Month: April 2011

The Errant Pitch

Despite my passion for the game, baseball is undeniably one of the most boring sports to watch—ranking right up there with curling, NASCAR, and competitive fishing. Sometimes it’s even more boring for the players. I still remember attending my siblings’ games and watching my younger brother Kevin sit in right field, playing with grass and dandelions—while facing the wrong direction.

He wasn’t the only one who found himself bored at his own games. I had a strong arm as a kid, but my tendency to flinch at hard-hit ground balls meant I was generally relegated to the outfield—the no man’s land of youth baseball.

When I was old enough that players pitched (instead of coaches or pitching machines), I finally felt like I’d found the position for me. I’d have the ball for most of the game, and yet all they needed from me was my arm. So what if I botched the rare grounder or struck out at bat? So did the pros!

I started pitching at age 12, and at 13 I was invited to play for the traveling all-star team after the end of the regular season. Dad was ecstatic. It seemed like every chance we got, he’d take me into the backyard, plant me on the pitching mound he’d annexed from Mom’s flowerbed, pace off 60 feet, and tell me to start warming up. We’d start off throwing fastballs for strikes—one after another, as close to center as I could get them. He’d coach and encourage, usually ending our practice sessions with make-believe batters whom Dad inevitably made whiff at every curveball and moan in terror when I threw a fastball high and inside to back them off the plate a bit.

We always ended with an impossibly tense hypothetical. He said the same thing so many times I can remember it verbatim: “Alright, little man. Bottom of the ninth. Championship of the free world. The good guys are up by one run. Runners on first and third. No outs. Top of the lineup.” He’d make me work through the batters, coaching me through the logic of each pitch, coaxing me to give 100% and then a little more.

One day he got home from the hospital, changed out of his scrubs, and took me into the yard to pitch a bit. I felt good. My fastballs were tailing down and in, my curveballs broke sharply, and the rare knuckleball he let me throw on 0-2 counts seemed to die in midair. Finally, in our championship of the free world hypothetical, I gave one pitch everything I had. Sixty feet, two inches from the plate, I reared back, lunged forward, and threw a furious 57-foot fastball. It bounced neatly in front of the plate and ricocheted directly into Dad’s groin. I cursed at myself as he fell forward onto his knees, pressing his head to the grass and breathing in gasps through clenched teeth. He seemed to stay there for 10 minutes or more—knees and forehead pressed to the ground like a man in fervent prayer.

I apologized again and again, and he said it was ok. But that was the last pitch I threw that day, and he spent most of the afternoon on the sofa, watching football with a bag of ice between his legs.

The very next day, I came home from school to find him in the kitchen making a sandwich.  He asked if I wanted to go in the back and pitch a bit.  I hesitated, but he told me to grab my glove, so I did. Wandering into the backyard, I stretched out on the grass and started tossing the ball into the air, waiting for Dad to find his glove and join me.

Ten minutes later, he still hadn’t come out. I ducked my head into the back door and asked Mom if she knew what Dad was doing and whether he still wanted to play catch. She said he’d be right out.

Another five minutes passed, and out he walked, decked from head to toe in shining, brand-new catcher’s gear. He had everything: facemask, chest protector, shin guards, and a thickly padded catcher’s mitt. And unless I missed my guess, a solid athletic cup offered extra protection under his jeans. Apparently, he had gone out while I was at school and purchased the entire set—just so we could keep playing catch in the backyard.

I have never doubted my father’s love for his children, but sometimes, when life isn’t as easy as it used to be when we played catch in the backyard, I think of him standing there, decked out from head to toe in shining black plastic armor.

Advertisements

Finding Happiness in Doubt and Honesty

Not too many months after writing the letter I included in my last post, I finally stopped trying to convince myself to believe in God. Instead, I embraced what came much more naturally to me: honest, open skepticism. At first, I felt a confusing and almost constant undercurrent of anger toward all things religious—and particularly toward people who attempted to encourage belief in God by appealing to logic. I found myself seething inside, angry at what I thought were unreasonable arguments, faulty logic, and invalid assumptions.

It took nearly a year, but I finally recognized where that anger was coming from. I had, without much thought, assumed that it was religion and religious people that had been the source of so much confusion and embarrassment—that somehow the duplicity and hypocrisy that I felt were necessary to maintain others’ image of me as a “good kid” were their fault.

I was ashamed when I realized that it wasn’t.

The thing that made me most unhappy between the ages of about 14 and 22 wasn’t doubting God’s existence or even the confusing mire of emotions that brought with it. It wasn’t my jealousy—wanting so badly what others seemed to have gained so easily.

What really made me unhappy (and what pushed me to share my experiences) was me. If there is one thing that I could go back and tell 14-year-old me, it would be this:

There is absolutely, unequivocally no reason to pretend to something out of shame, embarrassment, or loyalty. Honesty will reward you time and time again, but lying to yourself and those you love (no matter the reason) leaves you feeling Janus-faced and empty.

In My Beef with Audible (pressed Apr 20), I mentioned that my blog had only 507 views since I published my first post in July of 2010. Since I posted The Closet Agnostic: My Own Coming-Out (early yesterday morning), this blog has received 156 visits. I have received numerous emails, Facebook messages, and text messages—some from dear friends and some from complete strangers—thanking me for posting something so intimate and moving. I have been deeply touched by many of their comments and responses, which makes writing more rewarding than I had previously thought possible.

With so many welcome readers, I want to be crystal clear in my intentions. I am firmly and hopelessly entrenched in a single philosophy: life is about discovering, cultivating, and sharing happiness. In this regard, religion has been an intrinsic part of the human experience for millennia. I am happier without it, but many of my closest family members and dearest friends are happier because of their faith in God, which most of them consider the basic foundation of enduring happiness.

If believing in God makes you happy, believe in God! If you’re not confident that God exists, but going to church regularly uplifts you, go to church and hope!

All I hope to accomplish with regard to religion is to share experiences that have changed my life and, if I can manage it, give others who find themselves in similar positions the advice I wish I had received so many years ago:

Doubt is healthy. It pushes you to learn, to explore, to overcome. Don’t ignore it, avoid it, or deny it. Address it and grow.

The Closet Agnostic: My Own Coming-Out

I interviewed for a teaching position at a charter school in Brooklyn a few weeks ago. While I was talking with the principal, she asked me to identify the hardest thing I had ever done. My mind raced as I quickly reviewed some of the more difficult things I’ve done: learning Chinese while working as a missionary in Taiwan (with no phone, no music, no free time, and no freedom), working as Editor-in-Chief of The BYU Political Review.

I’ve been asked this question before, and I usually try to give an appropriately self-promoting response worthy of an interview. This time, my mind fastened onto what I’ve long considered the most mentally and emotionally challenging thing I’ve ever done. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and so instead of giving my usual response, I told the simple truth:

The hardest thing I have ever done was telling my father I didn’t believe in God.

I’m the oldest of four children raised by two wonderful Mormon parents. Since I was a child, they impressed on me the importance of always setting a good example for my brothers and sister—and in their minds, this was particularly important when it came to spiritual matters.

So it came as a surprise for my dad, after I’d spent nearly 22 years as an active, enthusiastic church-goer, leader, teacher, and even missionary, when I sent him a letter in February of 2009.

I’ve included it below, with only minor syntactical and grammatical changes.

Dad,

I hope it doesn’t seem too strange that I’d write to you in an email instead of calling you on the phone. I promise there’s a good reason for it.

I couldn’t have better parents. I’ve never thought otherwise, nor do I suppose that I would ever tolerate anyone suggesting anything to the contrary. Ever since I can remember, I’ve loved you and Mom more than I’ve ever been able to express. I try sometimes, but usually feel inadequate. Your love is, without question, the greatest source of happiness in my life. I’ve never felt more proud than when you tell me, “We’re so proud of you,” and I’ve never felt worse than when I hear (or even imagine) you say, in that familiar tone, “Son…” Pleasing you, making you proud of me, living up to your expectations—these have been the driving forces behind nearly every good decision I have made in my lifetime. And disappointing you or letting you down breaks my heart just as much (or more) than it breaks yours…which is probably why I’m typing this instead of saying it out loud.

My faith in and love of my parents has rested largely on my confident assurance that neither you nor Mom would ever, under any circumstances, want anything but my safety and happiness. It is for this reason, more than any other, that I have remained active, involved, and faithful in church. Since I was a little boy, I have held (and still hold) the firm belief that you and Mom really do believe in God. And my whole life, I have wanted to believe in God like you do. But I never have.

Let me explain.

I have tried for more than a decade to convince myself that God answers my prayers, to believe in Him, to keep His commandments because of my sincere faith and love in Him. On most days, I’ll easily spend an hour obsessing over this idea. My head is constantly full of confirmations, doubts, arguments (for and against), explanations, etc. I try to focus on other things: music, nature, writing, politics…but I can never rid myself of the pressing doubts I’ve fostered since childhood. In Sunday School, Priesthood meetings, Sacrament meetings, and Stake and General Conferences, I suppress my natural curiosity and skepticism and work to avoid criticizing, correcting, and belittling others’ misunderstandings of church doctrines, concepts, history, etc., and instead find the points of truth and good in their presentations and focus on them. I can argue for God just as easily as I can argue against Him, but I realize that it doesn’t matter which argument is stronger in my mind: ultimately, God exists or He doesn’t, and nothing anybody says or thinks will change that simple fact.

My problem is much more simple than apologetic arguments on points of doctrine. The gospel makes sense to me. There are contradictions and things I don’t understand, but I attribute that to my own limited level of understanding. What is important in religion is the abiding faith, the calming confidence in God, born of personal and intimate spiritual experiences. These are what (more than anything else) I need…and lack.
For more than ten years, I’ve testified, argued, and even proselytized for God. I’ve read the scriptures cover to cover, studied the Bible Dictionary, Jesus the Christ, The Articles of Faith, The Miracle of Forgiveness, Our Search for Happiness, several biographies of Joseph Smith, and a cornucopia of other religious works. I’ve searched and pondered. And prayer. I cannot tell you how many times or for how long I have begged God to let me feel his love, to let me feel faith, confidence, to give me that abiding trust in Him that so many others seem to have. I’ve long felt jealous of so many whose testimonies I’ve heard: they needed an answer from God, asked for it, and received it.

It wasn’t until President Watterson [my mission president in Taiwan] that somebody really managed to see through the façade, and even then only when I had already confessed lying to his face. He commented that I lied like somebody who did it all the time and told me I should start over as an honest man. Somehow, despite my deep resentment of the man, that struck a chord with me. I realized that lying, more than almost anything else, offended me. I had, at that point, lived a duplicitous life for years, and it ate at my soul. The deeper problem, though, was my lack of faith. I had gone on a mission hoping to prove to God that I was willing, despite my doubts, to trust in Him. I hoped that He would be more willing to bless me with faith while I was engaged in His work, 100 percent devoted to Him. But what was I to do when He didn’t? Who could I tell? The question constantly reverberated in my mind then as it does now. Who can I tell? My brother in Spain, who once considered the military over the mission? You and Mom, whose hearts the knowledge would inevitably break? My friends or companions, who looked up to me as a source of strength and example? No. I didn’t have the courage. And so I kept it to myself and begged all the harder for an answer.

And so here I am. Return missionary. Oldest son. Example for the kids. Priesthood teacher. BYU undergrad. My entire life revolves around a concept that I only pretend to believe, and whenever I’m not busy enough to keep the thought from my mind, my own conscience screams “Hypocrite!” at me until I find music loud enough to replace it.

To make things worse, I’m supposed to be in the middle of the great Mormon bride-hunt that is the BYU undergraduate experience. How can I, in good conscience, marry a woman I truly love, knowing that I’m lying to her about what should be the most important thing in her life? Can I kneel across the altar from her and promise to love her for eternity when I don’t believe in such a thing? Then I wouldn’t just be lying to myself, my family, and my friends—I’d be lying to the one person with whom, more than anyone else, I should be completely open and honest. No. I can’t get married until I either find faith in God or stop trying.

But on the other hand, what if, somewhere down the road, I finally do receive a witness from God and I’m still single…or married to a girl that doesn’t?

Dad, I’m so lost, and I can’t be a liar anymore. I can’t respect myself or expect anyone else to do the same if I keep pretending. I need an answer from God, and I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. I have fasted and prayed for little else this past decade, but I’ve never felt anything like the warm comfort I’ve heard described in so many different ways. I’ve held on to hope this long out of a desire to prove you right. I know you wouldn’t lie to me about this, and that’s brought me this far. If I could, I would trick myself into believing. What could be better for me? Even if it were wrong, I could be happy. I could be satisfied with myself, keep the commandments (many of which I know keep me happy), get married, have children, raise them in the church with its good principles, and die content. If I could hire a hypnotist to make me believe, I might be satisfied. Never have I been willing to sacrifice truth for convenience, except in this case: it would be so much easier for me if I could believe somehow…even if it were wrong. Then I wouldn’t have to break my parents’ hearts. Then I could still be the example I want to be for my siblings. Then I could go to church, teach and testify as usual, and feel at peace. Instead, I’m turning to you (which is probably the first thing I should have done) as a last resort.

I don’t know what else to do besides ask you for a blessing, which is something I do only on the rarest of circumstances: blessings are supposed to work according to faith, and if I haven’t any, what’s the use? But I want to do everything in my power to find an answer. I hope you’ll be willing to give me a priesthood blessing this weekend when I come home. And we’ll find some time (perhaps while golfing, if the weather’s good) to talk about these things.

Rest assured, in the meantime, that I’m in good hands. There are a handful of people who know how I feel, and all are very supportive. Alyssa has been more of an angel to me than any I could have hoped for had God Himself sent one (and perhaps, in this case, He has). I don’t know what made me tell her how I feel about things… “Hey, I really like you and—oh!—by the way, I don’t believe in God” isn’t usually my favorite pickup line. But she has been loving, kind, and faithful enough to spend hours on end talking it through with me, encouraging me to keep praying, keep asking. In fact, she even developed what she calls “The Plan”: it’s a two-week spiritual boot camp of sorts. We started with a fast two Sundays ago and will end with another this next Sunday. Every day since we started, we’ve read scriptures and talks daily, hoping that such powerful testimonies of God and Christ would spark some ember of faith deep within me. I pray morning, night, and whenever else I get a moment to myself, asking God to give me faith. It was Alyssa who suggested that I ask you for a blessing, actually. I had almost resigned myself to giving up my quest for spiritual enlightenment when she convinced me to give it one last go. It took a bit of convincing. Not giving it one last go…talking to you about this. Even now, I hesitate to send this to you, knowing the catharsis of emotions you’re likely to feel. My hands are shaking as I type because I have no idea how you’ll take this. I’m afraid you’ll lose confidence in me, worry obsessively, or (God forbid) feel like a failed parent. But I trust you. I love you. And I want your help.

I hope you’ll understand this for what it is. I’m not rebelling or reviling. I’m finally telling you what I want to say every time you close our phone conversations with, “Is there anything I can do for you?” I don’t mean to belittle anybody else’s belief in God. I’m not atheist—just agnostic. I want (and need) to know the truth. And I want God’s existence to be true. But no amount of desire can change reality—and I cannot believe in something simply by wanting to. I just need something more than what I have.

And I hope I don’t sound detached or unemotional. Realize that I have spent a good portion of each day for the last decade mulling this over and over in my mind. If I sound more logical than emotional, I’m sorry. For you, this is a sudden confession, an unpleasant surprise, but for me, talking to you about this is another step in the long evolution of my faith. And I’m not depressed, just unhappy.

A couple things: first (and I’ll leave this to your discretion, but please think about it), I haven’t said anything about this to Mom. I don’t know why. I guess I imagine her beating herself up over this. I hope I’m wrong, but I’m still afraid of that possibility. I hope that I’ll get an answer from God, gain faith in Him, and keep going the direction I’m headed. If that happens, I’d rather Mom never knew about this. But, like I said, I’ll leave that up to you. You’re my father and I trust your judgment. Second, I’ve talked to Alyssa about visiting our family this weekend and hope you won’t mind if I invite her to come stay with us for the holiday. I talked to Mom, and she told me it was fine, but I should check with you.

I love you, Dad. Thank you for your constant support and everything you do for me. Sorry for making you work so hard at the whole “dad” thing. It really ought to be easier.

xoxo
ryan

If you’re curious or interested, my father’s response was even more life-changing than writing this letter. Read it here. 

Dear Bus Driver: I hate you.

You remember me. You were driving up Broadway, Upper West Side, almost to 111th. As you approached the bus stop, you didn’t seem to see me standing there, pizza in one hand, root beer in the other. You swerved slightly (as though you were almost compelled to do your job and stop), but then, inexplicably, you decided that stop wasn’t worth stopping for. Instead, you drove another 5 feet and stopped at the red light.

Remember me now?

I was the tall, thin white guy who walked the five feet to where you had stopped and tapped gently on the door, miming that I’d like to board your bus. You ignored me until I knocked three times and started waving. Then you looked at me and shook your head.

That was what confused me. I felt like we had a connection…you know, that half-second where you almost thought about stopping to pick me up at the bus stop with the big sign that says “M60 LaGuardia Airport”. I thought that was our moment.

I know it must have been confusing for you when I raised my hands to shoulder height, palms toward the sky. It’s this crazy thing some people do when they have WTF? moments.

I’m sure you remember me now.

I stood there, looking at you, wondering whether you remembered how to open the door. You ignored me. When I kept standing there (and it became obvious that if you’d let me on the bus, you still would have made the light with time to spare), you looked back, pointed behind you (at the M104) and said, “There’s another behind me!”

That’s when I gave you another crazy gesture. I think you understood that one.

I waited 15 minutes for the next M60.

So, dear M60 bus driver, I hate you. Passionately.

My Beef with Audible

I’m not proud or naïve enough to think that many people reading my blog are strangers. Relatively few of the people I actually see on a regular basis have the desire to sift through my ramblings on philosophy and politics. In fact, as of this writing, this blog has 507 views all-time (the first post was in July of 2010). It’s an underwhelming statistic.

Still, I like to think of myself as a good writer. As someone recently pointed out, however, it’s difficult to prove that when I don’t actually write. Consequently, I’ve decided to dedicate myself to one post a day. Don’t expect greatness every day, but I’ll try to leave out the parts that people will skip.

*          *          *          *

I’m addicted to audiobooks. It began in high school when Mom bought a 7-disk audio rendition of Homer’s Odyssey. I used to fall asleep at night listening to Odysseus’s escape from the Cyclops. Then it was all seven books in the Harry Potter series—read by the amazing Jim Dale. Perhaps one of the biggest reasons I dislike the movies is because, next to Mr. Dale’s audio rendition, the actors seem hollow and fake.

Suffice it to say that every time Audible.com offered a free audiobook for joining, I’d create an account, download a new book, and then promptly cancel my membership. After doing this several times, my conscience began to get the better of me. Audiobooks take the most mundane parts of my day and make them extraordinary. With a decent audiobook, the seven-hour drive from college back home (through perhaps the most boring scenery in the world—northern Utah and southern Idaho) was almost exciting. Finally, I caved in and signed up for a regular Audible.com membership. I get a book a month (which works out almost perfectly) for less than I spend on subway rides in three days.

This week I realized that my brother and I had been downloading books from the same series. I have my own Audible account, and he’s been using Dad’s. Naturally, instead of downloading the same book twice, we figured we should just download different series and share.

Enter Audible.com technical idiocy. Audible downloads are not .mp3 files. Instead, they’re special .aa files that incorporate DRM (Digital Rights Management) protection, which prevents users from burning the files to CD more than once, using the files on computers without the proper Audible account authorization, and using them on non-standard mp3 players. The files have a memory, and you’re only authorized to use them on up to 4 computers. Unfortunately, my family has more than 4 computers, which means that, per Audible’s rules, it’s impossible for all of us to listen to the same audiobook unless we upload the data onto our iPods from the same four computers.

After looking into the problem, I realized that our problems were minute compared to many other Audible users. If, for example you don’t use iTunes (not everyone does) as your media player, you have to install Audible’s download manager to download, organize, and play your files. If you’re using a non-Apple mp3 player (like a Zune, for instance), then you’re limited to 3 devices (whereas, if you have iPods, you can transfer your audiobooks onto as many as you like).

Audible uses DRM-protected files in weird formats in an attempt to prevent copyright infringement. The irony is that, despite the significant inconvenience to paying customers, removing DRM protection from files in these formats is not only possible and not-so-difficult, it’s legal. It’s just time consuming. The easiest way is to burn the files to a CD (which Audible allows you to do once) and then just rip them right back onto your computer in .mp3 format. Thereafter, you’ve got DRM-free .mp3 files to share with whomever you please. There are even numerous programs online that utilize a CD-RW to automate the process, allowing you to hit the button, leave the room, and come back to find it done for you.

In effect, DRM protection on Audible’s files does absolutely nothing to prevent copyright infringement. Anyone willing to take enough time to create a torrent and share their audiobooks with the world can certainly take a few moments to convert them to .mp3.

I wrote an email to Audible to this effect. It’s attached below—along with their response and my rebuttal.

Enjoy!

My Original Email Complaint:

Dear Sir or Ma’am:

I’m writing to complain about Audible’s continued use of ridiculous DRM-protected .aa files. First, such files create significant inconvenience for your members (particularly for those with bigger families, multiple computers/devices, non-itunes media players, and non-standard .mp3 players). Second, DRM-protected files don’t ensure copyright protection; converting such files to .mp3 is not only easy, it’s legal, and a myriad of programs exist for that explicit purpose.

In short, you’re inconveniencing paying customers in an ineffective attempt to stem the tide of copyright violators who aren’t even paying Audible members to begin with.

Their Response:

Hi Ryan,

Thank you for contacting Audible! I apologize about any inconvenience you may have encountered and will be happy to assist you.

I understand that you are writing in to complain about our use of DRM. DRM is a measure taken by Audible that is required to protect both the intellectual property rights of our content providers and authors.

Audible uses security technologies, including encryption, to protect purchased programs. DRM assures our customers that the digital media they are receiving from our site has not been pirated. Consumers can be confident that the digital media they receive from us has been acquired in a legitimate matter and is authentic material.

With Audible files, you can store playback positions and navigate between chapters and sections. It also allows our partners to provide additional features such as accelerated playback, extra bookmarks, etc.

Again, I apologize about the inconvenience that this has caused and if you have any further questions please feel free to reply back to this email and we will be happy to assist you.

Enjoy your day!

Sincerely,
Anthony R. – Customer Service

Audible Customer Support

My Rebuttal:

Hi Anthony,

A few points:

1. No reasonable Audible customer has ever been legitimately concerned that the files Audible provides are pirated. Audible maintains a near-monopoly on legal online audiobook downloads, and to suggest that its customers worry about whether what they’re downloading is pirated is asinine.

2. DRM does NOT protect the intellectual property rights of content providers or authors; it’s a simple enough (and legal) procedure to remove DRM protection from files by converting them to .mp3s using various software products that exist for that purpose (or by simply burning them to a CD and then ripping it right back onto a computer). It just wastes my time to do that so I can listen to my purchases how I want to.

3. DRM has nothing to do with my ability to store playback positions and navigate between chapters and sections or any of the other features you described. You could still have these features without DRM protection.

4. Audible has announced, on its own website, that it plans to provide DRM-free downloads, which indicates that it feels none of the reasons you gave me are weighty enough to incur such customer dissatisfaction.

(“Audible recently announced that it is working to provide an option of DRM-free spoken work audio titles on Audible.com for content owners and publishers who prefer this method. Currently we do not have an implementation date.”)

Your customers are not idiots, and they recognize B.S. answers when they see them. Please just get on with releasing DRM-free audiobooks before they begin searching for more convenient file types on The Pirate Bay.

Cheers,

Ryan Burningham

Share