Sunday, July 29, 2007

More tales from the nude beach...

My post topless on the beach -- which I wrote nearly a year ago -- remains my #1 post, bringing in tons of hits from search engines every day.

I hadn't realized the subject of nude sunbathing was quite that interesting. At the time it was a post I tossed off practically as filler. But I'm starting to think that many of you out there in cyberspace have never been to a nude beach (or even a topless beach), and perhaps are curious. So in the interest of making sure my blog provides a valuable public service, today I'm going to try to remember more about the subject.

One question that comes up in a lot of search queries is about nude beaches for families. I personally didn't see many kids the few times I went to the nude beach in New Jersey, and the few I saw were very small. My impression is that bringing kids along for nudist activities is more a nude camping thing. I've never done that, but I've heard about it.

On the other hand, the beaches in France are full of kids, and partial nudity abounds. It's common for little kids to swim naked, and as I said in my earlier post, lots of the women go topless. I don't recall seeing that many moms going topless when they have kids with them, but I wasn't really looking out for that.

Another very common topic for search queries is people being shy about going topless on the beach for the first time. That seems like a pretty logical topic to wonder about since it must happen: A woman wants to go to the nude beach because all her friends are doing it, but she's shy about it. Really, that's kind of an erotic image. Unfortunately I don't have any anecdotes about that because I've never seen any obvious examples. All the people I've seen going nude or partially nude looked like they were either completely blasé about the whole thing or they were actually getting off on it. I know in my own case that was the whole draw: the thought of all these random strangers wanting to get a good look. So when the guy I was with would tell me about this or that guy taking an extra long look (apparently they wouldn't do it much when I was looking at them, but they were ignoring my companion), it was kind of amusing. For my inner anthropologist.

It's a good idea to go with a guy, though, because that way all of the random strangers keep their distance. Whenever we would get separated (if one of us would have to go get something) guys would come around and try to start a conversation with me. It's probably absurd of me to be annoyed by that, but I guess on some level I'd decided that the rules of the game should be "look, don't pester" and those guys were ruining it for everybody. Maybe other ladies feel differently, and in that case they're better off going to the nude beach with other women.

(Feminists will probably be annoyed that I'm taking it for granted that guys will assume that a group of women together are fair game for being hit on. But seriously, if you'd like to go hang out with a bunch of other women without having random guys hit on you, the straight area of the nude beach is the wrong choice.)

One funny thing that happened when I was at the nude beach was that I saw a guy get a citation for public urination. Apparently for some people the mere fact of being covered by pants is their primary inhibition from peeing -- not hygiene or social convention or stuff like that. As soon as the guy was done, a beach cop drove up in a beach buggy and chewed him out, pointing out the public toilets not far away.

That was the only time I've ever seen anyone get a ticket for public urination. I've certainly never seen anyone get in trouble for it here in France. Now that I think about it, I'm not sure it's even illegal here. After all, with all the dog crap in the streets, who's going to notice a little human urine here and there?

That's all I can think of for the moment. I wish I had more stories for you, but I didn't go that many times...

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Morals for children in Cars and Happy Feet

lead elder: Harmless? It is this kind of backsliding that has brought the scarcity upon us!
a foreign penguin: Excuse me smiley, could you speak plain penguin please?
Mumble: He thinks the food shortage has something to do with me.
lead elder: Do you not understand that we can only survive here when we are in harmony? And when you and your foreign friends lead us into your easy ways you offend the Great Guin -- you invite Him to withhold His bounty!
an elder: He rules the seasons.
an elder: He giveth and He can taketh away.
Mumble: Wait a minute -- happy feet can't cause a famine.
an elder: If that kind of pagan display didn't cause it, then what did?
Mumble: I think it comes from outside -- from way beyond the ice. There are things out there we don't understand.
foreign penguins: Mysteries! Mind-boggling mysteries! Mystic beings!
Mumble: Yeah, aliens. I've heard they're smart.
an elder: He's insane!
Mumble: No, they might be smarter than all of us -- who knows?

an elder: He drove the fish away, and now he's ranting this rubbish.
a foreign penguin: Let me tell something to you.
an elder: Don't touch me, you filthy varmint! [smacks him]
Mumble: Watch it!
lead elder: So it follows: dissent leads to division and division leads us to doom! You Mumble "Happy Feet" must go.
Mom: Don't you take one step, Sweetheart. You have as much right to be here as any of these daffy old fools.
all: [shocked gasps]
Dad: Norma Jean, I'll deal with this.
Mumble: Pa?
Dad: Mumble, you must renounce your so-called friends, your peculiar thoughts, and your strange ways. If we are devout and sincere in our praise, the fish will return.
Mumble: But Pa...
Dad: Listen boy, I was a backslider myself. I was careless, and now we're paying the price.
Mom: What's this got to do with Mumble?
Dad: That's why he is the way he is.
Mom: There's nothing wrong with him!
Dad: Face it, Norma Jean! Our son's all messed-up!
Mom: He is not messed-up, you hear me?
Dad: Believe me, I know he is!
Mom: How can you say that?
Dad: Because when he was just an egg, I dropped him.
all: [shocked gasps]
Mom: Mumble! Oh, my poor little Mumble!
Mumble: Ma, I'm perfectly fine.
Dad: No you're not, boy. For all our sakes you must stop this freakiness with the feet.
lead elder: Your father speaks wisely. Heed his suffering heart and repent.
Mumble: But it just doesn't make any sense!
lead elder: Then your arrogance leaves us no choice!
Dad: No, wait! [to Mumble] Son, you can do this. It ain't so hard.
Mumble: Don't ask me to change, Pa. Because I can't.

Why was I surprised to see this scene in a big-budget animated feature for kids? The answer leads me to another favorite film at our house: Disney/Pixar's Cars:

Cars and Happy Feet are both charming films with a lot to recommend them -- not just in terms of stunning visuals (both are excellent on that count), but also in terms of storytelling. Regardless of what the Disney-phobes say, sometimes kids' blockbusters aren't too bad. And it matters for my sake as well as my kids' sake since any film they love I end up having to watch a million times myself.

For the moment I'm not doing an overall movie review, though, I'd just like to talk about each film's message. (For this topic I'm only covering films that are worth analyzing, which is why I'm skipping Thomas and the Magic Railroad, a film whose story and dialog are so formulaic that I swear the screenplay was written by a computerized script-generating program and whose moral is "if you need to cut corners on your medium-budget film, skimping on writers isn't the place to do it...")

Cars is very much a sports film, so its primary moral is standard sports film fare: learning that there are more important things than winning. The secondary moral deals with the charming little town of Radiator Springs and how it became run-down and forgotten.

Radiator Springs was a jewel strung along the necklace of Route 66: a lively and bustling town back when people used to travel a whole different way ("to have a great time, not to make great time"). It deteriorated to the point of being nearly deserted after it was bypassed by the interstate highway that cut through the land instead of following its contours.

The thing that impressed me most about the heart-string-tugging emotional center of the piece (the song Our Town), was the way they took a political issue (the deterioration of small-town America) and presented it in such a way that it would appeal to both liberals and conservatives. I don't think anyone out there is seriously arguing that we should eliminate the interstate highway system. So presenting the interstate as the culprit is a safe choice: Republicans see the characters pining for the nineteen-fifties -- back when everything was simple and innocent -- and Democrats can read "the interstate" as a metaphor for "Wall-Mart."

Naturally I saw Cars as another example of the law that no big-budget kids' film can be made without passing the generic-moral no-parent-offended committee. That's why I was so surprised by Happy Feet. Skeptical/secular parents: this film is for you.

Here's the story in a nutshell:

Mumble is different from the other penguins from the moment he hatches from the egg. Emperor penguins are supposed to sing and not dance, yet Mumble is the opposite. There's a shortage of fish and none of the penguins know why. The religious leaders make up an explanation and they're wrong. Mumble doesn't accept their explanation and instead is curious and starts piecing together bits of evidence to find that the fish shortage is caused by "aliens" (humans overfishing). His travels lead him to a preacher/guru penguin who has apparently had some contact with the "aliens" (evidenced by a man-made object attached to him), but he doesn't want to help Mumble at first because he's too wrapped up in the wealth and status he gets from pretending that he has the power to contact mystic beings. Eventually he comes around and sets off with Mumble and friends to find the aliens. The happy ending is that Mumble finds the aliens and makes contact with them through dance, persuading them of the importance of protecting the area around Antarctica from over-fishing.

On the surface this looks like a retelling of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: the misfit is rejected until his unusual trait saves the day. But Happy Feet also has a strong theme of reason and evidence trumping the closed-minded shackles of religion. The one twist that may superficially look like a jab at skeptics is the fact that tales of "alien abduction" turn out to be true. The difference is that in our human universe the tales one hears of alien abductions don't have evidence to back them up. This film correctly illustrates the fact that the skeptic will take an outlandish tale seriously as soon as the evidence warrants it.

The scene I quoted above is probably the most daring part of the film. The religious elders claim that God's wrath for Mumble's deviance is the cause of an unrelated disaster. Mumble's father blames himself for Mumble's deviance, and tries to persuade him to repent and try to be like everyone else. Even though Mumble (like all of the characters in the film) is clearly straight (and he has a rather generic straight love story in the film to back it up), I can't avoid seeing Mumble's situation as a transparent metaphor for being gay; illustrating how religion can inspire injustice.

(Actually, I wouldn't be surprised at all if the writers of this film were gay men. There's the mom and the love-interest who are framed entirely by their relation to Mumble, and aside from that it's male-male buddies all the way...)

Mumble's situation could also be taken as a metaphor for being an atheist since everyone knows that atheist is the new gay. ;^)

The point that stands out, however, is that -- unlike practically every children's story I've seen in my entire life -- Happy Feet presents the conflict of reason versus faith and doesn't give a single nod towards faith being the better choice.

The ending message of environmentalism and cross-cultural understanding is the icing on the cake of this bold film with courageously modern morals to guide our kids as they prepare to take the reins of our globally-interdependent world.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

shockingly questionable speculations about Jesus by yours truly...

Since my post for this lovely Monday morning is full of musings about Jesus and Joseph Smith, I decided to post it over on Main Street Plaza instead of here: enjoy.

In other non-religion around the interweb news, be sure to have a look at the latest Humanist Symposium over at the Green Atheist!!!

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to get back to Harry Potter. Dang this one is engrossing. I wasn't planning to read this one right away (since I'm crazy busy and don't have time to drop everything for a book), but my husband went out and bought a copy first thing Saturday morning and had it read before making dinner Saturday evening. So when he put it down I said "Well, I'll just read a little tiny bit..." And you know how that goes...

Saturday, July 21, 2007

One last thing about Lourdes

and then I promise to shut up about Lourdes. Until next time I visit Lourdes. ;^)

One positive thing I saw at the convent was that they specifically listed bringing a message of peace to Muslims and to Protestants (on a huge poster illustrating the goals of their religious order). I'm not up on all of the latest world religion news, but I get the impression that the current pope isn't as big on cross-faith friendship and understanding as the previous one was. But fortunately it looks like at least some sub-organizations of the Catholic church have put interfaith peace on their priority list.

When I saw this poster, I felt a little left-out at first. Why just make peace with Muslims and Protestants? Why not atheists too? Then it hit me that they've probably decided to focus their message on groups the Catholics tend to go to war against.

The closest thing I saw to a mention of atheism during my whole visit was one book in the convent bookstore: Dieu Versus Darwin [God vs. Darwin]. With a title like that, I could easily guess who wins according to the book (even if I hadn't seen it in a religious bookshop). After all, Darwin set out to explain a natural process, not to pick fights with people or supernatural beings. The title kind of reminds me of the Jehovah's Witness anti-evolution book: Life -- How Did it Get Here? By Evolution or by Creation?. That book occupies a place of honor in the religion section of my bookshelf -- it's cover-to-cover one of the most hilarious books ever written. It's also a great resource to have on hand in case you're discussing creationism with religious friends and they try to make claims like "real creationists' arguments aren't that stupid..."

Anyway, back to Dieu Versus Darwin: sheesh, that's not a fair fight at all. If we suppose that God is omnipotent, what's He doing challenging a mere mortal? Can't He pick on somebody His own size?

On the other hand if we suppose that God doesn't exist, it's still not a fair fight (since Darwin actually existed). Now that Darwin is dead I guess that evens out the odds a little. the smart money's still on Darwin, though...

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Surprises in Zurich

I didn't think I had too much of a pre-set notion of what Switzerland is like, but I've seen a few things here that have surprised me nonetheless:

1. Cigarette vending machines. I don't think I've seen one of those in more than twenty years. Youngsters reading this have probably never seen one. All I can say is "What the...?" Perhaps someone who knows more about Swiss culture than I do can explain to me some coherent reason for why they haven't joined the rest of the civilized world on this one.

2. People biking in traffic without helmets. Lots of 'em. It seems like none of the bikers here wear helmets. I'm not necessarily going to say "There ought to be a law..." on this one (unlike the cigarette vending machine question), but I would think people would care more about their own safety than that. Even though drivers here are much more disciplined about stopping for pedestrians here than in France, still it only takes one mistake.

Then on a more positive note, #3: the "Condomeria"

I don't think I've ever seen a store openly display such wares in the shop window. Even when I went on my pilgrimage to "Good Vibrations" in San Francisco, as I recall the shop windows were obscured -- customers had to enter to see what was for sale. (San Fransciscans please correct me if I'm wrong on that.)

For a second I thought it was appropriate that the condomeria faced a large French bookstore, but then it hit me that they don't have any shops like that one in Bordeaux (a city of comparable size). For all of the French disdain of prudishness, the many sex shops of Bordeaux have kind of an air of sleaziness: they're more of the "peep show" variety and don't give the impression that female customers would be welcome to enter even if they wanted to. For the ladies in France they have the lingerie shops instead. Maybe it's just me, but places like this condomeria make the whole business seem more wholesome and egalitarian.

Things that didn't surprise me?

Zurich is very green and very, very, very clean. :D

Monday, July 16, 2007

Greetings from sunny Switzerland!!!

Today I'm blogging you from the lovely city of Zurich.

I actually have some real blog entries planned for the near future, but since I'm on vacation/hiatus, you get nothing but vacation photos from me for the time being. Don't worry though -- I won't make you suffer through the usual stereotypical tourist photos of Switzerland (clocks, chocolates, piles of gold bars, yodelers, etc.)

Instead I have for you a shop window featuring really tall spike-heel shoes and boots:

This isn't exactly what I expected to see in Switzerland, but after about two seconds' reflection I thought "cool." ;^)

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

More help from Nico...

I have to ask Nico to help me with his photographic skills again.

Today's subject is my current houseguests: my sixteen-year-old cousin and her friend. Their predicament illustrates the danger of visiting me. I've had to ask them for the second night in a row to make dinner. And take care of the kids. While making dinner. So that I can continue to focus on the perpetual state of emergency that is my current job.

(Why did I accept this job??? Am I insane, or what???)

Anyway, here are the photos (with their permission):

Nico was fascinated by my cousin Mariko's tongue ring. What does this bode for the future?

Claire's cool too, despite her tragic lack of tongue-ring...

Monday, July 09, 2007

With a little help from my Nico...

Remember how I was saying that I'm buried in work at the moment?

Well, impossible as it may seem, the workload and stress level on this project have exponentially increased all of the sudden which means that now I not only don't have time to read any blogs, I don't even have time to write blog entries!!! Fortunately this project will be over fairly soon, and I'm looking forward to being able to slack off a little (maybe take off the occasional evening or Sunday...).

The funny thing is looking back on complaining about my old job. My biggest problem was the following: Gawd, I'm so bored! They never give me any interesting or hard projects!!! Now as you might imagine, the whole thumb-twiddling aspect of my previous job is starting to look like a huge plus!!

Anyway, I hope my blog friends will not abandon my blog just because of this semi-hiatus, and in the meantime Nico will be helping me out with my blogging. He recently discovered photography, so I'll just be posting his photos until everything is back to normal...

Leo and Mommy, by Nico

Leo's teeth, by Nico

Thursday, July 05, 2007

You can't keep a science family down

a.k.a. What we really learned in Lourdes

As I explained earlier, we didn't learn quite as much religion when visiting Lourdes as a lot of families might have. On the other hand, we just can't help but find opportunities to learn some science everywhere we go.

There were tons of lizards all around the convent and its grounds, and I love observing little animals, so I started pointing them out to Nico and Leo whenever I would see them. Both kids were afraid of the lizards at first, but quickly got interested in looking for them and observing them.

Then the whole family got into the game, and my husband got some beautiful pictures:

a lizard of Lourdes

another lizard of Lourdes

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Why I'm a bad mom, part 2

Recall from part 1 that I was teaching my kids some naughty words. Well, along those same lines, I've started teaching them about Jesus. The system I've been using is very similar to the one used by the Exterminator as he explained in his atheist confessions ("I say 'oh, Christ!' and 'oh, shit! about an equal number of times each day, even though I believe in only one of them").

Despite my efforts, though, during my recent visit to Lourdes, I discovered that my kids don't know who Jesus is apart from his role as an expletive.

We were staying in a convent, so of course every room had a crucifix in it. We got a room with a really gory one -- where you could see the blood dripping down His dead, drooping head -- hanging right over the bed. (Sweet dreams!) Honestly, it blows my mind that anyone could find such a gruesome image uplifting. Anyway, my little four-year-old Leo was sweetly playing on the bed when he noticed the thing and asked "Mommy, who's that?"

My husband and I looked at one another for a second and I said "It's a picture of someone being executed." Leo doesn't know that that means, but it was sufficient to get him to go back to playing.

On the other hand, I found that my kids can recognize Buddha. We were walking past a Chinese restaurant one day, and Leo said "Look, Mommy! It's Buddha!" I looked where he was pointing and, sure enough, there was a big golden statue of Buddha.

I taught my kids about Buddha kind of unintentionally. One time a colleague went on a business trip to China and brought back tiny Buddha statues for everyone, as souvenirs. I gave mine to my kids to use as a toy. All I told them about him was that his name is Buddha, so naturally they put him with their Spiderman, Batman, and Superman figurines (and dubbed him "Buddha-man").

Since then I figured I should try to make an effort to teach my kids about religion at home since they're bound to hear about it from other kids at school and get all sorts of wrong information. So I bought them an excellent book Les Religions du Monde, and put it on the shelf next to that other in-case-they-have-questions book I bought them (It's Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health).

I like the book on religions because it's quite even handed -- it covers all known major religions including extinct religions and some fairly obscure religions (although Mormonism didn't make the cut, unfortunately). The bigger the religion, the more extensive the description, but they don't favor one over another (in terms of presenting it as better or more reasonable) nor is there a subtext of "of course this is obviously all a bunch of hooey..." All we've learned from the book so far,though, is that Buddha is really huge. There's a Buddhist monk on the cover sitting next to a statue of Buddha, and the monk is no bigger than Buddha's hand! Now that's big!! (I know you're all waiting for me to add a comment about my earlier post here, but I would never stoop to that level... ;^) )

I can't seem to find a way to explain religion to my kids though. I feel like they're still a little too young to understand the difference between live people, historical figures, legendary characters loosely based on historical figures (eg. Santa Claus / Saint Nicholas), legendary characters that may be based on historical figures (eg. Jesus), fictional characters, etc. And how do you explain to a kid that many people think that there are invisible beings with supernatural powers? And that people think these beings really exist -- they don't see it as just imagination or playing pretend. And how do you explain that some people think they can communicate with mystical beings through lighting candles or saying particular phrases??? So for the moment we're at the point where "Buddha is huge" and the kids can see he's a statue and draw their own conclusions.

I'm happy we've had the opportunity to take the kids to Lourdes so they can see their Catholic heritage in its true context (something they wouldn't normally get from us). I made a point to take them to the basilica and get a picture in front of the giant golden crown.

"Big enough that Buddha could wear it!": the kids were duly impressed.

When we got back to our room, Nico looked out the window at the basilica and asked "Is that a castle, Mommy? Does the king live there?"

As usual, I was at a bit of a loss to explain.

The little angel on my one shoulder was saying "Tell him the truth! Tell him that some people believe there's a super-powerful magic being who likes people to worship him, so people build these elaborate buildings..." And the little devil on my other shoulder was saying "Ick! He's only six -- does he really need to hear about such things? Can't he stay innocent a little longer?"

So I just said "No, the king doesn't live there. We don't have a king anymore."

Nico was a little disappointed with that answer, so he invented a fanciful story about how every country (including France and the US) has lots of kings, and they live in castles with huge gold crowns on top.

Well, why not? He'll hear the standard myths in time, but for the moment he can have the fun of inventing his own. :D