Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Baby Jesus brings your Christmas presents...?

It's funny how the Christmas legends vary slightly from one culture to the next. In the US, the story of Saint Nicholas (who traditionally gave small presents on December 6) morphed into "Santa Claus" (via the Dutch "Sinterklaas") -- and moved some of his legendary gift-giving antics to Christmas Eve. Meanwhile, some cultures also have a legendary "Father Christmas" (a.k.a Père Noël or Babbo Natale) who has his own traditions, but sometimes simply merges with the American Santa Claus. But in some German-speaking regions, there's another legend that I find amazingly strange: the Christmas gifts are brought by the Baby Jesus (Christkind).

The Christkind doesn't have quite as elaborate a mythology as Santa Claus, but he is supposed to magically bring the Christmas tree and the gifts during the night on Christmas Eve. I've always been kind of curious about how this works, and I had the opportunity to ask some Austrian friends about it the other day. These friends have kids who are a little younger than ours, and still believe that the Baby Jesus brings their presents.

I explained to them the reason the tradition stuck me as so odd. In the US, there's a whole angst-ridden rite-of-passage when the kid eventually figures out that Santa Claus is just made-up, and then there's a big question (especially in religious households) of whether the kid will extrapolate and start wondering about Jesus. But in Austria, Switzerland, and southern Germany, when the kid figures out that the whole "Christkind" thing was just a story, put-on by their own parents... Well, you kind of skip that intermediate step of having to notice the parallel...

"It's European efficiency," laughed my Austrian friend.

But, seriously, if any believing Christians practice this custom, that has got to be one surreal discussion when the kids figure it out.

"That part about angels announcing Jesus's birth in a manger, that's totally real. The part about the Baby Jesus bringing you presents on Christmas? OK, we admit we were making that up and faking it. But the stuff about Jesus walking on water and rising from the dead? That part is totally real..."

Saturday, December 24, 2011

We're all misfits! Rudolph, Hermy, and the Misfit Toys!

The Grinch and The Year without a Santa Claus may be my favorite Christmas specials, but Rudolph is the one that started it all, and launched the Rankin/Bass Christmas special series.

With its charming characters and catchy tunes (Holly Jolly Christmas!) this one has always been one of my favorites. Its theme -- that it's OK (even great!) to be a misfit -- was something I certainly appreciated as a kid. I imagine it was the same for other kids too.

It's also fun to analyze how this story shows the changes in our cultural attitudes towards bullying. The lyrics to the song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" were written in 1939. As the song goes, Rudolph was ostracised and bullied for being different. The song doesn't seem to indicate that there's anything a priori wrong about bullying people for being different -- it only became wrong after Rudolph's defect proved itself to be a strength.

We can see how this works in detail in the (1964) special. When the other young reindeer started laughing and calling Rudolph names, their adult supervisor not only failed to stop the kids from bullying:

He actually compounded the problem and kicked Rudolph out of the class for being different. And Santa himself wasn't much better.

However, in the special, Santa realizes he was wrong for mistreating Rudolph before Rudolph's nose saves the day, so maybe attitudes towards childhood bullying had already changed a bit between 1939 and 1964. And (as I discussed here) we can see further cultural evolution in children's media such as the album Free to Be You and Me.

And now my kids are asking me to put on a Christmas special, so I guess it's time to enjoy it again! Or perhaps one of my other favorites:

"Santa Claus is Coming to Town" (and the invented origins of the Santa Claus legend)
"The Polar Express" takes belief for belief's sake in whole new directions!
"Nestor the Long-eared Donkey" saves the Christmas™ brand
Mr. White Christmas: The fabulous world of Heat Miser and Snow Miser!!!
The Grinch and the True Meaning of Christmas

Merry Christmas!!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

New book reviews and Mormon Lit news!

I just reviewed to great new memoirs for Main Street Plaza: John K. Williams' tales of serving a mission in Bolivia Heaven Up Here and Ingrid Ricks' amazing adventures in a highly unusual (and-not-entirely-in-a-good-way) Mormon family Hippie Boy.

Also note: Johnny Townsend is planning a project that sounds really fantastic:

I am accepting short stories dealing with unconventional Mormons for an anthology to be called “Marginal Mormons.” The stories should be 25 pages or shorter, though length will not necessarily disqualify a submission. Payment will be $20 and one copy of the book, in exchange for perpetual, non-exclusive rights. The stories may be original or previously published, as long as you currently retain the rights. I am not particularly impressed with faith-promoting stories, but I am also not looking to attack the Church. I simply want stories that show unconventional Mormons or new interpretations of doctrine or history. The story does not need to be disturbing but should certainly be thought-provoking.

Please email any stories in the body of the email, but also include them as an attachment. Send to johnnyjohnnyt at yahoo dot com.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Battle for Dream Island!!!

As a parent, I end up having to watch a lot of low-quality kids' entertainment. My general strategy is (as long as it's not something actively offensive), just not to worry too hard about it, and let my kids learn and decide for themselves what they like. And when I find kids' programming that I think is clever, to recommend it:

Enter Battle for Dream Island, a cartoon series my kids found on YouTube.

I've gotten hooked on this series with them because I think it's clever and funny. But there's an additional, unusual aspect of it that impressed me:

The series started with twenty contestants (all of them anthropomorphized objects) with approximately an equal split between male and female characters. Yet -- even though it's a cartoon -- the female characters aren't given any of the typical signals to mark them as female (eg. big lips and eyelashes). The characters vary widely in personality, hence aren't gender-stereotyped. I know this shouldn't be exceptional, but I don't think I've ever seen any cartoon do this. And yet it works. It works great, in fact!

The series is almost over (after a run of a couple years), but I look forward to seeing what the artists do next. Go Leafy!!

(see also this post for contrast)

Monday, November 14, 2011

Ernie and Bert as mishies?

There are various interpretations of what Ernie and Bert are supposed to be: brothers? a gay couple? just room-mates? Here's a cute comic of them as Mormon missionary companions:

I know, I know, E & B obviously aren't Mormon missionaries, but still... from reading missionary memoirs, I recognize the relationship dynamic


Wednesday, November 09, 2011


I have a long list of topics bouncing around in my head. I really want to write the corresponding blog posts, but I never seem to have the time. Especially if it's something potentially controversial, I don't want to just dash it off -- I want to compose it carefully. And the longer I put it off, the bigger the hurdle (to just sitting down and writing something) grows. Does that every happen to you?

I'll just list some of the topics, and see if anyone has any comments on them to start with:

  • Switzerland: "The country that continuously proves that no problem is insurmountable when you're sitting on a huge pile of money." On the one hand, I'm continuously impressed by Switzerland's ability to put money to good use in forward-thinking investments (eg. environment, scientific research), but there are some negative aspects as well (some xenophobia, for example).
  • Obama: Let me count the ways I am not happy with his performance as president, and deconstruct the errors in my earlier endorsement. Bonus questions: (1) Is there any hope for real change? (2) After 10 years in Europe (and counting) why don't I bother to follow European politics as closely as I follow US politics?
  • The Flying Spaghetti Monster: I got a really cute crocheted Flying Spaghetti Monster from Camp Quest. My kids love it! I'm planning to post a picture of it (possibly with Leo dressed as a pirate (since he'd already decided (before receiving this FSM toy) that he wants to be a Pastafarian)). The problem: my kids broke the camera I usually use for this blog. (That's why the food photo on this post is an embarrassingly blurry cell phone photo, unlike the sharp pictures on my Lego posts.) So I have to go borrow my husband's camera, and maybe get Leo to dress up as a pirate. Yet, somehow, I never seem to have the 1/2 hour that would require...
  • Bonus surprise feminism topic: I can't seem to sum this one up in a couple of sentences without writing the whole damn post. So it's a surprise.
  • I'll also be writing about Heaven Up Here for Main Street Plaza sometime this week.

What do you think? Are these topics too difficult/controversial, or is it all in my head?

Monday, October 24, 2011

Check out my article in Free Inquiry!

The October/November issue of Free Inquiry is all about Mormons -- and guess who wrote and article for it!!

Yep, that's my name, right next to Mr. Deity Brian Dalton. :)

Edit: You can read the article online here.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

"That's so Mormon"...? Dan, no!

If homophobic teachings by church leaders are to blame for anti-gay bullying, should people respond by giving Mormons a taste of their own medicine? Dan Savage OK's it, but I say no in my latest piece on Main Street Plaza!

See also my posts on bullying.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

More wacky exotic beverages!

This isn't really a food blog, but it hit me that I've written about a number of amusing and strange beverages from woo-juice to ironic eco-juice to local Swiss beer. And I recently discovered another one that had me scratching my head a for a while:

I picked it up because I was eating spicy food at an Indian restaurant, and they didn't have any lassi, so I just grabbed whatever yoghurt beverage they happened to have on hand. And I liked it immediately because I prefer drinks that aren't sweet. It was the first time I'd found a yoghurt beverage that wasn't sweetened like a dessert.

After buying this a few more times at the Indian place, I started to get a little bit worried about it. I mean, it's made in Germany, it's called "Ayran", and it's so white. I started fervently hoping that I wasn't accidentally drinking some sort of white supremacist beverage -- especially since it's so good, I didn't want to have to give it up! [Note: unlike this picture, the one I bought didn't say "Turkish National Drink" on it.] But after thinking about it for a couple of minutes, it hit me that Ayran and Aryan aren't the same thing.

Then I invented my own crazy variant!

I figured, since the sweet yoghurt beverages are flavored with banana or strawberry or mango, why not take a savory yoghurt beverage and add a little tomato juice? It's actually not bad, especially with a dash of Tabasco sauce and a sprig of basil...

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Little Secret Notebook of Rude Remarks

After work a few days ago, as I was scrolling through the million blogs in my RSS reader, I wondered whether someday I might regret having spent so much time simply reading a ton of blogs. But then I realized that -- even if I don't get as much done as I'd like -- I do get a lot of stuff done, and that I need to spend a certain amount of time doing something that is simply pleasant and relaxing.

Then, more recently, I caught myself wasting time and energy on something that I really do regret wasting time and energy on: getting upset and stewing over some rude remarks that someone spontaneously decided to email me. If it were just some random person on the Internet, it would be easy to simply laugh it off. But not so much when it's someone I, unfortunately, have to deal with in real life.

My rational side says to me If she thinks it's a good idea to send people messages like that, it's her problem and not mine. And no matter how tempting it would be to respond in kind -- no matter how clever my rude retort would be! -- my rational side keeps saying don't do it! That would only make. it. worse. Simply avoid this person and stop worrying about it.

But not thinking about something is easier said than done.

Fortunately -- as with stress-induced insomnia -- this problem has a simple and relatively effective cure. (Recall that for insomnia, the trick is to get an mp3 player and listen to foreign language lessons.) For this one, it's: write it down. Get a paper or a little notebook and write down all the reasons why that person is totally wrong. In the wrong already before she contacted me, and doubly wrong to compound it by adding insult to injury, making it impossible to have a rational discussion about the situation.

Interestingly, it works a lot like the "pensive". (More wisdom from Harry Potter!) Somehow my brain gets the message that all my points are carefully stored on a paper somewhere, hence it doesn't need to keep forcing me to involuntarily review them. And soon it really does become just another funny story. Her problem, not mine.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Two great new Amazon reviews of ExMormon!

I am an ex-Christian, and not an ex-Mormon, however I identified soooo much with this book of stories. I was April, Lynn and Jill. It was the little things really - that I only had one "church friend" because our church was small and exclusive and there were only a few other kids my age. Especially poignant are the stories of discovering sexuality, and the shame and guilt that go with that in a conservative Christian environment. Like the first time reading the word "masturbation" and recognizing what it is I do (several times a week). Then rationalizing by only fantasizing about married sex.

It follows the stories of several different characters who's lives are all connected in some way. All the characters are written with love and humor, giving them depth and clear room to grow and learn, whether they remain in the faith or leave it. It shows the interactions between believers, doubters and unbelievers in a realistic way, far more so than any other book I've read on this topic. It also shows how leaving the faith comes in many different ways for different people.

I just felt that I had to say something, because I simply loved this book.

-- Aimee

Now in a spiffy new-and-improved illustrated edition, this book was written by a multi-talented former Mormon who's now an expatriate living with her family in Switzerland (she's also a blogger, and did her own illustrations for the book). It's a series of novellas with linked characters and plots, and centers around the experience of growing up Mormon. Some characters are true believers, some are skeptics or struggling, and others have left the Church. The stories explore conflicts between people in various states of Mormon-ness and the world outside Mormonism. While the book has some of the usual flaws of a first novel (e.g., sometimes it lacks scene-setting descriptions, or dialogue comes across as stiff and clunky), it also has a lot of insightfulness and humor, and is well worth a read for anyone interested in literary depictions of Mormons struggling with or leaving their faith.

-- Groggie

I try not to look at ExMormon's Amazon page too often, because it doesn't get that many reviews, and I'd rather be pleasantly surprised once or twice a year than disappointed once a week. ;^)

If you're one of the nearly-two-thousand people who've read ExMormon -- if you have a minute to go add an Amazon review (or even just recommend the book to your friends), I'd really appreciate it! Thanks!! :D

*** Update! *** I just saw that someone posted a recommendation of ExMormon over on Friendly Atheist's post about BYU atheists!!

I definitely feel for ex-mormons, especially in the beginning. I finished reading a good book online called Ex-Mormon.

Even though I didn't grow up Mormon, a lot of things were similar to my childhood in the church of christ. Its a good read if you have the time for it.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

My own little piece of crazy

It all started when I thought the Mormon obsession with sex couldn't get any creepier. We saw Meridian Magazine advising prospective FiLs to grill their prospective SiLs about porn consumption. Not as a joke. And don't forget the Children's Friend teaching girls they need to cover their shoulders to be "modest." At the age of four. That was closely followed by this kids-n-sex gem in which naked Barbies are "a poison worse than the black plague of death itself" for boys in second grade.

As a mom of two little boys, I have to admit I find it a little disturbing to start the sex-shaming so young (or at all, really). But the other disturbing part was how the article hit on my own little piece of crazy, with this throwaway line that that mom tossed in for comic relief:

and there are LEGO pieces we've resigned we'll never find

Blasphemy!!! What kind of mom would say something like that?! lol

a portion of our Lego collection

Everybody knows that a good mom is supposed to regularly gather up every single Lego piece in the whole apartment and obsessive-compulsively sort them into seventy categories, each in its own separate bin.

I'm kidding. Naturally, I recognize that this behavior is a little bit nuts, and I wouldn't expect any other parent to do it. Yet, there is a method to my madness. Allow me to explain:

First off, sorting the Legos is a Zen kind of task -- a nice break from my day job (which requires a non-trivial amount of concentration). Secondly (and probably most importantly), it's so much easier to build things out of them if you know what pieces you have and can find them all. And I like playing with them too!!

I get so sick of the kids asking for new toys all the time -- when they have plenty of perfectly good toys they're not playing with. Whenever the Lego collection is sorted anew, it's like getting a new toy -- the kids make some really imaginative stuff out of them! Plus they have fun playing with the stuff they build.

Can the Hero Factory escape from the kitchen where the villains trapped them?

The disadvantage is that my kids are always asking me to find this or that piece for them. The advantage is that I actually know where the pieces are. And most of the time they can find them -- and sometimes even sort them -- for themselves! :D

Friday, August 26, 2011

Short review of Cars 2

My kids and I just saw Cars 2, and I have to say, it's now my favorite of all the James Bond movies.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The trouble with "The Help"

I admit it -- I read The Help and enjoyed it, as an entertaining novel. It struck me as a little odd to have a novel about racism with a white person writing the perspective of a black person, but it's not a priori impossible to do it well.

Then, courtesy of the Hathor Legacy, I found an interesting series of reviews that explain a lot of problematic aspects that I hadn't quite put my finger on.

From Rebecca Wanzon:

One of the three narrators, Aibleen, says that she realizes she is more free than the racist character that destroys her livelihood, a claim that encourages readers to feel better about segregation because, in this logic, nobody can take real, psychological freedom from anyone. Freedom is really about how you feel, not about, you know, the law. It makes Jim Crow an inconvenience, not an obstacle.

I read an Amazon review of the novel that told a reader not to worry that they would have to read over 400 pages of depressing oppression. This is true -- "The Help" makes Jim Crow palatable. I don't think this is a good thing.

African American women had voices before Miz Skeeter gave them the idea

From Duchess Harris:

So instead of incorporating a real Black woman’s voice in a novel purported to being about Black domestics, the Skeeter/Stockett character is comfortingly centralized, and I can see why white women relate to her.

Her Black characters lack the credibility reflected in Coming of Age in Mississippi, a 1968 memoir by Anne Moody, an African American woman growing up in rural Mississippi in the 1960s. Moody recalls doing domestic work for white families from the age of nine. Moody’s voice is one of a real Black woman who left her own house and family each morning to cook in another woman’s kitchens.

Sounds really interesting -- maybe I should pick up a copy of that book...

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

My Mormon Media Watch!

So often the PR wing of the CoJCoL-dS complains that media coverage of Mormonism is full of misleading and confusing half-truths. My suggestion (in general) is that they could combat this problem more effectively by providing accurate information -- rather than simply attempting to get outsiders to repeat the church's preferred misleading half-truths.

Has there been any progress? See my latest Main Street Plaza article: Mythbusting, Mormon-Style!

Monday, August 08, 2011

Surprises in Germany!

During my recent trip to Germany I spotted another one of those space invaders!

That makes three!!

This one was in Köln, along with this other interesting eyesore:

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Grown-ups and choices

When I last blogged about women and choices, I encouraged women to think about their own biases and to consider other women's situations before judging other women's choices. This may lead some people to the (erroneous) conclusion that I think all women's choices are equally good and empowering. Or that I think that feminists should never criticize other women's choices. (The latter would actually be a logical impossibility because I would be implicitly criticizing women's choices to criticize other women.)

Women make a lot of bad choices. Just like everybody else. Part of being a grown-up is accepting responsibility for your choices. It's accepting that people will criticize your choices. And when people criticize you, you have the choice to ignore them or to decide that they're full of it (just projecting their own issues onto you), or even to take their critique into consideration. Or some combination of the above.

On the other hand, I don't think it's a feminist argument to claim that another woman's (unempowering) choice isn't really a choice, or that she's somehow not responsible for that choice because of the way the patriarchy messed her up in the head. I think that if an adult woman is of sound mind and body, then she should be assumed to be competent to make her own life choices and she should be held responsible for her choices. Like a grown-up. Even if some women's ideas are negatively influenced by the patriarchy (or by something else), feminists should not argue that women need to be protected from their own choices.

Keep in mind is that being totally self-actualized and well-adjusted isn't the norm. It's not that women are messed-up by the patriarchy unlike ordinary people who aren't messed-up. Pretty much everybody has some kind of baggage. So when you see bad behavior, criticize away, and criticize with an underlying assumption that a grown-up woman can hear and learn from criticism -- she isn't just a puppet with a patriarchy hand pulling the strings.

Now, some of you probably thinking "Chanson, you're arguing with a straw-man! No feminist argues that the patriarchy renders women incompetent to make adult choices!" Not so. I've had this argument with fellow feminists more than once (though, fortunately, pretty rarely). And I was reminded of it just recently because of a discussion on MSP. On that thread -- in an interesting twist -- a gay man was passionately arguing that the hetero-patriarchy renders gay men unable to be held accountable for their own choices and behavior. If he (or someone else) had been arguing the same thing about women, I would have put up more of a fight.

That said, please note that often women's choices really are limited by ignorance, economics, and coercion. So when I talk about choices here, I mean choices among the range of real options and opportunities the woman has to choose from. Increasing women's educational and economic opportunities is the best strategy for encouraging women to make empowering choices on their own.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Sex-positive vs. sex-negative feminism

When I sat down to write on being wrong a couple months ago, my first task was to go through my past posts for illustrations of how I have learned from being wrong. One of the first points that came to mind (which I hadn't really blogged about) is the divide between sex-positive vs. sex-negative feminism. No, I haven't switched camps -- it's that I've stopped believing that there's as sharp a divide on this issue and I've stopped believing that this divide is as central to feminist thought.

And this is a change of opinion that has come about in just the past couple of years, through reading other women's blogs and memoirs.

Here's an example of what I mean. Take Greta Christina's post on "elevatorgate". I agree with pretty much everything she said. Maybe everything. The issue she wrote about is male/female sexual interactions, and Greta Christina is pretty much as "sex-positive" as they come. But would a "sex-negative feminist" take on the incident be any different? Perhaps in tone, but in content? Probably not.

I've sort of grown into the conclusion that -- for a huge number of feminist issues, perhaps most -- the sex positive/negative distinction is irrelevant or doesn't make sense. And while some feminists can reasonably be divided into these camps, probably most can't.

To see my evolution on this issue, the best place to start is my post porn and me -- where I described how my outlook was shaped by some of my earliest encounters with feminist theory of sexuality. In a nutshell, I felt that women who enjoy having sex with men (including women who are aroused by the thought of arousing a man) should not be told that they're messed-up in the head or that they hate themselves or that they're tools of the patriarchy. And they should especially not be given this slut-shaming in the name of feminism.

While I was enjoying the pleasures of grad school, I once attended a talk given by Andrea Dworkin. My reaction? I was horrified. This was nearly twenty years ago, so my memory of the lecture is a tad vague. All I remember is that everything is rape. Everything. Even things that aren't sexual are rape. Naturally, I felt that expanding the definition in this way not only trivializes the experience of people who are actually raped, but (more importantly) it is counter-productive in the fight against rape. You don't solve a problem by obscuring it, you solve it by first understanding it. Of course, before I even walked into that room, I already felt that her stance on porn was totally counter-productive with respect to addressing the problem of rape. So who knows what she actually said that day...

My stance on porn hasn't changed. There exist images in the category of pornography that are offensive -- as there are in all media genres. But images of women that are created and used for the express purpose of male arousal are not a priori harmful or degrading to women. If anything, it's the opposite.

On the other hand, it's nearly impossible to draw a clear dividing line between explicitly erotic materials and other forms of entertainment. And, while I think it's A-OK for men to enjoy looking at depictions of sexy women, the overall entertainment industry has a bit of a problem with portrayal of women. Specifically, a piece intended for a general audience typically includes only one female character, and even for her to get a spot on the stage she has to be beautiful and she has to be the love interest who is peripheral to a main [i.e. male] character. (Even God's favorite musical suffers from this, as much as I love it overall.) Maybe this problem is related to erotica. It's certainly related to attitudes towards women and sexuality. After contemplating this for a number of years, all I can say is that I think it's not simple.

So I guess feminism ranks pretty high on my grand list of things that aren't that simple...

Thursday, July 21, 2011

So, how was German camp?

Here's the latest escalation in my ongoing battle with the German language: I packed up my whole family to Germany to spend our vacation on three weeks of German camp!

In case you're asking "Wait, don't you already live in a German-speaking country? Why do you have to travel to have a German-language immersion?" -- allow me to review. The problem with Zürich is they speak a flavor of German that is impossible for foreigners to learn without first learning German German. And everybody in Zürich speaks English anyway. So -- while I speak kind-of OK German -- I haven't felt confident enough to inflict my terrible German on unsuspecting Swiss people. Instead we've saved this fun for the Germans!

On the down-side, the camp kind of reminded me of that song "Camp Grenada." Particularly the line where they sing "...and they say we'll have some fun if it stops raining." I'd packed mostly Summer clothing (being as it's July and everything), yet the first week was unexpectedly chilly. Then the second week was even chillier, with occasional rain. But it didn't really start raining in earnest until the third week.

Then (while I'm on the complainy part), there was the food. My husband was already leery about the food when I first suggested this trip. ("Three weeks?? You have no idea how terrible the food is in Germany!") I then recounted that conversation to my boss (who is Swiss). He asked me what part of Germany it's in, and when I said it's near Köln, he immediately said, "Oh, the food is really terrible there! Oh... I mean... It's not so bad..." Anyway, with that introduction, the food at camp exceeded our expectations. Tragically. Picture a cuisine that's already not much to write home about, then imagine how it might be prepared by a school cafeteria for kids.

That said, I don't want to complain too much about the food because overall the camp was great fun, and we got a ton of good German language practice and instruction. And by the third week of people complaining, the food improved considerably. Either that or we just got used to it. My husband was only subjected to the first two weeks of it because he had a conference to attend, lucky bastard.

On the positive side, it was fun for the kids to get to attend the same school as their parents! After they divided us into classes, I told Léo that I'm in the same class with Daddy, and Léo immediately said, "I hope you get to sit by Daddy!" So cute! Naturally, why would he imagine that the grown-up classes would be any different from the classes for kids? He also assumed we'd be needing scissors and a glue-stick for our class...

Friday, July 15, 2011

I believe in science and logic -- but I like to make things up.

Today I have a few more scenes from the amusing adventure of atheist parenting!

My kids made some good friends at summer camp. Somewhat surprisingly, 8-year-old Léo told us that his new friend (an 8-year-old girl) asked him whether he'd read the Bible! Surprising because this is Europe -- it's not like we sent him to Summer Camp in South Carolina or something.

Anyway, Léo recounted that he told his friend that he doesn't believe in God, but that it's OK for friends to believe different things. To give examples of things people might believe in, Léo asked the girl whether she believes in monsters, and she said she does. Also Santa Claus. This was another point that demonstrated for Leo that it's OK for friends to believe in different things because one of Léo's best friends at school (in Zürich) also believes in Santa Claus. I'm getting this second-hand from an 8-year-old, so the details are a little vague, but Leo seemed to indicate that he's always discreet with his friends with respect to not insisting too much that Santa Claus is just pretend.

My husband asked Nico what he believes in, and Nico immediately said he believes in science and logic. That's the point where you might not believe us that we're not brainwashing our own kids -- but he's only 9. He'll have plenty of opportunity to think for himself.

Then my husband asked Léo what he believes in, and -- after thinking a bit -- said he didn't want to say. Actually, quite a good answer for someone who's only 8. Nico prompted Léo to say he believes in science and logic, and Léo answered with the above quote: "I believe in science and logic -- but I like to make things up." So true! These are imaginative little guys who are always inventing stories and jokes!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

It has to get messier before it gets cleaner!

Several months ago, my apartment got to the point where it was simply not possible to put everything away. Even in its cleanest state there would be precarious heaps of books and papers and other stuff on top of every flat-topped piece of furniture. End tables, stereo speakers, chests of drawers, windowsills, and our long row of bookshelves -- it had been some time since we'd seen the top surfaces of any of them. And it wasn't a question of laziness, it was that we didn't have anywhere to put these things away.

I know, I know, #firstworldproblems -- but I'm not complaining. I'm just recounting that this problem has been an item on my to-do list for a while.

So, last week, I bought two new full-height bookshelves and installed them in my bedroom. This has had a huge impact on my ability to excavate my furniture. I'm no interior decorator, but I'm not keen on having my living space buried in stuff. Even the stuff itself is not helpful if you can't find any of it because it's covered in other stuff.

Now we have room for (at most) one more bookshelf in our apartment. Once we get to the point where we buy (and fill) that one, we'll have to move.

One disadvantage to reorganizing the bookshelves (other than the one in the title of this post) is that I keep finding books that I really want to read! It's like a trip to a wonderful bookstore or library where the shelves were stocked by someone with exactly my tastes and interests!

Naturally, I spent the whole morning (and most of the day yesterday) sitting in my bed, reading -- instead of making more progress sorting the remaining piles of junk on my dressers and windowsills. It was doubly dangerous to have set up the new bookshelves within reach of my bed...

Friday, June 17, 2011

What is faith?

It's a surprisingly tricky question!

We were having a discussion about religion at Main Street Plaza (so what else is new?), and I noticed that different people were using very different definitions of the word "faith"!

I've found that a lot of unnecessary confusion and misunderstanding can result from assuming that everyone is using a word to mean the same thing when they're not. So I wrote a new post: What is Faith? to help each person clarify which definition(s) they're using -- with a fun list of twenty statements that may or may not be "faith"!

The answer sets we've gotten so far show a surprising variety in what people would call "faith". Try it yourself -- but be sure to write out your own answers before reading other people's.

I'm not claiming that one set of responses is necessarily right -- I'm just curious to see the range of opinions! :D

See also my earlier post on the definition of faith: It takes a lot of faith to believe that!!!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

"Your opinion is so humble that we can just do whatever we want"

So, apparently, my kids haven't learned Internet-speak yet.

I told them that covering their entire floor with Legos and puzzles so that it is impossible to walk in their room was very silly of them in my humble opinion -- and Nico responded with the above.

In other news, some of the videos (produced by teenagers) on YouTube discuss the comments (i.e. they invite people to comment on various points). My kids like to make videos, and they've been insisting that they want to be able to post videos to YouTube so that other people can comment on them.

We're not allowing them a YouTube account yet, but I'm sure that at some point they'll figure out how to post things to the Internet. For the moment we're trying to come up with a safe and appropriate pacing for easing into it. The step we're at now is: Make up invented names for yourselves, and practice making videos where you only use your invented names and don't mention your real names at all.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

The Book of Nico!

So, here's the result of our recent adventure:

Nico decided to draw/write this book (without any assistance or prompting).

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Why I'm a bad mom, part 6: Teaching them from the Book of Mormon

Back in part 2, you may recall I was trying to teach my kids a little something about their Catholic and Mormon heritage. It's surprisingly tricky. The problem is that either you're talking to someone who believes (and half the discussion is negotiating a peaceful way to agree to disagree) or the subject doesn't come up at all (because, really, religion is not that interesting, especially compared to Legos or other kid-interests).

But a fantastic new musical changed all that!!

Singing along with The Book of Mormon has provided a fun and funny intro to Mormonism. It turns out my kids weren’t aware of even the most rudimentary points like (1) Grandma’s church is called “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (2) its members are called “Mormons” (3) Mommy (me) was raised in this church — that when I was a kid, our Sunday family activity wasn’t hiking in the woods, it was going to church. Every Sunday.

The kids have also learned that the Mormon missionaries use the title "Elder" and are sent two-by-two all over the world to try to convince people to join their church. They've learned that Mormons like to call God "Heavenly Father" and that Mormons believe that Satan/Lucifer really exists (even though lots of other people believe in God without believing in Satan). Here are some typical conversations:

Nico asked me to explain the song Man Up, so I explained that Elder Price and Elder Cunningham have to go talk to the villain (General Butt-f*cking-naked), but they're afraid -- so Elder Cunningham is singing about how he needs to be brave, like Jesus was brave. Nico's a little vague on the Jesus story, though, so I had to explain further.

me: Actually, Jesus was killed in a horrible way. [conveniently, just then the line "What did Jesus do when they put nails through his hands?" played in the background]
Nico: Who killed him?
me: The Romans.
Nico: But... where was God when this was happening?
me: God doesn't exist.
Nico: No, I mean in the story!
me: According to the story, God wanted it to happen.
Nico: [thinks about that a bit] Oh.


Leo: When you were a kid, you went to this church?
me: Yep, every Sunday.
Leo: What do you do there?
me: Hmm... Well, people tell you stories about God -- kind of like Elder Cunningham in Making Things Up Again, except that you're not supposed to make up new stories, you're only supposed to teach stories out of old books.
Leo: But... You shouldn't just teach out of old books! With science, sometimes the old books are wrong.
me: Yes, that's right. In science, you should find the most recent books because they generally have more accurate information than older books.


Now, probably a lot of people are thinking that it's questionable of me to be encouraging my kids (ages 8 and 9) to sing songs that are not only loaded with profanity, but also cover adult topics like female genital mutilation, infant rape, and people dying of starvation, AIDS, or dysentery. Hence the title of this post. But the tough subjects aren't covered in detail -- they're simply mentioned -- so it's easy to give the kids as much information as they ask for without delving into details they don't need.

Here's what I mean. When Nico was asking about the FGM references in Hasa Diga Eebowai, and asking how they were using frogs to cure AIDS, I explained as follows:

In Uganda, the people have terrible problems -- they don't have enough food or clean water, and many people have AIDS, which is a terrible, deadly disease. But some people are also doing things to make their problems much worse. For example, some think that girls need to have a part of their body cut off, and some think they can cure AIDS by hurting a baby. That's why Elder Cunningham was making things up -- he was trying to convince people to stop doing the things that are harmful. He told them that hurting a frog can cure AIDS to keep them from hurting babies. Really, neither one cures AIDS, but he figured that at least this way people will stop hurting babies.

Nico didn't ask precisely which part of the body was being cut off nor precisely what people were doing to hurt the babies and frogs, but if he had, I'm sure I could find an appropriate anatomy textbook and/or explained that the word f*ck actually refers to mating.

It's funny that they don't appear to know the definition of that word and they haven't bothered to ask. But they do know that it's a highly offensive syllable to most English-speakers -- almost magically so -- and that's more than 90% of what you need to know about the word; far more important than the precise definition. Naturally, they love the line where Elder Price says "Excuse me, sir, but you should really not be saying that!" :D

They also love the references to Boba-Fett.

See also parts 1, 3, and 4.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

On Being Wrong

Kathryn Schulz absolutely nails it:

(Hat tip Saganist and Jon Adams)

This is one of the biggest things I've learned in my life: it is inevitable that some of the things you believe are wrong.

A lot of it is due to invisible assumptions -- beliefs you hold without even realizing you hold them because you've never really consciously noticed them. (Here are some past posts where I learned from new experiences and by noticing my own invisible assumptions.)

Even on questions you've spent some time thinking about (and have reached a conclusion), it's important not to get too emotionally attached to your conclusions. Always be ready to question your conclusions when presented with new arguments or new evidence. (Here are some posts where I learned from my own errors and reconsidered my conclusions.)

There's no shame in being wrong (even publicly) and admitting to it. Refusing to ever recognize or admit your own errors -- dogmatically fighting to the death to back all your past statements to avoid ever having been wrong -- (ironically?) makes you less credible, not more.

It's how Science zeroes in on accurate results, and it works on a personal level too! :D

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Indulge me: one more Lego post...

I never finished my Lego tree house post because I wrote it on the day of the grand Blogger crash -- so I was only able to post the first half. Here's the rest:

Back when I made my Lego city, I felt like -- in my effort to build a whole city in a reasonable length of time -- I skimped on details and on the design of some of the buildings. (Though I did add some details I liked.)

So this time I decided to just design one play-set -- and pull out all the stops!! For instance, I made it open, and designed fun interiors:

Here you can see the fireplace, with food cooking over the fire:

Here's a side-view of what it looks like opened:

And here's the interior opposite the kitchen:

Leo wanted to have some secret compartments to hide treasures in, so I built some in. Here's the same view with two secret compartments open -- see if you can find them!

Above that small spiral staircase and ladder, we find the bedroom:

You can also access the bedroom from above:

Naturally, you do this by opening the top of the tree:

On the other side, you may notice a red roof:

which also opens so you can play inside:

For fun, I added the same thing nearer to the top of the tree:

You can open it to put characters in the upper rooms:

(If you look closely, you can see a mummy looking out one of the windows.)

So, that's my Lego tree-house playset -- hope you like it! :D

Monday, May 16, 2011

Pullin' together we can work it out!!

OK, I apologize for the reference to a certain musical that some say doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with the greatest musical of all time (which I've been rushing home to spend every moment listening to because it's so unbelievably fantastic!!!).

Anyway, it turns out that -- despite team underdog rebranding itself as "Team Awesome" -- PZ is still mercilessly wiping the floor with us!!!

So "Team Awesome" wants to come up with stunts we can offer to compete with the PZ's puny offer of bothering to shave his beard off. (And, don't forget that it's for a good cause.)

Myself, I was thinking of trying to organize a showtunes singalong -- where I try to persuade my fun-yet-faithful Mormon relatives to have a blast performing some (of the non-explicit-lyrics) songs from "The Book of Mormon" during our next family reunion! But, really, if I can I'll do that no matter what. Because it would be so much fun!!!

But the question remains: is there something I could offer to do (as a prize) to sweeten the pot to get more donations for "Team Awesome"? Ideas?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Insights on Mormon culture, thanks to "God's favorite musical"!

I haven't seen "The Book of Mormon" yet, but you can hear the songs online, and people have already started discussing them on Main Street Plaza.

When the reviews of the musical first started appearing, I remember there was a lot of focus on whether they got the doctrinal details right (Is Kolob a planet or a star? Does God really live there? etc.). But it appears that what they really got right is unique character of Mormonism — what it’s like to be Mormon! (And, really, placing less importance on the precisions of doctrines like Kolob and more importance on Mormon practice and attitude is, itself, quite accurate.)

If you have an opinion on any or all of the songs, please vote in our poll and tell us about it. Here's my favorite (followed by what I wrote about it):

A lot of the songs had me going “Wow, fantastic! And so true!” But it was listening to “You and Me (But Mostly Me)” that made my whole youth and childhood pass before my eyes. Standing there, happy to supportively sing “my best friend…” while somebody Awesome! sings his heart out about serving God. And it didn’t hurt that the song kind of reminds me of ’80′s pop, and of “Humble Way” from God’s second-favorite musical:

This same missionary scenario — including the leader/subordinate relationship, and the fact that it’s cute that they’re not really humble about their awesome task — is exactly what the song “Humble Way” was about. “You and Me (But Mostly Me)” is what “Humble Way” wanted to be (if it had been totally brilliant).

I completely agree with Holly’s assessment that this would be perfect sung as a duet between a young LDS guy and his fiancee. I don’t think that’s reading anything into it that’s not there. Hierarchy colors so much about Mormon interpersonal relationships. And the (officially unequal) partnership between missionaries sets the model for marriage.

One point that is pure genius is the fact that their unequal relationship isn’t quite the central focus of the song. The leader’s earnest desire to do something great for mankind and God is as central (if not moreso). And the fact it’s tied in with his own ego is winked at.

You can see this symbolized in the Mormon temple endowment ceremony (which I haven’t been through, but I’ve heard about it). The fact that the wife covenants to obey her husband is OK because the husband is making a covenant with God. If you complain (or do anything other than stand beside him being supportive), then you’re the buzzing fly that’s detracting from a man and his important business between him and God!

I can’t imagine any song could more perfectly capture what Mormon patriarchy feels like.

And I can't wait to see the whole musical!!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

I Am an Artist of Lego!

Apologies in advance -- I don't mean to turn this into a Lego blog -- but I have to show off my masterpiece!

It's a Lego tree-house.

Or, more precisely, it's a Lego stone house built into a tree.

I didn't have enough brown pieces to make it just a tree house, but I got some interesting new grey cave-wall type pieces when I bought a sack of 1 Kilo of used Legos from a second-hand store.

My 7-year-old Leo helped out by making some of the bushes and the little ducks in the stream. He was an enthusiastic participant right from the beginning, even helping me wash and dry the used Legos.

[me: I felt so Swiss, carefully scrubbing all those Legos with a toothbrush! my husband: Yes, that was very Swiss of you.]

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Wow, Thanks!!!

I opened up ExMormon's Amazon Page this morning (which I don't usually do because it rarely changes), but boy was I in for a pleasant surprise!!! I received this new review:

I bought the book after looking at the blog. I couldn't stop reading it because I could relate to it so much. I grew up Mormon and I haven't been a practicing Mormon since I left BYU as a teen/young adult. I could really relate to the Mormon culture and also relate to not fitting into that culture. I brought it with me on a Christmas family trip to Mexico and my Mormon relatives were into it also and wanted to read it. It was hilarious at times and also touched me to the core, this book. This is one of my favorite books ever, a book I could read again or pass on to jackmormon buddies and relatives, seriously love it! I'm so glad someone wrote about what it can be like growing up Mormon and in that culture.

I am totally floored! I can hardly imagine receiving a better compliment. This makes my day! (week, month, year... ;^) ).

I was already aware of the earlier nice review (by Book-o-philiac):

This was an amazing novel. I usually don't read fiction books, but decided to give this one a try, due to my leaving the LDS Church. It touched on so many of my experiences of growing up in the LDS Church and many of the reasons that I left. Anyone is considering leaving, even briefly should read this book.

Four stars and would recommend to anyone!

For that review, Book-o-philiac emailed me to tell me how much she liked the book. Naturally, I thanked her and asked her if she would please go write that on the book's Amazon page. ;^)

BTW, I haven't mentioned this in a while, but if anyone is interested in writing a review of ExMormon (for a blog or a publication or Amazon or whatever), just email me and I'll send you a review e-copy: chanson dot exmormon at gmail dot com.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Speed of Lightning! Roar of Thunder!

It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a frog!

To all those who are younger than Gen-X, please excuse the obscure reference to the "Underdog" theme song. ;)

If you follow the atheosphere like I do, you probably already know that Camp Quest -- that fun science-not-Bible Summer camp for kids -- needs some funds. And, to make the fund-raising more interesting, they decided to turn it into a competition between PZ Myers and a team of other cool atheist bloggers. In round 1, PZ totally wiped the floor with the competition, so some more cool underdogs signed on.

Now, as fond as I am of PZ (I met him in person and even included the photo of our radio interview together in my masthead if you look closely), I am compelled by some mysterious human compulsion to support Team Underdog. (Also note: Team PZ doesn't need my help, but I qualify for Team Underdog.) Hence I've added the donate widget to my sidebar =>

And remember, it's not just about beating PZ (and watching Hemant shave off PZ's beard). It's a great cause! As much as I loved LDS girls' camp as a kid, I wish I could have gone to something like this!! I'm planning to send my own kids as soon as feasible.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

The action shot!!

Here I am, engrossed in my favorite vacation activity:

So, we'll take the 12:40 boat to Isola Madre, where we will wander around and enjoy the gardens for exactly one hour and twenty-five minutes, then catch the 14:20 boat to Stresa where the kids can play on the playground for fifty minutes before we catch the 15:40 boat to Santa Caterina del Sasso...

I'm not sure anyone else in the family enjoys lake boat rides as much as I do, but they did OK:

We sure are riding a lot of boats on this trip...

But we all got to enjoy a lot of gorgeous scenery. Here's Nico at Santa Caterina del Sasso (a three-building hermitage built into the side of a cliff):

just hanging out

and on Isola Madre:

Leo is a lot more reluctant to be photographed than Nico (unless he's playing "Angry Birds"), but my husband got one picture of both boys touring the botanical gardens:

Our imaginary universe is even more fun than all these gardens our parents keep taking us to!

Friday, April 29, 2011


When we last left our little tale of my crazy international life, I admitted to passively letting people in Paris believe I was Swiss, mostly just because I like to keep people guessing. Well, be careful what you wish for!

I've been learning Italian for almost as long as I've been speaking French -- and I've gotten to the point where I can read simple books and carry on a rudimentary conversation in Italian -- but I've never gotten really fluent in Italian because I've never spent more than a few weeks at a time in Italy (and even then, I haven't gone far off the tourist-beaten track).

But that's OK! Because at Lago Maggiore (as I mentioned earlier) most of the tourists are Italian, French, German, or Swiss. So if you start speaking to someone in Italian -- even if they sense that Italian is not your best language -- they can't simply switch to your best language because they don't know which one it is! Hahahahaha!! Unlike Zürich, where everybody just assumes that everybody else speaks English. Where, if you have an accent or make a grammatical error when speaking German, Swiss people give you this "isn't it cute that you're trying to speak German? But seriously, if you want to communicate, I'll just stick to English for you." And then the Swiss people complain that the foreign residents don't bother to learn German. But I digress...

Anyway, there was one major new development in my life since my previous trip to Lago Maggiore: I have really gone to town on learning German! I'm now at the point where I can carry on a rudimentary conversation with ease, and most slightly-more-complicated things I'd like to say, I can approximate in real time (or at least in a not-too-embarrassing length of time). But -- as anyone who has tried to learn a second foreign language can attest -- my new foreign language (German) is interfering with my earlier one (Italian)!!!

Fortunately, my German has not interfered with my French. I guess that since I lived in France for seven years (and I still speak French with lots of people on a daily basis), French has moved out of the "expendable foreign language" part of my brain...? Ever since learning French made me forget all my Latin, I've been very careful to practice and review French and Italian while learning German. (Aside: I don't understand those folks who can speak seven or eight languages fluently -- it's hard enough just learning four!) Anyway, if I haven't lost you already, you can probably see where this is going:

Every time I tried to speak to someone in Italian, a bunch of the words would come out in German. Totally unintentionally. I was trying to speak Italian and ended up speaking some sort of Italodeutsch. So, naturally, everybody assumed I was German. It's not that far-fetched an assumption -- the place was crawling with Germans-attempting-to-speak-Italian, and I'm not as fashionable as the French or Italians:

Leo liked the boat rides -- especially the video games

I thought it was pretty funny, actually.

So I was ordering some cappuccinos for breakfast the first morning, and the waitress (wanting to make sure I understood the difference between cappuccino and caffe latte, trying to pick an appropriate language for this explanation), asked "Deutsch?"

I immediately launched into this whole explanation about how, no, I'm not really German, haha, I'm just learning German, and I keep accidentally mixing up the words with Italian so people think I'm German, haha!

I suspect the problem was choosing to give this explanation in French. My husband's system was to say a few words to people in Italian, but then switch to French for anything he didn't know how to say in Italian. It normally worked like a charm -- everybody seemed to speak perfect French. Except maybe this one lady. She just gave me a kind of exasperated look and said "Zweimal cappuccino?" [German for "Two cappuccinos?"].

I thought about it for a second and replied, "Ja, zwiemal cappuccino. Isch guet."

After that, it hit me that sheesh, I speak Italian well enough that I can explain to people in Italian that I'm learning German, and I keep accidentally mixing up the words. So the second time I did it better. I was discussing different boat itinerary options with someone at the boat ticket counter, and as he turned to get me a page of information, he asked "Deutsch?"

That was my cue! I told him in [not-quite-right] Italian that I'm just learning German and sometimes I get the words mixed up. And when he smiled in comprehension, I thought success! actual communication!

After that, I made a point to prepare in advance before talking to people, planning Italian sentences and purging them of German words before speaking. Then I didn't have that problem anymore. But it was a fun little linguisto-cultural adventure!! :D