Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Polygamy, the law, and brain-washing

Earlier this month, a federal judge declared Utah laws criminalizing polygamy (note: not the same as bigamy--they're still only allowed to legally marry one person, but people can cohabit in "spiritual marriages"). Yesterday, I was listening to NPR's On Point program from a week ago discussing this, and one of the guests was Kristyn Decker, a former wife in a polygamous family and the author of the recent book Fifty Years in Polygamy: Big Secrets and Little White Lies. She took a passionate stand against polygamy, even among consenting adults. Her essential point was that the women involved in plural marriages have been brain-washed to believe that they have to participate in and defend the institution in order to go to heaven.

Boy, that's a tough argument to make.

Not because they haven't been "brain-washed." It's probably fair to say that they have, though the word is obviously prejudicial. The problem is, where do we draw the line? In a sense, we could all be said to have been "brain-washed," in that our parents raised us to believe certain things which may or may not be true. While we do tend to pass ideas from one generation to the next, it's also pretty common for children to reject at least some ideas of their parents, and in some cases a whole lot of what they were raised to believe. We can't necessarily say that one is right and the other wrong: each is doing what he or she believes is right. Decker is basically saying, from her vantage point as someone who "got out," that anyone still inside this system of belief that includes plural marriage is not competent to make a decision because they haven't seen the light the way that she has.

By the same logic, a former Christian who has become an atheist could argue that Christians, because they are deluded by their belief in God and everything that goes with it, are not competent to make political decisions about what's right and wrong, what should be legal or illegal. Or believers might turn that around on atheists: if you have been led astray into disbelieving in God, you have clearly had your mind twisted in such a way that everything you believe is suspect. To be fair, there are almost certainly believers and disbelievers who feel this way, at least to the extent of distrusting their opponents' beliefs, but most of us take a more tolerant viewpoint, allowing people to do and believe things that we think are wrong or stupid. We can argue against them, trying to convince them of the error of their beliefs, we can campaign against their politics, but that's about as far as we take it.

I think there's an argument to be made that decriminalizing polygamy could be a good thing for women who are "trapped" in these relationships: by bringing them out of hiding, abuses of wives or children might be easier to detect and for law enforcement and other groups to step in and help those who are harmed by polygamous marriages. And at the same time, consenting adults would be free to make their own choices, deluded by stupid ideas though they may be.

Monday, December 30, 2013

New Year's Eve

New Year's Eve hasn't been a huge blowout holiday for me over the years. On the Y2K changeover, I got to celebrate in Hawaii with a couple college friends, the traditional Hawaiian fireworks, and the sure knowledge that if civilization collapsed because our computers thought it was 1900 that at least the hellscape in which I'd be struggling to survive would be, well, Waikiki. A couple other years, I got together with college friends in Chicago or DC and had a great time--not so much because it was New Year's Eve as because I was hanging out with great friends. I've had two New Year's Eves that were colored by the fact that I was breaking up with a girlfriend on January 31st, one in college and one in my early 20s.

My wife and I can't remember any of the New Year's Eves before we had kids, except the last one, where Lauren was due any moment--we were kind of hoping to make a run to the hospital to either pop out a little tax exemption before the new year came or have the first baby of the new year, but mostly we just celebrated together with some noise makers, party hats, and video games.

Since we've had first one and then another child, we've established a different pattern (which, granted, we haven't upheld every year, but whatever): we've gotten together with other parents of small children to celebrate "New Year's in ______."  That way, we can ring in the new year with the kids and still get them to bed at a reasonable time. The menu has tended to run toward fondue.

This year, we're aiming for 9:00, which means that we will be celebrating with the residents of King Edward Point, the capital of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. That is to say, us, our guests, and the 30 or so residents of the government offices and research facility in this inhospitable corner of the southern Atlantic Ocean.

This may not sound like the most exciting New Year's Eve to some, but I can say definitively that it's a far better way to spend the last day of the year than being broke up with. And my wife will probably tell you that it beats being overdue to deliver a baby.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Late December Sunday

A day like this, I feel too scattered to pull together a decent blog entry, so it's just going to be a bit of this and that. I indicated yesterday that I was going to write a follow-up entry, but that's not happening right now.

I woke up this morning in the Cleveland area, and I type this at the end of the day back home in Indiana. I woke up this morning with my wife and daughters (including our canine daughter), but I'll be going to sleep with just my 4-legged girl. I traveled in a car loaded down and packed full of all the Christmas loot; I'll pick up the rest of the family tomorrow morning as they head west by train.

After getting things packed up, I went to watch "my" NFL team win its final game of the season as Cincinnati beat Baltimore. This is the first time in a long time that they've gone into the playoffs with a win, but it was an ugly win. There was some hope that they could snag the second seed and get a first-round bye, but it wasn't to be as the Patriots won their game. We do at least get one home game, and the Bengals have been devastating at home this season (undefeated, with the offense really showing up--the defense pretty much always shows up this season).

I've been listening to the audiobook of Dune, which I've read at least once or twice before, though not in many years. There's going to be a bookclub discussion of the book, so I wanted to refamiliarize myself with it. I remembered a lot... and I forgot a lot. Plus I'm just at a very different place in my life (I first read it in my early 20s, almost 15 years ago).

On the way home, I stopped at the Walmart in Mishawaka to pick up a Christmas present that my mom gave--or tried to give--us: a mobile internet hotspot. We bought one near my mom's house, but as we were driving home and Lauren tried to activate it, there was some kind of problem. Apparently, someone else had already registered our number. Which I guess either means that someone put in the wrong number or it was returned improperly, or something. Since it didn't seem convenient to go back to that same store, we went to another... which didn't carry the mobile hotspot. So we tried again in the Cleveland area, where they took our return and indicated they had it... but didn't. So we did return it and get a refund for my Mom, but we didn't come away with a mobile hotspot. So we looked at ordering on-line, and the price appeared to be $30 less than what we'd paid. But it wasn't available at the Walmart that's local to us. Oooh! But it was at the South Bend Walmart. We ordered... and a half hour later got notification that they did not, in fact, have it. So we went back to the drawing board, tried to get it through the Mishawaka store... and it worked. So there we go--except that I haven't actually activated it yet, so it's still possible that we're not going to have a working hotspot, but here's hoping.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Being Right, Being Wrong

"The Place Where We Are Right"

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

Yehuda Amichai


Duty Calls


Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn’t make any sense.

Jelaluddin Rumi, trans Coleman Barks

I'm thinking I'll write something myself on this topic, but for now I just present a few different ideas (you should really watch the video--it's good). Feel free to leave a comment and let me know what you think about being right and being wrong.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Local Music Scene: Cleveland Edition

Last night, an old friend of mine invited me out to see some bands at a place called The Grog Shop over on the east side of Cleveland. It's the first time I've been to a concert in (I think) 4+ years, and I wasn't familiar with any of the bands playing. Fortunately, my friend Elliot has good taste in music.  If I'm not mistaken, all three bands are from the Cleveland area.

It was a small venue, but we got there early enough that we not only weren't part of the crowd who didn't get in because the place was full but also managed to snag a space to stand right to the side of the stage. We were about as close as we could be, and being off to the side, it almost felt like members of the bands were looking at us when they were looking at bandmates--in other words, it was like being part of the band, without any of the pressure of playing the right notes or looking cool.

Tom Evanchuck (and the Old Money--I think--they weren't announced that way, but I think from his website that that's who he was playing with) was good. It was a show full of covers, but they did them well. Tom plays guitar well and sells a song; I think I picked up that his drummer is his brother, and I absolutely loved watching him on drums: good drummer, clearly having fun.

The second band was The Moxies, which my friend described as "Rockabilly Punk." And that pretty much summed it up: they'd be grooving along with this rockabilly feel and then they'd burst out into this punk explosion. Their show was a ton of fun. The crowd--which I swear seemed like it was about 83% high schoolers--seemed to know all the songs and were singing along and rocking out, which helped make it a fun show.

As good as Tom Evanchuck was, The Moxies brought something even more polished, but still with a wild energy to it.

Elliot picked up an EP and gave it to me s a souvenir, and I was just a bit disappointed: it felt like the studio recording captured the rockabilly feel but not the punk side so well.I'm still listening to it, though, still trying getting into it. The vocals live were as good or better than the studio recording.

The final band of the night was The Modern Electric. To the polish and energy of The Moxies, The Modern Electric also added a bit more... show. The stage was set with a TV that looked like something we had in our living room in the 80s, which had A Christmas Story playing throughout, and along with that there were some old lamps and furniture set up around the stage.

The music was solid--a lot of fun, a nice sound, and the singer, Garrett Komyati, has an intensity that really takes it to another level; there was a real sincerity there, like he was putting his heart out there on every song.

The bass player and drummer switched back and forth between bass and drums, and I suspect that the musical flexibility these guys have (the lead singer was also bopping around between piano and guitar) is one of the things that makes the band distinctive.

Once again, the crowd knew all the songs, so they were rocking it like this concert was their job, too. Elliot picked up a 2-song EP for me, and their sound holds up really well in the studio, it seems to me. I played it for Lauren, and "David Bowie Save Us All" is now lodged firmly in both our minds.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Church in the Wildwood

There’s a church in the valley by the wildwood,
No lovelier place in the dale,
No spot is so dear to my childhood
As the little brown church in the vale.
-- William S. Pitts

 Okay, the church that we went to Sunday was surrounded by corn-stubble fields made recently into impromptu lakes by two days of continuous rains, not woods—wild or otherwise—and here in northern Ohio, valleys are distant rumors. But still, it’s fair to say that few spots from my childhood are as dear as Zion U.C.C., in Fireside (a spot you probably won’t find on a map). 

Going there at least once a week for the first eighteen plus years of my life, there’s probably nowhere other than my childhood home that I spent more time. Walking into the sanctuary yesterday, much was familiar—the same Christmas banners were hung along the sides (they could easily be 40+ years old, but they look the same as I remember them), the same hymnals are in the same pews (they were upholstered while I was growing up, so I also remember them as bare wood), the same altar, the same lectern and pulpit, the same carpet and the same stain-glass windows.

And quite a few of the same people—familiar old faces lit up when they saw me with my mother and my oldest daughter. There was no one from my generation there, just the parents and grandparents of our generation. Of course, those were some of the adults I most respected as a child and young man. Some from that generation are no longer with us, but it was a delight to see the ones I did.

There were also changes--they've been through a few ministers since I left, there was a new organ down by the lectern where a piano used to be, instead of above the back of the sanctuary, and a grand piano on the other side, by the pulpit, and there were large screens at the front and back of the sanctuary (though there wasn't much of import up there).

I was there to hear your borning cry,
I’ll be there when you are old.
I was there the day you were baptized,
To see your life unfold.
--John C. Ylvisaker

The minister asserted--against all the obvious evidence to the contrary--that “I was there to hear your borning cry” is one of the most beautiful hymns ever written, as she prepared to baptize a father and daughter yesterday. As it happens, the father was a classmate of mine in school, though he just recently started going to my childhood church. His daughter is not quite four months old.

But it was perhaps all the more striking to me that all the people who graduated from high school with me--there were more than a half dozen of us just in my class--and those who graduated in the years before and after mine--my generation is otherwise completely absent.

I realized recently that my family's ties to this church are deep--I'm relatively confident that I've understood the historical record to say that one of my ancestors back in the 1800s played a big role in building the church (or, anyway, the church that became this church--it burned down sometime in the mid-20th Century). Something like five generations--that's a guess, I'm too lazy to look it up this morning. But I don't go there any more. From what I could see, a lot of the older people in the church were people that have known me all their life and been more or less life-long members, and there are some younger families there too, but by and large the younger and middle-aged folks there all seem to be new. Which is great for the congregation--with so many people of my generation leaving our small town, they have to bring in new members to survive, but there's also something that sees it as unfortunate that families that have been part of the church's history for generations have left and been replaced with entirely new people.

Maybe that song, "I was there to hear your borning cry" played into those thoughts, as it speaks to the continuity in one's life and from generation to generation that God, theoretically, provides.  I shouldn't be surprised if it generations some nostalgic feelings in me, some vague desires for a past that's gone--after all, it's the greatest hymn ever written.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas 2013 Recap

Earlier, I recapped of the set-up for Christmas day and told about the start of the day. Here, we pick up the story from when the girls started opening their presents.

Our youngest doesn't quite know what to do with the Jumpolene. Or the beanbag chair, apparently. She did figure out the former before the day was done.
Our oldest knew exactly what the new purse is for.
My wife didn't want me in this picture, but I inserted myself. And my coffee mug inserted itself, too.
See? She's just stinkin' cute!
And she's already to start conducting the family Christmas carol sing...
Here, she gets her first good look at her new cousin. How will she react?
About like this, apparently.
I just liked the way this picture got both of our girls and (a glimpse of) their cousin.  And the Aunt Emmy they all share.
Lauren wasn't going to be denied her time with the wee babe, and our older girl gets to know her a bit better too.
After 11 straight hours of Christmas, at 5:45, our younger appeared to give up the ghost. Sadly, she got her second wind a couple hours later and is still going strong as I type.
Her sister, on the other hand, lost the battle with sleep right in the middle of a delicious, delicious brownie. Sweet dreams, sweetpea!

Christmas Wars and Battles Through the Ages

’Tis the season for crèche display controversies and public-school decoration debates and First Amendment argumentation, when all the ideologues get a little extra outrage or victimization in their stockings. The holiday is observed across the nation with injunctions and festive debates on cable television. Little children wait in line at the mall to have their picture taken with Bill O’Reilly or the Rev. Barry Lynn. (That last part, to my knowledge, is not true, but it should be.) -- Michael Gerson, in a wonderfully thoughtful piece recently in the Washington Post
This can be seen as a "War on Christmas," but as I've said for years now, a more accurate a description comes from the title of Steven Nissenbaum's history of the holiday, The Battle for Christmas. It's not so much that we have a war on Christmas--most of the most liberal atheists I know celebrate Christmas in some form or another. Instead, as Gerson notes, "Ultimately all of these disputes resolve into an argument about power: Who has the ability to define and enforce the boundaries of the acceptable?" And this isn't new. Over the centuries, we've had a lively debate about what Christmas is and isn't. And yes, through the years some people have wanted not to celebrate it at all (but mostly those people were Christians--more on that later).

The date December 25 was taken for Christmas back in the 4th century, not because anyone had evidence that this was the silentest, holiest night, but because those crafty 4th-century Christians wanted to annex the pagan winter festival. From the Roman Saturnalia onward Christmas was--and remained for many centuries--a time of drinking and debauchery. In 16th-century England, this Christmas celebration was a festival of misrule, in which people boozed it up, and the poor went door to door essentially demanding "trick or treat"--give us good food or money or gifts or we'll wreck $#!+. Think of carols like "We wish you a merry Christmas" and all its demands for figgy pudding and its assurance "we won't go until we get some," as well as all the wassailing songs and their demands. "Here we come a-wassailing," for instance, first reminds the listener that "We are not daily beggars / That beg from door to door, / But we are neighbors' children / Whom you have seen before"--and then they go on to ask for money, cheese, some of the Christmas loaf, and (of course!) some wassail. And in "Wassail, wassail," after they spend innumerable verses building up the master of the house, they get to the point, asking for drink and to be let in by the fire:
Come, butler, come fill us a bowl of the best
Then we hope that your soul in heaven may rest,
But if you do draw us a bowl of the small
Then down shall go butler, bowl and all!
Blessings are given to those who give, curses to those who are stingy or unobliging.

There's even a certain logic to this kind of thing, when we recall the way that the birth and life of Jesus inverted the social order--a "king," as he was styled, or even an aspect of God, born into an animal stall and ministering to the poor, the wretched, the outcast. A celebration that reversed the social hierarchy might be appropriate enough to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

The holiday as a festival of misrule was basically accepted by the upper classes, too, as a sort of pressure valve for the lower classes. The social hierarchy is inverted once a year: no big deal. The wealthy would get angry with particular wassailer or particular acts (the common folk could get pretty rowdy and destructive if their demands weren't met!), but overall the drinking and singing and demands for food and drink and gifts were tolerated.

For exactly this reason, Christmas had a hard time making its way across the pond, no matter how appropriate it may have been in its own way. The Puritans outlawed Christmas on the basis of its nature as a holiday of drinking and debauchery, as well as on the argument that the Bible doesn't indicate when Jesus's birthday was, thus God has no interest in having us celebrate it. Nonetheless, people rather like an excuse to drink and revel, especially in the bleak midwinter, so it continued on the edges of legality in New England and had a bit more success in other parts of the country.

Even hundreds of years ago, we had a battle over how--or even whether--Christmas should be celebrated, and arguably the most devout Christians were the ones fighting a "war on Christmas." However, since even the most puritanical of Puritans couldn't end Christmas, it ultimately ended up tamed by a rather unlikely force.

In the mid-to-late Nineteenth Century, retail stores were just starting to take off. Standardized manufacturing was just getting going on a large scale, and retail stores were outlets for all these material goods. The problem? The so-called Protestant Work Ethic was firmly entrenched in America. That is, people worked hard, saved their money, and didn't buy crap they didn't need. Retailers knew this would never do, so they are the ones who took the largest steps toward inventing--yes, inventing--the Christmas holiday as we know it. They made Santa Claus big (okay, years of cookies and whole milk did that) and they marketed Christmas as a time of love and good-will and--you probably guessed it--gift giving. They employed writers to create the stories that presented this kind of Christmas. They made people nostalgic for a type of Christmas that hadn't even existed before: a warm, cheery, wholesome holiday--and it became precisely that. The St. Nicholas mythos got drawn into it (St. Nick got pulled to Christmas from his normal place at--duh--the feast of St. Nicholas in early December). And some of our ideas were just flat-out made up. In the process, Christmas went from being a public holiday to a private one, from one celebrated in the streets with the community to one celebrated at home with the family. From a drunken revel for adults it became a child-centered holiday of gift giving.

I didn't get much further in the book, but I reckon it likely that, once commercial forces had sanitized Christmas and made it good and pure, Christianity decided it was high time to get back in the Christmas game, and they set about re-holy-daying it. That is, they claimed it for their own now that it was a wholesome time. And who can blame them? It's a nice little holiday.

But, of course, retailers did their job too well. We've gone from the protestant work ethic to the consumerist spend ethic, and whether we work enough or not, by Visa we can spend! We don't just spend the money we have, we spend the money we will have, which is just a more positive way of saying the money we haven't. As the culture has changed and become more materialistic, so too has the holiday become ever more materialistic. Religion, naturally enough, fights against this tendency (we're reminded that "Jesus is the reason for the season," i.e. not Santa Claus or gift-giving). So, too, do more secular types who nonetheless see something negative in crass materialism.

Secular though I may be, I have at least that much spiritualism that I mistrust unchecked materialism--even as I enjoy the hell out of a limited degree of it. Because yes, I like stuff, just like most Americans do. But--I think like most Americans here too--not to the exclusion of all else, and not beyond a certain point. There's a limit to how much stuff any person needs, and there are a lot of things more important than stuff. As long as we don't lose sight of those philosophical touchstones, gift-giving during this season is a wonderful, wonderful thing. Gift-giving is--to steal a phrase--an outward and visible sign of an inward condition. It's most meaningful when it comes from the heart and speaks to the heart, when it's freely given and not expected as a duty.

For me, Christmas isn't a religious holiday, though they're welcome to keep claiming it. It's a social institution that's evolved through many different forms and ultimately is--or will be--whatever we make of it. Although the name and its origins and history put a distinctly Christian stamp on it, our brief look at its history shows us what an uneasy time religion has had throughout the centuries in trying to claim it. That's why I say it's a social institution: it has shaped our culture and been shaped by our culture, and anyone who participates in that culture, it seems to me, has a claim on that tradition in whatever form they choose to stake that claim. Further, though it's not precisely true to say that America "is a Christian nation," it's certainly a nation in which Christianity has been essential in its history, and as a result even many in America who are secular in their outlook could be considered "secular Christians" or at least influenced by the culture of Christianity.

There was a festival at the winter solstice before Christianity claimed it by naming it Christmas, and I'd wager that in many places there was such a celebration long before Jesus was born. We need a holiday at this time of year, which is probably why many religious traditions--as well as non-religious traditions--have a holiday at this time of year. I suspect that even if something happened that caused everyone to cease believing in Jesus, we'd probably still celebrate Christmas, because it's just the sort of thing we want.

Never has that been more true for me than now, when I have two little girls: the magic of Christmas has become for many of us the magic of childhood, as we adults are fueled by their excitement. And really, both of our mythologies speak to this reverence for childhood, whether it's the story of Santa Claus bringing toys to good little girls and boys or the story of a child born in humble circumstances and destined to change the world.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should say two things: 1) this is based almost exclusively on Nissenbaum's The Battle For Christmas and 2) I've published versions of this in four previous years on this and my former blog.

Merry Christmas morning!

With my mother-in-law sidelined this Christmas Eve / Morning, we're left to our own devices for Christmas breakfast. Lauren theoretically went out to Walmart last night to get the ingredients we needed for at least some of the things that my mother-in-law had planned, but it wasn't until Lauren and I woke up in the wee hours of the morning that either of us (me) thought to look into this whole breakfast-making thing.

So yeah: it turns out that we only have the ingredients for one of the breakfast dishes that was planned... and that's supposed to take 7-8 hours in the crock pot. And Creme Brulee French Toast sounded so good, too.

Not to worry: I was able to find a baked version of Creme Brulee French Toast that I can pull together in a pinch. Meanwhile, I'm contemplating whether or not breakfast sausage made with ground beef would be worth the effort.

One thing we did do right was the delivery of presents (I just brought stuff in from the car and then kept the kids asleep while Lauren and her sister did all the real work):
Besides all the other presents--to be opened later--you can see a Mickey Mouse beanbag chair, and a Minnie Mouse chair that's scaled down (not that our younger daughter is either that much smaller or very likely to heed the boundaries of "my chair" and "your chair").

 And then there's this (I had no idea from my casual acquaintance with the box that it would be this big!): it's called a Jumpolene. It should be just about the best thing ever, given how frequently they ignore our injunctions not to jump on beds.
6:04 Update: our oldest (nearly 4) just woke up, complaining that we woke her up. Despite the picture that you can see, the first thing she gravitated toward was... the stockings, hung by the electric fireplace with care. But then she noticed... the smaller beanbag chair. She read the tag that marked it as being for her sister with mild disappointment, and had to be pointed toward the larger one for her.

And when she saw the jumpolene, she said "It's a little swimming pool!" Once we showed her what it actually was, she did love it.