s Thoughts from the Physics Chick: March 2006

Friday, March 31, 2006

Non-traditional Stewardships

Last Sunday, I was informed by our Sunday School teacher that I am not as important a person in my family as the Bishop is in his because I am not the priesthood-holding steward (or words to those effect) in my family. I’m not sure if he meant that I’m not important because I don’t have the priesthood or that I’m not important because I’m “just” a sister/daughter in my parents’ family (not a wife/mother in my own) or both. I didn’t follow up the point because he wanted to move on in the lesson, and if I argued every point on which I disagree with this particular Sunday School teacher . . . well, we’d still be still be sitting in church right now. I did call my Mom later that day, and she laughed really hard at the idea that I wasn’t important in my family. So at least she thinks I’m important. (But then, neither of us has the priesthood . . . )

The above isn’t meant to incense (although I think that blogging something can be more productive than starting an argument), it just got me to thinking again about how I strongly believe in non-traditional or non-hierarchical forms of stewardship.

I’m clear on the more orthodox types of stewardship – a Bishop over a ward, a parent over a family, the prophet over the entire Church – but I’ve come to realize that many of the most important interactions in my life don’t fit into this “official” hierarchy. My relationships as a friend, a sister and even a 100 Hour Board writer have had a much greater effect on my life than as a visiting teacher/teachee, committee chair, or vanilla ward member. I’m quite aware that these aren’t priesthood stewardships – but I don’t have a priesthood stewardship over my bank account, either, and I still pay tithing. In fact, I wouldn’t use the term “stewardship” at all, because it implies a sort of ownership or control, except that that’s the bad kind of stewardship. The good kind just means being responsible for doing the best you can with what is yours (in any sense) and taking care of each other.

The point of the interrupted Sunday School lesson was that inspiration or personal revelation can help us in our stewardships. It probably doesn’t sound so odd to pray for guidance and wisdom in talking to friends and family members who are having a hard time. It might sound very odd to do so as a 100 Hour Board writer. Admittedly, most of the questions I answer are non-life changing. Occasionally, though, I’ll spend days thinking over an answer, trying to find the right way to say the right thing, hoping that it helps. It’s so much harder when you know that this may be the only contact you ever have with this reader – I wish that I could talk to so many of them in person.

Tomorrow is a new month. I have a postcard to mail.

Monday, March 27, 2006


When I was in 1st grade we had a wonderful school librarian. His name was Mr. Ashton. He read us stories from a book called Diamond Fairy Tales and told us a story about the large chunk of papery honeycomb stored on the top of one of the bookshelves. By the time I hit 3rd grade, Mr. Ashton had retired, school officials had torn out our lovely fire-trap of a library bookloft, and our new librarian was making us memorize the Dewey Decimal System.

In retrospect, the old bookloft was a horrible fire risk, especially for little children, but we loved it and were very sorry to see it go. It was a balcony over the door to the library, with a window on one side, a small bookshelf, plenty of pillows and cushions, and ladder by which to gain access. I believe it was the height and the single ladder that did it in, fire-code wise. The school itself was a beautiful, old building, maybe three or four stories tall, built in 1900, at a time when the importance of architectural detail was still taken very seriously. It’s gone now. A few years ago it was torn down and replaced with a modern, one-storey structure on the same lot. I miss it.

Anyway, our new librarian (whom we all disliked) made us memorize the Dewey Decimal System. She had a rhyme that started like this:

“One, thumb, philosophy,
Two, shoe, religion, . . .”

I don’t remember the rest, although three presumably came next. “Thumb” was our link to remember that the 100s were philosophy, because it (sort of) rhymed with “one” and we were supposed to picture Rodin’s “Thinker” using his thumb to think (about philosophy). I forget what “shoe” had to do with “religion.” I can think of some more obscure passages in the Bible (wiping the dust from one’s feet, etc.) but those strike me as being over the heads of 8-year-olds.

I don’t remember exactly why we disliked our new librarian. I know that I disliked both her and the Dewey Decimal System, but I don’t know which was cause and which effect. It has only just occurred to me, in writing this, that perhaps all third graders were required to learn the DDS. Perhaps it was not some abstract torture invented by the hated Mrs. Whatever-her-name-was – perhaps our beloved Mr. Ashton would have done the same. I have to think that if Mr. Ashton had introduced me to the DDS, my life might have been very different. I would have liked the DDS, I would be able to remember the entire rhyme, and I might even be . . . a librarian? (Hmm. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered so much, after all.)

For whatever reasons, the DDS and I got off on the wrong foot. I don’t remember ever using it at that elementary school, and I rarely used the library at my next school, either. Probably I got to know the DDS a bit at the Provo Public Library – I vaguely recall that the 400s were about foreign languages – but most of the books I checked out were fiction and the PPL (like many public libraries) had a separate “fiction” section that was not classed by the DDS.

And then I went to college and really learned how to use a library but BYU (like most academic libraries) is on Library of Congress. So now I’m here in Illinois, and I’m working as a copy cataloger in a library that’s still on Dewey. Which means I have a lot of catching up to do.

I play games with WebDewey (the online Dewey system). I take a random number, like my telephone number or my zip code, and I see if it “means” anything in the DDS. I quiz myself to see if I can remember the main classes, and then I click on the links to check. (I do OK with the 10 main classes. I ought to be able to do at least the first 100, but I’m not anywhere near that except for in literature and history.)

So . . .

314.15 (the first 5 digits of pi) stands for “Statistics – Ireland.”

377 (the beginning of my parents’ telephone number) stands for “Religious education.”

618.01 (my zip code) stands for “Philosophy and theory of gynecology and obstetrics.”

836 (the beginning of my telephone number) stands for “German letters”


666 stands for “Ceramic and allied technologies.” (Which don’t seem devilish, but I guess you never know . . . )

The title of this entry, by the way, is a Dewey number which means “library staff workers / technicians in Champaign County, Illinois.” (Just to be clear, I didn’t stumble across that one by accident. I went and looked for it.)

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Letter vs.Spirit

There are two types of Mormons. No, that’s not fair. There are many types of Mormons, and putting them (us) into two groups only serves to pigeonhole people and polarize the extremes.

Start over. Mormons have many ways of trying to live a moral life. Two of them strike me as complementary. I think of them as the Letter of the Law and the Spirit of the Law methods.

The Letter of the Law approach might be described as living the gospel from the bottom up, or from specific to general. This involves paying attention to the numerous, specific commandments given by prophets and general authorities: no beards, no double-pierced ears, always wear a white shirt on Sundays, no playing with face cards. This approach isn’t inherently bad. After all, keeping the commandments is supposed to demonstrate obedience and lead to blessings.

The problem with this approach is that it tends toward . . . superficiality, in the most literal sense of the word. Continuing revelation means that Mormons are always getting new commandments on new issues, and the list of things we are or aren’t supposed to do just keeps getting longer. No one can possibly do everything that a good Mormon is “supposed” to do, but we want to look like we’re doing the right thing, so there’s a tendency to focus on outward appearance. And once we start focusing on how we look to others, it’s easy to start judging others by how they look. For all that the men and women of the Church have been counseled not to have facial hair or tattoos or body piercings (beyond the one permissible hole in each earlobe for women), we have never been told, ever, that this commandment is an excuse to be snotty to those who chose to do otherwise. However, it’s easier to judge unwisely than to look to the beam in your own eye, just as it’s easier to pay attention to looking good than it is to being good.

Probably you can tell from this diatribe that I lean towards the Spirit of the Law way of approaching the gospel. Spirit of the Law-types live the gospel from the top down, from general to specific. They want to get at the principle behind the rule – the deepest truth behind the superficial instance. I think this mindset is probably closer to True Religion than the other one, because it gets at the raison d’être behind all of the rules, and because, if we are to be Gods and Goddesses ourselves some day, we’re going to have to start figuring things out on our own, and not depending on others to dumb things down for us.

However, there are some problems with this philosophy, as well. The biggest problem with relying on your own judgment is . . . what if you have bad judgment? If you have bad judgment then you also, by definition, don’t know that you have bad judgment. How do you know that the thing you think is right is really right? And how can you tell if you’re doing something because it’s the right thing to do, or just because you want to do it? Also, this attitude almost completely negates the idea of doing anything on faith, because you won’t do anything if you don’t see the point.

Of course, a moral life can come from either of these approaches. Paying attention to the letter of the law should also mean paying attention to which commandments are more important and which ones have been given special recent emphasis. No mortal can live a perfect life, but if you’re going to screw up, you should probably be aware that breaking the law of chastity is more grave than accidentally drinking a can of caffeinated Barq’s root beer. Keeping the letter of the law should also help you to have the Spirit with you, which should help you to make decisions in situations that aren’t specifically covered by a commandment.

Likewise, the good judgment necessary in trying to get at the spirit of the law means recognizing one’s own limitations in understanding. This means that God knows better than you do, and that the prophet, the general authorities and other leaders may also know better than you do. Furthermore, there are many basic commandments that are so closely in line with the spirit of the law that you don’t need to re-evaluate them every time you run across them. Killing your neighbor is bad. Loving your neighbor is good. Don’t be evil. Any questions?

So, like I said before, I fall strongly and stubbornly on the Spirit of the Law side of this equation, for a variety of reasons including my upbringing, my experiences in the Church (both bad and good), my mother’s personality, and her upbringing. The odd thing is that, while I think outside the Mormon culture box, I also hate attracting attention to myself by being different, so I tend to blend perfectly into the orthodox Mormon background. (This combination can also backfire, as conservative and liberal Mormons both mistakenly assume that I’m very conservative. In our first class together, Melyngoch and I famously dismissed each other as not worth getting to know.)

Anyway, being aware that I am overly oriented towards the Spirit of the Law (or what I think is the Spirit of the Law), I decided to try to be more Letter-ish in a couple of areas, namely, accepting a new calling last semester and completing President Hinckley’s Book of Mormon reading challenge.

Taking the Book of Mormon reading challenge was a very positive experience. I hadn’t read the Book of Mormon all the way through in a long time (it’s my least favorite of the standard works) and it helped that when I calculated the number of pages to read every day, I accidentally read that many leaves every day for a couple of months – even though I missed reading for a few weeks, I still finished easily by November. (And got to feel smug for the rest of the year. Oh, wait. That wasn’t the point at all.)

The new calling . . . didn’t work out so well. Last semester it was fine, as the ward mission leader was very easygoing, and didn’t seem to mind that I missed most of our weekly meetings. (In my defense, he scheduled them at a time I had to work, because that time worked best for most of the other people.) This semester wasn’t so good. The new ward mission leader was much more disciplined and organized, which I’m sure was a good thing for the missionary effort as a whole, but he seemed to think that regulation should apply to every aspect of our calling, from giving us quotas of copies of the Book of Mormon we should be handing out to down to prescribing the minimum number of weekly spiritually-themed discussions we should be having with non-members. I’m sure that there are some people who are outgoing (dare I say pushy?) enough to meet these stipulations, but I am not one of them. Add to that my own doubts and hesitations about the Church (Investigator: “I’m just not sure about some things.” Me: “Yeah, me neither!”) and the fact that I, a shy introvert, was supposed to “fellowship new members and include them in my activities.” (“I like to spend my evenings alone with a book, and I invite you to do the same.”) I’ve only just been released and not a moment too soon.

So, I’m 1 for 2 on having success doing what I’m supposed to do just because I’m supposed to do it. That’s not exactly a clear mandate for moving in the other direction. And I’m so much happier here.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

That thing you do

Two years ago, I enrolled in VAStu 330R – bookbinding. As an alumnus, I would be paying graduate level tuition. As a full-time employee, I would be working late hours on other days to allow myself the time to leave work early and get to class. And I was only allowed to take the class in the first place because it was an evening class. But I was still very excited, as I’d wanted to take this class for years.

The thing I had forgotten, in all of this, was that I would be surrounded by artsy, creative people. The last time I had taken a visual arts class, it had been VAStu 103 – Intro to Drawing. The class was fun, in a ghastly kind of way. I liked the teacher fine and my classmates fine, but I was the absolute worst artist in the class, and everyone knew it.

I forget that it’s not possible to “figure out” how to be creative and talented. (It’s like I told my brother once – I can’t just be random. I can sit down and create an algorithm to approximate randomness. I can even sit down and create a really good algorithm to approximate randomness. But I can’t just sit down and be random.) I forget that really, really wanting to be creative and talented . . . will not make me more creative and talented in the ways in which I am not. I also forget that anyone who takes a physics class (or ten) for fun may not be a natural artist.

Anyway, I had only been in the bookbinding class for a few weeks when I noticed that I was, once again, surrounded by insanely talented and creative people. This time it was a little better than in the drawing class. Bookbinding is as much craft as art, and I did fairly well with the basic tactile skills required in physically assembling a book. Even though my first book was a little drab looking, the rest of my books held their own against everyone else’s. I wasn’t as uncomfortable as I had been in the drawing class, even though many of my classmates were preparing their BFA showcases that semester.

Our class time was divided between brief lectures/demonstrations and work time, during which we could work on our books with our instructor present, in case we had questions or problems. One afternoon, late in the semester, a few of us were quietly working on projects when I caught saw one of my old Russian professors in the hallway. I went out to say “hi,” and to ask what she was doing in the building. We started talking, she came in to the classroom, and we had the following conversation (in Russian):

Natalia Ivanovna: K------, right?
Me: Yes, but I am also Katya.
N. I.: What are you doing?
Me: I . . . do books. [I had no idea how to say “bookbinding” in Russian. Still don’t.]
N. I.: Are you studying art? I thought you were studying linguistics.
Me: I study linguistics. But I also study art a little. For fun.
N. I.: How did you make this book?
Me: I make this book . . . I make . . . How is it in Russian “to sew”?
N. I.: Шить.
Me: I sew this book. Or I make it with this. [holding up glue]

The conversation continued along these lines, with her asking me questions about the books I was working on, some other projects I had at hand, and how I was doing, generally. You’ll notice that my responses are somewhat stilted and awkward. That’s my attempt at translating my Russian responses, which were also stilted and awkward. (Especially after not studying Russian for two years.)

Eventually she left, I went back to my signature sewing, and the classroom was quiet, again. After maybe half a minute, my teacher asks, quietly: “What language was that?”

“Oh, that was Russian,” I reply.

[brief pause]

“How do you know Russian?”

“I took it for a couple of years. It fulfilled requirements for the linguistics major.”


Another student: “It sounds like you speak it really well.”

Me: “Oh, I speak it OK. I’m out of practice.”

[Permit me a brief interlude. It always kills me when people tell me I speak a language well that they don’t speak at all. I want to say “How do you know? You don’t even know what I’m saying! I could be butchering the language! Murdering it.”

Oh, I know what they mean. They mean that I’m saying lots of words together and I’m not pausing very much and I’m not throwing English words in and the sounds I’m using all sound foreign. Well, guess what? I’m pretty good about sticking to foreign phonological inventories, and I use the grammatical structures I know confidently. I don’t speak that well, I just plan out what I’m going to say so that I only have to use the words and structures that I already know. Silly people.]

Back in the bookbinding room, another student is mumbling about how they just know a little Spanish. There are murmurs of agreement.

In the halls of the JKHB, Russian does not turn heads. Very few languages do, in fact. Welsh does, but only because people can’t identify it right away. (Melyngoch and I once had a panicked student demand to know what language we were speaking as we practiced our Welsh dialogue in the hallway before class. We replied that it was Welsh. Sounding very relieved, she said: “Oh, I thought it was German, but I speak a little German and I couldn’t understand anything!”) And in the linguistics department, speaking something like Russian or Welsh is rather taken for granted. (We’re linguistics majors. We all taught ourselves Basque over the summer.)

I was not prepared for the quiet awe that met my little Russian conversation. Maybe we all underestimate the things that come easily to us.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Not feeling it

I hate crying. I don’t think that I have ever, in my life, cried happy tears. I have cried sad tears, exhausted tears, bitter tears, hurt tears, uncomfortable tears and stressed out tears, but not happy tears. Not ever.

I remember, when I was little, once asking my mother during church why the woman who was bearing her testimony was crying. My mother explained that the woman was crying because she was so happy. I remember thinking that was the dumbest thing I’d ever heard and I may be five but I wasn’t born yesterday and even I know that you cry when you’re sad.

And then I got older and went into Young Women’s and to Girl’s Camp and the girls would cry, constantly. And I never would (except rarely and for one of the above, not-happy reasons). And they used to talk about how strongly they’d felt the Spirit that day, and I wouldn’t be feeling anything (let alone crying) and I’d think “Dang. I missed it again. Was I just not paying attention?” And I’d go home and tell my Mom that I was afraid there was something wrong with me because I never felt the Spirit.

She was really good about that kind of thing, and she explained that teenaged girls are full of hormones and tend to cry easily, that crying isn’t the same thing as feeling the Spirit, that different people can feel the Spirit at different times or not as often as other people, and that’s OK.

So. Given that I do not enjoy being emotionally demonstrative (you should see me pout stonily through a Church video – I’m sure it’s a treat), given that I never, ever cry when I’m happy (along those same lines), and given that I never feel the Spirit in church, it is slightly astonishing that it only just occurred to me, within the last two weeks, that maybe the Spirit doesn’t ever talk to me by overwhelming me emotionally. Not just that I don’t feel the Spirit often, but that whatever it is I think I’m not feeling in church would be an unpleasant experience for me anyway, and why would God make me miserable in order to communicate His presence?

I’m down with inspiration appearing in different ways to different people, but I don’t know why I never thought that the Spirit could do the same thing. (Or that since the Spirit is responsible for inspiring people in different ways, He ought to be able to figure out how to comfort, uplift or testify in different ways, as well.)

And when I think about it, the experiences in my life that have been the most “spiritual” haven’t had anything to do with overwhelming emotion. (They also haven’t had anything to do with organized church meetings, but that’s a different issue.) They’ve just been times when I felt very peaceful and calm and clear-headed. And that’s definitely something I would like to have more of in my life.