Thursday, September 30, 2010

An Interview with Barack Obama's Unicorn

Several days ago, I mentioned Barack Obama's unicorn in a post. The next night, the unicorn appeared in my dream for an interview. Unfortunately, I can't recall much of what the unicorn said. The following is a fictional transcript of the actual interview.

Unicorn: I read your post the other day.
Me: Oh my gosh! It's a unicorn!
Unicorn: Yeah...I get that a lot.
Me: Sorry. You must be the President's--
Unicorn: He and I have been working together for several years, yes.
Me: Wow. I'm pleased to meet you...uh...
Unicorn: Hussein.
Me: Excuse me?
Unicorn: Hussein. My mother was an Arabian and so even before I was born her owner had picked out the name Hussein. It's not really a traditional unicorn name, but since neither of my parents had horns or magical powers, he wasn't really expecting me.
Me: But I thought all unicorns had horns?
Hussein: No, the horn gene is recessive.
Me: Oh.
Hussein: Yeah.
(crickets chirp)
Me: So did you and the president bond over your shared name? I mean, his middle name is also--
Hussein: Oh, it's not really his middle name. We added that after he and I got together. See, he was working as a community organizer in Chicago, and I happened to drop by to use my magical powers to heal this little kid who'd accidentally eaten some asbestos...Barack was pretty fascinated and asked if I'd ever thought about going into politics...I turned him down then, but when we decided to team up a few years later, I went back in time and added the Hussein so the public could know in some small way about me.
Me: You went back in time?
Hussein: That gene's also recessive.
Me: Right. So what made you decide to go into politics?
Hussein: Well, I'd been using my recessive magical powers to heal people, and quite frankly, it takes a lot out of me. So I figured it was high time for a system overhaul. I tried going back first to talk Lyndon Johnson into it, but he said his plate was pretty full. So I said "that's OK. I'm a unicorn. I'm sure I can get someone else elected president."
Me: So wait--this whole health care overhaul was your idea?
Hussein: Idea, no. You don't have to be a unicorn to believe that people in this country should have access to health care whether they can afford a Prius or not. I just gave the idea a little push is all.
Me: You know, a lot of people don't like your health care reform.
Hussein: It's not what I'd hoped to get through. I tried to bore through some of the bureaucracy and paperwork with my horn, but it got stuck and I gave up. It's a half-canter forward, though. You have to admit that.
Me: Not really. Some people say it's a communist plot to turn our country into a second-rate version of Canada.
Hussein: Oh, I don't know that it goes that far. Maternity leave is much better in Canada. So is the curry, actually, now that you mention it--there's a place in Brampton which has some of the best karhi pakora I've ever tasted--I'd say the United States isn't quite up to being a second-rate Canada yet.
Me: Um...Americans don't like being told we're not the best. It's politically incorrect.
Hussein: Right. Sorry.
Me: It's all right. I'll still check out the place in Brampton.
Hussein: You should.
Me: So I take you've been completely surprised by the backlash against your reform bill?
Hussein: More or less. Unicorns are naturally more optimistic and generous than people, so that's probably part of it. When the Tea Party thing started though I had to go back in time to try to get the Founders to explain to me what was going on...
Me: Really? What did they have to say?
Hussein: Oh, nothing helpful. I asked them why they hated taxes so much and they said taxes themselves weren't the issue, they just didn't want to foot the whole bill for the Seven Years' War.
Me: Interesting.
Hussein: Yes, but not very useful. I told Barack about it and he said wars had dropped out of people's top ten concerns in recent polls, so we'll have to leave the whole war-cost protest to the 1770s.
Me: What's your mid-term election strategy, then?
Hussein: Well...I've been placed a bit outside the inner circle on that one. See, Barack's current thinking is that my whole "Yes, We Can" strategy set expectations too high and now no one will ever forgive him for not saving the world. He's thinking it might be safer to run on something like "Let's Not Kill Each Other," but that might be a bit of a long shot...

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

India Urges Hindu Fundamentalists to Visit New York

In 1992, a mob of Hindu fundamentalists demolished the 16th-century Babri mosque in the North Indian city of Ayodhya, claiming that the land the mosque occupied is sacred to Hinduism and Muslims need to get out of everybody's sacred places. Israeli settlers in Hebron and American oil companies which had formerly operated in Iraq strongly agreed. Lately, however, it's not a sacred oil well or Palestinian territory or possible birthplace of a Hindu god where Muslims are finding themselves unwelcome, it's New York City--a place no one would have expected back in 1992 would ever be sacred to anybody.

Eighteen years after the demolition of the Babri mosque, India's courts are prepared to issue a verdict in the longstanding dispute over the disputed site, but India's leaders have one request: would all organized Hindu fundamentalists in the Ayodhya area take a field trip to New York first just in case they need time to get over the ruling without killing anyone?

Hindu fundamentalists at a 2003 rally
to build support for a temple on the
site of the razed mosque.

Key leaders in India's Bharatiya Janata Party are currently in talks with the New-York based Tea Party Express about the specifics of trip funding. According to a Tea Party spokesman, who wished to remain anonymous, the visiting Indians will likely be used to "add some much-needed color" at several protests in addition to the main events outside the proposed Park51 site.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Super-Nerdy Post

Some of you may be wondering why I am constantly full of crap. I have no idea, but I suspect part of the answer might be that what I am actually thinking about is usually far too nerdy to discuss in public, and so I've learned to be silly and crazy and lie a lot instead.

What am I really thinking? I looked over old
pictures to try to read my face, but it was too
covered in powder from Holi.

Today on Caucajewmexdian, I tried to explain pretty transparently one thing I'm actually thinking about. Or rather: I tried to explain one thing I was actually thinking about two months ago which has since become far nerdier and more complicated and difficult to dump onto a page (and unsuspecting audience) all at once.

In any case. There will be no insane, tongue-stuck-in-cheek-so-hard-you'd-have-to-pry-it-out-with-a-jackhammer sort of post here today. Sorry. The best I can offer is my super-nerdy post on the blog next door. Read at your own risk (mostly of boredom but with an outside chance of infectious nerdiness).

Monday, September 27, 2010

Crisis Report: U.S. Kids Can't Tie Shoelaces Like They Used To

A recent report issued by the influential Center for Motor Skills Research indicates that the United States has now fallen to 47th worldwide in percentage of six-year-olds who can tie their own shoelaces. Fifteen years ago, the United States ranked third.

The sobering reality on America's playgrounds today.

What's behind the precipitous decline in this traditional core childhood skill? No one really has any idea, but this blog still went the rounds and asked the experts. Their theories:

Blame Flip-Flops

Shoelace industry insider Robert E. Bell, Jr., CEO of Old Hickory Shoelace Co., blames flip-flops. "We used to think that Velcro was the big threat," said Bell "We never imagined our culture would turn casual enough to make flip-flops a problem. They aren't good for your kids' feet, they keep kids from learning this core skill: if parents keep dressing their little girls in flip-flops all summer and half the fall, we're on our way to becoming a third-world country, shoe-wise." Bell added, "this is making me upset. Let's not spend any more time talking about it."

Blame Eastern Europe

"Yes, fewer American children can tie their shoes today than could in the age of the dinosaurs" says Facebook's Jim Breyer, "but the fall to 47th has a lot to do with the rapid gains countries like Romania and Moldova are making, and we don't need to always compare ourselves to them. So turn off the red alert and go back to playing FarmVille. Your kids aren't from Moldova, and for Americans, they're doing just fine."

Blame Technology

"Did Peter Thiel really say that? How ironic!" says a character played by actor/director/producer Jeff Daniel Phillips. "Look: if kids weren't playing the video games and parents weren't spending their lives on Facebook and your blog, you wouldn't be interviewing me about this so-called 'crisis'."

"Why are you interviewing me, actually?" Daniels added.

Blame Pres. Obama's Low Approval Rating

"People need to spend less time being disappointed with my husband and more time building their children's skills" says Michelle Obama. "Next time you're tempted to read and forward an email saying that Barack is secretly Muslim, ask yourself if you've taught your kids about how the rabbit goes around the tree and down the hole. And I mean the shoelace rabbit, not some conspiracy theory one."

Blame No Child Left Behind

"I'm sure you've gotten all kinds of explanations, but the truth is pretty simple," says kindergarten teacher Tejinder Dhaliwal of Visalia, California, "We used to help kids with these sorts of skills in kindergarten. No Child Left Behind changed all that. I'm not surprised by these numbers and wouldn't be surprised to see similar declines in jump-roping, finger-painting, and social skills. We chose to raise a generation of test-takers. We've got to live with the consequences of those decisions."

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Opinion: America Should Sign Subprime Contract with Republicans

House Republicans recently unveiled a (sort of) detailed "Pledge to America" which outlines their rationale for a future subprime "Contract with America." The basic message goes like this: America needs to balance its budget, but can't afford to let go of any of the Bush tax cuts or any part of Medicare or Social Security or our military budget, which actually needs to be increased to fully fund a missile defense system. The only way out of this dilemma is to get a low, adjustable-rate mortgage using the rest of our government as collateral.

This is a good idea for two reasons:

1) If the economy magically improves, then an adjustable-rate mortgage can only go down!!

2) As everyone knows, our federal government is a bit of a fixer-upper anyway, so it wouldn't be so bad if the foreclosure clause of the "Contract with America" get activated.

"But wait!" you say, "I thought getting foreclosed on was a bad thing!"

Think again, long and hard, about what the federal government does. It:
a) Promotes global warming by maintaining roads and airports. If we allowed our freeways and airports to collapse, people would use less fuel and Mother Earth would be happier. :)
b) Spends lots of money on children whose parents aren't making much money. This is just stupid, since the kids can't even vote, and their working-class parents are probably too busy to vote. What programs like CHIP do is allow harmless children to turn into dangerous voting seniors, who are basically like terrorists who hold the country hostage by having nothing better to do than show up at the polls. Hence the Pledge's gun-point promise not to touch Social Security or Medicare. If we allow underprivileged children to turn into old people, we are letting the terrorists win.
c) Maintains national parks with public funds, preventing private sector development. Wouldn't Yellowstone be better if it were run by Disney Corp? And couldn't we sell the Smithsonian to the Chinese or something?
d) Funds Congress, which--after Enron and the Banks and the Media and deadbeat dads and students taking tests and prominent evangelical leaders who like to pay men to spend extra time with them and any group involved in any way with the city of New Orleans--is one of the most dishonest and corrupt institutions in our country.

This blog seldom takes overt positions on political issues, but would like to give its ringing endorsement to the Republican Pledge to America. Please pray to the Constitution that the Republicans will win a billion seats in Congress this November so that they can shut it down and go home and we won't have to worry about roads and uninsured children and communists and their unicorns anymore. Amen.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Goldberg Guide to Effective New Media!

As I came into class today, two of my students were discussing another class they share. Apparently, the teacher lectures for all two and a half hours, but has required the students to sign up for Twitter so they can talk to each other about class.

Wow! I thought. The internet does solve everything. You can be really boring, but the power of social media will make all your students want to spend extra time staring at a screen talking about your course matter anyway! Heck, maybe next semester you could just tweet your two-and-a-half hour lecture, 140 characters at a time. Everyone is more interesting with a little bird voice.

Twitter, however, has limited application. It's really only good for adding instant excitement to education. For humor, where my interest lies, you have to look beyond Twitter into MS Paint, which has a similar sort of magic:

Interesting fact: MS Paint is also a good way to diagnose a medically deficient sense of humor. If you see something in Paint, and you don't think it's funny, you should either see a doctor or self-medicate until it is funny to you.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

This Post has Been Outsourced Russia, where a comment inspired me to write my first sonnet since ninth grade.

Here's a completely unrelated picture:

It is of a deer I saw on my way to Nicole's graduation.

Monday, September 20, 2010

How to Fix the Economy

Heard on the news today that officially speaking, the recession ended a year ago. That is, things aren't technically getting worse anymore, there's just a lot of leftover bad. Economists call this period after a recession ends a "recess" because so many people are underemployed and therefore theoretically have more time to play outside (if you're an economist, playing outside is always only theoretical). Americans who are not economists don't know the technical term "recess" and so they call the period we're in lots of other words which are not printable on this blog and spend their extra time applying for theoretical jobs.

Our recess: looks a bit lonely, but otherwise nice.

The good news about the current recess is that I have a part-time job. I teach three classes at a university, which happens to be what full-time professors do, except that they have to go to faculty meetings. Also they get paid nearly twice as much as I do and get medical benefits and usually travel allowances.

I know numerous people in the same position I am in, because they are my co-workers. Like me, they graduated at a time when most institutions have full-time hiring freezes, and therefore hire lots of the people who can't find full-time jobs to teach part-time for less money and no benefits instead.

Don't get me wrong--I don't blame my employer. When the economy is slow and your funding is down, there aren't many options other than to do what they're doing. My guess is that numerous companies in numerous sectors are doing the exact same sorts of things right now. If my company let all of us extra part-timers go and replaced us with full-time employees, we'd be stuck with nowhere to go, and the company would be stuck with too much payroll for a continuing economic recess.

No--in order for things to get better, all the underemployed people in the country would have to quit at once and not take another job unless it paid nearly twice as much, included benefits, and involved mandatory attendance at boring meetings. If this mass quitting were to happen, employers would all have to take a crazy risk at once and start hiring full-time, which would give most of the people who just quit real jobs, which would stimulate the economy, which would save all the companies that just risked their necks to hire.

Yes--every struggling company would be foolish to hire full-time people now and every single part-time employee doing more than part-time work would be incredibly foolish to quit now, but if all the part-timers were to quit and all the companies were to hire, things would work out just fine.

...all quit our jobs at once! That's change America can believe in
if it closes its eyes and tries really, really hard.

So: if you see President Obama this week, tell him to read this blog post. And this blog post will tell him to cancel his traditional yearly message to sixth graders and address the nation's part-timers instead. If he tells us all to quit, and we all listen, the recess will end and he'll get re-elected. If the President doesn't read this blog, or doesn't come up with the same brilliant plan on his own, his approval ratings will continue to fall and we'll end up with four years of President Glenn Beck.

The choice is yours. Well, no, actually it's his. I think.

Please leave a comment if I'm right, Mr. President. (I'd also accept an electronic hoofprint from your unicorn if you're in a hurry.)

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Good Life

Apologies must go up front to my more sensitive readers: I am about to offer my second scatalogical story this week alone, but rest assured that I weighed your feelings before deciding that this tale must be told.

My infant son and I had been spending a pleasant Yom Kippur afternoon together, he resting peacefully on my side (where he could hear my heartbeat), me thinking about change, as you're supposed to do on Yom Kippur. At some point a sound made clear that one thing in my life which would need particular changing was my boy's diaper, but I waited good and long to do so, because he's developed quite a reputation for peeing whenever the diaper comes off: on the nurses who weighed him at birth and after one week, on the doctor just prior to his circumcision, and as often as possible at home.

At length, I repaired (I'm not sure I'm using that word right--but it sounds quaint and dated, which is nice and helps compensate for the subject matter) to the changing table, and commenced to effect the change. No sooner did I reach for the new diaper, however, than an explosion of yellow matter with a deli-mustard-like consistency propelled itself out of my son's body, off the end of the changing pad, then the changing table, then over a foot of carpet (raining down bits and pieces along the way) and onto the back of the open door. Thinking of nothing else, I moved post-haste to contain the damage at the end of the changing table, not thinking to cover him in the meantime, so that soon I was distracted by the sound of a stream of liquid hitting the nearby wall and thereafter turning upwards and soiling the table off the other end of the changing pad.

All told, my son's mess stretched perhaps four feet and required some seven separate wipies to deal with. I had to clean him, the pad, the table, the carpet, the door, then move the table to clean the wall. How is a father, in such circumstances, supposed to react?

I could angrily lecture my infant son on hygiene, but elected not to waste any energy doing so.

I could choose to believe that if there were a God, he would not create baby boys with such powerful digestive organs, but thought it better to leave the Almighty and his creation alone.

I could cry and cry and cry about the hard world and the soiled clothes and the realization that by the time he's toilet trained the room may never be the same.

But it was so much more fun to laugh while I cleaned him up and put him down for a rest (after his great exertions), then call my sister on the phone to share the absurdity of the story all the while thinking that yes, this is proof if there ever was such a thing: I am living the good life.

Friday, September 17, 2010

New Business Plan

So...I was all excited about opening a local vegetarian bakery, but then I found out that most cakes and cookies sold locally are meat-free already. The same is true in this area, believe it or not, of ice cream parlors (one serves a beef jerky ice cream, and another features a turkey gravy as a topping option, but everything else is meat free), so there went my back-up plan.

Nicole and I discussed moving to another city where a vegetarian bakery or ice cream parlor would still be a novelty, but we don't know that many people in Montana. So I've come up with a C plan instead: I'll make millions of dollars selling heartbeat bassinets.

Believe me: babies will buy them. There are few things babies hate like not lying on their parents. A baby who is used to being inside of its mother and hearing the comforting rhythms of her heart doesn't need three dangling stars above its head: two dangling stars are plenty, and the other space can be used for an artificial heart (see diagram above). With an artificial heart beating a familiar rhythm overhead, the baby can sleep peacefully in the bassinet.

A warning to parents: if you don't let your baby buy my heartbeat bassinet, whatever bassinet you do buy will probably end up as virtually useless decor and you'll be doomed to stay up all night blogging because you're afraid to actually fall asleep with a baby on your chest. Just a friendly warning.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Tax Cuts and Bubbles

Nine years ago, I made one of those paper count-down chains they taught us to make in elementary school in the weeks leading up to winter break. Every week, I've been cutting off another link and am almost done, because this is the season when the Bush tax cuts are set to expire. For me, that will be a symbolic moment of exorcism: in a significant way we will be a little more free from that dark ghost of economics past.

Or will we? I heard on the radio today that the Democrats and Republicans are fighting over the issue in a way I didn't expect. The Republicans want all the tax cuts, including the ones on the richest 2% of Americans, extended (after all, if you're making $8 million a year, your time is too valuable to look for all the tax loopholes designed for the rich. It's much easier to get your taxes off up front without having to come up with a charity donation or local investment to write off). The Democrats don't want those tax cuts extended--but they do want to keep the rest of the Bush tax cuts, the ones that protect "middle class Americans" who earn $200,000 per year.

Did you hear that? $200,000 a year is middle class! Good thing we've got a party to fight for the vulnerable people in that income bracket!

Politically, I guess it makes sense to call very-but-not-quite-obscenely-rich people "middle class," but I'm beginning to wonder if that sort of thinking, on both sides of the aisle, is what got us into this economic mess in the first place. As I recall, the current economic crisis began when people took out massive sub-prime mortgages and second mortgages on houses they couldn't afford in the first place and then (surprise!) couldn't make their payments. Why, I wondered, would so many people do that?

Simple. Let's say you want a normal, middle-class American standard of living, and Congress tells you that means you should spend up to $200,000 a year. You'd better take a loan out fast, because where I come from, ain't many people who actually earn that.

Maybe we got in this crisis in the first place because Bush tax cuts drove up our collective idea of what appropriate spending was. The rich got richer and the "middle class" spent more to try to keep up, whether they had it or not.

Q: If you can pay cash for 16 of these every year, still have
$40,000 for living expenses, and be considered middle class,
what's the minimum number you have to buy to prove that
you're not dirt poor? A: I don't know, but loans never hurt.

I'm about ready to start my own Tea Party, except that in mine, we'll sink luxury goods to the bottom of Boston Harbor until people decide they're not worth going into debt and wrecking the economy for and maybe we should spend our money on things like schools, hospitals, research, and cleaner factories instead.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Once Upon a Time

Once upon a time there was a little moon-baby who came to earth. The earth was beautiful, but in the thick gravity everything felt heavy. It was hard for the moon-baby to move his arms and legs and he couldn't float around anymore. The gravity made the moon-baby tired and he'd sleep and sleep.

I'd watch his moon-face and I'd watch the slow way he'd stretch his moon-fingers. Here is a secret: I am also from the moon. My mind still makes moon-jumps, in fact, but my fingers are slow in all this gravity and my eyelids won't stay open while I try to write.

This world is heavy. Heavy, heavy, heavy. That's why you have to learn to close your eyes and think of the moon. Closed eyes are your moon-eyes, and your moon-eyes remember that in the real world, which is the moon, things are light.

When you will remember that, you will smile your moon-smile. Here is another secret I will someday tell the moon-baby. The moon-smile is what will make the other moon-people recognize you. It's the way you open your moon-eyes and smile the moon-smile that will make a silver-souled moon-girl fall in love with you some day.

Monday, September 13, 2010

...and we're back (sort of)

As you may recall, I had hoped to blog for twenty minutes each day (note: Sundays are holidays, and don't count) during the month of September. Well, Friday I didn't, and Saturday my twenty minutes consisted of staring at the screen and thinking about the craziness of this year's 9/11 anniversary but not coming up with anything witty to say about it.

I'm still feeling a little short on the witties. Or wits. Or whatever you call them.

Look! A postcard from my sister:

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Look, Daddy! I can pee eight inches past the top of my head!

The diaper was actually "poopy"--that's the technical term the hospital nurses use for the result of an infant's bowel movements--but just before I finished changing it, my son decided it was a good time to pee: on his belly, on his fourth pair of clothes for the day, on my arm, on his changing pad, and off the edge of his changing pad for a total distance I estimate at eight inches past the top of his head.

Eight inches.

If you calculate that according to body size, it's something like if I peed straight up in the air nine up to nine feet above the ground.

Kids--even when they're a mess, they're strangely fascinating. (Or maybe you just turn crazy when you become a parent as a defense mechanism.)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Today is a Magick Day

Spent my twenty minutes today (well, OK, it was thirty, but close) on the blog next door.

Be back here later.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Quick Story

Nicole and I like to talk. A lot. For most of our marriage, we've spent a few hours each night just chatting with each other.

Yesterday, shortly after he was born, the baby heard my voice behind him. He craned his head impressively far back to take a look at me, as if he were trying hard to connect new sights to sounds he knew far better than I had realized.

There are a lot of things in life that probably technically matter which I don't often get done. But I feel pretty good about the choices I make thinking about the way my infant son already recognized me.

I won second place in a fiction contest and third place in the same magazine's essay contest recently, and that was affirming. But the voice I care most about is not the one that ends up printed on a page--it's the one whose sound makes my son want to turn his head.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Compleat Book of Advice for Today's Child and Her Balloon

The sheer ingenuity of today's children makes parenting a terrific challenge. As numerous surveys have shown, most parents have either "no idea" or a "foggy idea" of what to tell their children 86% of the time. Take Nicole and I--the question we most often ask our daughter is "what are you doing?"--if we don't even know what she's up to when we're watching her, how can we possibly give her all the advice she needs?

When we do give advice, it is often in the form of sentences sadly under-represented in parenting books, such as "it's hard to wash the table when there's a balloon wrapped around your finger" and "don't spin your plate when there's that much rice on it."

This problem is not limited to us. A close friend confirmed that some of the most important advice she gave to her son was, "If you don't know what it is, you shouldn't stick it in the video slot."

In order to better prepare both parents and children for situations such as these, I've decided to compile a complete list of advice for children. Ideally, parents would discuss a few lines such as those above with their children each night, so as to head off problems in advance.

If you have found yourself putting together extremely unusual or bizarre sentences in your interactions with children, please put them in the comments section below so that we can make this book as comprehensive as possible.

Friday, September 3, 2010

What we've got here is failure to communicate...

When I need money, which is pretty much always, I like to earn it by teaching persuasive writing at BYU. The Greeks called the study of persuasion "rhetoric" and, in compliance with a 1926 Congressional Act called for the preservation of words using the consonant combination "rh" in the English language, we still use that term in class. I explained just two days ago that rhetoric is not all about the writer, but involves connecting writer, issue, and audience. An important part of rhetoric, I told my class, is understanding your audience's values and appealing to them, rather than to your own values, when making an argument.

I don't think they teach rhetoric in French schools. Probably also not in Iran. As the following case of an issue, some writers, and an audience will demonstrate, however, rhetoric-education is valuable, and you should keep paying me to do it in the U.S.

The Issue
In 2006, an Iranian woman named Sakineh Ashtiani was charged with committing adultery and helping her lover murder her husband. If I understand correctly, either crime alone carries the death sentence in Iran, so her conviction on both counts put her on death row, with stoning as a possible means of execution. If I understand correctly, there are also major questions about whether she actually was involved in the murder of her husband and especially about whether her confession was obtained through torture. Various human rights groups have expressed serious concerns over the case.

The Writers
In response to a recent rumor (later denied by the Iranian embassy) that Sakineh Ashtiani would be executed by stoning, several prominent figures in France decided to write letters in Sakineh's support. An ex-President of France summoned stirring lines like "I consider that the grand Persian culture which contributed so much to human civilization deserves better than this." Segolene Royal, who nearly became France's first female president in 2007, said that Ashtiani was "enslaved for the crime of being a woman" and that punishing her "will lead to even more unhappiness." And then, perhaps taking a cue from Royal, Carla Bruni, the Italian-born model who is currently serving a term as wife of French President Nicholas Sarkozy, entered the fray with an open letter to Sakineh, which built up to this emotional appeal:
"I just can’t see what good could come out of this macabre ceremony, whatever the judicial reasons put forward to justify it. Shed your blood and deprive children of their mother, why? Because you have lived, because you have loved, because you’re a woman and because you’re Iranian? Everything within me refuses to accept this."

The Audience
How might all these appeals resonate with the values of the Iranian government? My guess is that ex.-Pres. d'Estaing's appeal to the greatness of Persian culture might have backfired, since the last time an Iranian government cared more about its Persian Imperial heritage than its Islamic religious heritage was under the Shah the current government fought a revolution against. I'd also be surprised if Royal's insistence that Ashtiani was imprisoned "for being a woman" went over well with people who don't think the being a woman necessarily includes committing adultery. But I only know for sure about reactions to Bruni's letter, which elicited a headline in a major Iranian paper called Kayhan which translates to, "French Prostitutes Join the Human Rights Protest." The editorial references Bruni's high-profile pre- and extra-marital affairs and suggested that Bruni was defending Ashtiani only because "she herself deserves death." Since Iran has sometimes acted outside its borders on its ideas of who should live and die, that particular statement didn't go over well with the French, who have announced that they will push for new sanctions on Iran.

Aristotle might have been a more effective
writer in this case, because unlike Bruni
he a) understands rhetoric and b) hasn't been
paid to pose for naked pictures now available
to the world on the internet.

So: the French called on Iran to change, but without taking their audience's history and values into consideration. This mostly upset Iran, where a major newspaper called the French first lady a prostitute. The paper went on to give its own view of how extramarital sex should be handled, completely ignoring French fears of Iranian violence--if tougher sanctions go through, Iran will be probably lose millions of dollars over that one sentence.
Who, exactly, is winning in all this?
Am I naive to believe that the French could have done better had they focused on issues like evidence instead of appealing to the glory of the Persian Empire? Am I wrong to think Carla Bruni maybe should have stopped at "why deprive these children of their mother?" in her final draft rather than drawing attention to herself and her own values with the "Because you have lived, because you have loved, because you’re a woman and because you’re Iranian? Everything within me refuses to accept this" lines?
And am I off-base in thinking that Iran could have successfully dismissed these rhetorically poor French appeals without mentioning that in their hardcore Iranian opinion, another country's prominent public figure technically "deserves death"?

In conclusion
Words can be useful and powerful things. Carefully chosen words can actually reach across cultural difference to help achieve an objective. When using words to try and influence someone else, however, it's important to keep one rule in one's mind: you are not talking to yourself!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Mormons: the Next Generation

My best friend, Michael, and I made up half the Mormon population in our grade at the local high school. A teacher who had both of us, but had somehow missed our shared faith, called us his "Thoreaubians" because of the strong independent streak we'd developed from our minority religious experience.

Michael and I both went to colleges in Ohio for a year, followed by two years each of full-time church missions (his to Brazil and mine to Germany the same year those two nations faced off in the finals of the World Cup), followed by half a year each back at Ohio colleges, after which we both ended up out West at BYU (Michael a semester or two sooner than I).

After a few years in Utah, Michael got married. About a year after him, I got married, too.

Yesterday, Michael's wife gave birth to a son they named Owen:

Sometime soon (she hopes very soon), my wife will give birth to a son we'll name Elijah or Jacob or Benjamin or Leif (unless we listen to Kira and name him "Balraj" or "Bob Singh").

Looking at little Owen, I can't help but think: Michael and I have done really well for ourselves. We've both made through the first third of our lives (statistically speaking) without touching alcohol, tobacco, or drugs. We've spent three hours each week in church getting practice listening patiently, which is not bad exercise for being husbands and fathers. We've found good women who share our belief in God and our commitment to his children and want to make homes with us. We've lived in American abundance without turning totally materialistic, and we've learned an awful lot without developing the delusion that we know everything we need to know.

And now we're helping launch another generation of Mormon men. So I pray for them: that they'll find good ways to belong and know when it's a blessing not to belong. That they'll know what they want enough in their hearts to avoid the worst distractions our society throws at their senses. That they'll be aware but not too afraid, and open but not thoughtless or reckless. I don't pray that their world will be better: I know it will be better and also worse. But I pray that both its good and its evil will ultimately serve to bring out the divine in them.

May they remember and honor the dead as they serve and care for the living.

Happy late birth day, Owen. Happy soon-to-be birth day, my son.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Month of Mayhem

Some of you may have noticed that I sort fell out of the internet over the course of the summer. This is because the internet is actually shaped like a donut--it's easy to get caught up running around and around in circles for ever, but when you get right to the center there's nothing there.

In Buddhist thought, your soul is also that way. There are all kinds of thoughts and worries and actions around the edges, but the center is absolutely uncluttered. And if you could let go of all the outside stuff, the center would be set free.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective), I'm not interested in being set free at this point in my life. I have a daughter here, and a son very close to here, and I'd far rather be caught up in the madness of life for them than risk accidentally becoming enlightened and ending up orange-robed in some faraway monastery.

To prevent enlightenment, then, I'm determined to return to this blog! I have made a resolution that I'll write (almost) every day in September, a feat I plan to achieve through two simple twists:
1) I will stop writing after twenty minutes each day, for good or ill.
2) I won't lie as much as usual, because it takes so much effort. I'll have to just tell you what I'm thinking about instead--which will probably be mostly incoherent.

Please enjoy the coming month of mayhem!
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