Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Book Review: Your Inner Fish

          What makes us human? This question elicits answers on multiple levels. Some people frame their humanity in the context of religion. Others choose to frame their humanity in the context of their relationships with other humans. Neil Shubin, paleontologist and evolutionary biologist, chooses to frame this question in the context of evolutionary biology. In his book “Your Inner Fish”, he examines the commonalities found between humans and the entire spectrum of organisms found on earth, as well as offering a compelling portrait of a scientist at work. 
          Neil Shubin is famous for leading a paleontology expedition that discovered fossils of the Tiktaalik, which is a fishlike creature with a rudimentary wrist. The Tiktaalik, with its blend of fish and tetrapod features, is considered to be the missing link between sea creatures and land creatures. Part of this book is an accounting of the author’s expedition to the Arctic Islands where he discovered the Tiktaalik fossils. Regarding these expeditions, he says “Most people do not know that finding fossils is something we can often do with surprising precision and predictability. We work at home to maximize the chances of success in the field. Then we let luck take over.” As he shows, fossil-hunting expeditions are a combination of back-breaking work, educated guesses, and serendipity. The Tiktaalik, with its unique combination of fish and tetrapod features, is a glimpse at how sea creatures made the shift to land. This accounting alone makes his book a valuable treasure. However, Neil Shubin chose to delve further, by showing us the many commonalities that humans share with a wide spectrum of species. 
          Teeth showed up in the fossil record very early on; they were found attached to the impressions of soft-bodied jawless fish. As Shubin explains, the process by which teeth develop – the result of interactions between two different layers of tissue – has been adapted for the production of other organs, including hair follicles, feathers, and mammary glands. The author’s explanation for this startling array of adaptations is: “This example is akin to making a new factory or assembly process. Once plastic injection was invented, it was used in making everything from car parts to yo-yos.” In this vein, the author goes on to describe the evolutionary origins of our bodies, describing everything from the anatomy of our head to the development of our inner ear. 
          This is a book that offers a peek into what makes us human. More than that, this is a book that opens our eyes to the beauty of the world around us. 

Friday, February 15, 2013

Susan B. Anthony & Me

Susan B. Anthony was born on February 15th, 1820, 165 years before I was born. I have always had a deep admiration for Susan B. Anthony, one that goes beyond the simple coincidence of sharing a birthday. Even as a stubborn pre-adolescent girl with tangled hair, I understood the huge debt I owed to the early women’s rights crusaders. The fact that I vote, possess an advanced degree, and have the luxury of controlling my reproductive decisions is all a direct result of the women’s rights movement. I take these rights for granted and yet they were hard-won victories. 

Susan B. Anthony’s primary crusade was to obtain the right for women to vote. She never saw this dream come to fruition, dying before the 19th Amendment passed. Susan B. Anthony also fought for equality of pay, a battle that we have not yet won. Even today, women are paid only 77% of what men earn. Over the course of a lifetime, this inequity can mean the difference between financial security or insecurity.

On the Stephen Colbert report, Lilly Ledbetter made the following observation about pay inequity:

I was making 40% less than the three white males doing the exact same job that I was. That was a devastating hit for me because that meant my overtime pay was incorrect, what I had legally earned under the law. And it also meant that my retirement would not be correct. […]

This goes on for the rest of your life. It’s not just my pay, my overtime pay, that my children and my family had to do without. This also goes into my retirement now. [..] Now, when my retirement checks go into the bank, I get 40% less than what I should.” 

Pay inequity is not an issue reserved solely for academics or activists; pay inequity is an issue that cuts into family security. Within this country, there are millions of households that depend on a woman’s paycheck. There are millions of children that are able to eat because of their mother’s salary. If a woman is only making 77% of her male counterparts, then this is an inequity that filters down to the home.

On January 15th, Elaine Dalton, who is responsible for overseeing all Mormon girls between the ages of 12 and 18, made the following statement in a BYU devotional

"Young women, you will be the ones who will provide the example of virtuous womanhood and motherhood. You will continue to be virtuous, lovely, praiseworthy and of good report. You will also be the ones to provide an example of family life in a time when families are under attack, being redefined and disintegrating. You will understand your roles and your responsibilities and thus will see no need to lobby for rights." 

Elaine Dalton is one of the few visible female leaders in a religion that has been designed to keep all authority out of the hands of women. Every decision that a woman leader makes within the Mormon Church can ultimately be over-turned by the male leaders in charge. This is a skewed and unhealthy dynamic – and yet, the impetus for change is nowhere to be found. There is simply a refusal to admit the problems. Utah is the worst state for pay inequity: the average working woman only makes 55 cents for every dollar the average working man does. This is a statistic that cuts into the well-being of children and families: every household that depends on a woman's salary has to make do with 45% less.

I don’t believe in fighting simply for the sake of fighting. However, I do believe in being realistic. There are still a lot of battles remaining before we can call ourselves an egalitarian society. To deny this reality – and to actively discourage young women from aspiring for a better reality – is oppressive at best, dangerous at worst. What about when these young women grow up and have families? What if they never marry? What if their marriages crumble or their spouses leave or they find themselves in an abusive situation? What if they end up being the sole breadwinners for their family? What will happen then? By empowering women to be the architects of their own lives, we empower all of society, families included.

I wonder what Susan B. Anthony would have to say on the matter.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Current Events

          I am not very good with current events. I follow the news but when it comes to commentary about current events I find myself at a loss. Over the past year, as I have entered the world of post-Mormon blogging, there have been a number of Mormon-related controversies. Some of them I chose to comment on. Others I have passed by. Even when I made the decision to write about current events, my words always have always fallen flat of what I wanted to say. I am very slow when it comes to making up my mind about issues; by the time I have thought the matter through, people have moved on to another controversy.
          We live in an era of instant gratification. We have a 24-hour news cycle and an abundance of people with things to say. Within the past year, there have been Mormon controversies relating to feminism and Mormon history, as well as the added scrutiny of the “Mormon moment”. The various controversies have been fast and furious, burning through the news cycle.
          Within these past few weeks, we have had another controversy surrounding the words of Elaine Dalton, president of the Young Women’s organization. Recently, she gave a talk in which she said the following:

"Young women, you will be the ones who will provide the example of virtuous womanhood and motherhood. You will continue to be virtuous, lovely, praiseworthy and of good report. You will also be the ones to provide an example of family life in a time when families are under attack, being redefined and disintegrating. You will understand your roles and your responsibilities and thus will see no need to lobby for rights." 

          The amount of harm inherent in Elaine Dalton's words is enormous. I have thought about writing another post on women’s rights and the struggles that I faced as a Mormon girl. Maybe someday I will find the adequate words. But, as with all of these controversies, I struggle with my emotions on the subject. I still lack the distance to give these events their proper due. I suppose this is just part of the process of moving on: creating the necessary distance and sorting out conflicting thoughts. I just wish that we allowed these controversies a longer time-frame, because the initial coverage and commentary never seems to fully explore all of the nuances.  

Friday, January 25, 2013

Flashback: For The Strength Of Youth

          I found this video this morning and it brought back a lot of memories of what being a Mormon youth was like.  This song is a parody of Cee Lo's song "Forget You" and is centered on the standards in the “For The Strength of Youth” pamphlet, which is given to youth when they turn twelve years old and are inducted into the Young Men/Young Women programs at church.  The pamphlet laid out all of the standards by which we were expected to live; we were expected to take the words in this pamphlet seriously. 
          Bad singing and corny lyrics aside, the attitudes and expectations shown in this video are pretty true to my own memories.    

Sunday, January 20, 2013

2012 Brodie Awards: Voting Now Open

The voting for the 2012 Brodie Awards has now been opened: these are year-long awards for people and websites pertaining to Mormonism in one form or another.  This has been a really great year for discussion of Mormon-related issues.  I am proud to announce that I have been nominated for a few categories, including best new blog!

Polls close on February 6th.  I would recommend checking out some of the categories, as there are some fantastic pieces of work that have been nominated!

Friday, January 18, 2013

Renaissance Woman

          In high school, I met with a college admissions counselor, who asked me about my extracurricular activities and academic performance. For sports, I had done ballet and track and cross country. I had won an art competition, performed in the school musical, and played guitar for the jazz band. I excelled at history and I loved science. I worked in a research lab, where I helped screen for mutations affecting mesodermal development in worms.
          “So you’re a Renaissance woman” he said, looking pleased. “College admissions officers love that.”
          I always assumed that growing up meant pruning away my interests to concentrate on a single discipline. That is the logical route to take; we live in an era of specialization. Being a jack-of-all-trades, or a student of all disciplines, is confusing and chaotic.
          I have been searching for that one single thing that I am good at; I still don’t know the answer. None of my ventures have seemed to be quite the right fit for me. Lately, it has occurred to me that I need to play to my actual strengths, rather than the strengths I wish I had, or the strengths that I think I could develop.
          My strength, as I see it, is that I am interested in everything. This doesn’t seem much like strength – these past years, I have often thought of it as weakness. The flipside of being interested in everything is that you never really master one thing. My concentration – and my ability to focus – is hampered because I am always going off on tangents. As they say – “Jack of all trades, master of none”.
          I cannot change who I am; all that I can do is try and find a way to position myself to turn a potential weakness into strength. And so, after all these years, I have reached a point where I realize that I just need to accept my strengths for what they are and learn to work with what I have.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

A Tale Of Two Seminaries (Part Two)

Note: This post is part of a two-part series.  Part One can be found here

         After the schism, I was sent to the seminary class held at the ward building. I was pretty torn up about the matter – I had known the bishop’s family for years, which made the exclusion all the more painful. I felt, more than ever, like the apostate leper. But attending a different seminary class – without all of the attendant baggage – helped me to resolve my feelings about my apostasy. Bit by bit, I made my peace with my lack of beliefs. Full activity – seminary, Mutual, Sunday School, Young Women’s – helped me realize that my atheism was not due to a flaw in my moral character. The longer I attended, the more I understood that I just didn’t believe.
          The following summer the stake president became aware of the situation regarding the separate seminary classes and intervened, making the decision to send me back to the class taught by the bishop’s wife. This was a pretty intimidating situation; I was being told to return to a class that had made it clear my presence was not welcome. I was angry and confused about the situation, which was exacerbated by the fact that my psyche was beginning to crack under the burden of living a double life. I was in a very dark place at the time and the complication of the seminary situation only made the issue worse.
          The school year started and I began attending seminary class at the bishop’s home. The situation made me very tense and edgy; my mood was going downhill rapidly. Then, one day, I read a touching story in Newsweek; the story of a couple that had adopted a disabled child from Russia. The story had a happy ending – the child was smiling and laughing. I figured the fact that the parents were gay would probably be a side-note, a slight complexity that still didn’t take away from the fact that the child was happy and in a stable home, as opposed to living life in an orphanage. I was scheduled to give the spiritual thought in seminary the next day – I figured this story was as spiritual as it could get.
          Naïve, I know. But this was a story that helped me believe in humanity at a time when I was in desperate need of that faith. I had been through hell the past few years, as I navigated the roller coaster of emotions that come after losing your faith. During the last few years, as I went back and forth, back and forth on my state of disbelief, I had watched my sense of self-worth slowly erode. Being a closeted apostate among Mormons is the loneliest feeling in the world; the events of the past year had taught me that I couldn’t trust the people I grew up with.
          The next morning, I went to seminary class. When the bishop’s wife asked me to give the spiritual thought I opened my copy of Newsweek and began reading. About a third of the way into the article, the fact of the parents’ sexual orientation was introduced; that was when a very deep silence entered the classroom. I became acutely aware of the thinness of my voice and the slight wobble of my words. I pushed on with the story, determined to finish. I could feel my hands shaking and my heart pounding in my chest but I refused to stop. I did not want my voice to be silenced, not this time. And so, I pushed on.
          When I finished reading, I looked up from the magazine to meet the eyes of my teacher. I have never, in all of my days, seen such a look in anyone’s eyes. Perhaps it was hate, perhaps it was fury, or perhaps it was anger. Either way, I felt a chill that sunk down to the bottom of my toes.
          The bishop’s wife flicked her hand at me in a dismissive gesture and said “Well! That child will certainly grow up to be open-minded!” I almost laughed but caught myself. The teacher was right. Her comment, although it didn’t ease the tension in the room, helped me see clearly again.
          I never went back to church or seminary after that; I was tired of living a double life. I was tired of feeling ashamed of who I was and dishonest about my beliefs. The time had finally come to stop living a lie and start with the business of living my life.