Saturday, September 21, 2013

Book Review: Into The Jungle - Great Adventures In The Search For Evolution

          The process of doing science makes for some wonderful stories. In his book, “Into The Jungle: Great Adventures in the Search of Evolution,” renowned scientist Sean B. Carroll tells some of the stories behind great discoveries in evolution. The most famous story of all, the story of Charles Darwin, involved a five-year journey around the world, during which Darwin collected and observed plants, animals, and fossils from all places of the world. After going home again, Darwin then spent twenty years categorizing his discoveries, eventually publishing “The Origin of Species,” in which he laid out a truly revolutionary theory of evolution by natural selection. Charles Darwin and the voyage of the Beagle is the most famous story of evolutionary biology. But there are others. Some of these stories include that of Alfred Russell Wallace, who spent years in the jungles of the Amazon River Basin and the Malay archipelago, collecting and observing. He too formed a theory of evolution that was similar to Charles Darwin, a fact that spurred Darwin to finally publish his theory.

          All told, the book “Into The Jungle” tells the story behind the science. We get to see Darwin as a bright curious boy with an inability to pay attention. We get to see Darwin as he is traveling around the world, seeing some of the oddities that later spurred him to develop his particular theory of evolution. We get to see Wallace in the jungle, collecting specimens and coming up with his idea of “survival of the fittest.” So too do we get to see some of the smaller forgotten stories – Roy Chapman Andrews launching a massive expedition that uncovered dinosaur eggs in the Gobi desert, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer discovering the living remains of a fish long thought to be extinct, and the father-son team of Walter and Luis Alvarez teaming together to uncover evidence of a massive extinction event that lead to the extinction of the dinosaurs. All told, there are nine stories. 
          “Into The Jungle” is not a textbook. It is a book that will teach you something but it is not a book that assumes you have a background in biology. Instead, it is a book that shows the human side of research – the struggles and triumphs that are at the root every great discovery.

Friday, September 13, 2013

One Step At A Time

          I started writing in college, while taking a creative writing course.  The lecturer, a woman who had just received her MFA in creative writing, was a very gentle about introducing us to the beauty of stories and languages.  I enjoyed her class and even after the class ended, her love for language stuck with me.
          Over the years, I kept at it, in a pretty haphazard fashion.  Then, a couple years ago, I began writing regularly.  Writing slowly turned into a daily habit.  Little snippets of writing, bigger essays, stories.  Little by little, I became acquainted with the use of language.
          I get frustrated easily.  I also psych myself out.  In the beginning I am enthusiastic.  Then the doubts usually creep in.  But something about writing - the slow accumulation of ideas and phrases - keeps me going.  And here's the thing - most of what I write doesn't get used.  At least not when I write it.  But the longer I've kept at writing, the more I find myself using phrases and ideas that, when I first came up with them, weren't useful.  Then, as time goes on and I expand my database, some of these ideas and phrases take on new uses.  
         In some ways, the process of learning how to write has taught me to keep going.  To have patience with myself.  And to take things, one step at a time, one piece at a time, until you reach a point at which things start to come together.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Post-Mormon Forgiveness

          Growing up Mormon, there were a lot of stories about forgiveness. In many of the stories, the happy ending involved the wronged party forgiving the perpetrator, with everyone living happily ever after. As with many of the other moralistic stories I grew up with, these narratives now strike me as being highly contorted and artificial. 
          I should say that I do believe in forgiveness. However, I feel like the forgiveness narratives that I grew up with ended up putting too much pressure on the victim to forgive the perpetrator, in many situations at the cost of the victim. Nowadays, my views on forgiveness are very different. In an ideal world, people learn from mistakes. They grow up, move on, and in the process, become a better and wiser person. However, this world is far from ideal and the reality is that many people just don’t change. Either way, the past can never be undone. As a result, I am much more careful about who I forgive and who I choose to trust. 
          Two and a half years ago I was hit by a car while walking to school. The driver was an elderly man who hit three pedestrians. This accident was, in so many ways, the result of negligence on the part of the driver – I just had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Unfortunately, this twist of fate ended up derailing my life in ways both physical and emotional. 
          And so that brings me to an issue of forgiveness. In this particular case, what does forgiveness look like? The truth is, I don’t harbor a whole lot of ill-will towards the driver. I hope that he understands the impact of what he did. I also sincerely hope that he never drives again. But the attitude and actions of the driver is outside my control. I am no longer seeking an external form of forgiveness. 
          If I wanted, I could have reached out to the driver. After the accident, I was given the driver’s information, including his home address. I suppose, if I wanted to, I could have arranged to meet him. But the simple truth is: I don’t want to meet the driver. Perhaps he feels sorry for what he did. Perhaps he doesn’t. Perhaps he has stopped driving. Perhaps he hasn’t. Either way, I have had to struggle with the consequences of this driver’s mistake. As a result, I just don’t want to depend on someone else’s actions in order to move on. 
          I hope that the driver is doing well. I hope that he can forgive himself. But that is his own personal journey, not mine.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Blessed Language

“We’ve been pretty blessed.”
         On the way home from a writer’s workshop in New York, the first leg of my trip found me sitting next to a couple with a small baby.  I started talking to them, mostly because I figured that when the baby started crying (which they almost always do on plane flights), having a face and a story to the crying would help alleviate my impatience.  So I struck up a conversation with the couple, who looked to be in their mid to late twenties and had the exhausted yet happy look of new parents.  I asked if their daughter was sleeping through the night yet. 
The wife’s reply was “We’ve been pretty blessed – she’s been sleeping well from the first month.”
        The use of the word “blessed” stuck in my mind.  It’s not a word I use much anymore, although at one time it was.  Time was when I would talk about being “blessed”, as though whatever happened in my life was a gift from someone.  Nowadays, my word choice includes terms like “fortunate” and “lucky.”  A small change – and not a very noticeable one – but still a change.  As my life has slanted towards secularism, I find myself using fewer and fewer of the terms associated with religious belief.  Perhaps this change in vocabulary reflects a change in thinking or perhaps it just reflects the fact that I don’t spend much time in church anymore. 
However, all of this got me thinking about some of the smaller marks that we carry with us.  In this case, the mark of language: the words that we use every day that often give indicators as to who we are and what we do.  For example – I have a background in developmental biology.  As a result, many of my word choices are a reflection of this training.  When I talk about terms like fate, lineage, and specification, I am thinking of some very specific processes that happen during the development of an organism, rather than some of the broader definitions used by society at large. 

Has anyone else noticed a shift in language as your life – and environment – has changed?

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Economics of Ex-Mormons Speaking Out

Blogger has an analytics section that tracks how people find this particular blog.  As a numbers/factoid geek, I like to keep an eye on these statistics.  Most of what I see is not surprising – most of the hits from this website are coming from ex-Mormon community forums. 
Other people find this blog through web-engine search queries.  The top search term that brings people to this blog is the search phrase “ex Mormons speak out”, followed by “feminist Mormon housewives”, and, more recently, the search term “ex Mormon blogs”. 
        A couple months ago, I noticed that I was getting a lot of hits from a particular website called  As far as I can tell, this is a site that runs analytics on websites, positioning themselves as a way to keep track of the competition.  If you type in the address of a specific blog/website, you can access data on the search engine queries that bring in traffic. 
Being the inquisitive person that I am, I typed in my domain –  The results were both a surprise and not a surprise.  The top search queries that bring people to my blog are terms like “ex Mormon blogs”, “ex Mormons speak out”, “feminist Mormon housewives”, and “post Mormon”.  No surprise there.  According to this website, last month there were 206 entry points into this blog from search engine queries alone. 
But the surprising – and perhaps not so surprising – result was the amount of money spent on advertising for these search queries.  Every time you type a search query into Google, at the very top of the page is a yellow box with links inside.  These are the paid advertisements.  Depending on the specific search term, companies can either pay a little or a lot of money to have their links appear in that little yellow box. 

If I were to pay advertising fees in order to get those 206 entry points from search engine queries, the price-tag for that was quoted as $658.  That is a lot of money.  

At first, that number shocked me.  Then I thought about it and I realized that the top search queries that bring people to this blog are search terms like “ex Mormons speak out” and “ex Mormon blogs”.  Those are pretty loaded search queries.  There is also a very well-financed organization that really doesn’t want people thinking along those lines and is willing to pay a lot of money in order to put up competing links. 
What is the specific price of these advertisements?  The price for advertising on google through the search query “feminist Mormon housewives” is actually pretty low – only $0.10 per click.  On the other hand, the price-per-click for “ex Mormons speak out” – which is the number one search query that brings people to this blog – is quoted as $9.39.  The advertising rate for “ex Mormon blogs” is a staggering $11.44 per click, while “post Mormon” is a more modest $8.56 per click. 
I guess I was both surprised and not surprised by these results.  On some level, I knew that advertising, especially advertising for ex-Mormon related search queries, was probably coming at a stiff price.  I just never realized how stiff of a price it is. 
Looking at these results – at the sheer amount of money that is spent on pulling people away from my blog – I can’t help but think about the strange symbiosis that is going on here.  Friends and family members that I grew up with are paying tithing money into a system that is then turning around and running a heavily-financed advertising campaign that is, in part, paying a lot of money in order to cover up the results of search queries such as “ex Mormons speak out”, “post Mormon”, and “ex Mormon blogs”.  It's enough to make my head explode.  

Are my stories really that worrisome?  

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Master's Call

       I am not a fan of religious music.  Neither am I a fan of country music.  I attribute this distaste to the bland insipid quality of Mormon hymns and the tendency of modern country music to sound whiny and nasal.  I want my music to challenge me, to force me to accept some truth about myself.  
One glaring exception to my aversion to country/religious music is my fondness Don Edwards, who is an old troubadour-style musician who sings about the lives of cowboys.  One of his most famous songs – and one that I listen to quite regularly – is called “The Masters Call” and is a narrative about a religious conversion.  “The Master’s Call” is an ballad-style song about a teenager who runs away from home and gets caught up in a cattle-rustling band.  Then, one night, a thunder-storm comes up and a cattle stampede starts.  The crux of the song is about the narrator’s near-death experience, which causes a religious conversion.  
I don’t listen to this kind of music very often and yet I can’t seem to stop listening.  I am not sure why I like this song so much.  I suppose part of it is simply that Don Edwards is a consummate musician.  His music is a blend of story-telling and instrumentals; his music is an understated exercise in showing rather than telling.  Listen to his music enough and you will understand that as a musician, he is willing to confront the parts about us that most people don't want to think about.  
I don't understand the lives of cowboys - but I do understand the deeper troubles that we all face and that Don Edwards confronts in his music.  And for that reason, I have a huge love for the stories that Don Edwards has to tell.

Check Don Edwards out.  You’ll be happy you did.  J

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Ex-Mormon Metallica


          I first heard Metallica back in the days when I was trying my hardest to be a good little Mormon girl. The music sounded illicit, almost forbidden, especially in an environment where all the leaders seemed pre-occupied by how sinful and worldly everything was. But still – I couldn’t quite shake off the few songs I did hear. The music was addictive and in a way that somehow felt right. 
          And then I left Mormonism and during my freshman year of college, one of my dorm-mates gave me a copy of Metallica’s S&M performance*. I was hooked. I listened to that recording on repeat. I still have that album, along with many other recordings. Over the years, I find myself returning to these albums again and again. 
      Part of me wonders why I like Metallica so much. And the closest answer I can give is this: this is a band that doesn’t give a fuck. This is a band that writes songs like “God That Failed” and “Seek and Destroy”, a band that wore the nickname Alcoholica with pride, and a band that sued their own fans, shutting down Napster in the process.  

        For a girl who grew up in an environment where I was expected to care about everything – and learned to internalize the blame – sometimes I wish that I didn’t give a fuck either. But I do – sometimes too much – and so for that, there is always Metallica.

*It's ironic that my first Metallica recording was a burned copy.  But I did end up buying a legitimate copy later.