Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Then he told his other grandma that God doesn't exist...

Our six-month stay in the U.S. is over, but we're not quite home yet. On our way back to Switzerland we're spending a few days with my husband's family in Holland. (My husband is French, but his mom is originally from Holland, and she's moved back to Holland to be near her siblings.)

I don't even know how the subject came up. I was reading a book (I know: bad, anti-social me...) when I hear my husband explain, "It's like 'God'." (I'm translating)
Mother-in-Law: Oh, you've talked to him about that?
Nico's dad: It came up during the trip.
MiL: (to Nico) You see, Nico, some people believe that God exists, and some people believe that God doesn't exist.
Nico: OK, well, I'm one of the people who thinks God doesn't exist.
MiL: That's OK, but your grandma believes that God exists.
Nico: OK.

And that was the end of it. As I explained earlier, we haven't really discussed the subject with our kids, but I imagine we will once we get back home. Leo hasn't shown any interest in the question -- too busy building things out of Legos.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The rest of the holiday story...

After all that anticipation -- can you believe it? -- nothing bad happened. Nico and Leo were too busy sledding and playing and opening presents, and everyone got along great!

The worst thing that happened was that (John's partner) Mike got a temporary stomach flu and wasn't well enough to be in the family portrait:

My new niece also missed being in the portrait since she isn't quite out of the hospital yet -- but she's doing great, and her big sister expects to get to meet her soon.

I guess the closest thing to a faux pas was when my brother John remarked on how cool it is that we're increasing our family's diversity by adding a "corridor Mormon" for the first time in generations. (The rest of us are either "mission-field Mormons" or not Mormon at all -- and if you don't know what that means, then read this piece on our family history.) My sister Laurie then explained that her new fiance is from Moscow, Idaho -- which is so far north that it's hardly Idaho at all, it's practically Eugene, Oregon! Good thing we didn't mistake him for a Utah Mormon... ;^)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

More existential musings!

So far we've successfully avoided the topic of whether God exists, but Nico has made a point to explain to his grandparents that Santa Claus does not exist. (My parents know about this blog, BTW, so I assume that they're aware of the situation as well.)

As you may recall from the past three years that Nico believed Santa was real right up until last year. This year's round of Christmas specials, however, kind of finished it off. It wasn't the fact that Rankin-Bass produced two different (contradictory) Santa-origin stories. It was that he liked Santa Claus Is Coming to Town so well that he decided that he, Nico, would grow up to be Santa Claus! He's been intent on this idea for weeks, and -- scientifically-minded as he is -- it has entailed lots of elaborate discussions of the precise logistics of how the whole Santa thing works. This led him to conclude that Santa Claus is not real, but it would be fun to be him. Santa Nico, as it were, named (indirectly) after Saint Nicholas himself.

As for the question of Jesus, we're kind of zeroing in on it. Last night we all went to see a production of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. Now, before you go jumping to the conclusion that my family is pushing the religious Christmas on us, I'll tell you that my mom presented this as one of the optional family events, and, in fact, my brothers did not attend (mostly because they didn't have any kids of the appropriate ages for the story). I opted in (for myself, my husband, and kids) because it was our Christmas tradition when I was a kid to read that book aloud as a family.

It actually ended up being a good intro to the religious side of Christmas. There's a whole comic scene where the main characters have to explain "The Christmas Story" to the bad kids because the bad kids (shockingly!) have never heard it! My kids also had never heard it, so they got a basic intro in real time.

The only tricky part was trying to keep Nico quiet because he is constantly full of questions! I had to sit next to him and let him whisper questions to me so that he would stop trying to ask questions aloud in full voice. For example, at the end when they were finally performing the pageant within the play:
Nico: So this story is in the Bible?
me: yes.
Nico: The Holy Bible?
me: yes.
Nico: Who are Mary and Joseph?
me: They're characters in the Bible.
Nico: Are they... gods?
me: no.

Then on the way home, we had a brief discussion of why people say Christmas is Jesus's birthday (even though it's not). The conclusion was that they didn't write the date down anywhere, so that's the day that people have chosen to use as a celebration/remembrance date. And I managed to refrain from going into an elaborate discussion of pre-Christian Solstice festivals (though you know how much I love that stuff!) and I also avoided mentioning that there's no evidence that anything at all was written about Jesus during His lifetime, and that the legend of the trek to Bethlehem was likely invented by Jesus' followers and probably never happened even if we assume the Jesus character of the Bible is based on a real person, etc....

Conclusion: So far so good! :D

Monday, December 21, 2009

How do you know you exist?

Both of my kids have had some interesting existential questions this past week! Let's start with 6-year-old Leo:

When cuddling for bed, Leo noticed a strange shadow on the ceiling.

me: Maybe it's a ghost.
Leo: No, it can't be a ghost. Ghosts are invisible, and they don't exist, and light goes through them so they don't cast a shadow.
me: Fair enough.

Again, Leo was telling me about things that exist and don't exist...
me: Do you exist?
Leo: Of course!
me: How do you know you exist?
Leo: What?
me: How do you know you exist?
Leo: Look at me! I'm right here!
me: Fair enough.
Leo: But before you borned me, before I grew in your tummy, I didn't exist.

Then came 8-year-old-Nico's turn:

As soon as my husband discovered that David Attenborough had a new documentary out (Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life), he immediately ordered it. Nico asked who Charles Darwin was, and my husband suggested we watch the movie and find out!

The next morning, Nico wanted to watch the documentary again. During the intro, I repeated "Charles Darwin" (mimicking the English accent), and then Nico did me one better by dramatically saying "Charles Darwin -- the guy who proved that God doesn't exist."

That had me laughing -- the documentary certainly doesn't say that! However, you can kind of see how he might get that out of it. David Attenborough reads part of the creation story from Genesis and explains that for thousands of years most of Europe thought it was an accurate description of how animals came to be. Little by little, the evidence started to pile up (geology, transitional forms, genetics, plate tectonics) showing that the Genesis account is quite wrong. You can't really tell Darwin's story completely without mentioning the reaction by defenders of the faith, but the documentary leaves the conclusion open with respect to the existence of God.

You may recall way back here that we don't really talk about God much with our kids. Since that post, Nico has started to form his own ideas about what God is from different movies. He's an interesting character in Monty Python's "Holy Grail" -- plus Nico has learned that the planets are named after different "gods," but we haven't really discussed it.

Then, in one of the hotels on our road trip to Minnesota (we just arrived today), Nico found The Holy Bible! He was so amazed -- it's the same book that David Attenborough was reading! What a rare find!
me: Actually, Nico, it's not rare at all. They're everywhere. It's the best selling book of the year, every year.
Nico: Why?
me: They're for people who believe in God.

That shocked Nico quite a bit, and he was further shocked when we explained to him that his grandparents -- who we were on our way to visit -- believe in God. Nico immediately insisted that he had to tell them that God doesn't exist! (Yikes! That's just we need for our family Christmas visit...)

So we explained to Nico that it is very important not to tell the other other family members that God doesn't exist because if they want to believe in God, they can just go right ahead and believe in God. And if they want to believe that Christmas is God's birthday (even though it isn't) they can go right ahead and believe that as well. Fortunately Nico agreed that we'd just let them believe what they want.

The whole family is together for Christmas for the first time in nearly a decade -- I expect it will be a lot of fun! Wish me luck, though.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Our First Hanukkah!

Can you believe it? Here I am, thirty-eight years old, and this year is the first year I've ever been invited to a Hanukkah party! Leo totally got into it:

Ready for some dreidel action!

He learned about Hanukkah at school, so he was excited to see the traditions live:

And me too, actually.

I remember as a kid that it was fun to learn Hanukkah songs as well as Christmas songs for the school holiday performance, some thirty years ago. Bizarrely enough, this has become a subject of great controversy in the past few years thanks to Bill O'Reilly. I think it's pretty reasonable to teach about different traditions, however, as long as the school is making a good-faith effort to be inclusive of the different traditions.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

A foreign language is best learned in the bedroom

Herr Doktor, seit einem Monat schlafe ich nicht. Eine schlaflose Nacht is für mich ein Qual. Welches Schlafmittel soll ich nehmen?

I always chuckle a little when this dialog comes up in my German lessons. For me, it's self-referential. The lady is asking her doctor what to take for insomnia. I say take some German lessons. Seriously.

Here's why learning a foreign language is the best cure for insomnia:

When you learn a foreign language as an adult, you have to learn the grammar rules. But, you don't become fluent by working out a little grammar algorithm in your head to compose each sentence before you speak. It has to become automatic. And that comes from (rather mindless) drills and memorization. You can train your brain by listening to your recorded dialogs so many times that you can recite them.

Insomnia, for me, is almost always a question of having some idea or problem stuck in my mind that I just can't stop obsessing about. Then, as the hours tick by, the thought that I'll be too tired to work the next day just compounds the problem with further stress and worry.

Language recordings to the rescue! As I focus on the dialogs in the recording, it pushes the other thoughts and obsessions out of my mind. Since I've heard these dialogs already (no surprises!) it's easy for my conscious mind to wander off to dreamland. And best of all, when it doesn't work, there's no compounding stress/worry about having wasted so many precious hours just lying there. No time was wasted at all -- I was improving my German, which I'm supposed to set aside time to do anyway!

I used this trick when learning French, and later Italian. I stopped doing it when my babies were born, though, because I didn't want any danger from the ear-bud cords where my babies and I were sleeping. Now that they're six and eight years old (and have been in their own big-boy beds for a number of years) I have no further excuses. Well, no good ones anyway.

I've only got a handful of lessons left in Allemand Pratique de Base, and if I finish them up by the end of the year, I'll have succeeded in one of my (very modest) goals. With interruptions, this beginner German course has taken me approximately two years. That's not so impressive when you consider that twelve years ago I completed the comparable course "Teach Yourself French" in the space of two weeks.

Of course things were a little different back when I decided to learn French. For one thing, it was Summer, and I had two weeks by myself. I had no kids to take care of. The only task on my agenda was procrastinating my PhD research, so I had 24 hours a day to devote to teaching myself to speak French. (Now, if you're thinking "Chanson, don't you have a Java book that you're procrastinating right now?" -- keep in mind that today, we have more advanced technology for procrastination: the Internet.)

Note that my motivation back then was a little different: there was a certain highly desirable Frenchman I wanted to impress. Motivation is the other reason the bedroom is the best place to learn a new language. Usually it's an annoyance for native speakers to help you practice while you blunder your way through their language. But the magic of romance turns it cute. Plus it makes you want to figure out how to say all sorts of different things to your foreign sweetheart. The trouble with this trick is that -- when successful -- it works only once. Now that I'm happily married to an adorable Frenchman, well, let's just say it limits the possibility of learning German in the same way.

And -- bringing this discussion full circle -- some of you may be noting that sex is also a good cure for insomnia. It is, but it's not as effective as listening to language lessons. Insomnia, language, and romance: three bedroom activities that go great together! ;^)

Friday, November 27, 2009

Santa's invented origins, courtesy of Rankin-Bass!

In the olden days, people didn't have electric lights. So the change in the number of daylight hours was a really big deal for people who lived far from the equator. Additionally, what you could eat depended on the season. Harvest coffers were full in the late Fall, and the best time to slaughter animals for fresh meat was early Winter.

Obviously, when the days finally started getting longer again, it was time for a celebration and a feast! It was time to deck the halls with what lights and colors you could find, in honor of the warmth and light to come. It was also time to enjoy some of the best food and ale you'd have all year -- and share it liberally with the neighbors -- before saving the rest saving the rest away to keep you through the Winter months.

There was no mass communication or rapid transit, so the legends and precise dates and customs of Yuletide varied from town to town, just as languages and dialects varied across the countryside and from one land to the next. But there were a number of elements that were standard fare:
* Feasting and drinking,
* expectation of charity -- the "haves" of a community were expected to share the feast and ale with the have-nots, upon request or for a symbolic price such as a song,
* lights and colorful decorations,
* a late-night vigil or party,
* masks and role-play (choosing a king of the feast),
* other normally-frowned-on behavior, such as gambling,
* stories and legends.

Despite how far removed we are from those days, vestiges of all of these customs have been preserved -- spread across the entire holiday season in Halloween, Hanukkah, Christmas, Boxing Day, New Year's, Epiphany, and others.

Now, here's my question: Am I nuts to think that the real story of these customs is more interesting than some random, just-so stories?

Obviously, I'm thinking of the Rankin-Bass special Santa Claus Is Coming to Town -- one of the canon of TV specials that were so central to the Christmas traditions of my childhood. I have no memory of ever being disappointed by the idea that Santa Claus isn't real. Yet I remember being a bit disappointed when I realized that the children's questions -- posed in this special -- are legitimate questions with interesting answers, but the real answers have nothing whatsoever to do with the answers given in this special.

The impact of Clement Clarke Moore's poem ('Twas the Night Before Christmas) in shaping the "Santa Claus" legend is interesting. Ditto for the contributions of Thomas Nast, and even advertising campaigns by Coca-Cola and Montgomery Ward.

That beef aside, Santa Claus Is Coming to Town is a fun little program. Burgermeister Meisterburger steals the show with his song-and-dance about how he hates toys and is outlawing them. He's not quite Heat Miser and Snow Miser, but he has a lot of good lines. (Actually, he looks a lot like Heat Miser, now that I think of it...)

Jessica, a.k.a. Mrs. Claus, isn't nearly as interesting as I remember her -- along with her early-70's ballad about her grand epiphany that her place is beside her man. Maybe I'm just getting picky in my old age.

Of course, Santa Claus Is Coming to Town isn't the only Rankin-Bass special about a made-up Santa origin story. Fifteen years later they came up with The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. (I discovered this just last year, through a comment on my blog.) Naturally, this second Santa-Genesis story is totally incompatible with the first.

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus has a far more Paganesque feel to it than the earlier story. I give it points for the explanation of how Santa speaks so many languages, plus its attempt at illustrating the cruel injustices of the world. Like all of the Rankin-Bass specials, this one is kind of weird and trippy.

On some level, though, I feel like it's not quite as charming as the light, insouciant Santa Claus Is Coming to Town. Is it just a question of childhood memories and nostalgia coloring my opinion?

Do the rest of you have any opinions on which Santa origin story is best? And why?

Thanksgiving humbug!

After more than seven years in Europe, it's kind of weird to be back in the land that adds "Thanksgiving" to the holiday schedule. I still maintain -- as I said way back in my Tradition! post -- that Thanksgiving is a lame holiday.

The main problem with Thanksgiving is that it's an invented holiday -- one that was invented by people who had little imagination and no interest in having fun: the Puritans. I don't object to invented traditions on principle. (For every tradition, somebody's got to do it first, right?) But it's possible to do it well, and it's possible to do it badly.

Take Kwanzaa, for example. Placing it between Christmas and New Year's was a stoke of genius! The kids all have the week off of school anyway, and are milling around the house just looking for something to do. Plus, having a row of candles corresponding to each day shows good co-opting of other familiar holiday traditions (which is how holiday traditions generally get started). And the inventor of Kwanzaa picked holiday colors, whole slew of craft activities, and a purpose that hits the right spot on the vague-to-specific spectrum for lots of different people to find meaning in it. See? Now that's a well-crafted invented holiday. If I were black, I would totally celebrate it.

(Actually, that reminds me that I'm planning to take up celebrating International Talk Like a Pirate Day.)

Thanksgiving, by contrast, is the fruit of the original "War on Christmas." The Puritans had outlawed the celebration of Christmas for approximately the first hundred years they were on the American continent because it was too pagan, and, well, too dang much fun. I'm not joking, BTW. The Puritans were the real "Burgermeister Meisterburger," literally outlawing fun just because they don't like to see other people having fun. And they introduced Thanksgiving to get people's yearly feasting out of the way early. If Bill O'Reilly were really serious about wanting to stop people who wage "War on Christmas", his first step would be to denounce Thanksgiving.

(Actually that's one point for the Puritans over today's religious enforcers -- at least they didn't come up with that ridiculous "War on XYZ" phrase that's so popular today.)

As a result, the one tradition we have for celebrating Thanksgiving is feasting. Oh, and praying. That's it. And, frankly, when you're living in a society where no one at your table has ever had to go without food, more eating is not a way to mark a special occasion. Special occasions should be marked by doing something different, that you don't do every single friggin' day.

Now I just want to answer (in advance!) the two obvious objections to what I've said: (1) I've somehow missed that other Thanksgiving tradition, the thanking, and (2) Christmas is worse, because it's about eating stuff and buying stuff you don't need at Wall-Mart.

For #1, two popular bloggers have explained how it doesn't make sense to thank random chance (here and here). I would actually take that a step further for those of born into rich countries and other advantages. It's like setting aside a day just to say "Yay, I'm glad life is unfair because I got a bigger slice of the pie than 90% of humanity! And now I will eat it in front of everyone with great relish!"

For #2, the timeless mid-winter festival of lights has morphed and evolved to fit many cultures, including its current consumerist incarnation: "Christmas" (along with its cousin "Hanukkah"). But it is so laden with millennia of traditions that you can find something interesting in it. If you're not a scrooge. ;^)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

An erotic alternate universe!

"Most smut fans will tell you that they have a strong preference for either visual porn or written porn -- a preference for sexual images or sexual stories that's so deeply ingrained, many people think it's hard-wired. Adult comics give us both. And in giving us both images and stories, adult comics create a bridge between the two.

-- Greta Christina

That's definitely true for me. I like striking images, but I'm almost never aroused by visual images alone, no matter how beautiful or naked the subjects may be. There has to be a story -- or, specifically, a scenario that creates erotic tension. Yet, perversely, I get stuck on erotic stories because the words get in the way. Reading a verbal description isn't the same as seeing, no matter how good a writer wrote it. Erotic comics hit the sweet spot.

Best Erotic comics 2008 and Best Erotic Comics 2009 showcase an amazing range of different artistic and narrative forms, from beautiful and poignant to funny to earthy to grotesque.

These books would make a good starting point for couples who are looking to introduce shared erotica into their relationships, but are a little hesitant -- there's almost certainly something here that will appeal to you and help you explore what you like. (Though, be warned that there are things in here that will probably upset/offend more sensitive souls.)

I'd like to mention a few highlights. I hate to narrow it down because there were so many great stories, but I'd like to give you an idea of what's in the books:

The first ones I caught myself coming back to re-read were some funny ones, like Dori Seda's story with the joke ending where something unpleasant breaks up the orgy. Then there was the excerpt from "Trucker Fags in Denial" -- which really is grotesque, but in an intriguing way. Actually, many of them are excerpts from larger works. I'd be curious to read the rest of Gilbert Hernandez's "Birdland," among others. I also liked some of the snapshots of the culture at large, such as the descriptions of strange porn films, and Ellen Forney's illustrations of personal ads.

While reading these books, I couldn't help but keep thinking of one other thing Greta Christina said:

"I am strongly of the opinion that truly first-rate erotica will excite you, even if it doesn't push your personal erotic buttons. First-rate erotica gets you excited about the sex the characters are having -- regardless of whether it's sex that you, personally, would enjoy having, or that pushes your personal fantasy buttons."

Naturally I kept asking myself, "how do these books measure up?" And, also, "how do I measure up?" On some level, I feel like it's wrong to pass judgment on my own sexual responses, yet it was such a tempting challenge!

I think we all (me and the two books) did pretty well. I'll admit that there were a few stories I didn't find that interesting (of the more than sixty short stories), but for the most part I found them exciting and compelling -- even the ones that didn't drive right up my erotic alley. And I feel I've expanded my horizons in directions that would never have occurred to me on my own.

Monday, November 23, 2009

It's that time of year!

Time to break out those crazy Christmas specials that I watched a million times as a kid -- and subject my own kids to them!!!

It's also time to pick one and look at it in a new way! Last year's pick was Nestor the Long-Eared Donkey -- a Christian answer to the more popular "Rudolph" legend.

The year before that, it was The Grinch and the true meaning of Christmas!

Back in 2006, I talked about how The Year without a Santa Claus proves that colorful characters and memorable scenes are far more important than trivialities such as internal consistency or a plot that makes sense.

Then -- since I was young and ambitious that year -- I compared that one to The Polar Express (and to that cartoon with the mice) in terms of the treatment of skeptics in Christmas-land!!

From those clues, you should be able to triangulate which special(s) I'll pick this year!! I'm holding off on posting about it until after Thanksgiving, though (out of consideration for the seasonally-sensitive among you).

In the meantime, you can warm up by listening to some festive carols for a Merry (secular) Christmas and other Happy Holidays!!!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Right Questions: Eric T. Freyfogle's "On Private Property"

Remember how I was complaining about ideologues' lack of new analysis? Specifically, the inability to use data and observation of human society over the past half-century to evaluate and modify beliefs and theories...?

Well, I had a clever idea of my own the other day! Instead of just complaining that I haven't tripped over any new ideas, why not wander over to the bookstore and look for some? And I found a real gem: On Private Property: Finding Common Ground on the Ownership of Land,by Eric T. Freyfogle.

What does private property even mean? What precisely can you expect to do to/with/on your land when your right to property is upheld? If you think those questions have simple, clear, well-understood answers, you're wrong.

On the most basic level, your use/enjoyment of your property affects your neighbors' use/enjoyment of theirs, and vice-versa. Land use disputes can't be simply interpreted as one side upholding the right to property and the other side opposing it. They're more reasonably characterized as a complex negotiation over how the rights and interests different parties interact. And, unfortunately, US court rulings on property disputes often tend to have an "ad hoc" quality -- instead of being based on a general, objective set of principles.

Freyfogle gives a fascinating historical overview of how our definition of property has evolved over the past few centuries. He uses a number of actual property-dispute court cases to illustrate the ambiguity of what is (and has traditionally been) guaranteed by the right to property. And he proposes a framework of ideas about how we can understand better what private property should mean.

Whether or not you agree with his answers, Freyfogle is asking all the right questions. There is nothing more mind-expanding than looking at familiar issues from a new perspective by analyzing the key assumptions. And the question of how land and resources are divided is going to be one of the most critical issues of our time as population pressure continues to rise to the nine billion mark. We're not living on the edge of the (supposedly) unlimited frontier anymore, folks, and it's time to think hard about what that means for our society and the world.

I'd like to recommend this book for online discussion. I would especially like to recommend this book for any of you who call yourselves "Libertarians" or "Objectivists" -- if you're going to hold up the right of property as the most crucial right, then it's in your interest to be sure you know what you're talking about. Unfortunately, unlike The Authoritarians (which we discussed earlier), this book isn't available for free download. It costs $16 from the publisher. Worth the money, IMHO, but I hope they'll eventually pasture it as a free (or very cheap) e-book at some point so it can enjoy wider distribution.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The conclusion of Bordeaux Mission!

Feeling the light breeze on my face, I looked out at the water. The edges of the moving water between the feet of the bridge curled into little whirlpools here and there. I tried to drag up all the rusty memories of my former life in Orem, back when everything was so much simpler. I was so faithful then, what had happened to me?

Picturing my home and my family, my youth and my old ward, I started to feel like a good missionary again. I kept all of these pleasant images in my mind until it was time to go get Nick and go to my interview with the Mission President.

When it was my turn, the Mission President shook my hand and started asking me all of the familiar temple recommend questions: Read the rest of the story ->

Saturday, November 07, 2009

To think, I was so careful to keep my secret project a secret!

Remember that mysterious professional/research project I've been doing during this six-month stay in the U.S.? The one I'd assumed I was supposed to keep confidential? Well, it turns out that the publisher has already posted it on Amazon. Lucky thing it's almost done! And I'm really pleased with how it's turning out. :D

On a related note, I made a couple of Twitter accounts this past week: chansonexmo and chexplore. I did it mostly because I'm writing a BlackBerry application that uses Twitter. However, while I'm on Twitter anyway, I'd like to know what's up with my blog friends. So, if you Twitter, please leave a comment with your Twitter name so I can follow you.

Follow me at your own risk, though! I'll be sending quite a lot of test tweets. I think I'll try to send most of the "Testing 1, 2" messages from "chexplore" and use "chansonexmo" (mostly) for real updates.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Still segregated after all these years: Jonathan Kozol's "The Shame of the Nation"

Seems like only a half-century ago that the U.S. Supreme Court declared (in Brown v. Board of Education) that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." And where are we today?

Still separate. Still unequal.

It turns out that -- while it's not so hard to eliminate de jure (legally-enforced) segregation -- de facto segregation is a bit harder to root out. Kozol reports that the poorest schools (in large, Northern cities) typically have a student body that is more than 90% black and Hispanic. Schools with a real mixture of races are actually quite rare in and around U.S. urban areas -- they're typically either almost entirely black+hispanic or almost entirely white+other. Even in areas of NYC where the residential neighborhoods themselves are fairly integrated, school choice programs within the public school system create a dynamic where the white kids get sent to one school and the black kids to another.

Kozol describes the harm. Poor schools often have major infrastructure problems such as overcrowded, dilapidated buildings with chemical hazards. It's not rare to lack playgrounds, not to mention basic materials like books and chairs for every student. When one school can spend $17,000 per pupil and another only $9000, it makes a huge difference (multiplied by the number of kids in the school) in terms of the quality of teachers you can attract and the supplies and infrastructure you can buy.

Since race is mixed in with the money situation, it makes the "haves" care that much less about the plight of the "have nots." Probably most of the people reading this post are right now saying to themselves "Of course the children of the rich deserve a better quality of education than the children of the poor because they're paying more in property taxes." When people call America a "land of opportunity," they don't mean it's supposed to have a level playing field. They mean that you can buy opportunity (if you have the money), otherwise you get a curriculum that is designed to produce docile, obedient, low-level employees.

Kozol argues that the de-facto segregation is itself a problem (apart from the money problem) because being able to interact easily and comfortably with people of other races is an important factor for success in a mixed-race country. I agree, as I discussed in my post European dream.

Unfortunately, the problem is incredibly difficult to grapple with. De-facto segregation is not illegal, and apparently is not covered by the Brown decision mentioned above. People who would like to see greater equality can do very little to stop the momentum of the current system. A major overhaul would not merely be expensive -- it would be a political impossibility. In today's America, putting equality and the common good above the individual's right to leave his fellows in the dust (if he can) is almost universally viewed as "communism" and hence evil.

This problem illustrates the difference between civil rights for black people and civil rights for gay people. Black people in the U.S. face major structural inequalities that don't have any simple solutions. The thing that's so infuriating about anti-gay discrimination is that it's just so gratuitous! You could pass a law that doesn't affect the straight majority, and problem is essentially solved. Refusing to grant gay people equal rights is like kicking them in the face just for the sake of kicking them in the face. For black people, it's not nearly so simple. The relevant laws and court cases have been on the books for nearly a half-century or more -- and the inequalities are still there. It's because there's no simple, obvious, fair way to even things out. Ditto for Hispanics and immigrants.

The most encouraging possibilities mentioned in Kozol's book are found in the few schools that really are integrated. Their success demonstrates that it's possible, and may encourage parents to do more to integrate the schools in their own districts.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

It's not that simple...

Friday morning I gathered my things and Elder Beaverton helped me carry them to the other side of town to the mission office. Elder Beaverton didn't have to move his own things this time -- he just had to gather up his new companion, Elder Wilson, and bring him back to the apartment. Read the rest of the story ->

Sunday, November 01, 2009

These are S&M's, Mommy, not M&M's!

OK, you can probably guess where that quote came from. ;^)

My 6-year-old Leo -- who loves chocolate but not fruit -- discovered the remaining Skittles I'd bought for the trick-or-treaters. And he can identify letters just well enough to tell that it says right on the package that they aren't the treat he was hoping for...

And today's "expat story hour" question is: What did my kids think of their first American Halloween?

They absolutely loved it! Halloween (essentially in its American incarnation) is appearing little by little in Europe, but it's not like here. Their school had Halloween activities all day on Friday -- with the kids and teachers all dressed up in their costumes -- and we went trick-or-treating with a group of neighbor kids in the evening.

I remember having great fun at Halloween parties as a kid. Our Mormon ward was pretty cool, so we never did did any of those lame anti-real-Halloween substitutes like "Trunk-or-Treating" or a "Hell House." We had a fairly standard fun Halloween party every year with costumes, games, bobbing for apples, and haunted rooms with things like cold spaghetti and peeled grapes pretending to be other things...

So I felt bad that we ended up not taking our kids to any of the Halloween parties we were invited to. I wanted to, but it turned out that October 31st was the only day this whole semester that there was a (relatively) kid-friendly matinee at the Metropolitan Opera! And that was another one of the big cultural experiences we didn't want our kids to miss on during this stay in the U.S.: a trip to the Met!!!

My husband got one shot of the chandeliers before we found that photography isn't allowed -- even in the foyer!!

We went to see Il Barbiere di Siviglia, which the kids have seen a bunch of times on video, so they knew the basic story and the music. We all had a great time!! For the kids, just seeing any kind of show performed live (like a movie, only live!) is already exceptional, and they liked looking through the binoculars at the orchestra playing their instruments. And we got back just in time for trick-or-treating, so it was perfect!!!

Some Halloween I hope I can do this though...

Friday, October 30, 2009

Speaking of mishie stories...

A friend of mine wrote a memoir about her LDS mission in Taiwan, and an excerpt was just published in the New York Times Modern Love Column: All I Wanted Was a Hug. It's a fascinating portrait of homo-vs-hetero public displays of affection in a super-chaste subculture!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Even if the church is perfect, the people aren't

Elder Beaverton and I didn't say anything as we walked northeast along the side of the Jardin Public. When we got to the corner, I suggested that we turn northwest and continue going around the park. I knew that the girls were still inside. I couldn't help but feel like if Elder Dickhead was going to label me a troublemaker anyway, it didn't really matter if I broke the rules a little or not.

As we approached another entrance to the Jardin Public, I turned to Elder Beaverton and said "It was very rude the way we left like that. We should at least go back and apologize to those girls and say goodbye to them properly before we go back to tracting."

"No, Elder Hobbs, don't do it. You're just going to get us into more trouble."

"You were fellowshipping them, weren't you? Read the rest of the story ->

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

It takes a village...

...or a galaxy?

Leo decided to bring a handful of glow-in-the-dark stars to bed with him: one tiny one, and ten slightly larger ones.

So, as I was cuddling him, I suggested that the tiny one was the baby, and set aside two larger ones to be the Mommy and Daddy. Then I asked him who the others were. Here's what he came up with:

3. the grandma
4. the grandpa
5. the babysitter
6. the Paleontologist
7. the teacher
8. the train driver

Then he thought for a long time to name the last two, and finally decided that they were

9. the French teacher
10. the "teller" who "tells lots of stuff"

I'll bet you and Spencer met in the pre-existence

On Wednesday morning we were having about the same luck as Tuesday morning. We were wandering around the Place Gambetta, thinking about finding some lunch, when we heard a familiar voice:

Read the rest of the story ->

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Great moments in evolution: Nick Lane's "Life Ascending"

For years I'd been looking for a quick, readable synopsis of what is currently known about the origin of life. I'll bet a number of you out there are looking for the same thing. It's an area of active research, so whatever you learned about it in your Biology class (if anything) is probably not current anymore. Well, Nick Lane gives a straight-forward account of it in Life Ascending. Almost all of what he wrote in that essay was news to me, and fascinating news at that!

For that essay alone, I'd recommend this book. But on top of that, there are nine more of the good parts in the grand tale of evolution. It's a quick and fun way to get up to speed on the big ideas of Biology for those of us whose day job revolves around some other field.

His ten "great inventions" are the following:
1. The Origin of Life
2. DNA
3. Photosynthesis
4. The Complex Cell
5. Sex
6. Movement
7. Sight
8. Hot Blood
9. Consciousness
10. Death

In each of the ten essays, the author sets up some mystery about how or why the given trait evolved, then he builds up to explaining one or more theories about it -- along with giving you a good explanation of what kind of evidence backs each theory. Some of them almost feel like "Encyclopedia Brown" stories, leading the reader to guess what solution he'll propose. It makes for a pretty entertaining game, especially when he sets up questions I hadn't thought of. For example, with the case of warm-bloodedness, he sets up such a strong case for why it's inefficient, that it makes it fun to try to guess why it ever would have given an animal a selective advantage!

Another really interesting one was the evolution of photosynthesis. It had a pretty unexpected evolutionary path. And I learned that photosynthesis has two steps, the first of which is to use a photon to split a water molecule into its components. I hope not too many of you will laugh at me for not having already known this (I guess I wasn't paying as close of attention in Biology as I thought). But it turns out that people are very close to understanding precisely the reaction that would allow us to use sunlight to separate Hydrogen and Oxygen in water.

Whenever I'd heard people talk about how Hydrogen will be the new fuel (once we run out of fossil fuels) it always seemed to me to be a half-baked idea, because where does the Hydrogen come from? Splitting water molecules costs as much energy as we can hope to get back by burning the Hydrogen later, so at best it's like a type of battery -- not a source of energy to solve our energy problems. The fact that there's a good solar trick for isolating Hydrogen is the missing piece that makes this idea make sense. Considering how bad-and-worsening our energy/environment situation is getting, it's nice to hear a bit of a hopeful idea for a solution to part of the problem.

I wasn't totally convinced by Lane's explanation of death, but I think the fluffiest one was his essay on consciousness. That's probably because it's the most complex and least understood item on the list. Throughout the book Lane goes out of his way to avoid offending theists, but it was particularly funny in the consciousness chapter when he was talking about the "God Helmet" -- which causes people to believe they've seen God (by magnetically stimulating certain regions of the brain):

Persinger, incidentally, is at pains to point out that the physical induction of mystical experiences does not argue against the existence of God;

Of course not. That would mean ignoring the obvious explanation that God exists and just happens to be irresistibly attracted to that helmet! ;^)

But seriously, If you're curious about evolution and don't know it as well as you'd like to, this book will put you on the fast track to some of the most exciting parts!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

All the good gossip

Between buildings we passed by a pharmacy that had in its display window a large poster advertising some sort of mysterious medication. The image on the poster was a soft black-and-white shot of a nude woman looking off into the distance with her breasts completely exposed to view. Read the rest of the story ->

Friday, October 09, 2009

My sweetie knows me too well!!

He decided to get me a special surprise the other day, and here's what he brought home:

Yep, it's Transit Maps of the World: The world's first collection of every urban train map on Earth!! :D

Not only does it have the transit map of every city in the world with an urban train system (real or planned), but it also has historical maps of the oldest subway systems and how they evolved.

I was interested in the usual suspects (London, New York, Paris), but was even more intrigued by the historical maps of the subway system in Berlin, where pre-WWII lines crossed from West to East and back! For decades (before the wall came down) some mostly-west-side lines would pass through "ghost stations" in East Berlin where the subway train just wouldn't stop. Now the Berlin subway system is, of course, re-integrated. It actually makes me curious to visit Berlin -- especially now that my German is improving.

(Don't ask me to say anything in German yet, though -- my best sentence in high German is still "Ich möchte eine Fahrkarte nach Heidelberg, bitte" [I'd like a ticket to Heidelberg, please]. Not that I've ever been there. And my best sentence in Swiss German is the one that translates as "There are many frogs in Switzerland." I'd spell it out in Swiss German for you, but there's no standardized spelling. I'd prefer to be saying "There are many cows in Switzerland" -- to impress my Swiss-German friends -- but the word for frog is easier to pronounce. Anyway, both statements are true.)

So how did my sweetie guess that I'd be fascinated by all these transit maps? And that I'd sit down and read them all, just for fun? Maybe he got his clue when we were in Boston this past weekend and I was contemplating the subway map on the wall, to see how many lines they have and how they connect to each other, etc.

My kids explore Boston!

Of course, I guess he doesn't really have to be paying all that close of attention to have noticed my crazy fascination with urban transit. It was still thoughtful, though.

Here's one more picture to prove that we did come out and explore above ground in Boston. A little. ;^)

A cute bronze sculpture illustrating all of the local wildlife that you'd see in Boston, if only that nature stuff hadn't been paved over.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

I'm neither a poet nor a photographer

So how can I share with you this amazing sunny/windy fall day we're having?

I've somehow internalized the idea that it's not enough to just have experiences -- I have to record them and impart them. But when I try to press the little violet between the pages of a book, it's never quite the same as in life...

Why? Why not just be and do?

I'm tempted to trace it to my Mormon upbringing (given that that's my blogging theme), but I think it comes more from my non-religious outlook: any experience that I can't preserve will one day be lost (see why I don't like death). Either that or it's my ingrained Protestant work ethic. Must... make... myself... useful... at... all... times...

All of this real-life that's been going on since I've been here in New Jersey -- it's really cutting into my blogging. I have a backlog of about ten things I'm planning to post about! I can't believe I still haven't gotten around to recounting the Mormon Fundamentalist (polygamist) church service I attended when I was in Utah! Not to mention a bunch of other more mundane things that have been happening lately (my trip to Boston this past weekend, the dinner I went to last night where the hostess showed us Albert Einstein's desk that he had brought with him to Princeton from Berlin). But the problem is that it takes me a few hours to write a careful post, and those are hours I could be spending on more real-life experiences!

Meanwhile I keep obsessing over my elaborate plans about how to get an amazing new job when I get back to Zürich, plus I'm at a fun part on my professional research project that I'm doing during this sabbatical. But this weather is making me want to blow off work and go on a walk through the woods, crackle some crispy fall leaves under my feet.

I want to work,
I want to play,
I need three times as many hours in every day!!!

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Not some dorkazoid missionaries!

The next morning, after Elder Beaverton and I had done our usual personal study and companion study, we set off to go out tracting. As usual, no one wanted to let us in. To break up the tedium and frustration of it, we played little games to vary our door approach such as picking a particular word we'd have to work into our opening line somehow.

The whole morning the only person who let us in to talk was an old guy who mistook us for the Amish. We would get this problem all the time because in the French version of the movie Witness, the word "Amish" was mistranslated as "Mormon". So a lot of times people would ask us about how we always drive around in a horse-and-buggy back home or some other crazy thing that of course we don't do. Still, it was better than getting mistaken for the Témoins de Jéhovah [Jehovah's Witnesses].

After grabbing a sandwich for lunch, we decided to spend the afternoon street contacting along rue Sainte Catherine,

Read the rest of the story->

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

To stay and build up the kingdom

By the time Elder Beaverton and I got back to our apartment, it was past 18 heures (6 p.m.), so p-day was officially over, and it was time to get back to work.

The cool thing was that our work for the evening was hardly work. We finally had a referral for once -- in fact, better than a referral, one of the local members had invited us to dinner to give the first discussion to her sister. Read the rest of the story ->

Monday, September 28, 2009

My First Sunstone!

Remember that Sunstone Symposium I went to last month? (If you don't remember, go here, here, here, and here for a refresher.)

Anyway, I've written a new post about my first Sunstone over on the Sunstone blog!

Also, there have been some cool carnivals lately: The chaplain recently hosted the 126th Carnival of the Godless, and my post on Why I love 'Here Comes Science' was included in the 43rd Humanist Symposium! :D

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Tales of a gay Mormon male staying obedient to the Mormon authorities

If you're gay and Mormon, you're highly motivated to figure out what you really believe about the "truthfullness" of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There are a few obvious choices:

1. Conclude that the CoJCoL-dS is true overall, but wrong when it comes to homosexuality, and hope the leaders will one day revoke your group's cursed status, as they did for the blacks.

2. Conclude that the CoJCoL-dS is wrong, period.

3. Conclude that the CoJCoL-dS is true, and that the leaders are right about homosexuality.

Door #3 is not only a painful choice, but also an incredibly thankless one, considering that the leaders just won't stop making pronouncements that are not only hurtful but are obviously false. And don't expect much sympathy from your gay-friendly friends, either. They're about as likely to support your decision to stay in the LDS church are they are to encourage you to stay in any other abusive relationship.

I recently read a novel about what life is like behind door #3. I normally put book reviews here on my personal blog, but since I think this book will inspire some serious discussion of the issues involved, I've posted my review on Main Street Plaza instead. You can read it here: What the church really offers to gay male Mormons: Jonathan Langford’s No Going Back.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The last P-day of my mission

I was back home fishing. The morning sun was filtering down the canyon as I rowed my boat out to the middle of a calm lake and started preparing my lines...

Not really.

But in my mind I was already gone. Anywhere but wasting the last P-day of my mission watching the rest of the missionaries of my zone playing basketball.

At least my companion Elder Beaverton was having fun. He was doing great -- he was all over the court.

Elder Beaverton was really into basketball. It always annoyed him when people would ask him about hockey, just assuming he loved hockey since he was from Canada. Read the rest of the story ->

Monday, September 21, 2009

A little game...

For fun, I’ve submitted one of my sample games (Ladybug Maze) to BlackBerry App World. This is mostly an experiment to try out how BlackBerry App World works — I doubt many people will pay $2.99 for this simple little game. But who knows? ;^)

If you do try it out, please tell me if you find any bugs in it. (No pun intended.)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Bordeaux Mission begins Tuesday!!!

It's getting to be time for the last novella of the novel Exmormon: Bordeaux Mission!!!

"Bordeaux Mission" is the story of a young Mormon guy who is basically a good person -- and wants to be righteous -- but struggles on his mission. In Spencer's case, it isn't a problem of faith vs. doubt. The problem is that being on a mission is hard. Mormonism is a one-size-fits-all religion, but (as you might guess) it fits some better than it fits others.

To my LDS readers: You can read this story without fear -- it doesn't violate any standards. In fact, if it weren't contained in a collection called "Exmormon", I daresay you might not even guess that it was written by a non-believer.

Before we begin, I'd like to talk a little about how the criticisms in Holly's Mormon Lit theory post Story, Wikipedia, Story apply to this novella, and to Exmormon in general:

In a nutshell, Mormon writers just can't stop pausing the story to give wikipediesque asides explaining Mormon culture and jargon. (eg: I was talking to the bishop of my ward [Dear reader: a "ward" is like a congregation and the "bishop" is like its pastor].) The trick is to write a story that uses Mormon culture in a natural way -- without these annoying asides, and without leaving non-Mormon readers confused about what's going on. It's not easy.

The first segment I wrote, Youth Conference, was inspired by Walter Kirn's "Mormon Eden" (as I explained in Challenges and Pleasures of Mormon Lit). Like much of Mormon lit, Kirn's story gives off a strong vibe of "I'm gonna tell you what Mormonism is like!" and "Youth Conference" responds with "Now I'm going to tell you what being a Mormon teen is really like." So, yes, "Youth Conference" probably has a bit of a "Story, Wikipedia, Story" feel to it.

However, my style evolved over time, so the segments I wrote earlier (especially Lynn's story Youth Conference, BYU, and Temple Wedding) are more self-consciously explanatory than the segments I wrote later (such as Saturday's Warrior, Bordeaux Mission, and Young Women's). Actually, after writing "Temple Wedding," I basically decided that I'd finished explaining Mormonism. So Mormonism became the setting of the story, not the point of the story, and I feel like with Saturday's Warrior I first succeeded in doling out the Mormonism in a need-to-know basis that is both natural and clear. You can go read it and see if you agree. ;^)

With "Bordeaux Mission," there's the additional wikipediesque aspect that is found in almost all memoirs of foreign LDS missions: the cultural notes. On this point, I disagree with Holly. The cultural explanations in LDS mission memoirs can definitely be overdone, but I don't think it's quite the same thing as cultural explanations about Mormonism. When you're a Mormon kid -- swimming in Mormonism -- you're hardly conscious of it, or of how others' cultural experiences are different. On a foreign mission, you're absolutely aware of having learned a new culture and you're conscious of the fact that you're using what you've learned. It's a big part of the story. Then there's also the tension between the "missionary culture" and the ambient culture. (The LDS missionary culture was described in the comments here as being the most cult-like aspect of Mormonism.) That's a huge part of the missionary's experience, and it's absolutely central to the story of Bordeaux Mission.

So, I'm responding here to the lit critics who have complained about the fact that I've included an entire dialog in French, with translation. I haven't broken the rules out of ignorance. I broke the rule deliberately, for a reason, and that reason wasn't "to show off how amazingly fluent I am in French." ;^)

That said, I'll admit that the story contains specific details about France and Bordeaux in particular that I learned from personal experience and from talking to real-life mishies who were serving their missions in Bordeaux. (See my blog topic mishies for all of my real-life adventures with the LDS missionaries in France!)

The accuracy of the illustrations is limited only by my limited drawing skills. Re-reading the story (to prepare to post it) really made me miss that place! I hope you'll feel the same. :D

Friday, September 18, 2009

Why I love "Here Comes Science"!!!

My Nico would rather watch science videos than do just about anything else. The astronomy ones were his favorite for a while, but lately he's taken an interest in human body systems, especially the digestive system.

So, to listen to on our road trip, we got Space Songs: an album by Tom Glazer and Dottie Evans from 1959. I've had friends who actually remember this album from their childhood, but I learned about it through the more recent They Might Be Giants cover of "Why Does the Sun Shine?"

The problem with "Space Songs" is that some of the stuff is wrong. For example, on another science album (by the same artists, from the same period), they say "every living thing is either plant or animal." OK, well, maybe that's what people thought in the fifties and early sixties, but it's wrong. (That's the trouble with Science -- you have to keep updating!) Similarly, there's the famous opening line from "Why Does the Sun Shine?": "The Sun is a mass of incandescent gas."

Only... it's not gas, it's plasma!

Enter They Might Be Giants with their fantastic new album Here Comes Science!

The album comes with a DVD containing animated videos of all of the songs, and they are amazing! It's like a modern version of Schoolhouse Rock (which my kids already love), only better!

After their adorably old-fashioned version of "Why Does the Sun Shine?" they follow up with a charming modern response -- which opens with "the Sun is a miasma of incandescent plasma" and goes on to explain about different states of matter.

The songs that explain current scientific theories (like "Meet the Elements") are great, but I'm even more impressed with the way they explain how science works. There's a lot of concern these days about scientific illiteracy, rooted in misunderstandings (and misinformation) about science itself. This album is the antidote. Just have a look at the song "Put It To The Test" or at the first song, "Science Is Real":

The first thing to jump out at me was the following:

A scientific theory isn't just a hunch or guess -- it's more like a question that's been put through a lot of tests. And when a theory emerges -- consistent with the facts -- the proof is with science; the truth is with science.

Some people might see this as indoctrination, but really it's just a simple explanation. I am absolutely disgusted with the "Intelligent Design"/Creationist movement exploiting the fact that "theory" means something different in colloquial speech than it does in a scientific context -- using their "Evolution is just a theory!" battle cry. It takes only a few seconds to explain what's wrong with that slogan. And if people apparently have difficulty taking those few seconds to understand it, then why not simplify the task? An upbeat song to explain it is just what the doctor ordered! :D

Then there's the other controversial bit:

Now I like the stories about angels, unicorns, and elves. Yeah, I like the stories as much as anybody else, but when I'm seeking knowledge -- either simple or abstract -- the facts are with science; the facts are with science.

This is what I was trying to explain in my post I believe in Santa Claus. Basing your picture of reality on evidence doesn't in any way detract from awe, wonder, or imagination. Quite the contrary.

When you're not constrained by thinking a made-up story is real, you can let your imagination run wild with it, and invent more! And, on the other side of the coin, things that are real are awe-inspiring. The animations in the song illustrate beautifully how awesome it is to follow your curiosity and explore reality!!

My kids were thrilled by all of the different scientific theories illustrated in the song, such as using a prism to separate light into the color spectrum and looking at a cell under a microscope. Nico was especially excited about the part where the kid takes a bite of an apple and you can see it travel into his digestive system. Leo has been interested in magnetism lately, so he liked those parts. Personally, I liked the way they illustrated gravity. Unlike most cartoons, in this one the kid accelerated as he fell to the ground. I'll bet they actually had him going 9.8 meters per second per second. :D

Watching this DVD has been their reward lately for after they get their homework done, and it has been a great motivator. It's full of their favorite subjects and ideas, richly and imaginatively sung, accompanied, and illustrated.

Note: Our family got to see TMBG perform these songs live this past weekend! For pictures, see my Rational Moms post here!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

It never rains but it pours on Main Street Plaza!

At the end of my road trip, I found that none of my co-bloggers at Main Street Plaza had posted anything between my last two weekly community roundups.

No biggie -- it's not the first time it's happened. The surprising thing is what came next!

We had a blue-ribbon week of great posts, starting with ProfXM on Mormons and Credit Cards, then Jonathan's extensive list of signs you might be in a cult (with some great discussion of varying degrees of cultitude, even in non-religious organizations), then Joel McDonald's touching personal story about God and Being Gay, then Hellmut's logical-yet-heartfelt personal journey through Mormonism, then Saganist's quandary about what you can say in church, and then Chino gave us a piece to repost regarding the same-sex marriage question in Maine. And we've got more fantastic material coming up!!

Is is luck, or are my recruiting efforts finally starting to pay off?

My friend M wrote me recently to ask if I had any suggestions for co-bloggers on his new blog Latter-day Skeptics. Naturally, I told him that whenever I find such people, I try to recruit them to write for MSP. ;^)

But it would be fantastic if cultural Mormon blogspace is blossoming into a big enough community to support a network of inter-linked group blogs! I just recently noticed some groups I hadn't noticed before: Mormon Expression and USU SHAFT.

And to think I thought that blogspace was slowing down! Nope, looks like it was just the Summer doldrums. :D

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Mormon Jungle: "Latter-Day Cipher," by Latayne Scott

With its death oaths and blood atonement, Mormon cultural history provides plenty of raw material for a murder mystery. Remember how Brigham Young decreed death on the spot for interracial mixing of seed? Did you ever wonder what would happen if someone decided to carry that out?

If so, look no further than Latayne Scott's Latter-Day Cipher. It's an exciting mystery as well as an intriguing trip through Mormonism's dark history. As a fan of portraits of different cultures, I particularly liked how the author contrasts Utah Mormon culture with the Tennessee Christian heritage of some of the characters. The book also introduced me to a fun bit of Mormon history trivia (that I'm surprised I'd never heard of before, given my fondness for invented languages): the Deseret Alphabet.

This book is probably the most "anti-Mormon" work of fiction I've ever read, aside from A Study in Scarlet. I'm a little wary about making a statement like that because I think that the "anti-Mormon" label is extremely problematic, especially applied to literature (see It’s Time to Play: Anti-Mormon… Or Not?). However, in this case, the author has explicitly compared the work to The Jungle and Uncle Tom's Cabin (in terms of using fiction to illustrate the dangers of Mormonism), so I think it makes sense to analyze the author's criticisms of Mormonism. I'll tell you my reactions, and please feel free to re-analyze my analysis. ;^)

The book's central point about Mormonism is that the bad parts of Mormonism's past are smoothed over, but are still there, right under the surface. The author's key metaphor is that of a the gas fumes that still linger around the site of a plane crash that took place in the distant past. In Mormon terms, this corresponds to doctrines that are simply deleted from one edition of a manual to the next (see, for example this post on the new Gospel Principles).

This is a very real problem within Mormonism, which I think the author illustrates well: When a Mormon leader teaches doctrine X, and then doctrine X is not mentioned (neither confirmed nor disavowed) in General Conference or any official LDS church publication for several decades, that creates a situation where some Mormons are still actively teaching X as doctrine while other Mormons claim that it's a pernicious lie to suggest that Mormons believe X. And both groups -- those that believe X and those that think essentially no Mormons believe/teach X -- are innocently honest and sincere in their (incompatible) beliefs. We've discussed this problem at MSP in the post Why not denounce Brigham Young’s racist statements?

To use the popular metaphor, defining Mormon doctrine is like nailing jello to a wall. No matter what you say about Mormonism on the Internet, some Mormon will come by and say "That's not true!" And, while each individual Mormon commenter is sincerely trying to clarify the given point of doctrine, the aggregate of all of these conflicting claims is really, really, really annoying for an outsider (or even an insider) who is sincerely trying to figure out what Mormons believe.

The lingering doctrine that Latayne Scott dwells on most is blood atonement. Some major plot elements hinge on the idea that some Mormons might feel they need to be bloodily killed to atone for their sins. For example, a Mormon who sinned by drinking and driving, and accidentally killed someone as a result, might believe that he has to atone for that sin with his own blood in order to be saved. As someone who was raised Mormon, I find this incredibly bizarre and far-fetched. Most modern mainstream Mormons have never heard of "blood atonement", much less believe in it. And when you read about blood atonement from the days in which it was practiced, it seems a lot more like a threat to frighten "apostates", not something people would ever think they require themselves. I would suspect that some people who carried out the "blood atonement" felt they were doing their victims a favor (in accordance with Brigham Young's famous sermon on it, immortalized in the Journal of Discourses), but I'd be very surprised if anyone, ever seriously believed they needed to be on the receiving end of Mormon "blood atonement". (There's one claimed case mentioned in the Wikipedia entry, but that one looks a little suspicious.)

That said -- I as explained above -- one Mormon's experience isn't a good measure of what Mormons (in general) believe. For all I know, maybe some congregations are still teaching blood atonement, particularly in the Mormon fundamentalist churches (which figure prominently in Latayne Scott's book).

I suspect that the reason for the focus on blood atonement in this book isn't just because of the doctrine's deadly potential for abuse -- it's also because it's such a terrible heresy for Christians to suggest that anyone would atone for their own sins under any circumstances (as opposed to relying on Christ's atonement). In my personal opinion, this book suffers from the usual bias that Mormonism is wrong because it contradicts Evangelical Christianity. That's obviously not the only problem the author has with Mormonism, but I get the strong sense that the author sees it as the root problem.

One point in particular stood out as being typical of a Christian take on Mormonism. One character (who was raised Mormon) stops believing in Mormonism because she's upset by the doctrine that Heavenly Father was human and had a father. The character wanted a God who is far above all that. Again, as someone raised Mormon, I find this scenario bizarre and alien. To me, there's nothing strange or upsetting about the idea that God is a "Heavenly Father" who had his own "Heavenly Father." When the character gets upset about this doctrine out of the blue, it was (to me) as though she'd suddenly become disappointed that her parents have their own parents, instead of there being one true set of parents for everyone. (Note: I'm an atheist, but I strongly disagree with the belief that Christian monotheism is more natural or logical than polytheism, see here). By coincidence, another post appeared in the Bloggernacle just the other day (here) about how some people find the Mormon concept of an embodied parent-God deeply spiritually appealing.

I know, it's fiction, so anything is possible. And since I have an example in my blogroll of someone who was Mormon yet felt profoundly drawn to pagan-style polytheism (see here), it's clear that sometimes people do make this sort of dramatic shifts. Still, you shouldn't bank on it, and I feel like the book illustrates the standard misconception: You want to believe that other people -- deep down -- know that your concept of God makes more sense than their own concept of God. But it's just not the case.

So, overall, the book is engaging as a murder mystery, and -- as a warning story to illustrate the dangers of Mormonism -- at least it raises some interesting discussion points.

Note that the author will be give a talk about this book at the 2009 Exmormon Foundation Conference.

Friday, September 04, 2009

A kid's dream adventure: visiting Peoria, Illinois!

If your kids are astronomy geeks, that is.

Here's Venus of "The World's Largest Complete Scale Model of the Solar System"

For the rest of the promised road trip pics, see my post at Rational Moms!

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Road Trip!!!

I think I don't have to tell you guys how much I love traveling by train. (If there's any confusion, please review my trains topic.) However, in the interest of allowing my kids to form their own opinions, we decided to take them on a good old-fashioned American road trip!!!

At my last job in Switzerland, my American colleague and I used to love to swap culture notes with our Swiss colleagues! We explained to a Swiss colleague that getting a used car and driving around the U.S. is a popular adventure for young adults to take, but that the dream -- if you have a little more money -- is to fly to Europe, get a rail pass, and backpack all over. He told us that they have an equal and opposite adventure for young adults in Europe: normally you get a rail pass and spend a few months exploring all over Europe, but the dream -- if you have a little more money -- is to fly to the U.S., buy a used car, and drive cross country!

Naturally, I shouldn't be surprised. Getting in the car for a road trip was the economical family vacation I remember from my childhood, whereas (for me) railway travel was an exotic adventure! I guess it kind of depends on what you grew up with.

Why not take a road trip across Europe? Well, they don't have the (socialist) interstate highway system like here, so it's not nearly as convenient. It's the same as the reason why nobody dreams of exploring America cross-country by train: it may be theoretically possible to do it, but good luck! lol

I've heard that one of the motivations for setting up the (socialist) interstate highway system was a strategic one. Upon realizing how easy it is to wipe out a compact city with a nuclear bomb, the U.S. government decided to deliberately encourage sprawl in order to spread out the potential targets. This is a very real consideration, BTW. For example, if someone managed to take out Paris entirely, France would be in very serious trouble. That said, the disadvantage of the sprawl strategy is now becoming painfully clear: transportation through the sprawl net is incredibly inefficient, so if your energy supply is in question, then you're in very serious trouble.

Military strategy aside, our family's road trip was loads of fun for us and the kids (details and pics soon!) and we've arrived in our little apartment-for-the-semester in New Jersey.

p.s.: Sorry for being AWOL from the Internet while on the road. I didn't mean to post something controversial just before setting off, but I should have known that if I post any remark that's even obliquely critical of homeschooling, woah Nellie, watch out! ;^) But seriously, give me this evening to relax and get my family settled in, and I'll read all of the comments carefully tomorrow.