Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A poem

I wrote this one a while back when they were starting the construction to move the railroad tracks to accommodate the new twins stadium. I don't think I like the title, and I'm not really sure where I want to go with it. Any good ideas?

The Maintenance of Progress

Between the tracks, eternal parallel lines
(and all lines, we know, are circles):

To the right, a hobo’s blanket soaking in a puddle—
plaid flannel smeared with grime,
besmirched with mud and corruption,
limp and defeated under a sky of cold steel.

To the left a sapling, two seasons old—
a thin stem whipped with trans-American winds
dusted with coal particulates,
baked under the hardening sun,

and marked with an orange nylon flag,
while orange paint poured out like blood upon the ground
cuts cross-ways in a jagged perpendicular
between clumps of splintered wood.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Sean Penn's "Into the Wild": a summary judgment.

"Into the Wild" was released last Friday. I watched the trailer for it the other day and really wanted to see it. The cinematography looks beautiful, the story is compelling, and they used a great Iron & Wine and Clexico collaboration (He Lays in the Reins) in the trailer. Because I decided not to see Into the Wild, I suppose you could say this is a review based on the trailer, rather than on the merits.

Into the Wild is one of my favorite books. I remember reading the original article, entitled, "Death of an Innocent" in Outside magazine back in 1993. Krakauer is a gripping writer, and the article combines gumshoe reporting and forensic discovery with the finesse of a novelist and the introspection of an essayist. And even without fine writing the story itself is engaging: authorities find a young man's decaying body in a sleeping bag in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness---eventually the body is identified as Chris McCandless, a kid from an affluent family in the elite Northeastern establishment, but how McCandless ended up in Alaska remains a mystery, so a writer collects the clues and slowly pieces together Chris' journey across the midwest, west, southwest, and up the coast to Alaska. But Krakauer made the story better with his persistent questioning: not just where? what? who? and how? but more importantly, why?

Krakauer's article was his big break. Soon he expanded the article, delved a little deeper into the introspection, developed it into a full-length book and published it as Into the Wild. Soon after, he published Eiger Dreams, a collection of wilderness essays/memoirs, and short journalistic pieces and then Into thin Air, another book based on an Outside article, (this one about the disastrous 1996 climbing season on Mt. Everest). Krakauer admits that his writing has become obsessed with extremism in one form or another. Most recently, he published, Under the Banner of Heaven, an exploration of the perils of religious extremism using fundamentalist Dan Lafferty as a case study.

And now Sean Penn has made Into the Wild a movie. On the one hand, who can blame him. It's a great adventure story and just begs for a gorgeously shot film to go along with it. But on the other hand, if this review is to be believed, Penn takes great liberties with the facts of McCandless' life to make Chris a one-dimensional tortured anti-establishment hero and excises the introspection and questioning that made Krakauer's study of McCandless great. If this is true, it's disappointing.

I have nothing against taking artistic liberties with the facts as a theoretical principle. Some of Shakespeare's greatest works aren't faithful to history the purport to portray. The Standing on the Promises series is a fantastic work of historical fiction. But these books take artistic liberties to fill negative space in the historical record, rather than rewrite history that is reliably set down. When history is scant, I have no problem with an author filling in the blanks. Too often, though, artistic liberties and "historical fiction" are merely excuses for a failure to write compelling history.

It's one thing to write ahistorical things about ancient English Kings like Lear and Hamlet, or to use the novelist's gift to flesh out the minimally recorded lives of slaves. But using artistic liberty as an excuse to malign the character of living people is egregious. According to the review at Slate, Penn crudely justifies McCandless' disowning his family by inventing out of whole cloth a childhood of abusive memories. In reality, Walt McCandless did not get drunk and beat his wife. Spousal abuse is not among his many faults. Chris cut off all contact with his family because he disapproved of the materialistic way they lived. Their New England elitism didn't jive with his Thoreauvian ethic and his Jack London aesthetic. Their complicity in the environmental and social exploitation of American capitalism offended him. As a result, his rock-hard integrity demanded that he have nothing to do with them.

Whether these are worthy ideals is one question; whether they justify disowning a beloved family is another. Krakauer's book is good because he takes on these questions (and others), grapples with them, and refuses to take the easy way out. My beef with Penn's movie is not that it is too positive, but that it reduces Chris McCandless to a one-dimensional stock hero. Chris was not just a hippie or an emo hero, and his life story should be more than a surfer movie sans surfing. His staunch ethic makes him more like firebrand John Brown than flowerchild Thoreau. And like John Brown, Chris McCandless' is a bundle of contradictions that should make us think about ourselves. It's unfortunate that Penn's hagiographic portrayal hasn't preserved this. I don't think I want to see Into the Wild after all.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Cinematographicus: Rocketman

I take pride in being a film graduate who isn't afraid to not take the art of filmmaking quite as seriously as the stereotypical, snooty film student. Thus I bring to you my thoughts on a movie I recently watched for the first time in a long time: "Rocketman" (1997).

This is one of those movies that you have to watch while your mom/wife is taking a nap or out running errands, because if they watch this over your shoulder your reputation may suffer some damage. Like "UHF" and the "Bill & Ted" movies, the humor in this one is loaded with slapstick and goofiness that, although clever, is often conceived as a waste of time.

"Rocketman," for those who've never seen it, is sort of a cult-classic Disney movie about a NASA programmer, Fred Randall (played by comedian Harland Williams), who is chosen as an unlikely candidate to replace an injured astronaut on a mission to land on Mars for the first time. Note that this was released three years prior to the over-hyped flops "Mission to Mars" and "Red Planet," and succeeded in telling its story much better.

What I love about "Rocketman" (and movies like it) is that it doesn't try to be anything more than what it is: a goofy movie that exists to showcase the silly physical antics of Harland Williams. Is it shallow? Pretty much. But it isn't very redundant, and its length is just right so that you never wonder when it's going to end.

My only major complaint with the film is that it has a couple scenes where the jokes focus on flatulence, which is the absolute cheapest way to get a laugh. Anytime I'm confronted with a fart joke I just roll my eyes and wait for something original to come around. Yes, it's interesting to think about what would happen if one astronaut passed gas while sharing his space suit's oxygen with his commander, but dragging that moment out for a full three minutes is torture.

But let's face it: the real reason I'm mentioning this movie is for the gems inside it.

My favorite scene involves Fred expressing his feelings of inadequacy at becoming an astronaut, explaining that he compares himself to the Cowardly Lion. He then proceeds to do an amazing impersonation of the Lion, singing "If I Were the King of the Forest." Cracks me up every time. Another great moment is when Fred fails to enter his hyper-sleep chamber and goes crazy after being awake the entire 8-month journey to Mars, resulting in his using the crew's food supply to recreate a version of Michelangelo's "The Creation" on the space shuttle's ceiling. Fred also does a great rendition of Jiminy Cricket's "When You Wish Upon a Star," falsetto-voiced and everything, which is the precise moment in which he wins his female coworker's heart - a scene that is amazingly pulled off!

Other highlights include exclamations such as "Sweet Alaskan asparagus tips!" or "Sweet, swirling onion rings!"

Not the most profound movie in existence, but you know what? It succeeds at what it tries to be: a lighthearted story with a few moments that will make you so glad you sat through the whole thing.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007


These are just a few thoughts that have been bouncing around the cavernous recesses of my cranium lately.

The omphalos, or navel, is an archetype. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the center place of the world, whether you place it in Jerusalem, Rome, Cuzco, or Independence, Missouri, is often called the "navel of the world." The navel as a symbol also has special significance in Mormon ritual. Then on Thursday I got to see the umbilical tether of my unborn daughter in an ultrasound image. All this got me thinking, what's so special about the belly button? Why does it seem to inspire such fascination?

I've always thought of the navel simply as a reference to the stomach---nothing more than a convenient mark on the body placed right over the organ associated with digestion and nourishment. But the thing is, the navel itself isn't an organ or a useful appendage---the navel is a scar. It's a leftover, a shadow, a dried up remnant of something that used to be. It's a reminder that the umbilical cord, the source of constant pre-natal nourishment is gone. A reminder that we, quite literally, have been cut off from that source, and that it was bloody and painful. As a scar, the navel is an assertive absence.

This physical, visceral cutting off has at least three spiritual parallels. 1) The pre-mortal life doctrines teach that before birth, we were in God's presence and constantly nourished and that when we are born, we are cut off from that source of pre-mortal spiritual sustenance. 2) Adam and Eve enjoyed God's presence in Eden, but were then cut off in the fall and forced to earn their own food by the sweat of their face. 3) In the Doctrine and Covenants, we read that we as children are innocent, but as we grow and gain knowledge we become accountable and are cut off from God because of sin.

So how does this all relate to the umbilical scar? Usually we think of the Eden story, the pre-mortal story and the story of our individual fall from innocence as a precursor to some greater narrative of reconciliation and reconnection. But with the navel, reconnection doesn't seem to be an option. We sure can't reconnect to a placenta. That would be grotesque and perverse, almost like an old man trying to re-enter his mother's womb to be reborn. With no hope of umbilical renewal, what are we to do?

An infant is cut off, and so she must nurse. She has to work to get her food. It's difficult for both mother and child. But nourishment comes, and when it does, it is given to her freely, (she gets milk without money and without price, so to speak). And despite the necessity of her own sucking efforts, she is still completely dependent on her mother, her source of food. I'm reminded of Julian of Norwich, a 14-century mystic who described the Savior's role as a mother's role. Julian said:

"A mother can give her child milk to suck, but our precious mother, Jesus, can feed us with himself. He does so most courteously and most tenderly, with the Blessed Sacrament, which is the precious food of true life. With all the sweet sacraments he sustains us most mercifully and graciously."

Transubstantiation questions aside, I think Julian's on to something. Maybe the point of the umbilical scar is to remind us that we are cut off, and that therefore we absolutely must rely on the one who gives (new) birth to us. Otherwise, we die. Maybe the point of this scar, a symbol of our separation, is to remind us of the other scars---those in the hands, wrists, feet, and side---that represent our reconnection, or at-one-ment, with God.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Happy Constitution Day

Today is Constitution Day. Our Constitution turns 220 today. All federally funded schools must commemorate the ratification of the Constitution in some way. According to the "Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2005,’’ Dec. 8,
2004; 118 Stat. 2809, 3344–45 (Section
111), ‘‘each educational institution that receives
Federal funds for a fiscal year shall hold
an educational program on the United
States Constitution on September 17 of
such year for the students served by the
educational institution.’’ If you're wondering if Constitution Day might not be constitutional, look at this to see what one law prof thinks. In honor of this August occasion, here is a nice little list of "constitutional curiosities" put together by a guy that was once my Con Law prof and is now dean at some law school in ol' Kentuck.

by Jim Chen

This exercise is intended to make reading the Constitution a little livelier. All answers to the questions below may be had by consulting the text of the United States Constitution.

1. Of which state are you a citizen?

2. Are you eligible for the House of Representatives? The Senate? The Presidency? If not, why not?

3. Bill Dodge, son of two United States citizens, was born in Niger during his parents’ African travels. Ousseini Abdoulaye was born in Niger on the very same day; Ousseini’s parents, however, were citizens of Niger. Ousseini later moves to the United States and becomes a United States citizen. Assume that both Bill and Ousseini are 40 years old and have lived in the United States for at least last 20 years. Is either Bill or Ousseini eligible to serve as President?

4. The original Constitution contemplated the continuation of slavery in those states that permitted slavery as of 1787. Find the first instance of the word “slave” or “slavery” in the Constitution. If you don’t find either of these words in the original Constitution, what are the hints that the original Constitution contemplated and tolerated slavery?

5. Assume that the free population of South Carolina in 1850 was 1 million, that its slave population was 500,000, and that its untaxed Indian population was 100,000. For purposes of determining South Carolina’s representation in the House and direct tax obligations to the federal government, what was the population of South Carolina?

6. The Constitution refers to only three types of unlawful behavior, and a fourth may be inferred from the text of a general prohibition. Name all four.

7. Does the Constitution contemplate capital punishment? Where? Which provision or provisions would you invoke if you wished to attack the constitutionality of the death penalty?

8. What is the only use of the word “right” in the original Constitution?

9. When is Inauguration Day? Is it the same as the first day of a new congressional term?

10. What is the maximum time anyone may serve as Presi-dent?

11. What is the only part of the Constitution that may never be amended?

12. Speaking of amendments, name the commercial activity that the Framers of the Constitution declared off-limits to regulation via constitutional amendment until 1808 (i.e., 21 years after the framing of the original Constitution).

13. Still speaking of amendments, how can they be made? (Name two methods.)

14. José and Maria Nazarena are citizens of El Salvador. They enter the United States illegally. Maria then gives birth to Jesus in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Consulting only the Constitution, name one country of which Jesus is a citizen.

15. In a fit of pique, the President decides to skip this year’s State of the Union address. As White House legal counsel, what do you advise?

16. In a fit of pique (probably provoked by the flap over the State of the Union address), the House begins debating a bill to cut the President’s pay and Supreme Court Justices’ pay. As counsel to the Speaker of the House, what do you advise?

17. Before 1913, who chose Senators? After 1913?

18. Rose Perot, a candidate for the House of Representatives, plans to issue a campaign promise to oppose any Supreme Court nominee who will not commit to upholding a woman’s right to abortion. As Rose’s campaign manager, do you run the ad? (Base your answer strictly on your interpretation of the Constitution, not on any political considerations.)

19. Jessie Ventura-Boulevard ultimately defeats Rose Perot in a hotly contested race for Congress. The victorious Jessie now represents Texas in the House of Representatives. Her political “lone star” having risen swiftly, she now seeks a national political platform. She would like to be the running mate of her fellow Texan, Governor George W. Shrub, the Reform Party nominee for President. As Jessie’s political adviser, can you point out the constitutional flaw in the congresswoman’s vice-presidential ambitions?

20. How much Hawaiian money do you have in your purse or wallet?

21. Speaking of purses, your cousin Rhonda left hers at your recent family reunion. Upon rifling through the purse, you discover a certified mail receipt, a Confederate $10 bill, a District of Columbia driver’s license, a copy of the Koran, and a Susan B. Anthony dollar. Whatever their market value, these items make up a constitutional treasure trove. Find any and all constitutional provisions that relate to the contents of Rhonda’s purse. Incidentally, does it make a constitutional difference if you open the purse in your capacity as an FBI agent or if you are simply a nosy busybody?

Find the answers here.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Euterpeos: Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga

What happens when one-time punk/grunge band with a vaguely Foo-Fighter-eqsue sound decides to go minimalist and hitchhike to Motown? You get Spoon's last album, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga.

A week or so ago, I was ordering some stuff from Amazon and was close to getting free shipping. I had heard that Spoon had released a new album, so I looked it up and bought it on impulse for 10 bucks, only 3 more than my shipping would have cost. I don't much about Spoon, so I'm probably not qualified to say much in the way of comparison to their previous work. But what I do know is that they claim the Pixies as an influence and in the past have been compared to Nirvana, another Pixies-influenced band. Overall, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga doesn't sound that much like Nirvana or the Pixies. But there are footprints of Seattle grunge---like the bass lines on "Don't You Evah," and "Rhthm And Soul" and the power chord rhythms on "My Little Japanese Cigarette Case."

Most of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is what I would describe as minimalist rock. The sound is for the most part pared down to the essential elements of the genre. It tends to favor acoustic, simple rhythms, repetition, and above all simplicity. You don't get a lot of guitar duets, overlapping melodies, or even much vocal harmony. "The Ghost of You Lingers," which features multiple vocalists, is essentially call-and-response as opposed to simultaneous harmony. In fact, the name Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is supposed to suggest the simplistic repetition of a piano rhythm; it aptly describes the minimalist sound of the album. When you do get a more complex melody line (like the Flamenco-inspired guitar-picking in "My Little Japanese Cigarette Case"), it's showcased against an unembellished background of muted rhythm guitar and percussion.

That it favors acoustic simplicity is not to say that Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga eschews electronic elements, though. They're there, especially on "The Ghost of You Lingers." And some songs use echo effects on the vocals, but on the whole electric elements are used sparingly. In this case, a little electronica leaveneth the whole lump.

But the minimalist overtone of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga makes the few larger, deeper arrangements really stand out and rock, especially with the Motown inspired horns. In particular, "The Underdog" and "You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb" incorporate this little touch of soul. "Cherry Bomb" even adds in the Martha and the Vandellas-style bells. It's fun.

Actually, one of the most interesting features of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is its use of percussion. I already mentioned the Motown bells, but there's more. My favorite track, "The Underdog" incorporates, in successive layers, shakers, tambourines, sleigh bells, and, spoons---yes, spoons---over a folksy, O.A.R.-reminiscent acoustic strum rhythm with Motown horns. The Jazzy trumpet flourish at the end even sounds distinctly like something They Might Be Giants would do. They use spoons---it's so eponymous. And you've gotta respect that.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Center Place

Romney raised some eyebrows a few months back when George Stephenopobopobopolous asked him about the Mormon belief that Jesus, at some point during his second coming, will end up in central Missouri. Romney responded that no, he believes, just like all good Bible-belt evangelical Christians, that Jesus' second coming will be in Jerusalem.

In reality, both Romney and that journalist with the hard-to-spell Greek name were hedging a little bit. It is true that Joseph Smith and others have taught that the Savior will be in Missouri when he comes again. However, he and others also taught that the Savior will come to Jerusalem. It is generally assumed that he will initially appear at Jerusalem, and then come to this continent, but the exact chronology is not a defined point in Mormon doctrine or theology. The problem for some was that they felt like Romney was being less than honest, and trying too hard to look like a typical Southern evangelical Christian (i.e. Republican voter).

But whatever you think about that, the idea that Joseph Smith taught is intriguing in its own right. Essentially, it is that Adam-ondi-Ahman, or the place where Adam and Eve went when they were kicked out of Eden, is near a farm in Northwestern Missouri. It is also taught that this place will also be the place of a great reunion meeting attended by Jesus, a resurrected Adam, and others. (See Doctrine and Covenants 116). It is extrapolated that since the place where Adam and Eve ended up was in Northwestern Missouri, than the Garden of Eden was also nearby. Recently, this article chronicled the quest of one non-Mormon to find the Garden of Eden. The tone is somewhat flippantly glib, but the article itself is interesting. (The one thing I find odd is that the author seems compelled to include the hair color of every sister missionary he meets).

Yes, the Mormon beliefs about Adam-ondi-Ahman seem strange. But I love them. What I think is so cool here is the idea of center places. The Holy Land---Jersualem, Mt. Moriah, Arauna's threshing floor, Sinai, Eden---was considered in early and medieval Christianity and Judaism to be the center of the world. Early mapmakers, influenced by this idea, called that area the "earth's middle" or medi-terranean. It is said that Jerusalem was "the navel of the world," the place where humanity would receive constant nourishment from the heavens. (Incidentally, the term "navel of the world" is not unique to Jerusalem. The same term has been used to describe temples, altars, and significant cities throughout the world, including, the Temple and Oracle at Delphi, the Incan Temple of Cuzco, the ancient city of Rome, and even Easter Island.)

When most Christians lived in the near east, proximity to these ancient sites was a fact of life. But as Christianity became a western European phenomenon, it gradually removed itself from its past and in the process became less and less literal and more and more ethereal. As Christianity moved from Europe to America, some Christians tried to recover the past. The pilgrim fathers were obsessed with overlaying their present on the pattern of the Biblical archive, comparing their journey across the sea to the Exodus, and calling themselves God's people---the "shining city on the hill," even taking some of their penal codes right out of Leviticus. The Salem Witch Trials were at least in part, precipitated by a desire to literally obey Exodus 22:18. You see the same attitudes early in the book of Mormon, where Nephi constantly compares himself and his father's family to Moses and Israel, and Laban to Pharaoh.

In the Book of Mormon, the importance of recovering the past is illustrated by the fact that even after traveling quite some distance, Lehi's son's were asked to go back for the historical record. They probably knew the stories, at least the most important ones, and probably could have written them down themselves. After all, Nephi did have to learn himself how to make metal records. It was apparently important not just to have a written record, but to maintain some physical connection to the past itself. The necessity of this connection comes into focus when Lehi's family runs into the Mulekites, who had failed to recover their past and as a result, their language had become corrupted.

The cool thing about Joseph Smith's Adam-ondi-Ahman teachings, though, is that they recover the past---or perhaps restore the past---much more completely than these earlier attempts. In addition to the restoration of authority, doctrine, ordinances, etc., Joseph also restored the proximity to antiquity that was enjoyed by early Christians. Consider the juxtaposition of cosmic center place and quotidian courthouse in this revelation: "Behold, the place which is now called Independence is the center place; and a spot for the temple is lying westward, upon a lot which is not far from the courthouse" (Doctrine and Covenants 57:3). Instead of placing Eden at the center place of what was the known world a few millenia B.C., Joseph placed it at the center of his world, the new world, which is also my world. And that is cool.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

The Eats Sheet: BBQ Ribs

As has been previously mentioned on this blog, the Dinosaur BBQ has some of the best ribs available on planet earth. They also have a a nice cookbook that tells you how to smoke 'em yourself in your own backyard grill. But what do you do when you don't have any woodchips, and when you can't stay home for 3-4 hours checking your ribs every hour? This is what you do, it's not a perfect substitute, but it still does a great job of producing some succulent pig meat.

First you buy a a rack of ribs (I used a St. Louie cut rack) and the night before you're going to prepare them, you rub them down with a nice red rub. Mine is based primarily in paprika, garlic, and salt, but also contains cumin, oregano, black pepper, rosemary, and brown sugar. The key is to keep the sweet and savory flavors in balance. Then throw them in the fridge in some kind of pan or dish and let the flavors mingle and soak into the meat all night. I had to cut the rack in half because I didn't have a big enough platter.

Then, in the mid-morning, you fire up the grill with a nice hot coal bed. Give the meat a nice sear over the coals to lock in the juices and flavors so it doesn't dry out later as you cook it. Don't overcook the meat, just a quick sear on the very outside edge. It should still be raw in the middle. If your fire is hot enough, you should only have to keep it on the grill for about a minute per side. You could probably also do this on the stove over a cast iron skillet or grid iron.

When the meat is seared, bring it in the house and put it in your crock pot. if you haven't already, you're going to have to cut the rack in half to fit it in the crock pot. Lean the two pieces toward each other, meeting in the middle of the crock like a tipi or a house of cards. Don't lean then against the sides of the cooker because you don't want them to burn. Pour a half to a full cup of veggie broth in the bottom of the crock pot, rub a bit of your favorite BBQ sauce on the meat, and set it on low for 6-7 hours. Then you can go shopping or whatever you need to do that prevents you from smoking the ribs.

When you get back, you can finish the ribs right away or keep them warm in the cooker until its time to eat. When you're ready, get a nice medium coal bed going in your grill and get out there with your ribs, a pair of tongs, and a bowl of sauce. Throw the ribs on the grill, meaty side down, and caramelize the fat, getting them nice and crispy, but don't burn them. It helps to have a spray bottle to mist the coals if they flare up too much. After a minute or two, give them a flip and slather the meaty side of the ribs with sauce. Cover the grill and close down the vents to put out the fire and leave the ribs for 3-4 minutes. This will allow the sauce to form a nice glaze without burning the underside too much.

Bring 'em in the house, cut 'em up with a chef's knife, and enjoy. My favorite sides with ribs are black beans and rice, cornbread, and fries or rosemary roasted potatoes. Good stuff. You don't get the nice smoke flavor, but everything else is there. It's a pretty decent approximation.