Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Keep the Change? Yes, Please!

In the relatively little time since I last wrote, life has delivered lots of craziness to our door. Big changes are either afoot or (hopefully) just around the corner. Edison has un-enrolled from virtual school and will be starting at a “normal” school tomorrow. This is a big deal for us. While virtual school is considered public school and is not the same thing as homeschooling, we’ve never had to take a child to a school building five days a week. Doing so makes it all feel more “real” somehow, like we’ve taken yet another step into “reality.” Funny thing, Edison was supposed to start at his new school today, but all of the local schools have been closed today due to ice and snow storms. Yes, in Florida. Apparently, the last time it snowed here was briefly in 1989. I haven’t seen any actual snow yet, but it’s supposedly possible. So far, it’s just little itty bitty ice pellets. But hey, my college class was cancelled too, so I’m happy. I should mention that Eddie’s going to be in the same class as his best friend, Natalie. That’s a very exciting development. I can’t believe how optimistic Eddie’s been about all of this. He’s prone to anxiety, which is why Melanie and I are thrilled that he’s going to be in Natalie’s class. That will really help him adjust, methinks. But even before we knew that, Eddie was looking forward to his new school. He and Melanie went on a tour of the school about a week ago, and Eddie came home telling me how awesome it is. One thing that really excites him: they sometimes have “brunch for lunch,” which consists of pancakes, sausage, and hash browns. Whatever gets him excited about school works for me!

In other wild news, I am preparing to make my first venture into the job market. Cross my fingers, it will also be my last venture into the job market. For discretionary reasons, I won’t say much in the way of details right now, but I will say that I really, really, really want this one. It sounds perfect for me, and I truly believe I am perfect for it. It’s a teaching-oriented job with little to no research (re: publishing) requirements. I like writing, but I really enjoy the teaching side of things and like the idea of being able to write (and maybe even publish) on subjects other than academic philosophy when I have the chance. This will allow for that. In fact, I would have the summers off, which would open up some time to work not only on other writing but on music. If that weren’t enough, the job would bring us immensely closer to our families and friends in Utah. I can truly see this being a permanent job for me; I see no reason that I’d ever want to leave! And that’s fantastic, because I have no interest in bouncing around the country every one or two years while trying to land something more permanent. This is a tenure-track position, so I could be there long-time if it all works out. I’ve tried really hard not to get my hopes up, but man … they’re flying pretty high right now. Of course, I haven’t even submitted an application yet. There’s a lot that goes into that, so I’m working on getting all of the materials gathered. Hopefully I’ll send my application off within the next week or so. Wish me luck!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Can We Pull the Rug out from under Obedience?

The following video is causing quite a ruckus within certain Facebook groups. If you go to the video’s YouTube page, the comments (thus far) are not too flattering. I wonder if the video will be yanked before long. If it has been yanked before you get a chance to watch it, my comments won’t make as much sense. Oh well. Here’s the video:

Some of the negative feedback is related to the boy in the video, who is obviously terrified. That’s unfortunate, I agree, but I don’t think Elder Bednar is at fault. I think the kid is incredibly shy and was tearing up the moment he felt the attention was on him. I think Bednar tried to press forward without calling attention to the boy’s emotions, in part to avoid making the boy feel more awkward. We can say that Bednar should have acted differently or more sensitively, but that’s how I think a lot of us would handle this if we were truly in Bednar’s shoes. We would just press forward, unsure of what else to do.

I don’t want to focus on the boy in the video, however. I want to focus exclusively on Bednar’s response to the boy’s question and what we can glean from that response. (To be fair, I don’t think Bednar even answered the kid’s question, but that’s another complaint I’ll let slide.) I wanted to share this video because I think it is indicative of a major problem in cultural Mormonism today, a problem I think can be summed up as a failure to engage with reality. I see great potential in Mormonism, and yet so often we Mormons refuse to let our religion impact our lives in ways that aren’t shallow. We keep Mormonism trapped in its own little bubble and try to keep the evil, wicked world away from it. We try to close ourselves off from, rather than engage with, the flawed world in which we live. We seek to shut out imperfections, in ourselves and in others, rather than to interact with those imperfections in increasingly perfect ways. We effectively compartmentalize our spirituality, and in doing so we misconstrue anything that isn’t in complete harmony with our values and beliefs as a threat that must be avoided at all costs. It’s a crying shame. Maybe that’s why the boy in the video has tears in his eyes.

What follows is part of a comment I made on a Facebook thread discussing the above video:
Bednar has reduced the value of the scriptures to their ability to keep us from sinning. Sure, he talks about being “in the Lord's territory,” but presumably that means little more than not watching R-rated movies or something. “Satan’ll getcha if you don't read your scriptures!” That's the take-away message. Why can't we ever focus on the positive effects of seeking and drawing nearer to God? Why must we always couch things in terms of how dangerous and bad “disobedience” is? That's not inspiring, it's shame- and paranoia-inducing.
Over the last couple of years, I have come to see the obedience rhetoric as one of the greatest problems of Mormon culture. It is such a superficial approach to spirituality. Rarely is it discussed why and/or how “obedience” is meant to improve your life. Usually, we are more concerned with what happens if, God literally forbid, you slip up. Why should you read your scriptures every day? So Satan doesn’t get you! Why should you say a prayer every morning? So Satan doesn’t get you! Why shouldn’t you try coffee? So Satan doesn’t get you! When the benefit of following the “rules” is discussed, it is typically presented in generic terms: to qualify for blessings. Unfortunately, these blessings are rarely connected (in any obvious way) to the rules one is asked to follow. Read your scriptures every day and God might help you get an ‘A’ on your next math exam. Don’t watch R-rated movies and God will make sure your car starts in the morning. It’s as if God is a dolphin trainer tossing fish into our open mouths as a reward for jumping through hoops. Meanwhile (and please excuse my abrupt shift in analogies here), Satan is an outlaw shooting at our feet, making us dance a jig in order to avoid injury. Shop for groceries on a Sunday and your big toe gets blown off. That makes it harder to dance, and before you know it, you’re lying on the floor with a belly full of lead. Either perspective fails to appreciate the way in which spiritual practices can empower us as agents in a fallen world—an odd oversight, given that two of Mormonism’s central themes are (1) the importance of personal agency, and (2) the necessity of living in this world in order to grow in knowledge and understanding of things both good and bad.

I don’t see God as a being I must placate in order to extract favors. Nor do I find spiritual practices, such as praying and studying the scriptures, to be worthwhile primarily because of their preventative benefits. Consider scripture study. Studying the scriptures is important to me because I am enlightened and inspired by them. When I search them, I commune with the divine, and I come away more optimistic and confident and full of love for myself and others. How disheartening to say of such sacred texts that their importance lies in keeping a boogeyman at bay, as Elder Bednar has suggested. Even if “keeping the commandments” truly does put space between the devil and myself, this is better seen as a natural consequence of my having values inconsistent with those of Ol’ Scratch. True, if you seek the good, you inevitably shy away from the bad. But the matter of perspective is telling, and I think quite important. I prefer to see my prayers as motivated by my desire to draw nearer to God, whom I love, rather than by my fear of Satan. Allow me to illustrate the difference with yet another analogy, one relating to marriage: I sincerely hope that my wife goes on dates with me because she loves me and finds value in sharing her time with me. I hope that is her primary motivation. I would be crestfallen to learn that the main reason my wife goes on dates with me is because she lives in constant fear of falling in love with someone else. Call me selfish, but I’d rather the emphasis be on cultivating a relationship with me. I don’t want her to date me simply to please me, nor to avoid dating others, but to get closer to me and (hopefully) enrich her own life in the process. That’s what a loving relationship involves.

It’s funny to me (in a very non-humorous way) that a religion as progressive in its theology as Mormonism would so often fall back on thinly-veiled “Hellfire and damnation” rhetoric. Here is a religion that teaches (with less emphasis than I’d like) that human beings have the potential to learn line upon line, precept upon precept, how to be like their Heavenly Father. Here is a religion that celebrates personal revelation, claiming it is an infinite reservoir from which the earnest seeker may find truth. Here is a religion that proclaims the heavens remain open, that God has not ceased speaking to us collectively nor individually. The Book of Mormon is heralded as evidence of this, and Mormons are assured that they can draw nearer to God by reading its pages. These are the official positions of the LDS Church. But when you raise your hand and ask one of the highest leaders in the Church how to make better use of its sacred texts in your life, what is the response? “Keep reading, or Satan’s gonna get you!”

What a bummer.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

2013 in Review: Miscellaneous

This is the sixth and final entry in my blog series reviewing 2013. Previous entries included television, books, movies, music, and food.

After reviewing TV, books, movies, music, and food, there isn’t a lot more to write about. Or nothing I want to write extensively about, anyway. So, I’m going to wrap up my review of 2013 by going over a few things from a wide selection of categories. Here goes.

Kindle Apps
I don’t use my Kindle nearly as much as you might think (and I know you’ve thought about this extensively), but sometimes my school schedule affords me greater opportunities to play. It all depends on the parking situation. Yes, parking. You see, unless my schedule is such that I’m arriving to school quite early in the day, parking can be a gigantic pain in the butt. If I want to make sure I have time to hunt down a parking spot, which often involves circling the same parking garage for 30 minutes until somebody leaves, I usually leave for school much, much earlier than I’d need to if I were guaranteed to find a spot right away. If I get a spot sooner than later, I’m then left with a good half hour (or more!) to spare before class begins. This is when I’m most likely to use my Kindle. I’d say 80—90% of my personal Kindle usage has been during such moments. And while I have read a couple of books on the Kindle, I’ve spent most of my time on game apps. Early in 2013, I learned for myself what the Plants vs. Zombies craze is all about and devoted many hours to it. A couple of months later, I became somewhat obsessed with Cubistry, which is basically the video game equivalent of Mahjong but with the tiles arranged in a cube. I also had brief love affairs with the games Temple Run 2, Zombie Road Trip, 7 Little Words, Backgammon, and FlipPix Art. I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that these are the best apps I discovered in 2013, but they are definitely the ones I devoted the most time to. Other apps are probably more impressive—I have Sonic the Hedgehog on my Kindle, for crying out loud!—but I found the aforementioned apps better suited for concentrated and/or repetitive gameplay. So there.

Early in 2013, I tried to keep track of all of the podcasts I listened to and what were the best of the bunch. I did a pretty good job of this for a couple of months, and then I quickly abandoned the practice. I was simply listening to too many podcast episodes to maintain a list. For that reason, the particular podcast episodes I can now recommend are ones that I listened to either early in 2013, or not that long ago. These are the only ones I remember well, either because I wrote them down or because they are still relatively fresh on my mind. All of the podcasts mentioned here are Mormon-themed, as those are the only podcasts to which I’ve been listening. (I’ve had something of a one-track mind over the last year, as I explained when I posted about my reading habits of 2013.)

If you’d asked me during the first half of 2013 what my favorite overall podcast is, I would have said A Thoughtful Faith. Three of the very best podcast episodes I listened to last year were from A Thoughtful Faith: an interview with Terryl & Fiona Givens, an interview with Rock Waterman, and an interview with James McConkie. (The Givens’ son Nathaniel was the spotlight of another great podcast from A Thoughtful Faith, on epistemic humility. It’s also worth a listen.) Anyone who is even remotely interested should listen to the Terryl & Fiona Givens and the Rock Waterman interviews. The Givens interview features so many quotable and beautiful descriptions of Mormonism, all from a very faithful yet informed perspective. The Waterman interview strikes hard at the often-blurred line between Mormon culture and Mormonism proper. While Waterman’s interview can be seen (heard?) as somewhat antagonistic, there is very little of what he says with which I don’t wholeheartedly agree.

Some behind-the-scenes management changes take us from A Thoughtful Faith to the birth of Exploring Sainthood. The same person running the podcast for the former created the latter. Consequently, the initial spat of podcasts from Exploring Sainthood were all top-notch, featuring interviews with Steven Peck (on evolution and Mormonism), James Faulconer (on philosophy and theology), Devery Anderson (on the development of LDS temple worship), and more. Another shift in management put the Exploring Sainthood podcast on hiatus, but it has recently been resurrected. I haven’t listened enough to the new version of the podcast to say how it compares overall to its original incarnation, but you won’t go wrong with those early episodes.

Mormon Matters is probably my favorite podcast overall right now. It features a more topical approach to Mormonism, exploring such varied subjects as patriarchal blessings, the notion of Satan in Mormonism, near-death experiences, and C.S. Lewis. Many of the episodes have been incredibly fascinating. Recently, Mormon Matters began a series on the Old Testament that has been richly rewarding. Speaking of which, the podcast to which I have listened most consistently over the past year is Engaging Gospel Doctrine. Engaging Gospel Doctrine supplements the lesson manual for LDS gospel doctrine classes and delves into its subjects much more deeply (and, where appropriate, academically). Paradigms and assumptions can be challenged, but as a seeker of truth and enlightenment, I find this more beneficial than not. One of my favorite episodes of Engaging Gospel Doctrine featured a discussion of Joseph Smith’s First Vision and the differences in the various accounts thereof. Good stuff.

Personal Growth & Development – or, Life in General
In certain respects, 2013 was a monumental year for me. I learned a lot about myself—about what I believe, about what I value, about what I want to do in the future, etc. By making only brief mention of these things, I will unavoidably be downplaying their significance. Nevertheless, I will now cite a few of those key events from 2013 that have had a profound impact on me, in one way or another, whether directly or indirectly.

Early in 2013, I was offered continued (and increased!) funding to remain in my doctoral program for the 2013-2014 academic year. I’m incredibly grateful for this, as I’d be up crap creek without it.

January 2013 saw the unfolding of a chain of events that I regard as miraculous. There are too many details to share them all here, but they ultimately led to my writing first for the A Thoughtful Faith blog (which quickly disappeared) and then for Exploring Sainthood (for whom I still write). This has been a rewarding experience for me. Part of why this is so important to me has to do with how it came about, which I’ve touched on briefly in a previous post. I won’t say more about that here, but I’ll mention that the entire Exploring Sainthood community—those I’ve met and connected with as a result of joining the Exploring Sainthood team—has become a kind of family to me. That may sound overly dramatic, but my participation in Exploring Sainthood, including interactions that are limited to private Facebook groups, has been essential to my spiritual growth and development over the last 12 months. I feel like I am thriving, which is something I hadn’t been able to say for several years prior.

Melanie and I developed some friendships in 2013 that have been very important to us. The reasons are varied. Friends are always a good thing to have, but it’s more than that. For one thing, this is a friendship between our whole family and their whole family. It’s not that Melanie is friends with someone, and because of that friendship, our families occasionally get together and tolerate each other reasonably well. No. It’s that we’re all legitimately friends. Our kids are great friends with their kids, and Melanie and I are both great friends with both of the adults of the family. Maybe you’re rolling your eyes at this, but this is new for us, to have our entire family click with another entire family. Anyway, it’s been a good experience. The parents in this family have a lot in common with Melanie and me. They enjoy talking about religion and music, which right there means I’m unlikely ever to run out of things to say to them. If that weren’t enough, this friendship has led directly to another great development of 2013…

…I am taking piano lessons! As I’ve tried to make clear in a previous post, this is very significant to me. It has gotten a ball rolling that I intend to let roll for the rest of my life! I’ve really been enjoying it. Despite playing the guitar (in a manner of speaking) for approximately 20 years, I’m tempted to say I feel a greater affinity for the piano. There’s something that feels more natural about it. The connection to what I’m playing feels less mediated somehow. I’m sure I’m not making myself clear, but I know what I mean. And the cool thing is, while I’m still a newbie at piano, I feel like I’m already developing some piano music of my own that isn’t too shabby. Considering my lack of experience, I’m proud of the little tunes I’m plunking out. The only downside of all of this is that I’m now feeling a greater sense of regret that I didn’t do more with piano earlier in my life. Or even with music in general. I could probably go on at length about this, but I’ll spare you.

And I suppose that’s as good a wrap-up of 2013 as I could provide. In keeping with the egocentric theme of this blog, I haven’t tried to share any of the major developments in my family’s life—Peter starting Kindergarten, Melanie’s increased battle with migraines, etc. Obviously, I could make a review of 2013 quite extensive if I wanted. But I don’t, so I won’t.

The end.

Friday, January 10, 2014

2013 in Review: Food

This is the fifth entry in my blog series reviewing 2013. Previous entries include those on television, books, movies, and music.

Since the latter half of 2013, Melanie and I don’t go out to eat as much as we once did. That’s a good thing, for a variety of reasons, but the change wasn’t a noble one. Really, it’s a lack of enticing options in Tallahassee that has prevented us from wasting our money on dining out. Only a few eateries are worth our time and money … or at least are tempting enough to trick us into believing they are worth our time and money. Among those is Bagelheads, a Christian bagel shop that makes some delicious, God-approved grub. We first discovered Bagelheads—back in 2012, if not earlier—as a breakfast joint that featured not only yummy bagels, but some very delectable muffins (the neon green pistachio muffins being the best of the bunch). Eventually, we tried a few of their sandwiches, finding each of them to be spectacularly good. In 2013, I had the privilege of trying several more sandwiches from their lunch menu—items like “The Flamethrower” (peppermill turkey, pepperjack cheese, lettuce, [hold the] onions, jalapenos, and mayo) and the available-for-a-limited-time “Georgia Peach” (which featured sliced peach and “peachonaise” atop sliced chicken and swiss cheese). However, my two favorite 2013 sandwich discoveries at Bagelheads are the “Ragin’ Cajun” (roast beef, pepperjack, lettuce, [hold the] onions, and remoulade) and the “Little Leo” (smoked turkey, roast beef, scallion cream cheese, cole slaw, provolone, and tomato). The Little Leo is definitely my very top choice of the new sandwiches I tried, although I get it with regular cream cheese because I’m racist against scallions. Bagelheads is one of the only eateries in Tallahassee I expect to miss when/if I ever get out of here. Looking on the bright side, there’s not a lot of hope that I ever will. (Just kidding. Maybe.)

Runner-up for restaurant discovery of 2013 is a place right by the FSU campus, a Greek restaurant called The Pitaria. I ate there one time on a whim, and then I took Melanie and the boys there a few weeks later. Those two visits make up approximately half of the times that I’ve eaten Greek food outside of Utah. The Pitaria’s food doesn’t compare to Greek Souvlaki back in Salt Lake City, but it’s quite satisfying nonetheless. On both visits, I had the “Gyro Supreme,” which is a standard gyro (“gyro meat,” which I assume is lamb, [hold the] onions, tomatoes, and Tzatziki sauce) but with the addition of sautéed mushrooms, green bell peppers, and feta. It is νοστιμότατος! (That’s Greek for “delicious”!) Pitaria also offers three kinds of fries—“regular,” Greek (which are unhelpfully described as “fried potatoes, Greek style”) and pita fries. On my first visit, they were out of Greek fries, so I went with regular. They are thick-cut and seasoned and yummy. I happened to snap a photo on my cell phone to send to Melanie and make her jealous, so I can now show it to you. Enjoy!

Outside the world of restaurants, 2013 was the year of hummus. I’d tried hummus once or twice before 2013, but sometime in 2013, hummus and pretzel chips (and/or pita chips) became my go-to snack. (It’s also good with baby carrots, FYI.) For a while there, I ate hummus every single night of the week. Seriously, a day rarely went by that I didn’t eat it. I don’t know how long that trend continued. Quite a while, methinks. But eventually Melanie and I did tire of it and stopped buying it. We’ve been on a hummus sabbatical for a few months now, but I didn’t feel I could talk about 2013 without mentioning it. And it’s been long enough since I’ve had it that it actually sounds kind of good right now. Darn.

A true game-changer for me in 2013 was my personal discovery of almond milk. Of course, I have long known that almond milk exists, but I hadn’t actually tried it myself until maybe six months ago or so. I was quite skeptical, and thus pleasantly surprised, when I first poured it on cereal. I didn’t mind the taste at all, and now I rarely have cereal with anything other than almond milk. Because I have cereal almost every morning, this is a worthwhile investment for me. I get the unsweetened variety, so it has only 30 calories, no sugar, and practically zero carbs per serving. Of course, this means that almond milk doesn’t work so well in non-cereal capacities. I wouldn’t use almond milk as a beverage, for example. I once tried it with Ovaltine and that wasn’t too pleasant of an experience. Maybe the sweetened form of almond milk would’ve worked, but the unsweetened variety made the Ovaltine taste bitter. I don’t recommend it.

And finally, there were some negative food discoveries in 2013. The worst offender was a sausage dog from Bradley’s Country Store, a quaint shop located a picturesque 15-minute-drive away. Bradley’s sausage is purported to be world-famous, a claim seemingly made by every Podunk eatery about their food. But I think they are legitimately popular around these parts, and they at least offer to ship their sausages all over the United States, which I presume somebody must request every once in a while. And so, Melanie and I took the kids there once, trying to have a fun Saturday afternoon activity. We bought a few sausage dogs and took them outside, as the store so charmingly recommends you do. We ended up throwing most of the food away. I’ll say this much, I’ve never had a sausage dog like it. I didn’t know sausage dogs existed that were best described as “dry and crumbly.” You know when pencil erasers break apart into tiny, not-quite-pebble-sized pieces? Imagine getting a mouth full of little eraser bits. That’s pretty much exactly what it was like, texture-wise. And not even faintly juicy. Maybe just maybe we got a bad batch, but I’m not willing to pay a second visit to find out.

A less terrible discovery was made just a couple of weeks’ ago. I tried herbal tea. I’ve been thinking of trying herbal tea for a while now. As a Mormon, tea is usually considered a no-no, but herbal teas (which don’t involve any tea leaves) are kosher. It was actually cold in Tallahassee, and I liked the idea of a hot morning beverage other than hot chocolate (which is pretty much the only Mormon option, unless you’re a radical). I imagined herbal tea being aromatic and pleasant. And so I snagged a box of “gingerbread spice” tea while at the store one day. Gingerbread isn’t my thing in particular, but I thought it might be fun. Well … no, it wasn’t. It was very bitter. It was sugarless, of course, so that didn’t help. I hadn’t wanted to add sugar because I was hoping to keep it as healthy as possible, but once I knew what it tasted like, my only real options were to add sugar or to pour it down the drain. I added a few scoops of sugar, and the taste improved greatly. Still, I only drank about half a cup before I admitted defeat and poured it out. I’m not against trying other herbal teas; I still find myself imagining that such a thing could be pleasant. But I’m much less confident now. Which is a bummer.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

2013 in Review: Music

This is the fourth installment in my series looking back on 2013. I have previously reviewed 2013 as it relates to television, books, and movies.

As important as music is to me, I find music to be one of the hardest categories to write about. For many audiences, a discussion of music is limited to similes, metaphors, and comparisons. Whereas one can discuss the use of color in film, to talk about “color” in music is to ensure that neither party to a conversation is absolutely certain of understanding the other. There is a lot of gesturing to be done, but not much else. People versed in musical theory and other technical aspects of music and music production may be better suited to describe music in unambiguously meaningful terms. I don’t pretend to be such a person, and so my commentary is always limited. Add to this the fact that I do not often listen to new music, and you’ll see why I struggle with this particular blog post. I stick primarily to the bands that I know and like, in which I find an expansive enough catalog that to familiarize myself with anything new requires some effort and distraction on my part. I’m busy enough that music often serves only as background noise to schoolwork and other errands. At this point in my life, I can listen to an album several times over without being able to recall a song from that album with ease. Ask me to name a song from the album and I may come up blank. Tell me a song title from that album, and there is no guarantee that a tune will begin playing in my head. This is a far cry from the kind of person I was in high school and shortly thereafter. It’s sad, I suppose, but it’s where I’m at.

Keeping the above considerations in mind, there are a few albums and/or artists that I discovered in 2013 that stand out to me as noteworthy. These truly are the highlights of the year, if only because they’ve made a greater impression on me and my memory. I can’t say with unwavering conviction that these selections are the very best I’ve discovered in the past 12 months, but they have burrowed deeper into my brain than anything else has.

Several of my favorite artists released new music in 2013. Because I was already familiar with those artists, it is easy for me to bring their newer work to mind. Canadian artists Hayden and Barenaked Ladies each released an album in 2013. Neither album stood out to me as much as previous works by the same artists, but both were enjoyable in their own rights. For BNL, Grinning Streak marks the second album since the departure of Steven Page, whose absence has had a profound effect on the band’s sound. Grinning Streak takes BNL one step closer to mediocrity, which is unfortunate. I was disappointed that Kevin Hearn (primarily on keyboards) and Jim Creeggan (primarily on bass) didn’t have a greater presence on this album. Both Creeggan and Hearn are exceptional songwriters, but they’ve contributed only a song a piece to Grinning Streak, neither of which is among the musicians’ individual bests (and in Creeggan’s case, you only got his song if you bought the deluxe edition of the album). Pearl Jam also released a new album in 2013, Lightning Bolt, which satisfies but comes nowhere near the excellence of their previous record, 2009’s Backspacer. Here are some of my favorite tracks from each of the above albums:

When it comes to new artists (or at least artists I hadn’t already familiarized myself with), one of my absolute favorite discoveries of the last year is Passion Pit. Last year, I wrote about my favorite discoveries of 2012 and included the album Feel the Sound by Imperial Teen. Passion Pit released the album Gossamer in the same year, and the similarities are striking. I think you could sneak any song from Gossamer onto Feel the Sound and few of us would realize anything was out of place. Both albums feature infectious synthpop, although Passion Pit sometimes—sometimes—flirts with sounds that are to my ear more soulful than anything on Imperial Teen’s record. (Check out Passion Pit’s “Constant Conversations” for a sample of what I mean.) But I don’t want to get bogged down in a comparison. Gossamer is an awesome album, one I’m pleased to make a regular part of my rotation. Here’s the official video for one of my favorite tunes on the album:

M83 is another great band I learned about in 2013. I had the privilege of listening to their two most recent albums, 2008’s Saturdays = Youth and 2011’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, both of which are excellent. Keeping things simple, M83 would fall under the category of alternative rock. If you’re familiar with the musical genre referred to as “shoegazing,” that may prove a more useful description, although I’m not sure it’s perfect. Shoegazing is a kind of dreamy, ambient, almost nostalgic form of alternative rock, which fits much of M83’s music. And yet M83 is also rather synth-based much of the time, and I’m not sure that’s the case with much of what’s considered shoegazing. I’m not an expert on this stuff, folks. Probably the best thing for me to do is get on with a sample. So, here are two of my favorite tracks, one from each of the aforementioned albums:

Another great discovery of 2013 is the Scottish band CHVRCHES. I was much more taken in by their EP Recover than I was by their full-length album The Bones of What You Believe, but I’m convinced either way to keep my ears perked for more. The song “Recover” is insanely catchy. Here’s a video for it:

Capital Cities is quickly becoming quite popular, and I think they deserve it. Their 2013 album A Tidal Wave of Mystery is among the most addictive listens of the past year. Like pretty much everything else I’ve mentioned thus far, Capital Cities is a synthpop band. There’s a reason such a style of music appeals to me. It gets into your blood. Here’s a sample:

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD), best known for their 1980s new wave hit “If You Leave,” released their 12th studio album in April 2013, titled English Electric. I’ve felt compelled to listen and re-listen to the album numerous times, even though there isn’t anything on the album that leaps out at me. I’m not sure what to make of that. Do I love the album? I don’t feel like I do, and yet obviously there’s something about it that makes it highly listenable. Stylistically, you can hear the new wave influence throughout, and yet it is also decidedly more futuristic—purposely so, it would seem, based on the robotic interludes that sometimes fill the gaps between songs, songs with titles such as “The Future Will Be Silent,” no less. Because there isn’t a track on the album that leaps out to me as a favorite, I’ve chosen to showcase the song that I feel will best convey the album’s dualistic retro-futuristic sound. Here it is:

2013 found me intrigued by the artists Hot Chip and Phosphorescent. From a comprehensive point of view, I’m less enthusiastic about these two than the earlier acts I’ve mentioned, and yet they have each produced songs that I absolutely love. If not for these particular songs, I might not bother to mention these artists at all. Here they are:

I’ll make mention of one final album, although I’m not sure it really counts. This year I found myself listening repeatedly to Cyndi Lauper’s 1983 album She’s So Unusual. My oldest sister owned this album on vinyl, and I remember listening to it some as a kid. But it’s been nearly 30 years since I’ve listened to it in its entirety, and I love it. Sure, a good chunk of the album can still be heard on the radio with some regularity—songs like “Time After Time,” “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” “She Bop” (Cyndi’s famous ode to masturbation), and others. But the fact that these tunes are so familiar doesn’t preclude them from being terrific. With Top 5 singles comprising nearly half of the album, it’s hard to listen to She’s So Unusual without having a blast. It’s quite the pop record. The video I’ll post to celebrate this album is of yet another song you’re undoubtedly familiar with, but it’s a song I love—both to listen to and to sing along with. Go ahead and try it yourself. You’ll see what I mean.

A final note of thanks must be given to Chuck, the wonderful man that introduced me to much of the above music. I’m leaving last names off because I haven’t asked Chuck permission to make him famous by talking about him on my blog. But if he happens to read this, I need him to see he’s getting his due props. Thanks, Chuck.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

2013 in Review: Movies

This is the third in a series of blog posts reviewing 2013. Click here for part 1 and here for part 2.

I watched 159 movies in 2013 that I had never before seen. Here’s the breakdown of how many of those movies I would give a particular amount of stars (out of four, with four stars denoting an excellent movie and one star denoting a bad movie):

****:   10
***½:  23
***:     31
**½:    28
**:       50
*½:      10
*:         7

Average movie rating: **½

The numbers seem right on track. I saw more average movies (**) than anything else. That makes sense. But the movies I saw were themselves, on average, slightly above average, or mildly recommendable (**½). It makes sense that my personal average would be slightly above average, because I’m not stuck watching everything that comes out, like the critics are forced to do. Since I’m actually selecting the movies I watch, you’d hope they’d usually be better than not. And that’s exactly what’s happened, although I’ve encountered a handful of stinkers along the way.

It’s rather difficult to come up with a meaningful list of movies. I’ve toyed with different ways of presenting this list and how precisely to break it up. I could just list the 10 movies that I considered worthy of four stars, but that strikes me as boring. Also, despite the fact that I’ve assessed 10 films to be of excellent quality, 2013 was somewhat of a letdown in terms of finding movies that I really loved. Only two of those top 10 films would I be rather enthusiastic about praising. That being said, I’m going to focus on a few select films from a variety of genres, hopefully showcasing some of the best—and some of the worst—from each category.

The best film I watched during 2013, and one that I would indeed be enthusiastic about, is Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Say what you will about Tarantino, his films are masterpieces. Django isn’t my favorite Tarantino flick, but it is an amazing one, and it thrills me that Christoph Waltz picked up an Oscar for his performance as Dr. King Schultz, bounty hunter and incidental emancipator. Waltz won me over in Tarantino’s earlier film, Inglorious Basterds, wherein he gave one of the best onscreen performances I’ve ever seen. I’m happy to report that Santa Claus left Django Unchained under our tree and I can now watch it anytime I like. Well, if the kiddos aren’t around, that is. This is a Tarantino film, after all.

As far as legitimate 2013 movies are concerned (i.e. those movies actually released in theaters during the calendar year), Gravity is probably the best I saw. Gravity got a lot of hype, and I didn’t think it was quite that good. I didn’t walk out of the theater saying, “Wowzers! What a brilliant film!” But it was an excellently-crafted and tense film that deserves some accolades and that I wouldn’t mind watching again. People may pooh-pooh the scientific integrity of the film, which is all about Sandra Bullock being stranded alone in outer space. But for entertainment purposes, you couldn’t do much better in 2013.

Runner-up for the best 2013 film (that I saw) is American Hustle. I don’t think American Hustle is a four-star film, but it’s nearly so. So much about it is done right, but it wanes a bit in the story department. There’s something unsatisfying about it, and some aspects of the storyline aren’t adequately developed. I wanted to like it more than I did, even though I thought it was overall quite good. And the opening shot of a pot-bellied Christian Bale taking meticulous care of his comb-over is quite priceless.

Another film I’ll mention that falls into the drama category is 2012’s A Late Quartet. This is a little film that took me by surprise, which is why I wish to include it. Assuming you haven’t heard of it, A Late Quartet is about a renowned string quartet (surprise!) whose close kinship begins to fray. There really isn’t much more to say about the film. It’s one of those movies that is great in large part because its characters are so authentic and believable. It’s realistic, sometimes unhappy as a result, and yet not excessively dour as so many independent films are wont to be. I strongly recommend it, even if it’s not quite a four-star film.

Foreign Films
I finally saw the French film Amour, which was nominated for Best Picture of 2012, and I agree it was extremely good. But much better is a French film from the previous year, The Intouchables. The Intouchables ranks as my top film discovery of 2013, next to Django Unchained. Based on a true story, The Intouchables follows the friendship that gradually develops between an extremely wealthy quadriplegic and the ex-convict he hires as a caretaker. The movie is an inspiring and beautiful one, which isn’t something you can say of movies often enough. If you’ve got Netflix instant viewing, pull this one up now.

Franchise Films, Summer Blockbusters, and the Like
It’s hard to believe Hollywood makes anything other than franchise films nowadays. In a day and age when movie theaters routinely offer 20+ screens, few and far between are the screens showing anything that isn’t part of a trilogy, or a reboot, or in all too many cases, both. Fortunately, Hollywood has made their big-budget contenders more and more worthwhile over the last several years. With the likes of Christopher Nolan, J. J. Abrams, and others, blockbuster movies today are frequently imbued with intelligent writing and inspired direction and therefore often defy the term “frivolous entertainment.” (I know this isn’t always true, so no need to email me a list of Michael Bay films, folks.) The Hunger Games franchise is evidence of this marked improvement, and indeed, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire was one of the best films I saw of 2013. As a book, the sequel couldn’t live up to the acclaim of the first. As a movie, it has matched or even surpassed the original. Other strong films in this category include Skyfall, one of the better James Bond films to be released … well, ever; The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which seemed destined to disappoint Lord of the Rings fanatics but is nevertheless a rich cinematic accomplishment; and Star Trek Into Darkness, which I personally liked better than J. J. Abrams’ first foray into Star Trek filmmaking.

I saw a lot of fascinating documentaries in 2013, including some that (from an objective viewpoint) weren’t very good films. Both Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed and I Am gave me a lot to think about, despite their being heavily flawed. The former is about the world of academia and the prevailing bias that exists against those who embrace or even fail to reject the theory of intelligent design. The latter is about the interconnectedness of everything, but also concentrates a bit too much on the director’s own shift from worldly, egocentric filmmaker (he’s made several popular movies, including a few of Jim Carrey’s most famous) to enlightened, humble filmmaker … of a documentary that talks a lot about him, for example. (Yeah, you see the problem.) These are films that I wish people would watch and take on their merits, simply because they have the potential to open up some very interesting conversations. But I must admit, from a critical perspective, they aren’t great films.

Several documentaries did in fact rank highly on my year-end list. These include The Imposter, an almost unbelievable tale about a missing child who seems magically to reappear years later in a foreign country; Exit Through the Gift Shop, which chronicles an obsession with street art that leads the filmmaker himself to become a street artist; Sons of Perdition, about young men who escape from polygamist groups in southern Utah; Searching for Sugar Man, a filmed attempt to locate a mysterious American musician who for decades has been something of an icon in South Africa, apparently without even knowing it; and Kumaré, about a man who poses as a guru in order to test people’s susceptibility to cling to religious leaders. All of these films were extremely worthwhile (I even wrote about Kumaré here), and several of them are available on Netflix. Queue ‘em up, if you can.

Melanie and I gravitate toward thrillers, but that doesn’t mean they’re always good. I didn’t see a single thriller during 2013 that I would give four stars, but I did see some very good ones. Among the best is Compliance. I posted a review of Compliance, so I won’t bother expounding on that particular film. Another one I quite enjoyed was Trance. Trance tells the story of an art auctioneer (James McAvoy) who seeks the help of a hypnotherapist (Rosario Dawson) after a bout of amnesia prevents him from remembering the whereabouts of a painting he helped to steal. Of course, things get a lot more complicated than that, both for the characters onscreen and for those watching the film. I’ve long been a fan of director Danny Boyle, and Trance resonated with me as a result. It’s not as good as most of his other films, but I was satisfied. And finally, the best thriller I saw in 2013 is Bound, a Wachowski Brothers film that predates The Matrix. Jennifer Tilly stars as Violet, a woman who plots to con her mobster boyfriend out of millions, all with the help of her lesbian ex-convict lover. What isn’t there to like? One of the final scenes of Bound is so beautifully shot, I can’t shake it from my mind. Of course, I’d ruin the film to tell you about it, so you’ll have to see it for yourself.  Just remember it has something to do with white paint.

I finally saw, and thoroughly enjoyed, Silver Linings Playbook. It tops my list of comedies seen in 2013. My runners-up are lesser known, so I’ll focus on them. Hit & Run stars real-life couple Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard as Annie and Charlie, two lovers en route to a job interview in Los Angeles. There’s just one problem: Charlie is in the Witness Protection Program, and L.A. is his home turf. You can imagine the kind of high-energy antics that such an adventure would entail, and in that regard Hit & Run, a kind of pet project for Shepard (who also wrote and co-directed), delivers where it should. I probably wouldn’t give it more than three stars, but it’s a solid piece of entertainment. Even better than Hit & Run is the Australian comedy Mental. I don’t often use the word “zany,” but in the case of Mental, such a description hits the nail on the head. Toni Collette stars as an eccentric version of Mary Poppins (a comparison I believe even those involved with the film have made), a nutcase nanny hired to care for the five daughters of a less-than-respectable politician. It may not sound like much, but Mental is laugh-out-loud funny from beginning to end. It’s probably the funniest film I saw in 2013, even if it’s not the best film I saw  that also happens to be a comedy. Make sense? Good.

Animated Films
Animated films are often among my favorites, but I didn’t see anything in 2013 that really wooed me. I have to go almost halfway down my comprehensive year-end list before I find an animated film. I gave Monsters University a slight lead over Despicable Me 2, but they were both really good without being great. They are the best animated films I saw in 2013. Every other animated film I saw was iffy in comparison. And some (such as Planes) were flat-out bad.

The Bottom of the 2013 Barrel
Now that I’ve praised some films, let me tell you about the worst pieces of cinematic crap I saw during the year. From the best of the worst to the worst of the worst, here are what I consider to be, without question, the lousiest movies I saw in 2013:

Love Actually
Love Actually is one of those emotionally-manipulative movies marketed for mass appeal and chock full of characters and plot lines that, due to overcrowding, are doomed to perpetual and intellectually-offensive superficiality. Save for Dami Judi Dench, nearly every English actor of note is in the film. It may actually be easier to tell you who doesn’t star in Love Actually, but to list just some of the actors picking up an easy paycheck with this piece of rubbish: Hugh Grant, Keira Knightley, Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, and Emma Thompson. In terms of plot, Love Actually consists of interweaving love stories, each of which is thoroughly clichéd and familiar and about as heartwarming as nuclear warfare. The fact that such drivel is peddled as romantic is the most egregious sin of all.

I’m quite a fan of Jeff Bridges, so despite the fact that R.I.P.D. looked pretty campy in the commercials, I had my hopes up. But … wow. It really did stink. The premise is somewhat amusing, a kind of buddy cop movie set in the afterlife. But the end product feels more like a cheap rip-off of Men and Black, hitting theaters 17 years too late. To be fair, I’m sure the special effects used in R.I.P.D. are superior to those available in 1996, but they most definitely are not up to par for 2013. Almost every special-effect shot left me cringing in embarrassment for the filmmakers. This truly was a turd of a film.

A Good Day to Die Hard
Maybe it’s a nostalgia thing, but I consider Die Hard to be one of the best action movies of all time. And while it’s been years since I’ve seen the first two sequels Die Hard spawned, I remember quite liking them as well. Resuscitating a beloved film franchise is always a risk, but it’s a risk A Good Day to Die Hard was willing to take. And it paid dearly. The spirit of the earlier Die Hard films was sacrificed for the sake of modernized (re: bloated) action sequences and modernized (re: borderline incoherent) plotting, blunders that may have been forgivable had the character of John McClane been sufficiently restored to his former glory. But 2013’s John McClane is a bastardized version of his former self, a schmuck that I believe the John McClane of the 1900s would have wanted to punch in the face. As far as reprehensible sequels go, A Good Day to Die Hard makes Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull look like The Godfather: Part II. For those of you who aren’t film buffs, allow me to translate: A Good Day to Die Hard sucks ass.

Rid of Me
It may be cruel for me to pick on this film, because even to call it an independent film may be a stretch. It’s more like a movie some friends got together and made with a decent video camera. That’s how professional a project it seems to be. It is such an awkwardly acted film that I could barely watch it without feeling like a masochist. If you’re curious, the film is about a woman who feels out of place among her friends and even within her marriage. It’s a tale of self-discovery and self-empowerment, although paradoxically enough, it left me feeling very depressed and ashamed of myself for having devoted any time to watching it. It’s available on Netflix instant, if you’re now perversely curious. Go on, I know you are.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

2013 in Review: Books

This is part 2 of the 2013 in Review series of posts. Click here for part 1.

I read 23 complete books in 2013, a total of 7,246 pages. (Thanks to Goodreads for providing me these data.) This doesn’t include children’s books (which I don’t keep track of), partially-read books, or scriptural texts such as the Bible. I’m sufficiently pleased with the numbers, not that numbers are the point of it all. Here’s a quick overview of what I read in 2013.

Of the 23 books I read, 12 were non-fiction. That’s a pretty even split, which perhaps is a good thing. Of the 12 non-fiction books I read, 11 were about Mormonism. That’s nowhere near an even split, but I still think it’s a good thing. 2013 was in many ways an epic year for me in terms of studying and coming to appreciate (and/or question) my own religious background. I expect this trend to continue in 2014. Of the 11 fiction books I read, 3 were by Mormon authors and touched at least lightly on the LDS faith. So, yes, I was rather … focused, let’s say … in 2013. It’s worth noting that not one of the books I read in 2013 was a proper philosophy text, which is odd considering I’m currently working on a PhD in philosophy. Oops.

Dominating my reading list in 2013 was Denver C. Snuffer, a Utah-based attorney who has written numerous texts on Mormonism. I don’t wish to focus too much on Snuffer’s works here. I read his first three books early in 2013 and found them incredibly rewarding. They were important reads to me, but not books I would quickly recommend to others, and not for the sake of being “good reads.” My enjoyment of them and the value I found in them had nothing to do with how well-written the books are (which, to be honest, is not very). Snuffer’s works are for a very particular audience within an already narrow niche. I think that’s all that needs to be said about their content, although I will say that Snuffer’s books were for me among the most gratifying reads of 2013.

My favorite non-fiction read (excluding Snuffer) was The Mormon People by Matthew Bowman. Bowman offers a very easy-to-approach history of the LDS Church, starting with founder Joseph Smith and proceeding through the early 2010s. It’s fascinating to see the ways in which certain practices, policies, doctrines, and beliefs have fallen in and out of favor with the church over the years, whether it’s the result of church leadership or the influence of popular culture. One interesting observation is that, collectively speaking, church members have become increasingly conservative since the mid-1900s, contrary to what many readers (myself included) might suppose. As a case in point, the same survey was given to BYU students in 1935 and again in 1973 with surprisingly different results. Compared to students in the 1970s, students in the 1930s were more likely to embrace the theory of evolution, less likely to believe the church is led by revelation, and far, far, far less likely to value obedience over personal autonomy. Bowman’s book is absorbing from beginning to end, and it’s one I wish more members of the LDS Church would read.

At the top of my fiction reading list for 2013 is A Short Stay in Hell by Steven L. Peck. Although Peck is a professor at BYU and touches on Mormonism in his book, by no means should A Short Stay in Hell be limited to an LDS audience. Indeed, the book begins with the main character Soren’s arrival in Hell, where he is quickly informed that Mormonism, the religion he had embraced in mortality, is not the one true religion. (It is Zoroastrianism, in case you’re wondering.) Consigned to a temporary Hell, Soren provides readers with a haunting glimpse at just how infinite a finite period of time can be, a truth conveyed with remarkable force considering the brevity of Peck’s novella. I wrote a review for this book here, so I won’t continue to praise it. Instead, I will just encourage you to cough up $10 for a paperback (or a mere $3 for the Kindle version) and read the book yourself.

Peck reappeared on my 2013 reading list with The Scholar of Moab, a bizarre mystery of sorts that touches on everything from Mormonism to two-headed cowboys to alien abduction. A myriad of characters inhabit The Scholar of Moab, most of them telling their tales by way of journal entries or personal correspondence. I found it a recommendable read, despite its being a mixed bag. When I enjoyed the novel, I thought it was great. When I didn’t, I was somewhat bored. The chapters revolve through the cast of characters, so with some regularity, I was presented with a voice that just didn’t resonate with me. Fortunately, the book is also full of gems like this [misspellings and grammatical errors included]:
It is hard to explain but you go through life with a set of things that sort of form a bed for all the other things your head is full of to rest on. Stuff like when you get up in the morning the sun is going to be there shining down on you. That the cliffs that surround Moab were going to be red & not pea-green like the grass growing between the bricks that run the path up to your trailer. Some things get real comfy cozy in your head & you expect them to be there so much that you forget they are there. In fact they are pretty much Invisible. Its just not things that you can see & touch like the sun & the color of cliffs. Some things are apart of you that you can never see until all of the sudden something comes & wants to rearrange the whole shebang.
Peck and Snuffer aren’t the only authors with multiple selections on my 2013 list. J. K. Rowling graced the list twice, first with The Casual Vacancy and then again with The Cuckoo’s Calling under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. The latter is a much easier book to get into—it’s a rather straightforward private detective story—but the former, a decidedly more political tale, is by far the superior of the two. I wouldn’t go out of my way to recommend either of these books, but they have convinced me to stick with Rowling for her post-Harry Potter writing career.

I guess this list wouldn’t be complete without embarrassing myself a little bit. For some unknown reason, I read two books aimed primarily at adolescent females. First was Thumped by Megan McCafferty. Then came Dare Me by Megan Abbott. Both books were closer to crap than not, which I don’t think can be blamed entirely on their genre (nor on the coincidental fact that both books were written by someone named Megan). These two books are undoubtedly the worst books I read during the last 12 months. Hopefully I’ve learned my lesson.

The penultimate book I read in 2013 was Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep, a brand new sequel to King’s 1977 classic The Shining. I haven’t read a Stephen King book in years, but of the handful that I’ve read, The Shining was among my favorites. Thus, I figured I’d give Doctor Sleep a shot. I can’t say that I was disappointed, in large part because I didn’t know what to expect. Despite the fact that the book’s central character is the adult version of Danny Torrance, the main boy in The Shining, and despite the frequent allusions to The Shining, the sequel manages to feel quite detached from its predecessor. To a surprising degree, the two books seem to have little to do with each other. They don’t even feel like they belong to the same genre. The Shining was a full-on supernatural horror story. Doctor Sleep features supernatural elements and sinister characters, but it lacks anything that truly qualifies as spooky. This doesn’t come across as a failure on King’s part so much as a move in a different direction. Whether or not it was his aim, King has crafted an independent enough story that it can probably be read without much detriment by those who have never even heard of The Shining. It was an easy and casual read, and for that I enjoyed it.

I’m happy to report that most of the books I read in 2013 were quite good or better. I can’t describe them all, but I’ll list a few of my favorites that have not yet been discussed:

The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Why I Stay: The Challenges of Discipleship for Contemporary Mormons edited by Robert A. Rees
The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life by Terryl and Fiona Givens

And now you should have yourself a fine little reading list for 2014! The end!