Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Pennsylvania State of Mind

Good times in the Keystone State. Between the Phillies winning the World Series and the presidential race tightening up in important swing states, primarily PA, it's quite a time back home. (I call the commonwealth "home" because that's where I lived as an impressionable teen, even though it's been nearly a decade since I set foot there.)

Pennsylvania was an odd place to live. Our home was 45 minutes from Baltimore, but a world away from anything even slightly urban. The ward we lived in covered a big area geographically (similar to our current ward, but much more rural) and consisted of a pretty even mix of locals and transplants from the mountain west area; when we went to a BYU-Penn State football game in State College, the ward members represented both schools. Our small town was pretty politically conservative, but there was also an FDR-style liberalism under the surface.

I say this because I recently read a piece in Slate about how both presidential campaigns are redefining the politics of PA with their late burst of visits and rallies. Even though all the polls I see show a huge Obama lead, the 27 votes in Pennsylvania could dramatically alter the race, and the numbers there are getting tighter. Kerry and Gore both won PA, but by narrow margins, and the fact that rural voters, regardless of party affiliation, have very real issues with race makes this a very important piece of the electoral map this year.

This all began percolating in my mind on Sunday, while I was driving to a stake priesthood meeting and listening to "This American Life," which I usually hear via podcast, on the radio. The episode focused on various elements of the presidential race in PA, including Democrats for McCain and labor union organizers converting voters to Obama. Check out the show.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Movie Review

Every two weeks I send out a professional development newsletter for our academic unit at work, and one of my favorite parts is a recurring piece I call "What to Read," a brief synopsis of an article about higher education that I found of interest. I'm thinking of starting a similar feature here, with this as the pilot version.

On of my favorite things is alternative newspapers, the free weekly or biweekly publications found in most mid-to-large cities. ABQ has two, the Alibi and Local IQ, both of which are swell. But I also pick up the Santa Fe Reporter. Much of what one finds in these papers is useless (but the crossword puzzles are quite good, and I often find ads for or reviews of good local dining establishments), but there's the occasional gem.

Such is this piece, a review of "High School Musical 3." Now, to get into the spirit of things, you must know that a) I have no idea what these movies are about and b) I give thanks everyday that we don't get the Disney Channel. My loathing for this sort of movie is intense, but mixed with a dash of indifference, with some haughtiness thrown in for good measure.

So the argument that the (hopefully) final installment of the series is actually a bit of propaganda for alternative lifestyles made me giggle. (I was reading it on the bus while listening to my iPod; I love laughing in that context.) So I shared it with Summer, who laughed heartily. I hope it brings joy to your life as well.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Fun Stuff

Three quick thoughts:

  • The headline in the print version of today's local paper about the conviction of Alaska Senator Ted Stevens on corruption charges reads: "Sen. Stevens Found Guilty of Corruption: Conviction May Risk Re-Election Bid." May?! You can't make up this stuff.
  • On Saturday, both presidential candidates visited ABQ. McCain rallied at the state fairgrounds in the morning, drawing around 2,000 supporters. Obama's event at UNM that evening drew over 40,000. And we're a tight congressional district in a swing state. My argument about cool seems relevant here. Anytime you draw 20 times the supporters (there were estimates that put Obama's attendance closer to 50,000, by the way), you win the cool contest.
  • I stopped by the early voting site on campus the other day and was dismayed that a) it didn't open until noon and b) the line was a good 50 people deep. I despise waiting in lines for anything. I'll try again today.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Big News!

So, as I have mentioned before, I am registered independent, even though I have yet to cast a vote for a Republican. My partisan affiliation, though unofficial, runs deep; in 2004 I left blank the space for a local race in which the Republican incumbent was running unopposed, simply because I could not bring myself to vote for anyone with (R) next to his/her name that year amidst all the Rovian politics of the day.

What a change 4 years can make. I now blog about my concerns with an overwhelming Democratic majority in Congress. And I'm looking for a good Republican. All the big races are out of the question--Obama will make a much better President, Udall's immensely brighter and better than Pearce, and Heinrich, while unappealing, is certainly better than White.

(That reminds me of something we saw over the summer driving to Utah. In a small town in Colorado was a sign that said "Vote White." I hope that was the last name of a local candidate and not a race-based appeal.)

Anyhow, I may have found my man, err, woman. The local DA race pits incumbent Kari Brandenburg against Republican challenger Lisa Torraco. Here's the deal. The criminal prosecution system in ABQ is a mess. Too many people who are arrested never see court because the DA's office doesn't get everything done in time and the defendant is released on a technicality. And while I'm not a big law-and-order guy (either the TV shows or the "tough on crime" shtick), I think this is a problem.

Furthermore, I think the problem stems from the idea of the Big Sort I referred to recently. Anytime one party is consistently in charge, the potential for abuse, waste, and ineptitude arise (Google "Manny Aragon" sometime for a local example). In Bernalillo county, the historical edge by Democrats has created an environment in which power is abused and things go wrong when there is no strong GOP influence to check things (the same thing happens the other way around in, say Utah county).

So--here is comes--for the first time in my life, I'm voting for a Republican. Now maybe I can have some credibility when I speak of transcending partisan politics (but probably not). But Torraco seems smart, and I liked her answers to the local League of Women Voters questions.

Thursday, October 23, 2008


In a comment earlier this week, Stew accused me of replacing rants with thoughtful dialogue, which would seem completely out of place in the blogosphere. Perhaps it's age and wisdom acting up. Maybe it's the mellowing that comes in the autumn. Or it might be that my candidate is ahead.

Or maybe it's General Conference. This morning I listened to Elder Eyring's talk from the Sunday morning session of conference. Like Elder Christofferson's address, which I discussed previously, this seemed a timely message, this one about the need we have to create unity among our families, neighborhoods, and wards. Like several other messages from conference, this spoke of the need to focus on the fundamentals of our faith, that which we share, that which brings us together, rather than the embellishments of faith, the things that make us disagree.

I think this message, which can be captured perhaps best with these words from Elder Eyring: "The miracle of unity is being granted to us as we pray and work for it in the Lord’s way. Our hearts will be knit together in unity. God has promised that blessing to His faithful Saints whatever their differences in background and whatever conflict rages around them."

This is especially important in the context of my earlier comments about how we--both as a nation and as a church--suffer from the sort of homogeneity that comes when we both seek and demand that those with whom we interact most often share our political and social beliefs. As Elder Eyring says, as the Church grows globally, the membership of the Church becomes more diverse, in terms of native language, ethnicity, nationality, and background. If we expect every new Saint to look, act, and live the same way we or our grandparents have lived is not only folly; it is the highest of pretentiousness.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


The next General Conference address that I would like to comment on is Elder Chistofferson's "Come to Zion," a thoughtful and intelligent sermon on how we can become what the Lord wants us to be. As a preface, since his call to the Twelve, Elder Christofferson has impressed me with his focus on basic Christian doctrine as understood through the lens of the Restoration, and he makes insightful points about our faith.

This talk was especially interesting to me in light of my speaking assignment this past Sunday. The topic was consecration, particularly in the context of our Stake Day of Consecration at the temple this Friday; we encourage all members of the stake to attend as many endowment, initiatory, sealing, and baptism sessions as possible, making sacrifices to spend as much time as possible in the temple.

I spoke of three ways in which we consecrate actions, things, or, ultimately, ourselves. The first is through the authority of the priesthood in an ordinance, as in the dedication of a temple or meetinghouse. The second is through sacrifice, as with the early Saints and the temples in Kirtland and Nauvoo, or with many today who sacrifice to attend distant temples or go on missions. Those sacrifices render those actions and those people holy.

The third means by which consecration occurs in when priesthood authority and sacrifice intersect, through covenant. We vow to give all we have and all we are to the Lord's work, and as we live this covenant--doing what Elder Christofferson calls for in living lives of holiness and caring for the poor and needy--we make our lives holy.

Summer and I have been talking about this a lot recently. How can we live the gospel more fully and make more meaningful sacrifices. We need to attend the temple more often, more regularly. We need to set a better example for our children. I need to focus more on teaching my sons to prepare for missionary work. I need to set a better example for Allyson of what a priesthood holder is so she will expect that in her life. I need to be more worthy of the amazing woman I am married to, appreciating more fully her work and sacrifices on behalf of our family, which she often does so quietly.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Called to Serve

Just a quick thought. Our ward primary program is tomorrow, but I'm out of town on a speaking assignments, so I went with the older kids to the practice today. It went well, but here's what stood out to me. At one point, the kids sing "Called to Serve," which is always a tingle-inducing hymn, but I've been thinking more about my mission since the temple was announced in Rome. The other night Summer and I looked through some old mission pictures.

Anyhow, the following thought ran through my mind as the kids sang. In 12 years Ryan will leave for his mission (and I thought I was nervous about him getting baptized next summer!). Now, 12 years might sound like a long time. But here's the scary part--12 years ago I was on my mission. And the years since have gone by quickly.

(As an added bonus, due to their ages, Allyson and Ryan could both be on missions at the same time. My head is now spinning...)

Thursday, October 16, 2008

An Odd Thought

According to all the polling data I'm seeing (,, and, not only does Obama have a good lead, both nationally and in the electoral vote race, but the congressional races also are tending Democratic. And, oddly enough, I'm unsure how I feel about this. The bitter, resentful part of me wants a huge Dem majority with a Democratic president as payback for the 2000-2006 GOP travesty. I'm practicing my smirk already.

But at the same time I'm uneasy about such a monolithic possibility. I'm not afraid of some awful policy decision by a Democratic Congress; I believe that if America is strong enough to survive 8 years of W, we can escape just about anything. But I am afraid that, politics being politics, Congressional Democrats will be bitter and resentful and do something horribly stupid (see health care reform, circa 1993).

So, I'm thinking that it would be wise to vote for GOP congressional candidates. But both of our races--the Senate seat that Udall will win and the local House race--feature such lousy Republican candidates that I can't do it. Steve Pearce is another slow-talking, unintelligent oil man with a drawl, and Darren White has done a lousy job as sheriff because he's so set on imposing and supporting a conservative ideology in a place where that won't work that he would clearly be a poor congressman.

My plea then is to all my out-of-state readers who live in swing states with close congressional races to vote for the GOP candidate and give us a more balanced Congress (Wait, who reads my blog and doesn't live in ABQ, UT, WY, or NY? Nevermind...).

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

On the Big Sort

One of the purposes of this blog is to find a way to express my views on issues political and religious in a forum that I am comfortable with. Around the time we moved to this ward--a few months before and a few months after May 2003--I had a bit of a personal crisis. The impending and then actual start of the Iraq War was for me the last straw in many ways. I had just finished 6 years at conservative BYU, broken up with 2 years of a mission. I had endured the 2000 election and its attendant frustrations. We had moved to a rather wealthy and very conservative area of town where a large portion of the ward was involved in the military--either at the Air Force base or Sandia Labs. I was 27 and had spent my entire adult life surrounded by people whose political ideologies were, in many ways, repugnant to me.

This was embodied by the sense of isolation I would often feel, both at church and at UNM. In the former, I was the only left-leaning PhD student in the humanities I knew, while in the latter I was the only LDS returned missionary father of (at the time) two children that I knew. I did not really fit in anywhere.

That got better in this ward, in part because it is more diverse than the previous ward, and in part because I was more involved. I served in the Elders Quorum presidency, and service makes you more caring toward others. (In our previous ward I had "calling immunity" because Ryan was just a baby and Summer had a big calling. Plus, I simply wasn't needed as much.) It was still hard at times, but I found myself getting less and less upset at some of the irrational actions and words of others; when a counselor to the bishop based his spiritual thought in PEC on something W did, I winced, but it was less painful than some testimony meetings in April 2003.

Anyhow, I share this (admittedly too soul-baring) experience to make a larger point about how we segregate ourselves according to our beliefs and ideologies. A book on my wish list these days is The Big Sort, by Bill Bishop, who also writes a blog based on his sociological theory at Slate. The basic idea is that over the past 30 years, Americans have formed new group identities based on their politics, both partisan and issue-based, and often both. This results in the sort of homogeneous communities we see in places like Eagle Mountain (on the right) and Albuquerque's North Valley (on the left). We decide to live near and associate with those who share our politics. And the result, according to Bishop, is the extreme polarization we see today.

My intention here is not to discuss the validity of Bishop's ideas here, but rather to apply this idea to my experience and LDS culture more generally. In the Church we often speak of the importance of supporting and sustaining each other's faith--the idea that the coals stay warmer closer together. But we often struggle to differentiate between building up faith and reifying conformity of thought. This is a common critique of the Church, and one that I find weak, but there is a very real risk. It would have been very easy for me to dismiss the importance of my membership in the Church in March of 2003, and it would have been very easy to not go to Church every week. In fact, we lose a lot of people simply because they don't fit the cultural mold and feel unwelcome.

The key, I believe, is to realize that a testimony of the restored gospel does not equal or require political or ideological orthodoxy. In the lead-up to the 2004 election, a priesthood lesson focused on the importance of being involved and informed in the political system; this quickly deteriorated into a discussion of what political issues Latter-day Saints "ought" to hold. Someone (who has since moved from the ward) referred to a commonly-seen bumper sticker that reads, "You can't be Catholic and pro-choice." He then said the same applies to being LDS. I was carrying baby Isaac at the time, so I was able to conveniently slip out and not say what I was thinking, which was certainly for the best, because I wouldn't have said it with much charity.

But here's what I could have (and should have) been able to say. It's entirely possible to be LDS and pro-choice (or anti-war or pro-drug legalization, though that last one is less likely). There is no temple recommend question about any of these issues. We are asked if we are honest and live the commandments, none of which include voting a certain way. (I recognize the fine line related to California's Proposition 8.) And to expect everyone with whom we worship to share our political beliefs--or worse yet, to demand it--is to participate in both the exclusionary group definition of the hypocrite and the religion-as-commodity mindset of the contemporary megachurch, both of which are antithetical to the gospel of Christ.

Monday, October 13, 2008


My next General Conference report is on Elder Perry's message on simplicity. I listened to this on the way to work this morning and found it timely, both because of world events and my own recent thoughts on the need to simplify our lives. I also dig anything that refers to Walden.

(This was the only illicit book I took on my mission, and while I never read it while I wore the black name tag, I felt better about life just knowing it was nearby.)

I also liked how Elder Perry linked Thoreau's four necessities (food, clothing, shelter, fuel) to gospel principles. Understanding the link between the temporal and the spiritual is at the heart of welfare, which itself means not just well-being, but well-doing. If my needs are simple enough, I can meet those needs and be more able to help someone else. If, on the other hand, I am insatiable in my search for a bigger home, a nicer car, and more toys, I will never be in a place to do good for others.

On a related note, we have decided to keep xmas simple for our family this year (we were a bit extreme with gifts for the kids last year), and with FHE tonight I intend to present this idea to the kids in the context of being grateful for what we have and our responsibility to help others. We will then explain that they will each get only a few gifts and that we as a family will spend more time and energy doing things for others this year.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Conference Thoughts

I'm beginning a new series here as I listen to messages from this past General Conference. Periodically I will comment on a talk that caught my attention. This likely will be less rant-like than most of my entries, but that may be a good thing...

The first message that stood out from the Saturday morning session was by Elder Oaks. He emphasized the importance of the sacrament and sacrament meeting. As I speak in sacrament meeting once a month, I am more aware than ever of the role this event plays in our spiritual lives. And the more I speak the more I realize that what we say matters less than I might like to admit.

As elder Oaks said, "the ordinance of the sacrament makes the sacrament meeting the most sacred and important meeting in the Church." It is not the preaching, but rather the ordinance, and the sermons are secondary. As such, what we say ought to be simple, heartfelt, and presented in such a way as to not distract from or upstage the most important thing we do each week. That is why we are taught to keep our messages short, simple, and based on the teachings of prophets, both ancient and modern. Testimony counts; charisma less so.

I was also impressed by Elder Oaks' emphasis on how we act as we administer and receive the sacrament. The importance of concentrating our thoughts on the Savior was timely for me as the father of children who are learning to develop a relationship with the Savior; my behavior ought to model for them this kind of spiritual focus.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Debate Part II

I'm halfheartedly watching pieces of tonight's debate while halfheartedly grading essays and wholeheartedly eating a bag of chips. And here are some random thoughts:
  1. John McCain strikes me as a genuinely good human being. You can't say that about most politicians, and this may be the first time in my life that a GOP presidential candidate has met the human decency test. I disagree with a lot of his policies, but if he wins, I won't want to move to Canada like I did in 2000.
  2. The town hall format seems to have run its course, no? Isn't it time for a new debate format? Town hall setups seem very 1992.
  3. I just read this at "Even before the credit crisis, the next president stood to inherit more problems from George Bush than he could hope to solve all at once. Now the next administration's burden will include a global financial crisis beyond what any one president, party, or country alone can address." Besides being a severe condemnation of the Bush administration, it also reinforces what I like about Obama--he seems more able to build broad consensus, especially on the international scale, to address not only the issue of terrorism, but also the financial catastrophe.
  4. One last thought from last week's VP debate--I solemnly vow to never vote for anyone who says "nucular." Ever.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

A Weekend Rant

Wasn’t the VP debate fun? A colleague and I spent all day Friday riffing on the “not answering the question you were asked” theme. Me: “John, what is your family doing this weekend?” John: “I’m really concerned that unchecked climate change will be disastrous.”

But my main topic here is the bailout bill. I am very unhappy that the bad bill defeated in the House earlier in the weak was made worse and then passed. Every nice thing I said about principled GOP representatives is out the window (as is any nice thing I may have ever thought about Pelosi). The congressional mindset of accepting a distasteful piece of legislation only because it includes some “bridge to nowhere”-style pet project is obscene.

(As an aside, this is one of the things I hate about incumbent Senators seeking re-election; my freshman year at BYU I attended a debate between Orrin Hatch and his hapless Democratic rival. Hatch made it clear that his seniority in the Senate made it a terrible idea to vote for the other guy, simply because Utah, as a small state, would get a lot less money without his weight. And he then accused his rival of being a “tax and spend” liberal.)

I know I sound a lot like a Ron Paul supporter, but the only way out of this financial crisis and the ridiculous debt we have as a nation is, as President Monson taught last night (I skipped Conference, but I read up on it here), to live and spend prudently. Here’s how it goes—we need higher taxes, especially on the wealthy, but also on gas and other nonessentials; we need to cut spending, especially on defense, which can happen with troop drawdowns in Iraq; we need to encourage job creation by taxing corporations at a responsible rate, especially the unregulated financial markets and the oil companies that are still making record profits; and, above all, we need to rethink our culture of consumerism.

It is this last idea that interests me the most. We live in a smallish home in a working-class part of town. We have one car, no cell phones, no cable or satellite TV (and a 10-year-old, small TV at that). We send the kids to public school and try to do homemade or inexpensive gifts for birthdays and Xmas. But we still have too much stuff. We eat out too often and make too many unplanned trips to the grocery store (“Oops, I forgot the butter; I may as well pick up some ice cream while I’m out”). My point is that we could do a lot more good—increase our fast offerings, donate to the Church’s Humanitarian fund, give back to those in need in our community—if we were less selfish with what we have.

The topic for my speaking assignment this month is consecration, particularly as it pertains to temple worship. I will be reflecting on this idea for the next week or two, especially in terms of how my ample leisure time and less ample expendable income could both be spent more wisely for the blessing of others.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Some Quick Thoughts on History

As with last week's presidential debate, I caught about half of tonight's debate, so I don't know if I missed any big stuff. What I saw was pretty smooth and unexciting. But one thing caught my attention.

At one point, after Biden had accused the current administration of fouling up national security, the economy, education, etc., Palin jumped in with a point that was very interesting. She claimed that the Democratic ticket focuses too heavily on the past, railing against Bush/Cheney instead of talking about the future. I caught myself nodding in agreement.

Then I thought about a piece I have my students read by David McCullough, who argues that as a nation, we are historically illiterate. He goes on to contend that not knowing history--failing to learn from the past--is not only foolish, but arrogant, a declaration that nothing matters but ourselves.

I see a gospel truth in this, that the most important things we do as Latter-Day Saints deal only obliquely with ourselves. We focus much of our attention (or, at least, we ought to) on the future via our children and posterity and the past through family history and temple work. I think much of the current financial mess comes from a lack of this sort of perspective, that wealth is not a result of our efforts alone, nor is it for us alone.

So I find Palin's (and McCain's, and Bush's, for that matter) unwillingness to reflect on the past and learn from--or even admit--mistakes in Iraq in particular to be very dangerous. If we cannot see where the past 8 years have gone wrong, we are all too likely to make the same mistakes--or greater ones--in Iran or Pakistan or North Korea. So I think this election must be about the past, not just the old "are you better off now than you were 8 years ago" question, but a deeper one of will we be a better people if we continue to follow the current administration's policies.