Sunday, September 25, 2011

Secular Sunday school

I'm teaching one of the Sunday school classes1 for my Quaker meeting for a few months. As an agnostic, I wasn't really sure how to come up with lessons that were appropriately Quakerly but didn't require me pretending to believe anything I don't.

The first month has gone pretty well. We focused on John Woolman, a Quaker abolitionist of the 18th century, long before it was popular. I read his journal once, and what struck me that this hero of social justice was not a happy guy. I thought being that far ahead of your time required a disregard for social convention, but he actually did care what his peers thought. Telling his slaveowning friends that their way of life was reprehensible made him really embarrassed.

I thought the topic of "Doing what you think is right, even when it's unpopular or embarrassing" was totally apt for eleven-year-olds. They're starting to be embarrassed about nearly everything, so they might as well practice. We did some role-plays of John Woolman and his friends, and then some of modern schoolchildren dealing with a bully. We talked about how authority will not always step in to solve things, either by outlawing slavery or by making other kids stop being mean, and sometimes you have to take action yourself.

The kids were fairly interested, the old Quakers were happy I was teaching them Woolman, and I was happy I didn't have to mention God. I thought I'd write up the idea, since it might be useful to other teachers in a similar quandary. You could do the same with an admirable person from just about any faith tradition.

1. Technically "First Day school", since early Quakers weren't okay with pagan names for days of the week or months of the year. This leads to strangely numeric sentences like "The next business meeting is on the third First Day of Ninth Month."

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Bug or feature?

This week, Jeff has been arguing that the commute to my new internship is too long and unpleasant, and that I should try to get a different internship closer to home. Today, I spent my commute trying to win the argument. I got to see the sunrise! I had a nice jar of tea on the bus! I got a lot of reading done! Look, there's goldenrod blooming in the marsh beside the highway! It's really a nice commute.

A similar thing happened when he and I got engaged. My parents had big misgivings about the match, and I was determined to prove them wrong. At first I worried that I was being childishly perverse, blindly reacting against them. But when I realized that my rebellion was manifesting as a determination to be happy in my marriage, I stopped worrying.

...which makes me wonder if someone could game my system. If I'm despondent about something, maybe the answer is to provoke me into enjoying it.

For Margaret

The day I met you you were 96 and in need of a secretary;
I was 19 and in need of a job.
For the next year we frustrated each other:
I was too young to understand your typewriter,
you were too hard of hearing to understand anything I said.

When I bite into a tomato I think of you,
standing in your garden that first day.
You were eating a tomato, warm from the sun,
the seeds dribbling onto your blouse.
You offered me one, and we ate tomatoes together in the yard
before getting down to business.

When I'm 96, I hope to be like you:
still businesslike,
still enjoying summer's fruits.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

That explains why I've never liked him

One of Jeff's bandmates has been abroad for a semester. I was telling her what she missed.
Me: They had this crazy gig in Chinatown where we had to carry the keyboard up to this loft.
Jeff: It was an anti-mining group that decided they wanted a contra dance at their summit.
Me: And they were all dancing in those stompy anarchist boots -
Some guy: Wait, anarchist boots?
Me: Have you ever seen an anarchist? They wear those boots.
Guy: I used to be an anarchist, and I wore sandals! But then, I was an anarcho-capitalist.
Me: ...Well.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011


I was a weird kid. For a week in fourth grade, I wore shoelaces tied around my ears just to prove I was different. My friends were mostly weird kids, too, and we reveled in being nonconformists together. I mostly understood the social rules I was breaking, and I intended to break them. As time has passed, I've gotten more okay with social rules, but I still thought of them as things people shouldn't really have to follow.

Last year I worked with a kid with mild autism. He couldn't really pick up on social rules, and he wanted friends but didn't have any. I realized how different it was to be the weird kid because you didn't know how to be normal. So I taught him social norms.

When someone says hello, they expect you to say hello back.
I know you're excited about dinosaurs, but sometimes you have to ask other people about their interests.
You have to talk to kids your own age, not just your brother.

In college, a similar thing happened with my understanding of cultural relativism. So many things I thought of as universally standard, I realized, were actually cultural. Punctuality, personal space, gender roles - they all vary a lot. I prided myself on not valuing American norms above other cultures' norms.

This summer I've been working with refugees, helping them find jobs. We teach them how to survive in America. And we teach them American cultural rules, which sometimes require breaking the rules they learned in their home countries. It felt bad at first, but not as bad as seeing someone whose cash assistance is about to run out and still hasn't found work.

You must look your job interviewer in the face, even if he is a man.
You have to speak louder.
We say "customer service," not "customer services." It's just one of those things.
You can't go to a job in a teeshirt that says, "I'm available, but don't tell my girlfriend."

I used to hate social rules, but I was smart and privileged enough to get what I wanted without them. Hopefully these people will learn enough and become secure enough that they, too, can choose which rules to break.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Precocious twelve-year-olds

Julia: This is so goofy. Gödel, Escher, Bach is listed as a Young Adult book in the library system.
Jeff: I think it is a young adult book.
Julia: Young adult books are for twelve-year-olds. Like Sweet Valley High.
Jeff: Most of the people I know who read it were teenagers at the time.
Julia: But that's true of Dune, and that's not a young adult book. Look - (flipping to a passage.) "We now 'squeeze' this sentence of English (the metalanguage) into the formal notation (the object language): <P⊃~~P>. This, our first theorem of the Propositional Calculus, should reveal to you the intended interpretation of the symbol '<⊃>'."
Jeff: Okay, you're right.