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.