Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders

Best Picture: The New Humanism

Parenting Beyond Belief was published four years ago this week. Since then, I’ve had hundreds of requests for advice of one kind or another. When I’m not qualified to answer the question, I either decline entirely or lateral to someone who is qualified.

In the process of those laterals, I’ve developed a pretty good sense of our strengths and weaknesses as a community — the areas we have plenty well covered, and the ones that are still cobwebbed corners. I’ve also developed a few favorite resources, and I’d like to give a shout to one of them.

This morning I got a request from Melissa, a recently-graduated RN who is currently in orientation as an Obstetrics nurse. The orientation group discussed cultural competency and the importance of providing patient-centered care. All of the usual cultures, ethnicities, and religions were covered, she said, but no mention was made of the nonreligious.

To her great credit, she spoke up.

“I politely informed my colleagues and our orienting nurse about the growing demographic of people who identified themselves as non-religious freethinkers whose goal was to live ethical, fulfilling lives, and use science and logic to make decisions about our beliefs, values, and lives,” she said. “The orienting nurse was shocked to learn about us and was not aware of the needs of the non-religious.”

The orienting nurse was entirely supportive of her self-disclosure, she said, and was interested in learning more about the nonreligious community. Melissa asked if I could recommend websites, articles, and other resources to help introduce this person to the community.

What a fantastic moment.

Now imagine yourself in the same position. Someone unfamiliar with humanism or atheism is interested in learning more — not so they can explore their own views, but to better serve the growing number who are in that demographic. There are currently more self-identified nonreligious Americans than African-Americans, after all — think of that — and five times as many nonreligious Americans as Jewish Americans. As more people discover that, this kind of request will become more common.

So where would you send someone for the best picture of our community?

My current favorite in that category is The New Humanism, an online magazine founded in late 2009 by the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard. A good 95 percent of websites with a freethought identity are defined primarily by their opposition to, or difference from, religion. Nothing wrong with that, of course — there’s a lot of ground to be plowed there — but it’s good to see a growing desire to also flesh out humanism itself, to explore our own values and issues, and (something we too rarely do) to challenge our own assumptions.

In the past 18 months, TNH has featured such topics as building secular communities, the place of emotions in humanism, humanist rituals, the difficulty of giving up the illusion of immortality, the double-challenge black humanists face, secular meditation, two articles reflecting on the common ground between humanism and Buddhism, whether humanists should join in interfaith work, a personal appeal for genuine inclusiveness, and a refreshingly honest recent article that attempts to shake the nonreligious community out of its obsessive focus on the intellectual, urging greater attention to the kind of comfort, care, and need that religion provides.

Here’s a passage from that last piece that ends with a simple, incisive question, completely reframing the conversation:

A friend of mine told me recently that she thought organized religion was for “weak and uneducated people.” Though I was a bit offended, my response was simply, “Well, what is the secular world doing for weak and uneducated people?”

Sift that provocative question through your head a bit, then read the article.

TNH even has an engaging article written from the perspective of a humanist nurse — something I was glad to be able to show to my correspondent.

I have a dozen favorite voices, but it’s hard to think of a source of humanist thought that quite matches The New Humanism’s blend of depth, clarity, and originality. The writing is both brilliant and accessible — a damn hard thing to pull off once, much less again and again. And (as you can see above) it raises questions that, for all their simplicity and power, are rarely or never raised anywhere else in our community.

Like anything worthwhile, TNH is not without its detractors. Many have rightly noted that these topics alienate hard core nontheists. This just in: Not everything we do has to be aimed at the hard core. They already have lots of nifty toys. The fact that 99.5% of those who share our worldview are not associated with us in any way should get our attention. How about giving them a place to stand, a way to be humanists? In my humble, TNH offers an opportunity to do just that.

So there’s my vote. Where would YOU have sent Melissa for the best picture of humanism?

(I posted this last week, then realized I hadn’t asked my correspondent below for permission to quote her email, something I generally try to do. She gave the thumbs-up, so here it is. Thanks Jan, you’re a good sport!)

One of the funniest recurring topics in my inbox concerns the reader reviews for Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers.

The reviews are 95 percent good, a gratifying thing. Surprising, too — given the sensitive topic, I was ready for a barrage of negatives from certain quarters when each book came out. It just hasn’t happened, which is awfully nice. Who needs the distraction?

But negative reviews do appear, including some I think are entirely fair. But when they do appear, fair or not, somebody somewhere ALWAYS drops me an outraged note. Some even suggest that I ought to (somehow) get the offending thought deleted.


A few weeks ago I got a note that appalled me more than a one-star review ever could:

Mr. McGowan,
I’m wondering if you watch the pages for your books. About two years ago I almost bought Parenting Beyond Belief but was convinced not to after I read the top comment, which said it was a book for angry athiests [sic]. I didn’t want anything like that. My son had serious trouble when his grandmother died last year, and I didn’t know what to tell him. Finally I broke down and got the book last month. And it was terrific! But I really needed it two years ago! Can’t you erase that terrible review so people aren’t misinformed??

I suddenly felt really, really tired.

I replied, explaining that I have no power to delete Amazon reviews, and (short of something clearly libelous) wouldn’t want it. I sketched out the timeless principle of caveat lector, stopping short of advising that she stay clear of the wilds of cyberspace unless accompanied by a parent or guardian. The xkcd cartoon above immediately came to mind.

I do appreciate it when people take the time to review my books, no matter what they think. If there’s an existing review you want to vote up or down, or even comment on, Amazon makes it easy. Go on, have fun. You don’t need me.

In fact, I feel another Latin phrase coming on. Vox populi!

Review: The Humanist Approach to Happiness

One of the great benefits of being a secular humanist in the 21st century is easy access to the thoughts and insights of others who share your basic worldview.

Even a generation ago it took some genuine effort to find those voices. And step one was overcoming the natural inertia of not knowing whether there was anything to find. The belief that Madalyn Murray O’Hair and I were the only nonbelievers on the planet kept me from even trying to discover otherwise until I was in my early thirties.

Now it’s all just a Google or Amazon search away.

For many years, virtually all of the books for nontheists had a kind of superhuman quality to them — stratospheric works of science or philosophy that blow your hair back with articulate rigor. I couldn’t read The End of Faith or pretty much anything by Russell or Hitchens without feeling both amazed and a little bit cowed by the intellectual horsepower.

I leave such books grateful for the support they provide my own position. But until recently, there hasn’t been much in the way of personal accounts of everyday folks living a humanist life.

Nica Lalli’s Nothing: Something to Believe In, published less than four years ago, was a welcome departure from the hifalutin’ — a personal account of a life lived without religion. Andrew Park’s Between a Church and a Hard Place: One Faith-Free Dad’s Struggle to Understand What It Means to Be Religious (or Not) was also a wonderful read — not just because it describes my parenting seminar at Harvard for several pages (heh), but because it’s the voice of someone so damn normal, living a life very much like my own.

The latest entry on the shelf by and for humanist mortals is Jen Hancock’s The Humanist Approach to Happiness, a book that likewise distinguishes itself by the author’s down-to-earth voice and perspective.

Look in vain for arguments against religious belief or ways to deal with the evangelical schoolteacher. To paraphrase the cover tagline, this book is one humanist’s thoughts on personal ethics and how to lead a happier, more productive life.

Jen never tries to speak universally. She speaks for herself, clearly and informally, thinking out loud about decision making, simplicity, honesty, body ethics, sex, vibrators, relationships, addiction, self-image, pooping, death, and more. Her own thoughts are salted with quotes from Bertrand Russell to Britney Spears, including some keepers I hadn’t seen before. The net effect is a conversation about everything with an intelligent, unpretentious friend.

About thirty pages in, I began to recognize something I have seen before: the relaxed assurance of a second-generation humanist. I flipped the book to read the author blurb, and sure enough, Jen is that still-elusive beast — a humanist who was raised by humanists. PBB contributor Emily Rosa, also a second-generation humanist, writes with the same delightfully relaxed style.

Jen makes one point that for all its obvious simplicity is rarely made: that behaving ethically and doing good tends to increase a person’s own happiness. It’s often implied that doing good is an uphill battle, a fight against our sinful nature that requires surrender to a greater power. In fact, doing good is one of the smoother paths to a satisfying life. The rewards, both internal and external, are substantial.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that Jen writes a regular humanist column for her local paper, surely one of the few in the country. Her authorial style resembles the personal voice of the columnist — a good thing for this kind of work.

The Humanist Approach to Happiness is a delightful read and a useful resource. Learn more at Jen’s website, or grab it (for under 11 bucks!) at Amazon.

Laughing matters 7: Mr. Deity

nullI am always the last to discover cool and interesting things. Hat tip to Facebook friend Beverly Emond for helping me deduct one more dollar from my Shameful Ignorance account by introducing me to Mr. Deity.

Mr. Deity is a brilliant and hilarious series of satirical shorts on YouTube that proves once again that comedy beats the keeeey-rap out of every other means of enlightenment.

We think of comedy as entertainment, which is about like saying sex is exercise. Sure, comedy’s fun, but it also reveals the truth more head-top-removingly than any argument could — especially when the purveyor has his head on straight. In the case of satire, that means understanding and, if you can manage it, empathizing with your targets. Brian Keith Dalton, the creator and star of Mr. Deity, does both, and we get the benefit.

Wanna grapple with the Problem of Evil? You can read volumes of treatises and apologia on theodicy and the Epicurean paradox. Or you can watch this:

You can lunch with Benedict XVI for a week to explore substitutionary atonement — the idea that one person can atone for the sins of another — and the dual nature of Christ. Or you can watch this:

And you can ponder and argue how and whether God answers prayers, and the implications of the conclusions you reach. Or you can watch Bruce Almighty, a smart and worthwhile comedy. Or watch this:

I know why these things soar the way they do here. Dalton is uncovering inconsistencies and problems and nonsense, but he is not sneering. He gets religious belief, empathizes with it, respects the impulse, even though he doesn’t share the conclusions. That’s essential to the comedy. My own religious satire falls flattest when I am least understanding of my targets and soars highest (imho) when I get where they’re coming from — because the latter is more likely to be rooted in the truth.

This from Mr. Deity’s FAQ:

I am a formerly religious person (non-bitter), and as such, have great sympathies for the beliefs and feelings of religious people. I love the fact that they are concerned with the big issues like Good and Evil, Existence, Creation, etc… I don’t always agree with the answers they provide to these questions, but I deeply respect their concern. Our goal here is not to mock religion, but to use it as a foundation for the humor. I’m thrilled that so many religious people have written to tell me that they love the episodes. In future episodes, I intend to turn the tables a bit and poke fun at what I call the “angry atheists” (of whom I am not fond). We’ll see if they take it so well.

As for his implied question….

We’ll see if the [angry atheists] take it so well [as religious folks have]

…with a few notable exceptions, I’m not even one tiny bit optimistic.

Mr. Deity’s YouTube Channel
Read the complete Laughing Matters series

David Foster Wallace

They can kill you, but the legalities of eating you are quite a bit dicier.
–from Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Just twice in my life have I not wanted a book to end. Twice. No matter how much I love the book I’m reading, I reach a point where I get it, I’ve had my fun, and I start looking forward to looking back at the experience of reading it.

The two exceptions: Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, and Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.

In both cases, the author had put me into a space so compelling and original that I hated to leave. In both cases I riffled the remaining few pages with such regret as the end approached that I actually backed up, rereading previous pages, slip-stepping on a wet hillside to avoid the inevitable.

That was all the more surprising in the case of Infinite Jest, which runs to 1,079 pages (including nearly 100 pages of footnotes, some two words long, some four pages) with a vocabulary like the OED and famously dense sentence structures. But I knew, as I read the maddening last sentence, that every other book in my life would be in its shadow. I wasn’t at all surprised when TIME Magazine named Infinite Jest one of the top 100 English language novels.

I dedicated Calling Bernadette’s Bluff, my own first novel, to Wallace. It was only fair, since his influence is on every page, from namefreaks like Genevieve Martin (the Dean of Faculty, therefore Dean Martin) to sentence-pairs like my description of Martin’s voice:

Half a dozen words in that stainless steel Voice and ambiguity evaporates, padlocks fly open, and underlings collide headlong, Stoogelike, in a frenzy of wish-fulfillment tinged with an inexplicable but highly motivating terror of consequences.

Lovely thing, really.

A shameless theft of technique. Same with Chapter 10, a play rehearsal within a play. Then there’s one of my favorite devices of his, the ellipsis as passive placeholder in unmarked dialogues. Here’s a conversation in Bernadette’s Bluff between two college roommates (an aggressive atheist and a gentle Christian) that is pure homage to Wallace, right down to the speakers’ identities being revealed only in context:

“I know you’re awake.”


“You forgot to switch your halo off.”


“Never did answer the Question of the Day, you know.”


“Ooo looky, there’s an angel hovering over the TV!”

“Ha ha.”

“I knew it. Now answer the Question.”

Even the unresolved ending of CBB was shoplifted in spirit from Wallace. And my travel writing is full of self-referential footnotes, something I learned at his literary teat.

I’m offering my own derived material rather than quotes from Wallace’s work because, as one blogger recently put it, his work “resists encapsulation.” And how. It is the most context-dependent stuff I’ve ever read.
It’s not too much to say that I’m a writer because of the way David’s writing blew my mind in every possible meaning of that phrase. My fiction, my nonfiction, my satire, my talks, and this blog are soaked in his influence. (Example: “I start looking forward to looking back at the experience of reading it” is me channeling Wallace. I don’t even know I’m doing it anymore.)

His nonfiction is frankly incredible in its ability to strip a subject to its essence. He has written about cruises, state fairs, television, tennis, depression, infinity, oblivion, and American material culture, and I’m jolted over and again with the shock of recognizing something I had never seen before. A brilliant piece of reportage about the McCain campaign of 2000 ( “McCain’s Promise: Aboard the Straight Talk Express with John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking About Hope”) has been called one of the most incisive looks at modern politics ever written — and also underlines the tragic difference between the John McCains of then and now.

In the span of a few seconds yesterday, I learned that David Foster Wallace had taken his own life at 46 and that he had suffered from crushing clinical depression for over 20 years. His wife came home and found him hanging.

I don’t give much of a damn that “the world has been deprived of his immense talents and his future literary masterpieces,” as someone somewhere is surely saying. Like Harper Lee’s Mockingbird, Infinite Jest was more than enough. I never needed another thing from him.

But I wish like hell — for him, not for me — that he hadn’t been consumed.

Best of David Foster Wallace
Infinite Jest
A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again
Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

blasphemy, the game

I don’t ask for much from my entertainments, but what I do ask for, I insist on. Among these are wit, intelligence, and most of all, originality. Favorite movies: Memento, Run Lola Run, Being John Malkovich. My favorite book is narrated by a fifteen-year-old autistic boy who tries to solve the pitchfork murder of a giant poodle. You get the idea.

So when I was asked to take a look at a new game called Blasphemy, I was hoping for something funny, clever, and out of the ordinary. And holy mother of pearl, did I ever find it.

A Faith-Off

Blasphemy™ is an amazingly clever, well-made, and carefully-researched board game that manages to provide religious literacy and skewer the sacred at the same time. The game builds on the fact that there were many claimants to the title of Messiah in ancient Judea. Each player maneuvers one would-be Messiah through six phases in the life of Jesus. Whoever can attain baptism in the Jordan (you have to catch John the Baptist first), resist the devil in the wilderness (without losing all of your Faith cards), give the greatest sermons, perform the most impressive miracles, discredit his rivals, and make his way first to the cross wins the game.

Every last detail of the game has been thought out by someone with that rarest of combinations: biblical smarts and a sense of humor. Equally stunning is the craftsmanship of the game itself, from a gorgeous silk-screened cloth playing surface to the tiles, the cards, and the Messiahs. You’ll find yourself stroking the lovely little pieces as you play (a sin in 14 denominations). As for the cost ($99.99), the game’s website FAQ is absolutely correct: “It’s worth every shekel. The manufactured components for the game are both unique and top of the line. If you treat the game properly, it should easily last well over two thousand years.”

The Jesi

Be advised: this is not a game for anyone who lacks patience, a sense of humor, or a high tolerance for complexity. Not difficulty — it isn’t difficult to play. But if you (or your teens) don’t like multifaceted, multilayered games with the potential to stretch into the wee hours of the night, this isn’t for you. If on the other hand that last sentence made you drool, and you think of sacred cows as excellent skewer-holders, this is the game for you.

If you do tend toward the opinion that religion should be protected from a good-natured ribbing, other games are more likely to be your cuppa. [Not sure where you land on the blasphemy tolerance spectrum? Here’s a test.]

Myself, I think a game built around the essence of a big idea is a delicious thing. Wouldn’t you love to see a game in which simple life forms compete and evolve until one of them ends up as Charles Darwin? Me too. In the meantime, have a spot of fun following the evolution of a Messiah.

website for Blasphemy the Game

“hey, mr. cunningham”


You never know someone until you step inside their skin and walk around a little. –Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird

A few years ago I was teaching a seminar on the use (and misuse) of the arts in the Third Reich when a student asked a great question — one of the best I ever heard as a professor:

“What would you say is the basic difference between ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’?”

What an unusually great question. I stared at the carpet for a week or so as I worked out an answer. Then, amazingly, an answer that I still consider the right one came bubbling to the surface.

I think the central distinction between liberal and conservative is the attitude toward difference. Conservatism embodies our evolved tendency to value what is familiar, shared, and traditional while distrusting the unfamiliar or foreign. Liberalism tends instead to distrust sameness and to see greater value in diversity and change. It seems to (liberal) me that this distinction is at the root of things.

Correct me since I’m wrong.

We watched To Kill a Mockingbird a few days ago. I wasn’t sure if the kids would take to it — B&W, some wooden acting, etc. — but once again they surprised me. As of this morning, Laney and Erin have watched it three times.

I remembered the story as an indictment of racism, but the racial narrative is just one thread in the larger message of the film (and book) — that we fear what is different or unknown, and that that fear drives us to kill mockingbirds (i.e. to hate and harm the innocent).

Tom Robinson is a black man falsely accused of beating and raping a white woman. Mrs. Dubose, the cranky elderly neighbor, is assumed by the children to have a pistol under her shawl. The unseen Boo Radley is assumed to be a homicidal maniac who “eats raw squirrels,” while his father is assumed to be “the meanest man who ever drew breath.” Even a dog walking down the street erratically is assumed rabid and has the Bush Doctrine unleashed on him.

If my definition of the difference between conservatism and liberalism holds water, To Kill a Mockingbird seems to be an extended tribute to the liberal impulse and indictment of the conservative. But again, I’m a damn liberal, so I might very well be engaging in confirmation bias. I’d be interested to see if a conservative sees it differently.

There’s one scene that seemed relevant to the nonreligious — who are, after all, among the hated-different-unfamiliar in our society. A classic lynch mob has gathered at the jail to kill Tom Robinson, only to find his lawyer, Atticus Finch, sitting in the doorway, reading a book.


The mob already has Atticus neatly labeled and dismissed as a “nigger-lover” and a “tricky lawyer” (and now a book reader! Pinko elitist to the core, this one). Having replaced his humanity with a caricature, they will find it a simple matter to do whatever it takes to get past him.

But then Atticus’ children Jem and Scout show up. He orders them to leave. They refuse, and Atticus does not beat them to death (permissive parenting!). Then Scout recognizes a face in the crowd: Mr. Cunningham, a farmer for whom Atticus has done work and whose son Scout knows. “Hey, Mr. Cunningham,” she says:

I said Hey, Mr. Cunningham. Don’t you remember me, Mr. Cunningham? I’m Jean Louise Finch. You brought us some hickory nuts one early morning, remember? We had a talk. I went and got my daddy to come out and thank you. I go to school with your boy. I go to school with Walter. He’s a nice boy. Tell him ‘hey’ for me, won’t you?

She says his name. She says her name. She reminds him of their connection and offers a kind greeting. Cunningham’s body language says it all. He squirms. He looks at the ground. He tries to hide behind the brim of his hat. He can’t keep the caricature from dissolving in the face of Scout’s humanizing connection.

I spend a lot of time telling nonreligious parents that one of the best things we can do for our children is to be out — to have our views known by those around us. It’s far less important to engage and challenge other beliefs than to simply put a known and loved (or hell, even mildly liked) face on the abstract bugaboo of religious doubt.

It works for every kind of reviled “other.” It’s easy to go to war against distant foreigners as long as “they” are “over there,” safely unknown and simplistically drawn. It’s easy to convince yourself that gays are a perverse threat to all that’s holy as long as you don’t know anyone who’s gay. And there’s no difficulty in convincing yourself that atheists are immoral hedonists if you continue to assume that those around you are all believers.

That’s why it’s important for those who differ from the majority — blue people in red states, red people in blue states, gays, atheists, the works — to be out of the closet, to be a smiling, normal, ethical contradiction to all the fearful assumptions. So I try to convince nonreligious folks to seize those “Hey, Mr. Cunningham” moments and put a human face on disbelief. And it’s equally important for us to avoid drawing a caricature of all religious belief — to recognize the normal, sane, ethical believers all around us. That’s the way the caricature crumbles — one person at a time.

the father review redo

Okay, I’m feeling properly chastened. As some of you pointed out, both in comments and in email, my review of The Golden Compass was a tad harsh. You’re right!

Let me explain. There are two things in particular that really make a movie for me: originality and music. Golden Compass (the film) is brimming with brilliance, but it let me down on those two points by including intrusive, overwrought music and by dropping the ball on the most original aspect of the book: the intensity of the human/daemon relationship. As a result, I sulked out of the opening day showing, went straight home and wrote my unbalanced review, leaving out much that was awesome in the flick. And there’s a lot.

So mea culpa.

Nearly four months later, when we finally got around to posting our father-son review, I slapped mine up there without reconsidering it in the light of passed time. So here it is again, this time with commentary in italics:

10. It’s bloody difficult to make a 2-hour reduction of a book of the scope, depth, and texture of The Golden Compass. That said, they blew it.

“Blew it” is way too harsh. They did many things incredibly well, though I don’t know how anyone who hasn’t read the book could follow it. It’s gaspingly beautiful and imaginatively textured, and the acting is great. Then there’s the daemon thing. I’ll get there.

9. Despite predictions to the contrary, it is made entirely clear that “the Magisterium” is the church and the Authority is God. The officers look like catholic cardinals, the Magisterium buildings are decorated with saints and icons, Asriel is accused of “heresy,” its opponents are called freethinkers, and Mrs. Coulter refers to the “error of our ancestors” that brought “dust” (sin) into the world. Plenty clear.

They did this reeeeeally well. Many freethought types were worried the war-on-the-church core of the book would be compromised, a la Da Vinci Code. It isn’t compromised. Support the troops!

8. The human/daemon relationship was made so intensely real in the book that both Connor and I longed for daemons of our own. This was the most remarkable, most brilliant, most emotionally captivating element of the book, yet the movie fails to make daemons anything more than beloved pets.

Considering how disappointed I was in this aspect, this part of the review is too mild. When Connor and I reached the intercision scene while reading, we were both nearly in tears. And Roger holding the dried fish in the shack… jeez, I’m tearing up now. In the movie, I didn’t feel either moment much at all. Only by showing Mrs. Coulter in slo-mo and (somehow) ratcheting the music up even more was the intensity of the moment made noticeable.

7. In the book, the witches are thousand-year-old beings, transcendent and wise, with an entirely different perspective on existence, amazing and original seers and sages. In the movie, they fly. That’s about it.

Again, a movingly original aspect of the book is left fallow.

6. I spent the six months prior to the film’s release depressed because I thought chirpy, doe-eyed Dakota Fanning had been cast as Lyra. Turns out it’s Dakota Blue Richards, and she’s PERFECT. Strong, petulant, independent, but also vulnerable and good.

This was an enormous relief. After watching Dakota Fanning transform strong, gutsy Fern into a cutie pie in Charlotte’s Web, I couldn’t believe they had cast her as Lyra Belacqua. You can’t imagine my relief when Dakota Blue Richards came on screen instead. Heh.

5. The music is absolutely terrible — a combination of overwrought wallpaper (never shuts up) and Mickey Mousing (imitates small visual actions with musical gestures).

Way too harsh. The music itself is not at all terrible. I’ve since heard it separated from the film, and it’s a lovely, brooding, harmonic clockwork kind of a thing. Very nice. The problem is the scoring— that is, the use of the music. Among other things, it is way, way too present, which is a mortal sin for film scoring after about 1975.

I’ll blog about film music at some point. Having studied it and considered entering the field myself for several years, I’m full of opinions and preferences. What does poor scoring do to me? Picture Tom Hanks in The Green Mile when, with John Coffey in the chair, he says “Roll on two.” Now picture Richard Simmons doing “Sweatin’ to the Oldies” behind him. Distracting, eh? Tell me about it.

4. The bear fight, despite some fine CGI, somehow manages to be a yawner.

3. Sam Elliott is spot-on as Lee Scoresby.

2. Coulter’s monkey is exquisitely creepy and hateworthy.

1. The ending is indescribably, epically, abysmally lame.

That’s not true. The ending is describably lame. I’m talking about the whole ending, all the way back to the escape from Bolvangar, when the fleeing kids confront the random hoard of Tartars — whose identities and loyalties have not been sufficiently established in the film for the confrontation to mean much more than Cute Kidlets vs. Bearded Baddies. The disappearing wolves are cool, though.

You should definitely see the film. It’s a visual feast, the acting is superb, and Pullman’s worlds are so incredible it would be a Dust to miss a chance at seeing into it. Even with an insistent, moaning orchestra in each ear.

The Golden Compass Father-Son Review


Lyra Belacqua is an orphan living at Jordan College in the Oxford of an alternate universe. In Lyra’s world every person is accompanied by a daemon, a physical representation of their soul in animal form. Because she is young, Lyra’s daemon Pantalaimon can change his shape to appear as any animal he chooses. Adults’ daemons settle into one shape and don’t change.

Lyra overhears a conversation between the master of Jordan College and Fra Pavel, a representative of the powerful and sinister religious body called the Magisterium. They’re discussing an expedition to the far north planned by Lyra’s uncle, Lord Asriel; he wants to study a mysterious substance called Dust that seems to enter Lyra’s world from parallel universes.

Even before we meet Lyra, boys and girls have been disappearing, snatched off the streets. The children call the kidnappers Gobblers. Lyra and her friend Roger promise one another that if either is caught, the other will come to the rescue. That night, while Lyra is at dinner being introduced to Mrs. Coulter, Roger and another friend, Billy Costa are taken by the Gobblers.

Lyra is taken with her new acquaintance and agrees eagerly when Mrs. Coulter, who is also planning a trip to the far north, proposes that Lyra come along as her assistant. The morning of Lyra’s departure, the master gives her a strange golden instrument called an alethiometer. He tells her that it is capable of telling the truth, but he can’t tell her much about how it works. He admonishes her to keep the alethiometer to herself…

I saw The Golden Compass with my son Connor on opening day after reading the book to him. I promised y’all a dual father-son review at the time, but life intervened. Here it is at last, a few weeks before the DVD release…


review by Connor McGowan (12)

I thought the movie was very good, but in the back of my mind I kept thinking, “Why did they skip through that so fast?” and “What happened to that other thing that he took a whole chapter explaining in the book?” After the movie, my dad agreed with me but explained that you can’t fit a book that large and detailed into a two-hour movie and keep it interesting for kids.

I remember thinking the same thing in the first Harry Potter movie. One of my favorite scenes in the book was the potions room in the dungeon, when Hermione solved the task. I was SO MAD when they left that out! But they have to make choices, I guess.

The special effects were just amazing, especially with the snow bears and the daemons. But I didn’t feel the same connection between the daemons and the humans as I did in the book. I wanted my own daemon more than anything.

Overall for me, keeping in mind the limitations of the movie’s director, I liked it enough to see it again. Unfortunately, it did horribly on its opening weekend and there were only a handful of people in the theatre with us.


review by Dale McGowan (45)

[NOTE: I’ve reconsidered and rephrased some of these comments in the next post.]


10. It’s bloody difficult to make a 2-hour reduction of a book of the scope, depth, and texture of The Golden Compass. That said, they blew it.

9. Despite predictions to the contrary, it is made entirely clear that “the Magisterium” is the church and the Authority is God. The officers look like catholic cardinals, the Magisterium buildings are decorated with saints and icons, Asriel is accused of “heresy,” its opponents are called freethinkers, and Mrs. Coulter refers to the “error of our ancestors” that brought “dust” (sin) into the world. Plenty clear.

8. The human/daemon relationship was made so intensely real in the book that both Connor and I longed for daemons of our own. This was the most remarkable, most brilliant, most emotionally captivating element of the book, yet the movie fails to make daemons anything more than beloved pets.

7. In the book, the witches are thousand-year-old beings, transcendent and wise, with an entirely different perspective on existence, amazing and original seers and sages. In the movie, they fly. That’s about it.

6. I spent the six months prior to the film’s release depressed because I thought chirpy, doe-eyed Dakota Fanning had been cast as Lyra. Turns out it’s Dakota Blue Richards, and she’s PERFECT. Strong, petulant, independent, but also vulnerable and good.

5. The music is absolutely terrible — a combination of overwrought wallpaper (never shuts up) and Mickey Mousing (imitates small visual actions with musical gestures).

4. The bear fight, despite some fine CGI, somehow manages to be a yawner.

3. Sam Elliott is spot-on as Lee Scoresby.

2. Coulter’s monkey is exquisitely creepy and hateworthy.

1. The ending is indescribably, epically, abysmally lame.

Anyone who has not read the book should read it before seeing the movie, then skip the movie. [Fine. That was over-the-top. See the movie.]

syawedis gnikniht

I’ve recently posted a screed or two about the overscripting of our kids’ time and the tendency to spend too much of it in front of screens. It was pure poetic justice that led me to the exception to the rule: a scripted screen activity that’s an invitation to fantastically creative divergent thinking.

Called The Impossible Quiz, it’s a thinking-outside-of-the-box quiz that “asks” 110 multiple-choice “questions” like the one above. The fact that I have to put both “ask” and “question” in quotes gives you some idea of the lunacy of this thing. By the end — as if you’ll ever reach it — you’ll be forced to think outside of more boxes than you knew you were in.


Hugely recommended for a certain brand of 12-year-old (e.g., my son, who’s well into his second hour right now) and up.

Play The Impossible Quiz
Play The Impossible Quiz 2