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Thoughts on “The Woman in Black”

The Woman in Black

In which Harry Potter takes on a homicidal ghost lady with a brilliant sense of dramatic tension

I feel like writing a review. Teresa brought this one home from the library, saying a coworker had recommended it. I’ve never been big on horror films, (1) because the genre has always seemed a little too … evil … for my tastes. (2) (this is the real reason) because Watcher in the Woods traumatized me as a child, and after I saw The Others as a teenager, I found myself literally afraid of the dark. So why purposely give one’s self PTSD?

However, I’ve since come to appreciate horror as an art form, and having also since studied film in college (a very demystifying process), I seriously doubted any film’s ability to actually scare me. I watched the film with this attitude, and I’m not sure if it was the attitude or the film itself, but I was right. Not scary. Funny.

One of the first realizations I had was that there are few things ghosts can actually do in movies. The instant a ghost comes out of obscurity and starts throwing knives at you is the instant the ghost has lost its status as a supernatural unknown and has reduced itself to just another physical danger. And the instant this happens, you no longer have a ghost story but a mind-numbing action film. Thus ghosts are required to stand at the end of hallways, partially obscured, making subtle noises, jumping out at you, then promptly disappearing, looming everywhere but not actually being anywhere. In other words, they’re all moonshine.

While this realization may ruin the fun of a good horror film, I found it enlightening, because (1) I guess I don’t like feeling vulnerable and, perhaps as a self-defense mechanism, I view horror films as a challenge, and (2) if the opportunity ever arises to claim an old, haunted mansion by spending the night in it, a la The Ghost and Mister Chicken, I intend to show up the paranormal by exposing their cheap tricks for what they are.

And speaking of ghostly tricks, this woman in black was the queen. In mortality, she must have been an accomplished magician with a masters in filmmaking. She knew how to compose each shot, placing herself just around the corner, standing where she knew the protagonist would glance, then vanishing as the suspense began to mount. To add to the ambiance, she dressed her set with all sorts of bizarre, custom-made toys with unbelievably scary faces, ominous music boxes, and wind-up dolls that no child would ever touch. Most impressive of all, she got her entire ensemble of murdered children to work with her in standing in opportune places with ghostly looks on their faces while not actually saying or doing anything. To think how she could have so masterfully orchestrated such horrific art without betraying it all by communicating something intelligible is beyond me. But then, I guess that’s how ghosts work. It’s their jobs to remain aloof, anecdotal, and strictly unquantifiable, lest someone were to disprove their existence.

And yet … come one. Is the afterlife really so dismal to explain one’s only pastime being sitting around in an empty house for decades on end, crafting spooky, yet subtle encounters with the living? How in the world are these haunting dead not bored out of their minds and moving on to something new? Among the living, I doubt even the most guilty mass murderer with “unfinished business” could bring himself to sit around for decades bemoaning himself. So what’s going on in the hereafter that makes so many so pathetic and tolerable of tedium?

What’s fun is when you realize the rhythm of a horror film like this. Camera tightens on protagonist. Protagonist looks around in uncertainty. Feelings of vulnerability increase. The strings are all over the place. Somebody’s playing a hair-raising waterphone. Three … two … one … AGH! Is it the ghost? Of course not, because the ghost can’t actually reveal herself until we approach the climax of the movie, which will happen at about 110 minutes, and we’re only at 35, so you can rest with 90% certainty that it’s a false alarm. And the cycle goes on. And on.

I’m not talking down this movie. It was well made with beautiful cinematography. I’ll bet the crew had a blast with nearly every shot. “Let’s see, what would be scary here? Oh! How about an eyeball!” It’s just that this movie has helped me realize how stilted, silly, ridiculous (and fun) cinematic horror can be. Now I would be lying if I said the movie never made me jump (a little bit) or afraid of the dark (slightly) afterward. One can’t expose himself to two hours of intentionally traumatizing material without feeling a little PTSD.

On the other hand, I’ve come to realize that there’s something valuable in horror. It can be good for the soul to experience fear in a safe environment so that we can learn from ourselves how to deal with it. And if I ever have to deal with a psychotic woman in black from the other side, I know just what I’ll do. I’ll sit down with her and talk cinema.


Not scary.

OK, maybe just a little.

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Thoughts on Disney’s Maleficent

Disney's MaleficentThis is another post I started months ago (at least in my mind) and am finally getting around to finishing.

I probably wouldn’t have seen this movie had not family members insisted that Teresa and I needed to see it, offering free babysitting services so we could do so. As anyone with kids knows, one does not turn down such opportunities lightly.

If you read my review on Disney’s Frozen, you’ll understand my reticence to see this film. My patience for stories about misunderstood witches who are really good when an ignorant society as branded them as evil, has grown ever thinner. It seems that such stories have become an emerging genre in themselves. I mean, first we learn that the Wicked Witch of the West isn’t actually wicked. Then we learn that the Snow Queen isn’t actually wicked. And now we learn that Maleficent, the very queen of the night, isn’t wicked either? Are there no more wicked witches in this world?

The opening sequence was delightful. What’s not to like about a beautiful fairy girl in a beauty fairy world? I will tell you, though, that such high fantasy always gives me cognitive dissonance. That is, I like what I’m seeing, but my rational mind immediately exploits the impossibilities, which kills my suspension of disbelief. For example, I have no problem with fairy girls with ram horns. But when there’s only one fairy girl in the entire fairy world, I wonder, “Where are her parents? How does she brush her teeth? What does she use for toilet paper? Where did she learn English? Who does her immaculate makeup each morning? And why would the giants and dwarves submit themselves to her whims?”

I could look past all this, because the story had the tone of a fairy tale, and as far as I’m concerned, fairy tale logic, in its simplistic beauty, transcends actual logic. But the thing about fairy tales is that they’re just that: tales. Without the tools of cinema or theatre, fairy tales allow a storyteller to easily connect with an audience by compressing the complexities of life into digestible themes of good and evil, kings and peasants, love and hate. On the other hand, when you have the luxury of showing your stories, unless done very stylistically, the fairy tale convention can be at odds with the realness brought by the actors. Thus I thought the film was developing nicely until suddenly the narrator said something like, “Stefan told her it was true love … but it was not.”

I mean, I could see the characters with my own eyes. I could hear their voices. I could make my own judgements. It really bothered me when the narrator told me that what I was seeing was not what I thought I was seeing. From this point on, IMHO, the film shifted gear toward the didactic agenda I was dreading.

There’s nothing uncool about the theme of “judge not that ye be not judged.” In fact I’m quite fond of that theme, which, perhaps, is why I fell in love with Wicked when it first came out. The thought of discovering the untold back story of a misunderstood person is exciting. Paradigm shifts are fun. But after the film, Teresa made a keen observation. She said something like, “It’s ironic that the filmmakers press this theme about not judging the person you formerly thought was the villain. But in order to advance this theme, they think they have to create a new villain.”

She said it well. What was up with the villainous King Stefan? I mean, if the filmmakers were creating this story from scratch, it would be a different matter, but because this was a retelling of a classic fairy tale, one can’t just take a completely benign character and make him pure evil while taking a completely evil character and making her benign, without implying a certain point. At first you would think the point is that “no one’s purely evil, so don’t judge until you know the full story.” But that wasn’t the case with this film. As far as I could tell, the point was only that “Maleficent wasn’t pure evil, whereas King Stefan was.” So what are we supposed to learn?

In short, the filmmakers simply reinvented melodrama. But unlike Disney’s original Sleeping Beauty, where you can root for the good guys and boo for the bad guys, this new-age melodrama insists on being just stilted enough to be nearly void of philosophical content while still ambiguous enough to confuse one’s emotions.

As if the unwarranted villainization of King Stefan wasn’t enough to preach the theme that “your traditional concept of ethics and values are backwards,” we discover that the “good” fairies that take Sleeping Beauty under their wings are ignorant, dopey, and pathetic. We discover that every “evil” action Maleficent takes is only half-hearted and traceable to justified feelings of betrayal, and that, when she comes to her sensibilities, she has every intention of undoing her mischief. In short, we learn that good is actually evil, and evil is actually good … or that no one’s actually good, while some people are definitely evil.

What bothered me were the list of contemptible things Maleficent did that the audience was expected to dismiss. For example, there was a scene where some of King Stefan’s knights discovered the location of Maleficent. With the raising of her eyebrows, she proceeds to fling these guys into the air, play with them in sadistic ways, conk their heads together, then hurl them huge distances that, in real life, would almost certainly be lethal. These guys were just doing their jobs. They probably had wives and kids. How many daddies won’t be coming home tonight, because Maleficent thought it would be funny to conk their heads together and throw them a few hundred yards?

When Maleficent herself enlists on the adventure to sneak into the castle, knock out more guards, and rescue the princess, for me at least, the film reached the point of absurdity. The prince, of course, has no useful function in the rescuing of the princess. That would be sexist. Next, Disney’s new anti-cliches about love at first sight and kisses of true love no longer working like they used to … are becoming cliche. Though in fairness, I did think the kissing scene was clever enough and almost beautiful … in a deranged kind of way.

Lest I’m coming across as cynical, I really did enjoy the movie for the most part. Overall, it was fun, and I guess that’s good enough. I say overall, because, as with just about every melodrama, I hated the action scenes in the third act. So stilted. So devoid of meaningful ideas. So unreal. So boring. Yes, action puts me to sleep. I’m weird like that.

At the end of it all, while I don’t really have a problem with switching things up for the sake of a good story, in the case of this film and its associated fairy tale, there are unavoidable implications in doing so. When the closing credits began to roll, I found myself feeling utterly confused, almost amazed. The song for the closing credits (a downright creepy remix of “Once Upon A Dream”) was a perfect closure to it all. Love, we learn, is no longer innocent. People can no longer just fall in love and get married. It’s all infinitely complicated and mysterious. If you walk out of this theater feeling wholesome and inspired, then we have failed to burn our message into your cranium. Life … is … bizarre!

Disney’s original Sleeping Beauty, in all of its clear-cut melodrama, brings tears to my eyes. A good knight stands up against an evil dragon. It’s simple. And yet it speaks to my soul. It makes me want to be a better person. This modern retelling, on the other hand, which seems so indicative of modern culture — I’ve said it before, but I don’t know how else to say it — confused me.

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Immortal Beings are Real

The pearls of my past are ever threatened by the oblivion of forgetfulness and the corroding apathy of time. The angel on my shoulder is always telling me to write, record, share. The devil insists that tomorrow will always present a better opportunity to do so, when what matters today is that I sleep a little longer.

I fell to this deception during sacrament meeting today. “Lie back in the pew,” the voice said. “Close your eyes, and in a state of relaxation, you’ll be in a better frame of mind for connecting with God.” And so my consciousness sank into inner recesses, where all sorts of interesting images and disjointed ideas began to present themselves in an almost mystical web. This must be spirituality, I thought. I’m almost comprehending something. I’m almost transcending.

Minutes later, I jolted into consciousness, suddenly aware that I’m none the wiser. With all my faculties firing, the truth became shamefully obvious that enlightenment is only to be found in sobriety.

And so I think of all the treasures I’ve lost — meaningful events, profound realizations, tender mercies, vivid dreams, priceless utterances from the mouths of my babes — and the price at which I’ve irreversibly exchanged them (usually for a few extra moments of drunken sleep … sleep I would have been better off without), and I’m left to mourn the untimely disintegration of my life. For what do I have from my thirty past years if not memories? What else matters?

There’s something profound in the principle that the “the glory of God is intelligence” (D&C 93:36). More than power, possessions, or accomplishments, what matters most to God isn’t what he has but what’s he’s learned and experienced, which ultimately shapes not only how he acts but who he is.

And with that preface, it’s high time I add an important memory to my sacred vaults. A few weeks back, Ariah and I went on a Mormon pioneer trek reenactment with our ward. This was my third such experience, as I always jump on an opportunity to don a cowboy hat and get rough and dirty as I pit myself against the elements. And more than that, in comparing myself to my pioneer fore-bearers, how could I turn down such a remedial challenge and consider myself a man?

Not that it was in any way a challenge. In fact, as I’ve been exercising fairly consistently, I was in such good shape at the time of this last trek that I ran laps around the entire company as they pulled their handcarts. I must have looked pretty cocky (though hopefully the ridiculously anachronistic sombrero I was wearing made up for that). The only real challenge was when we parked our handcarts and setup camp in the middle of the day … the very hot day. Because there were only so many miles to traverse in this kiddy course, we were left to kill time in the middle of a desert.

I did get in some quality daddy-daughter time. Though I could only take so many of Ariah’s spontaneous games, and she could only take so many of mine. Another pastime was in observing insects. I just walked over to a particular bush, cleared away the thorns beneath me, had a seat, and watched. There’s so many marvelous, little creatures in this world. Spiders, ants, moths, beetles, and species I’ve never even seen before. They’re everywhere, coexisting in a cosmopolitan world completely separate from our own. It seems someone’s made a little home in virtually every patch of earth. Bugs. They’re awesome.

But my real takeaway from this event was an impression. I had this impression as I heard stories about pioneer heroes (notably Ephraim Hanks) and as I pondered on the supernatural events reported by so many of these nineteenth century saints. My impression was that immortal beings are real. And I think that’s about one of the most meaningful impressions anyone can have. If the immortality of the soul is a reality, and people from beyond the grave have actually communicated with mortals, and if the nature of these communications were as the pioneers said they were … well then … to possess such a knowledge would be far greater than anything the libraries of the earth could produce, because it would be knowledge that transcends earth.

I don’t have this knowledge. I don’t know for a certainty that death is not the end. But I do not believe it is. Especially during this event, I was touched by what was to me such a rich drove of evidence that immortal beings are real, and that, with an eternal perspective, the way we live our lives, and the paths we choose to follow, matter a great deal.

But that’s rudimentary. What really impressed me was a need to become a better man, a sanctified man, one with whom, if circumstances require, immortal beings could commune. Far from merely realizing the reality of God, I want to be an instrument to God, a servant in this great work of salvation. The folly in getting too existential about the nature of God, the nature of ourselves, and even the nature of reality, is that we may fall into a circular and life-consuming trap of unanswerable questions, thinking we’re somehow gaining intelligence in the process. In reality I believe we’re only burning precious time, missing out on the great work we were sent here to perform. It seems that for the most important decisions we make in life, such as who to marry, what college to attend, etc., we can never know what the right answer is. Sometimes believing is good enough … perhaps the only way. Yet we can have profound assurance that the path we’ve chosen is right from the fruits that follow it.

The glory of God is intelligence. I can’t speak for others, but in my little life, nothing has opened my mind, expanded my horizons, endowed me with understanding, given me reason to pause, reflect, and treasure more than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This stuff is real. Those who came before, suffered greatly, and gave all, weren’t liars. They honestly experienced what they said they did. I believe that. And they weren’t nutcases either. They were minds and souls that had been touched by a burning light, a light than fosters intelligence and action, not ignorance and complacency. If anything is real and if anything matters, then this is it.

Immortal beings are real. I really believe this. And it makes all the difference.

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Of Citizens of Zion and Builders of Zion

Christ Washing Peter's Feet, Ford Madox Brown“The man who does only those things in the Church which concern himself alone will never reach exaltation. For instance, the man who is willing to pray, to pay his tithes and offerings, and to attend to the ordinary duties which concern his own personal life, and nothing more, will never reach the goal of perfection” (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Fielding Smith, 123).

This quote stung me in Elders Quorum today. I wondered how many times in my life I’d viewed the work of my personal salvation as summed up by an ordinance check list, a Sunday school roll, a ritual of nightly prayer and scripture study, and the canary copy of a donation slip. I think there’s a pivotal threshold between the Terrestrial person who’s good and devout, but whose goodness doesn’t extend beyond his nose, and the Celestial person whose goodness leads to a natural connection, empathy, charity, and service toward others. I think there’s a fundamental difference between a mere citizen of Zion, who enjoys the amenities and associations of the Gospel, and a builder of Zion.

“Never refuse to serve. … This course brings joy and peace, and at the same time those who serve receive the greatest blessing. The teacher gains more than the one taught; the blessing returned to us when we accept a call to work in the Church is far greater than the blessing we can impart to others. He who refuses to perform any labor or shirks responsibility when it is given him in the Church is in grave danger of losing the guidance of the Spirit. Eventually he becomes lukewarm and indifferent to all duties, and, like the plant that is not cultivated and watered, he shrivels up and dies a spiritual death” (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Fielding Smith, 123).

President Smith sums up the crisis our world is facing today. I think more often than not, people don’t leave the church and lose their faith because of a great sin or a philosophical qualm, but because of boredom. The formality, repetition, time, and exertion the church requires of us is hardly appealing when compared to the non-committal allures of electronic entertainment.

Then there’s the camp of us who know we can’t let go of our faith and commitment but are still turned off by a perceived loss of freedom that would come with full investment in the church. We prefer back rows. We never read the lessons. We only speak when called upon. We may or may not accept a calling. We don’t go out of our ways to talk to people, because we don’t want to threaten any personal bubbles. We preach “live and let live” as we pass the time checking Facebook on our phones. When church is over, so are our Sabbath days. Off go the ties, on go the TV’s. Our salvation is secured at the absolute minimal requirements.

Lame. With a capital L. And a capital A. Actually, the entire word is in caps, bolded, and underlined, with Impact font, size 18 point, and five exclamation marks as if written by an eleven-year-old girl typing her first email.

The Gospel’s either true or it’s not. Supposing it is true, I want to be a builder of Zion, not just a citizen. I want to be a saver of souls, not just some dude saying, “Whatever, man, it’s all good.” I’d rather be cast into dungeons for Christ’s sake than enjoying a Sunday afternoon chill. I want to be able to come to a tree, and knowing the mobs are after me, be able to fall asleep in an instant, because I’ll know that my heart is pure, my cause celestial, and my fate in God’s hands.

To me, that’s what happiness is. And now having written this post, I’m feeling guilty about not having contacted my home teaching families. I’ve got work to do. Good day, ladies and gentlemen.

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My Review of Disney’s Frozen … Long After Anyone Would Care

Disney's FrozenSue me, I’m a late adopter of cinema … which has its benefits. If you can train yourself to not care about movies until after everyone else stops caring, you’ll never have to pay a premium price for tickets. In fact, you’ll never have to pay for tickets at all, because by then you’re bound to have a friend who owns the film on Bluray and is happy to share (I’ve tried to adopt this model of waiting till afterwards for discounted prices with Christmas, but my wife has yet to buy into it.) Plus, the 1st Law of Steve declares, “If everyone else is into something, give it no attention whatsoever.” Knowing it would only be a matter of time before my five-year-old daughter would twist my arm into watching this film, I followed this law to a tee.

Though there’s another reason I was hesitant to watch this film, and no, it had nothing to do with a cryptic gay agenda. It was because I doubted my ability to sit through another musical about a close-minded society suppressing Idina Menzel’s magical powers.

With that in mind, I found it hard not roll my eyes when young Elsa was told that because of her destructive magical powers she must lock herself in her room (we might as well just say closet … more on the gay thing later), shut out all of society, and cease to be herself … forever. It was just another iteration of Disney’s so-formulaic-it-hurts setup for character development, the convention of “I want to be normal just like everyone else, and I’m trying my best, but for reasons completely beyond my power, society is telling me I’m not normal, and they must be right about me.” Now where have we heard that before? Oh yeah, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Alladin, Pocahontas, Hercules, Mulan … I’m just going to stop there. So … utterly … boring.

That being said, I was pleasantly surprised at how non-judgmental Elsa’s parents were. They never once told her that she was a disgrace to the family or that she would never amount to anything. They almost seemed a little too perfect, so perfect that they couldn’t possibly hold major roles in the story, as if they were about to be killed off.


I only have good things to say about Anna’s character. She was delightful, and I was glad that she was the true protagonist, because Elsa, all things considered, wasn’t actually a character at all. She was an archetype: the tortured victim of society. Her character couldn’t develop without detracting from the didactic edge the film required in order to takes its place among Disney’s other volumes of the “be true to yourself” theme (you know, that theme they’ve been preaching for the past twenty years).

So … utterly … boring.

Not that the whole film was boring. Honestly, I enjoyed most of it. I loved how there didn’t seem to be a villain, how the conflict revolved around extraordinary characters (with a notable exception) rather than the usual stilted struggle between moderately good and insanely evil. (More on this later.)

Though I have to put my foot down on the unrestrained magic system. There were no checks and balances, no consequences, no thermodynamics. Where did Elsa get the energy to create all of these icicles? How many calories would she have had to consume in order to accidentally freeze an entire lake and cast a perpetual storm over her kingdom? How on earth could she not only output enough hydrogen-di-oxide to build a gargantuan palace but simultaneously craft each molecule into something not only structurally sound but so aesthetically masterful that it would taken a team of architects years to have even drafted? What did she eat while reigning in her barren palace? I’m all for fantasy, but there has to be some semblance of plausibility (or at least consistency).

I mean, if you were Elsa’s parents, and you realized your daughter had magical ice powers … unlimited magical ice powers, why on earth would you shut her up and tell her to think normal thoughts when there’s so much potential for capitalization? You could open your own ski resort in the summer. You could absolutely level the snow cone market. You could take on the armies of the earth with blizzards and ice missiles. Especially when we learn that Elsa not only has the power to bring snow to life but to create giant abominable snowmen in the twinkling of an eye. Why not create an army of these monsters and conquer the world? Because this is a kid’s movie, and Elsa’s not evil? Well, haven’t you heard that with great power comes great responsibility? As long as there’s suffering and injustice in the world, I hold that anyone who’s not actively using their unlimited ice powers for benevolent military campaigns is unethical.

And what’s with the idea of magical powers being something you’re either born with or not? What does that do for the human spirit? How could Elsa possibly develop any real talents or character virtues when she had such incredible instant gratification at her fingertips?

Moving on. Most of the music was charming. “Let it Go” was amazing. Though as soon as the trolls started singing, my wife and I looked at each other, both of us having the same thought: “this just shouldn’t exist.” The trolls were just … lopsided. As clever as a postmodern twist of friendly trolls who are interested in your dating life is, they just didn’t fit in with the rest of the film. Though the movie, as a whole, wasn’t very cohesive to begin with, which was my biggest issue with it. It seems the modern approach to these “family” films is to throw in something for everyone: action sequences, slapstick comedy, witty dialog, romance, drama, passionate musical numbers, silly musical numbers, heroism, villainy, etc., and to assume that the “story” is what happens somewhere in-between. Only this never works. The result is always a hodgepodge of brilliant moments and worthless moments, both engaging and disengaging, occasionally touching, but overall doing little for the soul. I compare it to a disjointed essay in which the author is so tangential that he fails to present a real argument. Who does that?

My case in point: when Prince Hans turns out to be a traitor. So much for a character-driven conflict. “How does this happen? It’s as if someone just completely rewrote your characteristics for the sake of creating pointless drama, regardless of everything you ever said or did before this point” (“How Dead Man’s Chest Should Have Ended“). So … utterly … boring. From this point on, the movie was all downhill. As is typical with most every Disney or Pixar film, as we enter the third act, and character development ceases while action takes over, as the bad guys become unreasonably bad, and there’s no real moral decision for the good guys to make, I find myself ready to sleep. It doesn’t matter how hard the blizzard beats down, or how far separated the boy and girl are, the mere existence of this stilted action is, for me, equivalent to answering exactly how and when the dramatic question will be answered. It ironically kills any suspense I might have been feeling. I’m not saying action has no place, especially as we near a climax, but for heaven’s sake, lower the artificially jacked-up stakes and get back to humanity, not whether or not Sven the reindeer will survive a sudden catastrophic plunge into an icy lake.

Oh, and Sven, I hate to break it to you, but you’re such a late addition to the roster of Disney’s super-intelligent animal confidants, with nothing whatsoever to add in the way of character, that no one cares about you.

As for you, Olaf, another addition to Disney’s roster of short, non-sequitur-spouting comic reliefs … you pass.

I thought it was funny how the movie copied, almost to a tee, the “kiss of true love without actually knowing who your true love is” dilemma as in Disney’s Enchanted. And speaking of stilted, wasn’t it amazing how Anna’s slowly-infecting ice virus decided to leap from taking virtually no effect to transforming her entire body into a solid mass of ice within a split second … just at the right time? And the way she transformed back from a solid mass of ice into human flesh within a few seconds … sadly, this doesn’t appear to be possible. From what I’ve read about cryonics (, the damage the ice crystals would cause to cell tissues during thawing is irreversibly fatal (at least according to modern science, which can hold its own against eighteenth century magic any day).

Lastly, the cryptic gay agenda. Does it exist? Let me pose another question: how could it not exist? With this issue being perhaps the most heated of our time, and considering that it seems Disney writers are only allowed to write about “being true to yourself,” it seems they would have had to have written a very different story to avoid drawing parallels to modern gay rights issues. But do I think the writers intended to incorporate this theme? Absolutely. In my opinion, it’s obviously in there. Do I care? No. As I’ve mentioned, the film can take its place among a plethora of other Disney films with nearly identical morals. Some themes are universal and can be interpreted in many ways, and whether or not this film gives a certain edge to a modern social climate or whether we care to let it take effect is a matter of personal interpretation. The theme I gathered was a good theme. That said, it’s still …

So … utterly … boring.

As a more practical moral, my wife summed up the movie with this: “And thus we learn: don’t deal with your children’s problems in stupid ways.”

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Kicking off those dead weights we call shoes and running barefoot

Barefoot running is so much easier on the knees. It makes me feel as light as a feather.Over the last few days, my family has shifted our morning runs from the BYU indoor track to public parks. As soon as I started to jog along the grassy turf, I felt as if weights had been shackled to my ankles. While I’d been running up to four miles with ease at the track, suddenly lumbering through  just a single mile was a heavy chore. Why did my knees feel so stiff, my feet so clumsy? Was it the uneven ground? The heat of the sun? The fumes in the air?

Then I realized the problem. I was wearing shoes. Duh. As soon as I took them off, I was back to my usual, carefree glides, and life was wonderful again.

Any other barefoot runners out there? I will never go back.

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To the Young Men Who Were Texting During Elder Ridd’s Talk

Of all the talks to ignore while text messaging, this was the most ironic

Of all the talks to ignore while text messaging, this was the most ironic

To the three young men sitting beside me during priesthood session, who’s eyes were enamored by the glowing screens in their hands while Elder Ridd of the Seventy was saying …

“Young men, you have probably heard before that you are a ‘chosen generation,’ meaning that God chose and prepared you to come to earth at this time for a great purpose.”

To these outstanding youths who were exercising their thumbs while the officer of the Lord was saying …

“You are growing up with one of the greatest tools for good in the history of man: the Internet. With it comes an elaborate buffet of choices. The abundance of choice, however, carries with it an equal portion of accountability. It facilitates your access to both the very best and the very worst the world has to offer. With it you can accomplish great things in a short period of time, or you can get caught up in endless loops of triviality that waste your time and degrade your potential.”

To these brilliant young thinkers whose concentration was too absorbed in their electronic conversations to be distracted by the words that were reverberating around them, saying …

“Every day the world seeks to influence your desires, enticing you to buy something, click on something, play something, read or watch something. … Satan wants to control your agency so he can control what you become. He knows that one of the best ways to do this is by trapping you with addictive behavior. Your choices determine whether technology will empower you or enslave you.”

To these fun-loving teenagers who were far more interested in a game of out-swimming a digital shark than listening to an old man saying …

“Young men, remember who you really are. Remember that you hold the holy priesthood. This will inspire you to make correct choices as you use the Internet and throughout your life.”

To these strapping boys who had more important things to show each other on their phones than anything this geezer could have been saying, such as …

“Many of us immediately stop whatever we are doing to read a text message—should we not place even more importance on messages from the Lord? Neglecting to connect to this power should be unthinkable to us.”

And to these growing youths of Zion, who, if upon glancing up for a moment, couldn’t last for more than five seconds without pulling out their phones again to check for updates, all the while being impenetrable to the booming voice saying …

“Young men, don’t do dumb things with your smartphone. You all know what I mean. There are countless ways technology can distract you from what is most important. Follow the adage ‘Be where you are when you are there.’ When you are driving, drive. When you are in class, focus on the lesson. … Your brain cannot concentrate on two things at once. Multitasking amounts to quickly shifting your focus from one thing to another. An old proverb says, ‘If you chase two rabbits, you won’t catch either one.’ ”

To you, young men with the smartphones, I have something to say.

And that is …

God bless you, everyone.

And for the wretched author who had the audacity to sleep through several talks during the Sunday morning session, who could only stay awake while stuffing his face with popcorn …

Please pray for me.

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True Christians Are Unjust

"I am He" - the declaration of Jesus of Nazareth causing the soldiers to fall back in fear
“I am He” – the declaration of Jesus of Nazareth causing the soldiers to fall back in fear

I tried to think of the most controversial title I could for this post, (1) because I’m a menace, (2) because controversy is good for SEO (outraged discussion fuels more engagement), and (3) as proof of the point I’m going to attempt to make. What I mean is that if you find yourself outraged by such an audacious title, read on, and by the end of the article, you might just find yourself saying, “Dang it, I failed the test.”

First, the scriptural basis for my argument. In his “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus teaches, “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: but I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. … Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matthew 38:44).

Where’s the justice in all that?

Let’s think about this. First, Jesus is telling us to “resist not evil.” Jesus. The son of God. The standard of all things good and true … telling us not to resist evil? But wait a minute, what if someone cuts you off on the highway or besmirches your good name or makes some outlandish, close-minded comment, or worst of all, has the audacity to be wrong about some pressing social or political issue? What if your client never paid you or your so-called friend betrays your trust or that certain mooch takes advantage of your generosity? What about that family member who let you down or that stuck-up rich girl or that shameless demagogue or that horrible group of people who are responsible for all of the world’s problems? Aren’t we justified in a little righteous indignation toward such cancerous cretins?

If we’re going to give Jesus the benefit of the doubt, I imagine he might say something such as, “Worry about your own problems.” Similarly, from classic Brigham Young, we get the following wisdom: “He who takes offence when no offence is intended is a fool, and he who takes offence when offence is intended is a greater fool.”

Apparently we’re not supposed to take offence. Period. If that wasn’t enough, from the words “whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also,” Jesus seems to be telling us to not even defend ourselves. Of course, many other scriptures, such as in the Book of Mormon, seem to justify  defending one’s property, family, country, etc., and if you buy into the Old Testament, the same God we’re talking about may just command you to go head up a genocide or two (but we won’t go there). In any case, these instances are exceptions. The rule is to show meekness, forgiveness, and mercy to both our friends and our enemies. The rule is to not demand justice when we’ve been wronged, to show mercy where mercy is not due (which, I guess, is the recursive definition of mercy). Thus true Christians are not just. They’re merciful. But it’s more fun to say unjust, because it sounds so needless controversial.

So now’s the test. Did my inflammatory title upset you? Did you feel attacked as a Christian and feel a need to sift through this garbage so that you could further feed your outrage and pursue a grounds for redress? Assuming that my assertions are way off and everything I’m writing is hogwash, I hope my fallacy will have no sway over your solid foundation, because you know where you stand, and you know what truth is, so whatever this crazy blogger is rambling about is his problem, not yours.

More often than not, debate is a waste of time. Rather than listening to each other, we think only about what we’re going to say next to defend our egos. Our hearts are so shielded by pride that changing our opinions (which are really just façades over of our feelings) is almost beyond the realm of possibility in the heated moment, sometimes even long afterwards. Outrage is even worse than debate. When we’re outraged, we can’t possibly see an issue from our opponent’s point of view. We’ve already determined that whatever they have to say is wrong.

When someone attacks our beliefs, we feel personally attacked, because through our beliefs we find our identities. Thus changing our beliefs is a very hard thing to do, and a healthy transition usually takes good friends and lots of love. While probably everyone will agree with me that charity is the way to go, we often forget that charity isn’t just about giving but about receiving. And I don’t mean receiving gifts, I mean receiving punches. In the face.

Let people malign your poor tastes, your bad habits, your incorrect politics, and your close-minded philosophies. The uncomfortable truth is that, whether or not you’re humble enough to listen, they might be right. On the other hand, defending pride is a counterfeit of standing for truth. The more we engage in petty disputes, the more we feed the fire. The more we take it like a man, the more respect and power we gain.

Consider John 18. In consequence of Judas’s betrayal, soldiers came to arrest Jesus. Rather than crying, “Judas, how could you!? I’m innocent! This is so unfair!” Jesus boldly yet meekly declared to the soldiers that he was the man they were looking for, and the sheer majesty of his being caused the soldiers to step back and fall to the ground. When’s the last time the sheer majesty of your being caused your enemies to step back and fall to the ground?

Now go ahead. Malign me. I can take it.

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Utahans Are Stupid and Dumb – A Revolutionary Rant in Which I Expose Both the Stupidness and Dumbness of Utahans (who aren’t me)

The facts are in. The debate is over. Utahans are both stupid and dumb. Unlike everyone else (trust me, I’m an expert on everyone else), Utahans live in a bubble of ignorance, completely unaware of the REAL world (which, if you haven’t heard, is everywhere but Utah).

Point Number One: Utahans are bad drivers. Have you ever been cut off on the high way by a guy in a Ford truck with a menacing look on his face? Yeah … Utahan. Despite the fact that studies like this report Utahans as being among the best drivers in the nation, numbers have been known to lie. And it’s not like people in other states accuse their own cultures of producing bad drivers. This is clearly just a Utah phenomenon.

Point Number Two: Utahans are ignorant. We all know that Utahans don’t think for themselves but act as drones beneath the tyranny of their religious leaders. Nevermind the fact that putting one’s faith in the wisdom of others is in itself a cognitive exercise. Utahans are clearly the only people in the world … excuse me, the not-real-world … who do this.

True, according to Wikipedia (which obviously can’t be trusted), Utah ranks among the top 10 states for percentage of high school diplomas attained and is above the national average for attained bachelor and advanced degrees. True, as reported by The US Department of Labor, Utah ranks among the top 10 states for lowest unemployment rates (though it doesn’t take great minds to get real jobs). True, America’s Health Rankings reports Utah as among the top 10 most healthy states (big deal; all sorts of intelligent people have unintelligent diets). True, as reported in this study on a respectably progressive website (which could have been manipulated by conservative hackers), Utah has among the nation’s lowest teenage pregnancy rates and is one of the few states that mandates both sex education and medically accurate information. But all of these statistics are beside the point. I’m talking about that certain annoyingness in the way Utahans express themselves, that attitude that says, “I’ve been brainwashed” (unlike us non-brainwashed people).

Point Number Three: Utahans are counterprogressive. Utah has always voted Republican, which, by definition, makes Utahans heartless, money-hoarding, misogynistic, white-supremacists. It’s as if they somehow question the de facto benevolence of big government and the all-American values of Marxism. Despite the fact that CNN Money reports Utah as the #1 most charitable state (by far), there’s something egotistical about people who insist on voluntarily giving their money to others instead of letting the government do so for them (while taking its fair share). Despite the fact that Utah was the second state to grant women’s suffrage, the state’s sexist mentality that women have some innate biological preference toward motherhood over a business career is unacceptable.

Despite the fact that reports Utah as among the top 5 safest states, who in their right mind would support the 2nd Amendment, as if defending one’s self inspired a greater sense of safety than the protection of the NSA?  Despite the fact that the Wall Street Journal reports Utah as having the overall lowest health care costs in the nation, what kind of heartless monsters would oppose a government takeover of the healthcare industry, as if a free market that inspires competition and innovation could somehow produce better results and lower costs than a single monopoly with fixed prices? Despite the fact that lists Utah as among the top 5 best states for starting a business, innovation, self-reliance, and problem-solving are poor substitutes for a humble and altruistic reliance on government assistance.

Point Number Four: Utahans are bigoted. Despite the fact that reports Utah as the least neurotic and “most agreeable place in the country“, everyone knows that Utahans are intolerant of people who are different. What kind of ignoramuses would cling to their own world views and traditional values over the latest consensus of morality? Clearly such thinking is a product of hate. It’s as if Utahans, in their political and social uniformity, think unity is somehow a greater value than diversity. True, also reports the Provo-Orem area as the overall happiest area in the United States, but happiness is no substitute for social justice.

I mean, what kind of close-minded jerks sum up entire groups of people by stereotypes?

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Brigham Young’s Nonsensical Formula for Enlightenment

I want to share some thoughts that I heard last Sunday in church. The topic was “otherness,” which sounds as ambiguous as the lesson was. At first I couldn’t understand what the teacher was even talking about, but by the end, I felt thoroughly enlightened.

It began with a story about Brigham Young (warning to the scholarly reader: I’m too lazy to search for references). Some people came to him with difficult problem, asking for his advice. He told them to go read the scriptures. These people were taken aback, unable to understand how reading the scriptures related to their problem. They asked which book or passage they should read from. Brother Brigham replied that it didn’t matter. What was important was that they immerse themselves with the of the scriptures (a language that was not of the world), and that in so doing, they would be touched by the Spirit of God and attain a state of sufficient intelligence and discernment through which they could solve this particular problem.

It’s as if Brigham Young were saying, “You’ll find the answer to your equation by plugging the variables into a completely unrelated formula.” This logic doesn’t jive well with our modern world, where empiricism reigns supreme.

I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts and watching a lot of documentaries on world history. Though the commentators and subjects are unrelated, one theme that works its way into nearly every presentation is religion. Though religion is still a big part of most people’s lives, a hundred or two years prior and straight back to the beginning of humanity, religion was a HUGE part. By modern standards, practically everyone in the middle ages was a religious fanatic. In short, you could say that the ancient world was generally Platonic, and the modern world is generally Aristotelian. By generally focusing on the real world instead of the spiritual and abstract, we’ve been able to make rapid strides in civilization and science. But have there been any costs in abandoning the religious “fanaticism” of our forebearers?

One evidence that we’re missing something is our obsession with fantasy. The teacher of this lesson has been a film and TV director. He told us his observation that movies with intense fantasy elements generally sold much better than movies that were more realistic. It’s evident that not only are we tired of the practical world and long to escape into something more exciting, but we have an inherent longing for a word beyond that which we can perceive with our natural senses. And yet, day-to-day, we fully invest ourselves in the practical world. Especially in matters of controversy, it’s become unfashionable to defend one’s opinion with, “It just feels right,” or “this is my belief,” while far more acceptable to say, “According to such and such a study …”

For the devout Platonist, the temptation could arise to flip to the other extreme and say, “The world as we know it is nothing but an illusion, and only by freeing ourselves from it can we achieve enlightenment.” Mormonism takes a unique stance somewhere between these two extremes. It’s our belief that up until a few years ago, each and every one of us were resident beings of this other world, and that there were some things we simply could not learn without having a physical experience. After all, you can’t learn Spanish by reading about it in English. You have to immerse yourself in a Spanish environment. Thus, as we are truly spiritual beings having a physical experience, to seek to free ourselves from the physical world would be a mistake. And yet, at our cores, we do belong to the “other” world. Our purpose, it seems, is both to learn how to be physical while simultaneously rediscovering our spiritual roots.

The challenge is learning to achieve this balance. It’s an inherent challenge, because “the natural man is an enemy to God.” In other words, being born into physical bodies, spirituality comes anything but naturally to us. According to this article, our right brain is responsible for selfishness, and the less we focus on it, the more “spirituality” we feel.

Perhaps one reason why our world has become less spiritually-minded is because in a day of instant communication, loud music, and fast food, as opposed to the slowness and quietness of the days of yore, we have little patience for ambiguity, and at a quick glance, the “other” world simply doesn’t compute. As a beginner  immerses himself in Spanish, most of it won’t make sense. But to the diligent student, the mysteries will gradually be replaced by understanding, knowledge, and eventually power.

The Holy Ghost is that little ear bud that helps us to make sense of this other world, communicating things to our understanding that we can’t yet explain rationally, helping us to make the transition from the “natural man” to the enlightened man, until we’re no longer driven by our flesh but by something higher. When we achieve this state of enlightenment, we find that that the things of the “other” world, are in fact, fully rational, but had we never taken the plunge into what seemed at the time as irrational, we would have never known.

And that, I think, is what Brigham Young meant.