Quotes, Pics, And Clips III

ARTS: 

Earlier this year, I was looking to expand my musical horizons, so I dipped back into a resource that had done me well in the past: Michael Gelb’s How To Think Like Leonardo da Vinci.  Among nearly endless treasures are Gelb’s lists of essential recordings in various musical styles that best ignite the senses and fire the imagination.  Pay dirt.  Somehow I had never lingered on his recommendation at the bottom of page 118 of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs

I got a performance of these pieces by the elegant Renee Fleming from the library.  Here’s a video of my favorite of the four works, “September,” (though all four are excellent):

The lyrics are a poem by Hermann Hesse; a lilting appreciation of life’s seasonal changes, not with dread or with bombastic seriousness, but with a pure gratitude for the beauty inherent in natural cycles.  In English, the words are:

The garden is in mourning;
the cool rain seeps into the flowers.
Summertime shudders,
quietly awaiting his end.

Golden leaf after leaf falls
down from the tall acacia tree.
Summer smiles, astonished and feeble,
in his dying dream of a garden.

For a while beside the roses
he remains, yearning for repose.
Slowly he closes
his weary eyes.

EDUCATION: 

“I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”         -John Adams

HUMOR:  from the 8/19/97 issue of The Onion:

“Nation’s Educators Alarmed By Poorly Written Teen Suicide Notes”

“WASHINGTON, DC—At the group’s annual convention Sunday, members of the National Education Association called for the formation of a nationwide coalition of parents, teachers and political leaders to address a rapidly growing problem: the alarmingly low quality of teenage suicide notes across the U.S….

“”There seems to be an almost direct link between the rise in suicidal behavior and the decline in students’ overall command of the English language,” said Bangor, ME, junior-high vice-principal Bob Drake. “If this lack of attention paid to developing writing skills continues among teens, we may need to start thinking about revoking their suicide privileges altogether.””

LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE: 

 “How good you are in explosition!  How farflung your fokloire and how velktingeling your volupkabulary!”  -James Joyce, Finnegans Wake, 419:11-12

LIVING WELL:

 “It’s not daily increase but daily decrease–hack away the unessentials!”  -Bruce Lee, Tao of Jeet Kun Do

Lee would have gotten along well with Thoreau.

POLITICS AND SOCIETY: 

 

 “War should be avoided, as long as it is possible to preserve a secure and honourable peace; but… peace cannot be honourable or secure, if the sovereign betrays a pusillanimous aversion to war.”  -Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, chapter XXXVRELIGION:  

“My secret is that I need God–that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem to be capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love.”  -Douglas Coupland, Life After God

which reminds me:

“For there are many yet on the earth among all sects, parties, and denominations…who are only kept from the truth because they know not where to find it.”  -Doctrine and Covenants 123:12

 

  

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Fewer Green Lights, More Yield Signs

Should we move? Which spouse should work? How many children should we have? Can I miss church this Sunday? How can I help my kids without pushing them? How can I break this bad habit? How can I deal with everything?

And how do we answer these questions? The Lord rarely lays down black and white rules for the big personal choices in life. But do we take that trust in our spiritual maturity and use it as a green light, as an excuse to do whatever we want or what’s easiest?

 

Hopefully not. “I will not put my trust in the arm of flesh; for I know that cursed is he that putteth his trust in the arm of flesh.” (2 Nephi 4:34). “If he boasts in his own strength, and sets at naught the counsel of God, and follows after the dictates of his own will and carnal desires, he must fall…” (D&C 3:4). “And if any man shall seek to build up himself, and seeketh not my counsel, he shall have no power…” (D&C 136:19).

If green lights are bad, then is life full of red lights, making us constantly freeze and doubt? No. “It is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant… men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will…” (D&C 58:26-27).

 

 

So if life is neither a permanent stop nor a constant go, then how do we find solid help? “Seek not to counsel the Lord, but to take counsel from his hand.” (Jacob 4:10). To put it another way, “Now be ye not stiffnecked, as your fathers were, but yield yourselves unto the Lord…and serve the Lord your God…” (2 Chronicles 30:8).

Yielding, cautiously halting our own agenda to determine the best way to proceed before moving forward, is a great spiritual metaphor for how to live by the Spirit.  Other scriptures give specific direction for gaining strength by yielding to God. “For the natural man is an enemy to God…and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him…” (Mosiah 3:19). “Nevertheless they did fast and pray oft, and did wax stronger and stronger… unto the filling their souls with joy and consolation, yea, even to the purifying and the sanctification of their hearts, which sanctification cometh because of their yielding their hearts unto God.” (Helaman 3:35).

Prayer is the foundation of yielding: “Ye must pray always, and not faint; that ye must not perform any thing unto the Lord save in the first place ye shall pray unto the Father in the name of Christ, that he will consecrate thy performance unto thee, that thy performance may be for the welfare of thy soul.” (2 Nephi 32:9). “Yea, and cry unto God for all thy support; yea, let all thy doings be unto the Lord… Counsel with the Lord in all thy doings, and he will direct thee for good…” (Alma 37:36-37).

But ye are commanded in all things to ask of God, who giveth liberally; and that which the Spirit testifies unto you even so I would that ye should do in all holiness of heart…” (D&C 46:7).  When we make a decision with prayer, we will always be right; when we make a decision without prayer, we have no such promise.

These aren’t just generic commands to pray, fast, and be more obedient and Christlike, though. Read them again; these verses promise that the way to be spiritually cleansed and physically led is to seek the Father’s will. Doing these simple things more often, and doing them more deeply, will bring us the answers we need.

And it starts when we yield our whole lives to God. Isn’t the Savior the perfect example of this? “For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me.” (John 6:38). So did we.

As we let go of worry, pride, selfishness, and anything else that’s getting between us and the Spirit, and as we do this by accepting the Lord’s invitation to live by his plan for us, our questions will be answered, and our problems will be solved. We need less of stressful overworking or comfortable coasting in life, and more meditating in our homes and in God’s temple.

And continuing the road sign analogy, let’s point out that sin and the spiritual apathy it breeds are just speed bumps, each one slowing us down a little in our efforts to come closer to God. Repentance smooths out the speed bumps.

 

Book Review: Empire of Lies

I first took notice of Andrew Klavan last year when he wrote a jaw-droppingly devastating essay for City Journal called “The Big White Lie,” about the obvious logical failures of liberalism.  After that, I checked out some of his mystery novels from the library, and was suitably entertained.  More recently, his City Journal essay “Story Time,” which illustrates what the loss of fatherhood has done to the young of our country, also had me cheering.

So when I heard he had a new novel out, and that it was a scathing indictment of pop-America’s shallow political understanding to boot, I immediately got a copy.  Like Robert Ferrigno’s Sins of the Assassin, it’s about Islamic terrorism and has a basically conservative agenda (a subcategory of the mystery genre at which I’ve also tried my hand).  Also like Sins, it has some pretty consistent foul language, though not nearly to the extent that Ferrigno’s novel had.  Still, it’s probably a bit over the top (Klavan is most likely trying to impress us with how “gritty and gripping” his vision is), and the reader should be warned.

Klavan no doubt had his City Journal essays in mind as he wrote the novel, which makes a big deal out of both the left’s poor grasp of reality and the consequences of fatherlessness.  The plot is nothing earth-shattering, and handled predictably.  One gets the idea that the story here is secondary, a mere vehicle for Klavan’s pontificating. 

Not that that’s always a bad thing.  It’s refreshing to read an unabashedly conservative work of fiction (I suppose mean-spirited critics could contend that all conservative works might as well be fiction, but I digress). 

Klavan wants us to see the many conflicting sides of his narrator, who comes across realistically and originally enough.  Still, as much as Klavan wants to play a hard-boiled psychologist, I couldn’t help comparing him to the mystery master under whom he seems to have apprenticed, John D. MacDonald, and MacDonald’s running protagonist, Travis McGee.  When Klavan’s hero, everyman Jason Harrow, is being tough, he’s still not as tough as McGee, and when he shows us his vulnerable side, he’s not nearly as sensitive as McGee.  By the way, if you’ve never read MacDonald, stop wasting your time perusing my blog and read The Lonely Silver Rain.  Seriously. 

Klavan’s title, Empire of Lies, refers to a minor character’s summary of the decrepit state of the American media’s information gathering and use, especially as it pertains to politics.  Interestingly, the same thing happens in Michael Crichton’s 2005 State of Fear: a minor character uses the title in a tirade that conveys the author’s primary theme, perhaps too bluntly, and that is meant to illuminate the protagonist who listens.  You’ll notice that the two titles are even virtually synonymous. 

Also like State of Fear, there’s another supporting character who is clearly based on a real celebrity.  In Crichton’s novel, it was a pompous leftist actor who was then “playing the president of the United States on television,” a la Martin Sheen, and who meets a viciously unsavory fate due to his own skewed perception of the world.  Klavan’s caricature isn’t nearly as hostile, and is far more humorous.  Klavan’s character, Patrick Piersall, used to play the leader of a spaceship on a 60’s TV show, then became a fat drunk with a bad hairpiece, then hosted a cheesy real-crime show, and finally stars as an attorney on a “cutting-edge” TV drama.  Yes, folks, Klavan’s novel mocks a mirror image of good old William Shatner.

The parallel goes further than that, though.  Any good nerd knows that Captain Kirk’s middle name was Tiberius.  Klavan’s character, Piersall, played a starship leader named Augustus Kane.  Nothing makes a good joke like an allusion to another Caesar, right, Mr. Klavan?  (Incidentally, nobody else seems to have written about this.  Before drafting this post, I googled “Andrew Klavan Empire of Lies William Shatner,” and only got results for bookstores that carried books by both Klavan and Shatner.  It doesn’t speak well of America’s geeks if this book has been out for two months and I spotted this first.  Please, please tell me that somebody else has pointed this out.)

So is it any good?  Yes, it’s worth reading, if you’re looking to have your conservative worldview reinforced without too much depth, or if you want to kill a weekend with a friendly workhorse of a thriller that won’t surprise you too much.  Don’t take that too harshly, though: Klavan is very skilled at introducing a twist at the end of a chapter so that you just have to start the next one.  It does make it easier to swallow. And I have to admit, it’s fun seeing all those anti-PC ideas I read about in op-eds put into action in a fictional setting that makes them exciting and crucial to beating the bad guy.  Yeah!

But, since I’m thinking about them now, I might do you a better favor if I recommended any of MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels or Crichton’s State of Fear (Crichton gets pegged as a science-fiction writer–he is, after all, the guy who wrote Jurassic Park–but I think his real love lies with mystery; remember Rising Sun?  Man, that book just burned white hot from cover to cover).  Yes, I’d recommend any of those…or Klavan’s excellent City Journal essays.

Oh, and those of you who really haven’t ever read MacDonald and who are still reading this…dude, what gives?  What did you not understand at the end of paragraph five?  Listen: The Lonely Silver Rain.  Do it.  Now. 

Final Grade: B-

Recommended Viewing: 1776

I made a huge mistake before going to see 1776 at Super Summer Theatre tonight: I read a review.  Las Vegas Review-Journal critic Anthony Del Valle had lukewarm comments.  Luckily, I was more in the mood for easy emotion than technical detail.

1776 would be hard to screw up.  As someone recently noted about one part of the Founders’ story–the death of Adams and Jefferson on the 50th anniversary of their signing the Declaration of Independence, on July 4, 1826–no author, if the Revolution had been fictional, would have had the audacity to write something so impossibly Romantic.  And yet it happened.  The story of our nation’s birth is audacious; audacious and inspiring and exciting and full of humanity.  1776 captures all of this wonderfully–it serves you up thigh-slapping jokes and misty-eyed pride on the same silver platter. 

Overall, though, I wonder if this production was too reverently modeled on the 1972 film of the play–for example, Nick Caruso as John Adams does his best to channel William Daniels from the big screen, even copying his inflections of certain words and his habit of throwing his head back and airily waving his hand to scoff at others.  Granted, the way the role is written, there isn’t a very wide spectrum in which one could play Adams, but I’d hope that in the near-immediate wake of Paul Giamatti’s stellar, acclaimed portrayal of Adams in the HBO miniseries of David McCullogh’s eponymous biography of our second president, an updated interpretation should be viable.

Still, at least Caruso plays Adams well.  Kevin Ruud, as Benjamin Franklin, botched several lines near the end of the play, and his listless work made him miss the comic timing on a few key sight gags.  Perhaps also basing his character on the film, he tries to make Franklin a laconic wit, but only succeeds in giving us a nasal goofball. (Incidentally, I have a similar complaint about Michael Gambon’s work as Dumbledore in the more recent Harry Potter movies.  Richard Harris, in the first two films, made Dumbledore a reticent sage.  Gambon turned him into a silly hippie.)

Del Valle, in his review, especially criticized the number, “Momma, Look Sharp,” saying it was poorly staged, with superfluous movement that detracted from the song’s gravity.  Either he read that scene wrong or the actors revised the scene as per the review, because what I saw was restrained and dignified.  It was tasteful…and also more in line with the film version.  Alas, at the one point where this production thought outside the box, it was quickly beaten back in.  But I suppose this might have been for the best.

But as I said, I enjoyed it.  The musical numbers were all crisply delivered, the singing so good that it took the rare sour note to remind me how good the ensemble was.  And there’s a bold, patriotic flourish at the end involving a large display of the Declaration that catches you off balance at first, but fits perfectly in this rustic yet sincere love note to a classic musical. 

Overall Grade: B

Ancillary items reviewed:

  • Chocolate chip cookies from Cosco: still moist after a week, and substantial enough to offer hearty mouth fulls of bakery goodness.  A-
  • Stars: more visible out at Spring Mountain Ranch than at any time in the city in at least twenty years.  Not saying much, really, as there were no more than a hundred or so, but enough of an improvement to please me.  Besides, what in life isn’t better when set under a starry sky?  B+
  • The breeze: messed up actors’ microphones a bit near the end, but added some life to the otherwise staid set, and a nice bit of wind can certainly help take the edge off a summer evening.  For that matter, breezes and summer evenings should be required to come in a package, like chocolate and peanut butter.  I know they’re not, but they should be.  B+
  • The dragonfly that tried to kiss me: I sure don’t get to see these very often, and when they are encountered, it’s usually while visiting someplace humid.  This one came out of nowhere and got nice and close, which I didn’t mind, until it got too close to the cookies, at which point it was flirting with a swift and horrid destruction.  Sensing danger, my new friend absconded for safer snacks to investigate.  All’s well that ends well.  A-
  • The kids staying at Grandma’s house tonight: A+

Classic Letter: Bad Parents

Education-related posts are a little harder to come by in the middle of July, but here’s something that’s never far from my mind.  This letter ran in the March 13, 2007 issue of the Las Vegas Review-Journal:

 

Bad parents

To the editor:

Your recent editorials about school grades rising in the face of failing test scores, and Jim Day’s Friday cartoon about grading parents, have opened a Pandora’s box of irritation. I can no longer politely shrug when we wonder why Nevada children lag so far behind the rest of the nation.

Our schools do not teach in some backward fashion, while other states use fancy methods we can’t find out about. Here’s the elephant in the room: Our children disproportionately fail because Las Vegas is home to some of the worst parents in America.

I’ve seen too many educations ruined by parents who let kids take two or three vacations during the school year; who spoil their children with so many electronic toys and negative fashions that apathy is the obvious result; and who excuse, ignore or even encourage today’s ubiquitous sex and drug use (to say nothing of those poor students being raised by their grandmothers, who still dress like hookers), to say anything else.

There is an epidemic in our schools of parents who demand that the bar be lowered for their kids, who huff and puff about any poor grade or referral to the office and threaten their way into special treatment, who bully the schools, but who won’t keep up with their kids’ grades or check their homework.

Too many of you see yourselves as little more than landlords whose greatest vision for parenting is just to keep children alive and out of jail.

Stop modeling attitudes that will only be counter-productive for your children. Teach them that you expect results and that you will take the school’s side when they screw up. Don’t let them beg for a schedule change or lamely demand “a sheet of make-up work” to atone for three weeks’ truancy, or skip a class because they can make it up online. Kick them in the butt and take their iPod away. Ground them, for heaven’s sake.

Frankly, my colleagues and I are getting tired of cleaning up your mess.

 

I’ve had letters similar to this one printed before and since (see, especially, here), but none has ever had such an impact.  Within two days of this letter appearing, I received about thirty emails, mostly from other teachers in my school district, and mostly from complete strangers.  Every last one was not only positive, but praised me for saying what they had been wanting to say for years.  Some of the writers even told tragic stories of their own emotional abuse at the hands of a system that officially places them between a rock and a hard place, assigning us to teach young people, but tying our hands with a hundred knots and ignoring the things that actually hold students back.

I’m told that the principal at another high school posted it on that school’s email bulletin board for the staff to read.  At other schools copies were made and passed around among the teachers, samizdat-style.  A local AM radio station used it as a starting point for discussion.

That was the best thing about this letter–it really seemed to help release some pent up tension for a lot of good people who needed it. 

Wanting to go further with that, I thought about compiling a book of stories from teachers about their experiences with clueless parents, both the hilarious and the depressing.  I batted the idea around on some online bulletin boards and got a tepid response, at best.  Oh well.  At least it did some good.

And the backlash I expected never materialized because, I now see, nobody would want to identify themselves as the kind of parent I was griping about!

Lexicon-o-rama

Ever since high school, I’ve kept a list of my favorite words.  Some sound musically whimsical, some are bafflingly arcane, others are surprisingly utilitarian (did you know there’s a word just for throwing something out a window?). 

At first, it was a slip of scrap paper in the top drawer of a desk to which I added new words in different color inks every now and then.  Later, it became a page in my journal, with later entries scrunched up at the bottom of the small space I had foolishly allotted to something that clearly deserved better.

Now, it’s on my blog.  Presenting my 45 favorite words, often with links to dictionary.com or, preferably, the invaluable Wordsmith web site (if you don’t get their “word a day” email, you’re depriving yourself of a prime reason to get out of bed in the morning).  Onward, logophiles!

  1. persnickety
  2. discombobulate–“to confuse,” though I’ve also hear it used simply to mean “to disassemble”
  3. onomatopoeia
  4. schadenfreude–“pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others.”  Shocking–shocking!–that German has a word for this
  5. facetious
  6. subterfuge
  7. coquettish
  8. extrapolate
  9. solipsism
  10. supercilious
  11. pontificate
  12. loquacious
  13. weltschmerz–a German version of the French ennui?
  14. potentate
  15. exacerbate
  16. oxymoron
  17. punctilious
  18. zeitgeist
  19. lackadaisical
  20. ululate–used in Lord of the Flies
  21. vociferous
  22. circumambulate–used in Moby Dick
  23. polyglot–first came across this one while reading commentaries on Finnegans Wake
  24. cachinnate–“to laugh raucously”
  25. obfuscation–as in “eschew obfuscation”
  26. abecedary
  27. besmirched
  28. cackleberry
  29. haberdashery–“a place that sells men’s clothes”
  30. sacerdotal
  31. skulduggery
  32. hobbledehoy–useful insult for a teacher to know
  33. expectorate
  34. defenestration–“throwing something out of a window”
  35. somnolent
  36. plenipotentiary
  37. whomp
  38. sniffy
  39. swivet
  40. fartlek–“a method of physical training that alternates intense activity with periods of low effort”
  41. penultimate–when I first heard this word, I thought it might mean something like “super ultimate.”  I was disappointed to find that it means “next to last”
  42. bifurcated–you know, like the devil’s tail!  :)
  43. canoodling
  44. twitterpated–from Bambi
  45. kerfuffle–I can’t believe I never heard this word until 2005’s Danish Muhammad cartoon kerfuffle

Bonus Simpsons Quote!  “Disingenuous mountebanks with their subliminal chicanery!  A pox on them!”  -Homer (no, really!), “Bart’s Friend Falls In Love,” Season 3

Hip Hop’s Pervasively Negative Influence On Our Society

 First, a letter of mine printed in the March 9, 2006 issue of Las Vegas CityLife:

Regarding Presley Vance Conkle’s tirade against Sheriff Bill Young in the March 2 issue [“Thug lite,” Your Opinion], Conkle is yet another zombie wetting himself with excitement over an opportunity to get his merit badge for Standing Up To The Man In Defense Of Anything Demonstrably Harmful. Sheriff Young’s effort to reduce hip-hop violence has hardly been tarnished. Cockiness is not an argument, Mr. Conkle, and being sarcastic does not make you right.

Nobody is muzzling the expression of rappers — their music will always be readily available. Asking business owners to voluntarily not book shows that will incite crime isn’t censorship, it’s citizenship.

Rap music never killed anybody, Mr. Conkle? We don’t need to go back to Ice-T’s “Cop Killer” or Boyz in da Hood. Just last week, a man was shot at a 50 Cent concert. This is the same 50 Cent whose recent movie, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, was greeted in Philadelphia with a murder in the theater lobby.

Conkle can’t really defend hip-hop. All he can do is make up lame comparisons, but the many incidents of fatal violence caused directly by hip-hop in our city in recent years, as reported by the Review-Journal on Feb. 12, are significant. Mr. Conkle, what has hip-hop done in our schools? Are the honors classes full of students whose diligence is driven by their Eminem CDs? Are the dean’s offices full of students whose negative behavior stems from indoctrination by Norah Jones, or Snoop Dogg? Are the truants marching out of school proudly brandishing the fashionable poses of Vince Gill, or P. Diddy?

Hip-hop encourages people to adopt the most destructive antisocial attitudes. Instead of extolling Western civilization, it specializes in bitter self-segregation. Hip-hop has become an all-pervasive media cult that makes its followers into Nelly’s image, complete with high priests ready to condemn all critics of hip-hop as heretics, accuracy of their assessments notwithstanding.

Our children already have a legion of mentally flabby teachers who themselves are the products of hip-hop’s endless apologia. Mr. Conkle, as Clark County teens continue to do worse on math tests and increasingly imitate thug stereotypes, they don’t need any more.

 

Interestingly, not long after this letter ran, the perfect illustration of my cult meatphor played out: 50 Cent, Ludacris, and other rappers publicly excoriated the most powerful woman in the world, Oprah Winfrey, not because she had campaigned against hip hop, but only because she wasn’t endorsing it enough.  Apparently, the Salem judges thought Goody Winfrey hadn’t sufficiently toed the party line on this issue, and condemned her as a witch accordingly.  Oprah, for her part, played into this sad farce, not by chastising anyone for having the audacity to challenge her priorities, but by bowing and scraping before the professionally aggrieved, whining about how she really did have some rap songs on her iPod.

And thus it is.  Questions of artistic merit notwithstanding, anyone who dares to criticize the obviously harmful effects of hip hop in the world is quickly branded a racist (yours truly has been the target of such slander before), so that their argument may be safely ignored.  What the media machine doesn’t want us to get past is that the problems with hip hop aren’t based on race (though it’s tragic that so many people have bought into that artificial, commercial identity, which only limits those so self-defined and creates unnecessary social strife), but that hip hop simply thrives on negativity. 

If I single it out for blame over other similar media brands such as heavy metal, it’s because hip hop has ruled youth culture as the single omnipotent, omnipresent force in shaping the character of children for an entire generation now.  The occasional op-ed about “the death of hip hop” can’t nullify the truth seen on every street corner and at every mall in America–this juggernaut isn’t going away anytime soon.

Though those with a vested interest in the continued success of hip hop–from Madison Avenue execs to the permanent juveniles whose minds have been stunted so as not to realize that they have had Stockholm Syndrome forced upon them–will jeer at anyone who says it, I maintain my stand, if only because all the evidence of my eyes reinforces the conclusion that this media empire will be remembered for ruining as many lives as any actual war in history.

Review of The Dark Knight

So, I’ve been most graciously invited to be a guest at By Common Consent for a couple of weeks.  I’ve been wondering what to write my first post about for a couple days, but after seeing The Dark Knight yesterday, I came home knowing precisely what needed to be said.

Is the major blockbuster for 2008 a fun-filled romp for the whole family?  Not exactly…

Here’s my review.

 

UPDATE:  90 responses later, I’m curled up in a corner, licking my wounds.  The comedian (joker?) Eric Snider did a bit on his site about faking a bad review of the movie on Rotten Tomatoes, which earned him a world of invective.  Well, I’m just flabbergasted.  Snider ended his experiment with this lesson:

I guess you can add that to your list of things that shouldn’t be treated lightly:

- God
– National tragedies
– The Holocaust
– Reviews of Batman movies

No.  Flippin’.  Joke. 

Good thing nobody actually wrote a bad review.  Boy, a guy like that would have to be crazy, which is odd since, if he were crazy, you’d think he’d be more likely to enjoy the film…

Anyway, back to nursing these bruised ribs and working up the strength to crawl to the emergency room.  Anybody got an ice pack?

Who Says History Is Boring? Part II

Exhibit B: Parachuting Cats

Consider what happened in Borneo in the 1950s. Many Dayak villagers had malaria, and the World Health Organization had a solution that was simple and direct. Spraying DDT seemed to work: mosquitoes died, and malaria declined. But then an expanding web of side effects (“consequences you didn’t think of,” quips biologist Garrett Hardin, “the existence of which you will deny as long as possible”) started to appear. The roofs of people’s houses began to collapse, because the DDT had also killed tiny parasitic wasps that had previously controlled thatch-eating caterpillars. The colonial government issued sheet-metal replacement roofs, but people couldn’t sleep when tropical rains turned the tin roofs into drums.

Meanwhile, the DDT-poisoned bugs were being eaten by geckoes, which were eaten by cats. The DDT invisibly built up in the food chain and began to kill the cats. Without the cats, the rats multiplied. The World Health Organization, threatened by potential outbreaks of typhus and sylvatic plague, which it had itself created, was obliged to parachute fourteen thousand live cats into Borneo. This occurred as Operation Cat Drop, one of the odder missions of the British Royal Air Force.

–as related in Paul Hawken, Natural Capitalism, 1999

Ah, the law of unintended consequences…

 

Who Says History Is Boring?

Once one gets the major names and dates of history down, one can proceed to the more interesting details of the story, wherein lies the real fun.  Exhibit A:

The school used human cadavers for dissection in such record numbers that supplying new ones became a problem.  That led two enterprising Irish scoundrels, William Burke and William Hare, to offer a steady supply of dead bodies to anatomy professor Robert Knox with no questions asked–steady because they began murdering the victims themselves.  When their hideous enterprise was revealed in 1829, the trial of Burke and Hare caused a major scandal.  The grisly story inspired, among others, Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story, “The Body Snatcher.”  Knox himself was never charged, while Hare turned king’s evidence.  William Burke went to the gallows–and ended up a cadaver for dissection at the medical school.  His skeleton is still there, preserved in its museum. 

–Arthur Herman, How The Scots Invented The Modern World, page 325

Now why wasn’t that story in my high school history textbook?  You’ll notice that I’m filing this under “humor.”  That’s right.  Sick, maybe, but hilarious, nonetheless.

Book Review: Bridging The Divide

I eagerly devoured 1997’s How Wide The Divide? A Mormon And An Evangelical In Conversation, so I was excited to read a couple of weeks ago that two other authors had taken up that dialogue’s legacy and written a volume of their own: Bridging The Divide: The Continuing Conversation Between A Mormon And An Evangelical

Though the books are similar, there’s one major difference: How Wide The Divide? was structured as a debate, with complimentary essays addressing religious subjects from each author’s point of view.  They were both eminently respectful throughout, but intellectually honest in plumbing the depths of their quibbles with each other’s doctrine, with an agreement to ultimately focus on the most important things they had in common.

Bridging The Divide is is not a debate at all: most of the book is set up as a transcript of a conversation about their beliefs.  Their goal is not to be polemical, nor even hardly to stump for their own faiths, but to meander on about the importance of tolerance and friendship.  This is all fine and good, but one does get bored with 185 pages and so little substance–not much is actually explained about either religion, and what information is given is often trite.  For that matter, the Mormon author gets to go into his doctrine a lot more than the Evangelical, so those of us who are more familiar with the former won’t learn much at all.  The majority of the book reads like this:

ONE GUY: People in my religion think Jesus is cool.

THE OTHER GUY: Ah, I see now; and did you know that people in my religion also think Jesus is cool?

OG: So we agree.  It’s important for everybody to know that we both think Jesus is cool.

TOG: Indeed.  In fact, I only wish more people knew that Jesus is very cool. 

OG:  I just want to say that I also think Jesus is very cool.

TOG:  Huh.  Good point.

Etc.  Now, I don’t want to be too negative here: in an increasingly globalized culture, especially one that is increasingly hostile towards all religion, it’s becomingmore important for people of all faiths, including LDS and traditional Christians, to get to know each other better, and more honestly.  This book is a worthy effort towards that end. 

But the two authors of Bridging The Divide only lob soft balls at each other, and they each graciously accept everything the other says.  The real world isn’t so saccharine.  Readers might have been better served by a book that spent less time encouraging us to hold hands and sing kumbaya, and more time on professionally delineating what divides us as well as what unites us, while giving us credit as readers–of all faiths–that we can survey this information objectively, without frothing at the mouth unless we’re reminded on every other page how important it is to be nice to each other.  For that, you’d be better suited reading the original How Wide The Divide? .

An example of something that made it worth reading, though: at one point, the LDS co-author suggests that if we get to plead ignorance when we’re queried on, say, the specifics of how God might have “become” God at some point “before the beginning of eternity,” then it’s only right to let our Evangelical neighbors play the same card when we want to pin them down the nature of the Trinity, as they see it.  Fair enough.  More like that would have been welcome.

Of course, if I hand’t read this book at all, I might never have come across this great quote by that wonderful Catholic ascetic, St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel always and, if necessary, use words.”

 

Final Grade: B-

Recommended Viewing: The Straight Story

The Straight Story is an adult movie.  Not a dirty movie, but an adult movie, meaning that it’s meant for adults.  If it’s not adult in the sense that it has inappropriate content, then how is it adult?  In the sense that it deals with things that are most keenly felt and understood by those who have a lifetime of experience behind them–nostalgia, regret, philosophy, anxiety about living rightly and dying with dignity and purpose.  There’s nothing in it to offend anyone, but it would put anyone under 20 (or maybe 30, or, these days, perhaps 50) to sleep. 

The plot, based on a true story, concerns a very old man who is going to reconcile with his long-estranged brother in another state (before it’s too late), and he’s going on the only thing he can drive–a riding lawnmower.  It’s a mature film; like it’s protagonist, it knows where it’s going, and it’s in no hurry to get there with any fanciness or noise.  It’s The Odyssey on a small scale, but with no less heart. 

Director David Lynch, best known for “edgy, shocking” films, shows superbly restrained craftsmanship in this G-rated Disney fare.  He treats his hero, Alvin Straight, with unqualified respect, but doesn’t sugar coat the essential absurdity of the quest.  This Odyssey stars a stoic Don Quixote. 

Richard Farnsworth was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Straight as stubborn but kindly, intent on maintaining his independence and earnest about being a good man.  His performance imbued the character with more humanity than most genuine humans I’ve known.  In one modestly humorous scene, Straight demurely yet assertively picks apart a repair bill for his lawnmower and gets the twins who had fixed it to lower their price, then adds a tasteful admonition to the younger men to treat each other better, his eyes clearly showing that his own brother weighs heavily on his mind. 

Another scene, the best in the film and one of the best ever filmed, suits the emotional landscape perfectly: Straight and another old timer sit in a bar, each nursing a mug of beer, and they start to quietly tell stories of especially painful memories of World War II.  These are the kinds of stories that you don’t just rattle off to the grandkids when they come to visit, and even in the company of another veteran, each man here sounds like he’s thinking out loud more than like he’s telling a story.  The scene is slow and quiet to the point of being somber, but it’s that very realistic sobriety that keeps such a serious subject from turning  into sentimental fluff. 

The brothers’ reunion at the end is shot just as simply as the rest of the film, lending it a credibility that more bombastic works lack.  Even after all we’ve seen Straight go through to get here, especially after it, these men deserve their privacy.  But, to labor something that should be obvious by now, theirs is not to be a teary-eyed Oprah-style reunion; rather, the two old men greet each other and quietly settle down on the porch to watch the stars.  No movie ever had a more appropriate ending. 

As much as I love The Straight Story now, as much as I’m grateful for a film that suggests such beautiful depth with such minimal pomp, which respects its viewers as much as its hero, there’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll love it even more as I age; that, like all good art, I’ll get even more out of it when I go back and watch it in another twenty or thirty years.

Dialogue On The Richard Dawkins Forum

I was raised Catholic but, by the time I was a teenager, I considered myself agnostic.  I felt like there was something out there, but I wasn’t sure what it was or where to find it.  Frankly, if I hadn’t ever studied the Book of Mormon, I’d probably be an atheist today.  So I actually have a lot of respect for agnostics (and to a slightly lesser degree, atheists); I applaud them for insisting that the rational mind not be held hostage to superstition and tradition (a view which is wholly compatible with the LDS Church).  In a way, these are my people, and I enjoy interacting with them.

Last December (ironically, right around the time that Elder Ballard first gave his now-landmark address about using the Internet to share the gospel), I tried to engage people on Richard Dawkins’ pro-atheist forum about evidences for the Book of Mormon (Dawkins, of course, is the world-famous author of The God Delusion).  As I explained in my first post, my goal wasn’t to convince any readers of the veracity of any of our church’s supernatural claims (though they are), but rather to introduce them to information about this important topic with which they probably hadn’t been familiar, and to ask them to rationally evaluate the arguments for and against the Book of Mormon, to see which theory for the text’s origin is best supported by artifacts and logic. 

I approached them this way not because I feel my faith is lacking or that bearing testimony is inappropriate (quite to the contrary), but only because I knew that those were the parameters of discussion on the Dawkins site, and I didn’t want to offend.  I do feel, though, that an examination of the physical evidence for such a text is a valuable part of developing a powerful witness of its truth, and an essential part of understanding it deeply and getting as much out of it as we can. 

The response to my post was overwhelming.  By the time the thread ran down about a month later (I had long since written–twice–everything pertinent that could be said), it had been viewed over 3,400 times.  It was in danger of being hijacked a few times by ex-members with an axe to grind, but I was most worried about novice readers being poisoned by the seemingly-simple answers of anti’s.  I did my best to explain the problems with these theories, while politely reiterating the facts behind my thesis–that the Book of Mormon is, according to an objective analysis of the available evidence, most likely authentic. 

To see the series of posts in my “Reason, Evidence, and the Book of Mormon” thread, please click here.  You might have to register on their site to make the connection, but it’s quick and free and, in my ever-so-very-humble opinion, worth it.  

Even if nobody ever becomes converted to Christ through that post (though it would be wonderful if they did!), I hope that some of the prejudice and disrespect which people often hold about the Book of Mormon is ameliorated because of it.  I only wish I had some way of knowing if it did that, or any good at all.