many of these people seemed to be so restrained by this pesky moral system that kept them from doing all the wonderful evil things they seemed to enjoy. How this moral system was the only basis by which they could lead productive lives.

It struck me: “Hmmm. I am an atheist. Apparently to all these people that grants me a license to do what I want, when I want and how I want. Aren’t they afraid of the justice system? I am. Don’t they consider other humans, regardless of some mandate of some humans telling them what God says to do or not do? I did and still do. But if all of these people are telling me this is what an atheist is supposed to be—who am I to disagree? I am somewhat new at the occupation.”

I looked at my wife. Now that I am an atheist, and have lost my morals, it seems I must want to rid myself of this nasty institution of marriage, and get a divorce. But I don’t want a divorce. Regardless of what some musty book says, or what some fellow in a suit tells me on Sunday Morning, I love my wife. I want to stay married to her, because of who she is, because of our commitment to each other, not because I “have to.”

I am sure I am a big disappointment to all the other morally depraved atheists by actually staying in my marriage, rather than abandoning it for a life of casual sex, TV dinners, and lonely bottles of wine.

I still give to charities. I hope no other atheists read that. I would be in severe danger of being kicked out of the atheist-club, I fear. No self-respecting, non-moral person, having ever lost their absolute and God-given determination of right and wrong would EVER bother to do that! There is no law requiring it, no prison sentence hanging over my head. Why, there is no self-gratification in that at all.

I could swear I still have morals, but theist after theist after theist insist I do not. I must have lost them somewhere. Sigh.

Sometimes I am asked, “What are your morals, now?”

“Oh, I think the Golden Rule---“
STOP! That is in OUR Moral System. You cannot borrow from our worldview!”

I can’t? I had no idea that moral worldviews were copyrighted, patented and protected. What else am I prohibited from borrowing? I am especially fond of the number “four.” It is in the Bible more than 250 times. Can we no longer use that number either? Is that borrowing?

In the recent Supreme Court cases, there has been uproar about the appearance of the Ten Commandments in Government buildings. We have heard how the law is “based” on the Ten Commandments. I would have thought by now some clever Christian group would have patented the Ten Commandment Moral System, and raked in the royalties every time a law was passed.

“New legislation on tax cuts for the rich? That’ll be $450,000 for use of our patent on the Ten Commandments.”

And how exactly can I “borrow” from a moral worldview?

“Hey, neighbor, little low this month. Can I borrow a cup of charity?”
“Aren’t you an atheist?”
“Uh, yeah.”
“Well, I am a Christian.”
”Whoops, sorry. I’ll try a house that actually has some charity.”

Personally, since many theists presume I have no limitations whatsoever on my actions, I would think they would be relived I use any part of their system at all. They are free to use mine—I wonder though if actually caring about other humans is too hard?

Or, I have been informed that once I lost absolutes in morality, I am left with no morality at all. Now, to me, I figure relative morality is just as binding, but apparently that is because I have lost all morals, and have no clue what I am talking about.

If some fellow is robbing me, and I explain how that is immoral, do I really care that he determines it is immoral because of relative morality or absolute morality? I think not. If I say spouse abuse is wrong, because of relative morality, does that make it less so than the person that says it is wrong because of absolute morality?

Apparently, once one loses one’s morality, there is hardly any sense in attempting to regain a portion of it. You can see how I never knew I had lost my morals, and could not comprehend the predicament I was in.

Recently a new wrinkle has appeared, revealing what dire straits I found myself. In debating with theists, I am informed that because I have no absolute morality, I must have no absolutes, so everything is relative, so everything I say has no meaning.

Wow! I really, really, really did not mean to lose my morals. I did not know it would be so debilitating. I look down, I can still dress myself. I think I can still determine the volume of a cube. I operate my motor vehicle, and other drivers are not honking and flying out of my way because of my inability to function. I can still read the Bible and see what it says.

I had no idea those items were tied into my morality. I truly must appear as a raving lunatic to all those individuals.

Further, I have been informed that the reason I deconverted was because of my sin and depraved nature. Finally! A glimmer of hope. See, I thought I had lost my morality. Turns out that I never had morality in the first place. Why--I haven’t lost anything at all!

I am so relieved.

Therefore, with a smile on my face, I can face the world. I help other humans, I try to be as gracious as I can, and I apologize when I have hurt others. I help others less fortunate than I; I enjoy life, love, family and friends. All with my complete lack of morals firmly in place.

So, to all of you claiming I have no morals—you are right; I don’t. Not a one. I can do what I want, when I want, where I want. Instead of having morals imposed on me, I choose to impose morals on myself. I did not lose morals, I gained them.

If you are helping me to look for my morals, just ask me. I will tell you. If you believe that I don’t have any, or didn’t have any, or have the wrong kind, or simply don’t know what I am talking about, that’s O.K. I have plenty of charity. You can borrow a cup of mine anytime you want.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Keep on rolling

I’ve not been blogging as much, due to the business of spring, and the fact I am off debating Christians elsewhere.

Why do I insist on dogmatically debating Christianity in particular and theism as a whole? As with much in life, there is no one easy answer.

Sometimes I do it to just to inform others. I know, as a Christian, how uninformed I was as to various aspects of theism, and I attended Church all my life. How betrayed I felt, when I realized what had been kept from me. What is wrong with sharing all sides of the story? Yes, I know that many Christians do not like that type of confrontation, and would prefer to be fed only one side, and assured that the other person has done all the research and come up with the right conclusion.

I am not that person. I like to see both sides and decide for myself. I wonder if there are others, like me, that would also like to be given alternative views and reflect on them.

Sometimes I do it to debate. I love to argue. It is the reason I enjoy my job. Not meaningless argument just to argue, but true interaction, with points being made by both sides, and a commitment to the endeavor to extract the best points possible for oneself, and critique the best points possible for one’s opponent.

I enjoy framing an argument. Can I persuade a neutral party? Can I actually persuade someone that is opposed to me—very tough to do. I do not shrink from this, but rather revel in it. Can the other person teach me something, that I can take to the next debate? Or be better prepared next time? I enjoy that too.

But recently, I have been dumbfounded at how brutal Christianity is. Many times I debate it because, despite the good theism provides, its determent far outweighs any benefit it has. Do I fear an outright theocracy in America? No, people enjoy their freedoms too much. Forcing abortion or homosexuals, or strip clubs underground would only introduce a criminal element the government is unprepared to handle.

The detriment I see is in the prejudice and fear instilled in proponents of these religions, to the degradation of others. Think about how harmful the concept of Hell is for a child. Talking to children about those who died, there are two groups:

1) They are in Heaven; and
2) Only God knows their heart.

We knew at a very young age, the No. 2’s were in hell. We weren’t stupid. We knew Uncle Bob and Aunt Susie did not live a “Christian” lifestyle and were destined to fry. We liked Uncle Bob, it was just one of those things.

And this constant idea of Hell, hanging over our heads. If somehow we picked the wrong Christianity (like Mormonism) or didn’t do Christianity correctly, we, too, could some day be tortured forever. We all knew the “backsliders.” We knew where they were sliding to.

Even those that were in had a pecking order. We knew who was more saintly, and who was not. And we certainly knew we were free to call sinners whatever name suited them, and those too legalistic, whatever name suited THEM. “Pigs” or “White-washed tombs” whatever fit the occasion. We weren’t any of those things, only those too far to the left or right of us.

And how Christians can decry and call out those that believe differently. If Christianity said, “Meh. Some believe this some don’t. Respect a person for who they are, not what creed they claim” I would probably cease debating it tomorrow. If Christianity, in another bizarre extreme, actually started to practice what it claims, actually loving people, giving to the poor, and helping widows, I would heartily encourage Christianity!

I see it now more clearly. I have joined the pariah. Friends of long acquaintance no longer trust me with their children. Shoot, my own wife doesn’t trust me with my children! They fear I will blurt out the wrong thing—not support Christianity. Mention that “a” word and these children will be doomed to hell. That associating with one of the “them” (and for theists, “them” can mean a lot of people) would somehow taint them with their God.

If theism was the difference of picking out colors of cars, I would leave it alone. As it is dividing families, nations, people and individuals, I think I will keep the debate going a little longer.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Proving a negative

You can’t prove a negative.

I am a strong atheist. Which means I affirmatively state “There is no God.” Is there a proof that, with mathematical precision, we can confidently declare god(s) do not exist? No. But the evidence is so over-whelming, and the possibility so minute, state it with confidence.

Further, for me, being a strong atheist means I do not shrink from assuming the burden of proof. While the theist and weak atheist battle over who has the burden of proof over what, I gladly reach in and snatch it from both of them. Let me have it! I will present my proofs, and if it is not persuasive, will gladly assume I have failed.

But how does one prove a negative? That an event did NOT occur? The point was driven home forcefully yesterday morning, which I think exemplifies “proving a negative.”

I received a call at 9:30 a.m.

Attorney: Uh-oh. This is not good.
Me: What’s up?
Attorney: We had a hearing this morning. The judge is waiting for you.
Me: What!?! How would I have known?
Attorney: I sent you a notice.
Me: No, you didn’t.

Now, I am stuck “proving a negative.” Proving that I did not get notice of that day’s hearing. Easy to prove I got notice, a copy is in my file. Harder to prove I didn’t. What factors do I have in my favor?

1. I am always early for court dates. Always. I don’t skip dates.
2. This is an important client that I have appeared on every date in every file with our office.
3. I have appeared on every date before on this file.
4. I have a copy of the actual notice with a different date.
5. I have an order from the judge, with a different date.
6. I have a letter from the attorney with a different date.
7. It was a motion I wanted to attend.
8. The case was at a stand-still until the motion is heard.
9. I won’t be paid until this motion is heard.
10. I was free, that morning, to attend.
11. I dropped my office work, and asked they wait for me to have the motion.
12. I went to the motion.
13. I asked the attorney for a copy of the new notice, and he had “forgotten” it back at the office.

Now, this is a simplistic example, but is it still possible that I received the notice and ignored it? Sure. But so remotely unlikely that I can confidently state, “I did not receive the notice.” Thus proving a negative. Upon learning new information, (like my secretary saying, “Oh I received that notice and threw it away.”) I could change my position. But not with what I have now.

For me, it is the same as proving there is no God. Is it possible? Sure, in some remote possibility, but the factors and evidence are so against it to confidently state there is none. Upon learning new information, I could change my position, but I have seen no compelling evidence yet.

Which makes me a strong atheist.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Try, Try Again

I was reading Lya Kahlo’s deconversion story (it is in three parts) and quite a bit of what she says resonates with me.

One thing that kept jumping out to me was the statements to her about “trying” religion. “If you would only try this religion….” is something many deconverts, myself included, hear many, many times.

How, exactly, does one go about “trying” a religion? It is not a pair of shoes, or an electronic, that we can test out for a few days to see how it performs. We cannot decide one day, “I am going to believe Hinduism, and see how that pans out.” I understand to the Christian, they have been taught, and truly believe, that if one just starts to seek Jesus; He will sweep in and complete the task:

“Jesus, I am going to try to believe you are Go—“
“HALLELUJAH, pass the pickle juice, we got another one! Here I come, and I will now imbue you with knowledge, and enlightenment, and joy and peace, and write your Name in the Book, and don’t you worry. I will take it from here.”

To many Christians, if we aren’t also a Christian, we just didn’t take that first step. Or did it incorrectly.

I debated and lurked for an extensive time on Internet Infidels. Occasionally a new poster would appear, and say, “If only you people would try Christianity…” or “If you only would read the Bible…” We would chuckle. They didn’t realize there were ex-pastors, ex-deacons, ex-Sunday School teachers, people that had been Christians for dozens of years, all of whom had “tried” Christianity to their hardest. Or people that knew the Bible inside and out, and had read it in the original Greek or Hebrew, better than the new poster.

So what does it mean, for me, to “try” Christianity?

By intellect? Should I study the facets of the creation of the Bible, the history of the Jewish nation, the history of Palestine, canon, textual criticism, scholarly works by the best Christian philosophers? I did.

This is a humorous catch-22 for the person that tells me to “try” Christianity. 9 out of 10 people that say that, have less knowledge about Christianity than I do. In fact, it seems the more studied one is on Christianity, the less one uses the phrase, “you should ‘try’ Christianity.”

I can start listing areas in which I have studied Christianity, and soon they realize they have not performed such study. When caught in an unknown, it is often these very same people that tell me I am using “wisdom of the world” which is foolishness. Am I supposed to study, use my brain, my ability to process arguments, my ability to reason, or not?

In trying Christianity, how much knowledge is sufficient to say I have tried it, and how much becomes too much, that I have become too knowledgeable, and “leaned” on my own understanding? There is some happy medium that Christians want. Just enough to buy what they say, but not enough to question it.

By faith? Here, especially, is where they don’t get it. I did live by faith. I had no problem believing that someday we would resolve these prickly little quandaries, when we in heaven. That it was right, and any apparent contradictions we had were a result of insufficient intelligence as compared to God.

When I took my first steps (not knowing it at the time) toward deconversion, it was not out of doubt, or lack of faith. Quite the opposite. I saw a group of atheists that, sadly, did not know any better, and with a little courtesy, some explanation, and some prayer, I could better inform them of the reality of the Christian life. I had no idea, and would have scoffed anyone that said they could drag me into their belief system. My faith was tested, and not at issue.

I “tried” Christianity by faith for 35 years. I never once, in that time, questioned its viability. Issues within Christianity—yes. But the overall premise? Never.

How long is “long enough”? How much faith is necessary to say, “Yep. That fellow tried it.” Was I to go for 45 years? 55 years? 100 years? If someone tells me that I need to try having more faith, I would wonder how I could possibly go about doing so.

By Experience? I had mountain top experiences. Moments where I could swear I almost heard an audible voice of God. Where I felt as if my entire body was infused with God’s presence. I saw what I thought were miracles. Healings that could not be explained. Events that were far beyond coincidences that must have required a God to come about.

Yet, I have reviewed other faiths. Faiths that I was taught were in the wrong God. A God they had made up in their mind. A faith that was attributing events as miracles that were not. What made my miracles any different? What made my experiences any more viable? When comparing them, I realized that there are too many self-imposed beliefs that are incorrect, for me to arrogantly assume mine, and only mine were correct.

I will admit I have never spoke in tongues. Due to my non-charismatic practice, I never had the opportunity. Is that it? Was that the key? Should I “try” to speak in tongues, and this would make it click? I haven’t cast out demons, drank poison or been bitten by snakes. All of which many Christians would claim as an experience.

What experiences must I try, before I can officially say, I have “tried” Christianity.

This is one of those pat phrases that people toss off—“try Christianity” without really thinking through the implications. How? What steps must I take? Or by even asking what steps, have I blown it already. What should I study? What should I not? What should I put faith in? What not? How do I measure faith to determine it was enough? What experiences do I need to qualify as trying out a religion?

And have Christians done this themselves. No, I am not talking some radical change to “try” Buddhism, or agnosticism, or Hinduism. But have they tried Liberal Christianity? Have they “tried” to view the Bible as non-literal? As non-inerrant? Have they ‘tried” other brands of acceptable Christianity?

If so, I would be curious as to how they “tried it” and what I would have to equally do (that I did not earlier) to try Christianity.

Saturday, April 01, 2006


On a rare occasion I write a short story. This one came to me from a dream I had last night, combined with some thoughts about a friend of mine. Never fear, I will be back to my cantankerous, argumentative self with the next blog!

I coach a city basketball league for Third and Fourth Graders. You know the ones. Where 160 boys sign up, and are divided into 16 teams, one practice a week (hoping at least 6 show up) and the games on Saturday at the local high school. We are not supposed to keep track of win/losses, but do anyway. Parents cheer, and can get out of hand and I get 10 boys assigned to me, just like the other coaches.

Two years ago, one of the boys assigned to me was Juan. We have a few large farms in the area, resulting in migrant workers and a Mexican segment as part of our little society. Just like the other 9, Juan handed me his permission slip, carefully filled out and signed. I have a hard time with names, so I am grabbing the slips and trying desperately to assign the names to the faces.

“Matthew, John, Rod, Tom, Juan….”

I remember Juan as a triple threat. To us. He could not shoot, could not dribble and could not pass. But many boys at this level have trouble with these basics, and in this regard he did not stand out. No, where Juan excelled was in fouls.

In our very first scrimmage in our very first practice, Juan was hit by another player when trying to pass the ball.

“He hit me!”
”Now, Rod. You can’t touch the other player. You can hit the ball, but if you touch the other player, it is a foul. The opponent either gets the ball, or can take free shots.”
“But I didn’t do it on purpose.”
“I know. Even if you do it by accident, it can be called a foul.”

Now, I recall the conversation going exactly in that fashion. Later events revealed that Juan heard, “As long as you claim it was an accident, you can strike the other player.” I had created a weapon. Double O-Juan.

Our first game was progressing as first games do. Awkward and messy. A far more experienced player on the opposing team easily dribbled around Juan. So Juan grabbed him! Effective in stopping the player, yes. But that is going to be called every time.

“Tweee! Foul on Number 4” (Those words were to become a mantra.)
“It was an accident!” (Another mantra.)

It was early in the season; Juan wasn’t experienced. I carefully explained again the problem in touching another player. I thought I solved the problem as any good coach could. I was wrong.

“Tweee! Foul on Number 4”
“It was an accident!”

Again, I explained the problem. Again I thought I had resolved the problem. Again I was wrong.

“Twee! Foul on Number 4”
“It was an accident!”

This was getting ridiculous.

At the next practice, I looked to see who brought Juan. Perhaps a father, or older brother could work with him, and reduce the one-armed chopper. Sigh. No such luck. He rode in on his bicycle.

Practice went as second practices do. Same as the first. I am not messing up the names as much, and I can start to separate the better players to those not as good. Everything great until the scrimmage.

“Juan, you CAN’T hit the other players!”
“It was an accident.”

Oh, boy. I could see a long, long season ahead of me.

Game two.

“Twee! Foul on Number 4”
“It was an accident!”

The back of my neck started to get red. Most times I get a wonderful group of parents. This time was no exception. But I could just imagine the conversations going on in the stands.

“Why do we have to keep losing the ball because of that Juan kid?”
“Can’t the coach teach him better?”
“Shouldn’t the coach do something?”

I didn’t hear those comments out-loud, but the thoughts were being psychically projected right into my brain. At every whistle for those fouls, I shrank one inch.

Diplomatically, I asked, “Juan, do you have anyone to work with at home on your basketball?
“Not really. My neighbor is only 4 and I beat him.” (I hoped that meant as in “better play” and not “foul him until he is black and blue.”)
“Do you want to come about half an hour early and we can work together?”
His eyes lit up. “Sure.”
It seems like every season I pick up one or two players that I spend extra time with.

Juan showed up a half-hour early for the practice. I will admit to being sorely tempted to show him what it is like to be fouled by a 45-year-old, 190 pound man, but kept my composure. I showed him skills as to taking the ball WITHOUT touching the other player, how to keep hands up, and simply cause confusion without touching. I showed him how to block without fouling.

He soaked it in like a sponge. Good, that is all he needed, a little one-on-one time. Practice went well. And then the scrimmage…..

“Juan. You CAN’T touch the other players”
“It was---“ and the entire team said, “an accident!”
“Juan, what about those things I showed you”
“I forgot.”
“Coach, what are you showing Juan?”
“I just wanted to show Juan some extra steps.”
“Can you show us?”

Thus my practices became extended by a half-hour. I still worked with Juan individually for most of that extra time. There had to be SOMETHING that would turn off that switch on fouls!

We entered into a familiar pattern. Juan and I practiced together, the team practiced, we played games.

“Tweee! Foul on Number 4.”

I went home and tore my hair out. I had never coached a kid with such a mental block! His dribbling had improved, his shots actually came close, and some passes were quite good. I remembered that I had never seen a mother, or a father, or friend appear at the game with him, and so, taking some long, deep breaths, would calm down. Maybe a hard home life would make up for this.

Halfway through the season, I had enough.

“Juan, if you get five fouls, I am pulling you for the rest of the game.” In our league we didn’t keep track of individual fouls (since no one expected a Juan) and there was no fouling out. There was now.

Of course, it was only a matter of time, that being in the third quarter.

“Tweee! Foul on Number 4”
“That was only four fouls!” (something new)

But we both knew it was five.

“Juan – go sit on the bench.”

He sat at the farthest end, as far away from me as possible. Angry, defiant and upset. After all, it was only an “accident.” I sat on my end, feeling 10% guilty for Juan, 10% guilty for the parents of my team, 10% guilty for the parents of the other team, and 70% justified that I have to teach these kids correct basketball.

After the game, I tried to go over the Juan to explain, but he had left. At the next practice, he showed up, cheerful as ever, as if nothing had happened. He scrimmaged, and actually, honestly and truly did not foul a single soul! I thought, “Hey. I found the switch.”

For the next game, I again told Juan that after five fouls, he would be out. With a grim and serious expression he nodded his agreement. Things were looking up!

“Tweee! Foul on Number 4”
“Tweee! Foul on Number 4”
“Tweee! Foul on Number 4”

It was Juan at his worst! I think he got three fouls in three minutes! I called Juan over:

“Juan. If you foul out, I am suspending you from the next game.”

I saw his face drop. This was going too far! But I had to do something to get through to this kid! Maybe something drastic. He played the rest of the game good as gold. Foul number 4 came at the beginning of the fourth quarter.

“Please, God,” I thought “Just one more quarter. That is all I ask. One quarter.” But it was not to be. Within the last two minutes, Juan went in for the steal (gulp!) and actually got the ball! I could see it was a clean steal!

“Tweee! Foul on Number 4”
“It was… was……” he couldn’t finish.

The referees knew Juan. The parents knew Juan. Everybody expected the foul, and it was easy for the referee to make this call, even though it was incorrect.

Juan came over with tears in his eyes.

“I’m suspended for the next game” he shrieked.
“No, Juan. You are not. That was a bad call on the ref’s part. I will let you play.”

Through the tears, he looked at me and smiled. We bonded for that brief moment. He had vindication.

Juan didn’t show up at the next practice. He had never missed one before, and the events of the last week were too much for it to be a coincidence. Maybe something was wrong. He didn’t show up at the next game. Something was definitely wrong. After he missed the next practice, I asked the other boys where Juan lived. No one knew. I asked where he went to school? One boy said, “I think he goes to my school. Washington Elementary.”

The next week I visited Washington Elementary after school was out.

“I am looking for Juan Gonzalez,” I told the principal. (I had gotten the last name off the permission slip.) She looked at me with a half-puzzled, half bemused look on her face.

“What Grade is he in?”
“The Third.”
“Why don’t you talk to the Third-grade teacher?” she said, giving me directions.

I met Mrs. Hostler.

“I am looking for Juan Gonzalez.”

She looked at me with the same half-puzzled, half-bemused look.

“What is it?”
“Many of the Mexican students feel that Caucasians treat them all alike. As a partial joke, and partial reaction, they refer to themselves as one name, being ‘Juan Gonzalez’ Perhaps if you describe him…?”

“He had a crooked front tooth and—“
“Michael,” she said with a smile. (Great! I even had his name wrong this whole time!) “What about him? Do you know where he is?”
“Uh….I was hoping you would tell me!”
“No,” she sighed, “It is not uncommon. Either better work rumored elsewhere. Or a relative invites the family. I have had a few Mexican students just not come in. No explanation, no note, nothing. Michael hasn’t been here for over two weeks.”
“Do you have an address? Somewhere to find him?”
“We aren’t supposed to give that out. I only met his mother once, and to be honest, I don’t think you would find them at that address. I am sorry.”

While Mrs. Hostler may have had this experience a few times, this was a first for me. I felt as if my heart had dropped into my shoes. After all that work I had put into that kid!

“You might like this,” she said brightening, “It was a picture he drew. Now that I see you, I am sure he would want you to have it.”

She went over to that wall that is in every classroom in the world, in which the students’ artwork is displayed. She pulled off a child’s drawing and handed it to me.

I couldn’t help it, the tears gushed out. It was the familiar child drawing, with two stick figures, one obviously a child, the other an adult. They were bouncing a ball between them. The adult had on a backwards baseball cap (just like I always wore) and a big “C” on the shirt (just like my coach’s shirt I wore). At the top of the sheet were the pre-printed words, obviously describing the assignment—“My Best Friend.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know he meant that much to you.” How do I explain that he didn’t mean that much to me? That he was just a kid that needed a little more coaching. It was the fact of how much I had meant to him. How hard his young life was, as compared to my easy upbringing. How much more could I have done for him?

As if she could read my thoughts, the teacher said, “Don’t feel badly. You gave Michael some very happy moments for the time that the two of you could be together. He clearly liked you very much, and that should be enough.”

With an awkward “thank you” I left. I matted that drawing, and placed it on the wall in my study. As I type this, I must have glanced at it 1000 times.

Juan (I still think of him as “Juan”) taught me a valuable lesson. For the time that I interact with other people, I do not have to play the assigned role given me. If they want a friend, I can be a friend. If they want a father, a big brother, a grandfather, or just an ear, I can be any of those. And while I cannot be there for them 2 years ago, nor 2 years hence, I can be that thing they need right now. While I may think they need a coach, they may really need a friend.

I still coach the same. I still get the same joys and frustrations. But now I take a little time to make sure that my players don’t need just a coach, but may also need something else.

And Michael? If you are out there and read this, I want you to know that your best friend from third grade has a basketball hoop up, and you can come over and play anytime. I’ll even let you foul.