"This has been mostly a sheep day, and of course studies have been interrupted." John Muir

Wednesday, August 30, 2006


In a previous post, I mentioned how we have lately been eating dinosaur-shaped chicken at our house. This is because I purchased an industrial-sized box of them a few months ago, thinking that Tom & Lily would scarf them up. A side effect is that I have been eating them, too. This is what they look like once they've been through the toaster oven:

I'm no expert, but I would say that there are two tyrannosaurus rexes flanking two very frightened but resolved stegosauruses.

I ate these for lunch on a tortilla with some red-leafed lettuce and a lemon tahini dressing:

After I wrapped the whole thing up, it looked like this:

In case you were wondering, yes, that is a stegosaurus tail sticking out. He was trying to escape, but they have pea-sized brains, and so he was actually heading deeper into the wrap. It was good, really.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

I'm in the Religious Studies department at Arizona State, but that doesn't really say much about what I study or how. Some time in another post I'll write about what it is that I study. Here is a note about how.

Religious Studies, as a discipline, arose like many others in the 1800s as part of the modern project to know and improve humankind. It started very much as sort of an armchair pursuit in which august university dons would gather ethnographic writings from sailors and other adventurers and draw elaborate conclusions about the religious practices of "savages." In many cases, they proposed to prove that western European Christianity was the zenith of a long line of religious evolution beginning with some sort of grunting and wondering near the back of a cave.

Since then, things have changed significantly. World religions these days are--generally--not understood as steps in an evolutionary process. Research is now expected to based in actual fieldwork, if ethnographic or anthropological. However, Religious Studies as a discipline also draws on other research methods including such diverse sources as psychological accounts, historical archives, and comparative literature. More recent moves have questioned some basic categories, such as "religion" itself, and have also called into question any sort of conclusion that claims universal application.

All this is to say that Religious Studies is more of a topic area than a method. We draw on other methods--historical, anthropological, psychological, rhetorical analyses--and apply them to religious questions. In my own research, I draw on historical sources and ethnographic material. As yet, I have not done any of my own fieldwork and am not sure that this will ever be necessary as I currently deal with an era before the present. I am interested in cultural and ethnic studies that both describe and analyze. "Ethnohistory" probably best characterizes what I try to do in my own studies. By looking at ethnographic records (loosely conceived), in conversation with other historical sources, I hope to better understand how certain ethnic groups behaved religiously and in other ways in their contexts of time and place.

The American Academy of Religion, the principal guild of Religious Studies, maintains a website about the many benefits of our work.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Brett and the Chocolate Factory

A year ago, I had one of the best experiences of my life. I found the Golden Ticket and got to visit the Chocolate Factory.

When I was a kid, I fell deeply in love with Charlie Bucket and his adventure in Willy Wonka's amazing chocolate factory. I didn't have it as bad as little Charlie, but our life in rural Arkansas wasn't exactly feature material for the "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" either. I identified so much with Charlie and his deep, visceral desire to see at least one of his dreams come true. Naturally, I knew I would never see the oompah loompahs, or ride the invisible elevator, or inherit the vast fortune and genius of Wonka, but such escapes of fancy were clearly something I wanted; I read the book at least two dozen times. I guess it remains the dear fantasy of children. Here's a website I found of children's drawings based on the story.

A little more than a year ago, the Johnny Depp remake of the old Gene Wilder movie version of the book came out. Our local independent bookstore teamed up with a real-life chocolate factory in town and ran a promotion on Roald Dahl's books. For every Dahl book you bought, you were given a chocolate bar from Granny's Chocolates of Gilbert, Arizona. Hidden in a select number of these bars were Golden Tickets! These tickets, like the one Charlie found, admitted the carrier and one guest to a magical and marvelous tour of the factory.

I went to the store and bought a new copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and a copy of Danny, the Champion of the World (my favorite Dahl tale, in which a young boy learns how to fight classism by poaching pheasants with his incredible father). I got two chocolate bars. On the second one I hastily opened, the glint of gold quickly peeked out. I had won a Golden Ticket! I ran around the bookstore shouting and actually started to cry a little bit I was so excited and overwhelmed. I was actually up nights wondering what it was going to be like inside. It was hard to wait for the day to arrive.

At this time, Lily my daughter was not even a year old. Clearly, I would not invite her--she wouldn't enjoy it or vaguely remember it. My son Tom was also quite small, not yet three-years-old. So, we dropped them off at their grandparents, and I took my wife, Alex. This may have been some selfishness on my part; this was my dream come true, and I didn't want to spend it chasing after a toddler in a possibly dangerous factory.

So, the big day arrived, and Alex and I drove to the factory and got ready for surprises beyond all our imaginings (at least I did). The other ticket holders lined up at the door. They were not like me in at least two ways: none of them was even remotely as excited as I was, and all of them were under the age of ten. The bookstore and factory staff lined us up for introductions--mine was a little sheepish, but nothing would slow me down. We got to see some pretty neat stuff, albeit no river of chocolate, lickable wallpaper, everlasting gobstoppers, or hordes of oompah loompahs. But we did see the main ingredients of chocolate bars, we got to see the machines, and there were plenty of samples.

The young folks who ran the factory were pretty cool, though bemused by my presence among the shorter winners. It turns out that they and Alex and I had all just finished reading Candyfreak by Steve Almond. It was a fun read, but it could never pretend to touch the beguiling Charlie.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Proud Dad

I realize that parents can get too promotional when it comes to their own kids, but this is my blog. So, I wanted to share some photos of my two.

This is Tom when he was a little over year old. He's holding Brown Bear.

This is Lily about a year ago.

This one of my favorite pictures ever. It's from last Halloween and includes Nana.

Tom engaged in some "risky business" last January.

Lily in her baptismal gown last November.

Here's the whole family last October. We went to a photo studio, and everyone great and small smiled and kept their eyes open!

And finally, the sweetest picture of all the people I love the most. This was an afternoon when everyone was getting tired in San Diego just a few weeks ago.

Update on guy who fell into the chocolate

More breaking commentary on the guy who fell in the chocolate, this time on NPR.
On Fridays, they read on air letters from listeners. You will not be disappointed if you listen to these letters from today. The story is about three minutes long, and the stuff about our guy doesn't start until around 1:55, so you can fast-forward.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Republicans and Democrats Found Not "Friendly" to Religion

The New York Times reported the findings today of a fascinating poll done by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

The headline finding was that people are finding the Republican Party less friendly to religion. Only 47% (from 55% last year) find the G.O.P. as a friendly home for "religion" (the assumption, I guess, is that "religion" means conservative Christians). Let this Christian state for the record that I didn't think the Republican Party could get less friendly toward what I consider to be religion.

On a related--and slightly more hilarious--note, the Democrats went from being 29% religion-friendly to a mere 26%. What's a poor Democrat to do? I vote Democratic but would have to agree that wishy-washy, mealy-mouthed, policy-starved, creepy-personalitied, Democrats are hardly what I would call "friendly" to anyone with actual convictions.

For me, the most interesting paragraph in the article was this one:
"Of the topics addressed by clergy during religious services, 92 percent of respondents who attend religious services regularly said they had heard clergy speak about hunger and poverty, 59 percent said abortion, 53 percent said Iraq, 52 percent said homosexuality, and 40 percent said evolution or intelligent design. Only 24 percent said they heard clergy discuss stem cell research, and 21 percent immigration."

I preach every Sunday (whether I want to or not). Looking back on my own sermons, this is the breakdown of social issues that I would estimate I have addressed over the past year:

  • hunger and poverty--92% (I'm an average guy in this regard apparently);
  • abortion--0%
  • Iraq--100% (it's a poor church, several kids over there are family members);
  • homosexuality--1 or 2% (because no one cares);
  • evolution or intelligent design--0%;
  • immigration--95% (it's a bilingual parish with several new immigrants in the pews);
  • family violence--30%;
  • drug abuse and alcoholism--30%;
  • racism--65%.

Yeah, so I guess I'd fit into the poll at least somewhat. I don't find either party friendly to "religion," and I talk a lot about poor and hungry people. Go figure, given the gospel on these sorts of things.

A little treat

I made these yesterday and have felt better. Alex says I bake when I'm depressed, but I think I bake to quit being depressed.

Orange-Currant Scones
3 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 pound
cold butter (2 sticks)
1 tablespoon freshly grated orange rind (about two
1 large egg
1/2 cup whole milk

Heat oven to 350
degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
Combine the flour,
sugar, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl and mix well. Cut in the butter
until it is the size of small peas. Add the currants and orange zest, and toss
to distribute them.
Whisk together the egg and milk. Add to the dry
ingredients and mix and fold until the dough masses and the flour is absorbed.
The dough may be a little streaky.
Divide the dough in half, and shape into
2 balls. Pat each one into a 6- to 7-inch circle on a lightly floured surface.
Roll about 1 inch thick, and cut like a pie into 6 wedges each.
Bake until
golden brown and firm to the touch, about 25 to 30 minutes.
I often substitute raisins for the currants and manage to eat them all just fine.

Foodie Blogpost Envy

I subscribe to a few blogs about food. Most of them seem to be written by 20-somethings with considerable disposable income who live in major metropolises chock-full of exciting and delicious restaurants. These lucky devils eat daily in fabulous and trendy foodie havens where they snap gorgeous pictures of little tasties.

Mostly, I am thankful for their intrepid dining. I eat vicariously through them. The images they share with the rest of us are mouth-watering, their wit proves what delightful dinner companions they must be, and their taste is always exquisite. But a part of me is just green with envy.

However, I am resigned to continue mere reading while others eat and eat. In the meantime, I will microwave dinosaur-shaped chicken parts, I will order another happy meal, and I will occasionally go out for the lovely high-dollar meal with the mother of my children when the latter are at their grandparents.

Thanks, food bloggers! You feed us with your generous posts.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

A fun, silly thing...

Your Birthdate: April 15

You take life as it is, and you find happiness in a variety of things.
You tend to be close to family and friends. But it's hard to get into your inner circle.
Making the little things wonderful is important to you, and you probably have an inviting home.
You seek harmony with others, but occasionally you have a very stubborn streak.

Your strength: Your intense optimism

Your weakness: You shy away from exploring your talents

Your power color: Jade

Your power symbol: Flower

Your power month: June

Monday, August 21, 2006

First Day of Last Year

This may not matter to anyone else, but today I started the last year of coursework in my doctoral program. In other words, this is my last year to be an official student with another professor grading my weekly work. (Of course, the dissertation will be "graded," but that is not the same.) This feels like a big deal to me.

Also today: our air conditioner continues not to function correctly despite the temperatures being in the 100-110 range; Lily stayed home sick with Alex with an ear infection; Tom had to go to daycare at the crack of dawn because I began my schoolyear RAship at 8am; our house is all screwed up because we chose this weekend to reassign who has which bedroom.

I'm taking a seminar in Latin American religious history, and I hope to post some here about the things I'll be learning. We're starting out by reading the Popol Vuh, the creation narrative of a group of Maya in the highlands in Guatemala. It's a text shot through with the influences of its historic context (post-conquest) and not representative of all Maya, but I look forward to getting into it.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Where are the oompah loompahs when you really need them?

From today's newspaper:

Worker trapped in tank of chocolate for 2 hours

Associated Press
Aug. 18, 2006 02:11 PM
KENOSHA, Wis. - It might sound like a chocoholic's dream, but stepping into a vat of bubbling chocolate became a two-hour nightmare for a 21-year-old man Friday morning.

Donovan Garcia, an employee of a company that supplies chocolate ingredients, said he was pushing the chocolate down into the vat at Debelis Corp. because it was stuck. But it became loose and he slid into the hopper.

"It was in my hair, in my ears, my mouth, everywhere," said Garcia, who has worked at the company for two years. "I felt like I weighed 900 pounds. I couldn't move."

The chocolate was 110 degrees, hotter than a hot tub, said Capt. Greg Sinnen of the Kenosha Fire Department.

Co-workers, police and firefighters tried to free the man but couldn't get him loose until the chocolate was thinned out with cocoa butter.

"It was pretty thick. It was virtually like quicksand," said police Capt. Randy Berner.

Garcia was treated for minor injuries at a nearby medical center and released.

Accident, huh? Very fishy. I'd like to see a photo of Mr. Garcia (which I frankly assume to be a pseudonym--I feel quite sure that his birth name was "Gloop, Augustus").

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

"Sheep Days" Wins an Award!

A few weeks ago, I received a very prestigious award via the U.S. Postal Service. It is displayed below as proof of my singular accomplishments. I ask that you restrict your comments to appropriate and respectful praise.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Protestant Obsession with Belief

For better or for worse, I have been reading other "Christian" blogs. (A disclaimer: I find the use of the word "Christian" as an adjective for anything other than people or a group of people theologically stunted. What exactly makes a book or a store or a telephone directory "Christian"?)

So, many of these bloggers seem absolutely caught up in a frenzy about "believing" in God. It's like this big, heroic, amazing thing that they "believe" in God. First of all, what does it mean to "believe?" Is it a mere acknowledgement of existence? That doesn't seem all that fantastic to me. Does it connote some sort of life commitment? I'm sorry, but you'll have to be more specific.

My belief, just like every other Christian's, is paltry to the point of being insignificant to my religion. Moreover, there is nothing heroic or redeeming about my belief, nor is there anything individually special about it. I got my "belief" the same way as everybody else--it was mediated through the community of faith. This latter group is the one that I do things with. I do religious things with them. We worship God, we sing, we pray, we stand up and sit down, we have meetings, we argue, we help each other and sometimes we hurt each other. But we do it together. What I "believe" is not really at issue with these people.

The French sociologist of religion, Emile Durkheim, wrote a hundred years ago: "Religious representations are collective representations which express collective realities; the rites are a manner of acting which take rise in the midst of assembled groups and which are destined to excite, maintain or recreate certain mental states in these groups." And to tell the truth, more often than not, the mental state it excites in me is pretty neutral (with occasional numinous exceptions). The point, though, is that we do it all together.

These bloggers' big testimonials about their precious beliefs really creep me out. They are inherently alienating, and ipso facto, not religious in any sense that I understand.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

San Diego, part 2: Goofy

Here's Tom with his Goofy balloon.

On Wednesday evening, we went to Seaport Village in San Diego. This is a neat touristy place with shops, restaurants, street vendors, and all right on San Diego Bay. Overhead, the fighter planes and military helicopters zoom in and out as they land at the nearby Coronado Navy complex.

One of the highlights of our time at Seaport Village was the burnout guy who made character balloons for the children. He looked disarmingly like George Carlin, wore a bowler hat and vest, and made some of the most elaborate twisted-balloon cartoon art I've ever seen. Tom and I got in line to get one made up for him while Lily and Alex browsed the shops. We had to wait about fifteen minutes as he made balloons for a couple other little kids. While we waited, Tom and I perused our choices; the man had a posterboard full of little thumbnail images of cartoon characters that he could produce from long, skinny balloons. Tom surprised me when he locked on to "Goofy." I didn't know he knew who Goofy was and was briefly concerned that I let him watch too much TV. But he just kept saying, "Goofy! Goofy!" With his little voice, he says it a little like "Gyuhfy!"

Well, we waited and waited for our turn. When we finally reached the head of the line, the balloon man asked Tom (who had just been chanting Goofy's name) what he would like. Tom looked him in the eye and said, "Scooby Doo!" I said, "No, you want Goofy." And Tom said, "Yeah, Goofy!"

When I told Alex about this, we laughed and both remembered what it was like to be a little kid, be sure of something, and then blurt out something different. In any case, he LOVED the Goofy balloon and spent most of the rest of the vacation bonking Lily with it in the hotel room.

On the way home through the Imperial Valley and the Sonoran Desert, Goofy was invited to ride in the trunk on top of the luggage. Around Gila Bend, AZ, (the hottest place on earth), we heard an explosion in the trunk.

Goofy Balloon
b. August 16, 2006
d. August 18, 2006
"You were much loved."

San Diego, part I: Fish Tacos

We just got back yesterday from a five-day vacation in San Diego. As soon as we raise $750,000 to buy a house, we are going to move there. The equity we have in our townhouse here in Tempe could probably get us a tricked out refrigerator box under a bridge in San Diego.

So, according to my wife Alex, besides the beach, the cool temperatures, the scenery, the laid back attitude, and altogether pleasant atmosphere in San Diego, one of the principal reasons to go there is to eat fish tacos. We sampled several different offerings of these piscine treats while we were there, and the best ones we had were found in a tourist restaurant on the boardwalk on Mission Bay called Guava Beach. They were just right: not-too-fishy mahi with sauce, slaw, all wrapped in TWO corn tortillas.

Here's how you make a good fish taco:
1. Get the fish. If you have good fish like the had at Guava Beach, you just broil or grill it, or even pan sear it until it's crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. If you don't have good fish like the have on the coast, I think it's better to bread and fry the fish.

2. Get the sauce. This is the difference between an ok taco and a delicious taco. The sauce should be made of sour cream mixed with chipotles in adobo. Just mayo is ok, but not great. Just lime juice is less ok.

3. Get the slaw. The slaw is just cut up cabbage. Green cabbage is required, but can be mixed with some purple cabbage. Just purple cabbage would be yucky. The slaw should make itself on your taco by combining with the adobo sauce. If you don't have enough sauce on your taco to flavor the cabbage, apply more sauce. A little cilantro is ok here, too.

4. Get the tortillas. ALL tacos should be served in two corn tortillas that have been warmed with oil in a pan. A distant second option is a flour tortilla, and a third option is one corn tortilla.

5. No cheese, no chunky salsa.

Of course, you should drink beer with your fish tacos. One thing I've noticed here in the Phoenix area that seems to be also true in California is that Stella Artois is becoming increasingly popular on tap. That is good beer for fish tacos.

Monday, August 07, 2006


You can see a picture of my son, Tom, in the post about his bathroom escapade. I wanted the world (i.e., the one and half people who may occasionally see this blog) to see my baby daughter, Lily:

I did her hairdo myself--no small feat for a bald guy!

Saturday, August 05, 2006

The Crazy Chicken

I love reading blogs about people's experiences in restaurants. My wife and I love to go out and savor some great foodie food, but since having kids, are not nearly as able to eat out as often as we would like. I know I've read articles in Gourmet and other similar sources about rich New Yorkers who find it absolutely shameful NOT to bring your squalling toddlers to sample haute cuisine, because you have to get them started being food snobs early. But, we don't go out just to inculcate our kids that concept food is better than Applebee's. We go out because we enjoy food, we enjoy each other's company, and we enjoy the idea that our kids are eating macaroni & cheese at Grandma's house while we snack on teppary bean pate, roasted duck breast with some snazzy sauce, desserts that glow with fresh fruit and highbrow chocolate.

But today, we took the kids out. We went to the new fastfood franchise in our neighborhood, El Pollo Loco. They specialize in "Flame-Grilled Mexican Chicken." It was great, plus they had industrial highchairs--the kind you can spray off with firehoses. Lily, my baby, had french fries, quesadilla, cole slaw, mashed potatoes, popcorn chicken, and red juice. She's my eater. Tom, the picky one, actually ate the popcorn chicken like he liked it and stirred around the mashed potatotes. Alex had authentic looking roast chicken tacos (two corn tortillas wrapped around hunks of crazy chicken, cilantro and onions). I ate a chicken tostada salad that was made more delicious by the fact that Tom was eating his food and not disturbing other patrons. Alex made the apt point that everything would've been a touch better if the placed served beer, which they do not.

Overall, we're just glad there's one more placed besides McDonalds near our house that is cheap, fast, and kid-friendly. This place is fun, too, since Tom likes to shout "pollo loco!" and then giggle like a fiend.

In a couple of days, we're taking the whole band to San Diego for a week--lots of meals out with a finicky 3-year-old and a 20 month food wonder. Who'll be shouting "me vuelven loco!" by the end of the week?

Thursday, August 03, 2006

About Grace

Today I finished reading a novel by Anthony Doerr called About Grace. The main character of the book is a hydrologist and a dreamer. As a child and young man he experiences sharp and tragic dreams that are later realized in his waking hours. The story unfolds around a dream in which he envisions himself carrying the corpse of his baby daughter through a flood.

The dream makes him crazy and despondent. To keep it from coming true, he flees his life. The bulk of the book, then, chronicles his personal struggles and eventual return to his abandoned family. Most of the reviewers on Amazon didn't like the book. They found it slow, strange, and too interested in minute descriptions of water and hydrological processes. I thought it was luminous. Doerr meditates on what makes a family, he moves the character and the reader through sometimes psychotic behavior, and the stuff on water is, for this reader, fascinating and akin to the information about whaling you discover in Moby Dick, i.e. not extraneous at all but intimately tied up in the story.

Maybe I liked the book, too, because I have lifelike dreams. I went to a continuing education seminar once about leadership or something that pastors are supposed to possess (I forget now). What I remember is one thing the speaker said: In dreams we all experience psychosis. I feel quite certain that this statement is medically and psychologically untrue. But the statement resonates with my experience of dreams. Sometimes I wake up and I am convinced that what I have dreamt is more real than my dark bedroom. All my life I have walked in my sleep. That other reality in my brain can seem so close and so unstoppable.

In the book, the main character's dreams eventually lead him to a sort of redemption. The redemption he obtains is not easy, but it is very beautiful.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

"I am the bread of life."

When I was in college, I started to make sourdough bread. I was a little crazy about it. Everyday, I made one big loaf of bread, and I did this for several months. Needless to say, in my apartment we had more bread than I or more roommates could eat, so I gave away a lot of bread to friends. At this time, I worked in a small library that hardly anyone ever visited. So, I would have friends come to the library to pick up their bread. Once, a friend of mine came to the library to get her bread, but before leaving she told me a story about her life.

It was just the two of us in the little, dark library, and my friend immediately started breaking hunks off the loaf of bread and shared them with me. As we ate the fresh and chewy bread, she told me this story. A year before, she had been driving alone at night in the winter in Montana. There had recently been snow, and the temperatures were well below freezing. On a small and mostly deserted road, she was traveling from one point to the next. —I can't remember why she was out there. Well, in any case, her car died, and she was too far out to try to walk anywhere. She figured her best option was to wait in the car. It was dark and very, very cold. She climbed into the back seat and covered herself with all the clothes she was carrying in her suitcase. After several hours had passed, my friend began to get extremely cold. She began to have dark thoughts; in fact, she was quite sure that she was going to freeze to death. She did all she could to stay awake, to keep moving her limbs, to try to stay alive. In the end, a car passed and picked her up and saved her. When she told me the story, her eyes still looked scared and amazed that she was alive. Through the whole story, we had been slowly eating the bread together.