Sunday, December 15, 2013

I'm keeping some Christmas traditions this year!

When I was in eighth grade, I wrote an essay for my English class about how Christmas is my favorite holiday -- not because of the presents, but because of all of the creative opportunities in the traditions!  There are so many possibilities in the gingerbread houses, cookies, carols, advent calendars, ornaments, other decorations, etc.

Even as a young adult newly out of the nest, I would repeat these familiar traditions -- as well as researching other traditions, to incorporate them -- and throw elaborate Christmas parties.  Later, with kids and a job, I switched by necessity to a more minimalist model, eg. a small Christmas tree, some carols on the stereo, and maybe a batch of cookies.  And (like many parents) I've felt a crazy mix of guilt and disappointment at not doing more of all that stuff I used to love as a kid.

Not too much guilt, mind you -- the whole point is for it to be fun!

The cool thing is that -- now that my kids are 10 and 12 -- it has become that much easier and more fun to add more traditions and activities to our holiday season!  For example, I made an advent calendar this year, for the first time in years:

"Made" is perhaps a strong word here -- I just decorated the tops of the star-shaped boxes and then filled them.

These sets of 24 blank star-shaped boxes are a popular craft-shop item here in Switzerland, and probably all over the world.

The fun part is that the kids are old enough to get into the traditions as well.  They want to have advent calendars, so they have one of their own:
We didn't exactly make the Lego advent calendar, but if I'm feeling ambitious, next year I might design one using our existing pieces.  Léo was also very excited to set up those two little Christmas trees, and requested a big one this year for our living room:
I think most of my favorite Christmas-tradition memories are largely from my tween-to-teen years, so now our little family is hitting our golden age of Christmas!  And the best part is that now I have an excuse to watch all of my favorite Christmas specials!!

For that last one, my brother recently sent me a link to the text of the original book, and it's essentially as I concluded in my analysis: the verse parts of the special are quotes from the book, and the prose parts (including the entire adventure with Heat Miser and Snow Miser making it snow in Southtown) were all made up for the special since the story in the book wasn't long or interesting enough.  

I didn't guess correctly that there were a number of stanzas from the book that didn't make it to the special, but they're basically along the same lines as the ones that were included -- no additional themes or plot.  The biggest surprise was that the character "Ignatius Thistlewhite" is actually in the original book (though his role is quite different).

My brother also sent me a set of action figures a few years ago, which I like to include in my seasonal display:
The kids are, of course, begging me to let them take the play set down and play with it -- and I do let them play with it a bit every year -- but I insist that they do it carefully and put all of the pieces back when they're done, because they would not be easy to replace.

This afternoon, we'll be rolling, cutting, and baking Christmas cookies!  Merry Christmas!!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Yes, this

I hate to post a link to an article unless I have some of my own commentary to add, but this article is more-or-less exactly what I've been saying for years.  Here's a teaser:

Put simply, we've learned a lot since 1787. What was for the Founders a kind of providential revelation—designing, from scratch, a written charter and democratic system at a time when the entire history of life on this planet contained scant examples of either—has been worked into science. More than 700 constitutions have been composed since World War II alone, and other countries have solved the very problems that cripple us today. It seems un-American to look abroad for ways to change our sacred text, but the world's nations copied us, so why not learn from them?

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Gender Education Update

My sons Nico and Leo (now aged 12 and 10) recently had a conversation that illustrates what they've learned about gender.

As background, keep in mind that the kids have never played the game "Portal Gun" but they have watched videos on YouTube of people playing the game all the way to the end, plus YouTube has taught them lots of songs about the characters and stories from "Portal Gun."  (This is one of the bizarre aspects of our Internet age that I never would have predicted...)

Anyway, unlike most first-person shooter games, the first-person character playing the game is female ("Shel") as is the main villain ("Glados" -- the computer that runs the Aperture Science Center).

Nico:  I guess Portal Gun shows that girls can do anything boys can do.

Leo:  Yeah, but boys will never believe it because boys are too selfish!  Ha, ha boys are too selfish to believe it!  [pauses to think]  Of course, girls are selfish, too.  Everybody's selfish.

I just chuckled and didn't make any remark.  But, naturally, a lot of things jumped out at me from this tiny exchange.

First, it's clear that they've picked up certain gender-privileged assumptions.  The fact that a male protagonist can set off on a video game adventure goes without saying.  A female protagonist on a video game adventure is strange and noteworthy -- something to glean a lesson from.  And you can see that my kids are using their brains, making an effort to find and learn those lessons that are out there to be learned.

Second, I want to make it clear that I never told them "boys are selfish" or taught them any other such lesson.  Leo has concluded that it is very bad to be selfish, and will often remark on whether various behaviors are selfish.  To be honest, I'm not entirely sure where he picked up his rejection of selfishness -- I'm ashamed to admit that I've been pretty lax about formally teaching my kids ethics -- but I'm not complaining.

Third -- and I'm probably reading too much into this, but -- I think Leo shows some pretty good empathy there for a 10-year-old kid.  Neither boys nor girls are inherently better nor fundamentally different from one another.  But this same human nature, given different circumstances and experiences, can manifest differently.

Also note, I'm currently reading them the "Little House" series as their bedtime story (I've also read them Heidi and the entire Harry Potter series, among other things), and Leo loved the "Dora the Explorer" stories.  So, while having a female protagonists in a video game is noteworthy, reading stories with female protagonists isn't.

I think this shows some kind of progress.  I remember when I was a kid that there was some common wisdom that for a story to appeal to both boys and girls, the protagonist has to be male.  OK, actually I think people still believe that.  (When I told my German teacher that I was reading my boys "Heidi" she protested that the story is for girls...)  But experience shows it's not true.

Come to think of it, I don't think I've read them "Alice in Wonderland" yet...

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Done Vacationing in Lower Balconia!!

This past Summer we didn't travel much (one trip to Paris and another one to Paris and London) -- but we don't need to go far now that my son Nico has declared that our apartment is its own country!!  It even sports two charming resort regions: "Upper Balconia" and "Lower Balconia."

Here's a picture of the glorious accommodations we enjoyed during a recent vacation in Lower Balconia:

And here's a view of the gardens of Upper Balconia (note: you can see some cows living in a neighboring country):

Another thing we have in our country is a museum!!  Because what's a country without a national museum?

You can see the kids made an exhibit on Easter Island, plus one of dinosaurs and ancient sea animals, plus trilobites and other fossils in the drawers.  All of the drawers contain exhibits, in fact.

Nico has also written a history of our country, and Léo is the president.  Frankly, it's a great country to live in!!

Sunday, September 08, 2013

My kids thought it was funny...

Léo just drank his fifth(?) (seventh, perhaps?) chocolate milk box of the day.

A couple of weeks ago, I was telling a friend that Léo gets 90% of his calories from chocolate milk.

Nico piped up with an earnest, "Really?"

And I chuckled and said, "Well, you know, 90% of all statistics are just made up!"

And Nico again piped up with an earnest, "Really?"

After I explained the joke, they loved it, and started using it any time anyone quotes any questionable statistics. ;)

Monday, July 29, 2013

So, basically, we have a big problem...

The thing that most worries me about this graphic is the part up at the top where it shows that fossil fuel reserves dwarf our safety budget.  Will there be any way to convince people not to burn those extra few thousand gigatons if they're right there for the burning?

I have a hard time believing that there's any chance of our species refraining from rendering our planet unfit for human habitation...

Friday, July 05, 2013

More fun with the Book of Mormon!!!

OK, I have one more batch of insights about "God's favorite musical" -- this time posted at Main Street Plaza.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Ma ha nei bu, Eebowai!!!

This past Wednesday I made a trip to London to see God's favorite musical with the post-Mormons of Switzerland!!

I had an absolutely fantastic time!!  This was actually the first time I've ever seen a real Broadway musical (not counting movie versions or amateur (school/church) productions).  And I'm so happy this one was my first. ;)

Ever since I first heard the score of The Book of Mormon, it has been my #1 favorite musical.  This, despite the fact that I hadn't seen the show until this past week -- but the music alone is sufficient!!

Since I already had the score memorized, there weren't too many surprises, but there were a few good ones.  With effort, I managed to restrain myself from singing along, but I couldn't help occasionally whispering to my friend "Oh, this next part is great!"

It seems like every time I read something about this musical from believing Mormons, they have to talk about the errors in the portrait of Mormonism (with the implication that the writers are simply ignorant of Mormonism).  One of my pet peeves about Mormonism is the attitude that no one except a faithful member of the CoJCoL-dS is qualified to speak about Mormonism.  Thus, if the musical makes it look like the Missionary Training Center is in Salt Lake City (when it's really in Provo, nearly an hour's drive from there!) it reinforces the belief that the writers must not know what they're talking about.

The key example is that (in the musical) the missionaries get assigned to their mission locations and companions while they're at the MTC -- when in reality, missionaries learn their mission location before entering the MTC and they are assigned a series of different companions throughout their mission.  But the thing is that the missionaries commit to spend a year-and-a-half to two years in a faraway place without knowing in advance where it will be, and they have to stay with a companion 24/7 for months without having any say over who that person will be.  And there is very strong social pressure not to be disappointed with your assignments -- though many people are disappointed (as Elder Price was in the play) -- and some manage to "turn it off," and convince themselves to love their call.  This is a specifically Mormon scenario, but to tell that story in a musical, they needed to use a little artistic license on the logistics in order to allow the Elders to do a song-and-dance together about it.

The whole play is like that.  There are some details that are wrong (though very few are gratuitously wrong), but that is nothing compared to the Mormon points (from little details to profound themes) that they got right.  I discussed a lot of these points in my earlier post on insights from the Book of Mormon, as well as in the Holly's Brodie-Award-Winning piece BOM: The Most Correct of Any Musical?  If you would like a carefully-detailed list of the accuracies and inaccuracies of the musical, see this post by Dad's Primal Scream.

Overall, I feel like this musical really succeeds at achieving universality by rendering with great fidelity a specific milieu (which I feel is something good for art to do, as I've often said).  It's a tale that wouldn't take place outside of Mormonism, yet anyone can understand the various characters' motivations and relate to their interpersonal dynamics.

I have to admit that my own Mormon connection is a big part of my love for this play.  Without it, I'm sure I would like the musical, but the fact that Mormonism has been such a big part of my life makes me want to jump up and say "Yes!!" when watching or listening to it -- and it makes me happy that such a brilliant piece was written about something that I have such a personal connection with.  The songs are loads of fun, and they mean something to me.

"We are still Latter-day Saints -- all of us.  Even if we changed some things, or break the rules, or have complete doubt that God exists.  We can still work together to make this our paradise planet."

Friday, May 31, 2013

Multitasking and finding my home!

I'm killing two birds with one stone!

Yeah, I know, it's a terrible metaphor (the French version d'une pierre deux coups -- literally "from one stone two hits" -- at least has the advantage of increased vagueness on what you might be hitting with rocks), but however you say it, I've had a bit of success lately doing it.

One of my chronic problems is that I have way more projects that I want to do than I have time to do them, and it doesn't help that I keep taking up additional homey hobbies like balcony gardening, homemade sushi, and organizing my basement.  (Actually that last one is finally pretty much done, yay!!)  So I have to multi-task!

One successful example is the French yoga class that I've been taking for more than three years now.  We actually speak a lot of French at home (and we've increased it recently to keep the kids in practice), but, still, it's helpful to have a weekly opportunity to converse with a group of native-French-speaking ladies my own age.  (And I do mean ladies -- even though the class is not intended to be gender-specific, I've never seen a man attend, not even once...)  And with this side of conversation practice comes, obviously, all of the benefits of an excellent yoga course!

And what's that other language I need conversation practice in?  Oh yeah, German!

I tried taking a German-language yoga class for a while, but, really, how much yoga do I need?  Plus, I constantly felt self-conscious because the teacher explained to the whole class that she was holding the class in High German instead of Swiss German for my sake, and even then I could barely understand what she was saying. This interfered with my ability to focus on doing yoga.

So I hit upon the idea of taking a German conversation practice!  I got the idea from the German camp I attended two summers ago with my family.  The daily intensive course I took there kind of put me off wanting to take any more German language courses (it was the first time the teacher had taught German to adults -- I don't want to go into too many details, but the course left something to be desired).  But the conversation practice at the beginning of each course was excellent.  Extremely helpful.  The teacher gave us just enough topic-finder games to get the conversation ball rolling and then sat back and took notes on all of the mistakes we made.  Afterwards we would go over the various errors and discuss how we could and should have said things better.

The multi-tasking idea I had was that a conversation class in Zürich might double as a kind of group therapy.  As I've complained before, nobody understands my peculiar relationship with my various countries.  Not even fellow expats, really.  But maybe in a group of other people living in Zürich and struggling to get some German practice, some people would feel the same strange sense of being at home with always being a foreigner.

To clarify the problem a bit, it drives me nuts when acquaintances blithely refer to the US as my "home." Here's an actual conversation I once had:

Swiss guy I know: (catching me in the hall, to another guy) Yeah, Carol's American...

New Swiss guy: (to me) Ah, and where's your home?

me: (after thinking about it for a bit)  Here.  In Zürich.

(Swiss people all laugh!)

New Swiss guy: No, I mean in the US!

me: (thinking: WTF?  *sigh*)  I'm from Minneapolis.  It's North-central.

That's how I generally answer when people ask me where I'm from and clearly want to hear a location in the US as an answer.  This happens to me all the time.

When people ask me a more open-ended "Where are you from?" I generally answer "It's a long story..." -- which is a lot more accurate that simply saying "Minneapolis."

The thing is that -- while my family has settled pretty permanently in Minnesota -- we didn't even move to Minnesota until I was ten years old.  I was born in the Chicago area (and I have family roots there), but I have never lived there past babyhood.  I've also lived in New York, Ohio, Utah, and -- adding it all up -- I've actually lived in New Jersey for almost as long as I ever lived in Minnesota (and have family roots there too).  And that's not to mention the fact that I've lived the most recent quarter of my life in Europe, including seven years in France, and I am currently raising my little French family.  Yet I still get people asking me "How often do you go home?" -- when in context they clearly mean "How often do you visit your family in Minnesota?"

Just a few weeks ago, a colleague of my husband mentioned that he'd heard something about Los Angeles and had immediately thought of me.  The conversation topic changed before he could finish his story and explain if there was any reason to actually connect it with me, but I doubt there was.  Behind my polite smile I was thinking, "I have never been to Los Angeles.  I've only visited California at all a handful of times.  Surely you must know someone else who would be a more relevant association when you hear something about LA..."

The weirdest one was this one time in the train, though.  It started because my kids were chattering to each other in English, as they always do.  (Damn kids, always talking to each other in their perfectly American accents -- they keep blowing my cover!)  Anyway, some lady overhead them and asked me where they were from.  I answered "France."  Totally true, BTW, but that's not what the lady wanted to hear.  So after a bit of exchange, I admitted that I'm from the US.  The lady then launched into the longest story you can imagine about how she'd once been an au pair in Texas, and all about the kids she'd taken care of and what they're up to today and all of her attempts to reconnect with them on Facebook, and what she's doing herself these days (she mentioned several times that she's a lawyer), and all the places she'd visited when she was an au pair, etc.  It went on for literally twenty minutes with me making the most minimal polite responses of the "that's nice" variety.  My husband, who had his back to her, was making when-is-this-going-to-wrap-up? kinda faces, and my kids were clearly wondering the same thing.  I was busy wondering: Do all of the Americans you meet get treated to this story?  We're not exactly rare, you know...

I don't have a problem with telling people I'm American.  The problem is that that's not the whole answer to the question "Where are you from?" -- and the people asking the question aren't even interested in hearing the whole answer.  It would be so much more pleasant for everyone involved if people would stop expecting that the question should have a simple answer for me.  That's why it's my dream to one day speak German so well that people won't be struck by the impression "Isn't it cute that she's trying to speak German!" and immediately ask me where I'm from.  Like it was in France.

Of course I expect that I will always be more foreign here than I was in France because the Swiss don't really have the same idea that one can become Swiss -- unlike the French and the Americans where (for the most part) if you adopt the language and culture, you're in.  (Note:  I actually have dual citizenship with France.  I also have a great-great-grandmother from Switzerland, if that counts for anything...)

But that's OK.  And after 12+ years in Europe, I'm practically as much a foreigner in the US when I go back there as I am a foreigner here in Switzerland, and that's OK too.  I now have three cultures where I'm both an insider and an outsider, and my kids are in the same boat.  That's just our life.

And that's the second task I was kind of hoping to get out of my conversation practice -- to connect with fellow insider-outsiders about all of that.  Kind of a tall order, I know.

Mostly I've had to accept that my expectation was unrealistic.  The conversation practice course has been extremely helpful to me, especially in terms of motivating me to formulate my thoughts in German on a daily basis and practice communicating in German in real time.  (I'm now at the point where I can carry on an elaborate conversation in German for more than an hour without any serious difficulty (as long as the other person would rather speak to me German than English or French), as I discovered in a random daily situation earlier today.)

Still, I think the course is a little too structured for my taste.  The teacher asks the students a fixed set of questions, and -- while the questions are fairly open-ended -- each student is only allowed to respond for a short time, in order to ensure that everyone gets enough opportunity to speak.  We're also not really encouraged to respond to what other students say or to ask them follow-up questions, for the same reason -- not to cut into another student's time interacting with the teacher.

But now that I think about it, I think I liked the style of the conversation practice back at German camp better, where the teacher gave us free reign to chat with the other students and discussed the corrections with us after the fact.  I'm attending a top German language school in the area, and it's clear that they put some serious effort into constructing plenty of questions and vocabulary lists and role-playing scenarios.  Yet sometimes less is more.  It's great to have all this stuff on hand for when the conversation is at a lull.  But it would be more interesting if they would give us the vocabulary list and let us try to have a normal conversation.  We're all grown-ups and can be reasonably expected to give others a turn to speak.  It makes sense for the teacher to intervene when someone is having difficulty getting to speak and/or when the conversation dies, but otherwise set it in motion and don't fix it until it's broken.  It's not necessary to have the teacher initiate every exchange.

For a recent class, I thought of a funny anecdote on that session's topic, and I imagined how to recount the whole story in German.  As you can see, the motivation itself was helpful even though I knew I almost certainly wouldn't have the opportunity to recount my anecdote in class (and I was right).

Due to scheduling constraints, I have to take a few weeks off from my conversation training, and yet -- crazily enough -- during my last session I almost got what I was hoping for.  Our group that week had a good rapport, and the teacher mostly let the conversation wander.  It wasn't as free-form as I would have liked, but more fun than usual.

After that class it hit me that I'm simply signed up for the wrong class.  There are probably plenty of people who like to have such a structured conversation practice, but that's not what I'm looking for.  Fortunately there are loads of German language groups in classes and groups in Zürich.  Maybe I can find one in my neighborhood and kill three birds with one stone by also making friends with neighbors and connecting better with my community...

Wish me luck!!

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Rethinking Economics 4: The other reason why the government is always wrong...

In part 1, I discussed the fact that Americans tend to approach questions of public-vs-private sector by asking "which one is right and which one is wrong?"  (Spoiler alert: they generally agree that the private sector is the one that's right.)  (And if you don't believe my claim that 'many people take it as an unquestioned article of faith that "we need to cut the government smaller." Regardless of what the problem is, that's always the solution' -- read this post that came up in my subscriptions reader since then.  Even though it was posted on April 1, I don't think it was meant as a joke.)

In part 2, I argued that that's the wrong question, and that maybe we should think outside that box, and in part 3, I talked about how the American phobia of the public sector is largely due to psychological baggage from the Cold War. But I don't think that's the only cause of the modern American mistrust of government.  My brother John explained an additional reason as follows:

The ideology got cemented in our current political alignment in the US because of racism.  In the post WW2 era, with Brown vs. Board of Education, the courts began to rule that black Americans were actually people.  The government then began to dismantle Jim Crow segregation.  In time, everything that was a public accommodation became non-discriminatory in name at least.

The conservative response was to retreat from public institutions into private institutions that were still legally able to discriminate against black people.  So Chief Justice Rehnquist got his start writing charters that allowed suburbs to bar black people from buying property in the suburb --- hence suburbification, white flight, white flight from public institutions, conservative dismissal of public institutions, conservative creation of private counterfeit institutions, and ultimately conservative distrust of and desire to dismantle public institutions are all derived from reactionary conservative racism.

Since the 1968 2-party realignment, the GOP has been the dominant party because of its embrace of a neo- (softer/PC) racism.  That’s the core of the party to this day.  88% of the people who voted for Romney are white, and they include all of the country’s racists.  Every person who voted for Romney is frankly guilty of voting based on racial and other personal animus (such as moral indignation against empowered women who use birth control) --- even though almost all of them have hidden their true motives from themselves.

I agree with John's analysis.  Another place where this aspect becomes obvious is in the gay marriage debate.  It is astonishing how many Americans sincerely argue that the solution is simply to "get the government out of the marriage business."

I'm not surprised that Americans would come up with this.  The logic is attractive:  (a) The government is inherently incompetent and ruins everything it touches, (b) we have a conflict involving marriage, (c) the government is involved in marriage, ==> therefore, the problem is the government!  Of course!

But it's odd to stick with this idea because if you think about it for a couple of minutes, you see that "getting the government out of marriage" -- in addition to failing to solve the problem at hand -- also creates a host of new problems regarding what to do about all the things (inheritance, medical decisions, immigration, etc.) that were hitherto handled by having a generally-agreed-upon third party (the government) provide official, legal recognition of kinship relations.  But at least it take these problems out of the hands of the government with its pesky "equal protection under the law" (even for people you don't like!)

And, as John pointed out, hostility specifically towards black people plays a huge role in people's attitudes towards the government.  Specifically, Romney couldn't entirely take back his statement about "the 47%" because keeping the undeserving from receiving any government largess was one of his party's main selling points -- a higher priority than actually getting out and getting positive things done.  And, ironically enough, it was a big selling point specifically for the people in the 47% of non-tax-payers (and people living on government entitlements) because what they're often concerned about isn't government largess per se -- they're worried about the wrong people getting it:

"Let me get this straight," I say to David. "You've been picking up a check from the government for decades, as a tax assessor, and your wife is on Medicare. How can you complain about the welfare state?" 
"Well," he says, "there's a lot of people on welfare who don't deserve it. Too many people are living off the government."

Why is this such a passionate issue for some people?  I don't know, but maybe you can get an idea from some of the election-night tweets about how Obama and his fellow "niggers" hate to work and just want to live off welfare....

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Austria 2: Everything I knew about Austria, I learned from "The Sound of Music"!

OK, I'm exaggerating a little.  I also learned some stuff about Austria from the film Amadeus.  (It's kind of interesting that they were ruled by an emperor, isn't it?)  Plus, in addition to Mozart, there are a few other famous people from Austria you can't help but have heard of:
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger
  • Hitler
  • Sigmund Freud
Interestingly, the guidebook on Austria that I bought there had a list of famous Austrians, yet it somehow neglected to mention those first two.  While I was there (in Graz), I saw plenty of advertisements for the Arnold Schwarzenegger Museum, though.  (I was not tempted.)

Continuing my theme of learning stuff that was obvious, I'll admit that (as far as I recall), I don't think I'd ever heard of the city of Graz until my husband organized some kind of math thing with a colleague there.  So, when people would ask which part of Austria I was planning to visit, I'd tell them "Graz" -- and then wait for the reaction.  Everyone I talked to clearly already knew about Graz, which led me to conclude that (a) it's probably a relatively important city, and (b) I'm pronouncing it correctly (or at least close enough).  In fact, it's the second-largest city in Austria!

I was also pretty surprised by how dang far away it is.  I mean, Switzerland and Austria are both small countries that share a border.  So it should be no biggie to hop from Zurich to the major cities of Austria, right?  Nope.  Zurich-Graz by train takes about nine hours (and the night train takes 11 hours because they have several stops where they stop for a long time).  By contrast, Paris by train is a little more than four hours from here.  Going to Graz by train is almost comparable to taking the train all the way to London -- except that you get a breathtaking mountain view during a big part of the trip.

Austria borders Italy, Switzerland, and Germany -- but those borders are all along the narrow strip of Austrian Alps.  The more populous part of Austria is farther to the East.  (This is a part where "The Sound of Music" really stretches its believability thin -- they seriously walked all those kids from Salzburg over the mountains to Switzerland?!  Good luck!)

Given my Cold-War-influenced perspective, I was kind of surprised so see that the Austrian's population's real neighbors are Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Czech Republic.  I mean, I somehow always thought of Austria as being squarely a part of "Western Europe", but the closest major city to Vienna is Bratislava (trains depart every hour for the one-hour trip between them).  The surprise bonus:  there was plenty of opportunity to sample delicious Hungarian goulash!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Always learning: Austria edition, part 1!

Do you ever have one of those moments where you learn a new thing, and immediately realize "Duh, that was obvious... Everyone else probably already knew that... lol"

If you find experiences as entertaining as I do, then I recommend learning new languages and visiting new countries!  And if you read the title of this post, you're probably thinking "Well, Austria isn't that exotic..." -- which is what makes it all the more amusingly ridiculous to discover my own misconceptions!

Here's an example:  Before I moved to a German-speaking region (five years ago), I didn't know what "schnitzel" is.  I'd heard of "wiener schnitzel" and I knew that "schnitzel with noodles" was one of the von Trapp children's favorite things.  Now, everybody knows that wieners are, like, hot dogs. So, if I thought about it at all, I guess I assumed that schnitzel was a dish somehow involving wieners and pasta.

(Note: It was only maybe fifteen years ago that I learned what "pesto" is, same for "wasabi" -- and Germanic cuisine is simply not as popular as Italian or Japanese.  My dad likes to tell tales of his first encounters with that crazy new foreign dish called pizza.)

Imagine my surprise when I learned (a few years ago) that schnitzel is, in fact, a thin slab of meat, generally served breaded!  Then one day, in a German class, the teacher asked the students to give an example of a dish that is typically German.  One student piped up with "Wiener schnitzel."  This response surprised the teacher, and she explained that wiener schnitzel is typically Austrian, hence the name.

"Wiener" = from Wien, where Wien is the German name for Vienna (that is, it's what the people in Vienna call their city).  This was a duh! moment for me because I'd always known that hamburgers and frankfurters were named after Hamburg and Frankfurt respectively, and I even knew about "Berliners" (thanks to a famous JFK speech).  But I somehow had never made the connection that "wiener" isn't just a random word for sausages, it means "from Vienna."  This is probably mostly because I had no idea it was called "Wien" until I recently started learning German.  (I like "Vienna" better anyway -- sounds more elegant, don't you think?)

And I learned a bunch of other silly stuff during my recent visit to Austria, which I will tell you about in upcoming posts! :D

Back when I was still living in France, I came up with this theory:

learning a new culture tends to merely increase your mental "us" category, but doesn't stop you from stereotyping other other groups. It helps, but learning a new culture doesn't automatically confer some sort of blanket enlightenment.

And now that I'm learning another other culture, I realize how right I was.  By learning to be French, I kind of thought I was learning Europe in general, and I was right to some degree.  But it's also true that I was learning the culture and history and tradition and trends and attitudes of the francophone world -- and learning German has been like opening a window on a whole additional, unfamiliar world; making it no longer foreign to me.

In Austria, we had one dinner one night with my husband's German colleague (the person we were there to see), and we got to talking about how in both Switzerland and Austria the locals are perhaps even more hostile to immigration from Germany than they are towards non-German-speaking immigration, for fear of cultural imperialism (or something) from their big, powerful neighbor to the North.  (See here, for example.)  The colleague explained that, since Germany is so much more populous than Switzerland and Austria, naturally, as people move around, there will be a lot higher proportion of Germans in Switzerland and Austria than there will be Austrians and Swiss in Germany.  (If you assume that, say, 1/3 of the residents of each German-speaking city came from some other randomly-chosen German-speaking city, the Hamburgers will perhaps hardly notice the presence of so many Frankfurters, whereas the Wieners are sure to notice that so many of these new residents are not Austrian.)

He's right, yet I found his assumption quite interesting -- that among the major German-speaking cities/regions of Europe, there's obviously going to be a lot of mobility, and that moving across a national boundary is ordinary, whereas crossing a language boundary isn't.  I totally agree -- not just from having done it myself, twice, but also from hearing from French-speaking Swiss people who have moved to this side of the Röstigraben.

(Next up:  tales of my trip to Austria!  Stay tuned!)

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Why can't we have nice things? Savoia & Sowa's "Marzi 1984-1987" (Part 3 of my "rethinking economics" series)

Three young girls in a friendship triangle, jostling over which two are best friends. One friend is distraught about not getting accepted into a coveted ballet class (pronounced "not skinny enough" by a teacher who had, herself, not quite made it into a prestigious ballet company), and the other two are left with mixed feelings about their own elation at getting accepted. Seeing strange new things while visiting cousins in the country; enduring marathon mass services with a very pious mother. Sylvain Savoia & Marzena Sowa's Marzi is full of scenes from growing up that are easy to relate to -- making the unfamiliar aspects of the setting all the more vivid and striking. You see, the story of Marzi takes place in Poland, under communism.

As you might expect, Marzi's young experiences involved things like standing in long lines in the bitter cold, waiting for the opportunity to buy a little bit of meat from a tiny shop that doesn't have enough for everyone, and rushing out to another shop to buy as much toilet-paper as possible as soon as the neighborhood gets news that there's been a delivery. Marzi's experience involved being downwind from Chernobyl and not knowing whether she would be permanently affected, despite the precautions he family took. She also recounts getting fine new refrigerators from Russia (and having almost nothing to fill them with) and seeing her parents hoarding cash (including US dollars) to buy things on the black market in case of emergencies.

Yet even the seemingly-unfamiliar components of the story recount universal human experiences. Marzi was happy with her cloth doll until her friend got a Barbie doll. As always, the joy of having stuff is relative, not absolute. If you're reading this, you probably have a phone and the means to occasionally buy nice clothing and a Barbie doll -- and you don't think much of it. But the key wasn't so much that Marzi's friend had all of these things, it was that she had them and the other kids at her school didn't. (I'm sure I don't have to provide you with any illustrations of how this applies to your own childhood, and possibly also adulthood.)

Marzi's friend's parents worked in the meat industry, hence had the opportunity to buy themselves as much meat as they wanted, including some to sell on the black market and/or sell preferentially in exchange for kickbacks. So they could shop in the one big store in their town that was always fully-stocked with anything you could want -- but where they only accepted payment in US dollars.

This is the part, naturally, that brings to mind a brilliant observation by Jared Diamond:
[T]he values to which people cling most stubbornly under inappropriate conditions are those values that were previously the source of their greatest triumphs.
This is one of the main reasons why -- for Americans -- the private sector is the only true sector, as I discussed earlier. It's why Americans today have a pathological fear of public sector providing any kind of goods or services.

A related story was featured in the book The Collapse of Belief, which I reviewed at Main Street Plaza:
Years ago, during the Soviet reign in Eastern Europe, a visiting diplomat from that region had his belief in the superiority of communism collapse when he first entered an American supermarket. He thought the store was fake at first. "If it were real," he said, "there would be long lines of people to buy all that food." But when he instructed his driver to take him across town to another store not on the planned route, he saw the same thing, and his conviction cracked.
It's a neat tale of how new evidence can help you think outside of the box, which is the point of the whole book. Yet, ironically, (though the book is good overall) this particular story pats its American audience on the back for thinking squarely inside the American box. America has giant stores chock-full of any goods you could possibly want -- always plentiful and inexpensive! That's what makes America great!! That's why we won the Cold War! Boo-yeah, go team!!

The tales of lines and shortages under a centrally-run economy are, of course, true. But look where clinging stubbornly to this triumph has led us.

Yes, America is the land where you can buy anything you could possibly imagine at any time of day or night. Consumer spending is practically the measure of the strength of the economy. If we're surrounded by crumbling public infrastructure, the electrical grid, rail network, and waterworks have had no improvements beyond emergency patching for thirty years, aging bridges are in danger of collapsing, the young population continues to slip behind in terms of the getting the education necessary to contribute to current and future technology, etc., at least we can always go to Target.

It's part of the reason why reasonable health care reform is such a battle in the United States. People can invent stories of waiting in long lines for a tiny ration of health care under "socialized medicine" and Americans are primed to believe them. It doesn't matter that it's as simple as in the tale of the diplomat above to step outside the US and see that the stories aren't true. It doesn't matter that such tales don't even make sense when you think about them for two minutes, or that US healthcare is among the most expensive in the world, by a lot, for the same treatments, or that the closest thing I've seen to the "waiting in long lines for a pitiful scrap of health care" is the model where people hold out until their problem is an emergency, and then go wait in line to have it treated at the emergency room because they don't have any health insurance. Communism made Marzi's family have to wait in a long line to get a few sausages -- while their American counterparts had as many sausages as they wanted -- so why should "socialized medicine" be any different?

Why, indeed...?

Maybe it's difficult to keep past triumphs in their proper perspective when planning for the future.

See also Rethinking economics 1: the private sector is the only true sector and Rethinking Economics 2: Lessons from Switzerland!!.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Books I like to watch from afar...

Do you ever have books that you don't actually want to read yourself, but are interested in reading about?

One of those books, for me, is "Sex at Dawn." This is a popular book that argues for human non-monogamy by claiming that early humans were happily, harmoniously non-monogamous. I have not read this book, but everything I've read about it (pro and con) leads me to conclude that it's one of those pop-evolutionary-psychology books that drives me nuts, where the author decides how society should be today, and then justifies it with a bunch of dubious claims about what early human hunter-gatherers were like, and then calling it Science.

Entertainingly enough, two cool bloggers have done series' on this book. On is by "sex nerd" Emily Nagoski, see here for her series on it. Here's a key quote to give you an idea:

To the extent that the book proposes that monogamy is not the innate sociosexual system of humans, it is correct. However. Through a number of serious problems in their reasoning about and/or understanding of evolutionary science (which I’ll discuss in more detail below, for those who are interested), they come to the wrong conclusion about the nature of human sexuality. Human sexuality is not designed to function in open relationships any more than its designed to function in socially and reproductively monogamous relationships. What human sexuality is DESIGNED to be is massively variable, plastic, adaptable, and diverse. ALL of it is “natural” – and that’s all evolution can tell us. There is no system that is easy and comfortable for everyone; all sociosexual systems involve rules about what is or is not okay, and those rules will feel oppressive and wrong to SOMEONE.

I completely agree with her on this. It is not only more accurate, but a more positive argument for normal, healthy human non-monogamy than a bunch of just-so stories arguing that monogamy isn't a normal, healthy choice for humans.

(On a related note, it's kind of the same thing that drives me nuts about the "Paleo Diet." If you feel healthier giving up grains and dairy, then, fab, go ahead. But the "Paleo" reasoning behind the diet is so riddled with factual and logical errors, that it's maddening to even hear about it. I was tempted to write a post about it once, but (a) I don't care enough to bother since it's far from being the most ridiculous thing out there in popular culture, and (b) the wikipedia article actually summed it up pretty well.)

Adam Lee of Daylight Atheism also reviewed Sex at Dawn in these two posts. In one of his comments he gave a quick summary of one of the key problems:

You could look at it this way: on the fitness landscape, there are two peaks, two attractors. One is the state where paternal investment is high and males care about females’ fidelity; the other is the state where paternal investment is low and males don’t know or don’t care about fidelity. Bonobos occupy the latter peak. Most evolutionary psychologists would say that humans are on the former. But Ryan and Jetha would have us sitting awkwardly in the middle, in between the two peaks, yet feeling no selective pull one way or the other. I’m not convinced that this is plausible.

And now Adam Lee is doing a series on Atlas Shrugged. This should be fun!!

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The end of the U.S.S. Galois!!

I've just uploaded the last two episodes in our fabulous Star Trek-parody series!!

Here's the whole Start Trek Galois series as a YouTube playlist.

Babel, Babel, Bass, and Treble is a comedy-murder-mystery that takes place at a musicology contest. You may wonder how that can be the plot of a Star Trek episode, but anything can happen on the Galois! Basically the plot is a spoof on the original-series Journey to Babel episode crossed with the film What's Up Doc? (which was a family favorite when we were kids, as I mentioned earlier).

We wrote this episode for a big family reunion, so it is full of uncles and cousins, and such. For example, my cousin Aerin is in it.

Then, there's the last episode, Hansel and Galois. Captain Thelev's ambition finally gets the best of her, and the poor little USS Galois goes out with a bang!

I hope you'll like 'em!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Time Travel Time!!!

Here's our amazing time travel episode!! This is the one where we travel back in time to 1992 (which was the present when this was filmed), because the Romulans messed up the past and sent us into a weird parallel timeline where Dal Vortass (a.k.a. my brother John) is captain -- and has a beard! Plus all of Starfleet wears crazy hats. Gotta go back and fix that!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Awards Time!!!

As you probably know, one of my main blogging activities is the weekly link roundup Sunday in Outer Blogness over at Main Street Plaza. Plus, for four years we've been hosting two yearly awards: the William Law X-Mormon of the Year Award and the Brodie Awards!!

David Twede won the 2012 X-Mormon of the Year contest, and recently stopped by to thank us for the award.

Naturally, this means that of the four winners so far, the only one who didn't post thanks/acceptance/acknowledgement of the award is last year's winner Joanna Brooks. Ironically, of the four winners, she's the only one I happen to know personally since we were on the Student Review together in our BYU days. I guess she just never forgave me for all those arguments I won. J/K ;)

Anyway, the Brodie Awards -- for excellence in LDS-interest online arts -- are currently in the voting phase!!! Check 'em out, and have a look at some of 2012's best posts, images, songs, and more -- and vote for your favorites!!

We have a really great batch of entries this year. One particular highlight this year (as I mentioned on MSP) was that there were a number of stories that broke and/or were best reported in blogspace, so the "News Reporting" and "Church Watch" are categories to watch.

Another amusing highlight is that an article from the Ensign is in the running for a Brodie this year in the "Interfaith Interaction" category -- and not as a joke. It has a real shot at winning. (Note for non-Mormons: the Ensign is the official magazine that the CoJCoL-dS uses to give spiritual messages to members, and is almost treated as Mormon scripture, as discussed here.)

I can't wait to see who wins!!

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Speaking of divorce...

Following up on my post on Jane Eyre and divorce, by chance the next two episodes of my Star Trek parody series are the two where my ex-husband played a starring role (as the first officer of the USS Galois):

He did a good job, didn't he?

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Jane Eyre and divorce

Suspense and... surprise! Building up to unexpected revelations is the central device used by Charlotte Brontë in her novel Jane Eyre. The book's most famous plot twist is far from being the book's only plot twist.

(I hope I don't need to say "spoiler alert" here. I assume that if you've heard anything at all about Jane Eyre, you already know what Jane's big surprise was. If not, and you don't want it spoiled, go read the book before reading the rest of this essay.)

Part of creating an effective plot twist is designing a plausible explanation for why the surprise information wasn't already known. For example, Jane didn't know about her uncle and cousins on her father's side because her spiteful aunt deliberately kept the information from her.

Then there was the time when Jane was so in love with Mr. Rochester, but she was convinced that he was planning to marry the beautiful Miss Blanche Ingram. One day Jane got the wonderful surprise that Mr. Rochester never had any intention of marrying Miss Ingram, and, in fact, he wanted to marry Jane instead! And why was that a surprise? Because Mr. Rochester actively pretended to court the penniless aristocrat for weeks (and had ordered Jane to sit in the room every evening and watch him flirt with her beautiful rival) -- expressly for the purpose of making Jane jealous.

Wow! what a.... romantic...(?) thing for him to do. That's almost as romantic as the time when Edward Cullen showed Bella that he knew where her key was hidden, and told her he'd been sneaking into her bedroom every night to watch her sleep. (My friend Holly said that the fact that both Mr. Cullen and Mr. Rochester have the same first name is no coincidence.)

The biggest plot twist -- the revelation that Mr. Rochester had been keeping his first wife locked in the attic and pretending like she didn't exist (so he could marry Jane without her knowing that the marriage wouldn't be legally binding) -- now that requires one doozy of an explanation!

Mr. Rochester can't very well say that he loved his first wife -- and was devastated when she started losing her mind -- but then a few years later decided he deserved a new wife. That would make him a bit of a fair-weather husband, and it would raise the obvious question (which was actually addressed in the book) of what would happen to Jane if she one day lost her marbles. Would she find herself locked in the attic with Mrs. Rochester #1 while Mr. Rochester galloped off to find himself a third?

Certainly not! So he needed a better explanation.

As Mr. Edward Fairfax Rochester explains it, the horrible Miss Mason tricked him into marrying her for her immense fortune when he was a penniless second son, not in line for any inheritance of his own! Their respective families rushed them into marriage when they had barely met -- and in particular, no one had informed him of her family's history of insanity.

Soon after the marriage began, Mr. Rochester concluded that his wife was a wicked, despicable creature. Then, when his father and his older brother conveniently died -- leaving him with his own fortune so he didn't need hers anymore -- boy did he regret being saddled to her!

There's a bit of a problem with this story, and perhaps you've noticed as I did:

Given that Mr. Rochester hardly knew his wife (and inasmuch as he did know her, he hated her passionately), and given his obvious personal stake in the situation, he could not be trusted to sincerely keep her best interests at heart when deciding on an appropriate treatment when she started showing signs of dementia.

Would it be good for Mrs. Rochester to be taken to a foreign land -- away from everyone and everything she's ever known -- and locked away in isolation in the secret chambers in the top floor of her husband's mansion? I'd say that's a pretty obvious "no." But in those days the husband was the owner and the wife was property, so no one had any grounds to second-guess this ill-advised plan.

With Mrs. Rochester hidden away, poor Mr. Rochester had no choice but to wander the glittering social scene of the wealthy class of Europe, hiring beautiful mistresses to comfort his lonely heart in France, Italy, and Germany. But as tragic as this disastrous marriage was for Mr. Edward Fairfax Rochester, for the heiress (Bertha) Antoinette Mason it was infinitely worse.

Eventually Mr. Rochester decides that his first marriage is so wrong on every level that it should hardly be considered a marriage -- and he should be able to get on with his life. I totally agree with him on this point. I would recommend the merciful modern solution to such tragedies: a divorce. One where a judge would award each party a fair settlement. Sadly, in their society, that option did not exist.

It's a weirdly glaring omission in the book that when Mr. Rochester decides to move on with his life, nobody asks what should become of his wife's fortune. If he's decided that he can remarry because his first marriage is void, then shouldn't he, I dunno... give it back? He could give it to her brother, for example, and place her in her brother's care. Or he could use the money to create an independent trust for her that would be managed by experts to see to it that she passes the rest of her days in comfort and safety with the best possible care.

But no. Mr. Rochester gets the money and Mrs. Rochester gets incompetent surveillance in the secret chambers of the house (where her occasional glimpses of her husband courting other women further enrage her madness) until finally -- luckily for Jane and Edward! -- she commits suicide and stops being an obstacle to their happiness.

All of that is just reading between the lines of the book Jane Eyre -- where Mr. Edward Fairfax Rochester is intended to be sympathetic and even lovable. But clearly I'm not the only one to notice that his story in his own words is a little fishy, and if it were a true story, there'd be another side to it.

The challenge of creating a fictional other side to the story was taken up by the author Jean Rhys in the novel Wide Sargasso Sea. Allow me to just quote the introduction by Francis Wyndham to give you the idea:

For many years, Jean Rhys has been haunted by the figure of the first Mrs. Rochester [...] it is in no sense a pastiche of Charlotte Brontë and exists in its own right, quite independent of Jane Eyre. But the Brontë book provided the initial inspiration for an imaginative feat almost uncanny in its vivid intensity. From her personal knowledge of the West Indies, and her reading of their history, Miss Rhys knew about the mad Creole heiresses in the early nineteenth century, whose dowries were only an additional burden to them: products of an inbred, decadent, expatriate society, resented by the recently freed slaves whose superstitions they shared, they languished uneasily in the oppressive beauty of their tropical surroundings, ripe for exploitation.

As you might guess, the story is incredibly sad and disturbing. And it is brilliant in the way it so perfectly fits with Edward Rochester's story and character. Some of the components of the story don't exactly match what he said. Yet if you read Wide Sargasso Sea as the back-story, the tale he recounts in Jane Eyre is exactly the way you'd expect him to tell the story to himself ten/fifteen years later, given all of the decisions he'd made in the meantime.

Naturally, in Wide Sargasso Sea Edward Rochester is not cast as a black-hearted villain, cruelly calculating how to further his own interests at the expense of others. The story presents him just as he'd described himself: as a naive and inexperienced young man who'd been raised in wealth, expecting to be obeyed by all those around him. Consequently he was unwilling and unable to understand the frighteningly unknown country his father had sent him to, much less the troubled girl from a troubled family that came with it.

Now, despite all I've said here, I think that Jane Eyre is a remarkably feminist story for its time. Jane is portrayed as interested in marrying for love -- but absolutely not on anything less than her own terms. She'd rather support herself on a small salary running a school for girls than give up her independence for wealth or adventure.

Jane would have been more than happy to accompany her handsome new-found cousin on his mission to India as a colleague, but if propriety demands she marry him to do it, the deal is off. Similarly, when Mr. Rochester offers her his villa in France -- where nobody has to know anything of their situation -- she'd rather run away in the night than risk being tempted into accepting the proposition. (This was mostly on religious principle, but she was probably also influenced by what Mr. Rochester had said about how awful it is to take a mistress: "to live familiarly with inferiors is degrading.")

It's true that their romance was largely built on eroticizing the power dynamics of the master-servant relationship. Yet when Jane finally agrees to marry Edward, it's only after she's demonstrated that she doesn't need to be married to him, and she can approach him as an equal.

Of course since not every girl gets to have an unknown rich uncle appear just in time to die and leave her a fortune, it would have been nice if Jane could have been on equal footing with Edward simply on the principle that women are people too, and have rights -- rights like the right to own property regardless of marital status and the right to sue for divorce, when necessary.

The happy ending is that this book probably had a big influence on shaping people's attitudes towards divorce, which led to changing the laws.