Mr. January: Tom Ritter. Ooh la la.

Week before last, Tom Ritter, a former science teacher in Orwigsburg, PA, filed suit with a U.S. District Court against the Blue Mountain School District on the grounds that its schools were illegally teaching evolution. Ritter’s belief is: evolution is akin to atheism, which is also a religion by his justification.

Ritter told the Christian Post : “I didn’t pay too much attention to biology before, but now in retirement saw problems that I couldn’t overlook any longer.”

(I feel a “two things” itemization coming on.)

Two things:

  1. I guess there must be a God because this guy is retired;
  2. He taught science for ten years, but he “never paid much attention to biology”? I’ve noticed this seems to be an underlying theme amongst folks who are allergic to the notion of evolution, yet it’s particularly frightening when a public school teacher admits he’s dismissed a major curricular component due to lack of personal interest. Facepalm.

It gets better, though. The court documents filed on January 18 should win Ritter a nomination for this year’s Darwin Award. My bet is that there were no lawyers involved in helping Tom with this claim. Just a hunch. You decide.

Yes, oh, yes. Teaching Theory of Evolution is exactly “like teaching Jesus is Lord,” especially when it’s done by those silly and unscientific, religious Atheists who want to tax people illegally for their schemes. Reading this, I know Ritter’s GOT to have an outstanding 9/11 conspiracy theory outlined in a notebook somewhere next to his thoughts about JFK’s real killer and a timeline of events for Jimmy Hoffa’s murder.

I was dying to sop up more information about Mr. Biology-is-Not-for-Me after discovering his ridiculous charges, and, lucky me! There’s an entire website devoted to Tom, including my favorite page, “Tom Ritter fills an important Niche.” After reading the entire screen, I wasn’t sure what that “niche” was or if it was “important.” However, I did learn Tom proudly claims to have read only one religious book in his life, unless the reader considers The Chronicles of Narnia theological material. Oh, and he is capable of combatting atheism with his “stentorian voice.” I wonder if he has a cape and tights to match that superpower.

The site even posts Tom Ritter’s resume along with a letter of character from James Clymer, former president of the Constitution Party. This guy is Ooooold Skool Tea Party — from way before the Stepford housewives figured out how to post in online community bulletin boards. The CP believes the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services are unconstitutional, that abortion is wrong, and the death penalty is legit. Because no crazy, religious nut-job army is complete without bigotry, these Constitutionalists also believe homosexuality should be a legally punishable offense. Apparently, Tom’s got a lot of deeply rooted, political reasons for not wanting to pay taxes, not just this pesky evolution thing he’s suing the district over. Being the uber-Christian that he is, though, I think it’s a little weird he’s against helping needy families to the extreme degree his party advertises. After all, Jesus really hated social welfare, right? Ritter should double-check that part of The Chronicles of Narnia (or whatever that other religious book was that he read).

Frivolous lawsuit and wacky politics aside, my main complaint is that Tom Ritter and his “stentorian voice” were allowed to teach America’s future scientists something that was most likely not science — and for a decade. Every time we unleash ignorance into the classroom like that, it puts our children, who are already way behind the scores of many industrialized countries, further lagging after those elsewhere across the globe. Current national findings from the U.S. Department of Education reflect that American students are not even measuring up to our own flailing standards as less than half are performing satisfactorily in science. Perhaps, we need to get back to teaching (and funding) science and math programs, et al, and quit pussyfooting around with religion, which is irrefutably dumbing districts down. The rest of the civilized world is LOL’ing at us with our Jesus horsey parks and teachers who sue schools for teaching evolution.

So how do we protect ourselves from Ritter-festation? Parents have to become voters, and those voters must become interested in placing value once again on academia. Our children need teachers who are truly qualified, and those teachers need to have a sense of security in exchange for all of the years they invested in training to be the best educators our kids deserve. On top of that, they need fair compensation and incentives, such as benefits and pensions instead of department cuts and extended pay freezes, to perform at their highest levels — because healthy people are self-worthy and understand they shouldn’t be expected to work for free.

We’re quick as parents to make fun of this Ritter guy and his hilarious court documents while most of us are even more disconnected from our children’s education process. The math and science team that meets twice a week at my daughter’s school has about ten kids enrolled. It’s barely hanging on. The film club, however, had over a hundred students apply last fall. Where are our priorities? What are we teaching our kids? We’re not going to get our students interested in discovering a cure for cancer by continuing to build bigger football stadiums. The math and science team should get equal billing with the basketball team on the school’s marquee instead of always being relegated to invisibility. In order to monitor the loonies like Tom Ritter and ensure our youngest scientists and mathematicians are headed in the right direction, we’ve got to participate and familiarize ourselves with what’s going on between the bells.

As for the court case in Pennsylvania, well, I’m sure Ritter will deliver his attack on Atheism as promised. He’s got that “stentorian voice.” I, for one, am looking forward to that.

— KK

See also: PZ Myers’ completely fantastic, awesome, hilarious take on this Tom Ritter twit. Clickity-click now.

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Bill Donohue, bite me.

I hope God is prescribing Bill Donohue, President of the Catholic League, ten bazillion gamillion Hail Marys right about now.

This morning, NPR played a sound bite so embarrassing that I swear I could hear SNL sketch writers feverishly reworking it into a last minute skit for Saturday’s broadcast. When interviewed regarding his position on artist David Wojnarowicz’s short film, which Donohue and his Ned Flanders Army recently had removed from the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, Donohue said it was unfair that museums are federally funded “leisure activities for the rich” when the “working class” doesn’t frequent them. He said he’d like to see our tax dollars go toward paying for entertainment that better suits the average American, like wrestling.

Although, I am sure the Pope, who hangs out at the world famous Sistine Chapel Wrestling Arena (painted by one of the most famous wrestlers of all time, cough, cough), must have cringed himself into contortion, Mr. Bill Donohue continued to discuss how he, himself, had not attended any museums in forever. The pride in his voice was unsettling because it’s a bit abnormal for someone to be so delighted with himself for lacking cultural merit.

As if that wasn’t enough, Donohue wants all funding pulled now for the museum. God is gonna be super pissed about that. After all, religious art is a major part of what I see in museums. It’s always relevant and generally reverent.

Captain Crazy told the Post:

I hope they will reconsider funding. After all, why should the working class pay for the leisure, e.g., going to museums, of the upper class? We don’t subsidize professional wrestling, yet the working class has to pay for the leisure of the rick. Not only that, because the elites don’t smoke, they bar the working class from smoking in arenas. This is class discrimination and should be opposed by those committed to social justice.” [SIC]

(Read the full interview with the Post here. It is amazing. Seriously.)

Oh, sheesh. Lighten up, Francis.

The irony of this is really that Donohue thinks wrestling is more wholesome than fine art, which begs the question: Is Donohue also ignorant of the basics of American wrestling? It’s kind of like the Bible, yes, but with more sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. I can’t speak for the Pope, but I am pretty sure he’d rather endorse the Smithsonian before the WWF.

Furthermore, why does Bill Donohue repeatedly confuse the “working class” with people who would prefer wrestling events? Last I checked, I am a card carrying unionista who also has a family membership at the museum. Bite me, Bill.

This asshat has gotten pretty far with his boycott. The Smithsonian actually removed the “offensive” art in question. It’s important to understand that no one is going to stand up and protect you from the crazies who are trying to introduce “intelligent design” to your kids and limit your freedoms of speech, etc. You have to stand up for yourself, your opinions, your rights, et al, and do the work necessary to ensure people like Donohue and his band of freakazoids are powerless.

If you do nothing, you get nothing.

What happens at the prayer pole stays at the prayer pole, right?

My kid goes to public school. We pay fifty gazillion dollars a year in property taxes, so it’s not exactly a free resource. I expect her to come home every afternoon with a wrinklier brain than when I kissed her goodbye that morning. Otherwise, I’ve wasted my money, and the school has wasted her time.

When we converge at the end of her school day, I try to always inspect my kiddo’s middle school noggin for traces of the day’s edjumacational learnin’:

“…and then we began the section about the Comanche Indians after lunch. You know, Quanah Parker is on my book cover this year.”

“Outstanding. It is Texas History. How were your morning classes?”

“Great! Oh, I joined the Christian prayer group around the flagpole this morning, by the way.”

[Insert very loud sound of needle skipping across record.]

My seventh grader proceeded to describe something that sounded like a fundamentalist version of Lord of the Flies around the school’s flagpole. What the holy hay are they thinking up there?! Isn’t this why there’s a freaking Christian school down the street?

My daughter has grown up in an unprejudiced home, and I’m proud of that. Her grandfather is a retired Methodist minister, but her uncle and his family are Jewish. Her cousins are Muslim, as are her two best friends. Her father is Atheist. Her other grandfather is Pagan. I’m still looking for an answer, but I’m pretty sure it has more to do with numbers and lab experiments than anything else. All the same, I encourage her curiosity as long as it’s sincere and not rooted in societal pressure.

My kid reassured me, “Mom, I know what you’re thinking, and I just want you to understand they invited us all to pray to any Lord.”

“Satan, too?”

“Of course, not! Mom!”

“Well? There is probably a kid in your school who is afraid to pray for his or her god(s) from fear of not fitting in with the Flagpole Society. Look at how hard it was for your friend to be Muslim at school. They gave her a terrible time, remember? It’s impossible for prayer to be all-inclusive at a middle school. I just want you to consider that.”

I promised I wouldn’t call the school or do anything rash or similarly ignorant. I mean, we are in America (!) the Melting Pot of Every-freaking-thing-on-the-planet. I accept the terms.

I want my kid’s school to also accept the terms. Student led prayer in school is religious gang warfare if everybody isn’t given the same playing privileges. Warriors, come out to plaaay. Let’s be realistic about this prayer thing.

Muslims, grab your prayer rugs. It’s cool at the school.

Can we get some Buddhist prayer rollers up in here?

What about some morning mantras to begin our Hindu day at school? (Still comfortable, Flagpolers?)

Is that the bell? Wait, here come the Jewish kids. They should get a time slot around the pole, too. Jesus was a Jew and all. Only fair! (This should only tack on ten more minutes, don’t worry.)

Ok, everybody needs to leave so the Wiccan kids can have a solitary moment around the flagpole. Thanks. (This is still cool with the school board, yeah?)

Did you hear an E-Meter? (Oh, God. This is going to take all damn day. Hey, at least this is prohibiting students from learning about evolution. Look on the bright side.)

The Prince of Darkness, y’all! Kinda early for costumes, but we’ve got to give everybody an equal chance to hit up the pole service, so…yep.

Sweet! These guys are ON IT! What do I have to do to get my lightsaber?

Look, there’s nothing wrong with following the beat of your own drum. There’s also nothing wrong with following the beat of a billion drums. However, Flagpolers, your constitutional rights to free speech and freedom of religion don’t mean you get to trample on the same rights of others. If you’re going to host group prayers in which you invite classmates without parental consent or consideration, be courteous enough to understand that your decade here on earth doesn’t bestow you special powers to convert or exclude, especially in a taxpayer environment.

This is your final warning, Lord of the Flies Prayer Group. Push me any further, and I’ll make sure to go up there for a pole-side Darwin homage with my kid just to balance things out a bit.

Amen.

Open Letter to the Children of Westboro Baptist Church

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Dear Westboro Kids,

First of all, I’d like to thank you for coming to our city. Because of your visit, which our community turned into a fundraiser, we were able to generate almost three times the amount needed in order to assist the Resource Center Dallas. Plus, the Holocaust Museum enjoyed a record breaking day.

I know we can’t really be friends since you’re sold on the notion I might be headed for Hell. You made that clear this weekend when I watched your organization protest several locations. As your parents and church family paraded you from the vans to the sidewalk while holding signs printed with hate-filled slogans, I felt overwhelming sadness for you. I must admit, I was unable to comprehend your confusing messages, but read your shame and humiliation with a degree of certainty as the crowd yelled its disgust toward your parents.

It doesn’t feel good, does it? No, and I am deeply sorry. I understand in that regard because it hurts me to hear people scream mean things about my father. He’s gay. He’s not some kind of deviant mutant of his own free will or someone who has chosen a ridiculously inconvenient life. Dad is human – full of sin and flaw – just like you.

Aside from being totally gay, my sixty-seven year-old father is also a retired minister who now devotes his time to the church as its organist. I’d love for your Pastor Phelps to meet him because Dad actually holds a doctorate in theology, which is an advanced degree your church’s leader has yet to earn. Coupled with his many years of professional experience, my “fag” dad’s extensive religious qualifications could be beneficial in helping your Pastor Phelps correct his biblical misgivings, which have caused your lives to be unnecessarily restrictive. Your grandpa and my father could also discuss the reality of helping God’s sick and dying within our community based upon his personal experience chartering one of north Texas’s early AIDS support groups in the mid-eighties. My parent went as far as to care for AIDS patients in his own home and then even bury one in our plot when families like yours turned their cold hearts away. (R.I.P., Bruce. Here’s a ‘penny’ for you, friend.) Ugh, those “fag beasts” are so revolting with their good deeds, right? Kids, come on.

Then again, maybe folks like your dad and my dad have pushed you to the point where you’re completely turned off to the whole religious concept, and that’s okay. You are free to have faith in your own beliefs. Look to Lauren. Look to Nate. If you’re uncomfortable remembering the examples provided by those who have left your family after questioning its hypocrisies, then look to me. I don’t subscribe to my father’s faith, yet he and his former congregations embrace who I am with the same love and kindness. Just understand, there will always be unwanted politics behind every pulpit, but hate is something that should never be tolerated.

Another thing that should never be tolerated is child abuse. The US Department of Health and Human Services defines abuse and neglect within the state of Kansas to include:

  • The infliction of physical, mental, or emotional harm, or the causing of a deterioration of a child, and may include, but shall not be limited to, maltreatment or exploiting a child to the extent that the child’s health or emotional well-being is endangered [Ann. Stat. § 38-2202];
  • Acts or omissions by a parent, guardian, or person responsible for the care of a child that results in harm to a child or presents a likelihood of harm [Ann. Stat. § 38-2202];
  • Failure to [. . .] remove a child from a situation that requires judgment or actions beyond the child’s level of maturity, physical condition, or mental abilities and that results in bodily injury or a likelihood of harm to the child [Ann. Stat. § 38-2202].

Furthermore, nowhere within the department publication does it allow for religious exclusions to the above definitions, except in the case of medical treatment.

Is CPS investigating your case? You and your brothers and sisters are made to regularly carry incendiary signage and endure harsh weather conditions for extended periods in front of angry onlookers. You’ve been told this is the work of the Lord, when it’s more like child labor for the Phelps’ cause. Routinely, you are subjected to unpredictable violence, threats, verbal demeaning assaults from counter-protestors, and must have police protection, which has been responsible for helping you escape the dangerous rush of enraged mobs. On top of that, your parents allow their daughters to wiggle and writhe around like the Fly Girls in tight-fitting and shortly hemmed clothing and then broadcast that on the internet for the entire world to view in the name of religious parody. If you’re truly doing right by God, why has he failed to send a well-equipped army of followers to assist you in delivering his message (or at the very least sent someone with less outdated video editing expertise who could make the organization appear less like a cult from an eighties sitcom and more like a credible, religious organization)? Is your life truly relegated to pacing sidewalks around the nation, developing hand cramps from holding multiple signs of precautionary hate and skewed snippets from the Bible? No, it doesn’t have to be. If you need help and your parents refuse to honor your request for assistance, please call 911 and let the authorities know how you feel.

Now, look, I know you’ve been taught to hate gays based on so-called biblical references, but have you truly read the Bible regarding that topic? Of course, you haven’t. You’re children. Jesus says nothing about homosexuality anywhere in the entire book, and, remember, he alone was the chosen one — the son of God. Many people choose to reference the writings of Apostle Paul — a man who, like Jerry Falwell, believed he was chosen to deliver prophecy — in Romans 1 when he discusses the wickedness he’s witnessed amongst Jews and Gentiles who have worshipped men as gods, serving the creature rather than the creator. Yet, many fail to read the full passage into the eighth verse of the second chapter, which makes it clear that Paul, who is also considered a possible homosexual by a variety of theological scholars, has consulted with, of all people, King Soloman, who infamously had many wives and his own questionable sexual behaviors. Paul goes on to address hypocrites, such as your family full of sinners, and preaches that we are all capable of being freed from the bondage of our wrongdoings. This, he echoed from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. In effect, God doesn’t hate fags.

Moving right along to other fun spots in the Bible. Leviticus…oh, brother. If all you’ve learned from Leviticus is that men shouldn’t do the same things with men that they would do out of love with women, I worry for your Christian soul. There’s a world of forewarning you’ve missed in the exciting readings of Leviticus. Also, when I saw your references to Sodom this weekend, I was confused. Sodom didn’t fall because of rampant gays flaming around the city in fits of lust. The sins of Sodom mentioned by Jesus and the five prophets who discussed the ruination thereof within the Old Testament revealed nothing about homosexuality. The city was prideful, arrogant, unwilling to care for its poor and hungry according to the teachings of Ezekiel. Are the Westboro Baptist Church members Sodomites according to the Bible’s definition? Perhaps. Whatever the case, one point holds true: the Bible is rendered useless when prophets treat the work of man on behalf of God as a Cliff Note’s masterpiece.

By the way, have you gotten to the ‘sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll’ part of the Bible yet? It’s not particularly children’s reading. I’d give it an NC-17 rating in a heartbeat. Good stuff.

You don’t have to agree with me, of course. I’ll still like you if that matters. Hey, my mother is probably reading this and about to pass out from irritation over my possible blasphemy. What if we’re all wrong? I support and respect the rights of all, whether we’re on the same page of religious doctrine or not. My beliefs might bother them, and their beliefs might seem strange to me, but love conquers all who are willing. It’s no one’s place to judge.

This girl was a jewel.

That said, I love you all, even those with hearts full of hatred. When you grow up, I hope you will not look back at what your parents have made you do to Jews, gays, your fellow Baptist churches, Catholic churches, fallen servicemen and women’s families during military funerals, etc., and swell with guilt. The pain inflicted on mankind by your family and church is not your fault. You are granted opportunities in life to make a new path if and when you’re ready, but you must choose this yourself.

“Hate costs plenty. Love would have been free.”

With hope,

Kristan

Rock stars for scientists, please?

There’s a gal named Sally Ride. She was a hero of mine. Still is, sorta.

Month before last, Russell and Bella and I attended Dr. Ride’s lecture at Texas Hall. Having thoroughly enjoyed last year’s astrophysical, mega-deluxe superstar, Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, I just KNEW the series spotlight on Sally was going to be the scientific equivalent of getting baptized by Jesus Christ himself on Easter Sunday. After all, when I was a ten year-old girl — like every other ten year-old girl in the USA, I wanted to be Sally Ride.

The Dr. Ride whom I introduced to my middle school daughter this year was not the same woman I wanted to be in 1983. It’s not Ride’s fault I mistakenly characterized her, but my childhood dreams are definitely somewhat deflated now.

Waiting in line to get a book autographed for her science class

"She's not going to dedicate the book to my school, I don't think."

"Yeah, Mom, she just told that girl she won't personalize autographs or let her take a picture with her. Don't ask, please. Let's just go."

"There you go. Your school? No, I'm sorry, but there are people behind you."

Alright, fine. We'll go outside and take a photo without you, Sally Ride. Poor kid.

Okay, it’s not as if Sally Ride is a member of Metallica or Slayer. There were realistically about two hundred parents and kids in line, none of whom wanted their boobs signed or to give her an embarrassing demo or to cut off a lock of her hair to wear around their necks. They were straight-up, past, present, and future science nerds, barely able to get up the courage to ask for her autograph — the same people who’d faint if Steve Jobs or Bill Gates was behind them at Starbucks. After spending almost an hour delivering an account of why our children need to become scientists and mathematicians, Dr. Ride later treated her young fans as if they were a hassle. This, after Dr. Tyson solved Rubik’s Cubes, signed anything fans brought for hours and hours, and camped out into the wee hours chatting with kids whose parents let them stay up past midnight on a school night. Instead and in contrast: (a) no pictures of Sally Ride with the young girls who were interested in attending science programs and (b) pompous explanations that took forever about why books couldn’t be signed to schools and students due to the “long line” [vomit].

Sally Ride’s ass was not shot into outer space through private funding. Taxpayers like me and my parents and my parents’ parents fund(ed) NASA. An astronaut is a designated American role model, like it or not, especially if that astronaut happens to be the first American woman in space or, more importantly, the one who designed and utilized the highly publicized, revolutionary robotic arm on STS 7. Rock stars, many of whom have signed less meaningful ephemera for me than a book about saving the planet, would owe a fan far less than Ride. Still, I’d be willing to bet James Hetfield or Tom Araya would be better ambassadors of science for this next generation, given the way Ride behaved.

When you treat kids like they’re special, they remember your actions rather than your words. I wonder how many future scientists have been derailed by insensitivity? Come on, scientists. Be rock stars when the kids are looking! The young ones aren’t just fans; they’re those who are going to have to resell Mars to the American public. I’d hate to see 70 year-old physicists panhandling for the succeeding of NASA in 2030 just because none of the middle school kids wanted to grow up to be number-crunching assholes.

Breaks my heart to rant like this because — believe it or not — I’ll always love and admire THE remarkable Sally Ride. Without her, I would’ve thought we were all supposed to just be ballerinas in the eighties.

Hobby Lobby vs. Sarah Palin

Harvey Lacey shared his views regarding that fabulous Sarah Palin with us today on Alexandria: “I think this lady has become a victim of her own advertising,” he wrote in conclusion. 

Indeed.

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I added my own take. (The Palin bait is too easy to refuse on a lazy, Sunday morning.)

“The other day I was secretly enjoying my unintended, three-hour shopping trip at the ultra-conservative and Blue Law-adamant Hobby Lobby. Please tell no one. I SWEAR that I ran in for a frame and got sucked into some kind of black hole of Jesus Christ and half-priced mantle pieces and crazy, little candies called ‘Testamints.’ It could have happened to any of us.

“ANYway, in the clearance aisle, there was just a ton of crap, but in AMAZING abundance there was one item: the pit bull/hockey mom quote mounted on cheesy polyresin. Those things were ALL over the place just begging to be purchased by Stepford soccer moms peeking down the sale aisle (after already finding the fake fruit and flowers and seasonal patio furniture they came for).

“This really reinforces a couple of very basic, fundamental things for me: (a) the hard right wing definitely put too much stock into being able to sell this woman to its target voters — quite literally, even; (b) months later, the people aren’t buying Palin’s trite poo at severely reduced, closeout prices.

“Look, when my elementary school-aged daughter watches the news to crack up at Palin’s ‘jokes,’ that’s an indication Miz Sarah ain’t near the best this Republican party has to offer. In fact, Palin is an insult to true politicians on all sides of the fence — period.”

Neil DeGrasse Tyson mentioned a significant point in a lecture I attended this past February. He explained the correlation of avoidable disasters to our lack of qualified scientists and mathematicians. NDT believes that without properly analyzed funding and public interest, great minds of the future will choose other careers. Perhaps, this theory also applies to qualified public servants and elected officials. 

We seem to be gambling more than anything else. It’s all about picking a team and throwing your support and money down one tube, hoping you’ll hit some kind of political bonanza. At least, that’s the message I’m getting. The last Presidential election was akin to watching the Superbowl. When Obama won, we jumped out of our seats and chest-bumped ourselves into tomorrow with popcorn flying all over the couch and horns honking from the neighborhood beyond our windows. 

I meant it when I called Palin an insult to politicians. She is. Let’s vest ourselves into serious politics again with our feet firmly planted in the soil of society rather than private interests and divided parties. 

If Palin gets a cable show, then I’ll probably watch the hell out of it. She belongs on TV programming, not in my government.

I’ll even buy her bobble head. (Anna Nicole, R.I.P.)

Rock Star of the Month: Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson

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It was about eleven-thirty last night when Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson recognized the guy in front of us in line at the post-lecture signing.

“Your name is Kirby, right?”

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Beyond amazement, the guy responded: “That’s good. Wow, it’s been thirty years. I didn’t think you’d remember meeting me.”

“Of course, I remember! We all swam in your pool, and you fed me that incredible sausage. MAN, that was some good sausage! You still make that?”

Sensing the pressure of the incredibly long line and all of the folks waiting in it, Kirby politely inched forward. Tyson yelled, “Hey! Look me up on Facebook, man. There are some impostors, but you’ll figure it out. Let’s catch up.”

Russell and I swapped awe. The real Neil deGrasse Tyson is on Facebook?! He has fond memories of backyard barbecue delicacies?! Snap. He isn’t just the world’s coolest astrophysicist; he’s also mortal. Insanity. Raise the roof.

Let me back up, though. About a week ago, I was wigging out about what to do for Russell’s Valentine’s Day gift, or, rather, the lack thereof. I didn’t have a lot to spend, but even worse, my efforts to wrangle creative solutions fell short. An attempted beading project looked like something from church camp, 1981.  A Valentine’s recipe search yielded nothing suitable for my pre, pre, pre-beginner cooking level. Randomly, a friend sent a link to Dr. Tyson’s local appearance the following Tuesday, and, as luck might have it, the tickets were FREE. I purchased his latest book The Pluto Files and designed a card, which read:

 

Dear Russell: 

Hello. It is out of dire urgency I write to you this day. 

Allow me to introduce myself properly. I am one of the largest masses within the cosmic Kuiper belt, but you may remember me as: the Planet Formerly Known as Pluto. 

In 2006, I was stripped of my noble title and scientifically reclassified as a “dwarf-planet.” Dwarf planet, my ass. Pfft. 

On Tuesday, February 17, 2009, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of the chief culprits responsible for my planetary demotion, will presumably be talking smack about how I’m not good enough to rank number nine anymore. Your mission is to attend Tyson’s 8 o’clock lecture, during which he’ll blather on about me and other items of astrophysical interest. 

Refer to Ms. Austin for necessary data. 

Sincerely yours (and happiest of Valentine greetings),

Pluto

Dwarf Planet, Kuiper belt

Milky Way Galaxy 

P.S. “PLANET” Earth is a tiny, nearly indiscernible speck stuck in the armpit of the cosmos, and, no, I most certainly do not suffer from planet envy.

So, er, voila! Valentine’s crisis averted in the nerdiest way possible. Nothing says “I love you” like astrophysics, right?

On the evening of the event, we arrived at Texas Hall an hour early, but the front half of the lower level was already packed. That’s right, for a scientist. In Texas, even. Russell and I selected a decent enough spot and got our laptops ready to take notes while the guy behind us was loudly telling everybody within listening proximity why the speaker wasn’t a real scientist. I wondered what you had to do to be a “real scientist.” I mean, is being on NASA’s private advisory council not science-y enough? What about physics degrees from Harvard AND Columbia? Teaching astrophysics at Princeton? Hosting NOVA? Directing the Hayden Planetarium? I could go on, but you get the idea. Eager to draw my own plebeian conclusions, I was relieved when the lights finally dimmed at 8 o’clock, and the President of UT Arlington, James Spaniolo, addressed both levels of the crammed auditorium.

“Is it coincidence,” he began, “that Dr. Tyson was born in the same week of 1958 as NASA was founded?” I decided it was, in fact, mere coincidence after a quick jaunt to Wikipedia revealed no mystical occurrences during the week of my own birth. Heh. Nevertheless, Spaniolo’s question was inadvertently fantastic. Do the laws of physics allow for coincidence?

He continued, “…and if that is not enough, Tyson also won a national gold medal in ballroom dancing.” Really?  Had he also discovered the secret of the pyramids or the whereabouts of Jimmy Hoffa’s dead body? Was there something this nerd hadn’t done? The guy hadn’t even taken the stage, and I already was fantasizing about Being Neil deGrasse Tyson, the sequel in which I manage to redirect the portal from John Malkovich to Dr. Tyson.

Then he appeared: Isaac from “The Love Boat” in jeans, a sports jacket, and cowboy boots. The crowd went bonkers — rock star bonkers. I loved it.

ted-tyson1

“Hold on. I forgot to empty my pockets. I have so much crap in here,” he announced. Placing his “crap” on the podium, he paused, looked at us, and then proceeded to yank his boots clumsily from his feet. “Now I feel like an astrophysicist. Everybody comfortable?”

For the next hour and a half, we listened to Tyson’s diplomatic, sensitive-to-religious-zealots views about our country’s lack of scientific interest and funding apart from times of war or economic competition. “Guess what? If China announced it was going to Mars, we’d be there in ten months. Ten months! Faster if we discovered oil, of course.” Standing on the stage in his socks and with his arms stretched w  i  d  e, he loudly warned us twenty minutes into the discussion:

“There’s no funding for science in this country unless we can make a weapon or the face of God appear at the end of a particle accelerator.”

Tyson told us, “I respect the religious freedom of our nation. It is what we were founded upon. However, that doesn’t mean science is wrong. Science knows what it is and what it isn’t.” When someone asked about the effects of Intelligent Design being introduced into classrooms along with the Big Bang Theory, NDT answered, “It is non-science, the beginning of the end. That’s what the Philosophy of Ignorance is for students. There’s no history of scientists protesting outside of churches. Do you ever see that sort of thing? No. They’re [Creationists] free to believe what they want, and we don’t interfere, but the minute you quit teaching science — it’s just the beginning of the end.” Dr. Tyson elaborated with examples of avoidable, recent occurrences, which he felt were directly related to our societal reluctancies toward progress. “Katrina was a class three hurricane when it hit land. The levees broke after the storm passed. After, OK? AFTER! Faulty engineering is responsible for what happened there. That’s bad math.” He flashed images of the extreme devastation.

Total quiet all around. He truly felt this dumbing down of society. Furiously.

“Bridges collapse. Faulty engineering, again. A steam pipe exploded a couple of years ago. Remember this one? This is New York City, folks. What country are we living in that we can’t move steam in a pipe from one place to the next without this kind of thing happening?! OK, here, look, this is a good one: Two trains collided, and, by the way, this isn’t some podunk town. It’s Los Angeles. Los Angeles! This is technology that we perfected in this country in, like, 1903. What is going on!?” Then he let us in on the obvious answer: “Smart people went elsewhere.” We’re not generating interest amongst youngsters, and they know they can make money doing other things.

Naturally, I thought about my own kiddo. Bella was wildly irritated with me recently because I forced her into joining the science club. The school even tried to bribe the reluctant kids with the Golden Calf — a non-uniform day. Behold! Still, it was a hard sell until The Bell actually reported back from her first meeting: “Oh, my gosh. Mom! Science club was sooooo much fun. We did an experiment where we…and then we…and…and…and…thanks for making me do it.” That’s all it took. I am all too familiar with the validity of Tyson’s previous point regarding funding and urgency of promoting math and science. Our teachers generally do their best with the resources they can afford from their allotted and, frequently, personal budgets. Unfortunately, it’s the initial spark that seems to be most absent, and that’s what is truly crucial, I think. He’s right; we need to step up our game or continue to decline.

Earlier in the discussion, NDT presented several versions of the Periodic Table of Elements color-coded according to melting point, compatibility, as well as years and nationality of discovery. Then he pointed out the most common elements found within our planet as well as those found most frequently within the universe. As it turns out, Earth and its universe share four of the top five from both lists. With sextillion stars, Tyson noted, it would be, perhaps, the most conceited thought to believe we’re alone, that there aren’t beings looking at us exactly the way we’re looking at them through reversed images of the vast galaxies and universes between us.

We sat, all five bajillion gawzillion batillion of us, in the dark now, silent and thoughtful as the last image of the cosmos lingered on the screen. Russell held my hand, and I put my head on his shoulder.

“The universe is you, and you are the universe. There can be no greater reward than that.”

Doubting Thomas behind us broke the silence, “This guy is fucking genius.” I guess Tyson’s not just a rock star after all. He might even be a real scientist.

Or, perhaps, NDT is more aptly also a minister of science, a reverend of astrophysics, preacher man of the stars. Why? Because as the daughter of one Reverend Dr. Jack P. Busby, I spent my entire childhood held captive in a church pew listening to the quirkiest, smartest, most articulate theologian in this area — my dad — peddle Christianity every Sunday. He meant it. He BELIEVED in it, and I really wanted to feel the connection his congregation members obviously felt when they raised their hands and voiced their Amens and praise-to-be’d their Jesuses. It just never happened. Something wasn’t there, and I was pretty sure I was gonna end up somewhere on the dark side of Satan’s lair eternally confused. However, as I sat there with my head on Russell’s shoulder and my hand inside his, listening to Dr. Tyson’s evidence, feeling new and undeniable fellowship with Doubting Thomas and the other five bajillion gawzillion batillion people around us, it occurred to me that I was at church. Finally. It only took me thirty-five years to get there. Scientifically speaking, that’s not such a bad rate of evolution, I guess.

As the lights came up and Neil deGrasse Tyson began taking questions from the peanut gallery, Russell quickly ran to grab a place in line for the book signing. He texted my phone: “You’re so hot when you’re in student mode.”  We smiled at each other from across Texas Hall. Success. My Valentine scheme was triumphant.

The questions continued for an hour and a half: “What do you think about string theory?” “Does it bother you that you’re light years away from everything you’ve studied in the cosmos?” “Should we break up the NASA monopoly and initiate private launches?” “What do you think about PETA — People for the Ethical Treatment of Aliens?” When Dr. Tyson announced he’d taken the last question of the evening, a little boy stood in the far aisle somewhat dejected as the rest of the audience members settled back into their seats. Dr. Tyson interrupted the low muffle of the crowd:

“Wait, there’s a little kid right there. I would like to take his question if you don’t mind.”

The kid stepped up to the microphone and adjusted it as Dr. Tyson asked, “OK, how old are you?”

“I’m ten.”

“Ten? I was your age when I became interested in the stars. I used to look through my telescope at night and wonder what all was out there. You ever do that?”

“Yes, I do.”

“You’re up kind of late, aren’t you? You must have a good question.”

It was almost half past eleven on a school night. The kid stood there for a minute before his voice filled the auditorium, “Dr. Tyson, I was wondering…what would you do with a black hole if you could control it?”

(Sigh) You know, sometimes there are moments in my life I know, as they’re occurring, I’ll never forget. This was one of them.

“A black hole, a black hole, a black hole of my own. Hmmmm. You ever do laundry at home?”

“Yes.”

“Well, you know how sometimes you wind up with one sock and always wonder what happened to the other one?”

The kid laughed, “Yeah.”

“Well, if I had my own black hole, I’d use it for throwing all those ‘other’ socks into. And garbage. I’d let everybody throw their garbage in it. That’s probably the best thing you could do with a black hole.”

“Thank you.”

“Wait, you know, if you ever just happen to find a black hole, you shouldn’t get too close because this thing called spaghettification will occur, and you’ll stretch ooooouuuuttt, which wouldn’t be very good. That’s why you should just stick to the lost sock and garbage idea.”

Gosh, I know it sounds crazy, but the whole thing made my eyes kinda mist up. I closed my laptop and joined Russell, who was still texting me sweet messages from his place in line on the other side of the room.

Even though he was absurdly late and totally off-schedule, NDT happily settled into a seat at the table on stage and signed books, etc., for the crowd. The line stretched around the entire auditorium. I couldn’t get past his enthusiasm. It was contagious. As he signed Russell’s book, I asked about the Rubik’s Cube next to him: “Do you always carry one or what’s going on here?”

He laughed, “No, they [pointing to a couple by the side of the stage] brought this and asked if I’d sign it for them. See, it’s only solved on one side, so if I sign it, it’ll just be scrambled if they ever try to solve it entirely. I’m going to solve it for them when the line’s died down, and then I’ll sign it.”

Astrophysicists are incredibly kind, patient rock stars, apparently. At least, this one is. What a super cool guy.

A little after midnight, we dragged our weary brains and feet to the confines of our vehicle. Dr. Tyson was still wiling away the night signing autographs, of course. Russell thanked me all the way home: “I really enjoyed that. I want you to know tonight was the coolest thing ever, and I love you so much.” He might have ruined Pluto’s rep, but NDT saved Valentine’s Day for me.

The next evening, Bella asked, “Mom? Didn’t you say you got a NASA sticker for me?”

After giving it to her, she immediately put it on her school binder,”This is so cool! Thanks.”

(This Neil deGrasse Tyson guy was scoring me all kinds of street cred, yo.)

“You’re welcome, Bella. Look, I have a brochure, also, on the scientist Russell and I saw last night.”

“Neil deGrassy…”

“deGrasse. He is an astrophysicist. You know what that means?”

“Yes, he studies the stars and planets.”

Good for her. “Yeah, but look at all the other stuff he does.” I totally sold Dr. T to her like there was no tomorrow, or, rather, like she was the only one who could save tomorrow. As she read through his bio, Bella said he seemed really cool. Then, she stuffed the brochure into her school binder behind the NASA sticker.

“You’re taking it to school?”

“Yeah, Mom. This guy is awesome. My news crew teacher is always asking for us to bring in stuff about good role models.” Wow. I went from being the worst mother in the world for making my kid join the nerd squad to being a beloved Science Mom. Yep. I’d ask for my gold star right about now, but I think this is the sort of thing parents are *supposed* to do by default of, well, being parents.

The world, with us in it, is kind of a horrifyingly beautiful, yet predictably random place. When everything comes together and the seas seem calm and endless, there are twice as many stars in the sky. Last night, Dr. Tyson donned his astrophysical superhero cape and reminded us of the importance of exploration — mentally and physically. He stormed the stage with anecdotes about Sir Isaac Newton. He implored us to become patrons within our scientific communities, to go out and foster our future generations. I’m giving my kid her starter cape to wear for her closed circuit, televised school report about Dr. Tyson’s role in universal scientific exploration. But first, I had to know: “Bella, who was Sir Isaac Newton?”

“He was the guy who first talked about inertia.”

Inertia, she said — NOT “The Seatbelt Law.”

Dr. Tyson, there’s hope after all.

(Thank you.)