First Half of 2008 Considered

Here we are, halfway through 2008.  Most of what I would call “New Year’s Resolutions” I keep drawn up on a little chart that I have posted in my planner, in my car, and at home (I actually see the one in my car the most–how sad).  Here’s the basic outline (each year, I fill in the boxes with a new goal or two):

 ROLES AND GOALS – 2008

 

ROLES

DAILY

WEEKLY

MONTHLY

Discipleship

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Husband and Father

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bishopric counselor

(calling)

 

 

 

 

Teacher

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Self-Improvement

WKDAY

MORNING

 schedule

WKDAY EVENING

schedule

 

WKEND MORNING

schedule

 

SHARPEN THE SAW

 

TO READ

list

 

It needs a little revision: my morning routine is fairly regular, but I’ve never been solid with weeknight routines; I’m just too tired by then. 

Also, I added an update for each goal on my 43 Things page.  I really like this site and hope it motivates me to keep working.  I’m a little discouraged that I don’t have more significant progress to report on much of anything, but I don’t want to give up on anything.  There’s too much good out there to let any of it pass me by.  I’d identify my priorities for the near future (meaning the rest of the year) as goals 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, 11, 17, 27, 34, and 36. 

With any luck, I can cram enough living for ten lifetimes into just this little one…

New goal for July: each night, say a prayer of nothing but gratitude.  No requests at all, just thank you’s. 

 

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“Out of my stony griefs, Bethel I’ll raise”

My favorite hymn is “Nearer My God To Thee.”  For those who may have only ever encountered this song aurally or reading it as it’s arranged in a hymn book, try looking at it as a simple poem:

Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!
E’en though it be a cross that raiseth me;
Still all my song would be nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

Though like the wanderer, the sun gone down,
Darkness be over me, my rest a stone;
Yet in my dreams I’d be nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

There let the way appear steps unto heav’n;
All that Thou sendest me in mercy giv’n;
Angels to beckon me nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

Then with my waking thoughts bright with Thy praise,
Out of my stony griefs Bethel I’ll raise;
So by my woes to be nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

Or if on joyful wing, cleaving the sky,
Sun, moon, and stars forgot, upwards I fly,
Still all my song shall be, nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

The first two verses are pretty standard: they proclaim to the Lord that no matter what kind or degree of suffering the speaker may be called to pass through (“E’en though it be a cross” and “Though…darkness be over me, my rest a stone”), he or she will still strive to seek out and follow God’s way.  It might be a cliche of religious thought, but it’s an important one, and phrased quite poignantly here. 

In fact, I like how, in the first verse, the image of the cross “raising” someone towards God implies that enduring hardship itself can be a spiritual growth experience, a truth that we can too easily forget when we’re in the midst of such trials.  This hymn helps me remember that.  That first verse then goes on to proclaim that, even if it’s the suffering of the cross that draws us near to God, we’ll still worship Him in song and seek to draw even nearer.  Now that’s piety. 

The last verse takes this to the other extreme: if and when we fly through heaven towards God, in the very moment of inheriting our eternal salvation, we should still plead to become more unified with His will through our submission.  So at both ends of the spiritual spectrum–abject suffering and absolute ecstasy–and at all points in between–our lives are to be spent focused on bringing ourselves more in line with the will of God and joyfully worshipping Him as we do so.

That alone would make it one monumentally great hymn.  But it gets even better.  The fourth verse is what makes this supernal work of pious poetry my favorite part of the hymnal canon.

Sandwiched after the diligent declaration that our every waking thought should resonate with praise and before the insight that our “woes” will be used as instruments in training ourselves in cheerful discipleship, this powerful spiritual thought appears: “Out of my stony griefs, Bethel I’ll raise.”

This one line has actually come to me and offered comfort at challenging times of my life.  One one level, I appreciate it merely as a clever pun: Bethel was a holy place in the Old Testament, most notably as the site of the stone altar that marked the place where Jacob saw the Lord in a dream (Genesis 28:16-22).  The line in the song, then, may be understood metaphorically as a commitment to persevere in trials (“out of these stony griefs”) by turning our sorrows over to the Lord, even to the point of somehow employing them in His service (“Bethel I’ll raise”); but it can also be read literally as a historical reference to Jacob. 

The idea of “stony griefs” becoming building materials in the construction of a life of praise is very attractive to those of us occasionally inclined to melancholy.

And you just thought it was a nice little song to listen to while the Titanic was sinking…

Quotes, Pics, And Clips

Last night my family saw Bella Rumore in concert; they’re an excellent electric violin quartet that did a wide variety of rock covers (you’ve never really heard “Back in the USSR” or “Smells Like Teen Spirit” until you’ve heard them on a viola and cello).  The little kids all ran around and danced in the orchestra area, and the wife and I got to relax.  I see they’re playing the Reed Whipple Cultural Center in November; that goes on the calendar now.

They played as part of the Movies, Moonlight, and Music series at the Rainbow Library (where, as you know if you read my last post, due to my North Las Vegas residency, I now have to sit at the back of the bus).  My wife said it was her favorite show that we’ve seen there.

Anyway, while this cross-genre extravaganza titilated our aural sensibilities, my thoughts turned to art and I was reminded of Terry Teachout’s great running feature of throwing up random quotes he comes across, and I thought this might be a good way for me to share more material, balance out my categories, and have a more regular routine myself.  I’ve wondered if this blog isn’t more popular because it covers so many topics–there’s something for everyone, but the whole package might only appeal to me.  Should I break it up and start a bunch of smaller blogs?

The answer is no.  I hate the idea of compartmentalizing my life, and I love the idea of mashing all this variety together so that fans of one area might strike out to new territory and explore something else.  A weekly quote collection might be a great way to do that.  OK, enough said.

ARTS:

Rembrandt, “Aristotle Contemplating Bust Of Homer”

A cautionary tale about selling out…

EDUCATION:  “Today we have discovered a powerful and elegant way to understand the universe, a method called science; it has revealed to us a universe so ancient and so vast that human affairs seem at first sight to be of little consequence….science has found not only that the universe has a reeling and ecstatic grandeur, not only that it is accessible to human understanding, but also that we are, in a very real and profound sense, a part of the Cosmos, born from it, our fate deeply connected with it.”  Carl Sagan, Cosmos

The wonder of discovery…

HUMOR:  “We constantly see surveys that reveal this ignorance, especially among our high school students, 78 percent of whom, in a recent nationwide multiple-choice test, identified Abraham Lincoln as ‘a kind of lobster.’  That’s right: more than three quarters of our nation’s youth could not correctly identify the man who invented the telephone.”  Dave Barry, Dave Barry Slept Here: A Sort Of History Of The United States

If it were up to me, this would be required reading in U.S. History classes

LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE:  “Sleep comes to you each day, and so does the muse.  She comes softly and quietly, behind your left ear or in a corner of the next room.  Her words are whispers, her ideas shifting renditions of possibilities that have not been resolved, though they have occurred and reoccurred a thousand times in your mind.  She, or it, is a collection of memories not exactly your own.”  Walter Mosley, “For Authors, Fragile Ideas Need Loving Every Day,” from Writers On Writing: Collected Essays From The New York Times 

LIVING WELL:  “Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it.  We need the tonic of wilderness….We can never have enough of Nature.  We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets.  We need to witness our own limits transgressed…”  Henry David Thoreau, Walden

POLITICS AND SOCIETY:  “It is necessary that there be an unpopular institution in our midst that sets clarity above well-being or compassion.”  Allan Bloom, The Closing Of The American Mind

I’m willing to step up to the plate…

RELIGION:  “Happiness is the object and design of our existence; and will be the end thereof, if we pursue the path that leads to it; and this path is virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness, and keeping all the commandments of God.”  Joseph Smith, History of the Church 5:134

 

Just in this scanty collection of quotes from diverse sections of the library, we can see strong strains of integrated, multi-disciplinary thought.  And it is good.

Letter: The North Las Vegas Library District Owes Me An Apology

The following is a message I emailed to the mayor and city council of North Las Vegas this morning:

 

Dear Mayor Montandon and City Council Leaders:


I encountered a rude shock when attempting to check out two books at the Clark County Library yesterday. The librarian informed me that the North Las Vegas Library District and the Las Vegas Clark County Library District had now merged and that, as a resident of North Las Vegas, I could no longer enjoy the privileges of LVCCLD library patrons. Because of this merger, I am now allowed to check out far fewer items, for a shorter length of time, and will be bound by North Las Vegas’s far more draconian late fee policy.


The librarian had no printed material to give me about this change. I went home and checked the websites for both districts, but nothing was mentioned on either one. I receive email from the library regularly, but no announcement had come my way. Why was this process conducted so secretly? Why did this Las Vegas librarian have to apologize for North Las Vegas’s decisions?


More importantly, if the two library districts have merged, why do they have differing policies at all? If they’re going to be linked together, shouldn’t their patron policies be the same?


Or are residents of North Las Vegas to be treated as second-class citizens at libraries now? How many people will approach the circulation desk at Rainbow Library or West Sahara Library and be told that they must pay the fines that most other residents in the valley can defer, that they can only check out a fraction of the items that every one else in line may borrow, and that those items must be returned sooner? Why are we to all be embarrassed by this implied inferiority?


This is the first time I’ve ever regretted moving to North Las Vegas.


I call upon all involved to rectify this sad situation by having the North Las Vegas Library District immediately adopt the same patron policies as the Las Vegas Clark County Library District. If this matter is not quickly resolved, I intend to appear at the July 16 North Las Vegas City Council meeting to discuss it further.


Thank you for your time and attention to this matter, and thank you in advance for acting to make North Las Vegas the equal of any other part of Southern Nevada.


Sincerely,


Jamie J. Huston

 

This is not facetious: the library is a large part of my life and I take my library usage very seriously.  I find this bit of bizarre skulduggery to be grossly outrageous.  Anyone else with an interest in the matter is encouraged to also contact the city council and voice your disgust.  I hope to get positive results to this farce soon.

 

The Inner Stickler Hulk

Ever since the experiment, I’ve been on the run.  On the run from those who would put me away from society, and on the run from the monster inside that makes society hate me so. 

A few years ago, I conducted a scientific experiment on myself by reading Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves, a book length rant wherein this proper British lady turns up her nose at the syntactical errors surrounding us.  Since that time, whenever I encounter such hostile grammatical slips, I transform.  A brutish beast that lurks deep within suddenly emerges in a violent spasm of rage and…I can’t control what it does.  My normally mild-mannered self is helplessly in the thrall of this rampaging textual vigilante.

Perhaps the first such occurrence was last summer at the gym.  A poster advertising a local chiropractor attempted to taunt and/or tantalize its potential clientele with the tagline: “It’s never to late to start.” 

And then the…thing…tore its way to the surface.  The poor-usage-intolerant mutant fumed, “‘Never to late’?!  Surely it means ‘never too late’!”  The beast wanted to call the number given on the poster and complain bitterly that an advertisement for the services of a health professional should itself be more professional.  Maybe fearing ridicule, my normal self prevailed in restraining the monster…barely…that first time.  Vindication for passive-aggressive weenies everywhere. 

But the control was not to last.  I remember each and every time I’ve seen an email from any administrator in a school–a school!–that has a mistake in usage.  For shame! I would cry as the primeival brute burst out and wreaked havoc on the offender. 

And just last week, at 7-11…a hand-written sign by the Slurpee machine said, “This cups for Slurpees only.”  At least they spelled the brand name “Slurpee” right.  But the creature within was confused at first as to where it should even direct its editorial vitriol: was “this” a hastily-scribbled substitute for “these,” or was a missing apostrophe in “cups” obscuring a reference to a specific size of cup?  Had a verb been supplied, informing us of the singular or plural nature of the intended pronoun, this mystery could have been resolved peacefully, and the SWAT team that finally drove me from the brittle remains of the convenience store needn’t have bothered the coroner’s office. 

But there is hope.  Most recently, I saw a teenager I know wearing a silk-screen T shirt memorializing a deceased friend.  On the back was a picture of the departed fellow, and the phrase, “always in good sprits.”  The ugly green monster that is, truly, never very far submerged to begin with wanted to accost the youngster and inquire what a “sprit” was, but knowing that such an outburst would be horrible beyond all comprehension, I successfully suppressed the urge.  It was the first such victory in a long time. 

But now, as I trudge along the side of a dreary interstate highway, somber piano theme music in the background, I can only wonder what will happen the next time I hear someone end a sentence with a preposition, or say “pronounciate” unironically.  Just thinking about it stirs bubbles in the brain, and I know that, sooner or later, the Inner Stickler Hulk will be loosed upon a functionally illiterate world once again, and savage things will be done…

Ten Conservative Principles Endorsed By The Book Of Mormon

A shorter, edited version of this essay appeared in the July 2006 issue of Desert Saints.

 

A discussion of politics among Church members shows that there are often two kinds of people: those who wince at bringing controversial topics into a gospel forum, and those who roll their eyes because they look down on certain political doctrines as trite cultural assumptions. Such people, perhaps the majority of us, have failed to read the many details in the Book of Mormon that clearly refer to governing practices, some of which the Nephite prophets favor, others of which they warn us against.

There are only two basic political philosophies: conservative and liberal. Conservatives generally believe in limited government, tradition, and freedom preserved by personal responsibility. Liberals typically believe in using government programs to “fix” the world, experimental change, and a kind of tolerance that often ends up promoting immoral behavior.

The editorial comments of Mormon and the examples of Nephite leaders offer an abundant testimony that the Lord favors essentially conservative political principles.

While it would be wrong to use the scriptures to try to support a specific party or candidate, the Book of Mormon does speak clearly on this choice between basic opposites as it does so many other crucial things in life.

1. Governments should prepare weapons in peace time and declare the right to bear arms. Nephi tells us that as soon as Lehi died, his elder brothers started trouble with him (2 Nephi 5:1-4). Nephi then tells us that he took those family members who would follow him and went into the wilderness to establish a new community.

The rest of 2 Nephi 5 is a detailed description of that society, which Nephi tells us “lived after the manner of happiness” (2 Nephi 5:27). As one part of that program, Nephi “did make many swords, lest by any means the people who were now called Lamanites should come upon us and destroy us” (2 Nephi 5:14).

Notice that the Lamanites weren’t attacking at the time. Nephi was stockpiling arms to prepare for (and possibly deter) any future conflict.

It’s also good to note that Nephi doesn’t seem to have been referring to a regular army here. This was a new, small community based on an extended family clan which was dealing with basic needs. It seems more likely that Nephi was preparing for an informal citizen’s militia, similar to the one implied by the Second Amendment.

2. Colonizing is good, and people should assimilate into more successful populations. When the Nephites move into the established population at Zarahemla (Omni 1), the native group becomes completely transformed by the new population. The Book of Mormon defies current conventional wisdom by showing us that this was a good thing.

Even though the Nephites were new to the land of Zarahemla, their dominance was recognized by their achievements with language (Omni 1:17), which the native population learned and from which they benefited (Omni 1:18). They then submitted to the Nephite’s superior government. This is reminiscent of the great British Empire, which is despised by many trendy intellectuals of our day.

A similar situation occurs in Mosiah 25:12-13, where another group of Mulekites disavows their old national identity in favor of a superior new one—Nephite. These immigrants also submit to the government of their new land, the Nephite king.

Alma 35 tells us that converted Zoramites were welcomed into the Nephite nation (v. 6-9), but the immigrants fought to defend their new country (v. 14). Indeed, the Nephites don’t appear to have ever turned anybody away, as long as they became, culturally and politically, Nephite.

3. Those whose beliefs are based on feelings of resentment and entitlement are wrong. Mosiah 10 is a great explanation of the growth of anti-Nephite sentiment among the Lamanites. Verses 12-13 in particular make it clear that they didn’t think they were so good, as much as they thought the Nephites were bad: “Believing that… they were wronged in the wilderness by their brethren, and they were also wronged while crossing the sea; and again, that they were wronged in the land of their first inheritance” (emphasis added).

Their whole world view was a petty reaction to their perceptions of the Nephites, always casting themselves as victims of “the man.” Mormon often comments that angry Lamanites (Enos 1:20) and those Nephites who were culturally closer to the rest of the world (Alma 31:8-11) were the wrong ones by refusing to accept the mainstream Nephites’ ongoing invitation to participate in their way of life, just like many “victim” groups today.

4. Heavy taxes and vast government programs are wrong. Mosiah 11:6 says that evil King Noah taxed his people heavily (unlike good King Benjamin in Mosiah 2:14). Mosiah 11:8-13 details all the many needless public works projects he wasted that money on. For any tempted to see this as a good thing accidentally done by a bad leader, read the entire chapter to see that it is meant as a detailed list of the many wrong deeds of this odious leader.

5. Capital punishment is acceptable. In Alma 1, a vocal critic of the church named Nehor is executed by the civil government. Alma 62:9 also mentions government executions, and Alma 46:35 even says that execution is permissible for those who refuse to be patriotic and defend their freedom during a time of war (imagine that one being implemented today!). Keep in mind that these examples all come from a generation when the Nephites were very righteous and highly favored of God.

6. Using the legal system to further a personal agenda is wrong. When the lawyers of Ammonihah attempt to discredit Alma and Amulek, Mormon makes their real motive very clear: “Now, it was for the sole purpose to get gain, because they received their wages according to their employ, therefore, they did stir up the people to riotings, and all manner of disturbances, that they might have more employ, that they might get money according to the suits which were brought before them; therefore they did stir up the people against Alma and Amulek” (Alma 11:20).

Imagine that. They weren’t concerned with discovering the truth, they were manipulating the system to forward their own interests, encouraging more lawsuits by agitating people. Which political philosophy—conservative or liberal—typically encourages using the courts as a shortcut to forcing resolutions to social strife? One thing is for sure: these wicked lawyers would oppose tort reform: they’d be out of business! Maybe they could get a job on the Supreme Court…

7. Good leaders preserve freedom, defend religion, and punish crime…and that’s all. One of the most overlooked treasures in the Book of Mormon is Alma 50:39, where we are given the oath of office Nephite leaders took during one of that people’s most spiritual periods: “to judge righteously, and to keep the peace and the freedom of the people, and to grant unto them their sacred privileges to worship the Lord their God, yea, to support and maintain the cause of God all his days, and to bring the wicked to justice according to his crime.”

That’s it. No social programs, no advocating for progressive causes.

King Benjamin, in Mosiah 2:11-14, cites these same things as proof that he has been a righteous king. Notice that he does not mention any social welfare program in his list, either.

8. Subverting tradition and the mainstream is wrong. Zion needs pure unity, but in too many places in history there have been vocal minorities dedicated to reflexive rebellion. The Nephites were no different.

In Alma 51:16, Mormon tells us that during a great war where a special interest group sought to obstruct the administration’s progress, Moroni’s “first care [was] to put an end to such contentions and dissensions among the people; for behold, this had been hitherto a cause of all their destruction.” Notice that: poisoning your country’s attempts to preserve its institutions is not some alternative form of patriotism, it’s societal suicide.

Another example comes from 4 Nephi, where one of the features of the Nephite Zion is their total unity: “neither were there Lamanites, nor any manner of –ites; but they were in one” (4 Nephi 1:17). There were no hyphenated minorities; they achieved unity by all fully joining the Christian Nephite culture.

But the disintegration of that harmonious society is complete when a dissatisfied younger generation sabotages it (1:37). This new movement isn’t just marching to the beat of their own drum, they “willfully rebel against the gospel of Christ” and “teach their children that they should not believe” (1:38). As usual, Mormon makes crystal clear the constant characteristics of those who are wrong. These “rebels” would clearly fit right in with America’s youth-oriented counterculture.

No wonder Nephi quotes Isaiah’s prophecy that in the last days “shall every man turn to his own people” (2 Nephi 23:14), splintering into tribes instead of coming together into Zion.

9. Normal procedures can be changed during a war. In Alma 51:13, we read of a group of Nephites who hated their present administration and wanted it out of power. When they heard that the Lamanites were attacking, these men actually “were glad in their hearts” and refused to serve in the military. Good thing nothing like that is around today! (please note the sarcasm)

In Alma 51:19, when Moroni won a battle against these dissenters among the Nephite’s own population, “those of their leaders who were not slain in battle were taken and cast into prison, for there was no time for their trials at this period.”

So the prisoners of war were left in a holding tank since conducting the war took precedence over any due process the prisoners might receive. Even the habeus corpus procedures for Nephite citizens, apparently, could be suspended.

Critics of Guantanamo Bay and the Patriot Act might want to read these verses before their next protest.

10. Good leaders must have private morality. Those who would defend unethical public leaders, saying that their private lives are not connected to their work, might take this as a warning. The Jaredite king Morianton “did do justice unto the people, but not unto himself because of his many whoredoms; wherefore he was cut off from the presence of the Lord” (Ether 10:11).

One would have a hard time arguing that men who are cut off from the Lord’s presence because of their loose morals are fit to lead us, whatever their apparent competence in office. Moroni includes this detail of judgment for a reason; one of the themes of the book of Ether is that wicked leaders, in an inevitable cycle, bring sorrow to their nations.

This list is only the tip of the iceberg. It does not include, for example, the many references to righteous societies embracing wholesome living and strict religion, references which would alienate today’s so-called blue states.

It’s interesting to read the overview of the last days as given by Nephi after his great vision. He describes the church of the devil which scourges the righteous in our era as a political entity that is openly hostile to religion (1 Nephi 13:5), embraces sexual immorality (1 Nephi 13:7), and constitutes an international political entity (1 Nephi 14:13-15). John the Apostle, in his Book of Revelation, adds the detail that this civil Babylon will control a heavily-regulated global economy (Revelation 13:16-17).

Now, which side of the American political spectrum—conservative or liberal—is more likely to get on board with that program?

 

 

Those who are riled up by this are welcome to comment, but please keep two things in mind: first, railing against policies you don’t like isn’t a rebuttal. My comments here are the result of honest textual analysis. If you wish to correct me, please make sure your position is grounded in the text of the Book of Mormon. Second, I’d actually like to hear from any liberals who could find so many clear references to their political principles in the text. Keep in mind that my references are all to federal, political issues; not personal virtue or community values.

Bottom line: a close reading of the Book of Mormon should persuade us to adopt conservative political principles.

 

On Homework

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about Jackie Chan and ended with a throwaway reference to parents who complain about too much homework (you’d have to read it to get the connection).  Anyway, that one remark prompted a couple of critical comments from readers who are clearly fine, decent, normal people.  I’d like to briefly, respectfully address those concerns.

First of all, there is a groundswell of thought out there that would be happy to do away with homework altogether, perhaps best shown by the popular book, The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Children And What Parents Can Do About It.  I understand.  I’ve heard plenty of parents say that their children have too much homework.  Of course, I’ve also heard plenty of parents say that their children don’t get enough.

First, let’s ask ourselves this: why do teachers give homework?  It can’t just be busywork: it doesn’t “kill” any class time, and it gives the teacher more to grade.  The path of least resistance here would be to give less, or none at all.  Simply assigning homework should be a sign of pretty decent teaching.

Of course, just because homework is given, doesn’t mean it’s good, or couldn’t be better.  It’s perfectly possible for homework to be confusing, unrelated to class material, or simply trivial.  Such problems certainly do exist and should be corrected when encountered.

So what is good homework?  And, really, how much is just the right amount? 

Of all the many “staff development days” and “teacher inservices” I’ve had to attend over the years, only one has ever truly made a positive difference in my classroom: a day of training based on Robert J. Marzano’s Classroom Instruction That Works: Research-Based Strategies For Increasing Student Achievement.  This is, simply put, the best book on teaching I’ve ever read.  Every education major in college needs to be given a copy on their first day and should be required to memorize and recite it daily.  Every staff meeting in every school everywhere should be based on this book and this book only.  So much of what we get shoved down our throats in education these days is trendy claptrap; this little book just summarizes the aggregate research on effective educational practices and explains how to apply them in the classroom.

And there’s a chapter on homework.  What does it say?  In lieu of butchering it with my own poor paraphrasing, I’ll link to “The Case For And Against Homework,” an article Marzano wrote for Educational Leadership, which is short and accessible and devastatingly obvious in its implications.  I’ll direct interested parties there.

I just found out that Marzano has some other books, such as one on classroom management.  I’ll be picking those up at my earliest opportunity.  I’ve no doubt they might make the coming year even more successful than previous years have been.

The Anti-Anti-Anti Video Game Post

In the last few weeks, Arts and Letters Daily has posted links to two significant articles about video games.  As per ALDaily’s mantra, they are both contrarian, in this case meaning that they are dedicated to “exposing errors” in anti-video game sentiments.  And they’re both wrong.

The first and better of the pair is Tom Chatfield’s Prospect piece, “Rage Against The Machines.”  The writing strides along with measured eloquence (Chatfieldeven takes another author to task for muddying her critique of gaming with her lackluster prose), and his anecdotes are certainly entertaining, at least.

Two things jumped out at me.  First was this: “Worldwide, [Grand Theft Auto IV] grossed sales of over $500m in its first week, outperforming every other entertainment release in history, including the Harry Potter books and Pirates of the Caribbean films.”  Excuse me?  How did this not cross my radar?  Such a staggering record deserves to have its every molecule closely scrutinized, and nothing of the sort is happening.  Those 18th and 19th century gentlemen may have been ignorant by our standards when they earnestly debated “the woman question,” “the Negro question,” or “the Mormon problem,” but at least they had national conversations about major, paradigm-shifting transformations in the fabric of their society.  The closest we come to that today is voting on American Idol

Much of the second half of the article is of superior quality because it attempts to assess the artistic value of video games.  Chatfield surveys the market and finds that there are glimmers of hope that this medium may become truly artistic, not just in terms of visual design, but of narrative depth and complexity.  I’m skeptical, though.  While his evaluation of the video game industry’s artistic appeal is honest, his enthusiastic optimism smacks of wishful thinking, an eagerness to please, a desire to fill a vacuum.  Though my experiences are definitely years out of date, it seems obvious that the narrative conventions of video games still rely heavily on preprogrammed cinematic scenes which function as a kind of deus ex machina.

Chatfield’s essay is worth reading because he asks tough questions, even if his answers are scant and vague (so as not to offend the massive lobbying base of Big Gaming, I suppose; it doesn’t do to alienate one’s readership, after all).  For example, my jaw literally dropped when he casually threw out this tidbit as a token effort at balancing the argument, and then skipped right along as if nothing had happened: “While there are no agreed-upon statistics, a recent study at Stanford University suggests that men are more likely than women to respond compulsively to games, while a 2007 poll of 1,178 US children and teenagers concluded that 8.5 per cent of youth gamers (aged 8 to 18) could be classified as pathological or clinically “addicted” to playing video games.”

Did I read that correctly?  Nearly ten percent of American youth who play video games (and that’s a pretty sizable percentage of the whole) could be addicted?  Where are the outraged protests?  Where are the charities and media campaigns for “awareness”?  How can such a pandemic be dismissed with nary a whiff of rueful rumination?

Still, Chatfield’s piece far excels what I read this morning: Bill Blake’s unadulterated love letter to GTA in The Chronicle of Higher Education (!), “Go Ahead, Steal My Car.”  For Blake, there are no shades of gray.  Anyone who suggests that video games might have any negative consequences for society is worse than a drooling Nazi Puritan troll. 

He insists that “The idea that video games and explicit media content are a threat to society is demonstrably false. Whatever evidence there might be that violent media content causes violent behavior, or that graphic sexual content stimulates unhealthy sexual behavior, there is a simple test that invariably proves otherwise.”  He fails to debunk any of this evidence; he doesn’t even have the integirty to address it.  And, as you’ll see briefly, his “simple test” does not put to rest the mountain of research that contradicts his fun. 

Last Autumn, a detective from our police department’s gang unit came to do a training at my school.  His decades of experience in the field (he’s a nationally recognized expert and much sought-after speaker) had led him to conclude that violence in the media does promote violence in actual youth.  (Duh.  Blake seems to think that the saying “monkey see, monkey do” materialized out of thin air.)  At our presentation, he suggested that we all read Stop Teaching Our Kids To Kill: A Call To Action Against TV, Movie, And Video Game Violence.  The authors cite numerous reliable studies that firmly establish violent media’s pervasive damage. 

Perhaps Blake is unfamiliar with, for example, the “Joint Statement On The Impact Of Entertainment Violence On Children” made to Congress in 2000 by the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Psychiatric Association, and American Psychological Association, among others. 

Blake tries to establish his pro-GTA thesis with a laughably facetious hypothetical situation: play the game and then see if you steal a car.  Here’s where his thinking gets so self-nullifying that one wonders why he even bothered.  First, he spends seven paragraphs developing and lauding this little idea before he reverses and admits, “But no doubt you’re already prepared to question the conclusions of the test because you realize that proving you aren’t susceptible to such media effects isn’t the same as proving that other people won’t be.” 

So now that he’s completely negated the meaning of a substantial portion of his writing, he turns around and stabs that new assertion in the back: “You sound like a racist. You sound like a sexist. You sound like a paternalistic bigot.”  Wow, Bill, like I said, not too many shades of gray in your world, are there?  The bald falsity of this argument is obvious: nobody claims to be “immune” to media effects because of their race or gender (or implies that anyone else is susceptible because of theirs).  However, mental and social development, as well as any number of community norms, do form the kinds of character that either do or don’t allow the media to have too much sway over people’s lives.  Denying that is a pretty cheap cop out from having a real discussion.

Blake ends his narcissistic tirade with a plea to approach video games with the tools of literary criticism, not “media effects.”  There’s a red herring if I ever saw one.  His two references to the furor over Joyce’s Ulysses are about as appropriate as trying to exonerate Paris Hilton’s behavior because, you know, Hester Prynne was a bit too much put upon. 

The moral of the story: just because something is contrarian doesn’t mean it’s right.  Sometimes the conventional wisdom–in this case, that video games have a significant harmful effect on our society, especially our youth;a trend that we are largely ignoring–is dead on.  Alas, perilously so.

Several years ago, I and some colleagues had a conference with a mother whose son was having trouble in school, partly because he played eight to ten hours of video games a day and had trouble sleeping at night because, when he closed his eyes, all he could imagine were the violent images of the games he’d played that day.  We all implored the mother to take his games away.  She looked deep in thought for a minute, then told us that she had spent $300 on those games, and didn’t want to waste them.

Like millions of others who grew up in the 80’s, I had a Nintendo.  I had a few other systems as the 90’s waxed strong.  By the time I was in high school, however, my habits had become detrimental to any kind of social or academic success.  I can’t believe how lucky I was to be able to take those machines to a local store and sell them and never look back. 

So should everybody who owns video games get rid of them?  Are all gamers a bunch of zombies with mush for brains?  No, of course not.  But given the obvious information we now have, our lack of concern and control regarding what could be a simple pastime is alarming.  Three or four hours a week is a hobby; ten hours–or more–is a raging addiction.  Video games are not inherently evil, but quality and moderation have gone the way of the dodo when they’re needed now more than ever.

Recommended Eating: The Cracked Egg

I first heard of the Cracked Egg the school year before last, when I had the daughter of the owner in one of my classes.  Always a big fan of breakfast (it’s one of my four favorite meals of the day), as soon as she told me about it I decided to go and give it a try.  And then I went back.  And then I went back again.  Etc. 

Where do I start?  Should I start with the comfortable but simple-enough-to-never-seem-pretentious decor?  With the sign that says, “Unattended children will be given an espresso and a puppy”?  With the locations, the patio seating with huge umbrellas, the prices that are slightly higher than, say, IHOP, but reasonable and undeniably worth it?

The answer is no.  I’ll start with the food and I’ll end with the food.  The Cracked Egg serves the best breakfast anywhere. 

If you go (when you go), you’ll be exhausted by all the fun your taste buds will have, but it won’t be enough.  Oh no.  You’ll need to go back.  You might be tempted to instantly claim the first thing you try as your favorite, but that would be a mistake.  Like dating, you’ll never really know the variety of joys out there until you play the field a little. 

So try the Denver Omelet on your first foray into this early morning Shangri La.  You can have a Mexican Skillet the next time, and the Californian Omelet the time after that.  But, *sigh* that’s still just skimming the surface.  Have you ever met someone and known after that first conversation that you could be best friends, even soul mates, for life?  Eating at the Cracked Egg is like that.  Only better. 

But also like dating, as many dishes as you let entertain your palette, you’ll never forget your first.  So be sure to observe the pretty details on your first visit. 

A few weeks ago, as the school year was winding down, I realized I hadn’t treated myself to a nice breakfast before work anytime yet this year, so I pulled up to the Cracked Egg that I pass on the way to work every morning and this time I didn’t turn the corner.  I was the first one in the door when they opened.

I got to enjoy the easy early morning atmosphere as I sipped at my orange juice and hot cocoa and tried to narrow down what I’d eat this time.  Something new, or an old friend?  I watched the sun rise and ended up getting a longtime favorite.  I slowly got to know each bite and left as refreshed as one might expect to be after a weekend at a spa. 

http://www.thecrackedegglv.com/

Politics and Demography

On Thursday I got to work with some of the Boy Scouts in my area on their Citizenship in the World merit badge.  To prepare for the presentation, I Iooked up some information relevant to current world affairs. 

I was intrigued to find a chart from the United Nations about world demographic trends.  I trimmed it down to the essentials and presented it to the Scouts, who were likewise fascinated.  Consider: in any size population, every male and every female must pair off and have how many children for the population to remain stable?  The answer, of course, is 2: the children replace the parents.  If the average birth rate is more than 2, the population grows; if it is less than 2, it shrinks.  It’s that simple. 

According to the numbers, Africa and the Middle East are booming.  The U.S. is precarious but steady.  Europe is in a death spiral from which it is already mathematically improbable to recover. 

One friend of mine responded to this subject by warning of the tendency to prognosticate, and how often it fails.  But demography isn’t fortune telling.  It’s mere accountancy.  If Country X has 1000 children born in the year 2008, then in the year 2018, it will have no more than 1000 ten-year-olds.  You see? 

And if a country goes for two or three generations with low birth rates, then the burden on each successive generation to repopulate the nation becomes more difficult.  If Country X starts with an adult breeding population of a million people and their couples only have one child per couple, the next wave of adults will only consist of 500,000.  If that generation then only has one child per couple, on average, the next generation will be a piddling 250,000.  And if they then only have one child for, say, every four people (a 0.5 birth rate), that leaves us with a mere 62,500. 

Why would that last generation breed so much less?  After two generations of small families, with all the wealth, attention, leisure, and complacency that implies, how could they not preserve that indolence into their adult years?  Of course, this is exactly what we’re seeing in the Western world today.  Let’s call it the Sex and the City Effect. 

And the children of that last generation (the fourth total in our example), after three generations of increasingly entrenched self-centeredness, can hardly be expected to pair off and have the 32 children each that it would take to undo all the damage done and return their people to the million-strong that their great-grandparents knew. 

For many Asian and Western countries, such as Russia, Japan, and the Czech Republic, such is already their fate, which is why I said before that they are past the point of no return.  This is why you see so many news stories, like this one, about toys that replace the companionship of families for lonely adults in Japan. 

Of course, this has huge ramifications for foreign relations (nations that are newly strong will smell the blood of those who have grown too weak to recover and will act accordingly), welfare (not only will generation four above have to breed like rabbits, they’ll each be financially responsible for the care of several members of the sick, retired older generations), and immigration (those young people, frankly, will get tired of such abuse and leave for greener pastures…which is also already happening in much of the world). 

Here’s my short version of the UN chart:

 


















   

















   

















   

















   
United Nations – Department of Economic and Social Affairs – Population Division
World Fertility Patterns 2007
(United Nations Publication, Sales No. E.08.XIII.4).
Wall chart data in excel format
http://www.unpopulation.org

                     




   
Updated version for the weba
March 2008
All rights reserved.
                                     
                                     
                                     
Trends in total fertility, age patterns of fertility and timing of childbearing
Country or area Total fertility per woman



(12)
WORLD 2.6
More developed regions 1.6
Less developed regions (excluding least developed countries) 2.6
Least developed countries 5.0
AFRICA 5.0
Eastern Africa 5.6
Middle Africa 6.2
Northern Africa 3.2
Southern Africa 2.9
Western Africa 5.8
ASIA 2.5
Eastern Asia 1.7
China 1.4
China, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region 1.0
China, Macao Special Administrative Region 0.8
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea 2.2
Japan 1.3
Mongolia 2.3
Republic of Korea 1.2
South-Central Asia 3.2
Afghanistan 6.8
India 2.8
Iran (Islamic Republic of) 2.2
Pakistan 4.0
South-Eastern Asia 2.5
Western Asia 3.2
Armenia 1.4
Azerbaijan 1.8
Bahrain 3.1
Cyprus 1.5
Georgia 1.6
Iraq 2.8
Israel 2.9
Jordan 3.7
Kuwait 2.1
Lebanon 1.9
Occupied Palestinian Territory 4.7
Oman 3.6
Qatar 2.8
Saudi Arabia 3.1
Syrian Arab Republic 3.8
Turkey 2.4
United Arab Emirates 4.1
Yemen 6.2
EUROPE 1.4
Eastern Europe 1.3
Czech Republic 1.2
Russian Federation 1.3
Northern Europe 1.7
Ireland 2.0
United Kingdom 1.6
Southern Europe 1.4
Greece 1.3
Italy 1.3
Spain 1.3
Western Europe 1.6
France 1.9
Germany 1.4
Switzerland 1.4
LATIN AMERICA AND THE CARIBBEAN 2.5
Caribbean 2.6
Central America 2.7
Mexico 3.3
South America 2.5
Brazil 2.1
NORTHERN AMERICA 2.0
Canada 1.5
United States of America 2.0
OCEANIA 2.4
Australia/New Zealand 1.8
Australia 1.8
New Zealand 2.1

 

This also has a major application on the domestic front: voting.  This excellent article explains a truth that the 2004 election made dramamtically apparent: liberals don’t breed.  Largely confined to older, coastal, metropolitan areas, America’s liberals consistently do not have many children.  On the other hand, America’s heartland conservatives have far more children (bringing the national average up to 2.0).  This chart is excerpted from the research:

(Incidentally, Republicans also give more to charity.)

Such, then, may be the resolution of red state/blue state tension: the blue states will voluntarily extinguish themselves.  (Even the mainstream media has picked up on this obvious sign of doom.)  But don’t worry, New England hippies: before you go quietly into that night, your elite suburbs will fill up with refugees from the Old World, who are running from the burden of caring for a dozen pensioners each and the conflicts brought on by massive immigration from hostile countries which are filled to the brim with new babies.  And if those hordes of “developing world” babies grow up and decide to try out the opportunities of Vermont for themselves, the new dark ages may really begin.

Recommended Viewing: Super Summer Theatre

It had already been a long week (so long, in fact, that I hadn’t written on my blog for days), and the next few days didn’t look likely to be any slower.  So I didn’t relish the thought of staying out until after ten at night, getting to bed after eleven, and getting only five hours of sleep.  Again. 

But I was wrong.  It was so worth it.

My wife and I have taken the kids up to Spring Mountain Ranch for Super Summer Theatre before, but not in a while, and I’d forgotten how much fun it is.  Yesterday, we went up to see Beauty and the Beast.  I don’t know how closely it follows the Broadway production, but where it deviates from the Disney film, it’s usually a well chosen adaptation for this rustic stage.  It’s like watching a sprightly dance remix of a cartoon.

Much of the new musical material paled in comparison to the three-Oscar-nominated-and-a-win-for-Best-Song original, but wasn’t so bland as to detract.  Actually, a new verse to Gaston’s tavern ditty was a clever bit of meta-fiction. 

Every performance was top notch, especially Steve Huntsman’s deliciously cheesy interpretation of Lumiere as a randy candle whose slo-mo hips would have blended in at the local disco.  Near the end of the show, even the Beast gets in on the action and copies Lumiere’s moves in his quest to woo Belle.  (Lighthearted as the end gets, some scenes near the beginning were a tad intense for my little ones, who had naturally fallen asleep by the time things cheered up a bit.  They captured the tones of the film–which is suprisingly moody when you look at it–quite well.)

The film’s minor characters get fleshed out quite a bit, to good effect.  (I wondered at first how they’d turn a 90 minute cartoon into a two-plus hour stage production.)  The vanity closet, LaFou, and even the three ditsy girls who worship Gaston get increased time and lines, and it does make the story more three-dimensional.  A two-story, rotating set provided the show with some nifty comedy opportunities, and a dramatic landscape for the climax.

But you know what?  As good as the show was, the location was just as good.  Spring Mountain Ranch used to be an obscure secret; now, you feel like you’re wallowing out of a Stones concert afterward, it’s so crowded.  But there are no greasy rockers here.  Even packed in like sardines, the folks we found around us were the salt of the earth, every last one, from the many Girl Scout volunteers working there to the young couples tipsy on their romantic evening to the older couples just as happy to see the show as they were to smile on dozens of other people’s grandkids.  And when the sun finally slips under that mountain peak right behind you–bliss.

After another 106 degree day, an evening on a blanket out there, snacking on cookies and sipping away at Capri Sun after Capri Sun, was a mighty fine refresher.  And I hear the old ranch house up at the top has been refurbished.  I’ll have to check it out next time I’m there.

Which will be next month, when I see 1776.  My wife told me she got tickets for all three plays this summer (Aida is in August).  A deep history nerd, I love 1776.  This just keeps getting better.  Now I need to get tickets for the jazz show in September…

http://www.supersummertheatre.com/

Fathers’ Day

Several years ago I had just begun to realize in my career as a teacher that fathers either make or break the destinies of their children.  It was a dour epiphany, because most of the men that I knew of were dropping the ball.  We may be inclined to interject with inspiring exceptions, but such a vast majority falls into this simple scheme that it’s practically a rule.  At that point, I had learned a truism that every teacher learns: absent (or ineffective) fathers create damaged offspring.

I remember wanting to vent about this discovery and commiserate with my colleagues.  At my school at the time, our email system had a “teachers’ lounge” bulletin board feature that we used to post jokes, items for sale, and announcements.  I wrote up a post lamenting my loss of rose-colored glasses on the fatherhood front.  I included a link to a favorite news article of mine: a herd of elephants in Africa had lost its adult males to poaching, and the younger males went crazy and started attacking other animals.  The problem wasn’t solved until the local wildlife authorities imported some adult males from another herd.  After that, the “delinquency” stopped.  I commented that this story could serve as a useful parable for our society’s woes.

After it went up, a female administrator in the building privately replied that she was confused and bothered by my post, and asked me to explain it further.  I said that I now understood clearly that the single greatest factor determining the success or failure of our students–academically and in life–was their fathers.  She quickly sent a curt reply that I was only to post professional messages from that point on, or face disciplinary action.

Other teachers responded with more sympathy.

My old supervisor’s politically correct management by planting her head firmly in the sand came back to mind as I read this wonderful essay this week about mainstream America’s war on fatherhood.  Even more sobering was this amazing essayby Andrew Klavan, which included the following anecdote:

The teacher told me that she once had to explain to the class why her last name was the same as her father’s. She dusted off the whole ancient ritual of legitimacy for them—marriages, maiden names, and so on. When she was done, there was a short silence. Then one child piped up softly: “Yeah . . . I’ve heard of that.”

I’ve heard of that. It would break a heart of stone.

And thus it is.  In the panorama of demographic decline, the effective, involved father may well be the most endangered species. 

*****************

To end on a slightly more positive note, last year my bishop assigned me to put together a packet of recent General Conference addresses on priesthood leadership in the home, for a training we wanted to do with the men in our ward.  As I looked through the archives, I was struck by how often the clearest talks on this subject came from Elder L. Tom Perry.  He must have a special love for this issue.  Here are a few of his that I have benefited from, and which would be of value to us all:

“Fatherhood, An Eternal Calling”

“Father–Your Role, Your Responsibility”

“Called Of God”

One of the great “forgotten” talks of General Conference is Richard G. Scott’s “First Things First,” where he emphasizes the importance of striving for an “ideal” family.  I’ve been divorced before, myself, so I know that such counsel can be difficult to hear, but that doesn’t make it any less true.  Elder Scott said:

Throughout your life on earth, seek diligently to fulfill the fundamental purposes of this life through the ideal family. While you may not have yet reached that ideal, do all you can through obedience and faith in the Lord to consistently draw as close to it as you are able. Let nothing dissuade you from that objective. If it requires fundamental changes in your personal life, make them. When you have the required age and maturity, obtain all of the ordinances of the temple you can receive. If for the present, that does not include sealing in the temple to a righteous companion, live for it. Pray for it. Exercise faith that you will obtain it. Never do anything that would make you unworthy of it. If you have lost the vision of eternal marriage, rekindle it. If your dream requires patience, give it. As brothers, we prayed and worked for 30 years before our mother and our nonmember father were sealed in the temple. Don’t become overanxious. Do the best you can. We cannot say whether that blessing will be obtained on this side of the veil or beyond it, but the Lord will keep His promises. In His infinite wisdom, He will make possible all you qualify in worthiness to receive. Do not be discouraged. Living a pattern of life as close as possible to the ideal will provide much happiness, great satisfaction, and impressive growth while here on earth regardless of your current life circumstances.

Perhaps the strongest, clearest counsel I know on the subject is what Jeffrey R. Holland said in a talk called, “A Child’s Prayer,” where he boldly declared:

Parents simply cannot flirt with skepticism or cynicism, then be surprised when their children expand that flirtation into full-blown romance…. We can be reasonably active, meeting-going Latter-day Saints, but if we do not live lives of gospel integrity and convey to our children powerful heartfelt convictions regarding the truthfulness of the Restoration and the divine guidance of the Church from the First Vision to this very hour, then those children may, to our regret but not surprise, turn out not to be visibly active, meeting-going Latter-day Saints or sometimes anything close to it….

Live the gospel as conspicuously as you can. Keep the covenants your children know you have made. Give priesthood blessings. And bear your testimony!  Don’t just assume your children will somehow get the drift of your beliefs on their own.

This is part of the gospel that we preach and live.  In our efforts to draw near to God by worship, discipleship, and service, let’s make constantly improving our fatherhood an integral part of that sacred work.

 

The New New Yorker

This week at the gym, I’ve killed time on the treadmill and cycling machine by perusing the June 9-16 issue of The New Yorker.  It’s superb, even for their usual standard.  I know, I know, The New Yorker needs fresh praise about as much as Shakespeare or oxygen (my verdict: they’re good!), but I haven’t paid close attention for the past few months, so please let me reconnect with this leisure of love…

First, Adrian Tomine’s cover offers further proof that he is the preeminent visual storyteller of our time.  A man is unlocking his bookstore while, one door down, a woman is accepting a delivery from Amazon.com.  A good picture can capture the ol’ zeitgeist, can’t it?  Tomine’s genius is that the woman doesn’t look even remotely awkward or guilty.  If anything, she’s disdainful of the loser who works next door.  It’s just as well that we can’t see his face. 

The first thing I read was Haruki Murakami’s essay, “The Running Novelist.”  Ah, two of my favorite things, writing and exercise, combined!  Murakami inspires the reader to be a Rocky of both marathons and manuscripts.  It could have been an entry in The New York Times’ Writers on Writing column, were it not so good that it makes the most soaring of those essays look pedestrian.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: within the next three years, Haruki Murakami will win the Nobel Prize.  I confess that at this point, the only novel of his that I’ve read is After Dark, but I couldn’t put it down, finishing it in under 24 hours (a major feat for me, these days).  I desperately want to fit in Kafka On The Shore by the end of this summer.  The American author William Faulkner may have invented magic realism, Colombia’s Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez may have perfected it, but the greatest current practitioner of that art is Japan’s Haruki Murakami.  Even if you consider that the nominating committee tends to factor in politics and ethnicity into their decisions, Murakami still has good odds of scoring this ultimate literary triumph.

Next, I read Tobias Wolff’s poignant essay on Ingmar Bergman’s film Winter Light.  Wolff’s honest musing on faith and doubt was incisive.  I’ve long been a fan of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (mocking it–e.g. Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey–is de rigeur, but sometimes an earnestly somber allegory can still be appreciated without irony; actually, the last time I saw it, I was surprised to notice just how much humor and warmth it has), and a few months ago I saw Wild Strawberries, a much more life affirming film, and one whose piquant flavor I hope to savor time and again throughout the sweet afternoons of life, like the fruit of the title.  My library district doesn’t carry Winter Light; I’ll have to request it.  Wolff’s story of spiritual pilgrims both on and off the screen touched me enough to want to go down that path for a couple hours myself.

And, of course, I love the cartoons.  You do enter the cartoon caption contest every week, don’t you?  And, like me, you never win, don’t you?  Well, don’t worry, our hour of reckoning will come.  Oh yes, the infidel cartoon editor will feel the wrath of our punchline’s steely blade.  Soon…

As for today, I’ll be straddling a stair climber and soaking up a “new” short story by wordsmith Vladimir Nabokov, translated into English for the first time…

Talking Phil Jackson Down From The Ledge

Phil?  Phil?  Whoa there, buddy, it’s cool.  Don’t get skittish on me.  The police asked me to come up here and just talk to you for a bit, OK?  Can I sit out here with you?  It’s a little breezy this high up, isn’t it?  Could I bring you up some coffee?  No?  OK, how about a windbreaker to take off the chill while we talk?  OK, great.  Let me radio that in.

So, look, Phil, I’m not the kind of guy to sugar coat things, and I’m gonna give it to you straight, because I know you’re tough and you can take it…you blew it.  You blew it big time.  You were ahead by 24 points before the half–the biggest lead at that point in the game in playoff history–and you blew it.  Instead of insuring a comfortable win at home for your Lakers, you guys just set the stage for the Celtics to mount a comeback straight out of those cheesy movies they make down the street. 

But you know what, Phil?  It’ll be OK.  Life goes on.  Hey…hey!  No need to cry and get all shaky, that makes me think we can’t communicate here.  Can you take some deep breaths and calm down?  Alright.  Good.  Now, as I was saying, this is going to be a big black mark on a great career, but it happens.  Nobody’s perfect.  Sure, you had Kobe and the crowd on your side and you were playing a team whose star players don’t have nearly the experience your squad does…but it’s not your fault.  In the history books, this loss will just be a footnote.  A really big, dazzling, chapter-long footnote, but still…

OK, Phil, sorry, just trying a little humor there.  You don’t need to squat down and put out your arms like you’re about to dive; you could slip and really fall.  Is that what you want, Phil?  To fall and end it like this?  After all you’ve accomplished?  That would hardly be a fitting exit for your image, would it?

Look, here’s the jacket I ordered for you!  Thanks, seargeant.  Well, gosh, look at that, this is a Knicks jacket, and that’s your old number on the back!  Remember those days, Phil?  Remember all those fouls?  Is this a dignified way to go for a guy like you?

That’s right, take my hand and let’s just step through this window and make a plan.  After all, it’s not impossible for you guys to come back and win it.  Even though no team has ever recovered from a 3-1 deficit to actually win the championship, I suppose there’s still a chance that–oh no, Phil!  Phil!  Don’t do it!  Phiiiiiillllllll!  *sigh*  I sure hope they got those big mattresses in place in time…

Book Review: Sins Of The Assassin

Robert Ferrigno’s current novel, Sins of the Assassin, is the second work in a proposed trilogy.  I heard of the first one but haven’t read it.  This new installment was recently on display at the library and got my attention.

The premise is fascinating, almost daring: in the not-too-distant future, the United States has been effectively conquered by Islamic fundamentalists.  Though a moderate majority is in power at that point, tensions between the Islamic States of America and the rebels of the Bible Belt in the Southern states are escalating.  And let’s not forget about the political encroachments of the Aztlan Empire (formerly Mexico) as they continue to seize swaths of the Southwest.  Oh yeah, and New Orleans and Miami are under water.

This could have been an intriguing meditation on world affairs, a high-concept speculation about current geo-political trends projected into the middle of the century.  There are some brief glimpses of this in the first half–a minor character watches a religious re-enactment of the Waco massacre and ponders about the missed signs that this state of affairs was coming, and the protagonist’s mother-in-law tries to explain to her daughter why so many Americans, disgusted with the wanton decadence in the early 21st century, had converted to Islam. 

Such scenes were clever and deep enough to satisfy, but Ferrigno squanders countless opportunities to delve further into this world, instead throwing out the occasional bit of trivia (the most popular soft drink in America’s future is Jihad Cola). 

Not only is the lack of more genuine depth regretable, but the story as it comes to us is even worse.  There’s an entire chapter in the middle of the book that’s nothing more than an extended sex scene, and the rest of the novel often gets blue.  For the life of me, I can’t think of any useful function of the sex chapter–it doesn’t advance the plot, it doesn’t establish any character traits that we didn’t already know…between that and the constant bursts of killing from genetically enhanced warriors, Ferrigno appears to be angling for the comic book market and its 12-year-old customers. 

What could have been a landmark novel of political prophecy turned out to be just another bit of conventional boilerplate. 

Sins of the Assassin started well and had promise, but then again, so did Waterworld.  It could have been much better, if it had been written with more class.

 

Final Grade: C-