Friday, December 28, 2012

Les Mis, Christianity, and (Lack of) Nuance

Critical reviews of the recent film version of Les Miserables, directed by Tom Hooper, are somewhat middling. Some people hate it, and while others think it's quite good almost everyone seems to throw out the word "bombast" or decry the straightforward, hitting-you-over-the-head way of telling the story. Close-ups everywhere!
Buzz and Woody were too cerebral to enjoy a great movie

To be clear, I'm a wannabe film snob myself, and I tend to agree more with critics than not regarding movies. I like nuance and artistic storytelling and all of that, and highly value it. But I can't disagree more with the reviews that take Les Mis to task on this issue. The reason is that I think Les Mis is a very Christian work, and Christianity (as perhaps most religions do) has a long, proud, and deliberate tradition of eschewing nuance--and for good reason.

I feel like it all started with the 12 disciples. Christ dropped some pretty strong hints, especially seen in retrospect, that he was going to be resurrected after he was killed. But his disciples just didn't get it, or at least didn't believe it. It took them seeing the empty tomb and handling his resurrected body, scars and all, for them to be convinced. The gospel writers thus took pains to make it as obvious as possible for all their readers, who by and large wouldn't have that physical confirmation of the risen Lord, that Christ really was the Son of God and really did rise on the third day etc. etc. etc. They try to hit you over the head with it as much as possible!

Of course, there is plenty of nuance and depth and artistic things to be found in the story of Christ, and those should be sought after. But they are not the point. The point is "That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow . . . And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord." Christianity is meant to be universal; we want the earth to "be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea." That can sound pretentious and overzealous and haughty, and I'm all for expressing it as tactfully as possible--but that really is the goal.

This film version of Les Mis, to me, embraced that unnuanced approach to Christianity and good versus evil. It hits you over the head with Jean Valjean as Christ figure, with the transformative power of mercy, with the rash beauty and tragedy of youthful courage, and (most importantly) it hits you over the head with the message of love. The end, with the final lines of "To love another person is the see the face of God" and the reprise of "Do You Hear the People Sing?," only this time with lyrics of spiritual--not political--revolution, were perfect to me. Those who have died--whether after a long life of struggle to do what's right despite murky issues of stealing bread to live and negotiating extra time with justice, or after being killed by political forces that robbed them of promising lives, or after a death brought on by the most degrading and inhumane circumstances brought on by the uncaring of others--"will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord." Enemies from all sides of a failed uprising one day "will walk behind the ploughshare / They will put away the sword."

That Christian message deserves sometimes to be shouted from the rooftops, nuance be damned. I wholeheartedly agree with one meta-reviewer who made this same point, albeit in secular tones: "The point of Les Misérables is its pure bombast: the way that it steamrolls any suggestion of cynicism with yet another soaring refrain." That's what this film did, at least for me. It embraces the truth of passion (and The Passion) for a moment without worrying about whether it's entirely rational or whether sophisticated people will scoff. Les Mis, like the Christianity with which it is so tightly enmeshed, is best enjoyed by the salt of the earth, the childlike, the trusting. This is one time I'm happy to go against the critics.

Friday, November 30, 2012

America when will you be angelic?

If you've ever wondered where the subtitle of my blog ("mystical visions and cosmic vibrations") comes from, you're in for a treat. It's from probably my favorite poem ever: America, by Allen Ginsberg.



It's basically my exact thought process.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

DOMA DOMA DOMA

I had to write a brief prognostication for a class I'm in called Sexuality and the Law about which (if any) same-sex marriage cases the Supreme Court is likely to decide to hear this term. The conference in which they will decide is tomorrow. The options are the Prop 8 case from California and a plethora of cases challenging (Section 3 of) the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA. First of all, this song was stuck in my head as I wrote:



The Prop 8 case is about whether California could legally amend their constitution to revoke the right to marry from gays and lesbians after it had been given to them by a state court in the summer of 2008. The argument that they can't is that the federal constitution prevents them from doing so. How does the constitution say that? Well, there are two ways to argue that: the broad way and the narrow way.

The broad way would be to say that it's straight up unconstitutional to prohibit lesbians and gays from marrying, ever. This could be based on either or both of two clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment which, crudely speaking, say (1) you can't discriminate in who gets treated better and worse by your laws, and (2) you can't deny people special "fundamental" rights, one of which is the right to marry (though of course there's the question whether the right to marriage includes the right to same-sex marriage). The trial court (lowest level) decided that both of these constitutional clauses meant that same-sex marriage was required by the federal Constitution.

But the appeals court, while agreeing with the trial court in the outcome (that CA had to let lesbians and gays marry) got there via the narrow way. It's a bit complicated, but basically there's a 1996 Supreme Court case (called Romer v. Evans) that said you can't pass an amendment to your state constitution to take away rights from lesbians and gays specifically--that's just plain mean. (Of course, they used the fancy word of "animus.") So the appeals court in the Prop 8 case (called Perry for short, by the way) said that since gays had the right to marry in CA (albeit for a short time) a state constitutional amendment taking that right away ran afoul of Romer, thus it's unconstitutional for CA to refuse to marry lesbians and gays, but only because they had already given them that right. The appeals court left for another day the question whether it was always constitutional to deny lesbians and gays the right to marry.

The conventional wisdom among legal experts is that the Court is highly unlikely to take the Prop 8 case. It's too CA-specific (because of the appeals court narrowing the reasoning), and Justice Kennedy (the author of Romer) would probably uphold the lower court's ruling. I agree: it's unlikely that the Supreme Court will take the case. If they don't, that means the appeals court ruling would stand and gay marriage would become legal in CA again.

The DOMA cases all stem from different individual facts, but they're all challenging Section 3 of that law, which says that as far as the federal government is concerned, only marriages between one man and one woman count as marriage--even if a lesbian or gay couple is legally married under a state's law. (NB: this law, passed in 1996, was the first time (I believe) that the federal government has decided which state marriages it will recognize. Usually it's just a question of whether a couples has a valid state marriage license; if so, the federal government doesn't ask any more questions before honoring it.) So if one partner dies, the other will have to pay federal estate taxes to inherit her property, for example. And there are lots of other federal benefits that are based on marriage (immigration privileges, not having to testify against your spouse in court, social security, healthcare, and still many more) and thus because of Section 3 of DOMA are unavailable to lesbian and gay married couples in Massachusetts and other states that allow for same-sex marriages. The cases all argue that discriminating against couples based on sexual orientation in this way violates the federal Constitution's guarantee of equal protection for everyone: they say there is no good reason to deny lesbian and gay couples those benefits.

The stakes in the DOMA cases are also lower than Perry's (potentially) broad reasoning. If the Court finds that Section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional (as eight lower courts have done), that decision would not force any state to perform same-sex marriages, nor would it even force any state to recognize a same-sex marriage performed in another state (striking down Section 2 of DOMA would do the latter, but that's not at issue in this round of litigation). Ruling that Section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional would just make the federal government treat all state marriages the same, regardless of whether the spouses are of opposite sexes or the same: a gay couple in Iowa would then receive all the federal benefits that a straight couple in Iowa does, but a gay couple in Virginia still couldn't get married or get any federal (or state) benefits based on marital status. So a relatively limited change, though obviously it would still be huge.


I think that Windsor and Gill, the two most prominent of the possible DOMA cases, won't be heard for technical reasons (it's not clear that the plaintiff is allowed to sue in this situation in the former, and Justice Kagan likely having to recuse herself in the latter, if you're interested) but that the Court very likely will hear one of the others (Golinksi or Pedersen) because there have been so many courts that have ruled that this major federal law (DOMA) is unconstitutional--it would be highly unusual for the Supreme Court not to have its say on the issue.


There ya go: more than you ever wanted to know about the same-sex marriage cases the Supreme Court might take up this term! Any questions? We should find out which (if any) of these cases they decide to hear tomorrow afternoon, or possibly as late as Monday. Exciting!

UPDATE 11/30 at 17:42: Nothing today, so we might hear Monday or it might even take until their conference next Friday. Boo!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Suddenly: Naps!

A subsequent version retitled this "Pandamonium."
Yessssssss.
There's a random meme out there that I'll just refer to as "Suddenly!" The format is generally a picture of a lot of something (or a particularly random one thing) that seem to have appeared out of nowhere in an instant with the caption "Suddenly: X!" Example to the left, other fun ones here, here, here, and (perhaps my personal favorite because of the Beatles in-joke) here.

Today, I had a "Suddenly: Two Hour Nap!" moment. Got home around 5:30 or 6, collapsed on my bed, and didn't wake up until after 8. That's about the most exciting thing that happened to me today.

And then I found five dollars.*





*I did not actually find any money. This is just a phrase my friends and I used in high school after we realized we had told a stupid/pointless story. Does anyone else say this?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Elusive Meaning of Feminism

A lot of people level the charge that feminism is really hard to define and/or that everyone uses it differently. To an extent, that's fair. It really is hard to give clear content to any word that refers to a global movement (environmentalism can mean lots of things to lots of people in lots of places) or an amorphous concept (racism can refer to overt Jim Crow laws, subconscious suspicions (in the minds of perfectly progressive people) of those with different skin tones, or affirmative action, depending on context and who's speaking) that has been around for millennia. Feminism has this problem because it's a broad global issue and its causes have evolved and expanded a lot over time.

Those changes are particularly pertinent, I think. Often we think of feminist struggles historically as progressing from things like ending the legal status of married women being property to getting them the right to vote to allowing them to work in certain professions to removing cultural stereotypes that de facto prevent women, at least at the margins, from having all the choices men have. But not only do those direct changes on their own mean that feminism is a big thing, feminism has come to realize* that the "we" I spoke of above is referring largely to Western, white, middle and upper-class women. Largely separate issues exist for women outside this parochial bubble: women in (and emigrants from) the Middle East deal with issues like hijabs (which some insist are empowering and others see as oppressive) and honor killings and not being allowed to drive; women of color uniquely experience the intersection of race with gender, including discrimination within the feminist movement; some poor American women might as well live in a pre-Roe v. Wade world if they can't afford an abortion, etc.--not to even get into transphobia within feminist movements ("Men who chop off their penises are not women!!1 Ahhh, gross!"). All this is to say that feminism, whatever it is, is dealing with a lot of issues all at once. In some ways, it might not make a lot of sense to assign just one word to all of these disparate issues and causes and voices. And yet we do, and I think they all do have the common thread of women's treatment and opportunity running through them.

OK, so that is a bit about why I agree that it can be hard to pin down "feminism" for time and all eternity here or anywhere. But I think we can get a pretty decent definition that has some flexibility and covers the basics.

When I was thinking about this (Jeff kindly suggested I tackle the issue in the comments on my last post) I kind of came up with more of a description than a definition, but let's start there. I'd say that feminism is seeing problems with the way women are and have been treated in the world, coupled with a desire to change that injustice; it's believing that women are equal to men in intelligence, skill, thoughtfulness, kindness, and capacity for growth and change; it's wanting all people to have equal treatment from society and the law.

Now, I'm a big-tent person, whether we're talking about the Democratic Party, Mormonism, feminism, or what counts as art: I tend to err on the side of "sure, let 'em in!" So my definition of feminism allows for people who believe that men and women are significantly and inherently different, or for people who think that women and men complement each other such that sex with a member of the same sex is necessarily destructive. Of course, it also allows for people who think that essentialism is antithetical to feminism, or who think that anti-LGBT beliefs are incompatible with feminism, or who think that all bathrooms should be unisex! In other words, I'm ok with defining two people as feminist even if they think the other is harming the cause. Kinda like how I still think the Mormons who believe I'm hurting the church by being a liberal are still Mormons. Relatedly, I privilege self-identification over rigid rules. If someone wants to use the label feminist, I say the more, the merrier; on the contrary, I don't call people feminists even if they meet my definition if they don't want to use the label (even if in my head I would probably still classify them that way as a shorthand). Complicated, I know.

I also like Wikipedia's definition: "Feminism is a collection of movements and ideologies aimed at defining, establishing, and defending equal political, economic, and social rights for women. In addition, feminism seeks to establish equal opportunities for women in education and employment. A feminist is 'an advocate or supporter of the rights and equality of women.'" (NB: these are just summaries of dictionary definitions.) Equal rights, equal opportunities: yes! People who are on the side of women getting more power in the world (until they have equal power with men--let's not keep going so far we start harming men! [not that we're in much danger of that anytime soon...]) are feminists. In fact, even people who are glad that women have progressed as far as they have and just don't want to strip them of the right to vote are feminists in my book!

Feminism isn't that controversial or complicated to me at its basic level. We can get into all its waves and flavors and different people will be more or less attracted to the various aspects of those, but really I think most people agree that women have been mistreated for too long and are glad to see that changing, and thus are feminists--even you! (Yeah, I just called you a feminist--whatcha gonna do about it, tough gal?) That big-tent-ness can get dangerously close to covering everyone and thus no one, but think of it more as a spectrum. The more problems you see with the treatment of women historically and currently, and the more you're concerned about them, the more of a feminist you are.

What do you think? Is this a fair definition? Does it actually say anything or is it so much liberal sound and fury? Any major parts of feminism I should have included? Did I answer your question, Jeff? :)

* Here I gynomorphized (which is the counterpart to masculine anthropomorphizing) feminism by attributing consciousness to it.

Monday, November 26, 2012

War on Sexism

A recent ridiculous op-ed on the Fox News website has triggered a well-deserved backlash, the best parts of which involve lots of humor. The original talks of a war on men, and it just gets sillier from there. One thing the article discusses is that women have stopped being women and should go back to embracing their femininity. The author isn't very clear about what precisely that means, but apparently it involves not competing with men for jobs and stuff (or at least doing so less).

One sticky issue in debates regarding feminism is what's called essentialism, or the idea that men and women are inherently different. I'd like to throw out there the idea that, even if men and women are inherently different in some way(s), they aren't in any ways that have anything to do with jobs or education or stuff like that. I think men and women are equally good leaders, teachers, thinkers, workers, students, etc. (Radical, I know.) Trying to stifle that and restrict free choices regarding any of those or similar callings in life is pointless and stupid and mean. People need to celebrate and enjoy that freedom for women and men, not bemoan the fact that it upsets previous social arrangements.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Metric System

And different people might deserve different metrics
After getting home from the show yesterday night, my sister and I were getting out of the car and we both remarked that we had keys to unlock the front door, so I did the little-brotherly thing to do and proclaimed "It's a race!" and bolted towards the door. My sister didn't even try to keep up, so I got there and unlocked the door. When she tried to tell me that I had won, I corrected her: I won by one metric--the first person to get to the door--but she won according to another metric--my personal favorite: the laziness metric, or the one that gets the most gain (here an unlocked door) for the least work (not running or getting out one's keys).

I like to (try to) remember that success only exists in the context of a metric to measure it. We often forget that, and it's a great source of miscommunication. Success can refer to making a boatload of money, having lots of kids, being a kind person, or crossing an arbitrary physical line sooner before any other person does. And in fact, success according to one of these metrics often correlates strongly with failure according to another (i.e., more kids generally translates into less money).

Institutional success is sometimes even harder to define because metrics can get even more complicated. Is America better today than it was 50 years ago? Measuring by wealth, definitely. But do we have stronger morals? Well, I think we're pretty clearly less racist and sexist, but maybe we're more selfish and less committed to meaningful relationships, too. I don't really know how to measure those things accurately, though, and even if I could measure them individually how much weight do I give to each one so I can compare the grand total?

Today at church I was thinking about how I often try to measure the success of that institution by the metric of how much I'm entertained or intellectually fed. Yet I have good reason to believe that God's metric has more to do with how much I'm challenged or forced to listen to people I find boring or how many opportunities I have to help other people--you know, the kinds of things that actually detract from the church's success under my selfish metric.

The metrics we use are just one of the many assumptions we have--about the world, about ourselves, about our loved ones and friends--that we need to think about from time to time. It's amazing how quickly you can go from having failed to having succeeded (or vice versa!) if you just swap out the metric you're using for another one.

Tell Me, What Were Their Names?

Tonight I got to go to a very fun show called "Woody Sez," about one of my favorite songwriters of all time: Woody Guthrie. One song, called the Sinking of the Reuben James (listen below, as performed by the Weavers) got me thinking about names.



The song is about the sacrifice of the seamen aboard the Reuben James, the first American ship sunk during WWII. The chorus employs--to great rhetorical effect--the phrase "Tell me, what were their names, tell me what were their names / Did you have a friend on the good Reuben James?" Woody Guthrie gives meaning to their deaths by asking you to search out the names of those that died; implicitly, the message is that by knowing them by name will make you care more about their sacrifice by personalizing the loss. And it works: I definitely get chills listening to the song and it sets my patriotic flag a-flying.



Contrast that song with "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)," another Guthrie classic (listen above, as performed by Cisco Houston). The song stemmed from the tragic crash of a plane that was taking Mexican immigrants from California back to Mexico, but the real impetus for it was the fact that media reports did not give the names of any of the immigrant workers--they were referred to only as "deportees." Woody chafed at the hidden racism that the media displayed, and set out to give them some names. The haunting chorus imagines a bit about who they might have been: "Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye Rosalita / Adios mis amigos, Jesús y Maria / You won't have a name when you ride the big airplane / And all they will call you will be 'deportee.'"

In the first song Guthrie invites you to look up the names of people who are (rightly) regarded as heroes; in the second he has to remind you that those "deportees" whose deaths you glanced over when you were flipping through the newspaper had names too. The common thread is that names are meaningful. Why is that true, though?

Before trying to answer that question (using Computer Science, no less), Woody Guthrie is not the only authority important to me that has aruged that naming the dead is a fundamental way of honoring them. One of the most powerful experiences of my life has been visiting Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem Holocaust museum. The name of the museum comes from the Hebrew of Isaiah 56:5: "Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name [yad vashem] better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off." The museum is literally a place where the names and memories of holocaust victims and survivors can be kept forever. It is overwhelming to just comprehend a few dozen of the stories of people whose lives were forever broken by that terrible event, which is all you have time for when visiting; to think of the thousands upon thousands of other names and stories that the museum houses, as well as those of so many more whose names cannot be known and can only be supplied symbolically by our poets and our imaginations, is unfathomable.

Changing gears incongruously back to why names are so meaningful, I'm reminded of a Computer Science class I took at BYU. It was possibly the most mind-bending class I took there and thus one of my favorites. The class used the computer language Lisp; without getting into the arcane and irrelevant details, just know that it is nothing at all like the computer languages we had learned up to that point. (An analogy might be something like if the only human language you knew anything about at all was written Latin and then you had to learn American Sign Language--it's that different.) Anyway, in every language I'd learned before, to call a subroutine (a very very common practice in any program of more than utterly trivial size) you gave it a name and invoked that name. Then the subroutine did its thing. But in Lisp, it turns out that you can create subroutines that have no name at all. I know this won't be as mind-blowing to non-CS people as it was to me, but trust me, it was freaking weird. These unnamed subroutines were flexible one-offs. You literally could not invoke them again, because how would you? There was no name to refer to them by!

That's why I think names are so powerful. They make it possible to refer to the same person twice. They make it possible to talk about an enduring human being with a soul, rather than a collection of atoms that are always being swapped in and out. A name enables you to be in a relationship with someone else. In large part, until someone has a name they are not really human. (Cue literary references to Frankenstein's unnamed monster, and/or Adam Trask's children in East of Eden who go without names for the first year of their lives.)

Today, be thankful that you have a name. Think of the names of people in your life who have meant a lot to you, whether alive or passed on.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Just Waitin' for it to Come Around on the Blog Now

Had a lovely Thanksgiving today at home with my wonderful parents and the best cook out of all my siblings (good choice, eh?) and some extended family and friends. But what really makes it Thanksgiving is the traditional Smith family playing of and listening to Alice's Restaurant by Arlo Guthrie (who is, for those keeping score at home, the son of the legendary Woody Guthrie).

Thanks to the magic of youtube, you can watch a fun unofficially animated version below. (My favorite illustrations are the ones accompanying his visit to the psychiatrist and the depiction of Arlo as a litterbug.)



This almost beats the Greatest Thanksgiving Ever!

The God Who Weeps, aka I Heart The Givenses

Fiona and Terryl Givens
(picture courtesy of Mormon Stories)
Today I listened to an absolutely brilliant* interview with Terryl and Fiona Givens, co-authors of The God Who Weeps, a new book about five of the most compelling theological insights Mormonism has to offer. I cannot recommend it highly enough. This long Thanksgiving weekend would be a great time to sit down and listen to it (it's two and a half hours long, but trust me, this is worth it).

I gush-blogged earlier this year about getting to meet these two wonderful, lovely people. This interview is just more pure gold. First off, I will confess: I want their marriage. They are just so well-matched and evenly-yoked and play off each other's (very different) personalities, and that really comes through in this interview. Second of all, their honesty is so refreshing. Sadly, I guess that implies that I feel like Mormon culture too often breeds niceness/ignoring problems (something that I'm absolutely guilty of myself). But anyway, the way they talk about the strength they've gained from going through faith crises and doubts is a breath of fresh air. (This also applies to their candid admission that Joseph Smith had plenty of faults, and are quick to point out that God himself tells Joseph in the Doctrine and Covenants that he was chosen specifically because he was weak.) And you can tell that their conviction that the gospel is true and that Mormonism is the purest vehicle we've got for getting close to God is all the stronger for it! Then too I love the story of how this book came to be published by Deseret Book--basically Terryl trashed DB for printing pablum and Sherri Dew heard about it and asked him to write something better that they could publish. Ha! One last thing I loved from the interview was the way they focused on beauty--the beauty of the gospel, truth, the earth, God's love, etc. What a lovely approach to life and theology and everything.
The cover of their book

I haven't yet gotten a chance to actually read the book (though I most certainly will) but I'm still going to recommend it just based on this interview (as well as an awesome Mormon Matters one that Fiona was on (titled, of course, A Beautiful Vision of Mormonism)) and my limited-but-compelling personal interactions with the co-authors. Check it out! Listen to the podcast! Let it all revitalize your love for the brilliance that is Mormonism!

* Between Doctor Who, Sherlock, and now Fiona Givens, I've decided I really need to start using the adjective "brilliant" in place of the generic American "awesome" or "cool" or what have you.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Fun With Fire!

I have another overly-thinky post in draft form, but even I'm tired of those so I can only imagine that anyone reading these is even more so. So this is an attempt to have a more fun and lighthearted post!

I saw the movie Lincoln yesterday, and thought it was great. One highlight, among many, were the raucous and passionate speeches made on the floor of the House of Representatives. Tommy Lee Jones gets to hurl some really fun insults--and he's the target of his fair share too.

Edgar Allen Poe's room on The Range -- wouldn't you love to
be building a fire in such a room on a cold November night?
Also, tonight I get to build a fire! In one of the old-timey apartments adjacent to the Lawn at the University of Virginia! I want to write a song similar to The Rainbow Connection but about fires. "Why are there so many / songs about fire / and what's on the other side?" etc.* That probably won't happen tonight.

The point is: have a fun pre-Thanksgiving evening!

* As Molly Mormon Democrat has pointed out to me, though, there actually aren't all that many songs about rainbows. Which turns out to actually be the case when you look at the hard data. But let's not be party poopers on a happy post! ;)

Monday, November 19, 2012

Go To Your Room and Think About It

I just finished an article by David Foster Wallace that was on some random list of the ten best American essays written since 1950. It's titled Consider the Lobster and I think it's quite good. He's a fun writer (though I've only ever read an essay or two of his, I admit) and I like the sly transition from covering a random Maine tourist event to metaphysical pondering on questions that we are uncomfortable asking ourselves, and then asking why we're so uncomfortable with them.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

You Can't Take Me Anywhere

Last night I went to a production of My Fair Lady with my family in DC. It was a lot of fun. However, my over-analytic mind got to thinking during this song:



Of course, empty words can get extremely frustrating and, at the extremes, can even work to disempower people. But that actually illustrates part of the problem I have with the song: I took the underlying message of the song to be that words are cheap and useless, especially compared to action. However, as I've written about before, words can be very powerful, and in this case Eliza has been deeply (and, sadly, negatively) affected by words themselves. It stands to reason that positive words (yes, coupled with corresponding actions) could have a significant positive impact.

But on an even more fundamental level, I felt like this song is taking a very anti-theory stance. "Don't talk about what you're going to do, just do it!" But everything from Nate Silver's overwhelming success in the recent election to Darwin's theory of evolution show us that understanding what's going on below the surface can completely transform one's ability to act. Sitting down and thinking about what's supposed to be happening, how it could be gone about the best, and how to know when you've achieved your goal (aka the metric you should be applying). If these things aren't fleshed out, the results are more often than not haphazard and sloppy, if not completely counterproductive. Theory is huge.

...

In other words, take me to a fun, light-hearted musical and give me half a chance at intermission and I'll be annoying you with half-baked readings of really-not-meant-to-be-deep songs. This could be a great counterargument to the whole point of this post, actually. Do theory, but not too much, I guess.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Debate gratia debatis

Law school has ruined me, or else I am the sick kind of person who just enjoys debate for the sake of debate, because I really enjoyed this roundtable discussion hosted by the New York Times in its wonderful "Room for Debate" section. It's about the emotionally and morally fraught issue of pornography, and it does a fantastic job of presenting a wide variety of perspectives. If you have 15-20 minutes, I'd recommend reading through them. Any that represent your view on the subject particularly well? I think the last essay is probably closest to my take--of course, it's also the most "well, it depends" one, a typical law school answer.

Your Daily Gospel Pun

It's true: Adam fell. But he fell in line behind Eve, who was ascending.

Friday, November 16, 2012

I Want to Boldly Break Grammar Rules

Look, I'm not a grammar nazi. If I was, I probably would have capitalized "nazi." But I do like to at least know when I'm breaking grammar rules. There's a scene in a mediocre movie that I only saw once years ago, Finding Forrester, that has stuck with me. Unfortunately I can't find the clip on youtube so you'll have to rely on my highly imperfect recollection. Anyways, the setup is that a young kid with a lot of raw writing talent becomes unlikely friends with a reclusive literary genius (styled after J. D. Salinger). In the scene I remember, the kid writes something that uses some kind of nonstandard grammar; the older guy calls him out on it, and the kid says, basically, "Whatever man, maybe I was using it as part of my literary style!" To which the wise old author yells at him "You have to know the rules before you can break the rules!"

That's how I feel. I may or may not choose to break grammar rules at certain times and in certain places (for example, I almost never use "whom" even when it's called for because I don't want to sound like a pedantic a-hole) but I want to be able to choose whether or not I break the rules.

This is why it absolutely floored me to learn today that "anyways" is a very nonstandard construction; "anyway" is the actual word. "Anyways" is on par with "irregardless." Which thing I never had supposed. I say "anyways" all the time! So now I have to start paying attention! Because really, even if I sometimes don't want to come across as a pedantic a-hole, I still am one.

p.s. The grammar rule I hate the most and don't care one single bit about breaking--in any context--is the prohibition on splitting infinitives. Such a stupid rule and one that is entirely arbitrary. And it makes sentences sound super awkward sometimes!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Mormon Literature, or, Who Wins in a Fight: Pre-Mortal Eve or an Incorporeal Futuristic Android?

I hosted a little get together for friends here in Charlottesville tonight on the topic of Mormon literature. It was a lot of fun. We read (beforehand) a great recent short story called Avek, Who Is Distributed by Steven Peck and the first scene from Eric Samuelsen's brilliant play The Plan. We also talked a bit about what role literature does and should play in our lives, and especially Mormon literature and its connection to spirituality and religion.

One parallel between the two selections we read that I found particularly interesting was the theme of embodiment. Each piece took a different direction on that topic, though I'm not sure they ultimately came to different conclusions. The first scene of The Plan is a dialogue between Gaia, the pre-mortal Eve, and Lucifer, who has started stirring up rebellion to, uh, The Plan. Gaia, in the face of Lucifer's logical arguments about fairness, defends the decision of most of God's children to get a body even if it means pain, weakness, temptation, and disease--all while being held to a higher moral standard than lower lifeforms who fulfill the measure of their creation just by living according to base instinct--as necessary and glorious.

In "Avek, Who Is Distributed," the LDS church in the distant future has already begun baptizing androids and alien lifeforms, but they've reached a more serious impasse with Avek, an artificial intelligence who is distributed across thousands of computers and thus not housed in one single "body" that can be baptized. As the Seventy over Artificial Life Relations breaks the news to him, (spoiler alert) Avek proposes an ingenious solution: why not just baptize him by proxy? The Twelve Apostles love the idea and it allows Avek, and potentially many more AIs like him, to join the church.

The Plan thus defends embodiment as an absolutely necessary step in our eternal progression, while "Avek" could be read to push back on that by portraying a being who has no real physical body as a child of God who is treated just like those who do, receiving ordinances and progressing. I've always been a bit confused about why a body is so important to us--clearly we could make decisions and learn and grow to some degree before we came to earth--so I could see both sides of this.

On the necessity of embodiment side, I think of how a body, with its instincts and desires that aren't always aligned with our spirit's, is a great training ground for having stewardship over and/or working closely with others. A body isn't sentient, of course, but it often does seem to have "a life of its own." If I can learn how to coordinate with it--not trying to suppress its instincts for sleep, food, sex, pain avoidance, etc., but managing and balancing them within the larger context of the gospel--that seems like a wonderful low-stakes way to begin to understand how to truly become one with a spouse some day, who obviously will have her own ideas and thoughts and ways of doing things; we will have to synthesize and harmonize our sometimes disparate methods and goals into one general path back to God. And then add in kids to the mix, or even eons from now spirit children, and I can see the extensions of this principle of mind/body cohesion being pretty interesting. So that

While "Avek" discusses how beings without an easily definable body could be baptized by proxy, the non-negotiable idea that they would still need a physical counterpart to do the ordinance is telling. There are also some hints that Avek's hardware, even if not fixed, might be essential to him feeling the spirit. But it also reminds me of the thought experiments about how hard it is to point to any one part of our brain that is the "consciousness"--what are we, really, but distributed AIs, with the only difference between us and Avek is that the distribution is only within a head, not across galaxies? And don't we read anyways in the Doctrine and Covenants that "all spirit is matter" and thus that our distinction between body and soul is ultimately illusory? So maybe bodies per se don't really matter after all, though they could be a useful tool for certain purposes. I don't know if that even makes sense. In the end, I like having a body and am grateful for the knowledge that they're a step forward and something to care for and cherish.

Anyways, I'm grateful to literature in general for giving our imaginations grist for the complicated-ideas mill, and specifically to Mormon literature for expanding my spiritual horizons in really fun and interesting ways!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Nontraditional testimonies

I don't like everything about publications like Sunstone, but one thing I definitely do love is when they publish an article or story that supports a traditional gospel principle or Mormon faith claim.

Why do I find "nontraditional testimonies" (for lack of a better term) particularly potent? I can think of a few possible reasons, but they each seem to have problematic undertones. Maybe I feel like nontraditional Mormons don't have the same incentives to want parts of the church to be true so their testimony is less biased. But does that mean I am discounting to some degree the testimonies of people who believe everything about the church as (at least potentially and/or partly) colored by self-delusion? That seems kind of silly. I mean, if I'm going to believe the church's truth claims myself (which I do), why would I weight the testimonies of people who agree with me less than the testimonies of people who only partly agree with me? That seems awfully problematic. It makes it sound like I should only believe some of the church's truth claims to avoid the bias I might be detecting in others. (I don't know if this part makes much sense.)

Or maybe it's not that I think nontraditional testimonies are less biased, but simply that if they agree on principle X, and I and other true believers also believe in X, then there's just more consensus that X is true! The more overlap among people of many different belief systems about a certain proposition's truthfulness, the more likely it is to be true, no? But that has the problematic flavor to it of being kind of theology-by-popular-vote, which undermines the idea of organized religion with any claims to absolute truth.

I could delve into some twists and intricacies in the above arguments, but I think they're generally legit. So should I stop prioritizing nontraditional testimonies over more traditional ones? Maybe. Not that it's so easy as to say I'm going to start reacting in certain ways to certain types of testimonies. We'll see. I still just kind of like 'em.

[Blah, I feel like this post really needed a good dose of more work, but NaBloPoMo means you get the first draft. Take it with a few tablespoons of salt.]

Anagram News

I just discovered The Anagram Times, a website that creates humorous anagrams out of headlines. A recent example: "The Central Intelligence Agency, Langley, Virginia" can be rearranged to spell "Even the General can illicitly get any nice gal. *grin*"

I need to figure out how to get paid to run a website like that.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Sherlock

I don't watch much TV at all. Part of this is because I choose to waste all my time on the internet instead--reading, facebooking, google plussing, etc. Part of it is because I'm prideful and like to think I'm not wasting my time on that crass consumeristic trash that passes for TV these days, focusing instead on higher art like cinema and literature (I'm only sounding a little more pretentious than I actually am). Of course, this is just silly, because TV can have amazing plot and writing and acting too; there's no principled way to prefer other art forms over it. But anyways, I see some Daily Show/Colbert clips when friends link to them, and I recently went through all the new seasons of Doctor Who, but other than that my TV show watching is virtually nonexistent.

Except for recently: my current TV series love is Sherlock. I decided to deign to try it out since it's written by the genius behind the last season or two of Doctor Who, and it's really really well done. Great writing, great acting, and fun detective stories. If you haven't checked it out, it's on Netflix and I recommend it. Also, each episode is an hour and a half long, so really you can just tell yourself you're watching a feature-length film if you're too cool for TV like me.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Pisokatapetasmaphobia

Pisokatapetasmaphobia is the fear of what is behind the (shower) curtain. It's when, every time you enter a bathroom--even if it's in your own home and you were just in in an hour before!--you have to check behind the shower curtain to make sure no one is waiting there to jump out and kill you. You get bonus points if you tense up and get ready to fight them if there really is someone there.

Sure, I made this word up. But the greek roots are legit! (I think)

This is all you get during NaBloPoMo.

Do you have any crazy phobias?

Friday, November 9, 2012

Ice Cream for Jess

Don't worry--I'm not eating it all in one sitting. I hope...
Right now I'm eating ice cream in honor of Jessica Wilson's birthday today. She served with me as a Mormon missionary in Estonia back in 2005/2006 (though she learned Russian, not Estonian). She was tragically killed on the BYU campus in 2010 in a hit-and-run accident while she crossed the street near the bell tower. Every year on her birthday, her friends and family across the country grab a little ice cream--one of her favorite foods--to remember her in a small way.

There's a natural (and probably good) tendency to idealize those who have passed away, but even while she was on her mission and at BYU afterwards everyone always said she was pretty much the sweetest girl in the world. She also had a lovely goofy sense of humor; you know, the kind of person whose facebook profile includes this in the "About Me" section: "I think that toilet paper is overpriced." Or who learned--phonetically--how to say "Your mother dresses you in funny clothes" in Estonian to (jokingly) tell girls in Estonia who wore ridiculously skimpy clothes even when it was freezing outside. Though she also loved to be edgy, embracing a hint of a punk style and singing "Satan is My Motor" in her angelic voice while we did a missionary service project (literally) picking up rocks in the Tallinn Zoo.

She was pretty awesome. She is missed and loved by many. Rest in peace, Jess.

(Also, please don't text and drive...)

Nate Silver Is Not a Witch

(Last post about the election this NaBloPoMo, I promise.)

So one of the meta-stories about the election has been the vindication of Nate Silver, the statistics/politics/gambling nerd behind the vaunted FiveThirtyEight blog. Long story short: some people thought his model was way off, but it was extremely accurate. It feels like the last day and a half have been all about how supernaturally spot-on Silver's predictions are, with the great single-serving site IsNateSilverAWitch.com even changing its answer from "No" to "Probably" in the wake of his success. Everyone is convinced that Nate Silver is pretty much perfect. He can predict who the president will be and even which way every single battleground state will go.

But I wonder how people will react when Nate Silver is wrong on the outcome of a presidential election. It's not a question of if he will, but when. Ironically, his entire process is meant to tell us that, and even how often he'll be wrong. And yet I'm sure that once he predicts that Hillary wins over Huntsman (or whoever over whomever) in 2016 and gets it wrong, even if he told us he was only 54% sure, people will start discussing how his skills have atrophied and asking what's wrong with his model. I hope I'm wrong, but I wouldn't bet on it.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

My Doctrine of Voting

Rationally, my vote makes little to no sense. There's virtually zero chance that my vote will make any difference, or even that my circle of influence could be large or concentrated enough to swing the outcome of even a county bond issue anywhere. So why did I? Here are two possible secular answers, and then my somewhat more involved theological answer.

First, there's the classic warm fuzzies that you get from being part of something much greater than yourself. It's a primal human urge to align yourself with a movement or cause that is transcendent and powerful, and voting can help satisfy that longing. I don't think there's anything wrong with jumping onto that kind of psychological bandwagon; in fact, I think it's kind of silly to try to deny that you feel it. (If voting isn't the way you want to meet that need, that's fine, but don't pretend like you don't have the same desire that you express in one way or another.)

Second, I also think voting is just a part of being a good citizen. It also won't make any difference if I don't stop at a stop sign on a deserted street, and yet I should. Doing one's civic duty creates order and has larger-scale effects than the sum of the individual unimportant acts. I want to be a good citizen, so I vote.

Finally, and what I think is actually the most important reason for me personally, is the religious angle. Now, this is my personal interpretation, but I read Mosiah 29 to be telling me I ought to vote. The chapter talks about a political crisis where the people are begging for the current (righteous) king to appoint a successor, but the righteous king realizes that there's no good candidate available. So he explains to the people that wicked kings lead their nations to do all kinds of evil stuff (see v. 17 and 21-24). That's obviously bad, but the most interesting thing is that in verse 30, he tells them they shouldn't have a king so that "if these people commit sins and iniquities they shall be answered upon their own heads." In other words, he's telling the people to be responsible for their own screwups. To a lazy, unrighteous person like me, that sounds like a terrible idea--why not let the king take the blame for the nation's collective sins like verse 31 says would happen (if the king causes the sin, at least)? Free sinning, woohoo!

And yet, verses 37-38 tell us the people were quickly convinced by this logic, and that "every man expressed a willingness to answer for his own sins." Well, maybe these people are just better human beings than I am and are adults, but there's even more! After actually gathering together and voting, "they were exceedingly rejoiced because of the liberty which had been granted unto them" as verse 39 tells us. Why? They were opening themselves up to potentially more condemnation!

The chapter doesn't spell out the answer, so this is definitely my own doctrine, but it seems to me that concurrent with that potential for extra condemnation if they chose evil over good, they also opened themselves up to more blessings if they made their voices heard for righteousness and goodness--there are costs, but there are also benefits! This is analogous to the choice to come to Earth and exercise agency here. We can only gain much if we risk much. The people from Mosiah 29 were ecstatic about the opportunity to vote because they were free, they were agents unto themselves, and they could finally freely choose good. Being an adult sucks in that you have bills to pay and stuff, but it's also awesome in that you can drive where you want, go to the movies you want, talk to the people you want, stay out as long as you want, etc. The people in this chapter recognized all that and rejoiced. I read the Book of Mormon here to be telling me to do the same. If I want any blessings for trying to make the world a better place (as selfish as that sounds--there's no time to explain why I don't think it (necessarily) is), one way to do that is to vote towards that change. If I want to be a spiritual adult, I need to take responsibility (and also get credit) for my choices regarding my community. Naturally, voting alone won't avail me much at the last day, but I believe it will be one part of my judgment.

To be clear, I reject the idea that we need "to vote as [Jesus] would vote" if that means that there's one "correct" candidate and voting for the other guy (or gal) is a sin. Unless Hitler is up for county commissioner on your ballot, that's way too simplistic a view of the complicated/boring policy choices that candidates and issues represent. But I agree with that idea if you interpret it to mean you ought to vote according to your conscience and using thoughtful, prayerful preparation. In other words, I believe that voting as Jesus would vote would also have to entail not judging those who vote differently since he commanded us to "judge not." Vote humbly, meaningfully, and with love--that's how you vote as Jesus would vote, in my opinion.

So those are the reasons I think I voted. You may not think they're entirely rational (or maybe you do). But regardless, rationality is overrated, anyways. Who wants to go to a football game with someone who's going to act rationally? Because the rational response is to be utterly bored with 22 men running around in spandex for no reason. Just get over yourself and jump in and cheer and have some fun! That's my vote, at least.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

It's politics-nerd Christmas!

I'm super excited about the election results tonight. It really is like Christmas for politics nerds, among whose ranks I confess I belong. Beyond the obvious president's race, I'm also excited to see how the three states with marriage equality ballot initiatives will turn out. Not to mention the Senate and House races, marijuana legalization in Colorado, and tons of other stuff. Which way will it all go?? GAH!

I'm following twitter, CNN, the New York Times, NPR, C-SPAN, and probably other random websites and sources. I'm also jealous I can't be at Molly Mormon Democrat's election night party! What are (or were) you doing to celebrate?

My hope is that if Obama doesn't win, at least we can get a tie in the electoral college and have Biden stay VP. That would just be awesome. Also, Paul Ryan scares me way more than Romney.

I just really hope it doesn't drag out past the morning...

NaBloPoMo results in crappy posts like this. Sorry.

It's now technically 2:15 am on the day after I'm supposed to be posting, but I tend to count days as not really being over until I go to bed. That's because I do a significant portion of my reading/studying/writing/everything after midnight. (I just finished--well, mostly finished--editing an article I'm working on.) I am definitely a night owl. It's really the only way to be.

Other random things: I saw Looper today--very interesting flick! You should totally vote; it's the only civilized thing to do. I'm planning on not getting anything done tomorrow, it's just way too exciting with the election results coming in. Yikes! P.S.: this blog is officially endorsing Obama. That should put him over the top, I'm sure.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Thoughts for a Sunday blog post

Sometimes you just want to quote other people. For a Sunday thought I'll share the words of a wonderful, wise, and loving woman, Margaret Blair Young. She wrote a lovely post about the temple (and family, and sisterhood, and love, and other great stuff) and this paragraph in particular stood out to me:

"Yesterday, as I attended prayer meeting in the temple, the matron said, 'Smile at your sisters. You never know what burdens they are bringing here.' Indeed. So often, I have seen couples holding each other and weeping in the Celestial Room, or single patrons clearly in prayer, tears streaking their cheeks. We don’t ask what’s wrong. They have not come to hold conversation with temple workers, but with God. We can provide kleenex, though."

I often think of the line from the hymn Lord I Would Follow Thee: "In the quiet heart is hidden / sorrow that the eye can't see." I think the above quote exemplifies that thought well.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Cover Songs and Translation and the Resurrection

Cover songs are weird. They're impossible. You try to take the original song but play it your own way. You want it to be the same but it has to be different.

I tend to be a charitable reader of works of art. Meaning, I usually want to like them. This is probably most especially true regarding cover songs of songs I love. Which means I've been heavily enjoying this album I just found yesterday: Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan - Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International. It's a mouthful of a title, but that's fitting because it's a four CD set of 76 songs! Anyways, let's just say that Johnny Cash, Bad Religion, Joan Baez, Adele, Elvis Costello, Peter Townshend, Patti Smith, Flogging Molly, Tom Morello (aka the Nightwatchman), Pete Seeger, and more! covering my favorite artist's music has been a very fun experience. Some of these artists' approaches to Dylan's songs worked much better than others, but all of them were a joy to listen to (even if I might skip some of them more often in the future).

However, my sympathetic disposition towards reinterpretations of art I love was challenged by one of the songs on the album. I started listening to K'naan's version of With God on Our Side--one of my favorite Dylan songs--and a minute in I seriously had to check that that was really the (alleged) title, because he was definitely not singing With God on Our Side. For a second I actually thought they had mistitled it and K'naan was singing some obscure Dylan song I'd never heard before. Turns out, K'naan doesn't get to any of the original's lyrics until his third verse. Here, give them a listen and compare how crazy-different they are:





But it's really grown on me since that initial utter confusion. K'naan rewrites almost the entire song to use his own experiences growing up in Somalia just before and at the beginning of their civil war. And even when he's singing Dylan's original verses, he changes Dylan's schoolboy lyric "The names of the heroes / I was made to memorize" to refer instead to "the names of the warlords." This is simultaneously a personal twist but also puts into question the nobility of the war heroes that we instinctively revere as patriotic Americans. In other words, it actually intensifies Dylan's original anti-war message. I won't go on--though I really could, for an entire (and long) post--about how fascinating and brilliant the cover is, but if you want to read another person's rave about it (and see the lyrics of the original and K'naan's version side-by-side for comparison), you can read it here

I'm starting to get to my point now in this paragraph. This was a "cover" of a song. It had a little bit of the same melody in the background, but K'naan's version broke the cardinal rule of covers: he completely changed the words. You can mess with speed, volume, pronunciation, instrumentation, even throw in a few different words here or there, but in a cover you are not supposed to change the words. It's like that's the inviolate soul of the song! And yet, as I alluded to above, K'naan's version in some ways is more true to Bob Dylan's original intent. The cover is the song that Bob Dylan would have written if he had been born in Somalia in 1978. It's very different, but it's the same soul.

***

Translations are weird. They're impossible. You try to take the original text and express the same thoughts in a different language--in other words, in an entirely foreign way of expressing thoughts. You want it to be the same (convey the exact same meaning) but it has to be different (the target audience doesn't speak the original language, otherwise the translation wouldn't be necessary--duh).

Everyone who speaks two languages has some story about words/phrases/ideas that just can't be (fully, adequately) translated. A simple example going to Estonian is when Americans say casually "I love hamburgers!" Estonian has a verb "to love," of course, but it only applies to human-human (or at least human-sentient being) relationships. To say "ma armastan hamburgereid!" would be as nonsensical as saying "I am physically attracted to hamburgers!" (Technically, due to American influence, it's becoming pretty normal to use "to love" in Estonian in just this way, but let's pretend that Estonian is staying (mythically) pure and undefiled by American cultural colonialism.) Yeah, in Estonian you can say "I like hamburgers" or "I like hamburgers a lot!" but that just doesn't convey the same thing, really, as the English "I love hamburgers!" There's just a passion missing. This is a stupid example, but hopefully you speak a foreign language and can fill in a better one.

Going from Estonian to English, there are 3 or 4 verbs in Estonian that mean "to try," with varying degrees of actually trying or caring about trying conveyed depending on context. Of course you can approximate this in English translations with more powerful verbs like "I will endeavor to ..." or "I'll strive to ...", or you can convey the less-excited "trying" with a phrase like "I'll see what I can do...". But the more formal stuff just sounds silly, which is not what you wanted to convey at all, and the noncommittal phrase just isn't the same either.

In case you haven't tried, there's often no way to adequately translate lots of really expressive phrases from one language into another. But the upside is that sometimes you get to convey what was pretty prosaic phrasing in the original language in more nuanced and exciting wording in the target language--gotta love those double-edged swords. Note that this requires a lot of creativity (when the American dude said "I'll try," did he mean "ma püüan," "ma proovin," "ma üritan," or what? You gotta pick one!) and perhaps guesswork. But the soul of the text can get across if you've got a good translator. (One of my favorite books, "Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid," is pretty ridiculous to try to translate because of its extensive reliance on wordplay, puns, and all kinds of language games--but translated it has been, into a number of languages!)

***

Resurrection is weird. It's impossible. God tries to take the original "you" and express you in a different body and life and context. God wants you to be the same (the same daughter or son you've always been), but you have to be different (the whole purified/celestial/immortal thing).

What will it be like not to have the insecurities about body shape that we all deal with in mortality? (Or will we still have them?) Can someone really be the same person if they don't have to use their humor to cover up for perceived lack of attractiveness?

I feel like our knowledge of death--always in the back of our minds, though hopefully we don't dwell on it--has to affect all of us in subtle ways. Daredevils get a thrill from walking the thin line between life and death, some of us are afraid of driving too fast on a freeway for fear of fatal consequences. Will that bravado and shyness still exist in the same way?

No matter how smart you were on earth, you'll immediately be in the presence of people who have been dead (and thus, I believe, learning) a lot longer than you, so you'll be severely humbled by that. If you were never in the top of the class, how will it be different to have a mind that can remember everything (or at least, much much more than any mortal now can)? Will your ego inflate?

And then there are things often referred to as disabilities or burdens. How will someone who mediated their entire life through enthusiastic participation in ASL culture be the same if they have pitch-perfect hearing? Gay people (at least in the Mormon world) often wonder if they'll be straight in the resurrection (how often do straight people imagine if they'll be gay?), and there's plenty of speculation about which biological sex transgender people (or, for that matter, intersex people) will be. There are just so many questions along all these lines!

Obviously, here I'm launching into the speculative realm since I've never a) been resurrected, b) resurrected anyone else, or c) even met a resurrected being. I have no answers. Sorry. But I think resurrection will be like K'naan's cover of With God on Our side. I think resurrection will be like a brilliant, nuanced, and exciting translation from one language into another, sacrificing a few great phrases here and there, perhaps, but gaining access to a rich new vocabulary too that expands possibilities for personal expression to a tremendous degree.

The words you speak in the resurrection might not be the same words your friends were used to hearing you speak on earth. But I feel like they would be the same words you would speak if you woke up tomorrow immortal and resurrected, just like K'naan rewrote With God on Our Side the way Bob Dylan might have if he had been born in very different circumstances. The same meaning is there, and in some ways it might even be sharper. But it might also be disorienting at first because the presentation is so different. I feel like we'll need to get to know each other again in some sense, only to realize that we're recognizing the deeper parts of each other's selves that we intuited and loved before. ("Woooaaah dude, that's, like, waaay deep!")

If you've heard a great cover song that in some way improved on the original, or if you've ever seen a translation that was really beautiful, I think you've glimpsed a bit of what the resurrection will be like. The same, but different (and mostly better). Weird. Impossible.

It's gonna be awesome.

Friday, November 2, 2012

What is this "Blog" of Which You Speak?

So a random topic I think about from time to time, and which is best discussed during a month when I have to come up with a blog post every day: what is this blog about? What purpose does it play? Who is its audience? (Navel-gazing at its finest, I know.)

What this blog is: I actually think of this blog as a (semi)public extension of my journal. I share random thoughts and experiences that aren't that personal but which aren't generally interesting enough (or too long, or too whatever) to share with all of my friends on facebook.

What this blog does: The posts here often help me tease out a bit more of what I think about the gospel, feminism, politics, math, the internet, homosexuality, and other crazy stuff that sometimes goes through my head. I enjoy being able to go back and read my thoughts from a long time ago, and it's nice to have them organized and labeled (I love labeling posts! I wish I could do that for my real journal!) and even with a few comments sometimes.

As for who the audience is: good question. I kind of count on a self-selecting pool of people who actually care about the random musings of my mind to be the only people who see it, thus I can post stuff that's a little bit more "controversial" or weird without having to worry about moms from my home ward reading it. I have a link to here from my facebook page, but I don't think many people ever follow it. And then through word of mouth or google searches, I've got a number of people who I don't know who read and/or occasionally comment on posts. I sort of have a pet peeve of people who post a link on their facebook page every. single. time. they write something on their blog--if I wanted to read your blog, I'd be subscribed to it!--and so I generally don't "promote" my posts, preferring to let readership grow (or stagnate, as the case may be) organically. I think the primary audience is still myself, but I do love comments from the small circle of people who read, too.

So that's what I use my blog for and who I think I'm writing to. That last question (re: audience) is fascinating to me. If you have a blog, who do you have in mind when you write? And if you're a mom from my home ward, welcome! :)

Thursday, November 1, 2012

OK OK I'll Do It

NaBloPoMo is here. Posting on one's blog every day for the month of November. My sister, one Molly Mormon Democrat, is doing it and so I can't let her one-up me.

Here's my first random post of the month: another reason to love the internet. Meet the bone-eating snot-flower worm. Yep, it's a real creature. However, don't let the name fool you: it's a slightly incorrect translation of its Latin name. As Wiktionary explains: "A slight misunderstanding of the scientific name Osedax mucofloris, which actually means "snot-flower bone-eater", with mucofloris modifying Osedax rather than the other way around."

Happy NaBloPoMo, everybody!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

An Ode to Zombies

This is a poem I wrote to convince a friend to participate in my ward's Spooky Poetry Night. Enjoy!


An Ode to Zombies

Oh! and alas! How misunderstood are these
Fair creatures of the night! ‘Twixt life and death
Hovering, roaming, gathering as roiling seas!
They are perfect--though, yes, with stinky breath.

How ignoble in reason, how finite in faculties!
He is the paragon of aplomb, he
Never tires, stops at nothing to seize
You! He is lovely, he is a zombie.

So next time lumbering zombies you spy
Don’t scream, run away, or hide.
If you join ‘em, you won’t quite die
So choose wisely and be on the winning side!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

I Killed Davey Moore (and You and Father Zosima were my Accomplices)

There's a great Bob Dylan song called "Who Killed Davey Moore?" (Apparently none of the youtube clips are embeddable, but here's the link if you'd like to listen.) It's a reaction to the death of the boxer Davey Moore in 1963 after sustaining brain injuries in a match against Sugar Ramos. Each verse is sung from the point of view of someone who arguably was at least partly to blame for the result: the referee (who didn't stop the fight), the "angry crowd" (who cheered it all on), his manager (who set up the fight and set into the fight), the "gambling man" (whose money helps bankroll the boxing industry), the media (who cover and popularize dangerous sports), and, finally, his opponent that night (who says he was just doing his job, and chillingly concludes with the line "Don’t say ‘murder,’ don’t say ‘kill’ / It was destiny, it was God’s will!").

All of them have their excuses, and they sound reasonable to us because all of us have done the same or similar things. I've paid money to go to sporting events where people got concussions, I've texted while driving, I've shared links to people doing dangerous-but-entertaining stuff. None of those actions, by me or the characters in Dylan's song, are in themselves decisive. But the refrain from Dylan's song is haunting: "Who killed Davey Moore? Why and what's the reason for?" Everyone involved played some part, and yet no one "killed" him. But the inescapable fact is that Davey Moore died, and it wasn't a natural death. I think Dylan is saying that we all killed Davey Moore. That's a very sobering thought, if you let it sink in.

On a less life-or-death note, I was actually thinking about this in regards to the Bechdel test. If you haven't heard of it, it's basically the most minimal test imaginable for whether a movie (or a work in any other medium) might actually portray women in a substantive way. It has three requirements: 1) There must be at least two women depicted;* 2) the two women must talk to each other; 3) and their conversation must be about something other than a man. If all three are met, then the movie passes the Bechdel test! Doesn't sound too hard--and it is definitely meant as a bare minimum test: passing definitely does not guarantee the movie is any good or even feminist at all. And yet, it's sad how many movies don't. Like, tons. (See this fun and quick video for a bit more history on the test and a few dozen examples of movies that don't pass, and a followup that discusses which of the 2011 Oscar nominees pass.)

Why do so many movies fail the Bechdel test? Or if they do pass, why is it so often only just barely? Could be that most movie writers/directors/producers/CEOs are sexist. Maybe because the public demand for more male-centered stories is greater so that's what the free market tends to produce; this in turn could be because people don't care about women. Might be because female actresses are harder to come by (somehow I highly doubt this). Perhaps because I don't speak up and ask the question or even think about it when I go to the movies. In short, it's a systemic problem. I don't think anyone involved is consciously sexist, actually asking themselves "How can I avoid women having any real voice in this film?" And I don't think it's bad at all to have a male-centered movie--we can't point at any one movie that fails the Bechdel test and cast the blame on it.

But perhaps at some point a director has created enough movies that all fail the Bechdel test, we can start validly asking what's up. Or maybe that director just happens to be more interested in talking about guys, and that's OK. And if my guess about female-focused stories being less profitable than androcentric ones is correct, should we (or any third person) get to tell directors and others involved with making films that they should risk their livelihoods by making movies that won't be profitable? Maybe. But I think we should begin by recognizing the beam in our own eye and ask whether we as consumers of movies are part of the problem or whether we're among the people seeking out and supporting movies that pass the Bechdel test--and indeed that go beyond that mere totem and also truly present women in a real, three-dimensional way.

Are we killing Davey Moore, or are we working to make the world better? Whether it's physical safety of others, the balance of power between the sexes that we're seeking to improve, or any other worthy cause, let's get out and do it. Sure, your role in the problem by itself may be infinitesimal, but take responsibility for it and fix it. Whatever you do, don't resign yourself to the status quo and claim the way things are is simply "God's will" and there's nothing you can do about it.

* Some formulations also require that the two women be named characters.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Estonian/English False Friends, or "Ants on Lips"

Dutch/English (hilarious) false friend [courtesy of Wikipedia]
False friends are words that look (or sound) alike in two languages but mean different things. A good example is "embarasada" in Spanish, which does not mean "embarrassed" but rather "pregnant."

Well, I've always had a nerd-fantasy of creating entire sentences out of false friends that are grammatically correct in both languages. Since Estonian is my most fluent foreign tongue, that's the one I'm working on. So far I've created a Google Document (available to view here, with parts of speech labeled to help use them to create sentences) with every Estonian/English false friend I could think of and/or find on the internet (yes, there actually are a handful of other websites that have collected some of these). Some of the more elaborate ones (read: polysyllabic) include "eludes" (Estonian for "in the lives"), "august" ("out of a hole"), "hinged" ("souls"), and "supine" ("soupy").

The only two halfway decent sentences I've been able to come up with using all Estonian/English false friends are both in headline style--it's really hard to get subject-verb-object to all work out:

  • Ants on lips = Andrew* is a necktie.
  • Hinge eludes toad on head = In the lives of a soul, rooms are good.
OK, so they're basically gibberish in both languages, but I'm pretty proud of myself. If you speak any Estonian, can you come up with any others? Or in any other language?

UPDATE: My good friend Mark noted in the comments below that I had overlooked one of the greatest pairs of false friends ever: "the Estonian word 'smoking' means suit (tuxedo, specifically), and the Estonian word 'suits' means smoke."

*Ants is an Estonian first name; I have no idea what the actual English analogue should be but Andrew is as good as any.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Answer to Everything

It's not 42. It's the atonement of Christ.

There are a lot of problems out there, big and small. It's striking to me that, while the details vary, the answer to each is, ultimately, the perfect love of God, also known as the atonement of Jesus Christ. Done something you wish you hadn't that hurt someone? Christ's atonement can cleanse you and heal the person you harmed. Awful suffering that goes beyond anything that could possibly teach us patience or empathy? Christ's atonement will--somehow, in a way I can't explain--make it "OK" in the end. People judging other people unfairly? Let everyone involved apply the atonement in their lives and recognize themselves as imperfect but perfectible beings on their way to great glory.

I know: it sounds like a cop-out, like it's too good to be true. It sounds like a pie-in-the-sky opiate of the masses. But like any real love it should motivate us to do a lot, not to sit back. It is, really, the equivalent of what the Beatles said when they sang that "All you need is love" -- why do some liberals love that message but sometimes look down their noses at claims of a godly gift that is the ultimate form of love? I don't know.

But I know that God's love as manifested in Christ willingly dying for us despite his being sinless is probably a big part of the answer.

"In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Power of Words

[A sacrament meeting talk I gave 10 June 2012 in the Langley Ward of the McLean, VA Stake.]

As I stand here about to sermonize to you all, I’m acutely aware of the potential gap between talking about my topic, “I Choose the Right by Living Gospel Principles,” and actually living gospel principles. Especially in a religious context, people are rightly skeptical of idle words. As the great folk song by Joe Hill says,

Long-haired preachers come out every night
Try to tell you what's wrong and what's right
But when asked how 'bout something to eat
They will answer in voices so sweet

You will eat, bye and bye
In that glorious land above the sky
Work and pray, live on hay
You'll get pie in the sky when you die
That’s not what I want to do, fill you with pie in the sky. But I do want to double down on that perceived dichotomy between words and actions by talking about how the right words and the right conversations can actually be a direct and integral part of living the gospel. Of course, words do need context, they can’t be empty. If you say you’ll help someone, or that you love someone, or that you’re their friend, but you don’t act on it, whatever power those words had is gone. So actions and words need to be wedded together. This is a common theme in the gospel: Bringing things in tension together, or making them at one. The entire atonement of Christ is about this, and I believe that as we think about bringing our words and our actions into harmony we can better understand the atonement. But today I want to focus on the words themselves, their power, and how they can constitute acts.

I’ve experienced the power of words, in both a gospel and secular context. For example, this last Memorial Day, a friend recited the Gettysburg Address, which she memorized in school. It’s a very moving piece of oratory, but it also includes these words that with the benefit of history are so wonderfully ironic: “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.” Abraham Lincoln was wrong about that, fortunately, and it’s because he underestimated the power of his words, which over time have helped knit the hearts of all Americans together in unity and love, to paraphrase Alma.

Another personal experience: I’ve struggled at times with depression, and if you’ve ever been to a psychiatrist you might know something about how just talking with someone, just speaking words and answering questions, can be extremely therapeutic. Talking to a bishop is similar in a gospel context. Speaking a burden relieves you of it in very real ways. As a great, old Christian hymn says, “Speak and let the worst be known / Speaking may relieve thee.”

Similarly, a community art project I follow is built around the concept of people anonymously sharing secrets they’ve never told anyone. The results are by turns heart-wrenching, hilarious, sobering, edifying, sad, and beautiful, but without fail powerful. The project is a testament to the power of words and being vulnerable with others: an entire community has sprung up around words that tell all of us that we’re not alone, we’re not the only weird ones, there are others out there like us, there is a common thread of humanity that binds us together.

Recently I had some great conversations with friends that brought us closer. Long story short, over a few days we discussed body image, eating disorders, doubt, sexuality, miscarriage, and a few other quasi-taboo and/or painful subjects. (Don’t worry, we also had fun, light, “normal” conversations over these days as well, and that balance is probably crucial.) We were able to be honest and open with each other. Just speaking to these friends and hearing their words was a very powerful experience. Do we try to have those conversations often enough? I don’t. True, these sorts of things demand wisdom in choosing when and with whom to discuss them, but they are important topics and worthy of being thought about and chewed on with friends and family at appropriate times. In real and concrete ways, these conversations, the words that are spoken, are an act of living the gospel just as much as serving the poor or participating in ordinances or any way we traditionally think of as “action” as opposed to talk. Words like “I love you” or “I’ve felt that too” or “I’m so sorry” or “I’ve wondered the same thing!” or “I accept you” or “I still love you” can sometimes soothe the soul just as effectively as a priesthood blessing. (But again with the words/acts combo: a hug is always a nice complement to such words.)

The gospel has a lot to teach us about the power of words. Testimony is one example that jumps to mind: just hearing the words describing other people’s spiritual experiences can precipitate our own. Other ways the gospel teaches us the same thing include the idea that Christ is called the Word. We see that words are powerful because in Genesis, God spoke, and the universe was organized. Doctrine and Covenants 68:4 says about missionaries: “And whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation.”

But I believe that one of the best ways to learn the power of words in a gospel context is through prayer, which is the sub-topic I was given to speak on. A prayer is just words, but I think most of us have experienced the power that those words can bring about. I know that Jesus is the Christ, that Joseph Smith was his prophet, and that this church is true because of prayer. I’ve been forgiven of my sins, taught things to do and to say, and been comforted via prayer. How can simple words do such marvelous things?

Part of it is certainly that backdrop of action that I mentioned earlier, which makes prayers more than empty words: the commitment to act on answers you receive makes it much more likely that you will get them in the first place. But also a lot of prayer’s power is in the communication itself. Prayer is like telling someone you love them for the first time: it’s a powerful, relationship-forging act just because you said it out loud, even if both people already knew it. Prayer is an act of divulging your innermost desires, fears, and feelings to a loving God, and asking for a response. It is trust. The very act of praying means that you recognize that you cannot counsel him but that you seek counsel from his hand. You enter into dialogue with God.

Dialogue is scary because by definition you have to be ready to admit that you are wrong. Or at the very least, that your position can be refined or clarified. Prayer is just one manifestation of this--how quickly do we throw that principle aside when we talk with others? We need that attitude always. We can learn a lot from prayer about how to communicate well with our fellow sisters and brothers. We should seek to learn more from them, not dictate to them how to live. We shouldn’t share every intimate detail and goal and success and sin and worry with everyone we meet, but I think we (and certainly I) err much too far on the side of not being vulnerable in conversations with our friends and family. We should strive to have similar kinds of conversations we have with God in prayer with those close to us. We can pray to God for strength, but we may also need to plead with our close loved ones for strength too, because after all it’s often through them that God answers those prayers.

Just as we stress how we shouldn’t just ring up God and ask him for a laundry list of things we’d like (the grocer model of God), we shouldn’t treat those around us as means to get what we want, either. We should remember to profusely thank not just God but also the people in our lives for the good things that happen to us. We should express ourselves but also remember to take plenty of time to stop and listen. In short, we can apply the basic principles of prayer to our conversations with everyday people. Things we learn from either context can inform and improve the way we talk to others; both should converge towards one ideal.

Another way the gospel teaches us the power of words comes from Pres. Uchtdorf’s talk from last conference titled The Why of Priesthood Service. He talks in-depth about how being taught the why of the gospel helped him know which of many “good” options to pursue in his leadership positions. To me, this shows that the words we use to understand a question, the framework we have in place when we deliberate how to act, is a strong predictor of how we will end up acting. We need to convey the principles of the gospel clearly, to ourselves and to others, if we want to achieve positive results in the form of Christlike actions. This is missionary work: to give people the practical knowledge of how God’s big plan works so that they can maximize the joy and growth they experience here on earth. The medium is the spoken and written word.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is that words are a beautiful and integral part of the gospel. Don’t think they’re less than “actions,” but rather think of words as an opportunity to achieve even more than what traditional “actions” can. Bring the two together as two sides of the same coin. When words are done right, in the right context, they are acts themselves (for example, meaningful prayer and missionary work, which are predominantly about words). Both words and deeds are necessary, but today my message and invitation to you is to work on the words you speak, the conversations you have. Are they prayerful and humble? Are you coming closer to God by becoming more vulnerable and open with others? I know that just as when we’re in the service of our fellow human beings we are in the service of our God, so too when we are speaking Christlike words with others, we are speaking them with God.

[And I closed with an unscripted testimony about prayer and Christ.]