Friday, January 30, 2009

What to do with religious literature

The other day, I ate lunch at Apollo Burgers, my favorite burger place in the Salt Lake valley. When I went to use the restroom just before leaving, I saw that someone had left a bunch of Jehovah's Witness literature in the restroom. There was one copy of the Watchtower in English, and three copies of what looked like "Awake!" in Spanish, sitting on the toilet tank and draped over the handrail. I thought about throwing them out, but I'm generally a "leave it as you found it" kind of person, so I just left them. I'm curious, what would you have done?

Saturday, January 17, 2009

How religion (for me) is like Where's George

Although I think this story makes a nice parable for my experience with religion, it has the additional benefit of being entirely true.

Where's George logoAbout two years ago, I was rooming with a guy for a Scrabble tournament in Phoenix, Arizona. One night in the hotel room, I noticed him flipping through dollar bills and typing on his laptop. I asked him what he was doing, and he explained that he was entering his bills' serial numbers into Where's George, a web site that lets you track where your dollar bills end up throughout the nation or the world.

At first I was a little resistant to the idea. Part of my resistance was due to the fact that it seemed a little weird. But most of my resistance was due to the fact that I know myself pretty well, and I knew that I might get a little obsessed with Where's George if I started doing it myself. I am a completionist and a perfectionist by nature, and there is no limit to the amount of energy I can pour into any random inane task, if I put my mind to it. "Where's George is awesome," said my friend. "Well, okay, maybe I'll give it a try," said I.

excited girlAnd it was pretty awesome. Within a few days of entering some dollar bills on the web site, I had two hits (people who had found my bills) in a suburb of Pittsburgh! All the way across the country, and I had no idea how the bills got there! Where would my bills show up next? This was exciting stuff. Every time a bill showed up in a new state, it was thrilling.

I got a free Where's George stamp from a printing supplies web site, and I started stamping all my bills whenever I made a withdrawal from the bank. I started stamping not just dollar bills, but also fives, tens, and twenties. Whenever I went out to lunch with others who had unmarked cash, I would ask if they wanted to trade bills, so that I could stamp more money and enter it into Where's George. I chided my wife whenever she got change from the grocery store and re-spent it without letting me stamp it first. The world seemed filled with cash, just begging to be stamped and tracked. Sometimes I would daydream about tracking every dollar bill in the world.

cashierI started noticing that my stamped dollar bills were a real conversation starter. Nearly every time I spent any cash, the cashier would look at the bills intently for several seconds, trying to figure out what the weird blue markings were for. Sometimes they would ask me why I had stamped the bills, and I would smile and give a one-sentence spiel about Where's George and how fun it was. They never seemed convinced. Most of the time they shrugged it off. Sometimes they rolled their eyes. A couple times, they joked that I might go to jail for defacing currency.

I also started noticing that some people didn't appreciate my stamped cash at all. A few times, the marked bills caused an actual confrontation. Most of the problems occurred when my bills had a hard time being accepted by automated machines that were designed to accept cash. More than a few times, a grocery store employee had to step in and accept my cash manually in the Self Checkout lane. This did not make them happy. My wife said she even had someone say they wouldn't accept the stamped cash at all. Of course, they had to accept it—it is legal tender, after all—but it seemed strange to me that someone would react so negatively to my Where's George markings. I couldn't understand why it would be a big deal at all.

I happily continued stamping my cash and entering it into the web site after every paycheck, which took between one and two hours each time. I continued getting hits in various states, but about 80% of the hits came from within 30 miles of my house. The thrill of Where's George notification emails was starting to wear off. A few times, I wondered whether it was worth my time to continue doing it, but each time I convinced myself that it was really interesting to see where the bills were going, even those that weren't going anywhere. And who could say when a bill might show up in Alaska or Hawaii? I got a hit in Okinawa once, and it kept me going. More than anything, I felt compelled to continue simply because I couldn't bear the thought of a dollar bill slipping through my fingers without being tracked. What a lost opportunity that would be! And besides, the Where's George web site told me that my George Score (I kid you not) was in the top 5% of all Where's George users. Why throw it all away just because I was a little bored?

boredI persisted out of inertia for at least a year. Then a few weeks ago, as I was stamping bills for what would turn out to be the last time, I came to the realization that it truly wasn't satisfying anymore. I had started doing Where's George because it was fun and interesting, but it had devolved to the point where it had become a monotonous, and not very important, chore. I didn't even know why I was doing it anymore. The words of a friend rang in my ears, "I have better things to do with my time." Wasn't my time valuable? Couldn't I be doing more fun or important things instead of stamping money, which only seemed to annoy people anyway? What was the point?

So I quit. It felt weird the first time I got a dollar bill as change, and I knew I was going to spend it without entering it into the Where's George web site. I had no idea where that bill was going to go. Once I spent it, I would never again have any way of knowing where it would end up. And that was okay. For the first time in a long time, I felt free to let the dollar bills find their own paths, without me. I could not track them all, and I no longer wanted to try. I spent the bill, purposefully and intentionally, without a stamp. It felt great.

Since then, I've come across a couple bills that others have stamped with their Where's George stamps. It makes me a little nostalgic. In fact, yesterday I hit someone else's bill just to be nice, and gave some details about where I got it and where I was planning to spend it. It was satisfying to type an individual message about a bill, instead of entering a single generic message for a stack of several hundred bills. And it felt good to give a hit to the anonymous person who had stamped the bill. I wish them the best, and I hope my message was encouraging to them as a Where's George user.

goodbyeAs for me, though, I think I'm done with it. I'm happy to hit other people's bills when they come my way, but I won't be stamping any more myself. I might occasionally enter a few bills if I have reason to think they're especially likely to go somewhere cool. But if so, that will be by choice and not by compulsion, not even self-compulsion. Where's George has been fun, and I don't regret having spent so much time doing it. But as someone once said to me, I have better things to do with my time.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Notes from a Unitarian Universalist service

My wife and kids are out of town for a week or so, and I thought today would be a good day to check out the local Unitarian Universalist congregation. I had heard good things about the Unitarians, and had been meaning to check them out for a long time. I'm not big on church these days, but I figured that if there were any church I might enjoy going to, UU would be it. I wasn't disappointed. Here is a synopsis, compiled from the notes I took on my PDA.

UU logoWhen I entered the chapel, I was astonished to find a room of laughing, smiling people loudly greeting and socializing with each other. It was like I had crashed a house party. Everyone seemed really happy to be there, and enjoying themselves immensely. Almost immediately I felt welcome, like these were my kind of people.

I found a seat, and someone rang a bell. Everyone quieted down and found their own seats. The first thing the minister said was something like, "Welcome to First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City. Salt Lake City, which is home not only to this church, but also to the undefeated Sugar Bowl champion Utah Utes!" That got a round of laughter and applause. Applause in church. It was awesome.

The minister was a witty guy who knew his stuff. I found myself interested and engaged by what he was saying. Before reading from the Book of Revelation, he said, "Unitarian ministers don't often read from the Bible unless they have a good excuse," which drew a laugh. After reading about the wrath of God and the devastation of the earth, he said, "Thus endeth the reading. And thus endeth the world." This was followed by ominous piano music and more chuckling from the congregation. Lest you think he was simply making fun of the Bible, he did actually have a point, which he eventually came around to making during the sermon.

Next, though, was a reading of the poem "The Second Coming" by William Butler Yeats. I closed my eyes and allowed myself to become immersed in the imagery. I actually felt like I was in high school again (in a good way). He talked about the poem for a while, and at one point, someone in the congregation shouted, "Amen!" The minister didn't miss a beat and responded with, "Amen! But! ... How do you follow an 'amen'? With a 'but'!" I found this highly amusing, and highly refreshing.

Hubble Deep FieldAt one point, he talked about how scientists had believed until recently that gravity would overcome the expansion of the universe, and that the universe would end in a Big Crunch. He explained that more recent evidence indicates that the universe will continue to expand forever, eventually ending in proton decay and black holes evaporating into virtual nothingness "more than a trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion years from now. And the universe is only 14 billion years old. So we have some breathing room." I have never heard anything like this in a sermon, in any church. I just about wanted to jump out of my seat and shout "amen" myself.

Anyway, the main theme of the sermon seemed to be that despite the turmoil that always surrounds us in life, despite everyone who thinks that the Obama presidency (or the Middle East conflict, or whatever) will result in the end of the world, and despite the fact that the end of the world actually is coming someday, we should:

- Repent from the past.
- Live a good life in the present.
- Look with hope to the future.

It was a simple message, but I found it inspiring. It made me think of some specific ways in which I can do all three of these. We closed with a hymn that was about how thankful we are for life. It was very nice.

There were coffee, snacks, and mingling afterward, which was also nice. There were several stations with information about the various projects that church members can get involved in. And they had a mini bookstore, where I noticed that they were selling (among others) The Secular Conscience by Austin Dacey. Yeah, this is the kind of church I could get used to. I'm not putting my name on the membership rolls or anything just yet, but I think I'll definitely be going back.