Sunday, December 23, 2007

Book Review: Leaping, Brian Doyle

Ways that Brian Doyle has changed my life (I went to three of his presentations when he visited campus last month and just finished Leaping):
a) I've come to realize the gift that artistic inspiration is. He quoted his dad as saying "the difference between writers and non-writers is that writers record the things they think about in the shower or lying in bed." Doyle also introduced half the essays he read with a story something like: "I met this incredible old woman/fireman/baseball playing kid, and they told me this story and after hearing it I shuffled off to my office as fast as I could to get it down." He talked about stories having expiration dates, that you have to write ideas down when they're fresh and interesting in your head. And how true this is. How many times have you had an interesting idea and put off doing anything with it? Soon enough either you forget it or it gets tired and brittle and is worth nothing. So I'm a little better at writing things down. And hope to get even better.
b) He made me a better Christian. Inspired me to be. First through this idea of stories: that people are stories and people want to share their stories and when you're humble enough to really listen you invite connection with people and I'm a huge believer that connection is our most urgent imperative in regards to our fellow man (John 15). Second through his example of a man unashamed of his faith and love. Moved to tears by stories of great sacrifice and of his children. Third, through what he taught me about grace. "God's love is more powerful than your sin hands-down, any day of the week." Why didn't I know this? Why have I been clinging to a wienie and watered-down version of grace hoping that this shadowy whisper of an omnipotent being's love was enough to pull me to salvation? Grace.

Leaping itself is pure gold. And think elven gold a la Tolkien--dancing and shimmering in inexplicable ways. It's a collection of essays on Christ and Grace and Children, but in the way of the best essayists, Doyle approaches inexpressible truths through the mundane and the ordinary. His essays feature summer camp and Bruce Springsteen and altar boys being boys. I regret that my review has taken such an ridiculous tone of the superlative because probably it undercuts my credibility, but the truth is that Doyle is a hilarious, human, and humble man with an eye for detail and a faith that shoots each essay through with a spark of the divine.
He manages it without dwelling in the dark and heavy. A tribute to the dead of 9-11 is somber and thought-provoking without being hopeless or vengeful.

I'd like to compare Leaping with Leap by Terry Tempest Williams for a minute. The two are both non-fiction, both attempts to defining and understanding faith and the way the glory of God works in a fallen world. Granted, their aims and audiences are different, but the fact remains: Williams' memoir is dark and jarring and the redemption at the end is a relief that just only justifies the vale of sorrow that readers have been pulled through. Doyle's short-ish pieces are grounded solidly in the muddy mundane (sorry, I've spent the afternoon reading Maxwell) but the heights of giddy redemption they reach are enough to pull you through dark winter finals weeks. Thoughtful and hilarious and human.

In my experience, when I feel closest to the divine I don't get sobby or somber, I want to dance and sing and laugh. That's the kind of divinity that Doyle captures. ke

Friday, December 21, 2007

Best and Worst Christmas Movies

It's a Wonderful Life. This one has real staying power, if nothing else. It's also sentimental enough for Christmas without being overly manipulative. It's a great story, the family and friends theme is both Christmas appropriate and timeless. It also has the interesting characteristic of an historical relic, with its strains of progressive (almost socialistic at times) politics.
Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown. This one is really more a TV special than a movie, but I think it has transcended its original context. Great music. The pacing is nicely done, moving back and forth at just the right speed between Snoopy's antics and the kids' story. Extra points for being the only one to quote the entire Christmas story from Luke. Linus is my hero.
The best recent one without question. Will Ferrel can be be tiresome in the wrong role, but this one suits him. Also, this one has the best Santa Claus---a cantankerous old connoisseur of NYC pizza. Extra points for making fun of the puppet movies. Best line: "Don't listen to Leon, he's never been anywhere; he doesn't even have feet!" Runner-up: "Bye, Mr. Narwhal."
A Muppet Christmas Carol. Christmas Carol adaptations could really be a separate category. Really, the only way to see it is on the stage. On screen, this one is my favorite.
Home Alone. Great characters. Physical comedy. A great soundtrack. An old man beating robbers with a shovel. What's not to like?
Scrooged. I like this overlooked Bill Murray performance. It doesn't have the festive-ness or the fun of the muppets, but it stays true enough to the story to be recognizable and plausible, while at the same time varying from it enough to avoid being nothing more than a remake of the George C. Scott version.
The Snowman. I'm not crazy about the altar-boy vocals during the flying scene. But telling the entire story sans words and keeping it engaging takes skill.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas. No, I'm not talking about that abomination with Jim Carey. The original is a classic. Who would have thought Boris Karloff would star in a Christmas film?

All the stop-animation puppet films. Okay, I know these are pretty much a holiday staple. But they're so overrated. If you sit down and watch them without the nostalgia, you realize they're really not all that good. One exception: The Year Without a Santa Clause gets extra points for the heat miser and cold miser routines, and Yukon Cornelius is the best character this genre ever produced. Also, extra points for having a yeti as a main character.

The Christmas Story. Another staple, but I'm going iconoclast with this. Maybe this movie isn't completely no good, but it is hugely overrated. It's so deep in nostalgia that it can't even see the plot. It has some funny moments, no doubt. But it certainly doesn't deserve the 24-hour Christmas Eve marathon it sometimes gets. Minus extra points for inspiring The Wonder Years.
Santa Claus: The Movie. This is a 1985 gem starring Dudley Moore, the 80s' favorite low-budget excuse for Paul McCartney. It gets points for doing a pretty decent job with explaining the origins of Santa and for doing a' decent visualization of the North Pole. It loses points for starring John Lithgow and having a very dated sound to the music.
Any sequel to any Christmas movie. Due to the electromagnetic force generated by the earth's rotation and tilt, the law of sequels (explained here) is several magnitudes stronger around the winter solstice.

Just Plain Ugly:
George and the Christmas Star. In this heartwarming animated tale, the title character decides his tree needs a start and decides to go on a space journey to get one. This is the worst Christmas movie ever produced. And probably rivals "Plan 9 from Outer Space" for the title of worst movie ever. Minus 10 for using Paul Anka to write the music.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Gun, Control.

Last week the NYT published an editorial by Adam Freedman about the Second Amendment case we're waiting for the Court to hear. Freedman blogs at Party of the First Part about the ongoing battle between legalese and plain English. I like Freedman. I identify with his obsessive disdain for legalese and love of plain Anglo-Saxon syntax. Freedman's editorial does a good job of summing up the textual wrangle in way that is precise, thorough, concise, and accessible. Well done.

New post on new blog: Why Democrats should be pro-life.

I've been invited to blog over at The Council of Fifty, a new blog about politics and Mormons (the name was my idea).

The original Council of Fifty was organized by Joseph Smith just prior to his death. The idea was that it would be a sort of political wing of God's Kingdom, while the church was the spiritual wing. The wikipedia article on it is pretty good. Two articles published in BYU Studies in 1980 give a more complete historical treatment. The first, by Michael Quinn, lays out the basic chronology and purposes. The second, by Andrew Ehat, attempts to answer some of the questions that Quinn raised and gets more into the theological background and purposes of the council.

This Council of Fifty is about discussing politics as it relates to Mormonism. My first post is about why the Democrats should be more open to running pro-lifers, especially for the Presidency. Here's a summary of my line of thought:

A less militantly pro-choice Democratic party would diffuse the potency of the abortion card. This would be good for the Democratic party, good for Mormons, and good for the Republican party as well. It would be good for Democrats because they could expand their base. It would be good for Mormons because it could help bring balance to the one-sidedness of political affiliation among Mormons. This in turn may give Republicans more incentive to attract Mormons, or at least to stop tolerating the anti-Mormon rhetoric from the fundamentalist wing of the party.

Of course, this is all speculative. But that’s what makes it fun.

So, really this post comes down to a few observations and a conclusion: (1) the Democrats are trying to ride a wave of populist discontent with the Bush administration and its blunders, (2) populist movements are only successful if they represent what is popular, (3) a hard-line pro-choice stance is out of line with what is popular, and (4) a hard-line pro-choice stance is not crucial to the party’s most important goals and ideals, especially not in presidential politics. Therefore, it makes sense for the party to moderate bit more on the abortion issue.

Read the entire post here. Leave comments about the argument there, comments about other stuff here. I don't want to poach the discussion.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

I Still Have a Pony

I was introduced to the comedian Steven Wright by Jared Gillins a while ago. I got hooked on his CD “I Have a Pony.” It was funny and definitely worth listening too.

For Christmas my sister and brother-in-law got me Wright’s new CD “I Still Have a Pony.” I found it as enjoyable as the original, and recommend it to anyone looking for quality comedy. It is in his usual deadpan style with crazy one liners and bizarre stories. Here are some key quotes:

When I was a little kid I wished the first word I ever said was the word quote so right before I died I could say unquote.

You know the earth is bipolar.

You ever notice when a house burns down the only thing left standing is the fireplace and the chimney? How’s that for evidence?

What did Jesus ever do for Santa Claus on his birthday?

My nephew has HDADD - High Definition Attention Deficit Disorder. He can barely pay attention but when he does it’s unbelievably clear.

So I’ve been emailing my answering machine which has been sending faxes to my cellular subconscious which has call waiting so in case I’m thinking about something else I can get back to myself later.

…my mind is skipping around and I’m wondering how my life would have been different had I been born one day earlier and then I’m thinking maybe it wouldn’t have been different other than I would have asked that question yesterday.

I’m addicted to placebos. I could quit but it wouldn’t matter.

A friend of mine has a trophy wife but apparently it wasn’t first place.

So I’m driving down the highway and there’s a guy hitchhiking, he’s holding a sign that says heaven. So I hit him.

Here’s an interview with Steven Wright.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

This was kinda funny.

The Weekly Standard did a parody of part of Romney's speech.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

My Dad was on CNN

Check it out here.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

London Layover

I am going to Doha Qatar for Christmas to visit my parents. I fly back on Saturday December 29, with a fairly long layover in London. I land in Heathrow at 6:30am and take off at 5:00 that night. I have been to London before on a layover, and saw Big Ben and Buckingham Palace.

So my question to everyone who has been to London: what should I do with the little bit of time I have? I would like to make it back to the airport with two hours to spare.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Three examples of the rhetoric of religious identity in national politics: Smoot, Kennedy, and Romney.

Here's an interesting comparison and contrast. Three speeches addressed to similar concerns about how a candidate's religion will color his reception in the national political arena.

The first was given by Reed Smoot (Utahn Senator, LDS Apostle, and forerunner of Wilford Brimley, famous walrus impersonator) on the floor of the Senate in 1907. Several Senators had opposed Smoot sitting in the Senate charging that his religious obligations disqualified him from performing his civic obligations in the Senate. The speech is reprinted, with some background and commentary, in the Spring 2007 Issue of Utah Historical Quarterly (Click here for online version). The article starts on page 100, and the speech on 105.

The second is the famous JFK Speech given in 1960 to convince protestant ministers that his religious obligations would not interfere with his civic obligations as president. You can read, listen to, or watch the speech at NPR.

The third is the Romney speech given Wednesday to convince GOP voters in Iowa that his membership in the Mormon church does not disqualify him from being a good Republican candidate for President. I put up video and links to text and audio here on this blog the other day.

This being the middle of the finals cram, I'm not going to post an extensive exposition of my thoughts. But I find the similarities and differences interesting. What do the readers think?

Friday, December 7, 2007

The Romney Speech: A Rhetorical Comment

There's been considerable hype about Romney's speech yesterday and over whether it was successful. The speech, entitled with a not-so-clever pun, "Faith in America," was billed as the "JFK Speech" where Romney would finally address his religion the way JFK did in the 60s by reassuring WASPS that he wouldn't turn America into a Papal State. But there are differences between JFK and Romney and their respective situations that make the comparison a bit misleading.

First, Kennedy and Romney are addressing different audiences. Kennedy gave his speech weeks before the general election and was speaking to America as a whole.

Romney's audience is a bit more complicated. His speech was given weeks before the primaries begin, and is addressed to GOP voters---specifically, GOP voters in Iowa. On the other hand, it was also nationally televised and predictably pounced on by the national punditry, so he had a bigger indirect audience.

Secondly, Kennedy and Romney are addressing different concerns. This is partially a function of the first difference. With Kennedy the fear was that he would answer to the Pope. This was relatively easy to disarm. He simply disavowed that he would make Rome a decision-maker. With Romney also, some fear that he will answer to Salt Lake, but for most, there is also the more amorphous fear is that he is not truly Christian, and that he is part of a weird cult. This seems to matter to GOP voters in Iowa (hence, Huckabee's success). This is harder to disarm. He could just disavow Mormonism, but that's not really an option if he has any devotion or integrity. So he has to either (1) make Mormonism acceptable to the Christian conservatives in the heartland, or (2) convince them that Mormonism doesn't matter.

To evaluate whether Romney was successful, we need to have answer three questions:

  1. what exactly was his goal in giving the speech?
  2. how well did he achieve that goal? and
  3. are there unintended consequences that undermine that achievement?
Romney's goal, it seems to me, is simply to convince voters that the fact that he is a Mormon is not a valid reason to vote against him. Some of the TV pundits suggested last night that his purpose in giving the speech was to "address his Mormonism" as though he intended to give an exposition of the faith, and criticized him for not doing so. That approach misunderstands the concerns Romney is trying to address and the viability of the different ways to address them. They seem to assume that Romney would have attempted to make Mormonism seem palatable and rational to evangelical Christians. That is probably not possible at all, and certainly not possible in the available forum. His goal cannot be to make Mormonism acceptable, and his faith and integrity do not allow him to disavow it, so the only reasonable goal is to articulate convincingly why Mormonism simply does not matter.

So did he do it? Did he convincingly articulate why it should not matter to GOP voters in the heartland (mostly evangelical Christians) that he is a Mormon? I say yes, he did about the best job anyone could do. However, the question that remains is whether the evangelical Christian GOP voters will buy it.

He spends a lot of the speech doing the normal flag waving and laudatory patriotism, and makes the requisite hagiographic references to the so-called greatest generation, and the founding fathers, but there is a section early in the middle of the speech where he really gets into the meat of addressing his goal.

"They would prefer it if I would simply distance myself from my religion, say that it is more a tradition than my personal conviction, or disavow one or another of its precepts. That I will not do. I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it. My faith is the faith of my fathers - I will be true to them and to my beliefs.

Some believe that such a confession of my faith will sink my candidacy. If they are right, so be it. But I think they underestimate the American people. Americans do not respect believers of convenience. Americans tire of those who would jettison their beliefs, even to gain the world."

A couple of strengths to note here. First, he makes his religious commitment clear. This is an improvement over the past where he has sometimes seemed uncomfortable about his religion. Building integrity is almost always helpful. Second, he makes a nice rhetorical move in heading off those who wish he would not be committed to Mormonism. With the "they underestimate the American People" phrase he is not only praising the goodness and greatness of Americans' religious tolerance, he is also implicitly saying that if you don't agree to be tolerant, you don't live up to being a real American. I thought this was effective.

He then goes on to elaborate on the American virtue of religious tolerance. Specifically, he expands its application, and challenges those who don't think tolerance extends to accepting cultish religions.

"Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history. These are not bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance. Religious tolerance would be a shallow principle indeed if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree."

Framing his Mormonism as a test of the tolerance (and therefore the American-ness) of his critics was a well-played rhetorical move. And then he articulated a constitutional standard to back up the tradition of religious tolerance he had already alluded to:

"There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church's distinctive doctrines. To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution."

This has the virtue of grounding tradition in text, for any legalistically minded listeners. The appeal of a text is also important to evangelicals who subscribe to "sola scriptura" inerrancy. It also has the added bonus of an appeal to the founders, which is always an important trope in political rhetoric, and one that is particularly useful with GOP voters who tend to be originalists.

Then he illustrated the principle of religious tolerance with this nice little "it's-a-small-world-after-all" survey of religions.

"And in every faith I have come to know, there are features I wish were in my own: I love the profound ceremony of the Catholic Mass, the approachability of God in the prayers of the Evangelicals, the tenderness of spirit among the Pentecostals, the confident independence of the Lutherans, the ancient traditions of the Jews, unchanged through the ages, and the commitment to frequent prayer of the Muslims."

But you can't tell evangelical GOP voters that faith doesn't matter altogether. So after tearing down the notion that a candidate's subscription to evangelical Christianity should be some kind of litmus test, he then had to build some kind of shared faith to stand in it's place. He did so by appealing to the "shared values" trope.

"These American values, this great moral heritage, is shared and lived in my religion as it is in yours. I was taught in my home to honor God and love my neighbor. I saw my father march with Martin Luther King. I saw my parents provide compassionate care to others, in personal ways to people nearby, and in just as consequential ways in leading national volunteer movements. I am moved by the Lord's words: 'For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: naked, and ye clothed me...'"

The shared values idea has a long and venerable history in the GOP that extends from the time that protestant denominations banded together to fight the "twin relics of barbarism" to the time they now welcome Catholics in their crusade against gay marriage and abortion rights.

While I might quibble with Romney's choice of words in a few places, overall I think he did a good job. He was articulate, smart, laudatory, and (unsurprisingly) polished. Whether the audience bought it is something that will have to be determined by upcoming polls, but I think he stated the case as compellingly as anyone could have.

Are there unintended consequences? A few possibilities come to mind. First, while Romney did mention the venerability of the separation of church and state, he also spent most of the speech extolling religious virtues and asserting their place in the public sphere. This could alienate any potential atheists or agnostics. However, remembering Romney's audience, this is not a surprising choice. Secularists on the whole tend to be the sort that would be unlikely to vote for Romney even if he were an atheist himself simply because of his politics, so he has very little to gain by accommodating them, and potentially much to lose.

Second, quoting Matthew 25:35 and alluding his father marching with Martin Luther King is a great appeal to the social conscience. But the social conscience is generally (though not exclusively) a thing of the left in this country. This is not to say that Republicans can't appreciate civil rights, only that Romney saying these things almost makes him sound like a democrat. This could remind some GOP hardliners of his father's embarrassing (to them) opposition to the Vietnam War. But he also worked in the religious angle to the social conscience, which is going to be hard for Christians to deny. It may also help him with the more moderate national audience that may have tuned in.

The bottom line: I think it was a good speech---way better than the admittedly low standard the current President has set. And while I still have policy concerns about Romney, it is nice to see him stand up to the religiously intolerant wing of the GOP and call them on the un-American-ness and hypocrisy of that attitude. I wonder if this is what he would be like all the time if were being his own moderate self rather than trying so hard to be a conservative. After all, this is a guy who won an election in Mass.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

The Speech

Here's the video that Romney's campaign put up on his website.

George Herbert Walker Bush gives an introduction. Romney starts talking around 2:55. It's about 20 min.

Here's the text. There's also a link to audio on the same page. The NPR audio is way better quality than the audio on the video.

Gun control?(!)

About two weeks ago, the Supreme Court granted certiorari to decide District of Columbia v. Heller. Heller is a Second Amendment challenge to D.C.'s gun law, which prohibits handguns within the district (with an exception for retired police officers) and requires that long guns be kept either secured with a trigger lock or dissembled.

This challenge to the 32-year old D.C. gun law was initially rejected by the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia in 2004. In March of last year, however, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the District Court's decision. See Parker v. District of Columbia. That it is now before the Supreme Court is significant because the Court has addressed the Second Amendment head-on only once---and that was almost 7 decades ago.

In Miller v. U.S., a prohibition-era case, a bootlegger was prosecuted for taking an unregistered sawed-off double-barreled 12-gauge shotgun across state lines, which was a violation of federal law. The bootlegger, Miller, argued that the federal law was an unconstitutional restriction of his right to keep and bear arms. The Supreme Court rejected Miller's Second Amendment challenge, holding that he had failed to prove that his "possession or use" of a sawed-off double-barreled 12-gauge shotgun had "some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia."

The Miller court did not hold that one has to be a member of a state militia to lay claim on the Second Amendment. However, it did say that that the "possession or use" of a firearm has to be reasonably related to the militia in order to be protected by the Second Amendment. Under Miller, the question is whether the possession or use of handguns in the District of Columbia is in some way related to a well-regulated militia.

Curiously, though, the D.C. Circuit refused to approach the issue under the Miller holding. Instead, it asked whether the Amendment protects the individual right to have guns, or the collective right to bear arms. This individual vs. collective question had been a point of controversy among law professors and academics, and the historical and linguistic evidence is pretty evenly stacked on either hand. But the odd thing is that Judge Silberman and my old Stake President could have avoided taking sides in the controversy if they would have just asked the question presented under Miller.

Why did they do this? They could have just said that owning handguns in D.C. is related to the militia and ended it there. Instead, they spent the time and effort to take sides in the whole individual/collective debate. Why? My best guess is that it is ideologically driven (though probably completely sincere). The D.C. Circuit is a conservative court and it is popular among conservatives to support gun rights. See, for example, Mitt Romney's recently having joined the NRA become a life-long hunter. The current ideologically orthodox position for conservatives seems to be the individual rights position. In 2001, for example, John Ashcroft wrote a memorandum changing the official position of the department of Justice from the collective rights to the individual rights view. The memo is appended to the government's brief in Haney v. U.S..

I think it was wrong for the D.C. Circuit to address the question the way it did rather than stick with the Miller precedent. But what I think is irrelevant, now, because the case is before Johnny and the Supremes and they don't have the same obligation to respect precedent that lower courts have. Not much is known about the individual Justices' views on the Second Amendment, but the speculation is that this relatively conservative Court will approve what the D.C. Circuit did. So it will be interesting to see how it all goes.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Eats Sheet: Turkey Mulligatawny

KRAMER: Oh, a hot bowl of Mulligatawny would hit the spot.

ELAINE: Mulligatawny?

KRAMER: Yeah, it's an Indian soup. Simmered to perfection by one of the great soup artisans in the modern era.

ELAINE: Oh. Who, the Soup Nazi?

KRAMER: He's not a Nazi. He just happens to be a little eccentric. You know, most geniuses are.

. . .

ELAINE: Yeah, that's right. I got 'em all. Cold cucumber, corn and crab chowder, mulligatawny.

SOUP NAZI: Mulliga...tawny?

Like many people, my first exposure to Mulligatawny was in this classic Seinfeld episode. It turns out that Mulligatawny is a creative but quite appropriate solution to the early December Thanksgiving leftovers dilemma. Rather than eating increasingly dried out turkey breast in sandwiches, try a pot of this with a few cups of leftover turkey breast.

1. Put 6 tbs of butter in a stock pot over medium heat.

2. Chop the following veggies and sauté them until the onions are translucent.
  • One and a half white or yellow onions.
  • 4 carrots
  • 4 celery stalks
  • 2 cloves of garlic
3. Add 2 tbs curry powder to the veggies and continue to cook for another few minutes.

4. Add 1 cup long-grain rice and 8 cups of turkey or chicken stock. I used stock that I made from the turkey and froze. Increase heat to high until it boils, then reduce to medium and simmer 20 minutes or until the rice is cooked.

5. Add 2 cups plain (not vanilla) yogurt, 4 cups chopped leftover turkey, season with salt and pepper, and simmer 10 minutes.

6. Season with a few shakes of paprika and garnish with sprigs of fresh cilantro or parsley.

Friday, November 30, 2007

You and your racist friend.

In case anyone read the hate crimes posts and wasn't all that familiar with Nat Turner, here's a pretty decent documentary bit that explains part of his slave rebellion. The segment also details some of the most pernicious, insidious, disgusting, and just plain evil misuse of the scriptures that corrupted southern Christianity has ever produced.

I'm reminded that J. Golden Kimball once quipped, while serving as President of the southern states mission, that "the only way to redeem the south is burn it all up and baptize for the dead."

All roads lead to me

Periodically, especially when some helium-handed moron is trying to sound smart in class and I decide to ignore him, I find it interesting to browse the search terms that people have entered to get to my blog. Here is a random sampling of the latest ones.

  • "bear bating"
  • "nautical themes tmbg"
  • "what are interesting things about windmills?"
  • "disney movie enchanted purple dress at ball"
  • "dairy store, kirkland"
  • "he lays in the reins" "into the wild"
  • "stackable milk jug"
  • "costco milk"
  • "non canonized scripture"
  • "mormon apostles paintings"
  • "Cormack MCarthy"
  • "amy adams, costume design, purple dress"
  • "spiritual blacksmith"
It's funny that some of my most read posts are the ones I put very little effort into. Like, for example, that half-facetious rant about the stupid costco milk jug. It also looks like several people had some kind of interest in what I had to say about the costume design in "Enchanted."

I have no idea what a spiritual blacksmith is, but it sounds kind of cool. It kind of reminds me of Joseph Smith's "welding link" image from the letter he wrote to the church in 1842, out of hiding, about baptism for the dead (parts of which are reflected in Doctrine and Covenants 128). But I don't think I've ever blogged about that (until now).

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Eats Sheet: Pumpkin Pie Ice Cream

My penchant for ice cream resurfaced over the Thanksgiving break. While C was making pumpkin pie, I figured this would be a natural choice.

It was a pretty easy concoction: two cans pumpkin, one can sweetened condensed milk, 2/3 cup brown sugar, and a few teaspoons of nutmeg, ginger, and cinnamon. This went in with a double recipe of my normal ice cream base (5 egg yolks, 1 cup sugar, 2 cups milk, all heated until just before boiling, and then chilled and added to 1 quart heavy cream).

It's so much better than the storebought pumpkin ice cream. And seasonally appropriate, to boot. The only problem is that it doesn't go so well with hot fudge. Caramel isn't bad, I suppose, but I think it's best alone or with whipped cream.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Hate Crimes, cont'd.

A follow-up from yesterday's post:

It turns out there's basically no way the vandalism I referred to yesterday could be a hate crime under federal law. It might be a hate crime under Alabama state law, but I doubt it.

The federal hate crime law, found in Title 18, Section 245 of the U. S. Code, requires that the crime be committed "against a person," because of "race, color, religion, or national origin," and that it interferes with the victim taking part in one of the listed activities that range from attending schools to serving on juries, to eating in a public restaurant.

This particular instance of vandalism was not directed at "a person," but at a statue, so it fails right there, unless a court bought the argument that it somehow interfered with the right of white people to enjoy looking at confederate statues. Even then, visiting a war memorial is not one of the protected activities listed in the statute.

Earlier this year, however, the house passed a bill, H.R. 1952, that would include gender, sexual orientation, and disability as protected classes, and would eliminate the requirement that the victim be engaged in a protected activity. In September, the Senate passed it's version, S. 1105, as an amendment to a Defense Reauthorization Bill. However, the White House opposes the bill, and President Bush has said that he will veto the Defense Bill if it comes with the hate crimes legislation attached.

If the President does not veto, the vandalism would come closer to qualifying under the new version of the hate crimes law because it would not have to interfere with a protected activity. However, it would still have to be directed against "a person," which would be nigh impossible to argue convincingly. Bottom line: no federal hate crime.

Under Alabama state law, though, I'm not sure what the answer would be. Alabama appears to have a hate crime law against "institutional vandalism," but I don't know the details. (And with finals coming I'm not going to take the time to research it.) I assume that this is a response to "cross burning" and other defacement on black churches.

Speculating that the institution referred to would probably have to be an institution representative of some protected class, and assuming that the memorial is state-owned, I think it would be at best an uphill battle to convince a court that the state is an institution that distinctly represents white people. If the memorial is owned by the United Daughters of the Confederacy or some other such group, it might be a better argument, but you would still have to prove that it was motivated by racial hatred against whites rather than some other motivation like admiration for a historical "freedom fighter," opposition to the death penalty, or just a highly developed sense of historical irony.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Is this a "hate crime"?

Recently I came across this over at Civil War Memory

Some of you are no doubt aware of the story out of Montgomery, Alabama surrounding the vandalizing of a Confederate statue. Last week the faces of Confederate soldiers were painted black with "N.T. 11 11 31" spray painted in reference to the anniversary of Nat Turner's insurrection execution in Southampton County, Virginia.

I understand that this offended some southerners, but I think it's pretty funny. First, I love irony, and the irony is fantastic. Second, the fact that southerners are offended, I confess, means very little to me. I am an unapologetic Yankee.

Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center calls the vandalism "very objectionable," but asserts that unless it had included the message "Kill Whitey" or some equivalent, it cannot be a hate crime because it does not target an entire race (or ethnicity, or faith, etc.).

On the flip side, the Alabama Division of the Sons of the Confederacy is offering a thousand dollar bounty for the "arrest and conviction of the perpetrators" (so if somebody turns them in but they get acquitted does that mean he doesn't get his money?) and calling for investigation as a hate crime (though I'm not sure how calling it a hate crime would affect the investigation). And Pat Goodwin, of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (isn't it ironic that they have a permutation of the word "Union" in their name?) says the following: "This speaks loudly to me as a white person that whoever defaced this monument must hate all whites by honoring Nat Turner, who slaughtered innocent white children by decapitating them in 1831." Congratulations, Ms. Goodwin, you just won the non-sequitur award of the 2007.

Regardless of Goodwin's unfortunate lack of a grasp on logic, is there an argument that the defacement is the functional equivalent of a "kill whitey"-type statement? Could Nat Turner occupy such a place in the common memory that honoring him is an endorsement of racial hatred? Or are Turner's actions just insignificant in the face of the ongoing societal brutality of slavery? Was it worse for Nat Turner to kill innocent whites than for the heroes of the Confederacy to kill innocents of both races to defend their right to enslave innocent blacks? Or does American historical amnesia pretty much just foreclose any assertion about the common memory anyway?

What say ye? Hate crime or creative historical hooliganism?

Just in case you haven't made up your mind yet...

If you happen to be: (1) a Republican, (2) not apathetic enough that you actually are going to vote in the primaries, and (3) heretofore undecided who you're voting for, Chuck Norris might help you decide who is really the best candidate.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Cinematographicus: "Enchanted" (2007)

"Enchanted" is a story about fairy tale characters popping up out of a manhole in Times Square. This movie teaches us several important truths:
1. A lawyer always beats a prince.
2. Never trust a bumbling manservant.
3. Susan Sarandon is an evil dragon-witch.

The story begins with Giselle, a beautiful peasant girl who lives in the magical Kingdom of Andalasia, a saccharine world of gloriously flat animation (real animation, not CGI) where she spends her days singing arpeggios to summon woodland friends of all species to help her perform important household tasks such as cleaning, sewing, and swooning over her imaginary true love. One day she meets Edward the Prince (who is neither black nor of Wales) and they decide on sight to get married the next day. Unfortunately, that land is ruled by Edward's wicked stepmother who won't allow the marriage because it will take away her crown.

So The evil queen, Narissa, turns herself into a old hag and pushes Giselle down a magic wishing well that drops her underneath a manhole in Times square, which is in the live action world. Giselle waits for Edward to rescue her and meets a handsome lawyer, Robert, with a 6-year-old daughter, Morgan, who loves princesses. Eventually Edward figures out how to jump down the well and with his bumbling manservant (secretly in league with Queen Narissa) sets off after Giselle.

Enchanted's first and most obvious strength is its good-natured spoofing of the stereotypes of the Disney pantheon. Giselle is an amalgam of Aurora with hints of Ariel and Snow White. Narissa is a recast of Maleficent with a dash of Ursula thrown in. Prince Edward is a more airheaded version of Prince Philip, while his bumbling manservant, Nathaniel, is a more British, less French version of Gaston's bumbling sidekick, Lefou.

The film opens playing the satire note hard. Giselle's incongruity with New York gets the most emphasis. Her constant breaking into song, her clueless naivete, and her wide-eyed faith in true love are cast in stark relief to New York to point out and poke fun at these perennial staples of Disney stories. The satire hits a sublime high note of absurdity when Giselle sings her arpeggios to summon pigeons, rats, mice, and cockroaches to help her tidy up in a brilliant spoof on "Whistle while You Work." Amy Adams pulls it off so well, that you are almost convinced that roaches and rats are just as friendly as the animated chipmunks and rabbits. Just as the musical number finishes up, a pigeon suddenly eats one of the roaches in a hilarious reminder that this is New York, not Anadalasia.

After this strongly ironic opening, however, the satire takes a back seat and the love story begins playing the lead. While Giselle walks through Central park she begins giving love advice to Robert in song. She is joined by a passing calypso band and a few other street musicians, and eventually everyone in the park gets into the act, with a large scale song-and-dance number. The number is reminiscent of "The Little Mermaid" with it's Caribbean beat, but the hilarity of rats and roaches is missing it is almost a little too straightforward. The irony is almost not there.

This shift in irony leads NYT's Manohla Dargis to conclude that the film "disappoints." I disagree. While the satire was hilarious and spectacularly pulled off, to keep it up at that pace would have ultimately been unsustainable. Unless, perhaps, you have Eric Idle working on the script, a spoof can only work as long as it follows the main outline of the story it spoofs. Dargis' conclusion is also founded, I think, on a misunderstanding of the film's intended audience. While it is tempting to see this as a satire for adults, let's not forget that this is a Disney movie about a princess, and that one of the main protagonists is 6-year-old girl.

Another strength is that "Enchanted" is well-cast. Amy Adams steals the show with her completely and unbelievably straight-faced performance as Giselle. But only slightly less impressive is James Marsden in an almost Cary Elwes-esque performance as Prince Edward. Marsden is probably most well known for playing Cyclops in the X-Men movies, but he also notably played John Wilkes Booth, the original model/actor in "Zoolander" (2001). Both Adams and Marsden manage the difficult task of acting a part that drips with irony without giving the slightest hint that the character is anything but 100% sincere (like Marsden's line: "I don't know what melodramatic is."). Second rate heartthrob Patrick Dempsey does passably as Robert. Susan Sarandon is a convincing witch and pulls the role off well, other than a poorly executed tongue movement. I think it was supposed to be a serpentine flitting, a foreshadow of her later transformation into a dragon, but it came across more like a canine tail wag in her mouth.

The costuming was for the most part well-done. Particularly nice were the impossibly huge shoulders on both Giselle's improbably big wedding dress and Edward's gored princely tunic. This highlighted the ridiculousness of these characters. The floppiness of Nathaniel's baggy renaissance garb played well, and Sarandon was Maleficent in live action.

But it was marred by one almost fatal costuming flaw. Toward the end of the movie Giselle needs a dress to go the ball but she cannot find a fairy godmother, so she and Morgan go shopping. At this point, you're set up to see a flawlessly arrayed Giselle looking at the top of her game. Instead, costume designer Mona May delivers a purple crepe-looking thing stretched unflatteringly across Adams' bust line, with a too-long 80s era silver necklace and her hair looking flat both physically and chromatically. The point, I suppose, was to make a contrast with her earlier fairy-tale attire, and to show that she does fit in after all in New York. But the hair flattening was an unfortunate decision that largely stripped Giselle of her whimsical character. And the purple was likewise an unfortunate middle-shade, neither light enough to be pretty nor dark enough to be striking. An ivory, champagne, brown, or even black dress would have clashed less with her light-red hair.

My only other complaint is that there were moments toward the end when Narissa's constant explicit pointing out that this plot is a twist on the normal Disney story grows tedious. Yes, this is a twist, and yes, the whole point of the film is to make a witty meta-fictitious spoof, but wit loses its cleverness when it is made too obvious. It's like having to explain the punch line.

So "Enchanted" is not without blemish, but still, it is worth seeing, if for nothing else, for Adams' and Marsdens' straight-faced irony.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

I love this painting.

It is called "Doubting Thomas," and was painted by a young artist named Ben Steele. I found it on Anneke Majors' latest post on AMV. It captures my attitude toward Thomas Kinkade perfectly. I used to be ambivalent about Thomas Kinkade. He was just something that I would walk past in the mall. He was the Sunglass Hut of the trailer park art world---Obnoxious, overpriced, and of poor quality, but easily ignored. But then this painting of the Twin Towers changed my mind.

Now I really dislike him. What is this flagpole actually affixed to, anyway? A bouy? And thanks for reminding us that the New York Skyline has an empty space now, because that wasn't obvious or repeated ad nauseum for several years after 9/11. To be fair, Kinkade is hardly the only one, but he's a representative of that element of our society that plays off of tragedy and loss to sell it's low-brow kitsch. And in the process of profiteering from tragedy, it encourages pride rather than patriotism---a clannish, self-righteous, priestly sort of pride.

But his art itself, regardless of his profiteering, reminds me also of Greg Olsen. I dislike Olsen's painting a fair bit less than Kinkade's---perhaps because Olsen seems, for some reason, to be more sincere. His art is kitschy and artificial, and he uses religious channels to market it (which annoys me, but is probably a subject for another post), but at least he doesn't have an army of minions who churn it out to give it the false appearance of hand-painted-ness, and another army of minions who market it in those mall kiosks. And at least he hasn't given himself such a presumptuous moniker as the self-dubbed "painter of light."

But back to Steele's visual indictment of Kinkade. I love the way the figure in the painting is extending his finger, like the ancient apostle. But instead of a confirmation of faith, this one is a confirmation that his doubts are justified. I also love the way the other guy is pulling his hand away, as if to say, "just let it go." I'm not sure if these guys are supposed to be renaissance masters or apostles, but the aura of authority and ancient wisdom is there either way. I also love the way the background is drab and dour, but more complex and interesting than the storybook land of artificial light inside the frame. Your eye goes not to the horrifically glowing cottage, but to the triumvirate of ancient heads. Very cool.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Cinematographicus: "Superman Returns" (2006)

I bought the special edition DVD of "Superman Returns" shortly after it was released, but was never quite in the mood to watch the movie for a while, even though the only time I'd seen it was on its opening night in theaters. After moving to the DC area recently, I had an itch to watch it again, but decided to hold off a bit longer in order to do the film justice. You see, my new roommate had recently done some army time in Korea, and had a 40+" HD flat screen on the way. It arrived two days ago. I broke it in last night. So beautiful.

Any movie that involves grand-scale action scenes and threats deserves to be viewed in such a way. In fact, doing this made me realize something: "Superman Returns" really isn't as boring as most people seem to think. I heartily disagree with the myriad of complaints I find online whining that the movie was a dud.

First of all, you have to view this film with the understanding that it's somewhat a continuation of "Superman: The Movie" and "Superman II" (the Richard Donner cut?). I use the word "somewhat" because there are possible inconsistencies between the films that are given vaguely-implied explanations -- the biggest one being that Lois Lane has been raising a child she had conceived with Superman.

(Spoilers ahead for those who haven't seen the first two films!) In "Superman II," Lois Lane finds out that Clark Kent and Superman are one and the same. After realizing this, Clark throws caution into the wind, swoops Lois away to the Fortress of Solitude, and makes superlove to her on a bed lined with space blankets (because, of course, Kryptonians were actually a race survived by cheap hookers -- perhaps a better explanation for the planet's downfall). In the original cut of the film, near the end Clark realizes that the pressure of dating Superman is too much for Lois to bear. To relieve her of her stress, he performs a "superkiss" that erases her memory of the past few days' worth of events, so she now has no recollection of Clark and Kal-El being the same person. In the Richard Donner cut, a similar end is met when Superman repeats the time-reversing performance of spinning the Earth backwards on its axis. Granted, both of these endings are ridiculous in nature (spinning the Earth backwards would simply wreak havoc with its gravitational pull and tear it apart, and a "superkiss" that erases memories is not one of Superman's powers in any other incarnation of the character), but at least the latter is consistent with the ending of the first film and deletes a stupid superpower, though encourages false ideas about physics and time travel.

Back to "Superman Returns," apparently Lois recalls having slept with Superman, but how could this be, unless we assume that they hooked back up after the events of "Superman II" had ended, without her ever learning again that he is Clark Kent? And by making her forget everything, does that classify the lusty field trip to the Antarctic as date rape? Did Jor-El teach his son how to give Earth women a super-roofie? In any case, there could be a little better bridging of the gaps in this regard.

But the relationship to the first two films establishes much of the tone of this film, and the continuation of said tone is pulled of majestically. Brandon Routh's Superman may not look or sound EXACTLY like Christopher Reeve's, but he did a better job than any of the big-name celebrities I could think of. His Clark Kent is almost dead-on the same as Reeve's.

Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor was a criminal genius with a twisted sense of humor that he couldn't help but evoke in every diabolical plan he outlined to everyone he came in contact with. Kevin Spacey's version of the same character is a fitting tribute to Hackman's. Spacey does an incredible job of making you believe that he IS Hackman's Luthor, not just another spin of it. And Parker Posey is the perfect, ditsy companion for Lex.

Lois Lane, however, is a different story. Margot Kidder played the first love interest to Supes, and while she did a great job of portraying the gutsy, independent, won't-take-no-for-an-answer reporter, her sex appeal wasn't as great as one would perhaps imagine for Lois. Kate Bosworth, the new version, arguably has the sex appeal (despite the ominous, barren wasteland she calls a forehead) , but, for the most part, lacks in making you believe that she could hold her own in a fist fight with Raquel Welch. It would have been great to find the happier medium of these two takes on the damsel in distress.

The story's pacing is right on target with regards to the pacing of its prequels, as well. Watching "Superman: The Movie," you really don't get blown away by the action scenes too much. It really focuses more on the characters and describing the life of an alien trying to find his place in a planet where he can't openly be himself. "Returns" continues in this tradition, bringing this struggle to a sort of conclusion as Superman finds company in the realization of his offspring.

And resurrecting Marlon Brando's Jor-El? Genius. Nobody else can measure up to Brando's performance of this character, and this is probably the strongest tie to the original movies. I get chills up and down my spine every time his voice is heard in this movie.

Aside from what's already been mentioned, there are four major aspects of the film that make me want to stand up and cheer when I watch this: 1) The best opening credit sequence perhaps to ever be made, complete with spectacular space images and huge respect given to the original film; 2) An incredible soundtrack that implements much of John William's original scores and themes, while updating the movement of the works a little bit in a natural progression from its predecessor; 3) Breath-taking landscapes and colorfully-rich views of the sky, Earth from various levels in the atmosphere, and Metropolis at night; 4) A heart-racing scene where Superman stops a 777 jet from crashing into a professional baseball stadium during a sold-out game, a scene which caused me to applaud and cheer out loud in my own living room (and, as I recall, it led the entire audience I saw it with on opening night to follow suit).

The film really is a masterpiece in every respect, and does great work with characterization. I also appreciated that Lois was dating another man, but we weren't dragged through a cliche routine of the boyfriend being the flaky, jealous type who makes us want her to get back with the protagonist even more. No, Lois's beau is actually a decently admirable man whose character rivals that of Clark's.

It took a little bit of work to get over the fact that Superman fornicated in the continuity of the movies (I know Superman isn't exactly a Mormon, but he is widely referred to, in the comics, as the "Boy Scout" - a character who is squeaky-clean with the highest standards you could find in a man), but once I was able to deal with the films as more of a "what if?" scenario for the Superman character, I was able to more-readily accept the possibility of Superman having a bastard child and unwittingly becoming a dead-beat dad. But what still gets me is how ugly the kid is. Doesn't Lois care if her son looks like a schmuck? I suppose the casting director is really to blame in the end, though, for casting a child who made me want to turn away from the screen whenever he appeared.

It was also interesting me to realize that, in the end of the film, Superman really only had one scene where he interacted with his intellectual adversary, Luthor. I suppose this is in keeping with the original film, but I wonder if most of the viewing audiences out there sub-consciously had problems with the fact that the protagonist, for the most part, wasn't directly confronting the villain.

When all is said and done, I give this film a hearty two thumbs up. I think I would LOVE to see a modern take on Superman going head-to-head with other super-powered beings, but for now I feel like re-establishing the connection between Superman and his surroundings, especially his arch-nemesis was rightfully given priority in this film. The next one will build more on brute strength and awe-inspiring, god-like capabilities.

Until then, oh wicked generation, get over your short attention spans and revel in a film that brings back a classic American icon in a very fitting way.

Monday, November 12, 2007

In defense of praying for humility

So there's a proverb in the church, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, sometimes not, that says that you should not pray for humility because then you might get it. I remember missionaries in the MTC and in the mission field who would repeat this without any sense of irony at all as though they actually believed it. Yesterday it was repeated over the pulpit.

I have a problem with that.

It reminds me of Augustine's prayer (Give me chastity, but not yet!). It's a rather selfish attitude, really. It's an attitude of fear, fear of being humbled. But what if what you really need is humility? Then you shouldn't pray for it because being humbled might be hard? Doesn't all repentance have the same potential to be hard? If I pray for charity, what's to say that I won't have to go through something difficult to learn charity? Why is a plea for humility any more susceptible to hard answers than a plea for any other trait of a Christian life? What if pride is the reason I have a hard time learning charity? Should I then not pray for charity because I might have to be humbled to get it?

And it takes a odd view about what it means to be humbled. It assumes that being compelled to be humble is something that will only happen to you if you pray for it. That ignores reality. Most people in the world live lives that make our North American lifestyle look like the height of luxury. Alma said this:

it is because that ye are cast out, that ye are despised of your brethren because of your exceeding poverty, that ye are brought to a lowliness of heart; for ye are necessarily brought to be humble. And now, because ye are compelled to be humble blessed are ye; for a man sometimes, if he is compelled to be humble, seeketh repentance; and now surely, whosoever repenteth shall find mercy; and he that findeth mercy and endureth to the end the same shall be saved. (Alma 32:12-13)

I find it interesting that Alma uses the word necessarily, like it was some incontrovertible decree. Is it likely that the people Alma was talking to had asked to be humbled? Some of them, maybe, but not all. (See verse 25). It happened to them anyway. Do we really think that the majority of the world's population that lives in "exceeding poverty" got where they are because they made the dumb mistake of praying for humility? How arrogant is it to think that not asking for humility is going to stop anyone from being "necessarily brought to be humble"?

Compulsion to humility is not a bad thing. Why do we talk about it like it is? Alma calls it a blessing. Why in the world would be ever tell anyone not to seek repentance? But isn't that essentially what we do when we repeat the maxim: don't pray for humility?

But telling someone not to pray for humility goes beyond just being afraid of being compelled to be humble. It actually increases the need to be compelled to be humble. Alma also said this:

And now, as I said unto you, that because ye were compelled to be humble ye were blessed, do ye not suppose that they are more blessed who truly humble themselves because of the word? Yea, he that truly humbleth himself, and repenteth of his sins, and endureth to the end, the same shall be blessed—yea, much more blessed than they who are compelled to be humble because of their exceeding poverty. Therefore, blessed are they who humble themselves without being compelled to be humble. (Alma 32:14-15)

What does it mean to humble oneself? If it is done sincerely, isn't a prayer for humility an act of humbling oneself? If so, then doesn't refusing to pray for humility actually make me more likely to have to be compelled to be humble? Not only is it selfish, it is ultimately self-defeating. It brings on the very consequences it sulkily seeks to avoid.

And given the interrelation between humility and charity, teaching that we should not pray for humility runs the risk of directly naysaying one of the most sublime injunctions of the Christian life:

pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as he is pure. (Moroni 7:48)

Those of use who claim to understand and believe the Book of Mormon should be the last people to breathe a discouraging word about praying for humility.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Changes to non-canonized scripture

The Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News are reporting an interesting change in the introduction to the Book of Mormon. The introduction to the Book of Mormon, which formerly called the Lamanites "the principal ancestors of the American Indians" will in future editions refer to the Lamanites as merely "among the ancestors of the American Indians." The speculation, which seems accurate, is that this change is a response to recent DNA studies that place the principal ancestors of the Native Americans in Siberia.

The current edition of the Book of Mormon was completed in 1981 (with its introduction, footnotes, cross references, index, and various textual corrections). See here for background. The introduction was most likely written by a committee, though there are still stories floating around that Bruce R. McConkie did it single-handedly.

Whoever wrote the introduction, it does not purport to be revealed and it has never been officially accepted into the LDS canon. It is probably true, however, that the 1981 introduction's explanation of Native American origins accurately reflects what most members of the Church thought about. The fact that the church is making this editorial change without presenting it to the church for a sustaining vote confirms that the introduction was never canon and can be freely changed. The Book of Mormon itself makes no claims about Native American ancestry.

At any rate, my opinion is that this is a good (though fairly insignificant) change for at least two reasons.First, it demonstrates that the Church is willing to accept the validity of scientific research and to reconsider traditional assumptions. Second, it illustrates that interpretations of the scriptures, even an interpretation written and published by the church, are not absolute. Understanding this fact devolves more responsibility on the individual to understand the scriptures through study and prayer rather than take someone else's word for it.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

In which our intrepid hero belies his own snootiness

So today while my Wills and Trusts professor amplified on the minutia of Mark Rothko's estate, I quickly but gradually and almost imperceptibly slipped into my own thoughts. Thoughts became dreams and soon I was on the verge of sleeping. You know Rothko, he was the one who painted all the squares and rectangles. Anyway, realizing that I had to do something to stay awake, I began browsing the NY Times online. I ended up, as I often do, at the "Dining and Wine" page (though half of it is Greek to me).

After learning about an interesting and potentially tasty but not so original way to make a burger, I found and loved this article, "Tonight, Patronizing Language. Enjoy". Being a lover of both food (gastrophile, for you lovers of latinate construction) and direct plain English (and a disparager of euphemism, circumdiction, and false eloquence), I was immediately intrigued. The article pokes fun at the peculiar language of servers, and how it creates a patronizing and presumptuous air. In particular, it observes how odd it is that nothing is eaten, but rather everything is "enjoyed." The author does a decent job of pointing out these foibles. He calls for more direct, frank form of address, calling a spoon a spoon and calling eating eating. He doesn't like all the presumption and the pretension:

Restaurantspeak dusts off hoary courtesies, as when a server asks if “the madam would enjoy a glass of white wine with her branzino.” That always sets my neck to swiveling. Did Sydney Biddle Barrows sit down and join us?

Be he completely undercuts his ethos of egalitarian frankness when he ends his piece with these lines:

I wonder if a waiter who served me recently at an haute Chinese restaurant is paid by the joyful syllable. There was no end to what he wanted me and my companions to enjoy: the fried lobster, the braised pork belly, hot air. In regard to the last, he admonished us for recoiling from a bamboo steamer that was cooking baby vegetables in front of us.

“While the steam is rising,” he said, “you can enjoy the aroma.”

Or I can wait until tomorrow for my facial, and get it in an honest-to-goodness spa. That I might enjoy.

He's just an everyday guy, right? A plain man who prefers plain speech, a guy like everyone else. Then he reminds you that he's a fancy Manhattan restaurant critic who gets facials at a spa. And does so often enough that it is natural for him to daydream wistfully about it when he grows weary of the wait staff at "an haute Chinese restaurant."

And that is funny.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The Eats Sheet: Mulled Cider

Per Cabeza's request:

Hot apple cider is a wonderful thing this time of year. Mulled cider is even better.

Mulled cider is a descendant or perhaps a cousin of an older drink called wassail. Modern wassail is almost indistinguishable from mulled cider, but originally it was a beer or ale laced with citrus and other spices. The name wassail comes from Old English and Old Norse phrases meaning "be thou hale" and used as a greeting or a toast. It was enjoyed at Christmas, New Year's and Twelfth Night. It appears to have perhaps come from a Roman drink called calda which was a sort of diluted spiced wine traditionally enjoyed in the winter at Saturnalia festivals.

But whatever origins, mulled cider is a fantastic thing. Mulling cider should not be overly formulaic or prescriptive. It should be organic and should be able to respond to whatever whimsy happens to pass by at the moment. The general idea is to infuse cider (there's also mulled wine, but I've never tried it) with the flavor of some complementary spices, and usually, a sweetener is added.

The basic flavors are the spices associated with the holidays: cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and allspice. Other variations include cardamom, cranberry, anise, or some kind of citrus peel, usually orange. You get better and more pungent flavor from fresh whole spices as opposed to dried ground spices. Whole spices can also be more easily removed after their flavor has infused the cider. This can be an advantage because the ground spices tend to collect at the bottom of the mug as dregs. Folks sometimes use a teabag or a tea ball to counter the dregs effect, but I like to just run it through a fine mesh sieve. That way you still get some of the spices floating in there to give some texture, but you get rid of most of the bitter dregs. There are also commercial mulling spice mixes available, and some come in teabags, which are convenient.

The sweetener can be any sweetener. White sugar works, but is kind of bland. Brown sugar is a nice complement to the spices. Honey is mild but rich, and it is what I usually use. Molasses or a molasses/corn syrup mixture would give a deeper, richer hue to the flavor, but I've never tried it. I suppose melted caramel is another possibility, but I've never tried that either. My new and so far untested idea is to use maple syrup. Maple trees and apple trees are kindred autumnal images in my mind, and I think their flavors would also work well together.

So much for the basics. The method is pretty straightforward. You put it all together in a saucepan or a big pot and turn the heat on to high. You don't want it to boil because that can scorch the flavors, so watch it closely and just when it starts to steam, turn the heat down to low and let it steam like that for 20 minutes or so. It won't hurt it to go longer, and the longer it goes the stronger the flavors, but 20 minutes is usually sufficient.

A word about ratios: I usually do about 1/2 teaspoon each of ground allspice and grated nutmeg, eight whole cloves, and 2 cinnamon sticks to 4 cups cider and 4 tablespoons of honey. You can play with the ratios to emphasize the flavors you like better.

If you want to get fancy you can garnish it with a spiral of orange peel or cinnamon sticks as stir sticks. And you can top it with a dollop of butter or whipped cream, but I prefer mine straight. It is a great thing this time of year and at least through Christmas.

Things I have lately enjoyed.

1. New jeans
2. Old wool sweaters
3. A juicy, savory slab of meatloaf
4. The prose of Bleak House
5. Candy that was for the trick or treaters that didn't come
6. In utero kicks
7. Brisk mornings
8. Mulled cider
9. Not teaching legal writing this week
10. Macaroni and cheese made from scratch

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The best Joseph

Followers of Mormon film are aware of the difficulty of casting and playing the role of Joseph Smith, the prophet. It is somewhat similar to Richard Bushman's dilemma in writing a Joseph Smith biography. (See the preface to Rough Stone Rolling.) No matter what you do with the role, someone will be disappointed. The zealously faithful will complain that it wasn't laudatory enough. The cynics and skeptics will claim that it's too hagiographic. If you split the difference, everyone will complain that it is boring and stale.

Fortunately, the church has gotten better at casting the prophet's role over the years. I think it's safe to say that the recent (within the last two years or so) film is probably the best church-produced Joseph Smith picture and Nate did the best job of playing Joseph.

Part of the problem in playing Joseph Smith is that the man is a bundle of paradox. You have to be a mystic, but you have to be a down-to-earth Yankee and a frontier mayor. You have to be a visionary, but also a wrestler. You have to be a radical and also a man of power. It can seem schizophrenic. Mormons who play the prophet are even more keenly afflicted by the paradox, even if they are not conscious of it. The result can be paralyzing. Another problem is that for us Mormons, there is often so much emotion involved that you can easily get an over-the-top beyond Kenneth Branaugh-style portrayal---so emotionally charged that it borders on manipulative.

Non-LDS actors fare a bit better. Paradoxically, because they don't have the intimate personal experience with Joseph's legacy that Mormons do, they are not bound by the awful burden of trying to portray revelation---which no tongue can tell---on screen.

Oddly enough, my opinion is that the best Joseph Smith on the screen was Vincent Price in the 1940 picture Brigham Young. What I like about Price's acting is that he is otherworldly and mystic (this is Vincent Price, after all), but in a subtle and guileless, and natural way. He doesn't use overmuch emotion. He keeps it cool and collected, but not spookily so. He also portrays the friendship that Joseph had with his friends. Mormon Joseph's too often have had some kind of sacred distance between them and the rest of the cast that gets in the way. (Although more recently, this is better).

And a few years back there was the rumor that Richard Dutcher was going to bill Val Kilmer in his treatment of the prophet's life. Who knows how that would have gone. I'm inclined to think he'd do okay with it, but I think his performance would be more physical. I'm not convinced of his ability to really capture the charisma, though.

But if I could pick someone that would have played Joseph well but never did, I would have to pick Gene Wilder. Yes, yes, I know, that sounds absurd. But hear me out. Think of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Maybe this is just because when I was young I saw an awful portrayal of Joseph Smith in a very low-budget 1970s-era BYU student production. At the end of the film, a dead Josph Smith appears to Brigham Young in vision wearing, of all things, a purple tuxedo. Maybe it was this association between Joseph Smith and purple tuxedos that makes me think Gene Wilder would do a good job.

But think of Wilder's Willy Wonka. A man full of secrets, a man who loves children, values loyalty, a man who loves creativity. A visionary man who creates whole worlds in his factory. And think of Joseph Smith, a man who likewise revealed worlds, a man who loved to innovate, and who, like Willy Wonka, envisioned sending the fruits of his visions to bring joy to the whole world.

The chocolate factory itself (at least in the version Wilder appears in) is in some ways like the temple. You can't get in without a golden ticket (though, of course, the qualifications for getting one are just a little different from the temple recommend). Once inside you can't go anywhere unless directed. You are essentially taken on a journey by your guide through different worlds. There is a sin, some forbidden thing is taken, and it is only through admitting guilt and accepting responsibility that reconciliation with the creator can be achieved.

Yes, of course, that's a strained analogy. And yes, of course, I'm being half facetious. But when I say that Gene Wilder would have been a good Joseph Smith, I'm only half joking. I think he could have done it.