Sunday, August 31, 2014

Fun at Camp Quest Switzerland!!

So, how was Camp Quest? you ask.

It was a fantastic experience, and I'm really glad my kids and I participated!

If you haven't heard of it, Camp Quest is an organization of secular summer camps -- mostly in the US, but also in the UK and (luckily for me!) here in Switzerland. But before I get into the pictures and what we did there, I would like to explain a bit about why I wanted to participate in this.

As a kid, I always liked going to camp. It was great to be out in nature, doing things that were completely different from my usual life. I even liked sharing tents or cabins with a bunch of other girls (with midnight activities like ghost stories and such) despite the fact that I always had difficulty making friends and being accepted as part of the group with other girls. Whether it was with the Girl Scouts, a school camp, or (most frequently) a Mormon church camp, it was a fun adventure!

Now that I no longer believe nor practice Mormonism, I don't have the built-in community that comes with it. The opportunity of passing camp fun along to the next generation as an adult volunteer is one of the things I gave up when I left the church. Probably many of you are thinking, "I hated camp! Not having to got to camp is one of the perks of being an atheist or a none -- not a drawback!" But, as I've said many times, religion and religious organizations fill many roles in people's lives, and it's totally normal that the parts one person loved may be exactly the parts someone else hated, and vice-versa. So if you hated camp, this post isn't about telling you you're wrong, it's about the variety of different experiences we humans enjoy.

In my case, one of the parts of camp that I hated was the pressure to feel "spiritual" emotions and to sit around and express them in some sort of testimony format. As a Mormon kid, I spent a lot of time trying to psyche myself into liking testimony meetings (and tried desperately to gain a testimony -- this stuff is really important for Mormons), but I was really fighting my built-in reaction that this stuff is really, really creepy and weird. I know a lot of people sincerely like that sort of thing (including people who don't believe in the supernatural), but for me personally, a big perk of Camp Quest was no testimony meeting. Nothing even remotely resembling it.

A lot of people in the non-believer community feel that we shouldn't be doing things to ape religion (like make our own summer camps). And if Camp Quest really isn't about trying to indoctrinate kids to being atheists (i.e. some sort of equal-and-opposite of Jesus Camp), then why bother having a specifically "secular" camp, as opposed to just sending your kids to some sort of generic science camp or something...?

In response, I would say that religion didn't invent summer camp. Summer camp does not inherently have anything to do with ideology, but it's normal to have a variety of camps focused on different themes. Camp Quest Switzerland in 2014 included lots of fun workshops in science, mathematics, and skepticism, but it was not about sitting around telling the kids what to believe or patting ourselves on the back for our shared ideology. In fact, there was another mom who had come along to volunteer as well who is a theist. She doesn't participate in organized religion (she's from a Catholic background, and her husband was from a Muslim background), but she's raising her kids to believe in God. And there's no reason for that to be a problem in this environment.

But why not just a generic science or other camp? Why something that has any ideological connection?

Well, I actually want to be part of a community. I volunteer at my kids' school, I participate in neighborhood events, and I think there's something to be said for participating in local groups with people you share ideas and interests with as well. (My husband and I are planning to join the Zürich Freethinkers as soon as I figure out how to work the website.) For the past few years, we've been sending the kids to Vacances Edcuatives in France during the February vacations (mostly because we don't want our kids to be the only ones in their class who don't ski, yet we don't want to bother to go skiing ourselves), and that has been a good experience -- but it's not the same as participating in a camp that is connected with a real community that you can be a part of.

Now, after all that intro, here's what we did!!

First of all, the location was gorgeous, up in the mountains!

Normally I like to enjoy Switzerland's beautiful mountains from somewhere down on the ground looking up at them. Actually going up into the mountains, riding along on those tiny, winding roads where one slip of the driver's hand could send you falling to your doom -- well, it's the sort of trip that I love in retrospect, after I'm back on the ground alive, like now. And this trip was no exception. 

But seriously, it was very cool to spend a week in a tiny village on the side of a mountain with a beautiful view of the valley and the mountains and mountain villages on the other side. And it was awesome to celebrate the Swiss national holiday (August first) in real Swiss style!

For much of the week, the kids participated in activities offered by the local tourism industry: workshops on making bread and cheese, a hike to a cabin where a local storyteller told us some folk tales in dialect (which I didn't understand at all, BTW, but it was interesting), and a nature hike/treasure hunt.

Plus the adult leaders of Camp Quest offered a series of workshops at the chalet where we were staying. In science and nature, we had an activity learning about the local plants, plus some physics experiments such as making a pickle glow by running electricity through it, and a hands-on biology lab dissecting the heart and lungs of a pig.

There was also an improv theater workshop that my son Léo really enjoyed, and two skepticism-themed workshops: one on illusions and one on homeopathy where the kids got to make their own homeopathic remedies. Note that the kids weren't fed any conclusions about homeopathy -- they simply got to see what it really is, and they were left to draw their own conclusions.

My workshop was a mathematics workshop on tiling the plane. For it, I made about a million Penrose Tiles for the kids to play with:

The Penrose Tiles were fun, but even after having done a few recreational math workshops at my kids' school and now this, I still think my presentation style need work. But it gets a bit better with each experience!

All in all a fun experience -- I hope to send my kids again next year!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

What else is wrong with Harry Potter?

Before starting a post like this one, of course I have to start with the disclaimer that I am a fan. I have read all of the books at least twice (to myself, and then as a bedtime story to my kids), and I've seen all the films multiple times. It is only because of the enjoyment I've gotten from the series that I waste time contemplating it and getting bothered by its flaws. Remember the parable of criticism is a complement -- if it were total crap, I wouldn't bother to post about it at all. So I don't want to see any comments accusing me of being a black-hearted Harry Potter-hater.

My second disclaimer is that, yes, I should probably be spending my time on something more important, like, say, climate change. But since it looks like our species is heading into oblivion and there's precious little an individual like me can do to stop it, I like to take my worrying down a notch and worry instead about stuff that really, really doesn't matter. Hence this post.

I've heard tons of different insights on what are the critical flaws of the Harry Potter series. Pretty much all of them were valid criticisms. For me, though, I feel like the top problem is that -- while Harry Potter is an interesting character -- he is not interesting enough to carry seven weighty tomes. I know, he's the chosen one and everything, but the fact that pretty much everything important that happens in his universe revolves around Harry himself and a small circle of friends and acquaintances makes their world seem petty and simplistic. At one point McGonagall asks, "Why is it always you three?" -- and I spent most of the series asking the author the same question. Especially considering that the series has so many other interesting characters that I'd rather be reading about.

Then, since I've been trying to just relax this week, I hit upon the solution! Fan-fic! Who knows what amusing tales the various fans have invented for all of our favorite peripheral characters?

I decided to start with the most incongruous relationship in the entire series: Hermoine and Viktor Krum. So, this guy is one of the most famous sports stars in their entire wizarding world. He could have his pick of girls, to put it mildly. Yet, he falls for the nerdy co-protagonist, who, by the way, isn't even interested in him. I'm not saying it's impossible, but I will say that this relationship requires some explanation/motivation that is sorely lacking in the books and films. But maybe the fans will come to the rescue!

Sadly, the first one I found on this topic was so laden with technical discussion of Quidditch strategy and sports scenes, I was unable to slog through it far enough to get to the point where he takes up with Hermoine. So I gave up on that one and decided to see if I could find some back-story for Regulus Black -- a fascinating character who (as far as I recall) doesn't make an appearance in the real story at all. There I found some interesting tales of his home life with his brother Sirius in their crazy evil London townhouse with their crazy evil parents. Good fun! So I decided to read some more from the Moony-Wormtail-Padfoot-Prongs generation.

Then a curious thing happened. I found it rather upsetting to watch popular sports star James Potter and his fun-loving buddies bullying young Severus Snape -- and winning the hearts of the fans (not to mention the girl) in the process. You can try to blame the fan-fic authors, but they're merely highlighting and expanding upon a key point from the original story.

I've written about bullying before, and I like to believe this is a subject where our culture has made tremendous progress in the past few decades. In stories from the fifties, it was typical to see bullying presented as par for the course, and it was unsurprising to see an author present a scene of bullying with the clear subtext that the victim deserved it because he's such a loser -- and expect the audience to view the bully as the more likable guy overall. It's disappointing to see this happen in a modern story.

As someone who was "different" as a kid -- and consequently bullied by the popular kids -- I naturally identify with Snape a lot more than I do with James and Lily and their friends. And the worst part of the story is that -- unlike a typical real-world bullying situation -- in this case the whole "it gets better" thing didn't happen. After being traumatized as a teen, Snape went on to be a bitter, spiteful, miserable person until he died.

Don't get me wrong -- of course he was also awesome. I think Snape is hand down the best character in the series. And the actor in the films did a fantastic job of interpreting the character -- better than what was in the books alone. But the stuff that happened to him was awful.

Then I started feeling like a huge idiot because is there any stupider waste of emotional energy than sitting around feeling sorry for a fictional character? I need to get out there and find some real people with real problems whom I can help for real. ;)

In the meantime, allow me to present how it should have ended: