Monday, December 28, 2009


I'm about halfway through my winter break, and I'm really enjoy the unadulterated sloth in which I currently exist. I wake up when I hear Evan yelling that he needs to use the bathroom, I play tons of games throughout the day, I cook and clean as needed, and I read. I've gotten some serious reading done these past few weeks, and it's made me a bit contemplative. So, here is a review of some of my 2009 reading accomplishments:
  • I've read several dry tomes related to my dissertations--titles like Mixing Race, Mixing Culture: Inter-American Literary Dialogues. And I suppose "read" is a bit inaccurate and should be replaced by "skimmed as quickly as possible while taking notes and eating Doritos."
  • I'm reading Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson, a Christmas gift from Summer, who, realizing how excited I get about what I'm reading, hopes this will convince me to go to England. This comes on the heels of reading A Walk in the Woods, in which Bryson recounts his summer along the Appalachian Trail (I spent several days picturing myself strolling along some lonely trail). I also read The Mother Tongue and In a Sunburned Country by Bryson. I've decided that I like this man for several reasons: he's wry and witty, he writes in an erudite style that is nonetheless accessible and self-deprecating, he travels widely and thoughtfully (both in space and in themes), and, as I just learned in chapter 2 of Small Island, he's left-handed, all of which is meant to say that he's me.
  • Late last winter I read Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which I discussed here. It was inspiring, but it didn't make me much of a gardener. Maybe I'll read it again soon. I'd also like to dive into some Michael Pollan this year (Summer's reading In Defense of Food right now).
  • I also read Jack Turner's Travels in the Greater Yellowstone last winter, an experience I reviewed here. He's also got a book on the history of spices, which I somehow haven't gotten to yet.
  • Toward spring I read The Hobbit again, followed by working through The Lord of the Rings over my May break. For what it's worth, I also watched the movies a few times. (I had vowed to wait until finishing my dissertation to read the latter, but I decided that if I put off living for my PhD I might be pretty miserable.)
  • In early March I finally tackled In the Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco. I've read several collections of Eco's essays, so this was fun, even if the unraveling of the plot was a bit clumsy. I also got to lend this to Dad, which is always nice.
  • Over the first few months of the year I read a few pieces of non-fiction: Speaking of Faith by Krista Tippett, a volume each of The Best American Travel Writing and The Best American Non-Required Reading (I thoroughly enjoy the Best American series). These are good volumes that I can readily pick up again at a moment's notice.
  • This fall-winter, I read The New Kings of Non-Fiction, edited by Ira Glass, and two Malcolm Gladwell titles: Blink and The Tipping Point. I also read Freakonomics. The last three were interesting--thought-provoking and well-written, but after each one I couldn't quite decide what the point was. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I couldn't help shaking the notion that these were more style than substance.
I'm sure there's more, but this is enough to make me feel good about myself. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a book to get to...

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Real Man

Today was a very relaxed day...until we woke up. Unlike most of the past week, we had no plans or specific obligations, so we began by cleaning the house. While working on our bathroom, Summer asked me to see if I could redo some of the caulking in the kids' bath, which is where the fun began.

Pulling up the faulty caulk I had put in several years ago quickly led to the discovery of water intrusion into some of the drywall. Within an hour I had a pile of dirty caulk bits and a small hole in the wall.

After several hours of work and two trips to Home Depot, I had patched the hole, spackled the other gaps, and cleaned up my mess. We'll now need to repaint, but that was in the cards anyhow.

On one trip to the store I also picked up a rake for all the leaves that fell yesterday. Seven years in New Mexico and we had never had to rake leaves. But this year the trees were big enough to warrant it. So here are some shots of the kids jumping and playing in the leaves:

While I was transferring the leaves to a bag, Summer comments, "You're like a real man today." I suppose it was about time...

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Not Even a Real Rant

More of a thought that occurred to me last week at the Priesthood session of General Conference. Elder Ballard's talk on fathers and sons was touching, and it made me realize the following: in 10 years I can go to the Priesthood session with all three of my sons. Ryan will be 18, in his first semester of college, and quite possibly an elder already; Isaac will be a 15-year-old teacher, and Evan will be a freshly-minted deacon. (We needn't mention how old I shall be.) We should go to Salt Lake and go to the Conference Center that October. Anyone who wants to join is invited...

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A (Kind of) Conservative Rant For a Change

I'm taking a brief break from my occasional series on why I'm not politically conservative to write a piece that may undermine that entire project. I listen sporadically to a podcast called The Story (kind of a conceited title, I think, but it generally makes me think, which is good). Some of the episodes are poignant and touching, while others feel a bit flat, so I don't listen religiously, but I try to catch a few episodes a week.

Yesterday I listened to an episode from last week with two very different stories. The first was about an American couple who retired and moved to Mexico to enjoy better and less expensive health care. I wanted to get behind their story, as it highlights much of what is wrong with the health care industry in America today. But in the end I found the husband, who is at the center of the story, a completely unsympathetic figure.

In part this is a result of the phrase the host kept using to describe why Steve Minnick and his wife moved to Mexico: "to take advantage of that country's health care system." I know what he means, but "taking advantage" of something is a messy phrase that implies something that was, I believe unintended but telling. The idea of exploiting a system to which you have no real connection is troubling.

I also find it hard to be sympathetic for someone who's complaint is that he has to return to work because the recession harmed his retirement savings. When the poor are losing jobs and homes, it's hard to feel for someone who lost (which means he had) $300,000 in retirement and had to sell his home in Mexico, move back to America, and return to work so he could save enough in his retirement account to live quite comfortably seven years from now.

And I contrast this with the other story in the episode, in which Robert Johnson recalls his father's sacrifice to support his family during the Great Depression. This man fought six rounds at a county fair against a professional boxer, nearly dying in front of his son, to earn $25 to pay rent. It makes unretiring look pretty pedestrian a sacrifice, I think.

This gets at something that has bothered me throughout this recession. People complain about decreased or lost income, but still get cable TV and drive SUVs. We talk about scrimping and saving, but still rack up credit card debt. And the federal response has been to spend more and bail out failing companies while cutting services for the poor.

I contrast this with the New Deal approach. Instead of bailing out banks, the federal government put people to work. Instead of encouraging us to spend more, it provided a safety net for individuals and families. A welfare system that focuses on people, not corporation, is far superior. The New Deal was no a panacea, but it seems better than the way this recession has been addressed.

And I think this says something ugly about who we are, that our response to tragedy is to amass material things, to spend, to stimulate our way out of a crisis rather than to make real sacrifices. I makes me a bit sad and ashamed.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

How Big a Tent?

When over-the-air television broadcasts went all-digital this summer we lost our signal, at first with some misgivings. Living in modern America without TV seemed unthinkable. But now, just a few months later, I am amazed, not just at how well we've adapted, but at how much more we get done. We read to the kids more, we play outside more, we cook and talk and simply live more.

I kind of wish we had ditched TV earlier, say a year ago, during the height of election season. Not just for the election ads that bombarded our humble swing state, but for the other, less obvious aspects of the presidential campaign. I speak specifically of the conventions, an archaic holdover from the era of cigar-smoking obese men who made backroom deals and decisions, a holdover which is poorly adapted to the world of mass media and instantaneous communication. They drive me crazy, with the pomp and self-importance of political parties (there's a reason I register independent), the pontificating speeches and fake drama of it all.

But the most jarring part of last year's convention season was not the size of the crowd in Denver or the small-time acts by Guliani and the other nominee also-rans, but the shots of the crowd at the RNC in Minneapolis. This homogeneous group of middle-aged white people was a perfect symbol of what I believe is the ultimate undoing of conservatism in America: its failure to understand, appreciate, and foster a diverse, pluralistic society. This profound failure marks conservative thought as antiquated and obsolete, much like the conventions themselves.

I approach this topic with a great sense of hesitation, based primarily on my own identity as a middle-aged white heterosexual Christian male. (It has always been odd in job interviews to answer the obligatory diversity question: “I think we need a diverse faculty to represent the multiplicity of cultures and viewpoints in our community. We should hire fewer white men. Let's start that as soon as you hire/promote/reward me.”) I am simply too racist, sexist, and homophobic to get on a soap box here when traditional discussions of diversity come up.

But I can speak of what I find to be the most indicative but underappreciated instance of bigotry and prejudice in the contemporary conservative movement: the debacle that was Mitt Romney's primary race last year. Now, I don't like the former governor of the commonwealth of Massachusetts. I find him vapid and uninspiring, and, obviously, I disagree with many of his stands on the issues. (In other settings I have referred to him as my least favorite Mormon, but it seems Glenn Beck is intent on holding that title indefinitely.) But the fact is that a qualified and electable candidate with policy views in line with the mainstream of his party who poured millions of his own dollars into the campaign had no realistic chance of getting that party's nomination.

And why was Romney so soundly beaten by hacks like Huckabee in the southern primaries? It all comes down to simple, unadulterated prejudice. A Mormon candidate in the GOP primary in South Carolina has a huge disadvantage due entirely to the conservative mindset that labels any identity outside of the narrow definition of mainline Christianity as unacceptable. And this is evident time and time again in the right-wing, as moderates like Senators Specter and Snowe are either driven away or derided as phonies. Anytime your movement is so narrow as to exclude even those who tend to agree with you, you know you've painted yourself into a corner and out of the mainstream.

So I'm not sure what to suggest to conservatives concerned about doing poorly in elections when the female and minority votes break bad for them. When your political philosophy is built on the idea that those who have traditionally held power and wealth should be the first and primary voices in debating, setting, and benefiting from national policies, it's hard to feel sympathy when demographic and social transformations undermine your political viability. It's time at that point to not just revise a platform or alter a message. It's time to admit that conservative views toward contemporary American society--who we are and how we interact with a range of people--have become provincial and useless in the 21st century.

Friday, September 18, 2009


I suppose I ought to just start this project with the big issue, the thing that differentiates liberals and conservatives. I'm not talking about the Iraq War, abortion, taxes, gun control, or welfare (although I will be tackling some of these down the road). I speak instead of the elephant in the room (all puns, of course, are intended) anytime conservatives attack liberals: government.

(I actually thought about saying the number one issue is that of pronouns, but that seemed too geeky even for me. But we'll circle back to parts of speech in a minute.)

The more I think about this, the more I'm convinced that the defining trait of conservatives is a fundamental misunderstanding of what government is and does. (This is especially unnerving, since so many of them are in elected or appointed government posts.) But, nevertheless, it is the case that conservatives seem to view government as a monolithic, intrusive, intimidating force bent on stealing every freedom imaginable, some sort of cross between an Orwellian nightmare and the Third Reich. Governments can certainly evolve (or, rather, devolve) into this sort of thing, but the knee-jerk reaction of calling anything government-related evil is simply incorrect. No, that's not it. It's stupid. Even that misses the point. It's unpatriotic. There, that's more like it.

Now, in ,making this claim, I do not say that dissent is wrong. On the contrary, when we believe that our government is in the wrong, we have not just the right, but the moral obligation to speak out, to protest, to vote and to act for change. Having been highly opposed to many policies during the Bush years, I cannot condemn criticism of one's government. In fact, intelligent and constructive criticism is a bedrock principle of a citizen's role in a democracy (a fact that seemed frequently missing from the discourse during the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, for example, when critics were told to keep their mouths shut, as if any act of protest were treason). What I speak of is the Goldwater-style conservatism that casts government as the antagonist of every freedom-loving man, woman, or child. That is the unpatriotic approach and attitude of which I speak.

Here's what I mean. I believe it is unimaginably unpatriotic to view American democracy through the same lens as Stalinist Russia or the French Reign of Terror. This is especially true for Latter-day Saints, who make claims of love of country and who believe that Heaven blessed the founding of this nation's government. To speak with casual disregard and intense disdain for that same government so immediately whenever one makes a political statement—to say that you distrust, fear, or hate our government—is an affront to both the spirit of the founding of the nation and the two and one-thirds centuries project of striving for “a more perfect union.”

Here's where the pronouns come back into play. Note what I said in the previous paragraph: “our government.” We share this common bond as Americans; no matter what region you live in, what color your skin is, what music or movies you like, you are part of something greater than yourself. It's a unity. But the pronoun “our” also indicates something of ownership. It is government by and for, but first and foremost of the people, belonging to and serving us. Now contrast that with, for example, the language used in the health care debate. A conservative will typically refer to government in the third person: “they.” As in “they want to take over health care.” A liberal will speak in the first-person plural: “we.” As in “we have a responsibility to care for and help each other.” (I'll address this idea of responsibility in a future entry.) This word choice indicates one's relationship to the republic of which one is part; the former indicates a separateness, a radical and dangerous emphasis on the individual that is at the core of conservatism, while the latter speaks of a sense of community that is central to what is best in liberalism.

I don't pretend to think that government or government involvement is the best answer to all problems. As an example, I am deeply troubled by the role of the federal government in the financial markets and other industries in the wake of last year's market crash. I felt then and feel now that the executive and legislative branches overstepped their bounds in bailing out failing companies. My liberal philosophy (which echoes my father's more conservative one on this matter) is that a mismanaged and inefficient company deserves to fail, and that the proper role of government is to serve as a safety net, to provide resources and assistance—not to the companies and their overly-compensated executives, but to the working poor who find themselves unemployed, to families and children, to those who want to work and are willing to do so. In essence, I would have preferred to see an effort akin to the Depression-era WPA and CCC initiatives. I would prefer a liberal approach to government, one in which we (note the pronoun) watch out for each other, not just for those businesses that have failed to adapt to changing markets (see GM and Chrysler) or that made greedy and short-sighted choices (see the mortgage and housing markets). That is what our government can and should and is meant to do, what it can and should and is meant to be.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Back to the Ranting

It's an odd season politically, and that's evident in how this blog has stagnated. The left (myself included) has been dealing with an odd post-inauguration hangover, so happy to have a competent, intelligent, qualified president that it's hard to tap into that characteristic liberal anger that has historically driven so much of our work. (This is different, by the way, from the typical claim of liberal self-loathing, but not, I suppose, by much.) And thus I've found myself unable to really rant properly.

But the oddness is also a result of what I believe is a strange strategic move by the Obama administration. Health care reform is a tricky endeavor, and the White House has handled it poorly. And support for needed reform has been horribly uneven. The people who need it most tend to distrust government and vote Republican (or be young and uninterested in the issue), and the people who believe in it most are both largely unaffected by it (the more affluent liberal types) and such reliable Democrats that there is little incentive to woo them

I, for example, fit into several of these categories. I have good insurance, am healthy, and still feel young and invincible. At the same time, I believe in the need for health care reform, and I support most of Obama's statements and plans on the issue. I just don't feel that this needs to be the number one priority for the nation or the administration, and I have a hard time getting fired up about it. And it's been frustrating to see Team Obama, which ran such a focused, efficient, powerful campaign, struggle to get a clear message out persuasively.

It's this sense of frustration then that brings me back to the blog. The summer of political discontent—the lies, the yelling, the threats of violence and succession by right-wing demagogues and their followers—has reached a breaking point for me. I'm sick of the hypocrites and liars calling us out. I'm sick of the attention that's been given to people who are uninformed, loud, and bellicose. And I'm sick of sitting back and watching it all unfold.

Thus begins an occasional series on this blog to counter the logic and arguments of the right. I'm calling it “Reasons Why I'm Not a Conservative and Can't Support Republicans.” I undertake this with great respect and fondness for my conservative friends and relatives. I love and admire many of you, and I have learned and continue to learn much from you. And I aware that very few may ever see this, that some who do see it may be offended, and that I can do very little to change the national political discourse. But I feel a powerful obligation to speak up for what I believe, and this is my chance to do so.

So, here is my basic thesis. I believe that the liberal impulse is a smarter, more moral, and more American approach to governance, ethics, and social justice than the conservative one. It is fairer and more in line with the foundational principles of democracy. In short, it is a better way of conceiving of and operating a society and a system of government. Over the next few days and weeks I will post entries here detailing some of the specific issues that support this thesis. I think it'll be fun.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Postcolonialism and Religious Discourse

This may be the first time on this blog that the title is actually more boring than the entry itself. I know, it sounds like the title of a bad graduate-school paper (in fact, I may have written a bad graduate-school paper using that title). But I really do mean for this to be a thoughtful, highly personal piece.

The impetus for this is a comment from a friend on a recent entry here. Ted pointed me to an article in Indian Country Today about the Episcopal Church's repudiation of the "Doctrine of Discovery." My first reaction to the article was that it was interesting, but irrelevant to the life of a 21st-century white Mormon. But with some thought, I saw that this really is the issue that defines the intersection of my religious and intellectual life.

Here's the historical context. At the dawn of the Age of Exploration, as Europeans begin to explore, colonize, conquer, and control large areas of the globe, a new strand of Christian thought emerged. Now, the seed of this is central to the evangelical nature of biblical Christianity--take the gospel to all the world. Once Peter received the revelation permitting the apostolic church to preach to and convert the Gentile nations, Christian spread through Europe, northern Africa, and southwestern Asia. Now, with trade and travel taking merchants and military from Christendom both across the Atlantic and around the Cape of Good Hope, a new version of Christianity was born.

Unfortunately, this version of Christianity bears little resemblance to the gospel that I encounter when I read the New Testament. Gone was the emphasis on peace, forgiveness, and meekness, all of which were replaced by a hyper-evangelical misreading of the Apostles' commission to preach the gospel to all the world. Married to incipient capitalism and military might, this colonial Christianity became the grounds for conquest, slavery, and genocide.

As a graduate student working with literary texts from many of the places most affected by colonialism, I found this history to be incredibly troubling. In a moment of spiritual crisis, I turned to the Book of Mormon, reading it not only as scripture, but as a literary text (a trick I learned in a "Bible as Literature" class I took as an undergrad). The experience, while short-lived (I don't think I got past 1 Nephi before the experiment had run its course), was life-altering.

Much of the value of this reading came from Nephi's vision. After seeing the Tre of Life and some of the other elements of Lehi's vision, Nephi is shown much of what befall his descendants through the subsequent centuries. In chapter 13 we get the postcolonial meat: the Great and Abominable Church (which I understand to be corrupt and worldly Christianity of all denominations) is founded, and the Gentiles arrive at the Land of Promise and scourge the descendants of Lehi (the chapter heading even uses the word "colonizing"). Reading this chapter as a postcolonial text made the events of colonization in the Americas not just historical fact, but prophetic reality. This, to me, was the turning point.

A professor at BYU once told me that sometimes God does His work through imperfect--even wicked--people. Such is surely the case with this history. To defend Columbus, Cortez, Coronado, Onate, and others outright is disingenuous, but to see them as part of a necessary process, of bringing the biblical text--corrupted and poorly interpreted as it was--to the Western Hemisphere, as well as eastern Asia, Africa, and the Pacific, makes sense to me. Joining the sticks of Ephraim and Judah was a necessary part of the dispensational events that form the basis of the Book of Mormon prophecies. Even if men who did wicked or shortsighted things were invovled, it was still

As Lehi puts it in his final words to his children, "there shall none come into this land save they shall be brought by the hand of the Lord." Whether I like it or not, that includes slave traders and criminals, racists and persecutors, colonizers and liars, as well as my own ancestors (some of whom undoubtedly may fit into some of these other categories as well). (As a side note, Dad once posed the troublesome question of whether this meant that Africans sold into slavery were brought by the hand of the Lord, and I think this reading answers that with a resigned "yes," which also means that we have to consider contemporary immigration--even of the illegal sort--similarly.)

All of this is then to permit the multicultural, multilingual, dynamic place that is our nation (and, more broadly, our hemisphere) today. If we look at the migration of Lehi's family as the beginning of a long history of cultural displacement--sometimes through violence--we see that the Book of Mormon truly speaks as a voice from the dust--meaning not only that it testifies of the words of prophets who lived ages ago, but also that it witnesses of the very earth upon which we tread. The land in which we dwell carries the histories of colonizations, both ancient and modern, and the foundational text of Mormonism helps us understand the bloody, messy, complicated history of this part of the globe, and through that, a wider understanding of how God works on the macro level to reveal truth to and bless the lives of His children.

Thursday, July 23, 2009


At last week's scout campout, one of the scout leaders posed an interesting question to the boys (running at the end of the pack, I caught little of the conversation, but it caused me to think heavily for a mile or so). He asked the boys what their number one priority would be if they were President of the United States.

It's the sort of thing I'm sure I thought about and cared about deeply hen I was in my late teens and early twenties, but my jaded adulthood has kept me from such thoughts. I'm much less passionate about some of the issues that once got me fired up, and, while I'm still interested in politics, I find myself much less partisan. Probably for the best.

So it took me a while to figure out what I care about, what my priority would be. But I finally came back to what I've been doing all my life, the only real job I've ever had: education.

And I come at this topic with a perspective very heavily influenced by my faith. The other day I was reading in 3 Nephi chapter 6, one of the more breakneck paced chapters in the Book of Mormon. After Nephi seals the heavens and the people repent, they quickly return to wickedness. (It always amazes me when the narrative account moves--in the space of two chapters--from a profound sense of happiness due to the righteous living of the people to their fully iniquitous state.)

In describing this wickedness, Mormon uses some language that I find intriguing. In verse 12, he states that "the people began to be distinguished by ranks," an inequality that always marks iniquity (the etymological roots of the two words are very entangled). But the cause of the inequality is in "their riches and their chances for learning."

The next few verses (I'm especially interested in verses 13 and 15 here) go on to explore the results of this disparity. But the cause--the vastly differing opportunities for education among the people--is what interests me. So, here's my response to the question posed on the hike.

I would radically reconfigure how the federal government supports higher education. Not in terms of mandating what degrees are offered or how programs are run, but in how opportunities for higher education are made available. I would rework the Pell Grant system to address the tuition cost crisis.

(I read recently that when the Pell Grant system was instituted, the grant amount covered somewhere in the neighborhood of 70% of average education costs. Today, they cover closer to 35% of the cost of a degree. Between out-of-control increases in tuition and [not coincidentally] administrator salaries and lagging increases in funding, we've slipped in our support for students, especially for the students who need higher education the most.)

But it's not just about increasing the amount of Pell Grant money available. I some cases, that would make matters worse. (Here's an example. At the college where I teach, tuition is very reasonable--the classes I teach are tuition-free for residents of the local tax district. So many students get money back on Pell Grants. This leads to pretty massive [unofficial] enrollment drops the day after Pell checks are distributed. This then bites the students who fail to pass enough of their classes, as they go on academic probation and often lose their Pell eligibility.)

Instead, what I want to see is smarter funding, attached to both tuition cost and student income. Make not only community college education, but also public and private universities accessible and affordable. Offer students the opportunity to invest Pell money in excess of tuition and book costs in a personal savings plan with matching funds (perhaps at a 2-to-1 ratio) for graduate studies, opening a small business, or buying a home. Or direct any excess funds back to the institution with the stipulation that a) the funds go directly to instruction and certain support services (tutoring, advising, etc.) and b) retention and graduation rates exceed certain rates.

None of this makes for a perfect solution, and there would be all sorts of resistance from administrators, faculty, politicians, and parents. But, I think we need to be, to use my favorite Obama term, audacious in tackling this iniquity.

Monday, July 20, 2009

On Self-Reliance

This past Sunday, the Living section of our local paper featured a cover story on how LDS teachings related to self-reliance are valuable, especially in the midst of a recession. I found the coverage of this important doctrinal aspect of our faith--and its practical implications--to be clear and accurate. It also made me think about how self-reliance embodies a gospel-centered approach to life.

I first began to understand self-reliance several years ago when I served as our ward employment specialist. In many ways I was a horrible failure in this calling--I don't think anyone I worked with got or improved their employment. But I did play a role in developing a self-reliance plan for our ward, which enabled the Bishop to focus our resources on helping needy families and individuals in meaningful, long-term ways. And I believe this was a key part of that Bishop's time in that calling, shifting our ward's welfare work from putting out fires to helping people make lasting changes to move toward being self-reliant.

This has also been a blessing for our family. We worked hard at that time to pay off our credit card debt, and while we have months where this issue recurs, we have enjoyed the freedom that comes from having more of our paycheck available for our own use. The decreased stress and the ability to be of more service to others have been immense blessings.

But I am also impressed by how self-reliance has come to mean more to us than money. We have worked on our food storage and our emergency reserves, we have made changes to our physical surroundings (although the backyard is still a work in progress and source of marital strife at ties), and we have worked to instill in our children a respect for the blessings we enjoy and a willingness to work.

This, finally, is the direction I wish to go as a family in regards to our efforts towards self-reliance. As with any important principle of the gospel, this is not just for us, but for our children. I want them to grow to be wise, happy, hard-working individuals who contribute to their communities. I wish for them to be free of debt, to earn as much education as they can, to find enjoyment in the work they do.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

On the Loyal Opposition

With the confirmation hearings for Sonia Sotomayor beginning today, I thought it timely to return to this unique part of American democracy for today's rant. In large part I approach this topic with gratitude for a system in which the deliberative Senate has the opportunity to question the president's nominees to key posts, most especially the Supreme Court.

But I am also bothered by the role being played by Senate Republicans in trying to define the terms of what the judicial branch is to do. The insistence that the courts are to practice what Justice Scalia has called "strict constructionsim" (which he and the other conservatives on the court immediately abandon in cases involving eminent domain, voting rights, and campaign finance) is annoying, as no such philosophy exists or has existed, save in the minds of reactionaries who see anything progressive as inherently degenerate. This is particularly galling, given the disdain with which the right views the judiciary whenever a ruling goes against conservative thought.

This op-ed piece by Senator Jeff Sessions, the de facto Republican voice on the SCOTUS hearings made this argument in a particularly flimsy manner, rife as it is with misinterpretations, generalizations, and contradictions. Let's get to it.

For starters, we have the tired argument against empathy, of which more later. Sticking to the Joe-the-plumber-style GOP talking points, Sessions states that empathy "says that justice should not be blind, that it should not be based only on the law and the Constitution, but that it should take a judge's own personal and political feelings into account." Ignoring the fact is always the case that a human judge is influenced by his/her own subjectivity, Sessions seems to argue for an automon-type approach to the judicial process. This, of course is interesting, given the highly emotional nature of right-wing positions on issues ranging from abortion ("baby-killing!" they shout) to immigration ("stealing American jobs!" they cry).

Sessions follows this with (to use the terminology of classical rhetoric, a la freshman comp classes) an appeal to pathos, when he asks "if you or I step into a courtroom, shouldn't we be able to do so with confidence that we will get a fair day in court no matter our background, experience, or politics — and no matter the background, experience, or politics of the judge?" Failing to acknowledge that historically the vast majority of judges have been old white men, often ruling against women, minorities, and the poor and disenfranchised, Sessions appeals to equality, but only inasmuch as it applies to people who are--ethnically, culturally, and socially--like him.

To accomplish this, the Senator refers (predictably) to the recent Supreme Court ruling in the Ricci case. As if confirmation to the Supreme Court required one to have a perfect batting average vis-a-vis the Court, Sessions argues that Sotomayor's lower-court ruling on the case places her outside of the national mainstream on issues of racial diversity and affirmative action. In summarizing the case, Sessions says "Eighteen firefighters, one of whom suffers from a learning disability, studied for months to pass the city's promotion exam. They did. But the city junked the results because they didn't feel the outcome met the appropriate racial quota. Sotomayor sided with the city and even denied the firefighters a trial." Besides the use of the inaccurate term in describing the legalities of the case ("quotas"), Sessions makes a plea here for the very quality he derides--empathy.

If we are to expect, value, and even demand equal treatment for both parties, the fact--so often cited by conservative pundits in referring to this case--that the plaintiff "suffers from a learning disability" and made great sacrifices to study for this exam is entirely irrelevant. Clearly what we see in this fallacious argument is politicking at its worst. To base a claim on a constitutional value that one then disregards when it is convenient, to oppose a highly qualified nominee simply because that person's ideology is contrary to one's own, to vilify a moderate as a radical while ignoring the radical nature of one's own position in the (hopefully) vain attempt to shift the political spectrum--all of this is to perpetuate the win-at-all-costs Rovian politics that sullied the Bush administration and led to intellectual hollowness of the GOP and its current exile from the national political landscape.

On second thought, let's hear more from Senator Sessions. I'm sure it will only make Judge Sotomayor and President Obama look that much more impressive by comparison...

Monday, July 6, 2009

Reflections on Independence Day

The Sunday closest to Independence Day has always been an odd moment for me. I like the national anthem as much as anyone else, but singing all three verses while standing up is a bit wearisome. And America the Beautiful gets crazy in the last verse: "Thine alabaster cities gleam/ Undimmed by human tears."

This is complicated even more when the conservative politics of many members influences patriotic sentiment in ways that I am not always comfortable with. Suffice it to say that I have gritted my teeth at times on the first Sunday of July.

That's why I was so pleased with this Fast Sunday. The testimonies were focused on the gospel, not the cultural aspects of Mormonism that can be problematic. I was especially touched by the closing prayer and how the good brother who offered it gave thanks for this nation, a land of freedom in which the gospel could be restored and then taken to all the world. In a succinct and heartfelt prayer, this man summarized the essence of gospel-based patriotism.

Over the weekend I read this blog entry at BYU's Religious Studies website, and I find it an insightful way of viewing the past holiday and the implications for Latter-day Saints. The entry gets at my own pet peeve, the tendency we have to replace genuine patriotism and love of country with demagoguery and nationalism, and I appreciate the warning tone.

I see this issue a lot like parenting. I don't love my children because they are better than another person's children, but because they are mine. We love our country not because it is better than Spain or Japan or Kenya, but because it is ours, and because we have an obligation to constantly make it better.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

To Do Lists

Over the last few years I have experimented with a number of different to-do list tools. I've used index card lists, Outlook's tasks feature, Freemind, My Life Organized, Google Calendar, Remember the Milk, Now Do This, and several combinations of these. And I'm still working on a system that I can easily transfer among the half-dozen computers I use (fours of which I use on a daily basis).

Earlier this week I read this piece from Slate, in which the author reviews a (seemingly arbitrary) handful of web-based to-do list tools. I find these reviews to be useful, but that utility is limited by the fact that the author's criteria for choosing a tool are different than my own.

So, in the spirit of the article, here's a request for some feedback. What kinds of tools do you use, and what are their advantages and limitations? And, given the following parameters, what suggestions do you have for me?

I need/want a system that has the following characteristics:
  1. Web based, preferably with an offline/export feature
  2. Visual (either nesting hierarchies, mind mapping, or color-coding)
  3. Expandable
  4. Flexible (I want to be able to move tasks from one category to another easily, or to take a sub-task and promote it)
  5. Deadline/calendaring
  6. Free (I don't want to pay for a tool that I fear will become obsolete in a year)
What do you think?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


It has been fascinating and inspiring--and simultaneously distressing and sorrowful--to follow the news from Iran. Unexpectedly, a highly spurious election--the kind of thing we have come to expect of many places throughout the world--has met resistance, as people have made noise, proudly and bravely, longing for a right that is so fundamental as to be taken for granted in these United States of America. And, with July 4th not much more than a week away, this has prompted me to reflect on the nature of freedom.

A common theme of the commentary on Iran has been a bemoaning of the laissez-faire approach of the Obama administration, ridicule and contempt for the lack of forceful denunciations from the world's superpower. The right-wing pundits have hopped on this as a sign of both the president's lack of spine and his acquiescence to the foes of liberty. At this I raise my eyebrows.

It seems to me a misreading of what freedom is. At work I share an office with another English faculty member, our chair, who leans left in his politics, but who is far from a rabble-rousing radical. But for over four years he had one political cartoon on the office door (it came down in January). The scene is titled "Johnny Freedom-Seed," and depicted George W Bush dancing about with a basket, tossing in the air miniature missiles that blossomed not into trees, but small explosions. It is, I believe, a fitting metaphor for the previous administration's worldview of freedom, a commodity that can be given, imposed, transplanted.

But freedom cannot come from another. As we learned from the Civil War and Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, freedom is not granted simply by our words, but by our actions, the deeds of Gettysburg and Antietam, of Selma and Montgomery. Freedom is not the toppling of a statue of Saddam Hussein, but in the purple fingers of Iraqis voting years later. The Cold War taught us this as well, as it was not merely ICBMs, but East Germans with sledge hammers, that brought an empire to its knees.

And so I applaud a president who, as John Dickerson argues, understands that we cannot win Iran's people their freedom; they must fight for it. Whether that revolution is happening now or happens decades from now, it will only happen when normal people, pushed too far, like the patriots we honor in our parades next week, decide that freedom is not simply a right of mankind, but a privilege we partake of only to the extent that we understand, honor, value, and struggle for it.

Friday, June 12, 2009

On Expectations & Doctrines

Every month our ward holds a ward find activity. We identify individuals whose records are in our ward but whom we do not know, and we send people out to knock on doors and find them. It's a good and important thing to do, and we've had some really positive experiences with it.

This Sunday I went out with the full-time missionaries to find some of our members, one of whom was at home. She was surprised to see us, and I was surprised by her explanation of why she is not active: "serious theological differences with the Church." Rarely do you get that kind of candor; often it's feeling unwelcoming or being offended or being uninterested in worshiping.

This got me thinking about why people leave the Church. Here are some thoughts, beginning with an interesting entry I read at By Common Consent on how the cultural expectations we have as members of the Church can be problematic. The author discusses how she felt underprepared for some of the big life events that define one as LDS, and many of the comments mirror that sense of pressure that many young members feel at the prospect of the milestones, especially those associated with the temple.

In many ways this sentiment is very different than my experience. I was immensely excited to go to the temple. (When, during the first week of my freshman year, I was called as the president of the Elders quorum in my student ward, I sort of hoped that it would require that I be endowed.) Leaving on a mission and getting married in the temple were equally exciting for me.

But I do know something of feeling alien within the culture. This was most evident in the post-9/11-pre-Iraq-War period when we had just moved to ABQ. (I've blogged about this before, so I'll spare you the details here.) I felt like I did not share the same values or priorities as those with whom I worshiped.

I think about this in the context of another piece from BCC, this one from earlier this month. Here the idea of cognitive dissonance is used to explore faith. I like the argument that we develop faith when that faith is tested, when we are not ready for or comfortable with what we see or do.

And I think this becomes a useful and valuable way to look at faith. It is not believing when it is easy, or practicing your religion in ways that are familiar. Our spiritual growth--like any sort of growth, really--comes only when we are pushed. Only when we come to the questions we cannot answer do we find what we truly believe.

I suppose this is what struck me about that conversation. We tend to think of Mormon doctrine as being pretty homogeneous and top-down: the Prophet receives revelation and we fall in line. But there's a lot more diversity of views than that image would imply. As the Church continues to grow and define itself more articulately, it is important that we be aware of this fact; a 13-million member body with temples in Manhattan and Accra is radically different than one with the majority of its population in small farming communities in the Rocky Mountains.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

We Believe in Meetings

We don't always (often? ever?) like them, but as Latter-day Saints we hold a lot of them. And I find myself in more of them than I would like these days. In my effort to make meetings more manageable, I've found a few resources that I believe are helpful.

The first comes from Mormon Times, and explains the role of Church meetings and makes some suggestions for how one ought to act in a council or committee meeting. The emphasis on an agenda stands out as being especially pertinent (and with our new ward clerk, I think the quality of the agendas--which I have been hobbling together recently--will improve).

The other is an episode of the Public Speaker podcast, and discusses meetings more generally. Again, the importance of planning the meeting is made clear. This is an area where most Church meetings lack. We hold PEC because we're supposed to, not always because we have a clear vision of what we're supposed to do.

Slowly I'm beginning to see the meetings I attend as necessary and vital parts of ministering, of knowing what needs to be done and who can best do it.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

More on SCOTUS

I found this piece in the WSJ today; it excerpts from then-Senator Obama's comments at the confirmation hearings of then-SCOTUS nominee John Roberts. What I find interesting is Obama's emphasis on the 5% of the law that is not cut-and-dried, where the idea of empathy comes into play. It is this idea that to me highlights the ideological divide between left and right, a divide that the George Will and Cal Thomas wing of conservatism have tried to use as a wedge, much to the detriment of the right.

Here's how I see it. The ability to consider the implications of a judgment on the various parties involved (to empathize, which is markedly different than sympathizing) is at the heart of judgment. Parenting has taught me that when a conflict is not clearly delineated between perpetrator and victim, wisdom lies in listening and considering carefully the ways in which justice can affect everyone involved. And sometimes blind justice (the metaphor that so many conservative pundits have tried to contrast with the idea of empathy) is simply mistaken.

I see another connection in how disciplinary action is carried out in the Church. The purpose of a disciplinary council is not some cold hard justice or retribution for an infraction. Rather, the council intends always to bless the lives of everyone involved, both transgressor and any parties affected by the transgression. Mercy certainly rules in these councils, and the guiding principle is that of helping people move on with their lives.

In discussion of welfare, we often talk of how government systems ought to emulate the Church's welfare program. I think a similar principle would work well in the courts. If the justice system were more empathetic--not less--and more focused on helping people rebuild their lives, instead of the vindictive and retributive nature of contemporary American justice, I believe we would have a much more perfect union.

Sunday, May 31, 2009


The fun is back in national politics, as the right grapples with the first big moment of the Obama administration--the nomination of Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. She's a great pick in terms of both qualifications and political savvy, and it's been interesting (and, I would say, enlightening) to watch the debate of how the confirmation process will go. But I've also enjoyed listening to the old debates about the judiciary, and my hope is that the confirmation hearings will highlight this issue more.

For me, the most interesting piece on this came from the Wall Street Journal online. Titled, "Republicans, Let's Grow Up," this editorial calls for a thoughtful and articulate conservative critique of Sotomayor. The argument is that this is an opportunity for Republicans to ask important questions about the role of the judicial branch, an argument the WSJ believes that the GOP can win.

I find this fascinating, in part because it stands in such stark contrast to my experience with the Republican party. I have known the party of Gingrich and Limbaugh and Cheney, the bucolic, loud, angry old white men who seem to view government as some sort of bogeyman that wants nothing more than to take away their assault rifles, abort babies indiscriminately, and take all of their wealth in the form of taxation. I have never known a thoughtful, articulate conservatism.

In particular, the use of the phrase "judicial activism" has always bothered me. So too has "legislating from the bench." Both of these strike me as hollow rhetoric meant to demonize an entire (and vital) branch of American democracy. In my mind, a judiciary must be activist, because anytime a law is overturned or ruled unconstitutional, action has been taken. and if a court cannot make those sorts of decisions, then the courts are of no use.

For example, let's assume that a group of states in a particular region of the country wanted to keep a large group of people from voting, attending schools with the majority group, or patronizing certain establishments, the legislative and executive bodies of those states would pass and enforce discriminatory laws aimed at alienating those citizens. This would leave the only recourse for justice in that hands of the court. Thus, Brown v. Board of Education came to be.

An of course conservatives believe in judicial activism. They've been working for decades to overturn Roe v. Wade, which is only possible through a judicial reinterpretation of that decision and the overturning of precedent (admittedly, a constitutional amendment would do the trick, but the founders made that process intentionally difficult, so a revision to the foundational document of the nation banning a rare medical procedure is, shall we say, unlikely). But it would take a very activist judge to find any state's restrictive abortion ban constitutional.

Likewise, any time a court strikes down a municipal or state gun-control law as being overly restrictive of second amendment rights, that court is being activist, but you don't hear the right-wing demagogues shouting down such decisions. Truly, "activism" is a relative and meaningless term.

So, let's hear the arguments. What is the role of the judiciary, and how should judges interpret the constitution?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

More Good Reads--Travel Version

My most recent bout of reading (following on the heels of reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings) has been to tackle some Bill Bryson. I've seen his travel books in the bookstore for some time now and wondered if I would enjoy his prose. And how...

It started the week that Summer was at Women's Conference and I took the kids to the library. I found The Mother Tongue by the said Bryson, a rollickingly good read about things linguistic. Bryson delves into the history of the English language and the odd quirks that make it such a fun language. The writing is witty and fun, which, given the topic (historical and comparative linguistics--woo hoo!). A bit too brief for the devoted word nerd on break between terms, this would actually be fun as a text (or supplement) for a lower-division History of the English Language course.

After that, I decided to tackle some of Bryson's travel writing, of which thereis quite a bit. I found at the library In a Sunburned Country, which recounts a few trips in the late 1990s to Australia, all in the years leading up the the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

As a bit of a preface, my father served his mission in Australia (the Australia West Mission), and he's told me some fun stories of the people and land. But after reading Bryson's book (in which he hits all of the major cities and some of the remote backcountry), I'm convinced dad's been holding out on me.

For example, Bryson spends considerale time outlining the various ways a traveler (or, I assume, resident Aussie) can meet an unfortunate end--poisonous spiders, snakes, and sea creatures; Cassowaries; sharks; rip tides; dehydration; being run over by a road train; and, I suppose, bar fights (Bryson does a lot of drinking, and he tends to forget much of what transpires at the watering hole, so I have to surmise on this one). He makes Down Under seem awfully dangerous.

Then there's the human history, how a penal colony transformed into a modern civilization, hosting two Olympic games and having as its most famous (or second-most famous, possibly, after Uluru) landmark an opera house.

Among that history we have a political system that melds the oddest elements of the American and English systems, a Prime Minister who once vanished without a trace (see the aforementioned rip tides) and a territory that decided it did not wish for statehood when it was offered.

The picture Bryson paints is that of a multifaceted, imperfect, but fascinating land, one where a great diversity of topography, climate, cultures, and histories intersect. I came away from reading In a Sunburned Country convinced Austrlaia is hot, dry, hostile, remote, dangerous, and definitely somewhere I wish to visit. I could probably even live in Perth, given the chance...

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

From Dad

My father sent me this email on Monday, and, with his permission, I share it here, hopefully for a good laugh. If it offends you greatly, it's his fault...


If Laura, Kate and Sarah go out for lunch, they will call each other Laura, Kate and Sarah.
If Mike, Dave and John go out, they will affectionately refer to each other as Fat Boy, Godzilla and Four-eyes.
When the bill arrives, Mike, Dave and John will each throw in $20, even though it's only for $32..50. None of them will have anything smaller and none will actually admit they want change back.
When the girls get their bill, out come the pocket calculators.
A man will pay $2 for a $1 item he needs.
A woman will pay $1 for a $2 item that she doesn't need but it's on sale.
A man has six items in his bathroom: toothbrush and toothpaste, shaving cream, razor, a bar of soap, and a towel .
The average number of items in the typical woman's bathroom is 337. A man would not be able to identify more than 20 of these items.
A woman has the last word in any argument.
Anything a man says after that is the beginning of a new argument.
A woman worries about the future until she gets a husband.
A man never worries about the future until he gets a wife.
A successful man is one who makes more money than his wife can spend.
A successful woman is one who can find such a man.
A woman marries a man expecting he will change, but he doesn't.
A man marries a woman expecting that she won't change, but she does.
A woman will dress up to go shopping, water the plants, empty the trash, answer the phone, read a book, and get the mail.
A man will dress up for weddings and funerals.
Men wake up as good-looking as they went to bed.
Women somehow deteriorate during the night.
Ah, children. A woman knows all about her children. She knows about dentist appointments and romances, best friends, favorite foods, secret fears and hopes and dreams.
A man is vaguely aware of some short people living in the house.
THOUGHT FOR THE DAY A married man should forget his mistakes. There's no use in two people remembering the same thing!

(My favorite part is the one about kids--vaguely aware of short people in the house! I'm always tripping over them and wondering who left them lying around.)

Monday, April 20, 2009

A Couple of Baseball Pieces

Here are two things I've found online recently related to the national pastime. First, on Slate, a contest to describe the great game in 150 words or less. I'm busy working on my own piece, and hope to post it here soon. Feel free to write your own and add it as a comment.

Second, an article from ESPN's Rick Reilly (whom I typically disdain)on the Arizona Diamondbacks' scholarship program. It's a feel-good story about a big business doing something positive for the community. And while season tickets are not nearly as crucial as food and shelter, they sure trump a lot of other things. I'd take season tickets to a big-league team (or even the local 'Topes) over a second car, cell phone, cable TV, or faster Internet connection. As luxuries go, it makes the top of my list...

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Free-Range: It's Not Just For Poultry

Here's an interesting blog that I found recently. Free-Range Kids, run by columnist and mother Lenore Skenazy, operates under the assumption that those of us who are parents today were raised with the freedom to explore the world unsupervised, and that many of our safety-obsessed parenting methods limit that freedom and, ultimately, hurt our kids and their ability to grow into confident, capable adults.

In some ways, this takes me back to my most recent entry here and the idea of stepping back from my micromanaging parenting. If I were to not only allow my children a bit of sloppiness, but also encourage them in exploring the world around them, would they become more savvy and able to negotiate the world?

Taking this farther and into my professional life, I wonder if a lot of the young students I see—the ones who make poor decisions in their personal and academic lives, the ones who are surrounded by “helicopter parents,” the ones with severely stunted interpersonal skills–are the result of the kind of parenting Skenazy denounces. And is her argument validated by college students and young adults who don't leave home, go to college, get jobs, get married, start families, etc.?

This could also apply to the phenomenon of the “boomerang kids,” those young adults who, having left home for college or to start a career, return to their parents' home after graduation or at some sort of personal crisis and move into their old bedrooms and routines. I don't know if this trend has become more pronounced during the current recession (during the housing boom it happened why a new grad couldn't afford a house), but I would not be surprised if this is becoming even more common.

(As an aside, I realize there are many situations in which living with your parents for a short period is the right thing to do, and that everyone's situation is different, but the sheer scope of this is what troubles me. My generation's general fear of commitment appears to extend to committing to being grown-up and making the sacrifices involved in moving out and moving on.)

Finally, I am interested in the spiritual implications of this theory. In my efforts to teach my children and keep them from making the big mistakes that can ruin their lives, do I too often get overzealous and limit their ability to learn from the smaller mistakes? It seems I’ve heard of the approach that would ensure that everyone only made good decisions and never messed up, and I think I remember that plan being a bit of a failure…But I distinctly remember making a lot of miscues and saying and doing a lot of stupid, foolish, and reckless things in my formative years, and I often learned more from those experiences than I did from the (few) times when I did things right.

And while I think there is some validity to the argument that the world in which our children live is more complicated and (at least potentially) more dangerous than the one in which we grew up, I wonder to what extent that is a creation of mass media and a culture of shock and scandal. The threats our children face are in many ways the same as always, and those risks that are more pronounced may in fact necessitate the kind of street smarts that Free-Range Kids believes can be fostered through a more independence-minded approach to parenting.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Why Focus On It?

I like to read Slate, even though it is often full of boring political pieces I don't care about or cultural reviews of movies/albums/TV shows I'm not interested in. But Slate will occasionally hit a home run with an article I find thought-provoking and insightful. This is an example of that.

In this article on parenting, "The Messy Room Dilemma," the authors discuss the tendency we have as parents to make a big deal of our children's annoying habits. This piqued my interest immediately, as I am well aware that my parenting revolves primarily around getting my children to stop doing things that bug me, often in ways that are illogical and out of proportion to the offense being committed.

What interested me the most from the article (it's on page 2 of the sing-page view) is the question asked by the authors: Why should I focus on it? The argument is that most of the annoying habits children have will go away with time (and, though the authors don't say it, perhaps razzing from their peers has to be part of it--ever see a school-aged kid who still sucks his thumb?), and that sometimes we as parents just need to ride out the storm.

I like this question, and I think that when I'm at my best as a parent (read: when I do what Summer suggests I do) it's because I step back, take a breath, get some perspective, and stop worrying about how this thing annoys me.

I see a similar thing in my work. When a student's cell phone goes off in class, instead of reprimanding, I tend to pause enough to make the offender feel embarrassed or joke it away (my favorite is when the ring tone is some hip-hop song and I say, with an appropriate intonation, "Who'd have though that we would have the same ring tone?"). When we're working in the computer classroom I'm perfectly fine with students listening to their music (a student asked me one day if he could "bump his pod," which is apparently slang for listen to music on one's iPod--cool, huh?).

So, the question is: if I can smile and let it slide with my students, why can't I do the same with my kids? Clearly something to work on. And while I am not encouraging permissiveness in parenting (a common problem among many parents), I think the question of why should I focus on this gets at the heart of parenting. My goal is for my children to grow up happy and capable, able to make good decisions, and my habitual nitpicking is often detrimental to that goal, limiting their ability to make decisions. Here' to more flexibility and understanding in my parenting, and to a few more messes and mistakes. It'll be fun...right?

Friday, March 13, 2009

A Bit From the Corners of the Blogosphere

First, a disclaimer. I tend to avoid what some have called the “bloggernacle,“ that online space in which LDS folks like myself (you know, young, smart, a bit smarmy, and, of course, humble) blog about topics related to church doctrine, Mormon culture, politics vis-à-vis Mormonism, and, only occasionally, the truths of the gospel. It seems a bit of a navel-gazing world in which motes are dissected while beams are ignored, or, to paraphrase another New Testament passage, the weightier matters of the law get short shrift.

But yesterday I found this entry on By Common Consent (you can read my comment here), in which the author explores the relationship between the housing bubble and the rapid temple construction of the 1990s and the first part of the current decade. Wondering if the church engaged in an over-reaching akin to that of homebuyers who took on irresponsible mortgage, the entry sets out some interesting--but ultimately inconclusive--data. What I find is interesting here is how the analysis of the data assumes that the 1990 status quo was somehow right, and that a period of disproportionate temple-building was anomalous.

I think about this at times when I go to the temple here and find a party of 10 or so for a session. This is certainly a far cry from the experience of temple worship in Provo, but it’s disingenuous to think that one experience is somehow better than the other. There’s something very personal about attending the temple here that is lost in a place like Salt Lake or Los Angeles (pre-Newport Beach and Redlands--LA might be less busy now).

The other thing the BCC author neglects--either intentionally or incidentally--is the simple belief that prophets of God, who ultimately make the decision to build a temple in a certain place at a certain time, enjoy a sense of perspective that we typically miss out on. I wonder to what extent the 128 temples we have today are a groundwork for future growth. I agree with the basic premise that temple building has accelerated beyond the rate of conversion or retention during my adult life, but I don’t see that as being a problem; instead, I find great hope in that fact.

For example, the announcement of a temple in Rome--news that I received with great emotion--seems to me to be less a questionable move, based on the current strength of the church in Italy, than an indicator that something big is afoot there. I don’t delude myself into anticipating huge exponential increases in convert baptisms the day after the dedication, but I see the presence of a temple as a commitment by the church, an investment in the future of the church in a community.

In ABQ, for example, the youth in our ward are able to attend the temple every 6 weeks or so, which is much more frequently than I was able to go on temple trips as a teenager. The simple logistics of a 30-minute (versus 2+ hour) drive makes a difference. And this sort of regular, consistent temple attendance among youth has to make a difference long-term. Not only are these young people more likely to remain active, but the sense of dedication to the gospel will permeate their experience and worldview, making them better member-missionaries, better full-time missionaries, and better parents. And while there is value to the idea of great sacrifice in traveling long distances to attend the temple, proximity has its rewards too.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

A New Toy

So I finally did it. After a lot of hemming and hawing, I decided to buy netbook. While we were out Friday, I stopped by a few places and looked at various models, but to no avail. But ever the persistent one, I decided to try again Saturday.

Thus Ryan and I left the house yesterday morning to go on an expedition. A quick stop to Staples and WalMart left me unimpressed. Staples only had the HP mini with 512 MB of RAM and 8 GB hard drive; it was only $299, but I wanted more RAM for sure and more hard drive if possible. WalMart carried an older model of the Acer One (the 120 GB hard drive model), reviews of which were not always positive. The most fruitful stop was Radio Shack, where a helpful salesman showed me the Acer One, with 1 GB RAM and 160 hard drive, for $350. The $350 was a bit high; I was hoping for closer to $300. Not liking any of these options, we drove on.

We stopped by another WalMart and Staples, but it was all the same story there. Ryan and I had a good chat about why I wanted to spend $300 on a computer (“That’s a lot of money,” said he) and why I didn’t actually have $300 in my pocket at the time. He then asked, when I explained that I would simply use the check card, how the bank knew which money was ours. Quite the mind that kids has.

In desperation, our time running short (it was now 10 am, and we needed to be home by 11 so Summer could pack up for a cookie booth), we decided to make one more stop. Skipping Best Buy, we pulled up to Office Max. There we found it. The same Acer model we had looked at earlier at Radio Shack, but for $299. It was the final day of that sale price and, as I found out after checking out, the last one they had in stock. Rejoicing, we went home with a new toy.

So here’s the final verdict. The machine is small (8.9" screen), light (2.4 lbs), and fast. I’ve got enough hard drive to use the hibernation feature, which saves battery power when I shut the lid and starts back up in about two seconds. I’ve loaded some new programs on, and I think I’ll install Open Office to take care of my word processing and presentation needs. I may also see if I can install the software I use on my PDA for the scriptures. I used the new toy today in bishopric and welfare meetings to take notes, and it’s going well.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Interpretation of Dreams

I don't often have memorable dreams. Or, rather, I have such a lousy memory and as such don't remember what my brain was up to at night. But Wednesday night was different. And fear not, this is all G rated...

In my dream, we as a bishopric learned that some mega church in town was offering free health insurance to members of its congregation, and, for some reason, we wanted to find out more about this. So we set up appointments for each of us to meet with some of their big wigs to find out more.

However, in our desire to be efficient, we set separate appointments, and I was to meet with the #3 at this church, sort of the business head of the operation. I don't know who the other two members of the bishopric were meeting with; they vanished from the dream at this point.

After arriving at the high-rise where this church was headquartered, I waited in the lobby for my appointment. The fellow I met with was pretty dismissive of my inquiries about their program, and sent me packing hastily. So I sat in the lobby waiting for the others.

While I waited, I did what I typically do when I wait--I got out my PDA and tried to connect to a nearby wireless network to go online. (By the way, in my dream, my old Dell Axim was replaced by some fancy piece of equipment--I referred to it as "James Bond's PDA" when relating this dream to Summer yesterday.)

The network I connected to wound up being this church's network, and I suddenly found myself perusing their files. For some reason this seemed perfectly normal to me, and not at all ethically problematic. I found some files about this health insurance plan and exulted in my cleverness.

Until the guy I had met with earlier came storming out of his office and demanded to know what I was doing hacking into their secure network. I explained that I had connected unintentionally (but neglected to mention finding the files), and he took the device from my hand and tossed it to the ground. When it didn't break, he picked it up and threw it down again.

I picked up my PDA and walked out, a bit embarrassed, but mainly upset at this behavior. Walking to the parking lot, I found my car (in this dream I, ever the eco-friendly guy, drove a Smart Car) pushed up onto the sidewalk. Apparently throwing my handheld device on the ground wasn't enough for this bully, who had at some point gotten his heavies to move my car. So, I pushed my tiny car back on the pavement, got in, and drove off.

This dream raises several questions for me. Do I see other churches as competitors to ours? (I also saw a flyer in their headquarters for an upcoming lecture: "Destroying Mormonism From the Inside") Do I covet other people's fancy gadgets and fuel efficient cars? Do I secretly want to be a cyber-thief or spy of some sort? Do I empathize with the plight of the newly-unemployed and uninsured to the point that I want the church to investigate ways to provide insurance for them? Had I simply spent too much time at the meetinghouse Wednesday night? What would Freud say?

Friday, February 13, 2009

It's That Time of Year Again, Or, Another Nerdy Plan

Every year around this time I get two hankerings. The first is to go to baseball games. Winter is clearly on its way out; in just over a month I’ll be in Phoenix for a weekend of spring training baseball and general guy-bonding with dad and Nathan. And just next week UNM home games start, so I’m about ready to get my fix.

The second yen that I get is to buy stuff. You see, in early February we sit down and do our taxes and get all giddy about our return. The child tax credit is a wonderful thing. But this year, instead of wishing for a scooter, I have more practical plans.

So does Summer, who wants to start canning. We found a starter set, which comes with a 21-quart pot, jars, and various utensils, at Along the same lines, Summer and I did a search for home flour mills yesterday, finally agreeing that we like the products by Kitchen Resources.

My goals are nerdier. You see, here’s my dilemma. I’m very organized in my virtual spaces. My folders are well-arranged, my work blogs are humming nicely, I even upload and file documents well at scribd. But when I’m forced to use paper, I’m a mess. And church stuff typically involves lots of paper.

When I served as ward clerk, I would routinely take my laptop to meetings and keep notes there. But a full-size laptop is a bit unwieldy for a three-hour block with a host of unpredictable events and meetings. But the PDA, while portable, is not practical for taking a lot of notes, and the small screen and memory keep it from being completely versatile. So I’m considering (and have Summer’s blessing to buy) a netbook.

My plan is to tote the 2.3 lb piece (about the same size as a hardback book, and certainly smaller than the binder and folder I’m currently using) around, break it out to take notes and organize myself using my new favorite tool, Freemind. I can also load up my scriptures and other books and have access to an entire library.

The are definite drawbacks. I’d still be using a screen-based technology in a largely print-based world. And the resistance from the more retrograde members of the ward might sink the plan. But if I can get things done more consistently and effectively, it’s at least a try.

And since the low-end machines I’m looking at (like this Dell mini) are in the $300 range, it’s not a huge gamble. If I find after two weeks that the experiment is a failure, the netbook goes to the kids as a second at-home computer, or Summer and I can use it and the desktop to work simultaneously. I could leave my laptop at work more often and lug less stuff around (I dream of leaving for work and coming home again with nothing more than my PDA, iPod, and flash drive).

So, does anyone out there have experience with netbooks, or suggestions regarding especially good values? I want small—a 9” screen is the biggest I’d consider, and I even like the 7” ones I’ve seen. The idea of a linux-based machine is interesting, but I’m so embedded in Windows that I fear compatibility issues when I move files back and forth. And, since I’m famously cheap, I want to spend less than $350. Actually, I’d like to spend less than $250, but that’s not very likely.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Headline Idiocy

Actually, it's the sub-title. A commentary piece in today's local paper on the Michael Phelps marijuana photo (it's by Jo-Ann Barnas of the Detroit Free Press, if you want the citation) carried this title: "Young Fans Hurt By Phelps' Actions." Fine so far.

But here's the aformentioned sub-title: "Parents Now Must Talk to Their Kids." (In my most sarcastic voice) "Heaven forbid you have to talk to your kids. Oh no! What's next--spending time with them? Dear me!"

As an added bonus, the article included this line: "Parents of school-age swimmers know they must have yet another heart-to-heart with their children." (More sarcasm) "Not another heart-to-heart. That's two in the past 5 years. Oh my!"

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Hearing Voices

Actually, one voice. Here's the scoop. This morning as I was walking to the bus stop, I listened to President Obama's inaugural address on my iPod (I was in class at the time last week and had never gotten around to listening to the audio). I'll spare you my commentary on the speech, but, to be succinct, I found it inspiring and hopeful, if a bit wonky.

After I got to the bus, I turned to my daily scripture study (I read a few chapters from my PDA on the commute to work each day--now I just need a good system to consistently study over the weekend and on break). But having listened to the President's particular cadences and intonations, drawn as they are from a rich rhetorical tradition (think Martin Luther King and the oratory style of the black church), I found myself hearing 2 Nephi chapter 2 in Barack Obama's voice, complete with his characteristic pauses and inflections. And it worked pretty well. The literary style of that chapter in particular--and Lehi's words in general--fit the kind of patterns used by our new President in his speeches.

So now I'm just waiting for the audio recording of Barack Obama reading the whole Book of Mormon. Should I make that suggestion at the new and improved White House web site? Or do Mormons for Obama have that in their business plan already?

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Good Eats

This entry has two themes. First, some good eats in our home this past week. On Wednesday I came home and encountered an unexpected aroma. It was blueberry pie, made from scratch that day by Summer using some blueberries she bought at the store a few days earlier. The berries were nearing their end that day, so my provident wife made use and made a great bit of pie.

Then yesterday, in celebration of National Pie Day, she made a cherry pie (canned berries and a store-bought crust this time, but it was a busy day). With some vanilla bean ice cream, it has made a yummy treat. Few things in life are as good as homemade pie.

Next, I'm still plugging away at Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and it's--no pun intended--growing on me. As the memoir progresses, Kingsolver seems less pious about her family's experiment and more grateful for the bounty they reap from their labors. the text is at its best when it's personal and narrative instead of didactic and preachy.

Right now it's August in the book and the tomatoes are in full force. July was zucchini season, and both of those chapters have reminded me of the garden Mom & Dad had at the farm house when I was growing up. It was a real blessing to be able to wander out and pick fresh tomatoes and peppers for a stir fry. I hope in 15 years or so I can be half the gardener they are.

In the meantime, with full-on spring not too far off, it's time to think about what to plant. We got some nice tomatoes last year, but the peppers never amounted to anything. In the past we've pulled off pumpkins, squash, zucchini, and cantaloupe. Any suggestions from the readership?

Finally, here are some links from the AVM website:
  • Slow Food, a movement away from processed, frozen, premade food
  • Local Harvest, with information about and links to local growers nationwide
  • Sunstone Herb Farm, a relatively new operation in the South Valley--I'll check it out one of these days

Saturday, January 17, 2009

More on Good Reads

Time for a confession and a repetition of the thing I'm confessing to. In a recent post, I ranted about the book I was reading at the time, Travels in the greater Yellowstone. Here I vented about the author's condescending and seemingly overly simplistic view toward environmentalism and ecology. Well, as it turns out, as the book continues, Turner's views become more nuanced, to the extent that, in the final chapters, he admits to a certain level of hypocrisy, some of which mirrors the critiques I made in my entry. So i came away from the book with a pretty positive impression of Jack Turner, as well as a resolve to not make hasty judgements about books or authors before I have sufficient evidence before me.

Now to forget that resolution entirely...

My new read is Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, an account of her family's one-year project to produce their own food and get off the grid, food-wise. Now, I've read a fair amount of Kingsolver's work (I recently read Homeland and found it a good December book, the kind that you can plow through during break without feeling like you're betraying the integrity of being on vacation), and I find her work well-written, if a bit trite and emotionally over the top.

So far AVM meets those expectations. I'm done with chapter 1, in which Kingsolver, her husband, and their two children, move from Tucson to a family farm in Appalachia. The departure is painful, as 25 years in a place you've come to call home will always be, but this is tempered by an awareness that the rapid growth of the Sun Belt over the past 30 years has outpaced the area's natural resources. At times this sounded like the story of ABQ, although, having visited Tucson, I feel that our climate and topography have hedged us in nicely (the city can only grow so far north, south, and east, due to reservation land and mountains), and ABQ's growth has been more intelligent, relatively speaking.

The basic thesis of the book (which Kingsolver has repeated in various forms at least 6 times in 25 pages--I get it, already!) is that our food industry is broken, inefficient, and unsustainable, and I agree with this. Having seen Summer's efforts to eat better over the past few months (I don't even complain when she replaces oil with baby food in homemade bread anymore) trickle down to the rest of us, and having felt better myself as a result, I agree with Kingsolver that we can eat smarter and feel better, all while treating the earth better.

I suppose this is the lesson I hope to learn from this book, that even in our small circumstances, we can grow some foods (the best cantaloupe I ever ate grew on the rocks in our front yard a few summers ago, and last year's tomatoes were amazing) and buy more locally-grown foods. In the meantime, I intend to hunt around on the website for AVM (the book has a 25-page resources and readings list, so I wager the website's pretty informative too) and see if I can learn a thing or two.