Free Beer in Slabobia!

beer-introIn the alternate country of Slabobia, suppose I have this great idea for helping the poor: free beer. It’s delicious, high in calories, and gone should be the days when self-respecting Slabobians had to beg for their beer. So I contact my senator, who likes the idea, and, lo and behold, a bill gets passed providing free beer for everyone beneath a certain annual income. The streets are alive with drunken celebrations, and living in Slabobia has never been better (provided you’re making less than the certain income). Meanwhile people above the certain income start to feel jealous, especially those who are teetering on the line. They realize that, when comes December, if they were to just turn down that seasonal job, they’d more than make up for the difference with free beer. Plus they’d get a whole extra month of vacation!

So annual incomes drop, demand for seasonal jobs increases, alcoholism reaches an all-time high, drunken fistfights are everywhere, and the tax-payers’ completely fruitless expenditure on beer is tanking the economy. Free beer, it turns out, was a bad idea. So I call up my senator and ask him to try to repeal the act, but he responds, “No can do. The Free Beer Act guarantees millions of votes for me and my party.”

While it was an honest mistake, everyone knows that bureaucracy never dies, so rather than griping about the past, I’m just going to pick my battles and move on. Beer, I realize, was not a need. What the poor need is good, nutritious food. So I call my senator, who likes the idea, and once again, lo and behold, a bill gets passed providing free, healthy food for all Slabobians beneath a certain income level. By taking their vouchers to grocery stores, the poor are entitled to all the spinach, celery, and rutabagas they could ever want.

The only problem is that no one actually wants spinach, celery, and rutabagas, and when the grocery stores realize this, they also realize that they’re missing out on some serious revenue from government reimbursements, so they collaborate with local manufacturers to invent three new products that will technically meet the governmental standards: spinach ice cream, deep-fried celery chips, and rutabaga beer.

The products are a huge success, so much so that obesity among the poor reaches an all-time high. On the up side, this means there’s a major spike in the health industry, but on the downside, because these are the poor we’re helping, none of them actually pay for their services, so once again the economy is tanking.

My benevolent idea, it turns out, resulted in some unintended consequences. Perhaps it was due to loopholes in the text, and the senators should have hired better lawyers. Regardless, because passing a new bill is so much easier than repealing an old one, I decide it’s time to look at the bigger picture in determining what the root causes of poverty are. I decide that everyone, not just the poor, should have free health care and free college educations. So I call up my senator, and once again he likes the idea, and lo and behold, a bill is passed providing exactly what I wanted.

Though the lines get long … really long … everyone gets the primary care they need. Because of the government’s increased bargaining power (they’re flipping the bill for everyone, after all), they can get the lowest bids from medical professionals, so our taxes only rise by a bout 400%. The down side is that half of the doctors in Slabobia are no longer able to pay their bills, so they move off shore, and many of the high-tech medical developments and pharmaceutical research firms are dissolved due to limited funding, but that’s okay, because there’s all those other countries (like the U.S.) that haven’t turned socialist yet. At least they’re still producing good stuff.

And hey, free college! Now that everyone’s got a fraternity or a sorority to join, and the minimum university class size is in the hundreds, campus life has never been more packed with parties and free from education. Of course, we’ve effectively inflated the education system, making the high school diploma beyond worthless and the bachelors degree a prerequisite for flipping burgers, but at least everyone now has the chance to flip burgers. But then there’s the other down side: now that it takes seventeen years of education to qualify for burger flipping, young adults aren’t expected to move out of their parents’ basements until well into their thirties, an unpleasant reality that leads to an even faster halting of the Slabobian population growth. With fewer and fewer people to pay into a welfare state that doesn’t pay back, the economy is once again tanking, and the general quality of life is looking dismal.

For a moment I wonder if government intervention could have had something to do with Slabobia’s problems. I decide that it has. So I call up my senator with a great new idea for a social program to help people who has suffered from the effects of government intervention. And until that bill gets passed, at least there’s still free beer.

Paradoxical Intention and Why Unbelief Should Lead to Spirituality

hands holding the sun at dawnHere’s my Sunday thought. According to Wikipedia, “In psychotherapy, paradoxical intention is the deliberate practice of a neurotic habit or thought, undertaken to identify and remove it.” Founded by the German psychologist Viktor Frankl, the idea is that if you’re suffering from insomnia, rather than trying to sleep, which will most likely backfire, you should try to stay awake as long as possible. In trying not to sleep, you’ll naturally tire yourself out, and the body’s the sleep mechanism will automatically kick in with no further effort. Trying to sleep is like trying to forget: it’s indistinguishable from remembering.

If we believe that there’s no afterlife, it’s reasonable for a philosophy of nihilism to follow. Believing that it doesn’t matter what we do, it’s then reasonable for a life of hedonism to follow. As we inevitably fear the impending termination of our being, it’s reasonable to try to distract our senses with entertainment, sensations, and stimulants. But if all this is in response to a meaningless life, does it succeed in adding meaning, or, like trying to sleep in response to insomnia, does it exacerbate the problem?

Dr. Frankl demonstrates that when it comes to solving psychological challenges, our intuitions are often wrong. What if, in response to concluding that there is no God, instead of rebelling against the idea of God, we tried to become as godlike as possible?

For the vast majority of human history and cultures, the idea of deity played a central role in every day life, because while people lied, it was believe that God could not be deceived. Beneath pragmatic social contracts was an underlying contract between individuals and a transcendent ideology. For every action, word, and possibly even thought, individuals would be held accountable. And how could such accountability not improve individuals and societies? Anyone who’s tried to transform their body through exercise or healthy eating knows self-destructive temptations are a real thing, and accountability is crucial. One needs a friend, a deadline, or a beach party by which to gauge his salvation or damnation.

But if one honestly doesn’t believe in God, how can one feel accountable for his actions? Perhaps the French philosopher Voltaire had the answer: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” I interpret this to mean that, when we see God as an ideal to strive for, the question of whether or not God actually exists is, at least in some ways, irrelevant. To allude back to the fitness metaphor, while it would be nice to see pictures of ripped muscle men for inspiration, whether they actually exist or are Photoshopped illusions should have no bearing on the progress of one’s bodybuilding.

If we believe that there’s no God to overlook the affairs of humanity, then we must become the gods, because the world desperately needs goodness, love, knowledge, power, and principle. Ironically, atheism really shouldn’t lead to hedonism but a more astute sense of purpose, accountability, and even spirituality, because with atheism should come a realization that everything depends on us.

Far from deluding one’s mind with dogma, it is my belief that everyone should choose to believe in the principles of God because of the inherent value in so doing. And who knows, one might actually discover God in the process.

Faith and Jesus Christ’s Incredible Doctrine of Everything

2817f6f9e38f48cf9546c2964a09091aBeing as it’s Sunday, and I don’t know what else to do with myself, I’m going to muse on the subject of faith.

Many times I’ve wondered why faith is so integral to this life. Wouldn’t it be better if we were equipped with a divine text book? Why would the same being who said that “The Glory of God is intelligence” (D&C 93:36) purposely hide himself and leave us with nothing more credible than the words of self-proclaimed prophets by which to make sense of the universe?

And yet, what if we had started out with a complete instruction manual on life, the universe, and everything? From a scientific point of view, there would have been no need for a Galileo, Newton, or Einstein. Like pampered nobility born into privilege, our imagination, innovation, and realization would have been severely stunted. And then comes this wonderful quote from Thomas S. Monson:

“God left us the world unfinished for man to work his skill upon. He left the electricity in the cloud, the oil in the earth. He left the rivers unbridged and the forests unfelled and the cities unbuilt. God gives to man the challenge of raw materials, not the ease of unfinished things. He leaves the pictures unpainted and the music unsung and the problems unsolved, that man might know the joys and glories of creation.”

So while the full nature of faith as the means by which one can obtain the full blessings of God still remains something of a mystery to me, I see enough wisdom in the principle that, for now, I’m more than willing to … take it on faith.

And in pondering this still mysterious principle of faith in the divine, namely Jesus Christ, I’ve felt a need for a better definition of what, exactly, this concept means. Fist I’ll tell you what I think it’s not: I don’t think it’s a state of mind, nor do I think it’s pretending to believe in something one truly doesn’t. I think it’s more like the following analogy:

Say you have a brilliant epiphany on the subject of astrophysics. You realize that you’ve pieced together the complete theory of everything, and you’re dying to tell others about. But the problem is, hardly anyone will have any clue what you’re talking about, because not only have they not qualified themselves to understand, they’re probably not even interested. Tragedy. In the same way, I feel that Jesus Christ has obtained the true doctrine of everything, and he’s dying to tell us about it. But once again, most of us are either unqualified or uninterested. We simply wouldn’t know what to do with such pearls of great price.

I think his “elect” are those who exert themselves enough to both wrap their minds around the knowledge he’s given and follow the path he’s set. That is, faith is “getting it.” Because when we get it, we do it. Faith is not getting everything, because perfect knowledge would no longer be faith. It’s just getting enough. The crucial knowledge is there, and boy is it ever. The limiting factor is not the information itself but our willingness to internalize it and act upon it. Again, I think faith is an applied combination of knowledge and action.

And here’s where the miracles factor in: for those few who put themselves on the path of faith, God is going to help them, because he’s dying to have someone else experience what he has and know what he does. He has a vested interest their success. And yet, as much as this may torment him, he can’t just give us this knowledge in a text book, because it would inevitably go to waste. It appears that this world of mystery, where each of us must figure out for ourselves who we are and why we’re here, is the only way that a proper inquisitiveness — a kind that leads to godliness — could be instilled within us. But as mysteries are unfolded, we begin to perceive the true universe. Higher laws act upon lower laws, and “miracles” occur.

In the Book of Mormon, it’s Laman and Lemuel who most needed faith, though they never understood why. They didn’t get it, because they didn’t want to get it. Such would require too much effort. Their youngest brother, Nephi, however, did get it. He saw that faith wasn’t just for malignant sinners or the down and out. Far from a silly belief system for blubbering ladies in fast-and-testimony meetings, faith is power for the righteous, those who don’t fall back on religion as a crutch but hold onto it as a ladder to perfection. It is the light, knowledge, and hope of the redeeming gospel that empowered Nephi to complete dangerous missions, obtain profound visions, prophesy of the future, engineer brilliant things, cross uncrossable seas, sculpt beautiful edifices, lead nations, and leave legacies for his posterity. Could a foundation of doubt have led to such amzing accomplishments? What interests me about faith is not just the power that helps the lost get found but the power that helps those who have already found themselves become gods.

Last night I attended the priesthood session of the General Conference for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For an hour and a half I sat on a hard chair, surrounded by men and boys in white shirts and ties while we listened to old men call us to repentance. Such an image may stir less than exciting feelings into my readers. In fact, it may be the antithesis of what’s deemed as a “cool” activity for a Saturday night. And yet, over the course of this conference, I found the messages so stimulating that I took over 5,000 words of notes. While there are many things I don’t understand, I believe I can say with confidence that I “get” this gospel. The doctrine is wonderful. The advice is good. The examples are phenomenal. And most importantly, the fruit is sweeter than anything else I’ve ever tasted. I don’t have a perfect knowledge and nor will I ever in this life. It seems that that is the point of this life. And yet, when it comes to the fundamentals, I get it. I understand the basic tenets of Jesus Christ’s doctrine of everything, and I want to learn more. I want to experience the course he’s laid out for me, because I know, from experience, that it leads to joy and intelligence.

What struck me last night was how much we’re missing when, like Laman and Lemuel, we choose not to “get it.” In a world where agnosticism is viewed as a trait of the enlightened, we often say, “Unless I can know for certain, I will not act.” But this logical construct we build up in our minds can never be satisfied, for, as it appears, the full truth will not be made known to us in mortality (at least not at this time), which, once again, appears to be the point. We’re forced to choose between moving forward in faith and spinning in circles of doubt. Afraid of falling into the traps of wishful thinking or delusion, we choose not to “get it.” We opt out of experimenting with Jesus Christ’s doctrine of everything by studying scriptures, praying, meditating, fellowshipping, and trying out the works of Jesus Christ for ourselves, because we’re certain that we already know what the results will be. And yet this is not scientific. If we really wanted to know, we would have to try to prove ourselves wrong.

“And now I, Nephi, cannot say more; the Spirit stoppeth mine utterance, and I am left to mourn because of the unbelief, and the wickedness, and the ignorance, and the stiffneckedness of men; for they will not search knowledge, nor understand great knowledge, when it is given unto them in plainness, even as plain as word can be” (2 Nephi 32:7).

It’s been argued that doubt is a better instrument for the pursuit of truth than faith. While this may be true in a laboratory, and while a healthy skepticism can always help cut through deception, doubt alone can easily turn into an roadblock to action where action is required. It may lead to the distorted view that what we don’t know should take precedence over what we do know. It may close the mind, heart, and will from seeking to understand Jesus Christ’s good news, simply because, from a distance, such good news may seem fantastic. But before we doubt our faith, perhaps we should also try doubting our doubts.

Last night the wise speakers pleaded with our generation of men to start looking past our own noses, to truly be there for their wives, children, and neighbors. It was if they said, “You don’t have time to doubt your place in this great work of salvation, because if you can’t even get past helping yourself, how on earth are you going to fulfill your callings to help others? You already know it’s true, so stop falling on your doubts as an excuse to withhold action. In so doing you are damning your potential and destroying your family, your society, and your posterity.”

And that’s what I think it really comes down to: the question of “to act or not to act.” Perhaps forcing us to make this decision is the true purpose behind this great simulation called earth. The great deception is to equate faith with mere belief, a state of mind, wishful thinking, or even delusion, while the great truth is that faith is one and the same with action. I do not believe there is an alternative to this choice between faith and action and doubt and inaction. This is not to imply that no one can live a good and meaningful life while simultaneously rejecting the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but is my belief that there is nothing better out there than Jesus Christ’s doctrine of everything, nothing so empowering, nothing so good for the individual soul and the entire human family.

My personal resolve is, as I’ve suggested, to place my knowledge over my doubts, and to exercise more faith through more action. I can honestly say that the more I’ve exerted my faith, studied my course material, and followed the footsteps of my Savior, the more real, profound, and literally true his doctrine of everything has seemed, and the more enlightened and happy I’ve felt. Inversely, the more lax I’ve become, and the more I’ve distanced myself, the more it all seems like wishful thinking, and the more confused and dark I feel. While it could be argued that such confusion is inevitable while deconstructing a false foundation, I don’t buy it. Real truth warms, enlivens, and inspires like the rising sun. And once you’ve experienced it, you know it. When you’ve comprehended even the smallest portion of Jesus Christ’s doctrine of everything, you see that no other explanation comes close.

The Force Awakens: Star Wars for the ADHD Generation

Star Wars: the Force AwakensFew things excite me like John William’s Star Wars theme. Hearing those blasting trumpets and seeing that amazing yellow logo glimmering with all the scifi wonder of 1977 against the panoramic backdrop of a vast starscape, this is the stuff of magic. This familiar moment at the opening of The Force Awakens had me literally bouncing on my seat, as my embarrassed wife will attest. Needless to say, I had high hopes for this movie, especially as so many have raved over it.

My first observation was that I was glad to read a familiar, thoroughly cheesy intro with phrases like “the Sinister First Order” and “searching the galaxy for Luke Skywalker …” I could tell right off that this movie was going to be another great Space Western with clear-cut good guys and bad guys, almost like an extended Sunday school lesson but far more entertaining. Though it also begged the question, “Do I really want another melodrama?” I mean, we’ve already been through six movies cataloguing the rise and fall of the Galactic Empire and the eventual triumph of the righteous underdogs. Wouldn’t it be a little counterproductive to throw away all that progress and start over? Surely that’s not what the film is going to be, is it? Of course not. The Imperial days are over. It’s time for a new period, a new conflict, new themes, and new wonders. I mean, there’s a whole galaxy to explore.

Of course, my fears turned out to be spot on. I won’t dare call the movie a remake, as apparently there’s been a touchy debate on the subject, but it was at least a “soft reboot,” strongly reminiscent of A New Hope. I’m almost certain the making of the film started with a conversation like this:

“So those prequels didn’t turn out too well, and we’ve got way too much money on the line to risk another box office bomb. So let’s just follow the proven formula of Episode IV. And while we’re at it, let’s throw in a lot of Episode V, because that one also did well.”

This wasn’t necessarily a bad idea as The Force Awakens succeeded at fitting right into the Star Wars universe. The filmmakers clearly went to great pains to be true to those 1977 designs and motifs, even with retro screen visuals and flashy lights on the walls that serve no purpose. Awesome. They knew exactly who their target audience was: people like me who had grown up with a religious zeal for Star Wars, who had been hurt by the prequels, and wanted to return to the comfort of their beloved galaxy from long ago and far away with pseudo-religious overtones, inspiring the inner-heroes within.

And yet, for me, this movie was too familiar: another lost droid holding important information, another sandy planet with a trapped, young Jedi in the making, a new galactic empire (with virtually no explanation as to its roots or financial backing), a new Darth Vader, a new cantina full of monsters, a new Yoda-figure, a new Death Star, new Yavin’s to blow up, and so on.

I get that they wanted cohesion with the earlier episodes, but with so much budget and technology, why not get at least a little more creative and show some non-earth-like terrain? I mean, every single habitat in the Star Wars universe so far has a direct counterpart on earth. Why not show us a planet with a pink sky where it rains sulphur and the trees look like giant frog eggs, and there’s half the gravity of earth? What’s with Hollywood’s obsession with boring desert planets? Don’t get me wrong: Tatooine was beyond cool in 1977, when Star Wars pioneered the possibilities of scifi cinema. But in 2016, have we now reached the outer limits with nothing left to do but pander to nostalgia? Why not take that pioneering spirit further?

And now I’m going to completely contradict myself in adding that it was too bad that the filmmakers didn’t learn from all of the mistakes from the prequels, namely the use of CGI characters. I know I speak for many when I say we just don’t want them. We just don’t love them. They’re just … no good. The use of puppets is one bit of Star Wars nostolgia that should never be compromised.

I was able to overlook all of these disappointments  but one that hit too hard: the reintroduction of Han Solo. We discover that, as a seventy-something year-old-man, he’s long-since left Leia and backslid to his smuggling days. I can also imagine the conversation that led up to this choice: “What do we do with him? He can’t just be happily married. Where’s the conflict in that? And he certainly can’t have attained some level of maturity and sagacity in his old age. That would just depress our audience. The Han Solo they knew and loved was a rough, sarcastic smuggler, so that’s what we’re going to give them.”

Which reminds me of a rumor I’d heard about Cookie Monster. Perhaps it’s just an urban legend, but as the story goes, there was a time when Cookie Monster overcame his urge for cookies and grew a liking for fruits and vegetables, encouraging children to eat more healthy. Audiences were enraged, insisting that Cooke Monster was betraying his true nature, and, accordingly, the familiar Cookie Addict soon returned. In large, our world rejects the concept of progression and insists on unaltered, platonic ideals.

Han and Leia’s relationship and characters had developed over three wonderful movies, in which they’d both passed through the refiner’s fire. Contrast their flippant attitudes in Episode IV to their softer, more altruistic, and genuinely loving attitudes by the end of Episode VI. It’s sad to just throw that all away for the sake of a new conflict, and it came at a cost.

Sure Han and Leia had some token lines exhibiting their wisdom of age, but these, for me, fell flat, as they had so little to show from the last thirty years. For example, consider Han’s lines about the reality of the force and the Jedi. His testimony might have meant something if I could see that the Force had influenced his life for good, making him who he was. But it’s as if all he really said was, “I used to think Luke had a stunt double, that it was all a bunch of simple tricks and nonsense. But I was wrong. He totally does he own stunts. True story.”

Furthermore, what good is a testimony of the Force in a galaxy where the effects of the Force can be so obviously observed? Which brings me to my next observation: the supplanting of the principle of faith. In Episode IV, when Luke is introduced to the Force by Ben Kenobi, the Force is presented as a belief system. It requires faith in an unseen power. Luke has to develop this faith through acts of courage as he chooses to let go of his imperfect judgment and trust in a higher power. The process requires a loving mentor, gruelling tests, and deep spirituality.

However, in The Force Awakens, the new Jedi in the making, Ray, develops her “gift” in the same way that young Anakin did in Episode 1: dumb luck. Without any real mentor, any real knowledge, no apparent belief in a higher power, and no leap of faith, she simply maneuvers her way through adventure after adventure with inexplicable ability, until, at last, she realizes (don’t ask me how) that she has Force powers. She then proceeds to develop this gift as one would develop a knack for martial arts. No need for the dispelling of doubt or the learning of a transcendent principle such as  “Luke, trust me” or “do or do not” or “judge me by my size, do you?” She just gets the force.

What does this say about our audiences? Is a belief in God now no more than an extension of our abilities? Do we now worship ourselves?

Correct me if I’m wrong, but there used to be something special about Star Wars, something different form your usual swords and sorcery. I don’t really see the filmmakers at fault as, once again, they did a great job in giving audiences what they want. What disturbs me is that this is, apparently, what audiences want. Philosophy, religion … those are so 1977. Just give us lots and lots … and lots … of action.

Action: what you do when you don’t have a story. Because without action, characters would start talking, and when characters start talking, they start exploring ideas, and when characters start exploring ideas, they start making decisions based on their own volition and not as compelled by extreme circumstances,  and when this happens, you’ve got a character-driven story instead of a plot-driven story, and this would undermine the very foundations of melodrama, which the audience paid good money to see. Thus the characters were seldom permitted to complete two sentences in a row before being interrupted by an explosion.

My wife argues that this is exactly how the original movies were. I believe she’s half-right. Yes, my bias will always be with the Star Wars of my youth. And yet, before the MTV generation, stories, in general, were slower, more thoughtful, more character-driven. Before the dark times … before CGI.

I don’t mind some thematic action here and there, especially when the world has been well built, the stakes have been set, the characters have been established, the journey has been made, and the goal is within reach. But when the story is action — scene after scene of over-the-top fantasy violence against impossible odds with unbelievable, unqualified success — this is not to be confused with a story. It’s gratuitous. It’s tedious. It’s boring. I don’t want to watch superheroes, who, in virtue of their birth, can do what I’ll never be able to. I want to learn how can become a Jedi. Otherwise, what’s the point? The Star Wars I still love had so much more to offer than mere entertainment value.

There was so much action that there was little room for character. Ray, for example, didn’t actually have character. She was a concept of uncompromising good. In that she was likable, but she wasn’t a character. Aside from a vague memory from childhood, she had little to no background, no friends, no culture, little to no personality, and once again, no time to think, talk, or make a decision that wasn’t absolutely forced. Notwithstanding, she was an amazing acrobat, martial artist, mechanical genius, and … somehow … pilot?

Hooray for girl power.

Fin was another interesting concept — a conscience-pricked, deserting storm trooper — but again, with almost no background and no time to make a less than extreme decision, he was two-dimensional at best.

As plot was so important to this movie, it was too bad that the main plot — to find Luke Skywalker — really had no weight whatsoever. Characteristic of sequels, this device was a shameless fallback to previous setups, dogmatic instead of self-evident. I mean, what do we care if there’s no more Jedi? I might have cared in a previous movie, but in The Force Awakens, what even is a Jedi? Just another action hero? We’ve got plenty already.

And what’s with the silly “map” that leads to Luke’s hiding place? If he wanted to be alone, why did he make himself into a geocaching game for treasure hunters, putting part of the map on one droid, part on another? The concept of a map in space travel is silly to begin with. All you would need are coordinates. I hear that a lot of missing information can be found in the novelization, but if the film is an independent art form, I would think it should be able to stand as such.

While there were some intriguing scenes, my brain had had enough by the time we reached the completely unnecessary action sequences at Han Solo’s smuggling station. Or were we in someone else’s smuggling station? I lost track of who was smuggling whom. I really wanted to walk out of the theater and likely would have done so if I weren’t so curious about how this film was going to redeem itself and why so many people liked it. In large, I felt that the story didn’t really even start until Han Solo was killed by his Generation Y, schizophrenic son, Kylo Ren. Finally something new and interesting!

I thought the story would begin a moment earlier, when Han tries to persuade Kylo to step down from his pedestal of evil, and Kylo appears to soften. I thought, “Wow, this is unprecedented. A new Darth Vader has been painstakingly set up to reign with blood and horror, and now he’s just going to renounce it all? Talk about character! This is wonderful. I’ve never seen anything like it. This must be why everyone likes this movie.”

Then I thought better. “Wait, no, this is obviously a false climax. He’s going to harden again, the good guys and the bad guys will polarize, and there will yet be many long sequences of storyless action.”

Alas.

Of course, the visuals were amazing, the sets breathtaking, the acting superb. I even loved the impossible physics.  I’m all for a fantastic universe so long as there’s a fantastic story to go with it. And the music … ah, the music. It was there, and yet it wasn’t there. John Williams’ masterpieces are a quintessential part of any Star Wars film, and I don’t think he failed to deliver this time. Yet I didn’t hear anything that really stood out as new or particularly moving. I think he did as bast as he could for this movie. The problem was that the movie (1) had no new ideas, and (2) was so fast-paced and scatter-brained that the only suitable music was long sequences of your average twentieth-century high-tension riffs, mixed in with some occasional classic Star Wars themes.

And … that’s pretty much it. Thanks to this film, I think I’m done with Star Wars for good. I have no desires to see any more sequels nor any other PG-13 melodrama so long as I live. Though I had hoped for something new and inspirational, as Star Wars used to be, as Soloman put it, “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” Apparently this is true in other galaxies as well.

My conclusion: at least for my generation, Star Wars has fulfilled its purpose, and it’s time for us to move on. It succeeded at inspiring us to think of the big and beyond, to develop and master ourselves as Jedi Knights amid an epic war of good and evil. But for an old man trapped in a young man’s body like yours truly, I’ve found nothing more to be gleaned from this galaxy that never was. I see little value in recreating and dragging on a story that was already finished … unless of course the artists doing so truly have something better to add, but I doubt this will ever happen with this franchise, as there’s way too much money to be made from gratuitous fantasy violence.

Again, I blame the audiences. It’s only too plain: we don’t want inspiration anymore. We don’t want to become Jedi anymore. We just want mind-numbing escapism.

A Very Merry Christmas … and Thanks for the Blender

04d8762c-e9ff-48b4-800b-25850e9c6e80I’ve been fighting an inner battle lately. Part of me says, “You should wax philosophical and write a blog post.” Another part of me says, “But time is so precious, and I’m exhausted.” Since I was a teenager, it’s been my tradition to go on late-night Christmas Eve walks. With no one but God, I look at the dark, sacred night, the stars, the icicles, the inflatable reindeer, and get sentimental as I question my place in the universe. Once, when I was going through my “bumming” phase, I even spent a Christmas even in a newspaper bin. But this Christmas, what with work, three jabbering little mouths to feed, my real work (the projects I’m passionate about but only have a few uninterrupted hours for each day), and every other familial, social, and ecclesiastical duty, I simply lacked the energy.

The first part of me (the young Stephen Gashler) said, “Aha! You’re getting old. You promised to never get old.” The second part of me (the current Stephen Gashler) replied, “I’m most certainly not getting old. It’s just that I’m in a phase in my life in which I’m living my dreams (or enough so for the present), which diminishes both my time and my motivation for planning out my life. I must put every possible minute of free time toward achieving my goals.” To which the young Stephen Gashler replied, “Oh bull. You’re just old.”

In the end, I ended up breaking tradition and sleeping on Christmas Eve. But on Christmas day, something happened that forced my conscience into gear, having since compelled me to wax philosophical after all and write a blog post, because anything less would be ungrateful. So with no further ado, I would like to say thank you to my family’s mysterious benefactor who generously endowed us with the gift of a Blendtec Blender. I know these wonderful devices don’t come cheap, and it’s already proven to be a great blessing to my family, as, being on a plant-based diet, we use blenders for practically everything, and Blendtecs are frankly amazing. This mysterious contribution was no doubt inspired by the social media post I made on December 23rd (mine and Teresa’s anniversary):

For those of you who were wondering, I have now, in fact, broken 9 blenders in 9 years of marriage. Happy anniversary, shmoopy pie.

I verified with Teresa that this number is correct (or nearly correct; we may have lost count). It’s hard to say just how I did it. The first one, I recall, I simply burned out, because it was a cheep product. The second one, I believe, I accidentally melted onto a stove. One I recall shattering by accidentally leaving a spoon inside of it before turning it on. Another I burned out while trying to make cookie dough. The latest, after who knows how many smoothies, nut butters, batters, and fondues, I simply murdered through exhaustion. Apparently the rest of my casualties have been blotted from my memory. Perhaps they were too painful to hold on to. But having caused many fires and explosions in my kitchen over the years, it doesn’t take much stretch of the imagination to recreate the trauma in my mind. For me, cooking is one of the purest forms of creation, and with unbridled power, disasters are inevitable.

Could our mysterious benefactor be the same person who gifted us with a basket full of candy bars earlier this year following another one of my social media posts? Regardless, the intrigue of these gifts has made our lives much more interesting, so, whoever you are (one or several people), thank you again.

I’d also feel ungrateful if I didn’t record how much my family has enjoyed this Christmas season, which has included the following: a gluttonous ward party, several extravagant company parties with fine dining, lavish gifts, and a very generous bonus, many delicious caramel apples, countless chocolates, fudge, banana bread, pumpkin bread, fine nut cheeses, and more delectable foods and goodies than I can possibly list, several tree-decorating ceremonies, many inspiring church services, devotionals, and concerts, including the Utah Valley Handbell Ringers and a spectacular performance in Salt Lake City by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the lovely Laura Osnes (she’a amazing), the lights at Temple Square, a wonderful drive-through light show that was gifted to us by the car in front of us, two extended family Christmas Eve gatherings, three Christmas day gatherings and feasts, sledding, hours of board games and family fun, countless Christmas carols, and, of course,  a smorgasbord of presents. I’m fairly certain that Jesus of Nazareth, if he were to attend these festivities on his behalf, would be a fan.

Months ago, we asked our girls if they would consider a different kind of Christmas this year: instead of receiving the usual boon from Santa Claus, we would write Santa Claus a letter and inform him that we’d rather use the money he would otherwise spend on presents for helping the poor. The girls loved the idea. (Secretly we hoped to spare our house from another invasion of plastic, painfully pink ponies and princesses.  Did you appreciate the alliteration?) So aside from some treats in their stockings, the only gifts from Santa Clause were a check to mommy and daddy, which they would in turn give to their chosen charity, and a letter in which Santa thanked the girls for their selfless decision.

Notwithstanding, thanks to grandmas, aunts, and uncles, there was anything but a relief from pink plastic this year :-).

The night before, the girls wanted to stay up and wait for Santa, but of course, they had to go to bed or he couldn’t come. Not longer after they retired, I got a ring of jingle bells and shook them as loudly as I could as I moved through the house. I got on my bed and jumped on and off several times, making as much noise as possible. I rang the bells right outside of the girls’ door. Following this, Teresa and I even barged into their room and exclaimed, “Did you hear that noise? And what’s that in the sky?” Notwithstanding all this effort, none of our sleeping kids so much as batted an eye, and the next morning, they had no recollection of these events. Oh well. I’m still telling them truth on a regular basis, that I’m the real Santa Claus, and the guy at the mall is a fake. The more I tell them this, the less they believe me, as if I were some award-winning liar …

And … that’s all I’ve got. Oh yeah, except for this interesting tidbit I learned in church today. During this season, we often hear the following quote from Luke 2:14:

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

However, this is a mistranslation. A little research reveals that the more accurate translation is:

Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace to men of good will.

It’s a subtle distinction but a world of difference in meaning. The mission of Christ was not, in fact, to bring peace on earth and good will toward men. He could not possibly do this, nor can anyone, because it’s entirely up to the individual members of planet earth as to whether or not they’re going to contribute or detract from the general peace. Consider this new translation in light of John 14:27:

Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.

The peace that comes to the disciples of Jesus Christ is not something that can be indiscriminately dished out to the world. Good will is the prerequisite, not the end result. And I feel that this little principle wraps up the entire Christmas season. To those of good will (or who will to do good), it is truly a time of peace and joy, a peace that is not of this world, a peace, for which, I thank my Lord and Savior, of whom I truly believe in.

Steve and Teresa’s Fabulous Child-free Dream Date

Stephen and Teresa GashlerOn Monday, Teresa and I dropped off the kids at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, then we set out to Salt Lake City. It was wonderful to be able to complete a sentence without being interrupted by a screaming child. Our first destination was the Clarke Planetarium, where we wrapped our minds around the great concepts of astronomy and astrophysics. Physical exertion can be rewarding, but so can mental exertion. Again, it was wonderful to be able to make complete thoughts.

We ate dinner at Costa Vida, where we saved a whole dollar for being vegetarians. A dollar! Then we went to a place called “Mystery Escape Room” or something like that. We were locked in a room with creepy dolls, creepy music, and a creepy painting of a woman, where we had to solve a long series of puzzles within less than an hour. Solving puzzles would reveal key combinations, which would open chests or closet doors. In one closet, which I had to crawl into, there was a skeleton, and rubber cockroaches fell from the ceiling. It was all pretty cool. It scared Teresa. I just thought it was hilarious. If ever there were an old, abandoned, and allegedly haunted mansion that would be given to the brave soul who would dare spend the night in it alone, I would totally do it. Ghosts crack me up, what with their uncanny knack for showmanship and all. All it takes to defeat them is a little existentialism. Anyway, we didn’t solve the puzzles in time, though we did pretty good. The event usually recommends groups of twelve.

For desert we had ice cream covered with fruit at a nearby parlor. Mmm, boy. During all this time, we went through items of a lofty list we’d made of ways to improve our lives, from managing our time better, to being more spiritual, to achieving our career ambitions, to upping our chefdom, to the adventures of Eliza R. Snow, to becoming kick boxers. I never grow tired of talking to this woman, because she loves to dream with me.

We stayed at the Best Western hotel. Can you believe that? THE BEST Western hotel. Only the heater in our room was lousy. Though the pool and hot tub were nice. We stayed up into the wee hours watching cooking shows. We don’t normally watch TV, you see, so when we do watch it (pretty much only when staying in hotels), it’s riveting, even calling for a pizza delivery.

The next morning, after a kingly breakfast, we returned to the planetarium, eager to fill our minds again with the wonders of the cosmos. Only this time the place was overridden by children. Children! That the defeated the purpose! No more children! So we bagged the planetarium and instead roamed around the City Creek Mall for a couple of hours.

Next we hit up Ensign Peak. It’s a nice, little hike, offering a nice little view of Brother Brigham’s city, which I predict has less than forty years until fire reigns from heaven or the like.

On our way back, we stopped at the capital building, wherein we craned our necks back to behold the cathedral-like depiction of God sending down his legions of seagulls to punish the ungodly crickets. Among the other great artwork and architecture, we were perplexed by the sculpted lions with pink wings. … Huh?

There we pondered on the brilliance of having both a senate and a house of representatives. Far from a single monarch to call the shots, there’s not only a large council but two large councils, a brilliant system to make sure that nothing gets done unless it’s really important. Though I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the need for a governor or a president. Don’t commanders and chiefs run the risk of defeating the purpose of congresses by possessing the authority to actually get stuff done?

Our last stop was a restaurant called Bud’s, perhaps the weirdest restaurant I’ve ever eaten at. There’s nowhere to park. There’s no special signage or anything to indicate what the restaurant actually serves. The place is a tiny hole-in-the-wall corner of an old building, big enough only for a couple of people to take your order through one window and hand it to you through another. The only place to sit is at a couple of tables by the sidewalk. But the food was brilliant: 100% plant-based sandwiches. Teresa ordered a “pulled pork” sandwich made out of something called jackfruit. I ordered a Buffalo “chicken” sandwich. It was the best faux meat I’ve tried, and I’ve tried a lot. Isn’t it just like life? The most brilliant things are esteemed as naught while the most awful things are celebrated with spotlights and confetti. I shall liken thee, O Israel, unto an harlet.

And then it was all over. The blissful dream of two in love in a world without tantrums, quarrels, and diapers had to burst beneath the chains of reality.

I hope you don’t gather from my writing that we actually resent our children. I’m a bit of a satirist.

A Typical Breakfast in Our Nearly-vegan Wonderland

IMG_20151123_110112911 Here in Gashlaria, we’ve been almost entirely on a plant-based and whole foods diet for over three years now. We make exceptions when eating out or with family or friends (and, because frankly, now and then everyone needs a Saturday night bag of Cheetos), but at home we’re pretty strict, and in general, we’ve never felt healthier, and our food has never been tastier. For breakfast, this morning, we had savory waffles with cheeze sauce and an orange smoothie. This may not sound extraordinary until you consider all the ingredients this breakfast required (and didn’t require):

(Edit: as several people have asked, I’ve turned the following list into a recipe. I don’t normally use recipes, so each of these measurements are just estimates.)

Waffles

  • 1 half cup steel cut oats
  • 1 half cup whole wheat
  • 1 half cup raw cashews
  • 2 tbsp nutritional yeast
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tomato
  • 1/2 onion
  • 2 mushrooms
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 half cup cilantro

(Instructions: blend dry ingredients until smooth. Dice wet ingredients, then add them to the mix. Add just enough water to make a lumpy batter. Cook in waffle iron with spray-on oil (we use coconut oil)).

Cheeze Sauce

  • 1 cup raw cashews
  • 1/s block tofu
  • 1 cup nutritional yeast
  • 1 tomato
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1/4 cup coconut oil
  • 2 tsp Sriracha sauce
  • 1 tbsp Grey Poupon
  • 1/4 tsp Liquid Smoke

(Instructions: blend all ingredients until smooth.)

Orange Smoothie

  • 1 orange
  • 1 banana
  • 1 pear
  • 1/8 pineapple
  • 10 whole dates
  • 1 tray of ice

(Instructions: blend all ingredients until smooth. We cup up lots of fruit at once and freeze them in bags. Then, when blending, we add water instead of ice.)

As my family will verify, this is very typical of the kind of breakfasts we eat almost every morning. With the possible exception of a small amount of coconut oil (one of the best oils and probably just enough to be good for the body), there was nothing destructive about this meal whatsoever. No refined starches or sugars, not much salt, no preservatives, no cholesterol, no MSG, no empty calories, and almost nothing packaged, processed, or preserved. Plus, we walk away filled with nutrients (including plenty of protein), and feeling great.

A few years ago I would have shunned this health nonsense. Then, one day, I realized I’d developed a pot belly and was not, in fact, impervious to weight gain as I’d supposed. Since then Teresa and I have decided to more fully live the Word of Wisdom, and it’s been an all-around-blessing.

Lest you think this crazy hippie lifestyle is impractical, here’s a couple of hints: (1) it took less than thirty minutes to prepare (helps having a Blendtec), and (2) we spend much less per month on groceries than the average American household. You’ll be amazed at how much good stuff you can get and how much money you can save when you stop buying animal products and junk food. And for anyone who thinks we’re missing out on the good stuff, as one who’s thoroughly ranged the spectrum, you don’t know what you’re missing.

“And all saints who remember to keep and do these sayings, walking in obedience to the commandments, shall receive health in their navel and marrow to their bones; And shall find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures; And shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint. And I, the Lord, give unto them a promise, that the destroying angel shall pass by them, as the children of Israel, and not slay them. Amen.”

I can verify that this is true. I’ve never had a faster one-mile sprint, I recently achieved my best time in a 10k, and I’ve never been able to do more push-ups. While family and friends will judge your chicken neck, believe me, you’ll look much better in a swimming suit.

The Devil Broke My Printer (And Other Interesting Events in My Life)

EPSON MFP image

Some weeks back, I was under a crunch to print some CD’s for my musical, but our printer wasn’t behaving. I have a hacked Epson printer, you see, for which I set up a continuous ink system. It’s saved us hundreds of dollars. But every now and then, something goes wrong, and it’s the devil to fix (as you’ll see). In the process I got ink everywhere. When I finally wrapped up after an unsuccessful ordeal, I thought it would be fun to turn the paper on which I was collecting ink into an inkblot test and give myself a psychoanalysis. This produced the picture you see. And thus I learned why I was having so much trouble: Satan.

IMG_20151115_164357443-bOn a happier note, have you seen this? It’s also old news, but I’d just like to point out that my show is totally above( and more prominent than) Idina Menzenl’s show. Also, the headline and caption seems to be implying that not only was our show on some sort of tour, but it’s destined to fill the earth (see Daniel 2).

On an even happier note, last night my four-year-old Aspen drew the following picture for me. She explained that she had written the word “boy” to clarify the gender of the subject, for, as she also explained, “I’m not very good at drawing boys.”

EPSON MFP image

Intolerance Will Not be Tolerated | Exploring the rhetoric of the same-sex marriage debate

“I’m gay. Is there something wrong with that?”

What would Intolerance-255x192you do if posed with this question? In order to put forth an adequate answer, we first need to understand the speaker’s meaning, which lends several possibilities:

  1. He feels (and has always felt) same-sex attraction.
    This is the safest option to assume in today’s political climate.
  2. He has developed a preference for the same sex.
    As it’s not popular to acknowledge that this case even exists, we should definitely avoid it.
  3. Whether or not possibility 1 or 2 is true, he has or intends to have romantic and/or sexual relations with someone of the same sex and believes that so-doing is an acceptable practice.
    I could be wrong here, but I imagine this is also a safe assumption if he’s forthright about being gay.
  4. Whether or not possibility 1 or 2 is true, he chooses not to have romantic and/or sexual relations with someone of the same sex and believes that so-doing is not an acceptable practice.
    This position is definitely not popular in our political climate and therefore not a safe assumption to make.

So guessing that he’s always felt same-sex attraction and already has or plans to act on it with a clear conscience, now we have to come up with our possible answers:

  1. No, of course there’s nothing wrong with that.
    If you don’t want to be seen as a bigot, this is the only correct answer. Only it leads to some complications. Are you approving of possibility #1 (that he was born with same-sex attraction) or possibility #3 (that he acts on his same-sex attraction)?  If you’re approving of possibility #3, are you only approving of same-sex relations within legal marriage or are you approving of any and all same-sex relations between consenting adults? To ask for clarification will be socially awkward, so you’re safest to approve of all of the above.
  2. Yes, I do believe there is something wrong with that.
    You are now a bigot.

So given that you’re not a bigot and chose answer #1, let’s explore what you just affirmed:

  1. You are a tolerant, empathetic, and open-minded human being. Good for you.
  2. You throw out the archaic notion that sexual relations belong only between a legally-wedded husband and wife. And if you’re going to be consistent, you’ll also need to throw out the following:
    1. Significant portions of the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Koran, and any other holy text, religion, or modern revelation that denounces fornication, homosexual activity, or designates sex as anything less than fully permissible between two or more consenting adults.
    2. The belief that children are entitled to a father and mother or that the ideal parenting relationship is between a father and a mother. Remember that you affirmed that there’s “nothing wrong with that,” so you’re not allowed to hold on to any ideals that could be even slightly compromised by this scenario.
    3. A belief that biologically fathering or mothering children, leaving a biological posterity, or propagating the human species is anything more than an option based on personal preference.
    4. A belief that the ideal balance for a good society is based on unions of men and women. If the percentage of same-sex couples rises from approximately 5% to 50%, there will still be nothing wrong with it, because sex and marriage are about the desires of consenting adults, not any obligations to society.

Whether wittingly or not, you’ve expressed your approval for legalized same-sex marriage. And now that the fundamental units of society, families (even more fundamentally: marriages) have no obligations to society as far as raising posterity, you nevertheless acknowledge that it is the role of government to support and incentive these unions. Don’t ask me why. Apparently it’s the role of the state to serve its people and not the other way around. If marriage is a healthy lifestyle, I guess that’s justification enough. It would stand to reason that the government should also give us tax breaks for exercise, healthy eating, and the quitting of smoking.

In short, you’re either a progressive moral relativist … or a bigot.

Feel like I’m telling you how to think? That’s the point.

Words and definitions are dangerous things. Words become thoughts. Thoughts become actions. Actions become habits. Habits define our characters. Characters define societies.

In 1939, essayist Kenneth Burke analyzed the book Mein Kampf to explore how Hitler was able to convert so many millions to a narrow ideology. He writes:

“As a whole, and at all times, the efficiency of the truly national leader consists primarily in preventing the division of the attention of a people, and always in concentrating it on a single enemy. … It is part of the genius of a great leader to make adversaries of different fields appear as always belonging to one category only, because to weak and unstable characters the knowledge that there are various enemies will lead only too easily to incipient doubts as to their own cause. As soon as the wavering masses find themselves confronted with too many enemies, objectivity at once steps in, and the question is raised whether actually all the others are wrong and their own nation or their own movement alone is right. Also with this comes the first paralysis of their own strength. Therefore, a number of essentially different enemies must always be regarded as one in such a way that in the opinion of the mass of one’s own adherents the war is being waged against the enemy alone. This strengthens the belief in one’s own cause and increases one’s bitterness against the attacker” (The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle,  Burke, 97).

The idea that you’re either for same-sex marriage (whether in terms of legality, spirituality, or societal prudence) or you’re a bigot follows suit with this “us versus them” mentality. It reduces a complex playing field into a one-dimensional spectrum. Consider all the players who have been yanked off the field:

  • The person who empathizes with those who experience same-sex attraction but believes that the greatest happiness is universally predicated upon keeping God’s commandments. Bigot.
  • The person who struggles with same-sex attraction and resents the way society pressures him to break his covenants. Victim of bigots.
  • The person who believes that government-sponsored marriage may have been a fine institution in the past, but now that society has redefined its values, it would be best for government to stop meddling with private relationships altogether. Bigot.
  • The person who believes that sexual promiscuity of any kind is harmful to individuals, families, and societies, and invites people involved with same-sex relations to reconsider. Bigot.

The irony is that this new way of thinking (or stifling of thinking) has become a religion in itself. Among its core faith-based doctrines (bearing some similarities to Calvinism) are:

  1. Everyone with same-sex attraction was predestinated unto this end.
  2. One cannot and must not alter or dismiss his sexual orientation.
  3. One’s highest fulfilment in life will come from being true to one’s desires and not by fulfilling any obligation to society or God.
  4. Anyone who disagrees  is a bigot.

(As a brief digression, here’s a conundrum for the new religion: what if a man already married with children realizes he has same-sex attraction? Is the moral thing to (A) yield to his inner-truth or (B) continue to be a father and husband for his family? If the answer is A, then what feels good is the highest basis of morality … not the best foundation for a good society in my opinion. If the answer is B, and moral responsibility to others can indeed trump the merits of following one’s sexuality,  then doesn’t that undermine the founding principles of the philosophy? Wouldn’t it follow that for the good of children, family, and posterity, one’s sexual orientation should never be the top consideration?)

I apologize if I’m coming across as harsh or as an anti-anti-bigot … bigot. This war of words is so chalked up with irony that it’s easy to inadvertently switch sides and become the very monster you’re trying to slay. With nearly every sentence I write, a voice in the back of my mind asks, “How will they turn this against me?” My intent is not to play the same game I’m condemning but to illustrate how stifled we all are in today’s political climate. No matter how I write this essay, it will generate controversy. Probably lots of controversy. No matter what stance I take, I will make enemies.

The problem is, as almighty society deems the one correct answer and assigns everything else to the camp of dissidents, people are being bullied into either accepting strict ideologies that in no way reflect their true diversity of thought, or, to avoid contention, they state no opinion at all, which, in effect, is often the same as agreeing with their adversaries. Either way, in this new age of crowd-induced censorship, we’re losing our ability to speak, and thus we’re also losing our ability to think.

Words are dangerous things.

My hope is that we will all show a little more empathy for our ideological rivals and be slower to label and criticize. In espousing the virtues of tolerance, I hope we’ll practice what we preach and stop putting others in boxes. I absolutely believe in right and wrong, but I don’t believe it boils down to a one-dimensional spectrum of us versus them. True liberals give everyone the benefit of the doubt and not just their favorite poster children. True liberals celebrate a diversity of thought and don’t have to shove their agendas on others. True liberals tolerate bigots.