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Thursday, December 31, 2015

New Year's Eve Live Music: "Touch of Grey"

A good way to ring out the old year, as we all just keep getting older, and yet life doesn't slow down or stop happening. Happy New Year's, everyone.

A Year of Hard Love

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

I've joked for years about being a closet Lutheran--joked about it for so long, in fact, I can't remember when I first started doing it. I know it wasn't because one day I read and found myself converted to the Lutheran Book of Concord or any such thing (though over the decades I have read and found myself agreeing with its contents a whole lot more than I disagree). It may go way back t my childhood, back to reading scriptures like Matthew 18:7, in the King James Version: "Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!" (A nearly identical passage can be found in Luke 17:1.) There was a terrible, yet comforting, logic to those passages as I understood them, so long ago: first, that this will be world of offenses, of horrors, of hardness, and there's nothing anyone can do about it--and second, that God will still hold by whom those offenses, those horrors, that hardness comes accountable. This was a God, I thought, with whom you can know where you stand.

The KJV reading of those scriptures isn't the best, I know that now. Those passages actually show Jesus speaking specifically about those who create temptations or stumbling blocks to faith in the hearts of others; He wasn't speaking of the brokenness of the world in general, much less morally situating all of us in regards to it. But learning a better reading of those scriptures never altered, I think, my sense that the KJV version really captured so much of what Paul supposedly wrote--and which, much later, Augustine and then Martin Luther would teach about as well. What is that teaching? It is about sin, about its omnipresence, about the way it infects and twists our every perception and action, and the fact that we are called to somehow love one another in the midst of it. We will fail, of course, and stand condemned for that failure--but God by His grace will also save us in that failure and condemnation. The experience of that grace in such a context isn't an experience of lightness; it is, rather, hard. It is something that, all things considered, we would rather have not needed in the first place. But need it, I think, we actually, most assuredly, do.

Here, on the last day of 2015, I look back on a year and see a lot of this kind of difficult grace, this kind of hard love. Maybe you've seen a lot of it as well--hard decisions about the saving or ending of weak and desperate lives, about the rescuing or fleeing of marriages, about opening oneself up to and learning to love a stranger in need or shutting out and accepting the hurt done to a loved one who has become a stranger to you. Whatever your experiences have been, I suspect you feel divided about them, just as I do. I'd be lying if I talked about how "grateful" I am for them, because I'm not: rather, as Frodo confessed to Gandalf, I wish these things "need not have happened in my time." But I'd also be lying if I pretended not to recognize the wisdom of Gandalf's reply: "So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us." I look around, and I see offenses of every sort--intentional and unintentional, against loved ones and strangers, against adults and children. I would rather I was free of all of it, just as everyone does. And yet, sometimes I really am kind of happy for that hardness--because, if nothing else, it helps me (and others, all of whom need it just as much as me) see the difficult grace around us better than we could in a world wherein offenses and evils and complications did not come.

Martin Luther, speaking as a Christian prophet should, put it well: "This life is not godliness, but growth in godliness; not health, but healing; not being, but becoming; not rest, but exercise. We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way; the process is not yet finished, but it has begun; this is not the goal, but it is the road; at present all does not gleam and glitter, but everything is being purified" (Luther, A Defense and Explanation of All Articles). That purity, as so many have put it, will hurt. Chosen or not, we stand here as God's children, committed to it. So here's to God's long and difficult love, a love which comes slowly and inevitably through and I think necessarily as a part of the brokenness and condemnation and failures of these lives we live. And let's wake up tomorrow, with the new year, and keep on keeping on.

The Ten Best Books I Read in 2015

This year's top ten reads reflects my interests pretty well: only one work of fiction, one memoir, one work of scripture, and the rest all research or theory related. I'm boring that way. In alphabetic order:

Ancient Israel: The Former Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, translated with commentary by Robert Alter. I've spent the entire year continuing to make my slow way through the Old Testament (Revised English Bible version), and I've gotten further than this essential companion book covers--I've also knocked off Chronicles, Ruth, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, and Job, as well as the Psalms (which I didn't love, but found surprisingly meaningful all the same). But this book will stay with me, I think, because I'm now into the literature and prophecy of the Old Testament, whereas Ancient Israel covered the crucial, and fascinating, period of both real-time and after-the-fact (re)constructions of Israel's collective memory, of how myths and legends and stories centuries old--all the tales from the Patriarchs to the Passover--became a part of their narrative of conquest, triumph, corruption, and defeat. A wonderful work of intellectual archaeology, one which helped me see crucial elements of ancient Israel's world in an entirely new light.

Community and the Politics of Place and The Good City and the Good Life, both by Daniel Kemmis. Departing from strict alphabetical order here, I read both of these books because I needed to--Kemmis's work had been siting on my shelf for too long, and while I'd read parts of both these books before, I couldn't remember having read them both all the way through, and I decided I needed to. Ultimately, that was a great decision, and not just because both are very good books. Reading them both also enabling me to see connections between them and other communitarian arguments from the 1990s which I didn't remember picking up on before. Community and the Politics of Place situated civic republican concerns and questions in the context of the sparsely inhabited American West, and thus brought forward ways in which resource-extraction and dependency, as well as broader ecological concerns, are important to our construction of community. The Good City and the Good Life extended upon that idea, linking the idea of community to the small democratic polity--in Kemmis's view, the small cities that he knew best, like the city of Missoula that he was mayor of--in ways that, I realized as I thought more about it, showed a way communitarianism could have developed that might have avoided the state-centric problems that hampered it's intellectual development. Anyway, two very good, thoughtful books.

The Lost City: The Forgotten Virtues of Community in America and The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City, both by Alan Ehrenhalt. Once again departing from strict alphabetical order, these were another two books that I picked up, after only have ever read parts of them before, intending to see what going all the way through them together would teach me. I wasn't disappointed, though there was a greater drop-off in the level of analysis from Lost City to The Great Inversion than was the case with Kemmis's two books. Still, Ehrenhalt had some really great observations to make in both cases; really this is a case of books that inspired me in terms of the theoretical connections between them, and the concepts which I saw being spun off by them, much more than in terms of the stories they actually told. In brief, Ehrenhalt makes wonderful observations, but behind all those observations lurks a concern with authority, identity, solidarity, and community in the context of urban life. They are related concepts that he saw as having been built and buttressed in many diverse ways two generations ago, then taken apart, and now (perhaps) being recovered in equally diverse and unexpected ways. Would any of his observations stand up to rigorous sociological analysis? Perhaps not. But they were greatly thought-provoking at the very least.

The Martian, by Andy Weir. A plain old delightful bit of hard science-fiction; in fact, maybe the purest bit of hard sci-fi I've ever read, because it closes off any and all of the larger possibilities of science-fiction by fitting its sci-fi premise (the near-future exploration of the planet Mars) into the fierce strictures of a survival story (can stranded astronaut Mark Watney survive alone on Mars, and can NASA figure out a way to save him?). Some of the characterizations were plainly taken right from the first-time-novelists file, but I didn't mind: what was matters was that Weir kept me guessing, and rooting from Watney, desperately using science and technology to do the impossible. The film version is often very good, but it doesn't hold a candle to the book.

Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom, by Jacob T. Levy. Written by an old friend and intellectual inspiration/goad to me, Levy's book is a serious, straightforward work of Western political theory, laying out the philosophical and the historical arguments for his construction of liberal ideas, and ably defending his own position regarding them. In a nutshell, he introduces his own spin on the classic "positive (freedom-to-do)/negative (freedom-from) liberty" argument, presenting the "rationalist" view of freedom as one which seeks to establish consistent, predictable, limited laws (which means, inevitably, the establishment of a reliably authoritative and therefore distant state), and the "pluralist" view as one which seeks to escape the disciplinary force of predictability by maintaining and strengthening local governments, traditional bodies, and independent sources of authority (which, in their closeness to out own lives, increases the likelihood of small infringements on liberty). Lining up John Stuart Mill and Lord Acton on the rationalist side, and Alexis de Tocqueville and Montesquieu on the "pluralist" side, Levy makes the case that we can't ever resolve liberalism on one side or the other (though his pluralist preferences are clear). I'll be writing more about this book for Bleeding Heart Libertarians soon, so stay tuned.

Small, Gritty, and Green: The Promise of America's Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World, by Catherine Tumber. I'd never heard of this book before about three months ago, and now I think it's one of the absolutely essential books to my whole research project on mid-sized cities (I wrote some about the book here). Tumber is a journalist and scholar from upper-state New York, who mourned the struggles cites she knew like Rochester, NY and Lowell, MA, have been going through over the past two decades. As the conversation about cities have changed in our adult lifetimes (hopeless cesspools in the 1970s, the future of the planet in the 2010s), she wondered: where do small cities, the cities that aren't linked into and benefiting from the financialization of global capitalism, the cities that once were the backbone of American manufacturing and agriculture before corporate farming and outsourcing destroyed them, fit in? Her answers are thoughtful, well-researched, and to me simply inspiring.

So Anyway..., by John Cleese. This autobiography/memoir continues my ongoing engagement with the legacy of the people and productions of Monty Python, the greatest team of comedy writers and performers in the whole history of the English language, or at least so I think. I've spent a lot of time thinking about Michael Palin, and this year I had the wonderful opportunity to think a lot about his most frequent acting partner and the dominant figure behind Python, the endlessly fascinating and frustrating John Cleese. If Palin was Python's surprisingly normal and patiently observant and kind-hearted Yin, then Cleese was Python's regularly angry, never satisfied, constantly striving Yang. A delightful and insightful read--I can't wait to dig into Gilliam's autobiography next.

The World Beyond Your Head: Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction by Matthew Crawford. more than six years ago, Crawford's first book, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work simply blew me away: I thought it was the best and most original work of political and social philosophy that I'd read in years. Combining the insights of Marxist economics, Aristotlean moral thought, and a Heideggerian-influenced phenomenology, Crawford constructed a Laschian defense of manual labor and practical, artisanal skill. In this book, he dives even deeper into the phenomenology, adding too it research on cognitive psychology and the way in which such perspectives are deepening our understanding of the way humans make choices and process information about the world. His basic argument? It's almost impossible to summarize in a single sentence, but if I must, it's this: contemporary technology and economics have pushed us to accept as normal moving through constructed environments in which our ability to think steadily and productively about the sort of habits and forms of action which might actually add to our own individuality and thus to the richness of our social worlds have been crowded out, shouted down, made seem quaint and silly, by a constant stream of advertising, information, and noise. How's that? How to respond to this problem, and rediscover real individuality and connections with the real world? Read the book and find out.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Ten Best Movies I Saw in 2015

As before, these are the ten best movies I managed to watch this year, whether they are old or new. In alphabetical order:

American Hustle: a movie with wonderful performances that were perfectly calibrated to the film's seedy, knock-off, deeply fake style, as communicated through the costuming, set design, and staging. The story--the Abscam affair as reflection of the hollowness of the American Dream--was merely okay, but we can overlook that.

Birdman: probably the best film I saw this year, at least when we're talking about what movies can do. Compelling story, presented to the audience through bizarre yet brilliant directorial conceits, and a performance by Michael Keaton at the center that was simply magnetic. It didn't stick the landing, I thought--the final scene actually pulled me out of the movie's spell, rather than sealing it for me. But other than that, fantastic.

Cinderella: a warm and non-cynical and completely unapologetic embrace of the story, told with a few original twists and touches, but mostly trusting that there is a reason why people love magical tales like these, and letting it do it's work. And work it most certainly did.

A Dangerous Method: a thoughtful recreation of a few particular people, ideas, and conflicts which characterized the fin de siècle world of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud--but the movie, at least to my mind, found clever ways to suggest the civic shakiness and the emotional danger inherent in their whole intellectual framework. Keira Knightly's performance creepily grows on you through the movie, as I think it was supposed to.

Get the Gringo: a sleazy and smart prison-break flick, with Mel Gibson as the one white American stuck in a Mexican jail. It traffics throughout in all sorts of crude stereotypes, but it can't be faulted for leaning on such stereotypes too much because it respects them, and allows those being caricatured to own their own identities. I kept thinking throughout of Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino, another crude but wise tough guy movie; Gringo might actually be better than that (I think overpraised) film, because it didn't aspire to anything beyond it's own genre.

Mad Max: Fury Road: the first of the two movies I saw this year whose visual story-telling was so powerful it elicited a real physical reaction from me as I sat in my seat in the theater and watched it; the protagonists' initial race for freedom, with the massive dust storm approaching, was so thrilling and awesome I was bouncing up and down in my seat, completely captivated. A gorgeously powerful, righteously feminist action film.

The Peanuts Movie: the second movie I saw this year that actually, physically moved me with its beauty. The style of its visuals could not possibly be more different than Fury Road's, but the animation conveyed a fantasy of the warmth and familiarity which folks like me have for these characters and the comic strip as a whole so well that, at one point during Snoopy's flight in his doghouse Sopwith Camel to save Fifi, I found myself smiling and weeping and shaking my head in admiration, all at the same time.

The Pledge: a hard, surprising police thriller. I never thought of Jack Nicholson as a subtle actor before, instead always expecting him to find the inner crazy within every character he plays, and use it to power his performance. But here, he sublimates the crazy so well that I didn't even realize I was looking at the psychological breakdown of the main character until the very end. A great, tense film.

Selma: an inspiring historical drama, with solid performances, and really very smart, subtle choices that, through a line of dialogue here or bit of pacing there, reminded the observant audience (like myself and a friend who teaches high school history; we talked about the concise smartness of this film for weeks) of the huge and complicated political and social conflict which surrounded Martin Luther King's powerful leadership and oratory.

The Zero Theorem: Terry Gilliam will never be able to recapture his glory years, I suppose, but unlike several of his recent movies, this film genuinely works. As a study of the manipulation, decline, and obsessive self-destruction of a brilliant mathematical and computational genius, Gilliam managed to invoke his own greatest movie, Brazil, with its familiar despairing, existential themes, but also bring his satire up to date in regards to both technology as well as corporate power. A worthy addition to his filmography.

Worthy runners-up: The Force Awakens (a solid B; a fun space adventure movie, nothing more or less) and The Martian (often, but not nearly often enough, up to the level of the book).

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Ten Psalms to Remember

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Last week, continuing my slow journey through the Old Testament, I finished the Book of Psalms, aided as always by the work of Robert Alter. It was a strange, often difficult and boring, but sometimes surprising and even inspiring. If reading poetry isn't something you normally do--and I don't--then I suspect going straight through the entire Book of Psalms and confronting its mish-mash collection of 150 ancient works of temple liturgy, private devotion, celebratory hymns, and meditative practice isn't an ideal beginning spot.

And yet, there is value to that strangeness, and rewards as well. As I went through, I couldn't get out of my head the disconcerting image of an ancient gathering of people, speaking (or chanting, or singing) in a language I do not know, in a time and place I can barely imagine, conveying, to an audience either huge and public or intensely private and personal (or both), sentiments that, occasionally, were pretty much exactly my own. I suppose that's a tribute to the power of poetry. Jews of twenty-five hundred (or perhaps even as much as three thousand) years ago wrote down the pleadings, the hopes, the fears, the longings, the demands, and the celebrations of their heart, and the spiritual language they lit upon, while often rote and repetitive, sometimes managed to express something that struck me to the very core. I can't say I learned as much from this book of the Old Testament as I have from the others I've read up to this point, but this was the first time I really felt as though the words on the page were, sometimes, through some alchemy of history and memory and providential wisdom, actually speaking to me.

As the end of 2015 approaches, here are a selection of ten psalms that conveyed that speaking most particularly; perhaps they will for you as well. They haunted me throughout the day as I read them in my trusty Revised English Bible, and which stay with me still as I look forward to the next step in my Biblical journey. Let's hope it's a good one.

Psalm 13:1-2--"How long, Lord, will you leave me forgotten, / how long hide your face from me? / How long must I suffer anguish in my soul, / grief in my heart day after day? / How long will my enemy lord it over me?" Again and again, through the Psalms, you have this kind of existential language, conveying a sense of inwardness in one's pleading to God that deepens what might otherwise been simply an expression of bitterness over ill fortune or the actions of one's opponents. We all know that what's worst about defeat isn't the loss, but the feeling of failure and helplessness which so often accompanies it. Thousands of years ago in Palestine, someone knew that as well.

Psalm 23:5-6--"You spread a table for me in the presence of my enemies; / you have richly anointed my head with oil, / and my cups brims over. / Goodness and love unfailing will follow me / all the days of my life, / and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord / throughout all the years to come." Without doubt, the most beautiful and treasured of all the Psalms, an endlessly beautiful evocation of faith and gratitude. There's no need to say anything more about it, not when we can listen to so many inspired translations and adaptations of it. Here's a great one.

Psalm 34:18-19--"The Lord is close to those whose courage is broken; / he saves those whose spirit is crushed. / Through the misfortune of the one who is righteous be many, / the Lord delivers him out of them all." Through the Old Testament so far, I've encountered a great range of human emotions--but it was with the Psalms, such as in this one, that I read for the first time real expressions of metaphysical and moral hope: for succor, for relief, and for salvation. The heart of a people capable of conceiving of a godly sacrifice on behalf of personal redemption rather than military victory finds its roots here.

Psalm 38:4--"For my iniquities tower above my head; / they are a heavier load than I can bear." Many of the Psalms have a tortured textual history, and as a result their translations are open to significant reconstructions. In the REB, this is a powerful psalm which communicates a recognition of our sinfulness, and our need for God's aid to endure our own weaknesses. But for Alter, it is ultimately about the psalmist struggling with illness, and pleading for healing. I prefer the first reading, but perhaps the two aren't incompatible.

Psalm 51:10-13--"God, create a pure heart for me, / and give me a new and steadfast spirit. / Do not drive me from your presence / or take your holy spirit from me. / Restore me to the joy of your deliverance / and grant me a willing spirit to uphold me. / I shall teach transgressors your ways, / and sinners will return to you." Again, here the attempt to get right with God goes beyond temple sacrifice, and God's presence is more than just one's proximity to the altar. It is the plea of an ancient believer, wanting to be enlisted in a purifying work that may begin with ritual, but extends far beyond it.

Psalm 69:30-33--"I shall praise God's name in song and glorify him with thanksgiving; / that will please the Lord more than the offering of a bull / a young bull with horns and cloven hooves. / When the humble see this let them rejoice. / Take heart, you seekers after God, / for the Lord listens to the poor / and does not despise his captive people." The Mosaic law provided ways that even the poorest Jews could ritually affirm their place in God's covenant; here, we read evidence that throughout this ancient population, there were those who realized that the experience of God's love and promises is more a matter of seeking Him than fulfilling every jot and tittle of his law--a realization that perhaps the Babylonian captivity was essential to the learning of.

Psalm 90:13-15--"Lord, how long? / Turn and show compassion to your servants. / Satisfy us at daybreak with your love, / that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days. / Grant us days of gladness for the days you have humbled us, / for the years we have known misfortune." As another birthday (my 47th) arrives in just a couple of days, this plea, expressed in the context of a recognition of one's mortality ("Seventy years is the span of our life, eighty if our strength holds; / at their best they are but toil and sorrow, / for they pass quickly and we vanish"--v. 10), is particularly poignant.

Psalm 99:4-5--"The King in his might loves justice. / You have established equity; / you have dealt justly and righteously in Jacob. / Exalt the Lord our God / and bow down at his footstool. / Holy is he." A short, succinct expression of wonder, faith, and humility in a God who, in His wisdom and omnipotence, will see, in ways that we cannot, that all will be exactly as it should be. This sentiment is, I think, of a piece with Psalm 19:9, the one Lincoln's quoted, using the King James Version: "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

Psalm 137:4--"How could we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land? / If I forget you, Jerusalem, / may my right hand wither away; / let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth / if I do not remember you, / if I do not set Jerusalem above my chief joy." A psalm that is both plaintive and harsh, evocative of the general feeling homeless and vicious in its view of those who would deprive another of their home, as well as of those who dare to adapt to the new reality. A frightening as well as aching reminder of the desperate power tied to one's particular place.

Psalm 139: 7-12, 23-24--"Where can I escape from your spirit, where flee from your presence? / If I climb up to heaven, you are there; / if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. / If I travel to limits of the east, / or dwell at the bounds of the western sea, / even there your hand will be guiding me, / your right hand holding me fast. / If I say 'Surely darkness will steal over me, / and the day around me turn to night,' / darkness is not too dark for you and night is as light as day; / to you both dark and light are one....Examine me, God, and know my mind; / test me, and understand my anxious thoughts. / Watch lest I follow any path that grieves you; / lead me in the everlasting way." My favorite psalm, because of its deep introspection, and its grasp of the idea that God is more than Israel's YHWH, but is rather universal, before us and behind us, always already and also always waiting. We cannot find the path that is our own...but He can, and will if we let Him. And that, I think, is the kind of hope that saves.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Saturday Night Live Music: "The St. Stephen's Day Murders"

I'm not nearly as cynical about holidays, or family, as Elvis Costello is--but that doesn't mean I don't find this song simply, bloody delightful.

Friday, December 25, 2015

J.J. Abrams: Theologian (Or, Fate Has Everything to Do with It)

Merry Christmas, everyone. The gifts are open, so let's talk spoilers about The Force Awakens, which we saw as a family as our Christmas Eve movie yesterday. For the record: we all loved it, though to varying degrees and for varying reasons. Here are mine.

My mostly positive reaction to this fine, fun space-opera-action movie essentially begins with my overwhelming negative reaction to this horrible, space-action-without-the-opera trailer for this summer's looming Star Trek horror, Star Trek Beyond:

Obviously, it's just a trailer, and even one of the stars of the film has told us fans to hang on for the traditional "Star Trek stuff." But it's hard to doubt, on the basis of the mess of Star Trek Into Darkness, that this is where J.J. Abrams wanted the whole property of Star Trek to be: uprooted from the broad, even sprawling, complex, organization-based, thoroughly human (and humanistic) context of the United Federation of Planets, and forced into an enclosed, operatic, action-based mold of lucky/tragic/magical/fated heroes and heroines facing off against universe. A lot of us saw this coming with J.J. Abrams's original re-boot Star Trek, but that first movie included such winning reconstructions of the core characters that even those deeply devoted to the original Roddenberry vision of Trek--and I'm not nearly as devoted as many--gave the coincidences of that film a pass. But those coincidences and retreads became simply clumsy and manipulative in the second film, and even though Abrams has handed off the director duties for the third, my hope that it'll avoid giving us even more of the same is weak, and thus I am fearful that one of the essential science-fiction story-telling properties of the 20th-century is going to be weakened further.

Was Star Trek really science fiction? Yes, it often was, of a particular, rather optimistic sort. I once described it as "human-science-meets-the-infinite, I-put-on-my-space-suit-and-plug-in-my-time-machine-and-touch-the-face-of-God" type of tales, a way of telling stories cinematically in which ordinary human organizations and bureaucracies interact with and are challenged by the unknown, and those challenges--even when they are tragic and chastening--are ultimately positive. There are, to be sure, lots of other types of science-fiction tales, but Star Trek's is--hopefully not was--an important source of one of them. The Star Wars movies is the source of another--one much more in line with Abrams's basic perspective--more dramatic, more individualistic, more heroic, more outrageous, more enclosed (zipping across the galaxy in mere "parsecs"!). And The Force Awakens demonstrates that particular perspective very, very well.

The primary knock against TFA--which, to be clear, is a very minority perspective; just about everyone has said how much they enjoyed this rollicking adventure down memory lane--is that it's not adding anything to the Star Wars story-line; it's just repeating everything that the first film did. I respect those who want to take the film on its own terms and suggest how Abrams hurried, plot-hole-filled reset of the whole original story-line could be, with a few tweaks, made to work. While I was watching the First Order march about and Supreme Leader Snoke pontificate during the movie, I kind of did the same thing, imagining a way of making a couple of weird assumptions, shifting a couple of story arcs, and leaping directly from The Empire Strikes Back (the Empire disorganized but still powerful, the Rebel Alliance presumably settling in for the long haul under the leadership of Leia and Luke) directly to The Force Awakens, and seeing if that might make an equal amount of sense. But ultimately, I forgot about all that. Such re-jiggering of the sloppy, confusing, but utterly delightful film that Abrams made simply doesn't matter much to me.

Instead, I dug seeing Abrams play around in a story-world that clearly fits him. He gave us a storm-trooper--Finn--who suddenly, somehow, realizes he wants to be good, and dives into that heroic life without really knowing why or how, almost consciously acting out a script that is not his own. He gives us an angry, immature, scarily powerful yet undisciplined, striving yet divided young man--Kylo Ren, who hates himself for his dividedness and hates his family even more, the sort of dangerous punk who would put ridiculous laser guards on the hilt of his light-saber, because wanna-be tough-guys always dress up their monster trucks that way, don't they? Finally, he gives us an obviously blessed individual--Rey--who may or may not be Luke's daughter, and who becomes the linchpin of the whole story, a plucky and resourceful and independent thinker and actor, and through whom the wonder and the desperate fate of the whole galaxy comes to depend. Along the way he gives us either new chapters or ending chapters for characters that we fondly remember from decades ago. (For the record: I managed to avoid the spoiler of Han Solo's death entirely, but I knew what was coming the moment he walked out on the gangplank towards his son.)

Most of all, Abrams embraces unapologetically and unambiguously the magical character of The Force. Maz Kanata, even more than Yoda, insists that the Force is a mystical but also natural law, a balancing agent that operates wherever and however it will. (Note that there is nothing, in any kind of philosophical or theological sense, "natural" about Star Trek.) No miserable mitochlorians here; whether such pseudo-scientific explanations come up in the subsequent movies or not, in TFA it is simply a given that there is this power that picks people out, makes them special--capable of fighting with a light-saber, flying a junky old starship, or taking command of people's minds. Is that, ultimately, the moral theology of the force which Abrams was suggesting in the way he portrayed the torture scene between Ren and Rey, and their later light-saber duel? That the former idolizes his grandfather Darth Vader because he's come to believe (thanks to the corrupting suggestions of the evil Snoke, no doubt) that he knew how to use that power to control others, to force the universe to work the way he wanted it to, and he, in rebellion against his parents, wants that too? Whereas the light side of the Force is one that is reflected in the end of Ren's and Rey's fight--the planet falling apart around them, and a chasm emerging exactly between them, like the universe making its point clear. Nature itself is insisting upon the real differences here, both demanding a ultimate distinction, while also delaying the fated final confrontation.

The best understanding of the Star Wars science-fiction world has always been, I think, more religious that scientific. Science, with all its presumptions and possibilities, was a Star Trek concern. That means the best of Star Trek really was better science-fiction than Star Wars, because it is only with those scientific presumptions and possibilities can you communicate a real sense human-grounded wonder, confusion, and amazement. Star Wars is more about thrills, more about adventure, more about the existential realized through the world around you: less, in other words, about confronting the unknown and more about confronting one's fate. It really is a "space opera." Abrams gave me that this Christmas, and I'm delighted with it. So stick with Star Wars, Mr. Abrams, please, and leave Star Trek alone--I want both kinds of stories, and I'd rather the streams not cross, if we can avoid it.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Hey, I Got a Christmas Card from Bernie Sanders!

"Stick fast to your banner, stand solid, nor veer / 'Till the cause of the workers renews earth again." Good advice to those of us laboring in the pro-Sanders trenches this Christmas season! (Hat tip: Matt Stannard.)

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Barns I Have Known

"Dad," he had once asked when he was a little boy, "what is a stable?"

"It's just a barn," his father had replied, "like ours."

Then Jesus had been born in a barn, and to a barn the shepherds and the Wise Men had come, bringing their Christmas gifts!
(Pearl S. Buck, "Christmas Day in the Morning")

Barns were a place of gifts in my childhood. Or, at least, they were gifts in themselves, though I'm sure I never thought of it in those terms at the time. Barns were places of work and play and discovery and injury and confrontation and mystery and meditation, for all of us older Fox children (but especially, or at least so it seems in my memory, thanks to the quite patriarchal home we grew up in, for us boys). That's gifts aplenty, don't you think? Well, I do now, whatever I might have thought about those reliable structures, those constant edifices, those musty and strange and delightful and dirty and smelly and disgusting and wonderful and scary and familiar storehouses of grain and hay and machinery and animals that I went into and out of multiple times a day from 30 to 40 years ago. Storehouses of memories, that's what they were (and, in at least one blessed case, still are).

Here are the ones that I remember, from the nearest to me temporally to the oldest.

The A-Frame Barn at Fox's Den

In some ways, I almost feel like this one doesn't count. After all, how can a barn that you saw built from the ground up, that you went into when it was brand-spanking new and you could still smell the paint on the outside, that you walked around and climbed on top of when the cement foundation was clean and the shingles running down both sides of the roof were still fresh and black and little sticky from tar--how can a barn like that be much of a surprise, a gift? There's no age to it, no discovery, no mystery--it's just part of the architecture of my memory of that time, a time of building a new place for a family still growing, but nearly, by then, entirely grown. The folks who can speak about the A-Frame best and most meaningfully are those younger than me, who found it waiting for them as they grew up: Stuart a little bit, but mostly Abe and Jess and Phil and Marj and Baden. Especially Abe, because, of course, this is the barn which tried to kill him.

Dad had the barn built behind the house, just large enough to store hay for the cows, with two stalls for milking, and a small enclosed pen in back for any calves. Daniel and I often speculated on the possibility of building a small door at the rear of the A-Frame's tiny loft, so as to enable someone to climb up the ladder and then cross through, out of the rear of the barn and onto the roof of the calf pen. We never did that, and so instead we would just clamber up the fence behind the building and pull ourselves up onto the roof of the pen--that, or we'd attach a rope to one of the branches of the tall pine trees near the barn--maybe the one that Daniel attempted to build one of his about five aborted tree houses over the years in?--sling it over the top of the A-Frame, and then, grabbing hold, walk while pulling ourselves up to the roof. (My memory is that Dad hated us doing this, because it damaged the shingles, but oh well.) Anyway, the point is that we would, one way or another, regularly find ways to get ourselves on top of the barn or at least the pen behind it. Then what would we do? Well, jump off, obviously; I mean, it's not like there wasn't precedent (see below).

So, long story short, at some point after I'd grown up and left home, the younger brothers (was Marjorie there? I don't know; the legends don't say) had come up with a variation of this time-worn activity that involved leaping from the roof of the pen behind the A-Frame, grabbing onto a rope hanging from a tree branch, and then swinging out over the gully which Dad, in his wisdom, had the barn built directly beside. I've no doubt it was great fun--up until the moment when the barn, obviously sick of these kids climbing all over it, conspired with the tree to cause the branch to break at the furthest extent of one of Abe's swings, resulting in his crashing down into the gully, tumbling all the way to the tiny creek at the bottom, and impaling himself on the branch of the fallen log. The story I was told--which I do not want any of my family to correct because this is how I REMEMBER being told the story thank you very much so shut up--involved a collapsed lung, a desperate prayer, a vision of heaven, and a life-saving rush to the hospital. Abe survived and, amazingly, considering that it had clearly demonstrated itself to be a death trap, so did the barn.

Of course, if it didn't kill us by luring us to outright injury, it could attempt to kill us through pestilence, heat stroke, or hypothermia. Seriously, the place had essentially no ventilation and no insulation, which meant it was hideously hot in the summer months and dreadfully cold in the winter. A small lake of manure from the cows stunk up the place from pretty much all of May through September, and then in the winter months we'd have frozen bovine urine making the milking stalls and feeding pen actually difficult to traverse. The long strips of flytrap tape were always clogged black with dead fly bodies by midsummer; it didn't matter how many we hung, because the supply of insects was endless. Stephen King would have had plenty of material to turn our slow trudges out to the barn for daily milking and feeding duties into a descent into horror, for certain.

To be fair, though, I never felt any of that, mostly because of the cows. I liked them; I would talk to them, commiserate about the heat or the cold or the stink or the ice or the flies with them. They would nod, moo, occasionally add silent comments of their own, and the conversation would continue. It was in this barn that Daniel and I witnessed our father's by-now mythological struggle with the Hell Cow; it was one frozen morning in the A-Frame where a cow slipped on the ice covering the milking floor and fell on top of me. It was from the small old transistor radio that Dad put up in the rear of the barn that I listen to Casey Kasem's Top 40 and sing along (badly) to the cows as a child (once I discovered radio, that is); it was with the cows that I tried out various debating strategies and arguments; it was while milking the cows with Daniel that we sketched out Dungeons & Dragons adventures that took on a life of their own. So, yes, I have many fond memories of the old A-Frame--after all, that was the barn I spent more time in than any other--but mostly because of what happened in it, not so much because of it, itself. For that, we have to reach further back.

The Red Barns at Ye Olde Fox Farm

If Americans have a stereotype of barns in their minds, then it almost certainly looks just about exactly like the barns which we older Fox children knew for two short, intense years in the late 1970s. One big, classic red barn ("Big Red"), with multiple stalls for animals, a huge hay loft, a broad front floor for grain, additional hay, and machinery, and a big sliding door in front. And then another, smaller barn ("Little Red"), with separate rooms, a mysterious attic, and an even more mysterious basement that could be accessed with a trap door in the floor. We loved it.

Honestly, we probably loved the doors the most. Not only did Little Red have the trap door in the floor, which gave access to some creaky stairs which took you down into a low-ceilinged, unfinished, dirt-floor basement, but Big Red also had a secret door, built into a wall and not visible unless you knew what you were looking for, that led to another set of creaky stairs which would take you down into another low-ceilinged, unfinished, dirt floor basement. This one was much smaller than the first, and was obviously a root cellar (which is what we used it for, storing bunches of potatoes from the garden down there, which we would, of course, promptly forget about, and then only remember months later, at which point we would open up the dirt-filled trunk in that cellar and be confronted with a small army of mutant potatoes, their ghostly white roots all growing pathetically upward). As for the first one, the one below Little Red? Who knows? It was probably intended to be another floor, but we imagined that it had been a designed as a way-station for the Underground Railroad (which, of course, passed regularly through eastern Washington back in the 1840s) or a meeting place for communists or rebels or some other group (it depended on whether we were imagining good guys or bad guys at the time). Once, when Mom and Dad were involved in youth leadership in our congregation, a huge spook alley was planned using our barns, and that whole lower level in the smaller barn was turned into a maze, with canvas walls stretching from floor to ceiling, and Uncle Chuck, revving the motor of his chainsaw (but the chain was off--or, at least, so I was told; I wasn't allowed to go through that part of the haunted house), wandered the maze, healthily scaring teen-agers to death.

Those barns were scary, honestly. They were old, and going in and out of them, tending chickens (which decided they hated Stuart, and would organize to attack him whenever he approached) and pigs (which all died one winter--what, don't they have fur to keep them warm during the cold weather?) and cows (we started our milking operations while living at Ye Olde Fox Farm, but my primarily memory was Daniel and Samatha squirting milk at me as I passed by the stalls carrying grain), could often be a little terrifying, but in a pleasant way, to an 8 and 9-year-old. Creaks and moans from the wind, loose floorboard whose location we kept forgetting (actually, Dad made good use of those loose floorboards during the aforementioned spook alley; he brought in an actual slaughtered cow from some ranch that the mill he ran sold feed to, laid it out over a loose, jostling floor board in Big Red, and then, while taking groups of teen-agers through, would get them to step on it, causing the bloody carcass to suddenly move), and of course cats creeping up on you all the time. Oh, the cats! I think I counted about 14 strays that had adopted the barns as their home. Some were nice enough, but a couple were positively feral, and seeing their eyes suddenly pop out at you from a dark corner of the barns freaked me out.

Mostly, though, we loved these barns. So many things to discover! Piles of old boxes, books, clothes, and knick-knacks, left in corners of the attic of Little Red or the loft of Big Red, weird moldy stuff dating back to 20, 30, 40 years before we were born. The dust motes that danced through the streams of sunlight that penetrated cracks in the barns' siding early in the morning or as the sun set. The huge indoor playground which Big Red essentially became for us: endless games of hide-and-seek, of building forts out of hay bales, of challenging each other to athletic contests. Most of those contests, admittedly, involved running and leaping off the hay loft, so you can see the roots of Abe's unfortunately incident right there. But leaping indoors, as dangerous as it obviously was (that was a concrete floor down there!), never resulted in any injury. Mostly we'd soar 15 or 20 ft. through the air to hand, tumbling, on piles of hay or grain--the latter being even better than hay, because the loose grain piles of corn grain would sink underneath you as you landed, and for a moment it was like you were in quicksand, though suffocation was never a possibility, and you always ended up smelling like molasses afterward.

Of course, I said "leaping indoors" above--leaping from the barns themselves was a different proposition. I jammed a rusty nail into my heel thanks to one such adventure, and Daniel actually landed headfirst in a bush that jammed a thick stem into the back of this throat. (Dad just yanked it out and all was fine, but remember this, kids: if you're falling headfirst in the direction of foliage that you're hoping will break you fall, keep you mouth closed.) So, sure, being around old barns that were always falling down as fast as we fixed them up could pose some dangers. Overall, my memory of those barns is filled with warmth. The Big Red became, in my mind, the Fitzgerald's barn from the Great Brain books, and I imagined I would build a high platform over the main floor, accessible only by roped ladder, just as J.D. and T.D. did. Maybe we would have if we'd stayed there longer. But by the end of the 70s our family was moving on, with a year in a barn-less suburban house before our construction of Fox's Den with the A-Frame. In the meantime, our barn experiences fell back on the oldest, and the first.

Grandpa Bill's Old Brown Horse and Grey Hay/Grain Barns

Unlike the A-Frame and Big Red, at least, which Google Map's satellite view tells me have been preserved as re-purposed over the decades, Grandpa's barns are either gone or stand mostly lonely and empty today. Perhaps that's not a terribly inappropriate fate. Grandma and Grandpa Fox are both gone; the horses, the alfalfa fields, the cattle, the corrals, the old colt-breaking pens, and network of wooden fences, the groves of pine trees: all gone also. The big open Grey Barn--where owls, crows, and pigeons roosted, where piles of hay bales and bags of grain reached up three stories (or so it seemed in my youthful mind), where cows and horses would gather to be fed on snowy winter days, where, like it was some sort of magnet, the odd detritus of decades of farm and milling work had been drawn (an old, empty Fox Milling truck, which we'd climb down inside; a dangerously appealing, unsupported, broken-down loading chute; more railroad ties than you could count)--is completely removed. The Brown Barn, though, is still there, surrounded by the remains of the once productive farm and ranch which it provided the center of, and beyond that the housing developments and pleasant lanes which now occupy the land. Talking with Phil and Jesse, I learn that you can still go inside. I hope it still smells the same.

That's the memory which most grounds me when it comes to the Grandpa's barns--the smell. Which is surprising for me, because I've long known that smell is probably the weakest of my five senses. Time must have something to do with that. The barns were there when I was a toddler, and a child, and a teen-ager, and a young man; they were always there with their odors, building up in my memory. At first they were a little unnerving: that's where horses which could bite and kick me were, that's where tractors that could run me over were, that's where Grandpa--he of the imposing height, the busy eyebrows, the beak-like nose, and the legendary reputation--worked! But then, as I grew, they were the places where I could work with Grandpa and Dad and my brothers, loading up hay from the fields, feeding the horses, tending our calves (after we'd left Ye Olde Fox Farm and before the A-Frame had been built), saddling our pony Sparky and taking him for a ride. They became comfortable places, places where I knew I could always visit and feel at home--but also places where the years before me and around me were always a haunting presence too, and the smell communicated that best.

I don't have the vocabulary to detail that smell exactly--but I could recognize it instantly. It's a horse smell, which is distinct from cows, to be sure (that one I can recognize instantly as well). But with the horses there is leather, oil, grease, varnish, sweat. Slide back the tall front door and walk into the Brown Barn and soak it in. On the right is an old, never-finished room, whose walls only go halfway to the ceiling high above, and thus one we could look down into from atop a stack of hay bales or from the hay loft: old woodworking machinery, sawhorses and tables, barrels of forgotten stuff, all covered in dust. But the smell comes most strongly from the left side of the barn, where the walls are smoother and stronger and go all the way up to the roof. The doors along the right side of the Brown Barn were where the real mysteries were to be found.

I open one of those doors, and the whole wall is taken up with saddles, stirrups, harnesses, and straps. The smell of leather and ointment, even if almost nobody was regularly riding any of the horses any longer, was strong: I learned early that pleasing odor can last for years. It was a dark room, with one window partly covered in dirt, giving a soft glow to the supple browns all around me. At some point I watch the film The Black Stallion, and the scene where Alec stumbles into Henry's old racing shed, looking at old photographs of him as a jockey and the headlines of preserved newspapers detailing his wins, became part of my narrative imagination every time I went into that space. The soiled  and worn gloves, the coils of rope, the extension cords with their rarely used lanterns attached: all were touched by that sensibility. The old stories about Grandpa breaking expensive Arabians for rich buyers, the fact that he'd actually served as part of a mounted posse in the 1940s, the way in which so many of the Fox clan, despite not having anything to do with horses for decades, all seemed to be tuning in to watch the Triple Crown races this year (and man, the social media firestorm which we generated with the news with each other!)...maybe it all started with us breathing in the smells of Old Brown.

Thinking back on all that, and upon years of hauling bales of hay by truck, or railroad ties by tractor, or following Daniel around after Grandpa had hired him to shoot gophers so as the minimize the change of livestock breaking a leg in one of their holes, or hiking between the two barns with Uncle Chuck as dusk descended, with him pointing out the hawks and owls either returning to or departing from the trees that stood tall over the pastures--well, it makes me appreciative. Deuteronomy 28:8 includes a promise from God to the people of Israel on the moment of their entering into the land of Canaan to claim that which they believed He had promised them: "The LORD will send a blessing on your barns and on everything you put your hand to." In other translations "barns" becomes "storehouses" or "granaries," but it's all the same: they are the places where people living lives of agriculture and husbandry, lives tied to the land, do not, in fact, live and sleep--but they are buildings where they store all the fruit and gear and tools and rewards of their living and working, and they are the buildings where the evidence and blessings of all that is to be found. The Foxes are not, and haven't been for many years, a farming family, a family of cows and horses. But I blessed by the memory of them. And those memories, even if the barns themselves have been changed entirely or perhaps don't even exist any longer--they can last all the years of my life.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

A Tale of Two Superheroine TV Shows

Kristen, our youngest daughter (age 9), and I have finished catching up on Supergirl, which just entered into its winter break. We're loving it, and it's a blast to watch a show together. Kristen loves Kara Danvers; she's excited by her ups and downs as she works out her powers and tries to figure out how best to do good, and just finds it wonderful to see a woman flying around, slugging it out with the bad guys, saving kids on a bus and putting out fires. I suppose my dropping hints at small elements of the DC comic world along the way--"he's the Martian Manhunter!" "he's the son of the Toyman!"--has added to her excitement, as it enables her to see herself and her dad sharing some special inside knowledge.

For myself, I love the show; from the very beginning, I've grooved on the way it makes use of the source material, and delighted in the various clever hat-tips contained in the casting and dialogue (having Kara's boss and emerging-mother-figure Cat Grant, played by Calista Flockhart of Ally McBeal fame, insist that calling the new superheroine "Supergirl" is a feminist statement was a good one; Dean "New Adventures of Superman" Cain's cameo as Kara's adoptive father who insists "I know more about Superman than anyone else alive" was another). Basically, I've enjoyed its upbeat and redemptive tone--one that is appropriate for the Superman mythos as a whole (thus showing up the flaws of the clumsy, harsh direction which Zack Snyder seems determined to take the current incarnation of Superman movies).

Of course, upbeat and redemptive doesn't describe anything in Jessica Jones. Like its forerunner Daredevil, I binged watched this show, and enjoyed it immensely. It was really solid television--often (if somewhat inconsistently) great dialogue and characterizations, with a dark and creepy mood that's hard to balance with an exciting story. But Jones pulled it off. Our oldest daughter (age 19, currently at KU) and our foster daughter (age 15) have both gotten into it as well--the former being deeply enough into its story that the final minutes of the final episode had her freaking out over the fate of Jessica and her sole reliable friend, Trish Walker. And I don't dispute her reaction; Jones absolutely stuck its landing.

I did have some complaints about how the show developed along the way--Kilgrave's powers didn't always seem to operate according to the same rules, and the way in which those around him responded to or dealt with his commands didn't always make sense to me--but they're pretty minor, all things considered. After all, telling an entirely "realistic" story about people with mysterious, secret powers and abilities, and honestly and consistently portraying how ordinary folk would act and think when confronted by individuals with said powers, ain't easy. (The list of films or television shows I've seen that really, fully, pulled off "realistically" telling a comic book-type story begins with Shyamalan's one truly great film, Unbreakable, and pretty much ends there too.) I give Daredevil a slight edge over Jessica Jones in the quality television department, but that mostly has to do with their relevant subplots, not at all their central performances, both of of which I thought were superb, or the way in which they made use of their comic books roots.

One way in which Jones is a clear winner over Daredevil, though, is obviously the way in which it makes central to its story so many topics that reflect upon the experience of women in a patriarchal society--sexual violence, most obviously, but also themes of dependency, code-switching, lookism, sexual longing and confusion, and male privilege generally. It was truly a great bit of feminist story-telling, made that much better because of the determination of the story-tellers to tell Jessica's story in the context of her experience of recovery and resentment. Which is, again, a very, very different approach to that which Supergirl takes: Kara has her problems, but she is not confused by or wounded by resentment, and she definitely is not struggling to assert herself in the face such a devastating, violating experience. So, does that mean Jones is a more or a better bit of feminism than Supergirl?

I'm not the first to ask this question, and every time it gets ask the answer is resounding: both are equally important! And those answer are all correct, of course. But let me play the very slight contrarian, and point out this: whatever "more" or "better" may or may not mean when it comes to feminist storytelling, I think any fair-minder watcher would have to admit that Supergirl is more broad in its feminism that Jones.

Why? Because of the range of female characters, most obviously. You have Kara herself, you have her sister Alex (educated, competent, loving, though also resentment and obsessive in her protectiveness), her boss Cat (smart, sexy, overly self-confident as a way to hide her own secrets and mistakes), her adoptive mother Helen (interfering, condescending, a micromanager, and also utterly dependable), her arch-enemy Astra (her aunt--and possibly more?--and a power-hungry, wickedly funny, contemptuous species-ist regarding these lowly human around her). All the men in these episodes are second-players; even when they are in positions of authority, women are never shown as dependent upon them, but rather as (appropriately enough) maturely responding to them. In short, in Supergirl my daughter Kristen is seeing even more women doing and feeling and dealing with more things than just about any other television show or movie I can think of that would be appropriate for her to watch. In that sense, it's doing something which the more narrowly focused Jones did not: giving viewers a view of the female experience, through the medium of comic book-style stories, that includes all of the ups and downs and difficulties and triumphs which every woman experiences every day.

I suppose I may be coloring the show even brighter than it actually, just because it's great for me to spend time with my youngest child, geeking out on something we both enjoy. But honestly: Supergirl is television that is both feminist and fun. It may not do anything better than any number of other shows, much less the terrific Jessica Jones, but still: it's worth checking out. We certainly intend to keep on doing exactly that.