Dogma

Grade This, Motherf%#@&*!

TeacherMoiI went off on my College Prep students last night. They've been a troublesome group and that's been only partially their fault. This half semester has been full of breaks and holidays and every time I'd get a momentum going, we'd have a break and lose it. Labor Day, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Columbus Day—every other week, it seemed we had a holiday. It's also been troublesome because I'm not teaching all of the class. I don't mind team teaching, but I think it's a mistake to break these two components—reading and writing—apart, and treat them as though they don't influence each other. And the only reason I'm team teaching is because CUNY, like most universities, limits the number of hours adjuncts can be in the classroom, even though they've increased the instructional hours of the course itself. That's just fucked up on at least two levels: not only does it prevent adjuncts from making a decent living by teaching at a single school rather than at least two, it causes stupid bureaucratic snafus like this one, which hurt students.

But I digress.

I went off on my students last night because when I told them my recommendations about their opportunity to take the CUNY assessement test are due next week, one of them said, "well why should we bother coming back after that?" And I lost it. Sarcasm on full bore, I responded, "because you might possibly still learn something." And then I gave them my patented five-minute lecture about why college is not about grades, it's about knowledge and learning, and how little your GPA matters in the grand scheme of things, and how they're only cheating themselves if they put nothing into the effort of learning.

This fixation on grades is pretty common among high school students and undergraduates. I remember having it myself. But I also remember the moment I realized what bullshit it is. I'd completely blown the final in one of my biology classes, not because I didn't know the material, but simply because it was finals week and my brain seized up like an unoiled engine. All the information was actually in there; I just couldn't get it to come out in coherent sentences or filling in the blanks. I left most of the test blank, in fact, something I never do, because I was just blank myself. Even my prof asked me what was wrong when I handed it in. But I realized as I walked out of the test totally frustrated, that it didn't really matter, ultimately, because I knew I'd learned a lot. I could have gotten at least a B on that exam if my brain hadn't turned to a gooey frozen treat. But that didn't lessen the amount of knowledge I had in my head. And neither did the C I got in the class, though it didn't reflect what I actually knew, either.

And that's why grades as the main focus of academic learning are bullshit. With the crazy emphasis on assessment and test scores that is prevalent in elementary and secondary ed today, it's no wonder students are all about grades. And that does them a disservice too. The best thing you can teach a kid at that age (the earlier, the better) is to love learning. To be curious, rapacious, even, for knowledge. Because the grades follow from that. Grades are just an imperfect tool for trying to see how much of what you've thrown at the wall stuck, and sometimes for how students will use those facts for good or evil.

There's no test that's ever been devised for how that knowledge will shape that student's pursuits, personality, or their actual life outside school, and that's what's really important. Did you learn to think for yourself? Did you learn how to apply reason to your questions? Did you learn something about how the world works beyond the theories? Did you learn the weaknesses of theory without practice and experience? Did you learn how to be kinder? Did you learn how to see and hear and appreciate beauty in its diversity? Did you learn how to step back and see the big picture and where the small picture fits into it? Did you learn from our past mistakes, or at least how to recognize those mistakes?

Those abstractions are the foundation of everything else. And you can't grade those. You can only mourn their lack in the world we've created without them.

 


It's the End of the World as We Know It . . . And I Feel Fine. Sorta.

MissedChurchEvilDrm The hoopla this week about the May 21st Apocalypse (capital A) has shown me that you can take the girl outta the religion but ya can't take the religion outta the girl. Or at least outta her hindbrain. Having been a more than 20-year member of what I realize in retrospect is an apocalyptic religion, I've found it hard to shake those nasty little "but what if they're right?" voices every time I hear a doomsday prophecy.I spent so many years living with the idea that the World (not the planet, but the current systems of governments and societies) was going to one day cease to exist in a cataclysmic event, I still get a little frisson of terror whenever I hear mad prophets. Like the doctrine of hell (which was not part of our belief system), the Apocalypse is just another way to keep your followers towing the line and donating, and the core of that success is fear: fear of death, fear of rejection, fear of making the wrong choices.

The tragedy of living like this is that it stunts your life. People who leave my former religion (and other similar ones) are often embittered not just by their experiences, but by what they've missed. The emphasis in these religions, more than mainstream ones, is always on the world to come, whether it's heaven or a New World Order of some kind here on earth. You're told that your life here and now is just biding time, that you shouldn't invest too much in it, or make big plans, or try to get rich, or have any sort of ambition that doesn't involve serving God. If you do have desires outside that narrow focus, you're accused of being "worldly," i.e., heathen and ungodly, or just plain wicked. Serving God almost invariably involves not having a lot of money, or a good job, or a nice home. As a consequence, members spend a lot of time policing each other for their materialism and focus. But without ambition of some kind, without a desire to improve yourself, one's life remains stagnant and stunted, in more ways than one.

15-Leonhardt-popup-v3 For instance, according to data from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public life, Jehovah's Witnesses are among the poorest and the least-educated of religious groups. There's a reason for this. College attendance has, until lately, been actively discouraged. It's been seen as the quickest way to get your children to leave the faith, and there's some truth in that. A good college education gives people analytical abilities and exposes them to new sources of information. It's hard to swallow the party line hook, line, and sinker when you start asking questions. Absolute faith (though not spirituality) relies on unquestioning belief as well as the desire to belong. I'm not saying anything new here, but one of the ways to get people to not question your doctrine is to make them afraid of losing something precious, like their lives, their friends, their community. This is what apocalyptic dogma is all about. And fear is a really effective brainwashing tool, no matter how well-educated and analytical you are.

So most of the people I grew up with who were JWs got married young, didn't go to college, wound up working blue-collar jobs for not much money. But I went off to college, thanks to my mom's firm belief in education for women and the necessity of women's economic independence. For this, both of us were vilified as bad influences. Bad enough my mom was married to an unbeliever (though fellow traveler). Worse that she planned to send me off into the world, instead of making sure I ended up barefoot and pregnant, volunteering 20 hours a week to the door-to-door ministry. But I couldn't see myself staying in Northern Michigan for the rest of my life, and I had no desire to get married and have babies, and even less to proselytize. I was too intellectually hungry, and ironically enough, five hours of Bible study a week helped make me that way; that was were I got my first tastes of history and literary criticism, where I learned the rudiments of close reading, and the wondrous complexity of creation. So off I went to college, where I did, indeed, gradually "fall away" from the religion I'd been raised in, as I learned more about history, science, and biblical studies. But the fear of the Apocalypse, of making the wrong choices, never left me.

 When I was a kid, I used to love reading post-apocalyptic novels. One of my favorites was A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter Miller, published the year I was born. If you haven't read it, it's worth the effort, not so much for the view of life after nuclear war as for the big picture Miller paints of the cycles of history, the rise and fall of civilizations, and how religion creates its doctrines and saints. That long view is one of the ideas that influenced my interest in history, and the long view of its cycles I've always found so fascinating. In addition, I gobbled up Frank Herbert's The White Plague, Nevil Shute's On the Beach, Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon, and a lot of J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick. Need I mention Blade Runner? This was sparked by the same impulse that makes people watch monster movies; everybody likes a good scare. Most of these apocalypses were death by nuclear war or natural disaster, not fire from heaven or the manifestation of God's power on earth, so they weren't frightening in the same way. What I was really fascinated by was the way society began to pick itself up and put itself together again afterwards, and what the critical mass of people to do this was. There were only 3 million JWs then; was that enough to repopulate the earth and maintain civilization? Or were we going to crash back into the Dark Ages? That seemed more and more likely the longer I ran the numbers and studied history. And that grew less and less attractive too.

2012 We Were WarnedAs I became more conscious and aware of the world around me, disasters didn't seem so interesting and the people I came in contact with didn't seem so horrible, for all their worldliness. And, I discovered, there were some amoral assholes inside my church too. The Apocalypse began to seem more horrible, more arbitrary, more malicious. My taste for post-apocalyptic fiction finally bottomed out with the AIDS crisis. The idea that a loving God would visit that kind of horror on decent people who didn't worship Him in this particular way became more and more abhorrent to me. That was not what I wanted in a god. After a while, I wasn't even sure I wanted a god at all. They seemed to be more of a pain in the ass than not. Now, when I watch the previews for something like the movie 2012, images of the wholesale slaughter of what Douglas Adams called "mostly harmless" people don't give me a cheap thrill, they nauseate me. But it still scares the crap out of me. There's nothing rational about it; it's completely visceral, a conditioned response. And that, I totally resent.

There are too many real problems in the real world that need to be fixed or at least mitigated for me to waste time being afraid of an imaginary disaster. I resent the way this dogma blinds people to the disasters that are going on around them right now and makes them think only God can fix these things, the way it strips away responsibility for crapping in our own back yard, the way it fosters learned helplessness. We've got a genuine apocalypse looming, one that's of our own making—climate change—that the same people who spout off about the Rapture are happy to ignore. Well, I got news for you folks, and it ain't Good News: nobody's going to save you or any of us when this natural disaster happens. Start scaring your people with the real thing. We need all the help we can get. Turn some of that money and effort into education and influence for saving the world we've got now, not waiting for someone else to destroy it.


sexist self-righteousness a la mode

HotheadP Warning: just venting. Nothing really constructive here. Today in sexist self-righteousness, from the NY Times Ethicist column:

Our small nonprofit, the Opportunity Fund for Developing Countries, offers scholarships to African boys and girls who agree to keep up their grades, stay out of trouble and refrain from pregnancy. When a 20-year-old orphan we’ve supported for many years had a baby, we revoked her scholarship. (Significantly, we have never dropped a male’s scholarship for impregnating a female.) [Emphasis mine] Now she wants to return to school. We’d like to readmit her to our program, but won’t that set a precedent? DEB DAY OLIVIER, SALT LAKE CITY

To restore this girl’s scholarship may well set a precedent, and I think it should. As you seem to realize, to apply this rule only to one sex is strikingly unfair and violates your own agreement with the students. What’s needed is a new policy, one with a better response to young people’s lives than “just say no babies.”

By definition, nobody welcomes an unwanted pregnancy. As Cynthia Lloyd, an authority on population and education issues and a lead author of the book “Growing Up Global: The Changing Transitions to Adulthood in Developing Countries,” put it in an e-mail exchange, “Obviously in Africa, many young women who get pregnant have not necessarily made that choice willingly or with any control.” I admire your wish to help these students avoid obstacles to education, like too-early parenthood, but I admire even more your reluctance to let an imperfect policy inflexibly applied thwart a young woman’s desire for an education and a better life.

What form should that new policy take? Here I defer to educators and experts in family planning. Lloyd suggests one that you might consult: Codou Diaw, executive director of the Forum for African Women Educationalists, an N.G.O. operating throughout the continent from its headquarters in Nairobi.

When you restore this girl’s scholarship, as I hope you will, you can announce your intention to change course. It is commendable to gauge how effectively your policies serve your ends, and to amend or abandon those that are ineffectual.

UPDATE: Olivier told me by e-mail that they did not continue this girl’s scholarship but that she may reapply next year.

Fail. Fail. Fail.

Abstinence_by_jaig_1_ Not only the part about dropping this young woman's scholarship without considering how she got pregnant, whether she had access to birth control, or if she even wanted to get pregnant, but big ol' FAIL for never dropping a young man's scholarship for impregnating another young woman. Because, in case you hadn't noticed, it takes two people to get pregnant. If you are trying to enforce an abstinence only policy (which is what sounds like is going on here), then everybody has to abstain and everybody gets the same penalty. Not that I think abstinence only is a useful policy, but why punish only women for failing at the unworkable? If it's wrong to get pregnant, it's wrong to make someone pregnant too.

Beyond that, to enforce that policy on a 20 year old adult is completely unrealistic and unethical in itself, especially without offering alternatives. According to their own annual report, this organization provides no access to birth control, only HIV/AIDS "training," which I would bet consists of saying "don't have sex; you'll get HIV." If you don't want young women getting pregnant, it's a proven fact that just saying no doesn't work, especially in poor countries where women have fewer rights and resources than they do here. Not addressing the facts of violence (and just plain ol biological imperatives), and condemning women alone for the outcome is the worst kind of self-righteousness: do as I say, not as I do. Make my dogma work without the resources I have access to. It absolves men from taking responsibility for their own actions while condemning women, often, for being victims of male violence and at the least, of male irresponsibility. Why do people not get this?

I know: because it serves the patriarchy not to. But it particularly irks me when women don't get it and bind each other's feet.


feminism and me—it's complicated

HotheadPaisanMary Daly died recently, and that has set me to thinking about my relationship with feminism, since so much of it is wound up in my relationship to religion. My mother was a proto-feminist who taught me that girls could be anything they wanted to be, and made damn sure I went to college, because education was the way to economic independence. At the same time, the religion we belonged to told us we were to be subordinate to male authority and not allowed to teach in church, while at the same time women did the majority of the grunt work in evangelizing from door to door, which was a big part of worship. So we could serve in the trenches, but not at the "altar." And that was different from Catholicism or mainstream Protestantism (or any other religion) how? Women's studies courses and departments were just a gleam in most feminsts' eyes when I was an undergrad, but the college I went to was strongly feminist and had its own radical tradition. That's where I first read Mary Daly and heard her mentioned (I forget by whom) and ran into the idea of God the Mother for the first time. And didn't that rock my world.

At the same time, there was something uncomfortably male-hating about many of the feminists I knew then. There was a strong separatist contingent at the school, and that turned me off. Men were a pain in the ass, but I wasn't by any means sexually attracted to women (I know this may come as a shock to some of you), so what's a girl to do? I distanced myself from the feminists. It didn't change how I acted or dressed or how I felt about sexism (wrong, immoral, vile) or my propensity to call people on it, but I stopped calling myself a feminist.

Then I went to grad school, where I was talked over in class by guys and had my ideas paid attention to only when they were picked up and repeated by men. And that pissed me off enough to reclaim that label. I haven't stopped calling myself a feminist since. Getting jobs outside academe only reinforced that choice. Male behavior is so often institutionally, deliberately, casually, and/or even just unconsciously sexist that it's impossible to live as a self-aware, intelligent, and self-confident woman and not want to call somebody on some kind of stupid sexist shit at least once a day, usually more. Sometimes with a frying pan upside the head. With hot grease in it.

We live in a culture—hell, a world!—that systematically and consciously not only devalues women but, in many cases, actively beats them down and beats them up. In addition to the gap in pay, the lack of support for children and family issues, and the general marginalizing and silencing of women, there's the outright violence. Far too many of my students are living day to day with male partners who threaten their safety and well-being physically or emotionally or psychologically. At least once a semester I deal with a student who is either going into, living in, or coming out of a domestic violence shelter—or who needs to get into one and doesn't realize it yet. Sometimes it's more than one. That movie "Precious"? Ask my students how real that is. Many, many of them have been raped in the past, sometimes more than once. And it's not just my students in their socioeconomic ghetto, it's my friends, as well, rich and poor, educated and not. I can count on one hand the number of my female friends who have not endured some kind of sexual or physical or emotional assault from men. It's enough, really, to make any woman a riot grrrrl, like Hothead Paisan.

But. There's always a but, in any movement. They're never all good, no matter how noble the cause, because people are complicated. And the "but" in my case is the constant rage and utter joylessness in so many feminists. Lately, I'm feeling a little bombarded by it in blogs, books, articles, whatever. Even when there are steps being taken to change people's ideology and awareness, even when there is something positive happening, it never seems to be enough for some folks. It's a bit like the people who are pissed off with Obama for not initiating the changes they wanted instantaneously upon taking office. Here's an example, just a small one:

LuannCar
A comic I read with regularity, "Luann," apparently does not pass muster in this particular instance, even though it has a main character who is a strong, independent female firefighter who fixes her own cars and extricated herself from an abusive relationship to have one with a guy who happens to appreciate her just the way she is—not, incidentally, just because she's beautiful. The writer then goes on to carp about how comics are just not as funny as they used to be. Boohoo.

I really like this comic for precisely the reasons I state above. Toni is a great role model for girls: a fully realized person, and a woman who is strong and self-confident enough to have rescued herself and work in a male dominated field and find a new guy who respects her strengths and abilities. This is not feminist enough how? Taken out of the context of the storyline, this panel isn't a particularly funny comic but I fail to see the outright sexism. In context, it takes on a different meaning, one not particularly insulting at all: Toni's got a better touch with Brad's car and that makes Brad feel inadequate and betrayed by his own possessions. That doesn't mean he feels Toni is inferior in any way. I feel that way every time a tech person can get my computer to do stuff I can't, regardless of the tech person's gender.

And there's more carping at something that is not "enough" in some way: sending special care packages to women soldiers with (gasp!) make-up and Cosmo in them! That the Dove self-esteem campaign actually helps sell Dove products at the same time it raises girls' awareness of the fakeness of advertising! That the Nicholas Kristoff/Cheryl WuDunn book Half the Sky does "more harm than good" by not being a weighty, theory-heavy tome! Jesus, people.

My point is that if you are going to take active offense at everything that is not perfect, or not just the way you think it should be, you will hate everything in the world, including yourself. Lighten the fuck up, and stop the navel-gazing. The suffering of women is not the center of the universe or the source of all injustices or problems in the world. Yes, the world would be a far, far better place if women were respected and valued in equal measure to men. It would also still not be a utopia.

While I happen to agree with Barbara Ehrenreich's thesis that too much positive thinking is akin to brainwashing, I think that applies in the opposite direction as well. Anger can be a very powerful force for good in the world, but on its own, cut loose from compassion or any sense of joy in life, it becomes destructive, self-destructive; coupled with any ideology without the tempering of joy or compassion, it becomes fundamentalist extremism. We've all seen how destructive and dangerous that is, to those who swallow that joyless ideology, to others who refuse to embrace it, and to the movement itself. If we don't use our anger constructively, if we only see what's wrong and not what's right and what's changing, we risk losing people who may support us and yet cannot bear to see everything in the world as a horror show. Every war needs victories and needs to celebrate and enjoy those victories to have the heart to keep fighting. Don't rob people of that.

Feminist-BookstoreI keep this Callahan cartoon around to keep me honest in my feminism.  Yes, it's a stereotype, but every stereotype exists because somewhere, somebody fits it. Ask yourself, sistah, if it's you, and how much your own attitude is making you miserable—and hindering the movement, too.


thankful

Going to Church Moi Long time no post here. Or anywhere, for that matter. I've been busier than a one-armed paper hanger and I'm still playing catch-up. My desk and work table—heck, my whole apartment—looks like a disaster area. I have a hundred household chores, grading to do, books to make, projects to attend to, and absolutely no energy whatsoever. It's been a kinda crazy semester. Where to start? Maybe with the new tenant.

Akisu1 After many long years without a cat, I've acquired a beastie. Or rather, the beastie has acquired me. This is Queen Mab, who was once a lost little street kitty that my friend Gretl (whose pic you can see on the wall there) picked up and took home right before I left for China. She knew just who to throw herself in front of, too. All it took was her rolling over and showing her belly for Gretl to pick her up and bring her home. When I first saw her, Mab (who Gretl called Princess Farhana, after one of her Burlesque buddies) had dark grey stockings, tail, and ears, and we thought she might be part Siamese. She talks and acts like one, but her "points" proved to be just dirt. She's a big marshmallow with green eyes and an attitude. She was lying on Gretl's bathroom floor, purring up a storm at any attention she received and turned out to be a territorial tyrant, driving Gretl's poor, sweet, dim kitties into exile in the bedroom for the duration of her stay. Once I brought her home, it took her all of 15 minutes to adjust to her new abode at my house—and make it hers. Here she is staking claim to my desk. She's playful and funny and very good natured. She likes people, which is a real switch from the last bitch-kitty I had, but she's a one-cat-per-household cat. And she talks. I kept thinking about her the whole time I was in China and fighting the idea of bringing her home. After all, having a kitty puts the kibosh on most serious travel, doesn't it? But like with the Borg, resistance is futile. Cats pick you. You don't pick them. So now my house is covered in cat hair. And white, you know, goes with nothing I own. Nothing. I don't care. She's put punctures in my leather sofa and barfed on my rug more times than I can count already, and cost me $1,000 last weekend to get her butt unplugged. I don't care. It's great to have a beastie in the house again.

I'm back teaching at CNR again, but I also, thanks to a renewed connection, picked up a couple of classes at the College of Staten Island. This is both good and bad. Good because it's a CUNY job and that pays well, plus after three semesters I get benefits. Bad because it's in Staten Island and the first seven weeks were a brutal schedule: up at 6 AM, catch the subway at 6:45 to the express bus at 7:54, reach CSI at 9 AM; office hours from 9-10 (yes, I even get paid for those!); first class from 10:10-1:10, second class from 1:30-4 (no break); run for the ferry shuttle at 4:05, grab the 4:30 ferry back to lower Manhattan and catch the #5 train to the Bronx to teach another 2.5-hour class there, and catch the bus back home, where I arrive at about 9:30. Not much time to eat, and 8.5 hours of being "on," which, believe me, is not the same as sitting in a cube for that length of time. By the time I got back, I was totally knackered. Then I had a 10 AM class at CNR both Weds. and Thursday. After next week, I'll be down to three classes total from 6. I'm still doing the AM class at CSI, but I've only got one more evening class at CNR and then just the Thursday morning classes, so it's not as bad now, but I just don't have the stamina for that anymore. Not sure I ever did.

Not surprisingly, I got sick as a dog about two weeks ago. Not the flu, thankfully, but the usual awful case of bronchitis I get when I'm run down. I'm still fighting it off, but the cough is going away and the stuff I'm hacking up is no longer a disgusting color and doesn't taste like my lungs are rotting from the inside out. Last night I got the first full, cough-free night of sleep I've had in a couple of weeks. Of course, the cat woke me up at 7:30 demanding attention, food, and entertainment. She's like that. Me, me, me.

So with six classes to teach, that's about all I've been doing. Helen was here in October, and I saw Jen briefly when she whizzed through town for the New School's science movie festival. She and I and Helen went to dinner at Spice Market, a place I've been dying to try (well worth the money) and then drinks with Gretl afterwards, so I'm working Helen into my circle of friends here too.

I've been getting some good poems out of the ferry commute, I think, and teaching, as always is something I find stimulating. The classes at CSI were tough, not because of the subject matter (basic computer skills), but the audience. Such a huge difference between the Staten Island "kids" who really are, and the ones at CNR, who, even when they're young, have really had to grow up fast and don't take anything about their education for granted, even when they don't quite know how to be students. The ones at CNR have so many obstacles to overcome and the ones at CSI seem so much more sheltered and take so much for granted that it's frustrating when they goof off and talk over me. Plus I'm competing with the internet because the classes are in the computer lab and they can't stay off fucking Facebook.

I missed Julie's non-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving, even though she rescheduled it around me, so I'm getting no Thanksgiving at all this year, which feels a little weird, and that it feels weird is weird in itself because I've never really celebrated the holiday. For a few years when I was a kid, we went down to Uncle Dave's & Aunt Eltha's for an Allam gathering, but that didn't last long because there were so many of us. In college, I rarely went home for it, usually going to the Uncle Ralph's & Aunt Lucy's for dinner. In grad school, I sometimes had dinner with friends. When I moved to New York, Jen and I started having our own un-Thanksgiving: movies and Chinese food. That lasted until she got married and moved to LA. Now I haven't done much of anything, and this year, I'm sick, so I'm sitting here whining about not celebrating a holiday I never celebrated.

It's actually a holiday I like, and never really saw the harm in. It's not religious, it's not especially patriotic, it's more about what Christmas used to be: family and gratitude. I understand that there's also the whole PC suppression of native culture thing wound up in it too that should make me vaguely guilty, but I somehow can't see it that way, either. I think the original celebration was as much about survival and the attempt at sharing the land (which sadly failed) and was turned into the national conquering myth later. We can't imagine the kind of hand-to-mouth existence new settlers had in an unfamiliar land, where a bad harvest would leave them like the Roanoke Colony. It's essentially a harvest festival, something people have celebrated since we've been planting crops. It's hard not to be thankful for a good harvest when your life depends on it, and I don't really see any reason not to express that thanks. I like it because it's not a holiday that involves presents. It's about food, family, friends, and gratitude.

But I was never allowed to say "Happy Thanksgiving" when I was a JW. That was somehow giving glory to some other god, though I never really understood why. I understood why we didn't celebrate Halloween, or Christmas or Easter, because they all had roots in pagan celebrations. But somehow being thankful for food and survival didn't seem, well, pagan. It just seemed grateful and human. I like what Michael Ruhlman wrote about it today: "Thanksgiving should be about being with people we care about, about paying attention to what we have so that we don't waste it, so that we make more of it, so that everyone has it."

So now that I no longer identify as a JW, I think it might be a holiday I invest in, like New Year's. I doubt I'll ever celebrate Christmas or Easter as they never had and and don't now have any meaning for me, and Halloween seems just like silly fun. But Thanksgiving I could get behind. Next year, maybe I'll have dinner here. I'm certainly grateful for the friends who form my family of choice, for the good food I have access to here in the city, for learning to cook, for the chance to do it for my friends and send them home with leftovers. I'm happy to share what I have and can do. I'm grateful to the small farmers who invest in old-fashioned organics and free-range food and haul it to the greenmarket every week. I'm grateful I have so many friends to share it with. I'm grateful I have a job (even if I have too many of them), so I can afford to buy good food and share what I've got with others. I'm grateful for my finicky cat, who doesn't really appreciate how spoiled she is.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.


The Church of Typography

Going_to_church_moiLdsposterEvery now and then my worlds collide, producing some really interesting mashups. I love cathedral and church architecture, especially the Gothic and neo-Gothic. I love typography and I'm a big fan of poster art of all kinds, but especially letterpress. So I was in a little ecstasy of delight when I ran across this amazing, amazing piece of typographical design by Cameron Moll, via Veer's website (click the "Ideas" tab for more coolness from Veer). You can see other pictures of it at Veer's website or order one for yourself. Half of them are gone already, at $50 a pop + postage and I just ordered one for myself, so if you love this kind of stuff, get on it now. I'll let you know how glorious it is and gloat a little when it arrives. Just the pictures have really knocked my socks off.

Ldstemple This is only a detail of the whole 16"x24" print which is a rendering of the main Latter Day Saints Temple in Salt Lake City [click for full size pics]. Though it was designed to advertise a design review independent of the church itself, there was a time when I would have hesitated to buy this because of what it depicted. I'm not a Mormon and never was, but you have to admit that their Salt Lake City Temple is a gorgeous building, just like Notre Dame or Westminster Abbey, Wells Cathedral, or my personal favorite, St. John the Divine. The church I used to be part of spent a lot of energy separating itself from what it called "Christendom," or the general community of Christian beliefs in all their various sects and schisms. No grand buildings for them, just plain meeting halls (that were somehow still too sacred to play a little jazz in for my mother's funeral; guess God doesn't like jazz). So I often felt a bit guilty for my love of soaring Gothic arches and stained glass, for the grandeur of these enormous churches built to the glory of God. There were people of my faith who wouldn't even go to a relative's wedding if it was held in a church, as though entering that building would somehow contaminate them. That always struck me as overly superstitious anyway, especially since we were taught that a building was just a building. (I'm not sure when that changed, or if that was a personal quirk I encountered at Mom's memorial service.)

Part of me understood that impulse to build these grandiose buildings that reach to heaven, to build a place not for God to dwell in, because that obviously wasn't necessary, but a place to reflect the grandeur of creation and to have a little part in it too. But I understand too the flip side that sees it as a waste of money that could have been used to feed the poor. I've always thought Christ's response to the the woman who washed his feet with expensive oil was a little enigmatic and harsh. Yes, it was an act of worship, but I empathized with the disciples who thought it was a waste of money too. They're competing sensibilities that don't co-exist very easily, similar to the impulse that wants to make art that reflect's God's glory warring with the concept of idolatry. No easy answers to that one either, like most such questions.

Since starting this blog, which seems to have been a watershed moment, a turning point, I've encountered more and more little things that used to a source of conflict and guilt for me that no longer have to be. It's liberating and scary at the same time, like all changes. But it also allows me to find beauty everywhere and surely beauty is a part of whatever the term god should mean to us.

[Cross posted in much shorter form at Spawn of Blogorrhea]


The Truth Will Set You Free

WhamoiThis move has been in the making for years, perhaps decades, and now that I've finally made it, all the thoughts and ideas and accumulating evidence that have been percolating in my head are bubbling to the surface, jostling for position. Now that the dam has burst, I literally don't know where to start. I'm generally an orderly sort of person, especially in my writing, so this chaos in my head is disturbing and irritating. Until I realize what it really is:

It's freedom.

Now that I've publicly stepped away from such a closed, restrictive community I feel I can be more authentically myself. I don't have to worry about hiding my heretical opinions, my doubts, my disagreements, my hobbies, my personal beliefs. For someone who values free thought and free speech this is a huge relief. Plus, I'm a lousy liar.

I was always told I wasn't missing anything in "the world," and that was true to a large extent. The things that make most people leave—sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll—were never issues for me. My temptation was knowledge and the need to think for myself. The more I had of education, the more dangerous I realized it was, especially the good liberal arts kind I acquired. I'd already been taught at home to question everything (my family were great debaters) so it was only natural that college would hone those skills.

While knowledge isn't at all incompatible with faith, it is incompatible with dogma. (Remember that bumper sticker: "My karma just ran over your dogma"? I loved that.) Dogma doesn't stand up well to the two-year-old's interrogation, "But why?" Dogma, by nature, just is. Every discipline has its own dogma, its own unexplained given that must always be taken at face value and factored into any situation—in other words, taken on faith. (The definition of religious faith is "the assured expectation of things hoped for, the evident demonstration of realities though not beheld." [Hebrews 11:1] It applies equally well to other kinds of faith.). In physics, gravity is the unexplained given. In litcrit, it's the existence of the text as an artificial construct. In biology, it's evolution. In religion, fundamentalist ones especially, it's primarily the infallibility of the Bible.

One thing I came to love about science is that it's always asking questions. And that even the cranks and crackheads get taken seriously with enough evidence. I remember looking at a globe in first grade and thinking that, "gee, the coasts of South America and Africa look like puzzle pieces." In the 1960's, when I was in grade school, that was a heretical idea in science, though it had been around as long as since the late 19th century. I remember very clearly when I first learned about plate tectonics and continental drift. It literally rocked my world.

It was exciting because I'd had the same thought, independently, and it turned out not to be stupid or childish after all. It opened up vast possibilities of history and biology. And it contradicted what I'd been taught in church: that the earth was immutable, unchanging, created as it was today. The theory of evolution did much the same thing.

When I was a kid, the endpapers of my Bible had maps of the Holy Land with people and dinosaurs on it. Like most kids I went through a period when I was obsessed with dinosaurs: I knew what they were, when they lived, and that they hadn't been alive at the same time as humans, at least from a scientific point of view. How to reconcile that with 6,000 years of the creation story? That was my first dilemma. As you can imagine, it only got more complicated from there. What made it so difficult was that I was still a kid, asking these questions. Eight years old and already a heretic.

Hexagonaria203One fellow believer I corresponded with for a while sent me a beautiful piece of rose gypsum when she moved out west because I'd said I was interested in science and natural history.  In return, I sent her a petoskey stone (right), Michigan's state stone, which is a fossil of ancient coral reefs that covered the shallow sea bottom that's now Michigan. Each rough polygon is the fossil of an individual coral animal skeleton. I explained its origin when I sent it to her and she was confused that Michigan had been sea bottom. How could that be, in 6,000 years?

Precisely.

Some creationists (not the ones I know) think that God created all those fossils too, but that seems like another cruel trick by a cruel god. How much simpler if the creation story were a metaphor for the development, the evolution, of consciousness or civilization. The great time spans of geologic and astronomical history make sense then, and don't really matter except in their existence. But dogma doesn't suffer facts well. Hence all the illogical twisting and bending.

The Bible isn't a science book, and doesn't purport to be one, though some of its most fanatical thumpers insist it's the only book you'll ever need to read.  Then why, I ask, did God give us these big brains, the opposable thumbs, the creative instinct, the capacity for rational thought, if all He wanted was blind obedience? Does switching off your brain constitute the proper worship of God?

The question, I guess, is not how to encompass the contradictions of dogma and science—to hold two contradictory, impossible ideas in your head at once—but to sift out the dogma and leave the love of God. Easier said than done.