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Archive for April, 2009

Last week I saw something nostalgic at the library: some DVDs of Mystery Science Theater 3000.  I checked a couple out and watched one (The Atomic Brain!) with my nine year old son.  He loved it.  The show was more corny than I remembered, but actually even funnier.  I suspect that a lot of us enjoyed MST3K 10,15,20 years ago, and didn’t have kids then, or kids who were old enough to appreciate snarkiness.  Now…I suggest that you consider this as a Family Home Evening activity.  What better way to bond with the fam than by watching a guy stranded on a space station in the future, forced to watch bad old movies, which he and his robot friends mercilessly ridicule in a feeble attempt to stave off insanity?

In a fortuitous convergence of events, yesterday I heard Public Image Limited’s 1986 ditty “Rise” on the radio.  Curious, I looked up its video on YouTube.  Good grief, was it awful.  Exactly the kind of faux-earnest, quirky-punk, weird-concept garbage that we all thought was so profound in the 80′s.  In the video, Johnny Lydon (formerly Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols), endeavors to raise our awareness of the seriousness of South African apartheid.  He does this by bouncing around, flailing his arms, and glaring sternly at the camera.  This video begs to be mocked.   

Here are two ideas: one part of the song’s refrain has Lydon chanting, “I could be black, I could be white.”  Really?  Hmm, we appear to have a mystery.  Let’s try to figure this puzzle out.  Skin so pale it’s practically transparent?  Check.  Bright orange hair?  Check.  Yup, I think it’s safe to say this guy’s white.  Case closed.  Next.

Another repeated element of the song–its only genuinely good part, really–is the chorus: “May the road rise with you.”  Perhaps when we hear this we can sing, “May the Force be with you.”  Catchy, no?

 

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One of my favorite colleagues in education was an agnostic science teacher with whom I whiled away more than a few lunch periods commiserating about all our sundry complaints.  Particularly at the school where we worked together, we had both noticed that the population had a strong, seemingly built-in sense of fatalism, wholly internalized, woven into the fabric of their DNA.  Far too many kids would come into our classes at the end of a summer already convinced that they couldn’t learn, that they would never want to learn, that work of any kind just wasn’t important.  Their philosophy was one of paralyzing nihilism, a mix of predestination and hedonism, I thought.  They were absolutely sure that their intelligence, talents, and abilities were all immutable, a fixed, inherent quantity that they couldn’t improve or develop even if they wanted to, so why bother?  My friend and I lamented our failure to convince them that they were far more powerful than they were giving themselves credit for. 

During one of our conversations about religion, though, he short-circuited my attempts to get him to analyze his own agnostic assumptions when he asserted that I simply had the “gift of faith,” a thing which he said he respected, but just didn’t have.  I don’t think any amount of banging my head against the wall ever got him to see the irony. 

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Scary.

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Elder Holland’s recent Conference talk about the intense depth of suffering experienced by the Savior for the Atonement–and the Church’s incredibly successful YouTube clip from it–have got me thinking about how this episode also teaches us perhaps history’s greatest lesson about charity. 

Sometimes I’m tempted to pull my head back into my shell and call it quits as far as the world is concerned.  I think we all feel that way sometimes.  Work is stressful–or lost, finances are tight, illness is soaking up strength, family problems are heartbreaking, addictions are threatening, or a combination of these or any of a thousand other adversities conspire to drag us down.  Often we may feel that the best option to preserve what little sanity we have left is to circle the wagons and just worry about yourself, and let the rest of the world go its way. 

When this temptation surfaces, it’s good to remember how the Savior conducted himself in the midst of the Atonement.  In the Garden of Gethsemane, as Jesus Christ felt infinitely for “pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and…the pains and sicknesses of his people…their infirmities…[and] the sins of his people” (Alma 7:11-13)–truly, every negative experience every mortal has been, will be, or even could be called to pass through–a sacrifice so profound that the “suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit–and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink” (D&C 19:18), He did not pull his head into his shell, or circle the wagons, or give Himself up to worry or self pity, letting the rest of the world fend for itself. 

First, he (more…)

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200px-star_trek_vi-posterAs the hubbub heats up for the release of the big Star Trek reboot in two weeks (and it does look terrific), I’ve been thinking back on the first ten films in the series.  Fans have their favorites and their theories: the even numbered films are the best, most say, and favorites tend to cluster. 

Many people will cite Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan as the best, and they have a strong case: Kirk’s backstory, the ingenious continuity of an episode from the original series (and the hilarious mistake of having Khan recognize a crew member who wasn’t actually on the show during that original episode), the presence of recently departed Ricardo Montalban as supervillain Khan and a young (and skinny!) Kirstie Alley as a Vulcan named Saavik, plus the riveting conclusion with its cat-and-mouse battle and Spock’s sacrifice.  Undeniably, a great movie. 

Those who aren’t devoted fans might fondly remember 1986′s Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, a lighthearted romp where the Enterprise travels back to the 1980′s to…wait for it…save the whales!  By far the funniest in the series, its jokes mainly revolve around the 80′s tried and true “out of place adults and/or aliens reacting to the strangeness of modern life” formula. 

And of course, there’s a lot to be said for Star Trek: First Contact, a film made especially to attract non-fans, which did so by pumping out one of the most viscerally intense action movies of the 90′s (really!) by taking the Borg threat from the Next Generation TV series and making them ten times cooler. 

But as I’ve reminisced, I realized that I hadn’t seen Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country since I saw it in the theater 18 years ago.  I figured it was time to give it another go, and put it on tonight.

Here’s six reasons why Star Trek VI may well be the best of the first ten Star Trek movies:

WARNING: Spoilers follow!  If you don’t like it, go and watch the movie first.  Just trust me. 

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My first year teaching, during the 2000-2001 school year, was at West Middle School, which was arguably the worst school in Las Vegas.  Located in one of the oldest, poorest parts of the city, I remember one staff meeting we had that January, so the police department could brief us on the gang war going on in that neighborhood, which had taken the lives of several people within a mile of the school within the last few months, and which had plenty of ties to kids on campus. 

Not surprisingly, West had over a 90% teacher turnover rate each year, and I admit I was one of those who left as soon as I could, bound for greener pastures where I hoped my skills could be more appreciated, and more than a little out of fear and intimidation at what overwhelmed me as a profoundly hopeless situation.  I’ve always had mixed feelings about my cynicism, and have secretly hoped for something to prove me wrong. 

Now, a glimmer of hope comes.  A story in the Las Vegas Review-Journal this week chronicles the improvements made at West, especially a dramatic increase in passing the state’s proficiency test for this year’s juniors (West is expanding to become a K-12 school). 

Things that the article suggests contributed to the improvements are:

  • extra per-pupil spending from the school district and federal sources
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  1. This week, the Las Vegas Sun won a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on the safety problems and subsequent fatalities at construction sites on the Strip.  Apparently, that big building boom we had promised profits that outweighed silly little details like making sure that the guys actually making it happen, you know, wouldn’t keep horribly dying.  This is a huge coup for Las Vegas and a well-deserved honor for its journalists.  Congrats especially to Alexandra Berzon, the young reporter behind the series. 
  2. Not only did the school at which I work, Centennial High, win our state championships this year for women’s soccer and basketball, but even more prestigious still, our Navy JROTC unit won the annual national competition.  That’s right, our cadets made us the number one Navy ROTC program in the country.  A link to the official scores isn’t ready yet, but we finished 1st place in unit personnel inspection, athletics, academics, pushups, 1600 relay, and placed near the top in several other categories.  A dozen of our cadets finished at or near the top in their individual events.  Add it up and we’re #1, which is especially impressive considering that we’re a fairly young school (with an eight-year-old program) that was competing mostly against old schools from east of the Mississippi. 

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180px-sotwSavior of the World is a theatrical production by the LDS Church that premiered in November 2000 in the church’s Conference Center in Salt Lake City, and has since been performed in other locations.  I saw it for the first time last night in Henderson, Nevada. 

The first thing to know about Savior of the World is that it’s not really about the Savior, in the sense that a traditional nativity or passion play focuses on His life.  Jesus only shows up a few times in the play, and when He does it’s only as a monolithic dispenser of quotations–His presence in the play is completely devoid of personality.  The intent is clear:  to focus on the lives and needs of those others who played supporting roles in His ministry. 

One is reminded of Ben-Hur, where Jesus Christ’s few “cameo appearances” contained no dialogue and were shot only from behind.  Savior of the World strives for a similar degree of reverence–the actor portraying Christ doesn’t even come out for the curtain call. 

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SATIRE

Stake President: Welcome, Brother X, thank you, please come in.

Brother X: Thanks, president.  OK, let’s get this over with.  How does this thing go?

Stake (“steak”?  Better try “carrot”) President: Brother X, we need to meet in order to discuss some things you’ve been publicly advocating that are contrary to the established doctrine of the church.

Bro. X: Fine.  I’ve got nothing to hide or be ashamed of.  My ideas are just as valid as yours, and I believe this church is big enough to fit all the ideas in it that anybody wants. 

Stake Carrot President: But Brother X, this is the Church of Latter-day Vegetarians, and you insist on teaching people that they should eat meat instead of vegetables!

Bro. X: Of course!  Look, I totally have a testimony of the whole vegetable thing, I just also feel strongly that you can eat meat and still be a faithful, active vegetarian.  I don’t see the problem here.

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April 20, 2009 is the ten year anniversary of the Columbine shootings.  I was a junior in college that year, and heard about it in an afternoon class.  No doubt this dubious hallmark will be an occasion for a lot of hand wringing and navel gazing, but I want to add a few random comments that I hope are worthwhile.

  • I remember reading one editorial soon afterward that made a devastating, politically incorrect point about our society, to the effect that a teenage girl without skills or self esteem is a danger to herself, but a teenage boy without skills or self esteem is a danger to everybody.  True.
  • This tragedy still most clearly illustrates something that we’ve actually come to accept and ignore: we’re raising a generation of sociopaths.  Not all of them, but so many that it can’t be a coincidence.  Consider the teenager who recently brutally tortured and murdereda man he met online.  Before Columbine, we would have been horrified.  Now we just shrug and flip the channel.  I’m also reminded of a story that stuck with me from the local Las Vegas Sun about how young gang members now have largely become unreachable hounds seeking violence for its own sake, without their elders’ interests in turf or identity.  When the Virginia Tech shooting shocked us two years ago, one of my first reactions was, That’s right, the Columbine generation is in college now.  And the media gave the killer all the attention he clearly wanted.  Our addiction to brutal violence has long since gone past the tipping point, but we just don’t care what it’s doing to us.  In unrelated news, I hear they’re making yet another Saw movie. 
  • Our schools’ schizophrenic enforcement of standards since then has become surreal: we strip search girls who might have aspirin, but kids with weapons on campus will get a slap on the wrist, a brief trip to a “behavior school,” and be back in the normal rotation by the end of the year. 
  • Around the five year anniversary, some boys at the school where I worked had an idea: spread rumors about an upcoming school shooting and get their parents to freak out and keep them home from school that day.  It worked like a charm.  For days beforehand, I fielded calls from worried parents who wanted to know if the rumors were true (and what did they expect us to say? “Yes, the shooting is scheduled for 10:30 next Tuesday”?)  Lots of parents did keep their kids home.  There was no shooting, and our campus police were able to track down the kids who started the rumor.  I hope their day off was worth it. 
  • Columbine was followed by a merchandising frenzy that produced things like a T-shirt I saw being worn by a Colorado resident: “We are Columbine.”  Really?  Such nauseating narcisism wouldn’t be seen again until the waves of 9/11 “memorabilia” two years later.  Attention Oprah fans: not every tragedy is an excuse for everybody to have a big weepy love-in about how it made them feel. 
  • I’ve read this provocative essay about the racial/cultural factors involved in this and similar tragedies: “School Shootings and White Denial.”  The author mostly makes sense, except when he implies that white racism caused these shootings because we ignored the warning signs in minority cultures, which then creeped into the suburbs.  I see no evidence for that. 
  • I also read the story of Cassie Bernall, She Said Yes.  It not only told the story of this fateful day, but addressed the solutions.  Cassie Bernall could have been like the shooters, but she changed, and died for that change.  It’s still in print and I recommend it to everybody.

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200px-fireproof_posterMy wife and I rented this movie for date night on Friday, and we were both struck by how powerful it was.  Fireproof is an independent film produced by a team of evangelical Christians.  To the best of my knowledge, no Latter-day Saints were involved in any aspect of it.  And it’s just about the best Mormon movie I’ve ever seen.

By which I mean that this film better reflects the values of Latter-day Saints about marriage and family than anything I’ve seen that actually was produced by Mormons.  Fireproof treats marriage overtly as a “covenant,” and praises it as a joyful and integral priority in life.  Fireproof also makes it stunningly clear that no relationship is whole and complete until God’s love is brought into it.  Indeed, none of the relatively few doctrinal statements in the film would be uncomfortable for any Latter-day Saint.

But it’s not a dry, didactic documentary.  When Fireproof was released last year, critics panned it, so you know right away that it’s probably pretty good.  (more…)

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atlasPoor Ayn Rand.  She’s taken her licks lately in the Bloggernacle, getting excoriated at By Common Consent.  Some have stepped up to defend her honor, conservative gentlemen they are, but there are still some important points to be made that I don’t think anybody has explained yet. 

Rand is criticized for three main things: that her philosophy promotes greed and selfishness, that she was militantly anti-religion, and that her writing is poor.  I’ll address each:

1.  On the title page of my personal copy of Atlas Shrugged, I copied this famous quote from Book IV, chapter 2 of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations:

Every individual…generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it…he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention….By pursuing his own interest, he frequently promotes that of the society more efficiently than when he really intends to promote it. 

Meaning, Ayn Rand’s Objectivism may seem selfish and greedy…but it results in a better world for all, a world more just, more prosperous, and more fair than any other system.  (more…)

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Two days after the nationwide tea party protests, I’m sitting in an office waiting to be called up to the window.  As I pass the time reading, I come across this, during a conversation about hypothetically bailing out failing banks:

“But there’s no reason why any bank should do what you suggest, it never has in the past.  Each bank stands or falls on its own merits, that’s the joy of our free enterprise system.  Such a scheme as you propose would set a dangerous precedent.  It would certainly be impossible to prop up every bank that was mismanaged.”

–James Clavell, Noble House, 1981

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Attorney General Janet Napolitano’s assertion that military veterans need to be considered as potential threats for violent “right wing extremist” attacks because of the training they receive in the military is both disturbing and misguided.  Her only reference for this is Timothy McVeigh (a specious example at best), which opens up a floodgate for the kind of profiling that I though liberals were supposed to hate. 

After all, if veterans are suspect in general because of the training they and McVeigh might share, should we also put all math teachers under closer scrutiny because of the damage wrought by the technical know-how of the Unabomber

But this slippery slope comes much closer to home for Napolitano.  After all, she’s an attorney by profession, and tons of attorneys have abused their legal expertise to hurt, frame, and defraud people.  Shouldn’t she herself be under the microscope, you know, just in case?

Or take the fact that she’s a woman.  Sadly, women have been known to warp their own maternal instincts and kill their children.  Luckily, though, it appears that there is very little danger of Napolitano ever being in that position.

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This week I read a review of a new book called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance–Now With Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem!  The author (a clever, enterprising young man, no doubt), took Jane Austen’s text and lightly revised it to include references to zombies.  Here’s Amazon’s blurb:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.” So begins Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, an expanded edition of the beloved Jane Austen novel featuring all-new scenes of bone-crunching zombie mayhem. As our story opens, a mysterious plague has fallen upon the quiet English village of Meryton—and the dead are returning to life! Feisty heroine Elizabeth Bennet is determined to wipe out the zombie menace, but she’s soon distracted by the arrival of the haughty and arrogant Mr. Darcy. What ensues is a delightful comedy of manners with plenty of civilized sparring between the two young lovers—and even more violent sparring on the blood-soaked battlefield as Elizabeth wages war against hordes of flesh-eating undead. Can she vanquish the spawn of Satan? And overcome the social prejudices of the class-conscious landed gentry? Complete with romance, heartbreak, swordfights, cannibalism, and thousands of rotting corpses, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies transforms a masterpiece of world literature into something you’d actually want to read.

 

Not only do I have this on my hold list at the library so I can have a good laugh at the novelty of the idea, but now I’m thinking, this is easy!  I should have thought of this first!  If this books sells well, the possibilities for similar such exploitations are limitless.  Consider what I’ve come up with so far:

  • Of Mice and Men and Zombies
  • Romeo and Juliet and Zombies
  • The Sound and the Fury and the Zombies

They don’t even have to be zombies.  Lots of stuff would work:

  • War and Peace and Vampires
  • The Old Man and the Sea and the Werewolf
  • Crime and Punishment and Aliens

Heck, they don’t even have to be monsters at all.  Some titles just beg for random silliness:

  • The Naked and the Dead and the Rave Party
  • The Moon and Sixpence and Spam
  • Zen and the Arts of Motorcycle Maintenance and Brain Surgery and Stamp Collecting
  • Franny and Zooey and Carly and Jimmy and Henry and Joey and Stacy and Bob

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