These are the prepared remarks for the Toastmasters speech I gave today.

One of the surprising things about my adult life is how much I am into urban gardening; it’s surprising considering how much I resented having to do it as a child. But gardening isn’t enough, though. We had to get chickens! We enclosed part of our backyard as a run in which the chickens could roam. Inside the run we built a coop where we could lock them up when needed, where they could roost at night, and where they could lay eggs in their nest boxes

It’s a lot of fun raising chickens. They are very cute when they are babies, and even as adults they have distinct personalities. Some are shy and run away from everything. Others are very social; one even used to perch on my shoulder. Some are natural leaders, always plotting for ways to get out of their run when we opened the door to feed them. And some are just jerks, forming exclusionary cliques amongst themselves. Really!

The practical benefits of raising hens are obvious: eggs. If you compare a standard-issue grocery store egg with an organic egg, you’ll see that the former has a pale yolk, and the latter has a brighter orangish yolk. Compare now the organic egg with a home-raised, free-range egg, and the difference is just as stark: the home-raised egg has an intense yellow-orange yolk, supposedly because it’s full of healthful nutrients like beta carotene. And it is delicious!

Hens lay eggs roughly daily, but we don’t always get an egg per hen. What factors affect egg production? There are four. The first is the breed of the hen: some breeds lay more regularly than others. The second factor is the season. In winter, egg production slows down due to the shorter days and colder temperatures. Many egg production outfits use artificial lights and heat to extend the day and force the chickens to continue laying through the cold months. This works, but it decreases the laying life of the hens. This brings us to the third factor: age. Hens, like humans, are born with only so many eggs. If you speed up their laying, they will run out earlier, reaching the chicken equivalent of menopause.

The fourth factor affecting egg-laying is broodiness. That’s when a hen has laid eggs and its instincts tell it it is time to stop laying for a while, sit in the nest box, and incubate the eggs until they hatch. It’s puzzling that even if you’re meticulous about removing eggs daily, a broody hen will still sit in the empty nest box. It’s not clear to me exactly what triggers the broody behavior, since it’s obviously not the presence of eggs, and it’s certainly not having copulated: we don’t have a rooster (we’re not allowed to because of the noise). It makes me laugh! I often refer to the hens’ broody phases, if you’ll forgive the irreverence, as “waiting for the immaculate conception.”

Last year, a friend told us a great idea, which I’ve since found is pretty common in the chicken-raising community. Put fertilized eggs under a broody hen so that when they hatch, she’ll raise them as her own! Brilliant, huh? It brings the miracle back to the immaculate conception!

We tried that this summer when one of our hens, Katherine, went broody. We couldn’t find fertilized eggs, so we bought baby chicks instead. They were so cute! Tiny, warm balls of fur that fit in my palm, chirping away with hunger and curiosity about the world! We slid them under Katherine that first night, locked them inside the coop while the other hens remained outside in the run, and just waited. Would she take to them or push them out? Would they survive?

The next day I got up early, went to the chicken run, and…. yes! They were alive, chirping away. I was ecstatic! We put water and food near them in the chicken coop, and made sure to keep locking them away from the other hens so they wouldn’t be attacked. After a few days, though, we started letting them get out into the run and mingle with the others during the day. The aunties, if you will, mostly ignored them. Once or twice, one of them tried to peck at the poor little chicks, but the youngsters were too fast. They were fine. Katherine, though! She was irate! She fluffed herself up and went after the attacker. That’s when I knew she had truly adopted them! After that, we felt no need to lock them back up at night.

Not everything was positive, though. Within the first week, the runt of the three was stumbling and not really eating. One morning we found her dead, and we promptly buried her in what is fast becoming our animal cemetery (you can ask me about that later). But the other two? They’re doing well! They are much bigger, still a bit shy, still chirping, and still cute. I expect that within the month they’ll get to their gangly teenage phase as they transition into their adult plumage, and then they’ll start laying. Eventually, they, too, will have broody periods and—who knows?—maybe they’ll make Katherine a doting grandmother.

Start by showing up

These are the prepared remarks for the Toastmasters speech I gave today.

According to the Internet, it was Woody Allen who said that eighty percent of success is just showing up. I think that, if anything, that’s an under-estimate. I tend to hesitate starting something until I know I can do it well. Perhaps this is not wanting to let people down; perhaps it is simply fear of failure. Lately, though, I’ve been surprising myself by how much happens once I actually show up.

For example, the people currently running our neighborhood association have been doing so for a while. They were ready for a change, and they encouraged me to step up. I hesitated: could I really spare the time? Work is so busy right now! Could I commit? What if I failed? What if, what if, what if….. I really liked the idea of getting involved, and though I had some grand hopes of changing the world, I also thought that the very basic task of keeping the organization going (which mainly meant running meetings) was something that I could do. After much hemming and hawing, I went for it. So far, I’ve chaired two of our monthly meetings. They went well. It’s volunteer work, so folks appreciate that I am doing it at all, even if it does take me a week to send out meeting minutes. I appreciate the chance to be involved, stay informed, and help others do things. I may not be doing much of the actual leg work in the neighborhood, but what I learned is this: quite often, even a small contribution is appreciated and needed.

Sometimes what holds me back from getting involved is fear and inertia. In my team at work, there’s a group of us working on very related activities. I thought it would be a good idea if we actually set up a focused time to share information about what we were each doing. This would help me individually know what my colleagues are up to, since I have a tendency to be very heads-down. It would also help the group coordinate efforts and not duplicate work. These are lofty goals, so I set up a short weekly meeting. And yet every Tuesday, as the meeting time approaches, I still get a feeling of dread. I fear that I am interrupting people and dragging them out of their productive zone. I worry that they are just coming to the meeting to humor me. I beat myself up for needing the meeting at all to know what’s going on. But meet we do. We go around and talk about what we’ve been doing, and useful conversations ensue. I certainly get a clearer picture, and these meetings help resolve issues and spark more informal discussions and collaborations throughout the week. As a result, over time I’ve become just a bit more relaxed about starting these meetings, and I’ve learned that sometimes the best way to find out what needs doing is to just show up and assess.

Showing up can also be a declaration of belief in yourself. For example, right now it feels like there’s a lot going on. Heck, it always feels like there’s a lot going on. My natural tendency is to deal with all the obligations before the pleasures. I suppose it’s a work ethic that I learned early on. (I never could understand classmates who waited until Sunday night to do their homework.) But what this means is that doing things for myself, simply because I want to do them, takes a back seat. This feels like the right decision at the moment, but is certainly not the right decision in the bigger scheme of things: I get short-changed. It turns out that just making a prior commitment that I don’t have to think about helps. Knowing that every morning I go to the gym means that most mornings I am at the gym, so I exercise. Knowing that every Monday I have a Toastmasters meeting means that every Monday I show up and say something. Just showing up gives you the momentum to keep going because once you’re there, in the right context, you might as well continue.

Finally, there can be great power in showing up, because you may be one of the few people who do. My husband, Knox, went to a neighborhood district council meeting, where they asked for volunteers to sit in a grant review committee. Knox was one of the three people who eventually raised their hands. Just like that, he was sitting on a committee, hearing project proposals for a $750K grant. That is a lot of money for local, grass-roots projects to make a difference in the neighborhood. Knox got to listen to the proposals, ask questions about the purpose and cost, and make recommendations. He made a real, substantial difference, and all because he showed up and raised his hand.

Some time ago, I remember reading an essay where the author extolled the principle of “if in doubt, just go for it” as a way of helping us get over our inertia. My recent experiences have convinced me there’s wisdom in this, particularly when “doing it” is as simple as just showing up. Showing up in itself makes a difference, because initiatives are often starved for help. Showing up helps overcome our fear of incompetence, because it helps make obvious what to do next. Showing up gives us the momentum to carry projects through. And finally, there can be great power in showing up, because most people don’t. You can change the world.

Pragmatic Atheism

How do you practice your atheism? At first glance, this seems like a silly question, since atheism is defined by the lack of practice—specifically, the lack of religious practice. When you think about it, though, there are two deeper levels at which this question is sensible. The first is that atheism is generally a result of skepticism, and maintaining skeptical habits of mind, resisting blind faith and evaluating sources of knowledge, is an active pursuit. Many have written about this form of the “atheist practice,” and I will not dwell on it here.

The second interpretation of the question is what I want to discuss: as members of the atheist movement, how do we relate to the larger world? In other words, beyond simply interpreting our lives through an atheist lens, what contributions can we, as atheists, bring to society at large? How do we represent ourselves and “the movement” to the rest of society?

My contention in this essay is that in the pride of the New Atheism, not all our actions contribute towards the goals that we hold.

First and foremost, we seem to snicker a lot at theists. We do this because we’re so obviously right and they are so obviously wrong….but what does this accomplish? It reinforces the us-vs-them exclusivity, marking our membership in the in-group and their status as outsiders who just don’t get it. It is a way for us to be comfortable in our superiority. How useful is this sneering? It speaks to our basest impulses, those of demonizing the other, the very root of the ills we often decry in religion. As a practical matter, it does not make theists more receptive to our arguments: are you willing to hear someone else on the merits of their position when they are calling you stupid and baseless? Though we may get some enjoyment out of this ridicule, it does not advance rational discussion and makes us complicit in further fragmenting the town hall into a series of echo chambers.

Second, we proselytize. We tell people why atheism is the better choice, and why they have no grounds to be theists. Why do we do this? Because we’re right, of course! But now step back for a second. Think about the Christian proselytizers, or for that matter anyone who defends their religion. Why do they do this? Because they think they’re right, too. We are coming from the (eminently reasonable, to us) position that there’s no reason to believe things for which there is no evidence, and that it’s alright to admit ignorance of things we do not yet understand. Theists, however, are of the mindset, all too historically human, that the unexplained must involve supernatural agents and that traditional explanations must be true even if unverifiable. Given these fundamental differences, proselytizing is just loudly speaking past each other.

Third, we seek to make ourselves known to those who are seeking. There are those who are unsatisfied with the theist world view but don’t know of a better alternative. There are those who do but who are daunted by the prospect of being alone and ostracized by the social groups in which they are embedded. Knowing that there is a community of like-minded people who have thought about and are comfortable with these issues is a huge help for these folks. Note that this third point is somewhat analogous to the previous point about proselytizing, but the difference I am making is this: proselytizing is about converting people who have a different worldview and are not necessarily troubled by it; making ourselves available is about receiving with open arms those who are already predisposed to become atheists.

Fourth, we seek to gain acceptance and humanize ourselves to others. A common trope is that atheists are evil, and that we cannot possibly be moral without a revelatory holy book to guide us. Debunking these myths is an important and critical part of who we are. It dignifies us as individuals in the face of others’ contempt. It protects us as a movement of like-minded individuals. It helps us in welcoming newcomers, by removing the fear that we might be some strange, inhuman “other.” And it is the foundation for fighting for a place at the political table, which brings me to the final point:

Fifth, we argue for public policy. While minority religions are often good about supporting the separation of church and state, that support often wanes as those religions gain ascendancy. From our non-religious perch, we are in a good position to fight for the underdog, for those world views that are not those of the majority religion. At some point in the (unfortunately) distant future, should we ourselves become a majority, we will have to remember these lessons in tolerance as we allow others to hold what views they will, even if we personally think them wrong.

As atheists come out of the closet and gain more visibility in America, we face an important opportunity to present humanism as a viable world view for individuals, one that can act as a strong defender of a secular society that makes decisions rationally while protecting freedom of conscience. We’re more likely to achieve this if we stop the sneering and the proselytizing, and instead focus on visibility, outreach, and public policy. Given the theocratic bent of current political discourse, it is vitally important that we get this right—the stakes couldn’t be higher.

My Social Justice Story

I was one of a handful of people asked to tell my “social justice story” at the Social Justice Fund Northwest’s annual dinner tonight. These are my prepared remarks.

As with many other people, my awareness of social unfairness began at home. My parents pointed out and lamented the injustices that plague the lives of the poor—both individuals and societies. Coming from Latin America, we were acutely aware of our differences with the First World—which is to say, aware of the widespread impact of American culture, consumerism, and foreign policy. I was to learn much later that my parents had actually been involved in progressive causes earlier, but growing up, I did not experience their angst and concern being translated to action. Instead, there was always this attitude that charity was just throwing money away: a feel-good measure that did nothing to advance the systemic change needed to solve the root problems. That stance certainly has some merit (“teach a man to fish” and all that), but it can all too easily become an excuse for inaction and helplessness.

As I grew up and my newspaper reading shifted from the comic pages to the front pages to the editorial pages, my sense of urgency around social issues grew. What also changed is that I finally had money of my own: first my grad school stipend, and then a real, honest-to-goodness salary. I now had much more motivation and many more resources than I had ever had before, but I was still confused as to the best means to effect change. I gingerly became an online member of one or two national progressive groups (they were pursuing systemic change!). I soon became inundated with solicitations from many more. Most seemed worthy, and I had money, so I sent fifty dollars here, fifty dollars there, fifty dollars everywhere, and got a walletful of membership cards. But was spreading my money around really effective? Was there a way to become more directly involved in creating change without either giving up my day job or throwing money at the problem as though it were somebody else’s job to fix?

And then 2000 happened. The suspense and non-resolution that followed that election felt to me like the beginning of a nightmare, one in which (I’m ashamed to admit) I disengaged in despair for eight painful years. I knew that disengaging was not helping anyone, but watching the social and political discourse was just too painful, when all I could do—all I knew how to do—was wring my hands at my own powerlessness to make the world right.

But soon enough, I wasn’t alone anymore. I eventually dated and married Knox. One of the many remarkable things about him is how centrally he values reaching out to others and building community. He’ll stop to help or chat with a neighbor just because; he’ll organize a community harvest to glean fruit that would otherwise be going to waste; he’ll spend much time helping folks throughout the country organize Soup Swaps where they can rediscover the fun of cooking and sharing and telling stories. In short, through Knox, I came to understand more viscerally how communities get built from the ground up based on individual interactions. At the same time, I noticed that this community-building was also happening on the national stage, as the left began to coalesce around the Obama campaign. Thanks to what was happening at both the national and very local levels, I came to realize that by fostering community, the isolated helplessness to which I had succumbed could instead become collective progress.

And so this year, at the urging of my friend Jessan, I got involved with the the Next Generation Giving Project run by the Social Justice Fund. I was fascinated by the discussions we had around wealth, class, and privilege—a complex of topics I want to keep exploring. We learned about fund-raising: I wasn’t very successful at that, yet I was still pleasantly surprised at how receptive people were to my pleas. And we evaluated a heck of a lot of applications in a few short weeks. Every night I would grumble at how long that process took, and yet, when I read each application, I would feel guilty about my complaining when it was them doing the hard, amazing, often thankless work down on the ground.

Now, unlike most of the really great SJF members with whom I worked this year, I don’t have a background in social work nor, as you see, in activism. I can’t say “intersectional analysis” without feeling self-conscious. That makes me feel like a bit of an impostor among all of you here tonight. But I know I’m not, because of course this is where my social justice journey has taken me: SJF is working for systemic change, by channeling resources to effective groups while building and sustaining a community working toward a shared vision.

I don’t know yet what form my social activism will take in the future, but I do know that I take to heart the old Jewish saying: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but you are not free to desist from it either.”

Thank you.

To the spoiler belongs the victory

There is a fundamental asymmetry in any interaction that requires cooperation: the party that chooses not to play by the rules disrupts the process, preventing any win within the rules of that interaction but likely achieving a one-sided gain outside the scope of the rules.

For example, a child who does not want to play a board game and sweeps the pieces off the table spoils the game for everyone, but has himself achieved the objective of not playing (or perhaps of “not losing,” if that’s what prompted the outbreak).

A discussion with someone who refuses to debate rationally (listening and rebutting using logic) prevents either side from understanding the other better and perhaps being swayed, but achieves the spoiler’s aim of not having her beliefs challenged. Witness the various arguments with fundamentalists who refuse to entertain anything that challenges what they “know.”

Likewise, the goal of Congress is to debate, improve, and pass good laws for the benefit of society. The majority party, in particular, has an incentive to play by the rules to justify its dominance. The minority party, on the other hand, has an extraneous motivation to subvert the game: spoiling the interaction by being obstructionist and partisan prevents good legislation from passing while the other side is in power, supposedly boosting the minority’s chances for a comeback.

When the spoilers are few in number, their damage can be controlled: the child can be excluded from future games, the fundamentalist can be dismissed, the representative can be shunned and voted out. But what happens when a substantial fraction of the players are uncooperative? They just get their way, by hook (the other players giving in) or by crook (spoiling the game).

Is there a way out? By definition, not within the system itself. Perhaps the only way seems to be driving the proportion of spoilers back down—in other words, persuading people left and right that the fairest and most efficient way forward is together.