Thursday, July 31, 2008

'order of the phoenix'

My daughter Evangeline just finished reading "Order of the Phoenix" this morning and it's the turning of an era. (It took her about two weeks to finish, mostly because we made her stop reading so she could eat, go to the bathroom, and get outside.)

A colleague of mine from the school board said she envies Evangeline the opportunity to read the books for the first time and to experience Harry's world as a brand-new thing on her own. For us adults, the magic is still there, but it's imore informed because of all the other fantasy works we've read over the years.

I'll allow Jessica that feeling, but I have to admit that I don't envy my younger daughter Rachel the experience she'll have. By the time she gets to finish the Harry Potter series, all the surprises and cliff-hangers will be part of the cultural white noise. It'll will be lost on her, like Star Wars was.

You see, when "The Empire Strikes Back" came out in 1980, all we could talk about was whether Darth Vader had been telling the truth when he claimed to be Luke Skywalker's father. We argued about it on the bus, over the lunch table in the cafeteria, and in the letters pages of magazines like "Dynamite." We were still arguing about it three years later when "The Return of the Jedi" arrived.

No so my children.

When Evangeline and Ruth saw "The Empire Strikes Back" not long ago, they laughed out loud at Darth Vader's big revelation. Suddenly they understand the joke from "Toy Story 2" when Zurg claimed mid-battle to be the father of Buzz Lightyear. They have no way of appreciating just how unexpected that line was.

It's going to be the same from here on out for children and the Harry Potter saga.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

It's called 'self-righteousness,' not 'tough love'

They disowned him. They freaking disowned him.

Back in February, my friend Mike came out to his parents. He explained that he is transgendered and that he and Lynn were separating as he transitions into life as a woman. This went about as well as one would expect it to. His mom was crushed that he had decided to live a "homosexual lifestyle," and prays that he'll return to Christ, and his dad -- who routinely cheated on his wife and was emotionally absent from and uninvolved with his children -- castigated him for being selfish who was and abandoning the kids.

That was about what he expected. Mike had figured that since they've known him for 40 years, have seen him with the kids, and will have the chance to see him continue to be involved with his kids, that they would come around in the end. Or at least his mom would.

Well, surprise, surprise. Today he got a certified letter letting him know that his parents had revoked him as executor of their estate, removed him from their will, and left everything to his children instead.

They didn't even have the integrity to talk with him about it. His parents sneaked around behind his back, with his sister, and then they had the gall to claim the moral high ground, saying that this was his decision, and that he had left them no choice.

What. The. Actual. Hell.

How can people do things like this and still sleep at night? They're treating him like a moral and spiritual reprobate without even listening to him, they are changing family dynamics to exclude him, and they effectively are trying to drive a wedge between him and the rest of his family. And then, worst of all, they blame it all on him, probably in the name of "tough love."

One by one his supports are being kicked out from under him: church, friends, and now family. I don't get it. This is supposed to be love? Or is it a moral message? "Look kids, this is how you should treat someone whose choices you disagree with."

He told me all this and was so overwhelmed by the sense of outrage I felt on his behalf that he started to cry. Aside from his therapist, who is paid to take his side, no one else has seen him as a wonged party.

Mike told me he plans to talk with his parents some time soon, about the way they went about this. He thinks his mother's conscience is bothering her. She wrote the letter explaining what they had done, and its tone suggests to him that she was going along with her husband's Morally Righteous Anger for the sake of avoiding a fight, rather than following her own heart.

Me, I'm just appalled ... and I'm glad that I can be there for a friend when he needs me.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Republicans for Voldemort

So there's this bumper sticker I've seen at the charter school, on the bumper of a car owned by parents of one of Rachel's friends:

The question is, why do Republicans support Voldemort?
  • Death Eaters are major campaign contributors
  • "No more mudbloods" makes great policy on illegal immigration, too
  • The Dumbledore/Potter group is known for liberal attitudes
  • He has higher approval ratings among the general public than GWB
  • Anyone would be better than electing a Democrat
Perhaps it's also his tough stand on crime. His support for capital punishment is almost as strong as Texas' own, and he knows how to deal with party members who don't toe the line properly.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

esperanto in revival

So, as you may have noticed if you read my most immediately previous blog entry, I'm learning Esperanto, primarily with my older daughter, but to a lesser extent with my younger one, who has caught her sister's interest and my enthusiasm.

Apparently we're not the only ones. Deutesche Welle notes that Esperanto is experiencing a revival of interest, thanks in no small part to the Internet:
"The Internet has opened up new possibilities," Boris-Antoine Legault, a leading Esperantist in North America, told the Canadian Press. "Esperanto is a fantastic tool on the Internet as a bridge language."

Be it blogs, forums, or online tutorials, the Internet has allowed Esperanto to reach larger audiences than it used to. Pre-Internet, learning Esperanto generally meant ordering a book from a little-known publisher or perhaps visiting one of the few dusty Esperanto offices still open in a few larger cities.

So it's not exactly a dead language, as my brother Brian claimed in a recent conversation I had with him. (I'll give Brian some slack, though: His chief contact with an Esperantist earlier was on an e-mail listserv with someone who insisted in writing all his messages in Esperanto with a delayed English translation, even though no one else on the listserv spoke the language.)

I have to admit, I made my initial contact with the Esperanto-USA through their web site, and while Evangeline is taking the postal version of the correspondence course, so she can enjoy getting mail, I've been doing my lessons via e-mail.

I found it interesting that the United Kingdom is about to see some Esperanto-language clothing ads, with subtitles. And of course, there was that 1965 horror film, "Incubus," with William Shatner that was filmed entirely in Esperanto. With what I imagine is a relative shortage of new literature, music, and TV or movies available in the language, those roughly 3 million people are a shoo-in market for anyone ambitious enough to tap into it.

So I'm not convinced that it's going to be attaining its goals of international understanding any time soon, but I am pretty sure that this is a language that's not going away any time soon either.

Friday, July 25, 2008

mia filino kaj mi lernas esperanto

Translation: My daughter and I are learning Esperanto.

I just completed the second lesson in the free 10-lesson correspondence course. It's a simple but serviceable enough language that I can see why some Esperantists can be so pushy and dogmatic about making it into the international lingua franca. With only two lessons under my belt, I already can count to just shy of one million, I can speak in three tenses, and I'm even able to share some basic information about myself.

This is further than I got with two years of Spanish in high school, and about where I stood with Creole after six months of living in Haiti. It really is easy to learn. Evangeline is able to catch all the weird sentences I throw at her, like "Miaj amikoj estas grandaj insektoj" (My friends are big insects), and translate them into English with only a little difficulty. If we keep on pace, I think by the end of the year she and I will be able to have largely private conversations out in public.

That, incidentally, holds a lot of appeal for her as well. She wants to see if she can convince two of her best friends to learn the language so they can have a secret language at school.

Still, the ease of learning it aside, I can't see the language becoming more than a curiosity, a bit more established and enduring than Klingon, but not gaining the presence its strongest proponents would like. Even though it would be easy to adopt it as a lingua franca, particularly some place like in the European Union, I can't see any international government making the effort to do so.

Lacking the support of a nation, a multinational corporation such as Deutsche Bank, or even a sufficiently large group, its status as an "artificial language" deprives it of the necessary gravitas to be taken seriously.

Maybe if someone like George Soros -- the wealthy-as-all-hell financier is a native speaker of the language -- or some other well-placed and prominent Esperantist, were to back such an effort, it would come to something. But I'm not aware of anyone pushing such an effort at any level of government.

For those of us who do speak it, or at least who are learning to, it remains a great way to communicate with people from other countries whose native languages we may never learn. (And really, how many other languages can one person learn in a lifetime? This is my second second language, and I'm also working on Spanish.)

In addition to some Internet groups and some literature written in or translated into Esperanto, there's also the International Passport Service, or whatever its proper name is, which matches interested Esperanto speakers traveling aboard with potential hosts in the country they're visiting, who also speak Esperanto. I may have to try that some day, if I ever get to Lesson 10.

In the meantime, there's a group of Esperanto speakers that meets just outside Nova Bastille. We'll have to check that out sometime.

But, if anyone is still reading:

Mi havas tri fratojn.

Mia bela edzino kaj mi amas niajn belajn filinojn.

Mi ne havas filon.

Evangeline kaj Rachel faris bonan limonadon kun akvo, lemon juice kaj sukero.

Evangeline amas ŝian patron, ŝian patrinon, kaj ŝian fratinon.

Mi estis instruisto.

Mi estas filo, frato, edzo kaj patro.

Mi ne estas limonado; mi trinkas ĝin.

Mi ne trinkas kafon.

Mi faras panon.

Ishtar kaj Hannah estas ŝiaj amikoj. Ili kaptis birdojn kaj fiŝojn. (Not really.)

Sanaj knabinoj estas belaj knabinoj.

Ŝia patro portis Evangeline.

Mi amas malvarman limonadon kaj malvarman lakton.

Evangeline, ŝia fratino kaj mi lernas Esperanton!

Mi amas miajn filinojn, mian edzinon, mi patro kaj patrino, kaj miajn fratojn.

Drawing the line that separates canonical from not

I have a question for friends and readers who have been to seminary or otherwise have studied such things: How exactly is the line drawn between canon and noncanon?

At the time the Christian Scriptures were being written in the first century, there was a host of other communication, discussion and even writing going on that formed the context in which the church understood the epistles and other books we now regard as canon. Take the book of Enoch for example.

Ostensibly written by Enoch, the great-grandfather of Noah, the book of Enoch dates to about 300 B.C.E. It tells the story of the watchers, a group of angels who fathered the Nephilim in Chapter 8 of the book of Genesis. Other parts of the book include a series of eschatological parables that include references to a righteous messianic figure called the "Son of Man," a detailed work of astronomy that lays forth a 364-day solar calendar, and finally a series of visions meant to foretell the history of Israel down to the Maccabees.

Protestants and Catholics alike take their lead from the Council of Nicea, which in 325 C.E., rejected the Book of Enoch from the canon. But at the time the New Testament was being written, Jude didn't know that. He cited the Book of Enoch twice.

The first time Jude cites the Book of Enoch, he refers to a dispute between Satan and Michael over the body of Moses. Jude uses this as a caution against judging one another. Later in the book, he refers to God binding angels in chains of adamant for their rebellion, as an assurance that God will judge those who teach unsound doctrine.

We can get the essentials of Jude's message without knowing the particulars of the Book of Enoch, but surely familiarity with the book helps.

This isn't like reading a commentary by Charles Spurgeon or John Wesley to understand a parable or a difficult passage of the Bible. In this case, one of the authors of the Bible was familiar with a book that we reject and saw so much value in it that he drew on it to make his point. How much wisdom are we meant to draw from the Book of Enoch when we read it to illuminate Jude's writing?

This isn't confined to Jude. There are a lot of ahas we either miss or misunderstand because we lack the background noise that the writers took for granted. Noah flips out because Ham saw him passed out naked. Zipporah stops God from killing Moses by circumcising her firstborn son and throwing the foreskin at his feet, How much do you want to bet these passages would make sense if we had more extrabiblical material from that era?

I'd really like to know how that line was drawn, and what implications it has for understanding the Bible the way we do today.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

deconstructing ccr

This past Sunday night my oldest daughter began to take possession of the folk rock song"Who'll Stop the Rain."

We were in the car, returning from a trip to visit relatives, and — as is our practice on long car trips — we were making the time pass by singing as a family. It was raining, and as one might expect, one of the songs selected was that old standby of Credence Clearwater Revival. The girls both know it well.

The song had ended, when Evangeline, who is entering fifth grade a little more than a month from now, spoke up.

"He's not talking about the rain, he's really talking about ..." And with those words, Evangeline began to deconstruct the song. Her analysis: Far from being a weather report, Fogerty's song is a social commentary about all the things that are wrong with society, and how we all cry out for someone to set things to rights. She even rattled off the names of some people through the ages who have been "trying to find the sun": Jesus Christ, Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy and Barack Obama.

I felt for a moment like I was sitting astride a flying horse that had been Mrs. Whatsit, and talking with Charles Wallace as we looked down upon a shadowed world. She didn't deconstruct the entire song, but what she got still was impressive.

I didn't entirely realize that she had reached this level of abstract thinking. The educational psychologist Jean Piaget said people generally don't until they're 18 or so, and many don't reach it even then. Listeners naturally will associate the song with rainfall, but its social implications won't occur to them unless someone points them out.

And even they do realize that the song is about the pursuit of social justice, many listeners probably won't catch the cynicism about governmental five-year plans and New Deals, nor the barren view of Woodstock in the third verse. The verses, instead of being filled with hunger for the redemption of society, instead become a maze of disjointed images, pointing nowhere and meaning nothing.

I said that Evangeline began to take possession of the song. That's because songs exist in three distinct forms.

The first form is the essence of the song itself, whatever it may be in isolation, if in fact it is anything. Usually we come closest to that when we look at the intent behind its composition.

Second is the song as the singer performs it, with his own interpretation of its meanings, import and motivation. Note that this can change over time, as the singer's own associations with the lyrics may shift, and the "crowds of people" in the third stanza may refer specifically to the youth at Woodstock at one point, and years later to the idealistic youth of another generation, or to the bitter and angry adults trying to force society to their will.

The third is the song the listener hears and understands herself to be listening to. The five-year plans to one listener may refer to an effort in the war on drugs, for instance; while someone else may see it as a comment on the war on terror; or to something else entirely. There is a lot of divergence on this end.

This happens to every song or story. The song exists as an entity to itself; the performer imbues it with a meaning and direction of her choice, driven by the context of her own life experiences; and audience members receive the song in themselves, coloring it according to their own prejudices and experiences.

In many cases the gulf between the song as the performer delivers it and as the audience receives it is so vast that it's unclear what shared experience they have had, if any. That's particularly true with shallow readings of a song or a story, such as the woman who hears Elton John's "Daniel" and associates it with her grandson, who is not leaving tonight on a plane and whose eyes are just fine, simply because his name is Daniel.

But that disparity persists even with more mature readings of songs. Earlier in this post, I shared my own understanding of "Who'll Stop the Rain": that it views Woodstock, the cultural flower of the 1960s counterculture, as an effette exercise in changing the world.

That's based on my own understanding of the first two lines of the third verse of the song -- I have no idea what Fogerty intended, nor to be honest, have I given it much thought what happened in Virginia that he would have sought shelter from the storm there, or what tower burned. (Maybe someone will tell me, and it'll be so obvious in hindsight that I'll feel a need to drool.)

But even if I did have specific interpretations of those lines, they would be informed by the context of my own life, and the weight I give each line or word would reflect those biases.

That's apparent from all the readings of Don McLean's "American Pie." McLean wisely has never said what the song is about, with the result that "definitive" readings have it as a chronicle of the 1960s, as seen through the changes in America's music scene; as a response to the assassination of President Kennedy (and, one presumes, to the assassinations of his brother and Dr. King); and to the Vietnam War.

I've even come across interpretations that tie it to the Crucifixion, because of the references to the king with his "thorny crown," and to satanic figures like the jester and the devil himself.

In the end, as I told Evangeline, songs belong not just to the performer, but to listeners as well. She's free to impart her own meaning to symbols of rain, towers, golden chains, and clouds whenever she sings "Who'll Stop the Rain," and even to change words to suit her fancy and preference more.

I learned the song by listening to a CD, and Evangeline has learned it by singing with me, words misheard and words misremembered, in true folksong style. The song no longer belongs to CCR or to the label the band recorded it for. Through that chain of passage, it has come into her possession as freely as any song sung on the bayou. She already rearranges it for her own vocal range, just as I did for mine,  and one day, she may even play it on the piano, choose her own chords, and compose a whole new bridge between verses.

It's her song. The arrangement, the lyrics and the notes are all her own to choose.

And so is the meaning.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Report: Woman stabs herself in foot during prayer

My wife just forwarded me a news story from MSNBC about a woman who stabbed herself in the foot, with a sword, during a Wiccan ceremony:
Katherine Gunther, 36, of Lebanon, Ind., pierced her left foot with the sword while performing the rite at Oak Hill Cemetery, police said. Gunther said she was performing the ceremony to give thanks for a recent run of good luck. The ceremony involves the use of candles, incense and driving swords into the ground during the full moon.

Rather unsympathetically, I suppose, my first thought is "I guess her good luck ran out."

A bit less unpleasantly, I find an ironic comfort in knowing that it's not just Christians who feel some times that the Divine has an unpleasant sense of humor when it comes to hearing our prayers. It's rather like praying for a sign, only to be given one that says Speed Limit 55; or asking for a financial break, only to be run over by an armored car headed for the bank with a load of deposits. (Still, I've never heard of any getting injured that badly at a prayer meeting.)

Best wishes to Ms. Gunther for a speedy recovery from her injury. I had the misfortune of putting a nail through my foot once, and that's nothing compared to a sword.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

old square toes

I have a question for readers of this blog, both casual and committed. Where do you stand on this whole Satan thing?

Many, if not most, Christians in America regard Satan as chief among the fallen; that is, they believe that Lucifer was created as the highest of all angels, second in power and authority only to God. His status led to pride, and Lucifer led a third of the heavenly host in rebellion against God. They failed, were cast out of heaven, and while they await final judgment, they do what they can to mar God's creation. In short, Lucifer became Satan, the devil; and the angels who rebelled with him became demons.

The difficult thing about this is that it's largely extrabiblical if not unbiblical. The story I just summarized is found in the book "Paradise Lost," by John Milton, and not any of the 66 biblical books Protestant Christians consider to be canon.

The ancient Hebrews considered the Satan to be an agent of God, rather than an evil creature bent on the ruin of God's plans. His job was to take a contrary view so that the truth could be determined through thorough cross-examination, a role much like the "Devil's advocate" we use in argument today.

We see this principally in the book of Job, where ha-Satan comes before the Presence. There is no remonstration or hostility expressed, just the question, "Have you considered my servant Job?" and the response, "Does Job love you for nothing? Look at all you've given him." The result of this challenge is the process just described: God removes all that Job has, and Job continues to worship him.

The role also surfaces in the parallel accounts of the census David took in the latter days of his reign, in 2 Samuel and in 1 Chronicles. In 2 Samuel 24, God incites David to take the census and then smites him; in 1 Chronicles 21, it is Satan who makes the suggestion. You also can see this notion of a heavenly court with advisers in 1 Kings 22, when the prophet Micaiah describes an angel that suggests putting a lying spirit into the mouths of Ahab's prophets so that Ahab will go to battle and be slain.

That view of ha-Satan is not entirely what we see in the New Testament, but that that is largely because we read the New Testament with preconceptions about who Satan is. The tempting in the wilderness is similar in nature to the testing of Job, to see what Jesus is made of.

Even when the Bible tells us about Jesus casting demons out of people, the term is better rendered as "unclean spirits," as the footnotes in the New International Version indicate. The afflictions described in the gospels -- epileptic fits, self-inflicted injury, aphasia -- can be seen as coming from a medical or psychological condition, which also would qualify as an "unclean spirit" in a poetic sense.

As a matter of religious history, the view of Satan as subservient to God did shift to the more familiar dualistic one during the intertestamental "silent period." During this period, Judaism acquired the noton of a devil from Zoroastrianism, another Eastern religion practiced near Judea. It lost the concept shortly after the destruction after the Second Temple, and resumed its previous view, namely that ha-Satan was an officer of the heavenly court, subservient to God.

Precisely because it is late in coming, I think we need to view such a dualist God/Satan view of the world with some suspicion. Don't we say that older revelation is the standard by which we gauge newer revelation?

If it weren't for passages of Scripture like Isaiah 49, which speak of God's desire to bring the Gentiles into his kingdom, or for places like Zechariah 12, which Christians believe foretell the Crucifixion, it would be harder to see a connection between the Tanakh and Christianity as we know it and practice it today.

So tell me, whether you're a regular guest here or a new visitor, what you think. Does the Bible actually teach about a devil, or that somethng we misunderstood and have all wrong?

Copyright 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


"Some men are born great, and some have greatness thrust upon them, but most just want a second serving of ice cream."

'Without Feathers': Abraham sacrifices Isaac

There are certain passages in the Bible that, if they don't trouble you, there's something wrong with you.

Genesis 22 is one of those passages. In this passage, God speaks to Abraham and tells him to go and sacrifice his son at Mount Moriah. Over the centuries rabbis, theologians and other commentators have done a lot to make this passage easier to swallow. It was a test, and God didn't really want Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Abahrahm's relationship with Isaac had come to mean more to him than his relationship to God, and so this was a push to set things right. The sacrifice indicates the shift from human sacrifice in early Yahwism to animal sacrifice. The ram that Abraham did sacrifice foreshadowed the eventual sacrifice of Christ.

It all boils down to this. God told Abraham to sacrifice his own son. That's got to be a little unnerving. I can't help but wonder what was going through Isaac's mind during all this.

Back in college, we read the Woody Allen anthology "Without Feathers"  for James Woolley's class "Satire and the Comic Absurd." I've always liked Allen's take on the story:

And Abraham awoke in the middle of the night and said to his only son, Isaac, "I have had a dream where the voice of the Lord sayeth that I must sacrifice my only son, so put your pants on." And Isaac trembled and said, "So what did you say? I mean when he brought this whole thing up?"

"What am I going to say?" Abraham said. "I'm standing there at 2 a.m. I'm in my underwear with the Creator of the Universe. Should I argue?"

"Well, did he say why he wants me sacrificed?" Isaac asked his father.

But Abraham said, "The faithful do not question. Now let's go because I have a heavy day tomorrow."

And Sarah, who heard Abraham's plan grew vexed and said, "How doth thou know it was the Lord and not, say, thy friend who loveth practical jokes, for the Lord hateth practical jokes and whosoever
shall pull one shall be delivered into the hands of his enemies whether they pay the delivery charge or not."

And Abraham answered, "Because I know it was the Lord. It was a deep, resonant voice, well modulated, and nobody in the desert can get a rumble in it like that."

And Sarah said, "And thou art willing to carry out this senseless act?"

But Abraham told her, "Frankly yes, for to question the Lord's word is one of the worst things a person can do, particularly with the economy in the state it's in."

And so he took Isaac to a certain place and prepared to sacrifice him but at the last minute the Lord stayed Abraham's hand and said, "How could thou doest such a thing?"

And Abraham said, "But thou said ---"

"Never mind what I said," the Lord spake. "Doth thou listen to every crazy idea that comes thy way?"

And Abraham grew ashamed. "Er - not really … no."

"I jokingly suggest thou sacrifice Isaac and thou immediately runs out to do it."

And Abraham fell to his knees, "See, I never know when you're kidding."

And the Lord thundered, "No sense of humor. I can't believe it."

"But doth this not prove I love thee, that I was willing to donate mine only son on thy whim?"

And the Lord said, "It proves that some men will follow any order no matter how asinine as long as it comes from a resonant, well-modulated voice."

And with that, the Lord bid Abraham get some rest and check with him tomorrow.

Friday, July 11, 2008

mi learnas esperanto

This is the year Evangeline decided to break all our brains.

In order to keep the children's brains from atrophying during the summer, I like to have them pick a research project or other academic sort of goal that they can work on, in addition to any new math concepts that we study and the standard reading goals.

This summer, Evangeline decided she wanted to learn a new language. We live in a part of Iowa with a heavy Hispanic population, but she didn't want to bolster her Spanish skills. I speak Haitian Creole, though not fluently, but she didn't want to learn that. She chose instead to learn Esperanto, that most famous of invented languages, which none of us speaks.

Esperanto is designed for ease of learning: There are no irregular verbs or nouns, spelling is a cinch once you grasp the language's flavor, and even the vocabulary is fairly accessible for an English-speaker, since it draws principally from European roots. If you speak a European language, the language is supposed to be a snap.

Additionally, studies have shown that studying Esperanto makes it easier to master other second languages. Many years ago in Britain, a school taught German to a control group for four years, and Esperanto to another group for one year, followed by German for three years. At the end of the road, the second group had a much stronger mastery of German than the control group.

Another incentive for learning Esperanto is that it is politically and culturally neutral; that is, you can speak Esperanto with someone from China, and you don't need to worry about sounding like an idiot, because it's a native language for neither of you. The words aren't laden with political significance because of one piece of history or culture; it's effectively a common middle ground.

I can vouch for how easy it is to learn, myself. At the end of the first lesson, I already could conjugate verbs into past, present and future tenses, and inflect nouns into nominative and accusative cases. The only barriers to communication were that I had to stop and recall the vocabulary as I spoke (as did Evangeline as she listened), and that because of the nature of the vocabulary list in Lesson One, all we could talk about was bread, cake, coffee and tea.

Lesson Two, which I've sneaked a peek at, includes information on adjectives and personal pronouns. Some auxiliary information in another flier also introduced numbers and colors. The language is so easy that, as Evangeline pointed out, we can now count just up to 1,000,000, even though we've been studying the language for less than a month.

In fact, I see two chief difficulties. First is that no one around here speaks Esperanto, that we know of. And second ...

As I said, we live in an area with a lot of Spanish speakers. Many signs and notices are bilingual. And I've been trying to teach Evangeline and Rachel how to speak Creole. The result is that I already speak to them in a medley of three languages -- English, Spanish and Creole.

Add Esperanto to this mix, and I have visions of the girls learning four languages, and being able to separate none of them.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Beer: The secret to the rise of humanity

As a friend of mine has also said, I also don't always agree with George Will, but he never says anything that sounds stupid to me.

Case in point, his recent article on beer. In it, Will argues credibly that beer is one of the indispensible secrets to the rise of European civilization. This might sound spurious, but grain alcohol was one of the earliest inventions of civilization in the Old World, along with bread, since the two processes are inextricably linked.

As humans migrated into the cities, they came into closer contact with one another. These closer quarters, combined with poorer nutrition and a lack of sanitation, meant a faster spread of disease, particularly water-borne illness. Alcohol, although it technically is toxic to humans, is by and large free of water-borne illness, as the fermentation process kills of those pathogens on the way to beer.

Now, who gets to reproduce more, the one who dies of water-borne illness in his childhood or early adulthod, or the one who lives into his 40s before dying of cirrhosis of the liver?

Being able to digest alcohol and break down the toxins faster became an evolutionary advantage, in other words, that made urban dwelling possible for larger numbers of people. Cities gave way to civilizations and all their markings: science, mythology, religion and philosophy, and of course to the trade routes that the cities depended upon to get the supplies their populaces need.

Without beer, we're just a bunch of farmers scattered all over the delta. Add beer, Will argues, and we build cities, kingdoms, empires and civilizations.

I'll drink to that,

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

a million monkeys at a million typewriters

Five years ago, researchers at Paignton Zoo in England gave six Sulawesi crested macaque monkeys a computer for four weeks to see what they would do.

Mathematicians assure us that given time, those monkeys eventually would produce the complete works of William Shakespeare. They even have a name for this. It's called the Infinite Monkey Theorem.

These monkeys didn't deliver the goods. Shakespeare remains unduplicated.

Instead, you will note that they produced a copy of "Jane Eyre" in just under 10 minutes. (Well, not really. They produced pages of the letter S, which is still an improvement over Bronte's book.)

Monday, July 07, 2008

work and slavery

I've been a Christian for 20 years now, and this post is the first I can recall that talks about slavery in the Bible, relates it to the modern world, and actually has something meaningful to say.

To introduce the writer's thoughts, which admittedly are buried in some other (no less interesting) comments, let me expound a bit. There are usually two situations in which biblical slavery comes up. The first is when a skeptic, antagonistic or merely skeptical, argues, "How can you claim that Christianity is a moral religion, when it never expressly disavows slavery?"

Alas, it does not. Abolitionists used passages of Scripture like the book of Philemon and the first 20 chapters or so of Exodus to point out that God wants people to be free, but the Bible never expressly bans the practice.

Slave owners in the South would use passages of Scripture to justify owning slaves, and to argue that it wasn't so bad an institution. After all, Paul enjoins slave owners to treat slaves with dignity, and reminds them that in Christ slave and slave owner are equal. Anyone who is familiar with the writings of people like Frederick Douglass may question how many slave owners actually heeded those directives. I am sure the answer is quite low.

The second place that such discussions usually surface is in church Bible studies, where pastors and other leaders draw an uneasy and usually weak parallel between slavery and contemporary employment, noting that "It's really not the same thing."

What I like about Brucker's post is his point: "They're exactly the same." Slavery in Israel was voluntary, just a like an employment arrangement today. Under the Torah, a man with no money could sell himself to a rich man for a period of six years, during which time he was guaranteed food, work and a home. It was, all things considered, quite like the Colonial practice of indentured servitude. And, as Brucker points out, it's not that different from modern employment either, particularly when it involves a contract.

Not all chains are made of iron; sometimes they are made of dollars.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

comic books as literary cycles

If you've read comic books for any length of time, then you know how awful they are for much of the time.

There's a never-ending parade of bad guys who want to rule the world, rob banks, and even nettle specific heroes. They're faced with, and invariably defeated by, a smaller but also never-ending parade of good guys dressed just as atrociously who got their powers in the same improbable ways (chemicals, radiation, genetic flukes or alterations, and aliens).

The stories fall into predictable routines. Maximus has retaken the throne of the Inhumans from his brother, Black Bolt, the rightful monarch, and sent the royal family into exile. Galactus is going to eat the Earth unless his cosmic hunger can be averted. A psychotic madman is terrorizing Gotham City, and Batman has to find him.

By the time you turn 16 or 17, you start to realize that even the comic books about interesting heroes usually aren't worth buying, and so you start to look for specific authors, who you realize can make a comic book about tomato soup interesting, authors like Mark Waid, Neil Gaiman, J. Michael Straczynski and Brian Michael Bendis. Sometimes you even hear about legendary and definitive runs from years past, like Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns," "Batman: Year One" and "Daredevil: Born Again"; Walt Simonson's run on "The Mighty Thor," Tom DeFalco's stint on "Amazing Spider-man," or Alan Moore's legendary "The Saga of the Swamp Thing."

But if you keep reading the same title long enough, you're going to notice some recurring problems. For one thing, no one gets older. Franklin Richards has been 5 years old for more than 30 years, even though the Fantastic Four surely have celebrated his birthday a few times in there.

For a second thing, some storylines seem to keep repeating. How many times has Galactus threatened to eat the Earth after the immortal Lee-Kirby story where he was thwarted and pledged never to try again? How many times is Congress going to consider a superhero registry, or will mutants face the biggest threat to their existence ever?

And for another thing, the long-term storyline is about as clear as a pile of mud three feet deep.

Peter Parker first became Spider-man in August 1962, when he was 15 years old. In the more than 40 years since then, he's aged only to his late 20s, with his story being told in as many as four separate titles at a time. It's just too much storytelling to pack into thirteen years of chronology.

But the lion's share of the blame for the confusion comes from something else: the change in creative teams, which usually comes every five years or so. Attempts to keep the chronology clear usually just make things more confusing. Take Thor for example.

When Thor debuted back in 1962 in "Journey into Mystery," he was pretty much just another guy in a cape with superpowers. He could control the weather, throw a hammer that returned to him like a boomerang, he was superhumanly strong, and he could fly.

Thor moped around for Jane Foster, a nurse who worked for his alter-ego, Donald Blake. Rather like Clark Kent's relationship with Lois Lane, Blake loved Foster, but she had no time for him, and instead preferred his alter-ego. As the comic continued, there were occasional nods to Thor's roots in Norse mythology, but it wasn't anything big, and it got mixed up in a big potpourri of other myth that included the Greek pantheon too.

Walt Simonson came onto the scene in the 1983 and gave the book a massive overhaul. On the first page of his first issue on the title, he began by having some unknown being destroy a star and begin forging a weapon from the core of the star. By the end of the issue, he also had introduced a new character, Beta Ray Bill, whose claim to the power of Thor was as strong as Thor's own.

As the story unfolded over the next several issues, Simonson drilled deep into the rich tapestry of Norse myth, firmly establishing Thor as a member of the Norse Aesir, giving his readers a crash course in that mythology and the stories the Vikings used to tell. As he did this, he gradually racheted up the tension until you realized that the weapon being forged from the core of that exploded star was the flaming sword that Surtur would use to set in motion Ragnarok, the Twilight of the Gods, and destroy the Nine Worlds.

By the time he had finished his story, some five years later, Simonson had revoked Thor's identity as Donald Blake and given him a new alter ego as a construction worker named Sigurd Jarlson. He got rid of Odin as head of the Norse gods and replaced him with Balder, destroyed the rainbow bridge Bifrost, and established a truly stunning cast of supporting characters.

It was tremendous, it was inspiring, and for me at least, it launched an abiding love for Norse myth. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby gave us a superhero named Thor. Walt Simonson reminded us that Thor was a Norse god, and gave us the definitive run on the title in the process. If the comic had ended there, it would have been enough.

It did not end there.

Tom DeFalco, who had done an excellent job on Spider-man in the 1980s, took Simonson's place, and turned it into ... I don't know what. In the few issues that I bought and read, Thor accidentally wandered into deep space, where he squared off against the Celestials. He started fighting with Irish and Egyptian deities, and became less interesting and distinctive a character.

Changes Simonson had made to the character -- having him grow a beard and wear armor, making him look more like the mythological Thor -- were dropped immediately. Odin came back not long after. Last I heard, Thor was back to being Donald Blake, too.

In other words, in terms of continuity, Simonson's run on Thor might as well not have happened. In fact, a later writer revisted the whole Ragnarok storyline, although he apparently wrapped it up by having Thor change history at the end of the story arc, so that it had never happened.

That sort of thing happens a lot in comic books, and if you're a serious fan of a character or even a particuarly well written story,  it can be frustrating to see it reduced to just another episode in the life of the character, with no lasting effects. If Norman Osborne impaled himself on his goblin glider in the 1970s, why is he bedeviling Spider-man again 25 years later?

If Mysterio died at the conclusion of Kevin Smith's Daredevil story, why is he tangling with Spider-man six months later? If the Outsiders knew Batman's secret identity five years ago , why are they so shocked when he reveals it to them now? And how many times does Peter Parker's Aunt May have to die? (Or Captain America, for that matter. Steve Rogers blew up at the end of WWII, he died when his body rejected the Super Soldier serum in the 1990s, he was killed by Onslaught in 1997, and most recently, a sniper shot and killed him.)

A lot of it's because these characters are so old, and so loved by such a number of people. Each time a new writer comes in, she has a choice: keep her predecessor's supporting cast in place, leave the hero in the same general situation as for the last 30 issues or so, or return a more familiar starting place.

Most writers prefer the second choice. So you get some really convoluted stuff, like "That wasn't Aunt May who died; it was a genetically altered actress impersonating her!" Or "The Iron Man you've known has always been in the service of Kang. Now we'll bring in another one from a different timeline!" Not surprisingly, fans do get sick of it and stop reading.

In the past several years, straightforward storytelling has taken a beating at both DC and Marvel as heroes long dead have returned to life. The new Captain America is none other than James "Bucky" Buchanan, Rogers' partner in WWII. Oliver Queen, the original Green Arrow, came back from the dead, as did Hal Jordan and the entire Green Lantern Corps. DC Comics even restored its entire multiverse in "Infinite Crisis," ending nearly 20 years of a single, straightforward continuity with one DCU.

This sort of thing aggravates me, because I liked it better the way it had been. DC's continuity, prior to "Crisis on Infinite Earths" was a bewildering mess, with storylines taking place on parallel earths, and even crossing over annually as the company lurched from one crisis to another.

The new continuity under Jeanette Kahn eliminated that confusion and gave the impression of history, with one generation of heroes making way for the next generation, so that by the present time, Wally West was the third hero to bear the name Flash, Kyle Rainer was the third to be Green Lantern, and so on. The history made the DCU more realistic, and more entertaing to visit.

But of course, other people liked it the other way. And because opinions run so strong on these things, it's not surprising that the policy should change as one group gains dominance and the other loses it. Is Lex Luthor a mad scientist, or a corrupt businessman? Did he know Clark Kent as a boy in Smallville, or did they meet for the first time in Metropolis? It depends who owns the story.

The same is true of Marvel's treatment of with Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson. The two of them were married about 20 years ago, and ever since then, fandom has been evenly split on whether it's a good idea or not. In the time that they've been married, Mary Jane was killed in a terrorist attack (it turned out she was kidnapped before the attack), and she's left Peter. (They reconciled.) Most recently, their marriage was retconned out of existence via a deal with Mephisto to save Aunt May.

I'm firmly on the side of the marriage, and I'm not alone. It keeps boiling down to a question of whose vision of Spider-man prevails at any given time.

There is a simple way to deal with this mess. View it as a cycle of literature, handed down from one storyteller to another. Never mind questions of continuity, and how the stories hang together. Consider each storyteller's take on the character as a separate contribution and interpretation of the character.

Most of them suck, but some are incredible -- Mark Waid's "Birthright," for instance, in which he depicts Superman as an outsider who must earn the trust of Metropolis, or JMS' first several issues on "Amazing Spider-man," where he reinterprets the hero around totemistic lines and makes Peter a teacher instead of a photographer, or Bendis' stellar run on "Daredevil."

It doesn't even matter if they conflict with one another. "Birthright" differs widely from John Byrne's "Man of Steel," but they're both excellent reinterpretations of Superman's origin. They're part of a cycle of literature, not a continuing story. That's much easier to stomach, and sometimes, the storytellers even surpass themselves.

And that's what makes them worth reading.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

r.i.p., nancy

We are all rivers, and Mother is our source. Whether we are close or far removed makes little difference. Her passing brings a drought that we must weather as best we can until the snow of another season brings relief.