Sunday, December 29, 2013

Advice regarding emotions and relationships

Every once in a while it happens- someone asks me for advice about a situation defined by its emotions or about relationships.  Sometimes it happens in more formal ways- like when our married student ward asked my wife and I to teach the marriage and family relationships class.  Sometimes it is more informal like a friend at work asking if I could think of anything better that they might have done in a frustrating situation with their girlfriend.  I appreciate the trust people extend to me when this happens.  But it honestly feels just a little odd.  Because, I honestly struggle with emotions and relationships.  I feel like a blind man being asked how to see.

When Bonnie Jean and I were engaged, I was off trying to sell alarm systems with about as much skill as a plumber that had never owned a wrench.  Life was getting pretty frustrating and I was talking with Bonnie Jean on the phone about how I was feeling.  There were all these components to how I was feeling and I couldn't figure it out why I should be feeling that particular set of emotional and physical sensations or what they meant.  Bonnie Jean finally said "it sounds like your depressed."  Then everything clicked, depression was what I was feeling, how amazingly good it was to finally be able to put a word to how I was feeling.  I had been feeling depressed for several weeks before finally figuring out exactly what was going on.  This is not the only time in my life when there has been a substantial time lag between the onset of depression and realizing that it happened.  Its just the sort of thing that happens to me from time to time.

And as far as relationships go... well, lets just say that I can sit next to someone at work for hours without talking to them or even realizing if they stay put or get up and leave.  There's a strong chance that I won't ever talk to them at all.  Engaging with random strangers in a social manner takes a certain amount of courage, mental effort, and sometimes a measure of desperation.  Basic skills of managing the image I portray of myself to other people are difficult for me to manage, and avoiding giving offense and overcoming hostility that can come from small offenses can be an exhausting effort for me.  Making and keeping friends can be hard.  I still think its a small miracle that Bonnie Jean and I met and got married in the first place.  There are so many things that other people can do by feel that I do by thinking about them.

But maybe that explains a little bit of why people ask for advice sometimes.  Maybe the way I spend time thinking through these things gives me a fresh perspective that is unique to others when they hear it.  So instead of the blind man describing the elephant I'm the blind man with x ray vision trying to describe an elephant.  Or maybe just occasionally I earn up enough good will and trust that people value what I think and feel regardless of whether they think I really have any answers.  I don't know.  I do enjoy feeling trusted though.  It makes it seem as if I've established a real connection with another human being.  And with how isolating the world can be, knowing those connections are there matters a great deal.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Civics and the Ninth Amendment

Once I was going through some museum in Washington D,C, and there was a little computer kiosk where people could answer quiz questions on the structure of the US government.  It was a little painful to watch as tourists playing with the machine sincerely were confused by basic issues like that Congress not the President, makes the laws in the US government.  I've been reminded of that painful embarrassment by recent events where people seem to think that free speech means the right to embarrass your employers with crazy talk without the employer having the right to let you go.  I remember being in an orientation at work where they specifically stated that if I got into trouble in any way that brought notoriety to the company I would be let go no matter what my guilt or innocence was.  It's that simple, I don't have the right to create a scandal and drag my employer into it as if they are stuck with me.

I've been reminded again of societies need for a better understanding of civics by recent arguments about the power of the judicial branch.  I've heard people seem to argue that courts don't have the right to overturn the will of the majority or that they don't have the right to recognize rights that aren't granted by the majority already.  Growing up, I heard a lot of these arguments.  They typically went something like this.  The courts recognize a right to sexual privacy, but privacy isn't mentioned in the Constitution.  So therefore the judges were just making it up as they went along as evil activists instead of being bound by the text of the Constitution.  Some arguments would even go as far as to suggest that the right to privacy was some kind of legal fiction created from the concept of the 4th amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure.  The basic concept here is that judges shouldn't be allowed to protect any human rights unless the legislature or the Constitution has already defined these rights somehow.

Somehow people just don't understand the Ninth amendment. 

"The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people."

 So basically the supreme law of the land states that there are undenied undefined human rights.  To enforce this section of the Constitution, judges have to be able to figure out how to apply a philosophical sense of right and wrong to define when people's rights are being infringed even if the right that is being wronged has never been defined before.  That's a high calling and a difficult one.  There have been very few cases where the ninth amendment was invoked as a result.  But the basic concept is worth pondering.  Not all human rights are defined.

Sometimes the rights protected by judges are partially defined, but get redefined from how they are written in law to make them conform to constitutional concepts like equal protection and due process.  That can be uncomfortable and frightening because yes at those moments the judges will be changing the law in a way that isn't based on the will of the majority.  But we don't live in a country where only the will of the majority matters.  People don't only have rights because someone else said so.  We live in a system where human rights are recognized, and some concepts of just law are supreme over the will of the majority.  While judges can surprise us with novel interpretations of right and wrong or constitutional vs unconstitutional, in general these changes have been for the betterment of society.  The decriminalization of birth control, integrated schools, and multiracial marriage only happened when they did because of judges willing to define rights and redefine the law in ways that hadn't been done before took a chance.  And that isn't something to be scared of.  We become more just when we give ourselves the chance to recognize human rights that are still undefined..

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Poverty and Abundence

One thing that is kind of hard to forget sometimes is that I'm poor as things go.  Apparently, according to a website I found, only about 12% of the married households in the United States make less than we do.  With Mom and Dad and two kids, money doesn't always seem to want to stretch as far as we want it to.  Ignoring tuition reimbursement at my work, I'll probably only make $27,500 or so this year.  While all our basic needs are met, we'd still like to be able to afford life insurance, disability insurance, a better apartment or maybe a house, a real piano for my wife, and new clothes.  While we've worked hard to build up our savings, if anything happened to either of us our hard earned savings would evaporate pretty quickly.  But, last we checked, life insurance would probably be another 50$ a month expense or more depending how the insurer rated our health.  Disability insurance is available through my work- but again that's more money down the drain.  Our apartment is nice enough, but L sleeps in the laundry/storage room.  It used to be the laundry/storage/office room, but that got too impractical and the office part got shoved into our bedroom.  We had to arrange the room just right so that if an earthquake knocked the cans of food off our storage shelves they wouldn't rain down on L inside his crib.  The temperature only stays reasonable through the apartment if the doors stay wide open, which means at night when we close the door to keep it quiet so L doesn't wake up, his room can get really cold really easily.  Our electronic piano is wonderful and a big step up from the old one we had, but its still not a real one and doesn't play quite like a real one.  As for clothes, a lot of mine have holes in them.  Every once in a while we make another trip to the thrift store or something to update my outfits with things that fit pretty close to right even if they are a little too big etc.  But when I'm looking for clothing without holes in my closet, I have to pay attention-just randomly picking out stuff would get clothes with holes a lot of the time.  My wife's body has had the common changes with pregnancy, birth, and nursing.  Unfortunately, money has been tight enough that its hard to keep buying new clothing each time something changes and there are some types of clothing that she doesn't even have any that fit properly, she just makes them fit anyways.  Even after a couple of raises at work, it still feels like there just is never enough to make everything fall into place the way we'd like to.

At the same time, I sometimes just get possessed with an awareness of how much we have and how lucky we are.  We've worked hard to save money for emergencies and long term expenses.  And as a result we have about $18,000 in normal bank accounts.  We don't live paycheck to paycheck.  Our retirement accounts are worth about $29,500- nothing to brag about in the long run but the point is I'm still fairly young and that money is growing.  Both our kids have 529 education trust funds set up for them.  Granted there isn't much in either of those trust funds, but each kid gets $5 a month added to them and when times are better for us we'll start adding more.  At the moment I do have a considerable amount of student debt, but there's actually less student debt than I have money in the bank and we have no other forms of debt.  So our retirement savings is close to our actual net worth.  That means that we're in the 76% percentile for net worth of people aged 29-30, according to  We've worked extremely hard to be able to build up our savings and I tend to be really proud of what we've accomplished on paper.

But there are every day reminders of this sense of affluence as well.  If something goes on sale at the grocery store, we don't have to sit around wishing we had money to take advantage of the lower price.  We have spare money to buy in bulk when sales come around.  If the item in question is perishable, we can still save money on it because we have a chest freezer that we were able to purchase with our savings.  When the option to use cloth diapers came around to save money we didn't hesitate because the initial purchase of modern cloth diapers can be over a hundred dollars in just set up costs.  We had the money to do it without really hesitating.  When WIC doesn't give us enough bread to eat we don't buy it, we make it from scratch with a host of kitchen gadgets at our disposal including a kitchen aid, a wheat grinder, and bread maker.  Recently we've been struggling to make our food budget work.  One area in which we spend a lot of money seems to always be our pasta, which we eat pretty much every day.  We decided we'd see if we could make our own pasta, and had the money to shell out $60 using Christmas money on a nice pasta machine.  Though we haven't run the numbers yet, I expect that making our own pasta will probably be cheaper than buying it at the store.  Regardless, the home made pasta we've tried so far has been superb tasting.  When we make bread or pasta, I feel like some how I am changing from a position of poverty eating cheap pasta and bread from the store to a position of privilege- eating excellent quality home made foods that are cheaper than anything I could buy and often better quality than anything I'd care to afford.  Granted, we do these things because the money is tight, but I don't feel impoverished by my cooking experiments.  I feel enriched.

When my wife and I were first married and we started developing our own family cooking traditions, I remember being in awe of the number of pasta's we had in the cupboard.  There was the elbow macaroni, lasagna noodles, large and small shells, angel hair, spaghetti, rotini, and acini de pepi.  I didn't grow up eating a large number of different types of pasta or even really much pasta in general.  I hadn't even know most of these types existed.  So when I looked in that cupboard I felt like I was crazy wealthy.  I couldn't believe how blessed I seemed to be staring at a cupboard full of pasta that promised so many different flavors in their different recipes.

Depending on if you focus on my income (12% percentile of married couples) or my net worth compared to my age (76% percentile), you could argue am I either  wealthy or poor.  On the one hand, very few make so little money as I do.  On the other hand, not as many people have as many cash resources as I do and their net worth can be close to nothing.  In the end I'm both affluent and very poor.  If we spent money as if we were affluent we'd have none left over and the savings would promptly disappear.  As we spend money as if we didn't have cash to spare and can only afford to occasionally invest in some cost savings measure or other, then the savings continue to pile up.  I'm really both poor and affluent at the same time.  It's just one of life's little paradoxes.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Why I'm an Environmentalist

I'm an environmentalist.  That might be a surprise to people who knew me growing up.  But a lot of things would probably surprise people who knew me from growing up.  I guess I'm just very capable of changing my opinions.  For a class this last semester I was doing a little bit of writing on a reading assignment about the different political schools of thought that influenced environmental policy.  And I really felt like it deserved becoming a blog post.

The article I was reading described two ways of thinking about the world, one it called Cornucopian.  I used to fall into this group.  I thought that the free market and individual action was the only possible moral way of dealing with the social and environmental problems brought about by unlimited growth.  I had so much faith in these concepts that I didn't even really believe environmental problems that would largely affect people other than the ones benefiting from an action existed except as freakish exceptions to the rules that could be dealt with on a case by case basis in the court system.  But then I learned about tragedy of the commons, where unrestricted access to public goods almost always leads to the near destruction of the value of that public good.  I learned about the early history of labor unions in the US, where free and individual action was suppressed on the assumption that it was anarchistic, communistic, or both.  I learned about the history of pollution regulations in the United States and Britain.  If everyone could have their external costs brought back on their own heads sure yes maybe unlimited freedom of individual action could solve the problems in the world.  But that's not the case.  For example, when I bike on roads that are so clogged with cars that the air is choked with exhaust and I start to have asthma attacks at bike speeds a little above a walking pace.  No one would accept that their car exhaust fumes should be piped back into their own cars so that they would have to breathe their own exhaust.  People idling their engines would all promptly die and cars would become worthless.  But if people had to take that kind of responsibility they would start demanding cars that you could drive without dying and they would never idle their engines at a stop.  Meanwhile, I might die trying to breath their exhaust if I have a bad asthma attack on a day when I forgot my inhaler, and nationally many people die of pollution related causes every day.

It would certainly be more just if people had to breathe their own exhaust instead of me the biker.  I don't benefit from the cars being on the road, why should I breathe their exhaust?  But even a milder suggestion that exhaust fumes should be piped into compressed air tanks in the backs of the vehicles would be seen as absurd.  Regarding car exhaust, there is already an assumption in society that the air is a common resource that no one should be particularly responsible for unless the car pollutes more than a certain maximum standard.  The damage is seen as borne by all when in reality it is disproportionately created and disproportionately felt based on all sorts of factors.  Smog in Britain and the United States was increased by the factories until people started to die and the government decided that for the public good individual liberty had to be curtailed and pollution controls introduced.  Without a history of such pollution controls, an asthmatic like me could probably only hope to bicycle out in rural areas, that is if there were any left and if I had the money and time to travel to them.  Pollution laws help preserve my freedom to live anywhere and exercise out of doors as I please without as much fear of death by asthma.  Preserving freedom requires laws and restrictions on freedom because there is no practical way to make all people responsible for all of their own externally caused costs.

            Another movement of people described in the text were "Deep Ecologists."  A quick way of summarizing deep ecology would be to say that morally, all life or at least all species have an almost equal right to exist, so morally society has an extreme obligation to not obliterate other forms of life unnecessarily.  Honestly I feel some sympathy for this view.  If God created all life and called it good then we blaspheme when we destroy the beauty and goodness created by God.  If all life is just an evolutionary accident then I'd argue that the whole sale destruction of the beauty of the world represents an animalistic lack of sophistication.  For if its all just evolution then we don't have any more right to be here than anything else, we just happened to be better at exploiting the world than other species.  If we have indeed evolved an enhanced moral sense that makes us superior in the natural order of things we should have the sense to avoid a juvenile destruction of beauty and uniqueness.  Avoiding wholesale destruction requires careful planning, taking into account the needs and dreams of everyone involved.  That means environmental regulations.  If we have no higher evolved moral sense but only the nifty tricks and tools that allow us to exploit the world better than any other organism than I think any talk of liberty and individual rights is hypocritical, since there would be no reason to protect the poor and powerless selectively except that it appeals to the emotionality created by evolution whereby altruism to ones kin group is perpetuated as a useful trait.

            I choose to believe that our sense of altruism towards the powerless, whatever its source, suggests a sense of moral obligation to the world around us.  We can become a people of more integrity if loving our neighbor includes the non human ones to the extent that we can manage it.  I reject the notion that having "dominion" over the earth somehow means that we have free license or duty to destroy anything on the earth we please as long as we benefit from it.  Would we accept government having dominion over its citizens to mean that the government should always take its own priority and preferences over the rights of its citizens, even slaughtering its citizens as a matter of convenience?  Around the globe that often happens because of the power imbalance between the government and individuals, but we fight against it its so obviously wrong.  Of course, around the world the power imbalance between nature and man is intense.  How could it be otherwise, since mice can't vote?  As a result of that power imbalance, without even taking thought we act unjustly toward all of creation that we can reach.  The human worldview is by default, centered on humanity.  But there is no reason to always assume such a preference is right or useful.

            There is no easy way to fix this.  Squirrels can't sit in as members of Congress.  Other than the occasional civilizational collapse caused by ecological exhaustion, there is no real feedback mechanism for nature to respond to humanity.  And, even though protecting nature may be grand sounding we often don't even know how.  When we don't know how to protect nature and we know how to protect ourselves, by default we can only really fully respond to our own needs.  And, in reality, there is no grand harmony of reality where the lions sit down with the lamb and all the critters naturally get along.  The very basis of human society is based on the exploitation of nature to achieve human comforts, and at its roots there is nothing wrong with this if it is done wisely.  But surely we can do better than we have done so that we can preserve much of what we will lose otherwise.  Whether we're trying to prevent the loss of unique genetic lineages or prevent the destruction of God's good handiwork, it comes down to close to the same thing.  In the United States and much of the rest of the developed world, we're smart enough and rich enough to afford halting much of the wholesale destruction of the earth's unique species and ecosystems.  If we cared.  I choose to care.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013


Growing up I remember being told from time to time that the United States was like Rome and that we could learn from Rome to help the United States learn how to avoid the mistakes of history.  When I first heard these things I thought they were exciting and grand sounding.  I knew Rome was big and powerful and supposedly had rules of government that somehow were supposed to have inspired our own somewhat.  So the take away for me was that I was part of the grand march of history, repeating the stories of the great and powerful in the past.

However, the application of this idea was always kind of vague.  Sometimes there was some suggestion of how the early Romans were free supposedly and we are free and the Roman's lost their freedom and we're about to lose ours or something along those lines.  About the only concrete idea I ever seemed to take away from it was that supposedly Rome fell because God doesn't like it when people have too much unapproved sex and that therefore we needed to prevent our culture from being involved in too much unapproved of sex to prevent our falling like Rome.  Then there was the distant future where after Rome lost their freedoms they persecuted lots of Christians, so supposedly I needed to keep my freedom or else somehow the government was going to go crazy and persecute me.

When I actually studied a little bit of Roman history, the whole concept blew apart for me.  I couldn't find any evidence anywhere that societies rose and fell based on how much approved vs disapproved sex they were having or whom they were having it with.  Rome was never particularly free, a aristocracy ruled pretty freely.  The governance concepts, well, there are some vague parallels but not many of them and most of them fall apart on closer inspection.  Sure, there were representatives elected to some councils, but those councils were made to be powerless and became more powerless as time passed.  As for the Roman Empire being big and the US being big, well, I stopped feeling particularly proud of that parallel.  The Roman empire produced a profound peace in its interior during the pax romana by conquering large amounts of territory.  In the meantime anyone outside the Roman civilization were treated with military brutality to get them in the Roman world.  The United States also has had a period of dramatic cruelty and barbarous behavior towards the people who held the land it wanted.  Not something to be proud of.  In fact, its so embarrassing that we seem to as a culture wish to forget the whole thing.  I remember an email forward that was sent around some years ago where the writer gushed on about how America had never conquered land in order to occupy it or hold it as territory for its own benefit.  Well, that might be true if you ignore Texas, Hawaii, the Philippines, the original boundaries of many Indian tribal lands, etc...  You can surely argue that we have created a vibrant and powerful culture on the ashes of what we destroyed in many cases, and so did Rome.  But I can't look on the past with unmixed pride.

As far as being persecuted, well, I no longer view not having my religious opinions and practices supported by the government as being persecuted.  I no longer assume that government religious favoritism is a zero sum game where some religion is going to win government dominance so it might as well be mine so that more souls can be saved.  And when I don't feel persecuted anymore, the comparison with Rome disappears.

I really stopped feeling like Rome had anything to do with the USA, or at least not in ways that I'd like to think about.

I picked up a book recently discussing the history of the early Christian time period in Roman history.  And reading it, suddenly comparing Rome to the USA popped right back in my head.  In the early Christian era, the author describes that both the pagans and Christians viewed that achieving doctrinal consistency was essential to securing the favor of God or the God's to their empire.  When the Roman empire was wavering back and forth between glory and apparent imminent collapse it would have felt as if the forces of good and evil were battling and that a bit more effort towards piousness might turn the balance towards the temporal salvation of Rome. As the empire wavered, faith in the God's wavered and Christianity was ready to come in with the explanation that if the pagans converted to Christianity that God would favor them with glory and military might again.  When Rome succeeded, the Pagans cheered that the God's had shown favor, discrediting the growing movement of Christians whose very presence tainted the chances of success.  After Constantine, Christians still felt a need to purify land for God's grace by ensuring that heresy was stamped out.  If heretics were allowed to run loose God's favor might withdraw, so it became a social duty to aggressively convert/harrass/kill heretics.

So when I think of all the appeals I have heard claiming that we are a Christian nation or that the government was only meant to protect religious freedom for Christians or that we need laws governed by a particular brand of Christianity in order to be favored by God in otherwise uncertain times, I hear the echos of Rome.  Echos of screaming heretics burning alive, among other things.

I sometimes ponder the statement by Paul that God causes it to rain on the just and unjust.  Paul concluded that God was only indulging the ignorance of the pagans, but that in order to obtain temporal blessings like rain the hearers would need to convert.  But, time has passed and rain still falls on both the Godly and unGodly.  But when you think about it, if God is really our Father, wouldn't we expect that being starved to death by a famine would be His way of dealing with children.  Or, at least, I'd never imagine letting my children starve to death because of an obedience issue.  I might be frustrated and use punishments to help teach principles like "don't run into the street"  But I'd work to preserve life and minimize suffering.  In the end, I think God sends rain on both the righteous and unrighteoud all the time- just like I feed my kids even when they are annoying.