29 December 2006

my absent god.

Meet my new hero, Oxford professor Richard Dawkins. Check out more interviews and a Q and A in Virginia on Youtube.
My other newfound hero is the eloquent Sam Harris, author of Letter to a Christian Nation. Although he gets on a bit of an anti-Islam tirade at the end, which distracts from the "Christian nation" theme, his section on comprehensive sex ed, HIV/AIDS, the HPV vaccine, and the religious right's objections thereto won my heart. I think it's all well and good if your faith gives your life meaning, but I think many people forget that that's their life, not necessarily everyone else's. If said faith leads you to selectively deny people information that could save their life, then you've lost all right to preach moral superiority over my heathen life. And let's not get me started on the hypocrisy present in much of the American religious right - if you can't practice what you preach, then don't judge my life as a consolation. My actions reflect my values, and I'm quite content with that.

Lest I sound as judgmental as those who frustrate me to no end, let me clarify that the vast majority of my anger is directed solely at the "extremists" to which Harris addresses his letter. I don't take issue with religion and god on the individual level - I don't see the point, but then I'm sure many don't see the point in not believing in a god or afterlife. But if it inspires you to do good and help others, I'm not one to judge intentions. Truce.

But when religion has been elevated to the point where challenging its basic tenets is inherently wrong, we're dangerously limiting ourselves as a society. For a long time, I called myself an agnostic so I "at least believed in something," since the notion of atheism is difficult to swallow. Then I realized the absurdity of lying about my beliefs so as not to frighten others. I wouldn't lie about my political or social views, and I think my readiness to hide my atheism illustrates just how pervasive religion has become. Rest assured, I do believe in something - love, passion, helping others, and leaving this world somehow a better place, even if only for one person, for my having lived in it.

On to happier thoughts - Merry Christmas (ahh, the irony cuts like a knife) and a Happy New Year. I actually kept my resolution last year (vegetarianism), for the first time in my life, so now I'm excited by the potential laid out before me for the coming year. What to resolve?

My care package to a group stationed in Iraq arrived, and I got a thank you email on Christmas from the soldier who distributed it to everyone. It warmed my heart in a way the commericalism of the holiday season just can't - turns out I was the first college woman to send anything. Best Christmas present ever - thanks AnySoldier.com! Everyone else should go send a package, especially all you crazy liberals out there who supposedly hate the troops. Changing the world, one person at a time.

15 December 2006

and this too shall pass.

So here I am, in my last few days in Gainesville and at UF, and I'm not quite sure what to think. I love this town and the people I've met here - to me, this is home. So many people are talking about going "home for the holidays," and I just don't feel that. I haven't spent more than a few weeks at a time in Orlando since I moved to Gainesville, and now it just feels like a vacation destination. Time flies - it seems like just yesterday I was a high school graduate getting lost in New York, shopping for towels and dishes, and excitedly taking every flier at the study abroad fair. I never imagined that three years later, I'd have traveled on four continents and fallen in love with the Middle East. If I've learned anything in the past few years, I've given up on five year plans - I end up trashing them in a few months anyway. From here on out, I'm following my heart and seeing where I end up. Feel free to visit.

On the topic of foreign countries, check this out - it's an interactive world map that identifies every country for you. Then, play the game and identify them as quickly as you can - my record is 96. It's like crack for nerds - you'll be addicted after a round or two.

Since my Peace Corps service won't start for a while, check out Blogger's latest featured writer, Aaron, who's currently working on technology education in Togo. For those interested in redecorating their houses, I'm definitely getting one of these as soon as I live with running water. If you'd rather save the world, the Reitz Scholars at the University of Florida are participating in Relay for Life again, and although I won't be there to walk with the team, I'd appreciate anyone's help in fundraising (proceeds go to cancer research). Click here to donate!

"It's funny, you work so hard, you do everything you can to get away from a place, and when you finally get your chance to leave, you find a reason to stay." - Ethan Hawke in Gattaca.
ps. i love you.

09 December 2006

best weekend ever.

I take back what I said about not liking children. Apparently I just didn't know the right ones. Everyone should go volunteer at Camp Boggy Creek. Right now. Download the application and submit it today. If you're not in the greater southeastern United States, sew a bear or make a quilt or afghan for the kids. So how did heartless Jessica end up at a kid's camp? After Matt told me about his amazing time at camp, I was inspired. He's generally pretty bright, so when I enrolled in Exceptional People and had to fulfill my service hours, I figured this was as good a time as any to see if all the hype was true.

It was. This place is incredible. The kids are amazing. Someone said that all world leaders should come to camp and experience the "Boggy spirit," and speaking as a cynic who loves the Middle East dearly, I agree. It was the most positive, supportive, and flat-out inspiring 48 hours I've ever witnessed. Dozens of kids playing together, no fighting, no teasing, just pure love and encouragement. You'd see a couple of kids playing a game together, and another one would want to play, so they'd pass the ball over or give up their ping pong paddle, no questions asked, no whining. There's a talent show on the last day, and I've never seen people, let alone kids, cheer for each other like that. If someone forgot the words to their song or missed a step for their dance number, the entire crowd would cheer them on. Everyone got a "standing O." Silly cheers and songs, and even the parents and grandparents were getting into the dances. Seriously, it's pretty much the most inspiring place on earth.

I was a "family pal," which meant I was paired up with a camper and his family (in this case, mom and younger sister) all weekend, playing with the kids while their mom could have some time off and bond with the other parents. This was heart weekend, so all the kids had some sort of heart condition (but you wouldn't know it playing with them!). Even shooting myself at the archery range couldn't bring me down. We made and decorated cakes in honor of the 10th anniversary of camp, then ate them for breakfast on Sunday. Even a breakfast of frosting couldn't disrupt the spirit of camp! We had quite a few gator cakes, which more than made up for going to the big dance instead of watching the Gators dominate the SEC championship. There's not much cuter than kids doing the Gator chomp! And who doesn't love decorating cakes? I watched one kid make this gorgeous double layer cake, and the look of pride on his face when everyone told him how delicious it was was absolutely priceless.

After meals, the camp directors read the thank you notes left by campers, families, and volunteers - a misty-eyed experience even for heartless me. It makes you realize just how much we take for granted, how little effort it takes to make someone's day, and how great it feels to be appreciated. To sum up how amazing Boggy Creek is, while my camper and I were walking down to the pool we talked about camp and life. Paraphrasing, he said that he doesn't really mind having a heart condition because it means he gets to come to camp, but he hates that people pity him because he's "a normal kid" just like everyone else. Honestly! Like watching Hotel Rwanda, if you go to camp and aren't moved, you have no heart.