Friday, August 31, 2007

A social Mormon in a decomposing relationship: JulieAnn Henneman's Ravings

It's a familiar situation in Mormondom: two teenagers fall in love, and as soon as he returns from his mission and she finishes high school they get married. Seventeen years and two kids later she's having an affair and he's masturbating to porn on the Internet. Communications have completely broken down. Is it over? Their relationship: yes. But the story's just beginning as the road to divorce isn't a smooth or simple one. It's a passionate storm of tragicomedy where laughs are interspersed with pain and humiliation as they discover how little there is left to salvage of the life they had built together.

This novel provides a fascinating portrait of what it's like to be a social Mormon in Utah. The protagonist as a teen had a difficult relationship with her mother, who was outspokenly non-Mormon. So when the popular girls and a dreamy football-player hunk teach her their gospel, joining the church is the obvious choice -- even if the hero is never entirely sure she believes. Fast-forward to the time of the story and both partners appear to be jack-Mormons with a comparable level of indifference towards daily practice of religion. But as the relationship disintegrates, they gravitate towards their respective poles, leaving him as elder's quorum president and her as a full-fledged apostate by the end of the story.

It's hard to find a story about Mormons where the church itself isn't the star of the show, but Always Listen to the Ravings of a Madwoman by JulieAnn Henneman is one of the rare examples. Like nearly all comic Mormon literature, the book is chock full of the uniquely Mormon details of daily life, yet these merely set the stage of the story. The church is neither the cause of the problems nor the solution -- it's hardly even an exacerbating factor.

Actually, Henneman's treatment of Mormonism is surprisingly even-handed. She portrays cheating and other misbehavior, yet in her story it is neither caused nor prevented by religion. (Normally that shouldn't be an unusual perspective, but in Mormon literature it is.) Of course there are the pushy Mormon in-laws trying to pressure the main character's kids into baptism, but they're a minor enough sideline that they don't come off significantly worse than the new-age friend explaining the magical properties of her various crystals or even than the protagonist's best friend who essentially encourages her to cheat on her husband. Then when the main character's visiting teachers are summoned to pick her up from a strip-club (where she's passed-out on the floor) -- and not only do they take her home but they show her friendship and compassion instead of judgment -- the scales start to look like they're actually tipped in the Mormons' favor.

My one criticism of this novel is "the right answer" factor. Fairly early in the story the main character decides that her husband is a sex addict (and that that's the cause of all of their marital problems), and she spends the rest of the story looking for evidence that will confirm her conclusion. That's a fine premise for a story since that can happen, but the problem is that the author takes this diagnosis as a foregone conclusion as well and seems to expect the reader to agree. Personally I was far from convinced, even after some the Freudian-style new evidence shows up in a scene near the end. And it's a shame because the relationship as it was set up in the story has a host of complex issues (such as the woman wanting to find her voice while in a sexist relationship, feelings of insecurity over physical/body changes, growing apart, lack of communication, lack of mutual understanding/empathy) in addition to the way the problems play themselves out in the bedroom. Yet once the character and author have decided that the problem is "his addiction," any further exploration of any other relationship issue becomes verboten.

Aside from that, it's an entertaining book with lots of raunchy humor and outrageous antics that surprise the reader at every turn!!! So congratulations JulieAnn on an impressive debut novel which bodes well for an exciting literary career!!!

Caution: lots of graphic sex.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Caution / Disclaimer

The next segment that I'll be serializing from my novel Exmormon is Part III: Saturday's Warrior. This segment is the main reason why I've categorized my novel as "mature": the story deals with subjects that would probably not be appropriate for (or make sense to) small children. On the other hand, it seems a little ironic to me to label it "mature" since it's not meant to be "adult" (in the porn sense of the word), really it's about teen and young adult relationships.

On the one hand I don't want to be talking about teenagers as if they're not here (on the Internet with the rest of us), and this is a subject that young people themselves should be taking seriously. At the same time, while I personally think this story would be appropriate for mature teens, it's up to their parents to make that call if they're under 18. So I don't recommend to teens to read it without their parents' knowledge and consent. That said, it's a whole lot less explicit than stuff it will take you two seconds to find right here on blogspot/blogger (not to mention the rest of the Internet), so I assume I won't get in trouble for posting this (especially with the appropriate content warning messages). I guess I'll find out...

The novel overall inhabits kind of the same space as Judy Blume's Forever, although I think that Exmormon is somewhat less explicit. As I've said before, I'm basically shooting for "the Mormon Judy Blume" with this novel... ;^)

I hope my disclaimer isn't putting you off from reading this "very special episode" (which will be posted starting from September 18). According to my reader feedback (including from believing Mormons), this is one of the most interesting and dramatic stories of the whole collection. I don't want to bias you in advance by telling you what it's about, but you'll see that in the story something has gone wrong. My goal in writing it was to create a situation that is complex and realistic enough that different readers will have different interpretations in terms of (a) what went wrong, (b) what caused the problem, (c) was the problem solved, and (d) what might the various characters have done differently. From there hopefully thoughts will be provoked and interesting discussion of the relevant issues will insue... ;^)

Also, I hope there won't be a problem regarding the fact that I've entitled this sub-story Saturday's Warrior -- the same name as the play the characters are performing through the course of the story. All of the different segments of the novel Exmormon are named after different aspects of Mormon experience that the characters are participating in. For generation-Xer's like me (and also those maybe a little older), the musical Saturday's Warrior (and the records and later the video) played a huge formative role. In the context of the complete collection, it made sense to give this novella this particular name, but running it (kind of) separately like this makes the title seem a little weird, so I hope it won't cause too much confusion. The original title of this work as a stand-alone novella was "Like a Faithful Girl..."

Monday, August 27, 2007

Does it matter that prayer doesn't work?

If you believe that "The Lord will do His will" regardless of what you pray for, it's weird to imagine you'd see prayer as comforting. Yet weirdly it seems like it is.

Please read my new post about this over on Main Street Plaza: Does it matter that prayer doesn’t work?

Saturday, August 25, 2007

My new Java book!!!

I probably shouldn't be posting about this since it gives away my super-secret identity, but... Anyway, you've probably already figured it out if you read how I got my name and/or if you're familiar with my brother's post-Mo antics (most recently reviewed by equality here)....

Anyway, without further ado, here's my new Java book!!!

I've already received my big box o' copies, and they look great!!! (If I do say so myself...)

I really had no choice but to write a new one. It's not just because my earlier book become kind of dated (after three years -- darn you, fast-moving world of information technology!!!), and not just because I thought of a whole bunch of additional topics I wanted to write about. The clincher was the horrible photo of me on my earlier book. The lesson is that if you do a quick snapshot that doesn't look too bad on a poor-resolution monitor, that doesn't mean it will necesssarily look nice printed in beautifully half-toned high-resolution black-and-white on a book cover. I couldn't even give out copies of my old book to friends because they kept making fun of the photo (it's unbelievable -- I look like a friggin' chimpanzee...). It's one of those cases where I wished the publisher had been impolite enough to write me back asking "Ummm... you're not really that ugly, are you?"

Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating a little tiny bit, but I'm really proud of this new book. It represents some of my best engineering advice, and no author photo on the cover this time. Hehe!! :D

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Sick of reruns yet?

I think I'm mostly done adding subject tags to my old posts -- now you can see that I've added my favorite subjects to my sidebar. Also, I've got a list of "greatest hits" in my sidebar (in order to introduce people to this blog), but actually the choices there are fairly arbitrary. If you're not sick of re-runs yet, here are some favorite also-rans:

The Mating Game: A primatologist looks at the mathematical community
Are you like me? Do you love reading those books by Jane Goodall and Frans De Waal where they observe a community of great apes and describe all of their social interactions in graphic detail? If so, you're in luck! Because I have observed a primate society myself (in their natural habitat!), and today I am going to share my observations with you!!!

The Christian establishment hasn't always been so gung-ho to embrace its best-loved holiday. Notably, the Puritan pilgrims outlawed the celebration of Christmas. They invented the holiday "Thanksgiving" as a replacement to put a stop to all the partying, fun-having, and other pagan customs traditionally associated with the yuletide season. So if you were wondering why Thanksgiving is such a lame holiday, that's why.

Mormon Lit Misfit
Some may say that by writing stories about Mormons from an apostate perspective, I'm being one of those people who "can leave the church but can't leave it alone."

I ask, whose childhood am I supposed to write about? I didn't ask to be raised in this religion.

I know some of you who believe in the pre-existence will say that in fact I did ask to be raised in this religion, before I was born and everything. But I know myself pretty well, and I'm sure that if I did ask to be raised Mormon back in the pre-existence, I was just kidding.

Those Wacky Health Insurance Companies!
The lesson to be learned is that the correct sequence is as follows: (1) Go to the doctor, (2) wait until you receive evidence that your insurance has paid the bills as they were supposed to, then (3) quit your job. Important: Do not invert these last two steps.

Why I hate church
I was digging through my old papers, and I found this amusing little article that I wrote for the Student Review -- BYU's now-defunct independent student paper -- when I was around 20 years old. It's particuarly funny that I saw it as shocking and controversial to expose the fact that church is no fun for kids...

Weekend in Paris
Chocolate fish are my favorite French Easter custom. Sure they have the usual chocolate bunnies and eggs like back home, but they also have this additional chocolate fish custom in honor of Lent. Now you may have heard that people like to give up chocolate for Lent. Well, it turns out that as long as the chocolate is in the shape of a fish, it counts as fish and not chocolate for Lent purposes.

Really. I'm not making this up.

Okay, I am making it up. I think it's more that -- Catholic as everybody is around here -- people don't really give stuff up for Lent.

Happy Easter!!!
Now if you're new to this blog, you're probably wondering "Hey, if she's an atheist, what's she doing celebrating the festival of the goddess Astarte??"

Me, on Star Trek!!!
Here I am as the Vulcan captain of the U.S.S. Galois, the starship I commanded for the fifteen-episode community cable Star Trek parody that my brother and I wrote and produced.

The Mishies and Me: The Rest of the Story
Mishies: But you still believe in God, right?

Me: (big smile :D ) No. I am an atheist.

Celtic Knotwork
I used to joke around with my friends that this is the perfect hobby for me because it's Celtic and it's not work.

A nice compliment...
Maybe I'm reading this wrong or something, but by contrast with all of the negative stereotypes and generalizations about people who stop believing, I can't help but see it as a compliment when believing Mormons say that those who "fall away" are the ones that "asked too many questions."

Family history: we're different.
The LDS ethic has an interesting blend of "do as you're told" and "do it yourself." I think that because of my extended family's stories and traditions, I was raised on an extra heavy dose of "do it yourself."

Trains, trains, and more trains!!!
I don't object to the Christian content as it seems mostly limited to portraying the local vicar as a nice guy and mentioning that the trains take the kids' Sunday school class on outings. I don't think we would let them watch it if it were like "Hey kids, let's all praise Jesus!!" This is largely for the same reason we don't let them watch "Barney", namely that when the kids watch their videos we end up having to sit through them as well.

What would have happened?
interviewer: So you're saying that God wasn't always God, and that once upon a time he used to be a righteous guy on some other planet?

guest: yes.

Mormon Meat: Christopher Bigelow's Kindred Spirits
One thing I really like about this novel is the realistic ambiguity and complexity of the situation presented. The author doesn't just spell out for you what you should think about the various characters and situations but rather leaves you to form your own opinions. As the story progresses, Eliza's relationship with her boyfriend and with the church takes some strange turns, and I couldn't keep from wondering how things would have turned out if she'd made different choices.

My conspiracy theory!!!
As a cultural Mormon, I couldn't help but find it amusing that Brown sets out to show that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, which is a popular Mormon folk-doctrine that was taught by some early LDS church leaders. It wasn't until I read the whole book in all of its secrets-of-the-Templars glory that I saw how very perfectly the Mormons fit into the world Dan Brown set up!!!

Post-Mormon perspectives
In short, I play the proverbial benevolent deity who gives her creations serious trials to overcome, but refuses to give them more than they can ultimately handle. Collins is more like the “cruel realities” deity who says to her creations “Oops, you were in the wrong place at the wrong time, so too bad for you.” Wham!

The second stupidest thing I did in Scotland
I hope momsis doesn't get annoyed with me for posting this story. I'm not doing it justice -- it was hilarious the way she told it!!! Everyone in this whole family is a jokemeister. Well, my siblings anyway -- my parents are kind of boring. (Kidding!!! Don't tell them I said that...)

Men in kilts!!!

This will be fabulous!!! or a total disaster...
Now, on the surface that seems like a good plan. But think about it. I'll be at a big Catholic wedding reception with my exmo-atheist brothers, and my kids will be safely in the care of someone responsible. So in theory I might say "Okay, I'll try not to drink too much," but in practice, who am I kidding? And besides, my little brother got roaring drunk at my wedding reception, so the least I can do is return the favor.

Peanut Butter vs. Vegemite
So since moving to France, I've learned that the French don't eat peanut butter and they don't eat Vegemite. the Vegemite part didn't bother me so much since I'd never heard of Vegemite until my manager here was replaced by a guy from Australia. (Or so I thought -- when I told people I'd never heard of Vegemite, I found out that that line I never could understand from that one "Men at Work" song is actually "she just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich." Live and learn!)

Religion and getting along...
As an example, in the comments of this post, "Fie to Kolob" offers a dismissive theory for why so many exmos are atheists. (Remember that Fie is the guy whose attitude towards Mormons was -- to my taste -- a little too close for comfort with the Mormon "love the sinner, hate the sin", attitude towards homosexuals, and he responded by assuring me that the way to show love for Mormons and homosexuals alike is to break them of their foolish misguidedness and save them for Jesus.)

Thoughts on Jack Weyland
Probably the ugliest thing I've seen in Weyland's work is the plot-line where an obnoxious guy “helps” a fat girl by being brutally honest with her (i.e. repeatedly telling her what a repulsive lardo she is), and she responds by changing her ways, losing weight, and being eternally grateful to the guy. This plot appears in a short story and is also a sub-plot in the novel Sam (where the formerly-fat girl actually marries the guy who “helped” her). This is wrong on so many levels, I don't even know where to begin.

Fertility, Mortality or Sex vs. Death
Today if you're in a loving marriage, you expect to be able to grow old together. Abusive or otherwise bad marriages are ended by choice, rather than having good and bad marriages alike cut short by untimely deaths.

And as a parent, rather than having more children than you can effectively handle – and then watching many of them die – you can typically choose to have no more kids than you think you can raise well, and more importantly, you can base this calculation on the expectation that you will most likely see them all live to adulthood.

It was kind of silly of me to have even imagined I'd find them selling a scrapbooking stamp of the Salt Lake Temple here. I think it's my nationalistic pride in the superiority of American retail science that makes me picture the French buyer who chose the stock as being some hapless amateur who would just order the generic American scrapbooking supplies set without a second thought about tailoring the stock to the local tastes. I should start giving these French retailers some credit. A careful examination of all of their choices of stamps yielded (among many other things) one generic church, two different very cute stylized versions of the Eiffel Tower, and no Salt Lake Temple. So, good job French retailers -- I'll try not to underestimate you so absurdly again.

My Ex is Having Sex with Rex!!!
Jennifer describes in entertaining detail her adventures in discovering anew what straight men are like. For example, she gets the fun of having two different guys in a row try to charm the pants off her with a clever line about how ordering french fries is "sooooo sexy!" lol

Confessions of a former Nader voter, parts 1 and 2.
I remembered Dan Quayle testing the waters of candidacy, and -- as far as I could tell -- he had been laughed off the stage for his ridiculous gaffes. Since Bush Jr. had demonstrated himself to be (if anything) even stupider, I figured he didn't have a snowball's chance in hell of getting elected. After all, I reasoned, even stupid people will say "Maybe for our leader we should choose someone who's not an idiot..."

My friend, the Internet...
Now if it ever happens one day that there's nothing left of me but a disembodied brain in a jar hooked up to the Internet, then I'm sure I'll become a regular on several forums in addition to blogging. (Guys, please don't try to pretend that you never plan what you'll do if you're ever reduced to nothing but a disembodied brain in a jar.) But for the moment, my system is to focus on blogging only.

The birds and the bees and the whales...
He didn't have any follow-up questions. I guess since whales have a lot of body parts in common with people (eyes, mouths), it seemed perfectly reasonable to him that the daddy whale should have a zizi. (Indeed, a whale of a big zizi...)

Discrimination against homosexuals: why? why? why???
Gay marriage obviously fits right into the modern marriage model: neither partner is the expected master, neither is the expected servant; you expect to marry the person you love rather than being expected to marry for economic/dynastic reasons. Naturally gay people want to get in on this cultural innovation -- why wouldn't they?

Polytheism vs. Monotheism + Omnipotence
Then there's the question of followers. If I understand correctly, the pagan gods liked to have followers give them sacrifices because, well, sacrifices are tasty and/or they increase the particular god's strength or something like that. On the other hand, the unique, omnipotent God likes to have followers worshiping Him because...... ?????

It takes a lot of faith to believe that!!!
The interesting thing isn’t what this says about the speaker’s opinion of atheism or evolution. The thing that’s striking is what it says about the speaker’s opinion of faith.

Challenges and Pleasures of Mormon lit: In Our Lovely Deseret, edited by Robert Raleigh
Another elephant in the room of Mormon lit -- perhaps an even bigger one than belief vs. unbelief -- is sexuality. One of the oft-cited draws of (mainstream) Mormon lit is that it's "clean". A huge portion of the LDS audience doesn't want to be reading along and encounter a sex scene, and many (most?) LDS authors agree with the audience about it and are more than happy to oblige. But this taboo -- its causes, its effects, its relation to the Mormon emphasis on family -- turns sexuality into one of the most fascinating aspects of Mormon culture to explore.

Modern Baal worship??? Um, is that a joke?
When I read the synopsis ("Exposes Islam as a conspiracy of the Catholic church and, by proxy, Satan"), I thought the synopsis writer had to exaggerating or something. Nope. That's really what's in that one. The impressive part isn't so much the efficiency of it (insults both Muslims and Catholics in one stroke!) as the creativity of it. I mean, how would you even come up with such a thing?

Do you want to live forever? or the many reasons why I don't like death...
But then here's the problem: Suppose you live exactly the full life you set out to live and accomplish everything you ever wanted to accomplish. Who does that really matter to? It matters to you. But then after you're dead it doesn't matter to you anymore because nothing matters to you anymore -- you're dead. You could try living your life to make a positive impact on other people that will continue after your death. But someday they'll be dead too. Hmmm.

This is why I try not to think about this.

The Good News about Atheists!: Hemant Mehta's I Sold My Soul on eBay
We've all heard about how atheists are the most hated and mistrusted minority in America. Well, what are we going to do about it? We're going to get out there and say to our friends and neighbors "Hi, I'm so-and-so, and I'm a member of your community and an ordinary person -- not the sort of bogeyman you might imagine atheists to be..." Hemant Mehta sets a great example of how to keep your tone positive and constructive when talking to Christians so you can help people see the friendly face of atheism.

How I became an atheist
But weirdly it was the beginning of the end. As long as I wasn't sure I'd ever received any spiritual witness, I didn't feel qualified to criticize that type of evidence. But once I had some spiritual evidence of my own, I had something concrete to question. And as soon as I started putting some weight on my evidence -- to rely on it for my belief -- the doubts started to squeeze out. That guy is a talented speaker. He's probably given that same devotional hundreds of times. He knows how to tell his story in such a way that it generates an emotional response in his audience. No supernatural explanation required...

The parable of criticism is a compliment
When I arrived in Paris, I had plenty of opportunity to practice my new skill on the people of the math department I was visiting. And it seemed like everybody was complimenting me on how well I spoke French, to which I would respond with a faux-modest "merci" and then launch into the grand epic tale of how I'd taught myself to speak French. That was one of the stories I was really, really good at telling in French. ;^)

Jesus and the death penalty
I realize that a lot of Christians oppose the death penalty on principle. However, it seems like Christian opposition to the death penalty should be essentially universal, given that they believe the state can make such a colossal blunder that not only random innocent people -- but in fact the most innocent person of all -- might be wrongly put to death.

Steal this idea: Greetings from the opposite of America!!!
Bill Maher gives an excellent modern example: Health care. Why is U.S. health care in the state it's currently in? Why, it's because American health care is the best in the world!!! And la-la-la I'm putting my fingers in my ears and not listening to you if you say anything different!!!

Family History: Moonshine
And so whenever I see a hidden still in the backwoods portrayed in movies or television, part of me is thinking: "Yep, my ancestors did that." ;^)

More whale naughty bits!!!
Some bloggers get annoyed when their blogs attract search queries that look like they may be from weirdos. But I'm not like that. Whenever I get those weirdo queries, I like to see it as just more free data for my inner anthropologist. Plus only cool people read my blog, so I'm willing to give these people the benefit of the doubt!

If they're looking for such an image, I'm sure they have some legitimate scientific and/or whale fetish purpose for wanting to see whales getting it on.

All about Lourdes!!!
If you look closely at the photos above, you can see the candle box says (in several languages) "This flame continues my prayer." So apparently you start praying, and lighting a candle holds the line open with God while you go off and do something else. I thought it was pretty hilarious when Mr. Deity called dinner blessings "spam", but the Catholics have gone one step farther -- they actually call up God and put Him on hold!!!

Is religion the problem?
Regardless of what is written in any official holy book, most people are going to act in their best interest. When it's time for war, those who like the scriptures about God killing all the infidels will rise to power, and when it's time for peace, those who prefer the passages about God loving everyone will rise to power. I figure we might as well make friends with that latter group and compare notes with them. They're the ones who are in a position to sway the (political) opinions of the average believer.

Why I'm a bad mom, part 2
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").

Part of me wants to call it entertaining, but I'm dancing around that word because of the horror and violence of the film. It is quite the opposite of the typical "entertaining" movie violence we see these days (visually graphic, emotionally distant) because even though the visuals are simplistic cartoons, you know that the violence being portrayed is very real.

Harry Potter vs. Jesus
I'm not going to try to prove the case either way, just throw out some ideas and let you decide. As a control, I'll compare these two stories to two other famous self-sacrificing-nonpermanent-death scenes from popular culture: It's a Wonderful Life and Star Trek II.

"He has his faults, such as being a perverted-democrat-atheist, but...
In concrete terms, when I get home from a hard day at work, I want to be able to kick off my shoes, grab a beer, and relax. I don't want to hear my husband telling me that he's praying about this or that or about the progress he's making in trying to get intelligent design taught in schools, etc. At the same time, I wouldn't want to be married to someone and have him feel like he can't tell me about things that are important to him because I wouldn't agree or be supportive. That's not to say that we have to agree on everything, but at least on the fundamentals and basic values...

Monday, August 20, 2007

blog stuff

First of all, apologies to RSS subscribers: I've been adding labels to my old posts little by little (which sends them back through the RSS feed), but I think that this week I'm just going to do them all at once so that I can add subjects to my sidebar.

Speaking of sidebar cleanup, I'll be cleaning up my blogroll as well (deleting blogs that have disappeared and moving irregulars to irregulars) here and on MSP. If you're a regular reader who's not on my blogroll and would like to be, please comment. Same goes for any post-Mormon blogs you know of that I don't have in my collection. Please comment with the link so I can add them, thanks!!!

Friday, August 17, 2007

"He has his faults, such as being a perverted-democrat-atheist, but

altogether he's one of the nicest people I know."
-- authentic quote from the journal of a fifteen-year-old Mormon girl.

Actually, that's a quote from my own journal (as you might have guessed): December 6, 1986. It's kind of hilarious to think that once upon a time I saw virtues such as "perverted," "Democrat," and "atheist" as faults. But I think that having met nice (and intelligent and otherwise virtuous) liberals and atheists -- none of whom attempted to convert me -- affected my willingness to question my own position. So for blog friends who have called "witness by example" a passive-aggressive tactic: If your position has merit, "Let your light so shine" really works!

A lot of atheists recount stories about how people of faith are horrified by atheism -- that the faithful see other religions as merely wrong but regard atheism as shocking or unthinkable. Yet back when I was a believing Mormon, I didn't perceive it that way at all (and I have my journals to back me up on this). A number of my friends self-identified as atheists, thus I saw it as a common worldview (even a reasonable one, as I explained in my post If the church weren't true I'd be an atheist). Was my high school (or my circle of friends) that unusual?

The one thing I remember being surprised by was learning that my first real boyfriend's parents were atheists and that he'd been raised as an atheist. And they seemed like perfectly ordinary people, unlike the parents of the guy in the above quote who appeared (to the teenage Republican version of me) to be hippie weirdos. Of course the most shocking aspect (to the sheltered Mormon me) was that his parents let him drink coffee and beer! This was completely contrary to my usual assumptions about parenting (that it normally should involve a great deal of making the kids do odious things for their own good such as enforcing church attendance).

I don't know if this is unusual or not, but I've never had a serious (romantic) relationship with someone who believes in the existence of God. I've had a number of different boyfriends in my life (including a few minor flings with believers), but all of the real relationships have been with atheists.

Some of you may be wondering if that means that this guy was an atheist. Indeed he was (or is? I haven't kept in touch as you might imagine...). I had one conversation with him that illustrates the kind of atheist he was: after a long tirade about how incredibly stupid it is to believe in astrology, he turned around and said, "but Chinese astrology -- there's really something to that..." And he was serious!!! It just goes to show that most people just go along with whatever they've heard other people say, so in a country like France where atheism is basically the default position, even stupid people are atheists.

When I met my (now) husband, one of the first things I did was "test the waters" on this question. Since I thought he was cute and everything. He was a new arrival in grad school from on of those decadent countries in Europe (France), thus probably an atheist, but you can never be sure. So in one conversation at a party I made some sort of line involving the Pope and condoms to see how he'd react. I don't remember exactly what I said -- it probably wasn't even funny, but of course that's not really the point. There are things you can get away with saying as a joke that can help you determine what sorts of things might be appropriate to say in more serious discussions later. I'm not sure if that sounds cynical or Machiavellian, but honestly I think it's one of the reasons for the existence of humor in our species.

(Note: if the chronology of these stories is confusing, I actually met my current husband before I ever started learning to speak French, but even though I liked him from the beginning, I didn't get together with him romantically until several years later.)

I know a lot of you out there in blog space are in mixed-faith marriages and making it work, but -- inspiring as the stories often are -- I'm really glad I don't have to deal with that in my life. One non-trivial point is this cute little blog. I'm doing this for fun and love doing it, and I'd hate for my sweetheart to view this hobby as working for the bad guys' team. As it is, my husband views my Internet habit as kind of a strange hobby, but he understands that this is important to me and is basically supportive. He sometimes even takes photos for my blog and will read my articles and give his opinion when I ask him to.

It reminds me of a conversation I had with one of my apartment-mates back when I was at BYU (this friend currently blogs as Floating in the Milk). She'd read a study that same-faith marriages are more successful than mixed-faith marriages (I guess in length or marital satisfaction or something). The topic came up because she'd been in a mixed-faith relationship back then and had chosen to go with her LDS suitor, but in the long run that didn't keep her from being in mixed-faith marriage since she no longer believes. Anyway, I protested (back then) that probably having a matching activity level is as important as having matching beliefs, but she said the study didn't show that at all -- activity level was found to be irrelevant.

After just a few minutes reflection it hit me that it was perfectly obvious that that should be the case. If you do anything at all related to your beliefs and traditions -- from simply celebrating the same events to church activity or belief-related volunteer work -- whether your spouse is physically there with you doesn't matter as much as whether your spouse is with you in spirit, supporting and agreeing with what you're doing.

That's not to say that mixed-faith marriages are inferior, but rather the people in them have that much more work to do to try to be understanding of one another. Personally I think that would be very, very hard for me to do. I've said this before, but I am ridiculously possessive of my private space and thus have a terrible time getting along with roommates. I've never had a roommate that I've gotten along with (just ask FITM -- she and I got along fairly well, but it helped that we weren't actually sharing a bedroom). I try to make an effort to get along with roommates, but I'm just not good at it. This is one of the many reasons that back when I was a Mormon I never had the remotest desire to go on a mission and thought that any girl who would choose to do it (since it's not a requirement for girls) must be crazy. There is absolutely no way I could tolerate having to be within sight of a particular person twenty-four-seven for months on end. If my companion were the nicest, most easygoing person on the planet I'd still be ready to strangle her by the end of the first week, and if she failed to be the nicest person on the planet, it would probably be more like the end of the first day...

Yet weirdly I've lived with various boyfriends, and I've never had a problem getting along with them on a day-to-day basis. I think it's largely psychological: a boyfriend is like family -- mentally absorbed into my intimate space -- whereas a roommate is an outsider limiting my privacy.

And this is the main reason why I'm glad I'm not in a mixed-faith marriage: I'm sincerely interested in trying to understand the perspective of people who believe differently, and I can see that believing differently than I do is not a manifestation of being crazy or stupid or unreasonable or anything like that. But it takes effort to try to see things from another's perspective, and I think it's an effort that would be hard for me to make on a daily basis in my intimate space.

In concrete terms, when I get home from a hard day at work, I want to be able to kick off my shoes, grab a beer, and relax. I don't want to hear my husband telling me that he's praying about this or that or about the progress he's making in trying to get intelligent design taught in schools, etc. At the same time, I wouldn't want to be married to someone and have him feel like he can't tell me about things that are important to him because I wouldn't agree or be supportive. That's not to say that we have to agree on everything, but at least on the fundamentals and basic values...

Thursday, August 16, 2007

More feminist movie reviews!!!

As a follow-up to my discussion of Cars and Happy Feet, I've written a few notes on all of the kids' films that have come out lately. Since the whole post is about female characters (or lack thereof), I posted it over at The Hathor Legacy here: Great female characters in Hollywood's current animated blockbusters for kids: where are they???

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

potty mouth: caca boudin pipi !

Kids can be so resourceful when it comes to inventing surprising new types of naughtiness!!

Since I taught them some naughty words myself -- and since the lack of corresponding negative attention made the naughty words boring from day one -- I assumed that would be the end of it. * Sigh *, another parenting theory shot all to hell...

My little Leo was clever enough to figure out that while swearing in English would get him nowhere, he could get plenty of laughs (from other kids) and plenty of hilarious scolding (from authority figures) by using potty-words in French. I say hilarious because he's not really punished: he does enough things that are plenty worse, and we're kind of a laissez-faire, choose-your-battles kind of family. So he just gets lots of earnest suggestions (from his daddy) of funnier and more appropriate nonsense words he might use, and he follows these suggestions occasionally.

For my part, I mostly try to ignore the potty-words -- so as not to encourage him -- but it's tricky because they don't teach you these sorts of things French language textbooks. How can I help but be curious about this amusing facet of child language development?

Leo's favorite naughty phrase is "caca boudin pipi" (followed by hysterical laughter, possibly rolling on the floor, etc.). At first I wasn't sure what he was saying and I thought it was "caca Buddha pipi" (since he's learned about Buddha I figured he was a precocious blasphemer). Then listening more closely and looking at some relevant children's books I realized it was "caca boudin pipi" which led to the obvious question: What does that mean???

Here we enter the realm of pure speculation:

As you may know, "caca" is a French baby-word for feces, and pipi is pee-pee (or pee), same as English. Boudin is blood-sausage (in France it is anyway, not in Louisiana), so in shape and color it bears a mild resemblance to caca. Thus I assume the joke is the idea of people eating crap? And the "pipi" on the end is perhaps just thrown in for good measure? If anyone else has any info on the etymology of this intriguing phrase, please feel free to comment...

While I'm telling kid language stories, I have a follow up to Nico correcting me at bedtime story-time. We were again reading Rafara (hey this is a tricky little book!), and we were at the part where the monster was fattening up Rafara to eat her. I said he pinched her cheek to see if she was sufficiently doudou, which sent Nico into a fit of laughter since a "doudou" is a stuffed animal (it's not even an adjective!).

Nico corrected me: dodue (which means chubby). This was a new word for me, but rather than look it up, it was quicker to get the definition from Nico. He didn't know the word "chubby" though (we're the blind leading the blind at my house...), so after thinking about it a minute he resorted to an example:

"You see, Mommy, Buddha is dodu..."

Wednesday, August 08, 2007


If after seeing Persepolis viewers stop reducing Iran to bearded fanatics, if they see the inhabitants of this country as human beings exactly like them and not as abstract ideas (Islamists, terrorists...) then yes, I'll feel I've succeeded.

When I first saw the trailer for this film -- with the Muslim girls in a car daring each other to take off their veils and the like -- I knew I wanted to see it, and the above quote (by the writer Marjane Satrapi? It was unattributed in the ad I read, translation mine) clinched the deal: I had to go off my cinema-fast and take the time to go out and see a grown-up movie.

Satrapi's goal was the first thing that came to mind when I read Johnny's "What's your issue?" meme (seen also in Vernal) asking what issue you're most passionate about. My primary issue is to try to convince people to make the effort to see other human groups (foreign nations, ethnicities, etc.) as ordinary people, more like "us" than different. I don't think I've done a terribly good job on this (I have a list of planned posts that are eternally coming up but never ready to post...), but as a first step I'd like to recommend this excellent film. And when I talk about recognizing the humanity of ordinary people in Iran, this is not to be mistaken for "taking their side against our people" in the case of armed conflict. What I'm talking about is trying to see more than just the guys with the guns (on both sides), and how seeing a bigger picture affects the types of conflict resolution strategies that are possible.

Persepolis is a story of revolution, political upheaval, and religious oppression, yet all of that is the background for the human story that takes center stage. Marjane is a lively, bright kid (later teen and adult) growing up the best she can under rather extreme circumstances. It shows what it's like to be an ordinary person forced to wear a veil and what it's like to go about your daily business in danger if you speak out (and even if you don't). In a realistic way it shows her conflicted feelings about her identity as an Iranian woman.

All of that description probably makes the film sound like a typical foreign "watch it because it's good for you, not because you want to" art film, and I'm sorry to make it sound that way because it's fascinating and it's funny in places in addition to being exciting and dramatic. Part of me wants to call it entertaining, but I'm dancing around that word because of the horror and violence of the film. It is quite the opposite of the typical "entertaining" movie violence we see these days (visually graphic, emotionally distant) because even though the visuals are simplistic cartoons, you know that the violence being portrayed is very real.

Still, Marjane's courage -- and that of her mother, grandmother, and others in the story -- makes this a story of hope for humanity pushing up through the cracks of terrible circumstances.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Harry Potter vs. Jesus

I hate to feel I need to put a "spoiler warning" on this: Really, if you haven't read the last book by now and you're sensitive about having the ending spoiled, the Internet is not a safe place for you at the moment...

For a universe defined by magic, Harry Potter's is surprisingly unmagical. The magic in his world allows tons of fun, imaginative, and unexpected possibilities, yet it seems to behave like a force of nature that can be studied, understood, and even researched in a scientific way (with Dumbledore writing papers on his work on the uses of dragon blood and the like). Some wizards are more powerful and/or more skilled than others, but there's no hint of a higher power or purpose any more than electricity or gravity might point to an ultimate purpose. Rowling even raises amusing questions about whether some magic is pseudo-magic (divination, Lovegood's work) when the evidence of its effectiveness is less conclusive.

Then there's the question of death. One of the themes of the Harry Potter series seems to be the virtue of accepting the finality of death. Rowling uses a Biblical quote about death being the last enemy to conquer, but attempting to conquer death was clearly the problem. Nowhere does the story praise the quest for immortality: lingering and continuing in spirit form after your time is up is shown as inability to achieve closure and move on. That's why I knew Dumbledore wouldn't come back like Obi Wan Kenobi to guide Harry at a critical moment or to save him.

All of these themes make Harry Potter a remarkably skeptic-friendly fantasy. The series is far more atheistic than His Dark Materials, a critically-acclaimed fantasy trilogy written by a bona fide atheist (see my discussion of atheist themes in Pullman's work which includes some further comparison of Rowling's style and Pullman's).

However, J. K. Rowling self-identifies as Christian. She is rich, powerful, and popular enough that she can basically get away with saying anything she wants to at this point, thus it seems reasonable to take her at her word and not try to come up with proofs that she's a closet atheist or something like that, no matter how tempting it may be.

So, to double-overcompensate for my pro-atheist bias, today I will ask the obvious Christian book critic question: Is Harry Potter's death scene a re-telling of the Jesus story?

I'm not going to try to prove the case either way, just throw out some ideas and let you decide. As a control, I'll compare these two stories to two other famous self-sacrificing-nonpermanent-death scenes from popular culture: It's a Wonderful Life and Star Trek II. (If you haven't seen these, George Bailey tries to kill himself so that his family will have the money from his life insurance policy and Spock steps into an area of deadly radiation contamination to fix the warp drive so the ship can escape in time.)

1. It had to be the hero in person, not someone else:
JC: yes, for some reason theologians can explain better than I can...
HP: yes, because he had some part of Voldemort's soul.
IAWL: no, nobody really had to die at all -- all they needed was some money.
ST2: not really, somebody else with similar skills and abilities could have done the same thing.

2. The hero was betrayed by a friend:
JC: yes, however the story indicates that Jesus knew it was going to happen and allowed it, thus their relative power levels leaves the betrayal question rather ambiguous.
HP: yes, and it was a difficult blow for Harry when he realized that his trusted friend Dumbledore had been grooming him for the slaughter all along.
IAWL: sort of: the problem arose when Uncle Billy handed $8000 of the bank's money to the enemy (named Potter, coincidentally...), but it was an accident.
ST2: no, Spock acted alone. His longtime friend/rival Dr. McCoy attempted to stop him and failed.

3. The hero was perfect:
JC: yes
HP: no
IAWL: not entirely, but he was remarkably virtuous.
ST2: perfectly logical.

4. The hero is entirely dead before coming back:
JC: yes, and this is an important component of the story: Jesus had to actually die in order to conquer death, so it wouldn't have worked for him to be very, very close to death and pull through.
HP: no, Harry had a "near death experience" which the text jokingly indicates was all in his head.
IAWL: no, George had a NDE similar to Harry's where he got to analyze his situation.
ST2: yes, Spock had a funeral and his corpse was shot out into space before his spirit was reunited with his body. Another point of similarity with the Jesus story is that in both cases it's not entirely clear the resurrection was part of the original story as opposed to having been added later.

5. After his death experience, the hero continues his life as before:
JC: no, Jesus miraculously appeared to some followers a few times, but his death scene ended his everyday life.
HP: yes, he continued as before, grew up, raised a family, etc.
IAWL: yes, but maybe he appreciated his life a bit more.
ST2: yes, he even went on to appear in several more films. He may have made a joke line here and there about having been dead, but his experience doesn't even stand out as a turning point in the Star Trek universe.

6. The story describes the pain of the hero's decision:
JC: yes, Jesus was extensively tortured and asked God if he could get out of it.
HP: yes, Harry contemplated how much he will miss the joys of life.
IAWL: not really, George's choice comes off as a rash act of desperation and despair.
ST2: no, "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one." The choice is the logical one, and that's good enough for Spock.

So what do you think? Is Harry Jesus? Is Spock?

Anyone have any further points of comparison or other stories that could be added to this list?

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Where have all the checks and balances gone?

Here's a bit of disturbing news that kept me from sleeping peacefully last night. A "correction" for a real-estate market gone awry? Considering how many people's solvency depends on their home equity, I wouldn't take this lightly.

It means the American people will have that much less to pay with when the bill comes due. What bill? Well, to catch up on maintenance of the crumbling infrastructure for one thing. I won't call it a "quality of life" issue or even "investment in the future" since I imagine those are frivolous aspects of government that some feel ought to be cut off before "drowning it in the bathtub". But functioning infrastructure benefits the economy, and dependence on foreign oil is a huge national security issue. (On a related note, having a functioning healthcare and education system is a sound economic investment as well, not some evil plot by commies and freeloaders...)

The most frightening part, though, is that the president can admit to breaking the law, wipe his butt on the Constitution, and flush the U.S. economy down the toilet, and somehow impeachment is not on the table? How is that possible??? Maybe we could use some leadership?

I'd swear it was the end-times if I believed in the end times. But since I don't, I do believe it's time to start cleaning this mess up...

Normally I like to keep my topics light, and I'm sure to get flamed for this one since I'm not an economist or an expert political analyst (not to mention the fact that I currently live in Europe...). For some excellent expert analysis, look here. For the sake of the U.S. and its Constitution, I think impeachment needs to be on the table and needs to be a priority in order to start turning things around.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

I'm jealous

of people whose last name is "Godfrey".

It just occurred to me today that that's a common name and that it's perfectly ordinary to be named "God-free." Why them and not me???