Monthly Archives: April 2016

Dreams

I don’t believe in God, but that hasn’t stopped the universe from occasionally throwing me exactly what I need at exactly the right time. Large numbers; they work, bitches!

I love my job. I’m also about to quit my job, to work part time and go into nursing. It’s a field I think I’ll love just as much as I love chasing tiny humans around. It also isn’t what I want my career to be. As always, I want my career to be writing.

But the trouble with that goal is that I have no idea when it will pay off. In the meantime, I want to afford a house with my boyfriend and show a social worker that we have enough money to adopt my own tiny human. I want a puppy and, when I have shown my boyfriend enough pictures of tiny sneks in hats that his fear of them is overcome, an entire room devoted to reptiles. I want things that take at least a moderate and stable income. So, I’m going to go invest time and money into a skill set that will let me do a thing, and keep on writing in the meantime.

What makes this feel worst to me is that it feels like betting against myself. Taking this step is like saying to all the characters living inside my head, “listen, you’re great and all, but I need to grow up.” Which is not the message I want to send them at all.

Anna Akana is an actress and Youtube comedian who I have been following for a while. She’s an absolutely perfect human being and I can’t get enough of her. Today, she posted a video about dreams and passions, about working but still making time to do the thing you love, and it really encouraged me. Sure, I have a backup plan in case I do end up being one of those authors who doesn’t get big until relatively late in their lives (aka one of the normal ones). That doesn’t mean for a moment that I’ll stop writing and dreaming and trying to break into the world of storytelling. And as long as I’m loving what I’m doing, it doesn’t matter whether I’ve attained a particular level of success or not.

Here’s the video; its short and I highly recommend giving it a watch yourself.

Take care, and thanks as always for reading.

Who Do We Honor?

I’m stretching the definition of the writerly blog for today. Bear with me.

Harriet Tubman has been in the news lately. Specifically, her relationship to the $20 bill. And also Andrew Jackson. XKCD sums the issue up nicely (actual newspaper link for those who want it).

It puts me in mind of this Stephen Fry interview, in which he makes many points that I think are intelligent, then illustrates them with examples that I think are terrible. He claims that people often seek simplistic solutions and black and white views of a world that is really very complex. He illustrates this with, among other things, the movement to take down the statue in Oxford of Cecil Rhodes. Stephen Fry doesn’t want a society where the bad things someone does are enough to erase the good they do, and I agree. But I think he is missing the point with that particular figure, just like those who moved Jackson to the back instead of removing him entirely.

He is right that historical figures are complicated. If we don’t have records of them doing a problematic thing, its because we don’t have very comprehensive records. Flaws are a side effect of being human. The women and queer folk and POC who I would like to see getting more honor all have their flaws too, and that’s okay. The problem is that for some of the great white men, if you stack their good sides up next to their bad sides, one tends to dwarf the other.

For example…

Andrew Jackson

Good; He was the first president to come from a fairly humble background, which is cool. Reformed some government policies that were tending towards cronyism and corruption. Generally kept the economy from tanking, which is good. It’s a thing presidents should do.

Bad; He was singlehandedly responsible for the Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears.He used his power as commander-in-chief to march thousands of people, including children, into barren deserts. Over ten thousand human beings died along the way, because of him.

Cecil Rhodes

Good; He was very good at being a bureaucratic government-type person. Also set up a scholarship; not for people who are broke or anything, just Americans who want to study in the England and vice versa.

Bad; That bureaucratic talent was dedicated to colonizing Africa. He was a huge racist, so all of his policies were aimed at making sure whites had it better than blacks, and he considered that to be a great, humanitarian effort. Because, you know, Africans were too sub-human to effectively govern themselves. Even the Rhodes Scholarship had some icky racist elements in its founding.

If you look at the historiography of these men, its clear that their fame was not based in good things done despite their human failings. Historians of the past considered their crimes a positive good, and so they were lifted up. Similarly, historians of the past dismissed the achievements of those who weren’t straight white men whenever possible. We have only so much room for statues. We have only so many types of currency. We have no shortage of unrecognized heroes whose good sides aren’t inextricably tangled with oppressive ideologies, or whose bad sides don’t involve the deaths of any children at all.

Watching Dogma When I Doubted

When I first watched this movie, I was a bit disappointed. On each subsequent viewing, however, I’ve enjoyed it more, and now its one of my favorite comedies.

At the time, I was right at that in between space, between belief and disbelief. I had grown up with a religion full of answers. This is why bad things happen. This is how forgiveness works. This is how we know God is real. I had been assured so many times that if my faith was tested, it would always be found true, and so I had plunged into testing it, researching and arguing with unbelievers in hopes that I could save their souls. Instead, I found that the simple, tidy answers I had been given were not so satisfying. They held up well to the straw men portrayed in my childhood literature, but real humans had more complex, thought out ideas, more probing questions. I didn’t know what to believe.

So when I watched this movie, I hoped I would find those answers. Instead, I found something better. I found permission to not have answers.

I’m not going to try to recreate the experience of this movie, because I think jokes are extremely vulnerable to spoilers. I’d hate to ruin the humor for someone who hasn’t seen it, so I’ll just briefly summarize the plot. A pair of fallen angels find a way back to heaven, but unfortunately a side effect of their plan is obliteration of all existence. God is mysteriously MIA, so Metatron (the angelic voice of God) resorts to the oldest, most reliable plan in the book; assemble a ragtag team of unlikely misfits. The protagonist is Bethany, a Catholic who still goes to church, but has essentially lost her faith. She is helped by Jay and Silent Bob, a muse named Serendipity, and Rufus, the previously unknown black apostle.

Metatron
Metatron is Alan Rickman, which in and of itself is reason enough to watch this film.

When I most recently rewatched it, I expected to be frustrated by the fact that it teases you with doubt and complexity but ultimately concludes that God is still the bestest ever, but I actually don’t think it’s that simple. God does cause suffering, or at least allows it to happen, and nobody says you have to worship her. Her characterization allowed for a number of interpretations, and I decided mine was that she is a being of power who sustains the rest of the world by her infallible assertion that it exists, but she herself is a flawed and evolving person, just like the rest of us.

God
Oh yeah, and God is played by Alanis Morissette

I said its one of my favorite comedies, but it would be more accurate to say its one of my favorite films that happens to be in the comedy genre. I think some of the jokes are great and others just aren’t my preferred style of comedy. What I appreciate most about Dogma up is the empathetic attitude towards those in a place of doubt. There isn’t really a genre of atheist movies out there, so when you see discussions of religion onscreen they are invariably from a religious perspective. This means that those who doubt, or who have been wounded by their religion, are typically treated very callously. They are given pat answers and regarded as imbeciles for not having thought of them before. The opposite happens in Dogma. Bethany talks about her struggles, and people listen sympathetically. Metatron not only doesn’t have answers for her, but feels bad that he doesn’t. Rufus and Serendipity, who both have actually met Jesus and God respectively, claim that the former was black and the latter is a woman. But they also accept that nobody gets everything right, and argue that trying to understand everything is pointless. Ultimately, Bethany’s character arc isn’t meant to restore her faith. The closest the film comes to a “state the theme” moment is the following exchange about Jesus.

Rufus: He still digs humanity, but it bothers Him to see the shit that gets carried out in His name – wars, bigotry, televangelism. But especially the factioning of all the religions. He said humanity took a good idea and, like always, built a belief structure on it.

Bethany: Having beliefs isn’t good?

Rufus: I think it’s better to have ideas. You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier…

This line about ideas came back to my mind, over and over, as I struggled with my faith, and it was a source of comfort greater than any aphorism or Bible verse I had heard. It ultimately lead me to skepticism and atheism, but I’ve found that even there it can be complicated advice to truly follow.

But that’s another topic, for an upcoming review where I watch this movie with a nun. Stay tuned, let me know your thoughts and, as always, thanks for reading.

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist; Promises, Promises

This episode uses the frame of Connie is writing a letter to her friend. Chris (the annoying intro lady) informs us that she said she doesn’t mind if we listen in, which raises all kinds of questions. Are we normally eavesdropping on events in Odyssey without anyone’s consent? How are we hearing the portions where Connie’s narration gives way to live dialog? Why is Connie choosing to read the letter to us, rather than tell us directly? Is this some coded message, like River’s letters to Simon on Firefly?

Okay, enough of that. Connie starts explaining how Whit is Christian, but you know, not in an annoying way.

“Now, I know what you’re thinking, but before you jump to any conclusions, he doesn’t hang around airports or shave his head or anything like that.”

I swear, it took me the longest time to figure out she was referring to Hare Krishnas. To be honest, when you’re talking about a small Midwestern town guy called Mr. Whitaker, most people won’t think he’s part of a big city Hindu sect. If they are assuming he’s the annoying brand of religious, what comes to mind is probably something more like…

“He just takes being a Christian very seriously. So when you get into a conversation with him, you can pretty much take for granted that the Bible’s gonna pop up sooner or later.”

That.

Connie gives an example of how Whit just wouldn’t let her talk about the news without including God. She hears about an attack in the Middle East and wonders why someone would do that. He says people have sinned since Adam and Eve. She wishes she could do something about it. He says he is, he’s going to pray. And, finally getting that Whit won’t let sin and religion go, Connie starts to debate him on whether humans are fundamentally good or evil.

Connie thinks that people are actually mostly good deep down. Sure, they mess up sometime, but all it takes to tap into that good nature is to really commit to it. Whit thinks that if you tap deep down, all you’ll find is original sin.

Seeing that there’s no way to solve this problem with debate, she decides to prove him wrong by challenging herself to treat everyone with patience for a month. She writes this down as a promise, which is where the title comes up. Whit admires her intention but is not shy about telling her how skeptical he is. For the kindly old man he’s supposed to be, he’s actually very discouraging towards her, all because if she pulls it off she disproves his need for twenty-four seven religion.

Initially, Connie does quite well, and feels great. But after a few days she loses her temper when some kids at work can’t solve a riddle that she thinks is easy. She feels terrible for hurting their kids’ feelings. Worse, she has just proven to herself that she’s rotten and bad inside, despite her best intentions. And just in case she eventually realizes that there are more possibilities than her idealism and Whit’s theory of her filthy godless soul, Whit makes sure to rub her face in it.

“You believe that deep down everybody is good, and if we all just somehow tap into that inner goodness we can make the world a whole lot nicer. Well I’m sorry, but that’s just not the case. The Bible says that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. that’s why I just kinda shake my head and laugh when someone tells me they’ve made a promise to be a better person. That’s like treating the symptoms and ignoring the disease… We have to let God renew our mind. He has to change us on the inside before results start showing on the outside.

The episode ends with Connie telling her friend how wise Whit is, and how this small town is full of lovely caring people who are so unlike the ones she was used to in LA… in brief she isn’t religious yet, but she’s sniffing at the Kool-Aid with interest.

Listen, Whit, I know you’re just a fictional character but right now you’re synechdocheing the crap out of a particularly toxic part of my childhood, so you’re gonna sit there and listen to a rant. Yeah, I just used synechdoche as a verb. Shit got real, motherfucker.

I hate the whole message of how filthy we are, because once, I believed it. I thought I was deeply tainted and needed to be saved, even though I was honestly a pretty good kid. I had my bad moments, but I really tried to be good, and a lot of the time I was. The thing about this message is that when I was bad, it felt like the end of the world, and when I was good, it felt like the mere fact that I was noticing my own goodness was just proof that I was prideful, and pride was the worst sin. It even meant that when I was in church and it was the official bow our heads and repent our sins, if I couldn’t think of anything I felt terrible about, and I was scared. I was scared that I would not repent sincerely enough, I’d die with sins marking me and I’d go to hell.

The feeling of worthlessness seeped deep into me and even as an atheist I’m still unlearning that feeling. I know many ex-fundies fighting that same battle, whether atheist or just liberal Christian. This is the irony of God’s love, as you teach it, Mr. Whitaker. We can never truly feel it, because if we do not hate our unlovable selves we are unworthy of it.

You make a bold claim in this episode. You say you can prove original sin by taking a look at the kids in your store.

“I don’t have to tell any of them how to misbehave. They already know that. But I sure do have to teach them how to be good.”

Since I was twelve I’ve been a babysitter and volunteer at Bible schools, and these past five years I worked in an elementary school. What I see is both the best and worst of human nature; acts of manipulation and impulsive narcissism abound, but you’ll also see the most spontaneous kindness and uninhibited love imaginable. Often you’ll see both from the same kid. On the same day. Whether you’re looking to prove that human nature is essentially bad or essentially good, children won’t help either case.

And Whit, you’re pretty lucky in the kids you are dealing with. As I said, I work at a school. Specifically, I work in special ed, and I spend a lot of time with kids who have severe behavioral problems. These kids usually have both genuine medical problems and crappy home lives; nature and nurture are teaming up to screw with them. Whit, you think you see naughty kids, but you would lose it if a child bit you. I went through a year with four biters. “Pretty good day, only got nipped at once” was a normal and unironic thing for me to say. And unlike you, Whit, I can’t just moan about original sin. I actually have to try to understand ALL my kids. I have to see them as complex people instead of projects to convert.

And you know what I see? Needs. Wants. Lack of knowledge about how to deal with them. This kid tantrums because it makes people offer him things until he gets what he wants. This kid bites because her world is overwhelming and confusing, but aggression creates a situation that she can control. This kid hits because afterwards we chase him, and he doesn’t know how else to say “play with me.” You’re wrong that I don’t have to teach kids to misbehave; often I realize that’s exactly what I’m doing, unintentionally. For example, if I pay attention to kids when they are being disruptive and don’t interact any other time, I am teaching them that making trouble is the best way to create a relationship. 90% of my job isn’t punishing or lecturing, but teaching positive skills to replace those negative behaviors. It works, even with the biters.

So that’s what I think is at the root of human nature; not good, not evil, just the desire to survive another day. Most goodness is just knowing how to do that without hurting anyone else, and sometimes even helping others out. Badness is not doing that.

Also, Whit, I’m working with this one four year old who, despite severe communication issues, is incredibly sweet, obedient, good-natured, even pretty responsible. Easily, he’s the nicest kid I’ve worked with in ages. He’s Hindu. So yeah, you’re wrong about all the things.

Batman v. Superman; Yeah, It’s Not Good

This movie gave me an actual headache.

Spoilers ahead, but I recommend reading anyway. It’s not worth the trip to a theater, and if you’re determined to do so, knowing what you’re in for might save on brain cells. But you know, you do you.

batman-v-superman
We are brooding men. Look at us brood. Producers tell us brooding = interesting. Broooooooooood.

I find that I generally agree with the Rotten Tomatoes rating of a film, but disagree with the consensus on why. Many critics said this movie was too complicated. On the contrary, it was very simple. Batman and Superman don’t trust each other, and Lex Luthor manipulates that distrust until they fight, but then Batman changes his mind because both their mothers are named Martha. They team up with Wonder Woman to fight a big monster, and Superman dies but only for until the sequel. Obviously.

All that seems complicated because the film is made of too many short scenes, all of which cut suddenly to the middle of the next one, so your brain is constantly playing catchup. The following is typical of my thoughts throughout the movie.

“Wait, how did Batman know to be here? Oh, he was decrypting those files last we saw him, so I guess they had the location. And he assembled a whole team in the meantime. Wait, how did he know which files to decrypt to begin with? Okay, he was stealing them from Lex Luthor, and I guess they established back when he got the invitation that he thinks Luthor has information on something for reasons. That scene wasn’t really clear on what Luthor had, so I think I was looking too hard for clues about that to remember how he knew Luthor had whatever it was. Or maybe it was the other way around. Anyway, he’s opening the thing, and…. oh, looks like a trap. And the person behind the trap was, uh, Superman? Why is Superman being so aggressive? Is that out of character? They haven’t fully established where this interpretation falls on the Pacifistish Hero spectrum. Oh, okay, it was all a dream. Hey! Hey movie! You’re only allowed one of those dream sequence fake outs per film, and you already done that twice!”

Oh, yeah, about ten percent of the in media res scenes turn out to also be dream sequences or fantasies. That really helps with the coherency.

So that’s the first issue; in lieu of having a complex web of intrigue, they shoot all the scenes in the most confusing way possible and hope you can’t tell the difference. The second issue has to do with broken promises and the elements of stories.

There are many ways to model stories, but one of my favorites is to break them down into elements of plot, character, setting and theme. It’s a helpful abstraction because it works across genres and culture, and it helps explain why the same errors can be tolerable in one story and unforgivable in another. All four elements are present in all stories, but most stories choose to emphasize one or two over the others. Mad Max: Fury Road had some flaws in its worldbuilding, but from the start it emphasized events and characters. The action was exciting and well choreographed, while the characters were remarkably rich. As a result, we were satisfied with the two other elements lagging behind.

Way back in the earliest teasers for Batman v. Superman, the creaters began promising that this would be an idea story. They took two characters with a common goal but deep ideological differences and pitted them against each other. They showed us society disagreeing in conflict about which was good and which was evil. They even brought in religious references. So we came prepared for superheroic fisticuffs, but we also brought our egghead glasses. We were prepared to go home talking about the mirror this holds up to society, or something equally pretentious.

Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent don’t have any interesting philosophical debates. Bruce Wayne goes, “You have too much power and might turn bad, so even though you’re clearly good now I have to destroy you!” Clark Kent goes, “You hurts bad guys a lot so you must be stopped!” I go, “Anyone going to point out that you are both powerful guys who might eventually be corrupted by said power, and furthermore you’ve both chosen a career path that involves some collateral damage? Anyone?” No one does. The only reason anybody objects to either of them is that they’re super powerful and also sometimes people get hurt. Well, that applies to the police, the military, the government, and any other agency of power. People point out that some people approve of them and some people don’t. That applies to… everything. Period. The specific contrasts between Superman and Batman are there, but nothing is said or done about them. Lex Luthor doesn’t even have an interesting reason to oppose them. He’s just a generic nihilist.

And yet, the film never stops reminding you that you were here for a thinky movie. It’s got the non-linear complex structure of the intellectual action film. It’s got the somber music and dark lighting.

Tim Minchin Dark Side
“I can have a dark side to-o-o-o-o-o-o”

And the religious symbolism! Symbolism works best when used sparingly to subtly emphasize certain characters or events. This is just everywhere, crosses and halos and the camera zooming in on some bystander praying. It’s not there to say anything, but its everywhere. Some people draw parallels between Superman and God, because, uh, they’re both way powerful and people look up to them. That’s it. They weren’t saying anything interesting about God, so much as giving me the impression the props department had a 50% off your entire purchase coupon at Family Christian Bookstores.

It was so ubiquitous, I started looking for it when it wasn’t there. Honestly. At one point the camera lingered on a hole in the wall. The hole looked kind of like a fish, so I wondered if they were going for anĀ  ichthys, but it looked more like the Moby Dick restaurant sign. Then the fighting resumed and I decided it was just the place where Superman threw Batman through drywall. In my defense, my head had been hurting for a while.

In short, they let people down on their main promise. If this is an idea film, it explores said ideas like an argument on Facebook. Nowhere does anybody articulate their full point of view. Nowhere does anybody change their mind for any interesting reason, and when characters do talk they talk past each other. The only aim of 70% of the dialog is to spout some quotable soundbite, each of which sounds good in isolation, none of which meaningfully advances the conversation. Put that all together and you get a lot of people with black and white mentalities babbling at each other and saying nothing.

Huh. Maybe, in a completely unintentional way, it said something about society after all.

Tune in next time for me being way less grumpy, hopefully. As always, thanks for reading.

Rereading Harry Potter as an Ex-Christian

As many of you know, I grew up in one of those fundy households that thought Harry Potter would steal my soul, or something like that. As a result, I didn’t read it until my late teens/early twenties, and that was a very rushed reading; ploughing my way through the first three books while my parents were on vacation, then waiting years before I could even get my hands on the next one. I thought I would take the time now to read it more leisurely, and share my thoughts. Now, there’s been so much said that I didn’t think a full review could add much. Instead, I thought it would be interesting to pause and add my thoughts at the end of each book. This post has been several months in the making, so I hope you enjoy!

Harry Potter and the Philosopher/Sorcerer’s Stone

I would have really enjoyed this book as a kid. I think J.K. Rowling’s approach of letting the books grow up with the readers was very clever. Unfortunately, I do think that makes this a hard series to come to as an adult. I recognize a clear, imaginative yet simple prose style that lets young readers fill in details with their imagination. Coming back to a familiar book in this style as an adult lets you tap into those childhood fantasies, but unfortunately a first time reading as an adult doesn’t have the same effect.

Still, one of the great things about this series is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I look forward to the next six!

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Already there’s a subtle increase in the sophistication of the prose style. I enjoy the developing friendships between Harry, Ron and Hermione. This is also the one that introduces Dobby and fleshes out more of Ron’s family, both of whom I love. Now that the world has been set up, the plot with the basilisk and Tom Riddle’s diary can be fleshed out more than I think the mystery of the stone was last time.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t give this one as much attention as I wanted. There’s been this weird squeaking in my walls at night. Grant doesn’t hear anything, so maybe its all in my head. Then again, he’s a much deeper sleeper, so who knows. I can’t figure out what’s causing it, but it has made my sleep… fitful. I wake up without having rested.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

As the darkness of the series rises, I get more and more entranced. Last night I woke up around midnight, and was positive I saw a Dementor standing over my bed. My scream woke Grant up, and the image was gone even before he asked me what was wrong. No doubt I was only half awake, and my own voice brought me fully to consciousness.

Sirius Black is awesome. J.K. Rowling is a sadist for not letting him give Harry a happy home forever.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

I am getting acclimated to the lack of sleep. No longer do I yawn and slouch through the day. I do what needs to be done, without thought, and I wait for the night, when insomnia only gives me more time to read Harry Potter.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

I apologize for not mentioning the scratchings in the walls since my second summary. No doubt it’s been worrying you. I have not heard them in a long time, and the mystery has now been solved. The Dementor who woke me in the night came again, and this time I did not cry out. I knew it would bring no relief, and in truth I wanted none.

I rose and followed. The walls opened before him, and closed after me. There were tunnels, irregular in the contours of their walls, as though they had been chewed out by rats. I woke up in the morning, but I knew it had not been a dream. He had showed me. He showed me.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

I am the half-blood prince. I am blood, and half and I must be whole. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Some of its parts are not human. It’s part goat, and part man, and part nothingness. It demands blood. I must give it my blood.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Hail Satan.