Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Lazy Late Summer Workday #3

Half-way done!

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Lazy Late Summer Workday #2

Yes, it's still only Tuesday.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Lazy Late Summer Workday #1

Well, it's definitely the dog days of summer now. Temperatures in the upper 90s and 100s. Summer teaching is over, and the fall semester won't begin for three weeks. (Meaning I don't have to think about my syllabi for at least two.) All the girls' summer camps and programs and shows are done. The tomatoes are finally ripening, the cucumbers have gone nuts, and after working to save the zucchini and peppers from various infestations, I'm just happy to see any growth on them at all. So I'm feeling lazy. Isn't this when all of Western Europe takes a vacation for about a month? Ah, to live in a civilized country.

But no, unfortunately, all the stuff I was too busy to do earlier has come around. A book review. An article proof. Plus, of course, I can't just pretend that the garden still doesn't need to be weeded every morning. Much as I'd just kind of like to escape, to steal away, to sail on, and just sleep away the next month or so, the work day still calls. Unfortunately.

So you knew this one was coming, right? Good for you. Now get to work; you're running late.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

My Weird Al Favorites

Weird Al Yankovic is performing a sold-out show in Wichita tonight, and I snagged front-row balcony seats from my daughter Alison (our own "weird Al") and I. Like so many geeks, my affection for the man stretches back for decades (me and another equally miserable/insufferable sixth-grade loner-misfit did a skit for our class based on "Another One Rides the Bus" back in 1981) and across continents (thank you, Armed Forces Korea Network radio, for carrying the Dr. Demento show regularly back in the late 1980s, so this disobedient Mormon missionary could secretly listen in). I've never seen him live before, and I'm not sure when I've last looked forward to a concert quite this much. He's got a huge catalog to draw upon, but if it were up to me, I would make sure this is what we'll here about two hours from now. I make no apologies for it skewing towards earlier stuff; deal with. Also, I can't rank these, so I'll just stick with alphabetic order:

1) Dare to be Stupid
2) Don't Download this Song
3) Eat It
4) Fat
5) Foil
6) Headline News
7) Midnight Star
8) Mr. Frump in the Iron Lung
9) One More Minute
10) White & Nerdy

Maybe I'll have to post the set list later to report on how it went.

[Update, 7/1/2015, 10:48pm, CST: The full set list at tonight's (tremendously entertaining!) show was as follows:

Lame Claim to Fame
Mandatory Fun polka medley
Perform This Way
Dare to Be Stupid
First World Problems
Smells Like Nirvana
A massive, delightful, and surprisingly tight medley of: Party in the C.I.A., It's All About The Pentiums, Handy, Bedrock Anthem, Another One Rides the Bus, Ode To A Superhero, Gump, Inactive, and eBay
Canadian Idiot
Wanna B Ur Lovr
A medley of classic Weird Al songs, with some really clever acoustic arrangements, including: Eat It, I Lost On Jeopardy, I Love Rocky Road, and Like a Surgeon
White & Nerdy
Word Crimes
Amish Paradise
And ending with a rousing, extended, genuinely touching combination of The Saga Begins and an old favorite of mine which I failed to mention above (and how could I have forgotten? I sang it as part of a talent show at Scout Camp back in 1982!), Yoda

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

"It's Just National."

Nothing more need be said. Those who were there, were there, and they know.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Pixar Films, Ranked

This year Pixar is 20 years old, and with the release of Inside Out, they've now made 15 films. Over five years ago, I wondered, in complete admiration, "when will Pixar ever make a bad film?" Well, since that time they actually have made at least one which might actually be called "bad"--or at least genuinely lacking in either artistry or entertainment. Other than that, though, it remains the case that even their weakest movies score at least a B-, and distinguishing between their top ten is almost an impossible task. Almost. So herewith are my complete definitive rankings. Debate, disagree, and enjoy.

15. Cars 2. Okay to watch, with some decent gags, but basically entirely derivative, and it shows.
14. A Bug's Life. A classic story, but most of the characters are basically just animated jokes.
13. Monsters University. Would have been better if they'd stuck the original history, with Sully and Mike having met in their fifth grade geography class with Suzie Boyle.
12. Toy Story. The first, and a wonderful movie, though computer animation has improved so much in such a relatively short time.
11. Ratatouille. A lot of folks consider this an utter masterpiece, but for myself, I've never been able to overlook the lame, level-of-a-Hannah-Barbera-cartoon plot device of Remy controlling Linguini by pulling his hair.
10. Up. Both deeply moving and gut-bustingly hilarious, but the final scenes included more action-adventure movie tropes than were necessary.
9. Inside Out. An absolutely charming and inventive movie--though, perhaps appropriately given the characters and story, possibly Pixar's single most emotionally manipulative one as well.
8. Brave. I can remember this film being adored when it first came out, but later the appreciation of it cooled. It remains terrific for me, if only because straightforward, unapologetic, mother-daughter movies are so rare.
7. Cars. Almost nobody likes this move as much as me, but I love the low-key emotional feel of it, not to mention its defense of localism.
6. The Incredibles. Quite possibly the finest comic movie ever made. Certainly it's basically impossible for any adaption of the Fantastic Four comic book not to seem like a rip-off now.
5. Toy Story 3. Really wonderful, with bonus points for sticking what was bound to be about the most difficult and delicate ending imaginable.
4. Monsters Inc.. Flat-out Pixar's funniest movie. Beautiful and touching story, yes, with great characterizations, but first and foremost: just utterly, utterly hilarious.
3. Wall-E. Their most thematically and artistically ambitious and original movie to date; amazing to watch and listen to, and thoughtful too.
2. Finding Nemo. Pixar's strongest story, and most eye-catchingly beautiful as well. It probably should be number one, except that...
1. Toy Story 2 is a flawless movie. Not a single scene or line or joke or visual reference doesn't contribute to the whole. A movie which (along with at least a couple of others mentioned here) deserves to stand with Pinocchio or Spirited Away as one of the greatest animated films of all time.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Saturday Night Live Music: "Run for the Roses"

Way too mellow for many people's tastes, I know. But still, for today, more appropriate than ever.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

A Presidential Proposal Worthy of the Porch

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

The blogger, pundit, screenwriter, and all-around mensch Noah Millman has come up with a brilliant idea--Bernie Sanders, U.S. Senator from Vermont, and Jim Webb, former U.S. Senator from Virginia, both of whom (the first officially, the second unofficially) are part of that small mix of people who at least theoretically stand between Hillary Clinton and the Democratic party's presidential nomination, ought to meet together for some debates. Whether or not Clinton participates. Whether or not it connects either candidate to the actual caucus and primary machinery which will be slowly creaking to life over the next several months. Whether or not it makes a difference to Clinton's almost inevitable coronation in Philadelphia 14 months from now. They should debate, Noah says, because it would "educational and politically important" for people to see just how often these two men from supposedly opposite wings of the Democratic party--the first a self-proclaimed democratic socialist and progressive, the second a populist defender of the party's blue-collar base--actually agree. This is the sort of idea which any Porcher--that is, anyone who cares about local places, local traditions, and local democracy, whether they do so for radical or reactionary reasons or both--ought to wildly applaud.

Why? Let's lay out the obvious caveats. Yes, it's true that anyone who really takes the cultural and communitarian work of building up localism seriously can't care too much about who resides in the White House--a little, of course (the actions or inactions of the person at the top of our ever-more-dysfunctional national government can nonetheless enable or squelch any number of locally-experienced blessings or harms), but not much more than that. And yes, it's also true that, given the role of big money, big media, and other establishment forces in the presidential selection process, urging a couple of probably easily marginalized voices in a mainstream political party to spend their campaign time arguing with each other could seem the very definition of a boutique political program. But despite those good reasons to set Noah's suggestion aside, I think there is--particularly for those who, like me, find the find America's increasingly oligarchic and imperial corporate state deeply threatening to the kind of humane and empowering governance that democracy really ought to be all about--a much more important reason to use whatever tiny influence we have to urge his proposal forward: because there is, buried under mainstream state liberalism, a left conservative stream in American thought, and it would be delightful to bring together two spokesmen who, however imperfectly, can point to it.

What is that "left conservatism"? I've written plenty about it before; suffice to say that Norman Mailer got it mostly right: it is the idea that achieving Burkean ends (protecting and promoting the families and communities that are the repositories of those traditions which give richness to civic life) will require a Marxist perspective (particularly regarding the alienating and exploitative social power of concentrated wealth which capitalism fundamentally accepts as legitimate). Why might Sanders and Webb have something to contribute to that possibility? Because, as Jack Ross and Damon Linker have pointed out, Sanders's embrace of policies like a single-payer health care system, or the public financing of elections, or more government regulation and spending to combat burgeoning inequality, serves Jeffersonian purposes, one which points not towards today's economically centrist and culturally radical Democratic party, but rather towards "the original middle American radical Eugene V. Debs and the quintessential progressive isolationist Norman Thomas." (Sanders is hardly a Marxist revolutionary, but he does give voice to economic complaints which America's gospel of growth considers utterly heretical. When he harshly criticized economic priorities which celebrate "23 underarm spray deodorants or of 18 different pairs of sneakers" but do almost nothing to prevent environmental destruction and the concentration of wealth, the libertarian/free-market/rational-choice punditocracy went completely apoplectic, assuming that only a drooling moron could possibly fail to recognize that it is exactly consumer maximization which supposedly fuels the engines of self-interest and thus economic development...leaving completely aside, of course, the small point--pun intended!--that perhaps consumer efficiency isn't all it's cracked up to be.)

And as for Webb? Some elements of his populist positions are arguably even more radical than Sanders's, because--as a comparison of their voting records and official statements makes clear--Webb is even a stronger opponent of the surveillance state, imperial overreach, unnecessary military action, and all the other elements of America's superpower costuming than just about anyone else on the Democratic side of the aisle. (In fact, Webb is perhaps even stronger on this point than libertarian Republican hopeful Rand Paul.) Perhaps this is because he isn't approaching such matters primarily from an intellectual or ideological perspective, but rather one born of his commitment to attending to that which is most local to him: those aspects of the American experience--its people, its places, its institutions--that are not well served or defended by constantly identifying distant threats to globalized commitments, whether military or economic. Does that make Webb parochial, perhaps even defensive, in a country so thoroughly pluralistic? Perhaps. But as admitted Jim Webb fan-boy Millman put it, imagining Webb's response to the culture way questions which would invariably haunt anyone seeking the Democratic party's nomination (Webb has been critical of affirmative action and other race-based civil rights proposals), "I am not running to make the Democratic Party more appealing to people who look like me, or who have my cultural background. I became a Democrat because I realized that the Democratic Party already held the best promise of standing for ordinary Americans, and for rejecting the kinds of policies, foreign and domestic, that have done them so much harm. And I’m running for President to make sure the Democratic nominee keeps that promise."

Principled localists can be forgiven for reading that comment and dismissing it--as well as all the intriguing ideas being tossed around by Sanders's people--as just words. For certain, taking too seriously the claims and proposals of people whose passion and ambition and connections lead them to believe they can throw their hat into America's largest political ring of all is a sure route to disappointment--and for people who want to keep our eyes on local threats and local possibilities, it threatens to be a distraction too. But distracting as it may be, the presidency really does matter. And that means, at the very minimum, that calling for those determined to win that prize to fact genuinely challenging conversations and arguments along their way matters as well. Millman is, I think, not much of a friend to the whole Porcher idea, but he's suggesting a development here which anyone who is attracted to the notion of conserving and empowering lives lived in part on one's front porch, with one's family, in one's neighborhood, ought to support. Good for him--and good for Sanders and Webb doing what they can, however indirectly or unintentionally, for the left conservative cause as well.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Saturday Night Live Music: "I Like to Live the Love"

I saw B.B. King once, at Snowbird Resort in Utah, in 1992 I think. He was the concluding act of a big blues tour, and the penultimate performer was Buddy Guy, who utterly tore the place to pieces, walking among the audience with his electric guitar, wailing away like nobody’s business. Compared to him, King, who came on with his own big band, seemed staid and unexciting. I didn’t stay through his whole set—-and really, I probably should have. Who knows what musical memories I missed being able to make that night? Ah well, time wears us all down, eventually. R.I.P., Mr. King.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Hanging Out with, and Learning from, Some Thoroughly Material Benedictines

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

A few weeks ago I was able to, once again, do something that I enjoy doing immensely--take a group of students out on a local food tour, so they can learn firsthand about more sustainable approaches to building well-fed, healthy communities. Our hosts were the Elder family, and from them--or at least a portion of them: mother Becky, father Philip, son George, and daughter Alexis, to be specific--we were taught about the seasonal economics of blackberries, about some of the latest technological innovations in organic vegetable gardening, about the necessity of horses, about the political importance of small farms, and much more. Through it all, though, as we inquired about different types of lettuce, did some comparison tasting of goat's milk, and helped rescue a 4-month-old colt who'd gotten herself trapped under a fence, I kept thinking about something entirely different: Rod Dreher's "Benedict Option."

Amongst certain localist and conservative bloggers, Rod's arguments about the importance (sometimes he presents it as the necessity) of those who hold to traditional understandings of the Christian message to find ways to organize themselves separate from the usual--and what was at least for a long time nominally Christian--forms of civic and commercial and church life in America have sparked a great deal of debate in recent months. What would be involved in such separation, and what's the reason for it, and how will we know it when (or if) we ever see it? Rod, to his credit, hasn't presented himself as possessing any comprehensive answers to those questions--but it is pretty clear that his ideas are tending in a direction that Ken Myers described in an old lecture (which Rod extensively quoted from) as "moral and metaphysical." Or, to put in a slightly lengthier format, Rod seems to be coming around to seeing the argument for communities to root themselves in traditions and practices that keep them at least somewhat separate from the secular, commercial world as eschewing any kind of aspiration to a material permanence. As he wrote in response to Bruce Frohnen, who thoughtfully challenged Rod for relying, in his view, too much a kind of agrarian sentimentality, "I realize now that the best we can hope for in the world of America 2015 is to settle among people who love us, and whom we can love, and where we can worship God and do good work." Which is a beautiful vision, to be sure! But I wonder if in putting it that way, the argument for separateness is being undermined, however slightly.

Rod has visited the Elder's homestead--dubbed "Elderslie"--with me before. When he was here last year, Becky (who has been greatly impressed with Rod's work on behalf of explaining the importance of being rooted in one's place) showed off what she and her family have managed to build over the decades--farming properties, an independent school, a small milling business, a shared congregation, a sustainable network of local commercial producers of fruit, flowers, and more--and exclaimed "This is the Benedict Option!" I've no doubt he would still agree. But Elderslie is not centrally a congregational endeavor; their church life is a big part of what they have built, but the Elders and those who work with them and teach with them see themselves as attached to a much larger classical intellectual tradition, one that is clearly Christian but which is also just as clearly aimed at responding to matters of physical and environmental health, economic and educational independence, and fulfilling, socially contributing work. It is, in short, an act of resistance to that individualism which has, I would agree, warped our economic and environmental and social existence. To describe that kind of separateness as something which is motivated primarily by a congregational desire (to worship among like-minded folk, and preserve the attachments which make such worship meaningful!) would be reductive, I think.

Alan Jacobs refers to the Benedict Option as putting its priority on Christian "culture-making" and enabling those concerned about the values of the Christian tradition to be "fully the Christian account of things." Again, for people like myself who care about tradition, that's a vital and inspiring point. But is thinking hard about how to build and preserve the roots of--and the socio-economic and legal space for--a culture mostly a (as Rod sometimes seems to suggest) liturgical phenomenon? Perhaps you could argue that Elderslie and other family and community operations like it really are "liturgical" in some sense, because their direct engagement in the practices that keep them going really do result in a kind of discipline and ritual to their lives. If so, then I suspect that the Benedict Option which has struck me as a needful way of helping to shape how we think about community in the 21st century will only grow more convincing in my mind. But if not--if Rod's Benedict Option really is, essentially, about protecting the "church of Jesus Christ," as Alan put it--then I think, at least right now, that it's allowing current arguments about religious liberty to narrow its focus too much (though Rod is, clearly, still thinking about this stuff, writing recently that "the Benedict Option is far more a response to pervasive consumerism, individualism, and atomism than anything to do with gay rights," which I think puts things right).

Rod has insisted, in response to Frohnen, that he's not an agrarian--and of course, that's true. But Frohnen has a point, I think--whether or not Rod's thinking about the Benedict Option currently points him this directly, I suspect (and I have written before) that it is very difficult to get to the kind lasting, sustainable separateness which he thinks (and I at least partly agree) is needed if those traditions supportive Christian virtues are to be fully lived and inculcated into one's children without at least some kind of anti-capitalist, agrarian mentality. Becky Elder took the time to preach to my students for a short time about Andrew Lytle, one of the Southern Agrarians, and his important essay "The Small Farm Secures the State"--one of the essential 20th-century Jeffersonian declarations against an economy based on distant specialization, monopolistic centralization, and all things big. If we don't, in our innumerable and diverse ways, seek to enable our families and communities and co-ops to become more capable of feeding themselves, then a pattern of dependency inevitably follows. Honestly, just how far could any church group go in building for itself a genuinely separate cultural track if the individuals who make up that group ultimately, fundamentally, have no real independence in their livelihood, in making the money to put food in their own and their children's mouths? Will liturgy suffice if your boss changes your shift to Sunday, religious liberty be damned? Will a strong pastor be enough to provide an education which reflects Christian priorities when all the families in the congregation are too busy to volunteer to help out in classes, because food costs and health care costs and mortgages require every family send both spouse out into the work force full-time?

I don't throw these out as gotcha questions, suggesting that there is something essential and obvious being overlooked here. On the contrary, smart conservatives and localists and radicals have looked exhaustively into these questions, struggling to find ways to respond to them as part of their pursuit of, or defense of, an at least partially Christian culture. The answers have ran the gamut, touching on all manner of technological, economic, ecclesiastical, and political constructs. Mediating institutions of various scales all potentially play a role in allowing this aim to be achieved, as are any number of different sorts of progressive compromises. (For the Elders, it's striking how sophisticated they've become in judging the ability of various markets to support their agricultural or material products so as to give them the resources they need, recognizing that there are some things that can be done very well organically--and profitably--here in south-central Kansas, and quickly seeking out alternative approaches, even international or high-end technological ones, when that isn't the case.) To the extent the Benedict Option is yet another engagement with these questions, perhaps one more particular to a time when traditional Christian cultural assumptions are fading away, it's a necessary addition to the communitarian and localist toolkit. But to rush past all this vital, practical, material work, and cast the Benedict Option as an imperative act of moral or metaphysical sanctuary in the face of the collapse of Christianity itself...that, I think, just misses the trees for the forest, if you know what I mean. (I should note that it's possible I can speak this way, wanting to push the particular and local mechanics rather than clutching at the biggest themes, because I simply don't see the "collapse of Christianity" happening at all, not one bit. Yes, strong protections of religious liberty and certain tax and legal privileges enjoyed by Christian institutions have been, I think, of tremendous civic benefit in American history, and deserve to be fought for--but it's not like their loss in a more secular America would equal some kind of Christian Armageddon, unless one happens to believe, as I presume the Francophile Rod does not, that France with its laïcité is a formally oppressive and persecuting anti-Christian society. As in many things, I agree with Damon Linker here.)

If it's not obvious, I need to say explicitly: this is a disagreement over how one formulates priorities, not about the end goal. So I'll continue to read Rod, because he's one of the best and most important public voices dealing with these matters. Who knows what he--or I--will decide as time and arguments continue? Perhaps he'll come to recognize what I see as the foremost need to explore specific and sustainable material and economic arrangements as part of following lead of St. Benedict, or perhaps I'll come to agree with him that, ultimately, building up liturgical defenses of various metaphysical truths is only separateness that really, fundamentally matters. Or maybe we'll both change our minds somewhat. It's not as though any of the long lines of discussion and social organization which have kept alive humane concerns with community and culture-building in the midst of modern, secular liberalism--and here we can think of the Catholic Worker movement, Amish congregations, classically-oriented independent schools, and many more--have ever come to an end, saying that they've worked out the One True Way to attend to permanent things. And of course, in the midst of all this intellectual debate, folks like the Elders keep on experimenting and working, building their own Benedictine path. I'm grateful that they're around so that I can learn from them, and share with those I teach their ideas....and, last but not least, enjoy the delicious material bounties that they produce as well.