Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Singularity (Precision in Thought)

The other night I prayed with my mind flying in a thousand directions at once, so loud (and yet too muffled to distinguish a single thought.) They say you can't think a thought unless it's tied to a word. I used to wonder how one can even measure that, to what extent one has thought a thought if you aren't actually even sure you've thought it. (My daughter talks mostly about kittens and hairbows and love, so it's quite possible that it's true.)

I know that my mind went from noise to a sentence, and that God had understood my prayer long before it made it to that point. He showed me a picture -did my eyes see it, or was it in my mind? How can you tell without waving your hands before your eyes? It was beautiful. I spoke to my dad a few days later, and as casually as one can mention such an unusual thing, I threw it into the conversation, as if it were an afterthought. He paused. He told me he had seen the same thing.

There's a guy named Ray Kurzweil who wrote a book called The Singularity is Near. He believes that within some 30 years, machines will become human. (Others view The Singularity as the moment in time when humans become machines; that if we eat our peas and map out the human genome and stream our consciences* onto microchips for safe-keeping, we'll live forever.) Kurzweil sells that side of the coin to an extent, but his forte is the theory that technology is advancing at such an amazing rate that the only gap left to fill is that which exists between us and them: the capacity to create, to weigh arguments, to joke, to have emotions, to distinguish right from wrong.

He doesn't say that the difference between a human and a robot is a soul, because his religious beliefs do not allow him the word. And because he substitutes the term soul with intelligence or self-awareness, he either has thoughts he does not think at all, or he has thoughts that are too hazy to recognize**.

I wonder what he would make of 1 Corinthians 2, or of Romans 8:14-27. There is a joy in having thoughts that are beyond your understanding set before you in print; you gasp at both their familiarity and their strangeness***.

I wish that C.S. Lewis were able to attend the Singularity Summit. I wish that he could set up a booth under a banner with the simple statement "You don't have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body." I would love to hear a conversation between him and Kurzweil - even if I didn't have the vocabulary to understand it.

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*I feel like this entire post is a clumsy religion/sci-fi version of Inception. Look at those passages, if you haven't yet. They're within a line of thought that's entirely different from what I've written about, and yet it stands: God has a mind and a Spirit, and they are distinct from each other. The Spirit helps us understand God's mind, and raises within us prayers that are ours but are not necessarily thoughts that we understand. But he also says we have the mind of Christ, and pursues this in a different direction in 1 Corinthians 14:14. And he writes about the inherent knowledge that this life isn't what we were intended for; there is much more in 1 Corinthians 15. But my point in all of this is simply to say that to see it written out in black and white -that if something about your very existence feels like a sham, if you know that a hope to live forever as you are is no hope at all- is nothing less than to see the unknowable tied down in words. A mystery is given form, and we are left marvelling at both how obvious it is and how perfectly beyond our grasp it remains.

**Like that a girl with severe autism or a boy with Down's Syndrome might not pass the Turing Test, but they bear the image of God; therein lies a dignity that cannot be added to or denied.

***Or is it consciousnesses? Ironic to not know which word to use.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Walk Like an Egyptian

First Tunisia fell, then Egypt. Now we're watching Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, Palestine, Algeria, Jordan, and Syria. Reports are starting to come out of mobs in Kuwait and Djibouti. (I can only hope that Kaddafi's Ukranian nurses are
safely sequestered inside his Bedouin tent.) On this side of the ocean, twenty thousand marched the state capital to protest the Walker's salary-cutting union-killing budget-balancing proposal. Gutsy timing, Scotty.
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Matt painted up our car with the words "Hey! Walker! Leave those kids alone*." He scraped it off this morning when I pointed out that reframing something as being "for the children" is too disengenuous for him. We aren't concerned about the bill's effect on students. We don't want to lose 10% of our income. We want to feed our kids meat and pudding.
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The rhetoric flying around for all of this is crazy. People talk about what the US would be like if it weren't for unions, bringing to mind pictures of six year old boys in knickers working 15 hour shifts in factories in New York. When I picture the union going under, I picture Matt coming home maimed from a terrible overhead projector mishap, suddenly speaking in an Irish brogue.
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The local news panned over crowds of marchers with the voice-over "Protesters flooded the streets. Teachers are really angry." The next clip showed a soft-spoken teacher from Madison standing in his kitchen next to his wife, saying "If they cut my salary that much, I'll have to start choosing what I can pay for." I picture his Netflix membership ending.
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I don't know why I'm making fun of this guy. We're so steeped in student loan payments for our education degrees that we put our kids to bed at night in three layers of pajamas to avoid turning up the heat - and this is with the current wages paid.
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This is the truth: when the union gets torn apart, we become entirely public servants. You say we already were, but we weren't. We could negotiate for terms, we could have a say. When this goes through, we'll be paid what the electorate deems appropriate. Do you know what Americans think of teachers? That we are given more resources than any other country, and yet produce students who rank abysmally on tests. They think we are terrible. There have charts to prove it. Break apart the union, and politicians will keep promising lower taxes and covering the expenses with our paychecks. Ten percent is a beginning. And Michelle Rhee will be cloned so that she can stomp through every classroom and tell us how pathetic we are.
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Teachers make a pretty little scapegoat.
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Let me tell you why our kids score low: it's because our entire system of education in this country is warped**. Rhee wrote about trying to get her students to sit down and listen. A bee was flying around in her classroom. In a desperate attempt to have a moment of silence, she caught the bee and ate it. The kids gasped, disgusted. She notes with pride that she did what it took***.
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We are expected to eat bees. They say a reasonable man adapts himself to the world around him; an unreasonable man adapts the world to himself. The reasonable teacher walks in every morning expecting disprespect from students and often from the parents. The unreasonable teacher says this is crazy.
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We spend money on Smartboards and laptops and anything that American dollars can buy because we don't want to acknowledge the simple fact that it's not teachers that fail, but parents. I've sat in conferences where I asked parents what consequences they give their children for misbehavior in school****. They look at me, confused. I don't know, they say, what can I do? I tell them to take away his cell phone, lock up his PS2. Hide his laptop. We set up contracts: a yellow mark in the planner means no texting. A red mark means no TV that night. The kids glare at me. The parents tell me this has never ever occurred to them.
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The average teenager spends over 8 hours a day looking at a screen. And yet i11it3R@$y is blamed on teachers. Srsly, not ROTFL.
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They say that only the unreasonable man can change the world. The Arab world is full of unreasonable men today. Here, the closest we can get to voicing our discontent is calling the governor an Imperial Walker. Protesters: do you realize there is something much greater you could want? El General: can you give us a beat? An upheaval of this scale needs an anthem.



*I know, it's "Leave them kids alone." A teacher can't very well drive around with a grammar error on his car though, can he?
**We raise our kids to not be cowed by authority: there is almost nothing more American. The insolence that fuels American exceptionalism is our undoing. And China, with its Tiger Mothers, storms ahead because we can't even get our kids to sit down in class. Matthew teaches at two different schools in a town that's divided neatly by a river: rich to the north, poor to the south. His rich kids get A's not because they're smarter but because their parents expect them to excel in school. This is not to say that rich people make better parents, but that they've taught their kids to value education, and it shows.

***You think I'm crazy for thinking people want her cloned? You should read the letters to the editor that come in any time a magazine runs an article about her.
****I'm talking about not being called a motherf---er. Not having books or chairs thrown. Not having kids joke about raping me. And I'm asking for more: for kids to do their work. To try, to live up to an ounce of their potential in the classroom.
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photo cred: the Flaco

Friday, February 11, 2011

Love in the Time of Leprosy

I once knew a guy who, as a grand gesture of love, ate his newborn son's feces. Within a few days he had walked out on his family and was back to declaring his love of alcohol to the masses.
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It reminds me of Namaan. He had leprosy and wanted to be healed. I always pictured him with a few fingers falling off, perhaps a loose nose. He was told to dip seven times in the Jordan River. He was indignant; it seemed so mundane. His servant girl pointed out that had the prophet asked to perform some grand gesture, he would have eagerly done it. If he was willing to do something remarkable, why was he so reluctant to do that which is unremarkable?
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I suppose eating excrement is easier than giving up the bottle. I don't know. I have no interest in mocking him. It's easier to love in ways that are brash and loud. A girl I know put a status on Facebook that read "Look at this picture. This is the face of someone who would die for you. And if you can't see that, goodbye." I thought oh, sweetheart. The algorithm Facebook uses to generate updates to people is pretty random; do you know who you're saying you'll die for? Someone you once rode the bus with? Some boy you met in the mall? And if your love is strong enough to die for someone, shouldn't it be strong enough to stick around?
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But how can I shake my head at her when I would rather love God in ways that are brash as well? He said that if we love him, we'll obey him. I think of Psalm 40:6, what David meant when he said "My ears you have pierced." In those days, when a slave's term was up, if he loved his master, he had the option of refusing to be set free. He would stand against the doorframe, and an aul would be driven through his ear as a symbol of unending servitude. I loved that the first time I read it. Fifteen years old, I circled it in purple marker, drew a terrible illustration in the margin with a ballpoint pen.
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I liked Luke 17:7-10 much less, Jesus telling his disciples a servant should expect no reward for doing what's expected. Obedience wasn't received as an extravagant display of affection but as a given. I wanted Jesus to say if you respect me, you'll obey me. I didn't want love to imply such subordination; and if I was to be obedient, I wanted it to be uncalled for, more than what was asked for: spectacular, brassy, garish. I didn't want it to be simply my place.
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How can even the desire to love be so riddled with sin?
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Two days ago, the Flaco scooped an entire can of manjar into Lolita's hair, then ran his sticky carmel hands all over the floor and the walls. When I demanded to know why he had done it, he simply said I wasn't looking. I told him he's supposed to do what's right all the time, not only when I can see him. Oh, he said, eyes wandering around the room, disinterested. When you disobey, when you make make messes for me to clean, it makes me feel like you don't love me, I said. He looked at me, startled. He tipped his head to the side, studied my face for a while, and then crept towards me. I do love you, he whispered, even though I'm bad.
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I wrapped him up in my arms. I saw him as small, as beautiful. The gap between his intentions and his actions was overlooked. He was mine.
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God, I love you like an alcoholic father, like a leper, like a teenage girl, like a three-year old boy, but I love you.

Friday, February 04, 2011

This is your brain on drugs.

I wonder why some days, the monkeys break a dozen eggs on the kitchen floor and it's only yolks and whites, nothing more. And other days, it makes me write a sad-enough sounding post that my mother-in-law calls to see if I'm all right.
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I went to Cornerstone in 2000 to see a speaker. It was a week of electric guitars, dust and heat and mohawks. I went the other years to see the ska shows, to hear the punk rock, to watch people dressed entirely in Tooth and Nail stickers do the robot to experimental noise. But that year, it was to see John Paulk. He was going to talk about deliverance from sin, how that which entirely consumes you can become as small as a fly that you flick away. Always filthy and always wanting to land, but small.
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I once had a classroom where it was difficult to avoid breathing in maggots. One section was doing a urine lab, so there were jars of pee in various shades of yellow on the back counter. Ground up pig testicles were in petrie dishes. Dead raccoons and other road-kill extra credit were in the freezer. Some were on the counter, thawing out to be cut into. My teacher had permed bangs and an extremely assertive smile. You just did what she said.
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My class was doing an experiment involving worms, trying to see who could keep them alive the longest. We each had a pop bottle full of trash. We'd go and add a squirt of ketchup, a few dribbles of syrup, whatever was left over from our lunch trays. Had my worms died, it would have been the end of it. But they lived on and on and on, and every day I'd hold my breath and walk through the cloud of flies to give them their lunch. They laid there on a soft mound of fungus and mold, looking kind of sulky but fat.
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If temptation is a fly, I wonder if mine lives in a warm, filthy bottle of Coke. I wonder why I feed it trash and then act surprised that it multiplies. I wonder how I let myself get to the point that I blame God for this.
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That year they taught us about worms and they taught us about drugs. Most likely a few other things too. They brought in a nice, friendly cop to scare us. Self control is not enough, he said. You've got to stay away from your addict friends, notice what makes you want to light up and address it, stay a few steps ahead. Had it been a Christian school, he would have pulled out Ephesians 4:27. Maybe he would've preached on the whole chapter.
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This is so simple. You will laugh at me (but please don't.) When I smile at my babies and play with them, they smile at me back. When I take Tylenol, my headache goes away. When I go to bed early enough, I'm not tired. When I clean the house, I don't spend all day thinking about Every Bit of disorder in The Entire World. When I look straight-on at what I'm actually tore-up about, I don't mistake it for my kids.
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Did I shake my fist at you, God? I am sorry.
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There was a huge rainstorm in 2000. The dust turned thick; people much more punk than me ripped doors off the porta-potties and slid down the muddy hills. Our tent leaked; I laid my head down on a pillow that felt like a sponge left too long in the sink. I laid there listening to some band finish its hardcore set, watching the mohawks wilt, thinking about what he'd said. He was a cross-dressing homosexual man. I am a housewife. I didn't know it would take me eleven years to realize we are the same.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

To Want What you Cannot Have

Things fall.
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My daughter broke three cups and a bowl yesterday. I was irritated; wondered if it was ironic or just pathetic that all of her glass-breaking made me want to smash one.
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In all honesty, I do not even care about the cups. I could have given her a plastic one. It was there before the first one dropped. And then I told myself it was the sweeping; while being occupied with the shards, turning to find that they had dumped out the flour. Unraveled the toilet paper. Drawn on the wall. Cut open a pillow. Every mess created a dozen more. When it rains, it pours.
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Rain falls from the clouds because the earth has mass, and mass somehow draws mass to itself. I don't understand that. Newton is credited with a great discovery because he stated the obvious: gravity exists. He didn't explain why it happens, only that it does.
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Empty space draws matter to it. So that which has mass and that which has none do the same thing.
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I wonder what God was thinking when he invented this universe, when he decided that this is the way that things will be. Liquid turning into vapor releases heat. Electricity can produce magnetic fields. E=mc squared and U=mgh and E=1/2mv^2+U.
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Nearly every school has a classroom with a poster of Garfield telling kids that the only stupid question is the one you don't ask. But how do you know when to stop? When is the answer simply "It's a property"?
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This week, I felt thick with sin. It was at the surface, wild and strong. I thought bitter thoughts; that to depend on God for strength is to be disappointed. I do not get what I want so I sin. Like my kids having a tantrum, only colder, more controlled. I am miserable in my sinfulness, so I seek relief in sin. It makes no sense. The reaction is too fast to be thought*.
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What does he think of me, as a human? Is he angry? Does he pity me? Does he nod and say yes, I understand?
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If being a human means walking with a beast, should I hate my humanity? Or is it nothing more than a property of being stuck between glory and hell? Can I hate my sin without hating the struggle against it?
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Will I ever boast of my weakness?* Or will I always turn from it in anguish and sweep it up with the broken glass when you knock at the door?



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*I remember wondering why quitting drinking is not merely an act of not bending the elbow. Can a person not control their arm, I wondered? Is it not that simple? And that day, I got into some sort of poisonous weed and every time I scratched the itch, it spread further. I literally could not stop scratching, and I watched myself bending an elbow I told to stay straight, my brain firing "move move move" thirty times faster than I could tell it "stop." God mocked me with a weed. I am grateful for that.
*2 Corinthians 12:1-10