Thursday, October 6, 2011

People Love Rituals

People love rituals and therefore people will have rituals.

People love religion and therefore people will have Religion.

One of my favorite rituals is the celebration of Thanksgiving. I love getting together with family and friends once a year to enjoy good food (usually a turkey) and good company, in the spirit of gratitude.

The meal is the central act of the celebration, and turkey is the orthodox entre. The origins of Thanksgiving have become legendary and are part of the oral tradition of those who celebrate the ritual. Very few people care enough to study the history of the ritual to get a realistic understanding of its origin. Most are content with the oral tradition and would think odd or irrelevant, any academic sort that would want to clarify the foundational events of the holiday. As long as everyone feels good, the ritual goes on.

There is a power to Thanksgiving. It can cause family and friends to travel many miles to renew their bonds of friendship while subtly causing many to reflect on the past (and the present) with gratitude.

Who can deny that the world is a better place because of the ritual of Thanksgiving? It is inconceivable to think that the world would be a better-off without Thanksgiving.

Burning Man

Most people like Thanksgiving, even anarchists. In fact, anarchists love rituals too; just look at the annual Burning Man event, with its ritualistic temple construction and burning, and many other predictable attractions. This is an exhibition of primal human activity, and an example of the formation of new rituals.

Kasey’s Baptism

Baptism is a ritual. While some call it an ordinance and others call it a sacrament, it is still a ritual performed by people for people. And there is a power that inheres in this ritual, although that power is not magical but psychological.

A little over a year ago, on a Saturday afternoon, my wife’s friend, Kasey, was baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I attended the baptism with my usual smidgin of Sherlock Holmes awareness. I played the piano, as requested, for the couple of hymns that were sung and Pam directed the music. The crowd was limited to a small subgroup of the congregation and were congregated in the Primary Room which was converted to a Baptismal Room by rearranging the chairs and by opening up the baptismal font by sliding open the metal curtains. Mormons believe in baptism by immersion. The font was filled with about four feet of fresh warm water.

Before the intimate meeting started, Kasey and the Elder (missionary) who baptized her were dressed in borrowed white jumpsuits and barefooted. They sat on the front row along with Kasey’s extended family and husband, all of whom knew very little about the Mormon Church. After some welcoming remarks, an opening hymn, prayer, and a brief talk about the ordinance of Baptism, Kasey and the Elder proceeded to the font. The Elder entered the water first and then faced Kasey as she descended into the water. Many of those in attendance stood up and crowded around the sides of the font to get a better view, children sat on the floor next to the glass; others remained in their chairs. There are always two official witnesses at Mormon baptisms that stand on both sides and watch carefully that the initiate is completely immersed.

The Elder raises his right arm to the square position and repeats one of the few scripted prayers in Mormonism:

“Kasey [Full Name], Having been commissioned of Jesus Christ, I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”

Then the initiate bends both knees and slowly leans backwards into the water as the baptizer supports her in a rehearsed fashion.

The baptism symbolizes the death of one’s old life and a rebirth into a new and better life, with new commitments and resolve to live a Christ-like life, a life of charity, and to build up the Kingdom of God on the earth. And in so doing, one’s sins are washed away and forgotten.

Kasey, like so many others before her, came out of the water exultant…and dripping wet. She and the Elder changed into their dry clothes and rejoined the meeting a few minutes later.

Before the meeting came to a close Kasey was asked to speak a few words. This was the good part for me. I sat on the piano bench at the side of the room and could see both Kasey and the audience. All eyes were on Kasey. All was silent. I watched Kasey carefully as she approached the small podium. She was beaming. She was nervous but spoke with a strong voice,

"The Church must be true. [Pause] Otherwise, why would I feel so good."

Everybody quietly laughed. I liked Kasey's words and thought that they captured the essence of all religious rituals.

Mormon baptisms, in my opinion, are among the most uplifting meetings conducted in the LDS Church.

The next day, Sunday, in the chapel, in front of the entire congregation, Kasey was asked to come forward and sit in a chair while a small group of Elders from the Church stood around her,placed their hands on her head and conferred upon her the gift of the Holy Ghost with these words:

“Kasey, By the power of the Holy Melchizedek Priesthood we place our hands upon your head and confirm you a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And say unto you: Receive the Holy Ghost. [A few more sentences of blessing and admonition are added at this point.] In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.”

Afterwards, Kasey stood and shook each of the Elders’ hands and then returned to her seat in the congregation.

The Bishop then addressed the congregation and said , “All those in favor of welcoming Kasey [Full Name]as the newest member of our Ward, please manifest it,” whereupon, the entire congregation raised their right hands.

No matter how much rationality and objectivity I use to analyze this initiation process I must conclude that it is powerfully inspiring to those that watch and participate in the event.

How Rituals Can Go Wrong

Just as there are good rituals in the world, there are also bad ones: being jumped into a gang or murder as prerequisite for admission to some secret society are two quick examples.

The thanksgiving ritual could go wrong if, say, a family would bicker over the serving of ham instead of turkey and thereby weaken the bonds of familial love. While turkey is the customary entree, it is not worth fighting over in the short-run, but in the long-run tactful and gentle persuasion should be used to reason out the situation; No more. Likewise, churches have no need to contend one with another.

Baptism can go wrong when people think that the event itself has magical powers of cleansing rather than the event being a symbol of cleansing, or of turning over a new leaf. For instance, some have wished that they could be baptized just prior to their death in order to be perfectly qualified (clean) to face their judgement and enter heaven. Such a literalist mentality can lead to fundamentalist thoughts and sometimes to bad choices.

All rituals have the potential to go wrong.  I will not take the time now to list any of the many egregious over-beliefs (literalistic beliefs) in rituals, though it would be easy to do so. Besides, to focus on the over-beliefs would detract from the spirit of the ritual, and so I guard my words while ever maintaining my religious sobriety just in case I am needed as a designated driver (so to speak).

Religions are full of rituals and those rituals can be truly powerful, although their power is not in magic, but in the effect they have on the human mind. The power is real nonetheless because ideas have consequences in the real world. And that is why those who administer the rituals have a big responsibility to see that the rituals and their theological interpretations are not carried out too far (not taken too literally), beyond what makes this world a better place.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

William F. Buckley Jr. (1925-2008)

In the early 70’s I watched Los Angeles television channels (2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11, and 13) on a little black and white TV, no remote control, and would, while searching for Gilligan’s Island or other such show, happen upon a boring man sitting diagonally in his chair. Inexplicably I would linger on this station while I tried to figure out who was this man with the smirked face, who mumbled while either touching his face or poking it with a pencil, all while attempting to recline almost crossways in his chair. He wore his tie loosely and had short hair for the times, slightly out of place but not buzzed. I was captivated by his language, though I couldn’t understand what he was saying. He had an interesting accent and used big words that sounded like English crossed with Latin. Easily I would watch him until roused by the next commercial break. This was my first exposure to Firing Line hosted by William F. Buckley Jr. (WFB).

Over the years I have been too busy to follow WFB as closely as I would have liked and wished I had the time to continue my subscription to National Review beyond the early 90’s. When I learned of his death I knew that I had to find the time to more fully understand this man that I had found to be so interesting. So almost three years after Buckley died I finally chose six of his books to read:

God & Man at Yale
Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography
Let Us Talk of Many Things: The Collected Speeches
Nearer, My God: An Autobiography of Faith
Cancel your Own Goddam Subscription: Notes and Asides from National Review
Saving the Queen: A Blackford Oakes Mystery
Since so much already has been written about WFB, the man who used words like Thelonious Monk used notes, I will not write much more. WFB may not have been correct about every opinion that he held (he didn't like the Beatles) but what matters more to me is the way that he went about forming and sharing his opinions. He always offered clear logic for all to scrutinize, even his faith in Catholicism was logical. And he had style. In retort to a man who had written a rude letter to National Review, WFB didn’t merely reply by calling this writer an ass, but instead proffered a more subdued, “Indignor quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus, ass.” But for the most part he debated his opponents with civility, respect and logic, not declamations; Although I did burst out laughing when WFB interviewed Noam Chomsky:

WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY, JR.: I rejoice in your disposition to argue the Vietnam question, especially when I recognize what an act of self-control this must involve.
NOAM CHOMSKY: It really does. I mean, I think that it’s the kind of issue where —-
WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY, JR.: And you’re doing very well. You’re doing very well.
NOAM CHOMSKY: Sometimes I lose my temper. Maybe not tonight.
WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY, JR.: Maybe not tonight, because as you would, I’d smash you in the goddamn face. (WFB winked at the camera.)
Too funny! Find the clip. Listen to as much WFB as you can find. Study him. Enjoy him.

Buckley's debate with Reagan regarding the Panama Canal exemplifies how to debate civilly.

Of the WFB books I have read, the one that I would most recommend would be, Let Us Talk of Many Things.

William F. Buckley was another of life's originals, perhaps the key conservative of the 20th century. His arguments are worthy of being studied. Here are a few short Buckley quotes for fun:

"I'd rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 2000 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University."

"The academic community has in it the biggest concentration of alarmists, cranks and extremists this side of the giggle house."

On grammar rules: "The general rule is not to begin a sentence with "and"; the particular rule is that writers with a good ear know when to break the general rule."

"I would like to take you seriously, but to do so would affront your intelligence."

"Idealism is fine, but as it approaches reality, the costs become prohibitive."

"One must bear in mind that the expansion of federal activity is a form of eating for politicians."

"The more complicated and powerful the job, the more rudimentary the preparation for it."
"Truth is a demure lady, much too ladylike to knock you on your head and drag you to her cave. She is there, but people must want her, and seek her out."

"The amount of money and of legal energy being given to prosecute hundreds of thousands of Americans who are caught with a few ounces of marijuana in their jeans simply makes no sense - the kindest way to put it. A sterner way to put it is that it is an outrage, an imposition on basic civil liberties and on the reasonable expenditure of social energy."
"Conservatives pride themselves on resisting change, which is as it should be. But intelligent deference to tradition and stability can evolve into intellectual sloth and moral fanaticism, as when conservatives simply decline to look up from dogma because the effort to raise their heads and reconsider is too great."

"I won't insult your intelligence by suggesting that you really believe what you just said."
"To fail to experience gratitude when walking through the corridors of the Metropolitan Museum, when listening to the music of Bach or Beethoven, when exercising our freedom to speak, or ... to give, or withhold, our assent, is to fail to recognize how much we have received from the great wellsprings of human talent and concern that gave us Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, our parents, our friends. We need a rebirth of gratitude for those who have cared for us, living and, mostly, dead. The high moments of our way of life are their gifts to us. We must remember them in our thoughts and in our prayers; and in our deeds.

"I mean to live my life an obedient man, but obedient to God, subservient to the wisdom of my ancestors; never to the authority of political truths arrived at yesterday at the voting booth."

"Quod licet Jovi non licet bovi."

Thursday, June 2, 2011

"Get Real!" (The Mystical Story of Our House)

[Candid photo of my pump house built on three cistern tanks. Setting the ridge on a double hip roof all by myself was not easy. Wish I had removed the metal fence railing first...but oh well, that's what makes it candid. Also note the new (last year) septic cover. I decided against making custom chamber lids and used potted cacti instead.]

I do not consider myself to be a very mystical person, but here is somewhat of a mystical (and true) story.

In November of 1991 the family was driving to Mesa, Arizona to spend the night at Diane and Bill’s house for Thanksgiving. I was driving, Pam was in the passenger seat and the three kids were in the back. As we drove eastbound on Highway 8, everyone dozed off while I enjoyed looking at terrain that I had never before seen. Pam woke up to enjoy the drive through the rocky gorge on the border of San Diego and Imperial Counties. We descended 4000 feet to the low desert and wide-open desert sky. We were in a lonely and desolate part of the world. The landscape was sparsely dotted with creosote bushes, ocotillos, and other dead-looking shrubs as far as the eye could see.

After about 15 miles of driving in the flat desert, I suddenly saw deep-green, lazer-leveled fields. We drove another 10 miles through this greenness with very little sign of human life or development when suddenly I saw a house a quarter mile north of the freeway and I came out of my pensive stuppor and blurted out,
“Look!..There is a house!…I wonder what people do here…How would you like to live in a house like that? (Of course, I was kidding.)
Pam came out of her stuppor and bluntly said,
“Get real.”
We returned to our thoughts as we passed through the humble City of El Centro.


Fast forward to spring of 92.

I was looking at job opportunities in the state of California community college system and noticed a job announcement at Imperial Valley College. I had already taught part-time at Mira Costa College for two years and had formed the opinion that teaching at the community college was the best kept secret in all of education. I applied and got the job.

I started teaching at IVC in August 1992. At first I had to commute or spend nights at a friend's house (David Bates) while I looked for a house to buy or an apartment to rent.

I drove many miles around Imperial County and explored each of the dispersed communities. Soon I narrowed my search to west El Centro, then I began driving every street, including country streets, looking for For Sale signs. I saw an old country house for sale that I liked about a quarter mile north of the freeway, just west of town.

The house had been listed for only a week. I called Pam and described it to her and asked if she wanted me to go ahead and make an offer without her seeing the house first. (My sense was that this house would not last long.) She said she trusted my judgment and so I made the offer and we got the house.

The house was 80 years old, made of adobe, on three acres with the nearest neighbor a quarter mile away, in the direction of growth, in the district of the county’s best school, just outside the edge of the city limit, across the street from a fresh water canal, with quick back road access to CostoCo and WalMart, with no close-by dilapidated structures except our own.

After signing escrow papers and getting the keys, we entered the house as a family and walked around. Then I gathered the kids together and said, “let’s have a screaming contest.” Alison, the reigning champion, would go last. After each took a turn, Alison let out a scream that was about 50% louder than everyone else’s which made everyone laugh in amazement. Then we had a group scream…because we could. No more would we have neighbors who would ask us to keep our kids quiet.

Before I made very many improvements I overheard Erik tell one of his friends that "We live in a wrecked-out old house." I was a little sensitive to this critique and slowly I tried to improve the house as time and money would allow.

When Alison was about seven years old and we had our finances under control and our future looked easy, I remember one night walking out to the goat’s field under the clear desert sky and thinking that Pam and I could get old now and have no problems. Or we could have more kids. Though I didn’t bring it up to Pam, I thought that this was the kind of house in which to raise kids and we were the kind of people to do it. We had two more kids.

We were living in the Walden-equivalent of the desert, not for two years but for decades. (The book Walden by Henry David Thoreau is a favorite of mine.)

Now here is the mystical part. I have driven the freeway on the west side of El Centro looking at all the houses that are visible to the north (of which there are almost none) and wondering which was the house that roused me as we drove past on that Thanksgiving-Day drive in 1991. While trying to be as objective as possible, I have come to the conclusion that we did indeed buy the very same house.

We moved in during the Thanksgiving holiday 1992.

Since then I have continued looking for another house but have never found one and have never regretted buying our old home. Recently, since the housing bubble burst, I have looked to see what kind of bargains might be found.

Pam, sensing this, said,
“Remember, buying another house is a group decision and I like living here.”
And so we remain, happy in our way.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Don't Pay Credit Card Interest

Jokingly I tell my students that there are two great commandments in the Nondenominational Church of Finance:

1. Thou shalt not pay credit card interest on consumer goods, and

2. Thou shalt keep thy overhead low.

If you will endeavor to follow these two commandments then you will greatly improve your chances of achieving financial security in your life.

After Pam and I bought our first place we had no cash left anywhere. We had used all of our cash for the down payment and moving costs. After we moved in, our next problem to solve was how we were going to wash our clothes without a washer and dryer. In this situation (and with the first commandment in mind) I weighed the cost of financing a washer and dryer against the cost of going to a laundromat. I also considered the hassle of going to the Laundromat with three young children and I decided that "sinning" for a while was the best way out of this situation. We financed our new Maytag washer and dryer. From the date of purchase I was acutely aware that interest was accruing on our debt so for the next two months we took all our extra money and paid off the debt as fast as we could. (Note that in this case I could see no other course than to "sin" for two months, though the case could be made that a washer and dryer are more like capital goods for a household than consumer goods.)

Since then, there were about two other times when we couldn’t pay off our credit card balance immediately. In both cases the debt lasted about two months until it was completely paid off. So that makes three times in our whole lives that we haven’t immediately paid off our credit cards. I told this to a group of students recently and they were aghast. They acted as if I were a freak of nature because based on their experience everyone has credit card debt. I wanted to dispel that myth in their minds, so I made a provocative statement, “Rich people earn interest; poor people pay interest.” They gasped again at my bold language and then a discussion ensued.

Credit cards are for emergencies and for convenience. Pay off your credit cards in full every month. Make it a matter of principle to avoid paying credit card interest. Hell, make it a religion to avoid paying credit card interest!

Do you think you understand? Then here is a test question:

Question Scenario: Let’s say that while you are driving across the country your transmission breaks down. You have no money in your checking and savings accounts. You use your credit card for this emergency (as you should). Some days later while walking through the mall you see some cute clothes that you really want to have for $200. You decide to buy the clothes and pay with cash instead of increasing the balance on your credit card.

Question: Are you paying interest on the clothes?

Most people would rationalize and say that they are not paying interest on the clothes because they paid cash for them but this would be the sinner’s way of justifying the transaction. The fact that you had money that you could have used to pay down your credit card balance, yet did not, means that you willingly chose not to avoid the interest so that you could buy the clothes. Therefore the clothes cost you interest and you have broken the first commandment.

Sometimes students ask me how I can be so disciplined and control my spending so that I am always able to pay off my credits cards each month.

I respond, "Does it require discipline to not cut my arms with knives? [pause for absorption]...Likewise, it does not require discipline to manage my money, just a little foresight."

One time someone said to me, "I want to buy my toys while I am young enough to enjoy them and the only way I can afford them now is with credit...I mean...what if I die young?"

I responded, "You will probably live; so plan on it."

Another question I get is, “How can I build my credit without paying interest?”

I respond, “Let’s say some people offer to be your friends if you slash your arms with knives. Would you do it? Of course not. Then why would you pay interest to build credit? Don’t look to justify why you should have credit card debt. Instead, pass your classes and get a job. And don’t worry about not having friends that want you to cut your arms or pay interest.” (I know this is simplistic advice but I’m purposely trying to stop them in their tracks.)

I tell my students that when they buy a home someday, not to fall into the trap of thinking that they suddenly have to furnish their whole house with their credit cards. I tell them that if I walked into a home that had tin foil taped to the windows and no furniture in the living room, I would be more impressed with them than if they had a house full of nice things and a lot of debts to go with them. Remember, it is always better to be rich than look rich! Don't try to keep up with the Joneses. Live within your means and never try to impress other people with your worldly possessions. Buy things at the rate you can pay with cash. You'll have more things in life by following this wisdom than you would if you paid interest on things.

Would you sign up for every credit card offer you receive and then borrow to the hilt? Of course you wouldn't. Then why do so many people do practically the same thing when they borrow the maximum amount of money that a bank is willing to loan them so that they can buy a house that they can't really afford? Massive stupidity! That is all.

Yesterday I read a news report that said that 28% of all homes in the country are upside down in their mortgages which means their loan balance is greater than what they could sell their house for today. I'm comforted to know that my house is 100% paid for. (Granted it's only a modest home.)

A few years ago at the peak of the housing bubble, I had a striking and super bright student in her late 20s, tall blond, married, Seventh-day Adventist, and not from Imperial County. She openly challenged my advice in class by saying that it would be smarter to get a jumbo loan (interest only) on the largest property possible and then let the appreciation make you rich. We had this discussion before the housing bubble popped. As smart as she was, she was still young; she was still a sheep. Today she would probably be more inclined to agree with me. (Yes, there are specific circumstances under which it may be smart to have a mortgage but I will not teach the exception to the rule.)

I remember that during the housing bubble I would drive around and look at the flyers that are often supplied on For Sale signs. I used to think, "I know a lot about money and economics but I can't understand how people who earn a fraction of what I earn can afford so many things that I don't think I can afford. What is wrong with me?!"

Shortly after this the housing bubble popped, the truth came out, and my logic was vindicated.

Buy a modest home and be content with it.

Regarding cars: look at cars in terms of cost-per-mile. If you had to pay cash out of your pocket each time you drove your car to work or to the store, then you would readily appreciate the cost of driving an expensive car. Avoid thinking of a car as a means to impress others. Think of it instead as a wise choice or a foolish luxury--I say foolish because if your goal is to improve your financial position then the luxury car would be incompatible with that goal. In other words, buying the luxury car is incongruous behavior. Either change your goal or change your behavior. But don't be stupid. (Of course if you already have enough financial security then it is an entirely different matter to enjoy affordable luxuries.)

There is much more that I could say about money but I'll leave it at this:
Buy an efficient car (always try to pay cash for it).

Buy a modest home.

Rich people earn interest, poor people pay interest.

I'd rather be rich than look rich.

Live within your means.

Rich people do not conspicuously consume their wealth; the wannabe rich do. (The Millionaire Next Door)
PS I have never wanted to be rich, only financially secure.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Why I am a Mormon in spite of Cognitive Dissonance

[This picture was taken in the summer of 2000 at the Alpine Family Campground]

The bible is full of parables, myths, analogies, metaphors, similes, and imagery. Some people today still try to interpret scriptures using a pre-Darwinian and literalistic worldview. It can be painful to watch them engage in mental gymnastics to make sense of their understanding of the scriptures, while using outdated notions and scholarship.

I too have been an exegetical gymnast, until one day I had to admit to myself that all of the details of doctrine and history that I was trying to circumscribe into one great whole, just wouldn't fit together in the way that I was trying to fit them together. I realized then that I was trying to fit together pieces that didn't fit. Furthermore, the steady discovery of new facts has changed many of my premises. In time I could confidently see that the scriptural stories and doctrinal ideas that I thought I had understood, took on new meanings as I learned more about the context of the scriptures and religious narratives.

I also have seen others arrive at this point of "discovery" and I have noticed that many become disillusioned. I too have felt disillusionment but I decided not to react rashly about it. For years I watched how other people handled their religious disillusionment (a sort of intellectual coming of age) and have noticed that there are really only a few ways that people can react. I decided that I would try to react with the steadiness of a surgeon's hand. That image, the steady hand of a surgeon, frequently pops into my mind. Steady.

I wondered at the nature of religious pedagogy.

Jesus said,
Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.
—Matthew 13:13
He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.
—Matthew 11:15
You see? The tradition of speaking through a veil of stories is not new.

But I found myself unhappy that there was no one in the Church that was poised and able to guide me through some of the more advanced issues of Mormonism, as well as Christianity. I still see this as a failing of the Church.

There are many reasons why I do not simply distance myself from religion altogether and escape the incoherence and mental gymnastics. One reason is that I equate religion with my father. My father is a true blue Mormon, through and through, Mormonism personified, and I love him, and I would never turn my back on him, even if we disagreed about something. And by looking at the Mormon Church and my father, side by side, I can see the good in the Mormon Church in spite of whatever shortcomings exist in it or him. So I decided that I would treat the Mormon Church with the same degree of love, understanding, and respect as I naturally want to treat my dear father. Just as I would never abandon my father, I would never abandon the Mormon Church, but will try to make it a better Church as much as I am able. However, that does not mean that I will be orthodox in all of my beliefs or pretend that Mormon orthodoxy is completely coherent as it is presently constituted.

I see Mormonism as a deep, human striving to know God. But I also see traces of the divine in Mormonism. My proximity to Mormonism and considerable introspection have enabled me to recognize its peculiar goodness (and oddness too).

I have often reflected on what exactly it is about religion, not just Mormonism, that produces a certain distinct goodness that I have learned to easily recognize in my college students of whatever religious background, as well as common Mormon folks at Church. Such goodness, I think, is developed as a result of their striving to know God and to live a Christlike life. Of course, there are many who say that ethics is not the exclusive domain of religion, and religiosity may lead to fundamentalism, etc. Nevertheless, based on what I have observed over many years as a college professor, working closely with young adults, I believe there is some certain benefit derived from participating in a religious community--be it the structure, the discipline, or the wholesome camaraderie, or all of the above.

But whatever it is about Mormonism, or any religion, that fosters the development of these wonderful qualities, this distinct goodness, should not be so easily abandoned by humanity even as the Christian world seems to be turning its back on its religious heritage in favor of a more "authentic" lifestyle in the name of secular humanism or science--which humanism may be undisciplined, spoiled, immature, egocentric, and brash (perhaps for lack of training) when it rather could be more world-centric, or universe-centric, altruistic and charitable (though sometimes it is). But to become so broad-minded requires training and new language to reinvent the sacred in ways that will inspire more people to reach towards the heavens (metaphorcally speaking) and the future, with optimism, and thus spur on our evolution toward something great, something divine.

I was an orthodox believer in the past but through no fault of my own I have found myself ahead ("ahead" invites criticism, I know) of the mainstream orthodoxy of the religion of my youth. Now, I can no more believe like I used to believe, than I can fit into my childhood clothes. Herein is the dilemma...How to proceed?

While I was pondering this dilemma I found the logic I needed from Ken Wilber's A Brief History of Everything,
"Transcend and include...go beyond what went before and yet include what went before..."
—Ken Wilber
So I decided that I don't have to separate myself from people or my religion with whom I don't completely agree, for to do so would leave me completely alone. Then I reasoned that the more educated one becomes, the more rare will be one's views. And yet it must be good that young and old, rich and poor, and the more and less educated, live together. And it would be selfish of me to be impatient with others for merely believing as I used to believe.

I'm still a believer, however, because it is my nature. I just believe differently now. And I care about different things now than I used to care about.

I am also fully capable of healthy skepticism, and like Spinoza,
"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them."
—Baruch Spinoza
In both the Old and the New Testaments there are many references to the lame who shall walk and the blind who shall see. I loved reading the words of Albert Einstein when he alluded to the lame and the blind, and said,
"Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind. "
—Albert Einstein
And so, I will embrace the good in religion as well as science and will not insensitively pit one against the other, though others may do so. I will look for the good and the progressive in both, and overlook the rest that will find no place in the future anyway.

Mormonism is like a third parent to me. And although I am now grown and am my own man, I will never forget that I was born of "goodly parents" and I will always appreciate them for their goodness toward me and their sacrifices on my behalf. I will show my gratitude by paying forward, with added value, all that was given to me. I’ll endeavor to be a strong link in the great chain of being and do all in my power to point the correct way, as near as I can tell, into the future.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

I'm Better than my Bike

[The first picture is of myself and Tom on the Yellowstone trip, summer of 86.

The second is of my bike as packed for the Tour de Borrego March 19th 2011.]

In this post I will tell three separate stories that illustrate why I think that it is more important to be better than you look.

I. First Time Skiing

In about February 1978 I went skiing for the first time with my neighbor Pepe. I knew nothing about skiing and neither did Pepe. So we signed up for a beginning ski class that lasted about half an hour. There were many other people in the class but in particular I remember noticing the young people about my age. I distinctly remember how they were very fashionably dressed in expensive ski attire. I, on the other hand, was wearing Levi jeans, old sweat shirts, borrowed gloves and beanie, and no sun glasses (I was nearly snow-blind the next day). I did not look cool.

After the class was over the instructor dismissed the class and at that precise moment much of the class fell down where they stood as if on cue. Pepe and I were the only ones that skied away from the lesson.

Later in the day Pepe and I were moving fast down the slopes and we noticed all the people who were dressed like pros but who were not skiing as well as we were. At this moment it occurred to me that it looks silly to try to appear better than what you actually are. This thought has stayed with me ever since.

(Side Note: Our two day ski trip was mid week and I had a track meet the day after. My legs felt like lead and Coach Tillman signed me up for extra races as a cruel punishment for caring more about skiing than the team. I still was a bit fond of Tillman but my heart was leaving High School; soon thereafter I picked up and went to Bolivia.)

II. Bike Race Mid 80s

In college I had little money. (Actually this fact is not limited to my college years.) Anyhow, during my five years of living in Provo, UT I always looked forward to the summers when I could ride my bike. Utah is cycling country though not the Mecca that Colorado is for cyclists. I had an old steel Nishiki touring bike with a rack for panniers, extra long wheel base, and pedals for tennis shoes. With this bike I used to ride up Provo Canyon, past the Sundance Ski Resort, around Mount Timpanogos and down American Fork Canyon. The “Alpine Loop” was about 60 miles. I used to ride this loop with minimal water and food; I was not yet very scientific in my approach. I could not afford sunscreen, though I didn’t think about it either.

At the end of one summer I rode from Provo to Saint George with Dad, a trip of about 300 miles in four days. This was the peak of my summer’s training. During this trip Dad told me that he had signed up both of us for a bike race in San Diego North County in about a week.

After we got to Saint George we were famished and we went into the supermarket and bought the largest watermelon in the store. We rode to the park while I carried this giant watermelon in my arms. The panniers (and the watermelon) made steering with one hand very difficult. At the park Dad split the watermelon long ways and we gorged on the best watermelon of our lives while we waited for Pam to arrive in the car to take us the rest of the way to Carlsbad.

One week later the race. In those days I had no knowledge of tapering and I hadn’t been on the bike for a week.

The gun fired and we were off. I didn’t know what to expect but I kept going. A group started to form, then a little group created a gap and rode just ahead. I settled in and took my turns in the rotation. In hindsight I laugh at myself for being so inexperienced.

The finish was a climb up Palomar Airport Road and then a turn south to the finish line. Up Palomar Airport Road the groups exploded, “carnage” as they say. I, however, felt great and climbed with no problem while passing people and putting myself in a very good position. After turning right, there were a few guys that stood up for a sprint to the finish. I was not prepared for this and it was never my intention to try to win anyway. I was just happy to be there and to see if I belonged.

Now here is the good part. As a small group of us, about four, were cruising into the finish line, the guy next to me said,
"Never in my entire life have I seen a guy finish this high in a bike race with a bike like that."

I just smiled but I was also surprised by his surprise. In retrospect I must have been a real sight with my, tennis shoes, no toe clips, T shirt, and rickety old touring bike.

Over the years this story has sunk in deeper to my psyche and I now think that this was one of the greatest compliments of my life. Pam tells me that she thinks this story is very cool but I also suspect that she is just trying to help me feel content about not having all the sleekest and fastest gear.

III. Tour de Borrego (March 19, 2011)

I picked up Jose Moreno at his house at 6:00 AM and we fit both our bikes inside of my Toyota Corolla to save gas on the trip to Borrego Springs. The agenda for the day was a quality training ride of 80 miles, two laps around the course. As Jose and I reassembled our bikes, Jose noticed how dirty my bike was. It was indeed dirty. And I tried to clean it a bit with some wet wipes. My bike is a 2004 model and nearly worn out. My components are not top of the line and my chain, derailleurs, cassettes, and well, everything else, were a bit greasy. I did not bother to explain that without the dirt and grime my stretched chain tends to skip gears and since the local bike shop just went out of business I had no choice but to not clean the bike yet.

Anyhow, I told Jose, “I would rather be better than I look, than look better than I am.”

Jose laughed as I tried to clean my bike.

I said, “I’ll clean it before the Tour de Phoenix.”

Jose laughed again (He is a happy man).

At about 8:15 AM the announcer started calling the cyclists to the start line and talking about many things. After about 15 minutes the announcer asked (using his microphone) if there were any last minute questions. Then a loud and clear voice from behind me said, “Yeah, When can we start?” Some people chuckled while others gasped at this unnecessary rudeness.

At 8:30 AM we were off to a rolling start behind the official who was leading us through town and out to the main course. To the left of the leader was a guy dressed in full Team Liquigas regalia including the classic white with large red polka dots of the King of the Mountains Jersey. He was riding half a bike length ahead of the leader and was pushing the pace already. The riders started stringing out into a line. Already I was starting to notice this guy; I’ll refer to him as Polka Dot.

After three or four miles the Leader was gone and there were just four of us at the front. We had dropped everybody. “Why?” I thought. It was my intention to find a good group and let them lead the way. I hadn’t studied the course map and now I was ahead. Considering that the last time I did the Tour de Borrego I got a bit lost at one point when I was riding solo, I began to inquire of the guy in position three (I was in position four), “Do you know the course?”

“A little bit” he said. “I’ve done this event before.”

Then I rode up to the guy in position two, Polka Dot, (while Jose was pulling), “Do you know the course?”

He gave me some distant Clint Eastwood response, “I just follow the sun.”

I thought that was an odd statement from a guy who looked to be in his mid twenties.

Then after a cycle of pulls I said to Jose, “We dropped our guide.” Whereupon Polka Dot very loudly and clearly said, “Who the f**k cares!”

Now it didn’t take me very long to process that this guy was an egomaniac with a bad-ass attitude and when my heart rate is already elevated, well…

So I said, “What did you say?” And I didn’t wait for a response.

I pulled up next to him and said in his face, with a loud and clear voice, “Are you an a**hole?”

Slight pause.

I continued, “I gotta know right now. Are you an a**hole?”


I truly needed to know this because in cycling there are certain alliances that need to be formed to deal with the draft.

I continued, “Where are you from?”

“Newport Beach.”

I probably shook my head in disgust and didn’t offer to say where I was from.

Finally he asked, “Where are you from?”

"We (Jose and I) are both from El Centro."

Jose was smiling at me behind Polka Dot’s back.

Since we were having a 16mph tailwind we continued to ride together and Polka Dot apologized in his way. When it was my turn to "pull" I took a double pull and increased the speed. My next pull was up a short 10% hill and I dropped Polka Dot and Jose too (unfortunately). When we got to the turnaround point we were facing a terrible headwind. I stopped to take a leak and to let Polka Dot get ahead. Jose and I wanted to hang back and let him ride solo into the headwind but we were soon caught by rider number four and Polka Dot slowed way down so we were soon all together again. Rider four was soon dropped again; he couldn’t hang on even in the draft. The three of us cycled in rotation into the wind. I noticed that when Polka Dot was pulling he was just a bit faster than Jose and a bit slow than me. At the twenty mile mark was the first aide station and Polka Dot stopped. Jose and I kept up the blazing speed for another 10 miles then stopped at another aide station. Polka Dot was nowhere in sight.

After 40 miles we finished our first lap and I wanted to stop by the car and get my wind breaker vest. As we were heading back out we stopped to say a few words with some other riders who were coming in and then Polka Dot whizzed by out of the parking lot and back onto the course. He came out of nowhere. If he were on skis, he would have sprayed us with snow. Jose thinks he cut the course by a couple miles (probably by accident). We never saw him come in. Polka Dot probably thought that Jose and I were done for the day. Then a group of riders too serious to stop rode straight on by. We continued talking to these riders who were done after one lap but I couldn't help thinking that there were now many riders ahead of us out on the course.

While we were standing and conversing, I said to Jose, “We’ll let this guy (Polka Dot) get a little lead and then we’ll real him in.” Soon we caught the group ahead and I was hoping that Polka Dot would be with them. These guys told me that they were the lead group but they were obviously mistaken as I could see a cyclist up ahead. So Jose and I left this group that was going about 30 mph and I kicked it up to 43 mph (wind assisted). Jose said that he was going to turn around and take the shorter course and meet me at the end. So I continued alone. I was soon close enough to identify the rider up ahead by his fancy garb and tried to keep back because I wanted to witness that he did not cheat at the turnaround point. However, my momentum from trying to catch up prevented me from feeling comfortable at a slower pace so I decided that I had no choice but to pass him convincingly and then let him try to keep me in his sights. I went into the red zone up the 10% climbs and into the head wind and beyond. After mile 60 I finally looked back but didn’t see anyone.

In my mind I said, “I bring the whoopin; You bring the ass” (something The Rock used to say).

I kept the pace up until mile 70 where I stopped very briefly for some water and to rest my burning lumbar. I looked back again and saw nothing, or maybe something. It was hard to tell. I pressed onward.

In the last few miles I slowed down a bit and saw a young lady jogging in bright red garb. I probably wouldn’t have noticed except for the brightness of her colors. I wasn't expecting to race solo but it turned out to be a great training day for my real race in two weeks.

I finished first out of the 80 milers. Small victory for sure.

Jose was at the finish waiting for me. He did 65 miles. We walked around a bit, packed up the car, and took a few more drinks for the road. I saw Jose talking with some young lady like they knew each other. I approached.

The young lady explained that “He [Jose] helped me change my flat tire and I would still be on the road if it weren’t for his help.”

Jose was quick to add, “And then she pulled me in or else I would still be on the road.”

Jose laughed.

Then I asked this young lady, “Did I see you jogging?”

She explained that she is a triathlete and was practicing her transition.

Through the corner of my eye I spied Polka Dot getting into his monster truck that he parked on the road. He did not make the social rounds.

Jose and I agreed that we felt sorry for Polka Dot's girlfriend (assuming he had one). And we laughed. It must be the absolute worst to be in a relationship with a foul mouthed, self-centered jerk. But we agreed that he’ll think about his whooping and someday mature and not act so pretentious when in the company of those that by appearances are beneath him.

Then Jose said,
“You really are better than your bike.”
(I really enjoy that kind of compliment.)

I laughed and in my mind I said, “I’m also better than my clothes, my house and my cars.” I was still in slayer mode. In fact I am still in slayer mode as I am writing this soon after the event, perhaps too soon.

There is so much pomposity on display at a typical cycling event, especially the expo. I have learned over the years that it is impossible to tell by looking at the riders at the expo who the fast riders will be.


So what I am trying to say is, dear children, toss the pride, toss the arrogance, toss the pretentiousness and--you don't have to be the best--simply be better than you look. That is cool! And it saves money.

PS If I sound proud and arrogant in this post it is really because I am nearing my peak training for Tour of Phoenix and I am feeling strong and competitive at the moment. To counterbalance my current kick-ass attitude, the reader might want to play the link "I'm Too Sexy" and remember that I don't always take myself this seriously.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Fundamentalist Scientism

[I recently read these books that speak out against what Haisch called, "Fundamental Scientism."]

I love science!

The scientific method is one of the greatest discoveries ever made on planet earth!

However, I am about to be very critical of this same great science that I love so much.

First, I want to try to restate the mainstream scientific paradigm in one paragraph. Ready? Here goes:

Since Isaac Newton (the last 300 years) the world has adopted a Newtonian, mechanistic, materialistic, or reductionist view of the world. That is, the world behaves like a machine that must be taken apart to be understood (aka reductionism). All effects can be understood by studying their causes. Reality is built up in layers of complexity. For instance biology emerges from chemistry which emerges from physics. Or alternatively, biology is reducible to chemistry which is reducible to nuclear physics, atoms and their particles. Subatomic particles are reducible to energy. All is cause and effect. All causes come from below. There are no causes from above. No God. Consciousness is an illusion, albeit an emergent property of matter, another layer of complexity caused by the particles. We are not really conscious. Consciousness and everything else will be explained just as fast as the elusive particles can be understood. There is no free will. People are essentially automatons. There is no purpose or meaning in the universe except for what one makes for his or her self. We all must stoically face the abyss without flinching. We must all wait for physicists to discover the grand unified theory of everything.

I am not kidding. The above paragraph is the prevailing scientific paradigm, though it can be spiced up with talk of awe and wonder à la Carl Sagan (which I do like). (Did you catch the incompatability of the Uncertainty Principle and Determinism?)

Frankly, I don’t see much difference between believing that all causes come from a nothingness that resides below all things, than in believing that all causes come from an ambiguously defined God that resides above all things.

The Newtonian paradigm is unquestionably powerful though; The industrial revolution was a direct result of this new scientific way of thinking. But this same science that has so benefited the world has gotten itself in a feud with the religions of the earth and, sadly, is eating their lunch. Science has exposed so many of religion's teachings as ridiculous dogmas that it is no small irony that science has developed its own orthodoxy and dogmas which hamper its own progress (aka scientism). Yet while arrogant-uncertain science is on the rise and stubborn-certain religion seems to be in decline, there is a paradigm shift occurring in science that is not being digested by the materialists...It is that at the "bottom" there is no material, only energy which we do not clearly understand. This energy is reducible to…nothing at all. It vanishes. Or perhaps it turns into something called a zero-point field or a quantum field, a vast ocean of annihilated matter which is undetectable since it is in a state of zero charge, invisible, unmeasurable, seemingly gone, but out of which matter can come into existence ex nihilo fashion as long as a corresponding amount of anti-matter is also produced thereby conserving energy on the whole.

Furthermore, at the quantum level there is no materialistic certainty, no certain causes (see Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle) I'll say it again. No certain causes at the quantum level. And just to be clear, we are not talking about a mere inability of human beings to see and measure the causes and effects at the quantum level, rather, existence at that level is random...or so I'm told.

Paul Davies and John Gribben, in their book, The Matter Myth, state on page 13 that Richard Dawkins is an “eloquent champion of biological materialism” which is a dead paradigm, or in their exact words: “materialism is dead.” Richard Dawkins, then, is the champion of a dead paradigm. I would hate to have to explain that to Dawkins. Davies and Gribben also wrote on page 29, “The paradigm shift that we are now living through is a shift away from reductionism and toward holism; it is as profound as any paradigm shift in the history of science."

Holism is a theme of eastern religions. And it is with a little amusement (and a little frustration) that I have witnessed at church a derisive and dismissive attitude toward some of the “pseudo intellectual” members that show an interest in eastern ideas of wholeness by some of the more dominant types . I have heard them essentially categorize this kind of member as new agey, trendy followers of “every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14). While there is much in the "New Age" genre that is hocus pocus (probably mostly hocus pocus), one should ask what it is about it that could be true and useful, such as the interconnectedness of all life, and even non life. Anyhow, it is no surprise that the religious world is slow to include new ideas and language.

Thomas Kuhn has brilliantly described how scientists are subject to the same dogmatic paradigms as religionists.

Stuart A. Kauffman, in his book, Reinventing the Sacred, says that modern society suffers from four injuries and he implies that the first three are somewhat caused by the current reductionist paradigm of science. The first injury is the rift between science and the humanities. Second is that science gives us facts without values. And third, the “secular humanists have been quietly taught that spirituality is foolish or, at best, questionable.” I could think of more injuries but I am happy at least that some scientists are beginning to speak up about the shortcomings of science and their effects on society.

I want to close this blog entry by including several quotes from Bernard Haisch’s recent book, The God Theory, which book I do not completely agree with but I laud Haisch for thinking outside the scientific paradigms and risking a loss of professional respectability for publishing his ideas. My favorite parts of his book were when he pointed out the weaknesses in “Fundamentalist Scientism.”
P.36 “It is acceptable today, even fashionable, to publish scientific papers that propound theories of invisible universes that may be adjacent to our own in other dimensions…[But] If a religious person talks about transcendent spiritual realities, however, he or she is scoffed at. For some reason, the eleven-or-twenty-six-dimensional string worlds of scientific theory are plausible, but the supernatural realms of mysticism are judged to be mere superstition.”

P.39 “ The logical consequence of a pointless universe is ugliness and destruction. No matter how you try to hide such a philosophy under a mantle of stoic nobility, it remains no fountain of hope, but rather a poison brew of pessimism.”

P.40 “The most vehement proponents of reductionist materialism, such as Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, point with almost ghoulish glee to the fear, pain, and terror that are part of the process of evolution, thereby making an emotional but cogent argument for atheism and aspirituality.”

P.47 “I incline toward Teilhard’s spiritual hope rather than the cosmic pessimism for the ultimate state of a universe of maximum entropy.”

[Haisch also mentioned Guy Murchie, who along with Teilhard de Chardin are in my personal Great Thinkers Hall of Fame. Whenever an author drops these names I perk up.]

P.131 “Let’s face it. The reductionist view of human destiny is bleak. I am constantly baffled by the fact that a majority of my colleagues seem to prefer a philosophical view of human beings as short-lived, chemically-driven machines that evolved by accident in a random, remote corner of the universe and whose existence is a pointless and utterly transient curiosity.”
Yes, science is great but it also has weaknesses. Science cannot give purpose and meaning to people’s lives. Not yet anyway. Dogmatism exists in science as well as religion.

The new paradigm might include concepts that are currently being discussed under the title "Emergence." I particularly like the idea of mental causation, and the idea that causes can come from above as well as from below, e.g. consciousness imposes downward causation. (More in other posts.)