Tuesday, January 31, 2012

James Herriot and Jimmy Stewart's Dog Named Beau

In one of James Herriot's books about his life as a vet in Yorkshire, England (I'm not sure which one -- "All Creatures Great and Small," "All Things Bright and Beautiful," "All Things Wise and Wonderful," "The Lord God Made Them All"), he tells a story about a boy who was one of the meanest kids in town -- until he got a puppy and was almost immediately transformed into a different person. The puppy followed him everywhere, and he loved that dog with all his soul. And for a brief moment in time, the meanest kid in town no longer was. But then his dog was hit by a car, he reverted to his earlier self, and grew into an unloving adult. Reflecting on this Herriot believed that this boy might have grown into someone very differently if that puppy hadn't been hit by the car. For a short period of time, he learned what it meant to show compassion for something other than himself.

Now, I don't have any empirical proof, but I believe that Herriot was on to something here. My sense is that people who love animals are more likely to be kind to all of God's creatures (great and small) than are those who do not. This is not to say that everyone who loves pets is guaranteed to be compassionate, nor is it to say that those who do not love pets will never be capable of expressing love for others. Rather, it's simply to argue that those who are able to love dogs, cats, horses, and so on are more likely to show compassion to others. That is why when I see someone grieving over the loss (or potential loss) of a pet, my immediate thought is that here is someone who cares.

And that brings us to Jimmy Stewart, who in addition to being a great actor, was also a pet lover. And if you ever saw him read his poem about his dog named "Beau" on the Johnny Carson show, then you know what I mean. If you haven't seen it, then here's your chance. I happened to see this when it first broadcast, and when I saw it, I couldn't help but think that not only was Stewart one of the greatest actors of all time, but he was probably a pretty good guy as well.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Sign of Hope: Japanese Rice Field Art

Below are examples of Japanese Tanbo art, which is where people use rice of various types and colors to create a giant picture in rice fields.  Farmers create these remarkable displays with no ink or dye. Instead, they have carefully arranged and grown different color rice plants in paddy fields.  Rice-paddy art began in 1993 Inakadate, Aomori, as a local revitalization project. For the first nine years, the farmers created a simple picture of Mount Iwaki before moving on to more complex designs.

The pictures below (sent to me by Nancy Roberts) are dated prior to the Tsunami that swept through Japan in the early 2011. However, you can follow this link ("Newest Japanese Rice Field Art Sends Living Messages of Hope") to see post-Tsunami Tanbo art grown by Japanese rice farmers that contain messages of hope and perseverance meant to encourage a nation fed up with natural and unnatural disasters.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

What the Vancouver Riots and Kyle Williams Have in Common

Some of you may remember that when the Vancouver Canucks lost in the Stanley Cup finals to the Boston Bruins, Vancouver fans rioted, which led to at least 140 injuries, 4 stabbings, 117 arrests ("2011 Vancouver Stanley Cup Riot"), and providing further evidence that some fans (which of course is short for "fanatic") take sports way too seriously.

Six months later the San Francisco Forty-Niners lost in the NFC Championship game to the New York Giants, largely because of the two fumbles of one player -- Kyle Williams. Williams accepted his share of responsibility for the Niner's loss and reportedly remarked that although he knew it wasn't the end of the world, right now it sure felt like it. It would be nice to think that would be the end of the story. Unfortunately, it isn't. Williams evidently received death threats from Niner fans for fumbling the game away. While, like all Niner fans, I was disappointed that the Niners lost, clearly there are some of us who, just like the Vancouver fans six months before, take professional football much too seriously.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A Round-Heeled Woman

Some of you may have heard of Jane Juska. She is a retired English school teacher who when she was 66 years old, placed an ad in the New York Review of Books that said "Before I turn 67--next March--I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me." She reportedly received 63 replies, from men aged between 32 and 84, and her book, A Round-Heeled Woman: My Late-Life Adventures in Sex and Romance, recounts some of the adventures that resulted from the ad.

Her book was later turned into a play staring Sharon Gless (of Cagney and Lacey and Burn Notice fame), which opened in San Francisco and featured in the San Jose Mercury News in January of 2010. The Mercury News article not only discussed the play, but it also celebrated the sexuality of elders, something to which Western culture has often turned a blind eye. At the end of the article, though, it notes in passing that Juska was currently in a relationship with a married man. And I couldn't help but wonder if I was the only reader who found this last tidbit of information morally problematic. Put somewhat differently, if you were the wife of the man with whom Juska is currently having an affair, would you be as excited about Juska's sexuality as everyone else seems to be?

I doubt it. I seriously doubt it.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Kopimism: Sweden Recognizes File-Sharing to be a Religion

When I teach a class on religion, I often begin by defining what constitutes a religion (not surprisingly, scholars don't agree). On one end of the definition continuum are somewhat more exclusive definitions that only consider a something to be a religion if it includes a belief in the supernatural. This doesn't necessarily mean that it must believe in a God or gods in order to be considered a religion (although that is often true), but it does mean that it at least has to believe in something beyond the natural world such as a force or ultimate state of being (e.g., samsara, nirvana) in order for it to be a religion.

On the other end of the continuum are definitions that are much more inclusive and regard movements that define certain objects as sacred and others as profane as potentially being religions. Scholars who embrace such definitions generally require that there also be some sort of collectivity that gathers from time to time and that engages in rituals that celebrate what they consider to be sacred. However, these scholars do not hold that a movement must believe in the supernatural in order for it to be a religion. That is why they often regard secular movements, such as communism or even the environmental movement, as religions because there are objects that members of these movements consider to be sacred (e.g., "The Communist Manifesto," "The Silent Spring") and rituals in which they participate together (e.g., pilgrimages to Marx's gravesite, worshipping the earth).

With this in mind, along comes Sweden, which just recently recognized a new religion, Kopimism, which means file-sharing ("Sweden recognises new file-sharing religion Kopimism").  The Missionary Church of Kopimism was founded by 19-year-old philosophy student Isak Gerson and is a congregation of file sharers who believe that copying information is a sacred virtue.  Followers are called Kopimists (from copy me) and believe that communication is sacred and hold up "CTRL+C" and "CTRL+V" (the computer shortcut keys for "Copy" and "Paste") as sacred symbols. Its basic tenets are:
All knowledge to all
The search for knowledge is sacred
The circulation of knowledge is sacred
The act of copying is sacred
I guess the Swedish government embraces the more inclusive definitions of religion.

Note: Thanks to Noel Tebo for first telling me about this

Monday, January 16, 2012

A Hijab Fencer, The Flying Scot, and Tim Tebow

National Public Radio (NPR) recently ran a story about American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, who hopes to compete in the 2012 London Olympics ("Olympic Hopeful Mixes Muslim Faith And Fencing"). If she qualifies (she's currently ranked second in her weapon in the US), she'll be the first practicing Muslim to represent US women's fencing and the first American to wear a Hijab (i.e., the Islamic head-covering) while competing.

Make no mistake. Ibtihaj is no liberal. She is a theologically conservative Muslim as illustrated by her dislike of the reality show, "All American Muslim:"
You know, being a Muslim American is not easy at all. It's very difficult. And the way I practice Islam speaks for itself and, you know, people can either accept me or they can choose not to. And I feel the same way about the show. I don't think that "All-American Muslim" in any way represents who I am. I like to think that I'm a very conservative Muslim, and I think that a lot of the Muslims on that show, I would say, are extremely liberal.
Fencing is not the only sport Ibtihaj has played, but she likes fencing best because she doesn't have to alter her uniform as she often had to with other sports. Not having to do so makes her feel more of a teammate. For example, she told NPR how when she used to play volleyball, while her teammates wore a tank top and spandex, she wore a shirt under her tank top and sweats over her spandex.

If Ibtihaj qualifies for the London Olympics, her event will be held during Ramadan, which means that she will have to fast from sunup to sundown. This is not the first time she has had to do this over in the course of her fencing career. She participated in a training camp in Colorado Springs during Ramadan, which she says was the toughest Ramadan of her life:
You know, that was, honestly, I think, one of the toughest Ramadans that I've had in my experience while fasting, not only, you know, abstaining from eating or drinking, but also... the altitude. Trying to be an athlete and train at a really high altitude is tough. You dehydrate a lot faster. You're susceptible to injury when you're dehydrated. So we were training twice a day, and I found that meeting with the trainers at the Olympic training center, they were really, really helpful... They put me on a strict diet, like I didn't have a lot of salt intake. I had to wake up periodically in the night to consume Gatorade and water to make sure that I didn't suffer from dehydration. And the tough thing about it is, you know, when you're not drinking and you're training at this level, you do suffer from dehydration, and I did have a few muscle strains and pulls during that time. But, you know, fasting is a part of my life. Being Muslim is a part of my life, and, you know, fencing, I work into it, but I wouldn't fence if it hindered, you know, me practicing my religion in any way.
It may not be the first time, but it will be a far larger stage than before and will almost certainly attract a lot of media attention.

The fact that Ibtihaj's faith could jeopardize her athletic aspirations at the upcoming Olympic Games, reminds me of how the faith of Eric Liddell (aka the Flying Scot and one of the two runners featured in the Academy Award winning movie, Chariots of Fire -- the other was Harold Abrahams) cost him a shot at a Gold medal in the 100 meter dash, his best event, at the 1924 Paris Olympic Games. A devout Christian, Liddell refused to run in a heat because it was held on Sunday, which forced him to withdraw from the race. (Unlike how it is portrayed in the movie, the heat schedule was published months in advance of the Games, and his decision to withdraw was made long before the Games as well.) Instead, Liddell spent the months leading up to the Olympics training for another event, the 400 meters, an event in which he did well but not good enough to be considered a contender for a medal. Nevertheless, Liddell qualified for the finals, and when he got to the starting blocks, an American Olympic Team masseur (not Jackson Scholz as portrayed in the movie) slipped a piece of paper into his hand with a quote from 1 Samuel 2:30: "Those who honor me I will honor." Inspired by the Biblical message, Liddell  broke the existing Olympic and world records with a time of 47.6 seconds.

Liddell attributed much of his success to God ("The secret of my success over the 400m is that I run the first 200m as fast as I can. Then, for the second 200m, with God's help I run faster."), and he often used races as opportunities to share his faith. For example, in the movie Chariots of Fire, he's shown speaking to a small crowd after winning a race:
You came to see a race today. To see someone win. It happened to be me. But I want you to do more than just watch a race. I want you to take part in it. I want to compare faith to running in a race. It's hard. It requires concentration of will, energy of soul. You experience elation when the winner breaks the tape - especially if you've got a bet on it. But how long does that last? You go home. Maybe you're dinner's burnt. Maybe you haven't got a job. So who am I to say, "Believe, have faith," in the face of life's realities? I would like to give you something more permanent, but I can only point the way. I have no formula for winning the race. Everyone runs in her own way, or his own way. And where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within. Jesus said, "Behold, the Kingdom of God is within you. If with all your hearts, you truly seek me, you shall ever surely find me." If you commit yourself to the love of Christ, then that is how you run a straight race.
And that brings us to Tim Tebow, starting quarterback for the National Football League's (NFL) Denver Broncos and a devout Christian who, like Eric Liddell, isn't shy about sharing his faith. For the most part, Tebow has endeared himself with American sport fans: according to a recent ESPN Sports Poll, Tebow is currently America's favorite active pro athlete ("Poll: Tim Tebow is U.S.' favorite").
Tebow was picked by 3 percent of those surveyed as their favorite active pro athlete. That put him ahead of Kobe Bryant (2 percent), Aaron Rodgers (1.9 percent), Peyton Manning (1.8 percent) and Tom Brady (1.5 percent) in the top-five of the results... The poll, calculated monthly, had the Denver Broncos quarterback ranked atop the list for the month of December. In the 18 years of the ESPN Sports Poll only 11 different athletes -- a list that includes Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and LeBron James -- have been No. 1 in the monthly polling.
Although Tebow is a favorite among some, he evokes a level of hostility among others that is, in some respects, surprising considering that by most accounts he's loyal to his family and friends, he treats others with respect (including women, unlike a number of other pro athletes such as Ben Roethlisberger and Kobe Bryant), he works hard, and he's successful (two college national championships, a Heisman trophy, and a playoff win in his first year as an NFL starter). Nevertheless, according to a recent article in The Christian Century his overt displays of faith grate on some, in particular secularists and apparently (some) mainline Protestants.

However, compared to Ibtihaj Muhammad and Eric Liddell, Tebow's displays of faith are relatively tame. If Tebow was as devout as Eric Liddell, he wouldn't be playing pro football at all since the NFL plays most of its games on Sundays (no doubt, this would make some folks happy); moreover, Tebow has not sought to alter his uniform in order to play nor does he need to (yes, there are forms of Christianity that place restrictions on what the faithful can wear). Thus, while I'm not crazy about how Tebow shares his faith, it doesn't get in the way of me enjoying watching him play and cheering him on (except, of course, if and when he plays the Niners), just as Ibtihaj's Hijab will not get in the way of me cheering her on this summer.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Thy Neighbor's Dumpster

Have you ever had more garbage or recyclables than could fit in your own bins and decided to borrow the extra room in one of your neighbor's? Well, here's a pretty funny short film ("The Dumpster") about using a neighbor's dumpster for similar purposes. It was filmed by a friend (Patrick Campbell) from church. The description of the film is as follows:
There are few things more tempting in life than the lure of an empty dumpster in your neighbor's driveway. But when that neighbor is a jerk, things can get a bit tricky.
The film has been screened at the Dam Short Film Fest (Premiere), Myrtle Beach International Film Festival, Dances with Films, Woods Hole Film Festival (3rd Place Best Comedy Short, Honorable Mention Audience Choice), Short Toronto Indie Film Fest, Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival, Big Bear International Film Festival, SoCal Independent Film Festival, Poppy Jasper Film Festival, Vermont Film Festival, and the San Francisco Underground Short Film Fest.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Bowls, Playoffs and the Plus-1 Option

More and more there is talk about a playoff in college football with the Plus-1 option (see below) attracting the most support. This strikes most observers as a good idea, but if college football goes to a playoff for the national championship, the best two teams will not always make it to the championship game. Instead, just like in the NFL, it will often be the two hottest teams.

The "theoretical" beauty of the current BCS system is that it rewards teams that play well all season. It is almost impossible to qualify for the national championship game with more than one loss. Of course, the current system doesn't guarantee that the best two teams will always be selected (e.g., when there are three undefeated teams, which two get picked?), which is why so many are clamoring for a playoff. Nevertheless, let's be honest and recognize that with a playoff, the best teams will not always end up in the championship game.

It appears that if a playoff system is adopted, the Plus-1 option will be the initial format of choice. In this format, the the top four teams (as determined by the BCS rankings) would qualify for the playoffs, with the first and fourth seeds playing in one bowl (e.g., the Fiesta Bowl), and the second and third teams playing in another (e.g., the Rose Bowl). Then, the two winners would play an additional game (the plus-one game) for the national championship. If this format would have been followed this year, then LSU would have played Stanford in one bowl, and Alabama would have played Oklahoma State in another, and the tow winners would have faced off for the championship.

There is a problem with this approach, however. Teams can qualify for the playoff even if they don't win their own conference. This year, for example, Stanford finished behind (and was soundly beaten by) Oregon in the Pac-12, but the BCS rankings prior to the beginning of bowl season ranked Stanford fourth and Oregon fifth. Why? Because Stanford had only one loss while Oregon had two (one to LSU--#1 in the Coaches Poll--and the other to USC--#5 in the AP poll).  Nevertheless, anyone who watched the Oregon-Stanford game would be hard pressed to argue that Stanford was and is the better team (note that I write as a Stanford alum).

Thus, an additional rule that should be put into place if the Plus-1 option is adopted is that, with one exception, a team can't qualify for the national playoff if it doesn't win its own conference. What's the exception? A team that doesn't win its own conference can still qualify for the playoff if the team that won the conference also qualified for the playoffs. Basically, this exception would function much like the wild card slots do in the NFL (and in MLB and the NBA). Taking this year as an example again, Stanford would not have qualified for the playoff, but Alabama, which didn't win the SEC, would have because the SEC champion, LSU, also would have qualified.

On a final and somewhat unrelated note, I don't think any college team should be considered "bowl eligible" if doesn't win a majority of its games. It was an embarrassment to the Pac-12 that UCLA was allowed to play in any bowl game, even if it only was the "Fight Hunger Bowl" (sorry Illinois fans). Moreover, I think conferences, such as the Pac-12, that hold a championship game between division winners should only hold the game if the winners of both divisions finish above .500. I'm fairly certain that Pac-12 officials (except, of course, UCLA supporters) were fervently praying (even if they didn't believe in God) that Oregon didn't have an off-day and lost because they didn't want UCLA to be the Pac-12 representative to the Rose Bowl.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Friends Don't Let Friends Walk Drunk

Here's a interesting fact: drinking and walking is more dangerous than drinking and driving. Not, of course, to others, but it is to yourself. If you are drunk and you live one mile from home, if you choose to walk rather than drive home, you are 8 times more likely to die than if you drove home. How's that for unconventional wisdom?

The moral of the story? If you must drink, don't drive, don't walk. Instead, get someone (who is sober) to drive you home. If you want to learn more, click on the following link of the Freakonomics podcast, "The Perils of Drunk Walking" (it's only 6 minutes long).

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

George Bailey, Ebenezer Scrooge, and Concern of Others

Recently we watched a Christmas movie of sorts, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, starring Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Garner. It is loosely-based on Charles Dickens's, A Christmas Carol, and tells the story of a womanizing photographer (Matthew McConaughey) who through the visits of three female ghosts on the eve of his brother's wedding, comes to learn that his current life is shallow, that he is still in love with his childhood sweetheart (Jennifer Garner), and that if he continues on his present course, he will die alone (he is shown that there will be only one mourner at his funeral -- his brother). In the end, of course, he repents of his shallow ways, reunites with Jennifer Garner, and (presumably) lives happily ever after.

About a year ago, I watched another take on Dickens's tale that appeared on the Disney television series, The Suite Life on Deck. In this particular episode, the very rich, selfish, and not terribly bright character, London Tipton, refuses to give anything for homeless and sick children during Christmas. On Christmas Eve night, London's mirror takes her back to the past, the present and the future. After discovering that in the future her friends will loathe her, she concludes that it is better to give than to receive, and sells her Christmas presents in order to buy gifts for the needy children.

What is interesting about these new takes on "A Christmas Carol" or its somewhat related counterpart, "It's a Wonderful Life" (starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed), is that the newer movies appeal more to self-interest rather than to self-giving. In both the Ghosts of Girlfriends Past and The Suite Life on Deck, the main characters appear to be motivated to change more because they fear dying alone than out of any real concern for others.

To be sure, just like Matthew McConaughey's character, Ebenezer Scrooge does learn that he will die alone and that no one will attend his funeral, but he also learns that Tiny Tim will not live, and readers are left with the impression that he is motivated more out of concern for Tiny Tim (and others who are less fortunate) than he is out of concern for himself. Similarly, George Bailey does learn that he's lived a wonderful life (although at first blush it doesn't appear that way), but his life has been wonderful because it has been dedicated to caring for those whose lives have been less than easy.

That being said, research has shown that we do benefit from caring for others. All else being equal, those who dedicate a large part of their lives to caring for those less fortunate live more fulfilling lives. It really is more blessed to give than receive. But here's the kicker: if we give strictly out of self-interest (i.e., to make our lives more fulfilling), then we will receive no benefit. We only benefit from giving if we give out a genuine concern for others. And if you ask me, while Charles Dickens and Frank Capra seem to have instinctively understood this, that message is getting lost in modern reinterpretations of those classic tales.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The 12 Days of Christmas (Re-Post)

A re-post from last year:

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the 12 Days of Christmas are not the 12 days before Christmas but the 12 days after Christmas. It is also known as Christmastide and runs from December 25th to January 5th (although in some traditions it runs from December 26 to January 6th), culminating with the Feast of Epiphany, which commemorates the time when the Wise Men present gifts to the young Jesus, who may have been as old as two years old at the time (the Bible's not clear how long it takes them to locate Jesus). Some households (such as ours) celebrate Christmastide by giving gifts on all of the 12 days, but this is more the exception than the rule.

When most people hear "The 12 Days of Christmas," however, they probably think of the song, which goes as follows:
  • On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... "A Partridge in a Pear Tree."
  • On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... "Two Turtle Doves and a Partridge in a Pear Tree."
  • On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... Three French Hens, Two Turtle Doves and a Partridge in a Pear Tree.
  • On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... Four Colly Birds (some versions using "mockingbirds" or "calling birds"), Three French Hens, Two Turtle Doves and a Partridge in a Pear Tree . . . 
  • And so on until the 12th verse. . .
  • On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... Twelve Drummers Drumming, Eleven Pipers Piping, Ten Lords-a-Leaping, Nine Ladies Dancing, Eight Maids-a-Milking, Seven Swans-a-Swimming, Six Geese-a-Laying, Five Gold Rings, Four Colly Birds, Three French Hens, Two Turtle Doves and a Partridge in a Pear Tree.
The song's origin is unclear, but one story that has little historical support but is still fun to consider is that the song originated as a Catholic "Catechism Song" in England during a time when Catholicism was "discouraged" (1558-1829). According to this tradition
  • The "true love" in the song refers to God, while the "me" refers to those who receive the gifts mentioned in the song from God
  • The "partridge in a pear tree" refers to Jesus Christ whose death on a tree (i.e., the cross) was a gift from God
  • The "two turtle doves" refer to the Old and New Testaments - another gift from God
  • The "three French hens" refer to "faith," "hope" and "love" three gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 13)
  • The "four calling birds" refer to the four Gospels, which sing "the song of salvation through Jesus Christ" 
  • The "five golden rings" refer to the first five books of the Old Testament, also known as the Torah. 
  • The "six geese a-laying" refer to the six days of creation
  • The "seven swans a swimming" refer to the "seven gifts of the Holy Spirit." (1 Corinthians 12:8-11) 
  • The "eight maids a milking" refer to the eight beatitudes
  • The "nine ladies dancing" refer to the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) 
  • The "ten lords a-leaping" refer to the Ten Commandments
  • The "eleven pipers piping" refer to the eleven faithful disciples
  • The "twelve drummers drumming" refer to the twelve points of the Apostles' Creed
For a more scholarly (but less entertaining) take on the song's origins see the Wikipedia article on the topic.