Saturday, December 27, 2008

Lifestyle changes

I'm going to be sick for longer than I thought: last night my doctor called to let me know I have lymphoma. The pear-sized tumor they found is directly under my breastbone; next week I'll have tests to see if the cancer has spread beyond that location.

Today the partner and I went to Target to start preparing for this. For the past week, I've been spending part of most nights on the couch, since it's not always comfortable for me to lay down: we bought memory foam to make the couch more restful. Three days ago, I started having drenching night sweats, waking up with my pajamas so soaked I have to change them: we bought more pajamas for me.

Being surrounded by loving and caring family, friends, and health care providers has helped mitigate my shock and fear at this diagnosis. At this time, that's all I could ask for.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Fiery angel

Last week in our Bible study group, we started the story of Moses and the burning bush. This is one of the more famous Bible stories; I have heard it many times. However, I had never read the opening lines very closely:

And the angel of God appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush
An angel is what was in the bush.

Now, I was very into fantasy novels as a teenager. This genre tends to include things like fire elementals, which appear as flame but don't actually set anything on fire unless they choose to. I find it fascinating that the story of the bush so closely parallels our modern idea of a pagan world.

No one else in the group found this interesting. So it seems more likely that I've overloaded on fantasy novels than that this is actually an insightful observation. Still, it has stuck with me; it will definitely make me pay more attention to appearances of angels as we continue our study.

New symptoms

About ten days ago, I noticed I was slouching. When I sit, when I stand, my shoulders are rounded. I can consciously pull them back, but as soon as I stop paying attention, they roll forward again. After so many days of this, I often feel like I'm turning into a hunchback.

It took me a few days to understand this new habit: I figured out that stretching my chest by sitting up straight made me want to cough. Slouching was an anti-cough reflex. Fortunately, yoga is saving me from a hunched back growing on me permanently: it greatly increases the range of cough-free motion I have with my shoulders. Thanks to my talented yoga teacher, I have learned I can even do a modified savasana pose (sitting instead of laying down).

These past two months have been unusually medical for me: doctor's visits, an ultrasound of my heart, two chest X-rays, and this coming Monday a CAT scan. Medicine is moving slowly for me. I am so grateful I have something I can do any time - yoga - to help myself right now.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Body modification

Friday, two of my coworkers were talking about how awful it was that their children wanted body piercings. It just wasn't "right" to have a hole in your eyebrow or nose or belly button.

It's an attitude I find odd, that there's some "correct" physical appearance. I've come across it in with respect to animals, too: people horrified that I clip my birds' wings; owners of dogs and cats who do not confine their pets, but believe sterilizing them would be "wrong".

Maybe it's not so odd, though. I could not support a person cutting off a toe because they preferred the appearance of a four-toed foot; I oppose declawing of cats. There is, it seems, no simple rule on where to draw the line on body modification.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Teamwork in the snow

Last Wednesday, I got nervous as I left work. During the day, we had our first significant snowfall of the season, and the parking lot was slick. I drive a small pickup; these things are notorious for bad traction in the winter.

It took about five minutes for me to back (and forth, and back) out of my parking space. The next challenge was to get up the twelve-foot tall ramp out onto the road. I get halfway up, and slide down. Three quarters of the way up, and slide down. Halfway up - two coworkers come over to help push. Up and down, up and down. Two more coworkers come to help. Up and down. A fifth coworker arrives; I go up, and up, and up, and - onto the road!

It snowed again today. I need to get sandbags to help my traction.
In the meantime, I love my coworkers.

Mousy personalities

On a Saturday three months ago, we were getting started on cooking lunch: grilled cheese sandwiches. I got the bag of bread out, and noticed something odd: one corner had a hole in it. The bread just inside the hole had been eaten.

The partner and I talked about various mouse traps. The spring kind? Doesn't always work, and we're too squeamish to finish the mice off ourselves. The glue kind? Inhumane. That leaves the live-catch traps.

After a week of replacing bait that had been eaten, we caught our first mouse - about three inches long. After dumping it into a large plastic jar and observing it for a short time, I turn back to the trap to clean it out. In the trap was another mouse! Just an inch long, it was hiding under the ramp. We took our mouse family to a park just outside of town; they did not want to leave that jar, clinging to the opening. I shook it rather forcefully to dump them out, at which point they bolted away.

Mouse #2 was another one-incher. This one, when taken to the park, walked to the opening, sniffed a few times, and walked on out. We left the traps out for another week, but the bait wasn't getting eaten. I thought our mouse problem was solved - until the incident with my shoes last week. So the traps have been out again. Mouse #3 did the sniff-and-walk-out routine just like #2.

Mouse #4 enlarged one of the airholes in the trap by chewing on it. It did not have to be dumped into the bucket, either: as soon as I opened the trap, it jumped straight out. This bucket is a foot tall; the mouse was repeatedly jumping and hitting its head on the lid. I caught it in the morning; after work when we headed for a local cemetary, the mouse was still doing the spectacular jump routine. It was more cautious going outside: much more sniffing than mouse #2 or 3. I didn't have to dump it, though, which made taking it out into the cold and snow easier to rationalize as being "nice".

It's been interesting seeing the different personalities of our rodent houseguests. I'm happy to say, though, the bait in the traps was not eaten today. Perhaps we get another reprieve from mousy companionship.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Yummy pork

Thursday night, we went out to a Chinese buffet. As we pulled into the parking lot, we noticed a very familiar-looking car. "Is that the rabbi's car?" I asked. Upon examination, we found a bumper sticker for Jewish summer camp. Yes, it was the rabbi's car.

Inside, the rabbi and his wife invited us to eat with them. We sat down at their table, ordered our drinks, and went to the buffet.

After we all had food, a steaming plate full of bacon is brought to our table. "Thank you," says the rabbi to the waiter. The partner and I must have looked surprised: "It's on the buffet at lunch," he explained. "I eat here a lot and they know I really like it."

I don't think anyone in our Reform congregation keeps strict kosher, but some follow modified versions - they don't keep separate utensils for dairy and meat, for example, but won't eat cheeseburgers. The rabbi, though? He's spiritual in other ways.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Nutty mammals

Yesterday, I arrived for my organ lesson. I sat down and started to change into my organ shoes.

The shoe wouldn't go on. A cursory inspection found that the insole had come unglued; I tried pushing on the insole, then went to put the shoe on my foot again.

My organ teacher stares in disbelief. "What is that!?" he says. This prompts me to take a closer look at my shoe. Slowly, I realize there are foreign object in my shoe: birdseed and pecans. "I have mice," I respond.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Do I know you?

I came in to work this morning, and ran across an impromptu manager's meeting in the hallway. Among other things, I learn, one of our testing machines had broken, and can't be fixed for several weeks. One of our customers generously agreed to let us use their machine, and we sent someone over with an order of parts.

When our employee finished his tests, he had to wait for his ride (our truck driver). While reading the newspaper, he was reprimanded three times (by three different employees of the customer) for slacking off.

We teased him that we were too easy on him at my company, so the unfair criticism at our customer balanced that out. But still, how weird that multiple people would assume a stranger was under their supervision.

Manufacturing down, manufacturing up

My company processes parts for heavy equipment. Much of this is for the ag industry; winter is a slow month for that market. Another significant part of our workload is (was?) automotive parts - that segment of our business has dropped by more than half in the past two years, and the decline has accelerated in the past few months. (Which makes me cynical about the automotive bailout - the "automotive-related jobs" at my company have already been hit, I'm not convinced keeping the big three afloat would actually trickle down to us).

With major business sources down, and other customers slowing with the economy, we're spending more time wiping counters and mopping floors instead of processing parts. The company laid off six people last week, out of sixty employees. If we get down to thirty employees, I'm told, I'll go to the night shift. It's reassuring to know I'd still have a job at that point. But unsettling that the company is even contemplating cuts that big.

In the midst of this, a big jump in gun parts. Apparently gun sales are way up. To the point I can't even contact those customers: I tried unsuccessfully for two days to call one with a question about processing. (I ended up faxing my question.) Many of the orders are "big rush".

I've been conflicted for years on making part of my living from gun manufacture. At this point, however, it's sure nice to have at least one area of business with a good outlook.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Shingle mystery

Last Wednesday, I came home from work and found a paper laying in my yard. I went over to pick it up, and found that it was a piece of a business check, the kind that come in three-ring binders. Looking around for a clue to where it came from, I see a shingle in front of my house.

A shingle and a business check in my yard? I think I know where these came from. I walk toward the shingle, craning my neck a little to look at my neighbor's house. I was right: there's no tarp on his roof. The damage from a storm in July was repaired.

Our neighbor taking so long on the repair had made us feel better about taking a long time. We recently hired a contractor to do some structural work and remodeling in addition to fixing our eaves and gutters; most of the work probably won't start until spring. We'll be the last ones by far in our neighborhood to take care of damage from that storm. The neighbor actually had a hole in his roof, though, so I'm glad he got it fixed before winter set in. It's good to be prepared for winter.

Pericarditis that goes on and on

Last month, I was diagnosed with pericarditis, inflammation of a sac that surrounds the heart. It's usually caused by a viral infection, and resolves as the immune system clears the virus. But weeks went by, and I continued to have wandering pains all over my upper torso (mild, fortunately), pressure in my chest when lying down (especially on my back), and noticed that sometimes my resting heart rate was as high as 120 beats per minute. I worried I had one of the less common causes, such as an autoimmune disease.

When I had the chest pressure while standing up Friday morning (probably for just fifteen minutes, but it seemed like a long time), I made an appointment to go back to my doctor. The nurse did a double-take when reading my heart rate between 111 and 118 beats per minute, but I was relieved they'd be able to examine me while I had that symptom. The doctor listened to my heart and lungs, did an EKG, and thinks I'm fine. No signs of arrhythmia or fibrillation, and the "rub" sound in my heartbeat has not returned. He showed me the difference in my EKG from four weeks ago, how that one had been abnormal and yesterday it was normal.

He said I may continue to have these symptoms for two or three more months. Even though the virus is probably long gone (my symptoms of infection - fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, fever and chills - all cleared up a few weeks ago), when the pericardium was infected its surfaces became rough. Every time my heart beats, the layers of the pericardium rub against each other: because they are rough, they irritate each other. This self-perpetuating irritation can take a long time to clear up. He would be worried and do more tests if I got worse, but just being sick for many weeks is normal.

He also commented on how cool my heart had sounded when it had the "rub" sound. He'd had his nurse listen to it because it was so interesting. I had asked to listen to it also, and I agree it was pretty cool sounding. I'm glad it's gone, though. I left his office feeling reassured. And after ten days of wheat-free obviously not helping anything, I had a sandwich from Quiznos for dinner. Yum.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Blog traffic

One of the interesting things about having a blog is following the traffic to it. Some is encouraging to see, some not so much.

A majority of my hits are from search engines. Many, I see their search terms and realize there is no way my blog was useful to them. Some, I hope my writing was helpful. Once, I got a hit for "Ovusoft bully" (yikes!). I've also had one hit from an unsavory search.

A few of those who view this blog are people I know, who come to see what I've written. That's the funnest part of writing here.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Pondering the economy

Last weekend, we drove to Chicago for a family get-together. On the way, we drove past the office building where the partner used to work: it had a "for lease" sign on it. Apparently the company went bankrupt over a year ago, a victim of the housing market turmoil.

We moved here for my job, something I've had mixed emotions about. It turns out our move was good for the partner's career as well.

It's nice to have the additional confirmation that we made the right decision. But discovering that a job we thought was secure has disappeared makes me wonder about our current positions, too.

Fall colors

My community has a lot of burning bushes - shrubs with leaves that turn red in the fall. This year I keep seeing bushes all over with this beautiful dark hue on their leaves. They've held the leaves for many weeks after they turned color, too; I've been just amazed as how great they look.

I commented on this to a member in the Bible study I go to. He said it was appropriate: after finishing our reading of Genesis, we've just started studying the book of Exodus.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Wheat awareness

I'm beginning to suspect that my illness the past several weeks is a manifestation of Celiac disease - where eating wheat makes a person's immune system go haywire. It's a genetic disease, and my sister has it, which puts me at high risk.

The test would be to see if I get better when I stop eating wheat. This experiment has been complicated by a few recent incidents:

  • Fixing myself peanut butter toast with flax seeds for breakfast (mmm). Sitting down to eat it and realizing toast has wheat in it. I need to eat something in time to leave for work, so I eat the toast anyway.
  • Coming home from work and cutting myself a big piece of the brownies my partner baked. Eating three quarters of the brownie, then realizing brownies have wheat in them. I put the unfinished bit back into the pan; when the partner got home he asked if mice had been after the brownies.
  • Grabbing a handful of Reese's miniature cups and Kit-Kats for dessert after dinner. Eating the Reese's first because I like the Kit-Kats better and want to savor them. Reach for the Kit-Kat, and notice the wrapper says, "Contains wheat, milk, and soy ingredients." Put it down in grave disappointment.

  • I think I'm making progress in wheat awareness, though.

    My plan is to have minimal wheat intake for two weeks; then, if I'm better, eat a bunch of wheat-containing products and see if I get sick again. I hope it works so that my symptoms go away. I hope it doesn't work because I would really, really miss crackers and sandwiches and spaghetti and everything else I'll have to forego forever if this turns out to be the culprit.

    Sunday, November 2, 2008

    Internet and DST

    This summer, I decided to try making sundown Friday to sundown Saturday a time to take a break from internet. I have been pleased with how this has helped my weekend routine (which was what I was hoping for) and surprised at how it has helped keep me going to bed at a reasonable hour on Friday nights.

    On summer Fridays, the sun was up when we went to synagogue, and when we came home it had set. Worship services were a very clear dividing line for when I was going to stay off my computer. Just recently, though, the sun has been going down slightly before services. Now with Daylight Saving Time over, it will be down significantly before we head out of the house on Friday nights.

    (As an unrelated aside, in my campaign against DST, a report came out a few days ago that DST causes heart attacks in the spring. It lowers the risk in the fall, but not nearly enough to make up for the spring deaths.)

    It will be more of a challenge to stick to my "internet fast" with the loss of my bright dividing line. And my Saturday routine will be a little different too, with less "no internet" time. I look forward to seeing how my experiment works out over this dark time of year.

    Saturday, November 1, 2008

    A long fall

    We had two nights last week where the temperature dropped below freezing. But it has warmed up, and today's weather was beautiful for working outside. Further, when I opened my garlic package, the planting instructions said it was actually best to plant after a light frost. I don't feel so bad for procrastinating now.

    In between my two naps, I helped the partner clear our lawn of leaves (into the ravine at the back of our property) and of a small truckload of brush (to the yard waste facility). In the evening, I dug a garden plot: about four feet by four feet. It rained last week but not recently, and the dirt was the perfect consistency for digging. This spring, my mother in law had accidentally bought some compost, and gave it to me; I worked that into the plot. I planted my garlic. I put mulch (leaves) over the plot like the planting instructions said to.

    I'm bothered that I felt so tired that I took two ninety-minute naps today; this three weeks plus is the longest I ever remember feeling under the weather. But I'm happy that I felt just fine doing yardwork, which would not have been the case even last week. And excited that I got the garlic planted, and that the instructions even say November is still a good time to plant. So overall, a very good fall day.

    Sunday, October 26, 2008

    Procrastinating past first frost

    Tonight is forecast to be the first frost of the season. This is a few weeks later than average, which should have helped my fall gardening plans work out.

    But, I haven't planted any of my bulbs. Not the new garlic that I bought after being encouraged by this summer's harvest. Not the tiger lily bulbs or daffodils that I dug up planning on moving to a new location.

    Partly from having my weekends and my last few days of vacation more scheduled up than I expected. Partly from this bug that hit me two weeks ago. Partly because I kinda expected to plant the garlic in September, but the weird weather this year pushed back the harvest and the company didn't mail it until the first part of October.

    This coming weekend is looking good, though. Hopefully being planted November first will still work out for my bulbs.

    One less... or one more?

    A member of our Bible study group is now deceased. We had actually had the study group at the hospital last week so she could participate; she seemed tired, and we knew her prognosis was very poor. But it was still a shock to have her actively participating in the group one day, and the next day pass away.

    The partner and I talked about how she was one of just a few people either of us has had a relationship with that died. I don't know if that's fortunate that we have had so little of that pain, or unfortunate that we didn't have meaningful relationships with our relatives that passed away. Perhaps a little of both.

    A mean sick

    Last week, while feeling sick, I found myself thinking about what un-nice people my co-workers were. I made fun of my boss to his face (fortunately, he took it light-heartedly). I complained about my partner to my coworkers. I left mean-spirited comments on people's blogs. And all this just weeks after Yom Kippur, where I attempted to erase or at least mitigate exactly these kinds of sins.

    Yikes. I'm really glad I'm getting over whatever bug got me, but I would have liked to think I could be a good-hearted person even when not feeling chipper. Apparently that's an area I need to work on.

    Sunday, October 19, 2008

    Powell on Islam

    This morning, one of the threads I read on Ovusoft was about Colin Powell's endorsement of Barack Obama's bid for U.S. President. Apparently, during his interview, Powell brought up the mistaken belief that Obama is Muslim, and refuted it, then went on to say:

    But the really right answer is: What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer's no, that's not America. Is there something wrong with some 7-year-old Muslim American kid believing that he or she could be president?

    He also told the story of this mother, whose son died while serving in the U.S. army:
    Elsheba Khan at the grave of her son

    Yesterday, a Muslim poster on Ovusoft expressed fear of being attacked for voting in two weeks: she wears a hijab and is readily identifiable as Muslim. Extremists in the U.S. have, for whatever reason, decided their message spreads well during this election season, and it is disheartening. I was really impressed that Powell took this opportunity to make a statement against hatred. I pray the American people take his message to heart.

    Feeling better

    I've been feeling under the weather lately. I haven't being able to sleep as long as I typically do, which would normally disturb me. But an article I read recently, in addition to talking about the immune system and stress, explained that an immune system rev-up prevents a person from having deep sleep. Knowing I'm normal (that being sick often means sleeping less, despite being tired all the time) makes the phenomenon easier to take in stride.

    So, I got up at 5:30 this morning; instead of wondering what I could possibly be doing awake at that hour on a weekend, I just went downstairs to get breakfast. Only to be confronted with the fact that most of my mugs were dirty, including all of my favorite ones. Like I had done many times over the past few days, I gazed despondently at the sink. This time, though, I didn't feel like I was going to suffocate or like my ears would explode. Wow, that was neat. So instead of turning my back on the kitchen sink, I walked up to it and did the dishes.

    That's a bright spot in several days of poor productivity. Little things like that make feeling down not so, well, down. So, here's to feeling up!

    Sunday, October 12, 2008

    Improved connection

    For the past few weeks, I have been attending a communications class my employer sent me to. As a lifelong introvert, I was surprised when exercises during class showed that I have a problem with listening. Since that realization, I have been making a conscious effort to listen more attentively; it seems to be making small but cumulative and important differences in my interactions at work.

    Last Wednesday evening, we went to synagogue to celebrate Yom Kippur. Part of the worship service was to ask the people around me for their forgiveness. The emotion this stirred up wasn't a feeling of forgiveness, really, but a connection with those people sitting around me. Having overcome my inner turmoil, I could pay attention to them, listen to them, feel a connection to them.

    In retrospect, improving my relationships with those around me is definitely more rewarding than directing my focus inward. I'm glad the class and my religious practice are helping me to see and practice this truth.

    Sunday, October 5, 2008

    Is this just assimilation?

    I started going to the annual Rosh Hashannah services when I began dating the partner; last week was the ninth such service I've attended. Now, in a normal worship service, the rabbi says, "Turn to the people who surround you, the people to the left and to the right of you, the people in front and behind you, and wish them a Shabbot shalom" (a restful Sabbath). Not an instruction I ever wrestled with. But in the Rosh Hashannah service, the rabbi says, "Turn to the people who surround you... and wish them l'shana tovah" (happy new year). The entire time there was a little voice inside my head babbling, "Don't wish them a happy new year! New Year's isn't for another three months! It's not New Year's! Don't do this, you'll sound crazy!" I did it anyway.

    Last week, the voice didn't make an appearance. I was so comfortable wishing people a happy New Year I even did it in the lobby before and after services. Is this a theological step for me? I'm not sure. Maybe it's just an example showing that if you repeat something often enough, you will start to believe it. Maybe by returning to this service year after year, I gave myself aversion therapy to my discomfort with this phrase.

    But maybe it is a growth of my faith. This week is the Yom Kippur service (Day of Atonement). At Yom Kippur, the rabbi says, "Turn to the people who surround you, the people to the left and right of you, the people in front of an behind you, and ask for their forgiveness." Talk about awkward. But this year, I've experienced how the service can open my eyes to how my actions hurt others. And I attended a discussion group on the Jewish approach to forgiveness. I feel like I've studied and understand and agree with the reasons for this instruction. I think I will be comfortable asking my neighbors to forgive any wrongs I may have done to them, even unknowingly. And repetition doesn't explain this one: this will be only my third Yom Kippur service (as opposed to number nine for Rosh Hashannah).

    Most of my life, I've been involved with but passive about religion. This whole looking forward to a major holiday service is a completely new (and positive) experience.

    And to any readers I may have: for any wrongs I have done to you in the past year, for any hurts that I have caused, I am sorry. I apologize from the bottom of my heart. Will you forgive me?

    Sunday, September 28, 2008

    Learning from Joseph's marriage

    For the past few years, the partner and I have attended a Bible study group at our synagogue. Yesterday, we read the last chapter of Genesis. It was cause for celebration: the Saturday morning group started Genesis four and half years ago. After the High Holy Days (which start with the Jewish New Year at sundown Monday night), we will literally start a new book.

    Looking back on our studies, one topic kept coming up that I never expected to see so early in the Bible: intermarriage. Abraham relocated far from his extended family. And yet, Abraham took great pains to procure a wife for Isaac from within his family, preventing him from marrying within the local community (Gen 24). Jacob was also instructed to marry within the family; his brother Esau caused great family strife by marrying locally (Gen. 27:46 and 28:5-9). Even from the very beginning of the Jewish religion, intermarriage and assimilation were viewed very negatively.

    And then there was Joseph. He took on an Egyptian name (Zaphenath-paneah) and married the daughter of an Egyptian priest (Gen 41:45); when his father died, Joseph had him embalmed and mourned for seventy days (an Egyptian practice) (Gen 50:2-3) before joining his brothers in mourning seven days (the Hebrew practice) (Gen 50:10). He lived a life of intermarriage and assimilation. But he played a very positive role in Jewish history.

    Being a shiksa myself has made these passages more meaningful to me. Being in this group as it goes over these passages, hearing the rabbi's experiences, and especially the stories of the other members who intermarried or converted, has really left a positive impression. It is in large part experiences like this that keeps me coming back to temple, more attracted every year to this religion my partner introduced me to.

    Not a ghost

    About a month ago, I started hearing doors slamming and branches cracking while I was sitting inside my house. When I was in the yard, I'd hear crack! bam! thunk! It never got to the point of needing an umbrella, but the thought definitely crossed my mind.

    My sidewalks and driveway and yard are covered in acorns. Walking out to my car I go "crunch, crunch, crunch". It's a novel experience for me. Last year, we had a late frost, and no acorns. The year before that, we had a drought, and few acorns. Two years ago, we had a lot of acorns... but nothing like this.

    I'd like to try making flour out of them. I don't feel like I have time now, and was feeling conflicted for not prioritizing that: I may not have the opportunity to make acorn flour for many more years. Then I noticed something surprising: most of the fallen acorns have already sprouted! Weird wet fall weather... it does mean they're unlikely to be useful for flour, though.

    Even absent acorn flour, the whole oak experience this spring and fall has been fascinating. (At least, when I wasn't flustered by the stunningly loud sounds of nuts ricocheting off our house and vehicles.) It's so neat and I am so thankful to live next to this oak tree.

    Sunday, September 21, 2008

    Back to school

    My employer has sent me to a Dale Carnegie class on communication. It's in the format of a one-semester college course: three hours a week for twelve weeks.

    In the first class, I found during the assigned exercises that I really like to talk about myself. When in conversation, it is a struggle for me to only listen to the other person. Discovering this was a surprise to me; I have scored as a strong introvert on every personality test I have taken, and being a bad listener is not something I expected out of myself.

    In the assigned reading, I learned about studies that have shown we learn better in small increments. This will be useful in practicing for my music lessons: I like to just play the whole piece through, but I improve faster by restricting my practice to small portions.

    Getting into the right mindset for the course is not entirely pleasant for me; I disagree with some things they present as "truth" and find in some areas the materials lie by omission. I believe their techniques work (even in the first class I've seen benefits), but believe the mechanism for some techniques is misrepresented. It has a mild resemblance to joining a religion that one respects but doesn't believe in.

    Regardless, I think I (and thus my employer) will benefit from the class. I'm hoping the class will improve my blogging skills, too. It will be interesting to follow for the next few months.

    Sunday, September 14, 2008

    Catholic sex: past changes... and future?

    I think there is a lot of truth in the Catholic Church's current teachings on sexual morality. In learning more about this aspect of the Catholic Church's teachings, one thing I find interesting is that, historically, many influential theologians saw things differently. For example, today natural family planning is (I think) a beautiful teaching of this church - my research into fertility awareness is what originally piqued my interest in Catholic theology. But this church's teachings on NFP only emerged in the mid-1800s, after secular sources started promoting early versions of the rhythm method.

    On p.128 of the theology journal I recently acquired, I learn that St. Augustine (who lived in the years 354-430) "reject[ed] sexual relations during sterile periods because it is non-procreative". It wasn't just Augustine that held this view; William F. Murphy, Jr goes on to write that "strict adherence to "the Stoic doctrine" may have led, throughout the tradition, to a variety of overly-rigorous moral teachings in sexual ethics. Among these... norms against sex (i) during menstruation, (ii) after menopause, and (iii) for some primary purpose besides procreation."

    Catholicism has always held that marital relations must have a procreative purpose. But to me, the shift from requiring procreation to be the primary purpose to requiring procreation to be a purpose is very significant. I find similarly important the shift on what constitutes consummation of marriage; on p.208 of the same journal, William May quotes Peter Jugis:

    Due to Vatican II's teaching on modo vere human, canonists completely reversed their thinking on the manner of intercourse which was juridically appropriate for consummation. Prior to Vatican II the common canonical view opinion for centuries had been that violent consummation with an unwilling spouse validly consummated marriage.... After Vatican II the common opinion of almost all canonists became that a violent consummation with an unwilling spouse did not validly consummate a marriage.
    To me, this reversal was important not only for women who are raped, but also for married couples where one or both has HIV. Prior to the addition of the modo vere human language to Catholic sexual theology, the marital act was largely defined as semen deposited into a vagina. Under that understanding, using condoms to prevent disease was definitely immoral. Under the current Catholic understanding, the morality of using condoms to prevent disease is a raging theological debate.

    I am hoping for one more change in the Catholic Church's teaching on sexual morality: the acceptance of same-sex marriage. Currently, there are a few theologians arguing that the current framework of sexual teachings has room for homosexual marriages. The majority of theologians oppose such a move; they have a variety of reasonings involving the procreative and unitive nature of sex. They all seem to agree that homosexual acts are not contraceptive in nature; that makes the debates come down to the unitive aspect of sex.

    From William May on pp.216-217:
    In sodomy and other kinds of homosexual behavior the bodily joining of their practitioners... does not unite them.... the resulting experience is not and cannot be the experience of any real unity between them... In such acts, each one's experience of intimacy is private and incommunicable, and no more a common good than is the mere experience of sexual arousal and oragsm.
    The person who recommended this theology journal, also sent me an article from the Spring 2005 National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly. Martin Rhonheimer wrote on p.44: cannot swallow stones with the intention of nourishing oneself, nor are genital acts between persons of the same sex apt to be an expression of friendship and love.
    A theological article in favor of same-sex marriage argued in part that those in homosexual relationships appeared to experience the same unitive effects of sex as those in heterosexual relationships, and that this apparent shared experience should be further investigated by Catholic theologians. Back in the Josephinum Journal, in a response to that article, E. Christian Brugger writes on pp.236-237:
    ...what warrants them in concluding that the reports of subjective experience... [are] sufficient... for overturning the... rational judgment against homosexual acts?... homosexual unions are not and can never be true bodily unions, [therefore] homosexual unions are not and can never be personal unions. Is the data of homosexual experience really so compelling that it overrides the reasonableness of this judgment?
    I understand distrust of subjective data. But equally, reasonable and rational thought experiments need to match up with real-life experiments to be accepted as true. There are methods available to add objectivity to analysis of subjective data; I think that in time the evidence that same-sex marriage fits within Catholic theology will build. As a result, I believe the topic of Catholic sexual morality will continue to be very interesting for some time to come.

    Long and rambling: the path to empathy

    My nine-year-old niece was recently diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome (an autistic spectrum disorder). One of the diagnostic criteria (apparently the one that was causing problems and school and led to her diagnosis) is "lack of social or emotional reciprocity". The way my mother-in-law explained it, this criteria means a person has difficulty with empathy - they don't understand how their actions affect other people's emotions. She has several other personality traits that were identified as characteristic of Aspergers, too. I keep seeing all of them in other people (to greater or lesser extents), but coming back to that one.

    I remember as a teenager, talking to my grandmother after a fight with my father. She was trying to explain to me that a child should respect their parents. In tears and sobbing from the fight, I responded that I just wanted him to know he had hurt me. If he didn't understand that he had hurt me, he'd think it was OK to do that again. She didn't argue with me after that, just looked very sad.

    I had a lot of fights with my father that ended like that (although most of them not at my grandmother's house). I became skilled (at least my partner thinks so) at analyzing and verbally explaining emotional reactions, both my own and those of other people. Much good it did me with him - he never did understand. The last psychologist I saw told me that he was very sorry, but my father was an asshole and there was nothing the psychologist could do to fix it.

    I think the psychologist was wrong (I stopped seeing him after he said that): an asshole understands they are causing pain, but doesn't care. My father cares, but doesn't understand. To this day he will bring up the subject of our relationship, confused and hurt that I'm only willing to talk about superficial things.

    Both of the psychologists I saw told me my pain from my poor relationship with my father was likely to come up in random areas of my life. I sometimes have strong, not completely rational reactions to certain situations, and have wondered if that's the kind of thing they were talking about.

    As painful as it was for me, though, I think trying to deal with my father's condition may have saved me from repeating his experience: understanding the emotions of those around me is very much an intellectual exercise for me. This skill may be one that, like language, if not acquired in childhood, cannot be learned with fluency as an adult. He may have positively influenced my life much more than he will ever know.

    Sunday, September 7, 2008

    Experiment: Compost a tree stump

    A storm several weeks ago knocked down two large trees on our property, one in the front yard and one in the back yard. We now have large tree stumps there. It would be several hundred dollars to have someone come in with a stump grinder, so for now, we're just leaving them.

    I try to start a new compost pile about every six months; I have three piles going, so each one gets about eighteen months to "finish". Today, I spread most of my oldest pile around our two small apple trees (maybe they'll make apples next year - that would be exciting). The rest of it, I spread around our tree trunk in back. And I've started a new pile there, with food scraps covered by leaves.

    I know the stump will compost eventually. It will be interesting to see if it happens on a reasonable time frame, though (less than a year). If this experiment in the back is successful, we might look into some of the "make a compost pile look sightly" advice, and do the same thing in the front yard.

    Monday, September 1, 2008

    Kosher: current issues

    Most people have a strong preference for laws that make sense. While religious rules may start with a different set of assumptions than secular rules, they still, generally, have a reasoned explanation much beyond, "because God said so." One exception in Judaism is the laws about kosher food. As one commentator explains:

    The historical origin of the Jewish dietary laws is obscure and so is their rationale... the kashrut of the Bible belongs to that corpus of law we term "hukkim" (statutes) and for which no rationale is apparent. Biblical commentators have suggested hygiene, or religious separateness, or discipline as possible reasons for the enactment and observance of kashrut, but these and other equally plausible suggestions are not sufficiently supported by historical evidence to emerge from the realm of conjecture.
    The lack of obvious rationales is a big reason practicing kosher is optional in Reform Judaism. However, many people the rules were at least partially ordered toward being humane. For example, the Biblical command, "You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk" is repeated three times. From the Union for Reform Judaism:
    Any kosher animals must also be slaughtered in a kosher way, which is an ancient slaughtering process that is believed to be less painful for the animal.
    The recent issues in Postville have highlighted how the traditional rules not only fail at accomplishing humane treatment for animals, but don't address the equally (if not more) important issue of humane treatment for human workers at kosher slaughterhouses. The Conservative Jewish movement recently started a new committee: it is tasked with creating a new certifying process for kosher foods. This certification will takes into account ethical considerations for workers and animals in addition to ritual laws. The Reform movement just passed a resolution to support this new certification process.

    The partner and I, like most members of Reform congregations, do not keep kosher. But we will definitely be looking for products certified under the new regulations: improving the ethics of our food purchasing speaks to how we want to practice religion.

    Sunday, August 31, 2008

    A flying trespasser

    My partner woke me up at 11 o'clock last night to let me know there was a bat in our house. "I didn't scream this time," he reported to me.

    So we're going through our house, him holding a towel and closing doors behind us, me trying to open the windows of the rooms the bat has flown into. After opening one of these windows, I found my face inches from a quarter-sized peach-colored spider with a web that filled the whole window frame. Yikes.

    Now, our house is 90 years old. All the windows are original, and amazingly, they all open. Only on one window have the ropes even broken. We opened the weight pockets to repair the ropes, and never got around to closing them.

    So of course, the bat lands on the one window in the house with open weight pockets, and crawls right inside. It was probably a very comforting place to hide from people chasing it with towels and turning on bright lights everywhere it flew.

    We cleared the window of the spider web (the spider had scurried off, fortunately), and then taped some clear plastic sheeting over the inside of the open window. Hopefully, sometime last night, the bat crawled out of the weight pocket and flew outside.

    The bat was small and furry and completely non-aggressive. And it was neat to see how it could crawl using its wings; they're not like bird wings that are useful only for flying. The other time we found a bat in our house (3 years ago), it used its wings to cling to a 2x4 while I carried it outside. But I would have preferred to only experience that cuteness in a zoo, and not in my house.

    Monday, August 25, 2008

    Pornographic theology

    I found some of my reading in the Josephinum Journal of Theology to be uncomfortably explicit. The theologians are trying to tease out certain aspects of the unitive meaning of sex. Which requires examining rather intimate accounts of people's orgasms.

    I can see how this position is logical: the pleasure involved in sex is a large part of what releases the oxytocin that causes the unitive effect. Exploring the unitive aspect of sex thus requires acquiring an understanding of the pleasure people derive from it.

    Which I have difficulty with. My writing about birth control and the mechanics of inserting a diaphragm is one thing; people writing about their experiences of orgasm is an entirely different plane of intimacy. The writers tried to be clinical about their presentation. But it really struck me how close they were to requiring pornographic material to advance their theology.

    Sunday, August 24, 2008

    Routine shake-up calms things down

    You know your housekeeping is sub-par when your broom has spider webs on it.

    I don't think my cleaning standards have gone up in the three weeks I've been doing the no-computer-on-Saturdays experiment. But I feel like I'm more on top of my old schedule, no longer in a place where minor disturbances to my routine will throw all of my plans out the window.

    Starting organ lessons has also had a noticeable effect: the lesson is once every two or three weeks, and I'm trying to practice for at least an hour, at least three times a week. My weekday computer time has fallen off quite a bit.

    I miss working more on Wikipedia articles. I miss typing out blog-type thoughts more often. But I feel distinctly more at peace with my routine than I have in a very long time. Jen at ConversionDiary once quoted Fr. Ciszek as saying, "God's will can be discerned by the fruits of the spirit it brings, that peace of the soul and joy of heart are two such signs."

    I'm not convinced about the God's will part, but these moves have a very "right" feel to them. Peace.

    Sunday, August 17, 2008


    My birds spend hours and hours every day preening. Run a beak along a feather. Run a beak along another feather. And another. Then fluff. Pick a new spot, repeat. Even bringing them into human civilization, where finding food and staying warm aren't concerns, just maintaining basic health requires an amazing amount of time.

    To some extent, the same thing is true of humans. And I resent it. Time spent exercising. Brushing and flossing. Even the time required to shower, I resent. And why? Somehow I have this idea that I need to be doing fulfilling things with my life, and time spent on mundane tasks is time spent unfulfilled.

    My birds don't seem to resent the preening, though. In fact, I bet the only reason they do it is because they find it enjoyable. Fulfilling, even, if I could anthropomorphise that far. I try to take it as a reminder that life is about living, enjoying the daily routines. Learning about exotic phenomena, pursuing novel tastes or sights or experiences, or trying to better the world are novel ways humans have found of being fulfilled in life. But they don't have to exclude finding fulfillment in the mundane.

    Sunday, August 10, 2008

    Religion and food science

    One of the big research areas in longetivity is calorie-restricted diets. No studies of continual calorie restriction have been done in humans (I think it would be deemed unethical). Interestingly, a study in rats found that regular fasting (with no calorie restriction on non-fast days) had similar health benefits to calorie restriction. Fasting would in many ways be more practical to implement in humans than continuous calorie restriction.

    Encouragingly, a human study of Mormons (who are encouraged to fast the first Sunday of each month) concluded this once-a-month fast lowered their risk of heart disease by 40%. That benefit persisted even after accounting for differences in weight, age and conditions like diabetes or high cholesterol or blood pressure.

    So, I've become interested in fasting. Today is Tisha B'Av, one of the two major fast days for Judaism. I fasted on the other major fast, Yom Kippur, earlier this year. The proscription is no food or drink. But while the science has interested me in trying the no food part, I don't current see any benefit to risking dehydration: I'm drinking water and tea.

    While I am sometimes put into a horrible mood by eating a meal late, my two experiences with fasting I have not felt anything other than mild hunger. It doesn't feel very religious, just not bothering to cook or eat anything. Other religious practices have become more meaningful to me with repetition, though. It will be interesting to see if this one grows on me, also.

    Saturday, August 9, 2008

    Not-so-light reading

    A while back, a fellow Wikipedia editor recommended to me the Summer/Fall 2007 issue of the Josephinum Journal of Theology. I just got my copy a week ago, and finished it today. Despite the density of the writing, some of which I couldn't even start to follow, it was a fascinating and informative read.

    The degree of dissent in the articles really surprised me. Some things in Catholic teaching I had thought were "established": John Paul II's Theology of the Body, for example. Well, I was wrong. While JPII's teachings were a central topic in several of the articles, criticism slightly outweighed acceptance.

    I suppose the dissent shouldn't have surprised me: the whole point of being a theologian is to publish novel ideas in one's field. Claiming a novel idea is true means that previous ideas were at best inadequate, and at worst completely wrong.

    Even inadequate and incorrect ideas provoke discussion, though. Discussion to resolve disputes is an important part of how human knowledge grows.

    Monday, August 4, 2008

    Spinach: not like on Popeye

    Two of my coworkers have commented on being beaten up as children due to Popeye: they experimentally proved that eating spinach does not enable one to win fistfights. They both have pretty low opinions of spinach as a food.

    Which is a shame, because spinach is a rich source of vitamins and minerals and healthful phytochemicals. Since I became vegetarian, I have struggled with low iron levels. If I eat spinach every day (say, on a salad, amounting to 5-10% of the USDA recommendation for iron intake), I never get rejected from donating blood.

    I don't like spinach enough to eat it most days. So I take an iron pill (150% of the USDA recommendation for iron intake) five days a week. However, if I don't supplement that with spinach or other leafy greens a few times a week, I still get rejected from donating blood.

    Pills just can't compare to food as a nutrition source. That seems to be part of the message Popeye's creators intended to send. But by exaggerating the effect, their strategy may have backfired, turning off a large number of people from appreciating what food does for us.

    Sunday, August 3, 2008

    Fasting from internet

    I often feel like I'm not getting important things done. My reaction has generally been to stop doing whatever less-important thing was supposedly taking up my time. Reading novels, for instance. Or playing complex video games. Or reading blogs and message boards on the internet.

    Inevitably, I take up some other interest, and the things I tell myself are important still don't get done. Novels and any game more challenging than solitaire are no longer any part of my routine. Reading content on the internet is my current perceived challenge to, say, cooking or doing household chores on a more regular basis.

    Certainly my past experience with attempting to refocus myself has shown just leaving the computer off won't help me achieve my goals. And my recent four days/three nights without power were not any more productive than my normal days with computer. It does feel restful to deliberately have it off, though.

    In the past, I've denied myself certain activities until some goalpost was reached. This was often weeks at a time, which led to those activities being dropped from my routine and replaced by other interests. To try to avoid this drop-replace cycle, for the next few weeks I'm going to try is leaving the computer off just on the Sabbath.

    I'll use Saturday since I'm worshiping with a Jewish congregation. (Although I have seen it argued that Saturday is the Sabbath for Christians, too.) Giving up social interaction in favor of (hopefully) housework is not the traditional use of the Sabbath, but it's inspired by the idea of having a different routine on that day. I'll be curious to see how this turns out.

    Thursday, July 31, 2008

    Emergency pricing

    If a person calls a plumber on the weekend or the middle of the night, they are generally charged a higher rate than for daytime plumbing. This encourages people to do whatever they can to allow the plumber to work during normal business hours. It compensates plumbers for unexpected loss of their time with family. It's a hardship on people who have truly unforeseen emergencies, though.

    If a tree company cancels all of their scheduled work for two weeks and has its crew work long hours and weekends removing trees from houses: is charging three times their normal rate reasonable compensation? My neighbor and coworkers were rather shocked at the quotes we got for tree removal; accusations of gouging were made. A lot of people removed trees themselves or found non-professionals to do the work; this took a lot of the burden off the tree companies and the storm damage through the city was cleaned up faster.

    I can see where it is unseemly to make money off of the hardships of others. But when a person needs an emergency service, providers of that service are not obligated to donate their time and expertise charitably. It's a fine line between reasonable emergency rates and gouging.

    Tuesday, July 29, 2008

    Sympathy quotient

    Conversations during the first part of last week were an interesting experience. I wanted to talk about the damage on my property and our loss of trees, and about the downed trees in our neighborhood. This elicited a lot of sympathy from people in unaffected areas - both far away (like the national claims office for our insurance; our mortgage company) and nearby (my mother in law and rabbi).

    If I brought up the subject to people who were affected, I was regaled with tales of going three days without running water (no electricity to run their well), trees on cars, people maybe without property damage but a half dozen mature trees downed in their yard and requiring removal. One member of our congregation had no damage with this storm: when I mentioned the tree on our house (it broke off the eaves), he related his experience with a tree taking out his porch and kitchen ten years ago.

    Not knowing who was affected and who was not, it was kind of jolting to go into a conversation expecting to receive sympathy and ending up being on the giving end. My outlook changed based on how recent conversations went: having people feel sorry for me narrowed my focus to my own problems. Talking with people significantly worse off than myself really steered my thoughts towards others.

    I hadn't realized how significantly my social interactions shaped my views.

    Saturday, July 26, 2008

    Stress, physical health, mental health

    I've long been interested in the relationship between emotional stress and physical illness. I was fascinated to read an article in this week's Science News about the relationship between stress, the immune system, inflammatory illnesses, and depression. Apparently, over the past five years, a new line of research has been opened up by research into a new drug: this immune-boosting chemical causes major depression in up to half the patients taking it.

    For many years, the prevailing wisdom has held that when a person is sick or injured, their immune system uses energy to fight the infection or in healing processes. The body then has an energy deficit, and a person feels tired. Makes sense to me.

    But it turns out it's the other way around: if the immune system feels it will be needed, it sends signals to the brain causing depression. The depressed person doesn't do anything energetic, thus freeing up energy for the immune system to use. This pre-injury immune rev-up gave an evolutionary advantage to animals that were likely to be injured shortly after experiencing a stressful situation: being chased by a tiger was the example given in the article.

    However, in an environment where stress is unlikely to be related to physical injury (being yelled at by the boss was the example), this response is no longer advantageous. Not only that, but in the absence of physical injury the inflammatory immune response (which also helps with healing) causes physical illnesses such as psoriasis.

    I think this is the first time a major mechanism for stress-related illnesses has been identified. This research is also pointing to identification of a distinct form of depression: Major Depression Disorder with Increased Inflammation may be added to the next edition of the DSM.

    It's very nice to have a confirmed physical link between what goes on in one's head and what happens in one's body - nothing is really "all in the head". Hopefully understanding these conditions will lead not only to better treatment, but to a more serious societal attitude toward stress-related illnesses.

    Thursday, July 24, 2008

    Is it inappropriate to hug a utility worker?

    After being without power for three and a half days, it was a magical experience to watch the electric line being reconnected to my house. I'm too shy to go through with it, but the urge to hug them was rather strong. I also thought about offering pie. But they were hard at work on the neighbor's house.

    We didn't have 100 mph wind in our area. The local airport only recorded sustained straight-line (i.e. not a tornado) winds of 94 mph.

    We've lost at least three large trees, none of which are on the ground where we could take care of them ourselves. Even after what I'm sure have been some very long days, everyone we've talked to at the tree services has been amazingly friendly (though unfortunately not available for at least two weeks). Ditto for the customer service agents and onsite workers for the utility company.

    And my neighbors - we'd be in much more serious straights without their generous and skilled help over the past few days. We are so fortunate to live in a community with such wonderful people.

    Sunday, July 20, 2008

    If only spirits of the law could talk to us

    Yesterday I spent a few minutes playing my electric keyboard. I took a break, and read the paragraphs on correct playing technique my organ teacher had assigned me. One of the instructions about hand position did not make any sense to me. I thought perhaps it would be useful to people at more advanced levels of skill, but was probably not important for me right now.

    I played a little bit more, and noticed my pinky finger was hurting. I looked at how I was pressing the keys, and thought about exactly what was causing my finger to hurt. I changed my hand position to that described in the technique book, and the pain in my pinky stopped. I should have had more respect for the author of that book.

    But I believe it is reasonable to be wary of following rules I don't understand. For one thing, such blind rule-following impacts me negatively at work. I've had college training as an engineer, and worked with engineers at our customers. If a part we process fails to meet its specifications, I have a general idea about whether it is still a functional part.

    Not true for a few of our customers, who not only don't understand the reasons behind the specifications, but are not interested in learning them. They will insist we either rework the part to meet spec (not always possible, and a waste of time and money if the part is perfectly good as-is) or pay to replace it (again, what a waste if the only thing wrong with it is a technicality).

    I have no desire to provide bad work to any of our customers. Unfortunately, having a customer that is a blind rule-follower makes it very tempting to rely solely on the judgment of my own company on whether an out-of-spec part is still fully functional. Not offering the customer the opportunity to make their own evaluation increases the risk of a part failure.

    Ideally, everyone would understand the reasons behind every rule. Furthermore, they would be able to ignore the rules in situations where the "spirit of the law" does not apply, and never be skeptical of the rule in applicable situations.

    This can't happen in the real world; we just don't have time to research the reasoning behind every rule we encounter in our lives. We often use the heuristic of evaluating our trust of the rule's source, following rules for sources we trust and ignoring rules from sources we lack faith in. Without such heuristics, humans couldn't function, especially in today's complex society.

    But "appeal to authority" is a logical fallacy. That and our other heuristics inevitably have failures. Experiencing such failures can lead to a skepticism of all regulations: and then we fail to follow beneficial rules. I hurt my pinky yesterday. Sometimes the consequences are a lot more serious.

    Thursday, July 17, 2008

    Hot: A matter of perspective

    Two years ago, in the fall, I was with a customer being shown around our plant. I pointed out the different equipment in our lab, and we moved over to the inspection area. Both of those areas are air conditioned. Next, we went out onto the floor to look at some parts.

    The warmer, more humid air really hits you walking out of the conditioned space, and the customer commented on how hard it must be to work in the heat. I heartily agreed: just a couple of weeks before, our area had had temperatures over 100ºF. When it's a hundred degrees outside, it's about 130º by the furnaces, and the operators have to work in that all day long. They often find excuses to come into the lab area, and no one can blame them.

    It wasn't until later that I realized the customer had meant he couldn't imagine working in the heat that day. It couldn't have been even ninety inside the shop.

    I'm not familiar with all the mechanisms that acclimate us to heat; one I've come across is heat shock protein. The author of Better Off writes that he and his wife found medical texts stating that it takes two weeks for a human to completely adjust to functioning in extreme temperatures.

    Regardless of mechanism, I find it amazing how much worse heat feels when you're not used to it. Last week, we had this summer's first day with an outside temperature over ninety. Even the veteran workers at my company were obviously struggling to keep going. This week, they're heartily complaining about the heat, but it's no longer slowing them down. Just a few days of being hot during business hours really changes one's perspective.

    Tuesday, July 15, 2008

    The point: God

    Yesterday, I had my first organ lesson in almost ten years. (It only took three months between deciding to do this and actually getting around to it.)

    One of the things we talked about was music appropriate for Christian churches vs. the Reform Jewish congregation I attend. And that some religions (Orthodox Judaism and Church of Christ, for example) forbid instrumental music in worship services. I shared with him the different religious traditions I was exposed to growing up: my mother has been the organist or choir director for Presbyterian, Disciples of Christ, Episcopalian, and Lutheran churches; my father goes to a Unitarian church; my grandmother was a member of the Church of Christ.

    Thinking about this after the lesson, it really struck me that in none of those places was I going there with the intent of worshiping God. Over the past few years of attending services with my partner, somehow going to a religious service has actually started to feel religious. In a way that makes the rest of my memories of worship services seem like I was completely missing the point. I hadn't even realized there was a point to miss.

    Sunday, July 13, 2008

    Garlic in the shade

    The numerous trees are one of the major reasons we like our property. They're not all positive, though: I've had to move away from most attempts at food growing because our lot is so shady. When I attempted to grow potatoes, for example, I dug up less potatoes in the fall than I had planted in the spring. But garlic and multiplier onions seem to have promise: they do most of their growing in the spring, before the trees have completely leafed out.

    I have no idea how the multiplier onions did: they have all died back, and I can't find where to dig for them (they'll just have to grow next year where they are now). But I dug up 3.2 oz of garlic today. To me, this is really exciting, because I planted 2.5 oz of garlic in the fall last year.

    This is my fifth summer of attempted gardening. I had wondered if my food production would be limited to indoor pots of greens for my parrots. Now, I'm encouraged that perhaps I can grow a little something on a human scale, too.

    Saturday, July 12, 2008

    Neck builder

    I did an exercise video a few days ago, called "core builder". This resulted in my abdominal area being sore: front, left side, right side. Which I expected. What surprised me was that my neck was also sore.

    Now, I'd like to have stronger muscles. It enables me to do a wider variety of yoga postures. It lets me safely lift heavier parts at work. I have a few aerobic workout tapes I can't do safely (i.e. they make my back hurt) if I don't have some strength trained before doing them.

    However, I don't need a thick, sinewy neck for any of those activities. It makes me wonder if, when they put that workout together, the choreographers completely thought things through.

    Thursday, July 10, 2008

    Jumping on the modesty bandwagon

    Back in January, Aunt B. posted on Tiny Cat Pants about women's negative experiences in math class (unrelated to the math). The comments went off topic into a discussion of how men react to women's clothing. In May, Jen from Et Tu? posted a survey that was intended to determine which women's fashions cause men to struggle with chastity. At the beginning of this month, Veronica at Toddled Dredge posted about her experience with prioritizing a modest appearance. And then yesterday, I got the July issue of the Couple to Couple League's newsletter. It has a four-page article on teaching girls to dress modestly.

    Apparently, this is a hot topic. (Although one may view my taking four articles over a six month time frame as evidence of "hot topic" status as proof of my limited reading material.) But there appear to be a significant number of people who miss the culture-specific nature of this message. The CCL article interviewed a woman who said, "But in the end, it all comes down to... Cover it up." This ignores the issues of comfort and freedom of movement that are legitimate reasons for wearing lower cut necklines in hot weather or pants (that show the shape of the legs) over skirts (which, when tight, restrict movement, and when loose, get tangled in certain work and sporting environments). And the fact that "it" is going to be different in different cultures: in ours, "it" is buttocks and busts, while in other cultures "it" is hair, or arms, or toes and ankles.

    There are also many who claim that women's dress is the primary factor driving certain men's struggles with chastity. Which I can dispute just by observing my parrots. The cockatiel (male) seems quite happy to lead a celibate life as my pet. However, it is a struggle for the budgerigar (parakeet). He sexually harasses the cockatiel (the target of his affections is the same sex and a species three times his size) to the point that we have to separate them for several hours every day. Denied intimacy with another bird, the budgie then finds a mirror and engages in self-stimulation. Lest we think this behavior is limited to non-human animals, consider this comment:

    Recently, on the Alan Colmes Show on Fox Radio, the host asked radical antiabortionist Neal Horsley whether it was true he had sex with animals in the past. Horsley replied: "Absolutely. I was a fool. When you grow up on a farm in Georgia, your first girlfriend is a mule." If that surprises some people, he added, "Welcome to domestic life on the farm. You experiment with anything that moves when you are growing up sexually."

    So, my thoughts on women's clothing and men's struggles with chastity: they're only weakly related. However, that doesn't mean women should not dress "modestly". Clothing choices send a culture-specific message about how a woman views herself and how she wants others to view her. By choosing clothing her culture considers modest, a woman sends the message that she values herself apart from her sexuality, and that she does not want others to treat her as a sex object. Which I think is an important message, and the CCL article actually focuses mostly on that aspect (I intend to write them a letter thanking them for that approach). One can be modest without blaming women for the nature of men.

    Sunday, July 6, 2008

    God expresses awesome

    In between the magazines that keep piling up, I've been reading a Haggadah (the story of the Moses and the other Hebrews leaving Egypt). This one is called A Night of Questions, and a comment in the introduction struck me:

    When the Israelites reached the safety of the far side of the Sea of Reeds and paused to look back, they did not say, "lucky break, low tide." They said rather, "this is God."
    The significance of their experience could not be captured by "cool, low tide," or "that was awesome." I can't think of any way our language captures the awesomeness of such events without referring to God: "Praise God!" "Thanks be to God!"

    I've commented on the unique significance of God-phrases before. I'm not sure of the significance of this apparent language barrier for atheists. But the circumscribed expression of those who deny God's existence is certainly a factor pushing me toward the theist camp. Blessed be God.

    Friday, July 4, 2008

    Moist, cool berries

    I harvested about a cup of raspberries today. I got about a cup on the first of July, also, with only a handful earlier than that. There is probably another pint or so still ripening. Which is odd: these are June-bearing raspberries. In 2006, I harvested two cups on the twentieth of June; in 2007 we had a late frost and our total crop for the year was about a cup - almost all harvested by the seventeenth of June.

    I suppose that's what happens when it rains so much (my state broke a record for most precipitation in the first six months of a year). Lack of sunlight, perhaps? Lack of high temperatures, maybe, too: to date, we haven't had a single high above 89ºF.

    There is a lot of new growth in the bramble patches, however. Our plants bear on two-year-old canes, so next year (if we don't have a last frost, or a drought) might be a repeat of the bumper crop in 2006: I think we harvested over a gallon of berries.

    What a blessing the previous owner gave us when they planted the original raspberry plants here. I doubt they knew these plants would establish so well and produce so abundantly with so little care.

    Tuesday, July 1, 2008

    Sleep randomness

    To me, sleep in a fascinating topic. Over the past few years, I've collected some random factoids about it.

    On his most recent appearance on the The Daily Show, Bill Clinton talked about sleep among federal legislators. He believes that legislators now get significantly less sleep than legislators did when Clinton first entered politics. He blames this on certain technological advances and cultural shifts. Clinton believes a significant part of the animosity on Capital Hill is (to paraphrase Stewart's paraphrase of Clinton) due to them being cranky because they missed their nap.

    Marine mammals (whales, dolphins, etc.) are not born able to breathe in their sleep. (Breathing being more complicated when you are an air breather who lives underwater.) For the first few weeks after birth, neither mother nor baby sleeps a wink, then they gradually work their way up to normal amounts of sleep. The fascinating thing: the mothers do not show any signs of sleep deprivation during this time.

    Over the past several years, the science magazine I read has published stronger and stronger evidence linking childhood obesity to lack of sleep.

    Normally I would seek links to support these claims of mine. This would allow any interested readers to easily find more information on each topic. And I have more than once gone looking for a supportive link only to find my information was dead wrong. But this post will have to stay as bald assertions, because it's my bed time.

    Sunday, June 29, 2008

    A matter of perspective

    On Wikipedia, I feel my best work is done in collaboration with other editors. But many of the articles I work on, no one else is working on. There is topic coverage that would not be on Wikipedia if I did not contribute. There are subjects that were peppered with misinformation (that in some cases had been there for years) before I corrected them. Especially with my recent discovery of an article hit counter (some articles I work on get thousands of page views every day), it's easy to feel that I am single-handedly improving the world's knowledge base.

    But the English Wikipedia is near 2.5 million articles. While it suffers from chronic poor writing quality, it has depth of information not available anywhere else. Accuracy is spotty, but apparently good enough for people to use it in droves. Wikipedia has been blamed for the demise of a French encyclopedia, and is viewed as enough of a threat that other encyclopedias (another French one, and the the Encyclopedia Britannica) are imitating its writing model to try to compete.

    My contributions to the project are an infinitesimal part of that picture. Even if I'd never made so much as a spelling correction, Wikipedia would still be in the vaunted position it is today. It's an odd feeling, to see my work as both hugely meaningful, and as completely insignificant.

    Friday, June 27, 2008

    What goes in a lawn

    I think most people view lawns as areas of grass, and (ideally) nothing else. There is a certain aesthetic appeal to an uniform expanse of green.

    For the past month, as I drive around I see many yards with the little white balls that are clover flowers. The feed stores near us do sell clover seeds right beside the grass seeds, so in some yards this may be intentional. In many lawns, however, these flowers stop exactly at the property line. It's rather obvious which houses are using herbicides.

    Which, you know, if they dislike the variegated green of yards with clover (and other plants), and don't think the white flowers are pretty: these are subjective opinions. One can't really argue with that.

    I don't like the idea of heavily chemicalled lawns (they can cause serious environmental problems). With city weed ordinances and restrictive HOA covenants seeming to be everywhere, though, I often feel like I'm in the minority. But driving around and seeing half the houses with the little clover flowers: perhaps society is moving away from the idea of lawn as a monoculture, after all.

    Tuesday, June 24, 2008

    A secret spice

    Last month, we went out to dinner at a fancier restaurant than usual. It was our fifth wedding anniversary. We discussed ordering an appetizer, and I asked my partner what he would like. He told me I should get whatever I wanted, because my menu options were so scarce (I am vegetarian).

    It struck me as odd that my vegetarianism was seen as a burden. True, he, as an omnivore, had the choice of a few dozen delicious-sounding dishes. While I had the choice of three or four very appetizing dishes. I pointed out that, according to Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice, my smaller menu should make me happier with my food. Which, after reading the book, I think is true: I savor good food more now than I did before restricting myself to a vegetarian diet. But, it's not something I would have realized on my own. Self-denial is not an intuitive pathway to satisfaction with life.

    In a typical week, I cook for us three times, we eat out two or three times, and our remaining meals we fend for ourselves around the house. On those nights, my partner and I often struggle with what to feed ourselves. He commented yesterday that the angst of selecting from all the food in our house was perhaps not worth it, "If all I had was wheat berries and water, I would know what I was having for dinner."

    I hadn't realized this was one reason he liked my cooking. It's not just the meal preparation I do for him, it's restricting his options for dinner. I cook it, he eats it. And savors it more than he would if there were other options.

    Sunday, June 22, 2008


    My mother taught me cross-stitch when I was five: I could not draw the letter 'X' and she thought the structure of the canvass would help my spatial skills. I have enjoyed needlework every since. As nifty as handmade items are, however, it's difficult to find a project that would be useful. We don't need more pictures to hang on the walls, we have enough sweaters and blankets and hats and gloves and scarves.

    Many of the women in my knitting group make baby clothing. Babies always need new clothing, plus they're small, so these projects go relatively quickly. Not having any babies in my immediate family, I've found myself attracted to another popular item in this group: socks.

    I have to get a few new pairs every year my old socks develop holes, and socks are worn all year round. Also, they are a medium-sized project that keeps me busy for many weeks, but doesn't seem like a never-ending task. And, there is a definite advantage to handmade over machine-knit socks: the heel.

    The placement of the heel is custom to my foot, where mass-produced socks in my size run a little big on me. Even more exciting, though, the heel is actually square. The sharper angled heel stays in place on my foot much better, making the sock more comfortable and less likely to twist around if I wear it to bed.

    Striped sock, ribbed sock

    The striped sock I made, the plain sock I bought at Target or somewhere similar. The toes on handmade socks are also different, but these don't seem to affect their comfort, only their appearance. The pictured sock is part of only the second pair I've ever made, but I think the benefits of handmade heels will keep me coming back to sock projects for many pairs to come.

    Friday, June 20, 2008

    The marital act

    My earliest memory of discussion premarital sex is with a lab partner in seventh grade. Somehow the subject had come up, she asked me if I believed in premarital sex. I said I did. She was very surprised, asked me if I thought I would have sex before I was married. I said I would. I was honest in my answers, but don't remember taking the subject very seriously. I think I looked at it kind of like going to church: I went some weeks, but not every week, and other people did the same. Some people didn't go at all, and that was OK, too. Some people waited until marriage to have sex, and some didn't, whatever worked for them.

    One of the few other times I remember hearing the subject talked about was with a couple of guys in my twelfth grade English class. One asked the other if he was waiting for marriage, which the other guy was. The first guy was very surprised. Somehow this interaction made me think the wait-until-marriage attitude was more common than I thought. But it still seemed like a religious ritual that was meaningful to some people, but not useful for others.

    During my sophomore year of college, I attend several programs that were part of "Sexual Health Week". One of them was a presentation on how body language contributed to relationships. The presenter talked about hugging, told a story about his son getting really excited about something and kissing his dad (the presenter) on the cheek, discussed the chest-bumps sports players give each other after a good game. I don't really remember how he presented things, but I remember it was making a lot of sense to me. Near the end of the presentation, he drew a graph, a line from the origin up and to the right, with an 'X' at the end. I do not recall what the axis were supposed to represent. He didn't explain the 'X', it was kind of done on the side, but it was obvious that it represented marriage and sex.

    My jaw did not actually drop, but that's pretty much how I felt. That there could actually be a logical, completely areligious reason to limit sex to marriage was a shock to me. It didn't convince me to renounce my intimate activities, but it certainly made me more open to the Catholic arguments along these lines. (I'm fairly certain the presenter was Catholic.) Fascination with Catholic sexual teachings, and practice of fertility awareness, remain important aspects of my life today.

    Tuesday, June 17, 2008

    Making small tasks easier

    At work, many times a day, I attach a tag to a customer's container. Our shipping department uses the tags, so they need to be readily visible. Many of the containers are perforated, or have bands around them, or nails sticking out, or there is a handy tag-holding device on the container. Sometimes, though, there is no good place to attach a tag.

    One of my co-workers has a Leatherman multi-tool. He uses the awl to poke a hole in problematic containers (for threading the tag wire through). When I first with my current company, I would try to imitate this hole creating method with my pens. I kept breaking my writing utensils. I thought about getting my own multi-tool, but it was quite bulky - my coworker has a special holder he wears on his belt. I don't wear a belt to work.

    Then I found this:P-Squirt

    It's small enough I can carry it around on my keychain:P-Squirt on keychain

    And now I, too, can easily make holes in our customer's containers!

    It is also quite handy for retrieving packing lists, opening boxes, acting as a readily available light screwdriver or pliers, a lever in tight places, and more. The main drawback is that the knife is not locking, which is a safety concern. But for the amount I use it and the small size, this is a fantastic device.

    I recently discovered an indispensable home use for this mini multi-tool. Small spice containers have long been a challenge for me to open. "Push here" they say:Photobucket

    If only it were that easy. I've broken the opening into bits (which fall into the container), managed to pop the thing open in one piece (only to have the entire thing fall inside the container), sliced open the entire top of container with a knife... success eluded me.

    Until I tried out one of the screwdriver attachments from my mini-tool. It not only popped out the opening bit, but was thin and small enough I could pull out that bit of plastic and not having it floating around with the spices! Oh, the joy of attaining victory over the spice container.

    Friday, June 13, 2008


    As a child, I lived in the western part of Texas. One of the things I liked about that area was the thunderstorms. Thunder and lightning is beautiful in a way. There is nothing quite like being in a sturdy house as the rain pours down and the wind whips and the thunder booms. I was pleasantly surprised to find those kind of thunderstorms further north where I am now.

    When the tornado sirens went off last night, just when I had gotten to sleep, I was not enjoying the storm so much. The birds weren't particularly happy to be woken up and hauled down to the basement, either. (Although it seems symmetrical, somehow, to them waking us up for an earthquake.)

    At work today, everyone was comparing notes about the storm. How much water one had in the basement was a typical measurement; one man had two feet of water and won what seemed to have become an unofficial contest. There was a distinct feeling of camaraderie about the whole business.

    During the day, I learning one of our customers lost his business. His company is in one of the most affected towns, and is now under ten feet of water. "Total loss" was how the news was conveyed to us. It is very unsettling to have someone I'm acquainted with lose so much that he's worked for decades to build up.

    I feel like there's some meaning in the dichotomy of these experiences. It's tempting to judge the experience of a thunderstorm "good" when it's only effect is to inspire awe of nature, and "evil" when it pulls me out of a sound sleep in fear of my life. "Good" when it pulls people together with a common experience, "evil" when it causes massive destruction. But it's all the same storm.

    A while back, I read a comment on Tiny Cat Pants that has stuck with me:

    ...we are the ones assigning labels like that. Do you think the universe, or God, looks down at a cat tossing around a mouse and cruelly killing it as “monster like”? Of course not. We assign flaw to humans. We say, since you did “this” or are like “that”, you must be flawed.... But, I don’t believe God looks upon us as flawed whatsoever.
    I believe it's related to this kind of experience, where things humans judge as "good" or "bad" are actually just different facets of the same entity. Jen at "Et tu?" wrote just yesterday of how suffering is related to things we value in life. Jen approaches it from a Christian point of view, asking what the role of God and Satan is in these types of experiences. I'm not sure they can be separated into "God" and "Satan" camps, though: the good and bad seem to me to be inextricably intertwined: like they are coming from a being that does not view good and evil the same way humans do, that sees the universe from a more overarching perspective.

    Jen called her post "half-baked", in that she felt this idea was important but she couldn't completely articulate why. I feel much the same way. Even after having these thoughts running around in my head for months, and now organizing them into this post, I think it's still something I'll be exploring for a while.

    Tuesday, June 10, 2008

    A strawberry and a book report

    That's what I've been doing recently, eating a home-grown strawberry and writing what amounts to a book report.

    Walking around my yard admiring the dogwoods in bloom, I found a ripe strawberry, on a plant I grew from seed two and a half years ago. I feel a little silly being excited about a plant probably past its prime producing one berry, but it was delicious.

    My book on condom history is due back at the library on Monday, and I've already used my allowed renewal. So the Wikipedia article is seeing a lot of additions in the history section. I hadn't intended to put myself under a deadline like this, but it is exciting to watch the article grow as I work on it. I keep giving my partner updates: "I made it through the eighteenth century!" "I've written up through World War I!" Only ninety years left to go - not too much for a week, I don't think.

    Saturday, June 7, 2008

    "Summer services"

    The synagogue my partner and I attend has "summer services" for the next few months. Attendance is expected to be lower, so they are held in the library instead of the worship hall. They are shorter than regular services (about an hour instead of an hour and a half), and no oneg (post-worship refreshments) is organized.

    This pared down activity in the summer struck me as odd when we first started attending four years ago. I remember three different churches my family attended growing up (due to moves), and none of them worshiped any differently in the summer. I related my surprise to a Catholic friend from college: she had never heard of such a practice, either.

    My mother is currently an organist at an Episcopalian church, and on my recent visit I went to services with her. During announcements, the priest reminded congregants that during the summer they only have one service on Sundays. Apparently, the rest of the year they offer services twice each Sunday.

    It has no relation to theological concerns of "worship light" being promoted for one quarter of the year. But, knowing our congregation isn't alone in this type of practice made me feel better about "summer services".

    Thursday, June 5, 2008

    Less vague blog title

    When I started this blog, I had a few ideas for posts. But I was not sure if I could post on any kind of regular basis.

    I liked the idea of clarifying my thoughts by putting them in writing. I asked myself the features provided by Blogger are a nice way to format these kinds of writings. But the main attraction for me was the possibility of readers, people to bounce my thoughts off of.

    To my surprise, I've been posting two or three times a week for over three months now. The exercise of organizing my everyday thoughts into blog posts has been an unexpectedly positive experience:

    • Some persistent thoughts that I otherwise would have dismissed, I realized were actually important to me. Having my career choice questioned, for example.
    • Some ideas that sounded really good in my head made no sense written down. Sometimes I aborted these posts; other times the part of my brain that realized I was writing nonsense didn't manage to gain control of my mouse and keyboard. Either way, these posts were learning experiences for me.
    • Some ideas I decided would make poor blog posts, but good conversation with my partner. I share things with him now that I would have previously dismissed as unimportant.
    The comments have been welcome, too, and I certainly hope to have more in the future. But while the possibility of commenters is very helpful in structuring my postings, it is no longer a major motivator to continue blogging.

    These posts are primarily written to see how they look to me on the screen, how they affect me written down, and only secondarily to elicit reactions to others. To try to indicate this role in my blog's title, I've turned to a semi-nonsense passage often used as placeholder text:
    Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.
    This text is often known by its first two words, lorem ipsum, and I've played on them with my internet handle to retitle my blog, Lyrlem Ipsum. (The address will not change, just the title.)

    Monday, June 2, 2008

    Racial tension

    While my father attended graduate school, I attended an elementary school that bussed its (primarily white) students, in either fourth or fifth grade, to a school with a primarily black student body. The year before my turn to be bussed, our class was given a tour of the school we would be attending the next year.

    Near the end of the tour, for some reason I volunteered that I would not be going to this school: my family was moving. The teacher seemed upset and said she really wished my parents would reconsider. I was confused by her reaction, but didn't pursue the subject. Looking back, I'm sure she thought our move was purposed to avoid my attending school with black children. Really, I don't think my parents could have cared less about the busing: we were moving because my father had graduated and gotten a job.

    My next memory of racial tension is several years later, while helping with a summer day camp program at my church (Vacation Bible School). I was responsible for moving one of the classes (around five years old, I think) from teacher to teacher for the programs, and for supervising them during play time. There was only one black child in the group, a sweet little girl, and she took a liking to me. Until she thought I based a decision she didn't like on her skin color. Each time that happened, she wouldn't talk to me for some length of time. Some of her hurt feelings were obviously the misunderstandings of a five year old, but others really made me wonder: was I subconsciously favoring children who looked like me?

    Now, when interacting with a black person I don't know, I am very aware of how my actions might be perceived. During a layover on my recent trip, I spent some time watching the news at one of the TVs scattered around the airport. It was near the time I needed to move to my gate, and a black man sits down next to me. I felt quite bad getting up and leaving right away, afraid the impression I left is that I didn't want to sit next a person of his skin color. How would he know my plane was boarding soon?

    My limited experiences comprise only a tiny piece of the racial tension in our society. But even removed at such a distance from the severe effects of this tension: what a mess.

    Note to self

    If you neglect to take your iron supplements on vacation with you, you should not feel obligated to keep an appointment to donate blood the next week. Being rejected for low iron is not a good use of anyone's time.

    Saturday, May 31, 2008

    Being open to learning

    On the plane ride home from my recent trip, a woman with a child about one year old was sitting behind me. The little girl periodically kicked my chair, which brought up many memories of my own chair kicking days. Many roadtrips, over many years.

    Looking back, it's amazing to me that the idea that kicking a chair might bother anyone took so long to sink in. The fact that my parents complained when I kicked their chair didn't make sense to me; I think I was around ten before it registered that they could actually feel it when I kicked their chair.

    I tend to think of the 'normal' way of learning as being exposed to new concepts, or concepts presented in a novel way. That sometimes I learn things by just seeing familiar things (like parents' complaints) in a different way (such as, they might actually be bothered by what they were complaining about) feels very strange every time. Often I think the Christian concept of the Holy Spirit is a useful way to relate these kinds of experiences.

    Unfortunately, it seems to be easy to shut out that kind of learning, becoming very attached to a particular way of thinking. It was nice to have that little girl remind me to be open to that kind of new understanding. The happy baby noises she made for much of the trip were wonderful, too.