Thursday, June 30, 2011

Building (and stoning) the Straw Atheist

I've been doing some reading over at Stone The Preacher, and despite my earlier comments I rather like the place. For one thing, the fellow who runs it ("Pastor Steve") has a working sense of humor and the ability to listen - though naturally he doesn't always agree with what his commenters tell him. He also tries to be aware of how his attempts at evangelism are received by others, and moderate his behavior accordingly. This is unusual, to say the least, for anyone who makes a habit of standing around in public places and handing out Bible tracts.

So while I obviously don't agree with everything he's doing, I don't feel any real need to criticize him, either...

...Except when he starts talking about atheists. Which, unfortunately, he apparently does every Tuesday. And when he starts generalizing, the atheists he talks about bear no resemblance to myself or any other unbeliever I've ever met. I'm not the first to point this out - a respectable number of people have commented, rebutted, corrected, and disputed in the comments on the site. Pastor Steve does allow such dissent, but so far his ideas about what atheists are like completely trump any and all testimony to the contrary.

They're some pretty odd ideas[1], too. Some examples:
  • Atheists live "meaningless, purposeless lives." (source) Generally, we don't - not in any greater percentages than believers do.
  • "The atheist’s great hope is that God is not real, Jesus is still dead in the grave and that the resurrection never happened." (source) I don't know any atheists who would describe that as a "hope." Maybe a "conclusion," but not a "hope."
  • "[Faith] is a problem for the atheist. They want proof that God exists first." (source) Well, yes, but as a general rule unbelievers don't consider that a "problem." Most of us consider that "common sense."
These misrepresentations would actually make a (dishonest) sort of sense if Pastor Steve's goal were explicitly to reassure Christians that atheists live drab, wretched, miserable lives. And that may be partly the case, but he also seems to intend these Atheist Tuesday posts as a sort of evangelism to atheists, an attempt to "convict"[2] us of the Truth of God's Word. That being the case, I'm forced to assume that he really thinks atheists are like that.

This persistent mischaracterization makes the Atheist Tuesday posts very odd things to read. No, more than odd - it's weirdly disorienting. Imagine listening to someone tell a story in which the main character has your name... only that character's experiences are not your experiences, and the character behaves nothing like you do. So you're listening to this person talk, and he seems to be talking about you, only the you he's talking about is nothing like the real you. Reading these posts has that same surreal quality.

I've heard this explained as projection - that, basically, the people who do this simply fail to realize that atheists don't think like they do, so they project their own motivations and behaviors onto atheists. A commenter called Nohm described it as "failed mind-reading", which certainly captures the feel of it - an attempt at empathy that just can't make the jump to accurately imagine how atheism looks from the inside. Mainly, though, I think it's a consequence of relying on the map to the exclusion of looking at the terrain (a subject I've mentioned before).

At the risk of grossly oversimplifying: for a certain sort of Christian, the very existence of atheists - of people who have heard the Gospel but do not believe it - presents a theological problem. That problem can be summed up as a question: if the Bible is the Word of God, how can anyone not believe it? So, having encountered a theological problem, where do these believers look for an explanation? The Bible, obviously.

The Bible does indeed offer some explanations for why people don't believe the Gospel. These are, basically, that unbelievers hate God; that because they don't have faith, or aren't part of the flock, they can't understand God's truth; that they want to avoid God's judgement; that they are fools.[3]

Unbelievers also offer explanations for why they don't believe. These tend to focus on things like lack of evidence; the varied and contradictory beliefs of the many Christian sects and denominations; and the dubious morality displayed by the Almighty, particularly in the Old Testament.

You'll note that there isn't a lot of common ground between the explanations offered in the Bible, and the explanations offered by unbelievers. This is where the map-versus-terrain issue comes in.

Basically, for the sort of Christian who assumes that the Bible has all the answers, the explanations offered by nonbelievers cannot be true. The Bible says that unbelievers are in rebellion against God, therefore unbelievers must be in rebellion against God. Actual, legitimate disbelief (or even doubt) is simply impossible. Atheists are therefore either lying or mistaken when they talk about their motivations, experiences, and conclusions. Q.E.D.

It's an answer every bit as simple and elegant as it is wrong.[4] Not surprisingly, it's also wholly unconvincing to atheists, as it completely fails to match our experiences, motivations, and conclusions. But I think that's where a lot of this failed mind-reading comes from: people who believe that atheists must be a certain way because they believe that the Bible says atheists must be a certain way. Trying to follow the map without stopping to observe the terrain.

Obviously, if you don't assume that the Bible has all the answers, this is much less of a problem. Most of the statements about unbelievers were written at a time when Christians were a tiny minority living in a predominantly polytheistic culture, and the rest were written in a relatively small nation of monotheists at a time when most (or all? I'm not sure) of the surrounding nations were polytheistic. So it's entirely possible that the modern form of atheism (with its disbelief in any gods and generally in anything supernatural as well) simply isn't addressed in the Bible - after all, it wouldn't have made any sense to the people who were writing it all down.

Those are my theories, anyway. What do you think?

[1] If you're watching the dates on those articles, you'll notice that I'm cherry-picking a bit. I'm picking out the things he claims explicitly, rather than taking the time to break down some of the more subtle (but equally misguided) implications in other posts.

[2] "Convict" is a particularly strange bit of Evangelical-speak, and I'm still not entirely sure that I understand how they mean it. It certainly isn't used in the "to prove guilty, especially after a legal trial" sense, though about half the time it seems to be used in the sense of "to impress with a sense of guilt." The other half of the time, it seems get used as a cool (though incorrect) way to say "convince."

[3] There are probably others that I'm missing, but these are the ones I've run into. Also, I'm entirely too lazy to look up the references that are the source of these explanations.

[4] Though if you're the sort of person who believes that, then I'm never going to convince you - because clearly I'm either lying or deluded. And in that case, there's really no point in evangelizing to me, is there? Or talking to me at all, really.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Notes from the Mad Science Lab: Bad Ideas

How do these people find me? Honestly, I work in a hidden laboratory beneath an unassuming house in an utterly typical subdivision. All the major deliveries arrive at a warehouse on the far side of town, and are brought to the lab through the underground tunnel. There is nothing, nothing to give me away.

And yet, just this morning... Well, okay, I suppose I shouldn't count this one. I know how he found me, and one of my fellow Mad Scientists - Burbank L'estrange - is to blame for that. L'estrange and I do exchange potential jobs, when one or the other of us is too busy to take on a commission; but in this case, he really should have known better. There are some jobs I just won't take, and this morning's proposal is a perfect example.

The prospective client was a fellow in his late forties, lean, with fashionably mussed hair; he was wearing a nice suit and seemed friendly enough. I recognized him immediately, which wasn't hard since he was a politician - and recently elected one with a tendency to make headlines, at that. Then he sat down and started explaining what he wanted.

It turns out that this fellow sincerely believes that he'd have a much easier time achieving his policy goals if the world had a lot fewer "stupid people" in it.

For a moment, I was really worried. I mean, I'm all in favor brilliant new devices, and sometimes sacrifices must be made in the pursuit of knowledge; but killing off half the population seems a bit extreme.

Fortunately, that wasn't what he was after. No, what he wanted was a device - and he didn't care how it worked, as long as it worked - that would render anyone below average intelligence sterile, worldwide. So this generation would still have to put up with all the parasites and the looters and the useless hangers-on, but after they died out the intelligent ones could build a better, saner, more efficient society.

The mechanics wouldn't be that difficult. Basically, you'd need something to render people sterile - the possibilities are nearly endless - and something to limit the effect to "stupid people." And that's where the idea falls apart: intelligence (and by extension stupidity) is not any one, single trait. There's no good way to tell who's smart and who's not - not that you could automate, anyway.

But, okay, maybe Prospective Client was just being flippant or euphemistic.

So I asked him what sort of intelligence he wanted to preserve.

Unfortunately (mostly for him), his answer was about what I expected: "You know, the smart people. The leaders, the achievers, the producers."

Well, all right. He's a politician, so he isn't producing anything. He's trying to convince me to help him because he isn't enough of a leader to convince people to follow his particular vision for the country. I'm not really seeing any signs of achievement, here, either.

I explained that what he wanted wasn't really possible, because any device I made would almost certainly end up sterilizing some people that he didn't want to target. He not only didn't understand, he didn't even believe me - stormed out in high dudgeon. Which, you understand, wasn't very smart.

So I sterilized him.

I did it the old-fashioned way: a massive dose of precisely-aimed radiation from a hidden projector. He might notice, eventually, but I doubt it. And what could he say, in any case? I might not be able to give him what he wanted, but I could at least make my own small contribution to his plan.

Monday, June 27, 2011

What Teens Really Think

You know, there's only one thing more embarrassing than blogs (or other sources) claiming to explain What Women Really Think.

It's non-teens trying to talk about teenagers.

I work for a municipal government. One of our departments is a public library. And every time the librarians start trying to set up 'teen interests' or 'teen scene' or 'teen activities' on our website - as if teens were this strange, foreign species that requires skilled translators to understand - I cringe. I'm not embarrassed for the teenagers; I'm embarrassed for the librarians. The teens, I assume, are all just muddling through their lives - rather like the rest of us.

There isn't a teen experience; there are teens, and they have experiences. There aren't teen interests; there are teens, and they have interests. There aren't teen concerns; there are teens, and they have concerns. You start making them into something other, and not only are you missing the point, you're compounding the problems and injustices that are already enshrined legally and socially.

Seriously. Stop it. Just, stop it.

You want to address teen problems? Okay. Stop treating them like teens. Start treating them like people.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Friendly Evangelism: Slacktivism

For those coming in late: a while back I did a series of posts on how Christians can talk to ex-Christians without being obnoxious or giving offense, under the heading of Friendly Evangelism. Shortly after that, I was pleased to discover Alise Wright - who, as it happened, had just finished making a lot of the same points in a much more succinct fashion.

Now I find that Fred Clark, author of Slacktivist, has posted his own suggestions for effective evangelism. They aren't making the same points - he's working from the more general topic of how to evangelize effectively - but in some ways I think he does a much better job of answering the question positively than I managed in my own essays.

On a related note, Steve Sanchez (over at Stone The Preacher), mentions a would-be evangelist who tried to give Lady Gaga a Bible tract. He notes, "As Christians, we ought be the most gracious, most polite, most tactful of people when we share our faith. Sadly, not everyone feels or acts the same way. Our team sees this man quite often when we go out to big events—and we stay on the other side of the street so as not to be associated with his unloving methods." While I appreciate the sentiment, as far as I can tell Pastor Steve and his group are also there to hand out Bible tracts - so the fact that they're on the far side of the street (and presumably smiling at the time) doesn't do much to distinguish them from the fellow he criticizes. Handing out tracts is a fundamentally unfriendly means of evangelism. Mote, meet beam.

Pastor Steve also explains, in his post on how he got started evangelizing, the following:
One point stuck with me: In the New Year we should evangelize more.

How many times have you heard that as a Christian? Easily, a million times. And what did you do about it? Same thing I did probably: you listened, nodded your head (probably pursing your lips as you did), made a half-hearted commitment to start sharing your faith, somehow, somewhere, but ultimately let it pass by the wayside, along with your other vows, like reading through the Bible in a year, or losing twenty pounds.

That morning, however, I chose to do something about it. I sat in my chair at church (we don’t have pews), and said to myself, “I’m going to share my faith everyday.”
I'm sure Pastor Steve would disagree, but this seems to me like a radically[1] misguided approach. It's precisely the sort of decision that leads people to extreme (and extremely ineffective) means of evangelism, usually the ones that require you to accost innocent strangers in public settings.

So how is it misguided? I mean, sharing the Gospel is a Good Thing, right?

Glad you asked. Here's the thing that came to me while I was reading this: Are you living your faith? Do you interact with people? Then you're sharing the Gospel. Preaching at people you don't know (whether with words or with tracts) isn't going above and beyond; it's missing the point.

By all means, preach the Gospel. But only use words if necessary.

[1] From the Latin root, Radix, "at the root."

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Making the exchange

So, one of my co-workers is taking some classes right now, and she's having me proofread her papers before she turns them in. Better yet, she's paying me to proofread them - which wasn't my idea. (She says she feels more comfortable doing it this way. I say, "Well, sure, force some extra cash on me, then.")

So, early in the week I get a paper in my e-mail. I go over it, looking for errors in spelling or grammar, poorly chosen words or phrases, and sections where her meaning isn't clear. The class appears to be on urban development and land use, so it's actually pretty interesting stuff to read.

Most of the rest of the department doesn't know that my co-worker is taking this class - or in school at all, really. And, gossip being what it is, she isn't particularly eager for people to find out. So each week, a day or two after I've sent back her heavily-commented paper, she comes by my desk and hands me an envelope with some money in it.

I'm just waiting for someone to ask me if I'm dealing drugs, because I swear by all that's holy, that's exactly how this looks.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

I must go into politics! Right now!

I'm seeing a brilliant opportunity here! You see, Sarah Palin has apparently just quit her bus tour halfway through. How is this an opportunity for me, you ask? Well, I'll tell you.

You see, this marks a clear and inescapable pattern. All I have to do is take advantage of it. First, I have to convince her to to stay in the race. Then I get her to select me for her Vice-President - which admittedly, might be a bit tricky, but since I've never served anywhere as anything, I figure I can sell myself as precisely the sort of new blood and fresh perspective that Washington so desperately needs. And since I'm from Texas, the Republican base will probably just assume that I'm a Conservative, Christian, Republican who favors mandatory gun ownership for all Real Americans. (If anyone actually asks about my views, I'll fall back on the time-honored political answer: lying.)

Then, once President Palin gets elected, all I have to do is wait. The pattern is clear: two years into her term (earlier, if I'm lucky), she'll step down "to spend more time with her family, don'tchaknow." If the country survives that long, there I'll be: President of the United States of America, and soon to be Emperor of Everything! Peace and prosperity cannot fail to follow.

One thing, though. When this happens, I don't want anyone referring to me as a Manchurian anything. I'd really prefer to be the Trojan candidate. (Sounds much more manly, doesn't it?) If you'd all just keep that in mind, I'd really appreciate it.

More important safety advice

Following up on yesterday's safety tip, we present the next important piece of safety advice: don't cross the streams.

That particular quote - in fact, that whole scene - still gets used by myself and people I know. It mainly serves as a shorthand for "I don't have time to explain why, but doing what you're about to do would have catastrophic results."

There is, however, a secondary use of "don't cross the streams." There are situations where you have, basically, a good thing over here, and a good thing over there, but if you try to bring them together, well... "It would be bad." This can refer to foods, or friendships, or social circles, or genres of writing, or just about anything else - but again, the quote is a convenient shorthand.

Do you have any quotes that you use like that?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Evil Filler

Sorry, I'm not together enough to write anything useful today. Instead, I'll just offer an important piece of safety advice: Do not touch the chunk of pure evil!

One of these days, I'd love to do a post comparing Time Bandits and Twelve Monkeys...

Monday, June 20, 2011

Notes from the Mad Science Lab: Nanotech Barbershop

Some days things just go from bad to worse.

I decided that I kind of like being bald. It's such a simple, no-nonsense fashion. Plus, if you can pull it off, it looks kind of evil - a definite asset in my line of work. The problem is that if you're not naturally bald, staying bald takes time and effort - time and effort that could be better spent on, say, building a better freeze ray.

The solution? Nanites. Microscopic machines, custom-designed to maintain their energy by consuming my hair. It's like having a million tiny, invisible barbers working constantly to keep my head clean.

So this morning, I tested them.

The good news: they work. The bit of hair that I'd grown back is now completely gone.

The bad news: they work. My eyebrows are gone, too. So are my eyelashes. And... well... everything else, too. Which is weird, but nowhere near as annoying as blinking without eyelashes. I had no idea how wrong that would feel.

The worse news: The nanites can apparently eat any sort of keratin. Bye-bye fingernails... and then toenails...

The worst news: Fifteen minutes in, they started eating tooth enamel as well. That's not even remotely the same substance, so it has to be a replication error.

I hit the Flush button at that point - harder than you'd think with no fingernails. (Typing is no great joy either, I might add.) Fortunately, whatever that replication error was, it didn't render them immune to the cleanser. Unfortunately, I need to come up with a way to artificially replace my tooth enamel so I can eat and drink. Even opening my mouth is unpleasant. So that'll be this afternoon's project.

After that, I'll go back to the old-fashioned method of staying bald: a full-size robot barber. It's less elegant, but it'll be much more reliable. At least, as long as I don't put that hunter-seeker chip in by mistake...

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Seventies are over, man...

A note to politicians and the media:

President Richard Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974. The actual break-in which eventually caused his resignation occurred just over two years earlier, on June 17, 1972. That means that the Watergate scandal ended thirty-seven freakin' years ago.

Now, I realize that it was a Big Deal at the time. I realize that for a lot of the fossils people currently running our government, this was a formative political experience. I can see how the media might consider it their finest hour, when a couple of reporters revealed a truth that ended a presidency. Really, truly, I get that.

But, again, thirty-seven freakin' years, people. Thirty-nine if you count from the break-in itself. Can we please, please, please stop attaching "-gate" to the end of every single political scandal that comes along, no matter how important or trivial? Seriously, and I say this with only your best interests at heart, LET IT GO, already.

I mean, okay, I'm only human. "Wienergate" is funny to say. But if you're going to call it that, why not go all way back? Why not call it the "Wiener Dome Scandal?" At least the middle-schoolers will actually recognize that reference. (History classes through the high school level generally start with Columbus, and almost never get past The Roarin' Twenties.)

Politicians? Media folks? I'd like to extend a personal invitation to all of you. Come join the rest of us in the new millennium. Let's talk about today's problems, instead of rehashing old culture war issues from the sixties and seventies. It'll help you retain the illusion of relevance, and - who knows? - it might even give us a start on fixing our current batch of problems. You might even like it here...

Advice for Writers: Finding Your Tessitura

Author Kit Whitfield has a post up on the concept of tessitura as applied to writing.
For those of you who aren't familiar with the term, tessitura, when applied to a singer, means the range where the voice feels most comfortable and sounds the best. Above and below the tessitura are notes the singer can reach, but they're more of a stretch, more inclined to rumble or squeak, less suited to show the singer's voice to its best advantage. It only struck me when reading this bad prose, but it's actually an incredibly useful term to consider in the context of writing.
I mention this because it seems vastly more helpful than the advice commonly offered to writing students: "Find your voice." So if you're interested in writing, give it a read.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Skelezombiewingymonster Boy

So I'm on my way home from work last night, with boys in the back seat. Secondborn is quickly falling asleep (because it's warm, and he skipped his afternoon nap). Firstborn, on the other hand, is playing with the skelezombiewingymonster that he liberated from the cabinet above my desk.

The skelezombiewingymonster was originally just a zombie action figure. However, he belongs to a line of figures that are designed to have interchangeable parts, so you can swap the arms, heads, wings, and other body parts. One of the other figures in the series was a “ghoul” – basically a skeleton, but with wings. Well, the ghoul must have been cast from a bad run of plastic, because he broke almost immediately. The only parts that remained functional were his left arm, his skull, and his wings. So I put the wings on the zombie, and swapped the zombie-arm for the skeleton arm. Firstborn (who had played with the zombie before) was understandably charmed by this bit of whimsy.

So we’re driving home, and from the back seat – out of nowhere – I hear this: “This is the part of the arm where there are two bones side by side. They’re probably like, ‘Hey, get away from me.’ ‘No, you get away from me.’ ‘I can’t, we’re attached!’”

I assured him that the bones almost certainly said things like that. Once I quit laughing. And got the car back in the correct lane.

This is the same boy who got a stuffed facehugger for his birthday. (Yes, it came from me. “It is just what I wanted,” he said, quoting – I think – from Word World.) Firstborn has never seen the Alien movies, but I must have explained them to him at some point: after opening his present, he carefully explained to both sets of grandparents how the monster grabs your face and lays an egg in your chest, and then an alien monster pops out of your chest.

Also, he can actually pronounce “Nyarlathotep”. (Yes, he has a plushy version of the Crawling Chaos, too.)

I know there are people in the world who wonder if their children are actually, y'know, theirs. Some people even need paternity tests to be sure. But some of us never have to wonder…

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The best-laid wedding plans...

Transforming Seminarian has a nice post up on Less-Than-Perfect Weddings. If you have a wedding or other large event coming up, I'd recommend reading it - regardless of whether you'll be a participant or just a spectator. At least, I found myself nodding along and thinking, Exactly, at several points in there.

When the Beautiful Wife and I decided to get married, we were pretty clear on several things. Chief among them was the fact that the wedding is not the marriage; it's just a formal announcement to the community. So it really didn't need to be a big, fancy event, and it really didn't need to be stressful. (We did, however, decide to write our own vows - if I can find those, I may post them later.)

So we sat down and worked out who all we wanted to invite. And it was a pretty short list: My parents, the Beautiful Woman's parents, my brother and his girlfriend, the Beautiful Woman's sister and her boyfriend. Add the minister (a friend of the Beautiful Woman's mother) and her husband, plus the two of us, and you get a total of twelve people.

Oh, and the Beautiful Woman wanted to include one of her aunts. The aunt in question had been friendly and supportive and had done some really nice things for us, so this was understandable. Of course, if we were going to invite her, we'd need to invite her husband... and her kids... and, well, probably the other aunts and uncles and cousins on both sides of the family... and the remaining grandparents...

A few weeks later we sent out one hundred and fifty-someodd invitations. Our twelve-person wedding was actually attended by about ninety people. And all this because of one aunt that we just couldn't leave out.

I'm not complaining. The wedding was fine, and we were just as married afterwards as we would have been with a small ceremony. But it's an almost perfect real-world example of the Butterfly Effect, and it never fails to amuse me.

There were some funny moments at the reception, also, but I'll tell those stories later (when I have more time).

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Not my finest moment

A couple of years ago, I was talking to the wife of one of my best friends. (She's a friend, too, but I've known him a lot longer and I basically met her through him.) She mentioned - I forget exactly why, but it had to do with whatever we were talking about - that her sister really didn't like me.

Being the sweet, lovable guy that I am, I found that a bit surprising. So I asked her why that might be, and she told me. And I realized that the sister's dislike was totally justified, even though I'd completely forgotten the incident in question.

Some years previously, I had attended a birthday party for another friend from college. This was shortly after I'd returned to Dallas/Fort Worth, and (by the same token) shortly after my divorce.

At that party, I met the sister. We'd met before, once or twice, but only in passing. In the course of talking to her, I learned that she was recently married. Being a recently-divorced twenty-something male, I just shook my head sadly. "It'll never last," I said, and walked away.

Not my finest moment.

(As it happens, I was not only out of line but also completely wrong. She's still married. So I absolutely deserve any ill-will and/or poor opinion she might have about me.)

Froggy Light Time

This weekend, Beautiful Wife went to visit her sister (who just had twins) and took both the boys with her. The trip went well, but they returned home around midnight on Sunday.

Firstborn insisted on remaining awake for the entire eight-hour trip back, so I let him stay up while we finished more of the cleanup and unloading; and while the Beautiful Woman took a hot bath. (Secondborn woke briefly as he was carried into the house, but went right back to sleep.) Once all that was done, I tossed Firstborn in the shower, brushed his teeth thoroughly, and put us both to bed.

Normally, after his bath/shower, Firstborn gets "froggy light time." This is a wind-down period of about twenty minutes, during which the overhead light is off but the frog-shaped lamp is still on. On Sunday, Froggy Light Time lasted about a minute and a half... because it was two o'clock in the smeggin' morning.

Despite the hour, Firstborn protested vocally when I shut off the lamp. There was crying. There was complaining. There was wailing and gnashing of teeth. There was...


This marks some sort of personal best for Firstborn having a tantrum. The whole thing, from lights out through strenuous complaints to complete unconsciousness, lasted less than two minutes. It's just a shame it doesn't work that way all the time.

Monday, June 13, 2011

What is Normal: From A Guy's Viewpoint vs My Viewpoint

Former Conservative recently posted a dissection of... Okay, let me back up.

There is a young woman who calls herself Miss Raquel. Miss Raquel writes a blog called God's Daughter, which focuses on issues of interest/importance to young people in her particular Christian subculture. Among her regular features is an item called "From a Guy's Viewpoint," in which she sends a questionnaire out to young men, to get their feedback on important issues like love, marriage, and appropriate behavior; and then publishes their responses on her blog.

Former Conservative spent some time talking about why he finds a lot of the responses disturbing, and my reactions are very much in line with his. So rather than looking at the responses, I'd like to talk about the questions themselves.

This is not because I find them terribly disturbing. Miss Raquel comes across as bright, active, and very earnest about her Christianity; the material on her blog (what I've read of it) is not malicious, harmful, or even particularly offensive. At worst, she needs to get out more.

...All of which brings me, roundabout, to the same point I was trying to make with the post about Shakespeare in the Bush. Normality is a social construct, and it's a particularly tenuous and contextual one. It's not that people have trouble understanding the concept of "normal". We seem to be wired for that. It's that everybody has their own idea of what is normal.

I'm sure that most (probably all) of these questions seem, to Miss Raquel, like perfectly reasonable, sensible things to ask. They're normal concerns, in other words. But to someone with a different background... well, to illustrate, let me bring in my sixteen-year-old self as a guest. At sixteen I was still attending church and youth group at an Episcopal church on the north edge of Dallas; I was solitary, but not as isolated as I would be later; and I hadn't been exposed to a lot of the views and ideas that I'd run into in college and the working world.

Also, I was a nerd. Or maybe more of a proto-goth. Either way, not a typical teenager, if there is or ever was such a thing.

So, without further ado, let me introduce Michael at Age Sixteen (MAS).

MAS: Um.

Now, let's set the scene. Michael at Age Sixteen is, I don't know, eating in a fast-food restaurant when he's approached by a Christian Young Woman (CYW) of about his own age.

CYW: Hi there. Mind if I join you?

MAS: {nods warily}
MAS: {looks at seat across from him, looks at CYW}

CYW: Do you mind if I ask you some questions? I'm trying to find out what guys think about, well, a bunch of different things.

MAS: ...Sure. Go ahead. {sets book down}

CYW: Well, let's see. Um, first, what are your thoughts on modesty?

MAS: It's a virtue?

CYW: That's all?

MAS: Pretty much.

CYW: Okay... Some of us feel that we either give too much effort, or not enough, in worrying about the way we dress. What is your suggestion to how you wish girls would dress? What do you like to see girls wearing?

MAS: Um. Whatever works for them, I guess.

CYW: So you don't care?

MAS: Well, I mean, I guess I'd think better of someone who was wearing something practical. And comfortable. Like, if there's an opposite of high heels...

CYW: Oh. How do you feel about girls wearing makeup?

MAS: {shrugs} Seems like kind of a waste of time to me.

CYW: But you wouldn't have a problem with it?

MAS: Are there people who do?

CYW: Some people think it's immodest. Next question: a lot of girls worry about looking chic around guys… but what do you consider pretty?

MAS: Chic? If you're looking for fashion advice, you are asking the wrong guy.

CYW: Yeah, I noticed.

MAS: My fashion sense stops at comfortable and practical. I know people dress in uncomfortable, impractical ways because they think it looks pretty... but I don't see it, and I don't get it.

CYW: How about this: do guys ever notice changes in girls? Hair styles, clothes, etc.?

MAS: Depends.

CYW: "Depends." That's your whole answer?

MAS: Depends on the guy. Depends on the change. Depends on the circumstances. I'm pretty oblivious, but I noticed when one of my classmates showed up with a big strip of her hair shaved, and the rest going six different directions in eight different colors.

CYW: Okay, it depends. Well... What is something that you want/look for, the most, in your future wife?

MAS: {chokes, splutters} What?

CYW: What quality would you look for in your future wife?

MAS: Willingness to marry me?

CYW: Besides that?

MAS: Whaddaya mean, "besides that?" If she isn't... Oh, never mind.

CYW: Maybe we should move to another topic. Do you often feel peer pressure from your friends? In any way, but mostly in the standards that you have set for your life.

MAS: No.

CYW: Never?

MAS: I'll ask you the same thing I asked the guy who tried to lecture me about peer pressure and drugs. {leans forward} What makes you think these people are my peers?

CYW: Okay. Next up... What do you consider flirting and what do you think of a girl when she flirts with you?

MAS: Doesn't happen.

CYW: What?

MAS: It. Doesn't. Happen. Look at me. Look at the way I dress. Girls don't flirt with me. They generally cross to the other side of the street and do their best to avoid eye contact. If a girl ever did, I'd probably think I'd misunderstood what she was doing.[1]

CYW: How do you feel about dating?

MAS: Puzzled.

CYW: ...?

MAS: Too many rituals, too many expectations. I don't... Look, it's not that I wouldn't like to, it's that I have no idea how to go about it.

CYW: So you don't think there's anything wrong with it, except that it's too complicated for you?

MAS: Pretty much. Are we looking for a moral issue, here? 'Cause barring a few things that could happen on dates - but aren't, in themselves, dating - I just don't see one.

CYW: When you’re interested in a girl, do you focus on her family too? Do you make it a point to get to know them as much as you want to get to know her?

MAS: ...

MAS: ...If that ever happens, I'll let you know.

CYW: What is your view on college for girls?

MAS: You mean, like women-only colleges?

CYW: No, I mean women going to college at all.

MAS: I don't think I understand. Is there some reason to think that they shouldn't? Assuming that they want to, and they have passable grades?

CYW: Uh... okay, skip that. How about this: what is your dream job? And why?

MAS: I don't know. Writer, maybe? Or maybe I'll just try a bunch of different things until something feels right.

CYW: What do you think the man’s role is in the home – compared to the woman’s?

MAS: Well, in my family the usual gender roles are kind of reversed. My mom's the reliable breadwinner, and the one who sets the rules. Dad is more touchy-feely and optimistic. And less organized. So... Whatever works?
MAS: As long as it's fair, anyway.

CYW: Fair is good. How many kids would you like to have?

MAS: I honestly can't picture myself being old enough to have kids.[2] But if I did, probably two. Zero population growth, and all that.

CYW: A lot of guys like using sarcasm around girls…do you know why that is?

MAS: Yes. Because they're sarcastic.
MAS: Do you mean sarcasm, or sarcasm?

CYW: What's the difference?

MAS: Whether... It's the difference between clever irony, and being mean. They're both called "sarcasm," but they're very different things. I'm... not comfortable with people being mean, even when it's supposed to be funny.

CYW: Do guys like it when girls are tomboyish or more girlie?

MAS: Tomboyish. Nothing against being girlie, but for me... well, I get interested in people who can keep up with me. Or move ahead of me. But, well, be yourself, you know?

CYW: Is there anything that you would appreciate girls doing differently in order to help you maintain your purity?

MAS: Maintain my what? Oh, you're talking about... Okay, look: purity isn't always the best thing. Laboratory-pure water is nothing you'd want to drink. It's the impurities that give it flavor. Pure iron is strong, but when you add some carbon you get steel - much stronger.
MAS: So what I want, basically, is for girls to be clear about what they want and what they're doing. Guys, too, for that matter. Like I said, I'm kind of oblivious.

CYW: Um, okay, right. Where did you learn about... no, skip that, too. What do you think about guys and girls hugging?

MAS: I'm all in favor of it.

CYW: I... yeah. When do you plan to have your first kiss?

MAS: ...Last year? Sorry, are there people who actually... plan that?

CYW: Okay, we're almost done. How will you respond if God's plan is out of sync with your own?

MAS: Unless God wants to actually, um, drop by and explain His plan, I'm pretty much just planning to muddle through as best I can. I don't think I'd actually know if my plans were out of sync with God's plan for me. And, actually, I get the feeling that he really wants me to work that out on my own. He wants followers, not puppets, you know?

CYW: What do you think of girls posting pictures of guys on their blog?

MAS: ...
MAS: I have no opinion about that.

CYW: Do you guys sometimes get weirded out by being friends with girls?

MAS: You know what's weirding me out? You keep asking questions about what boys-in-general think about this or that regarding girls-in-general. There's no answer for that. Which boy? Which girl? Under what circumstances?
MAS: No, I think guys being friends with girls is pretty normal. A lot of my friends are girls. The boys tend to talk about sports, cars, television... I don't care. The girls have more interesting things to say. At least, the ones I hang out with do.
MAS: {considers}
MAS: Actually, that's true of the guys I hang out with, too.

CYW: Just two more. What is one thing that girls do that you hate?

MAS: {Deadpan:} Arg.
MAS: There's no one thing that girls do. There are specific people who do specific things that I specifically hate, but there's no one thing that girls do. At all, let alone that I hate. Different girls do different things.
MAS: Look, be yourself. Be fair to other people. Be clear about what you want and what you're doing. Is that so hard? And I'm not saying that it's girls who need to do that. It's boys, too. Maybe more so.

CYW: Last question: to what degree should a guy and girl just "be friends"?

MAS: As much as they're both comfortable with. Other than that, as much as they want. I mean, okay, I realize this is focused on gender roles and gender relations, but as Pressing Moral Issues Of Our Times, shouldn't we be more worried about, say, feeding the poor than about who might be boffing whom before marriage?

CYW: Thanks for answering. {leaves the table, goes back to her friends}

MAS: Well, that was odd. {Picks up book and starts reading again.}

CYW: {to her friends} That was weird.

So there's normal for you. I have a better understanding now - at least, I dearly hope so - but back then I would have had no context for the questions. And without that context, I can't really answer them; most of the questions make no sense to me, and the ones that do I would answer incorrectly, because I didn't understand what sort of answers those questions were looking for.

Normal itself may be a universal concept, but what is considered normal... well, that's extremely relative, contextual, personally and socially determined - and as a result, tenuous. And I'm prepared to argue, as I get the time, that anyone who believes that there's a universal standard for "normal" really, really needs to get out more.

'Cause the more you look around, the more you see that it just ain't so.

[1] True story, by the way.

[2] I really couldn't.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Epic Beer Commercial

My brother sent me a link to this (via Gizmodo), and while I don't normally watch commercials (that's actually a big part of why I don't watch TV) I thought it was pretty funny. So here you go - The Most EPIC Beer Commercial EVER:

Hopefully I'll have something worthwhile to say later.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

There used to be a system in place for that.

So, following the Big Local Music Festival (30 hours of overtime sandwiched between two full work weeks), a week of vacation (during which, among other things, I dug a hole through the foundation of my house and celebrated Firstborn's fifth birthday - not at the same time, obviously), and the transition from the old Windows XP computer to the new Windows 7 computer at work (talk about culture shock)... I'm changing offices.

My job hasn't changed, mind you. I've just moved from the middle of the Very Long Hallway to the far end of the Very Long Hallway. And, of course, I've spent most of yesterday and part of today sorting through the crap in my office, and moving anything that can't be thrown out.

The disruption to my schedule is pretty much complete. At least, it's as complete as it's going to get barring some sort of Apocalypse... which at this point I really shouldn't rule out.

So, instead of composing something thoughtful, I'm going to offer an amusing (at least to me) bit of filler. It's the trailer for a heartwarming family film. Some of you may remember it - it's called Shining:

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Metaphors for Deconversion

Back when I was working on the Friendly Evangelism posts, I spent some time talking about the process of deconversion, and compared the experience to a romantic breakup.

This is, I think, a pretty apt comparison; but it's not the only one I've seen. So, for the benefit of anyone who's interested in how former believers describe the process of losing their faith, here are a couple of parables that I found interesting.

Rechelle (of Rechelle Unplugged) offers The Parable of the Hole in the Curtain. "One day, the woman noticed a small tear in one of the curtains. Afraid of accidentally seeing what was on the other side of the window and condemning herself to hell, she decided to completely ignore the tear so that her eyes might not stray and she would not be condemned. But the tear got bigger. Soon it was a hole. She tried to stitch the hole together without looking at it, but she was so afraid that she might glance at what was on the other side of the window, that she did a terrible job of patching the curtain and only made the situation worse. The hole grew larger and soon other holes appeared."

Bruce Gerencser has written quite a bit about his deconversion (across several blogs, most recently Fallen From Grace); it's fair to say that the process has been the focus of most of his writing for the last several years. The parable that caught my eye (and the catalyst for this post) was The Danger of Being In a Box and Why It All Makes Sense When You Are in a Box and its follow-up What I Found When I Left The Box: "Every time I left the box I found new and wondrous things. Things I had never heard about before. Things I had never experienced. The box I was in for 5 decades was a box where the dimensions of the box were clearly defined. There was no guessing about the length, width, or depth of the box."

I've said before that I don't really think of myself as having "deconverted". I was an odd kid, and Christianity was just another item in the long list of things that didn't make much sense to me but seemed very important to everyone else. (Other items on that list included fashion, sports, and cars.) It wasn't a (sudden or gradual)realization that something that I used to believe was wrong; it was... how to say this? was a matter of concluding that that feeling {that Christianity didn't make sense} wasn't just a failure to understand on my part, but a legitimate reaction to the belief itself.

As a result, I tend to think of my journey away from Christianity in Fairy Tale terms: I was the kid who wandered off the path to see what was in the woods, and found that I was more comfortable out exploring than I was just following a path that someone else had set. Turns out that the wolves and boggans and other forest-dwellers are actually pretty friendly hereabouts.

Anybody have any other good parables or metaphors to throw in here?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

More Children's Music

Since I seem to be on a parenting theme this week, I thought I'd recommend some children's music for the parents in the audience:

Anybody have other suggestions for music or stories in this vein (so to speak)? Drop 'em into the comments.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Parenting is an exercise in endurance

Theagnosticswife asks:

That’s true right? I know I’m not the only one who stays up too late, has cranky, loud children, cat vomit in the floor on occasion (seriously annoying) and wrinkled clothes(that spray de-wrinkler works great by the way.) Am I?

It's not just you.

If there's one thing that parenting has taught us, it's how to know when it's time to cut our losses. Our house is very neat... right now. It's not as clean as we'd like, but it's very neat. That's because we had people over for Firstborn's (ongoing) birthday parties on Friday night, Sunday afternoon, and this morning. It's also because the messy stuff has been shoved into unlikely locations (like the back bedroom) and hidden behind closed doors. It's also because a significant portion of my week's vacation was devoted to cleaning, straightening, and fixing things.

(The rest of my vacation was devoted to bad horror flicks and being a pirate in an old PS2 video game.)

But give us a week or two, and we'll resume the slow surrender to entropy.

I stay up late - though I try not to stay up too late - because it's the only way I can get my own projects done. It's also the only way I can get reasonably uninterruped down-time. But it can become a vicious cycle, since a lot of the projects I'd like to work on during me-time (anything to do with writing, mainly) all-but-require me to be well rested. Otherwise, working on those projects becomes an exercise in frustration.

Trying to get everything done with kids in the house is the sort of balancing act that makes juggling chainsaws, while riding a unicycle, on a tightrope, with a lightshow blazing around you... look positively uncomplicated.

Tech Support Tales: That One Guy

When my first marriage finally imploded, I decided that - among other things - it was time to find a way to make enough money that I could eventually retire. This is not as easy as it sounds, especially with an English degree.

So I moved back to Dallas, took a job as a plumber's assistant, and spent my free time studying computers until I could pick up a couple of Microsoft certifications. Then I started looking for work involving computers. As an entry-level person with a couple of certifications and no real experience, I wound up putting in some time - a year and a half, maybe two years - at The Company That Shall Not Be Named.

TCTSNBN was not a bad place to work. I called it that because it provided outsource technical support for other companies, and we were absolutely forbidden to identify ourselves as working for our actual employer. So people would call the tech support line for their computer (or printer, or scanner) manufacturer, and end up talking to us instead.

I was working on the contract for a PC manufacturer, which was perfect for my long-range plans. TCTSNBN gave us two weeks of training, then introduced us to working the floor (i.e. the cubicle farm) in a gradual, sit-with-someone-experienced process, designed to keep us from panicking and the customers from realizing just how green we really were. It didn't work perfectly, but it worked well.

After a while, I got moved to second-tier support - meaning that I got the calls that the newer techs couldn't solve, or the ones where the customer had asked to speak to a supervisor.

One of these was a fellow - an older man - who'd just bought a new computer from one of the retail chains. He'd taken it home, set it up, turned it on, and gotten an error. The first-level tech thought that he just needed to use the restore disk and reload the operating system, but the customer didn't want to do that.

So I start walking him back through things, and I listen to him describe the problem, and I agree: he really just needs to reload. It doesn't seem to be a hardware problem; it looks like the software just didn't install correctly at the factory. So I tell him this, and he says, basically: "You know, I could just take it back to the store, too."

"Sure," I tell him. "You can do that. But the computer itself seems to be fine, and if you'll just run this reload disk, I think it'll work just fine for you. And if it doesn't work, you can always take it back in the morning."

He thinks about that, and decides (only slightly grudgingly) that we might as well reload the disk. So we get it started, and while it's going, he asks: "So, are these good computers? I mean, are they well-made?"

There's a brief moment where, I think, he's waiting to see whether I'm going to Support Our Product, or whether I'm going to tell him something real.

"Beats me," I say. "Nobody ever calls me because their computer is working right."

And that cracked him up completely. It must have caught him out of left field - I don't think he'd ever imagined a tech support guy would actually come out and admit that. He actually put his friend on the phone and made me repeat it - and then wondered if there was a way to call me directly - say, on April Fool's Day. Because (and I agreed), the idea of someone calling tech support to tell us that his computer was working great struck him as really funny.

While we're on the subject... If you've ever wondered what it's like to work in technical support, let me introduce you to the Internet Helpdesk:

Friday, June 3, 2011

Word World Goes Poof

A little while back, I did a post on the children's show World World, in which I explained - among other things - why I probably ought not to be allowed to watch children's programs. (If you're unfamiliar with Word World, take a moment and read that post - you'll need the background for what come next.)

I think Firstborn is the same way. His brain just... goes places.

A couple of weeks ago, he's riding in the car with his mother, and says - out of nowhere - "I think in Word World... if you took the letters for 'nothing' and put them together... they'd turn invisible."

Which, if you think about it, makes perfect sense - but I'm guessing there aren't many nigh-five-year-olds out there who are concerned with the existential ramifications of a world where everything that exists is composed of letters.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Firstborn makes with the funny

Okay, so... The night before last, I go into Firstborn's room. It's about ten p.m., well after his nominal bedtime, but he's building spaceships and monsters with his Trio blocks beside his nightlight. He sees me coming and springs up into his bed, where he curls up and lays still with his eyes squeezed shut. I'm sure if he thought he could snore convincingly, he'd have tried that, too.

Firstborn will be five in about a week.

So I sit down on the bed next to him, and I explain that it's really late, and that he needs to go to sleep so that he won't be grumpy tomorrow. I tell him that I'm really sure that if he'll just stay still and be quiet, he'll go right to sleep. I ask him if he can do that for me.

No reply. To his credit, he has the "still and quiet" part down cold. But I wait a moment and ask it again. "Can you do that for me? I know you're awake," I add. "I saw you jump into bed."


So, after a moment I reach down and put my thumb on his chin and use it to move his mouth. In a squeaky puppet voice, I say (for him), "Yes, Daddy, I can do that."

I am rewarded by a small grin in the darkness.

Last night, I went in to check on him and try to get him to lay still, and found that he was awfully stuffy. (So am I, actually. Allergy season is upon us like some horrific curse loosed from the tombs of the elder world.) So I got him some decongestant, and told him to give himself a few minutes to let it work. Then, if he'd be still and quiet, he'd probably go right to sleep, I said.

Fifteen minutes later I go back in there because I can still hear him playing. He once again leaps up into bed, and is sort of... well... I don't know if any professional gymnasts suffer from somnambulism, but if they do, their night-time floor routines might look something like this. I think he was trying to roll over and get his head on the pillow and his body in center of the bed (while still being "asleep"). So I picked him and tucked him into position.

"You sure do make this harder when you're pretending to be asleep," I tell him. He, of course, doesn't answer; so I continue: "You want a blanket, or a sleeping bag?"

He still doesn't answer. So after a moment I put my thumb on his chin and make the puppet voice again: "Blanket." And I start to pull a blanket over him.

At that moment a small hand moves down and puts its own thumb on his chin, and a small puppet-voice says: "Sleeping Bag."

It took me half a minute to get the sleeping bag into place. I couldn't stop giggling.

Slow blogging...

Unsurprisingly, this hasn't turned out to be a good "settle in and get some writing done" week. It has, however, been a great week for cleaning up the detritus from the past couple of weeks, and it's been a really excellent week for spending time with my boys. And it has been relaxing, which was what I needed most, so I'm taking the win.

Meanwhile, just so you know I'm not neglecting you, I offer you Lil Cthulhu. Because chibi-Elder Gods make me happy. And really, it's such a touching children's story - everybody should share it with their kids.