broken walls and narratives

A not so revolutionary blog about feminism, socialism, activism, travel, nature, life, etc.

Archive for the month “December, 2014”

Hobbit- A Finals Tradition

Hobbit-from-Rankin-Bass

I remember the Lord of the Rings movies came out years ago when I was first at school at CSS.  These movies were always released during finals, so for three years, it was a tradition that I go see the movie after finals.  Two of those three years I attended the movie alone.  One of those three years I went with my friend Libby.  At the time, Libby lived in Minneapolis, so we didn’t often see each other.  She was my only friend.  We probably saw each other twice a year.  Those were hard times.  I was very lonely.    I don’t think I can ever express how isolated I was those years.  In any event, things are different now.  However, some things are the same.  I am back at CSS, finishing a second master’s degree.  Education and I are never far apart.  It is a constant in my life.  Keeping with an old tradition, I went to see the newest and last Hobbit movie.  I also went alone, though thankfully I am not quite as isolated as I once was.  Today is also the last day of my semester, so the movie was a finals week treat.

What does Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit mean to me?  I grew up in the 80s and like children of that era, I was exposed to the Rankin Bass cartoon version of The Hobbit.  I remember watching it in early elementary school and being terrified of the empty gray and brown eyes of Gollum.  The animation was peculiar.  The elves were not lovely and ethereal, but somewhat ugly and menacing.  Elrond had a beard.  I didn’t read the books until college.  I read The Hobbit while studying in Ireland.  I read it in just a few hours while on a bus trip…to Sligo…I think.  I read the Lord of the Rings trilogy while working nights at a hotel.  I didn’t really connect with the characters nor did it particularly inspire me.

My brother, on the other hand, has always been a fan of the series and has connected very well to Bilbo Baggins.  He is more of a homebody, who prefers a peaceful, comfortable life without interruptions and unexpected events.  He has also been to war and felt the frustration that everyone back in the Shire is living their small lives, but he can never really tune out experiences of the greater world.  He has been taken into adventures by forces beyond his control.  These adventures are a means to an end…and the end is always coming home or building a home.  The series means more for him.

I like to travel and don’t mind trying new things….to some degree anyway.  I am not a true adventurer, but I am a curious person.  The world is a smorgasbord of experiences and things to see.   Returning to reading The Hobbit, while in Ireland…I took a death and dying class.  It was one of the most transformative courses I have ever taken.  I don’t remember why, but we spent a lot of time journaling about Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  We had to create narratives of our experiences in Ireland or in life in general…as if we are the hero on a journey…passing through all of the literary tropes that heroes do.

I really enjoyed watching the movie today.  Maybe I felt the hero narrative more strongly.  While I don’t identify with any of the characters, it made me reflect on my own journeys.  I have never been to war like my brother so I do not relate to the narrative as literally.  Nevertheless, there have been some challenges.  I thought of them as I left the movie.  My greatest challenges have been with isolation, anxiety, depression, and poverty.  I will tell you about those.

I am a strange person who is hesitant to open up to people.  I watch people with caution and am slow to make friends.  These days, I have some friends.  But, this accomplishment took me several years.  After graduating from high school, I was quite alone.  My first college years were spent working hard and studying hard.  There was no social life.  I did not converse with other students or take pleasure in their company.  At the time, I also suffered severe social anxiety.  Going to a restaurant or even interacting with a gas station attendant was painful.  I wanted to hide from the world.  If I had a ring of power, I might use it to become invisible and quietly slip away into the world….unseen and unknown forever.  The joy in my life was travel.  Travel was an escape from myself.  While I was still isolated, at least I was isolated in interesting places.  And, while it was also an escape, it was also a way to find myself.  Travel in Ireland exposed me to new ideas.  I saw that socialism was at least semi-acceptable there.  Political talk was not taboo or boring, at least among people I encountered.  Going there liberated me from some old ideas and an old sense of self.  I also felt happy alone.  I walked a great deal…hours a day…sometimes in the rain….along the sea….along winding roads, pastures, and hills.  My mind could think…and love nature….and love myself….and I felt happy…even though I didn’t have any friends.

Coming home, I faced depression.  Life was boring.  Everything seemed inadequate.  I couldn’t find as much happiness in being alone.  However, my changed self had built a foundation …which helped me find my place…and new friends.  I eventually made friends with fellow socialists…I guess my social niche.   So, while I struggled with depression for several years, I at least built connections that last to this day.  My life is changed for that and things will never be so dark and lonely again.

Another adversity was moving to Mankato for graduate school.  It is only three hours away, but I was alone again.  At best, I saw my friends once a month.  My first semester…if not year… I didn’t really make any close friendships.  However, the second year I became friends with Jeremiah, Jenn, some of my sociology cohort, and members of the atheist club.  So, thanks to that foundation of self that I had established, I made some political, atheist, and sociologist friends.  Things improved.  However, due to changes in my financial aid my second year…I did struggle financially.  I paid for the cost of my dorm out of pocket…which was quite expensive.  I couldn’t exit the contract for cheaper housing.  With that said, sometimes I lived on $20 for two weeks.  This was miserable.  I shopped for groceries at the dollar store.  I feared that I would go hungry.  I feared hunger.  Sometimes I was hungry.  I applied for food stamps, but was denied because I only worked 20 hours a week…and needed to work 25 to qualify while in school.  This sucked.  My brother sent me $200 and Jenn gave me $50.  I will forever be in their debt.  Thinking about it makes me cry!  I will tell you…you never forget not having money for food.  I remember in the 4th grade, we ate potatoes and eggs for a month when my father was laid off.  You never really forget that.  Now, I don’t want to be whiny, as I have amazing privilege.  And…I was doing all this for education!  Again, a luxury.  However, that does not take away from the sense of fear or misery.  I remember the campus had a food drive to raise awareness of hunger in the community.  It was rather astonishing.  I wondered how many people on campus were hungry?  Hunger is always seen as something far away…maybe in Africa….but it isn’t.

The point of this is not to be woe is me.  These adversities are minor compared to those faced by others.  I think…maybe the point is that we all have journeys and challenges.  The Hobbit movie resonated with me today because it made me consider my own journey.  Although it is different…and certainly not as dramatic….maybe it attests to the power of literature or film to speak to our condition.

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A Month in the Life

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This month has passed in a flurry of final school activities, work, and activism.  There has been little time for fun or hobbies…or anything aside from work and school mostly.  Now, as the semester ends, I can slow down and look back.  Here is a retrospective.

Today:

Today I taught a lesson on the Mughal Empire to 10th grade students.  I am proud of this lesson as it used four stations to appeal to many learning styles.  At station one, students completed a graphic organizer wherein they matched facts about various Mughal rulers with the name of the ruler.  At station two, I had “the Mughal Empire” in a bag.  Actually, it was seven bags filled with items such as the Koran, an astronomical map, a toy elephant, an Afghan throw, a book about the Taj Mahal, and several other items.  Students had to determine how the bagged items related to the Mughal empire.  At station three, students chose from a list of events in Mughal history, which they then drew onto a timeline.  At station four, students sampled Indian food, assembled a puzzle, or looked at various books related to the Mughals.  The lesson went very well.  I was happy.

I also finished a paper today along with several items of busy work.

I also sat in on a 2 hour conference call for Socialist Action, learning more about French Trotskyists, Fergusson, and the15 dollar an hour movement.

A nap also happened.

Yesterday:

I slept about one hour and felt like the victim of a failed, fictional Soviet sleep experiment.  My brain would not let me sleep as I was too concerned about my upcoming lesson and the mass of homework I had due.  I went to my internship.  I also turned in my 85 page unit of lessons and materials on the Russian and Chinese revolutions.  Yes, 85 pages.  I also prepared for the Mughal lesson and finished up an online resource kit assignment.

Sunday: Like Monday, I only slept about one hour due to stress.  I worked all day at Safe Haven (a women’s shelter) then did four hours of homework.  I did take a nap in the evening.

Saturday: This was supposed to be a big homework day but turned out to be a day spent sleeping/dry heaving from a mysterious stomach bug.

Friday:  Three hours of class+ 2 hour Mughal documentary+ up until 4am creating a Mughal lesson plan that was 20 pages long including all of the materials.

Thursday:  Work + Vampire Diaries.   I know that the Vampire Diaries is not sophisticated, academic, or feminist.   I just like vampires…okay!  Oh, I also finished a book about Tasmanian Devils.  Maybe THAT can be a blog post.

Wednesday: 12 hours of work.

Tuesday: Lesson on the legacy of the Ottoman Empire through an interactive map game at Superior HS. The students seemed to enjoy it.  I also fed them Baklava and Turkish delight.

Monday: Internship+ homework+ lesson prep.

Sunday:  Work

Saturday:  10am protest against SodaStream in support of  Palestine.  Noon = Pizza Hut with  Adam. 2-4 poster  making for evening protest.  4-5:30 walk on the Osage Trail.  5:30 protest against the layoff of UWS janitors.  7pm? homework.

Friday:  Class+ Mug Exchange+ homework

Thursday:  Work

Wednesday: Work

Tuesday:  Internship + feminist planning meeting.

This month kind of sucked.   I need more me time.   I  want time to exercise, write, draw, read, and pursue hobbies.  I  think  I need to take another vacation this summer….

Open Minded Skepticism

I have observed that fellow atheists often make the mistake of idealizing science.  I have made this mistake myself.  I would describe the typical attitude of atheists as quite positive toward science.  In this view, science has brought us many wonderful inventions and life saving forms of knowledge.  Science has allowed us to understand the patterns of our universe, making sense of rules and events that were otherwise baffling to ancient societies.  Superstition, by contrast, has resulted in the repression of ideas and the oppression of people, social conservativism, and all around backwardness.  In this dichotomy then, skepticism and science are good and superstition and religion is bad.

If there is one lesson I have learned in life, it is to avoid idealizing anything.  So it is with science and skepticism. Surely science has resulted in some wonderful accomplishments.  One area is in medicine, where we have many treatments and cures.  Our ability to systemize information and knowledge on the basis of such things as predictability, testability, reliability, and validity  is useful in rendering reality more comprehisible by a greater number of people.  Then what is my gripe with science?  My only gripe is that it should be treated as an instrument.  Now, it should not be treated as an instrument that is neutral, but one that was largely developed by European men and which exists within the superstructure of capitalist patriarchal society.  This means that science is not neutral nor is it good, but as with all things in this superstructure, imbued with power.  Sometimes the power is terrible and obvious, such a infecting African Americans with syphillis or the devotion of resources to the development atomic weapons.  Other times it is less obvious, such as the silencing and debunking of traditional knowledge.

I am going to address the less obvious way that power operates through science.  Now, when I was younger…say in my early 20s, I was put off by feminism.   I thought it was a bunch of emotional women who embraced superstitious nonsense like homebirth, spirituality, and the feminine divine.  I want my feminism to be rational and masculine, damn it.  A skeptical person may approach those ideas as silly.  Afterall, why birth at home when it is cleaner and safer at a hospital?  Why not reject ALL divine and ALL spirituality?  Obviously, I now know that these were forms of resistance.  Women have felt alienated from medical institutions that have treated pregnancy like a disease.  Women have felt disconnected from a male God.  Women have wanted to mediate their own spiritual lives.  So, there is a logic to what may at first glance be irrational.

Of course, it is not good to idealize this either.  There are many people who feel disenchanted with medical science.  Can you blame them?  It is expensive, treatments can have harsh side effects, the experience is sterile and impersonal….the list goes on.  As an alternative, people  may turn to aromatherapy, accupuncture, prayer, magnets, copper, or hundreds of other things.  The problem is that some alternatives can be fraudlent money sink, harmful, or just plain ineffective.  This is where skepticism  can be useful.

What should be done?  I myself am trying to be an open-minded skeptic.  To me, this means that I try not to dismiss the knowledge and experiences of others, even if they are not scientific.  This is hard.  There are some things that truly annoy me.  It truly annoys me that perfectly intelligent people believe in ridiculous things such as ghosts or astrology, for instance.  It truly annoys me that many of the non-conformists who left Christianity go on to embrace dumb spiritual stuff.  Those are my true thoughts.  But hey, I am trying to grow.  A first step in this open-minded skepticism is looking for power.  For example, when I assert something such as…Native Americans came to the Americas 13,000 years ago and killed all of the mega fauna, I may be following the dominant line I was taught growing up…but, I am dismissing the knowledge and experiences of Native American people.  Also, when I say this, the story ends there.  Am I an expert on this story?  Am I an anthropologist who has carbon dated artifacts?  Has this matter been definitely settled?  Science is never settled.  I don’t feel I have to give credence to every idea…such as the belief that evolution doesn’t exist or that lizard people rule the world.  However, I can still empathize with how the person who believes such things may feel disempowered.  Beyond looking for power, breaking down the science and tradition dichotomy is also important.  There are traditional healing practices that have been adopted by medicine.  For instance, a yam in Mexico inspired the first oral contraceptives.  A plant used in Papua New Guinea has been used to develop male oral contraceptives.  Lavendar, which has been used in aromatherapy, has been found by an Australian university study to have a calming effect which is evidenced by brain scans.  Many medicines originate with plants, so dismissing traditional knowledge as unscientific fails to note how this knowledge was tested and systemized over time.  It also fails to give credit to the discoveries of poor people, people of color, and women.  Breaking down the veil between the two can benefit science by allowing more ideas and knowledge to be tested.  On the other hand, if proponents of science take a softer, more culturally sensitive approach, people may feel less alienated by science and more invited to partake in it.

At the end of the day, we do many things each day that are not particularly scientific or skeptical.  When we order a pizza, we usually don’t confer with an expert on pizzas or read a scholarly article about pizza.  When we watch television, we may confer with friends, but generally, this is not a scientific endeavor.  There are some benefits from this.  When we search out experiences on our own, without asking an expert or utilizing an institution, we are able to construct our own knowledge.  While this is somewhat limited, as we live in a social world and have many predispositions, the degree to which we discover on our own is a degree to which we are free of institutions that seek to discover for us.  There is risk in discovery.  Leaving some things to the experts is fine.  I would rather not discover how to fix my own car….only to find that I am grossly incompetent and have rendered it unfixable.  Still, sometimes the lessons we learn from discovery are meaningful and long lasting.  Anyone could have told me credit cards = bad.  However, there is nothing quite like experiencing it myself to learn a lifelong lesson.  In any event, unless everything that we do is also deliberate, scientific, and rational, we are all in some ways…sloppy thinkers.  With that said, I would implore atheists not to idealize science, to look for power, be humane to people who believe differently, and to accept that there is power in discovery.

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