Saturday, November 30, 2013

A Hunger Games Thanksgiving


          Last weekend I went to the movies and saw The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Now, on the Saturday following Thanksgiving, as I come off a turkey and stuffing induced coma, I find myself a little disconcerted by the juxtaposition of a gluttony-fueled holiday and a movie about starving kids killing each other.
          I first read the The Hunger Games Trilogy about a month before the first movie came out. Although I had heard a lot of people talk about the Hunger Games, I was initially quite opposed to reading the books; the concept of kids killing each other in a reality-show format did not seem like something that I wanted to read. Then I was lent a copy of the book and I ended up getting hooked, primarily because of the strength of the main character Katniss. So I finished the series and went to the movies. And although I enjoyed both the books and the movies, I find some of the media sensation around the series to be a little off-putting. 
           The Hunger Games is a story about the divide between the upper-classes and lower-classes, with the upper-classes being represented by the opulent and decadent Capitol residents. And yet, the predominant advertising that I see around me is CoverGirl’s Capitol Beauty Line.  According to CoverGirl, the Capitol residents, who cheer on the contestants and glamorize the ‘fight-to-the-death’ brutality of the Hunger Games, are the trendsetters I should be emulating.  
          Add into that the craziness of Black Friday shopping, the massive quantities of Thanksgiving leftovers that I am still consuming, and I find the result to be a little unsettling. Perhaps I’ll forget about all of this strangeness as I head into the holiday season, distracted by the holiday deals around me and by the bustle that marks this season. Maybe I’ll buy the sparkly nail polish, eat the Hunger Games inspired Subway offering, and fork over money for merchandise, all in the name of capitalism. 

          Or shall I say Capitol-ism?

Saturday, November 9, 2013


“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”

Maya Angelou

          In the course of my lifetime, I have failed many times. I’ve changed career paths multiple times, lost friendships, burnt bridges, and failed to meet deadlines.
          Right now I am in the beginning months of a new job as a high school teacher, with a teaching-load that seems almost insurmountable. Everyday, I have to teach three classes of anatomy and physiology, two classes of AP Biology, and one research class. I am responsible for planning lessons, coming up with activities, and grading. In short, I am overworked and overwhelmed, to the point that simply doing a mediocre job is leaving me on the verge of burn-out. Perhaps, in time, I will become a good teacher. But for now, I am not. I am, quite simply, a mediocre teacher, perhaps even a teacher edging into failure. 
          I see a similar parallel in some of my own students. I teach AP Biology to a group of very high-achieving tenth-graders, many of whom have spent their lives getting A’s and being told they are special. I am required to teach biology at a college level, which means that I have to cover the material at a faster and more detailed pace than what my students are used to. At their age, my class represents my student's first real foray into the demands of college-level work. 
          Some of my students have risen to the challenge while others are struggling to keep up. Unfortunately, some of the struggling students are starting to lash out at me. And although I remind my students that hard work is essential to success, some of them simply aren’t putting in the necessary time, instead creating flimsy excuses for their poor performance. 
          Failure – and our response to failure – is what defines us. Failure is what spurs us to move on, to try harder, and to change. Failure is the point at which we adapt and become stronger. Or rather, failure is an opportunity to adapt and become stronger. 
          I wish that I could tell my students the importance of learning to fail. Even if I did, I am not sure that they would listen. I suppose that is a lesson that they will have to learn on their own. 
          Even if learning that lesson requires failing first.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Fake It Til You Make It, Anatomy Style


Recently, I started a new job teaching anatomy and physiology.  I have a pretty comprehensive background in developmental biology – I can lecture for hours on the development of the heart, brain, and muscular system.  I can talk about the structure of the cell and how structure lends itself to function.  I can trace the genetic pathways and give the structure of many of the mature organs. 

But the anatomy of the adult human body?  I’m a little lost.  I teach within the context of health science and I simply don’t have the medical background required.  And so I find myself falling back on an old Mormon adage: “fake it til you make it.” 
        In the Mormon context, “fake it til you make it” means claiming that you believe in Mormonism until you find yourself actually believing in Mormonism.  Every month we would have testimony meetings, where members were encouraged to share their belief in the truth of the Gospel.  We were told that the best way to gain a testimony is by bearing it.  And so every month we would be surrounded by members who all claimed to believe, who all claimed to know.  As to who was an actual believer, I am not sure. 
         Now, in my new job, faking it until you make it means not admitting that I’ve never dissected a cat before.  It means comforting students who are nervous about the up-coming cat dissections, telling them that it isn’t as scary as it sounds, when in reality I’ve never dissected a cat before.  I have dissected other things – I am a master of dissecting embryonic and new-born mice – but never a full-grown cat.  I can only hope that my constant reassurance of students hold true for me as well. 
          Last week I lectured on skin conditions.  Most of the knowledge I presented I had learned just a few days before.  For the lecture, I had to draw on my background in biology and I also had to research a lot of conditions beforehand.  Even so, there were a lot of questions I could not answer.

          The difference?  When I didn’t know something, I said so.  I didn’t try to lie and I didn’t pretend to knowledge that I didn’t have.  I hope that the students understand that their teacher isn’t all-knowing.  If they can’t or won’t understand this fact, that is none of my concern.  For me, I am simply trying to be the best teacher that I can, within the context of my limitations.  


Saturday, October 12, 2013

Book Review: False Prophet

Satire (noun): the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose or criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.

Sometimes the truth can be strangest of all.  In her book "False Prophet," author Donna Banta once again draws on her skills as a satirist to expose the weird, sometimes odd, almost always heart-breaking realities of being a Mormon.  In “The Girls From Fourth Ward,” the story was about how far Mormon girls would go to get into BYU.  In “False Prophet,” the story centers around Ryan and the very sweet but over-worked Carrie Zimmerman, who finds herself repeating the refrain “I love being a Mormon,” in order to cope with the exhausting and mind-numbing realities of being the bishop’s wife.           
          “False Prophet,” picks up again with Lieutenant Matt Ryan, who is burnt-out and disillusioned from his last run-in with the Mormons, who had foiled his investigation at every turn, ultimately leaving the murder unsolved.  When he discovers another murdered man clutching a blue and gold embossed Book of Mormon, his reaction is, quite simply, to close his eyes and whisper “Jesus Christ.  Not again.”
 This time, the murder victim, Brother Sid Dooley, was a lonely widower who embraced Mormonism with zeal after the death of his wife and only daughter.  Brother Dooley is the eccentric character that is found in every Mormon congregation (ward), a lonely man who walks around claiming to see angels and talk with God.  When he turns up murdered, having ranted about a false prophet shortly before his death, the only suspect that the police can come up with is Bishop Zimmerman, who had spoken to Dooley shortly before his death and was the one to discover his body. 
The story is a real who-dunit, an adventure that keeps you guessing at every turn.  There is the familiar cast of characters from the first book, with an increased focus on the sweet but exhausted bishop’s wife Carrie Zimmerman, who is nine months pregnant and stressed about balancing her family’s meager finances with her ever-increasing frustration over her narrowing life.  “I love being a Mormon,” she whispers at every turn, while the realities of having a husband falsely arrested for murder pushes her to make choices that aren’t quite Mormon in nature. 


Sunday, October 6, 2013


If you look at my face, I have a faint scar that crosses my forehead.  It doesn’t look like much, just a simple scar that goes across the right side of my forehead and then disappears along my brow-line.  The only hint as to the severity of the scar happens when I raise my eyebrows; my right eyebrow just doesn’t lift as high as the left one.
I got the scar on my forehead in an accident.  I was hit by an elderly driver while walking to work.  My head shattered the windshield and as a result, the flap of skin above my right eye was peeled down to the bone.  Thanks to the work of an excellent plastic surgeon, this injury looks like nothing more than an innocuous scar, one that merits only a passing notice, if at all.  For me, the only memory of this injury is the scar and the perpetual numbness of that area. 
I am twenty-eight years old.  I have been out of the Mormon Church for twelve years.  Most of the time, when I am going about my daily life, I don’t really think about the past much.  Time is the ultimate healer and for me, it has healed a lot.  Growing up Mormon is a hard burden to bear – I spent my childhood and teenage years feeling insufficient and fearing my doubts.  The process of leaving Mormonism, given the misconceptions surrounding people who leave, is also a hard burden to bear.  The experience has left its own kind of scar, one that is not visible.

I could get surgery to fix the scar on my forehead.  There isn’t much that can be done about the nerve damage but I could have the scar lightened, even removed.  But every time I think about the options, I find myself hesitating.  The truth is, scars are often a reminder of what we have survived.  I survived getting hit by a car.  I survived Mormonism.  And so I will wear these marks as a reminder of what I have survived. 

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.