Monday, December 21, 2015

parenting achievement of the week

The boy gets ranty, which is not that unusual for kids, but his father has a serious conspiracy-theory bent, and then we have worked to channel his obsession with justice and fairness with an education in history and systematic oppression. (Things read to him at bedtime have included Critical White Studies and Howard Zinn's A Young People's History of the United States. Anna carefully edits as she reads, since he's not emotionally ready to handle the graphic horrors of history. He knows they're bad, and he's going to be extra angry when he learns the details.)

He was extra ranty and non-listening yesterday, so I looked up from my book mid-rant.
"...and then they're lying to kids in school! It's evil, they're brainwashing them by telling them that anybody can make it in America if they just work hard!"
You'll have enough problems trying to promote justice in the world, even if you don't talk like a socialist version of Rush Limbaugh.
"'Brainwashing' isn't really the right word there."
"But they're lying!"
"Right, but...well, the American school system is designed to produce obedient's really 'indoctrination' rather than 'brainwashing.'"
(See John Taylor Gatto's glorious and epic essay, "Against School.")
"Right, to make them do what the government says. So that's brainwashing."
"So, the context behind 'brainwashing' mostly goes back to the Cold War, and the fear that people were being captured and turned into secret agents. There was this movie The Manchurian Candidate...anyway, 'brainwashing' is where an enemy captures you, and tortures you until you believe what they want you to believe."
(I wanted to use Orwell's 1984 as a better example, but if he reads that book he'll go catatonic.)
"Some of my classmates say school is torture... joking, I guess."
"Yeah. Real torture. And being held captive."
"Captive, like a place where you try to leave and they bring you back?"
(Touché! Time to stop quibbling.)
"More like you try to leave, and they shoot you."
"Oh. Okay. Indoctrination."
We'll see if it sticks. If he stops saying "brainwashing," then when he rants at other people, I can stop (mentally) holding my head in my hands and explaining that my kid who wants to make a genuinely better world just happens to sound like he's about to sell you a tin-foil hat.

Monday, November 2, 2015

changing self-perception.

I was just in Seattle, and Alaska Airlines tore up my suitcase a little bit. They were super nice about it, and offered to fix the bag, or give me a travel credit. The woman asked, "Do you fly a lot?", and I started to answer "No," but stopped myself.

Since I work remotely for a company in Seattle, and Seattle is what an Edmonton co-worker described as "a long bus ride" for me, and I enjoy Seattle, I go to Seattle fairly often now. And since we have most weekends kid-free, Anna and I make and take opportunities to go places together.

This is just the stuff that made it into Google Calendar.

So, yeah. I travel a lot.

  • Feburary
    • Massachusetts (parents)
  • March
    • San Diego outskirts (Legoland)
  • April
    • Santa Cruz Mountains (Zen retreat)
  • May
    • upstate New York (college reunion, never doing that again)
  • June
    • outside Seattle (in-laws)
  • July
    • Seattle (job interview)
    • Cape Cod (parents)
  • August 
    • Seattle (job onboarding)
  • September
    • Marin County (in-laws wedding)
  • October
    • Seattle (company community summit)
    • multi-family campout
    • Santa Cruz Mountains (Zen retreat)
    • Las Vegas (RICON)
  • November
    • Vancouver
    • Seattle (job training)
  • January
    • Seattle (in-laws + company rally)
  • March
    • Fuzdome (my chill birthday weekend with friends)
    • Massachusetts (parents)
    • Santa Clara (company conference)
  • April
    • Santa Cruz Mountains (Zen retreat)
  • May
    • Seattle (work [emergency product re-focusing for my group])
  • June/July
    • Connecticut (high school reunion)
    • Seattle (work)
    • Seattle (with the boy: combination Anna's work/my work, then in-laws) 
  • August
    • Cape Cod
  • September
    • Santa Cruz Mountains (Zen retreat)
  • October
    • Seattle (company community summit) 
    • upstate New York (college a cappella group reunion)
  • November
    • San Francisco (RICON: not far, but still counts)

Sunday, October 18, 2015

don't forget to show your work.

It has not been a year of deep blog posts, I think. Life has had most of the same threads this year, and they progress and evolve.

I just plowed through the books of the Expanse series, really great sci-fi books. The "author" James S.A. Corey is a pseudonym for two guys; apparently one of them built this world for an MMORPG (big online multiplayer game), and then the author one was a writer, met the first guy, and said "Writers don't do this much work" and they wrote some great books.

To make sure I slept, and knowing how sad I would be when they ended, I tried not to just stay up late plowing through them, and I did pretty well. I'm in the middle of a dozen other books anyway, a lifelong habit further enabled by the library's ebook collection and my Kindle. Books I have been notably slow to finish include books related to work.

Work is work. It's a good job, working for a deeply moral employer, with super smart, kind people. I've recently been able to establish clearer expectations for the kinds of roles that are available, so I think we all know where we stand, and that's a good thing.

I did get super excited and hack out a side project last week, something elegant that various people at our Community Summit were interested in, and that made my co-workers' eyes pop out. So that was deeply gratifying.

We're playing a lot with the timing of medications, and I've been feeling pretty good, not just hour to hour, but improving over days. It recently occurred to me that I should make more friends, and while the route to that is not completely clear, it does not make me think "maybe later, I don't have the energy," so that's new. I haven't been running in a couple weeks, but I'm also nervous about trying: even if it feels okay at the time, I can never tell if it contributes to then being strung out a few days later.

We have had a mess of work done on the house, which turned out to be a more substantial project than expected, partly because we didn't know what to expect, but also the usual chain of hapless events that leads to otherwise competent people selling crappy work, which then gets fixed by the next guy. It's funny, even when the crappy work involves missing sealant on the window trim, heading into a record-breaking El Niño (which, this time, means lots of rain).

I think I posted a picture of the living room windows already, but I have trouble describing how much less janky the house feels, with windows that aren't a noisy chore to open, and back doors that are not actually hollow-core interior doors. (The stucco around the primary back door is being fixed up, so we've been using the back door into our bedroom, which is usually only used by shouting children rampaging in a circle around the property. The architectural history that led to an exterior door in our bedroom is, at best, muddled.)

And, of course, copious snuggling.

Finally, I've been unwinding some stuff in my head lately, and getting a clearer view of the way I don't really let my internal processes be seen on the outside. Relatively early in my life it got both tedious and unsafe to do that, so I learned not to, and I'm very good at putting on whatever mask the moment calls for. But that leaves people wondering how my thinking got from Point A to Point B, and in particular for people who care about me, they don't get to see what my experience of life is like. (Why do they want to hear it? I already thought those thoughts, they're boring now!) So I'm telling more of my stories, and letting my emotional reactions to things be more visible, though it's very much like speaking a foreign language (much like J's entire experience communicating with other humans). No disaster yet.

It's early days, though! There's still time!

Monday, October 5, 2015

I'm alive!

No need to send a rescue party. I've been working, and occasionally running, and apparently reading a lot.

We finally pulled the trigger on replacing all our windows, so Anna has been project-managing that, in her copious free time. It's amazing.

That big window used to be 8 panes of glass, tenuous held together by brittle caulk (presumably the original 1938 construction) that would come off with your fingernail. The entire assembly would flex if you pressed on it, and with the not-at-all-safety glass and the 3-foot drop on the other side, the situation cried out for some zooming child to crash through it and end up with a concussion and dozens of stitches. We drilled this point into the children entering the house, and put a big chair in front of the window, which made it safer, but the chair is very opaque and so we didn't really think of the window much.

It turns out there's an entire whole world out there! Easily visible through a single piece of glass that doesn't have a huge armchair in front of it.

We replaced everything except the bathroom windows, so a new sliding door in the office, no more rattling single-paned aluminum-frame windows with the weather-stripping gone. Occasionally we open and close windows just because it's so easy: no strenuous effort, no CLACK-CLACK-CLACK-CLACK as the windows skip and chunk through the frame rather than slide.

We replaced the two rear doors, which, as it happens, were actually interior doors that people had just gone ahead and used for exterior doors. That is how this house rolls.

(I say "we," but of course Anna is doing the day-to-day project management.)

The dark, cavelike corner of our bedroom now has natural light, of all the crazy things, filtered through trees. These doors are actually double-paned, but with a set of Venetian blinds inside. This is space-age stuff. (Or, rather, this is what we build instead of going into space.)

I'm not showing the hacked-up stucco, or the lonely-looking wall gaps or places where the trim hasn't been replaced. It'll get fixed, hopefully before it rains.

 This is the last big project for a while, but wow. It's like a different house.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015


We just got back from vacation a few weeks ago! In Seattle.

I was already in Seattle for work, of course, about 2 weeks before that, and then maybe 5 weeks before that. Sea-Tac Airport and I are old friends. I've been flying in and out a lot since July of last year. Most of the power outlets in Terminal A still don't work.

Anna went to her corporate client's offsite, for which they pay airfare and hotel for everyone's families, and we decided to bring the boy along and combine that with a visit to my in-laws in the area.

The offsite was at the Four Seasons Hotel. I'd never stayed at a Four Seasons, normally deciding I have better uses for the extra $500 per night, so I didn't really know what to expect.

It's really nice.

That seems obvious, but I have never stayed in a hotel that nice, so the level of niceness was a bit beyond my previous understanding of hotels.

First we're in the lobby, and the boy is saying something about how this is a really expensive hotel that only rich people would stay at. (In his other household, "rich people" is a unified and negative entity in the world, and it can be hard for him to keep his paradigms straight.) He wasn't into a class-war rant just then, but you have to catch these things before they build up.
"Okay, so while we're here, we need you to keep any snarky comments about the hotel or the people here inside your head, okay? If you need to let them out, do it when it's just us in the room."
That...worked. Immediately, and for the duration of the trip. I didn't have to remind him even once, which is rare.

Our room was pretty cramped, and had a single bed, and faced the big neon sign of the Seattle Art Museum. Even on someone else's dime, I wasn't looking forward to three nights there. Clearly there had been a communications issue, so Anna started on getting us moved to a different room. J immediately started doom-and-gloom about how we'd all have to sleep on the floor or something.
"Oh, man. It'll be just like that time in Grass Valley, remember? We couldn't get the key to the house, and just like you predicted, we had to go back into town and sleep in our cars?"
"That's not what happened!"
"You're right, you're, right. I forgot. We had to sleep in the street."
'That didn't happen, either."
"Right. We didn't panic, we got the key, and everything was fine. So. The way to think of this is that all these dozens and dozens of people working in the hotel, their job is to help us have a good time. So they're all going to be very nice and helpful. They'll set us up with another room, because that's their job."
Thus ended the doom, more or less.

Our new room was just a couple degrees short of palatial. The bathroom was literally the size of our bedroom at home, only coated in marble. There was a TV embedded in the vanity mirror. There was a telephone next to the toilet.

Instead of a bright neon sign, our window looked out on the pool area, over Pike Place Market, and out to Puget Sound. It was a much, much, much nicer room. I was boggled. J was literally speechless for several minutes (as common for him as it is for me).

I could have sworn I took pictures of the room, and lots of other things besides; maybe I deleted them without actually taking them off my phone first? I'm not at all sure what's going on there. Just imagine the kind of hotel room that comes with this view.

They have a Coffee Concierge. Dial 4505 in the morning, and they will bring you coffee and/or tea service. It's good coffee.

Anna was actually working, which meant that J and I had two whole days together, and confronting me yet again with the fact that compared to her, I am a bit of a slouch as a parent. I don't think I forgot to feed and water the kid, but I did have us on sort of a long adventure the first day. J navigated us to the MONORAIL stop, which goes up to Seattle Center, where we went to the Experience Music Project, then ate some pretty solid pizza, then went back to the Experience Music Project, then went back to the hotel and gratefully spent a few hours not talking.

Day 2 was "let's play Chris Sits Around By The Pool While People Under Age 11 Splash Around In The Water For A Few Hours." The game of kings, handed down from my ancestors.

If you can stay at a Four Seasons, I highly recommend it. Extra delicious if you're not paying.

Monday, July 27, 2015

still adjusting to the climate.

I just watched Frozen, finally, two years after everyone else saw it--whether they wanted to or not, it seemed, since so many of my friends have TV-watching kids about that age. J has not seen it, that I know of, and since he associates it with younger kids, he's been referring to it as "That Movie."

It's good! For Disney in particular it represents a serious (and welcome) departure, where the princesses completely drive events, and the story is really about the sisters, and a woman not being afraid of her own power to be in the world. There are men along for the ride, but the message about romance is mostly just "don't marry someone you just met," a laudable lesson that all children should hear as soon as possible. (In my 20s, I was told in no uncertain terms by someone who lived through the Great Depression that I should not get married before I was 30; I had a near miss with a bad engagement, and to be honest, I don't think hearing that lesson when I was 7 would really have helped, but let's just keep going and hope that our children don't need to take the Really Hard Way like we did.)

Being set in an invented Scandinavian country--whiter than Wonder Bread, so hopefully Disney can branch out in skin colors next time--I started reading about mulled wine, and it had always seemed weird that a drink originating in European winters should have oranges or lemons in it. Everyone knows there's no fruit in the winter. It's winter. That's what winter means: no fruit. I grew up getting a tangerine in the toe of my Christmas stocking, because when my parents were growing up, that was a really expensive and special thing.

(I did not like tangerines, which always left me feeling a little awkward. I don't like driving Saabs, either. I'm a little different from the rest of my family.)

Wikipedia just mentioned "Seville oranges" when talking about mulled wine, and of course it finally dawns on me, after 16 years in California and 2 years of owning an orange tree, that oranges particularly are ripe in winter. Ship them from Spain to England, and boom.

These connections come slow sometimes.

Saturday, July 11, 2015


After 3 months, I just cracked open our second 40lb bag of sunflower seeds for the birds. Word seems to have gotten out about our backyard, and the past couple mornings have seen some ferocious bickering, posturing, and fluttering, as the birds jockey for feeding position. The winner seems to be whoever gets to be higher up while eating, so the two upper perches on the feeder are in demand.

That said, no one wants to be left out, so somehow there emerges the strategy of knocking sunflower seeds out of the feeder and onto the ground. It initially looks like sloppy eating, but of course birds are at least as accurate with their beaks as we are with fingers, and they are clearly capable of fetching a single seed at a time.

So the ground is covered in sunflower seeds, and the sunflower seeds are covered in birds. You can't see the ground from our kitchen window, so I was surprised to make a noise inside and startle close to a dozen birds hanging out and eating on the ground.

The squirrels also enjoy the sunflower seed overflow, and seem to have reached a détente with the birds. I have a plan to have the seeds fall into a cage that birds can get into but not squirrels, which presents a bit of an engineering challenge, but I think it can be done with judicious application of sharp, spiky wires. I've already got a smaller version keeping the squirrels off the beam directly above the feeder.

There's relatively few species that visit us; with our typical scientific rigor, they are:
  • Red,
  • Mrs. Red,
  • Pointy Head,
  • Stripey Head,
  • Black Head,
  • and the very occasional visiting Long Beak.
Smoke Alarm Bird (who most often sounds exactly like a smoke alarm's low-battery warning chirp) is omnipresent, of course, but a bit bigger than Red and Stripey or Black Head, and restricts herself to eating off the ground.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

read read ready read

I finally bought a Kindle.

I hadn't really wanted one, or known I wanted one. We have a Paperwhite in the house, but the text has been just a bit too jaggy for me, and I already have an iPad and iPhone...

Amazon released the Kindle Voyage, which has some new experimental features (apparently you can press the edges to turn the page, and it vibrates?), but also has a 300dpi e-ink screen, which eliminates the jaggy-font problem. While I was hesitating because the Voyage is expensive and weird, Amazon upgraded the Paperwhite to the 300dpi screen, and I was so excited I had it sent to my in-laws' in Washington so it would arrive while we were there and I wouldn't have to wait.

The Kindle is totally awesome and I'm chewing through all my library books on it. After a couple days, though, I noticed it was doing this thing called spotlighting, where you can see the effects of the individual LED backlights. I would never have heard of it, except there was a generation of Mac laptops that had it quite severely:

It doesn't prevent me reading stuff, but I'm returning it anyway.

When I told Amazon's return process on the website that I wanted a replacement instead of a refund, they directed me (without comment) to Customer Service. Customer Service, it turns out, were themselves a bit confused about why I was talking to them, but they sent me to a "specialist," who via typing-chat walked me through her script of rebooting the Kindle and then facilitating the return.
"A specialty team will be in touch within 24 hours to schedule a pick-up of the device."
This is not normal. I've done a lot of Amazon returns: they give you a shipping label, you package the thing up and drop it off at the UPS Store, you're done.

It turns out all the extra hoops are because Amazon Engineering wants the broken device themselves.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

local wildlife.

A few months ago I took the recycling out at night, and I saw what I could have sworn was a cockroach, scurrying across the driveway towards the fig tree. A month ago I saw one in the back patio, and shortly thereafter there was one in the kitchen (which I trapped and dumped in rubbing alcohol for later identification.

Now, I have been extremely privileged to live a cockroach-free life. A cockroach in my kitchen would normally worry me, except:
  1. There were no cockroaches when we moved in.
  2. There have been no cockroaches for the 2 years we've lived here with unchanged living habits (including a consistent lack of discipline about food on countertops).
  3. Most cockroach sightings were outside. And near the compost heap...
Being a city boy, I'm not used to thinking of cockroaches as outdoors animals, but why shouldn't they be? Our compost heap is full of earthworms and beetles and earwigs and once I saw a centipede and holy shit so many tiny ants--in fact, I've theorized that the compost heap keeps the ants out of the house, by constantly being the most attractive food source in the area. If cockroaches need food, warmth, and moisture, the compost bin should be the place.

When I found the cockroach in the kitchen, Anna immediately made up a batch of bait-poison (boric acid + maple syrup + water) and put it inside all the wall outlets and various crevices. The common understanding is that if you see a cockroach, it's because they've been crowded out of the hidden spaces and there are actually thousands more nearby; but I haven't seen one in the house since. I did spot a few in the patio last night, and one of them fled into our crawlspace; but I tend to think the one in the kitchen was either exploring, or just trying to get from one place to another.

(I am, of course, an insect pest professional. The idea that an animal evolved for living outdoors would prefer to stay outdoors doesn't seem like a stretch, though.)

We also had a brief incursion of tiny ants, and all of this spurred me to go do some maintenance on the compost bin, which was so full of densely-packed dirt that the bin itself was deforming out of its square shape, and it was really hard to get the lid on. Presumably the density made it harder for the residents to move around, and also harder for water to percolate through.

Water! Compost bins need water. We live in the Land of Very Little Rain At The Best Of Times, and we're in an epic drought. So I motivated to dig out the compost dirt--which, miraculously, used to be banana peels--and spread it around on various trees that looked like they could use the help, and then dumped a solid bucket of water into the remainder. (And then enjoying how easy it was to put the lid back on. The trees, for their part, seem to have perked up immediately.)

I think the drought has stressed the insects, driving them to the unusual behavior of coming into my house.

Go, insects! Live happy life cycles in the compost bin! I promise to give you water!

And I will poison you if you don't Then we can all coexist peacefully!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

not to be confused with the Swiss rhinoceros.

When we got J back, I asked him what he did with his week away from us, and said there had been a very long and annoying "knot-tying lesson." This turned out to be a failed attempt to teach the boy to tie his shoes, which not only left him unable to tie his shoes (his fine motor control makes it a high-effort, low-return investment, easily bypassed with cord-locks on his laces) but anxious about his inability. We were discussing when Anna had gotten around to shoe-tying.
"Yeah, I dunno, there was some story that's supposed to make it easier to remember--"
"The rabbit goes down the hole, and around the tree, or the other way around."
"--right. It's very confusing."
The child continued to perseverate.
"There's also the second part about the rhinoceros coming back up the hole to drink tea and eat flowers."
"What? It doesn't say that!"
"Sure it does. The whole story goes back to Germany in 1542. The Middle Ages. "
"No it doesn't!"
"1452, I guess it's the Renaissance, actually."
"That's not true!"
"The Reformation was a really confusing time for Europe."
"You know, if you wrote a book of all the fake history you make up, it'd be really funny."
My hope is that education will leave him sending me indignant text messages about a childhood filled with semi-plausible half-truths.

Or, as Anna put it after he'd read a few Calvin & Hobbes books: "Okay, Calvin's Dad."

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

summer plant update

"Summer" is a funky term around here, since we've had highly variable temperatures, reaching summery heights over a month ago. As always in California, the constants are a lack of rain, and a blinding sunlight that washes out the colors of the world and seems to find you even in the shade.

Our trees seem only variously happy, presumably from the drought. Some of them, like Loki the loquat, "cherry" plum, pomegranate, and Driveway Peach have taken the year off from fruiting. The Sidewalk Peach is taking it easy with the fruit, and may be adjusting to the heavy pruning we did--although that was only clearing out all the dead branches. Driveway Peach, to be fair, may still be recovering from the loss of its major branch two seasons ago, when the weight of the fruit snapped it off.

I put "cherry" in quotes because its companion, the pluot tree, is putting out fruit twice the size of previous years, so I imagine if the water table were higher, we'd be getting full-size pluots (we're already close). We fertilized it once and we've been watering it daily for a long time, so it seems possible that the "cherry" plum is just a plum that was discouraged and low on resources.

Figgy, of course, is going gangbusters like there's no drought. She was heavily pruned and seems to have responded with an explosion of leaves and nascent figs. The Figpocalypse will come for you. There is no escape.

I've had daydreams about making a dehydrator (wood frame + window screening + fan), but in reality I should probably just buy one. The figs in particular I hate to see go to waste, but there are so many of them it's not even practical to capture them all as fig puree (which is nice for baking, but takes up too much space and doesn't get used quickly enough).

Surprisingly, the apple tree is surging this year, despite being crammed in between Figgy and the pomegranate. Once we understood when the apples are ripe (November-ish), they were pretty good last year.

You may or may not remember that there were 8 rose...things, in front of the house when we moved in. "Bush" is sort of a strong term, but they were old rose plants, typical for rental properties around here. We don't care for roses and certainly didn't want them in the yard, so we invited people to come dig them up. They dug a foot or two down in the ground, pulled up the plants, and boom, we were done.

Eighteen months later, we have 9 rose plants.

The first Zombie Rose has been blooming regularly, first one flower, then two, and is currently at four. These are not the flowers of a plant in difficulty; they are bright, large, beautiful red roses. It's hard enough for me to think of roses as high-maintenance when they're one of the default half-assed-landscaping plants for low/mid-range rentals, but it's another thing entirely when people dig up the plants and then they simply grow back, in a record drought, without any watering.

Zombie Roses.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

east coast

I was just in New England! We went to Connecticut for my high school reunion. Despite predictions, it didn't rain: New England is having what they call a drought, which is the adorable thing where it doesn't rain there for a few months. (When California is not in a drought, we call that situation "April through December.")

There's so much water in the air there, all going to waste. What a shame. We spent a lot of time being wistful for a place with such greenery that just happens, without a lot of effort. (Sure, if you slack off you might get the wrong greenery, but something's gonna grow.) I mostly don't need my sunglasses out there, which is something I'd forgotten or never noticed. Is it the latitude (41 vs. 38)? The humidity? I don't know.

We went back for my nth high school reunion, and front-loaded it with a couple of days with my parents, which was lovely. Anna's goal for the trip was to gather fascinating and tantalizing stories of Young Chris, and I suppose spend time with me in the process. She got at least a few good ones, including the time when one of my best friends decided to hang-drop off a 1.5-story roof just to prove he'd be okay: he remembered the ER, but his memory left out the part where I hauled him over to the infirmary, made up a story for what happened, and held his hand while they cut off his shoe to look at his ankle.

(I'll make no claims for having good judgment as a teenager, but I did have strong impulse control. When I fucked something up, I tend[ed] to plan it in advance.)

I identified four different kinds of people I see at reunions, which map almost exactly to our relationships while in school:
  1. Actual friends. You're both genuinely happy to see each other.
  2. Friendly acquaintances. You're happy to see each other and content with the limited but positive role you played in each other's younger lives.
  3. People who were indifferent or hostile during school, who now feel able and compelled to greet you as though you have a shared history you can celebrate together.
  4. People who honor the fact that you were indifferent or hostile to each other during school, and that our relationship probably didn't blossom into something more positive over a couple decades of not speaking to each other.
I have a lot of respect for #4, and quite a number of classmates did me the favor of not even acknowledging my attendance. (There were just over 100 of us, so we all knew everyone's name and face at one point.)

 #3 I find a little confusing, and what Anna calls the "assumption of intimacy" is not at all unique to reunions. I wonder if they just have an idea about how classmates should feel about each other, much like parents can have an idea about how a family should interact, and that idea fails to give way to the reality of the people and relationships actually involved.

It was good to see some of the old gang, see the campus in its majestic summer beauty, and see what few teachers haven't retired yet.

We went to a panel interview with the last three heads of the school, including the one who left shortly after I graduated. He's a dynamic, wickedly intelligent and learned man--when I met him as a 13-year old, something in our conversation left me at a loss for words, and immediately my mother correctly decided he was amazing. The moderator asked some question about events during his tenure, and he rambled quite a bit about the guy who had preceded him and the changes in New England private schools around that time. But in the rambling...
And then Northfield-Mount Hermon, which is, strangely enough, now in the Mount Hermon campus, having sold the beautiful Northfield campus to the C.S. Lewis Center for the Preservation of the Most Naive and Backward Interpretations of Christianity..."
It's good to see he's still got it, in his mid-80s.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

on meat.

If you haven't heard, the project to grow meat in a lab had a proof-of-concept a couple of years ago. (Actual cow cells, not some protein replacement.) The taste was a little funky, and it cost more than $300,000, so there was room for improvement. The scientist has managed to cut the cost by more than 80%, which is remarkably fast progress for any product's path to commercialization. Barring calamity, someone will be trying to sell it within 10 years, probably much sooner. Hopefully it's edible, because the upside is huge: while we should continue to complain about how much water almond trees use (and must use every year to keep them alive), livestock in California uses a lot more. Plus the way we produce meat is quite literally horrifying.

I eat it anyway, because I have to.

The selfish part of me isn't sad that I have to eat meat, because meat is delicious, and banh mi is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy. I have had a couple stretches of not eating meat, and they were complete disasters.

The first time was accidental: I stayed 3 weeks at San Francisco Zen Center, which doesn't serve meat at all. The food was good at the time--it varies depending on which student has been placed in charge of the kitchen, a position so important that Dogen wrote his most famous essay about it--so I didn't really miss meat. After maybe a week and a half, though, I was chatting with a resident, and I commented that I felt like my energy level had been ticking steadily downward.
"Oh, yeah," she said. "You need a hamburger. I need to duck out periodically to go eat meat somewhere."
Off I went to Rosamunde Sausage Grill, and I felt better after the first bite.

The second time, I was farther in to Zen practice, and felt very keenly that I should stop eating standard urbanly-available meat, because it's really just a catastrophe for the planet, and unspeakably cruel to the animals. I figured I'd try it for a month and see how it went. I ate what seemed like pounds and pounds of lentils and beans, though I also wasn't really eating cheese or butter at the time.

I was running every other day, and after a couple weeks I suddenly realized that running had been getting harder and harder. My legs felt like they were made of lead, my muscles had no bounce-back; things I would expect every so often, but not every time. After 3 weeks, I ate some kind of meat thing, and again felt better immediately.

Now my body's all horked up and weird--or rather, it's mostly normal for the first time ever, but only with the aid of medication--and experiments in vegetarianism are out of the question, especially because the kind of energy issues I've dealt with for the past couple years feel suspiciously like those times I wasn't eating meat. It's sort of sad, though.

Maybe "cultured meat" will save the day.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

books books books

A while ago I started keeping a list of books I read, because otherwise I'll just forget. If I have the titles, I'll usually remember a lot about it.

Obviously I would want to count them, but until this year, it never occurred to me to just put them in an HTML numbered list. That makes counting much easier, though since I'm lazy and I condense series into one entry, I still have to do math. I add books in the year that I finish them, which is the only sensible way to do it.

Last year I finished 42 books. I discovered some really excellent series that jacked up the numbers, but even so, that's 0.8 books per week. I also worked full-time, but you can tell who's doing most of the parenting chores, and it's not me.

This year I've finished 21 books, and the list is a bit less fluffy than 2014. This is also the 21st week of the year. I'm pretty split now between e-books and paper books; the e-books particularly feed my lifelong habit of reading a dozen books at once, because I borrow them through the Kindle app in my iPhone and iPad, and if I don't finish them but borrow them again later, the Kindle app remembers my place and any notes I made and everything. I have some long-running project books:
  • Cubed - Nikil Saval.
  • Consider the Fork - Bee Wilson.
  • Plato at the Googleplex - Rebecca Goldstein.
  • Notes of A Native Son - James Baldwin.
  • A People's History of the United States - Howard Zinn.
  • Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck.
  • Moby-Dick - Herman Melville.
It's not a coincidence that most of these are information-dense non-fiction. I sometimes have a hard time focusing these days.

Grapes of Wrath I read in high school, but after being blown away by East of Eden in Chile, I re-read Of Mice and Men last year, and clearly Younger Chris did not properly appreciate Steinbeck.

Moby-Dick (1852) is fascinating. I use it for bedtime reading, because nothing happens and it calms my mind. It's exquisitely crafted, but...what is it, exactly? Is it a novel? I can only appreciate it if I set aside my preconceived notions of a novel as a Story about Events involving Characters who might change somehow by the end of the book. There is a plot, but it doesn't appear until about 20% through the book. Melville just wasn't in any hurry.
"Come, dear reader, and let your Ishmael tell you, not about a ship or its captain or some stupid whale or whatever. Sit with me as I wax rapturous about the glories of shipboard living, the importance of the harpooneer, the fine hand-crafted details of the pulpit in the fishermen's church."
The pulpit took at least 2 pages. No joke. This author is deeply, passionately committed to describing things.

I like it, though! Now that we're actually on the ship and we've met the psychotic captain, there's a lot of Shakespearean vibes going on. Melville coins words like Shakespeare did: overscorning is the one that sticks with me, but several times I've typed a word into Google when the Kindle dictionary didn't know it, and the only reference is to quote Melville's passage. The guy loved English.

Now that I think of it, there's a woeful amount of Shakespeare I've never read. Maybe that can be the next thing to put me to sleep.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

housing up a storm over here

We got a bird feeder and filled it with birdseed, which was thoroughly ignored until we replaced it with sunflower seeds. Now we have a bunch of tiny birds bickering over the feeder: there are 4 perches and usually 2 birds fighting, so it's a lot like me and my brothers when we were kids. There is one bird who ignores the bickering and just sits there and chows down; maybe that would have been my sister, if I'd had one.

This seems to be a genuinely squirrel-proof feeder, where the bird perches are mounted on a spring-loaded sleeve, and too much weight causes the sleeve to come down and close off the feeding holes. I had it hung on a string, which the squirrels didn't want to climb down; now it's on a swivel chain, and they don't like the rotation. We'll count that as a solid victory.

If you're going to buy sunflower seeds for birds, really the only sensible thing is to buy a 40-pound bag and have Amazon ship it to you. The downside is that now you have to put it somewhere, and the squirrels had no trouble figuring out that they were in a plastic bin on the patio. We put it in the garage, but our terrible garage has enough problems and I want squirrels to have no reasons to colonize it. Home Depot still carries metal trashcans, I think for the sole purpose of keeping animals out. The one model they carry is certainly a piece of shit compared to the ones we had when I was a kid, and I doubt it would stand up to being an actual trashcan. Said piece of shit is, however, proudly marked as American-made.

The rejected birdseed went into our compost bin. We have a compost bin! Along with "not having to move in the coming decade" and "I have a pool table," the compost bin must be my favorite thing about owning a house. (A close fourth is probably "paying for all the plumbing repairs myself.")

With the compost bin and the recycling--ignoring the non-trivial question of how much of that actually gets recycled--the waste produced by our household of 3 is about half of a paper shopping bag every week. And the level of the compost bin never seems to change much. Is it this magical if you grew up on a farm? I most surely didn't, and it's magical. Leaves, food waste, grass, eggshells, coffee grounds. Countless whole oranges from our tree, swiftly given completely over to mold in the compost heap, dissolved within weeks by the truly vast ecosystem it feeds. Mostly it's
  • ants, who seem so content to have infinite food that they stay outside the house,
  • fruit flies,
  • tiny slugs (do they become bigger slugs? I never see bigger slugs),
  • earthworms, a relatively recent phenomenon who for some reason are often crawling down the outside of the bin toward the ground,
  • a specific kind of black beetle I've seen around here for years and years, here numbering in the hundreds, and
  • a couple times I saw millipedes!
I haven't noticed the earthworms crawling down the outside recently; we've seen the occasional bird finding a snack on the compost bin, so nature may be selecting for earthworms that only want to dig down through the contents instead of going adventuring.

The single most amazing thing about the compost bin is that it never, ever smells like rotting food. It smells like the most delicious, flavorful dirt you can imagine. Anna extracts it occasionally--there is surprisingly little of it, see the constant-size comment above--and the plants are all big fans.

What kind of wonderful world do we live in where there's a way to make rotting food not smell like rotting food?

Wednesday, April 22, 2015


I did the aikido weapons class on Sunday, with no ill effects! It didn't involve any falling, which is the big test of my energy, but I also have an affinity for weapons, so it was a very comfortable way to get back on the mat.

I miss it. The fluidity that aikido drills into me is diminished right now; at various times I feel myself spoiling for a fight, or wanting to argue, rather than step back and take a deep breath and de-escalate. Sitting Zen is important (though I'm not doing that either), but aikido is more so.

The truth is that by and large I don't fight, and I do de-escalate, in ways that people find really striking, if they notice. Last week I was listening in on a meeting and I took over to defuse it before it became a really harmful and misdirected ragefest, antics that got everyone's attention, up and down the chain. I'm less patient, but I think maybe only Anna sees it. (Lucky her!)

So my perceived lack of fluidity is really about my own internal experience: how long it takes me to bring myself to that creative, constructive space of conflict resolution, how hard it is to let go of my idea of how things should go and find the idea that includes everything and better resolves the issue. It's not that it doesn't happen, it's just that I notice how much longer it takes and how much harder it is.

But! Aikido!

Monday, April 20, 2015

on owning things.

Four years after transitioning to full-scale, live-in, half-time parenting, I am still startled by how my life has changed as a result--not too often, only every other day or so--and I think a lot about owning things, because I own more of them now. I already owned enough things that I needed a garage. I don't actually like owning things. I'd much rather be able to pack up and leave on a day's notice, an especially painful wish during any of my several moves as a renter.

The problem is that I like doing things, and the things that I do are most rewarding with the right things to do them. I could get rid of of the possessions, but then when I go to do the thing I like to do, I don't have the equipment. I could buy it again, but that's remarkably expensive compared to just keeping the possessions.

I did archery for a pretty long while, and I started with a basic bow and arrows, but after a year or so, decided I liked it enough that I would enjoy it more with a better bow. Now I own a low-end bow from a good brand, and the difference is astonishing, like going from an old VW Beetle to a Porsche.

(Ironically, and completely unrelated, VW now owns Porsche, Saab, Bentley, Lamborghini, and Bugatti.)

It's common in most forms of archery to have some widgets on the bow: stabilizers that absorb the vibration of release, and a sight to accurately gauge distance. This is the only way to consistently hit a spot the size of a quarter at 70 meters, as Olympic archers do: if you watch someone shoot a LifeSaver out of the air, they're doing it at well under 30 meters, usually more like 15 or 20.

I didn't want to shell out for a new one, though, so I haunted Craigslist for several months, and finally had a full set of stabilizers, and a sight, for 20-25% of what they would have cost new. I bought an archery-specific backpack to store it in, because it was shockingly awkward and uncomfortable to carry all this crap any other way.

I don't do archery at the moment, but I'd like to again someday. I could sell the archery equipment (at a loss), but then if I want to pick it up again, it would be expensive, in both time and money. By contrast, I have a bag the size of a small suitcase that will hold all my gear. I can just keep it somewhere--in my case, in the Terrible Garage. Provided the garage doesn't collapse (a small but distinctly non-zero possibility), I can grab the bag and go whenever I might have the impulse.

I think my little brother, the farmer, has had a similar evolution, as he accumulates several tractors and the piles of wood and metal every farmer needs to fix and build things. Well, I say "similar": I never actually went through a phase of having very little stuff, and I think he did.

And then I own a house, which is sort of the ultimate "no, you cannot pack up and leave" kind of thing. Which was the goal: I was tired of moving every few years. I have so much stuff, it was a lot of work.


Sunday, March 15, 2015

so this is what it's like.

Having given up on my G.P. being any more useful than he was being, we got a recommendation from the community for a psychiatrist who likes weird cases. He's very much like Dr. House, only he's extremely nice and caring, and not obviously addicted to opiates. I tell him all the random little things that an ordinary doctor would ignore--for example, that I was waking up at night sweating for no good reason, or that coffee has always made me tired--and those little things become important clues.

There's a possibility my symptoms all come from some mysterious auto-immune thing, but in the meantime the going theory was that I've been suffering a general disregulation of the nervous system. He prescribed a drug from that magical group called "anticonvulsants," which comes from the Greek for "we don't really know why it works, but it seems to be really useful." The initial motivation was that it might help me stay asleep at night (I had been starting to wake up no matter what I did), but the hope was that it would have what is essentially a tonic effect on my nervous system.

Fast-forward a month later, and things are...different.
  • I've been running every other day. The last time I tried running was like 6 months ago, and I was exhausted and useless for a week.
  • Exercise doesn't leave me exhausted for the rest of the day (though aikido will be the acid test there--running didn't used to wipe me out).
  • Coffee does not make me tired. Sometimes it's even a little boost of mental energy.
  • I don't need 2 naps to make it through the day. I actually don't nap at all. (I might nap once a day if I drank less coffee.)
This is all apparently how normal people experience the world. I had only read about it in books, or smiled and nodded when people talked happily about feeling refreshed after exercising.

I do get tired in the evenings towards bedtime, but Anna assures me that this, too, is normal.

Friday, February 6, 2015


The Super Bowl just came and went, and with it the usual round of "sportsball" jokes. I make them, too, though in my case it's genuinely ironic because not only have I grown to find the game interesting, I more or less know the rules to football, baseball, and basketball.

I grew up in a sports household. My father played team sports way back when, was at least pretty good at them, and remains convinced of their value, and my brothers are preternaturally gifted at them (it never seemed to matter which one they tried). I don't think it's cynical to say that if you're good at sports, you'll probably find sports teams to be welcoming and rewarding places to be.

I was not good at sports.

Outvoted as I was, sports tended to rule the television. As long as I shared the house with the Patriots, Red Sox, Celtics, or whoever happened to be on, I wanted to at least understand what I was seeing. So maybe Dad and I didn't have the same ideas about sports, but we did (and still do) very well together talking about how the world works, and I learned about free throws and off-sides and safeties and bunts.

(As I'm talking here about how I didn't fit in growing up, I want to give a shout out to Mom, who not only doesn't particularly care about sports as far as I know, but spent decades as the only female in a house full of males. There's a lot I don't know about how that was for her--only that she has been even happier than I would expect to have our wives join the family. Maybe she should start a blog.)

My two older nieces are now teenagers, and of course they're good at sports. So close! I've got a third niece, so maybe she'll be awkward. Probably not, though, since her father is the brother who, in addition to being preternaturally athletic, was also graceful enough to do some dancing.

I was not good at sports. In between having to suffer through sports, I read books and learned big words and things that interested me and coasted through school until it required hard work, at which point I underachieved because there didn't seem to be any point to working hard at things I didn't like. (I know, right? That's a different blog post.)

(Of course, now my son underachieves, and I worry about him like my parents worried about me. But he's underachieving years before I did, so my worrying is totally different. File under "The Great Wheel Turns.")

Funny enough, some years ago I was up in Gold Country for Thanksgiving and started throwing a football around with the teenagers, and I was surprised to discover I was good at it. I could feel the weight of the football in my arm and the roughness of it in my hand, and it gave just the right resistance for me to throw it in beautiful spinning arcs to where I wanted it to go.

This has its limits: I tore a muscle or something--undiagnosed, because why bother, as long as it gets better?--that took a year to fully heal. I still suck at basketball. But after a mere decade of martial arts, I developed a fraction of the sports ability my brothers were born with.

Not to undervalue the martial arts thing. As my niece discovered through ten minutes of trying to torment me in Cape Cod Bay, I'm really good at making people fall down when they're not expecting to.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

leveling up

One fine Sunday morning at the end of November, Anna and I were having a lazy morning on the couch. Being adults, we can last a while without breakfast, so we'd stuck with lazing for the moment.

J walked in.
"Um, I need breakfast."
"How about you make breakfast for all of us?"
"Um, I don't know how."
"You could make your own breakfast."
"Do you think there's an art to pulling the turkey slices out of the package or something?"
"Take your time. I can wait, I've got coffee."
"Ummm... Oh! Okay!"
(That's me responding, of course.)

And he went into the kitchen and assembled his own breakfast for the first time ever. (He doesn't eat many things, so most breakfasts involve turkey slices for protein.)

Needling him into a moment of independence is really more than I could have hoped for. I just didn't want either of us to have to get off the couch.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

a conversation with HR.

[9:47 AM] Chris: whenever you get a chance, could you give me a pointer to FSA enrollment for the new plan year?

[9:56 AM] HR: hey chris. we have open enrollment for health benefits and FSA mid Feb. We have not made official decisions on new plans just yet
[9:57 AM] Chris: ah okay, so there'll be emails then. thanks!

[9:57 AM] HR: oh tons of them
        you will be sick of me nagging :)
[9:57 AM] Chris: ALL THE EMAILS
[9:57 AM] HR: hahaha
[9:57 AM] Chris: no it's totally good for people like me
[9:58 AM] HR: and thats why i do it ;)

[9:58 AM] Chris: my wife gets justifiably nervous when there's some piece of paperwork that's up to me.
[9:59 AM] HR: HA!
        love it
        we have an odd plan year, so ive heard this from a few people

        they think they have missed something

[10:00 AM] Chris: at one point she was like "I'm doing all this stuff, is it bothering you that I keep asking you questions? I feel like I'm nagging, or assuming you're not competent to handle it yourself."

"nono, my inability to do paperwork on time long predates you. anything that wasn't critical often didn't get done at all."
[10:01 AM] HR: this is awesome
[10:02 AM] Chris: all about the teamwork. :)

Monday, January 19, 2015


I was in the Pacific Northwest for ten days, which I think is the longest I've been away from home since Chile, and possibly before that. We were at my brother-in-law's for 4 days, and then Anna and J went home, and my company (which is mostly people working from home) had our annual kickoff rally, where everyone comes into town and we spend days and days figuring out the coming year and hanging out.

The sad thing about visiting the Pacific Northwest, and Seattle especially, is that at some point I have to leave. I like it there. It's moist, but not overwhelmingly so, and without having spent a full year there, I think I've clocked a full month, spread out over all the seasons. The weather seems to have plenty of variety for me, which fits with the two kinds of ex-Seattle people I've known:
  1. "Oh, God. I lived there for twenty years, and it was just constantly gray and raining and I had to leave or I was going to die."
  2. "The weather's fine. But don't tell anybody, or else they'll want to move there!"
I joke about how they told me I'd only have to visit Seattle occasionally, and in fact I've been there almost every month since I started, but the truth is Seattle is one of my favorite cities. I wake up in my hotel, get everything together and go to breakfast (somewhere besides the hotel, because life is too short to eat at the Marriott), and air is all damp and misty and full of salt from Puget Sound. In the winter, it can often be below 40 degrees, and the buildings are insulated (which my house is not). I've no Seattle trips planned for a long time, sadly. I'm sure I'll wind up traveling at least a few times, especially now that I'm a manager, but it'll probably be to chat with some major customer in Montana or something.

With the new year, I'm a manager again. I only have one employee, but since it's my old friend and enforcer Jess, that one is thoroughly satisfying. Others will emerge throughout the year. We're doing cool stuff! We spent the Rally week fleshing it out, refining the story of what we're doing and why everyone should care. It turns out that when you collect fundamental measurements of your product usage, everyone cares, and you just have to give them a chance to tell you why. Engineering, Support, Operations, Customer Solutions, Sales, Marketing. The executive team. Let me tell you, it's a ton of fun to be working on something the executive team is really excited to get their hands on. No pressure, though.

I really enjoy using my leadership brain again, of course. Every leadership role is a new set of challenges, and this one is right where I need it: figuring out what to build and how to present it. I've already done team composition and dynamics stuff, and while I'd hardly say I know it inside and out, I've got a good handle on it. Jess and I are (a) two people, and (b) sort of a pre-packaged functioning team, so that's just not a concern.

I'm tired--I had one of my sleep downswings again, now recovering--but life is good.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

right speech and urban evasion.

We do some things right, we do some things wrong.

I was walking down 1st Avenue this afternoon, and a woman was waiting to cross at the corner. A man passing behind her looked her up and down, and just past her looked over and said "Heyyyy, how you doin'?". The woman, as almost all women do, looked anxious and exasperated and tired of this prime example of the bullshit women deal with, and grimaced at him and looked away.

I've never spoken up when this happens. But there's a choice to make. How does the world get better if I just stand there and let it slide? How many times can I stand to watch this shit and not do anything?
"Dude, leave her alone. What the fuck is your problem?"
Oops. I once called a fellow aikido student "punk-ass bitch," which was something every group of friends had tossed around casually since high school. However, he had served a couple years in prison for dealing meth, and had quite a violent streak, and it turns out that in some hypermasculine and crime-associated American subcultures that aren't mine, that is an extraordinarily serious insult, and I had to talk him down from reflexively beating the shit out of me. Better late than never, I softened my language.
"Leave her alone. What the hell is your problem?"
Okay. There are better ways to say that. The traffic light turned and the woman and I crossed the street, with the gentleman shouting obscenities, which I decided to laugh loudly at as I walked away.
As I walked past, I told the woman, "Like you don't have enough problems."


"Thank you for that."
She went into a shop for lunch, Harasser Guy turned his corner and walked, and I kept walking. The day went on.


After I'd gone about half a block, I heard angry yelling again, and looked back and the guy was walking after me, about a block behind.

I was obvious I needed to ditch the guy, but here's the full risk assessment that went through my head:
Harasser Guy is walking, not running. I can't run very far right now, but I can probably get myself to a safe place. He's about 6'3", about 300 pounds, quite a bit bigger than me, and people willing to get into fights usually have experience doing so. I have a black belt in a primarily defensive martial art, and a very sharp pocket knife. My body has very little energy due to my health issues, and I am carrying a fully loaded commuter backpack.
As you may or may not know, my preferred movie genres involve lots of shooting and/or swords and/or explosions--I usually get car chases as a bonus--and so I've seen a lot of non-James Bond spy movies, as well as every episode of Burn Notice and The Americans.
(Don't get me wrong, I've seen every James Bond movie as well, but here we're only interested in spies who try not to get noticed.)
I've seen a lot of these movies multiple times, so I remember the urban chases in some detail, and there are some pretty simple and logical ways to handle this. Also fun, since I have the really excellent Plan B (running flat out to safety, which would be fine but then I would be all sweaty), and the extremely unappealing Plan C (fighting, which would be a shitshow). Here's the map.

He harassed the woman on the southwest corner of 1st and Main. I was about 2/3 down the block to the north when I heard him coming.
  1. Take a right onto Washington eastbound.
  2. Jog to take the next right along the east side of Occidental Park: if the pursuer has started running, I don't want to be caught in the open, and that side of the park has bars to duck into and parked vehicles for better-than-nothing cover.
  3. Start walking diagonally northeast across the park, which has many small groups of people (with open space between them, and they're almost all black, so it's not like it'd be hard to see me, but you work with what you have).
  4. My very large, bright blue hooded jacket is the visual cue he'll be using to track me, so take it off and bundle it up inside-out so the blue is hidden and the gray liner is showing. Now instead of a large royal blue target, I am a normal-size black-shirted one.
  5. Shift my backpack from two shoulders to one, which may not help, but can't hurt.
  6. Walk at a normal pace, don't look around nervously, and especially don't look back. Judging by the yelling, he's not interested in sneaking up on me.
Instead of going diagonally northeast across the park, I had wanted to go straight south to Main, west across 1st Ave. and closer to my destination; but the guy had been turning east up Main when this started, so if he had given up looking for me, I could just run into him again, and I can only fit so much stupid into a day.

I reached the far corner of the square, and the cover of the building that must be at Waterfall Garden Park (intersection of Main and the alleyway). I peeked around the building just in time to see him stopped on the sidewalk on the Washington side, looking around, and not finding me. I continued on and made a bit of a loop out of my way, and back to the office. If I get myself into a mess, it's at least pretty gratifying to get myself out.

Obviously I fucked up, and nothing reminds us why we try to practice Right Speech like failing to do so and weathering the consequences. There are a few ways this could have gone poorly, and then the absolute worst case would probably be if the guy were a fast runner with a gun. But it didn't go worse, and that's enough to be grateful for.

Most people would read this story and think it's pretty odd that I thought and did all this, and they would be absolutely correct. I haven't had any training, not even a course (though those look like fun). I don't have a terribly clear explanation for you, except to say that I watch spy movies in part because I find this stuff interesting and potentially useful, so I've paid attention, and that I've spent decades refining my tendency not to panic, and probably those things came together today in exactly the way I would hope.

And some luck.

Monday, January 5, 2015

strictly missionary.

Visiting my brother-in-law in Recent Subdivision, WA leaves me a little bit adrift. The pre-teen boys are playing Minecraft, of course, and the other adults play games and seem mostly content to stay in, but I have to leave the house or I will go insane. So every day I go to the coffee shop.

Recent Subdivision gets the epithet because unlike most subdivisions, this was not actually designed to mimic Dante's conception of Limbo. It's quite nice if you like your house to be beige, taupe, gray, or slate blue, or a mute pine green, if you're particularly racy. There's a small main street with an adorable library and a mediocre diner and a Verizon store and the coffee shop. There are a couple dozen miles of beautiful Pacific Northwest trails spread throughout generously wide greenways. It's quite walkable, and the roads are thoughtfully laid out to prevent fast traffic, which means it's easy for me to get lost. If it weren't for Google Maps on my iPhone, I might not have returned from that first excursion.

Yesterday I took a different route in the general direction of coffee, and as I approached the mini-downtown and started looking for a way in, there was a call from across the street.
"Good morning, sir!"
I kept walking.
I turned around and saw two guys, maybe 20 years old, identically dressed in black suits and trenchcoats, name tags and briefcases. I know that uniform!
"Good morning. Mormons?"
"Heh, yes. How are you doing today?"
I thought about ditching them, but that was going to be a pain: evangelists always peacefully and quickly retreat from my doorstep, for some reason, but on the street they won't take the hint any more than schizophrenic homeless people. I sympathize. If they gave up easily, they wouldn't be doing their job. So I let them catch up and decided to let my plans be changed, figuring that I've never actually talked to Mormons about Mormonism, and it could be almost as interesting as reading my novel.
"Well, I'm headed to the coffee shop, but you guys are welcome to tag along and chat. You don't want coffee, obviously, but they have other stuff."
Now, the only active Mormon I've spent much time with is a former co-worker, who is brilliant, curious, widely-read, and grew up outside L.A. My bar may be set wrong. I talked about my co-worker spending his missionary years in Sweden, and how they drew the long straw in not being sent somewhere particularly far off. They asked if I had a faith of my own, and I said "Zen Buddhist."
"You must learn a lot about Buddhism in the Middle East."
No. No, you don't.

I kept returning to them and their experience; unsurprisingly, they've clearly had a bit of practice re-focusing the conversation on how reading the Book of Mormon brings you closer to God.

I did manage to get us a little far afield, because I think they get thrown by the idea of spirituality without a deity, so we chatted for a while about meaning and love and connection. At one point I mentioned theodicy, the question of why God allows evil in the world; most people don't know the word, but I'd expect studied Christians to at least know the concept (or have considered the question).
"Do you guys study basic Christian theology? Augustine, Aquinas, all that?"
"No...not really."
"Augustine...why does that sound familiar?"
"He's one of the foundations of Western civilization."
"Yeah, I think maybe...I studied humanities before my mission, so I think I might have read something by him."
Oooookay then.

I had to get back to the house, which made ending the conversation easy. They were nice kids, but I was pretty surprised at how ignorant they were: the LDS Church tagline (which they repeated) is that the Book of Mormon is a completion of Christianity, but as far as they knew, it is Christianity.

I was super nice, I thought. I did a lot of work to keep the conversation going, because there are a whole lot of awkward questions you can about about Mormonism:
  • Why does the story of Joseph Smith's revelation sound like any number of new religions and cults that have appeared in the past 300 years?
  • Why would I believe this one over the others? How do you know there weren't other prophets after him?
  • This is, prima facie, a little odd.
 And my favorites, if those are too crass:
  • Why did God's prophets in North America have to be white?
  • Doesn't it seem even a little odd to you that the President of the Church, God's living prophet on earth, just happened to have revelations about polygamy and racial discrimination (really, about the fundamental worth of black people) not long after political circumstances required them?
I learned a lot, though. At one point they said "You can't change someone's mind," and I said "What do you guys do all day?". But they really don't view themselves as being in the business of persuasion, as though this were debate club and Mormonism were like your opinion on cap-and-trade schemes. They speak from a position of Mormonism being self-evident if you just open your heart and do the reading; they are "inviting" people to join the awesomeness.

The only religion I've ever seen that was even close to self-evident was Zen. And I only thought I understood it.