Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Questions for Riverfront Boosters and Their Critics

[Cross-posted to Wichita Story]

Last week, Populous presented their complete (or nearly complete) vision for transforming the east bank of the riverfront through downtown Wichita.* They were not unambitious in their recommendations. In what they predict to be an at least $1.2 billion project whose construction would stretch over at least ten years, they recommend the demolition of Century II, the construction of a new performing arts center and convention center twice the size of Bob Brown Auditorium, a host of mixed-use properties to bring consumers and residents into the downtown, and the development of a wide green space which the labeled Century Park, which might include a brand new ice rink (apparently no one told them about the publicly owned Wichita Ice Center less than a half-mile away from their proposed park, or maybe they just figured no one would notice). The developer-beloved new pedestrian bridge is there, of course, but sadly, no monorail.

Of course, the truly controversial part of all that was their urging the city to level Century II. It's defenders are gathering petitions to put on the ballot a requirement that any historic building in the city can only demolished after a public vote. Given how dismissive our city government has been in the past regarding the value of historic buildings, there is a value to this proposal that goes far beyond the consequences of the riverfront proposal. At the same time, though, that focus on preserving the past simply deepens the generational divide in our city over Century II. It also has the unfortunate side-effect of doing exactly what I think shouldn't be done--treating all the parts of our riverfront space as a whole, obliging people to feel as though they either have to accept the plan which Populous produced (for a hefty fee) as a whole, or content themselves with not spending any public money on any improvements whatsoever. That's silly. So let me see if I can come up with some questions that might break some of these positions up, at least a little bit.

For the boosters: if the concern is primarily to "activate" the quality of life along the riverfront area, why the massive new convention center? Was that really a priority vocalized in the open houses and public meetings which Populous held? Isn't it reasonable that people with serious worries about Wichita's fiscal sustainability and patterns of growth might be suspicious of a presentation which sells its vision with artistic renditions of bike paths and parks and a "civic green," all while suggesting the construction of a convention center fully twice as expensive as any other part of the whole plan? A convention center which presumes a level of business that there is no evidence Wichita is plausibly in the running for?

For the critics: if defenders of Century II are willing to acknowledge the legitimate concerns that artists like Wayne Bryan of Music Theatre Wichita have with the building, despite their obvious fondness for it (and it seems like the defenders are, at least some of them, given that their online materials explicitly talk about building a new concert hall to "supplement" Century II), then why don't you make that up front, so as to not scare off the thousands of Wichitans that think a world-class performing arts center would be worth paying for? When defenders of Century II contrast supposedly snooty fans of the symphony and theater and opera to the authentic "country music crowd," and suggest moving MTW into the old city library, it only confirms the worst generational and cultural stereotypes of those pushing for change.

For the boosters: if the overall aim is to increase the urban vitality of the downtown area, why the condemning reactions to those who point out--correctly--that Populous's grand plan leaves the essentially suburban form around the hapless Waterwalk development basically unchanged, blocked off on the north by a bloated convention center and on the south by Kellogg? The space south of Waterman begs for re-integration into the urban fabric, but this option is disregarded in favor of the aforementioned dream of new Hyatt hotel-convention center-performing arts venue block. Why the tendency to discourage a properly and more sustainably piecemeal, organic approach to development, as opposed to treating everything as an interlocking whole?

For the critics: if it is allowed that at least some kind of new performing arts center is desirable, then isn't it obligatory upon the defenders of Century II to come up with suggestions for its upkeep and redevelopment following the new building's construction? Some of this, admittedly, is already being done, with plans to place CII on the National Registrar of Historic Places, which could loosen up some money for upgrades via tax credits and grants. But that only scratches the surface. Promises to "re-purpose Century II," however attractive they are to those of us with even a slightly traditionalist bent, are as empty as any other development promise unless there is real content behind them. So what is that content? Bill Warren has offered for years to use his connections to supply the city with expert suggestions about how to "turn the iconic building into a destination building that benefits the city." Well...what are his suggestions? Are they available? Are they being worked on? If they are, fantastic! Thank you, Mr. Warren! So can we get an update? A reveal date, maybe? To the Populous folks' credit, they've at least come up with something--and for better or worse, there is a reason why something usually beats nothing.

For the boosters: if you're going to talk about a grand, billion-dollar project for transforming the riverfront of Wichita, then isn't it reasonable to talk practically about how this city has a, shall we say, rather fraught relationship with city leaders casually speaking of Community Improvement Districts, Tax Increment Financing Districts, and STAR bonds? Populous's slapped together list of "Funding Benchmark Cities" doesn't inspire confidence that the political, economic, and demographic realities of Wichita, and consequently how to strengthen the city overall, are being considered seriously. In Tulsa there is the Gathering Place, an admittedly wonderful venue that has added tremendously to the civic life of that city--and one whose half-billion dollar cost was essentially paid for entirely by George Kaiser, throwing in an additional $100 million endowment for maintenance. (The Kochs' $6 million dollar donation which provided a partial endowment for and bought a new name for the old Levitt Arena at Wichita State University was admittedly generous, but can't quite compare.) In Dallas we have Klyde Warren Park, a delightful green space in the heart of the city--and one that was a 10th of the cost of Populous's recommendation for Wichita, and whose funding was managed by a philanthropic organization, the Woodall Rodgers Park Foundation, that was able to make use of city, state, and federal money.

And Oklahoma City? There the comparison is at least conceivable; OKC leaders worked hard to develop a plan and sell to the citizens of the city a sales tax plan--their famous MAPS projects-- that would enable them to pursue significant urban improvements without bonds or debt, and the lessons of their success certain would be relevant to thinking about the $1.2 billion Populous plan. But one should be careful in simply assuming that OKC provides Wichita with a road-map to transforming their city--the excessive corporate friendliness and connections which characterizes OKC, its economy grounded in energy rather than manufacturing, and in particular its size relative to ours, all suggest that Wichita's path towards a revitalized downtown, while it might borrow from other urban paths, shouldn't be led down a particular road just because some architects guarantee us that they've seen other cities do it too.

I don't mean to write this to attack the idea of thinking big about the Riverfront, nor to criticize those attempting to save Century II. (As it happens, I'm actually a supporter of both.) But everyone at all familiar with political debate knows how quickly positions can become entrenched, with compromises and alternatives--say, cutting Century II in half and turning it into an outdoor amphitheater under a refurbished dome? or knocking out all its walls and making it the new home for the continually cash-strapped Kansas Aviation Museum?--being dismissed as half-measures that satisfy neither side. So consider these questions (and surely hundreds of others like them, being asked by other concerned Wichitans) simply an attempt push and prod and elicit responses that go beyond the calcified "love it or leave it!" or "build it or I'm out of here!" positions too often adopted by people who care about this city, both young and old. This year will very likely be a time of big decisions for the downtown--but big decisions can still be made, carefully, organically, respectfully, a little bit at a time. That's the way the best decisions are always made, after all.

*I wasn’t able to attend the big reveal, and hence I am indebted to the comments of, and subsequent exchanges with, Alex Pemberton, Chase Billingham, Leon Moeder, Nolan Nez, Christopher Parisho and Chris Pumpelly, for helping to clarify many of the thoughts contained in this piece.

Monday, January 20, 2020

A Plea to Kansas Senator Jerry Moran

This morning, I was asked by a small, hastily organized group of Wichita citizens to speak on behalf of "A Kansas Call for a Full and Fair Impeachment Trial." There was almost more media there than people--Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a slow news day, I guess--but many good questions were asked, and hopefully my comments will, in some tiny way, do some good. For whomever is interested, here they are:

******

I'm going to take my inspiration from the title of this event--the organizers which to issue a "Kansas Call" to our senators. The historian and political contrarian within might be tempted to use that as an excuse to invoke Kansas's populist and radical past, and engage in some deep criticism of the whole impeachment process. That would be fun, at least for me. I could talk about how the authors of the U.S. Constitution probably intended impeachment to be, if not routine, than at least a regular part of the way Congress emphasized legislative supremacy over the executive branch, as opposed to politically fraught enormity it has, popularly at least, come to be seen as. Or I could talk about how the authors of the Constitution apparently assumed a classical republican foundation in their thinking about the responsibilities of elected representatives in investigating and pursuing impeachment, and since that foundation soon disappeared, the result is a process that reads today like a strange mish-mash of the partisan and the principled. And that just scratches the surface!

But no, that kind of deep critique wouldn't fly as a true "Kansas call," at least not in 2020. So instead, I'm going to take the Constitution and what it says about impeachment as conservatively and as straightforwardly as I can. Senator Moran has shown himself to be someone whose conservatism isn't solely a reflection of his membership in the Republican party; though mostly a loyal soldier, he has defended small-town rural interests in opposition to his party's priorities, and has refused to sign up in support of the president and his party leadership in regards the matter of executive war powers. So on that basis, I'm going to imagine that he might be a receptive audience to what I have to say.

Senator Moran, as you know, the Constitution says that presidents may be impeached for treason, bribery, or "high crimes and misdemeanors." The latter is not reducible to a clear question of whether or not a law has been broken, though that is one of the main talking points of President Trump's planned defense in the impeachment trial to begin tomorrow. Unfortunately, it's admittedly something other than an obvious determination.

When President Johnson was impeached, the charge taken to the Senate for trial was that his firing of his secretary of defense without informing Congress was a violation of the Tenure of Office Act, the law of the land at the time (a bad law later repealed and widely viewed as unconstitutional anyway, but still an illegal act in 1868). When President Clinton was impeached, the charge taken to the Senate for trial was his lie under oath about his affair with Monica Lewinsky given during a deposition conducted in connection with another investigation; lying under oath in a legal proceeding being, of course, against the law. In President Trump's case, though, the House impeachment investigation brought forth charges of "abuse of power" (pertaining to his subtle pressuring of the Ukrainian government to begin an investigation into his political rival's son) and "obstruction of Congress" (pertaining to the way he denounced and discouraged compliance with legal subpoenas and other investigative actions taken by the House). These issues are murkier than those in the previous two impeachment trials. Though the Government Accounting Office says otherwise, Trump continues to insist that there was nothing wrong with his phone call to Ukranian president Zelensky, and that in any case, pushing foreign leaders around isn't--or so the president's lawyers say--criminal "abuse." And as for obstructing Congress, well, it won't be hard for those sympathetic to Trump to acknowledge he's a rude loudmouth, a narcissistic blowhard, and then point out that, given his history of hapless fulminating to the crowd, a President of the United States mocking people and slapping them around on Twitter can't be considered the same kind of obstruction as, say, shredding documents. They may have a point.

But of course, that's the rub: someone has to decide if they have a point or not. And that someone includes you, Senator Moran. I urge you to think about what making that judgment call involves.

However politically convoluted or historically dated or theoretically incoherent the process may seem to be, the constitutional facts remain: in the impeachment process, the House, whatever partisan agendas among its membership may or may not exist, investigates and then votes on articles of impeachment--and then you, along with all the other members of the Senate, swore an oath to sit, listen, and act like jurors in a full-on trial. Or in other words, to "do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws." Note that--the Constitution and laws. Which is a recognition that they are not always the same.

This isn't the time or place for a long survey of constitutional theory, so simply accept this: a constitution functions at least as much through the norms, customs, and performative expectations which it shapes as it does through the specific rules that it lays down. The chaos that has attended President Trump's administration, whether or not you think it to have been abetted by his political opponents from the very moment of his election, is at least partly a consequence of the fact that in the way he approaches his executive responsibilities, his relationships with other branches of the government, his treaty obligations to other countries, as so much more, reflects a total disregard for, and often outright ignorance of, all those norms, customs, and expectations. Maybe you're a "Flight 93" conservative, Senator, convinced that the Deep State is out to destroy President Trump and taking delight when he essentially blows raspberries at every tradition that pertains to his office. I doubt that's the case--but even if it is, the role you are in today demands that you conserve a responsible relationship to those norms.

That, of course, doesn't mean you have to agree with the House prosecutors as they make their case for impeaching the president for abusing his power and obstructing Congress. But to call for hearing their case fully, and for considering what witnesses (both the prosecution's and the defense's!) have to say about that case--that would be an honorable way to acknowledge that responsibility. And it would enable you to be able to authentically exercise the judgment which you have before

Last year, when President Trump claimed that the emergency at the southern border was all the pretext he needed to appropriate money for building his wall which Congress had not, in fact, constitutionally allocated for that use, Congress, rightly, protested. The House voted against that action (Representative Ron Estes, my congressman and your colleague, voted with the president); as did the Senate--and you voted with the majority, against Trump's (and your own party leadership's) wishes. At that time, you wrote at length about your fear of an "all-powerful executive," the importance of showing some "understanding of history" in making decisions, and most of all about how "the ends don't justify the means." Tomorrow you will begin sitting as a juror in President Trump's impeachment trial, and prominent members of your own party have made it known--despite criticism from the right and the left--that they have already decided what the end should be: namely, Trump's acquittal. That's not a show of judgment, that's not using--as you said you did a year ago--your "intellect" and your "gut." That's just assuming that this whole process is a show, and there's not reason to pretend that it matters. Taking impeachment seriously, by contrast, whatever the flaws and confusions of this example of it, involves being willing to perform a role, and follow through with it to where the evidence--witnesses included!--you feel it leads.

Look, we're all smart people here: we all know, and most of all we know that you know, President Trump will not be impeached. (Similarly, you surely knew that Trump would veto Congress's blockage of his claimed emergency powers last year, which he did.) We're not asking you to make some kind of grand, pointless stand. But we are asking, as your Kansas constituents, that you do what I suspect your own conservative judgment surely calls for you to do: to push back against Senator McConnell's cynical approach, and demand that the trial, with all its customs and trappings, with its witnesses and evidence and two cases ritually presented, be allowed to go forward as the Constitution specifies.  Let the House impeachment managers call witnesses. Let Trump's defense team do likewise. Let the whole process be performed as it ought to be, however convoluted that path that led to this point may be.

Yes, the articles of impeachment sent to you by the House demand, in the end, a judgment call, an assessment of murky issues of presidential expectations and responsibilities, rather than a cut-and-dried application of the law. All the more reason to add your vote to those who will push against the hurried, dismissive (dare I say "Trumpish") approach to this constitutional matter, those who seek to it as fair and impartial as possible. The result may be foregone--but the process isn't. And is anything positive is to come out of the whole impeachment process, it may be a reminder that, so long as we choose to accept the basics of our constitutional order, then constitutional procedure still matters. That's a reasonable judgment, don't you think?

Thursday, January 02, 2020

My Year with the Walrus

[Cross-posted to Wichita Story]

Over the twelve months of 2019, I listened to every single Paul McCartney album, thus becoming a Macca completist. Not an expert; I wouldn't claim that, as I don't have that knowledge base, nor that skill. I'm not a musician--I played the violin all through middle school and high school more than 30 years ago, and there were some piano and voice lessons in there as well, but none of it stuck, and I've never studied music beyond that. So claiming any kind of genuinely expert assessment of what Sir Paul has accomplished in his more than 60 years of music-making would be pretentious in the extreme.

That said, I'm not a slouch when it comes to pop music. There was a 15-year or so stretch of my young life where what I heard coming out of the radio was the most important thing around. That's not the case as an almost-51-year-old today--but our home remains one that is filled with music. This is partly thanks to my wife (a skilled pianist), but partly also to the fact that we both are just constantly listening to (and all our children were raised while surrounded by, and thus have gotten used to always hearing) songs. Broadway tunes, cartoon theme songs, Christian hymns, silly made-up ditties, movie soundtracks, Zumba workouts, and more; look at our radio settings, our CD collections, and our phones--you can find it all. But most of all there is lots and lots of pop music, of almost every variety. So my listening to everything ever recorded by the radio-friendliest of all pop musicians was perhaps inevitable.

It came out of deal between an old college friend of mine and I, and involved some basic parameters: I would listen to, and review, every official post-Beatles album of new material that McCartney has ever released, both with Wings and as a solo artist. As the year went by some of the parameters expanded, or changed. I ended up reading no less that four biographies of the man, the most recent (and not, perhaps, the best, but certainly the most complete) being Paul McCartney: The Life, by Philip Norman. Because I'm a story-telling person--as just about every human being is on one level or another--this mean that with every album, with every evolution in McCartney's approach to recording, both in terms of musical partners and subject matter, to say nothing of with every twist in his personal life, I found myself telling myself a new story to help me make sense of this impossibly talented, surprisingly intellectual, often demanding, yet also frequently cavalier and lazy artist--and then, because Macca just keeps on going, I would have to tell myself another one, and then yet another one again, as I ticked off the albums, month after month after month. Macca has, over the years, come out with more "comeback albums" following a fallow period than most musicians and bands release in their entire careers. You just can't pin down someone so protean, and so productive--or at least I couldn't. Maybe if was a professional musician, or maybe if I lived in Los Angeles or London, things would be different. But I'm here in Wichita, and so what I do is give everything that comes out a listen--that, and enthusiastically cheer when the pop music gods happen to come our way.

One thing I will say: while Paul absolutely has his dark and demanding side, his over-all reputation as a fundamentally decent human being seems well earned--and, of course, well reflected in his music. The evidence is everywhere, if you care to look for it, that Paul simply hates the fact that he has lived for a half-century with the image of himself as a boring work-horse, a desperate crowd-pleaser, haunting the public consciousness. And yet, he's obviously learned to live with, even embrace, that discontent, because there's so much truth in it. He loves making music, especially the kind of music that people can sing along to. He loves surprising people too, and listening beyond the hits, or beyond the albums where radio stations stopped paying him much attention to him, reveals a lot of moody, complex, and insightful tunes. But any such work is always more than balanced out by songs of the first type. In the end--and honestly, who knows when that will ever come for this now nearly 80-year-old man?--all Paul McCartney has ever wanted was to be on a stage, holding his guitar, leading his band in song. He's got what he wanted, and by and large, the world is better for it.

Okay, so fine--the real question anyone who has read this far will has is simply: what's worth listening to? Well, here's my list of all of McCartney's and Wings's officially released albums of new material. This excludes the four recordings of classical pieces he composed (yes, I listened to them all; the chamber and symphonic pieces were better than his oratorios), his two albums of classic rock and roll covers (both pretty excellent), his album of jazz standards (I was unimpressed), and three of his four albums of experimental, electronic, and ambient music, with different various collaborators (a very mixed bag, but see below). If you want all my nitty-gritty details and opinions, just click here and start scrolling. But for now, my ranking:

Wings, Band on the Run, 1973--A

McCartney, Tug of War, 1982--A-

McCartney, Egypt Station, 2018--B+
McCartney, Flowers in the Dirt, 1989--B+

The Fireman (McCartney and Youth), Electric Arguments, 2008--B
McCartney, Memory Almost Full, 2007--B
McCartney, Off the Ground, 1993--B
Wings, Venus and Mars, 1975--B
Wings, Wings at the Speed of Sound, 1976--B

McCartney, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, 2005--B-
McCartney, Flaming Pie, 1997--B-
McCartney, New, 2013--B-
McCartney, Ram, 1971--B-
Wings, Red Rose Speedway, 1973--B-

McCartney, Pipes of Peace, 1983--C+

McCartney, McCartney, 1970--C
Wings, Wild Life, 1971--C

Wings, Back to the Egg, 1979--C-
McCartney, Driving Rain, 2001--C-
McCartney, Give My Regards to Broad Street, 1984--C-
Wings, London Town, 1978--C-

McCartney, Press to Play, 1986--D+

McCartney, McCartney II, 1980--D

Obviously, I like the man's work; I rank more than a 1/3 of everything he has put out (leaving aside the aforementioned non-pop recordings) at a B or higher, and I don't think he's ever released an outright failure--there is always, always, on every McCartney recording, some tune or melody or collection of chords that genuinely charms. And I don't mean this to be some sliding scale. While there are plenty of songs from this nearly half-century of albums that I can barely remember today, weeks or months after giving them a listen, some of the radio hits of McCartney's solo and Wings years--I'm thinking of "Maybe I'm Amazed, " "Jet," "Junior's Farm," "Listen to What the Man Said," "With a Little Luck," "Goodnight Tonight," "Take It Away," and "No More Lonely Nights"--are, I think, equal to anything he did as a member of the Beatles. Plus, in the midst of all that forgettable stuff I listened to, I found more than two dozen songs that, in a better world, would have been released as singles, and would have blown us away: "Smile Away" and "Too Many People" from Ram; "Get on the Right Thing" from Red Rose Speedway; "Let Me Roll It" and "Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five" from Band on the Run; "Call Me Back Again" and "Magneto and Titanium Man" from Venus and Mars; "Beware My Love"from Speed of Sound "Wanderlust" and "What's That You're Doing?" from Tug of War; "Hey Hey" from Pipes of Peace; "Figure of Eight" and "We Got Married" from Flowers in the Dirt; "Biker Like an Icon" and "Peace in the Neighborhood" from Off the Ground; "Calico Skies" from Flaming Pie; "English Tea" and "Riding to Vanity Fair" from Chaos and Creation; "House of Wax" and "The End of the End" from Memory Almost Full; "Sing the Changes" and "Sun is Shining" from Electric Arguments; "I Can Bet" from New; "Happy With You" and "Dominoes" from Egypt Station.

So yeah, I've made a lot of discoveries, and been reminded of a lot of fine songs I'd forgotten. The sort of musical project everyone ought to commit themselves do? Obviously not. But, for me, for this year...was it worth it? Obviously yes.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The Ten Best Movies I Saw in 2019

Here we go. The usual rules apply: these are what I consider to be the best films I saw for the first time in 2019, regardless of when they were released. Alphabetical by title:

The Farewell. Despite the strong reputation of all involved, and despite the plainness with which the filmmakers presented the China which actually exists today, I kept expecting, up until the final moments of the film, for some kind of sappy Hollywood reveal. (Nai Nai actually knows she has cancer, and she wants to prevent her kids from knowing that she knows about their effort to prevent her from knowing that she has cancer becomes she loves them so!) It never happened. The film ended and the bald facts of loss, and the deep strangeness--or is it that strange?--in how different families and cultures choose to deal with that universal fact are laid before the audience without apology. A film that is stark, and warm, and beautiful, all at the same time.

Hotel Mumbai. In some ways, this is a totally conventional "can our heroes escape this death-trap?" action film. But in so many otherwise it is not. The bad guys are not sugar-coated nor made relatable nor demeaned to in any way; these terrorists are young both devout and worried young men and hard-core killers, at the same time. Similarly, the people stuck in the hotel and simultaneously fearful, suspicious, defiant, and totally ordinary, with the result that brave actions are presented as the examples of bravery they are, without any guarantee of success (mostly, they fail). This partly--but only partly--fictionalized re-telling of one tiny part of the horror of the Mumbai attacks is manipulative in the most honest way: it shows, graphically, a terrible situation, and allows you to care about those who endured it, somehow.

If Beale Street Could Talk. This movie's story is a painful one, beautifully told. James Baldwin's novel is a tragedy, with the unjustly convicted Fonny forced to live his life behind bars, watching his son grow up without him. And yet, the feeling is quietly triumphant. Barry Jenkins's direction makes the racism at the heart of this love story ultimately kind of small and pathetic in the face of the grace, beauty, and fidelity that Tish and Fonny have between themselves. Yes, the legacy of racism (in the form of an emotionally ruined rape victim and vindictive, twisted cop) destroys their future...but it does not destroy them. The quiet, intense cinematography and soundscape of the movie takes a rough story and, without moderating the horror and injustice of it all, makes it glorious to behold.

The Irishman. Lots of buzz around this movie, obviously; possibly Scorsese's final film, and certainly the only time we're ever going to see De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci (and don't forget Keitel!) all in a movie together. Still, in watching it, I couldn't help but team it in my mind with another 3+ hour-long movie about gangsters I watched, and loved, this year (see below). Anyway, no, I didn't find the CGI to make these actors in their late 70s look 40 years younger entirely persuasive, and yes, the fact that Scorsese adapted without any narrative questioning what is almost certainly complete fiction bugs me a little. But the heck with that. This was an epic gangland tale, with all the beats and twists and sudden violence carried off with a subtlety and skill that only a team of greats could have managed. The 15 minutes or so during the tribute dinner, where Scorsese cuts between close-ups and framing shots, showing De Niro's, Pacino's, and Pesci's characters all starting at, confronting, and confessing to each other, putting the final act of the movie in motion, is as good a work of cinematic story-telling as Scorsese has ever filmed, I think.

Knives Out. I am so glad that we managed to avoid all reviews of and spoilers for this film until we saw it. Just great, delicious fun, with so many wonderful turns (Linda cooling smoking her cigarette, watching her hysterical husband chasing after the cops! Marta being frightened at Fran's apparently dead body, starting to flee, then performing CPR anyway! And Blanc plunking on the damn piano!) and so many clever narrative clues (the letters burned at the edges! the dogs barking at Ransom!) Like any contrived mystery story, there are holes in the story, covered up by coincidences--but honestly, the more we all as a family thought and talked about it, the tighter, and therefore more delightful, the story became. It's rare to be exposed to movie that's just a wicked joy to watch unfold; Knives Out did that for us, in spades.

Look & See. Definitely not everyone's sort of movie; think a Terrence Malick film (he was one of the movie's producers, for whatever that's worth), with even less narrative than usual, then inter-cutted with a very straightforward and only moderately engaging documentary about farmers pushing back against the corporate agriculture world. Am I putting this on my list solely because Wendell Berry is a hero of mine? Maybe. But the man's words are prophetic and haunting in themselves; putting them together with images of farmland wasted, mountaintops removed, and rural communities bankrupted and in despair makes them even more powerful. Berry is, more than anything else, a witness: a man's whose agrarian sensibilities, and whose lifetime of work, has opened his eyes to scenes that modern capitalism routinely disguises. To see the world though his eyes, while accompanied by his words, is a great accomplishment.

Once Upon a Time in America. I re-watched The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly this summer, which got me on a Sergio Leone kick, and I decided to check out this one, which I'd never seen before. Oh man, this movie was just so much. I loved its rich, pulpy, almost baroque characterizations of the inhabitants of old New York City, the immigrant Jews and crooked cops and ambitious city-builders to be. And it's such a hit parade of late 1970s Hollywood; besides De Niro and Woods, you have Tuesday Weld, William Forsyte, Danny Aiello, and more. While Scorsese used computer effects to try to make an old De Niro seem young, decades ago Leone used ordinary make-up to show a young De Niro growing old. It works better. The story actually gives the women in the gangsters' lives a significant role to play, which I didn't expect from Leone, and which puts this movie ahead of The Irishman in that regard. And actually, in more than that regard as well; there was fullness to this movie, an expansiveness and growth--like America!--which The Irishman (perhaps appropriately, given that the whole film is implicitly about aging and death) lacks. Given a choice between the two, I'll take this one--though preferably I'll have both.

Pather Panchali. I've told myself that I need to watch The Apu Trilogy, the famed story of Apu, a poor boy from Bengal, filmed by Satyajit Ray at the very beginnings of Indian cinema more than 60 years ago, for decades. Some years ago I determined to watch them, and I got around to seeing Pather Panchali, the first and most primitive--and also most haunting--of the movies, but then never completed the trilogy. This summer, though, I finally did watch all three--Pather Panchali, then Aparajito, the story of Apu as a teen-ager and student, and finally Apur Sansar, where Apu is a young man, husband, and father--and I loved them all. I perhaps related most to the final film--I could see myself in the conflict-fearing, ultimately unambitious Apu, and I suspect I would respond to the tragedies of that movie much in the same way he did--but it is Pather Panchali that stands above the rest in its brilliant, simplistic, even crude presentation. Rarely have I seen rural poverty dramatized so unsentimentally and effectively, despite the enormous cultural distant between Ray's sensibilities many decades ago and my own today. The moments of childhood wonder and grace in that film, and the desperate sadness of Apu's loss, made all the worse for the utterly undramatic way that loss is presented on the screen, are nothing less than masterful.

Rocketman. By contrast, I'm not going to pretend that this movie is a masterpiece; it's not. But dammit, it was great fun, filled with pretty consistently creative and engaging takes on all the usual biopic tropes--and, of course, great music. The filmmakers missed some pretty easy choices--what, no "Burn Down the Mission" or "I Feel Like a Bullet in the Gun of Robert Ford"?--and parts of the film were manipulative as heck, but oh well. He's Elton John, folks! Compared to the simultaneously show-boaty and inauthentic Bohemian Rhapsody, this movie knocked it out of the park.

Widows. Another non-masterpiece, but a clever, smart, and only occasionally ridiculous-coincidence-dependent heist film, and all that adds up to a fine film. I loved that the filmmakers didn't feel a need to come up with any contorted exposition heavy scenes to explain the presence of so much political argument, domestic drama, racial conflict, and more in this otherwise completely straightforward action flick. Instead, they just went ahead and put it in, and the cast (all of whom were excellent, from Viola Davis's star turn all the way to every supporting character, whether it be Daniel Kaluuya as the gangster whose teaching himself Italian or Lukas Haas as the amoral real estate developer who probably knows exactly what's going on and doesn't care) made it all sound entirely appropriate and informed and connected. My wife thought the final betrayal was a necessary part of the story, while I didn't, but either way, it's a solid two hours, well worth spending.

The Ten Best Books I Read in 2019

Well, here we go. As usual, in alphabetical order, by author:

Loka Ashwood, For-Profit Democracy: Why the Government is Losing the Trust of Rural America. A wonderful synthesis of survey research, oral history, and political critique, grounded in a specific time and place, and adding up to an excellent analysis of the overlapping effects which poverty, government land-grabs, local corruption, and capitalist exploitation have had on so many rural communities in America. The overall frame of "for-profit democracy" needs more theoretical work to be entirely persuasive, I think, but Ashwood's work adds greatly to our ability to properly assess the anti-government vs. libertarian vs. anarchist sensibilities which exist among the rural poor. More thoughts here.

Michael Austin, We Must Not Be Enemies: Restoring America's Civic Tradition. Michael (who is an old friend) has written here the sort of book that I usually admire but don't especially approve of; his civic-mindedness rarely engages in any kind of structural consideration of the causes of America's democratic dysfunctions, instead staying on the level of human psychology, political history, literary expectations, and more. But I can't deny the profound decency of this book, however moderate his tone itself may be. This is a wonderful call to a renewed political ethos in the United States, one premised upon respecting limitations, showing empathy for others, and developing a more mature perspective on what human beings, in the midst of disagreement, can nonetheless achieve. More thoughts here.

Timothy Carney, Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse.This is the sort of book that really hits my sweet spot: a thoughtful, detailed, perceptive argument, one that makes use of solid electoral and economic data, about a social problem (really, a whole nest of interrelated social problems), written from an unambiguously conservative, traditionalist perspective, but which is honest enough to recognize that it is the structures of capitalist globalism and individualism that are most fundamentally at the root of that problem. Carney isn't about to become a socialist, but his reportage and observations are enough to make any honest person--including the author himself--admit that, in a different world, he could and probably should be someone on the left. More thoughts here.


Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Yes, I am fully aware that there are many solid critiques of the social evolutionary theory of morality and belief which Haidt made extremely popular in this book, and in particular of the political implications that Haidt draws (even I think much too casually) from his theory. Still, the fact remains--as someone who is not terribly familiar with cognitive psychology and the evolutionary claims which ground, I found Haidt's book wonderfully informative: well-written, with lots of clear and compelling examples and data that, far from be obscure, was inviting and engaging. There is obviously a lot of good reasons why this book become such a hit; I used it in a honors seminar this year, and it sparked some truly wonderful conversations. I wish I'd read it years ago.

Eitan Hersh, Politics is for Power: How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action, and Make Real Change. I just finished this book, and while I think organizationally it needed one more one-through, in general I was surprisingly impressed by it. "Surprisingly" because I generally dislike books with long, explanatory, "how-to" subtitles. But at its heart, this is a great, bracing read. He shows, with data that strikes me as mostly pretty solid, that political hobbyism--particularly the political pontificating all over social media--is a real, structural problem for the people Hersh's own class, and the class of most who would read a book like this: white, college-educated, left-learning citizens. It really is a wonderful complement to Austin's book above; while Michael made a moral case for taking on the emotionally difficult work of reaching out to those you disagree with, Hersh shows us exactly who needs to hear that case (namely, people like you and me), how we are excusing ourselves from it, and how to stop. Politically speaking, this a fine, practical book.

Margaret Kohn, The Death and Life of the Urban Commonwealth. This is the best work of political theory I've read in years. Kohn uses the framing device of Jane Jacob's The Death and Life of Great American Cities to develop her notion of "solidarism," a kind of localist/urbanist populism or socialism, that advances a wide range of theoretical claims about property, equality, democracy, and more, in the context of city life. In the pages of this book she makes smart, provocative readings of Locke, Marx, Kant, and more, using them all to create an intellectual perspective on how we should address classical problems in political theory in a world which is overwhelming urban, and where traditional notions of sovereignty are being replaced, however inconsistently, with the belief that our "commoweal" would be better served by thinking more in terms of municipality rather than nationality. A great book.

Charles Marohn, Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity. I've been a fan of the Strong Towns movement for years,so it was wonderful to get a copy of Chuck's book and see all these ideas about city planning, city financing, and city life put together into a single argument. The book isn't a brilliant, scholarly treat of urban history or economic, but is a delightful mix of practical observations, intellectual speculations, and hard-nosed accounting. Marohn makes it pretty clear that the American municipality is committed to a profoundly unsustainable financial model; recognizing that truth opens one up to seeing questions of political and environmental sustainability in different lights as well. More thoughts here.

Chantal Mouffe, For a Left Populism. This book made me want to argue so much--which benefits such a short monograph.I don't know Mouffe's work on democratic theory and social democracy terribly well, but I know enough to understand that she sees herself, in this book, on insisting upon the accuracy of some of her earlier writings, here in this moment of Trump and Brexit. The populism she is calling for is, again, one that in many ways I am highly sympathetic to: that is, recognition that democratic politics have to be organized not around liberal universalism (though she defends the liberal constitutionalist state as a necessity, nonetheless--another thing I'd like to argue with her about), but rather around real social empowerment. What she sees as the fake, xenophobic populism of those mentioned above has appropriated the participatory feel which the particularism of democratic societies inevitably generate; the left needs to reclaim that. A good, impassioned read.

Benjamin Park, Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier. It's been a long time since I read a single, book-length study of Mormon history, and I'm very glad that Park's book is the one which broke my fast from this topic. This is the first truly serious study of the Council of Fifty, a mysterious group that cast a long shadow over a short but vital moment in my faith's history; the minutes of those meetings were locked away in church archives for nearly 200 years, only recently being made available. Park's study of them, and his weaving of the story they tell of Joseph Smith's sometimes revolutionary, sometimes reactionary, mostly deeply illiberal ideas, into everything else that Smith was involved in and was happening to his city of Nauvoo in the early 1840s, makes for a tour-de-force. I'm not sure I fully agree with Park's theoretical analysis of what it all adds up to, but before theory you need to have the facts, and Park here provides them in great detail.

Noah Toly, The Gardener's Dirty Hands: Environmental Politics and Christian Ethics. Another one of those books that I didn't think I would care for that much, as Toly's background is equal parts of evangelical Protestantism and public administration, both of which are fields and perspectives I have little attachment to. But as the book progressed, Toly's thesis is laid out carefully and powerfully: that climate change, to say nothing of multiple other environmental concerns, are best understood in light of the tragic character of our fallen world. That's not a call to give up and embrace our sinfulness; rather, it is a call to re-orient how we think about our stewardship towards God's creation by way of some Niebuhrian thinking about our "dirty" responsibility for it all. It's a thoughtful assessment of how believers should talk about the world, and I'm grateful for it. More thoughts here.

The Mormon-American Boy Scout, 1913-2019. RIP.

[Cross-posted to on By Common Consent]

Today, the Mormon church officially ends its formal involvement with Boy Scouts of America. This change was announced more than a year and a half ago, but when you're looking at a form of social organization that has shaped the lives of millions of people, involved the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars, and has more than 100 years of history and tradition and norm-building behind, change can be hard. While I have no direct knowledge of this, I am confident that in some Mormon congregation in the United States there is, right at this moment, some teen-age boy or weary Scoutmaster or desperate mother scrambling to get forms filled out for the last merit badge the boy in question will ever earn, or setting up the flags and rushing to get the tablecloths for that last Eagle Court ever to be held in the boy's Mormon church building, all with the aim of squeezing everything under the wire at the last possible second. I'd like to pay tribute to such folks, if I may. All of us Mormon believers and members who, one way or another, will get caught up in the church's new youth program owe them our respect. They're holding on, until the bitter end, to something that the church as a whole may very well be better off without--but which I am positive we're going to miss in a more than a few ways, all the same.

First of all, let me make it clear that I'm not kidding around with that "better off" line. Thanks to technology, thanks to globalization, thanks the evolution and diversification of social expectations and assumptions in America over the past century, and thanks most of all to how the Mormon Church itself is changing, the Boy Scouts of America and Mormonism--and at least 20% of all BSA members were there primarily because the latter tied its youth programs for boys to the former; check out this thread for a consideration of some of the demographic and financial implications of all this--aren't the fit they once were. Ending that tie will probably be a good thing for many thousands of young people (and not just males) throughout the Mormon church in America, all of whom were, for any number of physical, psychological, and spiritual reasons, never going to get kind of acceptance, support, and engagement their adolescent and teen-age bodies and minds desperately need from a tradition-bound organization like BSA, no matter how it evolved. So yes, let's create something new. But every change entails costs, and building a new thing without a long backward glance all the equally (if different) good things you're leaving behind is unwise, to say the least.

As with so much else, my grasp of all those good things which the folks I speculated about in the first paragraph are themselves grasping for goes back to my father, Jim Fox. If he were still alive, I wouldn't doubt for a minute that would be one of those faithful Mormons getting every last drop out of the Scouting program he officially could, right up until the end. It was with him throughout his entire life, after all. The Mormon American Scouting experience was probably at its strongest exactly when Scouting as a whole was at its strongest in America: namely, the 1950s through the 1970s, when suburbanization, the Cold War, rising middle-class wealth, fears about television, and a hundred other things combined to make Scouting a near-requirement for the healthy white male adolescent members of the Baby Boom. Layer on top of that the correlated organizational mentality of the post-WWII Mormon church in America, and a near-requirement becomes a total one. Mormon President David O. McKay organized an official Church-Scouts Relationship Committee in 1951; in 1963, the Mormon church started holding annual conferences for their general leadership at Philmont Scout Ranch. Dad, born in 1943, caught all of that and more. That he grew up surrounded by horses and fields and nature and camping and all sorts of general husbandry makes Scouting seem like a natural choice for him; that he was a dedicated member of the church, absolutely committed to following through on every rule the organization laid out for him, makes it seem not only natural that he would have embraced Scouting, but actually hard to imagine anything otherwise. Jim Fox, the paterfamilias, not a Scout? Impossible! Certain we Fox boys--that is: Daniel, me, Stuart, Abraham, Jesse, Philip, and Baden (you know, the whole gang)--can't imagine our father otherwise, and I know, when it comes to Mormon boys thinking about their own fathers, we're not alone.

While dad was never a professional Scouter, I strongly doubt anyone who didn't actually work for Boy Scouts of America could have organized his family's life--and, specifically, his sons' lives--more thoroughly around this program. From our expected beginning as Bobcats to our expected finish as Eagles, from day camps to World Jamborees, from his multiple stints as a Scoutmaster and Young Men's leader to his central role in two major LDS Boy Scout encampments (we got to go the first one; our children got to go to the second), Jim Fox worked to convey his commitment to his family and his church and his country all through this single church-approved organized program. To this day, as our own families grow and continue to change, as our church itself does, I suspect all of us would say, to one degree or another: his commitment worked. Again, I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking that. After all, among the many thousands of American Mormon boys raised by American Mormon Baby Boomers out there, how many would admit that it was Scouting experiences--good or bad, grand or small--which at least partly shaped the way they think about fatherhood responsibilities, or patriotic stories, or environmental history, or military service, or financial sacrifice, or personal goal-setting, or outdoor recreation, or religious authority, or civic duties, or natural spaces, or really the whole warp and woof of how we put ourselves together as American citizens and 20th-century Mormons? A huge percentage, I suspect.

Yes, there were always criticisms of the way in which Scouting shaped the priorities and practices (and budgets!) of how the education of males happened in the American Mormon environment, and rightly so. A lot of those criticisms were absolutely deserved. Completely aside from all the limitations of Scouting as an educational framework I mentioned above, none of us who went through the program can honestly deny just how much sometimes cruel, sometimes offensive, and sometimes just plain stupid stuff was built into all our activities and expectations: the night hikes, the Scout camps, the merit badges, the 50-milers, the Eagle projects, all of them, all too often, attended by hazing, by fakery, or by pointless nonsense. Every one of us can tell our stories. (Being tied to your cot in the middle of the night? Mocking the kid who slips and tumbles down the hiking path--or being that kid yourself? Counterfeiting a signature on a needed form, then lying about it when challenged? Yep, I was, at different times, all of that and more.) But beyond it all, at least from what I can see (and I am certain many hundreds of thousands of other American Mormons saw and still see much the same), there was the camaraderie and the joy in accomplishment, the sense of being incorporated into an ethos that carried with it a sense of place and progress, a whole worldview of struggle (however sometimes inauthentic) and honor (however sometimes patriarchal) and old-fashioned fun (however sometimes exclusive), all of it built into a set of books and rules and traditions which penetrated ordinary suburban families and whitebread Sunday school classrooms. Learning the Law of the Pack! Getting your Totin' Chip badge! Watching the torchlight Order of the Arrow ceremonies! Wood Badge and Eagle Palms and the Silver Beaver! Or just putting on that uniform, and taking responsibility for your class, coming up with games and plans and assignments so this weekend's camp-out won't be a bust. You sweated those responsibilities, but could righteously own their successes (when they came, and they often didn't) as your own. After all, you had a badge on your shirt that said they belonged to do.

Sure, it's all terribly easy to make fun of (the Mormon blog By Common Consent has done so many times). In our better moments, we all laughed at it ourselves--and then, hopefully, sometimes, also forgave both ourselves and others for all the ways the program might have caused some hurt. But I, at least, can't just snigger at all those neckerchiefs and beads and ranks. There was more to it than that; the very fact that Scouting was inextricably built into how Mormonism was realized in our very-male family made that very clear. Our father was utterly committed to defending the truth and value of every silly accoutrement of this worldview, of every symbol of everything it taught us and everything it allowed us to be. It was for him, like so many other American Mormon men of his generation, a component of America's civil religion, a religion of trustworthiness, loyalty, helpfulness, friendliness, courtesy, etc. (you all know the rest), and a religion which he saw as perfectly aligned with both Mormon Christianity and the American nation. And whatever the faults of that worldview, it also allowed, however rarely, life-changing (or, given the ages of those involved, maybe it's better to say life-beginning) experiences that were more than the sum of its parts.

As it happens, my wife and I have had only daughters--a fact of our family that not only led me to have 10 wonderful years at our church's Girls Camp, but has also been central to shifting my thinking about some of the most controversial issues of my adult life, in ways have tended to reinforce my already-existing tendencies towards intellectualism, criticism, and doubts in general. Those three descriptors aren't usually associated with Scouting, so for all the above reasons and more, I should say good riddance to Scouting in my church, right? Well, no. Again, I'm not sad to see it go--really, it should have been made optional decades ago. But maybe the uniformity of it, the forced discipline of it all (however wrongly it left some behind), was part of the appeal? To a boy in their elementary and middle-school years, that can't be ignored. I'm not that boy any longer, thank goodness--none of us are, and none of us should be. But there will always be more of us coming along, and the value of having something whose history and legends--and often you couldn't tell them apart--can allow, even empower, those Mormon boys to see themselves as having a place in a social order and a moral scheme that isn't just Mormonism can't be ignored either.

At the first of those two aforementioned LDS Scout encampments that my father helped to organize, I was touched by Boy Scout royalty--William "Green Bar Bill" Hillcourt, the author of The Boy Scout Handbook, or at least that version of it which I and most of my brothers carried to every church and Scout meeting every week between the ages of 10 and 14, through the 1980s and beyond. So maybe my affection for the program is wholly a product of a kind of defiant geekiness, of nerdy me being able to sit beside an 84-year-old man wearing green shorts who told us stories about Lord Baden-Powell, the Chief Scout of the World, himself? Could be. But think about that geekiness, that nerdiness, and about how many young suburban teen-age boys experience it, and how they experience it, both today and 30+ years ago. They've got the wrong shoes for the long-distance run, they're embarrassed at carrying their violin case around the halls of their school, they're stupidly terrified they'll get their hand caught in the lathe at wood shop. To the extent that school and social realities have so changed in America today that none of the above would likely weigh down any typical American boy, the country has become a better place. But no doubt other embarrassments, other humiliations, other confusions have taken their place. Thank goodness for any organization, any program, any arrangement, that can get grown, competent, responsible adults close to such kids, to run alongside them as they stumble along the race track, to praise them (but also instruct them) as they struggle with their bows, to show them the rules for operating machines to give them confidence and keep them safe. Parents do this, of course, and school teachers and church leaders as well. But so did Scoutmasters. And if, in doing those things, they did it while dressed in a particular way, and did it during a particular meeting, and rewarded you upon concluding your task or challenge with a particular emblem, all of it adding up to make you think that you were, in running that race or playing that song or building that rocket ship, also being enlisted in a particular national--nay, "civilizational"!--project, with a language and a style and set of moral expectations all its own? I can see a lot of power in that.

I have no idea if any of my brothers think, or ever thought, the same. But even if they don't, and never did, think like that, I nonetheless bet that they, at one time, felt the same, felt that the whole goofy, yet solemn, yet infectious aesthetic of Scouting added something deep to our late-20th-century white middle-class American Mormon lives. Dad certainly felt that, all his adult life. It would be ridiculous to pretend that such a fully lived feeling left no mark on all us boys, standing their in our rumbled uniforms, wearing our Scout badges, adjusting our neckerchief slides. And the same goes, I suspect, for many, many thousands of other formerly (and perhaps still) nerdy Mormon-American boys. Which is why, for all my awareness of the limitations inherent to Scouting, I come to its defense--and why, when the president of the United States treated one of its admittedly overblown and faintly ridiculous rituals as an occasion to show off his sleazy self, it really pissed me off.

I reach up onto my clothes closet shelf, dig past years of Girls Camp mementos, and pull down some old awards and books--either my own that I've packed up and taken with me through all the moves and changes over the decades, or gifts from my Dad. Ever read the original Scouting for Boys, written in 1908? It's a hoot. Lots of practical advice on building rope bridges, lots of games and songs, lots of half-baked history about legendary figures from England's past, lots of vaguely creepy invocations of "manliness," lots of prescient recommendations about physical health, lots of helpful fire-building diagrams, and lots of wacky stuff that, frankly, would have made for some brilliantly weird troop meetings (instructions on how to spot and capture escaped convicts, for example). Read this book, and you know you're in the presence of a powerfully smart, powerfully moralistic, and powerfully strange visionary.

Scouting was, back then, pretty obviously an almost cultic offering, as determinedly off-center a challenge to bourgeois society as any other 19th-century call for radical reform. Which, of course, is what Mormonism partly was also. So the unity they found in each other, back in 1913, was perhaps a match made in heaven--and heaven knows that's something my father, to say nothing of multiple presidents of the Mormon church (eight of whom were awarded the Silver Buffalo, the highest honor Boy Scouts of America offered), would have insisted was the gospel truth. I don't believe that myself--not quite, anyway. But the entwining of Scouting and Mormonism did mean that a perfectly ordinary American boy like me, just like millions of other perfectly ordinary, nerdy, middle-class American boys, could excel in, and even earn honors for being part of, something downright counter-cultural and weird. Just about nobody, least of all my Dad, would likely have ever recognized that claim. How would they, with us Scouts going about our flag ceremonies and essentially baptizing a handed-down series of colonialist, sometimes borderline racist, phrases and practices for our daily use? Still, the undercurrent remains. The "citizenship" Scouting originally--and still, hidden deep down, to this very day--calls for is one that is fundamentally sustainable, communal, participatory, and rural, all of which runs against our daily disposable, individualistic, remote and virtual, suburban and urban worlds. Mormonism, at its best, calls beyond all that. Scouting, even Mormon-American Scouting, at its best, sometimes did too.

The Mormon church will survive its separation from Scouting, of course. (And, just to be clear, that separation is institutional only; there is no prohibition whatsoever against us Mormons individually involving ourselves in Scouting, as a couple of families I know locally have already decided to do, enlisting their children in local Scouting units.) For all I know, the goal-oriented, family-centered youth program of the next century of Mormonism will be able to effectively recreate, in a more appropriate context, all of the leadership and traditions and aspirations and nerdiness which Scouting did. I hope so. But, as this century-long stage of my church's life comes to an end, I express gratitude to my Dad, and to thousands of other Mormon leaders like him, who put on the cook-outs (where everything was fried in bacon grease) and the camp-outs (where the tent caught fire in the middle of the snowstorm) and the Courts of Honor (where the little brother knocked over the painstakingly constructed Pinewood Derby race track). They did so with a humor befitting the inherent goofiness of it all, yet also respecting--sometimes because they believed it (as Dad did), and sometimes just because it was woven into the program itself--a vision that connected and challenged and situated innumerable Mormon-American boys in ways that sometimes actually taught them and inspired them and planted seeds inside their heads that made them, just maybe, a little bit different, a little bit geekier but also a little bit smarter and a little bit more capable than they would have been otherwise. Any and every parent and teacher and church leader ought to do the same, of course, and will no doubt continue to try to do so. Best of luck to us all! It does no harm to the truth, however, to admit that having a program with a hundred years of history, and the hard work and crazy ideas of many hundreds of thousands of others, to draw upon was, all things considered, a real asset. Losing that, if only formally, is not without its costs.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Christmastime, Still (Sometimes) in the Dark

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

I woke up this morning early, the day following last night's arrival of the Winter Solstice, of Midwinter, giving us the shortest and darkest day of the year (at least in the northern hemisphere). The only light in the house was from our tomten display--the nissen and gnomes who watch over our home, every Christmas season. Did someone forget to unplug the lights, as we are supposed to before everyone goes to sleep? Or did our watchful friends want to remind us of something? I wouldn't doubt the latter at all. The whole house is silent, but that's understandable; after all, as Astrid Lindgren taught us long ago, the tomten speak a "silent little language," that presumably only our dog Stella could understand.

Exactly ten years ago, I wrote about the way some of our family's holiday traditions revolve around the silence, and the dark. Well, children grow, and times change (as Lindgren wrote, "winters come, and winters go"). Some of our story-telling traditions have been retired, perhaps to return when our children return with their children. But midwinter still comes every year, and I remember (or am reminded, by our small, silent wintertime companions), of all that is happening out there in the darkness. So I am reposting it below. I teach Sunday school in our congregation, but still, this is not a lesson that I would teach this Sabbath day, the final Sunday of Advent. More's the pity, perhaps. Anyway, there will be family and friends at our home this evening all the same, as some traditions endure, even as they change. So this foggy, silent morning, I listen to the day's most appropriate carol (whether you prefer the majestic version, or the humble one) and I am thankful for a God--and, perhaps, His little servants--who moves in the dark.

*****

Each Christmas season, usually right around this date, we have a story night: we get the kids together, and sometimes some friends, and turn out the lights and burn some candles and drink hot cocoa and share stories. Maybe we read them, and sometimes we tell them from memory. Old stories, new stories, fables, poems, scriptures, whatever. Given the ages of our girls, it often descends into silliness, but not always. Anything is allowed, really, just so long at involves something spoken, into a dimly lit room, to chase away the dark.

Christmas is a celebration of light, right? That's part of the old idea, anyway, carried down by who knows how many traditions. Celebrating the birth of the Light of the World right around when the globe turns ever so slightly, and days start to grow longer again, is pretty well grounded historically, besides making perfect theological sense. (Even us Mormons, who sometimes like to make a big deal about rejecting much of traditional Christian practice, can't deny that.) But of course, the light of the season takes place in the midst of darkness--it, in a way, depends upon the darkness, you might say. The star the wise men followed couldn't be seen in the daytime. The shepherds were terrified and entranced by an angelic call and choir coming to them from out of night sky. And, of course, there is likely a deeper darkness lurking through the whole story: Joseph's desperation in his search for a place for his pregnant wife to rest, Herod's implacable determination to murder a prophecy before it can threaten his reign. Clearly, the doubts and dangers of the dark are there, right from the beginning of the story.

And they've never left the story, have they? Jesus lived and died and was resurrected, and left His followers behind, to spread His gospel and bless the world with His gifts. So Christians gave gifts to each other, some of whom--the St. Nicholases, among others--helping to in time to turn an essential Christian principle into something larger. As these gift-givers of all sorts spread throughout the world, they picked up stories to go along with them, and not all of the stories were filled with light. Some, by contrast, were dark. Krampus. Zwarte Piet. Père Fouettard. Belsnickel. And my favorite, Knecht Ruprecht, whose appearance and role in these stories (all having to do with those undeserving of gifts, or who use their gifts dismissively, being punished) obviously ties him to even deeper, older stories, stories of the wintertime and seeking protection and blessings in the midst of the darkness which the gift-giving of the Christmas season only fleshed out and gave greater meaning to: the tomte, hobs, kobolds and goblins throughout Western and Northern Europe, from which our modern interpretation of that power contained in Christmastime draws so much of its force.

We have a tomten in our home. He doesn't come out very often, but come St. Andrew's Day, we make sure he's given a position of prominence. He sits up on a high ledge over our kitchen and living room, every Christmas season, watching (and maybe reporting) on us. I confess I've never seen him move--but then, I wouldn't, would I? Just as I've never seen Santa Claus, but I know he's out there, in some form or fashion, somewhere, I trust that there are tomte all around us. They're likely much older than any of us, but beyond that I wouldn't guess what they're role in the eternal scheme of things may be. But these little guys--lurking about in the dark, unpredictable, maybe irascible, sometimes cute but occasionally frightening, perhaps somewhat damaged by all the time they've spent in the shadows and in the nooks and crannies of our homes and our collective consciousness--seem to be very part of the whole matter of gift-giving, in particular the gift-giving that makes it possible to get through cold winter nights.

Best to trust that they'll do their business, whatever it may be, and leave them otherwise alone, I say. Literature and scriptures alike are full of stories of those who try, usually to their detriment, to get too close to whatever God is doing in the dark. That He is doing something is undeniable; whatever we want to make of the story of Job, we can't pretend it's anything other than God making use of Satan, the tempter and tester, the wicked (but wise?) Adversary who goes "to and fro" across the earth, watching us from dark corners and the recesses of our hearts. Cain got too close to the dark, and he ended up a wanderer too. As did Gollum as well, of course. And the Walker.

You don't know about the Walker? Shame on you, for allowing Midwinter's Day to arrive, and for not having picked up your old copy of Susan Cooper's beautiful, evocative story, The Dark is Rising, which tells the tale of Will Stanton, an eleven-year-old boy, who finds himself caught up in a struggle for the soul of England (and perhaps the world), fighting the power of the Dark, and those it has misled and betrayed, the Walker--a man from the 13th century, who had been doomed to wander the earth until Will, the last of the Old Ones, was born--being only the most tragic example. It's not a perfect book by any means, but it is perhaps perfect for today. And no scene better captures the drama contained in all stories of gifts in wintertime than Will's confrontation, on Christmas Day, with the power of the Dark, as it attempts to destroy him during worship services in his local parish church. Fortunately, he is not alone--and he has gifts (treasured Signs, conveyed through the centuries to his hands) to help him withstand a power that had destroyed the minds of others:

Will, seeing some figures move towards the door out of the shadows, realised that the church was not empty after all. Down there by the little twelfth-century font, he saw Farmer Dawson, Old George, and Old George's son John, the smith, with his silent wife. The Old Ones of the Circle were waiting for him, to support him against whatever lurked outside....

"All ready, Will?" said the rector genially, pulling on his overcoat...

"No," Will said. "That is--no." He was trying desperately to think of some way of getting the two of them outside the church before he came near the door himself. Before--before whatever might happen did happen. By the church door he could see the Old Ones move slowly into a tight group, supporting one another. He could feel the force now very strong, very close, all around, the air was think with it; outside the church was destruction and chaos, the heart of the Dark, and he could think of nothing that he could do to turn it aside. Then as the rector and Paul [Will's older brother] turned to walk through the nave, he saw both of them pause in the same instant, and their heads go up like the heads of wild deer on the alert. It was too late now; the voice of the dark was so loud now that even humans could sense its power.

Paul staggered, as if someone had pushed him in the chest, and grabbed a pew for support. "What is that?" he said huskily. "Rector? What on earth is it?"

Mr. Beaumont had turned very white. There was a glistening of sweat on his forehead, though the church was very cold again now. "Nothing on earth, I think, perhaps," he said. "God forgive me." And he stumbled a few paces nearer the door, like a man struggling through waves in the sea, and leaning forward slightly made a sweeping sign of the Cross. He stammered out, "Defend us they humble servants in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in thy defence, may not fear the power of any adversaries..."

Farmer Dawson said very quietly but clearly from the group beside the door, "No, Rector."

The rector seemed not to hear him. His eyes were wide, staring out at the snow; he stood transfixed, he shook like a man with a fever, the sweat came running down his cheeks. He managed to half-raise one arm and point behind him: "...vestry..." he gasped out. "...book, on table...exorcise..."

"Poor brave fellow," said John Smith in the Old Speech. "This battle is not for his fighting. He is bound to think so, of course, being in his church."

"Be easy, Reverend," said his wife in English; her voice was soft and gentle, strongly of the country. The rector stared at her like a frightened animal, but by now all his powers of speech and movement had been taken away.

Frank Dawson said: "Come here, Will"....

Each of the Old Ones touched him gently as he came into the group, as if joining him to them, and Farmer Dawson took him by the shoulder. He said, "We must do something to protect those two, Will, or their minds will bend. They cannot stand the pressure, the Dark will send them mad. You have the power, and the rest of us do not."


The resulting confrontation is the most dramatic of many such confrontations in the book; it is the first time the Signs of Power had been properly used in centuries: the first time in many generations which the Light, used by one who fully understood its power, could be used directly against the Dark. And what is to be make of these Signs: crossed circles made of bronze, stone, iron and wood, which Will has found and threaded through his belt?

When the light went out of the Signs, Paul and rector stirred. They opened their eyes, started to find themselves sitting in a pew when a moment ago--it seemed to them--they had been standing. Paul jumped up instinctively, his head turning, questing. "It's gone!" he said. He looked at Will, and peculiar expression of puzzlement and wonder and awe came over his face. His eyes travelled down to the belt in Will's hands. "What happened?" he said.

The rector stood up, his smooth plump face creased in an effort to make sense of the incomprehensible. "Certainly it has gone," he said, looking slowly round the church. "Whatever--influence it was. The Lord be praised." He too looked at the Signs on Will's belt, and he glanced up again, smiling suddenly, an almost childish smith of relief and delight. "That did the work, didn't it? The cross. Not of the church, but a Christian cross, nonetheless."

"Very old, them crosses are, rector," said Old George unexpectedly, firm and clear. "Made a long time before Christianity. Long before Christ."

The rector beamed at him. "But not before God," he said simply.


Rightly said. I think Christmas Day, like any day--including Midwinter's--is a gift to us, a gift that began with a power far beyond ours, a gift that, for all I or anyone knows, involves beings and histories and events taking place well outside of my eyesight, in dark places that He'll light for me, but only when and if needed. I need to be reminded of that. I need to respect that God, and the gift of the Son, born, very possibly, sometime in the midst of the cold and dark, may have had it work that way for a reason. A reason, to be sure, that I don't fully understand...but I can tell stories about it nonetheless.

And so tonight we'll tell stories by candlelight: funny stories, scary stories, Christmas stories. It's the right time of year to do it. Some of the stories we'll tell we've heard before, of course, but that's all right. Even the best and oldest and most well-worn stories--stories about frightened shepherds, and mysterious strangers, and a young couple in trouble and all alone--sound like new, when you tell them in the dark.