2011: My Year In Self-Improvement

I set out to check four things off of my bucket list this year.  One proved too arduous for now, and petered out in March.  I finished the other three.

One was seeing every film on AFI’s “100 Years, 100 Movies” list, except the R-rated ones.  Finally finished in July.  More on this next week.

Another was ministering to each of my home teaching families at church every month this year.  I didn’t always have a visit–I can’t control if people open the door or pick up the phone–but in past years I’ve gone months at a time without trying to contact people.  This year, everyone at least got a chance, and a lot of good work did come from it.

But the third thing was by far the coolest.  In fact, I consider it one of the best things I’ve ever done in life.  I surprised my wife with a romantic gesture every week for a year.

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2011: My Year In Books

I only read 26 books in 2011, but on the plus side, this year had the highest overall quality of any year yet–by far the most perfect tens.  And in my own defense, some of these were pretty long.  Mostly, this makes me realize how little I’ve blogged about my reading this year–I used to write more reviews.  I’ll try to do better. 

This year I read in entirety some books I’d only picked away at in part before (Bleak House, Zen), and some that have been on my to-do list for years (Flatland, Neverwhere, Speaker).  Before this year, I’d read Shakespeare’s Henry V, so I wanted to read the rest of the Henriad tetralogy–Richard II, and Henry IV, I and II.  Time well spent. 

As with the movies, there was a sharp drop off at the end of August, when school started.  The last four months have really been quite demanding.  Hopefully this Spring semester will be a little easier. 

1. Richard II, William Shakespeare (2/5, drama, literature)–10  As good as any of the tragedies, a study in self-magnified flaws leading to ruin. 

2. Bleak House, Charles Dickens (3/9, literature)–10  A tour de force of detective mystery, atmosphere and style, four dimensional characters, and withering social commentary (every law school student should be required to read chapter 1, at least).  Also, spontaneous human combution.  Seriously.  I’ve wanted to read this since PBS first aired the Masterpiece Theater serial in 2005 which, now that I’ve finally finished reading the book, I really need to see. 

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2011: My Year In Movies

I watched a lot of movies in 2011.  This was the first year that I kept track, and I was surprised just how many there were.  Of course, a lot of these were for my project of seeing all of the non R-rated movies on AFI’s top 100 American films list.  I’ll give more details and reviews on those next week.  For now, here’s my overall 2011 list.  Notice how my rate drops off when the AFI project finished, and when the fall semester started.  Alas.  Keep in mind, the 1-10 scores are how much I enjoyed watching them, and does not somehow measure any objective quality (which explains #18, I hope).  Perfect tens are in italics.

  1. The Philadelphia Story, 1/8–7

  2. The Great Escape, 1/9–9

  3. Amadeus, 1/12–10 Continue reading

Batman’s Poison Gas Fetish

I just watched Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins again.  Burton’s film has an irrepressible panache that still makes it terrific fun, and Nolan’s first Batman film shouldn’t be underrated because it stands in the shadow of its even more superior sequel.

But I never noticed a plot element they have in common.  In each of those movies, the villain’s plan to plunge Gotham into chaos hinges on getting much of the city to inhale a massively-dispersed poison gas at the same time.  In Burton’s Batman, Joker uses the Smilex in his parade balloons to kill everybody who came to get some of the $20 million he was throwing around.  In Batman Begins, Ra’s al Ghul vaporizes the city’s infected water supply to instantaneously gas the populace.

The latter plan is the better of the two (why would people come to Joker’s parade right after he already killed a bunch of people by poisoning their beauty products, anyway?), but it strikes me as strange now that essentially the same plot device would be recycled like that.  But then again, I never noticed for several years, so I guess it’s not that bad.

Remedial Higher Education in California

The California State University system has succumbed to the overwhelming needs of underprepared students:

Wracked with frustration over the state’s legions of unprepared high school graduates, the California State University system next summer will force freshmen with remedial needs to brush up on math or English before arriving on campus.

But many professors at the 23-campus university, which has spent the past 13 years dismissing students who fail remedial classes, doubt the Early Start program will do much to help students unable to handle college math or English.

“I’m not at all optimistic that it’s going to help,” said Sally Murphy, a communications professor who directs general education at Cal State East Bay, where 73 percent of this year’s freshmen were not ready for college math. Nearly 60 percent were not prepared for college English.

During a session in one of my own remedial college classes this semester, I discussed my notes and advice after reading one set of their essays, and I noted that the past tense of use was used, as in, We used to go to high school.  Invariably, these students had written, We use to go to high school.  Just another example of miswriting based on an exclusively oral culture.

But that’s not the bad part; such instruction is par for the course–no pun intended.  What really shocked me was that after I explained that rule, they argued with me about it.  For a few minutes.  Pretty viciously.  They had to insist that they were right, that the slangy version they assumed to be accurate really was, and that their professor was somehow wrong.  Perhaps their strength in numbers somehow proved to their satisfaction that they could shout me down?  I just couldn’t wrap my mind around it.

Fall Finals Freshmen Follies

I had some spectacular deja vu two weeks ago as my college classes were studying for finals.  I took them down to the building’s huge main lobby, where I hung butcher paper on the walls, with titles I wrote in the center, based on the major units of the semester.  I broke them into teams, gave them markers, and asked them to make diagrams of major points, themes, and other relevant information from throughout the last few months.  They spent a few minutes at each station, and then rotated to review and build on each other’s work.

My classes this semester were English 98, a remedial class for those whose test scores don’t qualify them to start school with English 101.  They are all freshmen.  Now, many of these students are decent, responsible, talented young people who go on to have great college careers.  But many are not.  And it is during activities like this that I hear grumbling and whining.  Actually, I hear that in almost every class almost every day.

Here’s where the deja vu comes in.  During this review session, a group of four upperclassmen walked by and, observing what we were doing, came over to talk to me.  Continue reading

Upcoming 200th Anniversaries

In 2005, the LDS Church celebrated the 200th anniversary of Joseph Smith’s birth.  As major an event as that was, the next big milestone is far, far more important, and as it’s only a little over eight years away, I wonder if plans are already being made to honor it adequately.

The 200th anniversary of the First Vision will be in the Spring of 2020.  General Conference that season will likely be on Saturday, April 4th and Sunday, April 5th.  I imagine celebrations could most conveniently coincide with that.  Certainly it’s what all the talks will be about!  But this will be a celebration that the whole world should know about, and be included in.  It should, conceivably, be the biggest event the Church has ever undertaken to organize and present, with the possible exceptions of the pioneer migration and the construction of the earliest temples.

Some other important 200th anniversaries that we might already start keeping in mind:

  • Thursday, September 21st, 2023:  Angel Moroni appears to Joseph Smith and mentions the Book of Mormon
  • Wednesday, September 22nd, 2027: Joseph Smith receives the Book of Mormon plates
  • Tuesday, May 15th, 2029: Restoration of the Aaronic priesthood
  • Tuesday, March 26th, 2030: Publication of the Book of Mormon

And, of course:

  • Saturday, April 6th, 2030: Organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

So at least one major event’s anniversary will actually fall on a weekend!

Ron Paul Dream

Last week I had a dream about Ron Paul.  In my dream, I was at some kind of convention or rally, and people got to go up to a table and meet Ron Paul.  When it was my turn, I said something like this: “Like a lot of conservatives, I’ve had misgivings about your foreign policy.  Could you explain what exactly you would do about terrorism?”  Paul started to answer, but (here is where it gets weird) as soon as he started talking, I feel asleep.  In my dream.  Then I started dreaming.  In my dream.  And the dream I had inside my real dream was just a scene from James Cagney’s 1949 gangster noir film, White Heat, which I saw earlier this year.  Then I woke up.

So if Ron Paul had a good answer, I didn’t get to hear it.  But I did get to live out Inception a little bit!

After waking up, though, this thought occurred to me: things are so bad domestically in America that, even if our very worst fears about Ron Paul were true–that he’s an isolationist whose soft foreign policy would endanger us–he might still be the candidate who would do the most good for our country.  Consider that in light of the fact that I increasingly think we’ve been wrong about how he’d prosecute terrorism, and his leadership looks more and more effective, and necessary.  Certainly, he’d be no worse than any other candidate on domestic issues, and probably much better.

Two Great New Articles About Education Standards

An article just posted in the new City Journal exposes the problem of lowered expectations in No Child Left Behind’s obsession with “proficiency.”  I worry that students now graduate high school thinking that that word denotes some amazing accomplishment, not realizing that it only indicates bare minimum competence.  The law of unintended consequences at work, but no big surprise.

But NCLB’s accountability system led to another distortion, this one harming top students. Because the law emphasized mere “proficiency,” rewarding schools for getting their students to achieve that fairly low standard, teachers and administrators had an incentive to boost the test scores of their lowest-performing students but no incentive to improve instruction for their brightest.

And the Wall Street Journal looks at lowered expectations via legally mandated “accommodations” for a slew of self-perceived “disabilities.”  Great article, but I wish they’d also mentioned ADHD.

Schools are required to extend “reasonable accommodations” for students with documented disabilities—including psychological ones—to comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

But there’s hand-wringing among university administrators and faculty about how to support college students with mental health issues while making sure young adults progress academically. One of the goals of college, after all, is to prepare students for the working world. And not every boss may be OK with a blown deadline for a critical client report, no matter the reason. Professors also want to make sure they’re being fair to all students.

I’ve been carping on things like these for years.  Our public schools have been neutered to the point of system-wide impotence largely thanks to policies like the ones analyzed above.  I’m overjoyed that people are talking about them, though.

Classic Jazz for a Rainy Monday

There used to be an older black man in my congregation at church, and someone told me that he was a huge jazz fan, and had heard a lot of the classic stuff when it had first come out.  So I asked him one day what he recommended.  He told me about “Yardbird Suite,” as done by Herbie Mann. 

I wasn’t sure about the flute as a jazz instrument, but Mann won me over.  This is beautiful. 

Bless This Day

Specific prayers bring specific blessings, I’ve heard, and this seems to be most especially true of asking for small spiritual blessings today.

Many of us probably pray for peace and insight, patience and charity, but I’ve been astounded by the power of pleading with God to favor me with a noticeable measure of these things in the same day I’m praying.  I don’t mean this in the sense of, “Give me this thing I want right now,” but in a more appropriately humble attitude of, “I really feel like I need this blessing, and I want to use it to serve, and I trust you enough to know it can happen today.”

I also try to be immediately grateful in more prayer for any evidence of progress from such prayers.  Again, what I try to ask for are gifts of noticing beauty in the world, or the ability to be more Christlike in specific situations I expect that day, or simply to be grateful for and accepting of whatever will happen soon.  I’ve found such an attitude to be immensely faith developing.

I think our Father in Heaven wants to give us blessings when we ask for them, and not always at some unknown point in the future, either.  When I ponder praying for things to be realized, at least to a degree, in the same day I want to plead for it, I usually feel a spiritual assurance that such requests are welcomed.

It reminds me of the injunction in the Lord’s Prayer to ask for things this way: “Give us this day our daily bread.”  I think the core of this prayer method is that it teaches us to be continually reliant on God.  We can’t pray, “Please give me whatever bread I’ll need every day from now on.”  That would go against the requirement for frequent, even constant, prayer itself.  One of the purposes of prayer, or daily scripture study, is to keep us in remembrance of our need to depend on God at all times.  One time prayers, or permanent blessings, just couldn’t do that.

And when we’re tempted to think of prayer and scripture study–or any other gospel routine–as chores, I think this understanding is liberating.  Yes, we will need to pour out our hearts today, and we will need to do it as much as we can; and no matter how much we exert ourselves now, we will need to do it again tomorrow, anyway.  That’s the way it’s supposed to be, and it opens the way for great blessings.  Thank God for it.

Diplomatic Dialogue Has To Start Somewhere…

Below, libertarian economic expert Peter Schiff talks to Occupy protesters.  Some of these protesters are confused, barely literate brats riding a bandwagon, but a few of them are clearly very serious, mature, intelligent people.  Unfortunately, a video like this has to operate in sound bites, and I wish the forum had been a quiet table and not a public series of rapid fire confrontations, but the exchange of ideas here gives me hope.  Future discussions could be fruitful.  There is common ground.  There is some common sense all around.  Kudos to Reason magazine for putting this together.