Saturday, December 20, 2014

Chivalry is Undead

A lot of people will tell you that chivalry is dead, but that's not (completely) true. Chivalry is in a zombified, liminal state--and that's how we need to keep it. A few tips for all the menfolk out there to help keep chivalry undead:

  • Make sure you stay between any female you are walking with and traffic. For example, as you cross a street together, first stand on her left side to be between her and oncoming traffic, and then when you get halfway across the road, switch to the right side since now traffic is coming from the other way. A true man will make this seamless and almost unnoticeable. (Pro tip: directions are reversed in the United Kingdom.)
  • Stand whenever a woman enters a room. Never sit back down; doing so would be rude.
  • Open doors for women. This used to be a simple act of physically pulling on a literal door and allowing women to walk through. Nowadays, though, women can work as well as walk, so you should make sure to open all possible career opportunity doors for women and patiently hold them until a woman walks through it (metaphorically). Be creative and come up with other types of "doors" that you could potentially open for women, and make sure to shame any man who doesn't play along!
  • Pay for women's meals at restaurants. If you are eating alone, or with only male friends, pick a random female at a table and discreetly drop about $20 on her plate as you leave. $30 if the place is kinda fancy.
What other ways have you found to keep some semblance of a shadow of an 800+-year-old system that treats women as categorically weak and in constant need of protection from becoming completely dead? This is an important battle in the zombie chivalry apocalypse, so fight on!

Monday, December 15, 2014

I'd like to bear my testimony of Bob Dylan . . .

Today I watched a fun video about a unique Bob Dylan concert:


As part of a Swedish TV show looking into what it's like to experience alone things you'd normally do in a social setting, they flew one Bob Dylan superfan, Fredrik Wikingsson, to Philadelphia to hear a Bob Dylan concert with only him in the audience. Besides being an interesting experiment and featuring some great Dylan music (albeit all covers), I was really struck by the (admittedly somewhat cheesy) follow-up questions they asked Fredrik, probing for what it meant to have this one of a kind experience.

In particular, Fredrik said that being alone made the experience itself probably more intense and powerful than it would have been in a normal setting full of other people. It also afforded him what sounds like the surreal experience of being completely mesmerized by the performance while it's happening (which happens often at a concert, I think) but then being very suddenly jolted out of that trance when he starts clapping alone after the first song and realizes how weird that is, how there is no acceptable way to act because that never happens--I can only imagine the mental whiplash!

However, Fredrik was conflicted about it, too:
I'm both grateful and happy that I was the only one there. But once I stepped out of the theater, all confused and dizzy, it could have been more intense if I had someone to share it with. In that way, I'm torn about the experience.
One thing Fredrik usually loves about seeing Dylan live (which he'd done about 20 times before this) is to turn to friends and process and relive it together. Did he really play Changing of the Guard with a reggae beat? His harmonica playing is as good as it was in '66! etc. But with this experience, there is no one to share it with, he's ultimately alone with it. (Obviously the above video of the event, even if it were more than just clips of the songs, can never come close to the actual lived experience. [1]) That made it more intense in the moment, but perhaps undermined the long-term enjoyment of it as well.

Anyway, all of that is to lead in to a random connection I made between that fun video and another interesting tidbit I came across today, a post from By Common Consent titled “Life withers when there are things we cannot share.” One of the things the author, Blair Hodges, argues is that a testimony only exists (or perhaps exists more fully) in a social setting. Leading with what he freely admits is a clickbait-y intro ("I don't have a testimony"), he argues that ownership of such a thing as a testimony is in some sense impossible:
I don’t have a testimony because I don’t feel like a testimony is something I can personally and actually have.
Especially not all to myself. I think a lot of Mormons recognize this deep down. After all, the setting where we most often use the word “testimony” is a group setting—a fast and testimony meeting. This is where we share our thoughts, beliefs, experiences; a testimony is really only such when it’s being shared. It exists in the gap between me and you, or maybe in me and you, but not separately, not ever. Testimony is the narratives we create together, the truths we forge out of the myriad experiences and sensations of our day-to-day lives, stories about our lives, and testimonies are always interpersonal just like people are. You are not you without me, and I’m not either; we must testify and we must live, but only together.
There's certainly a profound way in which this is true. It reminded me of the phrase "a testimony is found in the bearing of it"--in its original context the phrase of course is more about a reverent leap of faith than the social necessity of a testimony, but I still think it's apt in this more subversive context, too. A testimony is born anew every time it is expressed. We almost don't know what our testimonies really are until we put them to the test of trying to share them with others and see what words really spring to mind as we funnel our thoughts into narrow language, what the Spirit and ourselves feel the need to tell others (and ourselves) about our experiences and our hopes. Sometimes our testimony has changed, or the way it needs to be expressed has changed, whether because we've changed (for better or worse or just changed) or whether because we're in a different setting. We may have utterly transcendent experiences alone in our personal sacred groves, but if we don't or can't share some version of that with other people who have also been there we are torn much more than Fredrik was after his lonely Bob Dylan concert. That social aspect is crucial to whatever it means to "have" a testimony. Social experiences are crucial to spiritual life. [2] Ideally, a testimony might even be the best of both Fredrik's worlds: an intensely intimate, one-on-one experience with the divine--but one that others have shared. To be almost blasphemously trite, God puts on concerts for one every day.

So there you have it. Bob Dylan again illuminates gospel principles. Truly a prophet in these latter days :)

But seriously, I'm grateful for this beautiful, complicated world that we live in, and a loving God that watches over and guides it and helps us bring some order to it. I'm very thankful for friends and family and ward members to share my spiritual experiences with, and that they share theirs with me. I can't imagine how dry my life would be without all of that. And that is my simple, cheesy testimony of the moment. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

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[1] In fact, in some ways the video is very different from the real experience. Fascinatingly, Fredrik has refused to watch the video of him watching the concert "in order to keep his own memories of the experience pristine."

[2] This social aspect also reminds me of Doctrine and Covenants 130:2 "And that same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory, which glory we do not now enjoy." Fittingly, verse 1 of this section is about entering into sociality with Christ.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Privilege, Job's Friends, and Ferguson

[The following post was written for the website Mormon Liberals, but I figured I might as well share it here too.]

I recently listened to a captivating podcast about the Book of Job. There was a lot of good stuff in it, but one thing that jumped out at me as relevant to the tragedies going on in Ferguson (and elsewhere) was the discussion of Job's friends. When Job is in the depths of anger and frustration at the horrible things happening to him, his "comforters" set him straight: no, it isn't possible that Job didn't bring this malady upon himself via sin--God only punishes the wicked! God blesses the righteous--that's an axiom found throughout scripture! Job, you need to repent and admit you've done wrong!

With hindsight (and/or thanks to the omniscient narrator of the story) we know that Job hasn't sinned, but the crucial point here is that his friends literally could not comprehend that that might be the case. Their identities were bound up in the idea of an immediately just God, one who could never allow suffering of the kind Job experienced to come upon someone who didn't at least deserve it. That was the water they swam in. We are meant to be yelling at Job's interlocutors: "Shut up and listen! Consider that you might be wrong!" But the point is that *we* are Job's friends.

The idea of "privilege" is one way of thinking about why Job's friends reacted the way they did--and why we often do too. I recently read an article that does a solid job of explaining privilege by analogizing it to how bikers and drivers view the world. I recommend reading the whole thing, but the gist is that bikers have to constantly be aware that cars could at any time seriously injure them, while the system allows drivers to barely give any thought to bike riders at all. Drivers are relatively safe and don't have to think too much about getting from point A to point B in safety, while bikers don't have that luxury. The article points out how that does not at all mean that drivers are bad people as individuals--some are very good people, some are jerks, most are meh--but simply that there is a system in place that makes life easier for drivers than for bikers. The entire infrastructure of transportation just makes it easier for drivers regardless of their actual thought process or behavior: "Nice, non-aggressive drivers that don’t do anything at all to endanger me are still privileged to pull out of their driveway each morning and know that there are roads that go all the way to their destination. They don’t have to wonder if there are bike lanes and what route they will take to stay safe. In the winter, they can be certain that the snow will be plowed out of their lane into my lane and not the other way around."

Job's friends had the privilege of health and material prosperity--a/k/a ability privilege and class privilege. Their theological system more or less cohered with their lived experience, so they didn't have to think about how solid it actually was. Job's pain, rather than causing them to ask hard questions about what they had always believed, was seized as an opportunity to explain how right their understanding of the world was.

For white people (like me, by the way), there is an invisible-to-us system called racism that benefits us--whether we want it to or not. It exists in bigger and smaller ways: we don't have to think about the fact that we aren't followed around in stores, or that people don't touch our hair, or that "Jacob Martin" on a resume generates more interest from potential employers than "Jamal Washington," or that a police officer is more likely to think an object in the hands of a black man is a gun than the same object in my hand. We get that luxury. That's privilege. [1]

When African-Americans speak up, protest, agitate, rally, and get mad about the police killing Michael Brown, an(other!) unarmed young black man, the replies from too many whites that "He stole some cigarettes" or "Black-on-black crime is an epidemic, though" or even "Let's wait for all the facts to come in," [2] strike me as too much like what Job's friends said. These responses miss the mark in many ways, but one of them is that African Americans are crying out about an entire system that is stacked against them, and their "comforters" are playing whack-a-mole by nitpicking at their particular examples.

At this point, you might be nodding along, saying "Yeah, those racist ignoramuses at Fox News are the worst!" But that is much too easy. Liberals get in on this act, too: political affiliation does not a cure-all for systemic oppression make. I've heard too many stories about liberal and/or democratic Mormon facebook groups that tolerate harsh misogyny, racism, trans-antagonism, and all kinds of other problematic behavior. Just this week, the Salt Lake Tribune published an article talking about how, for at least some black Mormon women, the Ordain Women movement is seen as focusing on white issues more than those affecting people of color. Again, most of these examples are not done with the intent to harm or exclude (I know that OW, for example, has taken explicit steps to try to be more racially inclusive), but pain caused by ignorance or in spite of good intentions is still pain. Listening and humbly changed behavior are required. The lesson of Job's friends, and of privilege, is that we need to look inside ourselves and be humble enough to lift our siblings up and truly comfort and support them, not tell them why they're wrong.

Privilege is not about hating white people, or men, or anyone else. When I hear an invitation to check my privilege, I hear a plea to live out the creed found in Mosiah 18 to bear one another's burdens. Inevitably, I screw up. When that happens and I'm called out on it, it's easy to feel attacked or argue. The question of the gospel is whether I will be like Job's friends and get defensive and double down on my worldview when someone who is suffering points out my unhelpful approaches, or whether I will stop, listen, and change.

The events in Ferguson were sparked by a tragic killing that unnecessarily took a man's life. But that cannot be all that it is. We need to talk about ongoing segregation in housing, education, government, and every other walk of life. We need to talk about police efforts that disproportionately target people of color. We need to talk about how all of this interacts with class, gender, sexuality, and so much more. Ferguson needs to be a critical time for each of us to look into our own hearts and commit to be better, to admit where we stumble, to be led by marginalized communities who are teaching us how to improve this world.

I pray that each of us can look at ourselves and recognize the areas where we are privileged, where the world is easier for us than others because of unjust systems that often feel invisible to us, the benefited. Let us be Christ's hands to embrace those who are suffering, let us seek out the beam in our own eyes, let us be humble. The rhetoric of privilege is most productive when we find it benefiting ourselves and work to change the systems that perpetuate it. I believe this is what the gospel calls us to do.

[1] And of course racial privilege is just one example; analogous--though not interchangeable--systems support men, heterosexuals, cisgender people, relatively wealthy people etc.

[2] Yes, by all means, I want more facts, too. But if we use that as an excuse to discount the anger and frustration that's being expressed right now then we're part of the problem.

Monday, August 4, 2014

e.e. as a grammatical phrase

In addition to "i.e." and "e.g.," I think we should have "e.e." as a grammatical phrase. It would be used to introduce a clause that is inspired by, or quoting, E.E. Cummings. For example: "Everyone should contemplate the nature of mortality, e.e. how do you like your blueeyed boy Mister Death."

Sunday, August 3, 2014

How to Make Epic Pancakes With Your American Fire Safe

I recently came across this recipe for making pancakes with a rice cooker, and after seeing the results, I found out that I could do one better: making a pancake with your fire safe!

Ingredients:

  • Your favorite pancake mix
  • A fire safe
  • A fireplace
Directions:
  • To start, simply toss your pancake mix and any other ingredients it calls for into the fire safe.
  • Next, stir everything together until it reaches a uniform consistency.
  • Build a fire in your fireplace.
  • After that, lock the fire safe and throw it in the fire.
  • Turn over the safe every 15 to 20 minutes.
  • After just 45 minutes, take the safe out of the fireplace and serve your delicious pancake!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Happy Ada Lovelace Day!

Today is Ada Lovelace Day! If you don't know, Ada Lovelace was the first computer programmer--and her work was done about 100 years before modern computers were invented! A few years ago, Ada Lovelace Day was started to celebrate women, past and present, in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). In that spirit, I just wanted to give a shoutout to two awesome women I know in those fields.

My sister Diana is an amazingly talented accountant--probably the most practical form of mathematics there is. (She also has a great gift for incisive, charitable political thinking, but that's not the point of Ada Lovelace Day so I won't mention it.)

My friend Erin is getting a Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering, which is pretty freaking cool no matter how you cut it. I love talking to her about xkcd, outer space, and anything that makes us laugh.

I might have included a few other super-cool women in STEM fields, but they don't have blogs, so they lose out on this round. Anyway, I'm grateful to live in a world where people are able to enter fields they find interesting regardless of gender (though there are still plenty of informal obstacles to be conquered). Rock on, heiresses to Ada Lovelace's legacy!

Body of Christ

One of the things I like about religion (and life in general) is the way things can mean two different things. Puns are one light example, but I think of symbols as falling in this same general category. I was thinking this last Sunday about the multiple meanings of the body of Christ as I took the sacrament.

The bread of the sacrament represents Christ's literal body, which was broken and torn for us. It's a poignant reminder of his suffering, which itself is a representation of the love he had for us. But (probably inspired by this post about the sacrament) I was also thinking of the other scriptural meaning of the body of Christ. The phrase is also a metaphor for the Church, meaning the people who make up the followers of Christ. Paul speaks beautifully about how we are all part of one large body of Christ, and every body part is equally valuable. (Good thing he didn't have access to this wikipedia article.)

In this secondary context, the sacrament reminded me of how the members of Christ's church (broadly construed) are all torn and hurt, ravaged at times in ways that remind us of Christ's own suffering. As I ate the bread that was handed to me, I tried to think of the members of the Church who feel broken and bruised--and how I might be able to help them. I confess I didn't come up with any particularly insightful answers, but I did feel a kinship to my fellow sisters and brothers, and a renewed desire to make them feel like they really do belong to the body of Christ. I consider this a theological pun :)