Saturday, April 23, 2016

Ask An Atheist: Identity Crisis

I was asked another question on Facebook by B.  B. and I have known each other since 9th grade, so she knew me when I was a Christian. She asked:
Why do you think that being an atheist has become such a big part of your self identity?
I think this is a really valid question, one I'm especially interested in writing about. This is something I've thought long and hard on for almost two years, so I'll give these two main reasons.

1. Because my identity HAS completely changed. "My identity is in Christ." How many times have we evangelicals heard or used this phrase? For me, I used it all the time. My significance was found in Christ. My identity was in Christ. My purpose and reason for being was Christ. My whole life, especially my adult life, was centered around Christ. If I ever felt that something else was taking that place, I repented, ashamed. I was nowhere near perfect, I counted myself as one of the worst, most unworthy people to call myself a Christian, but I longed to be like Christ in all I did and all I was. I truly wanted my identity to be in him. I wanted the world to know that I was a follower of Jesus. I normally made it known very early on in a new friendship with someone that I was a Christian. I wanted to shine my light everywhere I went.

I was never asked why my faith was such a big part of my identity.

I'm not making that point to criticize the question; it is a really great, thoughtful, important question. But there is an element in the question that implies it shouldn't be. Atheism shouldn't be that important to me, even though faith absolutely can and should be.

So why has being an atheist become such a big part of my identity? Because it literally altered my entire identity. One thing as small as believing in a god or not quite literally altered my entire sense of self.

That Christian label that I'd worn for as long as I could remember was ripped off. And it left behind almost nothing. Without my faith, I didn't know who I was or who I could even be anymore. Would I become a selfish, terrible, mean, unkind person without God?  What am I, if not a follower of Christ? What is left of me worth salvaging if I don't have my faith anymore?  It wasn't until I had a moment of clarity, when I realized that I didn't have to believe in a god to be the same person I always was, that I started to rediscover myself. I realized that I still was and always had been and always could be a good person. I hadn't been the worthless, sinful, depraved person I'd believed myself to be my whole life; that was what religion had taught me. Religion had taught me I was a sinner in need of a savior; atheism taught me that I have worth, that I create my own destiny, that I am a good person because I choose to be, not because a deity saved me from my evil instincts.  "Luckily I held out long enough to see that everybody really makes their own destiny. It's a beautiful thing, it's just you and me, exactly where we belong, and there's nothing inherently wrong with us." (Quite Company)

*I fully realize that every Christian reading that will think that is a tragically arrogant, "deceived", lie-of-the-devil, heart-breaking thing to say, and no amount of arguing will convince them otherwise. I just have to accept that is what they/you will think. I thought it once too. I know.

I could no longer go around with a lingering Christian label. It wasn't enough to just rip the label off. It had to be replaced with something new. My identity had fundamentally changed. That's a big deal.

2. Because the stigma needs to end. When I finally admitted to myself I no longer believed in God, I was uncomfortable with the term "atheist". It had always been a very negative word to me, one I acquainted with loudmouth, obnoxious jerks who just want to make religious people feel stupid all the time. I tried labeling myself something less offensive: agnostic, humanist, non-religious.  But really, atheist pretty much summed it up.

As I began meeting other atheists and started experiencing life as an atheist in a very Christian society, I began to realize just how toxic the stigma on atheists is. We are the least trusted group in America. A Gallup poll showed that more Americans would vote for a Muslim or a gay person for President than an atheist. Why? What is it about simply not believing in a religion that makes us so threatening and unlikable? All the atheists I was getting to know via a Facebook group for non-believing mothers were extremely kind, thoughtful, generous, and intelligent. So how is it that the term atheist inspires such disgust?

I decided to be one small but audible voice that would speak for atheists.  We are not all disrespectful and militant. I'm aware that my embracing atheism makes many people uncomfortable. I'm not blind to that, and I do hate that it has to be that way. But does it have to be that way? Why should it make people uncomfortable? It shouldn't. If I converted to Catholicism or Mormonism, would my speaking about it cause them the same level of discomfort? Not anywhere near to the same degree. So my atheism has become a part of my identity in part to help end the stigma that comes with the word.  I can be your token atheist friend, if that's what it takes. My generation having had that "token gay friend" is actually a huge reason why LGBT rights have come as far as they have in the past few years. Knowing someone personally is often what changes people's preconceived notions. Maybe the social tide can turn a little if everyone had a token atheist friend. In another generation, maybe just knowing a friendly atheist will bring an end to the stigma.

*I fully expect some people to think, "Well, you aren't that respectful - you sort of shove your atheism down our throats." To that I'd have to ask, "Really? Do I? Or do I just talk about atheism in the same very personal way you talk about your faith?" If simply talking about one's own faith is not shoving it down my throat, then my talking about my lack of faith is not shoving it down anyone else's. If posting Christian articles or praising God on Facebook or writing blogs about how Jesus has changed your life is acceptable, then so should anything else equally non-confrontational. I'd have to challenge the person who thinks I shove my atheism down their throat to recall a time when I've insulted anyone for their faith or tried to turn them into an atheist. (Conversely, I've had plenty of reconversion attempts made on me.) I'm just sayin'. If you don't like what I say, don't read it. I won't be offended, promise.

Final thought. I do sometimes feel uncomfortable with this "identity". I recognize it is not politically or professionally astute. I sometimes worry I could lose my job. I worry about my kids being bullied at school for not going to church and having atheist parents. There is a lot to lose to being an atheist here in the Bible Belt. Quite a staggering number of people have confided in me since my "coming out" that they are closet atheists, unafraid to tell their families, friends, or even spouses, that they do not believe. Somehow that makes it all the more important to me to keep speaking up. Maybe I'll lose my job (I hope not) or my friends or even some family members (I really hope not), but if it also results in a change of opinion or attitude in a some people, then maybe at least some good would come of it. The more of us willing to come out, the more people will accept us, because they will know us.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Ask An Atheist: Pascal's Wager

I've been asked many times before, "But what if you're wrong?" I admit, if I'm wrong, and there is a god, and he is the God of the Bible, then that would really suck.

However. The chances of that are so incredibly slim, I'd be just as safe putting my faith in Ra the sun god or Aslan the lion or the angel Moroni.

Even so, to point a fine theological point on it, if the Bible is true, then the essence of this question isn't about Pascal's Wager (if you're wrong, you lose nothing; if you're right, you gain everything) but the nature of faith. In my book, I wrote a chapter addressing this very topic. Bolding is to emphasize the point here.

Pascal’s Wager Part 2:
Esau I Have Hated

My fear of hell was diminishing. It had mostly disappeared, except that every now and then, fear still momentarily struck my heart. I am literally playing with fire, I’d think. I’d get a sense that I better repent quickly just in case it all turned out to be true after all.

What I will lose if I wager wrongly! There is an eternity of suffering waiting for me should I wager against God and be wrong. What do I lose by following God and there is no God? Very little. What do I lose by not following God should there be a God? Everything. On these little occasions, I panicked about how I had played my cards, as the fear of hell crept back up on me.

Pascal’s Wager almost makes some sense, except the wager overlooks two important issues. First, it assumes that the only God worth wagering on is the Christian God, ignoring the possibility that a different religion might be the right one. Still, that issue aside, the second thing it overlooks is that without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). Yet faith is a gift from God, it is not of ourselves (Ephesians 2:8). Therefore, I cannot please God without faith if he does not choose to give it to me. I could wager that God was real and keep following him as I had been doing for the past three years, but I would not be saved, for anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists (Hebrews 11:6). Pascal’s Wager is useless without faith.

Anyone who believes seriously that the Bible is God's inerrant word would have to agree that "believing" in God solely on the off-chance that he is real is not true faith at all. They would also have to agree that faith cannot be faked.

But they would also have to acknowledge that faith is a gift from God - it does not come from within ourselves. To be saved one must have genuine faith, and to have genuine faith, it must be given to one by God himself. Ergo, if God does not give you faith, you cannot be saved, end of story.

Try to insert "free will" into that wherever you like, but it really can't alter the Biblical "facts". One could try to believe on one's own, but unless God grants you faith, you're up a creek without a paddle, as they say.

"You could at least try, though. God would answer a sincere request for faith." I've heard that too. I believed that once. I hoped for that outcome for three years. Oddly enough, once the innate belief in God started to diminish, God mysteriously stopped answering my sincere request for faith.

So, to conclude my thoughts on the fatal flaws Pascal's Wager, I'll give you the rest of that chapter above.

Sadly, it was fear, not love, that sporadically warned me to reconsider God. God’s love had been gone from my life for a long time. Abandonment and silence echoed in the cavern where love once dwelled. But fear could still make me draw in a sharp breath, as it sliced through my heart like a paper cut. When I paid this fear some attention, it gathered like a thundercloud inside my head and struck my conscience with forks of lightning. I asked myself, Do you really want to bet your life on this and end up languishing in excruciating damnation for your sinful pride, your worldly “wisdom”, your pitiful human understanding, for all eternity?

Fear is a powerful tool. Yet if God’s plan for restoring my faith was fear-mongering, I was even less inclined to believe he was the God of Love I once knew – or thought – him to be. If it were the love of God striking my heart, drawing me to him, there would be something in it worth carefully considering. However, the fact that only the fear remained seemed psychologically obvious. It was neither God himself, nor his Holy Spirit, calling me back, but thirty years of theological manipulation. Hell is the scariest and most effective tool for keeping the righteous in check. Heaven’s promise pales in its alluring.

The revoked love of God in my life and the dubious possibility of heaven were not enough to draw me back to faith. The fear of hell and the almost certainty of God’s wrath, however, left me quaking. With the cards of my still unfinished life lying on the table, I could still change how I placed my bets. Yet if the God of the Bible is the one true God, my bets don’t matter in the slightest. God chooses whom he loves and whom he hates. He chose Jacob but hated Esau (Malachi 1:2-3).The cards on the table were never mine to choose from.

And we call this agape.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Ask An Atheist: Where do your morals come from?

With "Ask An Atheist" day coming up (the third Thursday in April, according to the Secular Student Alliance), I'm offering to give an answer to any questions anyone might have this week about atheists. This question came from D. on Facebook:
My question. In response to statement 2 ["I have not lost my morals"]. If there is no God, where does your basis of morality come from? Why do you need to be moral other than to follow the laws of the land, and not be convicted of a crime. And where does the basis of the laws of the land come from, except from the 10 commandments which were given by God himself?
To answer this question, I must go very far back in time - approximately 40,000 - 100,000 years ago or so. The following may be hard to swallow for anyone who does not understand or accept human evolution. But if you want to know where my basis for morality comes from, you must read on.

When humans first started doing humanish things, like making tools and drawing cave paintings, we were not much different than the other animals living around us. We were, around this time, give or take a few thousand years, learning to live together in tribes and trying to create meaning and reason out of what we were experiencing and observing. We know this, because there is evidence that we were burying our dead in ceremonies. The pressure to survive was great, but our brains were developing the ability to think past survival instincts. Like many other developed mammals, we were developing characteristics that we still see today in nature - one of which was altruism.

We were beginning to understand that if we care for our young, they will grow up to be useful to our group. We were developing a tendency to pair-bond (monogamous mating). We were discovering that when you treat members of your tribe well, they won't try to kill you. We were beginning to understand that in order to survive, we must work as a team, hunting and gathering for food, and protecting each other from other bands of humans. And as survival became the tiniest bit more certain, and the constant fight to stay alive would every once in a while give way to moments of leisure, we were then able to wonder and think and notice that we felt something which would one day would be called "empathy".

While altruism and even empathy can be seen in other animals, human development of these traits was exceptional.  Through caring for our young, banding together with our tribes, and protecting our families against outside threats, relationships developed, and learning how to be better at relationships actually caused our brains to develop even further. We developed the ability to feel someone else's pain - whether it be sympathy for the cry of our offspring or the pleasure of bonding with another human or the sadness of a death within the tribe. We had no issue killing other people from other tribes, who had no relevance to us, but within our own groups, we were learning to do good to one another.

So where does the basis of our morality come from? It comes from the very empathy and altruism that brought our species alive and well into recordable history. It has become ingrained in us, it is part of our fabric, maybe even our DNA.

*Psst. If you believe humans were created by the God of the Bible, rather than evolved, you can start here, because the Bible starts here.

As our brains further developed and we began forming larger societies, we began making rules. These rules kept us alive, kept us from killing each other.  A side-effect of rule-making was increased safety and leisure. With leisure comes thinking and wondering.  We began to wonder what we are. We began to wonder why we are here.  Societies developed into cultures, and cultures developed religions.  Some societies looked at the sun, which gave both life-saving warmth and life-taking heat, which caused food to grow or could cause it to die, and those people believed the sun was the reason we are here, and they worshiped it. Other societies found other natural phenomena to be the answer for why we are here. And then some societies began thinking even more "out of the box". Perhaps there is an invisible force that put us here, and we should worship it. They called it "God".

We'd already learned that rules keep us safe, so it easily followed that those rules were actually God's rules. And if God's rules keep us safe, God must want us to be safe. We had learned that we keep our offspring and fellow tribesmen safe, because we care about them - maybe even love them - so perhaps God keeps us safe with rules because he loves us too. And so forth and so on. As we evaluated our own experiences, we personified the idea of a person-like God.

At this point, we have a basic code of morality, which consisted of basics like "don't kill people" - because killing people destroyed our chances of survival. As early as our written record can show, we had other laws and rules of morality such as "do not steal" - because stealing seemed to have bad side-effects for our society. (It often led back to that whole trying-not-to-get-killed thing.)  But we did other things that later generations would find highly immoral. We stoned people for doing bad things. We cut off people's hands for stealing. We raped and pillaged other societies in order to have their land and belongings. Because "do not steal" only really mattered within the tribe. We had no problem stealing from other tribes, because their survival meant nothing to us. So while we had a basic underlying basis of "morality", the specifics of what was considered moral was very different from what we have today. The specifics would go on to change again and again and again from generation to generation.

So, while at first we were happy mutilating, punishing, and killing people for various reasons,we continued to progress and started rethinking some of our previous behaviors. We made new laws about not raping and pillaging. We began making peace treaties with other tribes, because it actually turned out to be advantageous for both parties to do so. But if a tribe wasn't worth anything to us, we still did horrible things to them. We even wrote these things into laws. (For instance, if a tribe did not believe in the same god as you, it was okay to kill every man, woman, and child in that tribe and take all of their things.) We considered ourselves living morally.

I'm going to fast forward now out of the ancient era and into the 1700-1800s. It's easier to think of morality in real terms when we bring it into our own recent history. During this time period, we believed it was perfectly fine to steal Africans from their land and force them to work for us. We beat them, raped them, mutilated them, starved them, traded them, worked them literally to death, and felt no remorse for it. It wasn't "immoral" to us at that point. And our religions didn't stop us - in fact, our religions saw no problem with ownership of other human beings, as long as there were one or two caveats, which were conveniently ignored.  We thought ourselves quite moral and God-fearing even as we tore the flesh off other human beings.

We, however, continued to progress (slowly) and eventually, slavery was considered immoral, and we stopped owning people - at least in a literal, lawful sense. But we still refused to give those Africans we'd stolen from their homes in the first place an equal place in our society, because it wasn't advantageous to do so. Their lives were still threatened by us every single day, but we weren't concerned, because we had done the moral thing by abolishing slavery. We considered ourselves very moral people at that time.

Fast forward to today. What was considered moral only a few decades ago is now considered barbaric and completely unacceptable for an enlightened society. A few decades ago, we lynched black people. A few decades ago, we chemically castrated homosexuals. Today those practices are utterly deplorable. However, many currently still think that interracial marriages or same-sex marriages are immoral, and have no place in a "moral" society like ours.  Give us only a few more decades, though and stopping people from marrying for either of these reasons will seem as deplorable as Jim Crow seems to us now.

The bottom line is this: Morality simply is not consistent. Morality is relative. It just is. There are moral laws that we have been abiding by for as long as we have human record - do not kill, do not steal, do not lie - because they have helped ensure our survival and a peaceful and just society. But the nuances are forever changing. Whether you believe the world is billions of years old or only thousands, there is still more than enough evidence in human history to prove that moral laws are constantly changing. Even evangelical Christians today will admit that many of the Biblical laws are obsolete (mixed fabrics, anyone? Tattoos? Marrying outside your tribe? Long hair for women?).  The Ten Commandments itself is largely made not of actual moral laws but religious ones - do not serve false gods, do not put other gods before God, keep the Sabbath.  These are not universal moral codes, like do not murder and do not steal; they do not constitute what is universally agreed upon as morality. Let us not forget that all ancient societies had moral codes; Judaism was not unique in that. The Assyrians, the Hittites, the Greeks, the Egyptians, all had laws dictating what was moral and good. Even societies that did not worship gods had moral codes.

To sum up, God is not the reason we have morals. If anything, morals are the reason we have God. Our morals, as human beings, come from thousands and thousands of years worth of experience, empathy-building, and rule-abiding. Why do I not go around doing terrible things if I have no god to stop me? Because I have empathy and an understanding of cause-and-effect. I do not want to hurt other people. I do not want to hurt myself. And furthermore, as a 21st century human living in the developed world, I am so safe and so unconcerned with my personal survival that I get to spend copious amounts of time thinking and wondering and imagining what a world without rules and empathy would look like, and I do not want any part of a world like that.

I do not need a god-figure to scare me out of doing evil. I have figured out, thanks to the billions of humans before me, that doing good is far better for me, my loved ones, and my society than doing harm. The specifics of my morals, however, may always change - and I certainly hope they do, for the better.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

If you could choose one word to sum up your life, what would it be?

A few weeks ago I attended a Women In Networking lunch where author Erin Wood spoke of her book Scars. She first shared with us her varied background, which included having been a high-flying lawyer for many years. The WIN coordinator asked her to sum up her background in one word, and I wish I could remember what she answered (because it was a great answer), but the reason I cannot is because ever since that moment, that question has been churning around in my brain. If I could sum up my life in one word, what would it be?

I feel I too have had quite a varied background. I have worked in a fundraising department of a university, and as a newsletter and magazine writer/editor in a high school. I've been a self-employed baby sign language teacher and a self-employed childminder. I co-founded a breastfeeding charity and volunteered as a breastfeeding peer supporter. I used to speak a lot in church ("five minute spots" we called them) where I shared my faith, and then years later I ended up writing a book about my journey away from faith. Now I work for a non-profit in Communications and am getting more involved with a charity that supports homeless LGBT young people. It all seems rather eclectic, but I feel there is one theme that runs through most of what I do.

Voices. Being one, listening to them.

I have always felt the need to speak up when others cannot, to lend a voice to those still trying to find the words.  In a very literal sense, I did this through teaching babies to sign to their carers, giving them the chance to communicate before they were able to speak. I felt a such a thrill every time a baby did his or her first sign. I remember with pride the first time my daughter signed "cat", indicating she wanted to pet the neighbor's tabby on the way to the car. (Otherwise, I'd have thought she was squirming out of my arms just to be obstinate.) Every time a baby signed "milk" or "food", or even better, something specific like "dog" or "bath", the power and joy of communication was being fostered in that tiny human being.

I was not always so good at listening to voices until I became a breastfeeding supporter. During our training, we learned to just listen. Sometimes all someone needs is a chance for their own voice to be heard. My voice cannot always speak for yours. As a breastfeeding supporter I spent a lot of time just listening, asking questions that allowed the other person to find the words that would eventually empower them. Only after listening could we then become good advocates. As breastfeeding advocates, my peers and I learned how to speak up for breastfeeding mums in a wider space - through interviews, press releases, campaigns, newsletters, and creating support groups.  We  aimed to bring greater public awareness and education to our community regarding the rights of breastfeeding mothers and babies and the health benefits breastfeeding provides. Our goal was to make our community a more acceptable place for mothers to freely feed their babies. Many breastfeeding mums (first time mums especially) find breastfeeding in public daunting; we wanted to build their confidence by surrounding them with support and changing local attitudes. We listened to their voices, and then we spoke on their behalf.

(We also aimed to bridge the sometimes grisly gap between breastfeeding mums and bottle-feeding mums. We started a Baby Cafe that encouraged ALL mums to come together and share their stories with each other, normalizing breastfeeding and destigmatizing bottle-feeding in those kinds of groups.)

When I came out as an atheist, I did so publicly, to be a voice for those who were secretly also questioning their faith or still needing to keep their non-belief under wraps. I know many Christians (and believers from other religions) question their beliefs but are terrified of the consequences should they reject it. Having been a devout Christian myself my whole life, I had experienced that terror myself when I began to doubt.  I wanted to assure those people that someone else has been in their shoes and knows how it feels.  Writing a deeply personal memoir about my experiences cost me a lot personally, but it allowed me to share my words. lend my voice, in a way that could help others find theirs. Now, every private message or email I get that thanks me for putting myself out there makes my vulnerability worth it. Just knowing that I've made someone else feel not so alone is all the reward I need. Just knowing that I've been able to help someone put their own thoughts and feelings into words is indescribably valuable.

I also wanted to bridge a gap between believers and non-believers that is so often too wide for anyone to cross. I wanted to give a voice to non-believers, but I also wanted to be a voice for believers too. Believers are often mocked for their "indoctrination"; I wanted to show that many times, religious people are not actually mindless, brainwashed zombies but intelligent people who have thoroughly thought through their beliefs. (I was always a critical thinker myself as a Christian, though my questions eventually led me to a different conclusion.)

In every aspect of my life, I've realized, there has an element of being a voice for someone who needs one, or sometimes not a voice but an ear to listen to their voices. Voices matter. Your voice matters, everyone's matters. If my eulogy reads, "She listened when I needed to talk, and she spoke for me when I couldn't", that would be legacy enough for me.

If you had to describe your life in one word or a few words, what would it be?

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

5 Things You Didn't Know About the Girl at the Gym Today

1. She's wearing make-up for a good reason. Two good reasons, actually. First of all, she decided to workout right after work, because she knew if she came home first, she'd never get back out the door. There was no time to wipe off the eyeliner and mascara she wore after her 8.5 hour day with no breaks and lunch at her desk. Secondly, she likes how she looks with make-up, so even if she'd chosen to put make-up on solely for the gym, who cares? If it makes her feel better about herself to see a reflection in the large floor-to-ceiling gym mirrors that doesn't make her cringe, shouldn't that be reason enough? Whether she's coming in straight after work or wearing make-up just for the fun of it, she's got a good reason.

2. She chose the gym over more destructive choices. She looks at her size 10 body and sees someone twice her size. She must tell herself on a daily basis not to hate that body in the mirror. She must tell herself daily to stop comparing it to the other bodies she sees, to stop wanting all the other bodies she sees and love the one she's in. Every once in a while, the temptations creep in. She has to make promises to herself not to starve, not to throw up. She has to promise her husband she will eat and will tell him when the temptations get too strong. She has to promise herself she'll be safe. Just last night, she picked up a bottle of Dexatrim and thought how easy it would be to buy it and hide it from her husband; he'd never know. She kept her promise to herself and put it back on the shelf. She chose to workout instead and do things the right way today.

3. She sometimes hides her tears behind the sweat.  Sometimes making it to the gym is more than just a battle against exhaustion or laziness. Sometimes it's a battle against the dark specter of depression that is always waiting behind a corner for her. Often she doesn't even know it's fallen upon her until she is lost in its shadow, like a slow dusk at summertime. When that happens, she spends a little time each day fighting back tears of helplessness. During an activity like exercise that leaves her mind so open to personal thoughts and feelings, the tears spill on their own. If she can pretend to others that the salty streaks on her cheeks are sweat, she will, because she's convinced she must hide what's really going on insider her. She is terrified of being judged for her weakness.

4. In fact, she only just barely showed up today. On those days, when depression has wrapped its veiled arms around her, she already has too many choices she's forced to make: whether to go to work or call in sick, whether to make dinner or just order takeout again, whether to pay attention to her kids or hide away from them, whether to talk to her husband or ignore him. The fact that she made a voluntary decision to do something positive for herself on top of all the other things she must decide to do is a huge personal win. It would always be easier to stay home and hide from it all.

5. Regardless of how fast she can run or how much weight she can lift, she is strong.  Maybe she doesn't run very fast, but she chose to run today. Maybe she can't lift as much as she used to, but she chose to show up today. Some days she only accomplishes the bare minimum: go to work, feed the kids, go to sleep. But even on those days, she is strong. She has not given up; she has promised herself she will not give up. She can't always be the person she wants to be or that you expect her to be. Still, she keeps trying - not for your sake, but for hers. For her own sake she smiles. For her own sake she laughs. She takes deep breaths and makes many choices. She often hides the truth, but now and then, she tells it. This is how she churns her weakness into strength.

Friday, April 01, 2016

34 Bucket List

Today is my birthday. Yay!

Today I turned 34, and I have decided that next year will be my last birthday. No, I'm not planning on topping myself next year, I've just decided 35 is the age I shall remain for all eternity. I can do that, right?

So to prepare for my very last birthday, I have put together my bucket list for the year 34.

My birthday present to myself: A year of living life to the fullest. 

1. Read 34 new books
2. Visit a new city
3. Order a dirty martini
4. Get a cleaner in at least once
5. Do something rebellious
6. Pick back up an old hobby or interest
7. Visit the beach
8.Get rid of 34 things
9. Try a new, exotic food
10. Do something politically active
11. Read the US Constitution
12. Donate to a new cause
13. Create 34 original things
14. Sing a showtune at a karaoke bar
15. Go on an adventure with husband
16. Build a coop to raise chickens
17. Learn how to wolf whistle
18. Write or mail 34 letters or parcels
19. Complete Trailhead Admin training
20. Play a video game
21. Protest against or march for something
22. Take kids on a surprise trip
23. Publish a book
24. Climb a mountain
25. Get hot stone massage
26. Join a group
27. Get Lasix
28. Paint a picture
29. Buy a house
30. Get a tattoo
31. Run a race
32. See a play
33. Read Macbeth
34. Throw a party

Happy birthday to me!

Thanks to everyone who wished me a happy birthday and helped make it so in many different ways - by sending me flowers at work (kids and Scott), surprising me with cake and a card during a training session (my Communications team), paying for me to get a massage (Mom and David), a still-to-be-opened pressie (Dad and Denise), surprising me with a gift at my birthday dinner (Matt and Charity), celebrating my birthday dinner (lots of people), celebrating my co-birthday lunch (Scott, Elizabeth, Daniel, Mandy, and Jared, the co-birthday boy), a stack of really awesome-looking books (Andy and Marion, my in-laws), giving me a free hair wash, dry and style (my stylist, Kristin), and *really* surprising me with a very unexpected birthday present, a new laptop (Scott!), not to mention all the people who have texted and Facebooked me happy birthday messages today (lots of family and friends). Love to all of you. xx

Monday, March 21, 2016

Operation: Kick Spring Break Tail

I have nine days in a row off work. Nine! It's Spring Break, and it's my first real vacation from work, aside from random days here and there. I am determined to make the absolute MOST of it. Operation: Kick Spring Break Tail has begun!

It started on Friday after work last week. It was an exhausting day (week, actually, no month - wait, it's ALWAYS exhausting), and I was so relieved to get home and forget about work for a week.  (That didn't really happen. I was up all through the night that night thinking about things I hadn't satisfactorily tied up and stressing about them.) It being the start of Spring Break for the kids too, I promised them they could have friends over. So Friday night, we had two extra girls in the house. Scott worked late, so I had five kids on my own all night. But I refused to let that get me down! We ate frozen pizza for dinner, and I started the break off with a bang - and by bang, I mean cupcakes!

With Cadbury's Mini Eggs

I was told by my two extra children that I was the coolest mom ever. Yes, dears, that's because I haven't yelled at you to clean your room and threatened to take away your allowance.

The next morning, we exchanged those two girls for three different children.  We kept my friends' kids (8 year old and 2 year old) over night so they could have a proper date night and went ahead and also invited over another kid to stay. Why not? Six kids? I used to keep six kids at a time as a childminder. I can take this.

We ordered pizza (pizza two nights in a row, talk about "coolest mom ever") and rented The Good Dinosaur. And ate cupcakes, of course.

Oh, and we dyed everyone's hair. Spring Break gone wild! Whooo!

Sunday morning was Secular Sunday, which is really just our and one other atheist couple's version of once-a-month church. We make a big breakfast, let the kids run around together in their pajamas, and "fellowship". The only church aspect missing is the sermon and the singing. And the praying. And the getting dressed. Okay, it's nothing like church. Yesterday, breakfast ran into lunch, and it was just a super great morning. In the afternoon, I took two of my three kids shopping for Easter outfits. We don't go to church, so it's really just an excuse to buy sweet dresses for my girls and a little suit for my boy, to wear absolutely nowhere. Yay!

Today has been an errands and phone calls day, while Jaguar watches endless episodes of Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood and the girls watch Minecraft videos on YouTube. I forgot how leisurely errands can be when you aren't doing them during your lunch break. It's 2pm, and I've spent the day getting the cars assessed, talking to the bank, taking a nap, shopping, and eating pretzels with cheese at Target. I'm considering taking another nap after this. Then I'm going to bake chocolate chip cookies from scratch. I might finish off the night with a dram of whisky and Netflix.

And y'all, it's only Monday! Whooo!

Operation: Kick Spring Break Tail is well on its way. May it never end, like Groundhog Day

Monday, March 14, 2016

May the Pi Be With You

I utterly failed today in my employment of mother and wife to my squad of mathy, sweet-toothed geeks. Yes it is Pi Day - and I did not make any pie. I did not make any Pi jokes either. I actually forgot it was Pi Day until about 40 minutes ago, long after my mini geeklings were in bed and my geek co-equal was lounging on the couch with a dram of Scotch and a TV show he discovered on Netflix.

With only an hour left of Pi Day to go, I cannot hope to simply skip into the kitchen and whip up something pi-alicious in time, thus saving my already fragile chance of being seated in the everlasting realm of Supermoms. My cape is already fraying, my ridiculously impractical stiletto boots are already scuffed. And here I am on this second most dorky of days (I will always have May the 4th to make up for this), half asleep on the recliner, watching Hamilton the musical clips while reading the code duello on Wikipedia, instead of creating delicious heavenly pi from hand peeled apples and organic raw cane sugar.

(One might be able to make the case that while I failed in the domesticity of Pi Day, I succeeded in being extraordinarily geeky in my own theater nerd right. I am not throwing away my shot.)

So since I can't offer you anything sweet with cartoon squiggles wafting from a hot handmade crust tonight, I leave you this. Happy Closer-To-the-Real-Pi-Day-Than-Last-Year's-Pi-Day(But-Still-Not-Actual-Pi-Day) Pi Day.

Monday, March 07, 2016

Being A Human Being: The Right to Health Care

Bernie Sanders: "I happen to believe, and I know not everybody agrees with me, I believe that health care is a right of all people..."
Bret Baier: "Where did that right come from, in your mind?"
Sanders: "Being a human being. Being a human being." - Democratic Town Hall, Fox News, Mar. 7, 2016

I've said it before: health care is one of my biggest hot button political issues and has been for several years now. The above quote came from tonight's Democratic Town Hall in Detroit, MI, and it could not speak more clearly to my beliefs about a person's right to receive health care.

I spent most of my adult life in the United Kingdom under the National Health Service (NHS), a single payer health care system which pays for its services through taxes. I have personally experienced the good and the bad.

Here's an example of the bad, starting with a comparison of the good in the US.

When I was twenty-two, still living in the US just months before getting married and moving to the UK, a lump was found in my breast at a routine annual visit. The OBGYN at the college health center where I had the exam was concerned and scheduled an appointment for me the following week with a specialist. The following week, I saw the specialist who did his own exam and some scans. The scans showed two lumps which seriously concerned him. He said the size of one of these lumps was so large that he "wouldn't leave that inside anyone." He scheduled me the next day for a lumpectomy. Thankfully, after biopsying the lumps post-surgery, they were all benign, but he recommended that I get regular mammograms despite my young age because of the risk my body apparently posed.  This was in the United States.

In stark comparison, when I moved to Scotland later that year, I explained to my new GP my breast situation, and he flat out refused to schedule me for any mammograms ever because I was too young. He even refused to have a nurse perform a physical exam, because it wasn't time for my yearly.

This example shows either an insensitive health care professional (which are everywhere) in comparison to a thorough and careful one (which are everywhere), or it shows good health care versus bad.

Now let me say this. I lived in the UK and enjoyed the advantages of the NHS for nine years. There is only a small handful of negative experiences I can recount, none of which were life-threatening in any way. In fact, they all land in the range of annoying or aggravating. The rest of my experiences go something like this:

  • I had three pregnancies and three live births that went remarkably well.  I had routine ultrasounds at 12 weeks and 20 weeks.  With my first, the routine 20 week scan showed possible placenta previa. This triggered more scans, eventually confirming placenta previa and requiring a c-section. The c-section was performed perfectly and safely, resulting in a healthy baby and mother.  My second birth, a VBAC (vaginal birth after cesarean), required monitors, provalactic antibiotics, and some anesthesia, and resulted in a healthy birth. The final one was a fully planned home-birth (provided by the NHS with licensed midwives) which unfortunately resulted in an ambulance to the hospital due to meconium in my waters but also ended with a live, healthy birth (and I was even allowed to birth him drug-free and naturally, as I'd planned).
  • My son was born with a dilated kidney, which had been closely monitored all through pregnancy via ultrasounds. Dilated kidneys, especially post birth, often indicate kidney malfunction. This involved many visits to the hospital for scans and visits with the pediatrician for six months until his kidneys were deemed normal and fully functioning. 
  • My daughter had orthopedic issues. This involved regular visits to the child podiatrist for check-ups and non-surgical modifications. She eventually outgrew this issue.  This same daughter got her finger severed in a slammed in a door, requiring immediate emergency attention, surgery, and a short hospital stay.

These are just examples of the medical issues I'm willing to share publicly. This does not touch on all of them. Here's the thing: despite the rhetoric that state-funded health care is sub par and discriminates against the elderly and takes years to be treated, this is not the experience of most people. Yes, you will find horror stories. I know people personally who have them.  Yes, there will be bad doctors and missed diagnoses and sometimes waiting lines. I know people who have had this happen to them too.  Yet, don't be fooled into thinking this only happens with socialized medicine. This also happens in the US; this is not a socialist problem, but a human error (or human asshole) problem.  For every NHS horror story, you can find a private health care one to match. 

What you will not find in the UK, however, that you will definitely find in the US is this - a bill.

When I had that breast surgery at twenty-two, I was terrified. I worried for a week waiting for the biopsy report. Scott and I discussed over the phone what we'd do if I had cancer. (He was going to fly right over is what he was going to do.) I had never felt so much fear. When the report came back clean, I was relieved to tears.

Then the first bill rolled in. Something like $200. I breathed in deeply and pulled money out of savings to pay the bill. A few days later, another bill came in. It was around $400. The panic started to set in. My savings were for my wedding and for moving abroad, not for paying these bills! Then another came in, and another. One for the anesthesia. One for the surgeon. One for the hospital stay. One for the specialist's scans. One for the lab. I was under my parents insurance, so I knew nothing about deductibles and out of pocket expenses. I thought $20 co-pays were all I ever had to pay.  I ended up calling my parents in tears, because I could not pay all these bills - I didn't have enough in savings to do so.

Compare that to finding out I needed a c-section. I cried, because I didn't want to be sectioned and I was worried about my baby. But when we came out of it just fine, I didn't have to think about the bills rolling in. I could just be thankful my baby was alive.

And when my son had kidney issues, I didn't have to think about how to pay for all these scans and hospital visits. And when my daughter had orthopedic issues, I didn't have to weigh up whether they were valid enough to warrant seeing a specialist or not. 

When I first moved to Scotland, I broke a glass in my hand doing dishes. The cut was deep, blood was everywhere, and some broken shards of glass even got lodged inside the cut. Scott tried to get me to go to the A&E (ER), but I refused. He reminded me it was free, but I still refused.  Medical treatment had always been something I had to weigh up according to its level of severity and necessity. A cut I could mend myself with bandages and soapy water did not warrant visiting a doctor. Though it would have been free, I was not used to seeing a doctor for such things.

(For years, I could feel something small and hard inside my hand near that cut. A tiny shard of glass, perhaps?)

Here is my point.

Health care shouldn't deplete one's savings. A person shouldn't have to decide against care for their child because the level of severity doesn't quite justify the cost. Being forced to forego medical treatment because it would cost too much should never have to happen. A person shouldn't have thousands of dollars in deductibles to meet before the insurance he or she is paying into kicks in to help out. (True story: Sitting in the waiting room at the doctor's office a few weeks ago, I overheard a woman ask the receptionist to try billing her insurance company since she had now met her $4000 deductible - in February. In two months, her family had already forked over 4k in medical bills. What will the rest of her year look like, and how much will she end up paying out of pocket by December?)

Let me be even more clear.

A person working for minimum wage or living under the poverty line or out of work (for whatever reason) should not have to make decisions about his or her own health or family's health based on what they can afford. An underprivileged family with a child suffering from behavioral or mental disorders (ADHD, autism, learning disabilities, anxiety, or any other) or who has a developmental delay (occupational, physical, or speech) or who has minor or major illnesses (asthma, ear infections, or any physical ailment that affects his normal day-to-day activities) should have the same access to treatment as a family with the money to pay for it. But the reality is, in the United States of America, the richest country in the world, those families are having to make devastating choices constantly about their health care. 
  • Do we use emergency services, knowing we cannot pay the bills?  
  • Do we seek cheaper options that are not proven to work?  
  • Do we forego the treatment all together, though it may lead to all kinds of issues down the road? 
And when they do deem the treatments medically necessary - or when an accident occurs, like a severed appendage or broken bone - these treatments often land them further in poverty and debt. Medicaid only covers so much, and if you don't qualify for Medicaid but still don't have the money to fork over to pay all your medical bills (and heaven forbid something major comes up, like cancer), you are faced with crippling medical debt that will haunt you and your credit for years, even decades, to come. 

How is this okay to a large majority of people in the richest country in the world? How are we okay, not only with our own insurance plans, that make us pay thousands outright before letting us access the coverage we are paying large monthly premiums for, but with knowing children and people living in poverty or near poverty are suffering needlessly because they do not have the money to pay for medical care?

Yes we have Medicaid and Medicare, which helps tremendously, and I am very much in favor of these programs. But as they stand now, they simply cannot go far enough to help solve the problem. When people who have low enough income levels to qualify for Medicaid are still being landed with copays and hospital bills they cannot afford, there is a problem we should all be deeply concerned about.

I agree with Bernie Sanders. Health care is a right. A human right. And where does that right come from? Where all other human rights, like safety and security, equality, religion, freedom from slavery or discrimination, education, adequate living conditions, and so forth, come from. They come from being a human being. 

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Challenge Accepted! 2016 January and February Books

I had no intentions this year of doing the Reading Challenge again. I wanted to read whatever I wanted to read and not be beholden to a list.

But when I realized that the seven books I've read so far this year all check off a category in the 2016 list, I thought, "Eh, what the heck." We'll try the Reading Challenge again. The difference being that this time, it's all about balance, and if I go off-list or fudge a little or if I don't finish, I won't care. I'm not going to be a purist like last time, nor am I going to feel the same deep and personal commitment to this project.

So. Here we go.

January Books:

A Queer And Pleasant Danger by Kate Bornstein (An autobiography)

(Memoir, autobiography - what's the difference?)

"The true story of a nice Jewish boy who joins the Church of Scientology and leaves twelve years later to become the lovely lady she is today."

How could I read that tagline and NOT read this book?

I gotta be honest; this wasn't an easy book to read, nor is it for the faint of heart (or stomach). She writes in shocking, graphic detail about BDSM, masturbation, and sex, both hetero- and homosexual. However, Bornstein's story is fascinating and sad, covering her conversion and time spent in Scientology as well as her transition to living as a woman. She talks about being separated from her children, because she has been declared an SP ("Suppressive Person", a danger to Scientology) and a pervert by the Church, and she discusses her painful relationship with her family who had a difficult time accepting her as a woman. This book is very raw, graphic, and blunt. I'm glad I read it, but it is definitely going on the no-kids shelf until they are all a fair bit older!

(DISCLAIMER.  Let me be clear, by the way, since I'm not one for censorship:  What makes it un-kid-friendly is not the fact that she is a transwoman. My kids are aware of trans issues and are being constantly taught that it's who a person is inside that matters. It is the graphic descriptions of BDSM and masturbation, among other things, that make this inappropriate for kids.)

Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology by Leah Remini (A book written by a celebrity)

Fascinated by Kate Bornstein's experience with Scientology, I next read the much talked about book by actress Leah Remini telling her story of her life in Scientology. Remini's mother joined the CoS when Remini was a young child, and Remini spent most of her life in the Church, even joining the Sea Org, the CoS clergy, which is a paramilitary organization.  Remini tells us of the conditions she lived in, the work she was required to do, and the way in which the Church manages to brainwash its members into total submission, through encouraged tattling (Knowledge Reports), regular auditing (sort of like counseling with an E-meter), and ostracism when doing something "out-ethics" or "out-PR".  She tells of her rise to stardom and her journey up the Bridge to Total Freedom, finally all culminating with being ostracized right out of the Church due to an upset at Tom Cruise's wedding. This book is truly fascinating and infuriating. There is nothing innocent about Scientology, especially when it comes to how it treats children, particularly Sea Org children. If you'd like some light reading on Scientology with a fun dose of celebrity gossip, I recommend this book.

Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (A self-help book)


Scott bought me this for Christmas. We both read Freakonomics a few years ago and liked it. This one is similar but with a different slant. It encourages readers to think outside the box, asking questions that don't seem relevant or intuitive from the outset but may be the questions that hold the answers that elude us.  Some of the stories were already told in Freakonomics which was kind of annoying, but it was still an intersting read. The idea of asking unusual questions to reach new solutions to old problems is probably something I'll carry with me, particularly in the workforce. 

February Books:

Bossypants by Tina Fey (A book written by a comedian)

This was our February book club choice. I thought it was pretty funny, most of it. I disagreed with some of the things she said - about Photoshop not actually affecting how girls view their own bodies, for instance - but you know, I enjoyed it. Tina Fey is funny. Let it be known: Girls are funny.

My biggest complaint was how all over the place the book was. It just kind of jumped all around, making it kind of hard for me to sum it up here. If you asked me what it was about, my answer would be... "Lots of stuff, said with jokes."

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire (A book that's more than 600 pages)

560 pages is  CLOSE ENOUGH. It's not that I can't or won't read anything longer, it's that I don't want to commit myself to do so.  I have a lot of books I'd like to read, and a 600 page book takes up too much time. I'm balancing. So sue me. (If you are Donald Trump, you probably will at least threaten to.)

Okay, so the book. I have wanted to read this for ages, being a huge fan of the musical. The musical is so witty and so cute and so fun. I love how it twists the Wizard of Oz story like a perfect green pretzel.

The book? Not so much.

I'd maybe say it's still witty, but cute and fun? Not really. It's very dark. Humorous, but dark. It's also far more convoluted than the musical. It's not as perfectly twisted as the musical, but it's certainly still twisted. If I could judge the book on its own merits in its own right, I'd say I liked it. I did, I really did. But it wasn't what I thought I'd be reading. There was no Kristin Chenoweth or Idina Menzel. No "Popular". But there was plenty of cruelty, salaciousness, and death.  

I liked it. In its own way.

The Fault In Our Stars by John Green (A book with a blue cover)

This book has been built up so much, I think, that I was a little let down. I haven't seen the film yet; I've been waiting to read the book. I don't mean to say I didn't like the book, because I did. But it wasn't the tearjerker, heartbreaker I expected it to be. I called the ending pretty much from the start, so I wasn't surprised. Therefore, I wasn't wiping away tears. Sad story anyway, and a good story. I'd maybe liked it more if the hype hadn't been so great. Sorry, fans.

I do plan to watch the movie now.

Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape by Jenna Miscavige Hill with Lisa Pulitzer (A New York Times bestseller)

I may have developed a serious fascination with Scientology. I think Scott is worried.

This is my third escape-from-Scientology book I've read. What makes this one so interesting is that Jenna Miscavige Hill is David Miscavige's niece - David Miscavige being the current leader ("Chairman of the Board" or COB) of the Church. She was a third generation Scientologist, raised from birth as a Scientologist. Her mother was a prominent executive in the Sea Org and her father was a high up Sea Org member too.

Hill describes her life being virtually separated from her parents from the age of 2, seeing her parents on average once a week until she was 12, then only a small handful of times (3-5) after that until adulthood.  She shares her experience growing up at the Ranch, basically a child labor camp, where she signed a billion year contract with the Sea Org. Following that, she moved to the Flag base in Clearwater, FL, where she was inducted as an extremely young member of the Sea Org, despite not being prepared via the necessary courses.  She tells of all the interrogation she endured when her family members stepped out of Scientology lines, even though she was still basically a child. Her whole story borders on disbelief; one wonders how this organization has not been shut down already for its cruelty to children.

If you want to read a serious book about life inside Scientology, this is the place to start. Hill is relatable, likable, and a little bit tragic. Ultimately, though, she is a survivor, a brave young woman unafraid to tell her story without being bullied by the multi-million (multi-billion?) dollar organization she grew up in - even if it means facing off with the very top man himself, her uncle.

Join the 2016 Reading Challenge and tell me what you're reading!