Thursday, October 6, 2011

I never met Steve

Steve Jobs died.

I have noticed three categories of reactions to this. First are the feelings of his family and close friends. I don’t know about his family, but here are some remembrances by colleagues. Their feelings are the most important right now.

The second category is the gauche comments made by people who don’t like that Steve Jobs used alternative medicines or didn’t practice the right religion or by people who say that Apple stuff is all going to suck now or by people who just don’t like Macs. I saw someone on Twitter say, “whenever a celebrity dies twitter turns into this big group of people all trying to jam the same turd into one toilet.”

The third category is the feelings of people who never met Steve Jobs, never knew him personally but who have had their lives made better by things that he made. I like this story, Chair shared by Adam Lisagor when Steve Jobs resigned as CEO, about a visit to Apple’s campus when Adam got to see Steve Jobs in person.

Since I got my first Mac and iPod six years ago, I’ve only spent a tiny fraction of my life more than ten feet from an Apple product. I spend most of my waking hours using an Apple product, my computer, iPad, or listening to podcasts on my iPod touch. As a person in the third category, I am sad that Steve died, and his death feels strangely personal to me. For me, this is different from most celebrity deaths. although I never met Steve, the things that he helped make occupy an intimate part of my life.

Steve Jobs said, “What a computer is to me is the most remarkable tool that we have ever come up with. It’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.” That is, humans are physically wimpy compared with many animals, but a human on a bicycle is able to use the least amount of energy to move a kilometer of any animal. Bicycles are not just valuable because they make long trips shorter; they also make it easier to go on trips that wouldn’t have been worth trying before.

One of the most remarkable things about Apple products is how easy it is to share information between them. I have trouble remembering to do things, keeping track of my grocery list and what I need to do in my research, and so on. I have an anxiety disorder. Organizing my tasks and time made me about a third less anxious. Apple products made this easier: all the things I would be nervous about forgetting are on my computer and in my pocket.

Mac OS X is remarkable: I use it because it’s an operating system with all the power of Unix (which I need to do my research) and incredible usability. If I couldn’t use Apple products, I would have a much more difficult time doing my work in modeling and analyzing the physics of cells.

My Apple devices are bicycles for my mind: they make it so I don’t have to think about a lot of things that I don’t need to and make it easier for me to think about things that are important and difficult.

When people die, the effects of what they did still live on. Some people are saying that with Steve Jobs gone, Apple products are going to start sucking. They’re wrong. More than making Apple products, Steve Jobs made Apple and NeXT (he owned Pixar for a while, too). No one person can make an iPod. Steve Jobs was a leader who did not try to make copies of himself; an example of this is the difference between him and Tim Cook, the new Apple CEO. Instead, he led teams of people to cooperate to make amazing products. He also led a lot of other people, like me, by giving us tools we use to communicate with each other and to make our own great works. When I use Apple products, I am inspired by how useful they are, but also how beautiful; I want to do my work even more carefully and present my work more elegantly. The people at Apple are going to keep designing and inventing new things, and Apple users are going to keep doing the same. We’ll miss Steve.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Fear holiday

Patriot Day is a dishonest holiday because it is supposed to be an opportunity to remember the losses on September 11, 2001, perhaps to grieve. However, America, over the past ten years, has been characterized not by grief but by fear. There is nothing wrong with simply being afraid (unless one does not wish to feel this way), but it’s best to address fear if fear is what one mostly feels. Sadness is not the only appropriate feeling.

When I learned that September 11 is called Patriot Day, I winced, I think, because of the symbol that 9/11 has become and how the word “patriot” means, instead of “lover of country”, “lover of state”. Any commemoration of 9/11, any call to “remember” or “never forget”, is political because 9/11 has repeatedly been invoked to enforce consent to war, rejection of human rights, and stupid things, as if people who resist any action of the government are “unpatriotic” and disrespectful towards the lives lost on 9/11.

The terror caused by the attacks on 9/11 was used to invent a War on Terror. This war wound up happening a lot in Iraq, although no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, nor was there any connection found between the Iraqi government and al Qaeda, nor were any of the actual 9/11 attackers from Iraqi. Perhaps the United States had gotten too calm since the Cold War ended and 9/11 was an apt reminder to be wary of terrorism in general. It’s more likely that the terror the terrorists generated was seized as an opportunity to go to war; at 2:40 PM on 9/11, Donald Rumsfeld dictated to one of his aides, “Judge whether hit SH [Saddam Hussein] at the same time. Not only UBL [Usama bin Laden].” (Image of note) Within six hours of the attacks, Rumsfeld had managed to emotionally process through the “denial” stage of grief and had moved on to “anger”; he lingered there for a while.

Thirty times as many civilians have died in the Iraq war as died in the 9/11 attacks.

The terror cultivated by 9/11 has been used to excuse many abuses of human rights. 9/11 has been used by the United States government to justify torture, detention without due process, racial profiling, and warrantless surveillance; American citizens have suffered due to each of these. (Related: ACLU Report: A Call to Courage) The New York Police Department, with the aid of the CIA, is spying on Muslim communities without probable cause.

The PATRIOT Act and similar increases of “counterterrorist” activity have resulted in actions by the FBI that are stupid. They put a tracking device on the car of Yasir Afifi, a native US citizen, without a warrant or even probable cause other than Afifi being half-Egyptian; when he found the device, they asked for it back. FBI agents often sit in parked cars to keep an eye on Scott Crow, a spindly nonviolent vegan anarchist. In a report, they noted an object on his lawn, “It had a large number of multi-colored blocks, with figures and/or lettering…may be a sign that is to be used in an upcoming protest.” “It was a quilt,” he said, “for a kids’ after-school program.”

Law enforcement, from the FBI to state and local law enforcement, to private security in office buildings, started doing more stupid things as a result of 9/11. Many police and local homeland security departments encourage reporting of “suspicious activities” including, [being] “over dressed for the weather”, “individuals who carry on long conversations on pay or cellular telephones”, and “joggers who stand and stretch for an inordinate amount of time”.

Stupid suspicion and security theater are wasteful of time and money, but they have a worse consequence. Needless and unhelpful security measures do harm because security theater tells a story about how afraid people should be. When people take off their shoes at the security line, that’s a ritual that was invented as a reaction to the Shoe Bomber. Liquids go in 3 ounce bottles in 1 quart zip-lock bags, a reminder of the Liquid Bomb Plot. The TSA was created, and the convoluted screening process it uses in airports was instituted as a reaction to the 9/11 attacks. These do not make people safer, these policies make people more afraid.

My grandpa died one Sunday. I was 18. His funeral was the next Saturday. My parents asked me if I wanted to spend the night at their house and go to church with them the next day. I decided not to. I drove back to campus that night, and then went to a church I’d never been to where no one would know about my grandpa’s death. I was sad that my grandpa died, and it was important to be with my family as we grieved. I’m sure that other people at my church were sad for my family, and I’m thankful for their sympathy, that they cared about my family, but I didn’t want to deal with them telling me repeatedly how sad it is that my grandpa died. They didn’t know him.

After the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, many college students changed their Facebook profile pictures to the Virginia Tech logo and joined Facebook groups with names like, “We are all Hokies”. This was crass. Virginia Tech students are Virginia Tech students, and other college students are other college students. The Virginia Tech shooting was sad, but it was particularly salient to other college students. College students everywhere were afraid because people like them got shot; this made it easy for them to imagine dying in a similar fashion. Saying that one is a Hokie when one is not is an attempt to borrow someone else’s sadness as a cover for one’s own fear.

The deaths of the people on 9/11 are notable because of the scale of the hateful attack that killed them. They were striking because other Americans could not help but imagine being victims of a similar attack. They continue to be remembered, not just out of sadness, but as symbol they have served; they had no choice about what their deaths would come to mean, how this event would be used to further political aims.

Many people who lost close friends or family members on 9/11 are still mourning; this is appropriate. To me, though, and to most Americans, the victims on 9/11 were strangers; all we have in common with them is our Americanness. It’s wonderful to have the empathy to be sad on someone else’s behalf. It’s harmful to expect one’s self to have sadness equal to that of the victim. Grief is not a competition.

Patriot Day is supposed to be a day of remembrance and grief, but grief is not the only appropriate emotion when considering 9/11. Fear has dominated American political behavior since 9/11, so honestly expressing fear is appropriate, too. Masking fear with shows of grief mocks the grief felt deeply by the families and friends of the victims. Remembering 9/11 without careful consideration grows fear.

If safety from terrorism is still under-addressed, more fear is not what Americans need; Americans need more perspective. Airport security is an example of the repeated loss of perspective to fear. The 9/11 attackers used airplanes as missiles, so the TSA took over airports. Then, Richard Reid tried to blow up his shoes on an airplane, so now we have to take off our shoes when we go through TSA security. Then, there was a plot to attack airplanes with bombs made of, among other things, hydrogen peroxide, disposable cameras, and Tang, and so the TSA and other agencies around the world banned a phase of matter. In each of these cases, the changes in security policy were in response to a previous attack, not in anticipation of a future attack. It’s myopic to consider commercial passenger air travel as a particularly significant terrorist attack vector when there are cargo planes, private planes, trains, cars, motorcycles, boats, horses, canals, and Segways, and threats that have nothing to do with transportation. Fear drives this decision making. Fear inhibits creativity and forces people to revisit their pain, to remain subject to it.

If Americans are concerned about safety from terrorists, they need to ask, What will al Qaeda do next? and, Who else, besides al Qaeda, wants Americans to be afraid?

In Refuse to be Terrorized, Bruce Schneier writes,

I’d like everyone to take a deep breath and listen for a minute.

The point of terrorism is to cause terror, sometimes to further a political goal and sometimes out of sheer hatred. The people terrorists kill are not the targets; they are collateral damage. And blowing up planes, trains, markets or buses is not the goal; those are just tactics.

The real targets of terrorism are the rest of us: the billions of us who are not killed but are terrorized because of the killing. The real point of terrorism is not the act itself, but our reaction to the act. And we’re doing exactly what the terrorists want.

Our politicians help the terrorists every time they use fear as a campaign tactic. The press helps every time it writes scare stories about the plot and the threat. And if we’re terrified, and we share that fear, we help. All of these actions intensify and repeat the terrorists’ actions, and increase the effects of their terror.

(I am not saying that the politicians and press are terrorists, or that they share any of the blame for terrorist attacks. I’m not that stupid. But the subject of terrorism is more complex than it appears, and understanding its various causes and effects are vital for understanding how to best deal with it.)

Everyone has experienced pain, and everyone has fear that it will recur. To continue to be identified by pain is to continue to be manipulated by it. It’s important, for example, to recognize the harm that slavery caused, but to see an African American primarily as a descendant of slaves, instead of a parent or math teacher or golf player, is to continue the identification imposed upon their ancestors instead of the identity that they themselves generate; this is small compared to the wrong of slavery and institutionalized discrimination, but it is unnecessary and painful. Forgetting, in a careful way, is necessary.

The War on Terror was misnamed because it isn’t actually a war against the feelings of terror that people have, it’s a war on terrorists or a war on people that are accused of being terrorists. What if there had been a war on terror—the feeling? More than Patriot Day, a day for grief, Americans need an opportunity to admit their fears, discuss them, and find ways to overcome them. People can cultivate courage. Maintaining good health, doing good work, and loving and being loved all help develop courage. These are things are already worthwhile.

There is no end to violence. Terrorist attacks are inevitable. When threatened by attacks in the future, America will perpetuate violence unless it becomes less fearful.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

At least they aren't Dominionists

A couple of weeks ago I linked to Dominionism: Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry’s Dangerous Religious Bond by Michelle Goldberg. In discussions online, a couple of friends pointed me to these articles, Be not afraid of evangelicals by Lisa Miller and Christian Dominionism Is a Myth by A. Larry Ross. Ross and Miller both write in response to Goldberg’s article, as well as Leap of Faith regarding Michele Bachmann by Ryan Lizza and Rick Perry’s Army of God by Forrest Wilder. The part of Ross’s article that addresses these articles is,

Although her [Goldberg’s] well-intentioned article may resonate in the echo chambers of her fellow East Coast media elite, Goldberg misapplies a broad label that few, if any, evangelicals use or with which they identify. It reveals more about the author’s personal perspective and lack of nuanced understanding of the topic than it provides useful information about the subjects themselves.

Miller’s article does a clearer job than Ross of describing Dominionism, and aptly remarks,

Certain journalists use “dominionist” the way some folks on Fox News use the word “sharia.” Its strangeness scares people. Without history or context, the word creates a siege mentality in which “we” need to guard against “them.”

I don’t think that Bachmann or Perry would call themselves Dominionists, and I now agree with my friends that this label is wrong. Another valid criticism of Ryan Lizza’s piece on Bachmann is that it overstates her connections to certain extremist figures. Ross and Miller are both right to protest when people in the media try to make evangelicalism sound frightening. However, I think that Goldberg, Lizza, and Wilder, in their writing, are careful to not make blanket statements about Christians or evangelicals. They aren’t telling their readers to watch out for evangelicals, they’re telling their readers to watch out for Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry and the particular people they are influenced and supported by.

I read more about Bachmann and Perry, trying to figure out if they are “Dominionists” and realized that they aren’t. That didn’t make me feel better, though. They aren’t Dominionists, but they do support their strains of Christianity having undue influence on others through government power.

It’s appropriate for religion to influence politicians. It’s great if a Christian politician sees concern for the poor in the Bible and this motivates them to legislate for justice in our society. I am glad when Christian politicians’ beliefs about God valuing life encourage them to protect lives. It’s wonderful if a Christian politician’s beliefs about God remind them of how limited and frail humans are, and take this as a reminder to be humble and careful in the use of their power.

Our government is and should be secular, though; policy ought to be based on reason and evidence. Secularism is not just important for the non-religious, it’s important for everyone because it’s not just neutral towards religions, it’s neutral towards sects. While the United States has, historically, been mostly populated by Christians, it has always been populated by Christians of many stripes. My home state, Maryland, was founded as a colony because George Calvert (The Lord Baltimore) wanted a place where Catholics could live freely, away from mistreatment in Anglican England. I don’t think that Bachmann and Perry have secret spooky connections to religious conspiracies. However, both Bachmann and Perry openly disregard the protection of everyone’s rights equally; they advance their particular religious preferences through governmental power.

While Lizza’s profile on Bachmann was speculative regarding her connections to some figures, the leadership of her law school and the close relationships that she did have with her mentors are relevant. Bachmann went to O.W. Coburn School of Law at Oral Roberts University, which had a lapse in its accreditation by the ABA because they required students and faculty to be Christian. This was not an institution that tought lawyers to practice law with neutrality towards religion. In God’s Law is the Only Law: The Genesis of Michele Bachmann, Sarah Posner writes about one of the founders of Coburn, Herb Titus,

After Moore was stripped of his judgeship for defying a federal court order to remove his monument, Titus drafted the Constitution Restoration Act, which would have deprived federal courts of jurisdiction in cases challenging a government entity’s or official’s “acknowledgment of God as the sovereign source of law, liberty, or government.” The bill, which did not pass, nonetheless had nine Senate co-sponsors and 50 House co-sponsors; including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Bobby Jindal, now the governor of Louisiana, Nathan Deal, now the governor of Georgia, and Mike Pence, a conservative hero who’s now running for governor of Indiana.

After graduation, Bachmann stayed to work as a research assistant for John Eidsmoe’s book “Christianity and the Constitution”. Ryan Lizza recalls a conversation with Eidsmoe,

Eidsmoe explained to me how the Coburn School of Law, in the years that Bachmann was there, wove Christianity into the legal curriculum. “Say we’re talking in criminal law, and we get to the subject of the insanity defense,” he said. “Well, Biblically speaking, is there such a thing as insanity and is it a defense for a crime? We might look back to King David when he’s captured by the Philistines and he starts frothing at the mouth, playing crazy and so on.” When Biblical law conflicted with American law, Eidsmoe said, O.R.U. students were generally taught that “the first thing you should try to do is work through legal means and political means to get it changed.”

Bachmann’s not simply affiliated with anti-secularism, and not only in ancient history. Speaking at the EdWatch National Education Conference in 2004, she said,

It’s part of Satan I think to say that this is “gay.” It’s anything but gay.


If you’re involved in the gay and lesbian lifestyle, it’s bondage. It is personal bondage, personal despair and personal enslavement.

Anti-gay opinions don’t have to be religious, but Bachmann’s views on gay rights clearly do come from her religious beliefs.

While in the Minnesotta State Senate, she co-wrote a bill regarding the teaching of evolution in public schools:

Notwithstanding any rule or law to the contrary, when science academic standards are taught that may generate controversy, including biological evolution, the curriculum must help students to understand the full range of scientific views that exist, why such topics may generate controversy, and how scientific discoveries can profoundly affect society. A quality science education should prepare students to distinguish the data and testable theories of science from religious or philosophical claims that are made in the name of science.

I agree with every word of that bill. It’s entirely unnecessary, though. Science education already teaches how we come to understand nature, and includes discussion of controversy; this helps students develop critical thinking skills, and science instruction should include more consideration of disagreement among scientists. Appropriate teaching of the controversy about evolution would include the fact that it ended years ago. The “full range of scientific views” on evolution does not include intelligent design, which Bachmann wants taught in schools,

I support intelligent design. What I support is putting all science on the table and then letting students decide. I don’t think it’s a good idea for government to come down on one side of scientific issue or another, when there is reasonable doubt on both sides.

Support of intelligent design is support of religion. Intelligent design as a political movement is just a re-brand of creationism, a re-brand that was rightly struck down as being inappropriate for teaching in public schools, in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. This movement is dishonest because the scientific community does not support intelligent design. If intelligent design proponents were concerned about advancing their hypotheses appropriately, they would be campaigning for more research funding on the matter, instead of demanding that opinions that are not grounded in science be taught as science in public schools. The Discovery Institute is the primary organization in the intelligent design movement. In its Wedge Strategy document, it stated the goal of having a hundred scientific publications supporting intelligent design by 2003. This did not come close to happening. They tried to start their own journal, Origins & Design, but didn’t publish a new issue since the year 2000. Political support for teaching creationism in public schools is based on willful ignorance of the actual science, and is instead motivated by religious beliefs.

Bachmann wants tax policy to be influenced by her religious beliefs,

What Jesus said, “Render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and render unto God that which is God’s,” so there certainly is a place for us to pay taxes to government. That’s legitimate. We should do that as Jesus instructs. But we render to God that which is God’s and the Bible calls for, approximately we are thinking of tithe, maybe 10 percent that we are giving to God, but beyond that we also give to charity. Jesus didn’t ask government to be the charity; he asks the the individual and the church to be charitable.”

Bachmann thinks that God is speaking through natural disasters,

I don’t know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians. We’ve had an earthquake; we’ve had a hurricane. He said, “Are you going to start listening to me here?” Listen to the American people because the American people are roaring right now. They know government is on a morbid obesity diet and we’ve got to rein in the spending.

This interpretation of these events, ironically, is unsupported by I Kings 19:11.

Criticism of Rick Perry for being anti-secular is more relevant because he is currently more popular than Bachmann. In April, he issued a proclamation calling for three days of prayer for rain. (Unfortunately, this year, Texas is having its worst drought in history.) Again, he officially declared August 6 to be a day of prayer. I have no problem with politicians praying, and I don’t even mind when they personally urge people to pray. Issuing public proclamations for such is a misuse of power, though. In particular, Perry’s August 6 day of prayer included an invitation to a rally at Reliant Stadium; Wilder’s article on Perry covers this event in detail. Five days later, Rick Perry announced that he is running for president.

Regarding homosexuality, in his book, On My Honor, Perry writes,

Though I am no expert on the “nature versus nurture” debate, I can sympathize with those who believe sexual preference is genetic. It may be so, but it remains unproved. Even if it were, this does not mean we are ultimately not responsible for the active choices we make. Even if an alcoholic is powerless over alcohol once it enters his body, he still makes a choice to drink. And, even if someone is attracted to a person of the same sex, he or she still makes a choice to engage in sexual activity with someone of the same gender.

A loving, tolerant view toward those who have a different sexual preference is the ideal position — for both the heterosexual and the homosexual. I do not believe in condemning homosexuals that I know personally. I believe in valuing their lives like any others, as our God in heaven does. Tolerance, however, should not only be asked of the proponents of traditional values. The radical homosexual movement seeks societal normalization of their sexual activity. I respect their right to engage in individual behavior of their choosing, but they must respect the right of millions in society to refuse to normalize their behavior.

His respect for the rights of homosexuals to “engage in individual behavior of their choosing” has evidently arisen since 2002, when, regarding Texas’ not-yet-declared-unconstitutional-by-the-United-States-Supreme-Court anti-sodomy law, he said, “I think our law is appropriate that we have on the books.” He is “for the federal marriage amendment”; granted, this is expected of Republicans these days. The anti-sodomy law, though, intruded into people’s homes. Oscar Wilde said, “Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live.” Perry’s support for the anti-sodomy laws, and even bans on gay marriage, is selfish.

Regarding evolution and creationism, he said,

I am a firm believer in intelligent design as a matter of faith and intellect, and I believe it should be presented in schools alongside the theories of evolution.

Rick Perry supports Israel for religious reasons, saying,

I’m a big believer that this country was given to the people of Israel a long time ago, by God, and that’s ordained.

What sort of treatment would a candidate receive if they went to a law school that required its students and faculty to be Muslims, where they were taught to change American law if it disagreed with Koranic law? A Sikh who saught to sneak Sikh beliefs into public school curricula? A Buddhist who wanted tax policy based on their beliefs about mendicancy? A Hindu candidate who said that God was speaking through natural disasters? A Wiccan who declared days of prayer? A Muslim candidate who believed that God had given Israel to Palestinians?

How about a premillenialist politician that wanted to conduct foreign policy based on the expectation that the world was going to end soon? A politician from a mainline church who tried to force all clergy to marry gay people on request? A Catholic politician that tried to ban contraception? Secularism is not important just for nonreligious people, or for non-Christians, it’s important for everyone because at some level, everyone’s beliefs are not those of the majority.

When John F Kennedy ran for president, he had much opposition because he was a Catholic. Was the Vatican going to have a direct line to the Oval Office? Clarifying his role, he said,

I am not the Catholic candidate for President.

I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for President who happens also to be a Catholic.

I do not speak for my church on public matters; and the church does not speak for me. Whatever issue may come before me as President, if I should be elected, on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject, I will make my decision in accordance with these views—in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressure or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.

Politicians are not given switches they can use to turn their religious preferences on and off. We should expect their preferences to influence their attention and give them passion for the wellbeing of the people, and this is often a good thing. The policies, themselves, though, must have a secular basis. Concern regarding inappropriate influence of religion on politicians is not new. JFK faced it, drawing a clear line between what he thought was appropriate and inappropriate influence of his religion on his decisions as president. In the last presidential election, Obama was compelled to distance himself from Jeremiah Wright, and John McCain rejected support from John Hagee. Michele Bachmann’s and Rick Perry’s beliefs about the role of religion in government should be subject to the same scrutiny as any other politician.

Bachmann and Perry are not Dominionists, and calling them Dominionists is characteristic of politics of fear and it’s bad rhetoric. It is also unnecessary because they don’t need to be Dominionists to be opposed to fair secular policy. Bachmann and Perry are both clearly drafting policy based on their religious beliefs, rather than reason and evidence; there is no need for conspiracy theories. The influences that Bachmann and Perry have been subject to, for example, Bachmann’s law school and Perry’s support from his prayer rally are relevant in light of this, but these are not the primary reasons why they are unfit to govern.

Restricting people’s rights to marry and forcing the teaching of bad science is not in the national interest. Tax policy should be decided based on the national interest, not on Levitical law. Support for Israel should be determined based on the national interest, and global human interest, not on God-given land deeds. Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry are both unfit to govern, not because of the connections they may have to extremists, but because they themselves are enemies of a society that treats people of all religious beliefs equally.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Squirt guns and the foundations of morality

I have a friend who, recently, had a problem with little boys playing with squirt guns indoors. She called a Kids Meeting. There had not been any Kids Meetings before at this house, but that got the kids to sit down. She asked who was responsible, and all of the boys pointed at the one who was the most drenched. My friend did not believe them, but she then asked them what happens if people shoot squirt guns inside. The boys raised their hands and gave answers like, “The furniture might get messed up.” or “The squirt guns might make a puddle and then someone might slip and fall.”. My friend said, “Let’s make a rule: no playing with squirt guns inside.” The boys agreed, and they didn’t squirt guns inside anymore; at least, not for a couple of days.

The boys were not squirting guns because they had failed to grasp their prime moral imperative; they were squirting guns because they are little kids and were having fun, they just needed help to see how squirting squirt guns could harm people. And, by being encouraged to develop thoughts about their actions, they figured out, with a little help, how they ought to behave. My friend acted as an authority, but more like a teacher and less like a police officer.

I do not believe in any moral absolutes, but I think that harming people is bad and that helping people is good. I do not think that the moral beliefs that I do have are controversial. I would expect constructive controversies regarding things like whether aid should be given to kids in Somalia if warlords collect taxes on this aid, or what constitutes self-plagiarism, or whether people should eat chickens.

If two people are talking about right and wrong, they can have a good conversation if they agree on some basic points (eg, it is wrong to harm people); agreement on how they arrived at these points is not necessary. And yet, it’s often the case that secular people get asked by religious people how they have any morals at all. This is unfortunate. Although I disagree with religious people regarding whether God exists, I have more agreement than disagreement with them on how people ought to treat each other.

Human beings have a variety of beliefs about how morals come from God, or gods, or inside of people, or the structure of the universe, or something else. Human beings also have diverse sets of specific moral rules: what constitutes a stingy tip or who should be in charge in a family or how many times you need to say “thank you”. Between the source of morality and specific rules that people follow is a narrowly similar thing across humans: we think that it’s important to take care of family members, to not harm neighbors; we have empathy, especially toward people that we are related to or people with whom we can relate.

The next step for human beings to become more good is not the development of a more thorough or uniform or precise ethical basis; instead, it’s expanding the idea of who family and neighbors are by developing understanding of the commonality that humans have.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Pennies in the parking lot

It was difficult to get home safely at 8:30 pm. There was a storm with a lot of wind. When I got home, the lights were out, so I had to find the phone number for the electric company in the dark. I normally get billed electronically. I had trouble finding the phone number. I called the electric company, but the line was busy. I ate noodles (the gas range still worked) and gouda and I played a new zombie game on my iPod touch—I figured, since it’s dark, I might as well seize the opportunity to get properly frightened.

I called the electric company again, and finally got through. They said that they hadn’t noticed a problem in my area. I thought that maybe I was just the first to call. I told Regina that we were going to be heroes. Regina said, “No, the real hero will be the working person who fixes the power lines.” She always makes good points like that. I went outside, trying to figure out if mine was the only house on the block without power, which was difficult, because most houses on my block are vacant. I didn’t see any lights. I then checked to see if my main breaker was still on, and when I did, I saw that the basement was flooded, because there wasn’t electricity to run the sump pump. I ask for them to send someone out.

I stayed up a little, waiting for a service truck to come, but it was dark and I had gotten bored and decided that I had nothing better to do than go to sleep. At five in the morning, I got a call telling me that the truck was on its way. Half an hour later, a worker knocked on my door. While his partner drove the cherry picker to the lot behind my house, he waded in galoshes across the flooded basement to the breaker box to confirm that the power was out. The interruption in the middle of the night, the worker with the head lamp and boots, the problems with ducts all reminded me of the film, Brazil. They then positioned the bucket of the cherry picker where the line from the power pole meets my house, and saw that I had power at that line. They told me that I’m responsible for the service conduit, the line that drops from the point outside my bedroom down to my basement. I was charged $80 for this. I went back to bed.

When I woke up, I had a little breakfast and then I texted Google to get phone numbers for electricians and I asked the first business that was available to help me. R got there first, but he had to drive a while from his work site. His boss, J, got there not long after. They looked at the conduit, and confirmed that the problem was the wire in it. J went to the store to get wire and other supplies. While he did that, I spotted R as he climbed a ladder to the top of the conduit. The conduit is a metal tube, capped at both ends with openings just big enough to let the wire through. R tried unscrewing the top of the conduit. He banged on it with his wrench. It didn’t come loose. Then R and I waded through ankle-deep water in the basement to the breaker box. I felt bad for R because he was in jeans and steel-toed boots. I held the flashlight as he tried to unscrew the bottom end of the conduit, with no success.

Just then, J got back. R told him about our setbacks. J asked why there were pennies in the parking lot: we looked down, and there were maybe a hundred of them. I didn’t know what to do, the electricians seemed to not need me for a while, but I couldn’t eat or take a shower or get work done. So I said, “Do you mind if I sweep these up? Maybe the change will help me pay you.” They chuckled at that. I got a broom. There were bits of glass in with the pennies, and I didn’t know if it was worth the trouble to sort them out. I was having trouble thinking clearly, and I didn’t have anything to do so I did something. The electricians wound up just running the cable down the outside of the conduit, securing it with zip ties.

R went down to the basement to flip the breaker. I was afraid that a power line might be in the water and that R could get shocked, but we tried to be careful. The power came back on. We heard a kind of whooping, rushing sound: the sump pump was working, jetting water out across my patio. I paid the electricians. The bill was several hundred dollars. I checked the basement. Boxes had been floating around and they were now askew. I re-lit the burner on the water heater, which had been partially submerged.

I hadn’t eaten lunch and it was five. I had some toaster-oven pizza, and then I took a shower, packed my things, and headed up toward Philadelphia, to visit my girlfriend. On my way, I was still hungry, so I stopped at Burger King to get a veggie burger. I played Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent as I ate. My throat was sore from the stress, so I had some ice cream for dessert.

When I drive, I always listen to podcasts; music doesn’t normally hold my attention. I was having difficulty paying attention to the words in the podcasts, though, because I was so tired and unhappy. I wanted to listen to some music, I was especially in the mood for music made by friends. I listened to I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) as covered by Blue Electric Mongoose, as I drove up to the Girard Point Bridge.

The first time I had an article get rejected, I took a walk and sat on a bench and felt sad. The second time I had an article get rejected, I wrote a Python script to decode gibberish in a Harry Mathews novel, The Conversions, and I ate four plums. The third time I had an article get rejected I bought a new digital camera and went to the zoo and took pictures of animals.

Last summer, as I was leaving my house, I tried to start my car and it didn’t. I called a friend over to take a look at it. He recommended a mechanic. I called the mechanic. I called a tow truck. The repair shop closed for the day and I had no word on my car. I could have gotten some work done at home but I felt drained. Instead I walked to a coffee shop. I got a mocha and a waffle and read the City Paper and My Life in CIA by Harry Mathews. The next day, I woke up to a call from the mechanic telling me that my engine was no good and I needed a new one; this would cost more than the Blue Book value of the car. I called another tow truck to take the car to My Trusted Mechanic. I went to Grilled Cheese and Co while I waited for word on the car. The Trusted Mechanic called, saying that the engine was dead, but for a different reason than the first mechanic. A friend helped me clean out my trunk and gave me a ride to the lab. I got to the library just before it closed, so that I could check out Fargo: I needed Fargo.

The storm and the power outage and the flooded basement and eating in the dark and the cherry picker and the worker with the galoshes and the headlamp in the middle of the night and the loss of hundreds of dollars and my articles not amounting to much and my car dying and two two trucks and two mechanics and a new monthly payment, resulted, somehow, in zombie games and sweeping up pennies in the parking lot and a shower and ice cream at Burger King and I’m gonna be and a bench and four plums and a new camera and zoo animals and a mocha and a waffle and grilled cheese and Fargo and two Harry Mathews novels, with cortisol and norepinephrine somewhere in the middle.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Doctor, I have a recurring dream in which I am running late to catch a flight.

Doctor, I have a recurring dream in which I am running late to catch a flight. In one of these dreams, I had to rush to finish packing. Then, I went to the airport, and, inside, I was in the kitchen of a single-family home and there was a buffet of Turkish food and I had to put some in a styrofoam container to take with me so that I would have something to eat on the flight; the line for Turkish food was long and I was afraid that I wouldn’t make it to the gate on time. When I got on the airplane, just before take-off, my whole family was there, except for my dad. Dad was in the cockpit. He told the pilot, “I read last week that they design these things so that they can take off going backwards as easily as they can going forwards.” The pilot had never heard that, but he thought it was an interesting fact and decided to let Dad try flying the plane, taking off in reverse. The plane crashed into a hill, bounced, flew forward, crashed, bounced, flew backwards, and then I woke up. The most scary thing about that dream is that it’s not unlikely that my Dad would charm his way into the cockpit of a jet and get the pilot to let him fly it. He’s very friendly.

In a lot of my dreams about travel going wrong, I forget to pack my shoes, and I somehow make it to my destination before I notice that I’m in my socks. There are plenty of reasons to be anxious about travel: the car could break down, the trip itself could be unpleasant, it’s uncomfortable to be in a different environment without normal routines. At the start of my trip to Turkey, as I waited at the departure gate, I started to worry about whether I had locked my car. So, I worry some about leaving my car and house behind when I travel, but I mostly worry about forgetting to bring things. This doesn’t even need to be a major worry: as long as I have my credit card, I can buy anything that I need that I’ve forgotten.

I normally fly in order to go to scientific conferences or to visit relatives, Mom is from Alabama. While I was growing up, we would drive down south every year or two. I am the oldest of six kids. It took until I started grad school for my parents to give up on the road trip and take us by plane, instead. To have plenty of clean clothes for the trip, I did all of my laundry the night before the flight. On the day of the flight, while running errands, I was rear-ended at a traffic circle; this made me run late getting home. When I got home to pack, I had forgotten to allow enough time to dry my clothes, and so my family arrived at my apartment right as the dryer was almost finishing. I counted out slightly damp underwear, shirts, socks, and pants, and threw them all, unfolded, into a duffel bag. I felt embarrassed because I had made my family run late. It turned out that it wasn’t a real problem, my parents had allowed for plenty of time to clear security, but I was ashamed, anyway.

The first time that I attended a scientific conference, I was preparing my slides on my computer. I didn’t like how PowerPoint typeset my equations, so I installed a piece of software that would do a better job of that. Between my unfamiliarity with this software and a goofy mistake, my computer wound up in an unbootable state; I had to reinstall the operating system, back up my data properly, then re-reinstall the operating system. Between repairing my computer and packing, I was up until two AM. I had to get up at 6 AM to be at the airport in time for an 8:30 flight. I was delayed going through security because the TSA agents were confused by the external hard drive I had wedged into my luggage. They opened my suitcase, and I didn’t want my underwear to be seen in front of everybody. I finished my slides in between Nashville and San Antonio.

I make lists. I have a list of everything I wish I’d brought on a trip, and before I pack, I just delete from the list the things I won’t need. I have an extra list, five items, that I have forgotten before: soap, shampoo, pajamas, towel, and underwear. The time that I forgot my towel, I thought about drying myself with my dirty clothes, but, instead, a friend let me share his towel with him. This is the one friend that I would regularly talk with while urinating in public restrooms, and, even then, it made me uncomfortable to share a towel with him.

The time that I forgot to pack underwear, I was on a retreat in upstate New York. I had packed precisely one pair of underwear, so I didn’t notice the problem until my third day on the retreat. At first, I thought that it was a prank, but it wasn’t. I took the morning off, from studying the Gospel of Mark, and drove an hour to the nearest K-Mart.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Chronic conditions

At five in the afternoon last Tuesday, I was walking to the bathroom and I paused and rubbed my eyes with the heels of my hands and I realized that the reason why I had had trouble getting work done was not because I was lazy or just generally distractible but because I have bipolar disorder and an anxiety disorder and so I have bad mood days sometimes.

A little later, I took a walk. I take a walk every day, going twice around the pond in front of the library. As I was walking I wanted to stop and lie down on the grass because I felt weak, like the weakness one feels when one has the flu. When I got back to the lab, I wanted to lie on the floor. A mood episode, to me, is not just between my ears, it is physical; it feels like pain throughout my body, it feels more like this than just having bad feelings like remorse or shame or deprivation.

I tried to figure out why I felt down. I couldn't think of any arguments or conflicts that I had had that were important. It was my first day back at work after Memorial Day weekend. Long weekends and vacations are disruptive to my routines and often set me up to have a bad mood. This is unusual, I suppose—people seem to enjoy having a long break from work. I could think of things that contributed to my bad mood, but I couldn't think of anything that could explain it entirely.

I thought that maybe I was dumb or lazy or weak-willed for having the bad mood day, as if it was my fault. I felt irate because I do a lot to manage my mood. I always take my medicine, I see a counselor, I have a healthy routine, I sleep well, I eat a lot of fruit, I go for walks, I meditate. I can do a lot of things to make my mood better most of the time, overall, but there's no way to keep myself from having bad mood episodes every so often. I used to be constantly distressed by my mood disorders; with treatment, I'm now happy most of the time. Psych problems are generally managed rather than cured. Psych treatment has made bad moods rarer, less intense, shorter, and they distort my understanding of myself less. When I have a bad mood day now, though, I am afraid that it's all over, that my mood will go back to the way it was.

If someone is hit with one arrow, it hurts; if someone is hit with a second arrow, it hurts more. The first arrow is pain, which is inevitable, and the second arrow is suffering, which, with practice, is optional. It’s common for people to be afraid of the dark. When they’re in the dark, some people are afraid of aliens. It’s natural to be afraid of the dark, but if, when you’re in the dark, you imagine being abducted by aliens, that narrative makes you more afraid and makes it harder for you to make good decisions to compensate for the fear of the dark.

Before I started getting treatment, mood episodes would cause me to ruminate on how much suffering there is in the world and how bad I am and how I can never do enough to become authentic, and all of that negative thinking worsened and prolonged my mood episodes. It was rare for me to just be depressed and feel sad, I would feel guilty. Rumination made me think that despair is normal and that it is normal for me to not like myself. I ruminate less when I have a bad mood episode. If I can find something about the circumstances around my mood that I can fix, I try to do that, but it’s more often the case that I need to quiet the part of me that is telling make-believe stories about what’s wrong. When I’m having a mood episode, worries will crawl up, but thinking about what to do about them at that time is often overwhelming, so I defer consideration of some worries by literally putting them on the calendar for a day or two ahead, when I’ll be feeling more competent to make good decisions. This works. I think that counseling and mindfulness practice have both contributed to this. I regard it as an accomplishment that when I have a bad mood day, I’m able to be merely sad, instead of feeling guilty or inadequate or ashamed. I don't brood anymore.

I normally have a few cups of coffee or tea each day. When I noticed my mood on Tuesday, I had iced rooibos tea, it's decaf. I sometimes use caffeine to get through a rough patch, but, last Tuesday, it was better to be tired and depressed than to be alert and depressed and maybe anxious, too.

Sometimes, working hard makes me feel better because it’s challenging and fulfilling, but, sometimes I need to rest, instead. Tuesday evening, I quit work early. I watched House while playing Hunters on my iPad. I felt bad, but I was distracted in a mindless way from my problems. I felt too weary to engage directly. I normally feel guilty when I spend my time idly, but I felt no guilt over this idleness, I felt accepting of my limitation. 
I take two kinds of medicine to manage my psych disorders. I take lamotrigine, an anti-convulsant mood stabilizer, it’s supposed to keep my mood from going too high or low. Lamotrigine has done a perfect job of preventing hypomanic episodes: I haven’t had one since I started taking it. Lamotrigine also has a mild sedative effect. I also take clonazepam for anxiety. It mellows me out, I feel calmer throughout the day. I take my pills about an hour before bed. At first, I just expected clonazepam to help me by making my temperament more serene, overall. I have found that it helps me in more nuanced ways. I can fall asleep precisely when I want to. I used to stay up until 4 AM, whether I wanted to or not; I could lie in bed for hours waiting to fall asleep. I don’t have to worry, anymore, about whether I’ll sleep soundly: I always do. The hour before I go to bed, as the clonazepam takes effect, I relax. I’ll read a book and eat some cheese and not worry about anything. This is when I feel the clonazepam most intensely, and this gives me a very calm window of time. As I’m getting ready for bed, I practice having mild thoughts, to have an easy bearing with myself.

Having a structured routine is helpful for me. It was difficult for me to have a regular schedule before I started taking medications, because my sleep schedule was so erratic. Now, I know that I can go to bed on time every night, wake up on time, feeling refreshed, and then have time for a relaxed morning routine before I start working; the momentum from this routine helps me start, even when I don’t feel like it.

It is rare that a bad mood descends or lifts in the middle of the day; it’s more normal for me to have a bad mood start or end after a night’s sleep. On bad mood days, I often go to bed with the attitude that, even if I have a bad mood today, it’s possible that I’ll feel better the next day; this doesn’t make the mood go away, but it’s a little bit of hope.

On Wednesday I was feeling poorly, too. I felt averse to spending time with other people. Depression is tricky because it makes me want to be alone, but spending time with people, especially laughing, is one of the best things I can do to improve my mood. I go to a Bible study group on Wednesday evenings, but I thought about not going; maybe I should just have some quiet time alone. I’m glad that I decided to go, anyway.

When I arrived, I offered the disclaimer, “I’m having a bad mood day, and so I might have trouble listening or paying attention.” My friends in my Bible study have the sort of understanding that before we talk about Bible things, we express what has us preoccupied. It sucks when you are standing in line at a convenience store and you make a joke to a stranger about the Go-Go Taquitos, and the joke doesn’t go over well, and you think it’s because he’s a well-dressed professional who is too fancy for jokes, and then you notice that a lot of people in the 7-Eleven are wearing suits and dresses and then you see, out the window, orange stickers on a lot of the windshields of the cars in the parking lot, and you realize that these people are in between burying someone and having Caesar salad and finger sandwiches and there is no way in which any joke about Taquitos could be funny to them. It was helpful for us to have a shared understanding of my state so that we could have sensible expectations about how I would react. This consideration is normal for us, whenever someone is having a difficult time, we try to listen to them and be accommodating.

It was helpful for me to join in an engrossing conversation about the Beatitudes; I was so focused I stopped thinking about how badly I felt. We were talking about the last Beatitude, the one about persecution. I don’t think that I’ve been persecuted; I’ve suffered and I’ve felt pain, but I haven’t been attacked very much for my beliefs and values. I was inspired hearing my friends talking about making good decisions when it was hard. Feeling proud of other people helps me be less concerned with myself.

We talked about people who seem to always be happy, and one friend said that these people are putting on a mask. I was confused, because I know people who I think are genuinely consistently happy. My friend clarified that it’s a good kind of mask. I think that what she meant was that the people who seem to always be happy, or at least hopeful, are so by way of choices that they make. Another friend talked about smiling; even if you’re having a bad mood, smiling can make you feel better. Self-expression doesn’t just need to be descriptive, it can honestly represent aspiration.

On Thursday, when I woke up, I felt better. Last year, I got the flu and felt nauseous for a few days and almost vomited. After the flu passed, I still didn’t feel like eating normal food. The last time that I had the flu, someone recommended that I try Gas-X; when one has an upset stomach and doesn’t eat as much as usual, gas can build up in the intestines and make eating again uncomfortable. I think the Gas-X was helpful. So, even though, on Thursday, I didn’t feel beset with depression, I tried to be careful with myself. I took breaks, I worked on easier, less-stressful projects. It felt good to be doing productive work and to be able to concentrate again. There was a power failure on campus that night. I had been hoping to work extra to compensate for the low productivity on Tuesday and Wednesday, but I think that the power failure was a happy accident for me. I ran some errands and then got home early and had time to relax.

I rely on my close friends and family to help me with my psych problems. I have some close friends that have bipolar disorder, depression, or anxiety, and their camaraderie is encouraging. However, confronting my psych problems is a solitary challenge because my mind is the only one in my head.

I could feel robbed by my psych problems, and try to figure out how much happiness they have cost me, how many hours I’ve wasted lying awake in bed or oversleeping in the morning, how much more research I would have gotten done or how many more books I would have read, but this line of thought has not been productive for me. Instead, I find that what I’ve done to treat and manage my psych problems is some of the work that I’m the most proud of. I am more acquainted with my mind than I would be if I didn’t have the disorders. My problems have forced me to learn that there is more to my mind than my thoughts. As much as I try to find positive things about this, I do feel like having these psych problems has been a loss, overall.

This is probably going to affect me for the rest of my life. I will always have bad mood days. Everyone has bad mood days, but I think that my bad mood days are worse than average, and that’s not fair. As I age, my condition will probably worsen; I will probably have more frequent and deeper depression. Electroshock therapy might help. Even though my psych problems will not disappear, and they may get worse, I do not need to be hindered by despair.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Bedtime for Regina

When I get home from the lab, I set my things down, put out the baby gate, and let Regina out of her cage. On the ground floor of my house are a living room, a dining room, and a kitchen, in a row; Regina’s cage is in the living room. At first, when it was time for Regina to play outside her cage, she would mostly stay in the living room and sometimes go into the dining room, but never the kitchen. I live in a Baltimore row house that was built in the 1890’s, before indoor plumbing was common, so the kitchen was an addition. It sits two steps down from the rest of the ground floor, and Regina, being a rabbit, does not, generally, find steps worth risking.

One time, I was cooking, and thought that it might be interesting to see how Regina liked the kitchen. She immediately hid under a cabinet, tucked behind some molding such that I couldn’t see her. I ate supper, and she was still hiding under the cabinet. I didn’t know what I could try to get her out, and I didn’t think she was in danger if I left her under the cabinet, so I went out for the evening to see some friends. When I got home, she was still under the cabinet, but when she saw me turn the light on, she hopped out and let me pick her up and take her to her cage.

After that, she understood how those kitchen stairs worked and knew that the best hiding place around is under the kitchen cabinets, so I have to put up a baby gate to keep her out of the kitchen.

It was annoying for me to set up the baby gate the first time because the house is so old that there are no parallel lines in it. So, I tried to set up the baby gate in the doorway, the proper way, with the little rubber stoppers pushing out on the doorway, but the doorway flares out at the bottom, so the baby gate wasn’t stable. I settled on just leaning the baby gate in front of the doorway to the kitchen.

One time, Regina got around the baby gate and into the kitchen, and I was scared and chased after her and she hid under the cabinets. I was scared because I had a rat trap in the kitchen; at the time, I had a rat infestation. I quickly put the rat trap away, because I didn’t want it to harm Regina, and I didn’t know how long I would have to wait for her to come out from under the cabinets. This time, I sat in the dining room, reading, and she got bored and came out in fifteen minutes. Ever since then, I have propped a chair in front of the baby gate, to keep Regina from slipping behind it.

Regina and I used to have a different bedtime routine than we do now. She likes to hide under furniture, especially the futon in the living room. I put some phone books under the futon, and she likes chewing on them and tearing the pages out. Also, I have a fireplace that doesn’t work; it’s set up for a wood-burning stove, but I don’t have a wood-burning stove, so instead I have a cinderblock that props up a flue for a wood-burning stove. Regina likes to hide in the fireplace, with her head behind the cinder block but her tail sticking out.

Regina, being a rabbit, is a prey animal; this dominates her behavior. To survive and procreate as a rabbit, one must forage and groom and burrow and make friends with other rabbits, but all of that is easily destroyed in a moment by a predator; I think that Regina’s strongest emotion isn’t greed or love, it’s fear.

It is difficult to take care of a rabbit because rabbits can run much faster than I can. So, when it was time for me to put Regina to bed, I would shake the back of the futon, and she would run out from behind it, randomly picking her next hiding spot, maybe under the cage or under the coffee table or under the china cabinet in the dining room. I would follow her around and nudge her out of each spot until, checkmate, she would hide in the fireplace and I would have her cornered and could pick her up and put her in her cage. Then I would have to hold her very tightly as I would lower her into her cage; if I didn’t, she might jump right out of my arms, being excited to get back into her safe place. One time, she got her paw stuck in the bars of her cage, and it was difficult for me to lift her paw out of the bars because rabbits tend to kick when they’re scared, so she was starting to flail a little bit and I wanted to make sure she didn’t break a bone.

Canines, like wolves and foxes and dogs, are the main predators of rabbits. When a canine catches a rabbit, the canine doesn’t kill the rabbit on the spot, it picks the rabbit up and takes it somewhere secure to break its neck by shaking it. Regina is not a fully socialized animal; she isn’t wild, but she also isn’t docile. My sister has a rabbit, Shadow, that was reared by a breeder who would make sure that all of the baby rabbits were handled a little bit every day, and so my sister’s rabbit is very docile, she seeks out human touch. Regina, though, is not accustomed to being held, and her instincts make being carried scary for her. When I’m sitting on the futon, she will sometimes hop up and let me pet her a little bit, but then she’ll hop away; that she gets close to me at all makes me think that she understands that I’m safe for her. Even so, at the age she is, I don’t think she will ever feel safe being carried by a human.

Regina and I visited my family for Christmas last year, we stayed for a few days. My sister has a big rabbit pen, and we put both of our rabbits in it and tried to introduce them. Regina and Shadow hopped up to each other, sniffed each other, nose to nose, and then, suddenly, Shadow ripped a tuft of fur off of Regina, who, startled, ran to hide behind me. We separated them quickly. Evidently, this is not how to introduce rabbits.

While visiting my family, Regina stayed in a borrowed cage that sat on the ground; this was different for her, because her cage at home is like a little cart, with the base about a foot and a half off the floor. The last night of our visit, my sister and I tried to gradually introduce our rabbits to each other, and it was helpful for Regina to be in a cage that she could hop out of and into as she wished. She was nervous, in a strange place, and she had been harmed by Shadow. We put the two cages close together, maybe a foot apart. We left Shadow’s cage closed but opened the door to Regina’s; after a couple of minutes, when she felt safe, she hopped out and put her paws up on Shadow’s cage. They sniffed at each other. Regina then went back into her cage, and we shut the door. Then, Shadow took a turn coming out of her cage on her own, with Regina staying in her cage, and they sniffed some more. This was safe for them because if one was scared of the other, she could step back, and the wall of the cage would protect her. Next Christmas, if we spend more time letting the rabbits get acquainted, maybe they will be able to play together.

After we got home from being away for Christmas, I thought of how scary it is for Regina to be picked up and taken to her cage when she is done playing. Even though bedtime was scary for her, I thought that it was worth it for her to get good exercise and to have more space to explore in. I wanted to see if there was a way for her to play outside her cage without having to be picked up. On a snow day in January when I was home, I stacked some boxes and phone books to make stairs leading up to the door of her cage. She didn’t try standing on them at first, so I picked her up and set her halfway down the stairs, and she figured out how to get down from there. After I helped her practice some more, she would enter and leave her cage at will. Not long after that, I got her a little stool from Ikea that has two steps, and that works fine as stairs to let her get up and down from the cage.

It’s often the case that I have to go to bed before she would go back to her cage on her own, so I have to coax her. I might nudge her out from under the china cabinet, or lift the back of the futon, but now, instead of me trying to corner her in the fireplace, our routine looks like her taking a couple of steps and me following her very slowly so as not to startle her; if I startle her, she looks for the best hiding place she can and we have to start all over. If I’m careful enough, we walk in circles around the coffee table a couple of times, and then she looks at the stairs and decides that it is a good time for her to climb them and enter her cage. I close the cage door behind her and tell her that she did a good job.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Silly and contrived bits of folk theology

One Friday evening, at a fundamentalist, non-denominational Bible college, a student was returning to his dorm after supper. No one was at the front desk of the building. When he got to his hall, he saw several folded up piles of clothes. A few of the doors to the dorm rooms were open. A folded pile of clothes was sitting in a desk chair, with glasses propped neatly on top of an open book. There was silence, except for the sound of an electric shaver running; it was lying on the floor in front of the vanity, next to a folded towel.

He was studying to be a youth pastor. As he prayed, out loud, asking God why he hadn’t been taken, too, Was he unworthy? Was it too late to repent?, tears started falling from his cheeks. Then his fellow residents came out of hiding and started to laugh at him. Trying not to look embarrassed, he forced a couple of chuckles.

“You don't believe in the Rapture?!” Joanna asked me, as if I wasn’t a true Christian.

“No." I said. "Wait, you believe in the Rapture?”

I had mostly been raised going to Presbyterian churches, but at this point in my life, my family was going to a hip non-denominational seeker-sensitive contemporary church with a more eclectic set of conservative Christian beliefs. The question of whether I believed in the Rapture was suddenly more complicated than I had thought. I thought I didn’t believe in it, that only wacky fundamentalists did, but I didn’t think that Joanna was a wacky fundamentalist.

Joanna: “But I thought that all Christians believe in the Rapture. So you don’t think Jesus is coming back?”

Me: “I think Jesus is coming back, I just don’t believe in the Rapture. I’m not even sure what that is. I don’t think the word, ‘Rapture’ is in the Bible.”

We were fourteen, and I think that we were trying to have the same sort of argument that our parents would have at Bible study. One time, when Mom and Dad got home from Bible study, Mom told me that Joanna’s mom, who was leading the study, started by reading a passage from Mark and, after the reading, said, “And that’s why I’m a premillennial dispensationalist.” The discussion was, evidently, stressed, which was odd because my parents and Joanna’s parents and the other grown-ups at Bible study were friends. I don’t remember much else that was said in the conversation with Joanna. I recall that I thought that she thought that I didn’t properly believe the Bible. I had previously thought she was normal, and now I was afraid that my friend was one of those End Times people.

The distinctions between our understandings were so pedantic that I didn’t properly understand that argument until I was at least twenty. There is general agreement among Christians that Jesus is coming back someday, that the earth will be transformed, and that Christians who had died will be resurrected. The quaint beliefs that pop culture associates with Christian beliefs about the end of the world, things like people vanishing, leaving behind neatly folded piles of clothes, glasses, and their dental fillings; planes crashing out of the sky if the pilot and copilot are both Christians; computers used for processing credit cards being a sign of the apocalypse; these are bound up in the premillennial dispensationalist tradition that is American, new, and obscure.

The Rapture wasn’t called The Rapture in a way that had much traction until the mid-1800’s. The term is mostly used by premillennial dispensationalists; this group is the part of conservative Christianity that is the most likely to predict when the world will end or try to identify an Antichrist. This particular apocalyptic tradition was popularized primarily through three works: Cyrus Scofield’s Scofield Reference Bible, Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth, and Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkin’s Left Behind series. The Scofield Reference Bible was an annotated King James Bible with cross-references for convenient proof-texting.

I can’t find a clear reference from scripture about people leaving behind folded clothes when they get taken by Jesus, but this sensational image is a good example of how the general understanding of the Rapture, by the people who believe in it, is folk theology.

These doctrines are explained with a lot of charts. The movement gets its name from the idea that God’s grace is given out in seven “dispensations”, that there was one set of rules for being saved in the Garden of Eden, then another before the flood, then another after the flood but before Abraham, and so on. There are charts comparing text from an Old Testament prophecy, a bit from Revelation, and a list of nations, including Israel and the United States and Iraq (the new Babylon) and a resuscitated Roman empire (the European Union?). The ideas in the End Times movement are speculative, but presented as if they’re clear and plain and well-thought-out. This method is different from most Biblical literalists’ approach.

I was raised Presbyterian, and Presbyterians, being, by nature, reserved people, they normally have more reserved views of the End Times: an attitude that no one will know when Jesus is coming back until he does, and when he gets here, he’ll tell us what to do. People from the Presbyterian tradition are likely to scoff at the elaborate, overconfident storytelling around the Rapture.

One afternoon, when I was maybe ten, I was lying on my bed, reading, when I heard a fanfare. I thought, “Maybe Jesus is coming back today!” Then I heard, “Herge’s Adventures of Tintin!” It turned out that one of my brothers was watching a video. Even though my family didn’t believe in a lot of the specifics that the premillennial dispensationalists do, and even though I knew that I couldn’t know when Jesus would come back, I still hoped that he would, soon.

“You don't believe in the Prayer of Jabez?” my cousin asked me, a little shocked.

“I believe that he prayed that prayer, and it worked out fine for him,” I said, “but the Bible doesn’t set up Jabez’s prayer as a proper example of prayer. The Lord’s prayer, or the Psalms, those are better models for prayer.” I suppose I was sixteen or so. The Prayer of Jabez was the latest evangelical fad. Bruce Wilkinson wrote a book about Jabez, an obscure Old Testament figure stuck in the middle of a list of “begets”; here is everything the Bible says about Jabez:

Jabez was honored more than his brothers; and his mother named him Jabez, saying, “Because I bore him in pain.” Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying, “Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from hurt and harm!” And God granted what he asked.

(1 Chronicles 4:9-10)

Somehow, Wilkinson stretched those two verses out into a book; his publisher then made more books based on that book, devotionals, journals, and so on, albums of worship music based on The Prayer of Jabez, mousepads, keychains, scented candles. Someone’s borders got enlarged.

I think that the phenomena of Rapture fandom and the popularity of The Prayer of Jabez are parallel: they are somewhat consistent with the Bible, but not clearly supported by it. They aren’t developed gradually from existing theological traditions, they feel like an idea that some guy had one time. They are convenient, neatly packaged beliefs. With the Rapture, you get the secret code from the Bible that explains the end of the world. With The Prayer of Jabez, you get a secret password that gives you access to God’s magical powers.

There is a stream in the woods behind the house I grew up in, and there’s a little island in that stream. It’s barely an island, it’s a bump of dirt in the middle of Bynum Run. One time, when I was maybe eight, the older kids told me stories about how there used to be a house on that island and that now the island is haunted and I was scared. When Dad got home from work, I asked him if he believed in ghosts. “Yes,” he said, “One. The Holy Ghost.” He smiled, and I felt less afraid. My parents are skeptical people. Whenever magicians would perform on TV, Dad would try to figure out how the tricks worked. My parents don’t believe in horoscopes or homeopathy or Reiki energy or space aliens. My parents raised me to be skeptical, and so we rejected the folk theology around the Rapture, and we didn’t pray the prayer of Jabez, and we managed to avoid other Christian fads.

I have a complicated relationship with my previous Christian self. I feel a little disappointed in myself that it took me so long to come to non-belief in God. As a bit of consolation, I’m inclined to think that, even though I was a Christian, I was a shrewd Christian. The things that I thought then, while not correct, were more carefully put together than the Rapture and Prayer of Jabez movements.

I don't believe the story at the start of this essay, about the Bible college dorm Rapture hoax. I don’t quite remember where I heard it, and I can’t find a source to for it. For a while, I thought it was true, though. Part of why I believed the story is that it confirmed what I thought, not about the Rapture, but about the people who were preoccupied with it.

And now, as I’m thinking about Christian folk religion, I think I’m a little dishonest with myself to think that I managed to only get the good, high-quality Christian doctrines. There were silly and contrived bits of folk theology that I believed for selfish reasons, but it’s difficult for me to identify, now, what they were, because I don’t want to think of myself as gullible. For example, I was a young-earth creationist, and that sort of belief seems more well-thought-out to me than the Rapture and the Prayer of Jabez, but maybe it isn’t, maybe it’s just as thin. Maybe what makes young-earth creationism different from the Rapture and the Prayer of Jabez is that it was a thing that I believed.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


As I was falling asleep last night, I felt quiet, not public library quiet, but after-a-big-thunderstorm quiet. My mind felt quiet, I wasn’t having many thoughts, I didn’t feel compelled to.

One time, when I was going through a break-up, I tried to fast for a day, to clear my mind; I made it until 2 PM and then went to KFC and got a barbecue chicken sandwich and macaroni, and then I went back to fasting. The next day, I was so upset, I couldn’t eat at all, even though I wasn’t fasting. One friend describes breaking up like this: when you discover that a favorite piece of clothing is getting a little worn and maybe isn’t good to wear out and about, you put it in your bottom dresser drawer; after a break-up, it’s like you get to wear those favorite old clothes again.

Everyone has annoying habits, things like cracking knuckles or using words like “irregardless” and “inflammable”, or always being a little late, or, when going out to eat, making detailed requests of the waiter. So, even when a break-up is about something important, acts of betrayal or disappointment or irresponsibility, months after a break-up, it’s the passing of these minor, petty grievances that gives relief; realizing that you are, for sure, not going to spend the rest of your life with someone who eats their Oreos by splitting them in two and then scraping the frosting off with their teeth.

I used to do research for the Army. I thought that the war in Iraq was unjustified and, although what I was doing wasn’t going directly to Iraq, just working for the Department of Defense concerned me.

About half of the work itself was material testing. In The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace, the main characters work for the Internal Revenue Service in Peoria, Illinois, because IRS work is repetitive and dull but requires attention to detail. That was what testing materials was like: a pointed boredom. One time, I did the same test two hundred times in one week. I wasn’t well-suited for the job. I would sneeze and lose samples, tiny ones, down into the screw holes on an optical table. One time, I got dizzy from epoxy fumes while trying to mount some instruments on samples.

The other half of my job was making software tools to collect and analyze data. This was more interesting than just doing the tests, but even when I was making tools, although the way that the tools worked was a little interesting to me, what they did wasn’t. Only a couple of people would even use these tools.

There were all sorts of more minor things about that job that I hated. I hated the commute, which was an hour and a half during rush hour. I hated the security policies; to get to my desk, I had to pass checkpoints and show my badge and swipe my badge. I had to wear a badge and it turns out that I don’t like wearing badges; they’re awkward and dangly. I had to take the badge to the Front Desk once a month, and I wasn’t good at remembering this; when I forgot, which was about four times, there weren’t any actual consequences except the worker at the front desk glaring at me.

I tried to quit that job once, but my next gig wasn’t lined up properly, so I was stuck with the job for another four months. I think that made my dislike of the job worse. When I finally was able to quit, I started grad school, which scared me, but I kept remembering that old job and thinking about how glad I was to have something else to do.

Most people, after a break-up, plan on dating someone else, eventually, and most people quit one job planning on starting another, at least eventually. As I was quitting Christianity, though, I wasn’t considering Krishna or Thor. I didn’t exactly find a new thing. I meditate a little, I go to weekly meetings of the Secular Student Alliance, I read, but all of those things, put together, aren’t like a replacement for Christianity. At first, quitting was difficult, like the feeling very hungry or too upset to eat; I lost a lot of sleep, I would have night panics. I would wander around outside late at night.

I used to pray, not as much as I thought I should, but enough that I felt like God was always with me. When I would go for a walk or sit in silence or drive in my car, I felt like I wasn’t alone. In the morning, my alarm clock would wake me up, I would roll out of bed, walk across my room to turn off the clock, then stand there in my pajamas and pray, just to deal with getting up.

Mornings became more difficult after I started to doubt. Why was I waking up—to what end? Why do the things that I do matter? How do I know if I’m doing well enough? How do I go about not feeling bad? Sometimes, I overslept, often until noon. I kept cans of Red Thunder by my bed, to jolt myself awake with caffeine, as soon as I would wake up.

And one day between then and now I woke up, not praying, not missing prayer, feeling a little cranky because I always feel a little cranky when I wake up. Then I used the bathroom, and then went downstairs and ground some coffee beans and foamed some milk for cappuccino, and I did the same thing the next day, and the next day, and eventually, I stopped noticing that I was alone and it seemed normal, and now it feels good.

I would say that I thought about this as I fell asleep last night, but I didn’t, because I wasn’t thinking so much as being quiet.