Saturday, April 14, 2018

Three Horror Movies that Stuck the Landing, Three that Wiffed It and How They Could Have Been Better--Nothing But Spoilers

Literally this entire post is spoilers. There.

 There are many things that can cause disappointment in a horror movie. Cheesy acting. Gross-out cheap thrills. Bad special effects. But the one that always slays me (no pun intended) is when a movie is saying really interesting things and then falls completely apart in the last ten minutes, not because the monster looks disappointing to what you imagined (they often do), but because of a lack of thematic consistency. A good horror movie is always about the monsters that we experience in real life as much as those that lurk on screen; great horror movie finishes the job it started with some internal consistency.

Here are three horror movies that really stuck the landing, in no particular order, chosen at more-or-less random from my Saturday morning nap. I could have found others, but these sprung to mind as having particularly satisfying endings:

Night of the Living Dead

Theme: The individual, no matter how competent, is no match for the brainless masses.

Plot bearing this out: When a microcasm of personalities is trapped in a farmhouse, faced with the leagues of the undead, a power struggle for who gets to decide what to do breaks out. But despite a war of personalities inside, the thread outside is without personality. They are pajama-clad, naked, decomposing corpses with zero plan or coordination. And they're winning.

Nailed it: Although our hero, through his wits and courage, manages to survive the night, when the day dawns he is mistaken for a ghoul and shot in the head. And what gets him? A posse of slack-jawed yokels, roving through the countryside, shooting anything that moves, perfectly mirroring the mindlessness of the undead horde, and just as efficient.

A Quiet Place

Theme: It is really hard to protect and nurture family in the face of danger.

Plot bearing this out: Well, the characters right out say it, but even then, from the beginning, it is clear that children, from unborn infants to surly teenagers, are a liability in the face of a lurking destruction that confronts them all. But for all that, children are also a reason, the reason, to keep surviving. An elderly man whose wife is killed commits suicide in a scream. The Abbotts, on the other hand, teach their children not only how to survive in this new world, but how to care for each other in the process.

Nailed it: There is no more "protect and nurture" image than that of brother cradling baby while mom and sister double-team tormenting and shotgunning monsters to obliteration. The family has finally become able to be on the attack, not just sneaking around surviving, but becoming active heroes to actually save the world, which leads to...

10 Cloverfield Lane

Theme: You are stronger than you know, and you can fight harder than you think.

Plot bearing this out: Michelle survives, in order, a car accident, a madman, and freaky-deacky aliens. But all along the way, she doubts whether it wouldn't be easier just to stop fighting and die--or just settle into a banal comfort. After all, board games and tinned food isn't all that bad, especially when you're the favorite, right?

Nailed it: After doing whatever it takes to escape and just survive, Michelle, screeching down an empty road to get the heck out of dodge, hears on the radio that there are more monsters--and survivors-- down another road. She continues on her safe path a moment, then puts it in reverse, and goes speeding into danger to use her new fighting ability and confidence to help others.


And now for some horror movies that were doing so well, until they sucked it up in the last ten minutes or so. Again, just for emphasis, I don't mean "the monster was a little disappointing after all the hype" (1408, The Ritual, etc.) or  even "it was internally consistent, but I wasn't wowed by their particular level of insight by the end" (Mama, Cabin in the Woods). This is full-blown "Wow, this movie is saying some really important things...oh, wait, no they just ruined everything."

The Last Exorcism

Theme: That classic of Greek theater: the hubris of man in the face of supernatural forces he doesn't understand.

Plot bearing this out: Rev. Cotton Mathis thinks his parishioners are patsies and has an even lower opinion of the folk to hire him to before exorcisms. In this mock documentary, Mathis gleefully lets the crew into his use of stereos, special effects and other modes of hoodwinking hillbillies as one last "screw you" before leaving the church. But this time Nell seems actually, factually possessed.

How they screwed it up: Literal Satan-worshipping hicks. Literal everybody dies. Literal "shaking found footage that you are supposed to believe was somehow saved so you can watch this film now" (THEN WHO WAS DOING ALL THE EDITING UP UNTIL THIS POINT?!)

How it should have ended: 2/3rds of the way, Mathis starts hearing voices telling him that if he literally sacrifices himself, the girl will be released. He doesn't know whether the voices are angels or demons, but he knows it doesn't come from the stereo. He kills himself in a ritual that does not look anything Southern Baptist, and dies horrified to think that he might be dragged down to hell, now that he is more convinced of the reality of the concept. The crew, mortified, tries to stop him, but it's too late. They have to struggle with their journalistic integrity and the horror of what they have witnessed. They're going to complete the documentary and dedicate it to his memory.

Lights Out

Theme: Mental illness affects whole families.

Plot bearing this out: A young woman, estranged from her erratic mother, comes back home to protect her half-brother when it becomes clear Mom isn't taking her pills and her "imaginary" friend is showing upr. She first tries the usual, real-world courses of action, talking with CPS, that sort of stuff, but then it becomes clear that "Diana" is more real and more powerful than she expected, responsible for killing both her dad and her brother's dad out of jealousy. Diana insists on dominating her mother, pushing out any time, energy or attention for the family.

How they screwed it up: The only way, the mom concludes, is to kill herself. Wait, wait! While I was in favor of the selfish person self-sacrificing in The Last Exorcism, this is a terrible, even dangerous, way to end a movie about mental illness. Even director Sandberg realized in retrospect that he was telling people with depression that shooting themselves was the only way to protect their families, and he regretted it.

How it should have ended: Like many of the best family dramas, young Rebecca should have been threatened by the possibility that her mother's demons would become her own. Diana shows up at Rebecca's apartment and starts making demands. After all, the mom's middle-aged and if Diana wants to live forever, she's going to want to find a new host. Rebecca's obnoxiously loyal and long-suffering boyfriend, and her half-brother and, in a scene healing a scarred childhood, her mother, all intervene to trap Diana and incinerate her. Rebecca has greater empathy for the struggles of her mother and regrets not being able to have rescued her years ago. Her mother, for her part, regrets not being more open about Diana instead of trying to "protect the children."


Theme: Guns are bad.

Plot bearing this out: Old widow Winchester spends her not-inconsiderable fortune building a mansion to appease the dead who have been killed with the family rifle design. Major plot points all center on what happens when a gun ends up in the hands of, respectively, a depressed person, a child, a drug addict, and a really, really angry young man. There are smaller glimpses of the wider impact of gun violence with slavery and colonialism. It's none of it good.

How they screwed it up: Which is why it's weird that the solution is to literally shoot the ghost. With a gun. With a bullet.

How it should have ended: Surely creative types could come up with something better than a literal magic bullet. Me, I'm in favor of some ghost-on-ghost violence. Sarah Winchester releases some of those other angry spirits, ideally some of the ones who would have beef with a Confederate ghost and they end up endlessly tormenting him in some nice locked up room that includes architectural elements from both/all of their lives. Or maybe being confronted with a grief just as powerful and real as his own, evil ghost Ben decides that he doesn't have the monopoly on anger and just passes on.

And there you have it. Don't take us most of the way down an interesting premise and then ruin in the last ten minutes. Yes, there are other things you can do to stink up a movie (both poorly reviewed Winchester and the superb A Quiet Place have too many unnecessary jump-scares), but since we're going to be replaying the end of a scary movie in our heads for days, make sure that it's something worth sticking in there.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Some Ramblings on Evil, Halloween Movies, the "Great Physician," and "This Political Climate"

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[This movie poster is misleading, because there's far more naked ugly ladies and goats and other early Colonial goosebumps and (fun fact!) the dialogue comes from actual transcripts of witch hunts!]
One of the most spiritually meaningful R-sie movies about Colonial America I ever saw was The Witch, or as I like to call it The VVitch. All kinds of spoilers here that don't matter to the enjoyment of the film, but the general plot is that a family, exiled from the settlement, because of their father's heterodox ideas, finds themselves on the edge of a dark forest. A literal witch literally steals and literally eats their baby, which is bad news all the time, but this dumb family blames their teenage daughter, who does regular teenagery things like tries to scare her annoying siblings. But everything she's done becomes interpreted as witchcraft and one-by-one everyone in her family begins to turn against her.  But the main thing is that everyone --total spoiler--dies horrible deaths and the teenage daughter, alone in the woods, with nowhere to turn uncertain whether there are witches says aloud that she wants to sign in with the devil and join the witches. Which she does. (Or "Witch she does"?)

The striking thing for me is that this stupid family is right; there are witches. It's just the witch is in the woods and not in the home. Let that sentence sink in a little: the witch is in the woods and not in the home.

There is a lot of awful and a lot of evil in this world, but it comes from Lucifer, "our common enemy," and not from each other, per se. It's not popular to talk about Satan and there's shaky doctrinal bedrocks on the topic, but here's my own take on it, informed, at least, by Mormonism. When you watch movies like The Possession of Emily Rose  ("Possession is 9/10ths of the law!"), you think of evil spirits possessing people as contortionists who love speaking backwards in Latin and freaking out people in remote areas. But if you saw a possession like that, it would be pretty hard to deny that something supernatural was happening and then it's a natural progression to believe in supernatural good (e.g. God). More likely, evil spirits lead people to thinking, "I'm smarter than she is," "That's none of my business," and "There's nothing wrong with what I'm doing." They are not insignificant thoughts. These kinds of thoughts, building on each other, lead to everything from great acts of depravity to everyday snotty brattitude.

But think about how dramatic these possession movies are. What if you lived a life of such kindness and generosity that a snide comment or a selfish act would be as unusual as walking up the side of the walls backwards on your hands and knees? What if you assumed that when someone did something snotty, it wasn't because they naturally were a snot, but because there was some circumstance or influence making them act like a snot? Would you be as eager as a scare-night exorcist to help them and heal them?

Christ fashioned himself as the "Great Physician," but many people in politics, religion and culture are looking to be executioners, cutting others off forever. Executioners do their job behind a mask, never closer than an axe's length, while a physician stands close, even TMI-close, to the body of the sick. That was the great downfall of the family in The VVitch--once they let themselves think that no one else could be a witch beside their daughter, their daughter had to be the witch. They cut her off. And while attempted filicide aside, this young woman finds no other choice than to become what she has been made into. There's a classic stalker-management book called The Gift of Fear that describes how to deal with a spoken threat after someone loses their job. Instead of calling security and having them publicly dragged out by armed men, you sigh and say, "I know you only said that because you're upset right now; you're too good of a person for that." (They also recommend firing people on Friday afternoons, so they have an entire "normal" weekend to process their feelings instead of stewing at home alone--pro tip!) The idea being that when you make someone the Bad Guy, you escalate the situation and make it difficult for them to back down. In fact, it may increase the stakes for them--they already have a blot against them, so why not go whole hog? When you're a physician, you anticipate someone getting well again; when you're an executioner, you're only waiting for them to stop twitching so you can go home.

And the ironic thing is that I think this family could have taken the witches if they hadn't been fighting each other. They never thought to look for the witch outside their family and instantly forgot all the good their daughter had done before this witch hunt began. I like to imagine an alternative ending where the family says "Hell, no" (pun intended), gather their pitchforks, and drive out that witch. Probably wouldn't have been as good a movie, but it's what we need right now. There's enough sorrow, suffering, pain and sickness out there that we need everyone. We can't afford to look for witches in the walls of our homes.

Friday, July 28, 2017

DIY animal bookends

Okay, so here I give back to the Internet, but this is more of an apology to Krystian because this took longer than I meant it to be. I thought I'd do this with my 10-year-old niece when she was visiting, but it took a lot longer than I thought.

It started simply enough with three dollar store toys--two deer and a polar bear. The polar bear split nicely in two with a little effort and a pair of scissors.


Once the bears were split, that's when things got hard mostly because my first kind of spray paint never seemed to dry in the Houston humidity. So maybe not the primer and paint in one for this. Then, after much shame, I just got the regular kind, which worked great. Or maybe it's just better drying outside than in the garage.

Anyway, about a month of neglect later, I spray-painted the things, but it was okay because in that time our neighbors had replaced their fence! This means SCRAP WOOD! Just what I had been looking for. I also would have taken river rocks, but this is Houston, I didn't want to steal from anyone's landscape.

I cut up some fence-post ends and 2x4s with my reciprocating saw and stained them with one of those awesome stain wipes I was telling you about. Then, when they were dry, I glued my animals on.

The deer looks very handsome, but also a little like a trophy. I wonder if I should put a plaque on it.

If you're worried about the wood being heavy enough, you could always drill a hole in the bottom and weigh it down with marbles, Pinewood Derby style. Or you could just glue some washers on the back. Personally, though, I find the pine is heavy enough as is.

The bear had to be glued in two places--the bottom and the side, and the 2x4s also had to be glued in an L-shape bookend. I quite like this one, though.

Krystian says it looks like a wiener dog bear.

DIY wood poster hangers

I've been doing a lot of DIY lately because
  1. Summer
  2. I now own a house
  3. I am cheap
Because of this, I spend a lot of time Googling and Pinterest-searching DIY projects that I think ought to exist. Usually they do. Sometimes they don't. When they don't I have to do my darnest to make it up.

Now, while I'm waiting for some wood glue to dry, I've decided it's time to give back to the Internet. I don't think anyone is going to find these, but they might.

So first project came because I found some awesome vintage style posters, but then when I looked up poster hangers, you get something like this. Look, you don't have to follow the link, I'll tell you:

Includes: • Two 29" half round oak dowels • Pre-attached cord and nail for hanging • Easy-peel adhesive for mounting your favorite Cavallini wrap • Mounting instructions

And it's $15. Plus $7 shipping. F-H-no! They are charging you $15 for DOWELS!
quarter-inch molding

So I went to Home Depot. Or Lowe's. Something like that. I got these sweet quarter round moldings for a couple bucks. Then I measured out my posters, added an inch for overlap and cut them and stained them. Because I was going with more of a "gentleman naturalist" vibe than "seventh-grade bio class," I used a mahogany stain. 
Staining the wood
Specifically, I used this kind of finish, which rocks my socks off--stain in a WIPE. They include gloves, which I used, but you can also just stick your hands in a grocery bag, if you're going to be doing this not all in one day. When you finish, turn the back inside out--viola! 

Be careful to glue evenly as possible

Then, instead of easy-peel adhesive, I just used glue. Wood glue because I love it, but I think you could use a good dose of Elmer's to the same effect. I did most with the second flat side AWAY from the main picture (so flat side top on the top and bottom on the bottom) to give it a smoother look, and to insert the hooks later like this:

Flat side down on the bottom

 But for the map, I wanted to be able to keep a pencil there. Lets guests mark where they're from that way:
Flat side up on the bottom

 On the top, I put in screw eyes on the top flat side and tied on twine. For a step more steampunk, you could use copper wire.

 For a more rustic look, I skipped the screws, and just tied the twine to each end.

 And here's the ones with the screw eyes:

So there you have it. Three portrait and 2 landscape posters hung (and enough extra hangers for 2 more posters, when I find more I like). Whole project cost me around $24, including extra screw eyes and LOTS of extra stain, which you will see in all of the next projects.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Processing the Election, Hillbillies and Two and a Half Men

Well, we guessed wrong.

The only questions were whether it would a close election or a landslide, and whether Trump would concede, and what to do with the angry people when he didn't concede, and how Clinton would start a presidency with such ill will. We didn't anticipate this.

We didn't, in fact, a Trump candidacy. I feel as though the whole nation is now as blindsided as the GOP was when Trump starting picking off establishment Republicans from Jeb Bush to Ted Cruz (man, did I just write Cruz was establishment? weird...). How could we not have seen this coming?

The "it" book of the political season Hillbilly Elegy is part biography, part political commentary and does a good deal to describe the hidden America of migrants from Appalachia who settled into the steel towns of Ohio and Pennsylvania, then got lost as a changing economy made it impossible to get a good-paying job without a college degree. The book is lauded from across the political spectrum as it comes to a variety of conclusions about who these people (read: voters) are: Democrats let working class voters down; "personal spirituality" fails to provide the safety net organized religion does; the information economy leaves undereducated people in the dust; drug treatment facilities are under funded and arrest drug users does nothing to help them or their families; etc. For many people, this is the first time someone from the so-called hillbilly culture has let them into their world.

I'm not the first (hundreth) person to point out that we live in a cultural echo chamber, but this election has reminded me of what I called the Two and A Half Men blinder. Two and a Half Men for those of you who don't know (my likely readers), was a profane and insane sitcom that I could only stomach for fifteen minutes, once, at the gym. It was also the most popular show in America. I didn't get it. I literally did not know a single person who watched the show. And I asked around.

Alternatively, all my friends, and I mean all of them, watched 30 Rock. Even the people who bragged about not watching TV had seen a few episodes. And while 30 Rock did okay for itself, it was notorious the "also-ran" of ratings. Talking with my friends, I would have thought 30 Rock would be the most popular show on TV--it was funny, smart, politically aware, but not too preachy.

Two and A Half Men should have predicted this election. We should have been more aware that "our" America isn't just ours.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Simple and Powerful Discipleship /or/ You Don't Have to Become a Martyr to Be a Saint

The following is the talk I wrote for church last week. I stayed up until 1 am because I got so excited to write it. It's called Simple and Powerful Discipleship, but I like to call it, "You don't have to become a martyr to be a saint."

I’m Mary Hedengren Perez and my husband Krystian and I moved into the ward just a couple of months ago. He spoke last month. I serve as Primary secretary and Krystian works with the Priests and Cub Scouts. We were extremely grateful to receive these callings because, due to a series of unusual circumstances, we had gone the nearly 4 months since we were married without callings in the church. This disappointed us because we were looking forward to serving in a family ward. We certainly had “real callings” in our singles ward, but we were eager to widen the range of our service. We speculated endlessly, wondering whether we would serve the youth, the children or even the babies. We spoke with friends of ours who had callings like  Stake Youth Dance DJ, callings which we had never even contemplated.

The church affords us many opportunities to build the kingdom of God through callings, serving our families and developing personal spirituality. This work is increasingly urgent.

Bonnie Oscarson, the Young Women’s President, reminded us in this most recent general conference that we are blessed to have the fulness of the gospel, but we are also beset with “perilous times.” Under such circumstances, half-hearted work in the kingdom will not suffice. What, then, should we do?

First though, President Oscarson points out, we need to strengthen our own testimonies in the basics of the gospel. We need to develop unshakable testimonies in the divinity of Christ and His role in the plan of salvation. We need to be able to bear strong witness of Joseph Smith’s prophetic role in bringing forth the restoration of the gospel. We need to seek and find the significance of our temple covenants and blessings. Though powerful testimonies of Christ, the restoration and the temple ordinances, we can serve and teach with a powerful spirit.

It’s not enough just to have testimonies, though: we must commit to the acts that will demonstrate our conversion. Just as we need to develop powerful testimonies, we need to commit to powerful acts of discipleship. That was one of my favorite things about Bonnie Oscarson’s talk: she emphasized that these are not the days for rinky-dinky discipleship.

Before I dig into the ways that Sis. Oscarson called us to actively follow Christ, let me take a sidebar to say what these powerful acts of discipleship are not. Powerful acts of discipleship do not make you needlessly a martyr. They do not need, even, to take far more time or effort than what you currently expend. They are always about what matters most.

Pres. Utchdorf has wisely counseled, quote “An acceptable sacrifice is when we give up something good for something of far greater worth.
Dedicating some of our time to studying the scriptures or preparing to teach a lesson is a good sacrifice. Spending many hours stitching the title of the lesson into homemade pot holders for each member of your class perhaps may not be.
Every person and situation is different, and a good sacrifice in one instance might be a foolish sacrifice in another.

How can we tell the difference for our own situation? We can ask ourselves, “Am I committing my time and energies to the things that matter most?” There are so many good things to do, but we can’t do all of them. Our Heavenly Father is most pleased when we sacrifice something good for something far greater with an eternal perspective” end quote (“Forget me not”).

If you find that you frequently get caught up into this trap, sacrificing unnecessarily until our callings or other service opportunities become heavy burdens and sources of relentless guilt, may I recommend Eld Ballard’s 2006 General Conference talk “O Be Wise”? In this talk, Eld. Ballard gives clear guidelines in creating balance in our callings. He prays that we will “focus on the simple ways we can serve in the kingdom of God.” Simple does not mean weak. Simple does not even mean easy. But it does mean that we don’t run faster or labor harder than we have strength or unnecessarily complicate things.

I propose 4 ways we can strengthen our discipleship without, perhaps, significantly increasing our time or means.

The first principle is demonstrated by a mother Sis. Oscarson describes. This mother “chooses a topic each week, often one that has generated a lot of discussion online, and she initiates meaningful discussions during the week when her children can ask questions and she can make sure they’re getting a balanced and fair perspective on the often-difficult issues. She is making her home a safe place to raise questions and have meaningful gospel instruction.” Pres. Oscarson doesn’t say, but I suspect this mother has family home evening, family dinners and maybe even family scripture study. But she doesn’t just try to get through a chapter, or through an hour: she makes the content meaningful and takes advantage of the time she has to each her family.

Setting aside fifteen minutes a day for scripture study, two hours a month for home teaching, or a day a week for worship and rest will form worthy habits. But to magnify the impact of that time, it’s not enough to just go through the motions. The some of most meaningful scripture study I have done has been to research a real question or concern, seeking for answers and inspiration.  I felt this urgency most acutely on my mission, where I filled this notebook with questions I either heard or anticipated from the people we taught and I dug deep to discover the answers. We do not have time, brothers and sisters, to simply “get through” a lesson, a family home evening or a Sunday. We need to make the most of this time to discuss the crucial, even uncomfortable, truths of the gospel. So principle one, and perhaps the one on which the others stand, is to simply use the time we have more meaningfully.

The mother in that story thought about the needs of her children in gospel learning, as did Sis. Marffissa Maldonado, a youth Sunday School teacher in Mexico. Bonnie Oscarson relates that Sis. Maldonado set up a social media page for her students, and texts them their assignments, connecting with them in ways that are natural to them. She used social media and text to communicate with students rather than, say, paper handouts.  Instead of doing things that felt natural to her, she sought to do things that were more natural to those she taught. Now, posting on a Facebook page takes less time, not more, than creating a paper handout, so she wasn’t needlessly complicating her calling, but she was thinking about the ways her students communicate rather than what worked for her. So, principle two is to serve in the way others need, not in the way that is comfortable.

When Sis. Maldonado when  was called, there were only 7 students regularly attending her Sunday School class. Now there are more than 20. When President Oscarson related her amazement, she reports that Sis. Maldonado modestly said, “Oh, it wasn’t just me. All the class members helped.” And they did. The class members reached out to less active members and even initiated missionary work that resulted in the baptism of a new member.

I’m not sure exactly how Sis. Maldonado did it, but I suspect it included inspiring them about the significance of what was happening every week in class as well as providing them opportunities to reach out to their classmates. What a great blessing for those teenage saints to be enlisted in the work of bringing souls to Christ! Instead of seeing her Sunday School students as passive, she empowered them to do great things. If you think about it, this is what God, Christ, the prophet, the bishop and the auxiliary leaders all do when they extend callings to us, and we can extend invitations to serve to those around us. So the third principle is to enlist the help of those around us, even those we serve.

Finally, for the last principle, I want to especially address my primary kids, but it holds true for youth and non-youth, too. Do you come right away when called for family home evening or prayer? Do you volunteer to say the prayer over the food, or, when you are called to pray, do you do so without complaining? Do you share the lessons you learned in church each Sunday? You can be powerful examples in your family and beyond!  Sis. Oscarson says that “even the very youngest in this audience can rise up in faith and play a significant role in building the kingdom of God. ... All children and young [people] can encourage family home evenings and be full participants. You can be the first one on your knees as your family gathers for family prayer. Even if your homes are less than ideal, your personal examples of faithful gospel living can influence the lives of your family and friends.”

If your families, roommates, friends or coworkers are not all united in living gospel standards, the temptation can be to live the gospel shyly, being embarrassed of your discipleship the way you might hide belonging to a Justin Beiber fan club. Christ commands us to let our light shine before the world.  Don’t be ashamed of your goodness! The world and your family need your goodness. If you’re reading your scriptures, it’s okay if you read your scriptures in the living room as well as the bedroom. If you had a good Sunday, you can share it with coworkers just as proudly as if you had a good Saturday. If there’s a quote you love from General Conference, you can post it on Instagram, hang it in your office, or print it on a t-shirt just as deeply as you engrave it in the fleshy tablets of your heart. We’re not doing this to be holier-than-thou, but because this is who we are and we have no reason to be ashamed of who we are.The final principle is to live the gospel boldly.

To summarize, we can magnify the efforts we are already making in gospel living when we:

  1. Make meaningful use of time set aside for gospel learning
  2. Serve in the way that is needed, not in the way that is comfortable.
  3. Enlist the help of those around us, even those we serve.
  4. Live the gospel boldly.

These principles are not easy. You may feel set in your ways and find it difficult to try something new in the way that you study the gospel or serve others. You may hate the feeling of helplessness when recruiting others to do something you feel you can do better yourself. You may be shy or feel self conscious about sharing outside the things you feel inside. But I promise that as you do so, you will see the benefits in those around you as well as within you. We don’t need to do more, but we do need to do better, and with inspiration from the Spirit and a willingness to try, we can. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Read a Banned Book

Every year, the American Library Association promotes Banned Books Week, which tricks kids into reading literature under the guise of being rebellious.

I'm not saying this as a criticism. I, myself taught one of a dozen sections of Banned Books and Novel Ideas at my old university, helping students fulfill a fine arts credit and feel like a literary bad-asses. But, looking around at my colleagues' syllabi, I realized that everything has been banned and nothing was. There were books, certainly, like Harry Potter, that had been banned by some fundamental evangelical librarian in some small town in Ohio, and there had been works that have been "soft banned," like when South Carolina's House of Representatives tried to cut funding because Fun House, a graphic novel about coming of age as a young lesbian was required reading for incoming freshmen, but outright bans have been rare in this country. I ended up taking an international approach with my reading list, looking at banned books from the U.K., Germany, El Salvador, South Africa, Iran and Vietnam.

The bans are different in the United States.

I once had lunch with a friend of mine who I admire continually, and we got on the subject of books we pulled off the shelf when we were too young for them.
"I read Anthem," I said, laughing, "when I was ten just because it was skinny."

The mood suddenly turned sober.

"You've read Anthem?" she said with distaste. "What were your parents doing owning Anthem?"

"Well," I said, realizing I had somehow mistepped. "They were in college during the Cold War, and they never sold back any of their books--I'm not sure it's a thing people did back then."

But it bothered me. Look, I don't agree with Ayn Rand politically one bit, but preteens reading Anthem will find all of the hallmarks of classic YA distopia, complete with the insistence that I Am The Special One. It's juvenile philosophy, which is why most of us grow out of it, but reading it didn't make me a fascist any more than reading Fun Home created a generation of lesbians in South Carolina. What's disturbing is that, culturally, we are uncomfortable with listening to--or reading--someone we don't agree with.

Foucault's most famous, probably, for the idea of the social panopticon. The panopticon was a jail system that formulated a couple of hundred years ago, where the prisoners are always being watched and judged by someone standing in the middle of the jail, and by each other. Foucault pointed out that we are always policing each other. In fact, he expanded carcerality to include not just policemen, but schoolteachers, preachers and anyone in the society who is watching each other. This, not outright bans, is where I feel books in America become banned.

Physicial books, in the digital age, have become markers of who we are, as much a signifier of position and rank as the pictures on our walls and the neighborhoods we live in. I've never put E.D. Hirshe's book about cultural literacy on my bookshelf at work because I didn't want my colleagues to think I was racist.  Hirshe's racism is itself debatable, but I didn't want to be guilty by association. Having a physical book on your shelf has become a badge of What You Believe, rather than a sign of What You've Read.

Most of my examples here have been about more conservative books, the reverse is true, too: I can read books by people I disagree with, even read them attentively, and it will not necessarily radicalize me. In fact, how can I know I disagree with them until I read their book and figure out what, exactly, it is that I disagree with.

So what I'm saying is, this Banned Book season (which also overlaps with Election season), maybe read something that your group, whoever they are, would deplore. And it's even okay if you deplore it, too. You don't have to like it, you don't even have to finish it, but you do need to understand it.

It could be memoir of someone you don't agree with (I read a biography of Golda Meir in high school that I still think about sometimes when I think about Zionism), or fiction that promotes a philosophy you don't ascribe to (I adore Turgenov and Poe, but I'm not nearly so gloomy), but go out there and find something someone tells you not to read and read it.