Monday, April 28, 2008

the littlest browncoats

A friend of mine recently described Evangeline as cute "in a geeky sort of way."

The proof is in the kitchen right now. As my laptop plays the theme from "Firefly," Evangeline is singing along, in the right key, knowing every word by heart, and with all the yearning of the Malcolm Reynolds she hides inside her thoughtful, expressive exterior. And she's never even seen the show.

Her younger sister isn't much different. Last summer, Rachel wowed her Uncle Brian with an enthusiastic rendition of "The Ballad of Jayne Cobb," also known by heart.

So my children unquestionably are geeks. That's probably also why Evangeline swears "by Peter, Paul and Mary" (but not yet by Crosby, Stills and Nash), and why the girls each know the lyrics to at least half a dozen Bob Dylan songs. They may be geeks, but as Indigo observes, it's a cute sort of geekiness.

The trouble is that behind them stands another geek, the one responsible for teaching them not only these songs but many others also. That person -- whoever he (or she) may be -- is the ubergeek, and there's no doubt that it's not as cute where she (or he) is concerned.

Building vocabulary one fake word at a time

Every time you say "disencluttered," God kills
a puppy. Please think of the puppies.
I was perhaps 10 minutes into a phone call with my brother Zero when he mentioned "disencluttering" something.

"What did you say?" I asked.


"Sounds like a Bushism," I said.

"It is not a Bushism!" Zero insisted. "It's a real world." I wondered momentarily if that meant that he had taken the word clutter and loved it so much that its eyes had fallen off, and its fur was all worn away, like some linguistic Velveteen Rabbit, and then he added: "It comes up on Google and everything."

At this point I appealed to a nonexistent language snobbery on my part, and insisted that if it doesn't show up in the Oxford English Dictionary, then it's not a real word.

Zero wasn't moved. "It's a real word," he said again, clutching that mantra like a security blanket when the night is closing in and monsters stir unpleasantly beneath the beds of little children. "It shows up on Google."

Late Sunday night, I checked, and sure enough, disenclutter does show up on Google. What Zero failed to disclose was that his site is the only place this alleged word appears. At least it was. I expect a Google search soon will turn up this page as well, with the following notation: Zero is a goober.

Still, I don't blame him for failing to disclose on the phone that the word is his concoction. If I were responsible for such an abberation, I doubt I'd be all that quick to draw attention to it either.

On his site, he asks that readers add the word on their own web pages so that its usage will proliferate. Note that I have done so here. After all, what are brothers for?

clobber passage

There's a place or two in the New Testament where the Apostle Paul takes it upon himself to compile a list of human behaviors in an attempt to show that no one reasonably can expect to get into heaven by virtue of good behavior.

These passages, particularly in Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6, are known in the gay community as "clobber passages." It's not hard to understand why. If you've been around evangelicals enough, you've probably seen them wielded more than once like a club in the hands of a caveman.

It's something about the human condition; we like to believe that we're more moral than another group, whether it's gays, Republicans, evangelicals, or Muslims. So we find a passage of Scripture, pop culture, or philosophy, and we lift it up in the air and bellow, and we start swinging it.

The bellow is what gets everyone's attention. It's a bestial sort of sound, coming from the throat of someone who's not quite evolved enough to handle human speech.

It's a cry of loathing, meant to alert everyone that a monster has entered our midst and needs to be put down immediately. Before long, that club comes crashing down on the skull of its victim not once, not twice, but as many times as it takes to bring the brute down.

It's a hideous thing to see, and no matter what group you belong to, you've seen the horror visited upon your own group. The loss is that Christians recognize when pop culture is clobbering them, but not when they themselves are clobbering someone else; and vice versa. I've seen a number of people slam Christians down with rather crude and unwarranted caricatures. Lost in this quest for monsters to destroy is the irony that the monster lies in all of us and how we treat those who differ from us.

Today I had the ironic task of reading one of these clobber passages in church.

Apparently people in church like it when I read Scripture. I do try to avoid the dry matter-of-fact readings we usually hear, where the reader could be reading "War and Peace" by candlelight or zipping through the shopping list at the Kroger's.

I read passages with intonation, add gestures when appropriate, and even change my voice to reflect a change in speakers. Maybe I make God's words sound more plausible than usual, I don't know, but last week I was asked if I would mind doing this on a regular basis.

Today, when I was asked to read the famous clobber passage from 1 Corinthians 6:9-20, I choked. A good friend of mine is a lesbian, and I know how badly people have beaten her with this passage from a misguided sense of what love is. Former co-workers of mine who were gay kept their distance from me for the longest time because they knew that I was a Christian, and they'd long had their fill of Christians who "hated the sin but loved the sinner."

How can you read something like this in church without feeling like you're contributing to the pain your gay brothers and sisters suffer every time the subject comes up of how their chosen lifestyle is in direct rebellion against God?

I read it, and then stewed in my seat for the first half of the sermon as the preacher answered this week's "Tough Question" about the reaction Christians should have to homosexuality and homosexuals.

No, Sodom was not destroyed because there was gay sex going on. Ezekiel 16 is pretty clear that cruelty and inhospitality were the main offenses. Certainly raping visitors to the city isn't exactly the most welcoming act the city aldermen could have come up with -- but it has as much in common with homosexuality as men in prison raping newcomers to humiliate and degrade them. It's about power and dominance, not about the sex.

A lot of my attention at this point was consumed with thoughts of how I would explain my decision not to leave the church if I ever ran for president, but there was a ray of light. The preacher challenged everyone present: "No one in the gay community has any doubt what Christians think about homosexuality. What we're missing is showing them God's love."

He even got specific that he wasn't talking about a general sort of "Gosh, we love you" sentiment, but actual tangible actions: attending a Gay Pride parade, for example, to give cold water to people. Or being friends with people and not letting it affect you one way or the other what their sexual orientation is.

Damn straight. Jesus -- and I know this will come as a shock to some -- Jesus wasn't a moralist. He wasn't about telling people how to behave, and he didn't give us a list of rules to follow if we wanted to please God. What he said was pretty simple: "I'm the Lord. Follow me."
Wish I'd hear more of that and less of people being clobbered.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

In Search Of: A Job

After 40 months of being a stay-at-home dad, I have begun dipping my toes back into professional waters. My first resume in more than three years went out last week, and now a second is about to join it.

It's time, and it's necessary. Our daughter Rachel is ready to begin first grade at the charter school in September, money is tight as all get-out right now, and the grant that pays for my wife's job is about to run dry in another six weeks.

It's a bittersweet passing, to be honest, but it's time. One of us needs to get a job, and it'd be nice if it paid something like $60,000 or so. (Though with the state of the USD right now, I'm thinking Euros might be better.) We've been making ends meet on around two-thirds of that, but this is the costliest state to live in, and it'd be nice not to have to scrounge quite so much.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

fighting back

The best weapon against a bully isn't your fist; it's your tongue.

I had an awful time with bullies growing up. I didn't get beat up during lunch; I got beat up in science class while the teacher was in the room, and twice in gym class when the teacher's back was turned. This was in addition to the nonphysical bullying that went on nonstop, day after day, week after week, and year after year from kids like Stacey Hummert and Sean Cole, down through Matt D'Ambrosio and Bill Girhiny.

When I fought back with my fists, it made it even worse.

My mother and my teachers gave me the same bad advice that every bullied kid gets -- don't stoop to their level, ignore them and they'll stop -- and it had the same efficacy for me that it had for every other kid who tries it. It didn't work at all. I had to suffer through it for years until I finally got away.

I still deal with the toxic environment of Penn-Trafford public schools thirty years later.

Looks kind of silly, doesn't he?
A couple years ago, when my oldest daughter started dealing with bullies at school, I remembered what my mother had told me, and I promptly shoved that advice aside. I told her that ignoring the bullies only will turn you into a wounded animal that they'll circle even more.

So I taught her how to disarm their barbs by getting everyone to laugh at the bully. It's absolutely humiliating to the brute, and if you do it really well, everyone remembers the joke long after they forget the insult. No one likes to be ridiculous, so the bullies in her class have learned to leave Evangeline alone.

Laughter works against other monsters too. Bin Laden once said that he would welcome martyrdom but fears being made ridiculous. You may recall that the U.S. Department of Defense made great strides against al Qaeda in Iraq with the release of a video that showed an overweight al Zawhiri fumbling with a gun, uncertain how to use or hold it.

Would Muqtada al-Sadr be a threat to the stability of Iraq if everyone was telling jokes about him?

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

meat without animals

This just in: Researchers are developing ways to grow meat without actually raising livestock.

Writing for Slate, William Saletan describes the push for meat grown in vitro. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is offering $1 million to anyone who develops a process whereby scientists can grow meat from embryonic cells rather than harvesting it from an animal.

I'm sure it will happen one day, but I'll give it a pass. I have no trouble with animals dying to provide us with meat, though we have reduced our meat to one or two servings per week.

My problems with the frankenfood solution described here are twofold: one, it's surely going to be more expensive than conventional meat; and two, it's unnatural and surely will generate unpredicted complications for us to eat meat grown and harvested this way when our design is for naturally grown meat.

I give it 20 years after its debut, and there'll be all sorts of shocking exposes on the diseases that artifically grown meat causes or makes us susceptible to.

Team sports may have other uses besides bullying

So maybe there is something nice to be said for team sports after all.

I've heard a lot through the years about how great sports are for kids, not just because the activity helps them stay fit, but because sports teach valuable lessons on teamwork, sportsmanship, and taking direction, and social skills as well. None of this particularly matched my own experiences in sports, which usually could be summarized as "survival of the fittest" or "culling the herd."

Still, however unpleasant my memories of baseball and soccer are, Evangeline seems to be having a good time with the recreation league softball team she's on here in Nova Bastille. We just had our fourth game of the season on Wednesday evening, and it's going well, even with the four straight losses we've had so far.

Here's what I've seen:

During the first game, the team started to connect during the second or third inning, with a few rudimentary cheers. They were pretty simple, like "Let's go, Maria, let's go!" or "MEL-O-DY! MEL-O-DY!" but they actually started cheering one another on. You could feel the sense of a group identity starting to set in, and you could see how it energized the girls at bat to hear their whole team cheering them on.

Last night, we really had team spirit going. Previously we've had a number of girls trying to wander off to sit with their parents when they weren't in the field, but on Wednesday, only one girl actually left the bench, and she came back right away when I asked her to.

They were there for their teammates, and they were into it. I started off a few silly chants, like "We are happy, we are merry / We've got a rhyming dictionary," but the rest of the time, the girls were gung-ho with cheers they had heard other teams use, and they cheered for everyone who went to bat, and for everyone who made it onto base.

They weren't just a collection of fourteen girls at a softball field, they were a team.

Two, I'm seeing actual teamwork happen. In earlier games, we'd have three girls running into the field to catch the ball, leaving their posts unmanned. Wednesday night, the girls were covering their spots, throwing the ball to one another, and completing some basic plays that require seeing yourself not as the star of the story, but as one piece of a larger machine. (There were one or two exceptions, but heck, most of them are only 7 years old.)

Three, I'm seeing greater skill. We had only three practices before the season started. That was maybe enough to explain to the girls how to throw the ball, how to catch, and how to swing the bat. (Not time enough for them actually to understand those skills, but time enough for them to be told.) Now they're catching the ball in the air, throwing it farther and better than ever before, and more of them are hitting the ball and getting on base.

Speaking as a father and as an assistant coach, I was so proud of Evangeline on Wednesday night that my shirt would have burst its buttons if it had had buttons to burst. She's been working on her hand-eye coordination in the back yard with a tetherball and racket she got last summer, and it's been paying off.

After two strikes, she hit the ball into the infield and made it all the way to first base. When the next two batters also got singles, she made it as far as third. She was disappointed not to have made it to home plate again, but this is remarkable improvement from just two weeks ago.

As she gets older, softball and other team sports will have just as much potential for ugliness that Boy Scouts had when I was younger, but right now Evangeline's not only learning the game, she's enjoying the social aspects of being part of a team, and I couldn't be happier for her.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Someone's not getting it. Is it me, or him?

That sound you hear is me, beating my head against the metaphorical wall.

Why on earth do I bother trying to explain the morality and sensibility of pacifism to someone who states up front that he considers it to be adolescent narcissicism? Why am I putting the time and effort into explaining that while violence may sometimes be justified -- someone is attacking my wife or kids, for instance -- it never can be considered a good thing, and that even a "just war" is by nature less moral than conscientiously placing yourself in the line of fire rather than claiming the life of another person?

Why is it that only Christians seem incapable of grasping the essential nonviolence of Jesus?

I have a headache...

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

the moral power of pacifism

We're at war right now, and the choices continually set before us are to increase the violence, or to abandon Iraq to its own violence.

I don't think either option is particularly moral.

Violence begets violence. A country's defeat in one war leads to harbored resentment and anger that simmers and stews into the next generation, where it erupts into new conflict fueled by indignation over past crimes against the nation. During this new conflict, new wrongs are committed, new seeds of anger and hatred are sown, and in time, a new conflict will arise from the pains and wounds of the current one.

That's not just pretty rhetoric, it's ugly reality. The Hundred Years War, World War II and the current conflict in the Middle East all grew from previous conflicts. A war -- even a so-called "just" war -- fundamentally violates every dream God has for humanity and settles for a quick, dirty and easy solution instead of the far more difficult one of working toward peace.

Nonviolence of the sort espoused by leaders like Mahatma Gandhi in India or by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in the South is painful and hard to live by. It also begets violence, because it involves defying evil men without ever raising a hand to them. A police officer smashes your head for burning government papers, you go ahead and burn them anyway. They sic dogs on you for trying to vote, you go down and vote anyway.

Stanley Hauerwas correctly points out that nonviolent resistance has a moral force to it that war and fighting lack. We all like to feel that we're basically decent people. How many times can you see a peaceful demonstrator get cracked on the head before you're appalled? How many times can you hit such a demonstrator until realize that you're not such a decent guy after all, especially when he never does anything more offensive than getting back up?

Sooner or later, you crack and you stop, ashamed. That shame leads to repentance and a change in behavior, without a sense of being the wronged party and thereby fostering a need to harbor resentment.

I call that the moral high ground. Don't you?

For the most part, "bad people" exist only in our imaginations. Doctor Doom makes a great supervillain, but in the end he's unbelievable, not only because he refers to himself in the third person, but because he simply is evil for the sake of amassing power for its own sake.

You can see this with some of the historic abuses in police departments. Activisits will appeal to the officers' sense of shame, empathy and guilt, to no avail. The targeted officers have all sorts of arguments -- safety, orders, the requirements of enforcing the law  -- that they feel justify their abusive actions.

Going hand in hand with that is a sense that the activists are self-righteous, hate or least don't support police, or don't have all the information that the police themselves possess. After all if they did, then they would stop being so naive, and would understand why the police have to engage in the regrettable but necessary actions that they do.

But if you bring a person face to face with what they're really like -- get them to the point where they see how unreasoning and hateful they're being -- many of them will change.

Good people do not always need to use force to stop bad people from hurting other people. It's simply not true. There are other ways, and they are costly, and they are not as easy as demonizing your opponents and blowing them up or shooting them full of holes, all the while getting more opportunities to demonize them when they keep killing your people as they defend their homes from foreign demons.

Guns liberated Auschwitz and violence ended slavery, it's true; but does that mean that only guns and violence could have? I don't buy it. That's an argument from silence, that since nothing else was tried, nothing else would have worked. Oppression continued in the South long after the Civil War with share cropping, Jim Crow justice, segregation and racial violence. That alone should tell us how successful the war was at ending racial injustice.

Certainly the example of unions and strikes demonstrated that it is possible to foment great social change without killing -- as does the example of Jesus, who also showed that great change often requires being killed.

War is a complex, ugly thing, and I'm certainly not suggesting that simply declaring an armistice will make everything better. But for the long-term stability not just of Iraq but the entire region, we need to find a peaceful way to resolve the conflicts we have begun, that does not involve simply bludgeoning people into compliance.

It won't be easy, but in the end, peace is the only way.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Friday, April 18, 2008

the passing of an era

Today, for the first time, I have paid more than $3 for a gallon of gas in this state. Up until now, the highest price I have paid was $2.99, and that was two years ago, when gas prices first reached the stratosphere.

I have made it my goal to reduce the amount of gas we buy for our car to one tank a month, if at all possible. I'm working toward this by walking Evangeline to school in the morning and home from school in the afternoon, combining trips as much as possible, and carpooling with other people when opportunity presents itself.

I also am avoiding accelerating and braking needlessly, which doubtless makes me annoying to the drivers behind me, but it'll save them gas too.

If I re-enter the work force, as seems likely I must, my goal is to land a job here in Nova Bastille or in one of the immediately adjacent municipalities so I can bicycle to work. We're not even going to look at new cars that get less than 40 mpg, and 50 mpg will be our gold standard.

I invite everyone else reading this to join me in sticking it to Big Oil.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

erotica and pornography

How is erotica different from pornography? (Explain your vote)
  • Erotica has literary or artistic merits; pornography doesn't
  • Erotica is pornography done with style
  • The difference is nebulous and hard to articulate, but it's there
  • There is no difference
  • You can find erotica in the Bible, but not porn

Vote in the poll

Pornography appeals almost exclusively to sexual impulses -- as you say, it's designed specifically for masturbation -- yet I'd contend that titillation, awakening sexual desires and feelings, is a definite intent where erotica is concerned as well.

And erotica can be pretty damn explicit too. "Song of Songs" contains references to oral sex as well as the more garden variety forms of intercourse, and was explicit enough that one of the Medieval Popes was reported to masturbate to it.

How essential is the intent of the work's creator, anyway? "Song of Songs" presumably isn't meant to be pornographic, but its steaminess is evident enough that I remember one NKJV study Bible I had that insisted the book was purely an allegory and not meant to be read by spiritually immature believers. Conversely, it's not impossible to imagine a photographer who looks at Penthouse or Hustler from the perspective of lighting and framing, i.e., evaluating it as trash on its lack of artistic merit rather than on its actual content.

I'm no artist, but my take: The purpose of art is to inspire a reaction of some sort. If you shrug your shoulders in an offhand way and say "Eh, that's nice," the artist may have made a pretty (or ugly) picture, but she has failed as an artist.

Art may inspire you all the way to a transcendental experience, to deep introspection, to anger or to grief ... and yes, even to sexual desire. What you do in response to that inspiration is in large part your responsibility. If your anger leads you to fight injustice, that's good; if it leads you to assassinate the archduke of Sarajevo, that's bad -- but I don't think it's entirely right to blame it on the art as some are wont to do.

(Not that this lets the artist entirely off the hook. There's one piece I can't remember the name of that essentially guides its viewers into an act of voyeurism, by looking through a peephole at an image of a naked person. Though even there you could argue that the artist's goal was not to lead you into voyeurism and peeping tom behavior as much as to comment on how much we already are voyeurs and peeping toms.)

So what is the distinction between erotica and a nude? Again, I'm no artist, but I would say that the difference lies in intent.

With erotica, there is some sexual overtone or intent to the work, even if it's understated and portrayed through something as traditionally nonerotic as eating a bowl of corn flakes. A nude is simply a depiction of the human form, sans clothing. An engineer surely can appreciate the elegance of design that goes into the human form.

That's what the nude in art is, though I daresay anyone can eroticize it even when it's not eroticized by intent, much as we could write an erotic scene about painting a wall, eating corn flakes, or even washing the dishes.

(Ironically, the ones who are most likely to eroticize the nude in art are the ones who are most determined to stamp out pornography, as demonstrated by former Attorney General John Ashcroft, who made putting a drape over Lady Justice's bare breast one of his first official acts.)

Friday, April 04, 2008

Reactive attachment disorder

The Daily Mail has an article about a British family who adopted a beautiful 5-year-old only to discover, too late, that the girl was suffering from reactive attachment disorder.

RAD is a condition where children are unable to form close emotional bonds with anyone. They become experts at emotional manipulation, manufacturing outrage, warmth, and whatever other emotional behavior they need to get the desired response from people around them. It's a pretty difficult thing to cope with, especially when you don't get the support you need as the parents of the child -- which it looks like this family didn't get.

Honestly, that's where the trouble was. She should have been warned going in what to expect, given the support she needed right from the start, and when she encountered difficulties, there should have been a support team in place to give her the assistance she needed.

It's good to know that DYFS has caseworkers on both sides of the Atlantic to ensure a uniform standard of care for both parents and children.

Kids with RAD are difficult to reach, but it can be done, if they're reached in time. (Usually by the time they're 10.) There was an article in this past month's Reader's Digest about a Jewish family who adopted a boy from Eastern Europe with similar problems to those described here. The solution that they found worked was for the mother to spend a few months literally and continually no more than three feet away from her son, to forge the bond that he never had experienced before.

My nephew Ethan was a poster child for RAD. My brother and sister-in-law adopted him when he was 8 years old, not realizing at first what sort of problems he had. (He had spent his first eight years in foster care, in at least four different families, one of which had planned to adopt him until they had their own, biological child.)

Ethan did a lot of the stuff described in this article: being incredibly clumsy for attention, ultimately getting to the point that he would destroy walls, hardwood floors, windows and anything else he could to get a reaction; never expressing any warmth or positive emotion to his mother particularly; playing with matches in his bedroom; and finally really going nuts when his parents despite all odds ended up becoming pregnant.

I have no idea how they did it, but my brother and sister-in-law actually got through to him. He's got problems still, but their willingness to ignore his destructive rampages while he was on them (and then to make him help repair the damage), their steady and unending love, and probably even the birth of Hannah, really did change him. His dad and I no longer darkly joke "I'll see you at Ethan's trial," because at long last Ethan does have a conscience. He lacks a lot of motivation, but he's good with his hands, and he's discovered a real love of reading that probably will be his salvation.

The proximity of this news story with the feature in Reader's Digest, timewise if not geographywise, does ring a bell in the back of my head. I suspect some organization is trying to raise the general awareness of RAD in an effort to boost funding for research or to shame CPS organizations into providing more support for adoptive families in this situation, instead of hanging them out to dry or to punish them.