Thursday, March 21, 2019

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Last week I read Edith Wharton's book
A House of Mirth and loved it. This week I read her book An Age of Innocence. And loved it. Sometimes I immerse myself in a single author, enjoying their worlds, enjoying their words. I've done this with Herman Hesse, Barbara Kingsolver, Michael Crichton, Karen Armstrong, and Alexandre Dumas, to name a few.

Edith Wharton books, though, now that's an acquired taste. Wharton isn't the first author I'd recommend to someone. In fact, a new online friend of mine, Julia, thought she might read Wharton and I suggested that, perhaps, she start with something more fun.
Like Jane Austin.

The Age of Innocence is another book by Wharton that was made into a film, this one starring Daniel Day Lewis as Archer, Michelle Pfeiffer as the Countess Ellen Olenska, and Winona Ryder as May. Man, I dislike knowing the casting of a film of a book. I so prefer to visualize characters myself. But there you are. In every case, I always prefer the book to the film, though I do plan on watching this movie later this week. I don't see how there is enough content to make a full-length movie of this book! There is so much musing, remembering, thinking, planning, etc...

Here's a quick look at the story of The Age of Innocence, just enough to whet your whistle:

Our protagonist, Newland Archer, a man brought up in a life of extreme privilege living in New York society in the 1870s, is engaged to the lovely May Welland, a young woman of a similarly high-society family. May's cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, is returning to New York society after leaving her husband in Europe. Dear Countess Ellen is followed to NYC by her untoward reputation, whispers of her behavior in leaving her husband, gossip of her bohemian ways, and concern for her ruined position in society.

May's family protects and nurtures Ellen to the best of their ability. As a part of the protection and recovery plan, May asks Newland, her affianced and, eventually, her husband, to treat Ellen with public respect, lending his upstanding reputation to hers. It is through the early conversations between the stodgy Newland and the worldly Countess that Newland begins to see the wool removed from his eyes with regards to the upper crust of his class. He begins to see the world more as it is, and this, he owes to Ellen. His respect for and understanding of the countess rises. Furthermore, his work as a lawyer helps her involvement with legalities regarding her pending divorce, all of which adds to the depth of the intimacy and secrecy of their exchanges.

Newland begins to see her in a new light, as well as seeing the small cadre of socialites in a new light, including May and her family. Thus begins the forbidden attraction between Newland and Ellen.

Who doesn't love a good love triangle?
In the culture of 1870's New York society, important things are not discussed openly, even in the most intimate of relationships. The convoluted, stilted dialogue of the cream of society is painful at worst, almost comical at best, and completely confusing most of the time for nothing of importance is ever spoken of clearly, concisely, or openly. Important issues are discussed through allusion and suggestion. How any understanding ever comes about is a real testament to the ability of the
crΓ¨me de la crΓ¨me  to read nonverbal communication so well, or did they?
He had to deal all at once with the packed regrets and stifled memories of an inarticulate lifetime.

A lift of the eye. A slight coloring of the cheek. Hesitation in speech. All of these tiny physical movements carry large amounts of information. How handicapped we would be to reply on these types of non-communicative communication in 2019. How handicapped were they then? Again and again I found myself rereading sections of text, wondering if I'd missed something crucial that was, now obvious in the story.
 In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs.

I found myself amused and constantly wondering why Wharton would put so much energy and effort into describing homes, rooms, and property...that is, until I discovered that Wharton also wrote books on home decorating in her time! She also seemed to enjoy writing on the history or time line of developing New York City and city culture. I found her exploration of cultural advancements entirely fascinating. Writing in the 1920's, Wharton is looking back a period of fifty years in this book.
...he remembered that there were people who thought there would one day be a tunnel under the Hudson through which trains of the Pennsylvania railway would run straight into New York. They were of the brotherhood of visionaries who likewise predicted the building of ships that would cross the Atlantic in five days, the invention of a flying machine, lighting by electricity, telephonic communication without wires, and other Arabian Night marvels.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is also visited several times by the protag Archer who muses, wouldn't it be interesting to see this museum get larger and more grand?  Wharton entertains her readers (and probably herself as well!) with a variety of historical references, including a beautiful moment when one character is being gaped at by passers by as she writes a note on paper on her knee in the park using the new stylographic pen, such an unwonted sight! Another wonderful moment on this cultural timeline is when our literate socialite protag, Archer, opens a crate of the newest and most popular books and authors of the time...another beautiful moment in time.
That evening he unpacked his books from London. The box was full of things he had been waiting for impatiently; a new volume of Herbert Spencer, another collection of the prolific Alpohonse  Daudet's brilliant tales, and a novel called "Middlemarch," as to which there had lately been interesting things said in reviews...he turned the pages with the sensuous joy of the book lover..."

Considering some of the characters in this novel, the Countess Ellen Olenska is, likely, considered the most interesting character in the book, but I have to give props to the innocent and simple  May. Living within the restrictive confines of her role as a newlywed lady of society, she has to find a way to both live with the fact that her husband is straying in his heart and to move through all social and family gatherings with her head held high. While Newland is discounting May as boring and the epitome of noblesse milquetoast, she is actually stronger than he is and capable of surviving and winning at a life that is unfair to the weaker sex.

Newland Archer, on the other hand, I must give some credit to for being able to open his eyes and see the facade inherent in the gentility of pedigreed high society. His romantic heart, however, proves to be a bit too bothersome to this middle-aged reader. I might have sighed over his amorous pronouncements to Ellen, given in hushed tones in the private places, when I was younger: Each time you happen to me all over again.  As an older reader, though, I found him tiresome, weak, and a tiny bit annoying at times. He does have several moments of marked saving grace, and he is  living during a time of immense social change, so I'll let him off of the hook and give him credit for making the most of his burgeoning awareness of a larger world. Coming from his Old Family, and having been brought up in the traditional way, I guess we can give Archer credit where credit is due.

The truth is, if the story had been set in the 2000's, it would have been over in a month. May would have moved on to a more worthy wealthy guy. Newland and Ellen would have had a weekend affair and then bored one another to death. Ellen would move on to a wonderful European decade, involved with a variety of dark, wealthy men while Newland would boringly work as an attorney and, forever, feel slighted. πŸ˜„

As a more mature reader myself, I wonder if I would have appreciated the fullness of this novel in my younger years. Edith Wharton's irony and humor is wonderfully placed throughout the novel. The subtlety and subtext of the writing is probably intended for an older audience, though some younger readers might appreciate the love story. A deeper historical understanding of the social changes in which this story takes place moves the novel from merely entertaining to quite superb. 

I'm delighted I decided to read this book before the stack of other books I have waiting for me. I give the surprising An Age of Innocence a high score of eight stars.

"Ah no," Newland thinks as he realizes May's similarity
 to her mother, "he did not want 
May to have that kind of innocence, 
the innocence that seals the mind 
against imagination and the heart against experience!

  Have you read it? .

Thursday, March 14, 2019

A House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

I am not surprised in the least that Edith Wharton's A House of Mirth was a smash in the ladies magazines of the early 1900's or that her novel sold over 800,000 copies. Her revelations of the superficiality and machination of the upper class of society must have been quite a mirror for some women to glance into and quite an image for many women to see clearly. Wharton actually took the title for this novel from a bit in Ecclesiastics which says The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. Quite an accusation she is directing at the upper classes! I almost wish I could have been there to see their reactions.

This book was difficult to read entirely due to the stilted, formal language in which it was written. But I enjoyed that because I looked up every single word and French phrase that I didn't know; it was veritable a cornucopia of dated and obsolete language and I'm just the nerd to enjoy that.

To give you a little teaser of the story:

Lily Bart is a beautiful and an unusually intelligent women on the doorstep of the upper echelon of New York society in the early 1900's. She mingles with the wealthiest of the wealthy and plays in their parlors. A wealthy husband would be just the thing for Lily to attain the heights of social standing, but Lily is unwilling to accept any arrangements. At the age of 29, she knows that she is nearing the time when her appearance will no longer afford her the good graces of society and she is exquisitely aware that her finances are dwindling; she must find an arrangement. As Lily explains as to why she craved wealth,
She herself had grown up without any one spot of earth being dearer than another: there was no center of earth pieties, of grave endearing traditions, to which her heart could revert and from which it could draw strength for itself and tenderness for others.

Perhaps with a certain inflated view of her personal worth, Lily lets several important and wealthy suitors slide by, all the while keeping her eyes on various other suitable and eligible wealthy bachelors. In the midst of this play acting, her wealthy female friends play with her attention almost like a pet. They groom her, show her, coddle her, present her as a sign of their own wealth and relevance. All the while, beautiful and charming Lily is skating on thin ice.

I had no idea...
It's a movie!
Several severe financial hits and a few important blows to her reputation, and Lily is in a critical free fall in social circles. One can't help but wonder why someone as intelligent as Lily would maintain such an aspiration as moving in these circles. The emptiness of the relationships (or, as Lily herself thought, Under the glitter of their opportunities she saw the poverty of their achievement), the precarious nature of being a part of the in  group. One can only assume that the wealthiest parlors are pretty heady to elicit such goals in Lily. These same parlors, however, were hotbeds of gossip and illicit business schemes, all of which could brutally tear an unprotected woman down, and they do, all while she had little ability to rescue herself or to recuse herself from accusations.

Without giving much more away, suffice it to say that Lily's story shows the devastatingly tiny grasp a woman of that time held on her own life. She was completely at the mercy of the men in her life, to the elders in her family, and to anyone else who could offer her scaffolding for existence in the city. As a beautiful woman, unfortunately, she garnered the attention of several men who were able to fully tarnish her reputation without Lily herself having any hand in the maintaining of that reputation. And that's not fair!

Furthermore, because of the mores of the time, Lily was utterly powerless to make a living for herself or to better herself in any way. Her entire role as a woman was as an ornament for the man. Several women from the lower class play pivotal roles in the novel. Some of these women held Lily in contempt while others were kind to her, just as some of the wealthy women were scornful of Lily while a few tried to prop her up socially while they could. In the end, nearly everyone is unforgiving. But the differing social expectations and behaviors between the upper class and lower class women was interestingly explored in this novel.

Edith Wharton
Although this story sounds very Austin-esque, do not assume that this book is anything like a Jane Austin novel, though Austin wonderfully explores some of the same issues that women had to suffer. This novel is far more developed, far grittier, far more modern, and far better! The book might be seen as a quintessential feminist novel because Edith Wharton was born into the wealthy and privileged of the upper class of New York City and lived these female roles. In The House of Mirth, Wharton calls out the callousness of those in positions of power. In writing about the mores of the social class to which she had been born, Edith Wharton gained incredible success as a writer.  And I'm so glad.

A few times, while reading A House of Mirth, I literally said out loud MARRY THAT GUY!,  All the while, knowing that Lily couldn't marry that guy and that That Guy couldn't marry Lily. I mention this because I found myself so very drawn in to this book. It was unexpected in the various shades of grey it explored. While I found the writing difficult to read at times, I wish the story was longer because I loved it, which is interesting because I'm not even sure that I like Lily! ...though she did find a way to endear herself to me later in the book where she really got real with herself and her position.

Get this, I read somewhere that Edith, born Edith Newbold Jones, was born into such wealth and privilege that her family actually inspired the phrase keeping up with the Joneses!

Edith Wharton also wrote The Age of Innocence and Ethan Frome as well as several novellas and some poetry. Having loved Ethan Frome (set in the complete opposite kind of place), I can confirm that The Age of Innocence is now on my TO READ list! 

For the quality of writing and for the explored depths of the social milieu of 1900 New York City (I love being a sociologist taking a peek into this culture), for the well-drawn lady Lily, and for the exploration of Lily's life and times and relationships, I have to give this book a surprising eight stars!

I always like to post my favorite bits from the books I review. Here are a few quotations that I highlighted on my ereader as I read A House of Mirth:

Everything about her was warm and soft and scented; even the stains of her grief became her as raindrops do the beaten rose.
No insect hangs its nest on threads as frail as those which will sustain the weight of human vanity
Selden and Lily stood still, accepting the unreality of the scene as a part of their own dream-like sensations. It would not have surprised them to feel a summer breeze on their faces, or to see the lights among the boughs reduplicated in the arch of a starry sky. The strange solitude about them was no stranger than the sweetness of being alone in it together.
[Selden] had preserved a certain social detachment, a happy air of viewing the show objectively, of having points of contact outside the great gilt cage in which they were all huddled for the mob to gape at. How alluring the world outside the cage appeared to Lily, as she heard its door clang on her! In reality, as she knew, the door never clanged: it stood always open; but most of the captives were like flies in a bottle, and having once flown in, could never regain their freedom. It was Selden's distinction that he had never forgotten the way out.
That's Lily all over, you know: she works like a slave preparing the ground and sowing her seed; but the day she ought to be reaping the harvest she over-sleeps herself or goes off on a picnic.
The noble buoyancy of her attitude, its suggestion of soaring grace, revealed the touch of poetry in her beauty that Selden always felt in her presence, yet lost the sense of when he was not with her. Its expression was now so vivid that for the first time he seemed to see before him the real Lily Bart, divested of all the trivialities of her little world, and catching for a moment a note of that eternal harmony of which
her beauty was a part.

Just a few favorites to whet your whistle.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Atheist Pride Day and Week

My Religion
is Kindness
In past years I have noticed on Facebook events called National Ask an Atheist Day, Atheist Pride  Day, Atheist Day, and Atheist Week. I decided to check out the 2019 dates for these events and I was met with nothing but confusion because, whoever creates these days, there are a number of conflicting dates.

To solve this one, I've decided to simply make the entire year of 2019 the Year of Atheist Pride!  πŸ˜…

Join me if you like!

I made the clip art above for Atheist Day one year and I love it for its simplicity and beauty, so I'm going to keep using it. I will be posting it along the side of my blog for the rest of the year AND I will be using it on my FB profile anytime I'm not posting gorgeous pics of my granddaughters!  πŸ˜…

I'm posting it here to invite you to copy and use it as much as you like! It states, My Religion is Kindness and it is exactly where I am in life! If you are here too, please join me in using this little meme.

Here are the various dates that I discovered in the two seconds I looked for dates. You can see why I just decided to use the entire year for PRIDE for being a logical, reasonable, free thinker.
  • National Ask an Atheist Day 201, Thursday, April 18, 2019
  • Atheist Pride Day 2019 observed on Wednesday, March 20th and on Thursday, June 6th, 2019
  • Atheist Day 2019 is on Monday, April 1, 2019
  • Atheist Pride Day 2019 is observed on Wednesday, June 6, 2019

Whenever it really is, I always enjoy National Ask an Atheist day on Facebook because I get asked the loveliest questions!  πŸ’œπŸ’™

If you know correct dates, 
please advise me.

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Sunday, March 10, 2019

Behind the Curve: What Can We Do?

In a past post I was exploring some of the hype behind a movie called Behind the Curve, a film that looks at Flat Earthers and I got to wondering why people believe weird things. This question is on many of our minds and Michael Shermer, of course, offered his book called Why People Believe Weird Things, I book I highly recommend!

My next question after the whys  is the whats.  Specifically what can we do, as people who know or love these people who chose to believe weird things. If anything. Since this is a blog and not a scholarly journal, of course, my writing is just exploratory...

I think that some skeptics often wonder how can I help this person lose their illogic or dogma?  In response to this question, I honestly don't think there are any magic words or magical interventions.

My son was on campus last semester when he came upon a group of Right to Lifers speaking to a gathered group of students. John attempted some debate, with some success. But he came home that day with high energy and very motivated to be able to debate believers in a situation like that. So he spend weeks reading and informing himself and figuring out what he would do or say if given the same opportunity.

Last week, on campus again, that opportunity arose.
He stood for nearly an hour in conversation with the Right to Lifers, addressing their claims, bringing in his research, pointing out many of their erroneous bits of information, and generally holding his own with intellect, wit, and confidence. He even pulled out his phone several times to Google claims that were being made, finding factual evidence in response to those erroneous claims being made. As he left the event, he was stopped by several people who told him "I thought I was a Right to Lifer, but I now see that I have some learning to do." And "Thank you for remaining calm." And "Thank you for having the courage to stand up there, pull out your phone, and look for information right in front of the crowd."

And THAT is what we can do.
We can inform ourselves and offer our sincere, patient, and calm-voiced counterpoints. We can openly research the claims. We can offer our evidence quietly and calmly. And we can know that those around us are watching. We can focus less on the primary debater and more on the circle of listeners.

We may never effect change in the people on the podium, but we can and will effect the people who are listening. If the believers who have the solid floor and are never openly debated, the crowd begins to quietly accept their outrageous, poorly-informed point of view. The majority wins again.

Our voices are essential.
In every way, every day, I will stand up there and be openly skeptical. Because, for some, I am the only face of atheism, skepticism, or freethought that they know. I cannot count the number of times someone has said to me "But you are so nice!" and I will reply, YES, I am, I wonder which other of your assumptions are incorrect..? I also have many examples of believers in positions of power in various churches who have said to me, You make sense and you've got me thinking. That's about all I can ask for.

Further, there is a mindset we can hold. We can be aware that the fringes of belief call to some people because those fringe communities beacon them welcomingly. If I can be welcoming, if I can offer a place where a person can verbalize their beliefs, maybe, just maybe, my welcoming and patience can show them that there are other welcoming ports in the vast exchange of ideas. If our shaming of their beliefs pushes them away, how can we be surprised at their departure from reason?

Holding on to illogical beliefs, weird ideas, philosophies that make little or no sense happens for a reason. These people are getting some emotional need met by their belief. What is it? Maybe explore that a bit.

No shaming.
No angry debating.

No shouting.
No name calling.
No shows of supremacy.

Just a welcome port for an honest exploration of ideas.
Let's explore ideas together. What, then, will we find?

Join me in this new way of peacefully representing reason, logic, skepticism. Because I, too, am tired of the bloviating bullshit and buster of nonbelievers.

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Saturday, March 9, 2019

Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth

Here's a book you will find on most Books You Should Read Before College lists, yet, again, I don't agree, at least not at this point in the book. It's Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth. 

First, read this summery from 

First published in 1905, THE HOUSE OF MIRTH shocked the New York society it so deftly chronicles, portraying the moral, social and economic restraints on a woman who dared to claim the privileges of marriage without assuming the responsibilities.

Lily Bart, beautiful, witty and sophisticated, is accepted by 'old money' and courted by the growing tribe of nouveaux riches. But as she nears thirty, her foothold becomes precarious; a poor girl with expensive tastes, she needs a husband to preserve her social standing, and to maintain her in the luxury she has come to expect. Whilst many have sought her, something - fastidiousness or integrity- prevents her from making a 'suitable' match.

I'm now nearing the end of the book, so I will be writing a review of it soon but at this point I have a few observations more apropos of a while reading post.

Scribner's for March, now ready.
Everybody is talking of
The House of Mirth
by Edith Wharton in Scribner's.
Are you reading it?

We have the beautiful and flawed Lily Bart, 29 year old protagonist, a young woman moving about through high society on Manhattan at the end of the 19th century. Being of marriageable age, Lily struggles with her strong craving for wealth and status at a time of her life when the truly wealthy matches of her past are long gone. She is aware that her beauty is paling and that her eligible marriageable status will continue to fade as quickly as her reputation is fading. Further, and more importantly, Lily is aware that her internal self is incongruent with this external appearance. 

She is in dire financial straights and is having to balance her strong need to be bailed out with her sincere desire to marry well. She has an exciting and unfortunate growing affection and attraction to Lawrence Seldon, an attorney acquaintance who moves through these upper echelon social circles in spite of being of a lower economic status. Lawrence Seldon is a wonderful counterpart to Lily, being her Devil's advocate, her confessor, someone with whom she can be truly herself. Sadly he does not and cannot offer Lily the financial status and social status that she strongly desires.

Seldon's compelling attraction to Lily elicits hope in the reader. Can he save her? Will he try? Will she be open to the genuine affection he can offer her in a world where people use one another ruthlessly and personal allegiance does not survive social suicide. The reader begins to hope that his willingness to be vulnerable before her will bring her to him. That remains to be seen.

Like any fully-drawn character in the great works of fiction, Lily Bart is a woman of substantial intellectual and emotional force as well as being a woman who is elementally flawed and who, in due time, will be the saboteur of her future. The reader begins to be aware that she will steer her life down the rails of some unsavory arrangement instead toward the man she loves. It is clear that she will destroy any semblance of happiness in her life, as was the tragic reality for a women without means of her own. (Isn't this still so to some degree?) It also seems clear through her internal conversations that she is highly self-aware and does seek to live a life of some ethical choices, but we know that the frisson of the novel occurs between her desired ethics and the reality of what is permissible for her in 19th Century Manhattan high society.

Edith Wharton
and two dogs
I'm over half way through the novel, taking my time, and truly enjoying Edith Wharton's labyrinthine, obfuscating, sly, elaborate writing. Problems are, as in high society, eluded to in complex prose. I have looked up about a hundred words that, for most intents and purposes, have fallen out of the English lexicon. It has been a delight in spite of the obvious plot catastrophes to follow. 

The author, Edith Wharton, drew upon her insider's knowledge of the upper class New York "aristocracy" to realistically portray the lives and morals of Manhattan's Gilded Age. Her family was very wealthy and socially prominent. According to Wiki, despite not publishing her first novel until she was forty, Wharton became an extraordinarily productive writer. In addition to her fifteen novels, seven novellas, and eighty-five short stories, she published poetry, books on design, travel, literary and cultural criticism, and a memoir. I have not read any other novels by Wharton, but I'm interested in Age of Innocence

More to come so stay tuned.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

MJ and my Shame

I have to confess some things about Michael Jackson. Lots of people online are talking about the movie called Leaving Neverland and for awhile I thought people were talking about the Kate Winslet, Johnny Depp movie called Finding Neverland so I didn't pay much attention to the conversation at all and I didn't understand all of the controversy.

Of course I finally got my head out of the clouds and I've been following the discussions a bit trying to get a better understanding of what is on everyone's mind. I see people angry, some forgiving, some in denial, and others who couldn't care less. Where am I in all of this? At one point I was involved in a short conversation on a friend's board where I admitted something. I'm conflicted.

There should be no conflict.
I should have no mixed feelings about this.
These boys are accusing Michael Jackson of long-time pedophilia, deliberate and typical grooming behaviors, and relationships and vile behaviors with young boys based on sexual abuse. Those boys get my full support and they deserve 100% credibility, though they and MJ are continuously being tried by the public in all of social media. The people seem split 50/50 on this one.

So what is my freaking problem?
Why is my heart so troubled by having to let go of my lifelong love for Michael? I have fought the evidence. I have not wanted to believe it. I have pushed the doubts way back in my mind for many years now. I have tried to save the goodness of those early days of loving the Jacksons and Michael and Jermaine!.

As I've been thinking about writing this blog post, I got to wondering how yesterday's post might be relevant, the blog post on why people believe weird things  because I am admitting that, for years now, I have been willing to ignore the facts and I've given Michael Jackson a pass on all of the evidence because his music has been the soundtrack of my life.

Is it because my intuition was that his sweetness and goodness made such abuse impossible (Intuition)? Is it because I grew up loving him, loving his smile, loving his music, loving him for his troubled past, loving him for the controversies that have always surrounded his oddities of behavior so much so that I thought I knew his heart (Subjective Experiences)? Is it because I have simply overlooked damning evidence and sought out information that acquitted him of any wrong doing (Confirmation Bias and Cherry Picking)? Is it because I simply didn't want to, or couldn't bare to, accept the truth (Denial)? Is it because I gave him miles of latitude in behavior because of his abused past (Underdog Protagonist)?

Yes to each one of these.

So now, here I am today, finally acknowledging my own need to accept the truth. I have to give him up for now. Maybe in a hundred years his pedophilia won't still be an issue and fans can enjoy his music again without guilt. But for now, it's over.
I owe it to those boys to make this ethical decision.

I'm curious.
Do you have a similar story?

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Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Flat Earth: Behind the Curve: Members Around the Globe

I'm not sure where I saw it first or what it was that got me interested enough to watch it, but I did it. I watched the movie about the people claiming that Earth is flat. Behind the Curve is the name of the movie, now available on Netflix. So go watch it and chill.

So, what are the claims?
According to the Flat Earthers, the earth is a flatish disc that is a plain covered with a dome like a terrarium. The Flat Earthers claim that the entire story that Earth is spherical is a huge conspiracy perpetrated on We, the people, for some reason. I can't say that I know what that reason is. What is to gain from such a conspiracy? I have no idea. But the spherical earth, according to the main spokesperson in the movie, noted Flat Earther Mark Sargent, is like a sound stage, like The Truman Show, like a Hollywood set to confuse us.

Why we are being duped into believing in a spherical earth? 

I don't know, exactly, I don't think the WHY was explored on the film, but I could have missed it. The parties who are tricking us, though, according to Sargent and some of his compatriots may be the Jews, the Masons, Satanists, the Vatican, NASA, the CIA, or some other conspiracy group like that. Wink.

Is it true? Are there, truly, a growing number of Flat Earthers, a claim we often hear? The idea of a growing number of people rejecting science concerns me and, frankly, sounds like the beginning of some post-apocalyptic novels I have read. More importantly, why am I giving this film and these claims any air time at all? Why not ignore it? Especially when the Flat Earthers in the film carried out several experiments that they hoped would show the flatness of our earth, that they hoped would prove that we have all been fooled. Of course, those experiments unequivocally did not support their claims. 
Isn't that enough?

Sadly, it is not enough. Flat Earthers, conspiracy theorists of many kinds, and people who make supernatural claims are not convinced by facts or evidence. Isn't that interesting? Yet it also creates a unique problem: how can we engage with one of these people, address their claims, and bring them into the light of reason? How can we address the claim that our entire educational system and scientific community is out to perpetrate this huge hoax when a simple trip to the edge of the Earth would end the controversy? How can we move these people beyond their anti-science bent?

The truth is, we can't.

People believe strange things for a reason. They maintain their illogical beliefs through a series of specific mind tricks, denial, and sheer will. For many Flat Earthers and others, it is a decision to eschew scientific knowledge. Maybe this rejection of science is based on fear. Maybe it's based on the feeling that they can't understand advanced science. Maybe it's based on a need to sit outside of the circle. Maybe they are simply responding to the negativity they feel around them by moving closer to the fringe.

I think it's worth it to take a moment to understand why these people are willing to go out on this precarious limb, why they are willing and able to own the bizarre claims, and why their minds are not effected by evidence or reason. I think that Flat Earthers, various conspiracy theorists, and most people who hold supernatural world views make a choice in some moment to reject science. But why? And why do I think it's worth looking at the whys? Because every single person who embraces these claims is another person who could have been a scientist. Every one of these people is another person who could positively contribute to the planet, yet they do not.

Interestingly, the film itself is not a movie about Flat Earthers. Instead it is something better! It is about the WHY of Flat Earthers, about trying to understand why these people hold on to these misguided beliefs in the face of convincing and compelling evidence. I'm disappointed with myself for not getting the name and credentials of the mental health professional who appears in the movie and explains why people believe weird things. He was awesome and respectful and he explained the whys quite well. If I get back to the movie, I'll put his name HERE.

Here is a quick summary of the points he made through the film.

Intuition: These people tend to listen to their intuition over scientific, esoteric data. They can look long distances on Earth from high vantage points and not see a curvature of the planet, including when in an airplane at high altitudes.

Subjective Experiences: They are more likely to give more weight to their own experiences and senses than to scientific claims that are not obvious to their senses, including gravity, night and day, seasons, etc.

Dunning-Kruger Effect: According to Wikipedia, the DKE is a cognitive bias in which people of low ability have illusory superiority and mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is. (Now that you know this one, you're going to use it to explain alot more in the world, aren't you?)

Cult of Personality: People who join or support cult-like groups are often chasing the energy of a charismatic leader of sorts. I can't say that Mark Sargent is charismatic, but some of the other people appearing in Behind the Curve might be people who engender this type of follower.

Confirmation Bias: We skeptics understand this one, how people who believe in magic ignore the evidence and grasp onto anything that vaguely supports their claims, how they search for evidence that supports their belief. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs.

Cherry Picking: Another bias where the believer seeks to confirm a particular position while ignoring a significant portion of related cases or data that may contradict that position.

All of these usual cognitive biases as well as issues like wanting to believe in a complicated/esoteric/mystical/ or magical idea, distrust of authority, being isolated and misinformed, the oddly welcoming community of the fringe, identification with the underdog protagonist, the propensity to feel special from being the center of existence, wanting to be unique, are all qualities that can strongly attract a certain type of person, a person who is not interested in science, logic. or reason.

Does this make sense?
GOOD, because the next step, now that we understand the attraction of the magic or woo, is to figure out how to engage these people...

Coming up, next.

Did you see the film?
What did you think?

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Tuesday, March 5, 2019

We are Called to Rise: A Novel by Laura McBride

I love when you pick up a book, not knowing what is going to happen, not knowing who you are going to meet, not knowing what kinds of issues will be explored and the next thing you know you're a brand new person, wondering how you got to where you are.

It's a hundred small moments.
That's the answer to how we got here.

Laura McBride begins her book with this quote from Emily Dickinson, jump starting the book with optimism. Optimism tinged with the wonder of the unknown, tinged with our knowledge of the pain of life, tinged with the fear that the rising may be beyond us:

We never know how high we are
Till we are called to rise;
And then, if we are true to plan,
Our statures touch the skies--
~Emily Dickinson

It all starts with Avis, a woman wondering how she has gotten to this place. I was immediately there with her. How had the small things, decisions not made, answers not given, choices not taken, moments allowed to melt into nothing, brought Avis, or any of us, to this exact moment in our lives, a life that suddenly feels like we are looking through a glass of water, into a skewed mirror, or through the eyes of another. Laura McBride takes us there in simplified, yet poetic prose, leading us through a series of Avis's life moments, moments that would explain nearly any unexpected turn of events. For we now know that Avis is going to be a lynch pin for events, a lynch pin that is incapable of spinning true, a center of shapes that have no center.
She is a hero.

Then we meet Bashkim, an unlikely protagonist, a shape with no center, for he is likely walking along the street with his head in a book, unawares of the movement, the sound, the tripping curb, the nearby rushing traffic. Bashkim, the 8-year old son of Albanian immigrants, is acting American through and through. He is part of the city. He cannot escape the knowledge that, in his family, he is the only one of them who is not a square peg in the round hole of American culture and living. Bashkim understands that he is ill-equipped when moving his fractured and PPSD family through the city streets of their days, unable to leave Albania behind, unable to embrace the streets of Las Vegas.

He has some inchoate support, building and building, as school and community begin to see what he is carrying through his days, through the days of being American, of being Normal, of being Here, of Fitting In. Bashkim is living from one heartbreaking moment to the next. We must make this work for Bashkim for he, too, is a hero.

Luis. Luis is another shape with no center. In fact, he is struggling to accept the fact that, somehow, he Is. As a young military man seeing action in the Middle East, he is aware that life and chances and odds are all wrapped up in the here and now. He knows that each moment has the same odds of survival as every other moment. He has learned that life is tragic and we cannot escape that. Life is a place where a small boy with a grey bag might be the bringer of death.

When we meet Luis he is in a tragic, dark place thinking Someone is near me. There is pressure on me, somewhere. I think, what is a hand? What is someone? And I slip backward again. Luis has decided to take those odds of surviving life into his own hands. But not before sending a red hot bullet across the sea and into Young Bashkim's hands, destroying Bashkim's heart just a bit more.
Luis is one of our heroes.

And finally Roberta shows us the underbelly of Las Vegas, Las Vegas being the fifth living character in this book, the metaphor for who she will never be. Roberta has been existing in her life like a ghost seeking meaning. After her heart-rendering losses, she wishes to make meaning where ever she can. In spite of the fact that meaning is non-existent and has no center.

Roberta, too, is a hero.

Roberta brings her philosophical choices into the scenarios when she muses The way I see it, nothing in life is a rehearsal. It's not preparation for anything else. There's no getting ready for it. There's no waiting for the real part to begin. Not ever. Not even for the smallest child. This is it. And if you wait too long to figure that out, to figure out that we are the ones making the world, we are the ones to whom all problems -- and all possibilities for grace -- now fall, then you lose everything. Your one shot at this world.
I get that this one small life is all we have for whatever it is that we are going to do. And I want in.

I can relate to Roberta. I want to be like her, somehow knowing that you can just choose to be a hero and then be one. Instead, I often find myself believing one of the other, best quotes from this book, a moment when Luis thinks Sometime it's not that you don't want to help. It's that you can't bear to be offered help that just keeps turning out not to be enough after all.
That's what life seems like to us, yes?

Forgive my airy sound.
I'm still living in this story a bit.
It may have ended too optimistically. Yes. But, perhaps it is simply showing the fact that life goes on. And I'm grateful for that because otherwise, I could not have born it, for Bashkim is still with me. We all need to be there for him. 

I love it that the very things that we think of as the weaknesses of each character somehow morph into strength. Perhaps life is really like this too. Furthermore, I love it that my heart recognizes those small choices that brought us here, those silences and questions that brought us to this place, under one roof.

One of my favorite quotations from this book is quite long, quite optimistically pessimistic. I will share it here:

It all matters. That someone turns out the lamp, picks up the windblown wrapper, says hello to the invalid, pays at the unattended lot, listens to the repeated tale, folds the abandoned laundry, plays the game fairly, tells the story honestly, acknowledges help, gives credit, says good night, resists temptation, wipes the counter, waits at the yellow, makes the bed, tips the maid, remembers the illness, congratulates the victor, accepts the consequences, takes a stand, steps up, offers a hand, goes first, goes last, chooses the small portion, teaches the child, tends to the dying, comforts the grieving, removes the splinter, wipes the tear, directs the lost, touches the lonely, is the whole thing.

What is beautiful is the least acknowledged.

What is worth dying for is barely noticed.

Laura McBride is a poet and I hope she writes more!
For moving me in a hundred different ways when I did not think I could be moved and for being a book that I simply picked up at random off of the library shelf, I give this book a solid seven stars.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Barbara G. Walker: Atheist Feminist Knitter

Tonight I'm learning about Barbara G. Walker, an American author, feminist, and scholar. My new online friend Julie posted a lecture that Barbara G. Walker gave at a Unitarian Universal church on February 17th, 2019. When I read the lecture I was absolutely blown away. I've been thinking about it all darn day, talking about it with friends and with my daughter, and just getting more and more excited about the amount of knowledge that Barbara Walker shared in the lecture.

The kids in my family are tremendous lovers of mythology and I'm quite excited about one of Walker's book about myths; I've got to get my hands on a copy! I see she has many books available on amazon but nothing from my library system! I've also listened to some interviews and podcasts with her that are available on youtube. At the moment, I've reached out to my online friend, hoping to find a way to connect up with Barbara G. Walker herself.

I'm going to share Barbara's lecture here (below) because I know you will be amazed and informed by her knowledge. In the meantime, if Barbara prefers that I not share it here, I will remove it. (Better to ask for forgiveness than approval...) πŸ˜‰

You can read more about Barbara G. Walker here at the Freedom from Religion Foundation website. Do follow the link because Barbara's writing on that page is extremely scholarly and informing. 

This is a wonderful lecture given by Barbara G. Walker at a Unitarian Universal Church on February 17th. 
Grab a cuppa; let's get started:

The Rise of Sexism

Studies in both mythology and anthropology show that mothers, not fathers, were the original authority figures in human societies. Paleolithic and neolithic humans were no more aware of fatherhood than any other primate species; the connection between sexual activity and conception was not understood until quite late in human history. Even in the 18th and 19th centuries, anthropologists and missionaries found primitive cultures where it was still not understood. Most early peoples attributed pregnancy to mysterious magic that made only females able to create life.

Thus the popular notion of "cave men" dominating women by physical strength is quite erroneous. Women were generally respected in primitive cultures. Musclemen don't rule, but rather serve the rulers. Social power comes not from physical strength but from psychological, emotional, and/or financial authority. Like all other mammals, early humans knew they owed their existence only to their mothers. As a Native American chieftain once explained, "Of course we listen to and obey the women. They are our mothers." Women usually owned the dwellings and property, created crafts and technical skills required to sustain the tribe, later including even the development of writing and math. According to Hindu scriptures, "male ancestors" believed that if they could learn how to measure and figure as the women did, then they might "happily create progeny."

Men did envy women's ability to produce and nourish new life, and wanted a part in it. In some South American tribes, during childbirth a woman's mate would lie down and moan and groan, pretending to produce the baby, and even pretended to nurse it afterward, recalling the Bible's rather absurd mention of a "suckling child" being nourished "in the bosom of Abraham." In the original baptism ceremony of ancient Egypt, a mother gave her child a name while anointing it with her milk. There was a strange recollection of this in the French term nom de lait , "milk name," meaning one given by the mother.

One fact about reproduction that was obvious to primitives
was that, during pregnancy, women kept within their bodies that mysterious blood that was shed in harmony with the phases of the moon. Thus it seemed clear that menstrual blood was the substance of which babies were made. We still speak of "blood" relationships because of the classical belief that all tribes were made of what the Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans called the mother's "heart's blood." Aristotle said every human life is made of a "coagulum" of menstrual blood. According to Pliny, each baby is formed of a "curd" of menstrual blood. Plutarch said the power that made a human body came from the moon, source of menstrual blood. Indians of South America said all humanity was made of "moon blood" in the beginning.

In ancient Mesopotamia, women practiced a standard conception charm, shaping babies of clay and anointing them with menstrual blood, to make a real baby by sympathetic magic. This charm was so widely used that the word adamah literally "bloody clay", was basis of the name Adam, which Bible translators delicately re-rendered as "red earth." 

Hindu scriptures claim that the Goddess Kali made the world and all the gods from her "ocean of blood", (another version of the Red Sea). Chinese sages called menstrual blood the "red yin juice" that made all of life in the beginning.

Because of its wondrous power, menstrual blood was also regarded with holy dread. The Bible calls it "unclean," which is a vague mistranslation of the word meaning "taboo, sacred, untouchable." The Bible also calls it the "flower," meaning the forerunner of the "fruit" of the womb: i.e., a baby. In India, girls had a solemn ceremony at menarche, when they were said to have borne the "Kula flower," which united them to both ancestral traditions and the offspring of the future. Men came to fear this "flower" so much that during the Middle Ages, when patriarchy finally ruled supreme, menstruating women were forbidden to enter churches. It seemed that even God was unable to protect his belongings from "the curse." What a crippling burden of guilt was imposed on women because of their natural physiology!

Despite their fear, men often tried to imitate motherhood-magic by some form of genital bloodshed. Many are the myths of gods who were castrated or otherwise genitally mutilated to create life. The phallus of the Hindu Great God, Mahadeva, was removed so his blood could give birth to men. The Mexican savior Quetzalcoatl made new humans to repopulate the earth after the Flood, by cutting off his penis and giving the blood to the mother goddess Miti. The Phoenician Father Heaven, Shamin, was castrated to produce the world's rivers from his blood. Many other gods claimed physical birth-giving powers through genital bloodletting.

Pubescent boys of the Arunta tribe suffered subincision, called "man's menstruation," and the wound was referred to as a vagina. In ancient Egypt, circumcision for the assurance of future fertility was practiced on 13-year-old boys, who were dressed in girls' clothing for the ceremony. The Jews copied circumcision from the Egyptians but transferred it to infancy, a practice objectionable to the women, according to the story of Moses's Midianite wife Zipporah, who opposed the mutilation of her infant. After the operation she flung the foreskin at Moses, calling him a bloody husband (Exodus 4). The ceremony for adolescents remained, however, and evolved into the bar mitzvah.

Observing that death meant no more breathing, some early peoples came up with the idea that breath was synonymous with soul. In early Hindu mythology, would-be father gods said a man must give the breath of life to each baby, so their custom maintained that a man had to make a "soul" in a newborn child by breathing into its face. This method of fathering was later adopted by the biblical God, who "breathed the breath of life" into the nostrils of Adam to make him a "living soul" (Gen. 2:7).

But the biblical description of God as "all that has been, that is, and that will be" was copied from an Egyptian inscription first applied to the Great Mother. It was written on her ancient temple at Sais, where she was also described as "the greatest power on earth, who existed when nothing else had being, who commandeth all that is in the universe."

Once fatherhood was discovered, patriarchal cultures began to insist on monogamy, so a man could be sure that every child came from his own "seed." The Bible is stuffed full of "begats," which never mention mothers; and it says over and over, "he went in unto her, and she conceived, and bare a child," to drive home the same message that the Christian church later insisted on: the soul of a baby comes not from the mother's "heart's blood," but from semen; and a mother's body is simply the inert soil in which the "seed" can grow. Of course the human ovum remained completely unknown until it was finally discovered by Edgar Allen in 1928.

Patriarchal religion brought about history's most radical changes in human social organization. Over the next millennia in many cultures, men became more warlike and aggressive; they claimed property rights and ancestral naming customs; they established male "blood" lines even when magical moon-blood was no longer involved. Judaeo-Christian tradition began to insist that all evil came from woman, due to the sin of Eve. St. Paul said, "Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was the transgressor" (1 Tim. 2:14), which seems to indicate that the real original sin was gullibility.

The Catholic doctrine of original sin was established by St. Augustine, who said the sin is transmitted to every child by its passage through the female body. Any male child that died before the requisite forty days before baptism would suffer forever in hell; and a female child could not even be brought into a church for eighty days. This cruel doctrine was not modified until the church relented enough to invent a Limbo for the innocent ones -- who still had to suffer a little, anyway.

In the apocryphal Gospel According to the Egyptians,
Jesus says, "I have come to destroy the works of the female." Clement of Alexandria said "Every woman should be filled with shame." St. Peter said in the Gospel of Thomas, "Women are not worthy of life." St. Odo of Cluny wrote that a woman is only a "sack of dung." Bishop John Aylmer wrote in 1590: "Woman is the dregs of the devil's dung hill." The Malleus Maleficarum handbook of the Inquisition, says "All wickedness is but little to the wickedness of a woman."

St. Thomas Aquinas said every woman is defective from birth, begotten only because her father was ill or in a state of sin at the time of her conception, and she must be treated as "lower than a slave, wholly in subjection to her husband." Martin Luther considered himself an unusually kind husband because he didn't beat his wife with a stick, but only punched her in the head "to keep her from getting saucy." A 15th-century church publication on the Rules of Marriage said a husband should "soundly" beat his wife; it would redound to his credit in heaven.

In the 1890s the president of a leading theological seminary wrote "The Bible commands the subjection of women forever." A 19th-century document of the Anglican church said, "Women are intrinsically inferior in excellence, imbecile by sex and nature... and imperfect and infirm in character." Orestes Brownson opined that "Every woman must be under a man's control, otherwise she is... a social anomaly, sometimes a hideous monster, which men seldom are, except through a woman's influence." The Reverend Peter Easton declared the emancipated woman "an incarnate demon, a creature of unbounded lust and merciless cruelty." Quite recently, the Reverend Pat Robertson told women: "If you get married, you have accepted the leadership of a man. The husband is the head of the wife, and that's the way it is, period."

The point is that over the centuries, the primary fountainhead of sexism in western civilization has been religion. It was religion that obliterated the mother goddess in favor of the father god. I was religion that transferred the supposed essence of human life from mother-blood to semen. It was religion that insisted on patriarchal rules of marriage and inheritance. It was religion that sanctioned abuse and enslavement of wives. It was religion that so despised women as to torture and burn more than nine million of them during five centuries of dominance by the Inquisition in Europe. It is religion that still supports sexist doctrines.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote: "The church has done more to degrade women than all other adverse influences together. Out of the doctrine of original sin grew the crimes and miseries of asceticism, celibacy, and witchcraft, woman becoming the helpless victim of all the delusions in the brain of man. There is nothing more pathetic in all history than the hopeless resignation of woman to the outrages she has been taught to believe are ordained by God."

Though many believers insist that God has no physical being, they fail to make the logical conclusion that "he" would lack the proper genitalia and hormones that define maleness. We do know from mythology that in Graeco-Roman times, gods routinely impregnated large numbers of virgins, even though non-physical beings would necessarily lack any form of spermatozoa. How exactly such an impregnation could happen has never been made clear, even though some sects continue to insist on it to this day.
In truth, however, our only proven source of life is Mother Earth, who is more than just an imaginary concept devoid of physical being. "She" symbolizes an essential reality: one that deserves much more of our attention, because our lives depend on it every day, and for all the foreseeable future.

Isn't this interesting?
What do you think?

Links on interesting online Barbara G. Walker feminist, atheist or humanist resources
My Conversion
Interview: begins at the 12:00 mark

I'm extremely disappointed that none of her humanist/atheist/feminist books are available at my library system. The St. Louis library system is quite extensive!
I'll be making some request from them soon!

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