Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Adorning the Driller

The Golden Driller is a 76-foot-tall statue of an oilfield worker that's stood at the Tulsa County Fairgrounds for most of my life. "Golden" is probably not the most accurate description of the big guy's color, but then, "Mustardy Driller" isn't a very catchy moniker, is it? Whatever color he is, he's a Tulsa icon. (And as I just now discovered, the Driller is also the official monument of the state of Oklahoma. He isn't included on the official "Oklahoma State Icons" page, but is listed in the "Oklahoma Emblems" section of this "Welcome to Oklahoma" pamphlet.)

As you can imagine, dressing a 76-foot-tall statue is no minor feat, but it can be done. A local radio station drapes the Driller in a tent-sized T-shirt every year during the state fair, and now the Oklahoma Scottish Festival wants to draw attention to their annual event and give His Goldenness a touch of class by draping him in the world's largest kilt. And we, his adoring fans, get to decide which tartan (pattern) will be used! Will it be the official City of Tulsa tartan? The Johnnie Walker tartan (the corporate tartan for Johnnie Walker Whisky)? Your own clan's tartan? You can buy as many votes as you want for only $1 apiece; the tartan with the most votes at 4:00 PM CST on June 1st, 2011 (that's tomorrow!) will win. I chipped in $10 to vote for the official tartan of my family. It's a small clan that hasn't a hope of winning, but whatever pattern prevails, it'll be cool to see the Driller in a kilt.

Fortunately the Driller already has permanently-installed trousers over which the kilt can be wrapped. Yeah, "regimental" is the way that true Scotsmen wear their kilts, but I don't think the Driller's a Scot, and that line from "Oklahoma!" about "the wind [that] comes sweepin' down the plain" is all too accurate.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Squaring Off

"In the world, but not of it" is a mindset that I associate with evangelical Christians, but it's not exclusive to them; Hasidic ("ultra-Orthodox") Jews live by the same philosophy. Most Hasidic Jews live in big cities like New York and Los Angeles, but some choose to live together in isolated communities so they can minimize their exposure to behaviors and clothing styles that might lead to "inappropriate" thoughts. Secular influences like television, non-religious music, and the Internet are strongly discouraged. Males and females are expected to remain physically separate in public places, to the point of walking on different sides of the street in some Hasidic communities. Hasidim dress very modestly; women are expected to cover almost all skin other than their faces and hands, and to wear a wig, headscarf, or hat. (The Hasidic village of Kiryas Joel was criticized by non-residents last year for putting up signs asking outsiders to "dress and behave in a modest way" while visiting the community.) The lifestyle sounds unbearably oppressive to me, but is intended to minimize worldly distractions and permit constant reflection on—and joy in—the nature of God.

A central aspect of Hasidic Judaism is loyalty to the group's "rebbe," who is not just a rabbi but also the leader of the community. The rebbe is consulted on spiritual matters and other important issues such as what job to take or who to vote for. The rebbe is regarded as the liaison between man and God; failure to accept his advice is viewed as an affront to the whole community. So when Aron Rottenberg, a resident of the Hasidic village of New Square (or "New Skver"†), New York, defied Rebbe David Twersky's directive to worship only at the community's main synagogue, he was criticized and intimidated by other New Square residents for more than a year. Windows in his car and house were smashed, and earlier this month, another dissident family's home caught fire. Reportedly, Rottenberg was told by other residents to leave the community, but he stood firm, although he did take the precaution of installing home security cameras.

Early Sunday morning, Rottenberg's security cameras showed 18-year-old Shaul Spitzer (who worked as a butler for Rebbe Twersky) on the house's back porch; it appears that Spitzer was trying to set a fire using a gasoline-soaked rag. Rottenberg confronted Spitzer and was badly burned over half his body. He's already endured several hours of skin graft surgery and is expected to be hospitalized for some time. Rottenberg's adult son was burned on his hands as he rolled his father on the ground to put out the flames. Spitzer has been charged with attempted murder, assault, and arson. His family and friends posted his $300,000 bail for him, but because he too was burned and remains hospitalized, being "out" on bail means only that the local sheriff's department doesn't have to guard him in the hospital.

Why Rottenberg chose to worship at a rehabilitation and nursing center a mile from his home instead of the village synagogue a few blocks away isn't really relevant, although Rottenberg's acquaintances/family members mentioned in news videos that he considered the sermons at the synagogue "too long," and that he wanted to teach people at the nursing center to pray correctly. Why Rebbe Twersky waited until several days after the incident to condemn the violence against Rottenberg is relevant, but I haven't heard any explanations for that. Why Rottenberg stayed in New Square after being ordered where to pray and then being abused for disregarding that order is none of my business, but I'd like to think it's because he's a grown man and (so far as I know) an American citizen, and realizes that he has the right to pray when and how he damned well pleases.

H/T to Howard Friedman at Religion Clause

† This story captured my attention in part because my screen name, "Cквер," when pronounced as a Russian word written in the Cyrillic alphabet, is pronounced "skver." "Skver" means "square" in the sense of a "community square" (a public space or garden), but my username has nothing to do with community gardens (or Hasidism). I first started using the name more than a decade ago, after reviewing several entries on the then-new Yahoo! Personals online dating site (which has now been absorbed into Match.com). All I could think was, "Geez, I am such a square..."

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Teaching the Controversy

"It is well to know something of the manners of various peoples, in order more sanely to judge our own, and that we do not think that everything against our modes is ridiculous, and against reason, as those who have seen nothing are accustomed to think."—René Descartes, philosopher and mathematician (1596-1650)
More than 100,000 people signed a petition in support of making Religious Education (RE) a requirement for British students. Actually, I thought it already was required, and I wish that American school systems required comparative religion classes. As Stephen Prothero, author of Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — And Doesn't, wrote in a USA Today article, "Even if religion doesn't make any sense to you, you can't make sense of the world without knowing something about the world's religions."

Surprisingly, at least to me, British faith leaders agree that RE should be required. They claim that without it, "a generation of children will have no knowledge of the role Faith plays in society" (capitalization in the original). Is this an acknowledgment that Brits just don't spend much time in church anymore? Personally, if I were religious and had kids, I'd worry that the knowledge they were exposed to in RE classes might encourage them to "comparison shop" and adopt a religion that appealed to them more than mine. That may be the concern of some Canadian parents who have unsuccessfully tried to keep their children out of the controversial Ethics and Religious Culture program taught in Quebec's schools on the grounds that the class could interfere with their children's moral education.

I couldn't find anything specifically about the effect of comparative religion classes on religious belief, although there are studies that show a negative correlation between education in general and religiosity. In other words, the more educated a person is, the less likely s/he is to be religious. And while you might think that people who've been exposed to lots of different religions are likely to believe in one of them, studies show that having an overwhelming number of choices may actually discourage people from making any choice.

Wow. As an atheist, I strongly oppose indoctrinating kids into religion, but now I have even more reason to support teaching them about as many religions as possible!

H/T to Howard Friedman at Religion Clause

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Weathering the Storm

I'm normally quite fond of the color pink, but not so much when the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center has it plastered over the part of the map that corresponds to my home. The predictions for "HIGH RISK OF SVR TSTMS ACROSS PARTS OF KS/OK/NRN TX" and "EXPECTATIONS FOR AN OUTBREAK OF TORNADOES ACROSS KS/OK/TX" have already proven accurate; a local TV station is reporting two deaths and major damage in El Reno, Oklahoma. I'll save for later the post that I was planning to finish up and publish tonight; I'm too busy watching the news.

Stay safe, y'all.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Running a Little Behind

I have houseguests this weekend, so instead of a thoughtfully composed blog post, I offer a quiet de-stresser: a video of "micro-origami" unfolding itself after being placed in water:

Check out the shadows of the rectangular "sculptures"; the paper's edges look smooth but the shadows are scalloped. How cool! I like the first piece and the one at the 4:20 mark the best, but the whole thing makes me want to go find some rice paper, a pair of very sharp scissors, and a bowl of water.

I found the video on BoingBoing but it looks like it's all over the net by now. Enjoy. :-)

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Following Fred Phelps

The descriptions I've read of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) describe its congregation as composed "mostly" or "almost entirely" of pastor Fred Phelps' own relatives. I've wondered who makes up the remainder of the parishioners. I can kinda sorta understand that someone who was raised in the Phelps household/church might decide to stay with the family even when they're old enough to move out. After all, no matter how much you disagree with your family's beliefs, walking away from them permanently would be difficult (although some of Phelps' relatives, most famously his son Nate, have left). But how could WBC's hatemongering possibly attract someone who wasn't thoroughly indoctrinated into Phelps' fringe belief system from birth?

After reading this article, I'm still wondering. Steve Drain, an aspiring filmmaker who initially came to WBC to film a documentary, was prepared to hate Phelps, but instead came to see him as "the most misunderstood man alive," as "this humble, little old man" who spreads his "God Hates..." ("fags," soldiers, the US, Sweden, etc.) message "out of a heartfelt fear that if he doesn't do it, then the Lord is going to deal with him." Did Drain bother to watch Phelps as he was filming him? That ain't fear on Phelps' face; it's hate. Phelps has preached—with a grin—that he loves the thought of people going to hell and will be "watching you suffer, in all the nuances of your exquisite torment."†

According to the article, Drain came to admire Phelps and his family because they didn't omit parts of the Bible that they didn't like. The more he watched the footage he'd shot at WBC, the more he felt that he belonged there. Eventually he moved his family to Topeka, into a one-bedroom house near the church. He, his wife, and his 19-year-old daughter are now members of the church, the only ones not related to Fred Phelps by blood or marriage. His 7- and 9-year-old kids have not yet made "professions of faith"; Drain and his wife turned their oldest daughter "over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh" because she "offended the Lord" by having an online relationship with a man. Drain gave her some money and a car, and says he "wasn't trying to be cruel" by kicking her out, but he "can't be dragged down by somebody who has no interest in serving the Lord."

Drain's documentary "Hatemongers" (which contains language that is Not Suitable For Work) can be found in multiple chunks on Google Video. I've only watched the first couple of segments, and I'm glad that it's split into several short pieces because my tolerance for the Westboro wackos is limited. Possibly Drain actually explains his baffling sympathy for Phelps in one of the later segments. Possibly the May 21st "rapture" predictions from a completely separate group of fringe Christians are correct, and we heathens won't have to deal with Phelps and his ilk anymore after Saturday.

† At about the 06:10 mark in the linked video. Sorry, "deep linking" to a specific spot in a Google Video used to work, but no more, apparently.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Nothing To Fear

Evangelist Billy Graham has a syndicated daily column, although it currently consists of re-runs from 2008. (I doubt that Graham, now 92 years old and in poor health, does much writing any more.) Yesterday's column dealt with atheism, a topic that Graham has addressed several times previously. The version I found on ArcaMax.com was titled simply "Are There More Atheists Than There Used to Be?", but the Kansas City Star displayed the column under the header "Atheism can't answer life's questions," and TheTownTalk.com ("Serving Alexandria, Pineville and Central Louisiana") used the title "Atheism ends in despair." (The latter two titles are paraphrases of comments that Graham made in the column.)

Statements like these make me wonder if Graham ever bothered to actually talk to any of these despairing atheists of whom he wrote. Of course we freethinkers are subject to all the same anxieties and misfortunes that befall everybody else, and—like everybody else, including Christians—some of us have to deal with serious mental health issues like clinical depression. I know lots of atheists, though, and I see no more despair in them than I do in believers. I'm reminded of the following story, which I've heard from multiple sources:
A woman who had labored against Christianity was on her death bed. Her unbelieving acquaintances, fearing that at the end she would renounce her infidelity, urged her to "hold on to the last." "Yes," she said, "I have no objection to holding on; but will you tell me what I am to hold on to?"
(This version is from "Studies in the Shorter Catechism" by the Rev. John H. Skilton, which appeared in the October 10, 1936 edition of The Presbyterian Guardian.)

Like any good skeptic, I'm willing to follow where the evidence leads. Can anybody can provide me with statistics on "despair" in atheists, or details of a conversation like the one described above that actually occurred between two non-believers, one of them dying? If not, I'd label the story as "apocryphal," the sort of parable that believers compose to assure themselves that there's some point to all the time, effort, and money that they invest in their faith.

Billy Graham's daughter Gigi has said of her father, "It’s not death that scares him; it’s the dying process." Most atheists, including myself, probably feel the same way, although for different reasons. Graham reportedly looks forward to "going home to heaven" to rejoin his late wife Ruth, while we non-believers expect that our "after-life" will be pretty much the same as our "before-life"...in other words, non-existence. Several Christian sects define "hell" not as "eternal torture" but as "eternal separation from God" (a doctrine known as annihilationism). If you regard your entire existence on Earth as preparation for your "real" life, then I guess that eternal separation from God would be quite a letdown...if you were able to experience it at all. For myself, I'm sure I'll be sad when I know that my life is nearing its end ("There is never enough time to do or say all the things that we would wish"), and I hope I won't be in too much pain or a burden to others, but beyond that, I'm not worried. Nothingness is nothing to fear.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Wanting to Believe

Nanni Moretti is an Italian movie director. I'm not familiar with his work but the length of his "awards" page on the Internet Movie Database suggests that he's fairly talented. He's also an atheist who says he's "very sorry [he's] not a believer." In a discussion of his new film "Habemus Papam" (Latin for "We Have a Pope," the phrase used to announce the election of a new pontiff), Moretti said, "When the pope says that the world needs a guide, the world needs someone who can provide love and understanding for all, the faithful in my film are full of enthusiasm and very pleased at the thought of this change."

Moretti's apology for being an atheist makes me wince a bit. Apologies are in order when our actions or negligence cause harm to others, not when others take offense at simple, factual statements like "I'm not a believer." Nonetheless, I'd agree that "the world needs" (or at least wants) "someone who can provide love and understanding for all." It doesn't matter how mature and wise and experienced you are; there are still things in this world, both natural and man-made, that'll scare the crap out of you. Whether it's a tornado barreling down on your house or your mortgage company rushing to foreclose, it's human nature to want someone to step in and set things right, and maybe give you a hug and bake you some cookies too.

Wanting doesn't make it so, of course. One of the co-directors of a recent study on belief in gods and an afterlife concluded that "religion is a common fact of human nature across different societies...It isn't just a quirky interest of a few, it's basic human nature," but another researcher said, "This project does not set out to prove God or gods exist," and acknowledged that "Just because we find it easier to think in a particular way does not mean that it is true in fact."

The Daily Mail article mentions that the study, which was conducted in 20 countries over a three-year period, cost £1.9 million (a bit over three million American dollars, according to Google), but didn't mention that the study was funded by the Templeton Foundation, a group that considers itself a "philanthropic catalyst for discoveries relating to the Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality." The group pledges to support "open-minded inquiry," but the fact that they're asking "Big Questions" about "human purpose" implies that they believe there is an ultimate purpose for humanity. Those who assume that something exists, whether it's the legendary city of Troy or Bigfoot, are bound to find something if they spend enough time and money, but is it the real thing or just a guy in an ape costume?

H/T to Jerry Coyne at "Why Evolution is True" for the link to University of Oxford's 2008 announcement of the study.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Taking Their Voice But Not Their Spirit

Christopher Hitchens is dying...as are we all, of course, but unlike those of us who have no idea when our end will come, Hitchens has suspicions about the timing of his, although he's doing what he can to stave it off. Of the many indignities that his cancer has imposed on him, the the loss of his voice seems to be the one that he minds the most. No big deal, you might think; he's a magnificent writer and he can still express himself that way, but I think I can identify in the tiniest degree with his statement that "Deprivation of the ability to speak is more like an attack of impotence, or the amputation of part of the personality." I can't even interact with my cat properly when I've got a mouthful of food; trying to shoo her off the dining room table with a wave of a hand instead of a stern "Get down!" just doesn't cut it. (Not that ordering her around works very well either, but loud noises at least have more impact on her than angry gestures.) When a sore throat led to a few days of laryngitis last winter, I tried communicating via an iPhone text-to-speech app, thinking it'd be more understandable than notes scribbled in my sloppy handwriting, but I gave up when I learned how much time and effort was required to produce even short phrases. Accomplishing the everyday tasks of life silently—answering the telephone, shopping, communicating with friends—and particularly the chores of trying to stay alive while battling a serious illness—keeping loved ones up-to-date, negotiating with insurance companies, dealing with healthcare providers—must be exhausting.

Film critic Roger Ebert, who has lost his voice permanently due to complications of thyroid cancer, wrote in his journal earlier this year:
When first coming to terms with the fact that I would never speak again, I filled my head with denial and coping strategies. I would use my computer voice, for example. And I do. But that is no way to participate in the flow of a conversation, and I realize so clearly now that conversations are all about the flow, the timing, the music.
I find it interesting that although Hitchens had "never been able to sing" and Ebert said the same thing about himself (back when he could still speak), they both associate speech and conversation with music.

Ebert reports that he uses social media and "writes more than ever," and I imagine that Hitchens writes as much as his condition and schedule allow. I look forward to many more years of blunt opinions and lyrical prose from both men even if I do have to read it rather than hear it. But as I read their words, I'll be hearing their voices in my head.

N.B. I'm trying to get into the habit of posting on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, but Blogger didn't consult me about scheduling the maintenance/downtime that occurred Thursday afternoon through this morning, so this post is a day late.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Feeling Guilty

No, I'm not hanging my head in shame because I've been neglecting my blog (I decided to switch from posting every day to 3 times a week), but because it seems increasingly likely that my beloved iPad was assembled by underpaid, overworked employees who may have been exposed to dust and hazardous chemicals in the process. Workers at Foxconn, a Taiwanese company that produces electronics for Apple and other brands, report that their salaries are less than what they were originally promised unless they work overtime (which is sometimes forced on them), and complain that the long hours and low pay leave them little opportunity to do anything in their off-hours besides commuting (for those not living in Foxconn dormitories), eating, and sleeping. Foxconn, which was in the news last year after a rash of suicides among employees, says that conditions have improved, counselors have been brought in to help the workers, and wages have been raised. However, SACOM ("China, Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour"), a non-profit organization devoted to improving conditions for workers, reports that "military-styled management is still in practice" and the work environment still needs lots of improvements.

In its "Supplier Responsibility 2011 Progress Report" (warning: PDF), Apple says that it was "disturbed and deeply saddened to learn that factory workers were taking their own lives at the Shenzhen facility of Foxconn" and it "will continue to work with Foxconn through the implementation of...programs" to better train hotline staff and counselors, maintain employees' mental health, and ensure effectiveness through monitoring. It's sad to hear that a company that's earned a reputation for making technology easy and fun to use could be even indirectly involved in such miserable treatment of workers. Apple's hardware already has a reputation for being expensive (a reputation that Apple justifies with the argument that its systems are more reliable and virus-resistant than competitors', although Apple has lowered its prices somewhat over the last few years to stay competitive). Would consumers pay more for computers and devices like iPhones if it meant better wages and working conditions for the people who assemble them? I'm definitely thrifty, but if I want the coolest new toys, I should be willing to pay enough to provide a decent salary to all the people involved in making them, from the designers who created the awesome interfaces to the folks who box up the final product.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Comforting Rationally

While researching an idea for a blog post, I came across a story about a little girl named Meredith whose beloved dog Abbey had died. Meredith was so concerned about what would happen to Abbey that she asked her mother if she could write to God and ask him to take special care of the dog. Meredith's mom helped her write the letter, address it to "God/Heaven," and mail it (with multiple stamps, because "it may take lots of stamps to get a letter all the way to heaven"). Some kind person at the US Postal Service read Meredith's letter and sent her a very sweet reply (signed "God, and the special angel who wrote this after God told her the words") and a copy of the book When A Pet Dies by Fred Rogers (of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" fame). According to Snopes.com, the story is true; it happened in San Antonio, Texas in 2006.

I sometimes envy believers when it comes to offering words of comfort to mourners. Even if prayer has no demonstrable effect on the world, the phrase "I'll pray for you" has an emotional effect on believers. Even prominent atheist Christopher Hitchens, who has esophageal cancer, has said that he appreciates the intent of those who pray for his recovery even though he urges believers not to "trouble deaf heaven with your bootless cries". If somebody (especially a child) asked me if the soul of someone they loved was in heaven, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for me to be blunt and say "no." I'm faithless, but I'm not heartless. I think the best I could manage would be something like "Wouldn't it be nice if s/he was in heaven?" But then I'd try to turn the conversation to "What would s/he do in heaven if s/he had the choice? What kinds of things did s/he like to do with you? I'm sorry s/he's gone, but I'm glad you two got to know each other." If I'd known the deceased myself, I'd try to share a happy or funny anecdote.

Offering condolences as a non-believer requires more work than just saying "I'll pray," but if "I'm so sorry for your loss" doesn't feel sufficient, there are ways to comfort without invoking religion. Sadly, as I and my family and acquaintances get older, I'm going to have all too many opportunities to practice this skill.

H/T to Michael Josephson, Founder of Josephson Institute

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Coming and Going to Jail

I've written before about the very active and vocal Atheists of Florida group. Another one of their members has run afoul of the law and made the news precisely because she was a bit too vocal:
  • Orlando Sentinel: Report: Atheist official accused of simulating sex in presence of child. "The Lakeland Ledger is reporting that the legal coordinator of the Atheists of Florida is accused of simulating a sex act in the presence of a child."
  • The Lakeland Ledger: Atheist Official Wachs Charged With Simulating Sex Act. "The Atheists of Florida's legal coordinator was charged Sunday with simulating a sex act in the presence of a 10-year-old boy."
  • OfficialWire: Atheist Accused Of Making Sex Noises. "A Florida atheist activist is in jail for faking the sounds of a sex act in the presence of her neighbor and his 10-year-old son, authorities say."
  • FOX 35 Orlando: Atheist official arrested for sex act. "The Atheists of Florida's legal coordinator was in police custody Wednesday after being arrested and charged with simulating a sex act in the presence of a 10-year-old boy."
  • Sun-Sentinel: Woman, an atheist, charged with simulating sex act. "The Atheists of Florida's legal coordinator, Ellenbeth Wachs, was charged Sunday with simulating a sex act in the presence of a 10-year-old boy. She is accused of making extremely loud noises from inside her home, pretending as if she were having sex while neighbors overheard, reports The Ledger in Lakeland."
  • FOX 13 Tampa Bay: Atheist arrested for simulating sex act. "The legal affairs coordinator for the Atheists of Florida was arrested and charged with simulating a sex act in the presence of a 10-year-old boy."
How is Ms. Wachs' atheism relevant to what she's alleged to have done? I thought maybe my Yahoo news alert was only finding articles with headlines that included the word "atheist," so I tried googling "wachs arrested sex act." Of the first 20 results, only 2 of the web page titles/article headlines didn't identify Ms. Wachs as an atheist, and one of those was a blog post, not an actual news article.

According to yet another news article,† Ms. Wachs isn't at all popular with her neighbors and has allegedly remarked that Christians and Christian holidays are "stupid." Maybe the complaining neighbor was just upset that she was screaming "Oh John!" and not "Oh God!"

† The "Mugshot Round Up" images that appear on this web page are not photographs of Ms. Wachs.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Remembering One, Remembering Millions

A friend invited me to a showing of the documentary "Inside Hana's Suitcase" on Sunday. The film is about a young Jewish girl named Hana Brady who perished in the Holocaust, Hana's older brother George who survived and now lives in Canada, and Fumiko Ishioka, the executive director of the Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Center. In 2000, Fumiko visited the museum at the Auschwitz concentration camp, and asked if some of the museum's objects that had belonged to children could be loaned to the Tokyo center. She was sent several items, including a suitcase labeled with Hana's name, date of birth, and the German word for "orphan." Fumiko was curious about the girl who'd owned the suitcase and began researching Hana's story, eventually finding the surviving brother George. Fumiko's search and her interactions with George Brady led to news stories, documentaries, a play, a web site, and a best-selling book, Hana's Suitcase, that would eventually be translated into dozens of languages. Were it not for an old suitcase, an average little girl who suffered what was an all-too-typical fate for Jews at the height of the Nazi regime would have been forgotten by everyone except those few who knew her personally and managed to survive the war.

Only...the suitcase wasn't Hana's. That suitcase, along with others like it, was destroyed in 1984 in a fire that was deliberately set at an English warehouse that held artifacts being prepared for an exhibit. The suitcase that Fumiko received was a replica of Hana's. The management at the Auschwitz museum had decided to recreate Hana's suitcase because so few possessions of children had survived the Holocaust, and because a clear photograph of the original suitcase was available—a photo taken by a childhood friend of Hana's who had seen the original in 1962 while touring Auschwitz. Fumiko didn't know that the suitcase she'd received was a replica, and Hana's family didn't spot the minor differences between the replica and the 1962 photograph until after they'd returned from Japan, where they'd met Fumiko and viewed what they thought was one of Hana's possessions.

Interacting with an object that belonged to someone who's departed from life but not our memories or our hearts can be a powerful experience. I drink tea from one of my late grandmother's mugs, one I remember her using. I sleep under a quilt that was hand-sewn by my great-grandmother. How would it feel to learn that the original mug or quilt had been lost and the ones I use actually came from a secondhand store or a stranger's garage sale? Disappointing, of course, but the older I grow, and the harder it becomes to organize and store and preserve all the things I've accumulated, the more I realize that what's really precious to me is not "stuff," but the ideas and memories that the stuff provokes. If the mug isn't really Grandma's, well, that's OK. It keeps the memories of Grandma alive for me.

"Disappointment" is likely an inadequate word to express what George, his family, and Fumiko felt when they learned that "Hana's suitcase" was just a replica. Given the shortness of Hana's life and the tragedy of its ending, any object that she'd owned would have been precious to them, but they realized that if it weren't for the loss of the original suitcase, Hana's story would probably have faded into obscurity. I don't know if "happy accident" is an appropriate term for these circumstances, but I'm grateful that I got to learn about Hana.