31 July 2006

In Which We Find Truth in Fiction

Sheesh, this debate over creation versus criticism has been taking over my life! I keep seeing it everywhere I go. For example, I picked up Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell a week or two ago. Yes, a work of fiction. Yes, even a fantasy.

But the theme is there. The book begins with at the Yorkshire Society of Gentleman Magicians, but these aren't the magicians you would expect. None of them practice any magic, nor would they ever want to. You see, in this alternate Napolean-era England, magic has fallen from practical use. "Magicians" are more akin to historians, who study the works of the ancient magicians, and write long theoretically treatises on theories of how magic might work and whether this or that magician was influenced by the other, without ever attempting to try the spells they study. The implications on critical tradition are obvious.

Enter John Segundus. He questions why no one has tried magic, demands that we try and create new magic, to do new things rather than just reviewing the old--in other words, for creative work, rather than just analysis. The Society introduces him to the titular Mr. Norrell, who proves to be the practical magician Segundus is searching for. But even this new creative force has its problems: Mr. Norrell guards his art jealously, and can't stand the thought of sharing his books with other magicians. Also, he focuses so much on the agenda behind his art that often the creativity of it is lost. Then along comes Jonathan Strange, the other practicing magician, and things get interesting. . . .

But I'll spare you more plot summary, and I haven't quite finished the book yet anyway (300 pages left!). Even at this point, though, the implications for this criticize/create debate are clear. First, the worst state a society can possibly be in is one of pure analysis, where creation and creativity are looked down on. But just as bad is the society where creation is worshipped as a sacred, mysterious force, something for the elite, not to be shared with the masses, something jealously guarded.

The lesson I take away is this. Creativity must be taught, in as much as it can be. I realize it isn't a subject you can teach like math or even like a sport. Some essential parts of it cannot be taught, but others can. And we should teach them, even demand them. And demand the other parts too. I might even go so far as to say we should take a leaf from programs in the Fine Arts, and create a Writing major where you actually have to audition to get in.

I think one aspect that has led to the current fouled-up state of affairs in lit crit is the attempt to make it too scientific. We have tried to make our discipline too much like the social sciences, which in turn have tried to become like the hard sciences. We have tried too hard to squeeze writing into some comprehensible form instead of revelling in its marvelous creativity. In my opinion, the focus of the English major ought to be shifted to writing, with lit crit serving as a tool to help us understand other writers and through them ourselves.

There seems to be some third view, represented by Strange, but as I'm not yet sure of his fate, I will refrain from comment.

(Might as well finish off this book review properly. My only complaint about this book is that it is long. 800 pages type long. Now, I've read books that long before, but most of them didn't feel that long. I mean, HPs 4-6 felt so small! I attribute the "longness" of this book to the author's style: she's channelling Dickens so strongly that, were he alive, I might expect a copyright infringement case. And you may write down for the record that I detest Dickens--or his style anyway. But it's a sign of the brillance of the ideas that I am willing to put up with a style that drives me batty to get at them.

The only part of the style I really like is the very serious scholarly footnotes explaining when a character is wrong or giving large background stories and folktales. Pretty hilarious. And the old timey spelling is interesting. . . .

Additionally, this book is exactly the wrong size for reading. Too big a spine and too large of pages. I really want to get the three volume edition so that I can actually read it comfortably.)

P.S. I have started memorizing the Lady of Shalott, as per my post Saturday. I've almost got part one down! I feel very Anne-ish. Joni, you should be proud. :D

Happee Birthdae!

To Harry Potter, the boy who lived!
And to J.K. Rowling, the woman who wrote!

(Leaky B-Day page)

29 July 2006

Top 10 Things I Learned while Attempting to Hike Timp Today

10-The Romantic poets were right.
9-Water bottles left at home don't quench thirst
8-Mountains are steep. Very steep.
7-I need to pick up photography again. If only I still had that camera . . . .
6-I need to memorize more poetry.
5-Why mountains are so closely tied to temples.
4-Nature can overcome anything.
3-Stop and look at the beauty around you . . . .
2-But watch for rocks.
1-Know your limits.

28 July 2006

Book Math and Some Macs

While I was walking home from campus yesterday, I was thinking about my reading habits, namely, how long it takes me to pick up a book and once I have it how long it takes me to finish it. Without further ado, I present to you some really ridiculously made up math. (Rachel would cry.)

T(x) is a function where x represents time and T represents my relative progress in the book. Thus, the x intercept of T(x) is the point where I first pick up the book.
I=general interest in the book. For Harry Potter books, I approaches infinity. :D
N=number of books currently reading. I hate starting a new book when I am in the middle of other books. Right now, I think I am at a record high of 5 books. I prefer reading books one at a time rather than in packs.
R=recommendation index of person recommending book = I(1)E(1)^2+I(2)E(2)^2+...+I(i)E(i)^2-abs(D)
I(i)=interest level of past books recommended
E(i)=actual enjoyment of past books recommended
D=perceived relative intelligence of recommender (In abs() because I tend to resent recommendations from people who I perceive as superior and ignore recommendations from people less intelligent. Sad that this is a factor, but it's true. However, the importance of this factor diminishes as we add books to the equation. :D)
b=stress factor=m+s
m=messiness of apartment
s=school work load
t=time it takes me to get to the local library or bookstore

It almost works, if I could figure out some realistic units.

*headdesk* I am such a geek.

If only to prove the point, I now present my collection of Mac switch ad parodies. I have no idea why I like these so much, but they are hillarious. For your own safety, do not drink any milk while watching the following videos.
The Original Ad
Editting Switch - Language Warning
Han Solo
Mac Gamer?
Oh! Baby Mac

Bonus for anyone who has ever used Flash.

26 July 2006

I have my reasons...

Yesterday at the Writing Center, I was talking with Jon about my blog, and he asked me if I write what I write "to criticize or to be criticized"--meaning a review of life or a creative work, I suppose. That caused me to think for a while about what this blog really is, thus far.

I guess the main purpose is to keep me writing. Daily practice makes any skill better, and writing is no exception. (Neither is chemistry, if you ask Dr. Shirts.) The exercise of condensing my thoughts into (semi-)coherent paragraphs with structure is like lifting weights for my writing brain.

From this purpose springs a secondary one: I use this blog to get my thoughts out of my head. I have a habit of having great epiphanies and never writing them down. As a result, my brain becomes so clogged with trying to remember the things that it knows that I don't have anymore space to write something new. Writing these ideas down is a way of saving them to permanent memory, freeing up 'brain-RAM' to work on expanding these ideas with further connections and thoughts.

Writing also allows me to clear up in my head what my position is. Take my as-yet-unfinished trilogy of posts on homosexuality. My main purpose in writing it was to clarify to myself exactly why I believe what I believe. (Which is probably why parts 2 and 3 haven't been written. Merely planning them clarified my position in my head, which sort of used up my motivation for writing them.)

I guess that doesn't really answer the question. To criticize or be criticized? Hmm. Can't I have both? Really, I have no desire to separate my thoughts on the world from my creative writing. There's no reason that a work shouldn't be both critical and creative.

25 July 2006

Reading Material

If you know my reading habits at all, you know that I pratically worship Orson Scott Card. He's a very clear yet eloquent writer with excellent insights into people, religion, politics, and life in general. In addition, he is a great role model for how to balance the conflicting roles of creator, critic, and disciple of Christ.

He writes two columns/essays for a local paper which usually appear on his website within a few weeks. The political column, World Watch, always has a great twist, and never follows the right/left party lines you might expect. He defends truth and logic, which ever party has them, and his results will suprise you. His recent essay on illegal immigration, "What Is This Crime Anyway?", has caused me to seriously reconsider my own position on the topic.

The other column, Uncle Orson Reviews Everything, is slightly uneven, both in quality and content. The staple of the column is movie reviews, which sometimes go a little far in their sensitivity about Hollywood's treatment of political issues (see the review of Mona Lisa Smile near the bottom). Book reviews show up frequently, along with food and restaurant reviews, as well as criticism of the local government. But my favorite parts of this column are his criticisms of people in general. For example:

What, exactly, does it mean when someone says, "My, but you're opinionated." Or "Well, we aren't opinionated, are we?"

What does it mean to be opinionated? Well, presumably, it means that you have opinions and you say them.

But if to be opinionated is something to be discouraged (and the word is always used disparagingly), what is the virtuous alternative? To have no opinions? Or perhaps merely to refrain from saying them?

I believe that "opinionated" is used precisely the way that "judgmental" is used -- in an attempt to make someone embarrassed to state their views, thereby silencing them without having to resort to actually answering any of their views or offering contrary evidence or reasoning. (emphasis in original)

Just amazing, and so true. Reminds me of the old comment Ali made during the "Soul Force" mini-blog-war-thing.

Speaking of reading material, today the Leaky Cauldron posted this interesting study which quantifies the effect Harry Potter is having on reading in children. According to the study (neglecting possible bias, since it is published by Scholastic), over 60% of children age 9-11 and 12-14 have read Harry Potter. Holy cow. And 63% of boys didn't read for fun until they read HP. Talk about influence! It makes me yearn to ever have that sort of audience with my words.

Maybe I'm just power hungry, and that's the real reason I'm an English major.

20 July 2006

Top Four Rules of Social Ettiquette

. . . in other words, people who break these rules irritate me. This was going to be a top ten list, but then I realized there aren't that many things that really irritate me. This is probably a good thing.

1. Never open with "Are you busy?" when asking for a favor or date. This rule is not nearly well known enough, and whenever I am confronted by it, I just want to scream. When you begin this way, the person is left with no graceful way to back out of your request. I mean, ideally, we would always help others out and accept every date we're asked on, but there are some very valid reasons to reject either one. And, since you've already determined they aren't busy, the only other way to reject your offer is to tell you that they don't want to go out with you or help you. So unless you are trying to find out if the other person really doesn't like you, leave the back gate open by mentioning the activity first and the time later.

2. Open doors for women, but not just because they told you to. There is a certain spirit of door opening that has been lost due to the masses of males attempting to follow the letter of the door-opening law (especially in the BYU environment). The reason men are supposed to open doors for women is not because we are too delicate/weak to open them ourselves, but to show thoughtfulness and to make the evening (or morning, or afternoon) flow more easily for the woman. In essence, you are trying to keep her mind off of such mundane things as opening doors and more on you. Thus, if you insist on opening doors, do it like a butler--that is, before she realizes that you are doing it. Be there before she goes to reach for the door handle. If a woman has to wait while you amble around the car and open her door what seems like an eternity later, she's thinking more about this whole door opening thing than she is about you. If you can't get there fast enough, just let her open the door, and be more aware next time.

3. If your cell phone rings while you are with company, answer it but get off as soon as possible. Nothing is more irritating to the real people sitting next to you than being pushed aside for some immaterial voice. If they have any manners (or curiousity), it will be fairly difficult to continue with normal conversation whilst you gab away. And text messaging counts, people. Treat it exactly as you would if someone knocked on your door while you were at home with some friends. Answer the call, and let your caller know exactly where you are and what you are doing. If the call demands urgent attention, explain the situation to your company and excuse yourself. If not, ask the person to either come join the group in person or call back later.

4. If you are unsure of someone's name, ask it before you start talking. This is the only one of these rules I admit to being fairly terrible at. Case in point: one time at a ward activity, I was chatting to some guy who I happened to be next to in the line for refreshments. We kept talking and a little while later he asked me to go see a movie with him. Being new in the ward, I had no idea what the guy's name was and was thoroughly embarassed to have to look him up in the ward directory later. However much awkwardness it causes, always make sure of the person's name as soon as possible in a conversation. It will save you an infinitely greater amount of awkwardness later.

19 July 2006

Depression and iPods

One good reason for me to keep blogging every day is that when I skip a day, I suddenly find I have a million things to post about. Argh.

Let's put the most serious topic first: Tuesday's forum on religion, being LDS, and mental health. This is a topic very close to my heart, considering I have several family members battling depression and various other mental problems. The problem with this topic is trying to come to one conclusion as to what a mental illness is and what causes it. Different people draw the line between normal sadness and depression at different places. As for causes, the suggestions vary widely between personal sin, social problems, chemical imbalances, and heredity.

I am often quite shocked when discussing this topic with other people, especially within the LDS community. There are some pretty harsh and unfair conceptions of depression out in the church. For instance, yesterday at work, someone tried to convince me that there were no medical causes of depression and that it was simply the result of our society's unrealistic expectations of happiness. He seemed to think that medicating depression was ridiculous and that all these people needed was some good counciling to set them right. Let's make this perfectly clear: I am not a fan of our medicate-it-and-forget-it culture. I personally believe many drugs are overprescribed, and I avoid using even painkillers unless absolutely necessary since overuse creates tolerance.

However, as I have watched some close family struggle with depression, ADD, anxiety, and other diseases, I have seen the huge difference medication can make. Contrary to popular belief, depression medication is not something that makes the person feel instantly happy. It is not a wonder happy pill. As far as I have been able to tell, what it does is remove the person's inability to deal with their problems. When someone is depressed, everything seems hopeless and even the smallest of obstacles seem impossible to get over. With medication, I have seen this barrier removed and people able to tackle their problems, which are still difficult, hard and painful, but now manageable.

As you might have noticed, I try to take a balanced approach to depression. I believe that there is a biological/chemical component which, when removed, allows to person to deal with the underlying social/personal problems that caused it to appear in the first place. When life is good, people with depression are just like any of us; it's just that when obstacles appear, their biological make up causes them to panic, freeze, and plunge into despair out of proportion with the problem. No, I can't site any studies to back this up, yet. These are just my observations from personal experience. Feel free to send sources my way.

And on that note, sixth and lastly, I bring you iPod accessories to the point of ridiculousness. Alright, I admit, I sometimes envy the cuteness and portability of the iPod. But most of the time I manage to resist the temptation to buy one by thinking of two things. One, how disgustingly consumeristic this whole thing is. And two, it's really ridiculuous of me to have to pay to have my life soundtracked when I can just do it myself. *I'm siiiiiiiingin' in the rain . . . . .* Besides, I have an mp3 player on my phone, assuming I ever get around to purchasing some memory for it.

17 July 2006

Post # the Fiftith One

Ha ha! I have actually succeeded in creating a blog with 50 posts in it! This is probably more entries than are in any one of my journals. I am notoriously bad at keeping habits going (well, not notoriously, I guess, since that would imply that other people know/care about it), especially ones that involve as much introspective effort as journaling.

Habits and I have a love-hate relationship. On the one hand, I love the feeling that I know what I need to do at every moment of the day, and that everything I need to do will get done if I just stick to the routine. It makes me feel gloriously productive, and I feel excited to wake up and accomplish things. And there's something inherently satisfying about an unbroken, consistent flow of action.

On the other hand, I resent the way habits take over my life. When I actually schedule in time for all the things I am supposed to do (exercising, blogging, journaling, cleaning, etc.) I have almost no time left in my day. Ask me to show you my schedule if you want proof. Today's schedule, outside of routine actions, has just enough time for FHE and one hour of math studying. (No, I'm not in classes, but I'm studying up on my calculus so I can take Math 302 in the fall. Wish me luck!) As much as I love the structure of a day well-planned, I also bask in the glory of a deliciously unscheduled life.

Ah, the conflict. To habit or not to habit? Perhaps this is once again a question of balance.

P.S. Anyone want to take a road trip to New York? The new Hill Cumorah pagent, written by none other than the Card himself, is now in theatres . . . or hilltops, as the case may be.

16 July 2006

Reflections on Introductions

So, I picked up Jesus the Christ at the library yesterday. I've never read this book before, but I decided it's high time that I started picking up some of the church classics. (No, From First Date to Chosen Mate does NOT count--though it is hillariously good reading, right Marisa?)

I've only just finished the introductions to the book (there are about three or four in my copy) describing how it came about, and I've already had several amazing realizations as a result.

The origins of the book have reinspired my desire to learn more about the history and mythology of BYU, or more generally the Church's role in higher education. Apparently, the inspiration for Jesus the Christ was a series of lectures given at what was called in the preface the Latter-day Saint University or alternately the University Sunday School. Very interesting.

Also, reading about this series of lectures reminds me of why I love being at BYU, or in Utah in general. Sure, as most people point out, you end up with some very inbred (ideologically speaking) church members. But I just love feeling like I am at the heart of the action in the church. Being at the place where it all happened, and is happening, and will happen. It just send chills down my spine to think of the steps we are making in the pursuit of truth and Zion. I don't think I could ever leave Utah for very long, for all my complaints about the heat. Not to mention that all my family is here; it's hard enough being an hour away from my grandparents and aunts and uncles--being in another state for very long might be impossible. I mean, maybe I could move out for a few years, but I definitely plan to raise my children in Utah, preferably Salt Lake.

The idea of University Sunday School brings me to another point, related to my previous complaints about Sunday School and the BYU Religion Department. Apparently this book was once used as a text for the "advanced Sunday School" class in the church. Why do they not have this anymore? I mean, you've got your Gospel Essentials, for new converts, etc. And then you have the specialized classes--family history, marriage and family, temple prep, mission prep. And then we just throw everyone else in Gospel Doctrine, which usually ends up being a pretty general review of the stories in the scriptures (with some questionable historical facts thrown in) and applications of the principles in them. But I can just see how much cooler Advanced Sunday School would be--kind of like CS Lewis Society, only maybe a little more doctrinal.

Then again, maybe this kind of distinction was done away with because of the possibility for pride and contention: who gets to go to advanced SS? And if it's by choice, how do you handle the difference between those who chose to go and those who don't, without saying one group is more spiritual, or mainstream, or intellectual . . . . Possibly also done away with because of the expansion of the church--not every ward would have someone qualified enough to teach it, if anyone can consider themselves to be. Maybe I should just trust the Church's organization more. It's all done for a reason, I assume.

Finally, James E. Talmage is definitely going on my list of writing heroes, which is good, since the current list is very short: Orson Scott Card and CS Lewis. I mean, what better place to write a book than in the temple? I've got to remember that for when I finally get around to writing these books that keep poking into my mind. Also, he sets a good example in that books never get written when you have your hands in too many other projects. I mean, Jesus the Christ would probably have never been finished had the First Presidency not almost ordered him to work on it exclusively. This says something about the productivity of taking on too many projects at once (Ben, this means you).

15 July 2006

Weak Things

Sorry about the lack of recent posts. I've been working on getting back in the habit of writing in my journal, and it seems to absorbed all my blogging time. After the journal guilt trip lesson in the Wilford Woodruff manual, I've recently rediscovered some of my old journals.

As I was reading through them, I realized something: I keep making the same mistakes and discoveries over and over again. Seriously, I was reading my journal entries from last summer, and I could almost just change the dates and call them good for this summer. The same rants about a lack of time, dropping good habits in favor of stress, feeling lonely and worried, new resolve to do better, etc. etc. in endless cycles of the same realizations, the same problems.

It seems to me that maybe these are the things that the scriptures are referring to when they talk about taking our weaknesses to the Lord. For some reason, I had always thought of "weak things becoming strong" in terms of talents, or areas of knowledge. For example, I know I could never have made it through my Physics series without the Lord's help--it's simply not something I could have understood on my own.

Perhaps the scripture is true in that way, but I wonder if the Lord wasn't more specifically referring to weaknesses of character, those flaws in our own personality and thought process that we can't seem to see past. Because as I read my journal entries, I notice that when I am not keeping up on my scripture reading and those daily things, my weaknesses are magnified. When I become overwhelmed with my weakness and sink into the depths of despair, it is then that I am inspired to pick up again, to come close to God, and as I do, I see my weaknesses fading away.

It's almost like my own personal pride cycle. I'm not sure that I could ever fully be rid of it, but maybe someday I'll be able to shorten those downward periods and prolong the periods of light.

11 July 2006

A Gaggle of Quotes

I've been quite absorbed in my own thoughts today, and don't have any that I can really share with you. So now I'm going to do something I swore never to do, and that paradoxically I've been meaning to do for a while, and share a few eclectic quotes with you. Each of these quotes has become a part of me in a rather post-modern way. "Nothing outside the text" and all that. Sometimes I feel as though all I am is a collection of all that I have read (see You've Got Mail quote). So here they are, some of the anthem of texts that make up my life. Hopefully they aren't too cliche for you.

"I'm afraid of time. . . . I mean, I'm afraid of not having enough time. . . . Not enough time to understand people, how they really are, or to be understood myself. I'm afraid of the quick judgements and mistakes that everybody makes. You can't fix them without time. I'm afraid of seeing snapshots instead of movies."
- The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Ann Brashares

" To fight for the right
Without question or pause,
To be willing to march into hell
For a heavenly cause!

And I know, if I'll only be true
To this glorious Quest,
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm
When I'm laid to my rest.

And the world will be better for this,
That one man, scorned and covered with scars,
Still strove, with his last ounce of courage,
To reach the unreachable stars!"
- "The Impossible Dream," Man of La Mancha

"Yea, I know that I am nothing; as to my strength I am weak; therefore I will not boast of myself, but I will boast of my God, for in his strength I can do all things; yea, behold, many mighty miracles we have wrought in this land, for which we will praise his name forever."
- Alma 26:12

"What I mean is you've never been hurt before . . . . You've gotten so good at hiding who you really are that you're afraid to show the real you. The fake you pretends she doesn't feel pain, even if she gets hurt. But the real [you] feels it deep in her heart. And the person you're afraid will hurt you most is [the one you love]. Being afraid of getting hurt makes you selfish. You're protecting your own feelings instead of considering the feelings of the one you love. But isn't love the opposite of that?"
- Kare Kano, Masami Tsuda
(Incidentally, this is a brilliant anime series, if you're looking for an example of how the genre can have more meaning than, say, Digimon. In particular, the first six episodes are a brilliant masterpiece in timing and dialogue. At least, I think so.)
"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee."
-John Donne

"So much of what I see reminds me of something I read in a book, when shouldn't it be the other way around?"
- You've Got Mail

" I thought home was all I'd ever want
My attic all I'd ever need.
Now nothing feels the way it was before
And I don't know how to proceed.
I only know I'm meant for something more
I've got to know if I can be
- "Astonishing," Little Women The Musical

10 July 2006


Ever since I first participated in Model United Nations (MUN) in 9th grade, I've casually followed the decisions of this body. So, here's today's bit of UN news: the United Nations Security Council is hung up on the North Korea issue.

North Korea raised tensions last week when it test-fired seven missiles - including a long-range Taepodong-2, a weapon which is believed to be capable of reaching Alaska.

The much tougher draft resolution proposed by Japan brands North Korea a "threat to international peace and security" and invokes Chapter Seven of the UN charter.

Resolutions made under Chapter Seven are legally binding and can authorise sanctions or even military action.

According to our correspondent at the UN in New York, China and Russia, which both have the power of veto in the Security Council, believe that using a UN resolution to impose sanctions on North Korea at this stage would be irresponsible and unconstructive.

Mr Wang said such action "could make the situation even worse" and that China was worried it could ultimately pave the way for military action against North Korea.

Instead he believes that the best initial response is a statement by the Security Council calling on Pyongyang to stop the development of ballistic missiles and halt any testing.
My summary for the layman: China and Russia have proposed a draft resolution which condemns the missile tests. But delegates from the US, UK, and France believe this is not enough, instead choosing to back Japan's resolution which proposes sanctions and possible military action under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Russia and China, of course, want to give North Korea some time and space, to see if things might work themselves out and to avoid possibly provoking North Korea to further action.

It's a classic senario I've seen play out in too many UN and MUN sessions: a dead-lock in the Security Council, with the sovereignty-loving China/Russia versus the more action-oriented US/UK/France. The Security Council is an interesting body. The ironic thing about it is that this deadlock was built into the framework of the UN on purpose. Things like this make some people question the usefulness of the UN as a peacekeeping body, and clearly there are good and bad aspects to the Security Council.

On the one hand, the veto power given to these members with very different world views ensures that action can only be taken when it is fairly universally agreed upon, preventing the UN from falling into the hands of one radical power or another, much like the US's check-and-balance system. On the other hand, this sort of deadlock means UN actions are few and far between. It does not do for the UN to become a body used solely for debate and humanitarian purposes, for, lacking any authority, it has the potential to die out like its weaker brother, the League of Nations.

I'm not sure whether it can be improved upon or not, though I've discussed the issue thoroughly in MUN debates. Adding veto members or doing away with the power all together could upset the delicate balance that keeps the UN neutral. Though it is full of bureaucracy and redundant committees, it does get the world talking, and sometimes even bands together to accomplish things. I personally am not sure that the founders of the UN movement were not inspired by God. As I see it, the only way to make the UN better than it is would be by improving the nature of the people in it, in the governments that comprise it, and in the world in general. So, until that day, I say of the UN as Ben Franklin once said of the US Constitution:
I confess that there are several parts of this Constitution which I do not approve, but I doubt whether any other convention may be able to make a better Constitution. For when you assemble men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect product be expected? I consent to this Constitution because I expect no better and because I am not sure it is not the best.

08 July 2006

In Defense of the English Major, Part I: The Meaning of Lit Crit

Alright, alright, in spite of the disclaimer in Ben's post, I feel a need to write a response in defence of the English major. I'll even throw in my own disclaimer: this may not be everyone's reason for being an English major; it simply happens to be mine. Also, I definitely recognize that the English major isn't for everyone.

Ben's post summarizes the main complaint against the English major, or rather against literary criticism:

To me, all that literary criticism and theory sucks all the joy out of reading in a most dreadful and vile manner. I’m not against analyzing literature to see how the writer put it together — that’s what I do to become a better writer, among other things — but my main contention is that the English major has turned the analysis into a god, a golden calf if you will, and almost everything that’s really important about the work itself falls by the wayside.
It might shock you that I'm not even going to fight this charge. A good deal of lit crit has become exactly that. Either it is a method of pulling and twisting and "wresting" books into new meanings, or a way of restating things we all know in new jargon. (My writing hero, Orson Scott Card, has much to say on the subject.) So, if I openly acknowledge this huge problem in much of lit crit, why do I still continue to pursue it?

There was a time, perhaps about half-way through AP English, when I felt that analyzing lit sucked the life out of things that I read. Not only that, but I felt that literary analysis tended to focus mostly on texts that were incomprehensible to normal readers. About half-way through my IB English class, however, I had a revelation. This is only a current trend, not the heart of lit crit. Not all lit crit is this way: although the currently dominant lit crit is the jargon-filled drivel that I abhor, there are other ways to do it which not only don't destroy the literature, but greatly enhance it. Behind the ridiculous jargon of each theory, there lies a kernel of truth, which when understood and applied to each book makes the experience so much richer. For Marxism, the right to question our assumed social heirarchies; for postmodernism, the idea that everything in reality can affect the reading experience; for feminism, how the way we portray people in stories reveals the social attitudes of the time and culture; etc.

If the worship of criticism is not the main point of lit crit, what is lit crit at its heart? Understanding the effects of a text on an audience and its implications about humanity. This is not the same as understanding what the author intended, but it is so much more powerful. We attempt to understand why certain stories affect us in certain ways, and why we as humanity keep returning to the same archetypes. It is a very personal and at the same time very universal experience. Lit crit is essentially an attempt to grow to understand humanity through the stories it tells and retells and remembers, almost a specialized sort of social anthropology or psychology. It is the heart of understanding what it is to be human.

This is what lit crit should be, and used to be, before we buried it in an impenetrable coffin of jargon and obscurity. Current lit crit has lost sight of its lofty mission by burying itself in ever smaller and more fractured theories. Luckily, I'm still young, idealistic, and maybe egoistic enough to believe that I can be part of the movement that changes that, that resurrects lit crit into what it was always intended to be, an expression of the relationship between humanity and its creations.

Which is why I have scribbled this motto in the margins of my modernism notebook: I will not be content with criticism. I will create.

(There's a sequel to this post, In Defense of the English Major, Part II, in which I deal with the issue of immorality in literature.)

06 July 2006

My Philosophy of Fun

Wednesday night at institute our stake president's wife said something that might have been a slip of the tongue--or just a poorly constructed sentence--which I can't stop thinking about. It went something like this: "Being single is a time to practice vital life skills and habits you will need when you get married, like eating right, exercising, self-discipline, following the commandments, and having fun."

Having fun as a life skill, huh? I like it. I think I'll have much more fun working on that than many of the others. :D More than a little dry humor there, but still it's set me thinking: is the ability to have fun a life skill?

I've come to the conclusion that yes, it probably is. It involves knowing when you are taking too much work on yourself (work-a-holics, this means you!) and being able to take time off to just do things that are fun. Yes, work can sometimes be fun--I'll admit I pretty much love writing English essays for school--but don't you think there is a difference between the fun you have enjoying your work and fun you have just having fun? When you start transforming your hobbies into work, they lose some of the element of fun. For instance, when I started knitting something as a wedding present for a friend, instead of just fooling around making stuff for me, knitting took on a new character--still fun, but sort of a burden at the same time. Somehow not as relaxing as before.

And that's the main thing about having fun, I think: relaxing. Fun is sort of like the sleep we can do while we're awake: you can be free from the constraints that every day life puts upon you and just have a good time, doing something for no other reason than because you enjoy it. Not to create a finished product, not to hone your skills, or learn things, or help others, or even to spend quality time with other people (which is a kind of work--at least if you are me). Just for fun. It's like CS Lewis and an essay I read at the Writing Center both said: what is the purpose of a sport? Not to win, but to have fun (which is why games get boring when people become too competitive).

It's the same reason I play video games, or ARGs, since that's what I'm into now: to do something that doesn't count. Unlike real life where the ending is crucial, there is (usually) no eternal consequence to a game. You can just do things without the pressure you feel in real life.

So get out there and have fun.

If you need a game to play, ask me for a copy of the rules I recently devised for a backwards scavenger hunt, inspired by the Zen Scavenger Hunt on Avant Game. We played it at FHE and it was one of the best activities I've had in a long time, and hilarious too. What's the key to world domination? Why, a plunger, of course!

And now I'm going to go run in the rain while the thunder is still going!

05 July 2006

A University in Zion

Growing up in Utah is a very different experience than growing up elsewhere, but not always the sort of experience out of staters might expect. I'm thinking in particular of the in-state attitude toward BYU. Maybe it was just the circle of people I ran with (a lot of smart-alec IB snobs), but BYU was surrounded by a negative aura. It was the school you went to if you were a) a goody-goody, hyper-orthodox Mormon whose parents and grandparents met at BYU, b) not smart enough to get into a good university (Harvard, etc.) , and/or c) not strong enough in your testimony to handle the opposition of going to a worldly school after growing up in Mormon-land. (Nevermind that none of these are necessarily true--that's why they are stereotypes.)

My own decision to attend BYU didn't have any particular rhyme or reason to it. The scholarship deal here was good, a couple of my friends were going there (Joni!!), and it was farther away from home than the U of U which meant I could justify living away from home. Going to BYU just sort of happened. But I'll admit I had my reservations about this school. I was actually sort of nervous about the effects of going to a school "controlled" by the Church. Would classes be like Sunday school? Or worse, seminary? No offense, but having my brain numbed by rhetorical questions and restatements once a week is enough. I had always been disappointed with the repetition of the same things every four years, and hoped that BYU might actually bring the ability to move past that, but worried that it might not.

After a few years here, I'm mostly won over by the idea of BYU. There are a ton of things I love about BYU, particularly the opportunity to discuss how the gospel fits into all subjects. I don't just mean being able to learn evolution without having to fight about whether it eliminates the possibility of God. I love that when we talked about relativity in my Physics class, the teacher could bring up scriptures about the connection between light and God; that I can do a final project for my pre-1500 civilization class on how Christ is the archetypical hero; that in my modernism class we can discuss feminism and gender as it relates to the gospel.

Aside from being able to discuss and think about gospel connections publicly, there are some more subtle benefits of the BYU spiritual/educational combination. As I mentioned, I volunteered as a Y Group leader this year, and I've had an opportunity to attend all of the motivational BYU-is-so-great events I didn't go to as a freshman. On my BYU-is-great kick, I also picked up Learning in the Light of Truth, a collection of talks by former BYU President Merrill J. Bateman. Here's one quote he gives from President Kimball that I think summarizes some of these subtle benefits of BYU:

This university shares with other universities the hope and the labor involved in rolling back the frontiers of knowledge, but we also know that, through divine revelation, there are yet "many great and important things" (AoF 1:9) to be given to mankind which will have an intellectual and spiritual impact far beyond what mere men can imagine. Thus, at this university among faculty, students, and administration, there is, and there must be, an excitement and an expectation about the very nature and future of knowledge. That underlies the uniqueness of BYU. (37)
In other words, at BYU we know that we are not alone in our process of learning. We have the assistance of the Spirit in understanding new material and doing our coursework. We can and should expect our research to be guided by the Spirit into the correct course. We should have less anxiety about the direction of our studies and careers. There is no worry that we could be studying something completely false or pointless because we have the testimony of the Spirit to confirm truth to us or point us in another direction. This benefit is worth more than anything to me. Of course, we could be so guided at other universities as individuals, but I think the effect is magnified here by having a campus full of people who all use it.

Most of the things that bug me about BYU are the side-effects of the benefits. I'm still intensely disappointed in the Religion department, which from my experience has been like seminary or Sunday school with an occasional extra dash of false doctrine. Maybe this is just because I haven't taken any higher level classes yet, but it seems to me that it is hard for teachers to find a way to teach these classes: you can't grade on testimony, and most are too humble to attempt to grade on doctrine, so you end up grading on only participation and memorization, which aren't very helpful. My initial feeling is that this problem could be helped by teaching classes on specific ideas and doctrines, rather than a body of scripture covering all of them. (I understand at one point we used to do this . . . this requires more research to fully sketch out.)

And then there are the social problems. No, I don't just mean dating. I mean the sometimes intolerant attitudes that arise at BYU, this division into orthodox, right-wing Mormons and left-wing "New" Mormons. But I've already written my opinions on that.

So conclusion: no, BYU is not a Zion university. Not yet anyway. But it is a university in Zion, for which I am very grateful.

04 July 2006

The Left-Overs

Time to clean out the fridge where I store my unused blog post ideas. Alright, here it goes.

So I went and saw the rest of Much Ado about Nothing on Saturday. My family even came down from the SLC and saw it with me. No rain this time, but there were fireworks. But the actors took it all in stride: the firecrackers hit during the first scene with Dogberry, who simply looked shocked and said "Excuse me." Classic. The cast members did a very good job, turning a new light on an old play. I especially liked Claudio's delivery of "Another Hero!" in the final scene. Simply hilarious! Changing the place names to American ones was a little odd though. It simply doesn't work with the play, since there are no independent lords fighting wars against each other at any point in our history (so far as I know). But, all things considered, I will definitely go see Cyrano de Bergerac when they do it next week at the Botany Pond (6:30 pm, Th, F, or Sa, if you care to join me).

The lost post from the other day, the one that got bumped off by Brittany McComb, was supposed to be on how our personal perspective affects our happiness. I volunteered as a Y group leader this year--which I find ironic, since I went to only two events during my own freshman orientation. One of these two events was the showing of the Iranian film Color of Paradise. I forgot how completely amazing that movie is, and it made a lot more sense the second time around. If you haven't seen it, try to find it, or just sneak into the showing for the freshman next NSO.

The movie is about a young blind boy looking to belong, his father who feels burdened at having to care for a disabled boy, and the boy's grandmother. Through these three characters, you can see a scale of perspectives on the world. The grandmother chooses to believe that God is good, and consequently takes joy in most things, and takes the disappointments in stride. On the other hand, the father seems to believe God is punishing him for no reason--he has no son who can care for him when he is old, his only boy is blind, he lost his wife--and feels utterly hopeless and lost. The boy is somewhere in between: he knows that his father resents him for not being whole and people in general treat him strangely, but his teachers and grandmother have taught him that God loves him, possibly more, because of his blindness. His struggle to reconcile these two views leads us to find what the grandmother has that makes her life so much more bearable than the father's: she asks God for help, and is mindful of helping others, while the father seeks to find his own way and ignores the needs of his son. It's a very powerful movie and I highly recommend it to everyone. Even better, there aren't any sketchy scenes you'll have to explain to your friends and family!

Speaking of film reminds me of a talk I read for my persuasive writing class by a humanities professor at BYU. He talked about building a literate family--literate in the sense of intellegent and well-read, rather than just competent. I agreed with him on most points, but then he went off for a page or two on how awful film is as a medium. As an example of this, he compared several pop-culture, kitschy movies of the time (Rambo, anyone?) with great literary classics (Dostoyevsky, of all things), and concluded that this proved his point. Well, I personally would say he was comparing apples to oranges: if you want to compare your standard Hollywood film to something written, you'd do best to point yourself to the pulp fiction section rather than the classics. If I compare a thought-provoking film like Color of Paradise or a bizarre mind-warping film like Solyaris to, say, The Baby-Sitters' Club or Dragonriders of Pern, I would reach the conclusion that film is infinitely better at getting a deep message across than the written word. Really people, the medium is not as important as the person crafting it: any medium can be made into something mundane and boring. Same goes for genres. Just because it is sci-fi, doesn't make it garbage. It is up to the artist whether the medium is transformed into the Mona Lisa or the next fluffy pop song on the radio.

Related tangent (oxymoron? redundant?): I still get frustrated that some people can't take an animated film seriously. Just because this medium is used to produce Pokemon doesn't make it worthless. And Hayao Miyazki can prove that any day, if given the chance. But most people seem to come to his films from the mindset that animation can be only Disney or Saturday morning cartoons, and so the films just come across as wrong to them. Really, I think Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle are two of the most interesting films I have ever seen. Even My Neighbor Totoro has a perfect balance of innocent fun and thought provoking story.

Alright, that's enough.

01 July 2006

A Groundling Experience

The experimental theatre group on campus was performing Much Ado about Nothing, one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, for free near the botany pond on campus yesterday. Since none of my friends wanted to go, I picked up my knitting and headed down by myself. Of course, I wasn't expecting any really high quality acting, but all things considered I'd say that the play was definitely worth seeing. The actors weren't particularly wonderful and sometimes forgot their lines (not that I blame them--I don't think I could ever memorize that much), but they had some interesting takes on the characters (Beatrice and Benedick as the geeks? Don Pedro as a strict general?) good BYU spins on the Shakespeare. Maybe it's just because I have been considering the nature of love lately, but I noticed how much the play reads just like a manual of what (not) to do when forming a relationship.

I liked the way they set up Claudio's distress that Don Pedro wooed Hero for himself: it made me realize just how ridiculous/dangerous it is to use second hand messengers in matters of the heart. We've been discussing this in our apartment and decided it's just so much better to be simple and frank (so long as you are careful not to be too intimidating). I also realized how truly insecure Beatrice's character is: she puts up a good offensive front of wit, but underneath I think she is simply worried about the possibility that no desireable man would want to marry a smart girl. I definitely empathize with here . . . but we don't need another rant on my worries about being alone, do we?

But the part that really made my day was the groundling experience. Let me explain: I was late, so I showed up during Benedick's rant about not getting married, which means I unfortunately missed the initial banter between Beatrice and Benedick. All the chairs worth taking were taken, so I ended up sitting on the grass, which I preferred anyway. The play was very all encompassing if you were sitting on the ground. I got to watch the actors rush past me to the mascarade, and have Benedick and Claudio exit past me discussing Hero. It was great!

But even during the initial scenes we could hear thunder in the distance and while Hero and her maid were baiting Beatrice the clouds broke open and started to pour down really hard rain on us. Some people immediately got up and left, but I sort of liked it. I was nice to have the play be part of reality instead of some carefully set apart experience in a dark room. The actors added reactiongs to the thunder, especially when it came at appropriate moments in the script. I felt like a groundling in the 13th century, having paid little (in this case, nothing) to get in and stand (sit on the ground) during the entire play. It was very postmodern experiencing the full force of the play along with the elements--nothing outside the text indeed. It connects a lot with my recent fascination with immersive gaming.

Of course, once it started to hail, they cancelled the second half. They're doing the same play again today at 6:30 pm in the JFSB courtyard. Maybe I'll go instead of hanging around for Stadium of Fire. Oooh! Maybe the fireworks will be timed right and come in during the ending wedding scene!