03 April 2012

The Hollywood Pinboard

A few years ago, I saw Taken in a discount movie theater with my roommates and afterward postulated that there must be a bulletin board somewhere in Hollywood where action-flick writers post sticky notes with ideas--things like "Retired CIA field agent brought out of retirement when his daughter gets kidnapped" and "American tourist sold into foreign sex-slave trade" and "Person kills roomful of enemies and hides under bodies to shoot at enemy reinforcements when they arrive"--and when the board gets full, the producer pulls down all the sticky notes, arranges them in such a way as to make them vaguely interrelate, and then sends the conglomeration to his screenwriters to add manufactured dialog and flat characters, and then sends the script to  a friendly cameraman with shaky hands. Bam--action flick.

I've decided recently that my hypothesis was unfair: Hollywood's Pinboard does not only apply to action movies, and it isn't a recent phenomenon.

I've decided I like Danny Kaye. He's an actor from the age of Hollywood musicals. I've often expressed the fact that I don't much care for musicals (except, of course, for the undislikable Singing in the Rain), but The Court Jester is excellent family-friendly fare; if you've never seen it, I recommend it highly as good, clean fun. It's also a good introduction to the sort of humor Danny Kaye excels at.

Because my wife and I like Danny Kaye, we'll occasionally pick up a movie he's in without knowing anything about it except that he's in it (when movie rentals are free at the local library, there's no real risk in random movie selection). Sometimes we do well (On The Double was a non-musical comedy that had some surprisingly hilarious moments despite its fairly straightforward comedy-of-errors formula), but sometimes we don't.

On The Riviera is a 1951 musical that stars Danny Kaye, and it made me realize just how accurate my beliefs about a Hollywood Pinboard must be. It functioned like a lot of other musicals (White Christmas, which Danny Kaye is also in, comes to mind) in that its protagonist has a career as a musical performer, so throwing unrelated dance numbers together becomes child's play, but this movie went one step farther:

There's a scene in which a party is going on, which the protagonist (Danny Kaye) was at but has left. Now, the protagonist has recently gotten a big break: a television studio wants to broadcast his stage show because his impersonations of a famous aviator (also Danny Kaye) have been making such a big splash. So he runs off to do his broadcast, and some people at the party gather around the TV to see his show. But instead of his impersonations, he does this number, which I imagine had been on a yellowing sticky note on the Hollywood Pinboard for years before someone finally said, "Okay, fine. Fine! We'll throw it in the next movie we do." This scene simultaneously demonstrates 1) why I don't like musicals and 2) why I do like Danny Kaye. It's complicated, I know. If you can sit through this video, you'll get to see Danny Kaye slaughter the pronunciation of various animals and plants, and it makes me giggle, but the song is grating and the scene had absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the movie: it was never alluded to beforehand; it was never mentioned afterward. And I imagine it was really expensive, with all the harnesses etc. How was it deemed worth the time and money?

No wonder musicals don't exist anymore....

Anyway. I give you the final death throes of musical cinema:

18 March 2012

Lancelot's Mistake

I've been reading T. H. White's The Once and Future King lately. I think Arthurian legend is worth knowing, and I thought this would be a good primer. It was actually written and published as four separate books, which were then abridged and modified and combined into The Once and Future King.

The third book is called The Ill-Made Knight and is all about Sir Lancelot's illicit relations with Queen Guenevere. I expected not to like it very much, but I actually enjoyed it more than I can say. Lancelot is the protagonist of the book, and he's a beautifully conflicted character that I connected with in a few different ways, but there's something about him that I've been reflecting on this Sunday afternoon that I think is worth sharing.

Here's a summary of the story of Lancelot for those of you who are unfamiliar. If you know it, feel free to skip down to the asterisks.

Lancelot's childhood obsession was to become a knight of the round table, and while most kids are out fooling around and playing games, he dedicated himself entirely to becoming the best knight in the world. By the time he became an adult, he was an unconquerable warrior because he had done nothing but work on becoming the best. He idolized Arthur, and he went off to Camelot and became a knight of the round table, and he and Arthur became best friends.

Guenevere and Arthur were already married when Lancelot joined the table, but their marriage had been more political than anything, I think. Guenevere and Lancelot fell in love at first sight, but Lancelot was a pious knight and fiercely loyal to Arthur and refused to do anything sinful, so nothing bad happened--for a while. He decided that his burning love for Guenevere was wrong, so he went out questing and was gone for a couple years, but he found himself unable to stop thinking about Guenevere.

One castle Lancelot came to during his journeys contained a young woman who was confined by witchcraft to a boiling bath. The curse she was under could only be broken by the best knight in the world (why do witches always make provisions like this?). Lancelot was the best knight in the world, and his reputation had proceeded him, so when he came to this castle, the people begged him to help. He entered the steamy bathroom and was able to lift the damsel from her watery prison, which she had been trapped in for something like 4 years because she had been more beautiful than the local witch woman. So of course she fell desperately in love with her rescuer (she was only 18, so we can't fault her for that), but Lancelot was burning for Guenevere, so refused the girl's father's offer of marriage.

That night, the girl's butler decided to be crafty, and he got Lancelot drunk. Lancelot told the butler all about Guenevere, so the butler got him to drink a little more and then told him that Guenevere had come without the King and was in a private room and wanted Lancelot to come see her. The drunken knight stumbled into the dark room and made drunken love with the woman inside, believing she was Guenevere, but of course she was not. In the morning, when he woke up and found the girl he had rescued, he became very distraught and drama ensued, but he ultimately decided that, since his virginity was lost and his honor and virtue were destroyed, he had nothing left to lose, so he returned to Camelot and became Guenevere's not-so-secret lover, and set in motion the downfall of Arthur's kingdom.


I don't fault Lancelot for saving a damsel from a witch's power, and I don't blame him for refusing to marry one person when he was in love with another, and I don't think it's fair to say he was wrong in harboring feelings for Guenevere (at least, I wouldn't know how to tell him to smother them), and I don't think we can even point to liquor as being his failing (even though drunkenness was out of character for him and unbecoming of a knight). I'll even go so far as to say that having sex with Elaine was not his Big Mistake (though it was certainly wrong of him). No, Lancelot's Big Mistake was thinking all was lost. He woke up, realized that he had lost his virginity, and decided that he may as well give up trying.

I understand Lancelot. I know what it's like to think I've undone all my life's goodness and may as well give up. I think it's common for people who are trying their best to do what's right to feel that way. We make one mistake, and we convince ourselves that it's a slippery slope with no hope of return, and we damn ourselves by thinking we're already damned. But it isn't true. The whole point of the Atonement--its purpose, its upshot, its summom bonum, its raison d'ĂȘtre--is to save us from such a fate. If Jesus hadn't saved us, then that slippery slope would be real--one misstep, and you slide straight to hell--but a good Christian knight--particularly a Catholic one like Lance!--should understand the power of Confession and the reality of Absolution.

Now I am not a Catholic, but I do believe in the forgiveness of sins. I believe that the Son of Man has descended below all things and has created a way that all men might be saved. I believe that Satan is the sower of despair, and that fatalistic thoughts of abandon come from him, not God. Jesus Christ has already paid the price of our sins and is therefore passionately invested in seeing that we're saved--otherwise he bled at every pore and trembled because of pain for naught.

It occurs to me that the Lancelots of the world are those who reject salvation when they are standing closest to it. People who don't know God at all would not despair after one lascivious night: that despair only comes to those who have scrambled so desperately for heaven all their lives. If only they could see that they are so much closer to the mountain's top than to its bottom, perhaps they would not be so insistent upon tumbling down its side.

Forgive the mixed metaphor....

15 March 2012


I don't kill spiders. I may have mentioned it once or twice before, but I don't expect you to remember. One summer in my teens, I went to take a shower and found a spider in the tub. This was not uncommon in the summer, and I generally washed them down the drain, but for some reason that particular summer day, I decided to capture the spider in a jar and take it outside, and that became my standard procedure for such situations.

That was probably a decade ago, and now I've grown into a man who is nearly unable to kill crawling things. I am puzzled by the culture I live in, which instills in young minds the belief that killing bugs is not only acceptable but actually a sort of duty--unless the bugs in question are ladybugs or butterflies, in which case it's a crime. I don't harbor any ill feelings toward our pesticidal society, but I've often wondered why it is we go out of our way to crush the poor boneless ones.

Here's the irony: I'm a bit of an arachnophobe. I think spiders are ugly, creepy, icky things, and I feel revulsion when I see them. I understand why people kill the spiders they find in their houses because even a decade of pacifism hasn't removed from me the natural inclination toward destruction. But I can't do it. Once, early on in my marriage, I killed a rather large spider that had found its way into our apartment. I did it to show my wife I wasn't a ninny. After I did it, I was so beset by guilt that I wasn't quite myself the rest of the day. So I've never done it again. Now whenever I find a spider in our apartment, I catch it and take it outside. My wife has laughingly pointed out that I do this even when the ground outside is covered in frosty snow or puddling rain, which may well dictate a crueler death for the spider than a quick blow from a shoe, but I don't do this because I love spiders--I don't love spiders! If I loved them, I might let them live with me. But they're frightening little beasts, and I hate them, so I don't let them live with me. But I do let them live--or at least throw them out to the elements where they can suffer a natural death and turn into dirt. The odd-shaped cog of my mind that dictates my conscience says that's better than killing them outright.

I've tried to come up with justifications for my behavior (I don't want insanitary spider guts embedded in my carpet. Spiders eat flies, and flies are more proactively annoying than spiders are.), but why should I feel compelled to justify my desire not to kill? The truth is, I'm deeply embarrassed by the fact that I can't kill spiders--especially since I hate them. See, if I had an academic interest in those eight-legged fiends and could discourse on their invaluable contributions to the local ecology and was fascinated by their anatomy, then it would make sense that I would not want to kill them, and if anyone asked me why I didn't kill them, I would have a good reason. But I'm not that guy. I see spiders as nightmarish creatures, and I wonder why God didn't make them more cuddly because, really, a fly-eating pet would be pretty awesome. And so I'm embarrassed that I feel guilty when I kill them, but guilt trumps embarrassment, so I go on not killing them.

I feel like Kierkegaard would have had something to say about this, but I don't know what it would've been. Perhaps he would've examined the paradox of harboring a murderous hatred for something but feeling a moral necessity to preserve its life--he might have called the paradox Love. Who knows....

There's got to be something to say about the way I treat spiders and why I do, and I'm convinced there's a parable in here somewhere. At any rate, there's a moral to this story, and it isn't, "Ugliness isn't a capital offense." It's something more than that. Something about love and hatred being totally unrelated to tolerance. I can't quite seem to formulate it, so I'll leave that up to you.

06 March 2012

Equal Partners

"By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners." --The Family: A Proclamation to the World (a document written and signed by 15 men)

I'm sure it seems odd to many outsiders that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints proclaims equality between men and women but maintains a male-only clergy. Heck, I'm a lifelong Mormon, and I've had trouble seeing the equality at times. The search for equality seems to be an ongoing struggle in the LDS community, and I sometimes wonder if we're looking beyond the mark. Priesthood holders are so afraid of falling into the woman-go-make-me-a-sandwich brand of unrighteous dominion that we've started debasing ourselves and placing our women on unreasonably high pedestals: "Our women are so much better than us," we say; "they are spiritually superior and socially graceful and oh so very patient with our idiotic maleness--we men would be hopeless without them," and then we wonder why they always feel so inadequate.

The truth is, many LDS men are uncomfortable with the fact that they can be ordained to priesthood offices while women cannot. We really do believe that men and women are equal, but we can't seem to find an ideology that doesn't either keep women below us or exalt them above us. We're forced to say somewhat lamely, "Men hold the priesthood, and women are--um--great." However, as is often the case with gospel quandaries, a return to the basics is all that's necessary to resolve this problem, so let's talk about the purpose of life.

If you ask most any LDS Sunday-school class what the purpose of life is, they will say, "To get a body!" and "To return to live with Heavenly Father!" One of the most frequently quoted passages in Mormondom is Moses 1:39, wherein God explains that His work and glory is to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. We believe that, because of the Atonement of Jesus Christ, everyone who comes to earth and receives a physical body will be resurrected someday and get to keep their physical body forever--that's immortality. We believe that the Atonement of Jesus Christ also enables everyone who comes to earth to be redeemed through priesthood ordinances so that they can one day live with God--that's eternal life. Immortality and eternal life are equally important: having a physical body while dwelling outside of God's presence (immortality without eternal life) is hell; lacking a physical body while dwelling in God's presence (eternal life without immortality) is the state we were in before we came to earth, the state that we came here to move beyond. God's work and glory is only fulfilled when we achieve both immortality and eternal life.

How do we do this? Well, first we have to receive a physical body, and the only way to do that is to be born of a woman. The work of clothing God's spirit children in physical bodies can only be accomplished by women. Even Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, had to be born of Mary, and I have heard it argued that Adam was no exception, either: he was brought into mortality by a woman because Eve gave him the forbidden fruit. Half of God's work and glory--the half concerned with bringing about our immortality--is entrusted entirely to women.

What about the other half--the half concerned with our eternal life? This work is given to men. Worthy men are ordained to the priesthood, and they use that priesthood to perform the saving ordinances necessary for us to return to God's presence. Just as nobody comes to earth without being born of a woman, nobody returns to God without being baptized by a man. This half of God's work and glory is entrusted to men.

In Doctrine and Covenants section 132, we learn that exaltation (the highest form of immortality and eternal life) can only be gained through the new and everlasting covenant of marriage. It is only by the coming together of man and woman as husband and wife that exaltation can be achieved. No man, no matter how faithful he is to his priesthood, can be exalted without first being sealed eternally to a woman. Likewise, no woman can make it alone. Is it any wonder why this is when God's work and glory is divided evenly into male and female stewardships? Paul said it best: "Neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord."

I believe that men and women are absolutely equal before God and that they are equally vital to His plan. I think we only lose sight of that equality because of our location in God's plan. If you are here on earth, reading this essay, you have already been born of a woman; your mother played her part in God's plan for you, and you are bound for immortality. But God's work and glory will not be fully realized in you until you reach eternal life, and to get there you must rely on the help of men--even if you are a man, you need the help of other men. And so we have a male clergy to guide you to eternal life. This is not to say that women cannot help and instruct you along the way, but just as it was by a woman that you were born and began your journey toward immortality, it is by worthy, priesthood-bearing men that you can be born again and begin your journey toward eternal life.

(I am deeply indebted to Valerie Hudson, whose article in SquareTwo inspired these thoughts in me.)

27 February 2012

Pragmatic environmentalism

(And I'll abuse the word "pragmatic" all I want, thank you very much!)

I have a hard time pigeonholing my politics. I've spent my entire adult life being opposed to political parties (or, at the very least, our two-party system as it now stands), but I'm starting to dislike the labels of "liberal" and "conservative" as well. I just don't feel like I fit in with any of these groups, and I don't see how any thinking person really can.

For example, deep in my heart of hearts (and I'm sure this is on this blog somewhere), I'm a passionate, pre-World-War isolationist: I just wanna hole up and leave the rest of the world alone. But it's a pipe dream, right? I can't wrap my head around any way that's even remotely possible, given the last 70 or 80 years of world history. Similarly, I'm all for a legislative rewinding to get closer to the Constitution, but I just don't think it's feasible: what are we going to do, fire everybody who works in Social Security and MediCare and NASA and National Security etc? Sounds like a terrible idea to me. As a last example, I'm infatuated (as wholeheartedly and ignorantly as the word connotes) with the idea of a completely free market--laissez faire and the invisible hand and all that. I love thinking that the market will always sort itself out. But the truth is, the market is frightfully amoral, and I honestly believe that bad guys always win in a truly free economy. It just seems obvious to me that, in a system where competition is everything, those who are willing to cheat will most likely pull ahead. Scum rises to the top etc. etc. So even though my deep Idaho roots call out for the government to leave me t'heck alone, I kinda like having Big Brother trying to level the playing field.

So there's a crash course in Schmetterlingism, which might just look like apathetic moderatism but feels more like a liberal leaning conservatism.

But there's one area that I'm straight-up liberal (not hard-core or bleeding-hard but fairly radical all the same), and that's environmentalism. I'm all for the privatization of a lot of things (education, for instance), but I feel like the environment is one thing that's big enough to warrant a government stewardship. It's just so hard to get a big-picture view as an individual. And it's the sort of thing that requires big actions on a regular basis because so many little actions are constantly screwing it up. So I'm all for the government regulating emissions and protecting species and (dare I say it?) angering farmers by making up rules. Here again, I might be mistaken as passionately apathetic (I often say that I don't care whether man-caused climate change is real and that I think minimizing the stuff we pump into the air is worthwhile even if it doesn't save the polar bears because it might save some asthmatic kindergartener in New York), but I am not. I consider myself a pragmatic environmentalist.

My most recent environmental stance has evolved over the course of the past few months, and its evolution started when I read an article in (*GASP!*) Mother Jones, which I now have a subscription to, thanks to a brother of mine (our mother was mortified when she found out!). The article ("Jet Blue" by Christie Aschwanden, located on the last page of the May + June 2010 issue, which was the borrowed hook that reeled me in) talked about how bad for the environment jumbo jets are. It says that a family of 4 living in western Colorado can replace an old fridge with an efficient model, replace 10 75-watt lightbulbs with 20-watt compact florescents, recycle all their paper and glass and metal and plastic waste, switch to using a bus or train for a daily 12-mile commute, and replace the family sedan for a Prius, and if they live that way for a year, they still won't have done as much to help the environment as they do to hurt it if they fly to Boston for Christmas at the end of that year. Lots of environmentally-minded people justify flying because it's public transportation, and they all assume that, when it comes to transportation, public=environmental, but the truth is that flying is the most environmentally destructive per-capita mode of transportation.

I was thinking about this as my wife and I flew out to Florida for Christmas. The facts seemed to say that we would've been better off driving that whole long way, and I felt a little guilty as I watched the SLC tarmac disappear below us. But the flight gave me time to think, and Pragmatic Environmentalism was born.

Let's imagine a hypothetical couple living just outside of Salt Lake City somewhere--in Provo, we'll say--and let's name this hypothetical couple Kyle and Katie. Now let's say that Kyle and Katie have been invited to spend Christmas in DisneyWorld with Katie's family. There are essentially three options to them: 1) they can fly (the traditional solution); 2) they can drive (the more environmentally friendly solution); 3) they can stay in Provo (the Mother Jones solution).

Solution 1: The fly out of SLC int'l and go to Orlando with a layover in DC and then come back the same way. Nearly 15,000 lbs of CO2 are emitted into the atmosphere, "high in the atmosphere, magnifying the ill effects" (that's from that article, btw).

Solution 2: They drive for a couple of days each direction. Nearly 4,000 lbs of CO2 are emitted by their car in addition to the 15,000 lbs being emitted by their airplane, which incidentally has to make its connections even if nobody's on it.

Solution 3: They stay home. 15,000 lbs of CO2 are still emitted by that airplane!

Moral of the story: Solutions 1 & 3 are equally damaging to the environment; solution 2 is more damaging.

The thing is, I do care about the environment, and so I wish that there weren't so many airplane cruising around up there, but I was looking at the maps in the seatback pocket in front of me, and it looks like they run in circuits. So even if I could get everyone in Utah to refrain from flying to DC, the Utah plane would still have to fly to DC to pick up all the people there who are headed to Orlando, and if I could talk all of them out of their trip, there's still people in Orlando who need to get to--I dunno--Kentucky. The thing is, to get even one plane grounded, I have to stop at least three and perhaps four or five plane's worth of travelers from flying anywhere.

So the plane flies, regardless of what I do. If I'm on it or if I stay home, it doesn't make any difference. But if I drive to Florida, I only make things worse.

And that's pragmatic environmentalism, which sounds an awful lot like environmental fatalism, but isn't exactly.

Bret is very proud of his Oscar

Perhaps you've heard that a song from The Muppets won an Oscar. I was so happy about that. For one thing, I love the Muppets; for another, Bret McKenzie (of Flight of the Conchord fame) wrote the songs for that movie, and it just kinda rekindles my faith in the whole movie industry that a man like Bret McKenzie can win an Oscar.

As soon as I found out it, I decided to look up Bret's Wikipedia page to see what it had to say about this honor, and I found myself having to hold back my laughter. I think Bret himself probably modified his Wikipedia page to make it read this way. This is copy-pasted from that page (I've added highlighting so you can get the gist without having to actually read the whole thing):

Academy Award winner McKenzie has appeared in the first and third films inPeter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. His silent role in the first film as Figwitachieved some minor internet fame, which led to Jackson giving him a line in the third film. In April 2011, McKenzie, the winner of an Academy Award, was cast as the elf Lindir (who in contrast to Figwit is a character created by Tolkien himself) for the upcoming The Hobbit. His father Peter McKenzie played the role of Elendil in Lord of the Rings.
Along with Clement, Oscar winning McKenzie was featured as one of 2008's "100 Sexiest People" in a special edition of the Australian magazine Who.
Bret "Oscar-Winner" McKenzie and fellow Conchord Clement guest starred as a pair of camp counselors in "Elementary School Musical", the season premiere of the 22nd season of The Simpsons, which aired on 26 September 2010.[3]
Oscar winning McKenzie, together with Australian comedian Hamish Blake is set to star in a New Zealand feature film, Two Little Boys, currently under production in New Zealand and set for release late 2011.[4]
During the summer of 2010, Academy Awardee McKenzie flew to Los Angeles to serve as the music supervisor for the The Muppets.[5] He went on to write five songs for the films soundtrack including "Man or Muppet" and "Life's a Happy Song" both of which were nominated for Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards and Satellite Awards for Best Original Song.[6]

I miss my blog

The Eccentric Sage has sat in disuse for a long time now. It's tragic, really. The heyday of blogging is something I now think of in fits of nostalgia, if I think of it at all. Yet I still follow some blogs--meaning they secretly feed into my Google Reader, and I glance at the posts an read most of them. I've become a spectator in cyberspace, participating only when I feel a strong inclination to do so--and I don't feel that way often. Still, if other blogs are still running strong, why shouldn't this one? The blogosphere has not collapsed, despite the vacuum I've created there.

And so--I'm back. I've given The Eccentric Sage a much needed facelift, and I'm posting again. I'm not promising that I'll ever post with the frequency I once did (I'd say I peaked in the summer of '08), and I actually have no intention of dedicating that much time here. This blog was fueled by the angst of my bachelorhood, and I've been happily married for 20 months now. Also, I don't want to join the masses of bloggers who say, "I'm totally back and I'm gonna post every day and you guys should visit my blog because it'll be so totally awesome!" and then goes another 8 months without posting. No, this will be a very different blog from here on out, I imagine, and I'm marking the change with a titled post. Now, instead of a place to vent my angst, The Eccentric Sage will be a place for me to probe reality. I admit that it may be hard for anyone but me to detect a difference in the resultant posts, but I feel different, and it has been nearly a year since I last posted--and much longer than that since I posted frequently!--and I really feel no inclination to make a conscious effort to recreate what once was. I just need a place to think in written words, and I imagine that's what blogs were invented for.

So here we go.....