Super Bowl XLIX: A Night of Poor Decisions

At my Super Bowl party last night, the room erupted four times. I mean, erupted, anguished/delighted/horrified shouts of ‘nooooooo!’ We’re generally a sedate bunch, my family and my best friend Wayne; we’re not emotionally volatile, generally speaking. Four times, we went nuts. And only one of those outbursts had anything to do with football.

Here’s how we watch the Super Bowl: we mute the TV during the actual football parts, then turn up the sound for the commercials and the half-time show. Only two of us, me and Wayne, actually like football all that much. My son, Tucker, likes sports, but American football is his least favorite (big soccer fan, though). Other family members are there for the conversation (hence the muting), the commercials, and the theatrical spectacle at half-time.

So when I say ‘we watched The Super Bowl,’ I don’t mean ‘a football game,’ but an entire televisual experience. And when you count the commercials, the evening was almost spectacularly ill-conceived. The themes of the night were dead-or-endangered children, terrible parenting, bad family dynamics, and false religion. Misguided patriotism and patriarchy.  It was a night of bad decisions. The half-time show, quite literally, jumped the shark. And the evening culminated in the worst play call in the history of professional football.

For starters, there was this:

Seriously? Are you kidding me? It’s the Superbowl, for freak’s sake. We’re watching it, on TV, with our families. We don’t want, or need, to see a commercial about a cute kid getting crushed by a TV set. (Unless he drowned in a bathtub. The commercial raises that possibility too).

I get that they’re promoting, not insuring your kid (you know, so you can afford to bury him, because that’s going to be your priority), but their child-safety website. But do they really think that the parents of America are indifferent to the well-being of their kids? And that what we need is a website to give us more things to be paranoid about?

A Superbowl commercial about, say, the dangers of your kid getting a concussion if he plays youth football, that might have seemed sort of borderline appropriate. But Nationwide needs to take whoever in Marketing thought this commercial was a good idea, and kindly, gently, show him the door. You’re Nationwide. You sell insurance. This commercial makes us hate you and your product. You spent 4.5 million dollars to make us hate you.

But that wasn’t all. No indeed. Not by a long-shot:

Okay, it’s a Nissan commercial, and it’s about a race car driver, and he’s trying to be a good Dad, but he’s gone a lot, and what he does for a living essentially terrifies his wife, but his kid wants to follow in Daddy’s footsteps, so at the end, he and Dad get into the family Nissan together. Happy ending.Yay, Nissan. And race car driving.

Except the song in the commercial is Harry Chapin’s ‘Cat’s in the Cradle.’ Which is a song, specifically and explicitly, about being a terrible father. I mean, it’s not subtle. It’s an emotionally manipulative song about a Dad neglecting his kid. I’m a Dad, and every time I hear that song I feel horrible about what a bad Dad I am. And I’m not, I think, a bad Dad at all. Which is why I loathe that song. So that’s the message of the song: ‘Buy a Nissan, suck as a parent.’ Again, it’s a song THAT MAKES US HATE YOU. Which strikes me as perhaps not great advertising. (And it’s ninety seconds long. At a cost of 4.5 million per 30 second spot. Multiply 4.5 by 3, and you’ve got . . . uh, carry the 7, uh, a very large amount of money! To make us hate you! Why?)

Later in the evening, there was a ‘tortoise and hare’ commercial for Lexus cars, in which the tortoise wins by driving a Lexus. The previous commercials had been so horrific, I was honestly surprised when the Lexus didn’t squish the bunny. So those are just swell commercials. But it’s not enough for a commercial to make us hate the product being advertised. It’s quite another thing to make a commercial that makes us hate ourselves:

We’re watching this commercial, remember, during the Super Bowl. We’re having a Super Bowl party. I look over at our family room coffee table; I see nachos, dip, three kinds of cookies, M&Ms, a yummie peanut butter brownie trifle. We’re Americans; we know perfectly well we’re fat, and that we’re fat because we eat garbage. Like, for example, we do at Super Bowl parties. Which we’re at. And where we just now saw an ad for Carl’s Jr. So, all you chubbos, you morbidly obese disgusting pigs. Eat yourself into a stupor, then collapse face first on your sofa. We’re Weightwatchers. We care.

But don’t worry. The Super Bowl didn’t just have secular answers to life’s problems. No, there are spiritual solutions available as well. For one thing, the Scientologists ran a commercial, ’cause, see, their faith is both ‘spiritual’ but also ‘scientific.’ I’m persuaded: sign me up.

But there’s also McDonald’s, abandoning the pursuit of filthy lucre, and paying for your oh-so-healthy food (see previous rant) with Troo Luv:

But, no. That’s just love. And while McDonald’s is convinced, like the Beatles, that love is all we need, something still is lacking. What we really need is a genuine spiritual panacea, a way to end cyber-bullying and hyper-partisanship and bring the whole planet together, once and for all. What’s needed, in short, is for someone to dump a Coke into a computer server.

Of course, the Super Bowl, America’s one universally recognized religious holiday, promotes all sorts of religious values. Like cars. Buy the right car: find eternal bliss. We had cars recommended by old people, cars driven by para-athletes, cars driven by Lindsay Lohan, cars infused with viagra, and for true ‘Murricans, trucks, which, apparently, women find the drivers of particularly sexy.

Beer also bestows us with magical powers. It enables horses to defend their doggie friends from wolves, for example. It turns guys into Pac Man. This must be because of its Beechwood aging. Candy, on the other hand, is bad for you. Skittles can give you freakishly muscular arms, while Snickers can turn mild-mannered Brady family members into Danny Trejo and Steve Buscemi.

Ah, the mixed messages. They weren’t all bad. I liked the odd-ball ones; the commercial from Always about empowering young girls, the Loctite Glue commercial, the commercial that came out, strongly and without equivocation, against that national scourge, toenail fungus. Mostly, though, it was a bad year for SB commercials. Terrific football game, awful commercials.

And then Katy Perry came in, singing “Roar” and riding a puppet lion (first appearance of a Lion in a Super Bowl! Sorry, Detroit. . . .). And she was at her effervescent, cartoon-y best. I did think it was odd to have Lenny Kravitz join her for, of all songs, “I kissed a girl” (a song that’s so much less transgressive when sung by a dude). And when you’re Katy Perry, with that thin voice and general dance clumpiness, it’s risky to share the stage with a performer as on-fire as Missy Elliott. But Katy is generous that way, and frankly, I think she’s a doll. I didn’t even mind that she had girls in bathing suits dancing with sharks. I thought her whole set was pop fizziness incarnate; great fun. I could go on and on about the aesthetics of excessiveness; mostly, though, I just enjoyed.

Then back to the football game, and more bad decision-making. Twenty seconds left, second down at the one-foot line, Seattle has Marshawn Lynch, the best short-yardage running back in all of football on their team, with one time-out left in case he didn’t make it. (In fact, on the play before, Lynch darn near did score, and would have except for a brilliant play by Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower, which the announcers completely missed). Instead, Seahawks offensive coordinator went with a slant pass to their fifth best receiver. Which an unheralded rookie free agent named Malcolm Butler intercepted, to seal the unlikely Patriots win. A night of bad decisions, ending with an inexcusably terrible play call.

Next year, the Super Bowl will be designated 50. Just that: 50, not L–no more Roman numerals, ever, apparently. I’ve seen, I think, 46 of them. Last night, my family teased me for my overuse of the word ‘orgy.’ The commercials were ‘an orgy of idiocy,’ that kind of thing. But ‘orgy’ works, and not just because of the Romanized numbering. The whole thing’s overblown, overdone, self-indulgent. Katy Perry is too scrubbed-clean to inspire words like ‘orgy,’ but no one can say her half-time show erred on the side of tasteful restraint. The hyper-patriotism, the jets overhead, the fireworks, the obligatory pre-game songs (“America the Beautiful” PLUS the “Star-Spangled Banner” (well-sung, this year, by Adele Dazeem), PLUS the big Carrie Underwood diva number). PLUS a big deal ceremonial for the coin toss. And when it was over, we got Kurt Warner carrying in the Lombarbi trophy like a religious icon, reverently, solemnly; touched, adoringly, by teary-eyed Patriots, with portentous music, like high Mass at Notre Dame. (Better make that St. Peter’s). And then the trophy was handed to Roger Goodell, to present to Robert Kraft. Like, nothing’s official until it’s blessed by rich old white guys. (Who spent this last week sniping at each other, and now had to be freezingly polite: comedy enough).

There’s just nothing funnier on earth than the Super Bowl. Bad taste, bad commerce, bad religion, all rolled into one. Nothing, nothing is funnier.

 

 

President Romney

Mitt Romney announced yesterday that he has decided not to run for President again. The news was unsurprising, given his age and his wife’s health problems, but also a little sad. I have been consistent in my view that Governor Romney is a decent and competent man, who may well, in a different time, have turned out to be a rather good President. I didn’t vote for him, and don’t regret it, but I respect and admire him personally; just disagreed on matters of policy.

But of course, inevitably, his announcement led to exactly that sort of speculation; what if he’d won, how would he have governed, how would history (hypothetically) have assessed his hypothetical presidency? I think, in fact, that his election in either 2008 or 2012 would have proved disastrous to our nation. But in a different time, he could have turned out quite well. Let me explain.

Mitt Romney’s appeal to voters was resumé-based. He was a successful business manager, who knew how to turn failing companies (and by implication, a failing national economy) around. The problem is that in 2009, on the heels of the world wide financial crisis, we didn’t need a businessman in the White House. We needed a macro-economist. President Obama isn’t one, and he wasn’t terribly well advised by his economic staff, in part because he leaned too much on Wall Street types like Timothy Geitner. But he was also advised by first-rate academic economists, like Christine Romer. And although he took advice from too many sources, and his economic plan seemed like one produced by a committee, such that the stimulus he got through Congress was too small by half, there was a stimulus and it did work. The data couldn’t be clearer.

But don’t businessmen, by the nature of what they do, understand economics? Sure, up to a point. Micro-economics, they understand very well indeed. But most of the successful businessmen I know took macro-economics in b-school, and hated it. It was, almost uniformly, their least favorite class. And there’s a reason for that. Classical Keynesian macro really is pretty counter-intuitive.

How does a businessman turn around a failing company? Well, you cut costs. You tighten belts. You refine the business model. You streamline. You rightsize. You impose what might be called an austerity regime.  Candidate Romney was frustratingly vague about his economic plans, but the specifics he did offer were all along those lines. Cut spending. Balance budgets. Get the US fiscal house in order.  All that austerity and sacrifice and cost-reduction and efficiency seem responsible, moral even. He would have acted, we think, like a grown-up.

But none of that is what classical macro calls for. Quite the opposite, in fact. Macro-economic theory calls for more spending, not less. It declares that deficits don’t matter in the short term. The government should borrow massive amounts of money, go much much deeper into debt, and get more money circulating in the system. Look at the US economy back in 2012, when Romney was running. Companies were sitting on quite immense amounts of cash. But they weren’t using it to hire people, or to invest, or to bring out new products, or to innovate. Their research was telling them that there was insufficient demand to warrant any kind of business expansion. And they were right. Unemployment kills demand. What was needed was to get people back to work, get them paychecks, get them spending.

The reason conservatives loathe Keynes is because all of that seems ridiculous, desperately irresponsible, immoral even. With the economy in recession, tax receipts go down. Government has even a more difficult time paying its bills. And you want to borrow more? Spend more? That’s just insanity.

And so, in the European Union, where economic decisions are largely driven by banks and bankers, they tried austerity. The emphasis has been on debt reduction, cutting spending. And it hasn’t worked. The big news in Europe right now is Greece, who, in a recent election, voted in Keynesians. With forty percent unemployment, they have to try something. Greece may leave the EU entirely, may drop the euro as currency. Because the Greek people are fed up with austerity. So are the Spanish people, and Spain is looking at Greece with great interest. And they’re right to be skeptical of austerity. There’s a reason Paul Krugman’s book is a best-seller in Europe. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, macro-economics is what works.

Governments can do things that families can’t do, and that businesses can’t do. One is to borrow very large amounts of money. And print money. And spend money. And those happen to be the things that can pull a country out of recession.

In the US, states generally can’t deficit-spend (most states have constitutional amendments requiring balanced budgets). And so the biggest driver of unemployment in the US were state governments. We actually saw pretty decent private sector job growth in 2009-10, but those growth numbers were overcome by states laying off public employees–teachers, cops, firemen. That was the step Obama missed. He should have doubled the stimulus money, and just passed it the surplus on to the states. So the US economy has recovered piecemeal, in fits and starts. We never did quite commit to Keynes and to macro. But our economy has recovered, not completely of course, but certainly better than the economies of our European allies have done, faced with identical circumstances and problems.

I think that Romney, if he had won in 2012, would have immediately cut spending, and made budget-balancing his highest priority. And the recovery was still pretty fragile two years ago. I think that Romney, if elected, would have presided over another recession, as devastating as the one in 2008 proved to be. I think he would have been another Hoover. Another good, decent, hard-working man, but a really really really bad President.

But let’s suppose, instead, that Romney had been President in a different time. Let’s suppose that he were President in 2001; that he had won the Presidency instead of George W. Bush. I think Romney could well have been the right man for the job, then.

What were the biggest mistakes of the Bush Presidency. Well, first and foremost, the Iraq war. In the wake of 9/11, would Romney have attacked Iraq? The wrong country, a country that had nothing to do with the attacks on us?  We don’t actually know why Bush pushed for the Iraq invasion, but one reason, one we heard repeatedly, was that he was still angry that Saddam Hussein had tried to murder his father. Not a factor for Romney. And surely Romney would have been better advised than Bush was.  (For one thing, Romney is unlikely to have chosen Dick Cheney as his running mate). And I believe that Romney did not have the sort of personality to think that, since we’d been attacked, we needed to attack someone else.

And I think it’s very likely that Romney wouldn’t have pursued the Bush tax cuts. Those tax cuts were really quite sensationally ill-conceived. They accomplished nothing, except let rich people get richer and to shatter the idea of fiscal responsibility. With a Republican congress, the early Bush years were an orgy of pork barrel spending, combined with utterly, completely unnecessary cuts to the taxes of the one percent. With an economy humming neatly along, we didn’t need stimulus spending. What was needed then was deficit and debt reduction. Remember, Keynes generally liked balanced budgets. He generally liked spending cuts. Stimulus efforts were only needed during demand-side recessions.

I think Romney would have brought a CEO’s mentality to the Presidency, and that would have meant sound management, and a sensible approach to budgeting. No ‘heckuva job, Brownie’ moments for Romney. He would have expected FEMA to do its job, and he would have fired people for proven incompetence.

Of course, the signal moment of the Bush Presidency was 9/11. And while Bush was praised for his handling of that national trauma, there’s no reason to suppose that Romney wouldn’t have done every bit as well.He would have handled the symbolism, given the speeches, thrown out the first ball at Yankee Stadium. Any President would have.

Of course, this is all conjecture. In fact, the President from 2001-2009 was George W. Bush, not Mitt Romney. And the economy did implode, and poor President Obama ended up having to deal with it. Which he did quite well, all things considered. Romney’s moment in the sun came at a time when his specific skill set was, actually, precisely what wasn’t needed. He didn’t win, and I’m grateful for it. But he had skills, and in other circumstances, I think he would have done very well indeed.

The Church, LGBT discrimination, and religious freedom

Yesterday, the Church held a press conference, in which three apostles (Elders Oaks, Holland and Christofferson) talked about LGBT discrimination, and the Church’s support for laws outlawing it, and about religious freedom issues. Here’s the link to the Church’s website and the article about it.

The national response to this press conference tended to stress the support for laws outlawing discrimination against LGBT people. In many cases (the Huffington PostNew York Times) the national media questioned the sincerity of the Church’s position. ‘Religious freedom’ is, of course a polarizing issue, part of the liberal/conservative cultural wars.

The press conference and press release were a call for balance. The lds.org article stressed ‘fairness for all,’ balancing the need to protect LGBT individuals from being fired or evicted because of their sexual orientation, while also allowing for the free exercise of religion. Here are the four main principles outlined on the Church’s website:

  • We claim for everyone the God-given and Constitutional right to live their faith according to the dictates of their own conscience, without harming the health or safety of others.
  • We acknowledge that the same freedom of conscience must apply to men and women everywhere to follow the religious faith of their choice, or none at all if they so choose.
  • We believe laws ought to be framed to achieve a balance in protecting the freedoms of all people while respecting those with differing values.
  • We reject persecution and retaliation of any kind, including persecution based on race, ethnicity, religious belief, economic circumstances or differences in gender or sexual orientation.”

In addition, in the press conference, Elder Christofferson, when asked about members of the Church who disagreed with the Church’s stance on gay marriage, said that disagreement was allowed, as long as people didn’t publicly advocate for their views.

It seems to me that there are several possible responses to this event and statement. Here are a few that I’ve read on Facebook:

Political/Pragmatic: This was a press conference essentially aimed at one person, Greg Hughes, the new Speaker of the Utah House. There is an anti-discrimination bill before the Utah House. It’s co-sponsored by Jim Dubakis, a Democrat, and Steve Urquhart, a Republican. It’s stalled in committee. It’s possible that this otherwise unnecessary press conference was aimed at Greg Hughes, in an attempt to dislodge that bill, which Hughes has made clear that he does not regard as a legislative priority.

The ‘religious liberty’ is not, perhaps, quite so serious or important. Elder Oaks (a fine legal scholar, to be sure) is worried about attacks on First Amendment religious freedoms, but most of the examples of religious liberty infringements cited in the press conference involved acts by private individuals, not particularly susceptible to legislative redress. Hughes himself is quoted as saying that he personally opposes discriminating against gays, and supports, in broad principle, a bill outlawing it. I don’t have the quote in front of me, but he said something like, ‘if you want to rent apartments to people, but don’t want to rent to gay couples, then maybe you ought to find a different line of work.’

Yay for Civility: There have been public statements issued by Ordain Women and by Mormons Building Bridges, applauding the Church’s desire for civil dialogue about these issues, and also applauding the Church’s support for legislation outlawing discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation. I have heard from many people informally who have described this press conference and statement as ‘baby steps forward.’ Again, the assumption is that supporting anti-discrimination legislation here is what really matters; the religious liberty argument matters less, because discrimination against religious people is already covered by the First Amendment.

Cynical/Snarky: At the same time, there is a sense in which the Church’s stance, as outlined above, could be described as follows. 1) we oppose discrimination against LGBT people. 2) but people have to be allowed to follow their religious beliefs, even if 3) their beliefs require them to discriminate. 4) as, for example, us. 5) so there. It’s the ‘we oppose burning witches, unless your religion requires that you burn witches, which ours does, so we’re burning some witches tomorrow’ argument. Personally, I deplore the tone of some of these sorts of responses, while finding others of them pretty darned funny.  I think, for example, that it’s helpful to call for civil dialogue on these issues (or on any issues, frankly: civility should always be a core value), and helpful to hear an apostle say that it’s okay for church members to personally support gay marriage. But to excommunicate members (or fire or harass BYU faculty members) over this issue might strike some people as, well, uncivil.

Where’s the apology?: Certainly, it’s not difficult to find instances where General Authorities in the past have used, let’s say, unfortunately strong language to describe LGBT people. The word Elder Oaks used was ‘unhelpful.’ So should the Church apologize for that? And Elder Oaks said no. The Church doesn’t issue apologies for past ‘unhelpful’ comments by its leaders.

Here’s one way to understand this. Let us suppose that, at some point, the Church decided that previous statements by Church leaders suggesting that the priesthood exclusion policy was the just consequence for pre-mortal disobedience (the fence-sitters folk doctrine) were wrong, were mistaken. Let’s further suppose that the Church issued a strong statement condemning that particular folk doctrine, and declared it incompatible with Church teachings. A central doctrine of the restoration is continuing revelation. We believe that our leaders are ordained of God to receive revelation, and that when they speak from the pulpit in General Conference, we should regard those communications as particularly inspired. Well, wouldn’t a repudiation and apology seem to contradict the doctrine of continuing revelation? Couldn’t that shake the faith of a whole lot of people? Isn’t this a case where the cure may be worse than the disease?

Those aren’t considerations that the Brethren can take lightly. And that’s why the word choice by Elder Oaks–‘unhelpful’–may be the closest we’ll get to a repudiation/apology for past homophobia. (And it doesn’t quite seem fair to blame leaders of the Church in the deep past for holding to the views of their time and place and culture).

What do I think? I think there’s some truth to all these responses. But I tend to be an incrementalist. I think that passing a good anti-discrimination bill would be great. One divide tends to be over the issue of religious liberty. Is there genuinely a pattern of courts and lawmakers discriminating against people trying to practice their religion? I don’t think a half dozen isolated anecdotes make for strong or compelling evidence. But then, I’m also not a conservative, and understand that my friends on the right may well understand this issue differently than I do.

Bare: Theatre Review

In a narrative performing art like theatre, there are any number of ways to respond to any particular piece. One aesthetic puts first such considerations as dedication, idealism, earnestness and passion, energy and commitment. That was my initial response to Bare, the 2001 musical by Jon Hartmere and Damon Intrabartolo given its Utah premiere by the Utah Repertory Theater Company at the Sugar Space Warehouse Theater.

When my wife and I are driving around town, we’ll see a building and I’ll ask “school, or prison?” Obviously, the buildings we pass are inevitably schools; what makes this funny is how forbiddingly prison-like they appear. I thought of that when I saw the metallic set for Bare, essentially two staircases, a catwalk upstairs, and a few school lockers and beds.  The play is set in a Catholic boarding high school, and honestly, ‘school or prison’ became, for me, a functional metaphor for the world of the play. It’s about people who feel trapped, confined. It’s about trying to find something authentic and real and good while in a restricted, constricted social world. It’s about living in a closet–though not really a closet, but more like a school locker, metal and bare, with a lock on the door.

Plotwise, Bare is built on a that sturdiest of structures, the love triangle. Peter (John Patrick McKenna) is in love with Jason (Brock Dalgliesh), and has every reason to think his feelings are reciprocated. Neither of them is quite ready to come out to their fellow students, though Peter is close to ready, but Jason, outgoing, popular, athletic, filled with youthful sexual energy and power, is perfectly fine keeping the relationship quiet. It’s high school: of course there are rumors about them, and some homophobic harassment of the sensitive and introverted Peter, but Jason, he’s cool, he’s popular, and likes it when the girls flock around. And the school’s Miss Popular, Ivy (Emilie Starr), tends to get what she wants and what she wants–in addition to the lead in the school play, Romeo and Juliet–is Jason.

Further complicating the triangle is school nice guy Matt (Thomas Kulkas), who is pretty into Emilie himself, and has had reason in the past to think she likes him back. In addition, Jason has a less popular sister at the school, Nadia (Katie Evans), a self-loathing young woman with body image issues, and a ‘lash-out-at-everyone’ disposition. Rounding out the main schoolkids, is Lucas (Aaron Gordon), a party animal/entrepreneur, who, only too appropriately, has been cast as the apothecary in their R&J production. The play is being directed by a feisty nun, Sister Chantel (Yoah Guerrero), who hides a kindly soul behind a drill sergeant’s mien. And the school seems to be run by a Priest (Jonathan Scott McBride), who doesn’t seem to have much in the way of answers to the main questions the kids in the play pose to him, but who never seems uncaring.

So it’s a play, essentially, about gay kids in a gay-unfriendly religious environment. Albeit one that nonetheless tries its best to provide a nurturing and safe space for teenaged kids. I can see why Utah actors and Utah audiences would embrace the play as they have. And that was a lot of its appeal, for me, as a middle-aged straight Mormon. I loved the genuine and obvious commitment of the cast and production staff. This may be a weird response, but I felt like I was watching all of them bearing witness. Bearing testimony. To what? Well, to the idea of inclusiveness and acceptance. To the reality that, even now, too many gay kids are bullied and tormented and mistreated, and that too many of them, in hopeless despair, choose to end their own lives. Or run away, to degrading conditions on the streets. To the idea that traditional, organized religion, however compassionate, may not provide meaningful answers to kids in such terrible pain.

I could quibble about some aspects of the script and production. Peter, was, for me, an underdeveloped dramatic character, though I appreciated McKenna’s strong voice and stage presence. Some of the songs, I found rather pedestrian. The opening number set up a series of expectations–specifically, that the play would implicate religion as the main culprit of the play’s central conflict–that it (blessedly) did not fulfill. (So maybe cut the number entirely?)  The Sugar Space Theater remains a chilly space in which to see a play–wear a jacket. And for me, the play felt a bit dated. It premiered in 2000, and I’d like to think that now, fifteen years later, it’s perhaps at least a little easier for young people to come out, and that when they do, they’ll be at least somewhat better treated than this.

But Dalgliesh was a stand-out, embodying Jason’s youthful energy so completely that it never occurred to me to doubt that he would pursue Ivy sexually. Starr was tremendous as well, especially in “All Grown Up,” the best song for her character. The two of them lit up the stage. I also loved Evans’ “Plain Jane” song, in which she complained about how hurt she was by society’s expectations for female attractiveness. (Sad, that a young woman as lovely as Evans would be given a song like that, an excoriating diatribe on the difficulties of being un-lovely, and therefore, in our culture, tagged un-lovable).

Still, I was very moved by the production, by the commitment and energy of the cast, by the central performers, and by the over-all message of the play. Really, please, go see it. You won’t regret the decision.

Begin Again, and ‘authenticity’

I loved John Carney’s brilliant indie film Once. Loved the music, loved the sort-of-yes-sort-of-no love story, loved Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. Of course, I especially liked Hansard’s music. “Falling Slowly” remains one of the great love songs ever.

It’s a movie musical about a busker, and so the music has a raw, unpolished quality that’s very appealing. It feels ‘authentic,’ whatever that might mean. Anyway, it’s one of my favorite movies ever, and when I saw that the director, John Carney, had made another movie, another love story, again about musicians that were struggling to break through, I couldn’t wait to see it. And so, thanks be to Netflix, I finally watched Begin Again.

Carney’s a bigger deal this time (that’s what happens when you make a movie for $60,000 and it grosses ten million). This time, he had a budget; this time, the movie has movie stars, Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo. And it’s got some great songs again, by Gregg Alexander of the New Radicals. Like Once, it’s about a male-female relationship that isn’t quite a love story, but in which the two characters really do come to care about each other. Complicated and dimensional and human, rather than just boy-meets-girl. I liked it, I liked the music, I recommend it.

But. How real is the music, how raw and unpolished, how–that word again–authentic. Because in Once, Hansard’s music really does feel, you know, all those things, genuine. Musical authenticity isn’t an issue in the film, it’s just what the film is. But Begin Again is directly and specifically about that issue, the issue about staying true to your art, keepin’ it real, selling-out vs. not-selling-out. Artistic integrity. It’s a movie about musical authenticity.

Okay, so Knightley plays a singer-songwriter, and her boyfriend, Dave, has just signed with a record label, and she’s in New York to support him in a girlfriendly sort of way, and so she even lies about the fact that most of the songs on his album were co-written by him with her. She doesn’t want the songwriting credit, she’s too thrilled for his success to care. And the label sends him to LA to re-record some tracks, and while there, he cheats on her. He’s a creep in other words. And we realize that the label is going to turn all his (and her) songs into conventional pop tracks, and spoil the, you know, passion, truth, real-ness of the work. And Dave, the cheatin’ creep is played by Adam Levine. Lead singer for Maroon Five. The definition of inauthentic bubble gum pop.

But so anyway she’s ready to take her broken heart and blow New York and go back to London. But her pal Steve (James Corden, the Baker in Into the Woods) takes her to a nightclub, and makes her get up on stage and perform, and she does, rather badly, sing one of her songs. But Mark Ruffalo (a newly fired record exec/drunk named Dan) hears her song, and knows, instantly, in his soul, that she’s got It, that she’s the real thing, that she’s the artist he’s been waiting for. Or rather, he hears the song as he would produce it; he hears, not her song, but what he could make of it. It’s a lovely scene: enjoy.

This leads to a conversation about musical authenticity, and he challenges her to name a genuinely authentic artist. ‘Bob Dylan,’ she says, and Ruffalo points out all the ways in which Dylan, with the sunglasses and the carefully tousled hair, is pose and artifice. Then she says ‘Randy Newman,’ and Ruffalo concedes that Randy Newman is indeed, in his own way, authentic.

It’s an issue that recurs throughout the movie. She hears creepo Dave’s album, and it seems overproduced. She and Dan decide to make her album, and record it on the streets of New York, with ambient noise in the background. See: more authentic. (Except we see how carefully Mark Ruffalo controls the street sounds, bribing street kids and asking for quiet). She downloads her album onto the internet instead of allowing the label to release it, and it sells like crazy. (Because she knows Cee Lo and he tweets about it).

The first rule of artistic representation is that portrayal does not equal advocacy. I don’t know the extent to which Carney intends his film to deconstruct the pose of artistic and musical authenticity and the extent to which he’s relying on it. I mean, the epitome of ‘integrity’ in this film is supposed to be Keira Knightley’s character. And she can sing, some; a smallish voice, but okay for this kind of music. But at least in Once, Glen Hansard was singing songs he, Glen Hansard, wrote and performed as a busker. In this movie, ‘authenticity’ is represented by songs performed by a movie star, written for her by someone else.

I’m not knocking Keira Knightley. I like her as an actress, I think she does a nice job in this film, and she can sing enough to pull off the role. I just loathe that entire issue of musical authenticity. We all know the drill: Neil Young good, Neil Diamond not good. Janis Joplin real, Karen Carpenter not real. Thumbs up: REM, thumbs down: Hootie and the Blowfish. Punk: good. Disco: not so much. (Wasn’t Sid Vicious essentially a sociopathic poseur? Does Donna Summer’s pain not count?)  What bothers me about it is that we’re imputing a moral stance to what is essentially an aesthetic judgment. As it happens, I like Neil Young and I like REM; I love Dylan too. But sell-out is too harsh a term to apply to anyone. I genuinely believe that most artists really are trying to use their art to say something cogent about the world they inhabit. Just that some folks have muses that are more commercially appealing. Luck, not sin.

And yet and yet. This scene, this song, is lovely. And yes, it’s inauthentic. Knightley singing a song someone wrote for her (like that’s a crime), Ruffalo pretending to play bass (acting, in other words), Hailee Steinfeld pretending to rock out on guitar (again, acting). I don’t care. I think it’s a terrific moment in a movie I liked a lot.

And that’s what we actually care about, isn’t it? Whether we like the music.

Movie Review: Blackhat

I know I know I know. What kind of movie critic is it who does not review (because he hasn’t seen) most of the Oscar-worthy December releases, and then when finally he starts going back to the theaters, reviews Blackhat? A darn poor one, you might say, and you’d be right. Blackhat got a 31% favorable rating on rottentomatoes. It cost 70 million to make, and has made back around 4 million since its release. Flop-eroni. Bomb-eroo. A bad movie that didn’t do business. Avert your eyes, young-uns.

Well, they’re all wrong, and I’m right: it’s great. Well, maybe not great, but really good. Blackhat isn’t Oscar-bait, and the screenplay has some structural flaws the film (however stylishly made) never quite manages to overcome. That said, it’s a beautifully acted, romantic and human thriller, compellingly watchable and engaging. It’s also a Michael Mann film, his first feature film in seven years, and quite possibly the last film of his great career (Mann is 71).

The film inside the cable and wires and circuits of a computer network. Then we cut to a keyboard, and a finger pushes an Enter key. And the next thing we see is a nuclear power plant’s cooling system fail, and its reactor core blow. It’s that easy. That’s the world we live in. One finger hits one key, and boom.

So Chinese authorities, tracing the virus that caused the meltdown, turn to MIT-educated military officer (cyber-division) Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) to figure it all out. He, in turn, contacts his sister, Chen Lien (Wei Tang), likewise a computer nerd. And they figure out that the virus is built on a model Dawai had originally built with his best friend in college, Nick Holloway (Chris Hemsworth). And he’s in prison, for hacking into a bank and stealing a lot of money. This leads eventually to some very shaky and borderline hostile international cooperation between the FBI (represented by Agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis), and the Chinese military. Holloway is allowed out of prison, with all sorts of restrictions on what he’s allowed to do, and he and the Chens do all sorts of computer-y things, involving very fast and intense typing.

My guess is that people who are a lot more computer-literate than I am (which means everyone on earth age 20-35) found this part of the movie a bit cringe-worthy. I didn’t care about the computer-y stuff, though. It didn’t interest me, except as the stuff that had to happen to drive the plot forward. What did interest me, a lot, was the human element of this awkward multi-national cooperation. The stakes are very high–a madman is crashing stock market computers and blowing up nuclear power plants: why? Dawai and Holloway are old friends, but Dawai has divided loyalties, to his government, and also to his sister. Agent Barrett has to enforce the restrictions on the one guy who might solve the problem, and also doesn’t trust any of the Chinese authorities. Her partner, Jessup (Holt McCallany) is courageous and smart, but a rule-follower; they fight a lot. Nor is she trusted, much, by her FBI superiors.

Meanwhile Lien and Holloway are falling in love.

Wei Tang is tremendous in this film, as she was in Ang Lee’s brilliant (and controversial) Lust, Caution. And of course, that’s always what Michael Mann has done wonderfully well; work with actors: James Caan in Thief, Pacino/De Niro in Heat, not just Daniel Day-Lewis but also Madeleine Stowe in Last of the Mohicans. Wei Tang and Chris Hemsworth are both terrific in this, even when their characters are asked by the screenplay to do quite ludicrous things, as Hemsworth is in this. Again, I didn’t much care. I thought the acting was terrific, Hemsworth and Wei, but also McCallany and Davis and Leehom Wang. I know it’s just a thriller. But it’s a thriller about actual, believable human beings.

A good thing, too, because, from a plot standpoint, the last third of the film is a bit silly. Holloway, a hacker, becomes an action hero; goes after the bad guys, tries to overpower them physically. I think the film wants us to conclude that, while in prison, Holloway worked out a lot (we get a glimpse of it), and also became really really good at fighting, and also at making effective shivs out of regular hand tools. No more spoilers, but I didn’t believe it, and found the ending sadly preposterous.

But up to that point, we get one of the trademarks of Mann’s work; he isn’t afraid to kill off main characters, and to show characters we’ve come to care about die in horrible, slow-motion tragic ways. I got caught up in it, honest I did.

Remember this?

My wife and I agreed: there’s a scene in Blackhat that we were much reminded of. Blackhat‘s not as good a movie overall. But it’s got some powerful moments, and was well worth watching, we thought.

So catch it on Redbox. It’ll be there soon enough. You won’t regret it.

The State of the Union

Before last night’s State of the Union address, Vox.com’s Ezra Klein published this piece: “What Obama would say at the State of the Union if he were being brutally honest.” If you don’t want to bother with the link above, let me summarize: our politics is sufficiently broken that nothing of consequence can be accomplished, even by intelligent, patriotic men and women of good will. Politics is not like a family and it’s not like a business, both of which have built-in incentives for people to get along and institutions in place for important decisions to get made. Politics is like football. For one side to win, the other must lose. If a pass is thrown, the receiver and the defensive back can’t agree to compromise regarding it; either the ball will be caught (good for the receiver) or it won’t be caught (good for the defender). If John Boehner–who I genuinely do believe to be an intelligent, patriotic and capable man–were to endorse and try to pass every piece of legislation President Obama proposes, the only thing he would accomplish would be to lose his job.

So the State of the Union becomes an exercise in futility, something to which the only really sensible response is that of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the 81 year-old Supreme Court Justice, who seems to have used it as an excuse for a nap.  Pretty much every time President Obama said anything even remotely consequential, the Democrats in the chamber gave him a standing ovation. And Republicans looked dour. The two guys I feel sorriest for are Boehner and Joe Biden, both of whom have massive acting challenges. I mean, they’re right there, right behind the President, on camera the whole speech. Biden has to look, alternately, seriously contemplative and utterly delighted. And Boehner has to look pensive and a bit incredulous. (Mostly he just looked dyspeptic.)

Of course, for the most part, the President gets to talk about how well the country is doing right now (quite well, actually, for a change), and propose lots of first-rate policies that could make things even better, none of which will ever get enacted. And of course, all the language has been carefully tested: the new phrase du jour seems to be ‘middle-class economics.’ But then the President shifted into a different gear for the last quarter of his speech:

You know, just over a decade ago, I gave a speech in Boston where I said there wasn’t a liberal America, or a conservative America; a black America or a white America, but a United States of America. . .  Over the past six years, the pundits have pointed out more than once that my presidency hasn’t delivered on this vision. How ironic, they say, that our politics seems more divided than ever. It’s held up as proof not just of my own flaws — of which there are many — but also as proof that the vision itself is misguided, and naïve, and that there are too many people in this town who actually benefit from partisanship and gridlock for us to ever do anything about it.

I know how tempting such cynicism may be. But I still think the cynics are wrong.

I still believe that we are one people. I still believe that together, we can do great things, even when the odds are long. I believe this because over and over in my six years in office, I have seen America at its best. I’ve seen the hopeful faces of young graduates from New York to California; and our newest officers at West Point, Annapolis, Colorado Springs, and New London. I’ve mourned with grieving families in Tucson and Newtown; in Boston, West, Texas, and West Virginia. I’ve watched Americans beat back adversity from the Gulf Coast to the Great Plains; from Midwest assembly lines to the Mid-Atlantic seaboard. I’ve seen something like gay marriage go from a wedge issue used to drive us apart to a story of freedom across our country, a civil right now legal in states that seven in ten Americans call home.

So the question for those of us here tonight is how we, all of us, can better reflect America’s hopes. I’ve served in Congress with many of you. I know many of you well. There are a lot of good people here, on both sides of the aisle. And many of you have told me that this isn’t what you signed up for — arguing past each other on cable shows, the constant fundraising, always looking over your shoulder at how the base will react to every decision.

Imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns. Imagine if we did something different.

Understand — a better politics isn’t one where Democrats abandon their agenda or Republicans simply embrace mine.

A better politics is one where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears.

That’s a longish chunk, and I’m sorry about that, but I think it deserves to be quoted at length. Because I go back to that Ezra Klein article on Vox, and I think he’s right in his cynicism, but I also think President Obama is right in his optimism. Because Klein is describing our nation right now. And the President is describing our nation as it can become.

One thing that I like about this President (and you all know that I have been very critical of him too), is that he has often taken a longer view than current political arguments would allow. Take, for example, Obamacare. The ACA is a flawed piece of legislation. It’s not as bad as some Republicans make it out to be, and it’s not as great as some Democrats seem to think it is in defending it. It’s flawed. But is that really important? Isn’t it more important to establish, as a principle, the idea that everyone in America, rich or poor, should have access to competent, affordable health care? I also watched Joni Ernst’s Republican response to Obama’s SOTU, and I noticed that when she talked about Obamacare, she talked about ‘repeal and replace.’ Now, in fact, I don’t think Republicans will be able to repeal it, and I don’t think they have a sensible program they could replace it with, but that doesn’t matter. ‘Repeal and replace’ is the language they’ve adopted. They have come to accept that expanding health care access is here to stay, that the American people won’t go along with efforts to take it away. Eventually, the ACA will be improved and expanded. It may take twenty years, but it’s inevitable. Long-term, Obama’s vision will prevail.

Right now, yes, our politics is hopelessly partisan and ineffective and inefficient and broken. But it’s not going to stay that way. President Obama talked about expanding access to higher education, proposing that the federal government pay community college tuition for Americans who meet certain criteria. That won’t happen in this term of Congress. But the idea is inevitable; eventually, we’ll figure out that asking young people to bankrupt themselves to attend college is bad public policy. The President talked about raising the minimum wage. Well, that’s happening state by state, and sooner or later, people are going to notice that states with higher minimum wages also have faster growing economies and hiring rates. The minimum wage is going up. The President talked about immigration reform. And right now, that’s a tremendously contentious issue, and it’s unlikely much will come of it legislatively. But long-term, a solution is inevitable. American nativism is a constant in our history, but history also tells us that it never wins.

When the President first talked about the ACA, the metaphor used by Republicans was that of a camel sticking his nose in the tent in a sandstorm. Obamacare was that camel’s nose, and if we’re not careful, that camel’s taking over the tent. (Conservatives love slippery slope (or camel-tent-takeover) imagery). And so I’m saying, well, yeah, that camel’s nose is in the tent, and also his mouth and ears. With, I suspect, more to come. But you can’t cross a desert without a camel.

Poor Joni Ernst’s response talk was Primary President sincere. She was battling bad optics, (what was behind her–flags, a shuttered window, bathroom tiles?) and she didn’t know what to do with her hands, but she did fine. But her talk seemed so . . . mundane. Puny. She talked about the Keystone XL pipeline, and the ‘thousands of new jobs’ it will create. Well, that’s a contentious partisan issue right now, so she weighed in, but it doesn’t matter; there are lots of pipelines between the US and Canada; it’s just that this one became politicized. The real issue is alternative fuel, the real fight is against greenhouse gasses, the real battle is over climate change. Accepting that is inevitable.

Liberals are right to want change; conservatives are right to resist it happening too rapidly. Liberals say ‘let’s try this!’ and conservatives respond, quite properly, ‘are we sure we know what we’re doing?’  Our ship of state needs both port and starboard crews, all hands on deck. Right now, America has a functioning economy that doesn’t serve all its citizens, and a completely non-functioning politics that doesn’t serve anyone at all.  President Obama, optimistic as always, thinks we can do better. I think so too.

 

Some thoughts about Charlie Hebdo

On January 7th, two heavily armed and masked gunmen broke into the Paris office of the weekly satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, and murdered twelve people, including the paper’s editor, Stephane “Charb” Charbonnier, and four cartoonists. If you’ve been following the news, you know all that already. I just have a few random thoughts to add to the already excellent coverage. In no particular order:

1) Most folks had never heard of Charlie Hebdo before these attacks. I certainly hadn’t. And so a lot of people in the US have checked out their cartoons and humor, and have been appalled by what they’ve found. A lot of the commentary has been of the ‘I defend their right to speak out and to publish, but why do they publish such scurrilous and offensive stuff?’ school.

I was about to go on a long description of the multi-layered nature of French satire, the way it resists easy readings, but all the reasons why the Charlie Hebdo cartoons are nonetheless deeply troubling, and not maybe all that funny. But Vox.com beat me to it, and in a much clearer and sensible way. So check this out.

I also can’t really think of an American equivalent. South Park, maybe, with Parkman? Beavis and Butthead? Then I thought of Donald E. Westlake’s final, posthumous novel, The Comedy is Over. Set in the 1970s, it’s about a comedian named Koo Davis, who has built his popularity on making fun of the anti-war movement. As such, he’s become the favored comic of the rich and powerful. And so a ragtag group of anti-war activists (loosely based on the Weather Underground), kidnaps him, demanding, not money, but the release of other extremists. It clicked a little bit for me; Charlie Hebdo is a bit like Koo Davis, a little.

Anyway, I certainly do believe that there’s a place for this kind of satire, and denounce the thugs who attacked the newspaper. But I do also sort of regret posting Je Suis Charlie on my Facebook page. Charlie‘s voice needs to be heard–all voices need to be heard, including, I believe, actively offensive ones–but I also reserve the right to disagree. And I don’t find their brand of humor particularly funny.

2) Also on January 7th, members of the Islamic terror group Boko Haram continued a massacre in Baga, a Nigerian town on the border of Chad, killing at least two thousand people, most of them women and children. A horrible massacre, and one undertaken for no rational reason. I would merely point out that the disproportion in coverage of the two attacks, in Paris and Nigeria, speaks for itself.

3) On January 11th, a ‘unity rally’ in Paris honored the seventeen victims (including those subsequently killed in the manhunt for the initial killers). Forty world leaders attended. President Obama did not, citing security concerns. He ought to have gone, or at least asked Vice-President Biden to go. It’s not that big a deal, but yeah, the US should have sent someone.

4) It hardly seems necessary to reiterate the obvious point that Islam is a peaceful religion, and that the few extremists who commit these sorts of atrocities do not enjoy wide-spread support among Muslims. A favorite conservative line recently has been to ask why moderate Muslims haven’t spoken up against terrorist atrocities, whether practiced by Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, or Isis. Two responses: first, many many mainstream Muslims have denounced these attacks in the strongest possible terms. But, second, why should they? I am a Christian, but I don’t feel myself particularly called upon to denounce the Ku Klux Klan. A Klan affiliate just burned down a black church, and yes, I do denounce that, because that’s a despicable act. But I don’t consider the Klan part of my faith community, not in any sense whatsoever. The Klan may consider itself a Christian organization, but that identification means nothing. They don’t, in any meaningful way, reflect the values or attitudes or doctrines or example of the Savior, values and doctrines to which I have chosen to give my life. We have absolutely nothing in common, except sentience and opposable thumbs. And I have my doubts about their sentience.

Two funerals

Over the past week, I had the privilege of attending two remarkably similar funerals, both celebrating the lives of remarkable, strong women. The first funeral was that of Betty Ann Green Mason, my wife’s mother. The second was that of Grete Margaret Leed Johnson, the mother of my best friend. Although I don’t believe they ever met, Betty Mason and Grete Johnson had a great deal in common. Both worked as bookkeepers, supporting their husbands while they were in college. Both husbands were scientists. My mother-in-law had five children, and Sister Johnson had six. Both women were active members of the LDS church, and both held many important callings in the Church. And both would have listed their profession as ‘homemaker.’ That label carries with it certain less-than-positive cultural assumptions, which in both cases would have been entirely inaccurate; they were both intelligent, strong, forceful, well-read and well-educated women, who made the decision to dedicate their lives to their families, husbands, children. Both women loved music, both became fine musicians, and both were asked to learn how to play the piano (and eventually, the organ), in wards where no one of the requisite skill resided. Both women loved a good joke, and both were voracious readers. And they both loved chocolate. My mother-in-law, in fact, asked that Sees chocolates be available for anyone who attended the funeral. She said she thought it might increase the turnout.

But both funerals were very well attended, and in both cases, extraordinary sermons were delivered by the children of the deceased. And both funerals included quite extraordinary amounts of affectionate laughter. I laughed until it hurt at my mother-in-law’s funeral. A few days later, I laughed again at the loving family stories Grete Johnson’s children shared with us. In neither case, though, was the laughter mocking or cruel or off-putting. We laughed until it hurt, because we hurt. We laughed out of love, because of the human foibles of strong women we adored. We laughed, in addition to shedding tears.

Laughter can bring people together, or it can push people apart. Humor can express genuine affection, but it can also dismiss, cruelly, people on the margins of any culture. But what I find remarkable about Mormon funerals is the degree to which they’re characterized by healthy, inclusive, joyful laughter. We mourn, to be sure. But we also honor the deceased by remembering experiences we shared together. Grete’s youngest son, Richard, told a story about a time when he and his mother, on their way to a youth conference in Chicago, took a wrong turn, and found themselves in what seemed to him an exceedingly dangerous neighborhood. He was imagining their car’s location marked by yellow crime scene tape, and homicide detectives wondering about the identity of these two victims. Meanwhile, his Mom was busy looking at a city map. Then she looked over at him, grinned, and said ‘isn’t this fun?’ I remember that woman too. I spent many Sundays and vacation days at her home, growing up, as her son, Wayne, and I hung out. I remember how welcome I was always made to feel. I remember her strength and courage. I also remember dreading the times when she would join family games of Clue. She was the kind of woman who played board games to win. No ‘losing on purpose to the kids’ nonsense for her! I certainly never could beat her. At anything.

At my mother-in-law’s funeral, her son, Shawn, emptied her purse at the pulpit, and used the items therein to discuss different aspects of his Mom’s life. The first three were all chocolate. But then he read letters her children had written to her, and the sage advice she’d offered. The fact that the letters were quite bogus didn’t diminish their impact; it was a lovely, funny, loving talk. And Shawn insisted that he was her favorite child, admitting, however, that all his siblings thought they were the favorites. (And then the Bishop, presiding and not missing a beat, identified himself as her favorite bishop!)

I’ve attended many Mormon funerals in my day, and they always share certain similarities. One is humor; affectionate, kind, family stories with a funny twist. Another is an overall sense of faith. The idea that we’ll see our loved ones again, and that they’re going to see their own family members, long deceased and beyond the veil, is just assumed. We don’t have to really preach it much. Instead we just testify. But it’s not–how to say this?–defensive in any way. It can feel that way sometimes in some funerals, that scriptures are offered by the minister–who may not even know the deceased all that well– not to reassure or comfort, but to assert. But in Mormon funerals, the talks are often–usually–given by family members. There’s no sense of a possible angel-winged, psalm-singing heaven. It’s more personal. Betty went home to Maughan, her beloved husband. She’ll see him. Grete Johnson went home to the beach, in Denmark, where her husband proposed. To wait for him to join her.

We celebrate the love we shared, the family ties, the funny stories. And we do so in utmost confidence.  We’re not really saying goodbye. More like ‘see ya later.’  And there’s music and prayers, and then a really good luncheon.

Yes, after the funeral, the local ward serves a luncheon for the bereaved families, and the food served is pretty well de rigeur: ham, a salad, and funeral potatoes. Yes, funeral potatoes are always served at Mormon funerals, and though I’ve heard them mocked as one of the tackier manifestations of Mormon culture, I think they’re darned tasty. I mean, the main ingredients are potatoes, cheese and sour cream–what’s not to like? But no two funeral potato recipes are the same, and that’s also pretty Mormon; we do all serve the same food, but always with a uniquely personal twist. (I make mine with frozen hashbrowns, store-bought, and cream of chicken soup, and always add green onions). The potatoes are probably really unhealthy, but they’re comforting, and delicious, and that’s also a Mormon thing; we privilege yumminess over nutrition, and then count on us all not smoking to pull us through.

But the luncheon is also the time for sharing memories, a time for wonderful conversations. At Grete Johnson’s funeral, we remembered a time when she went with my Mom to see the bishop, walked into his office, and said ‘this ward does not have a Cub Scout program for the boys, and it needs one.’ The bishop (who was also Grete’s husband) promptly called the two of them to start one. They had no idea how to do that, but that never stopped them; it doesn’t usually stop strong Mormon women, who are championship quality improvisers. And I still remember how much fun our Cub Scout activities were. At Betty’s funeral, a number of people remembered her homemade lemon ice cream. (I know what you’re thinking, and you’re wrong; it’s amazing).  For years, while her husband was the High Priests’ Group Leader, they had an annual ice cream social at her home. Then he was released from his calling. But the ice cream socials continued for years. She hosted them because . . .  I guess basically because it was her recipe, and nothing else would do. (And while that story was being told, we all ate . . . lemon ice cream. As delicious as ever).

I love Mormon funerals, and am privileged to have been able to attend two remarkable ones over the past four days. Two strong Mormon women have returned home to their Father, and also to their Dads. Two mourning families shared laughter and tears and food and conversation. Two wonderful lives were celebrated. Even death can be a blessing.

Day after New Year resolutions

Happy day after New Year! How’s 2015 working out for you so far?

So. New Year’s Resolutions!  I mean, yes, New Year’s Day is kind of an arbitrary and silly holiday, limited as it is to those of us in cultures that use the Gregorian calendar, which is itself sort of random and weird, what with its Roman origins and all. Some months named after Roman gods (Mars, Janus), Etruscan gods (Apru, Maia), and Roman festivals (Februaris), while others are just Roman numbers; September (month seven), October (month eight), November (month nine) December (month ten). Which I love, the fact that our month nine is named ‘month seven’. But the Romans had to cram in two months named after ruthless murderous war-mongering dictators. Hey, for Nordic types, July and August are pretty brutal, especially if you live in a desert, which I do.

But I digress.

New Year’s Resolutions. And we do make them, do we not? Because it’s a ball-dropping-on-Times-Square, Dick Clark Ryan-Seacrest-celebrating, kiss-the-girl-and-pour-the-bubbly New Year, we feel prompted, if not actually compelled, to engage in some healthy self-improvement. And for years, I’ve had the same three New Year’s resolutions: To lose fifty pounds, exercise every day, and stop smoking. Since I don’t actually smoke and never have, I figure the worst I can to is 33%, and hey, .333 wins the batting title!

This year, though, I’ve decided to do something new. Instead of New Year’s Resolutions, I figure I’ll try Day After New Year resolutions, lower case. I’m not realistically going to lose a lot of weight. I mean, I’ll try, but nobody really ever loses weight. And I already didn’t exercise yesterday. And I still don’t smoke. But these, these I maybe could manage.

1) In 2015, I will blog four times a week.

I haven’t blogged for a couple of weeks now (family stuff, plus illness), and I’ve missed it. I like blogging, I like communicating with my readers (whoever you are, and bless you for reading!) And this way, I give myself a couple days off a week. I think this one’s attainable.

2) In 2015, I will read all four LDS standard works.

I’ve done this before, and I enjoyed it, and that was using the KJV, which has such serious limitations. This year, I’ll find another translation.

3) In 2015, I’m going to do something nice for someone, anyone, every day.

Just something. I’m going to look for opportunities to help someone, encourage someone, toss a bum a sawbuck or open a door for someone with packages, anything really. Just try to brighten someone’s day.

4) In 2015, I will finish, and send to a publisher, two books.

I’ve been working on a novel for years; time to finish it. I’ve been working on a book of essays about Mormonism: ditto. This is a year to finish things.

5) In 2015, I will exercise every day, and also lose twenty pounds.

Hey, it could happen!