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Archive for December, 2009

My Dad’s Harry Reid Story

My parents moved to Las Vegas in the mid 70’s.  Just after doing so, they realized that, being early into their marriage, they hadn’t yet written their wills.  They went to a local law firm to get it done, and were assigned to young attorney named Harry Reid.

Two months passed and they still hadn’t heard anything about this simple job.  Then, Reid called my dad to explain that the wills weren’t done yet because his secretary “had shot herself in the finger.”  Another month passed before they got a call saying that they could come in and sign their finished wills. 

As my parents sat in Reid’s office looking over the papers, a senior partner in the firm passed by the door and, looking in, shouted, “Harry, you took so damn long on those wills, don’t you dare charge them a dime for it!”  So my parents got their wills, written by Harry Reid, for free.

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It’s like a convergence of the planets: a timely harmony of Christmas, the New Year, spending some extra free time with my family, and seeing The Curious Case of Benjamin Button last week, has gotten me feeling especially sentimental. 

So I recently remembered this old song and looked it up on YouTube.  I listened to it for the first time in well over twenty years and thought of my own kids’ names in each chorus. 

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Master and Commander, by Patrick O’Brian

I’ve been wanting to read this since the movie came out several years ago.  Besides, I’ve reached a point in life where a tone-accurate portrait of rough yet civilized 18th century life at sea is really quite appealing to me.  So I picked up this book with relish and enthusiasm.

Three weeks later I was less than a hundred pages in and had to admit that this relationship just wasn’t working out.  On the surface, it seemed that Master and Commander and I were a perfect match, but after a while you can’t deny that some kind of spark is lacking.  What was the problem?  Did the book fail to appreciate me?  No, it never pandered to me, never belittled me, but rather expended quite a bit of its own time and energy trying to make me happy.  And I really liked Master and Commander for it; in fact, nobody was more surprised than me at my lack of heartfelt affection for it. 

But I couldn’t muster any emotional attachment to it at all.  So we parted ways, amicably.  We don’t see much of each other socially, but when we do, it’s cool.

Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak

Like Master and Commander, I’d been wanting to read this classic since I’d heard of it several years before–in the movie Must Love Dogs, if you must know.  I’d recently read about its CIA connections along with its Nobel Prize, so it came fraught with mystery, which made it even more…alluring. 

I started my dizzying relationship with Doctor Zhivago in the Spring–a season made for love!–and fell hard and fell fast.  I was in for a long-term relationship.  I was challenged intellectually and emotionally.  At first.  But like so many such romances, it burned out quickly.  By the time I was halfway through the book, it was a trudging chore for me to feign passion.  Was there anything wrong with Doctor Zhivago?  Again, no.  It wasn’t Doctor Zhivago, it was me.  I guess I just wasn’t in a very good place in life right then, and needed some space.  I thought cooling off would help, but we just never picked it up again.  The truth is, Doctor Zhivago was too good for me.  It deserves to be read by someone more equal to its bleakly realistic insights, someone more attuned to its turns of character, someone more interested in its ponderous love triangle set against the Russian revolution. 

Doctor Zhivago and I actually still see each other at parties, and we chat and catch up.  Doctor Zhivago is doing well, and I’m glad.  Doctor Zhivago deserves to be happy.

Dracula, by Bram Stoker

Dracula was supposed to be easy, a sure thing, a harmless fling.  Boy, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.  Dracula had a reputation, and I won’t lie to you–I was into it.  We started hanging out in late September, and I knew from the start that there would be major flaws I’d just have to ignore–a small price to pay for such a fun ride, I figured.  But those small flaws–the irritating device of being a collection of source documents, Renfield’s pointless escapades, Mina and Lucy’s endlessly loquacious prattling about their feelings (does Stoker really think that’s the way girls are?), and Harker’s heroic early turn in the book, only to disappear until it’s nearly halfway through–were quickly eclipsed by the one big psycho quirk that none of the other guys had warned me about: Van Helsing, that awesome vampire hunter of myth and legend, is a pitiful geek.  How in the world did he ever become renowned as such a great character, when he spend two-thirds of his dialogue going on about how much he loves everybody!?  I mean, dude, what’s up with that?

You know what?  Dracula wasn’t like my other failed relationships this year.  They were classy, at least.  But Dracula, Dracula didn’t even try.  Didn’t meet me halfway, didn’t try to change, offered me nothing that a good book is supposed to.  A man has needs, Dracula!  And you didn’t care enough to give anything at all back to me, after all the chances I gave you to make this thing work. 

Fine.  I see how you are.  Get lost, Dracula, and don’t let the door hit your butt on the way out.  I hope you’re happy in that studio apartment for the rest of you life, with all your cats.

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It starts earlier every year…

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Merry Pirate Birthday!

One of my kids is lucky enough to have a birthday right before Christmas.  He wanted a pirate-themed party this year, so that combined with our Christmas decorations made for an interesting ambience this year.  Three recent views of our household are below. 

I told some friends who were over that the pirate birthday party decorations were actually for Christmas.  Because, you know, poor Jesus, if you think about it, has to have the same old theme for His birthday year after year: the whole “winter festival / nativity” thing.  It probably gets a little old after a couple of thousand years.  This year, I said, our family decided to jazz it up a bit for Him.  This year, the Savior of the world got a pirate birthday.  Next year, who knows, maybe Transformers. 

Yar, merry Christmas, matey!

Snowman, reindeer, and some Jolly Roger flags

 

Santa on the wall next to some happy little skulls

 

Foreground: treasure chest and pirate ship mobile Background: Christmas tree

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My favorite film of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is the 1998 TV version with Patrick Stewart as Scrooge.  Besides being–in my view–the most faithful to the original, there are several little touches about it that I really like. 

Perhaps foremost among these is a brief but stirring inclusion of the song, “Silent Night,” during a series of glimpses showing the Ghost of Christmas Present at work.  After showing Scrooge the condition of the Cratchits, but before visiting his nephew, Fred, the ghost takes Scrooge on a tour of some of his other rounds of blessings, among the poor in general.  Tiny Tim begins the song, and the last of these short scenes is of a group of miners making their way along in the dark, whilst one of them belts out the end of the second verse of the song: “Christ the Savior is born!”

It’s amazing.  I’ve never heard it sung that way before or since, but it seems to me now the only natural way to do so.  After all (in my church’s hymn book, at least), that line ends with an exclamation mark.  We usually sing this song very quietly, but that line really does demand to be declared boldly, announced on the rooftops and by trumpets.  And the way it’s sung in this movie…imagine Pavarotti letting fly with some signature opera in a massive coliseum and you might get the picture. 

Las Vegas used to have an annual live nativity pageant, put on by the Las Vegas stake of the LDS Church, and what I remember of it now is the part near the end where the shepherds have visited the baby in the manger, and then the narrator reads Luke 2:17, “And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.”  Immediately after this, all the people playing shepherds run out to the bleachers where the audience sit and make a series of impassioned, improvised announcements, to the effect of, “Great news!  The Messiah has been born!” or “Jesus Christ was just born!  The Savior is here!”  The singing of “Silent Night” in that movie reminds me of the joyous enthusiasm of those young actors. 

Shouldn’t that be our attitude?  This holiday commemorates a major milestone in the eternal victory of good over evil, of mercy and salvation over death and sin.  Peaceful reverence certainly has its place, but I do like also seeing some boisterous bravado in our celebration of the Lord’s mortal birth. 

“Silent Night” is sung near the end of the clip below:

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A story appeared in Friday’s Las Vegas Review-Journal about a local high school teacher who has stirred controversy when she questioned the historicity of the Holocaust to her class.  I’m not interested in commenting on that so much as I am on the reader comments that appear after the article (here).  I certainly haven’t read all 300, but I read through enough of them to see a disturbing trend–a lot of them were viciously, violently anti-Semitic. 

Now, I’ve seen plenty of trolls online before, but they’re usually just tossing out quick insults to anger people for fun; the bigots writing on this forum were often writing long, detailed, even eloquent speeches against Jewish people.  In short, these are real racists.  I can’t put into words how shocked I am. 

I also don’t care to dignify their assertions about the Holocaust or Jews in general by analyzing them here, but I have to wonder where all of this comes from.  What in the world could any Jewish people have possibly done to create this degree of rancor from so many strangers?  Nothing, of course.  It doesn’t make any kind of sense.  Such is the inherently ignorant nature of prejudice, I suppose. 

Having read the posts that I did on that article, I can only think of two explanations: that many in our postmodern world are upset by a people whose very existence testifies of a solid, traditional religious heritage, and that a lot of people have been successfully convinced by multicultural media propaganda that Israel is evil (by overwhelming us with the message that “Palestinians” are underdog victims, mainly).  If I’m right about the racists’ motives, the commonality between them is likewise shocking: these are the motives of progressive leftists. 

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I was one of a million people who was recently outraged by the horrifying, tragic story of a young Las Vegas woman named Roshunda Abney who was ignored–ignored!–by emergency room staff for six hours until she went home and gave birth to a premature baby who then died.  Imagine that!  The hospital ignored the moans of a pregnant woman in agony, for hours.  They must have been playing poker or something back there that whole time.  Surely, there is incompetence or racism or something equally nefarious going on here.

There’s just one problem.  It turns out there’s something pretty important that most media reports have left out of this story.  The hospital didn’t know the woman was pregnant.  For that matter…neither did she.

That’s right.  She was six months pregnant and thought she was just having stomach pains.  Somehow, the reports of this story that made national news, especially the official Associated Press version, completely left out this little detail. 

Now, I can’t imagine how a woman could possibly not know that she was pregnant for six months–it would seem that some major physical signs would have had to be present–but it goes without saying then that she had gotten no prenatal care.  Still, I have to wonder what her lifestyle was like during that time that killed her baby.  I’d love to know if she was smoking, drinking, or doing anything else unhealthy during that time. 

In their rush to run yet another story that makes some big, bad, scary institution look evil, the media has really dropped the ball on this one.  Unfortunately, the lion’s share of responsibility for this poor baby’s death probably has to fall on the mother who wasn’t even good enough to know that she was a mother.  I may be wrong, but one thing’s for certain: the media has largely given us an unbalanced story, and too many people are hurrying to condemn the hospital. 

Read the AP version of this story here.  A local story that briefly mentions that the woman didn’t know she was pregnant is here.

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Robert Langdon is not a good teacher.

Other reviewers of Dan Brown’s books have noted that his protagonist, symbolism professor Robert Langdon, is no Indiana Jones. Where Jones is an egalitarian everyman, a likeable average guy who “makes it up as he goes along” and seems comfortable everywhere, Langdon is a prissy, arrogant know-it-all who rarely does anything right other than figure out obscure puzzles at the last minute. (I read one essay that suggested that that’s why Ron Howard cast Tom Hanks in the role for the movies–you need someone as personable as Hanks to make the character even remotely tolerable…and Langdon still comes across as a stuffy jerk.)

Langdon fails to measure up to the bar of Indiana Jones in a respect other than that of heroism and likeability, though–where Indiana Jones is a good teacher, Langdon is not.

We see Professor Jones at work in the classroom in three out of his four movies. (more…)

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For me, the scariest verse in all of scripture has always been D&C 103:2: “And that same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there…”  It’s hard enough to be a shy introvert now without having to be surrounded by people throughout eternity, too!  But there’s an important lesson in that truth about the nature of real spirituality, and it’s one that I’ve long been trying to learn.

Other teachings in the Doctrine and Covenants affirm that being sealed in the temple is necessary to qualify for exaltation, the highest salvation with which anyone can be blessed.  For example, D&C 131:1-2 reads, “In the celestial glory there are three heavens or degrees; and in order to obtain the highest, a man must enter into this order of the priesthood [meaning the new and everlasting covenant of marriage],” and the very next section contains this even more explicit promise: “And again, verily I say unto you, if a man marry a wife by my word, which is my law, and by the new and everlasting covenant…they shall pass by the angels, and the gods, which are set there, to their exaltation and glory in all things…” (D&C 132:19). 

The point is that nobody can be exalted alone.  This supreme gift can only be bestowed on those who have successfully grounded their lives in the service of others–a family.  (I hasten to add here that the Church has clearly taught that nobody will suffer any loss of blessings because of any opportunity that they just didn’t have here on Earth–see, for example, Dallin H. Oaks: “The Lord has promised that in the eternities no blessing will be denied his sons and daughters who keep the commandments, are true tho their covenants, and desire what is right.”)

Just as exaltation cannot be achieved by a lone individual, neither can Zion be established by such.  There is no such thing as a marriage of one; similarly, there is no such thing as a Zion of one.    (more…)

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Despite the recession, I’ve heard too many stories recently of people going overboard with Christmas shopping.  It brought back to mind the following, which I originally posted here over a year and half ago.  Though it’s written with a Latter-day Saint audience in mind, the principles it promotes apply to everybody.

*****

What have been some of the major themes of General Conference talks the last few years? We can easily rattle off a list: morality and pornography, social issues, debt, and raising the bar on missionary work, to name a few. But there is one other theme that is rarely mentioned because, frankly, it makes us uncomfortable. 

Money. We’re being warned about our attitude toward it, and that often makes us defensive. We’re warned, but since the Church can’t simply place a limit on our assets, we may not be sure what the ideal position is. But if our leaders have seen fit to bring it up, we ought to think about it and realize we may need to make some changes. This is a sensitive subject, so let’s be clear on the purpose of this essay: not to accuse anyone of anything, but to serve as a guide for self-analysis in an area that we may often ignore exactly because it is so sensitive.

At the October 2004 General Conference, two general authorities gave consecutive talks denouncing materialism among the Latter-day Saints. Presiding Bishop David H. Burton spoke of restraining our worldly success, concluding by saying, “A prayerful, conservative approach is the key to successfully living in an affluent society and building the qualities that come from waiting, sharing, saving, working hard, and making do with what we have.”1 

Then, Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin said, “We should end our fixation on wealth…. I feel that some are so concerned about the type of car they drive, the expensive clothes they wear, or the size of their house in comparison to others that they lose sight of the weightier matters.”2 More recently, Elder Mervyn B. Arnold of the Seventy has written in the March 2005 Ensign of a concern he shared with a stake president for an “increasing number of Church members who focus their attention” on worldly possessions.3 Indeed, the prophetic warnings on this issue also seem to be increasing, just as they may be increasingly ignored.

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I think I finally get it. I understand why Harry Reid is pushing so aggressively for this health care reform.

Remember Atlas Shrugged? Besides John Galt, the capitalist superman recruiting strikers behind the scenes, another freedom fighter was Francisco D’Anconia, who paraded as a worthless playboy so nobody would suspect him of helping to sabotage the whole economic system, overloading it and destabilizing it from within.

Maybe that’s what Reid is doing. As D’Anconia was pretending to be a thoughtless hedonist, Reid might just be pretending to be a clueless elitist. Perhaps Reid is actually a conservative and this is his way of destroying the corrupt, bloated, ineffective machinery of government that progressives have built up over the last century: he’s going to put so much weight on the shaky framework that liberals have constructed that it will finally have to collapse in on itself, exposing the whole thing as a scam and allowing us to start over.

Think about it: if a Randian hero were working undercover to subvert our broken system, a la D’Anconia, wouldn’t this health care bill be exactly the way to do it? Wouldn’t Harry Reid be in the perfect position to throw a great big wrench in the gears?

Maybe Reid knows exactly what he’s doing. Maybe–just maybe–he’s championing a disastrously bad work of legislation on purpose.

Brilliant.

And, Senator, if this is actually true and I’ve just blown your cover…sorry.

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When my wife and I got married, I was in charge of planning some of the honeymoon.  I knew right away what I wanted to do: I wanted to go to a cozy bed and breakfast in some scenic, peaceful corner of the country.  After a ton of research, I found the one I’d been looking for: The White Birches Inn in Abingdon, Virginia. 

Check out their web site (from which the accompanying pictures here are borrowed) and consider staying there. 

First of all, Abingdon was gorgeous.  It’s a small town that’s home to a ton of neat little shops, historical buildings (including an inn that was once a residence for Martha Washington), a community theater that fostered Kevin Spacey, among many other great writers and actors (my wife and I saw two great plays there), and a bike trail through the Appalachians that was as pleasant as it was refreshing. 

But the inn itself was the highlight of the visit.  The rooms are named after great playwrights who worked with the local theater, is stuffed with great books in almost every corner, features a meticulously maintained garden exterior, and serves up an array of exquisitely sumptuous homemade breakfasts.  The best part is the owners: a sweet couple who clearly love the inn and their visitors with all of their generous hearts.  I remember that when my wife and I had to leave, after helping us with our bags, they came out the front door to wave to us as we pulled away. 

I’ve wanted to go back ever since.  We didn’t make it for the five year anniversary, but I’m hoping maybe for the tenth.  In the meantime, if you’re looking to enjoy a getaway at a quiet, lovely bit of Heaven, you could do no better anywhere in the world than to stay at the White Birches Inn.

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Beautiful Photography Resource

I was recently made aware that a colleague of mine is a very talented professional photographer.  If anyone has any interest in this art, please check out her web site here to see a variety of excellent examples of her work.  I looked at these and was supremely impressed.  It is definitely worth your time to enjoy these terrific pieces.

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