Sunday, April 29, 2012


So I went to Chicago...

As I took this picture someone said something about muggers and I laughed nervously and they said, "no, really".

It's a beautiful day in the Chicago hood - wait, that didn't sound as bad in my mind.
This is Layne (who blogs at Librarian Hot) and her partner Nate. They live in Chicago, and are lovely people. I've known Layne since freshman year of college, when I was intimidated by how smart and pretty she was but quickly got over that fear to discover that she is incredibly awesome. We have a long history of consuming entire packages of double-stuf oreos (I am ashamed that I didn't even have to look up how to spell 'stuf') and watching lots of trashy tv. Such is the basis for a great friendship.

Circa 2005? Layne and I in college, dressed up for Halloween - as each other.

Nate and Layne were gracious enough to allow me (nay - INVITE me - fools) to hang out at their Magical Dream Apartment for a week. Seriously, if this was my apartment, I'd be inviting random people in off the street just so I could be smug at them about my good fortune.

Ever notice how it's your friends that always have the Magical Dream Apartments? Where's my MDA?

I am totally allowed to be on the bed. Totally.
I was welcomed by a room decked out in ECU colors, and by a dog on the bed. Note that the dog is not supposed to be on the bed, which is why she's giving the camera that unique doggy look, the am-I-in-trouble-or-can-I-bluff-my-way-out-of-this look. I feel at home already!

Yes, the Magical Dream Apartment allows pit bulls. Magical! I was pretty much constantly concerned that Miss Roxie, the pit in question, was going to eat me. She is, after all, a fearsome beast.

Fearsome beast... in a hoodie. See, hoodies mean danger!

Roxie and her fellow pitties were on patrol one lovely morning as part of the SociaBulls, a group of mostly pit bulls and their owners that meet regularly to have a group walk throughout different parts of town.

Getting ready for the walk
Roxie says, "you can keep scratching there... if you want"
Breaking stereotypes, one well-behaved pit at a time.
It was AWESOME to see so many well behaved pit bulls in the same place.

Part of the reason I visited when I did was because the Field Museum was having Member's Night. Because - obviously. Field Museum. Behind the scenes Member's Night with beaver dissections and free reign (kind of) in the Anthropology Large Items Collection.

View from the steps of the Field. Ahh.
Anthropology large items, what whaaaat!

We all faced our fears! Layne faced her fear of snakes by bravely heading down an aisle filled on both sides with jars of preserved snakes.

Now we have reaching the unsettling part of our tour
And Nate and I faced our fears of creepy things with too many legs.

Unfortunately, one of the etymologists staffing the creepy-crawlies table was a total ass. I hate spiders, but I hate cockroaches more. They make me feel like things are crawling on my head. Too many legs! As we passed the table, the woman held out one of those giant hissing Madagascar cockroaches out to me and I RESISTED my urge to knock the thing to the ground and slam it into eternity with the sole of my shoe, screaming all the while. That's how we deal with roaches in the south, Ma'am.

Instead, I smiled through the fear paralyzing my face and said, "no thanks."

She shot me a look of disgust and said something disparaging, then turned to the folks behind me in line and said, "this girl's crazy."

Ok, lady. Never mind that it took some courage just to go into the room with your stupid insect, and that I in fact intended to do something I'd never had the guts to do so before - actually touch a tarantula. So thanks for shaming me in public and making it even less likely that I will ever touch a cockroach. Maybe next time you could keep your excellent people skills and your judgey-judge-pants to yourself.

Oh, and I did touch the tarantula. So there.

That is my finger. Bitch.

She was actually very fuzzy and soft and much nicer than her human "spokesperson". Maybe next time I'll try to hold one. And for the record, I think Nate held both a cockroach and a tarantula.

We then headed into the bowels of the Field to check out the animal dissections.

This sign is For Serious
I was actually surprised at how much I reacted to the smells in the dissection lab. I've never reacted to the sight of blood and guts, and I've done plenty of formaldehyde dissections, but never had been next to something quite so... fresh. But not really fresh, since it had been shipped from somewhere else. A few of the specimens were a little bit ripe. My brain wanted to stay, but my tummy wanted to go...

Go to where the bones were!

We got to see a new mummy exhibit with several CT scans and resin reproductions of skulls. That's what this guy up here was holding. He was so impressed by my enthusiasm that - totally unbidden - he started talking about erect mummy penises.

I bet you talk to all the girls that way
The photo also shows the magnificent, insane-child grin I had on my face for the entire evening. It's amazing that anyone puts up with me, really.

In the mummy exhibit, I pushed some little kid out of the way to get down on my knees and examine one of these skulls more closely. As I got up, an older gentleman with a British accent said, "did you find what you were looking for?"

"Oh, um - I just wanted to see it more closely," I mumbled. And then I saw his nametag - Head Curator for Biological Anthropology.

Holy shit!!!!!

As we chatted, I found a way to shoehorn into the conversation that I had a degree in Bio Anth, and then he showed me a deformation on the top of the skull that he thinks is due to artificial cranial deformation. "But the Egyptian government doesn't accept that, of course!" he said, and we chuckled knowingly together.

And if this had been a movie, he'd have been so impressed by my wicked mad bones skillz that he would instantly offer me a job. But this is reality, so instead I just get to write about it on my blog.

Besides the Field, there was something else that drew me to Chicago that weekend... the Chicago Comic Entertainment Expo - C2E2.

Oh yes. There was cosplay.
And now, to be totally honest, I have to admit that while I am a nerd of significant standing, I've never been a comics person and was really drawn to this event because I would be able to hang out with this Nerd First Class:

I have known Lisa since I was a freshman in high school. Our friendship is based on hating math, many nights of bad decision making in her apartment (hookah + trampoline = bye-bye security deposit), and long aimless drives around Minneapolis and the surrounding countryside, during which time Lisa would put in one cd after the next, listening to half of a single song on every disc before exchanging it for a new one.

I spent a lot of time trailing happily along in Lisa's wake as we plowed through the many offerings of nerd culture on parade. Our friend Tom was also there, and as he and I have similar viewpoints on The Nerds, it was very fun to have someone to make fun of Lisa with.

Book signing with my FAVORITE fantasy author, Robin Hobb
We met some great artists, stood in line for some signatures, checked out a few panels, and basically exhausted ourselves (Lisa more than anyone else).

The official C2E2 DJ
I texted Leland "we're watching Quidditch". He texted back "how is that possible?"
Quidditch was... well, it looked like they were all having fun. Running around holding the broom between your legs seems mighty silly to me. But when they invent actual flying brooms, sign me up.

We also bought a souvenir or two.

Winter is coming...

And as Layne and Nate are ranking high-level nerds themselves, we all were able to hang out together on the last day of the convention.

For America!

One of the best parts of the convention was just seeing people in costume. There were some amazing, and no doubt expensive, get-ups there.

Spiderman has a backpack?
Watch out, zombies
These are not the droids you're looking for
And then, after lots of nerds and great food and good times and hanging out with friends, it was time to go.

But I'll always have the memories...

of Layne's cat Byron (aka Captain Naughtypants) throwing up in my suitcase.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

A Brief Soapbox Intermission

Brace yourself, I've got something to get off my chest...

I'm an atheist.

Part One: Americans Hate Atheists

And that makes me a member of a minority group that is perceived with suspicion, disgust, and outright fear by a large percentage of the population. Consider the following. According to a recent study published in the American Sociological Review, "atheists are less likely to be accepted, publicly and privately, than any others from a long list of ethnic, religious, and other minority groups" (cite).

  • Only 49% of Americans would be willing to vote for an atheist president (59% would vote for a homosexual, 90% would vote for a Black, female, or Jewish candidate, pretty much everybody would vote for a white dude.)
  • 39% of Americans agree with the statement that atheists "do not at all agree with my vision of American society" (26% agreed regarding Muslims, 23% agreed regarding homosexuals, 13% agreed regarding conservative Christians [interesting], 13% agreed regarding recent immigrants.)
  • 47% of Americans would disapprove if their child wanted to marry an atheist (34% would disapprove of a Muslim, 27% of an African American [yikes], 19% Asian or Hispanic, and pretty much everyone's ok with a Caucasian.)
  • Atheists are more distrusted than Muslims, Jews, gay men, and feminists. A similar percentage of respondents reported distrust for rapists as did for atheists.
(cite, cite)

So, Americans hate Muslims, homosexuals, and rapists, but they REALLY hate atheists. Ok, that might be overstating it. Americans may also really hate rapists.

Part Two: How Many Atheists Are There?

(Well, it is a nice thought, but not all these guys were atheists.)

About 14% of Americans have no religious preference, but only 7% respond to surveys about belief by agreeing with the statement "I don't believe in God", or "I don't know whether there is a God and I don't believe there is any way to find out". (These are the definitions of atheism and agnosticism, respectively). 7% is a pretty small group, but way larger than Mormons (1.9%) or Jews (1.7%).

Only 1% of Americans self-identify as atheists or agnostics*, but this is still more than the numbers of Jehovah's Witnesses (.7%), Buddhists (.7%), Muslims (.6%), or Hindus (.4%). Of course, most atheists don't go to atheist meetings or dress up in suits and go around ringing doorbells, handing out pamphlets about how there is no God. (Can you imagine?)

Part Three: FAQ

We'll get to why people hate atheists so much in just a bit, but first I want to answer a few questions. These are the most common questions that I get when I talk about being an atheist.

Why are you an atheist?
  • There is no need for the presence of a supernatural deity to explain the variety and wonder of the natural world.
  • Text from the Bible, as from other religious documents, is an amalgam of myths, aphorisms, and archetypes that have been around probably since humans first learned to tell themselves stories. The text and history of the Bible, as with other religious documents, clearly demonstrates that it was written by humans and has in fact gone through an editing process by which bits were added and removed according to the whims of the ruling religious elite at the time. Furthermore, passages from the Bible specifically contradict what science tells us to be true.
  • I have never experienced anything which might be described as a religious experience that could not be explained by the psychology and sociocultural pressure of the milieu.

Of course, all of these together don't mean that God doesn't exist, that the Bible isn't divinely inspired, or that religious experiences aren't real. However, I find these three factors to be necessary foundations of my disbelief in any deity. Were any of these pillars to be removed, I would likely become a more religious person. (That is not a challenge, people!)

I realize that spelled out so clearly, my beliefs make me sound arrogant. But no more arrogant than people who go around claiming that they know there is a God, and furthermore, presume to know what God wants.

What do you think happens when we die?

The same thing that happened before we were born. Nothingness.

Doesn't this make you sad/scared?

Not for me personally - obviously I won't be aware of what's going on. It does make me sad that death is final and that I won't have an opportunity to meet up with my loved ones again. It would be nice if an afterlife did exist. But wishful thinking cannot and should not be the basis for religious belief.

How do you fill that hole in your life that religious people fill with God?

Why do you assume that my life has a hole? I certainly don't feel in any way that my life is less than complete. I work, I write, I blog, I quilt, I play with my dog and cat, I raise money for charity, I love my husband and family, I clean the house (sometimes), I read, I hang out with friends, I eat (lots), I travel, I teach - these are the same things that everyone else does too.

And lest you accuse me of being in denial about some gaping hole in all of this, let me also tell you what I don't do. I don't drink, smoke, or do drugs. I don't gamble or sleep around. I'm not depressed or sad - in fact, I'm pretty happy most of the time. In short, I don't do anything that would lead someone to suspect that I'm subconsciously compensating for some kind of soul hole (sounds like a band name - Soul Hole). I'm actually pretty boring that way.

How can you tell right from wrong?

AHA. I feel like this is what people really want to ask, though most don't come right out and say it. And this same question is what goes back to the statistics I cited earlier - why people don't like atheists. It's really a trust issue, as studies confirm (cite). Many religious Americans don't trust atheists because they don't believe that atheists share - or even possess - a recognizable moral code.

Which is really pretty insulting. And confusing. As a person with religion, do you need to do a quick WWJD check before every little interaction, or do you have a reliable internal compass that lets you know how to behave in most instances? It's simple. In order to be a good person, I don't have to be scared into behaving by the threat of punishment from above. If you need the threat of punishment to do right, that makes me a little bit afraid of you. And if you need to have the rules of right and wrong clearly spelled out by someone else, then I'm a LOT afraid of you. Do Unto Others - that's all you gotta know. Unless you're a sociopath.

People are people - if they want to behave like jackasses, they'll do it, and they'll find a way to justify it, using their religion if necessary. Not so sound too self-congratulatory, but I think I do pretty well at being a good person. I often wonder, though, while in the midst of a good deed, if the person on the other end would ever guess that I'm an atheist. Like the folks from the church food fundraiser, who told us that we gave more canned food than many other houses, or the woman stopped on the side of the road, who we helped secure a runaway mattress back to the roof of her car, and who kept saying "God is gonna bless you!"

The point is not to make a list of how awesome and righteous we are, but to suggest that atheists are perfectly capable of being good people, and that in fact we are way more successful at this than some would suspect. After all, we're 7% of the population - that's 21 million people. 21 million people can successfully start some shit, I tell you what.

Part Four: This Part is Just For Lindsay


Part Five: Atheists Are Good People Too

Compared to the general population, there are WAY fewer atheists in prison - less than a quarter of one percent, according to many, many studies (cite). Ok, so maybe all of these prisoners were evil, evil atheists while doing their crime, and now that they're doing their time, they see the light. That seems unlikely to account for all cases, or even the majority of cases, but fine.

Consider instead the country of Norway. Known for their lovely fjords, Norway also has an unusually high percentage of atheists - estimates range from 26-71%, depending on definition. And you know what? The Global Peace Index rates Norway as the 9th most peaceful country in the world, after Iceland (16-23% atheist), New Zealand (20-22% atheist), Japan (65% - second highest in the world after China), Denmark (43-80%), the Czech Republic (54-61%), Austria (18-26%), Finland (28-60%), and Canada (19-30%). (cite) (Sorry no cite for the atheism percentages, but I'll send you the pdf if you're curious.)

I THINK YOU GET MY POINT. But just to make sure I've ground it totally into the ground, I'll just remind you that Norway is ranked number one in the Human Development Index, which considers life expectancy, literacy, education, and standard of living. (cite)

The US is ranked 82nd in the Global Peace Index, and 4th in the Human Development Index. (Isn't it nice to find at least ONE global ranking scheme in which the US does pretty well for itself?)

Part Six: TL;DR

Hating on atheists is stupid and nonsensical. And BIGOTED. So knock it off. One can be a perfectly happy and good person without religion of any kind. Also, I'm moving to Norway.

*If you really start poking around in the Pew Forum's data on religion - and if you're a data nerd, prepare to spend several hours happily plugging away at it - you'll see that when asked if they believe in God, a weirdly large percentage of those who call themselves atheist or agnostic replied that they do believe in God, meaning that they don't actually know what the terms 'atheist' and 'agnostic' mean, but that's a whole 'nother thang.