The Meming of Life: on secular parenting and other natural wonders

Help bring IT’S ALIVE! to life

bangcoverRemember BANG! The Universe Verse, the brilliantly conceived and illustrated comic book I blogged about in April, the one with the cartoon Einstein explaining the origin and development of the universe in verse? ‘Member?

Well a sequel is on its way. And to bring it to life, series creator Jamie Lu Dunbar needs a little help from his friends.

Jamie isn’t backed by a powerful international consortium of science comics moguls. He creates and publishes these beautiful things himself. And to make the second volume everything it needs to be, he needs a bit of venture capital.

Volume 1 was gorgeously illustrated in black and white. The setting was space, so that worked out just fine. But the second in the series, titled IT’S ALIVE!, is about the origin and evolution of life on Earth, so it’s crying out for full color. And producing spectacular four-color illustrations will require a wee upgrade in Jamie’s technology.

That’s where we come in. Jamie has set up a Kickstarter website with a five-minute video making his case and a button where we can chip in to help him create life. (If Jehovah had had a Kickstarter drive behind him, he might have managed a better design.)

Here’s the kicker: If Jamie raises the $5000 he needs, he will make the second book available as a free pdf on his website, just as he did for the first. He’s about a third of the way there. (Note: The Kickstarter site shows his goal as $1000. As Jamie’s text explains, that was only the first phase. The total needed is $5K, and we can help him get there, $5 and $10 and $20 at a time.)

Jamie’s work is clever and accessible and accurate and great fun. So let’s click through and help spark that primordial soup!

Words fail me [greatest hits]

Six busy weeks coming up, including a week unplugged at the beach, a speech to the UU General Assembly in Minneapolis, a visit to Camp Inquiry in New York, and moving. Rather than let the blog grow all weedy, I’ll run a few of my own favorite posts from long ago.

Words Fail Me
First appeared Sept 28, 2007

woody and diane

Love is too weak a word for what I feel – I luuurve you, you know, I loave you, I luff you.
WOODY ALLEN in Annie Hall

I was born in the Sixties. My first two kids were born in the Nineties. But try to name the decade my youngest was born in, the one we’re in at the moment, and you’re left muttering clunkers like “the first decade of the twenty-first century,” or sounding like Grandpa Simpson by referring to the “aughts.” It’s called a lexical gap, a concept for which a given language lacks a concise label. German is said to lack a precise word for a person’s “chest,” while English speakers are left speechless when it comes to Fahrvergnügen.

When I first heard Alvy Singer struggling to express his feelings for Annie Hall, I thought it was just for laughs. But I’ve begun to struggle in recent years with precisely the same lexical gap — so much so that I’ve almost entirely stopped telling my wife and children that I love them.

Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

The problem is the overuse of what was once, I suspect, a more sparingly-used, and therefore more powerful, word. The fact that Paul McCartney’s only response to the problem of “silly love songs” was to sing the phrase “I love you” fifteen times in three minutes seems to prove my point.

As a result of using “love” to express our feelings about everything from self-indulgence (“I love sleeping in on Sunday”) to food (“I love Taco Bell’s new Pizzaburgerrito”), I find the word “love” now entirely inadequate to describe the feeling engendered in me by my wife and kids. I don’t love them. I luuurve them.

No no, come back. I’m not going to wax rhapsodic. I’m zeroing in on a practical, lexical problem, that’s all.


impressive clergyman

Mawwiage. Mawwiage is what bwings us togevah today. Mawwiage, that bwessed awwangement, that dweam wifin a dweam. And wuv, twu wuv, wiw fowwow you, fowevah.
IMPRESSIVE CLERGYMAN from The Princess Bride

Whenever I think of the reasons I luuurve my wife, I recall an event I attended two years ago — a debate between an atheist and a theist. I described the scene in PBB (pp. 96-7):

When the discussion turned to morality, [the theist] said something I will never forget. “We need divine commandments to distinguish between right and wrong,” he said. “If not for the seventh commandment…” He pointed to his wife in the front row. “…there would be nothing keeping me from walking out the door every night and cheating on my wife!”

His wife, to my shock, nodded in agreement. The room full of evangelical teens nodded, wide-eyed at the thin scriptural thread that keeps us from falling into the abyss.

I sat dumbfounded. Nothing keeps him from cheating on his wife but the seventh commandment? Really?

Not love?

How about respect? I thought. And the promise you made when you married her? And the fact that doing to her what you wouldn’t want done to you is wrong in every moral system on Earth? Or the possibility that you simply find your marriage satisfying and don’t need to fling yourself at your secretary? Are respect and love and integrity and fulfillment really so inadequate that you need to have it specifically prohibited in stone?

I first dated Becca because of conditional things. Non-transcendent things. Had she not been so unbearably attractive to me, had she not had the most appealing personality of anyone I knew, had she not been so funny and smart and levelheaded, I wouldn’t have flipped over her like I did. It may sound off to say it this way, but she fulfilled the conditions for the relationship I wanted, and I, thank Vishnu, did the same for her. I asked her to marry me in large part because of these not inconsiderable things.

But then, the moment I asked her to marry me, something considerably more transcendent began to happen between us. She said yes — and I was instantly struck dumb by the power of it. This splendid person was willing to commit herself to me for the remainder of her one and only life.

Holy (though I try to keep this blog free of both these words) shit.

bexNo, I am not waxing, dammit, I am making a point. We were moving into the unconditional, you see. She had moved from being one of the many attractive, magnetic, funny, smart people I knew to The One Such Person Who Committed to Me. See the difference? And then, once she actually took three small packets of my DNA and used them to knit children — well, at that point, it became hard to look at her without bursting into song. I’m still not over it. What was a strong but technically conditional love moved decisively into unconditional luuurve.

So yes, there are things beyond the seventh commandment that keep me from cheating on my wife. Like the hilarity I feel at the thought of finding any other woman with any amount of those conditionals more attractive.

As for the children…

You’re an atheist? So then…you think your children are…just a bunch of…processes?
JEHOVAH’S WITNESS at my door last year

Last week a radio interviewer asked about my kids, with mild facetiousness: “So how about your own kids? Good kids, ya love ’em and everything?” In addition to the pure silliness of answering such a question, I fell head-first into that lexical gap once again — and the resulting three seconds of dead air probably did me no favors with the audience. I finally sputtered something about them being amazing kids, terrific kids, but it fell short, as it always does, of my real feelings.

I don’t make up for this lexical gap with the kids by telling them I luuurve them. Instead, almost every single day, I tell them, “I do not love you.” And they smile and say, “Oh yes you do!” — and all is understood.

kidsThey know in a thousand ways that I am transported by being their dad. They’ve become accustomed, for example, to the sudden realization that Dad is staring again. They’ll get that prickly feeling and turn to see me lost in a contemplative gawk. They’re very good about it, usually returning a smile rather than a roll of the eyes, which I think is very nice of them.

Recognizing that the love of our children is rooted in part in biology — that I am, in part, adaptively fond of them — does not diminish the way I’m transported by contemplating the fact of them, and of our special connection, of their uniqueness, and of the generational passing of the torch.

But it’s interesting to note that, unlike my relationship with Becca, this meditative gawking began on day one. The order of things is reversed. My marriage started in the conditional and added the unconditional. I loved her from the beginning, but only slowly came to be so completely slain by her.

Kids, on the other hand, begin in the unconditional and add the conditional. From the moment they emerged from my wife — seriously, reflect on that for a moment — they were unconditionally wonderful to me. They were half me and half she. They were our connection to the future. Etc.

Gradually we formed additional bonds based on their actual attributes. They are smart as whips, wickedly funny, generous and kind and fun to be around. But that’s all frosting on an unconditional cake. Marriage, on the other hand — if it goes well — starts with frosting and gradually slips the cake underneath.

So yes, my kids are “processes,” whatever that means, and so is my wife. But they are also the main reasons I wake up grateful and filled with meaning and purpose every single day.

(Wax off.)

BANG! The Universe Verse

bangcoverOh I love this.

bang1BANG! The Universe Verse Book 1 is unique comic book that illustrates scientific theories about the origin of the universe as Dr. Seuss might have done. Best of all, though it’s set in verse delivered by a cartoon Einstein, there’s no dumbing down of content. Instead, Jamie Dunbar has given the reader permission to not fully grasp it all. “This book is intended for all ages,” says the preface. “If you don’t understand everything, don’t worry, no one does!”

Amazing what a powerful sentence that is.
bang2In other good news, it’s available FREE as a PDF direct from the author (email him here) or in a low-res version on his website. You can also download the e-book for $5 from his site or get the physical book for just ten bucks. (It’s also on Amazon for $15. Don’t buy it there, but if you like it, drop in and write a nice review.)

Invisible knapsacks / Can you hear me now? 12

packMy mind has been on invisible knapsacks this week.

After health care reform passed, the gnashing of teeth intensified among its opponents — a deep concern about (non-war-related) expense, dire warnings of our descent into one or more other-than-capital isms, and a tearful eulogy for the America We Loved. These flies are always buzzing, and I’ve learned to just keep my tail moving and go about my day.

But there’s one trope in the mix that brings up an especially deep outrage in me, one that makes it hard to hold my tongue. It’s the suggestion that this Act confers benefits on people who — unlike the speaker — have not earned them.

Which led me back to the invisible knapsack.

Twenty years ago, in a piece titled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Peggy McIntosh of the Wellesley Centers for Women crystallized the argument that racial discrimination, especially today, is less a matter of “individual acts of meanness” than “invisible systems conferring dominance” on one group over another.

In our culture, I’m a member of several privileged groups (white, male, educated, heterosexual) and outside of others (religious, attractive). Like most people, I’m able to see and decry the advantages I am denied, but those I do have are largely invisible to me — until someone points them out, as McIntosh does so lucidly in her essay, with a list of 50 privileges she holds, but usually fails to recognize, as a white person. It’s a quick and thoughtful read, and I recommend it.

The nonreligious rightly protest unfair advantages conferred on the religious. But when it comes to our own advantages as nonreligious people, we too often act as if we earned them all.

Our advantages?? Sure. My secular humanism doesn’t confer much social advantage, but I do think it has allowed me to see a much grander, more astonishing, and ultimately more inspirational world and universe than the one my most conservatively religious friends inhabit. I don’t think this makes me a better person than they are. But I am deeply grateful for what it has done to the color and depth of my life and to my ability to open that lovely perspective to my kids.

Darwin hints at this color and depth in the last sentence of the Origin:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. (First edition, 1859)*

I’m glad for that grand naturalistic view, at once humbling and ennobling. But I recognize that in addition to the serious effort I put into reaching my conclusions, I also had some advantages along the way — advantages that not everyone shares.

My parents valued education and the life of the mind and encouraged the same in me and my brothers. They took us to a UCC church, a liberal denomination free of thought-paralyzing dogmas and fear. They encouraged us to think for ourselves and to be infinitely curious. My early interests in mythology and science were nurtured. I had a first-rate education, K-Ph.D. I was raised in relative physical and economic security. I knew people of several different religious traditions and eventually attended churches in nine denominations. We attended a Unitarian fellowship in my teens.

Not one of these is essential in achieving a naturalistic worldview free of traditional religion. Many of my nonreligious friends found their way out despite far fewer advantages than I had. But I recognize that many of the folks we rail against for holding on to beliefs we find unbelievable have often inherited, in one way or another, a more formidable set of obstacles.

The end result of such a process is greater empathy for the believer. Not for the beliefs themselves, especially those that are malignant or dehumanizing. It’s unethical to leave genuinely harmful beliefs unchallenged. But the most effective challenge to beliefs begins with heartfelt empathy for those who believe.

*Go here for a fascinating look at the (what else?) evolution of this poetic passage through later editions, and Darwin’s regret at “truckl[ing] to public opinion” in changing it.

Unconditional love revisited

globehug[As a child] I had developed an attitude toward the world that is the essence of inquiry: I had fallen in love with it. Thanks to Carl Sagan and other popularizers of science, I’d come to the conclusion that the universe was wonderful, period, and that I was incredibly fortunate to get a chance to be a conscious thing in the midst of it. The wonder of it came with no strings attached, no “ifs.” I was unconditionally smitten with reality.
From “The Unconditional Love of Reality,” in 50 Voices of Disbelief

That essay of mine taps one of my favorite themes––the idea that we should encourage in our kids, and ourselves, an unconditional love of reality. It’s the positive form of discouraging self-deception, and it’s the shortest route to the kind of curious hunger that can keep a mind awake, engaged, and grateful for a lifetime.

Every once in a while I come across a comment that misunderstands the concept. “That’s just crazy,” said a recent one. “I ACCEPT reality, but I certainly don’t always love it.” And then, as always, the example of the Holocaust.

What’s being confused here is the love of reality and the love of what happens in it. When it comes to the Holocaust, we rightly consider denial of its reality to be a terrible thing. More than a dozen European countries have gone so far as to make it illegal to deny it — a mistake, I think, but never mind. By insisting that we look the Holocaust in the eye, we are expressing a love and respect for reality and a profound distaste for self-deception. Our hatred of the Holocaust itself makes us love and protect our honesty about it. That’s the unconditional love of reality at work.

In the same way, my unconditional love for my kids does not (believe me) imply a love for everything they do. But it does inspire me to want nothing but the best for them –– including a wide-eyed infatuation with their own existence that will endure the inevitable bumps and bruises their existence will contain.

Penny wise

pennywise1My kids are weirdly consistent in their vocational dreams. They flirt with various ideas, but they always end up whipping back to their respective Norths like compass needles. By the time I was ten, I’d already torn through a half-dozen intended vocations: paleontologist, stand-up comedian, astronaut, clarinetist…stuff like that.

For years, Connor (now 14) has had his eye on engineering, and has recently narrowed it to alternative energy engineering. Erin (now 12) has wanted a career in medicine since she was 8 and has recently narrowed that (through questions like “What do you call a person who studies the way the body works?”) to research physiology.

Delaney (8) has pretty much always wanted to be a scientist of some kind.

A few weeks ago, Erin hunched intently over the kitchen table with a dropper to see how many drops of water would fit on a penny. Cool science project from school involving estimates, observation, averages, graphing. Good stuff.

Delaney suggested expanding the parameters of the study to see if water temperature would affect the results. I was reading in the next room when a small brouhaha broke out between the researchers. As usual, Erin came tromping in to me with a look of righteous determination.

“Dad, Laney and I are doing an experiment to see if a penny holds the same amount of hot water as cold water.”


“And I’m trying to tell Laney that we have to use the same penny for both, because one might be a little different, but she…”

“They’re both the same! Shiny 2009 pennies!” whined Laney from the doorway.

I walked into the laboratory and saw two shiny 2009 pennies sitting side by side on the table, waiting for further instructions.

I asked Erin why you need to use the same one.

“Because there might be tiny differences — little scratches or nicks that you can’t even see, but they might affect the water differently.”


“Yeah, variables.” Erin looked mighty pleased with her middle-school sciency self. I was too. But I wanted Laney to learn a cool thing about her life’s work, not to feel defeated. I told her to imagine that I was a scientist designing a study to see if people with blue shirts could get things off high shelves more easily. I opened the kitchen cupboard and asked white-shirted Laney to grab a cup off the top shelf.

She gave me a fumey look.

Blue-shirted me reached up and brought down the cup. “Well there it is. I’ve learned that people with blue shirts”


“are better at”


“getting things down from”



“You’re taller.”

“I think it’s the shirt.”

“Then you’re a dork.”

“How can you figure out whether it was the shirt?”

“I just wouldn’t use a tall person at all! I’d get two people who were both…” She paused. “Normal.”

I told her she had just removed a variable. She got it.

“But you’re obviously tall. The pennies are exactly the same.”

I admitted that they might be, then motioned her into the basement. We looked at the pennies under our microscope. Sure enough, canyons and craters loomed.

By this time she’d thankfully forgotten that her big sister had ended up right. It was just cool.

The reluctant animal / Can you hear me now? 11

mbta(The 11th in a series on effective communication. Full series here.)

Last September, I briefly mentioned a new CD by They Might Be Giants titled Here Comes Science. From the online samples alone I could tell that it was delicious and different. Now, after four months of family listening, it’s time to chat again.

One song in particular is so good in so many ways, I just had to give it its own blog moment. It’s terrific musically, catchy and inventive as hell, which makes it one of the few pieces on Earth I can hear more than a half dozen times without throwing a virgin into a volcano and jumping in after him. But it’s the lyrics that put My Brother the Ape in my Hall of Fame — and in the Can You Hear Me Now? blog series.

You can guess from the title that My Brother the Ape is about evolution, but it takes a different tack. In Parenting Beyond Belief I waxed on about how cool it is that we are literally related by common descent to all living things on Earth, cousins “not just of apes, but of the sequoia and the amoeba, of mosses and butterflies and blue whales” (p. 221). And it is world-changingly, paradigm-shiftingly cool — IF you can get yourself to let go of the concept of human specialness.

My Brother the Ape is sung from the perspective of someone who has trouble letting go and accepting his kinship with other animals. It starts with an invitation:

Well, I got the invitation that you sent to everyone
And I told you family picnics weren’t exactly my idea of fun
You replied that everyone but me said they were going to come
Which is how you talked me into going to the reunion

When you said everyone, you really meant it

My brother the ape
My brother the ape

Most songwriters, myself included, would have sent the narrative voice to the reunion and had him dance and sing and frolic in the oneness of all life. The Giants go deeper. Even after the reunion, Narrative Voice is still not all that comfortable with things:

I received the photos you sent, and I don’t regret that I went
Or the sight of everybody stiffly posing under one tent
But I don’t feel I belong and I keep wanting to escape
And I fail to see the likeness between me and my brother the ape

They all kept saying how much we look alike
I don’t think that we look alike at all

He starts working it out, bit by bit — two steps forward, one step back:

But I’ll admit that I look more like a chimp
Than I look like my cousin the shrimp
Or my distant kin the lichens
Or the snowy egret or the moss
And I find it hard to recognize some relatives of ours
Like the rotifer, the sycamore, iguanas and sea stars

My brother the ape
My brother the ape

In the end, he begins to come around, though you can see it’s still going to take some getting used to:

They say you don’t get to choose your family
But there’s no other one to choose

So that’s why I’m writing this now
And you can tell my sister the cow
That I meant to thank her for the gorgonzola, and I’ll allow
That I’ve been acting like a stranger, but you guys are all so strange
Though I think of what I’m like and I can see we’re all the same

So this time next year, we’ll meet at my place

My brother the ape
My brother the ape

My girls (8 and 12) have latched onto this song in a big, big way. They sing it around the house, they request it as a bedtime song, over and over and over. And in the process, the message that we are related to every living thing sinks in, bringing wonder with it.

It’s not that my kids have ever been reluctant animals. We’ve underlined our place in the scheme of things since they were born. We point out that the trees in our backyard are related to them in exactly the same way their cousins are, except with a common ancestor millions of years further back than Grandma. We refer to our dog as our wolf and ourselves as her monkeys. So for my kids, the song is mainly a fun and catchy reminder of just how cool that is and how far the kinship goes — to lichens and starfish and beyond.

But for someone who has been raised with the notion that humans are specially created in the image of God to “rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground” (Gen 1:26) — or even coming from a pretty natural position of human chauvinism — evolution represents a serious demotion and a choking slice of humble pie.

A song that empathizes a bit with that reluctance can offer a place for the listener to stand, and sing, while they consider whether or not to come to the reunion.

Get the mp3 from Amazon (click here)

A tale of two fingers / Can you hear me now? 2

(Please forgive the parental preening below. Ghastly stuff, but with a purpose.)

fingers095My daughter Delaney (7) is a wonder. I’ve never seen a kid so completely engaged in the world, so committed to life and happy for the chance at it.

At age five, she’d sometimes giggle quietly to herself in her car seat. I asked once what that was about. “Sometimes it’s just so amazing to be alive in my body,” she said.

She is the orchestrator of creative play in our neighborhood. It isn’t unusual to find seven kids in our front yard between the ages of five and ten: two building a tent, two hanging hula hoops on tree branches, one busily mashing seed pods in a bucket, one spreading open umbrellas and safety cones meaningfully across the lawn — and Delaney directing the works.

She wants to be a scientist. Her favorite word is “Awesome!”, used in its original meaning and intoned over an enormous orange spider or under a freaky yellow moon. She reads at an insanely high level, and when she reaches a word she doesn’t know — obfuscate, maybe, or ennui — she asks what it means. When I pause to figure out how to explain it to a second grader, she says, without a trace of arrogance, “Dad…just tell me the regular way.”

And then there’s this: Since the first week of her life, this awesome, smart, creative kid has sucked on the tips of the two middle fingers of her right hand. Never wanted a pacifier, wouldn’t take a bottle. Only the breast and her fingers, then finally just her fingers, would do.

At first it was nearly constant. By the time she was three, it was only when she was tired, worried, or asleep. But at those times, it was a guarantee.

We began to wonder if it could cause problems. Dental experts warned of possible splaying or malocclusion of permanent teeth, possible speech impairments. But they often cited frequent and intense sucking as the most likely to produce these. At age five, she had deep calloused dents just above the nail beds where her teeth rested. By six, she seemed to be resting the tips more lightly between her teeth, but still persisted.

Becca and I were not entirely unconcerned. We discussed it casually with Laney, told her about the dental worries, offered some ideas for stopping. She’d shake her head. Sometimes her eyes would well up, and we’d drop it. Then the same night, I’d tiptoe into her room and find that she had taped her own fingers together to dissuade her sleeping self…and was sucking on the sad little cellophaned flipper anyway.

It seemed for a while like she was finding her own way out of the habit. Other days, not so much.

One night I was about to enter the girls’ room to sing them to sleep. By this time, Laney’s fingers were only in the hatch at night, something we had all noticed. But as they crept into place that night, big sister Erin (11) couldn’t leave it.

“Laney, take your fingers out,” I heard her say.

I watched unseen from the doorway. Laney glared across at Erin and left them in.

“Laney! You need to stop sucking your fingers or your teeth will be weird!”


“Fine, suck your fingers if you want to be a baby. None of your friends suck their fingers.”

Laney made searing, defiant eye contact with Erin — and slowly slid her fingers further in, all the way to the second knuckle…then closed her eyes and sucked hard.

I entered the silent room and went to straight to Erin.

“I’m just trying to help her,” she said, half believing it.

I leaned down and whispered back, “I know, but that’s not the way. The more we force it, the harder she’ll resist.”

I switched to Laney’s bedside. Her cheeks were streaked with tears, fingers firmly enhatched. I asked what was up.

“I want to stop sucking my fingers, but I can’t,” she sobbed.

“Well, it’s hard,” I said. “You’ve always done it, right? But I don’t think you should rush it. You’ll know when it’s time.”

“I’m gonna try tonight.”

“Sweetie, I think you can just leave it for tonight. Maybe tomorrow.”

“I think I can do it.”

I smiled at her. “It’s up to you, punkin. Either way is fine.”

Whether she did or didn’t that night is unimportant. What matters is that by morning, she was convinced she had. Which made the next night a piece of cake. And the next. And she never went back.

You see where I’m going with this.

No, I’m not making a simple and cheap analogy between religious belief and thumbsucking. As much of a thigh-slapper as that is, it oversimplifies. I will point out, however, that this habit was a great comfort to Delaney, something she had never been without, something she was convinced she needed. When she felt it was threatened, she clung to it. She sucked harder. Only when I told her that she was in control, that there was no rush — only when we stopped trying to snatch it from her was she able to let it go.

When and if someone lets go of religious belief, I think the same simple principle is at work. Badgering them and ridiculing their beliefs might work for a few, but for most it has the opposite effect. The more you attack, the more they retreat into the very thing. Only when you look someone in the eye and say, in essence, “It’s your call,” can most people see their way clear.

I wouldn’t want to do without Myers and Hitchens and Condell. They speak to me. I think they tell the damn truth. They voice my frustration and outrage. I would never want them shut down. But there’s another thing that needs doing as well — an opening of space around people so they can think clearly, sometimes for the first time in their lives, about their beliefs and the consequences of those beliefs. And it takes place, more often then not, one on one.

My hope in this series is to offer some tips that I’ve found effective. I hope it’s useful.

SO THEN, tell me, secular readers (which again is who this series is primarily for): If you were once religious, what was the nature of your de-conversion?  Were you at the wheel, or was someone else pushing, or some combination? Do tell.

[Complete series]

Which way do your kids roll?

What is needed is not the will to believe but the will to find out, which is the exact opposite.Bertrand Russell

Unwillingly back from 17 days off, with a wallet full of Post-Its full of ideas for the blog.

The first popped up when Michael Jackson’s ghost was spotted at Neverland. Here’s my favorite video clip of the event (cue soundtrack):

The debunk is easy, of course. More interesting is the question it raises for parents who want to raise critical thinkers. Some, I’m sure, sat their kids in front of the video and fed them the critique of credulity: “Look, at 0:18, see? There’s a courtyard to the left there. You can even see the windows into that room. And look look, one second later you can see a set light standing in that room! There’s obviously a crew setting up in there, and somebody just walked by that window! See? Not a ghost. Right?”

Johnny and Janey nod solemnly and power down, pending future input.

By debunking it for them, Parental Unit handed them a piece of information: this ghost was a shadow. But s/he didn’t allow the kids to stretch their own critical thinking hamstrings. S/he gave them a fish instead of teaching them to fish.

News of the ghost reached us on vacation as we drove with Grandma to the coolest kid museum in the U.S. (more on this later). One of my kids had heard it on a morning show: during an interview, a news crew had captured Michael Jackson’s ghost walking by in a nearby room. That’s how it’s generally presented, of course — never “a news crew captured something that some people thought looked like a ghost, and further assumed to be the ghost of Michael Jackson.” Too many ickily precise words. “An eerie presence at Neverland was captured on film” is the usual approach to keeping us tuned in.

“Huh,” sez I, or some such noncommital thing.

We had a fine time at the museum. Later that afternoon, I pulled out my computer and found the YouTube video I knew would be there.

“Hey, who wants to see Michael Jackson’s ghost?” I said. Yup — I left out the precision, too. I did so because I know which way my kids roll, and that they don’t need a push from me.

Present some folks with Elvis in a restaraunt, or Mary in a tortilla, or an exotic miracle juice, and they’ll roll fast and hard toward belief. As Russell would put it (after his third gin XanGo), they have the will to believe and they’re not afraid to use it. No matter how much you try to drag them back uphill, such folks will lie at the bottom of the hill cooing contentedly in the lap of Elvis or Mary, munching on mangosteen while P.T. Barnum grazes on their wallets.

My kids roll the other way. As a result of the low-key and fun questioning atmosphere they’ve grown up in, they have a serious crush on the real world. Oh they like fantasy just fine. But to paraphrase Russell again, their will to find out is reliably stronger than their desire to believe any given proposition. And they’ve blown their minds often enough by the wonders of that real world that they’ll wait patiently, tossing aside counterfeit wonder, until the real thing comes along.

The will to believe is a form of incuriosity. The will to find out is about simple, persistent curiosity. Raise curious kids by being curious yourself, out loud. Show a hunger for the actual and a delight in finding it, over and over again, and your kids will tend to roll that way as well.

Though they all roll toward reality, the steepness of grade isn’t the same for all three of my kids. Erin (11) rolls gently but steadily toward reality, and Delaney (7) makes long detours. But both eventually end up wanting to know what’s actually what.

For Connor (14), it’s a cliff. That can present problems of its own. He’s often unwilling to even consider any unconventional possibilities. That protects him from being duped by salesmen, politicians, and faith healers, but it can also keep him from seeing how deeply bizarre reality can be. He has, for example, dismissed my descriptions of quantum strangeness with a simple, “Oh yeah, I’m so sure.” In his defense, that’s pretty much the same thing Einstein said about quantum physics (“Ach ja, ich bin so sicher.”)

So we watched the video three times. Erin and Delaney toyed with the idea that Jackson’s ghost had really appeared before asking each other a few simple questions and watching it fall apart. (Connor went straight to pfft.)

To my surprise, CNN actually debunked the rumor, showing that it was a simple shadow:

…which enraged some roll-to-beliefers. My favorite comment:

Fine, so it’s a shadow. So what? Have you so-called “skeptics” ever considered the possibility that ghosts ALSO cast shadows???

Loving paintings more than frames

ph6509I don’t remember the commencement addresses I heard in college, but I’ll bet the University of Portland Class of 2009 will remember theirs.

Part of the problem for my grad speakers was that UC Berkeley is huge, so it holds separate commencements by department. I was a double major, so I had not one but two forgettable events – one for music, one for anthropology. The speakers spoke as and to musicians and anthropologists, I’ll bet, not as and to humans with their toes at the edge of a cliff and a hang glider on their backs.

When it comes to commencement addresses, specialization murders inspiration.

The University of Portland is about a tenth the size of UC Berkeley, so it makes sense that they got ten times the speech – this year, at least. The speaker was Paul Hawken, author, environmental activist, and co-founder of Smith & Hawken, as well as Erewhon and several other environmentally progressive firms.

Though the speech is peppered with religious terminology and ideas – unsurprisingly, since University of Portland is a Catholic institution — I’m struck by the similarity between his ideas and mine. Some excerpts:

There is invisible writing on the back of the diploma you will receive, and in case you didn’t bring lemon juice to decode it, I can tell you what it says: YOU ARE BRILLIANT, AND THE EARTH IS HIRING.


When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on Earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse.


The first living cell came into being nearly 40 million centuries ago, and its direct descendants are in all of our bloodstreams. Literally you are breathing molecules this very second that were inhaled by Moses, Mother Teresa, and Bono. We are vastly interconnected. Our fates are inseparable. We are here because the dream of every cell is to become two cells. In each of you are one quadrillion cells, 90 percent of which are not human cells. Your body is a community, and without those other microorganisms you would perish in hours.

Each human cell has 400 billion molecules conducting millions of processes between trillions of atoms. The total cellular activity in one human body is staggering: one septillion actions at any one moment, a one with twenty-four zeros after it. In a millisecond, our body has undergone ten times more processes than there are stars in the universe – exactly what Charles Darwin foretold when he said science would discover that each living creature was a “little universe, formed of a host of self-propagating organisms, inconceivably minute and as numerous as the stars of heaven.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course. The world would become religious overnight. We would be ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead the stars come out every night, and we watch television.

I respond differently to the religious bits than I once would have. In my thirties, while teaching at a Catholic college, my high wince-factor at lines like “The world would become religious overnight” would have blinded me to the incredible insight of the lines around it (“Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course…Instead the stars come out every night, and we watch television”). I might also have failed to notice that he was doing no harm – in fact, that his speech was a call to positive action in perfect alignment with my own values.

Now I’m more inclined to notice that Paul Hawken and I agree on the painting rather than fussing quite so much about the frame.

Full text of the Hawken address

(Hat tip to Facebook friend Debra Hill Frewin for bringing the Hawken talk to my attention!)