Thursday, February 28, 2013

Where Have All the In-Laws Gone?

Melanie’s parents flew into town—well, they flew into state, at least—on Tuesday, February 19th. They left us on the morning of Tuesday, February 26th. It was a pleasant week, and we are all sad to see them go. Eddie and Peter are especially fond of their grandparents, and Creegan fell even more in love with them on this visit. Eddie has shed more than a few tears since their departure, and even I felt rather down in the dumps for the first 36 hours or so after they left. Having them here put us all into vacation mode. I had to go to school, but I largely ignored my academic responsibilities outside of class time. Instead, I enjoyed conversation, taking my in-laws to some of the best eateries in Tallahassee, playing games, and just plain hanging out.

I don’t plan to recount every detail of my in-laws’ visit. But I feel I would be ungrateful if I didn’t mention the repair work that Melanie’s dad did for us. As if by fate, our van failed to start on the very day that Melanie’s parents arrived. We haven’t had a van problem in quite some time, and I was actually looking forward to a visit that wouldn’t require me humbling seeking my father-in-law’s auto-repair expertise. Being the generous man that he is, Ron (as I like to call him) came to our rescue without hesitation or complaint. The van is now back in working order. It’s working even better than it was before Ron’s arrival, although that’s not saying a lot. Ever willing to go the extra mile, Ron even took it upon himself to fix the door handle on our Corolla. The outside door handle broke off something like two years ago, but I hadn’t ever bothered to get it fixed. So long as it wasn’t raining outside, I’d always been able to open the door through some skillful manipulation. This made repairing the door seem like a luxury, but I must say that I love having an actual handle back in place.

The repairs didn’t stop with vehicles. Ron also repaired Edison’s bicycle, a task that completely eluded me. He also helped me put up some curtain rods, one of which had fallen because it wasn’t secured well enough. As you can tell, I’m woefully ignorant of anything involving tools, and pretty much everything I know at this point comes from what Ron has taught me. I think I can now actually differentiate a hammer from a screwdriver. (The screwdriver is for putting nuts on bolts, right?) Melanie did not hit the jackpot when it came to marrying a handyman. Good thing I’m so funny.

I’m really not sure what else to report about their visit. Tallahassee doesn’t offer much in the way of sights to see, so there wasn’t much “tourism” involved with my in-laws’ visit. It really was just an opportunity to spend time together, which was great. Melanie and I also got a chance to go on a date, thanks to her parents’ free babysitting. Since we weren’t paying them, Melanie and I went to dinner and a movie. That’s quite a splurge for us. We saw Les Misérables at the “dollar” theater and then went to Outback Steakhouse. The dollar theater smells kind of like pee, but the movie was decent. Not a best picture nominee, in my opinion, but good. Neither was my dinner one of the very best of the last year, but it was also quite good.

I believe Melanie took some photos during my in-laws’ visit, but those have yet to be uploaded to our computer. Perhaps I’ll share them later, but probably not. Maybe Melanie will put some up on her blog. Until then, Melanie and Edison are counting down the days until we can fly to Utah and visit Melanie’s parents on their own turf. I didn’t know we had any definite plans to visit Utah this year, but something tells me it’s going to be hard to talk them out of it. We’ll see what happens. I have no idea what to expect from life starting in May. I might end up teaching this summer, unless I graduate. You’d think I’d know these things by now. I don’t. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Potpourri No. 35

Contents: four single-sized servings of life, individually wrapped…

They’re Coming!
Melanie’s parents fly into Jacksonville in a couple of hours and will then wend their way via wental rental car to our apartment here in Tally. They’ll be staying in town for a week. We’re all looking forward to the visit. Eddie and Peter are especially excited, which is fun. For the first time, my in-laws will not be staying with us. Our family has gotten too big (all those trips to Donut Kingdom!) and there isn’t room here. They’ll be staying in a nearby hotel, which is also quite exciting for Eddie and Peter, who can hardly wait to go roam the halls.

A Requisite Mention of School
My TA gig is much easier-going this semester than last, which brings me great joy. I like the instructor, too, who graduated from my program last May. I feel like she’s more on my level than a “normal” professor, which is kind of nice. On the other hand, talking to her can be a bit overwhelming. She applied to 60 job openings in the fall, none of which led anywhere. From what I understand, applying to 60 job openings when you’re coming out of a philosophy Ph.D. program is taking it easy. I’ve heard of people applying to well over 100 job openings and receiving maybe a handful of interviews. I’m practically giving myself a heart attack just writing about it. Do they have medical alert bracelets for Ph.D. candidates entering the job market? I think I’ll need one.

Turning into a Pod Person
For several months now, I’ve been an avid listener to a variety of podcasts. For those who don’t know, podcasts are something like pre-recorded radio programs that can be downloaded and/or listened to via the Internet. They usually involve interviews or group discussions, although you could record yourself blabbing about anything and upload it as a “podcast.” (While I haven’t researched it, I’m fairly certain the term “podcast” derives from the words “broadcast” and “iPod.”) Nowadays, when I go on walks or even when I commute, I almost always listen to podcasts. The podcasts I listen to are all Mormon-themed. Some of these podcasts have been exceptionally good, and I feel that I have profited immensely from listening to them. Today, I listened to the most recent podcast of the Mormon Stories Book Club. They discussed the book A Short Stay in Hell by Steven L. Peck. Having greatly enjoyed the book myself, I looked up the podcast webpage to see what follow-up discussions to the podcast might be taking place. In doing so, I discovered that a link to my review of A Short Stay in Hell was included on the Mormon Stories Book Club site. I realize it’s not a big deal, overall, but it was still somewhat surreal to see my own blog cited. I assume they put links to any reviews of the book they could find, so I’m not pretending my review was included due to its brilliance. Still, it’s there. You can click here to see what I’m talking about.

Speaking of Books…
I like to compile lists of quotations from the books that I read. I typically type them into a Word document and save them, which means I hardly ever look back at them. If I remember correctly, many years ago I suggested on this very blog that I would share my favorite quotations from time to time. That never really happened, but I’m thinking I should try it again. I’m slightly more likely to revisit these quotations if I put them on my blog rather than into a Word document. Also, I like the idea of others enjoying the quotations and perhaps being inspired to read some of the same books that I am. So, watch for more quotations in the future. If you like them, say so.

The end!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Book Review: Thumped

I gave Bumped a generous three stars, mostly because it left me intrigued (though not officially eager) for the sequel. Honestly, I don't recall how Bumped ended, but nothing about Thumped is particularly compelling or interesting. Reading Thumped, I'm left stumped as to what about Bumped led to me pick up the sequel.

I will say this much: the writing in Thumped isn't as wrenched as I recall it being in Bumped. Perhaps I'm just more used to McCafferty's narrative style, but I'm tempted to say Thumped is genuinely a better written book. Unfortunately, it's much, much thinner on plot. There really isn't much to Thumped at all.  That being said, I actually wish the final act of the book hadn't been so ambitious. A lot happens in the last several chapters, but it's all very uninspired, obvious, and banally moralistic. It strains for profundity, but feels very tired.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Movie Review: Compliance

Written & Directed by Craig Zobel
Running Time: 90 minutes
Originally Released: January 21, 2012 (Sundance Film Festival)

* * * ½ (out of four)

In the early 1960s, researcher Stanley Milgram conducted a now infamous psychology experiment in which he tested the willingness of subjects to submit to authority. Milgram asked his test subjects to act as “teachers” who would administer electric shocks to individual “learners” each time those learners failed to answer a question correctly. Each learner was kept out of view of the teacher, but the teacher was able to communicate verbally with the learner. Consequently, the teacher could hear the learner’s reaction to the electric shocks. What the teachers didn’t know is that the learners were actually in on the experiment and only feigned receiving an electric shock. The unsettling outcome of the experiment is that most teachers continued to administer what they presumed to be an increasingly strong electric shock to learners, even when those learners began to protest quite adamantly and indicated that they were experiencing severe pain. Eventually, the learner would cease even to respond, suggesting that the increased voltage had knocked the learner unconscious (or worse). And why would the teachers continue to do something they believed was inflicting great harm to another person? Because the overseeing experimenter continually told subjects that they had to.

Purportedly based on actual events (to what extent I cannot say), Compliance plays on the same dynamic as that explored in the Milgram experiment described above. Becky (Dreama Walker) is a 19-year-old cashier at the local Chickwich fast-food restaurant. During a typically busy Friday night shift, Becky is suddenly pulled aside by her manager, Sandra (Ann Dowd), who tells the young cashier that a policeman, Officer Daniels (Pat Healy), is on the phone and accusing Becky of snatching money from a customer’s purse. After a brief phone interview with Becky fails to establish her innocence, Officer Daniels asks Sandra to assist in the investigation. Initially, he requires only that Sandra keep Becky in a back room, without access to her belongings, until the police can arrive and properly search the place. As time drags on, however, Officer Daniels asks more and more of Sandra, and ultimately of Becky. Eager to help out, Sandra goes along with the officer’s demands. Ever maintaining her innocence, Becky also obeys, hoping her cooperation will bring the situation to a speedy end. As the officer’s requests becoming increasingly outlandish, and even morally suspect, Becky’s obedience is further tested.

Compliance is an unsettling and uncomfortable film to watch, which is exactly as it should be. It is tense and harrowing, pushing its characters to their psychological limits without seeming indulgent or exploitative. In the hands of a less patient filmmaker, Compliance would have felt sensationalistic or perversely titillating. Writer and director Craig Zobel avoids these pitfalls by letting the storyline simmer and come to a boil only gradually, preserving a tight ratio between the viewer’s mounting sense of disbelief and Becky’s increasing self-debasement. Indeed, Compliance succeeds as a piece of psychological noir by ambling toward the extreme with a casual and measured gait. On the few occasions when it stumbles, it is precisely because Becky’s submission comes too quickly. This is an unfortunate byproduct of the film’s terse 90-minute running time, which by necessity condenses Becky’s several-hours-long ordeal. When the film throws in the occasional cinematic ellipses, it requires some readjustment on the part of the viewer, who may struggle to muster the suspension of disbelief necessary to accept Becky’s subservience. Thankfully, these bumps occur maybe two or three times and are not detrimental to the overall tone of the film.

I must say something here about Ann Dowd’s performance as Chickwich manager Sandra. Compliance is very much an independent film, smaller than most independent films that garner Oscar attention. While Compliance was entirely overlooked by the Academy, Dowd is responsible for seven of the twelve award nominations that the film did receive from various film associations, etc. This attention is deserved, as Dowd’s performance is easily among the most overlooked of 2012. Walker and Healy, as Becky and Officer Daniels, respectively, are both quite good in their own rights, and the film would have suffered had they not brought a natural believability to their roles. But Dowd is the standout and is herself a reason to see the movie.

Friday, February 08, 2013

Faith, Doubt, and Spiritual Growth

If you’re religious and you’ve never experienced a faith crisis, then there’s something about your religion that you don’t know. (If you’re Mormon, there’s probably something you don’t know about Brigham Young. But that’s another matter.) This is a hard truth, but a truth nonetheless. I’m left to wonder how important it is for people to go through a faith crisis. I’m hesitant to describe any of my own experiences as a crisis of faith, simply because I’m unsure of how people would interpret that. How near to abandoning your faith must you be in order for it to qualify as a faith crisis? Suffice it to say, I have wallowed (for days at a time) in despair at the thought that all of my religious beliefs are wrong. I have experienced an entire and total absence of confidence in their truthfulness, even as I felt no particular conviction of their falsity. I have stood in a place where I was unable to see any indication that the road on which I travelled leads anywhere, and I have felt zero hope that any road existed that could take me where I wanted to go. There are plenty of roads that can be travelled, of course. I simply lost (at least temporarily) all hope that my sought-after destination could be found at the end of any of them.

The purpose of this blog post is not to go into my own personal experience. Rather, it is to raise the question of what is necessary for spiritual growth. I come from a faith tradition where challenges and obstacles are considered essential learning tools. In my faith, we often speak of experiencing trials and of having our faith tested. But the general idea seems to be that we will face difficulties in our day-to-day lives that force us to rely more heavily on God, and that in doing so, we will draw nearer to Him. The so-called test of faith is really a test of patience. Put crudely, the question is, “How long will I be obedient without receiving any reward for that obedience?” Or, “How little complaining will I do as I undergo this difficulty?” Or, “How long will I persist in doing things that I don’t necessarily enjoy doing or that I don’t necessarily understand?” It is a test of our faith to pay tithing because we can’t say precisely what benefit will come of it every time we write the check, or because it literally seems like we don’t have enough money to afford tithing. It is a test of our faith when we are asked to devote our time and effort to teaching a class at church, because it’s not something we are all that excited about doing and we know it will be a strain on our resources (be they mental, emotional, or what have you).

The point I am dancing around is that many of these supposed trials of faith are anything but. What is being tested is not our faith so much as our willingness to live in accordance with that faith. There is a fine distinction to be made here. It certainly requires faith to overcome some of these challenges, and one can reasonably argue that the stronger your faith, the better able to accommodate these challenges you will be. But what is challenged is not your faith itself. At best, what is tested is your readiness to call upon that faith in the face of various temptations—temptations to complain, temptations to mock, temptations to shirk or avoid responsibility, temptations to rest when something needs to be done, temptations to be selfish, etc. In all such instances, the dilemma is practical, not epistemological; behavior-based, not philosophical or epistemological.

Adversity is essential for growth, according to my religious tradition. A familiar maxim in Mormonism is that there must be “opposition in all things.” We can see the seemingly universal application of this in the world around us. Without friction, we literally couldn’t walk. Without resistance, we couldn’t build muscle. Without making mistakes, we couldn’t improve and learn. Without putting ourselves in uncomfortable situations, we could never develop the character traits of courage, confidence, and compassion. These considerations seem to be the basis for viewing challenges in one’s life as a blessing. Challenges provide one with an opportunity to grow, and one can’t grow if one isn’t stretched.

If all of these things are true, does it follow that one’s faith must be tested in a way that involves serious doubt? My suspicion is that most people who share my faith tradition are not so welcoming of doubt. Any challenge or hardship God might throw at us is to be regarded as a blessing in disguise, but never can it be that seriously questioning the teachings of the Church is a good thing. If there is information to be found that might rattle one’s testimony, it should be avoided. Raising questions about chemistry, or history, or math, or social studies is a great way to learn. Raising questions about God or the Church is an affront to spirituality, is risky business, and is the first step toward apostasy. So seem to be the sentiments of my religious culture. Can they possibly be right?

Looking back, I now feel grateful for my time of spiritual bleakness. It came at a time when I was trying very hard to do things right, from a spiritual standpoint. That’s not how it’s supposed to work, mind you. Being wholeheartedly engaged in a sincere effort to better understand one’s religion is not supposed to plunge one into spiritual darkness. I was exercising my faith like crazy. I didn’t abandon my faith. I was doing everything in my power to walk with God. And suddenly, it was as if God totally disappeared. I didn’t stop talking to God, but it sure seemed as though God stopped talking to me. And it happened at a time when my prayers were all about becoming unshakeable in my faith, so I could better reach out to those people that do struggle with faith. And why would I be grateful for this trial of mine? Because in hindsight, I think God really did abandon me. And I think He did it as an answer to my prayers. In essence, it’s as though God was saying, “You want to be able to help those people that really struggle with their faith? Then you need to know what that’s really like. Here you go.”

While I still face challenges to my faith—in the real sense of having one’s faith challenged—I feel I am at one of the strongest points of my life, spiritually speaking. The challenges are never pleasant. It’s always disheartening to learn that things aren’t quite as you’d always assumed them to be. But as I peel back each onion layer of truth, no matter how many stinging tears it brings to my eyes, I am drawing nearer and nearer to its core. Bit by bit, I am doing away with the unnecessary and the false. In a religious sense, I am less orthodox. In a spiritual sense, I am more pure. And it’s worth it. And I don’t think I could have done it without wading into the onion patch, holding my breath, and dirtying my hands by doing some serious digging.

As Jesus never said: “I never said it would be easy. I only said it would be worth it.”