Wednesday, August 29, 2007


Scene I:
A street corner in Minneapolis about 8:00 AM in late August. A hobo walks down the street toward me. The first thing I notice is the smile gaping in his soiled visage. Not the usual glazed smile of the inebriated and insane, but a real genuine, hearty, roguish smile paired with a set of glinting baby blues. Curving over the top of the smile is a thick mustache that manages to be bushy and yet at the same time curl up rakishly at the corners---reminiscent, perhaps, of more muscular incarnation of the famed whiskers of Dalí. This singular lip-mane is matched by a lustrous black mullet that falls in Jacobean fashion, cascading abundantly down both sides of the shoulders. This man is wearing a dirty loose-fitting, red shirt, tucked into a pair of close-fitting black jeans that cover the tops of a pair of scuffed patent-leather loafers with gold-colored accents.

Scene II:
A flashback. Two weeks ago I sit on a couch with my brother, visiting from New York. He shows me the website of a band called dark dark dark. I wonder if it's an allusion to Milton or Eliot. Or if Eliot is alluding to Milton. My brother clicks on a demo song and the eerie sounds of a squeeze box begin to emanate from the computer, punctuated at regular intervals with percussion that sounds oddly like breaking glass. (Apparently this band was playing in Mpls the night we got back from Nauvoo, but we didn't go.)

It must be time for me to list my top five pirate songs. I am not picking actual authentic pirate tunes (that would be too obscure). Instead, these are pirate-related songs found floating around in today's cultural flotsam. Here are my picks of the top five:

1) Iron Maiden's Rime of the Ancient Mariner, based on Coleridge's poem of the same title is first because it has the distinction of being the rocking-est song on the list, and also the one with the most and longest face-melting guitar solos. Also the best use of an electric guitar to imitate the creaking of the decks on board ship.

2) The Decemberists' Mariner's Revenge. A Poe-esque tale of revenge and filial devotion set to a pirate-y tune performed mainly on accordion and tambourine.

3) Disney's Yo Ho (A Pirate's Life for Me) from Peter Pan. "You'll love the life of a thief, you'll relish the life of a crook. / There isn't a boy who won't enjoy a-working for Captain Hook."

4) Henry H. Russel's, Ocean Wave is the tune set to Hannah Cornaby's 'Who's on the Lord's Side?' in the current LDS Hymnal. Russel apparently wrote a lot of swashbucklin' type tunes, judging by their titles.

5) They Might Be Giants' With the Dark is not musically very buccaneer-like. However, it makes the list because it has this line: "I'm growing tired of all my nautical dreams / I'm growing tired of all my nautical themes / bustin' my pirate hump / rocking my peg leg stump / my mind naturally turns / to taxidermy, to taxidermy, yeah!"

What be yer picks, me hearties?

Cinematographicus: September Yawn

Director Christopher Cain's ill-fated attempt at directing a pseudo-historical film about the Mountain Meadows massacre is consistently getting awful reviews. This post over at T&S gave some good excerpts from the various reviews. My favorite: the New York Post says,

“‘September Dawn’ succeeds completely at failure; the unified incompetence of its writing, directing and acting suggest a man who manages to be on fire and drowning at the same time, just as the bus runs him over.”

A three-in-one unholy trinity of failure.

But even funnier is Eric Snider's reaction to the fact that the film apparently includes a castration scene with some bizarre and disturbing things coming from the prop shop:

"There's one flashback sequence where they drag an adulterous man outside, cut off his testicles, and nail them to a wall. Cain briefly shows the ball-laden scrotum hanging from the knifepoint, and my only question is why, if he was going to show it, didn't he find a set of fake gonads that looked more realistic and less like a rubber novelty item? I mean, if it were me, and I wanted to include a pair of severed testicles in my movie -- and why wouldn't I, really? -- and this was the best the props department could find, I think that's where I would start to question just how integral this particular shot was to my overall vision. 'Hmm,' I would think. 'It's really, really vital that my film include the image of someone's ball sac stuck to a wall with a knife. But the only thing my people could produce is comically oversized and disturbingly hairless. What would Spielberg do in this situation?'

But that's just me. I am not the director here! The director here is Christopher Cain. You will remember him as also having directed such fine films as 'Gone Fishin',' 'The Next Karate Kid,' and 'Young Guns.'"

Read the entire review here. It's worth it.

Prophets of doom have been saying for a few months that September Dawn would bring terrible waves of persecution upon the church. The reaction of critics appears to confirm four things:
1) Anti-Mormon propaganda, whether in film or in print, is almost universally work of poor quality.
2) Smart people tend to recognize work of poor quality and give it the appropriate level of respect.
3) The mainstream media is generally smart enough to recognize that religious bigotry is unacceptable.
4) Perhaps there is less anti-Mormon feeling in America than the doomsayers seem to think there is.

It is interesting to note that many, though not all, of the media sources blasting September Dawn are on the liberal side. A few examples: the New York Times calls the film a "maudlin, grotesque western," and accuses it of "ap[ing] 'Schindler's List' in hopes of creating a Christian holocaust picture," the Washington Post calls it "soap opera posing as moral outrage," and the Baltimore Sun calls it "ham fisted," a "melodrama of the most lurid kind," noting that "there’s a big difference between historical fact and emotional screed." (Speculation: will this undermine attempts by the Romney campaign to dismiss his critics by accusing them of anti-Mormon bigotry?) The doomsayers' prophecy that the Church would have to hunker down to take the mainstream media's heat did not come to pass.

This whole situation reminds me of two scenes from Children's stories: The ending of C.S. Lewis's The Horse and His Boy, and the ending of Disney's Peter Pan. In both these stories, the great and terrible villain is defeated not through violence, but by ridicule. Rabadash, the fearful and ruthless becomes "Rabadash the Ridiculous," while Hook, the bloodthirsty buccaneer is laughed to scorn. In both stories, the villain's most crushing defeat is embarrassment, and the most powerful weapon is the laughter of children. In any event, nobody had to become the great defender of the faith to fight off the evils of September Dawn because people tend to see such blatant bigotry for what it is, and to ridicule it. Maybe Christopher Cain should have to appear on Larry King (or better yet, Fox News) and exclaim "I'm a cod-fish!"

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Eats Sheet: Am I a culinary wine-bibber?

Do you cook with wine?

I know a lot of Mormons (I don't know if this is the majority view or not) who see eating something cooked with an alcoholic liquid as a violation of the word of wisdom. I don't. For one, the revelation itself only says that strong drinks are not for the belly, not that strong foods are not for the belly. This might seem like doctrinal hair splitting, but I feel okay about it since David O. McKay once relied on this interpretation when he accepted a piece of rum cake, quipping that "it only says we can't drink rum, not that we can't eat it."* I don't have a problem with the idea that some alcohol in food is okay. Most vanilla and other flavor extracts are alcohol based, but I've never heard of a Mormon baker cutting vanilla out of the recipe or substituting for it. Though I do admit that I would have second thoughts about eating a Guinness stew, where the entire base of the dish is beer (does that even taste good?). And while I know that Joseph Smith was not a teetotaler, I am not focused here on the historical practice of the word of wisdom, but with its current status.

Like I said, I'm okay with a little booze in my food. But even if using some wine in a sauce is not doctrinally verboten, I choose not to for other reasons: I don't want wine in my house because I might offend a home teacher or other ward member with more W of W scruples than I, the stuff is expensive, I don't want my kids to have the chance to get at it, my kitchen is small and there's no room for bottles, I probably wouldn't use it before it went all vinegary, etc. So if you choose not to use wine, how do you substitute in a recipe that calls for wine?

Usually, if it calls for white wine I'll use white grape juice with a bit of apple cider vinegar. This seems to work, but I don't know what to compare it to, since I don't know what it would taste like with the wine. Once, I used concord grape juice cocktail in a recipe that called for red wine and it turned out way too fruity. I've also heard of using beef or chicken broth, and I've wondered about mixing some broth with some juice and vinegar. Last night I made a roasted tomato and basil soup that called for white wine. I used apple juice and a bit of cider vinegar. It was good, but also quite sweetly pungent. I had to add a lot of salt to balance it out. And what about cooking wine? Is it true that it is much less alcoholic than the potable stuff? I've never used it, for many of the same reasons I don't use normal wine, but I wonder if its a good option.

So what do you do? Use the real stuff, use cooking wine, or substitute? What do you use to substitute?

* That's from Greg Prince's David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism. I would get the page number, but it's packed away and I'm not going to get it out. We're moving at the end of September.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Seeking by study and by faith in Nauvoo.

We visited Nauvoo last weekend. Being only half a day's drive away and having Grandparents (free lodging and food) left us with little reason not to do it eventually. Last weekend we had the time, and we availed ourselves.

We saw the LDS sites Saturday. Sunday we drove down to see Carthage (also run by the LDS church). Monday we saw a few LDS sites in the morning before taking the Community of Christ tour in the afternoon. At the LDS sites we saw the blacksmith shop, the family living center (demonstrations on how they made bread, rope, rugs, baskets, etc.), the Heber C. Kimball Home, the Wilford Woodruff home, the Brigham Young home, and the Sarah Granger home. We also saw a play put on by the performing missionaries at the visitor's center and went on a wagon ride around old Nauvoo. The LDS sites are open on a walk-in basis, which gives a lot of freedom to the visitor to be flexible with what he wants to see. The Community of Christ sites (with the exception of the Red Brick Store) are open only as part of a tour of the whole area. The tour starts off in the visitors center, goes to see the graves of Joseph, Hyrum, and Emma Smith, then to the Smith Homestead, then to the Nauvoo House, then the Mansion House, and ends at the Red Brick Store.

Dave had a good post over at T&S about what goes into the management of historical sites. It's worth reading and leads one to appreciate the complexity of that job and the relative competence with which it is done. Right now, though, I'm more intrigued by the differences in historical presentation between the two latter-day saint tradition churches in Nauvoo.

First the LDS sites. The one difference between the LDS sites in Nauvoo and other church history sites I've seen is that this time the missionaries made no effort to get us to fill out referral cards. I heard at least two missionaries specifically say that the Nauvoo Mission is a mission more to "strengthen the members" than to proselyte. I wonder if this is a recent change in emphasis. Other than that, it was pretty much what you see at most Church history sites: a tour, a story, and a testimony. There was more emotion, more sentimentality, more personal connection, and more passion. In the blacksmith shop and the family living center, however, there was less spiritual emphasis and more of a focus on hands-on experience and getting an idea of what life was like in the 19th Century. The Visitor's Center was similar to most LDS Visitor's Center's I've seen. There was a big information desk with lots of pamphlets, a diorama of Nauvoo, a few theaters, some art exhibits, and a huge copy of the Christus right in the center of the room. It was also full of loud families with lots of kids. There was no souvenir shop, nothing for sale. Altogether, it was a pleasant, fun, family-oriented building.

The first difference I noticed when we entered the Community of Christ visitor's center is that it was much quieter. Acoustic arrangements of some of the early Mormon hymns were played in the background. It made for a more reverent atmosphere (though this might have been because we were the only ones there). A young bearded man greeted us, told us when the tours would begin, and invited us to have a look around. First we had a look at the small gift shop. I was surprised to find some real historical titles. I expected some fun little story books, but instead, they had Bushman's and Donna Hill's Joseph Smith biographies, Dan Vogel's and Grant Palmer's books, a two volume set of the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon, and lots of other serious academic studies. In the main room, there was an original sunstone and moonstone. They also had the southeast cornerstone from the temple on display. The cornerstone was fashioned as a stone box, inside of which was placed a time capsule of sorts containing a copy of the original Book of Mormon manuscript, some periodicals, some coins, other memorabilia. Most surprising to me was that they had an original first edition Book of Mormon on display and it was only behind a regular glass display door, not like the sealed glass case that houses an original first edition at the LDS-run Grandin Printing Press in Palmyra. In keeping with the academic orientation of the books at the gift shop, the Community of Christ tour was very historical, very fact-oriented, not at all emotional, sentimental, or spiritual. Our guide was knowledgeable enough to answer specific questions about names and dates by citing historical authorities. There was no testifying. We were not invited to learn more about the spiritual or doctrinal message of the Community of Christ.

On the one hand, I really appreciated a break from the sentimentality and seeming emotional manipulation that you sometimes get from the LDS tour guides. I appreciated being able to get good authoritative answers to specific historical questions, answers that I could look up and verify. I enjoyed hearing more about the surrounding economic and social context of the events described to create a fuller picture combined with the spiritual context. I was glad to learn more about the Smith family that stayed in Nauvoo. I liked the relaxed nature of a tour without a proselyting goal. We were treated very politely and respectfully.

But I missed some of the passion and personality that you get from the senior couples at the LDS sites. I missed hearing about why this is important to the person speaking. I missed the spiritual conviction that we felt at Carthage. This sense of missing something became most poignant in the upper room of the Red Brick Store. Sitting in the room where endowments and sealings were first introduced, I wanted hear about it. But the endowment and sealing ordinances, the most complex and interesting and the most exalting of the ordinances revealed by Joseph Smith, were reduced to a footnote, almost an afterthought; no more notable than the muslin covering on the desk where Joseph would record his purchases. It was here especially that I felt that something important had been lost along with all the sentimentality and emotional gushing.

Emotions are a funny thing. They are so easily confused with the promptings of the Spirit that they are often mistaken for them, and sometimes missionaries, both the proselyting and the tour guide kinds, try to invite the spirit by tugging at the emotions. Usually, it doesn't work, and usually it leaves someone feeling awkward and uncomfortable. (Remember, the Spirit is called the Comforter). By contrast, the Spirit is supposed to edify. I've seen too many people mistake a rush of emotion for a spiritual manifestation of some kind, putting their faith in it, only to have it come up shallow later on and conclude that the spirit is all a farse and the gospel isn't true. It's for these reasons that I wish we could purge ourselves from sentimentality and emotional manipulation.

I'm also reminded that, according to Joseph Smith's prayer at the dedication of the Kirtland temple, were should not seek spiritual experiences alone; we are also supposed to seek learning as well---not just by faith, but "by study, and also by faith." I don't expect a tour guide to present the tour with the knowledge of a professional historian. It would be long, boring, and irrelevant to most of the patrons. But a tour guide is a teacher and a teacher ought to know his material more deeply than he teaches it. Truth, according to the revelations, is not just an abstract spiritual experience, but is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were. Truth, especially historical truth, is inherently fact-based. It is true that often we can do no better than approximations and guesses, but our guesses ought to be as good as we can get, as faithful to the historical record as we can be. Joseph Smith, taking a cue from Paul, warned the early saints to avoid zeal without knowledge (see Nibley's discussion of Joseph's warning).

The Community of Christ tours seemed to have a better handle on this kind of fact based history. But on the other hand, as Paul says, "knowledge", unchecked by charity, "puffeth up". Spiritual things cannot always find expression in the language of the knowledgeable. The omission of endowments from the Red Brick Store left me feeling like I had missed out. The LDS missionaries were less knowledgeable, but more personal; less accurate, but more memorable; less academic, but more passionate. Something was gained, and something was lost.

So my question is this: does a re-orientation towards a more historically accurate approach necessarily lead to a loss of conviction? Or is it possible to be both knowledgeable and spiritual? Is there something that the LDS site missionaries and the Community of Christ tour staff could learn from each other? How can we both improve our presentation of history?

Cinematographicus: The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

The Bourne Ultimatum is the best action movie in a long long time. To start with, it defies the law of sequels. The law of sequels states that whenever a film is made, any subsequent sequels will never be as good as the original. The law of sequels is best known in the Back to the Future and the Indiana Jones franchises, and most starkly, the Ghostbusters franchise. The first generation Batman films also follow this law. Some will claim that the Lord of the Rings defies the law of sequels. It does not, because the second two films are not sequels, they were conceived and created as a coherent whole, not as sequels.

There are exceptions to this law, but they are generally rare. It is fairly common for a second sequel to best the first sequel (again, see Back to the Future, Indiana Jones), but it is rare for the second sequel to best the original. The Bourne Ultimatum does it. And that's saying something because it's not like The Bourne Identity was a bad film.

The Bourne Ultimatum does a great job of keeping the plot tight and focused without making it predictable and boring. There are relatively few twists and turns, and it moves in a fairly regular fashion. However, the action moves quickly enough that it does not need to keep feeding you plot clues to keep you engaged. And it isn't just your average blood and guts Bruce Willis style action, either. Jason Bourne's combat is physical, but it is smart combat. It's not just a few guys trading punches or blowing things up until one dies, its thinking, dodging, running, attacking, improvising and using whatever is at hand to do it (this movie teaches us that a book and a towel can beat a candlestick---remember that next time you play Clue). This rapid pace is also helped along by a great musical score. It brings in the tension and suspense, but not enough to be cheesy; it does its job, but stays in the background.

Part of the focus of the plot was accomplished by leaving out the love interest. It was a good choice. The love interest in The Bourne Supremacy was interesting, but it stretched the plot a bit too thin. In this one, Julia Stiles is there to throw in just a taste of the girl getting saved by the special agent combatant, but it isn't overdone, and it doesn't get Bourne off track of his objective: finding out who he is.

Jason Bourne, like all action heroes, has the uncanny ability to heal ridiculously fast. But in this film, it seems less unrealistic then, say, the Rambo or Die Hard movies. The injuries aren't overdone, so the healing seems more believable. The only moment that the fast healing seemed a bit distracting was the motorcycle chase all over Morocco after getting thrown against a car by an explosion. But it's forgivable because its a part of the genre. It's the most believably done fast healing in recent memory. Perhaps this is because of the films focus on the mental combat abilities of Jason Bourne as much as the physical. Whereas the Die Hard films message seems to be "look, Bruce Willis is a really tough guy," the Bourne films are saying "Jason Bourne is incredibly smart, and he has the physical ability to back it up."

But in being a smart action thriller, it doesn't degenerate into a political polemic, like would be so easy. While it is clear that there are political good guys and political bad guys, there are no Jack Ryan boy scout speeches. (Those aren't necessarily a bad thing, but in this film they would have been distracting). Bourne does take sides, but the extent of his political speechmaking is limited to one question he asks almost at the very end of the movie. In this case, less is definitely more.

The Bourne Ultimatum is great because it preserves the hallmarks of the action movie genre but improves them by making them more believable. It's not good because it's novel or original or unique, necessarily; it's good because the filmmakers chose their goal, focused in on it, and executed it with almost flawless competence. That's a DVD three-pack worth owning.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Lou Dobbs Thinks I’m Dumb, Among Other Things

Last year the Independent Institute issued a letter on immigration. The letter argued that immigration is not all bad for the country and in fact makes us better off as a whole. I signed the letter, agreeing with its premise. It was a short and simple, and now over a year later Lou Dobbs picked up on it. Economist Alex Tabarrok from George Mason University appeared on his show recently, and can be seen here. Dobbs took the arguments given by simply responding that the signers are "idiotic," "dumb," "jackasses," and "completely out of their minds." I can’t say I agree with Powell’s extreme open border position, but I still think more immigration will make America better, even if that makes me dumb.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

By the mouth of two witnesses

I once wrote on this blog that Cormack Mcarthy's The Road is a great book and that everyone should read it. Or something. It is a great book and everyone should read it. My taste in books is now vindicated by the illustrious Eric Snider. He has some positive comments on The Road at his blog.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Kernels of prophetic wisdom.

When I was younger, I actually thought that the LDS prophet/former Secretary of Agriculture and the iconic popcorn hawker were the same guy.

The Eats Sheet: Pozole Rojo

Several months ago, my wife and I were invited to dinner by a family in the stake. We had pozole, (po-SOH-lay) a recipe that had been graciously gringo-fied by the Mexican abuelita that gave the recipe to the inviting family. Instead of pork, there was chicken; instead of repollo, there was lettuce; instead of spice, there was mildness.

Pregnancy is an interesting thing. Yesterday, it's incontrovertible decrees mandated that Mrs. JKC eat pozole for dinner. So I set about making pozole with my rudimentary knowledge of the culinary mysteries of el sabor mexicano. I kept it relatively mild, but I was still able to get the flavors working. It turned out really really well. This is how I did it:

1. I preheated the oven to 325 and rubbed down a few pieces of pork shoulder (with the bone in) with olive oil, powdered chipotle, paprika (the smoky Spanish kind is best, but the sweet Hungarian stuff works too), garlic, and salt.

2. I put a heavy cast-iron pot on the stove with some olive oil and let it get real hot over medium-high heat. Meanwhile, I diced an onion, cut three garlic cloves in half, and stirred them with a few bay leaves in the pot until the onions began to caramelize.

3. I pushed the onions and garlic to one side and seared the pork on the cast iron about 1 minute per side.

4. I dumped in 5 cups of water, seasoned it with a few shakes of salt, paprika, and chipotle powder (I imagine that you could probably use any chili powder, but I like powdered chipotle the best), got the water boiling, covered the pot, and popped it in the oven for an hour.

5. I pulled the pot out of the oven, and pulled the pork out of the pot. I half sliced and half shredded the pork into bite-sized chunks and dumped them back into the pot, skimmed off the fat that had risen to the surface, and added 2-3 cups of water. I seasoned the water with paprika, cumin, chipotle, and salt, got it boiling over medium heat, and then covered it and let it simmer for 30-40 minutes.

6. I drained and rinsed 3 cans of Hominy and added this to the pot with about 1/2 teaspoon each of cumin, chipotle powder, oregano, black pepper, allspice, and two chopped garlic cloves. I let it simmer for 10 minutes and then kept it warm on the stove for the next hour or so until it was time to eat.

7. I got a grid iron smoking hot over the stove and roasted an Anaheim chili (a few jalapeños wouldn't have been bad either) on it until it was black on the outside. I took out the seeds and cut it up and put it into a bowl. I also shredded some cabbage and sliced a few radishes razor thin. I also sliced up an avocado. These, with some Tabasco, were the condiments. If I had had more onion, I would have diced some. It was too bad that I didn't have any limes to squeeze or fresh chopped cilantro.

8. I didn't have any fresh corn tortillas (the ones I did have were old and stiff and kind of scary looking) so I made some honey-hush cornbread (from the Dino BBQ). It turns out cornbread goes pretty well with pozole.

We had it with the cornbread, blue corn chips, and chocolate cake for dessert. It made enough to feed us and two hungry missionaries and still have enough leftovers for lunch and dinner the next day.

Friday, August 10, 2007

A Retraction

We who might be windmills are not accustomed to being mistaken. Nevertheless, we are human and it does happen at times. In a recent post I wrote the following:

The gospel really does infuse everything I do, like it or not. So is my attempt to banish it a Canute-like futility?

The allusion is to King Canute the Great, or Cnut, or, Knútr inn ríki, in Old Norse, a Viking King who ruled over Norway, Denmark, part of Sweden, and the British Isles at the turn of the 11th Century. According to legend, Cnut tried to command the waves to turn back. The version I was familiar with was that Cnut, drunk on his own power, issued his anti-tidal edict, and when it returned to him void, resigned his crown in a fit of sour grapes.

According to the source of all human truth, though, I was misinformed. The true legend is that Canute, a fair and just king, had little tolerance for flattering courtiers. When one such flatterer told him that his power was so great that he could command the waves, Canute set out to prove him wrong and make a point. At either Southhampton or Westminster, Canute stood on the shore and commanded the sea to turn back. When, expectedly, it did not, he declaimed to his courtiers that even a king has limited powers. He then piously removed his crown and refused to wear it as a demonstration that Christ is the only true king.

Far be it from me to malign a royal dead viking. I don't want this Cnut character pulling a King Hamlet's Ghost and appearing to me in the middle of the night, or worse appearing to one of his descendants and ordering the unlucky sinner to avenge him by taking my life.

Cnut, my apologies.

Thursday, August 9, 2007


So I found myself in the middle of the language debate the other day. I had been studying my GRE vocab list and realizing how fuzzy definintions are. At the same time I'd been thinking a lot about connection in an eternal sense--like how all of our efforts in righteousness are efforts to connect to divinity or to help other people connect to it. Also, how true and deep connection to other people is the same thing as connecting to divinity (whatsoever ye have done to the least of these...). At any rate, the conclusion I was toying with is that connection is the ultimate goal and that the only way we can connect is through language, but how often language actually interferes with true communication/connection.

(The cool tangential implication of this idea is that the idea/word relationship is a lot like the body/spirit relationship--we have to learn how to communicate through words because it's the medium we have here and also it strengthens, refines, and forces us to learn how to use and control words much like our body trains and strengthens our spirit. Also, words become the sweating, fleshy embodiment of ideas. Wicked.)

The ominous implication of this idea is that I've dedicated much of my life (including my plans) to the study (worship?) of words, and how could I feel good about spending my life with lies?

Enter 100 Years of Solitude.

This was going to be a book review, but instead I'm going to say this: it's brillliant. Marquez paints this incredibly vivid world and draws you in inexorably. (The yellow butterflies! The chestnut tree! The massacre like a dragon!)

For now, a couple of tangents: I served my mission in Armenia. I realized there, suddenly, that I am very rational. In my universe, miracles are subtle and easily explained (or happen to someone else), I buy medicine at the store, and getting cold has little to effect on my health or ability to reproduce. I realized early that my world view was not the one and only truth. After a year of interpreting (or deconstructing) dreams and laughing nervously at home remedies my conception of what is possible and what isn't is a little more flexible, but essentially I remain, both feet on the ground, a realist.

Number two: in my Russian lit class we read a translation of Eugene Onegin that sought to keep not only the meaning of the poem, but also its rhymes. Needless to say, it was crap, and after twenty pages of tilted, stretching, awful verse, I was ready to give up on Russian lit altogether.

Three Sundays ago I left ward prayer early to hole up in my room with Soledad. I was completely wrapped up in a story shot through with magic (yellow butterflies follow a forbidden lover, Remedios the beautiful is transfigured, the spirit of the gypsy leads a man to the Sanskrit dictionary in a dusty bookshop), maybe founded on magic. The prose was as beautiful as water--so much so that I didn't even notice it, except for the occasional sparkle. Dude, I finished the thing and I wanted to cry I was so deeply moved.

So language comes through? It pulls us, despite its imperfections, into understanding? Despite cultural and religious and language barriers, I got this buzz of connection. It happens all the time. What do you think?

Tricky Dennis: Kucinich's Nixon-esque Antics.

The other night I caught a bit of the AFL-CIO Presidential "Forum." I guess a forum is what they call a debate with too many participants.

Dennis Kucinich was among that multitude of candidates. Now, I have to admit to some admiration of the diminutive Ohioan's willingness to stand for some really unpopular (to point of being unrealistic) positions. But he's going too far. If he keeps it up, he'll soon have gone the way of Ralph Nader.

Though it would probably offend both men, Kucinich reminds me of Richard Nixon. He's kind of like the bizarro Nixon, really. Like Nixon, he's a hopeless nerd. Like Nixon, he, being a hopeless nerd, married a very attractive woman. A nerd triumph. Like Nixon, he's unattractive on TV. However, in true bizarro fashion, whereas Nixon had the grumpy scowl complete with jowls, Kucinich has the goofy Alfred E. Newman-esque grin.

But until last night, I thought Kucinich's Nixon-like qualities were confined to his personal life. Now I know that he also share's Nixon's disdain for the constitution. Consider this exchange from the debate:

MR. OLBERMANN: Congressman Kucinich, scrap NAFTA or fix it?

REP. KUCINICH: You asked a direct question. I think it deserves a direct answer. In my first week in office, I will notify Mexico and Canada that the United States is withdrawing from NAFTA. I will notify the WTO we’re withdrawing from the WTO. (Applause.)

We need a president who knows what the right thing is to do the first time, not in retrospect. And I think that we need to go back to trade -- excuse me -- we need to go forward to trade that’s based on workers’ rights, human rights and environmental quality principles.

No one else on this stage could give a direct answer because they don’t intend to scrap NAFTA. We’re going to be stuck with it. And I’m your candidate if you want to get out of NAFTA. (Applause.)

Let’s hear it. Do you want out of NAFTA? (Cheers, applause.) Do you want out of the WTO? (Cheers, applause.) Tell these candidates.

(Read the full transcript here.) Sounds reasonable, right? If NAFTA and WTO aren't beneficial, we just withdraw, right? Yes, except that NAFTA and WTO, if I'm not mistaken, are treaties*. Look at the what the Constitution says about treaties:

...all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby,...

(Article VI, Paragraph 2.) Since when can the President single-handedly repeal the "supreme law of the land" after it's already in place? That would seem to be a violation of the law. According to the Constitution, though, the President can make treaties, only with the "advice and consent" of the Senate. (Article II, Section 2, Paragraph 2). It would stand to reason then, that the Constitution would allow a treaty withdrawal only with the consent of the Senate. Then again, I suppose Rep. Kucinich assumes that "when the President does it, that means that it is not illegal."

In Kucinich's defense, though, he didn't actually say that he would withdraw, only that he would "notify Mexico and Canada that the United States is withdrawing from NAFTA." Presumably, he would then pass the buck to the Senate and blame them when labor called him on it. So maybe that tiny vegan is "not a crook" after all.

*Maybe my understanding of NAFTA and the WTO is incorrect, though; maybe we haven't actually joined by treaty in the sense that Article VI speaks of them. Perhaps Cabeza or Warren can enlighten us on that issue.

Mitt Unplugged, or Oedipus Romney: Why Romney's best virtue may lose him the nomination.

This video has been getting some mileage around the 'nacle (and the rest of the internet to a lesser extent) as of late.

Those who read this blog will probably know that I am leery of Mitt Romney. On the other hand, my opinion of Romney went up when I watched the video. The general consensus both on the 'nacle and elsewhere seems to be that Romney did a great job defending himself and his church. I agree that the video shows us Romney at his best. My interest lies in why Romney seems so much better in this video than on the regular campaign trail.

My political misgivings about Romney I've explained elsewhere. But stylistically, my criticism of the regular campaign trail Romney is that he is always on script. He doesn't seem to know how to give an answer that directly addresses the question rather than giving an answer that addresses the question enough not to be evasive but that is really an attempt to get back to the campaign talking points. Romney is hardly the only political candidate to fall victim to this vice. But he has mastered the technique so well that he arouses suspicion. Add to that the fact that he is a successful wealthy businessman, handsome, and has a nice family, and you can really begin to understand that criticism that he is "too perfect."

But here, perhaps because he might not have known the camera was on, he was engaged with the issue, not with the talking points. He realized that the interviewer was was not going to let him get back to the talking points unless he resolved the issue, so he took it head-on, not backing down. It gives us a chance to see Romney thinking on his feet, and being articulate, not just drawing on a catalog of sound bites. It was refreshing.

So what made Romney get off his robotic message tricycle? Was it just the fact that the interviewer was an irritating Skousenite? (He's got to be the only non-Mormon Skousenite out there.) That might have had something to do with it. But it seems more likely to me that Romney was more personally engaged because he had more personally (as opposed to politically) at stake. Let me explain: when people attack Romney for being inconsistent or for changing his mind, (aka "flip-flopping") he has political clout to lose. But when a non-Mormon with a mistaken understanding of the church's position on abortion accuses Romney of having violated that position, he attacks Romney's personal religious commitment and also, his mis-characterization of the policy falsely represents the church. Therefore, Romney's church and his faith, two things closer to his heart than his politics (hopefully) are attacked. This is why Romney says "I don't like coming on the air to have you go after me and my church."

So it's an irony worthy of Greek tragedy that Romney, trying to win the Republican nomination, is at his best when defending a the moderate position of the church against the more right-wing fringe of the party. I say its ironic because those are the people he needs to play to if he's going to have a prayer at getting the nomination. This is not because republicans as a whole are extremists, but because, unfortunately, the extremists turn out to vote in the primaries in larger numbers and exert more influence on the nomination process.

Some politicians cannot think off message. Romney demonstrates that he can. It's a rare talent; and he ought to show that off by responding more directly and being more honest and passionate. It was one of a few a smart moves his campaign has made (you can count them on one hand) to release the video. Most Americans, I think, will respond better to this Romney than campaign trail Romney. The only question is whether the right-wing party hacks in St. Paul this year will think like most Americans.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Is it unethical to preach the gospel?

I asked myself this question last night. My job (a law clerk for a legal services organization that serves migrant farmworkers) is constantly inviting me to make comparisons with my missionary service. Like my time as a missionary, I work with Latinos, mostly Mexicans, in the U.S., who live off of field work. Like missionaries, I visit my clients in their homes. Like missionaries, I have to gain my clients' trust. Heck, I even drive a 1999 Sentra like when I was a missionary.

9:00 PM. Last night was a late night. As I met with a client family in a trailer park in a small town in western Minnesota, I couldn't help but be brought back to my mission service. Especially when my client asked me: ¿Cómo aprendiste el español? I explained to him that I was a missionary for my church a few years ago in Arizona. His face glowed with recognition and he said that he had had visits from Mormon elders at his home in Texas. At that point, I would have responded with a follow up question: how did you like it? Or, why did you stop meeting with them? Or, did you ever go to church? Or, would you like me to have the elders here visit you?

I would have. But I stopped myself. I hesitated. It didn't feel right. Somehow, it had the feel of an abuse of authority, or an impermissible blending of church and state, or a violation of the legal services non-solicitation policy, or some other verboten thing. Even though it wasn't strictly any of those things, it felt like something of that nature.

9:15 PM. We finished up our interview and I packed up my client files securely. We shook hands. ¡Que Diós te bendiga! I heard my client exclaim as I got in the car. As I drove to my temporary 3-day-a-week apartment, I wondered why it was that I felt like it was wrong of me to preach the gospel at that moment. The best answer I came up with was that my relationship with my clients, is one of professional advice and counsel, and that the gospel is outside the bounds of that relationship. They come to me to find out what to do. I, after conferring with a licensed attorney, then give them the advice they seek. Even though I explain that I am only a law clerk, not a licensed attorney, they still see me as some kind of professional authority figure. I am entrusted with that authority for the specific purpose of giving them legal advice and counsel. To give, unsolicited, religious counsel would seem like a breach of that trust.

I don't mean that I would never speak about the church with a client. If a client asked me about the church, I would respond. If a client asked me about a non-legal matter, I would be likely to draw on relevant gospel-related experiences. But somehow, it feels wrong to "look for an opening" to share the gospel like I might do in another situation.

But is that just an attempt to artificially separate my gospel self from my professional self? At some level, my understanding of the law is founded on my understanding of justice, which is founded on my understanding of religious truths. The gospel really does infuse everything I do, like it or not. So is my attempt to banish it a Canute-like futility?

Or again, is my sense that it would be wrong to preach the gospel in that situation nothing more than an excuse? Is it really my human reluctance to share personal things (what could be more personal than religion) with people I've just met? Maybe I'm justifying after the fact my failure to share the gospel by rationalizing that I probably shouldn't have anyway.

Or is my hunch right? Is it unethical in some situations to preach the gospel?

I know that sometimes it is illegal to preach the gospel. And I suppose that some might argue that given our belief "in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, magistrates, and obeying honoring and sustaining the law," the very fact that it is illegal makes it wrong. But I can't accept that as an absolute. That would mean that Daniel and the three Hebrew children were wrong to disobey their king. It would also mean that Helmut Hubner was wrong to oppose Hitler. Scripture and conscience don't allow those conclusions for me.

Maybe a discussion of "ethical" would be helpful. I've always liked Kant's expression that it is unethical to use a human being for the benefit of another because it is a nice critique of hard materialist utilitarianism. I'm not sure how that relates to my question, though. Preaching the gospel is not using anyone. I suppose I am using the situation, but it is not for my benefit, but for the benefit of the other. Then again, perhaps I am not qualified to decide what is in another's best interest because that would rob him of a sacred autonomy. A utilitarian ethicist would simply balance the potential harm from me preaching the gospel against the potential good it would do. But this doesn't work here because the potential good is infinite, great enough to justify the spilling of God's blood. How can you balance anything against infinity?

Ethics is weird for me because I feel like I have a pretty strong sense of right and wrong, but it is highly intuitive sense, not a rational sense. For me, the abuse or misuse of authority of authority is important to ethics. The idea of trust and its betrayal is also an important ingredient. Maybe this idea subsumes the former; a misuse of authority is fundamentally a betrayal of trust. If it is unethical to preach the gospel, maybe it is ethics that is flawed. Ethics for me is a matter of conscience, but is defined to most of the world by philosopher and scholars working in rational proofs.

Should ethics be defined by reason or by intuition? Is religion (and with it the injunction to preach to all the world) superior to ethics because it is revealed truth rather than merely rational or intuitive truth? Then again, given what we Mormons believe about the light of Christ, what is the difference between revealed truth and intuitive truth?

Or is it just that there are exceptions to the command to take the gospel to all the world? I don't like the idea of there being exceptions because it might lead us to assume that some people's immediate spiritual salvation is worth less than others' to God. The Lord certainly doesn't qualify it in scriptural language. But then again he also doesn't qualify "thou shalt not kill" and yet we accept that he appears to command Abraham, Joshua, Nephi, and others to do just that. If there are exceptions to the mission to proclaim the gospel, is there a way to recognize these exceptions without giving room to justify laziness in our mission?

But maybe the exceptions idea isn't the right approach. Maybe it's not a matter of if this particular person or group should hear the gospel, but when. I think of the 11th hour laborers. The fact that they were called later did not devalue their labor. In fact, their work was worth more to the lord per hour in strict economic terms. Given what we believe about our post-mortal life, the universalism of the command can still stand even if current circumstances render it impossible, impractical, or even unethical.

But there's always that nagging voice in the back of your mind, telling you that you're still just trying to justify yourself.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Cinematographicus: The Prestige (2006)

In keeping with the Shark's last cinematographicus entry, here's review of another movie about stage magic. No, it's not A Very Siegfried and Roy Christmas or David Copperfield live at the Acropolis. Nor is it Too Legit: The Harry Houdini Story. It's Christopher Nolan's The Prestige. This movie is like The Illusionist because stage magic plays a role in the plot. It's unlike The Illusionist because it is good.

Constants in Christopher Nolan movies appear to be Christian Bale, Michael Caine, flashbacks, themes of manipulation and obsession, foreign prisons, and flights of technological fancy. The Prestige heaps on a hefty dose of all of the above. The basic idea is that a tragic event divides two friends, it grows into a high-profile stage rivalry, and ends up consuming one character whose passion for revenge exceeds everything. Throw in a little techno-fantasy, and there you have it. Basically, it's what would result if The Phantom of the Opera had a child with The Count of Monte Cristo and the child were raised by H.G. Wells.

A major strength of The Prestige is its cast. David Bowie as the semi-mad scientist Nikola Tesla was a casting triumph. Scarlet Johansen was perfectly adequate. She said little and portrayed even less. Her character is ittle more than a pretty face; it was a role well-adapted to her acting abilities. Caine, Bale, and Jackman all held up their reputations for excellence.

Now on to dramatic structure. Most films are linear. They primarily rely on the talents of the actors or the wittiness of the dialogue. Think Shakespeare adaptations, Jane Austen adaptations, and most romantic comedies (most which are essentially variations on Austen or Shakespeare). Others jump around a lot because they're constantly trying to surprise you. Think of the Mission: Impossible franchise, and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, which both accelerated this technique increasingly until it spun out of control. Both the linear structure and the surprise structure, though, rely on a passive relationship with the viewer. The viewer is there to be entertained, scared, delighted, or surprised, but not to take an active role in the development of the plot.

A third category of films, a great example of which is a lesser known film called The Spanish Prisoner(1998) (which boasts Steve Martin in a non-comedic villain's role) are puzzlers. The plot twists and turns, but not just to give you the cheap thrill of a surprise. Instead the plot convolutions are there to challenge you to unwind them. Hitchcock, for example, was a master of the puzzler. M. Night Shyamalan does this with mixed success, but sometimes his plots degenerate into a O. Henry style surprise ending. Unlike the linear structure and the surprise structure, the puzzler relies on an active relationship with the viewer. It demands more of the viewer because he is called upon to be engaged in the unravelling of the plot.

The Prestige
is a puzzler. And as such, it engages in that favorite child of postmodernism, meta-fiction: a movie about magic tricks is itself a trick. It challenges the audience to not be fooled by the deliberate distractions and obfuscations. At the same time, it accuses the audience of wanting to be fooled and of engaging, albeit unconsciously, in willful self-deception. Or perhaps more accurately, willful cooperation with an outside deceiver. Nolan's background in English literature at University College, London, may be the source of this meta-fictitious whimsy. My only critique is that if you don't really concentrate (and maybe even rewind once or twice) it might be unclear at some points whether the action is taking place in London or Colorado Springs.

One of the film's most interesting features is its deliberate ambiguity. Nolan gives hints at possible answers to the film's riddle, but does not commit the film overwhelmingly to one answer or explanation. As a result, he allows physical explanations (stage technique, biology, or technology), and also metaphysical explanations (magic, or technological wizardry) to act as possible candidates to fill in the mysterious blank. This ability to write a compelling, but ultimately ambivalent story is considered a hallmark of great art. Keats called Shakespeare's ability to do so "negative capability." The author allows interpretive choice by putting enough evidence into the plot to support more than one interpretive conclusion. But negative capability is more than vagueness or obscurity because it isn't a lack of a conclusion but a rather a possibility of multiple conclusions. K-Pax (2001) does this well. To write this way without being self-contradictory takes considerable skill.

I was also struck by the way that Hugh Jackman's character reminded me of Mitt Romney, but perhaps that's a subject for another day.

Bottom line: The Prestige is worth the $20 I gave the Target Corporation to own it. It is entertaining, well-cast, and there are enough twists and turns to keep you guessing without sacrificing continuity or believability. It is also a fun riddle. Go see it if you haven't already.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The Eats Sheet: Key Lime Ice Cream

Time for some epicurean indulgence. Two years ago at our wedding, among the many gifts (one of which we're sure has been re-gifted continuously since it was bought circa 1985) was an ice-cream maker. It sat in my parents basement for a year and then on top of our kitchen cabinets for a few months. Finally, last year I inaugurated it with a chocolate, peanut butter, and banana creation. Since then, the summer months at our house have been occasionally sweetened and cooled with some frozen goodness.

When my in-laws came to visit recently, I wanted to make something special. Our kitchen had an abundance of strawberries and limes from a recent costco trip, and it wasn't too hard to make the logical conclusion.

The Dinosaur BBQ has a fantastic key lime pie. I think it goes well as a postlude to a dinner of Charcoal BBQ Chicken or Mojito Chicken. I also like to do it with a coconut crust rather than traditional pastry. I thought that I might try to adapt the key lime pie base to an ice cream recipe. I did try it, and it worked.

Basically, you finely grate the peel of one lemon (zest, as somone who is culinariosophic would say), and squeeze out the juice of three lemons. You combine this with your regular ice cream base (mine is egg yolks, sugar, milk, cream, and sweetenede condensed milk) and freeze it. I also stirred in a bunch of sliced strawberries before I froze it. It was good, but the frozen berries were a little too hard to really enjoy the juiciness. I think it would be better to save the berries chilled, as a final topping next time.

Key lime ice cream may be a semi-misnomer, because I did not use any key limes, just regular persian limes. But then again, the Dino's key lime pie recipe actually calls for regular limes. All in all, I think my experiment turned out quite well. Limes are not (that I'm aware of) a very common ice cream flavor. Ice cream tends to go for chocolate and caramel flavors, while the fruits are reserved to the sherbets and the sorbets. But lime ice cream ought not be so unheard of. The sweet acidity of the limes is balanced, but not outweighed by the richness of the cream. The result is refreshing and a perfect companion to any summer BBQ.