Always ethereal, always eclectic, I write as the mood strikes, when there intrigue reveals itself. Usually that means something controversial or adventure of some sort.

I've tried really hard to be unprovocative, but have as yet been unsuccessful.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Trust in Times of Twisted Metal

I seem to have some difficulty with cars. As I mentioned, while stopped I got into a car accident two weeks ago, when another car rammed me. Since then I have been endeavoring to fix my car. I visited a body shop the very next day, reported the accident to my insurance company (as required in my policy), and began communicating with the at-fault insurance company. They transferred me down the line repeatedly, and I finally found the right person to talk with. He told me he would be in touch, and a few days later contacted me, saying that the owner of the vehicle wanted to come by to inspect the damages, to determine if they were truly as much as the body shop had claimed. I told him I couldn't meet at the requested time, but I would be amenable to visiting a different body shop of his choice, to determine the amount.

We met a couple hours later, and the body shop he chose determined that the price was about $70 less- around $1030. They determined that one part was hard to find and it wouldn't be possible to replace it as cheaply as my body shop had thought, but they also found that another part wasn't torn off- it only appeared so if you didn't look at the car symmetrically. (Underneath it has a purposely torn look.) This difference in price was fine with me- it's basically the same. The insurance rep took pictures, and alluded to some mysterious issues with his client that he couldn't discuss because of confidentiality, but he would get back to me. I was thinking if he hadn't said anything, I wouldn't have wondered about the mysterious issues. The rep has the feel of a man who is endeavoring to obey the law because he has to, but who is a consummate salesman, and not to be trusted. At one point at the body shop, the rep suggested there were a couple ways to go. "I could, for instance," he mused out loud, "give you in cash directly a smaller amount of money, say, $400." I absolutely refused this, saying if I ever wanted to sell the car in the future, it needed to be fully repaired. I told him I needed the full amount of money to go directly to the body shop for repairs.

A few days later, this past Monday, he still had not contacted me, so I called him. He apologized, saying his client had still not contacted him, but he would immediately get in touch with them, and call me back. I filled out a Wisconsin Accident Report, as required by law for any accidents over $1000 in damage.

Today, he still had not called me, and so I called him.
This is when it began to get weird. The insurance rep insisted up and down that we had talked, and he had told me that the driver had decided to pay out of pocket, and that the driver would be contacting me directly to arrange this. (The driver is not the insurance holder.) This is despite my repeated instructions to him that I did not want to be involved in payment- that I wanted this all to be covered and paid to the body shop directly. This was also despite that conversation never happening. He never called me back. He never told me that the driver was going to pay. I know this, because if he had, I would have told him that this was unacceptable- as I told him today. Paying through an individual is too dicey, if there is further damage that is not yet found, or if checks don't clear. So I reminded him of this, and further reminded him that the conversation never happened. We went around on this a few times, with him stating that he had made a record of the conversation, and my telling him that was rather immaterial, since we hadn't talked. It ended with him saying that, now that he knew the driver had not contacted me, the rep was back on the case, and would be contacting the driver and insurance policy holder shortly.

I then immediately went to my insurance company, Geico, with whom I have only liability, but who is there to assist me also in dealing with other insurance companies if they are recalcitrant. Geico immediately began to intercede and speak with the insurance rep, and will follow up on Monday. They were very surprised that the insurance policy holder was desiring that their insurance not pay, but instead that it happen through the driver, especially considering that I had expressed that this be paid through insurance. We'll see now to what extent Chuck Rafferty Insurance maintains ethical standards.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

The Gift of Evolution: The Kenosis of Christ

Now in it's fourth year, Evolution Sunday is the Sunday after Darwin's Birthday when churches all over the nation- and in a number of other countries- commit to sharing about God's presence in evolution, or how science and religion aren't in conflict. It's grown by 100% since its first year, and now is often referred to as "Evolution Weekend" to encompass synagogues- and mosques, if any ever join up. This is my second year participating in it, and it's rather momentous occasion, being that it's the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birthday.

As my church wouldn't be delivering such a sermon, I looked in the Madison area for a suitable church. There were two churches, and one Universalist group, so I went with the Presbyterians, being closest to my beliefs. I called up Westminster Pres to confirm, and in the process had a very excellent conversation with the pastor. He was trying to decide what to speak on when I called him, with the assigned passage being the story of the leper being healed, from Mark 1.40-45, and was finding it difficult to see how evolution fit into that passage. Using my Gift of Evolutionary Discernment, I shared with him some thoughts on how I saw evolution fitting in. Truly, it immediately jumped to mind, as if inspired by God, with a good deal from John Haught's God After Darwin. And I was humbled to hear him say that I had helped him write the sermon, and he was planning to use these ideas in his sermon.

The pastor began by sharing of his visits to AIDS patients, back when the disease was first being discovered, and still called "Gay Pneumonia". At that point, even doctors and nurses wore surgical gloves, goggles, and masks when visiting these patients- everyone was afraid of them. So the pastor followed the lead of everyone else. Gay Pneumonia was just something too scary, and unknown. He confessed that he wasn't sure how helpful he was to these patients- but he learned more about compassion in this time than at any point in his life.

Then he spoke of the leper healed by Jesus in the beginning of Mark. This man asked to be cleansed- meaning to be able to return to society. A leper was ostracised and excluded, not allowed to touch anyone and having to wear bells and call out to warn travelers outside the town who might get too close. Jesus was moved by splagchnizomai, compassion from the gut. He reached out and touched the leper, causing himself to become unclean, by the standards of the day. Jesus identified with the man wholly, and truly cared for him. He not only healed the man physically, but relationally as well, as he helped return the man to society by visiting the priest for a certificate of healing. Jesus fully cleansed him.

The pastor then moved to some of the writings of Haught. Haught brings in two key elements. Firstly, that all of creation is God's children. He is intimately connected with all of his creation, and loves all of his creatures. Secondly, there is the kenosis, wherein God, just as he did on the cross, suffers with the suffering of his creation. This unity of life that we find in evolution provides the impetus for God, and should provide the impetus for us all, to express the same compassion for those in trouble, and for those suffering. They are our brother and sister because of the tree of life. Just as God suffers with the least of these creatures, so he suffers with the least of these humans, and so we ought to suffer with.

The pastor ended with returning to the AIDS patient, so long ago. He was covered with sores, and in great suffering. And one woman, an AIDS advocate, came in. Of all the visitors, she alone did not wear a mask, gloves, or goggles. She touched the man. She gave him human contact, and bathed his sores. She alone showed him the compassion of Jesus Christ.

I'm posting this not just because of my involvement in the sermon. It was joyous, because I do so love the rare opportunity to give or write sermons. But more so, this was an excellent sermon, and very moving. I'd encourage you to listen to it when it's posted shortly on the church blog. Click on "Worship Notes and Sermons" in the lower left of the screen.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Of Fossil Children and Chocolate Chip Cookies

As I mentioned earlier, I've started training to give tours at the local Geology Museum. Whereas my previous volunteering for the Seattle Aquarium was in my field, this is a bit more of a stretch, though I am more comfortable with the paleontology side of things. But I'm welcoming the lack of awareness, as it gives me the opportunity to be in a more learning mood.

For the past two mornings, I've "shadowed" tours, for 6th and 3rd graders, for an hour each, to learn some about the rocks, and gain a better understanding of how the tours work. In the process, I've learned a couple cool pedagogical geology ideas.

When discussing rocks and minerals, discuss chocolate chip cookies. Each mineral is like the ingredient of a cookie. The cookie itself is the rock. Discuss ways we use minerals in every day life. Face glitter and sparkles in shampoo are pieces of mica. Kolinite Clay is what makes both Kaopectate and McDonald's milkshakes so thick and functional.

When discussing fossilization, have a child volunteer act out the process. First they die (but we'll bring them back to life as a fossil later). Then animals scavenge them, there is weathering, and they are covered over with many layers. Add a great deal of pressure, in a place without bacteria and oxygen. Slowly they become mineralized, as their bones get replaced with rock. Stress that all these things have to happen, which is one big reason why fossils are so rare, just as we'd expect.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Listening to Tales of Horror

Tonight I drove down to Janesville to listen to Kathy Kelly, who has recently returned from visiting Ghaza after the Israeli invasion and massacre. What I heard was horrifying.

There were whole neighborhoods destroyed and bombed out. The IDF told Kathy's team that certain areas had no women and children left in them. When they got in, they discovered women and children still around. One place had a grandmother, paralyzed from the waist down. The family was trying to get her to the hospital, but IDF snipers were shooting at Palestinians who got too close to the hospital. So Kathy got a stretcher from the hospital, yelling out, "I'm American," and ran over to the family to help the grandmother get to the hospital.

Kathy spoke of listening to a doctor taking a call to answer if the oranges were safe to eat. The IDF had bulldozed many orange groves, which the families depend on for their livelihood. They were therefore going through and picking up the oranges on the ground. But they had to call the doctor after they noticed that their hands were itching, and a foul smell was coming off the oranges. Were these safe to eat? The doctor knew that if they didn't use them, the families would no longer have a way of earning a living, or getting food. So he told them to wash the oranges really well.

Chemical studies confirmed that white phosphorus had been used on the population of Ghaza. There are reasons most human rights groups condemn the practice. Those injured by white phosphorus were brought into the hospitals, still burning. The burn seeps into the skin, going deeper and deeper. If the burning is stopped, and the wound exposed to oxygen again, the phosphorous flares up and begins burning again. Doctors treating burn patients would get secondary effects themselves from breathing the white phosphorous fumes. Two patients whose burn wounds were cleaned and healed completely were shipped to Egypt for further treatment. They both died, not from burns, but because white phosphorous is also a poison in human bodies when it gets into the blood stream.

If you're an American, it was your tax dollars that funded the ammunition and chemical weapons that were used on the people of Ghaza.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

And I thought LA drivers were bad...

Well, you know that it would happen two days after getting new insurance. Yesterday, just after leaving that conference I spoke of, I followed another car to a stop sign. They turned to the left, and I turned on my right blinker to turn to the right. The car went about three car lengths, and then suddenly began to reverse course. I blared my horn long and loud, but the car acted as if it didn't hear. He continued to reverse and turned, in anticipation of a three-point turn to go to the right instead. Unfortunately, at this point, I was in the spot that he had previously occupied. So it became one of those exceedingly rare cases where the lead car is at fault for a rear-end accident. This other car rammed my front end with his rear end, going what looked like about 30 mph.

We traded information and had a police officer come out to file a report. It looked to me like the damage to my car was only around $100, and worse to the car at fault. Sadly, the driver is the boyfriend of the car owner (a passenger at the time), and her insurance is in her father's name- which doesn't spell anything good for the future relationship of the boyfriend with the reckless driving habits. Also unfortunately, the shop today determined that the damage was more extensive than I had thought, amounting to around $1100, for the driver had plowed into my vehicle with such momentum as to force a number of chassy elements back into the engine. At least the driver admitted full fault at the scene, and the police officer also determined him to be completely at fault, based on our two statements.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Thank God for Darwin

In celebration of the upcoming 200th anniversary of Darwin's Birthday, today we had a conference at the UW, celebrating all the wonder of evolution and a man who changed biology, science, and all of life, born 200 years ago. As I begin volunteering for the Geology Museum, I had the pleasure today of assisting at the big event. And don't forget to celebrate this Sunday, on Evolution Sunday, where pastors across the nation (along with some rabbis) are preaching on the compatibility of science and religion and the theological beauty of evolution. Check here for a church or synagogue near you.

Most of the day involved sitting at the Teaching Table, providing information to people for the mid-day seminar on teaching evolution. Throughout the two floors were small exhibits, where I could talk with a table on the philosophy of evolution (similar to my own table), look at replicas of skulls from our genus and Australopithecus (though sadly, no H. floresiensis, the newly discovered minature human species, or hobbits), and ask for more clarification on cladistics (a field of taxonomy that is now dominant but was in its infancy when I was studying biology in undergrad). I learned that crocodiles are now not birds anymore, but are only your average reptile, and birds are now completely dinosaurs, as there are too many wingless dinosaurs with feathers- meaning of course that there is no longer a meaninful line between reptiles and birds. But I also learned that there are problems with cladistics, too- it is more precise than traditional Linnean taxonomy, but not without its own form of guesswork.

My table was on teaching evolution, so I got to share with people some of my experiences teaching, and some of the difficulties I had with a recalcitrant administration trying to block science. (For those unaware, I left a former position because the school began teaching official mandatory classes in Intelligent Design, and it undermined all scientific authority I had in the classroom, so that the students weren't sure what to believe and no longer accepted scientific reasoning as true. Additionally, my very presence became the justification for the classes, as they were now teaching "both sides". Yes. I'm one of those who lost my job for teaching evolution.) I had some really great conversations about how to communicate evolution to those of religious faith, not predisposed to the theory. After an hour I realized something better, and drove home to pick up some books to lay out and share with people, of good pedagological tools for teaching evolution.
  1. A book that is sadly no longer published, but which I read when working at the Seattle Aquarium: How Whales Walked Into The Sea. One of the very few out there that describes evolution accurately and with beautiful illustrations, at an elementary-junior high level. See my full review.
  2. The Tree of Life, a beautifully illustrated book on the life of Darwin, for junior high students. See my full review.
  3. Defending Evolution, a great book for teaching methods with practical exercises for studying evolution. See my full review.
  4. The Counter-Creationism Handbook, a handbook I wish I'd had when I was teaching, but found only just after I left. It contains every Literal Creationist argument you're likely to run into in the classroom, and many you won't- with the appropriate scientific responses. See my full review.
  5. Why Intelligent Design Fails, a good book if you want to start to go on the offense. See my full review.
  6. Finding Darwin's God, one of the first of an emerging genre to explore the relationship between theology and religion, and advocate a positive relationship where one can fully embrace the Christian faith and evolution as well. Good to recommend to a student of faith who's main difficulty with the Theory is religion, or to read to understand how to positively approach these students. See my full review. Despite my own personal beliefs, I was in no way recommending these books for religious persuasion of conference participants, as much as to help convince students of the truth of evolution.
  7. For the student who is more into predestination, or who wants to go a good deal deeper into theology, I recommend God After Darwin. Haught argues that evolution makes full sense only in the light of Christianity; and Christianity is only understandable fully in the light of evolution. Excellent for the recalcitrant student who won't accept evolution because her faith tells her it's wrong. See my full review.
  8. I used to teach in a Muslim country, and so would also get Muslim students who wouldn't accept evolution because of their faith. As far as I know, there's only one book out there that addresses this issue- Creation And/Or Evolution: An Islamic Perspective. See my full review.
  9. Of course, there are many other good books out there along these lines. Some of them can be found at my Amazon List, Books Reflecting Christ's Presence in Evolution.
And behind my table there were conferences going on continuously, and I popped in from time to time to listen. Some of the more interesting topics were:
  1. On dogs and their emotions, and how closely they often emulate our emotional facial expressions, but also differing in certain ways. A particularly delightful image was a child all smiles hugging a dog's neck with her arms. She's a primate, and her eyes are crinkly with joy. The dog is a canine, and doesn't like hugging, so the white's of his eyes are showing and the mouth is drawn back in fear response. This is a classic fear response that we share with dogs- head drawn back, eyes big, corners of the mouth drawn back slightly.
  2. Bottlenecks are when a species or population go through a narrowing, so that most of the individuals are killed off. This of course substantially reduces the genetic diversity. The talk was on how this relates to declining populations of nearly all major species on the planet. Even though they might not be extinct, since most of them are going through bottlenecks, ther genetic diversity will be substantially reduced, meaning they won't be able to respond as well to new threats- like Global Warming, Ozone reduction, and pollution.
  3. The one talk I listened to for the entire hour was on the health of our oceans, by Dr. Jeremy Jackson of Scripps Institute. Basically, our oceans are about ten times worse off than we thought. Ten years ago, we were looking at about 100-150 Dead Zones- areas that have so little oxygen that only bacteria and jellies live there. Now there are 400. The primary fishery in North America, cod, has been overfished to below sustainable levels. But we are continuing to fish it, because we project that without any habitat stress in the future, it would naturally rebound. Of course, not only us, but also the climate are putting substantial stress on the fish. It is not just cod, but nearly every marine species that is being stressed beyond hope for recovery. The acidity of the oceans are increasing substantially, effecting everything from coral to plankton. The coral provide a basis for the food chain, and more coral are destroyed in one year in the Indian Ocean than all the trees we have cut down. The plankton skeletons are being destroyed by the acidity through the Greenhouse Effect, which means that that last great food source predicted in Soylent Green won't even be an option- our world will be worse off than predicted in environmental catastrophe movies. And the good news is that, if we act now, to reduce pollution and carbon emissions significantly within the next 35 years, our oceans will be able to recover in the next 1000 years. The bad news is we will probably not act in time.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Authentic Democracy

Tonight I went to my first ever Town Hall Meeting. It was excruciatingly boring. But I'm going to make you sit through and read about it anyway.

It is touching to be at the center of democracy in action, to see the decisions being made at the base level. But there was something missing. And it is not to detract from the Town Council, who as far as I can tell are doing an excellent job. Rather, it is like going to a church after you've experienced the authentic communal lifestyle of the early Church. No matter how good that church might be, you've experienced something better before.

So there were many similarities between this meeting and Quaker Meetings I've been part of. But it is like the similarity between a lamp and the sun. Both provide light, but one reminds you of the original light, for it is only a pale imitation. Here, those on the board made all the decisions. There were occasionally times when they would ask for thoughts and comments from the audience- but that is what we were; an audience. We were not participants in democracy. Our true role ended the minute we put our ballot into the box. Whereas in a Quaker Meeting at any time anyone can rise to share, and everything is determined by consensus. At one point my old Meeting was considering a name change, but one person was reluctant to agree. Rather than forcing the issue, we waited a year, until he came around. And though there can be many boring items raised in Meetings as well, like anything having to do with finances, since everything is approached with an attitude of agape and worship, even the most mundane tasks are flavored with a taste of the parousia. At the Town Hall meeting, I got no such feel, and so most of what occurred tonight was not so much irrelevant, as that we the citizens were largely irrelevant.

There were two items of greater interest. A few weeks ago one citizen of Springfield had been required to pay his home business garbage fees. This pissed him off so much that he told on his neighbors, saying that they also weren't paying their fees. One of those neighbors was in there tonight, complaining that his business was remodeling other's homes, so the only garbage that his business produced was at the homes of others, and not at his home. It would be ridiculous for him to have to pay for an extra bin at his home, when they can't even fill up the residential bin they already have. The Town Board declared that there can be no exceptions, and all businesses in the township must pay this fee. I thought to tell him of an idea I had- to declare that he had no home business, but rather that he conducted all of his business outside his home, on the road- but when I followed him and his wife out, they had mysteriously disappeared, as if they were never there.

I also found out that there are plans to build a freeway through the area in 2020, and there are many arguments on where this freeway should be placed, and how far North or South it should be. It turns out all the routes go through some wetlands, and most of them run right next to the neighborhood I'm living in, disturbing the developing fly-way there. A freeway running right next to us will drastically change the feel and atmosphere of the place. And though I don't intend to still be here in 2020, it is a shame, because this neighborhood is not only the only concentrated area in all the township, but it is probably the most friendly and neighborly area in the township as well. It is certainly one of the most so that I've lived in. But that closeness is scheduled to disappear.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Celebrating Sup Erbulsun Day

This is my kind of place.

Sup Erbulsun Day, as everyone knows, is the greatest holiday in America, far outstripping Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving combined. At no other time is this people so united on one task, so focused on the production of plaque and the clogging of arteries, so dedicated to a display of quasi-homoerotic violence between two totem creatures endowed with mystical portent and power- in this case, the producers of steel, and red birds. Considering the importance of steel at the center of the American myth of power and providence, it was perhaps therefore predestined who would come away with the coveted venerated prize.

(That bit on the homo-erotic, over the top? Perhaps so. But I can point you to a really excellent anthropology study I read in seminary looking at the latent homosexual tendencies within football. Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

But, to return to my celebration of the holiday...it was at the church I've been attending these last couple months, Living Hope. At the rented center where we meet, we gathered to watch the game, eat, fellowship, and maybe play some other games as well.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the dome. No one watched the game. Well, there were, I think, two. Everyone else played Wii, talked, and played board games. (I participated in a couple rounds of Scruples, which was quite enjoyable.) Sure, when there was an exceptional play on the giant movie screen, we would stop and watch the replay of it. We stopped for a couple commercials, but most weren't that good this year. That 100-yard touchdown was exceptionally cool, as were the two last-minute touchdowns by both teams. But no one here considered the game itself to be of great importance. It was more the opportunity to gather, and share.

I think I've found my people.