Thursday, November 19, 2020

A Father's Compassion

Our daughter, Crazy Jane, is in braces. This means that I am constantly finding two small rubber bands left behind at her kitchen table seat. Today I said to her, "You know how sometimes, in the wake of a tragedy, people will say that the things that used to bother them about the departed are now things that they miss?" She said, "Yeah." I said, "Not true. Because if you got hit by a truck, on the way home from your funeral I'd say to Mom, 'Well, at least we won't have rubber bands on our table anymore.'"

My wife laughed, which means that it was not an inappropriate joke.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Riveting Stories Full of Suspense

Yesterday I was sitting with my wife at my son's baseball game. She mentioned that her phone had just restarted itself. This reminded me of when my phone restarted itself the day before, so I told her about it, in detail. At the conclusion of the story, I said, "That was a terrible story. I'm sorry. What a waste of everyone's time." My wife said, "It's fine; I'm just sitting here not doing anything." I said, "Yes, but no one would have chosen to hear that story. If I had texted you and said, 'Give me a call so I can tell you about that time my phone restarted,' you would not have responded."

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Towards a Radical Reconsideration of James Bond's Sexuality

Throughout the run of the James Bond film series, Bond has been a confirmed bachelor with an outsized libido. With 2006's Casino Royale, the series reset, using Ian Fleming's first Bond novel and showing Bond become 007. But perhaps also reset was Bond's sexuality.

Spoilers for a 14-year-old movie to follow.

In the second half of the movie, Bond is captured by the villain, Le Chiffre, who tortures Bond by whacking his nuts with the end of a heavy rope. I contend that this isn't merely an answer to the screenwriter's question, "How can we torture the hero." If it were, it serves its usefulness when Bond refuses to disclose the bank password. Instead, there is more emphasis placed on the fact that the torture is destroying Bond's nuts, and several returns to the theme long after the "will he disclose the password?" question is settled.

To begin, the director uses a close-up and omenous music as the wicker chair seat is cut out. Le Chiffre then says, "Wow, you've taken good care of your body. Such a waste." The implication is that Bond's attractive body will be wasted when he can no longer perform sexually. Once Le Chiffre introduces the nut hitting, he says, "And of course, it's not only the immediate agony, but the knowledge that if you do not yield soon enough, there will be little left to identify you as a man. The only question remains, will you yield in time?"

Now, Le Chiffre doesn't define "in time," and I'm hesitant to Google "how many whacks can my nuts withstand?", but it appears Le Chiffre feels the critical number has been surpassed, which would explain why he switches from nut whacking to nut removing, getting out his knife and saying, "I think I'll feed you what you seem not to value." But then the Le Chiffre's creditor busts in and shoots Le Chiffre in the head. Nuts saved!

If we were supposed to think, "Wow, James's nuts just had a close call," that's where the nut references would end. But that's not where they end. Next, Bond is in a wheelchair at a convelescent hospital on Lake Como. Vesper Lynd, the woman in the process of betraying Bond, becomes emotional and says, "You know, James, I just want you to know that if all that was left of you was your smile and your little finger, you'd still be more of a man than anyone I've ever met." Why this reference to "all that was left of" Bond? To show it is not an idle formulation, Bond tells Vesper, "Whatever is left of me.... Whatever is left of me, whatever I am, I'm yours." He has to say the first bit twice because he becomes emotional and Vesper tries to stop him from continuing.

My view is that Bond did not yield in time, and Le Chiffre destroyed Bond's nuts. Thus there's a question regarding "whatever is left," which is less than what you'd get with any other man. So why does Bond have several new sexual partners in each film? Well, from the ladies' perspective, maybe James is quite attentive to their needs, since his needs are now inconsequential. And from Bond's perspective, constantly revisiting sexual situations could be a form of self-destruction, torturing himself with what he can't have. Like a character drinking himself to death, Bond doesn't bed women for pleasure but for pain.

To be clear, this is dramatically different from the books, where James survives Casino Royale (in France, not in Montenegro) with his nuts very much intact, and although he starts each book single again, he ends each book looking forward to a continuing romance with the woman in question. Between books it doesn't work out, evidently--maybe because he's an assassin. The books use sex as a reward for a job well done. The movies originally used sex as a way of handicapping Bond, of showing that he's so good at his job that he can woo an endless stream of women along the way. But the reset movies use sex as another means of abusing Bond, of showing that he takes his pleasure from killing because he's had the typical avenue to pleasure blocked forever.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Today's Heresy Is Tomorrow's Orthodoxy

I started reading Ross Douthat's Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, which will be the third book I've read this year written by a man named Ross, and that's a new personal best in that category. But I'm not writing for any congratulations (after all, three is a pretty low number). Instead, I want to point out a problem with Douthat's definitions of "heresy" and "orthodoxy."

It starts with accepting G.K. Chesterton's misguided view of Christian history. Douthat quotes from Chesterton:

She [the Church] swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles.... To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom--that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect. (pp. 12-13)

Christ tells us in Matthew 7:13-14 that the way that leads to life is narrow, and a narrow way wouldn't have allowed the Church to have "swerved to left and right." In fact, it is "the evil man...whose ways are crooked" (Proverbs 2:12-15). Those whose "feet run to evil...have made them crooked paths" (Isaiah 59:7-8). Or, as Alma wrote, "he cannot walk in crooked paths; neither doth he vary from that which he hath said; neither hath he a shadow of turning from the right to the left" (Alma 7:20).

Douthat says orthodoxy "includes a committment to the creeds of the ancient world--Nicene, Apostolic, Athenasian" (p. 10), but those creeds are from the fourth century. Douthat says that this change of doctrine "seemed haphazard at the time, but in hindsight it looks providential" (p. 11). This is circular reasoning for sure. We define "orthodoxy" as what we have today, then claim the hand of Providence in keeping us orthodox. As the Church veered through the centuries, killing some for what others would later be canonized, and vice versa, we end up at a random destination and then declare, "This must be where we were supposed to be all along."

Douthat's concern with modern heresy ignores that his orthodoxy is the centuries-old heresy of yore. He obscures this by using the term "early Christianity" without defining "early." Surely St. Augustine is "early" compared to today, but not compared to St. Peter or St. Paul, who lived centuries before. From Peter's death to Augustine's birth is a period more than one and a half times longer than what separates me from Benjamin Franklin. Several thousand years from now Franklin and I can both be considered "early Americans," but that doesn't mean that today's Republicans or Democrats qualify as orthodox Federalists or Antifederalists.

Only by ignoring the heretical origins of Nicene Christianity can Douthat write, "if the American religious landscape has long resembled the world of early Christianity, then twenty-first-century America looks increasingly as if it's replaying that story with a very different ending--one in which orthodoxy slowly withers and only heresies endure" (p. 14). What's to say that this isn't just another case of seemingly haphazard doctrinal changes that will appear providential in hindsight? If you're going to allow fallible humans to reason out doctrine in 325, why can't some more fallible humans do the same in 2020? A few centuries from now, these changes that Douthat decries will be the orthodoxy that some future Douthat defends.

I don't have any plans to read a fourth book by a guy named Ross this year, nor do I foresee this three-book record as a mark I'm going to challenge anytime soon.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Sweating Means I'm a Bad Person

Here's an example of the kind of train of thought I routinely have.

  • I feel warm.
  • I think, "It's hot in here."
  • I think about "Hot in Herre" by Nelly.
  • I think of the line, "I see you driving a sportscar ain't hitting the throttle."
  • I think of once in 1995 when my Priests Quorum advisor needed a ride home and I peeled out of the church parking lot and he didn't think it was as cool as I thought it was.
  • I think, "I'm a bad person."

And what's more, I'm feeling warm more than before (partially because I live in Florida, partially because I take medication with a side effect that makes me hotter (temperature-wise, perv), and partially because I'm poor so I don't air condition my house as much as I used to), which means I go through this chain of thoughts and end up thinking, "I'm a bad person" more than I used to.

Just about every stimulus in my life ends with a memory of something stupid or wrong I've done. Why can't I have this train of thought?

  • I feel warm.
  • I think, "It's hot in here."
  • I think about "Hot in Herre" by Nelly.
  • I think of Jenny Owen Youngs's folk-rock cover of "Hot in Herre."
  • I smile because I remembered an awesome song.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Artificial Esoterica

A common trope in popular journalism is the "do you remember this guy?" article. Obviously a commonly-known person would not be a good subject, but less obviously the most-obscure person would also not be a good subject. If you write, "Have you ever heard of Babe Ruth?" everyone except Scotty Smalls knows who the Babe is. Readers will not be interested. But if you write, in a Field of Dreams-less world, "Have you ever heard of Moonlight Graham?" the answer is, "No, no one's ever heard of Moonlight Graham; the guy played right field for a half-inning of one game in 1905." Readers don't want to read articles that are designed to reveal the writer's superior knowledge. Especially when it very well could be the case that the writer didn't know about Moonlight Graham until a week ago, and now he's going around acting like the world's leading authority on all things Graham. The only exception is when the writer frames it from the perspective of "I didn't know this, either, until I recently accidentally found out."

So everyone knows is banal, and no one knows is pedantic. So how obscure can you go before it's too obscure? The Dennis Miller Ratio is still too obscure; instead of a lone smarmy writer, it creates an exclusive clique of the smarmy, but still a majority of the audience is left on the outside. What you want is something that appears obscure, that most readers or viewers believe is obscure, but which is, in fact, commonplace. Thus everyone remembers it but everyone feels like the possessor of exclusive knowledge.

How do you find something that everyone knows but no one knows that everyone knows it? It has to have once appeared important, so everyone knew it, but then turned out to be unimportant, so it is no longer relevant to popular culture. Like a number-one draft pick that didn't pan out (Ryan Leaf, Lawrence Phillips), a flash in the pan player predicted to accomplish much more than he eventually did (Josh Hamilton, Jeremy Lin), an actor who was going to be a star until his movies turned out to be bad (Josh Hartnett, Brendan Fraser), or a senator with an undistinguished career but who once was a presidential front-runner (Gary Hart, Paul Tsongas). Everyone feels proud of himself for knowing who these people are because he thinks most other people don't.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Penant Drought Update: 2020

Last year I noted how long it had been since each Major League Baseball team has won a penant. Well, this past weekend, the 2020 penants were decided. Here's how the list looks now.

  1. Seattle Mariners - 43 years (have never won; began play in 1977)
  2. Pittsburgh Pirates - 41 years (Oct. 5, 1979)
  3. Milwaukee Brewers - 38 years (Oct. 10, 1982)
  4. Baltimore Orioles - 37 years (Oct. 8, 1983)
  5. Oakland Athletics - 30 years (Oct. 10, 1990)
  6. Cincinnati Reds - 30 years (Oct. 12, 1990)
  7. Minnesota Twins - 29 years (Oct. 13, 1991)
  8. Toronto Blue Jays - 27 years (Oct. 12, 1993)
  9. San Diego Padres - 22 years (Oct. 14, 1998)
  10. Atlanta Braves - 21 years (Oct. 19, 1999)
  11. Arizona Diamondbacks - 19 years (Oct. 21, 2001)
  12. Los Angeles Angels - 18 years (Oct. 13, 2002)
  13. Miami Marlins - 17 years (Oct. 15, 2003)
  14. Chicago White Sox - 15 years (Oct. 16, 2005)
  15. Colorado Rockies - 13 years (Oct. 15, 2007)
  16. Philadelphia Phillies - 11 years (Oct. 21, 2009)
  17. New York Yankees - 11 years (Oct. 25, 2009)
  18. Texas Rangers - nine years (Oct. 15, 2011)
  19. Detroit Tigers - eight years (Oct. 18, 2012)
  20. Saint Louis Cardinals - seven years (Oct. 18, 2013)
  21. San Francisco Giants - six years (Oct. 16, 2014)
  22. Kansas City Royals - five years (Oct. 23, 2015)
  23. New York Mets - five years (Oct. 21, 2015)
  24. Chicago Cubs - four years (Oct. 22, 2016)
  25. Cleveland Indians - four years (Oct. 19, 2016)
  26. Boston Red Sox - two years (Oct. 18, 2018)
  27. Washington Nationals - one year (Oct. 15, 2019)
  28. Houston Astros - one year (Oct. 19, 2019)
  29. Tampa Bay Rays - zero years (Oct. 17, 2020)
  30. Los Angeles Dodgers - zero years (Oct. 18, 2020)

My favorite team is still second on this list, but as I tweeted once, my continuum of favorite teams begins and ends thus:

  • 1. Pittsburgh Pirates
  • 2. Los Angeles Dodgers
  • 3. Washington Nationals
  • 4. Kansas City Royals
  • 5. Los Angeles Angels
  • 6. Boston Red Sox
  • ...
  • 25. Cincinnati Reds
  • 26. Atlanta Braves
  • 27. Chicago Cubs
  • 28. Houston Astros
  • 29. New York Yankees
  • 30. San Francisco Giants

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Personal Board of Directors

In August of 2015 I reached out to some trusted friends to implement an idea I had picked up from somewhere: a personal board of directors. (I wanted to credit the source, so I looked through the books I read in 2015 and didn't see anything related. I searched the Internet for the phrase and found a bunch of articles from people acting like they invented the idea. So who knows where it came from? Heck, maybe I invented it!) The idea is to have a group I consult regarding goals and actions, a group to whom I'm accountable for follow-up on decisions. These guys were:

  • Childhood Friend
  • Mission Friend
  • Friend Who Became a Professor #1
  • Friend Who Became a Professor #2
  • Adult Friend

In my first report to the board (September 2015), I outlined what I was looking to accomplish.

As a minimum, I hope to outline my current goals and the steps I'm taking to move towards them. I will aim for writing at least once a month, preferably on the first Sunday of the month. Perhaps I'll also ask for feedback or advice, but the nature of the group is such that any unsolicited feedback, advice, or criticism should be considered welcome. I don't just want to tell you I'm awesome and have you respond, "Well, of course!"

I lasted eight months. In April of 2016, I realized that I had unreasonable expectations. I wanted friends who would respond with insightful feedback, but these guys had their own lives going on. This was illustrated vividly when Childhood Friend began his PBOD that same month; I knew what I wanted out of my board, but now that I was serving on someone else's board, I didn't put in the effort required to be helpful.

I wrote one additional report to my board that December, and since then nothing has happened.

I kind of want to start it back up, but only because I want the idealized version to work. But that's the version that doesn't exist. So I don't know. Professor #1 and Professor #2 I feel (probably unjustly, but still) would be unforgiving of the fact that, what I'm supposed to be doing I can't do, but they did it just fine. Mission Friend has had setbacks in his personal life and I don't know if he's still up to the task. Plus, he posted a picture of Facebook and I joking said he looked like a friendly Syrian pimp, but it turned out this was his "I'm back in the game, ladies" picture, and he didn't want me pointing out to his lady friends that he looked like a Syrian pimp (even a friendly one). So he might be mad at me. I feel guilty that I sucked as a board member for Childhood Friend, so I can't very well ask him to let me use him on my board. Adult Friend has been very good about trying to maintain contact with me, even when I have actively tried to wind down my personal connections.

I have three more people who might be good to add to the board.

  • Slightly-Older Adult Friend
  • Former Classmate Who Became a Professor
  • Significantly-Younger Adult Friend

But there are problems. Slightly-Older Adult Friend is pretty heavily ironically detached from most things and I don't think he'd take me seriously. Former Classmate isn't a member of my church, which could mean he'd offer a good alternative perspective, but also means that he might not understand my reasoning sometimes. Significantly-Younger Adult Friend is impossible to contact--he doesn't read e-mail or listen to voicemail, but then he also is spotty on his responses to texts. I refuse to accommodate someone who thinks you can unilaterally ignore a particular communication medium, especially one that can operate on a phone as easily as texting does. David Allen has written

I need to trust that any request or relevant information I put in an e-mail, on a voice mail, in a conversation, or in a written note will get into the other person's system and that it will be processed and organized soon, and available for his or her review as an option for action. If the recipient is managing voice mails but not e-mail and paper, I have now been hamstrung to use only his or her trusted medium. That should be unacceptable behavior in any organization that cares about whether things happen with the least amount of effort. (Getting Things Done, p. 251)

As I have noted before, in the words of Joey Morphy (a character in John Steinbeck's Winter of Our Discontent), "There's nobody as lonely as an all-married man."

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

The Top-Notch Blogging You Have Come to Expect

Last week, I read Martin Gurri's book The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium. It was great; one of the best I read this year. It gave me thoughts for three different blog posts. So I e-mailed myself these notes.

  • Annihilism and Martin Gurri, p. 203
  • Anthrotheism and Martin Gurri, p. 248
  • Gurri, Jedediah Purdy, hipsters, irony: negation from ironic detachment if government is powerless to produce change

Then, like the jackass I am, I returned the book to the library before writing any of these posts. What was on pages 203 and 248? No idea. And I can't just go check the book out again because I had to get it through Inter-Library Loan from a place 200 miles away. Argh.

Here are my guesses at what I was going to say. Firstly, Gurri's thesis is that modern liberal democracies have overpromised and necessarily have underperformed because they've promised the impossible. Citizens then lose trust in liberal democracy and this opens the door for sympathy to other, less liberal structures. He writes a lot about the trend towards nihilism among today's discontents, in that destruction without a clear picture of what will replace what's destroyed is motivating much public action. (Gurri wrote this is 2014 with a new conclusion in 2017, but it's not hard to see that 2020's "defund the police" fits this exactly.) This reminded me of what I called annihilism back in 2013, which is nihilism that has gone beyond destruction of the other and has turned into destruction of the self. Nihilism says capitalism shouldn't be privileged above the environment, which annihilism wants to end capitalism to protect the environment by leading to the death of most humans. Human extinction isn't a bug of annihilism; it's a feature.

Secondly, I'm pretty sure I was going to say something about the modern habit of assuming Godlike powers reside in government, and my contention that post-God society has elevated humanity to the role of God, which I call anthrotheism. If there's no longer any God to do these impossible things, then government needs to.

Thirdly, I can do a little better of a job with this one, because my note was a little more informative. My point is that Gurri's thesis that public loss of trust in government drives the politics of negation (wanting to end things without a concern for what the replacement might be), has a connection to Jedediah Purdy's thesis in his 1999 book For Common Things that modern ironic detachment is fueled by a desire to not be seen trying to do something that we can't do. Irony gave us hipsters, and hipsters want to negate anything that has a perceived flaw.

Anyway, this could have been three semi-good posts, but my foolishness turned it into one sub-par post.

Monday, October 12, 2020

On the Short Side of a Gun

There's quite a bit of overlap between members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the "prepper" community. Church members are advised to maintain a year's supply of food and water. Preppers often store food, in addition to other items that would necessary in the event of a major social disruption.

Often included on that "other items" list is weaponry. After all, it makes sense that a disruption in government's ability to monopolize violence would require each of us to defend ourselves. I know plenty of church members who include firearms and ammunition on their mental year's-supply list. My wife and I have wondered about the prudence of owning a gun for self-protection. In 2013, we even went rifle shopping once. Ultimately, a combination of our poverty and my mental health have led me to believe that it would be a bad idea for me to own a gun. But I have wondered if this will turn out poorly for my family.

Last weekend, I was browsing the Kindle store for free books, and I ended up getting Abomination of Desolation: The Prophecy of Daniel and Ezekiel in the Latter Days by Monte S. Lyman. Today while reading Lyman's book, I came across a quotation of Joseph Smith that I'd never heard before. I looked up the footnote, saw that it referenced a book I own, and sent a kid to the bookshelf to get the book for me. Sure enough, on Page 365 of Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, compiled by Joseph Fielding Smith, I verified Lyman's quote.

He that arms himself with gun, sword, or pistol, except in the defense of truth, will sometime be sorry for it. I never carry any weapon with me bigger than my penknife.

How have I never heard this before? I have read Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, the church manual, and didn't come across this. Given the afinity of some church members for armaments, this seems like a significant teaching that I shouldn't have accidentally come across. My current ward has more than one member who comes to church armed (even though current Church policy is to not have weapons in the building). I had a bishop about 10 years ago who let it be known that his emergency preparedness included firearms, and he recommended the same to others.

Back when I served a mission, we were snowed in for a few days with nothing to read but what we happened to find in the apartment. We had a copy of the April 1976 General Conference Report, so I read some of that. I discovered that General Conference used to include a welfare session, and in a talk from that session, Elder Vaughn J. Featherstone said this:

I should like to address a few remarks to those who ask, “Do I share with my neighbors who have not followed the counsel? And what about the nonmembers who do not have a year’s supply? Do we have to share with them?” No, we don’t have to share—-we get to share! Let us not be concerned about silly thoughts of whether we would share or not. Of course we would share! What would Jesus do? I could not possibly eat food and see my neighbors starving. And if you starve to death after sharing, “greater love hath no man than this...” (John 15:13).

Now what about those who would plunder and break in and take that which we have stored for our families’ needs? Don’t give this one more idle thought. There is a God in heaven whom we have obeyed. Do you suppose he would abandon those who have kept his commandments?

It seems to me that proper emergency preparedness does not include weapons.