Monthly Archives: April 2008

My father worked for the Department of Defense on the civilian side as an engineer, then an economist, then a supervisor of economists. He was purely civil service and in fact rose as high in the ranks as he could without losing civil service protections. One more promotion and he would have been part of the staff of a political appointee. For the longest time, being a ranking civil serviceman in the DoD meant that he was prohibited from publicly expressing support for a political candidate. No bumper stickers, no yardsigns, and no political donations.

Though a reliable voter, Dad isn’t particularly outspoken about his politics and this limitation meant that he had a built-in excuse any time a politician asked for money or someone wanted him to put up a yardsign or something. He did resent the fact that he had to remain apolitical while people above him could not only express support for candidates, but could even have their support bought and paid for as “campaign consultants”. Eventually, and I’m not sure when, the courts stepped in and said that the government couldn’t prevent people from publicly expressing their views so long as they did not represent their own views as the views of the government organization that they work for. Even after that ban was lifted, he continued to try to hide behind the no-longer existent regulations.

Last weekend I flew back to Colosse to visit the folks and go to my former roommate Hubert’s birthday party. It’s election season in East Oak, the little burg that I was raised in. The election seems to be hinging on a new condominium project that threatens to bring in all sorts of tax dollars. Oh, the horror.

Okay, so it’s a little more complicated than that because it’ll result in more traffic and yet more backyard views of skyscrapers. But the long and short of it from my point of view is that the thing is going to get built, the traffic will get worse, and the only question is whether East Oak wants to at least get a great deal of tax revenue out of it.

My folks see things the same way that I do, so you can imagine my surprise when I drove into the driveway and saw yardsigns of the candidate slate that’s trying to keep the condo out. Particularly since they’ve never put up yardsigns, ever, even after the ban was lifted.

I brought it up under the pretense of asking whether the candidates were really against the development (though I already knew from the yardsigns that they were). He said that they were and that he would be sure to vote against them. So naturally I asked, “Why the yardsign?”

They were asked to by the woman in the house across the street and everyone in the neighborhood knows that is not the person you want to make an enemy of for social reasons. “So wait, what you’re saying here is that you’re caving to peer pressure?” I asked.

Sheepishly, Dad said, “Well yeah, I guess.”

“Too bad I didn’t know about this back in high school when you were telling me to resist the evils of peer pressure. I could have done a lot of drugs, Dad!”

He didn’t entirely get my joke.

Category: Statehouse

I ran across this little snippit in something called ShinyGuy:

There’s only one entity worthy of more contempt than the Womanizer, however: His protege, the Hapless Wannabe.

The Hapless Wannabe is the man who truly feels less-than-full when compared to the Womanizer (a lifeform we’ve already established to be a {bleep-bleeping bleepatory} amoeba living only to grow fatter and grosser and increasingly irrelevant with each passing moment). While the Hapless Wannabe buys into the {male cow excrement} of the Womanizer, he lacks the social skills to actually indulge in what he perceives as his “male biological imperative.” (If you have witnessed a single episode of Blind Date (awesome show), you have seen the Hapless Wannabe at work.)

The piece is a slap on Maxim and the lad-mag industry as a whole, but I think that the author touches on an interesting point here. Not necessarily about Maxim (or only Maxim), but something I’ve seen on a lot of blogs that delve into male-female relations.

Trickle-down economics is based on the theory that if enough capital is supplied to (or left in the hands of) the wealthy, they will generate more wealth that will trickle down to those that have less wealth. I believe that this theory is true to some extent, though how much is up for debate. The degree to which it is true may be overwhelmed by the adverse effects of the disparity of wealth. In other words, though the wealth of a wealthy society materially benefits even those that receive only a tiny fraction of that wealth, the psychological harm done to the unwealthy may outweigh the material benefit significantly. The poor may get some better toys, but their comparative lack of wealth is greatly accentuated, leaving them with more worth but feeling more worthless.

My generation and the generation before me and the generation after me has greater access to sex with more people than any generation prior to these in the history of our country as far as I am aware. Sex is everywhere we look. It’s on television, at the movies, in the music we listen to, and in the stories we hear. If we’re not having sex, we’re often left to believe that there is something wrong with us. That we are sexually worthless. The more we hear about how much sex other people are having, the more worthless many of us feel.

In this age of sexual access, those that are denied sexual access for one reason or another can sometimes feel cheated. Even those that do get some sex thanks in part to the sexual revolution and the subsequent overall increase in the availability of sex feel comparatively cheated. More cheated than they would probably feel if they got no sex in a culture where most people weren’t and those that were were expected to keep quiet about it. Objective wealth, subjective deprivation.

The deprived can react in many ways. Some less fortunate people try to fake not being less fortunate. This is where the conspicuous consumption of the poor comes into place in the economic world and where Maxim comes into place in the sexual world. Reality bedamned, they’re going to fake it. If they fake it well enough, people will believe it. In the economic world, maybe they will be accorded the respect that they would be if they had earned the money. In the sexual world, maybe they will be able to parlay the image for a reality. Confidence, they’re told, is sexy.

Another reaction is more in line with what I’ve seen over the last couple years: bitterness mates with feigned moral superiority and gives birth to conspiracy theories. In economics, we have cultivated the image of the honorable yeoman’s successor, the honorable working man. Myths are born such as the notion that the middle and working classes tip better than wealthy people do. The honorable working man stands in contrast to the evil, greedy, rich man that goes to absurd lengths to keep poor people poor. In relationships I have seen over and over again the sexually less fortunate divide the world into meek nice-guy beta males and malicious asshole alpha males. We have meek nice guys that are tossed aside by loathsomely superficial women in favor of the jerks who look cool and drive better cars.

There is always enough truth in these theories to keep them afloat. There are enough jerkly playboys that we can attribute that character to anyone that has easy access to sex. There are enough women holding out for a man that seems to be out of her league that we can attribute that to all women. There are enough women that are generally attracted to the edgy sort of guy that always hurts them in the end that we can see ourselves as would-be saviors or heroes thwarted by the system. Ignore or explain away all counter-evidence and you’re all set. Better yet, you’re permitted to lie and cheat because all you’re doing is playing their game. You’re still better than they are because you are only doing it because you have to and they are doing it because they’re flawed.

I think that it’s these sorts of attitudes that seep into the consciousness of some men that give the unsuccessful the bad reputation that we have. It’s why we’re not seen as the heroes to the women that we so obviously are in our own minds. In the same way that the wealthy often see the poor as a collection of useless dimwits and thieves — and not always completely without reason — the popular see the unpopular as morally or substantively lacking. They see their own success as something that they’ve earned. It’s easy to pay yourself on the back for never having stolen anything when you’ve never been hungry. It’s easy to believe that the game isn’t rigged when you’re always the winner just as it’s easier to convince yourself that you always lose because the game must be rigged rather than to attempt to improve.

So you’ve got people saying that the game is fair and you have those saying that it is impossibly unfair. Neither are entirely correct. The less fortunate in both spheres can often do a whole lot to improve their prospects. Sometimes they’re lazy, though sometimes they just don’t know how and they don’t have the skills to improve nearly as much as they would like to so they get discouraged. And these limits are real. No matter how hard they work they’ll end up in line behind at least some of these people that didn’t have to work much at all to get where they are. These people that have the money and sex that dwarfs whatever incremental improvement they make. Objective improvement, subjective deprivation.

Category: Coffeehouse

I’m going to try something this week and see how it goes. Because of a trip last weekend to my folks house, I was reminded of various politics-related things that had been bumping around in my mind that I wasn’t sure whether to post on HC. None of them are really policy-related (except one involving condominium constructions), but they do involve Republicans and Democrats. As y’all know, I’m a bit sensitive (maybe hypersensitive) about this becoming a too charged a political atmosphere, so I ask that we refrain about making blanket statements about Republicans and Democrats.

Category: Server Room

We went out to eat at a BBQ rib restaurant on Saturday. The mutton was particularly inexpensive, so I got myself a pound of it. I figured that as with more rib-based foods one pound wouldn’t go as far as one might think.

I was wrong.

One pound of mutton goes a very, very, very long way.

Perhaps because it stays in the system a very, very, very long time.

Category: Kitchen

A guy named John Paul Koning takes a look at the ever-rising price of comic books and thinks that it defies economic theory:

Basic economics tells us that if the demand for Amazing Spider-Man increases at an existing supply, more will be offered for it and the price will rise. Profits at Marvel, Spider-Man’s publisher, would grow, and managers at Marvel would therefore increase the supply of comics, or competitors would enter the market with similar products. This increase in supply would reduce prices and profits. Conversely, a drop in demand should result in a decline in price, profits, and supply.

Not exactly stellar. Except for the boom years in the early 1990s, the title’s popularity has actually waned. That this hasn’t caused a drop in prices seems to defy economic logic. Even the dramatic plummet in demand for Spider-Man from 1994 to present day has been accompanied by more than a doubling in monthly prices from $1.25 to $2.99. What gives?

Being from the Mises Institute, he is inclined to blame government-controlled dollar supply, but it seems to me that there is a simpler explanation.

If one assumes that there are no or minimal fixed costs, then comic book publishers could respond to decreased demand by lowering price (almost down to cost, if need-be). However, if there are significant fixed costs that they have to recoup, they have bills to pay whether they’re publishing 5,000 comics or 50,000. If you sell 50,000 copies, you can charge less per copy and make it up in volume. Inversely, though, if you only sell 5,000, that means that you need to charge more so that you can meet company expenses.

If you don’t meet company expenses, you basically have two options: raise prices to make more money per unit or lower prices to create enough demand to compensate for making less per unit. Which route you should go depends on whether your product has an elastic or inelastic demand. In other words, how cost-conscious are your consumers? How much affect does the price of your product have on their decision to buy it?

Back when comics were cheap, they were sold in convenience stores, drug stores, and all manner of places. Comic books were usually self-contained, meaning that if you missed an issue it was no big deal. It was a good environment for the casual reader. In this environment, it is likely that comic books were relatively elastic in demand. The potential customer looks on the rack, sees something for a nickel, has a nickel and some time to kill, and decides to buy it. Back then, keeping costs and prices down was extremely important.

The comic book market has not been like that for some time now. Comics are still sold at some convenience stores, drug stores, and gas stations, but not very many. They have been replaced by hobby shops, which transformed the customer base from a casual one to a devoted one. Or maybe they got moved to hobby shops because they had already lost or were losing the casual customer base. Either way, after the shift the comic book companies had a different kind of consumer. And a different kind of product. Storylines now not only span issues of the same series, but cross-over into other series. Once every year or two, they have a storyline that spread over nearly every series in their product line. The result is that devoted fans have more and more comics to buy, but there are a lot fewer of them.

When you have a devoted customer base, though, you have people that are willing to pay more for the product if that’s what they need to do. It’s a lot easier to convince them to pay more than it is to try to bring the casual customer back into the fold. So that’s what the comic book industry has been doing. Has it worked? Not really. Now they’re caught in a cycle where the books are geared to please an ever-dwindling customer base and fail to attract new readers. However, it’s far from clear that the other choice would work out any better. I’ve actually been mulling over a post on what I would do if I were in charge of DC Comics. Maybe I should get around to it.

So anyway, comic book pricing does not really “defy” economic theory in any meaningful sense. The real reason involves laws of demand elasticity and inelasticity , fixed and marginal costs, and profit margins. I don’t think it involves national monetary policy.

It can be a risky proposition, though, because if you raise prices more and more people stop buying, then you’re still not making money. What you have to hope is that your customer base is willing to pay more to keep your enterprise afloat. In economic terms, you have to hope that your product does not have the elastic demand curve. But if your customer base is small but devoted, you can get away with it.

Category: Theater

When I was younger, I was a Sprite nut. I drank it all the time. I’m not sure how or when that changed, but it did somewhere along the way. Maybe it was the point when I realized that it wasn’t supplying me with my daily dose of caffeine. Since then, I’ve stopped drinking Sprite everywhere except at restaurants. I think that Sprite from a fountain tastes better than Sprite from a can. Or maybe Sprite just tastes better with food. Or maybe it’s an aversion to drinking caffeine late in the day and I carried the habit over from dinner to lunch. Dunno.

One of the things I miss most about Deseret was the proliferation of Pepsi products at restaurants. Pepsi isn’t very big in the South, where we call all soft drinks by their competitor’s name, leaving them Cannon to Coke’s Xerox. Being a good southern boy, I don’t care much for Pepsi, either, but since the restaurants carried Pepsi products that meant that they more often than not carried Mountain Dew. It wasn’t just a Coke/Pepsi thing, either, because those places that didn’t carry Pepsi products still carried caffeine-punched, citrusy Mello Yello, a brand that all but died in Delosa a long time ago. For a state whose primary religion discourages caffeine consumption, Deseretians like their caffeine.

Since moving to Estacado, I’ve all but stopped asking restaurants if they carry Mountain Dew. I’ve gone back to drinking Sprite. So when a group of us went out to eat lunch yesterday and the waiter asked what I wanted, I said Sprite and didn’t think any more about it. When Pat asked for a Coke and he said that they carried Pepsi, it didn’t raise the flag that it ought to have raised. After the waiter left, the thought did occur to me that I could have seen if they carried Mountain Dew, but the bigger looming issue didn’t confront me until I tasted my “Sprite” and discovered that it wasn’t Sprite at all. It was Sierra Mist.

It seems that whenever Coke or Pepsi comes up with something successful, the other will try to come up with an equivalent. When Dr Pepper was all the rage, Coke came up with Mr Pibb. Coke created Mello Yello as an alternative to Mountain Dew. Then, when that didn’t work, they released something called Surge when I was attending Southern Tech. Surge wasn’t very good (except with a certain kind of cookie), but since Sotech had signed over their soul to the Coca-Cola company and didn’t offer any competitors’ product, I had to make due. I learned to like it the same way that I learned to like beer… relentless conditioning. When they pulled Surge off the shelf, I shed not a tear. More recently, Coca-Cola has offered Vault, which is like Surge but with a more energy-drink feel (like MDX is to Mountain Dew).

One thing that Pepsi has always been missing is a lemon-lime drink to match Coca-Cola’s Sprite. Pepsi can and does sometimes align itself with Dr Pepper, but rather than taking advantage of their strong relationship with 7-up, Pepsi released Sierra Mist. And it is terrible. And for some reason, the waiter who was so conscientious about asking Pat whether Pepsi was okay with her when she ordered a coke, the guy didn’t ask me.

Sierra Mist has apparently been a pretty successful replicate compared to most and for the loss of me I cannot understand why. Seriously, Walmart brand tastes just as good. I remember commenting when Surge came out that it wasn’t as good as store brand Big K Citrus Drop, which at least managed to stake out its own taste. Similarly, Mello Yello has its own distinct taste. Surge was just a rip-off. Sierra Mist isn’t even a rip-off. It’s a cheap knock-off. Yet it has not only survived, but it has eclipsed 7-Up as the chief alternative to Sprite. As Surge and other failed attempts have indicated, a soft drink company can’t force such a thing onto the public (and since Pepsi has a special relationship with 7-Up it was hardly necessary that they try), which means that somebody somewhere actually likes this stuff.

I drank three sips of it and then flagged down the waiter and asked for a Mountain Dew, Pepsi, or anything else they might have instead. The earnest waiter actually bought me both and took the Sierra Mist out of my sight.

Category: Kitchen

The Deseret Morning News, a newspaper owned by the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-day Saints (LDS), has a couple of interesting articles pertaining to the Yearning For Zion (YFZ) compound in Texas, and the effect that it has had on Mormons.

The first article is about Mormons in the cities of the area of the YFZ compound and some of the hardships that mainstream Mormons face by being lumped together with the Fundamentalist Latter-day Saints (FLDS):

“There are some people here that believe anything bad about Mormons and that’s what they’re going to do,” said Charles L. Webb, who serves as president of the Abilene, Texas, stake.

The LDS Church’s presence in this part of Texas is small. The Abilene stake covers an area 25,000 square miles in size with about 3,000 members. There are only two LDS chapels in San Angelo, but a number of Baptist and other evangelical Christian churches. It’s the polar opposite of Utah, where the LDS Church is the dominant faith.

In repeated statements, leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have differentiated between the two faiths and expressed disappointment that some news media outlets have lumped the two together.

I must confess that prior to moving out west I never thought much about Mormons, but to the extent that I thought about them and their history of polygamy it probably would have boiled down to “Mormons stopped practicing polygamy so that Utah could become a state, but some Mormons still practice it.” In a sense that’s true because people that think of themselves as Mormon do practice it, but it wildly understates the fissure between the two groups. It can be likened to the fact that most Christians don’t speak in tongues but some do.

The problem is that the protestant comparison doesn’t apply because protestants are not generally institutional in nature. You have denominations like mine that are hierarchial but not uniform or dogmatic and churches like the Southern Baptists that are dogmatic and somewhat uniform but not very hierarchial. The LDS Church, on the other hand, is more like the Catholic Church in nature, which is hierarchial both in organization and theological substance. The Catholics have their Pope, the Mormons their President. You are either a member in good standing with Salt Lake City or The Vatican or you are not. Protestants can shift this way or that or attend one church or another depending on their personal beliefs, but the Catholic and Mormon churches don’t really operate that way.

So from the outside looking in, we can see the LDS and FLDS as two different kinds of Mormons, perhaps “good Mormons” and “bad Mormons”, from their perspective there are Mormons and non-Mormons, each believing that the other is the non. Unfortunately, this is one of the areas where we don’t have good terminology to differentiate the two without simply adding an adjective in front to point to which group we mean. The adjective suggests that they are two parts of the same thing, which from a structural and theological perspective they just aren’t. Where’s a good term like Davidians when you need one? For purposes of this post, I will refer to the SLC-based Mormons simply as Mormons and the FLDS Mormons as Creeps.

In addition to terminology, one thing that a lot of people (including some that should know better) seem to believe is that Mormons take a nudge-nudge-wink-wink approach to polygamy. That they simply banned it out of political expedience but support it in spirit. I don’t know what goes on in LDS Temples, but far and away the most anti-polygamy people I have ever met were members of the LDS Church. Perhaps they were putting on a show for me or they’re double-secretly instructed to act that way or something, but that’s a pretty big stretch. I never brought it up and the conversations that come to mind are conversations that occurred between Mormons and not speeches directed at me.

I’ve heard them defend their history with it. I’ve heard something about something akin to polygamy exists in the afterlife (Abel or Willard can clear this up if they’d like). But as an institution in the modern-day United States, I haven’t heard a word in support of it even in the context of a theoretical discussion. I know far more non-Mormons that think that it should be legal. We’re all angry about what happened in Eldorado, but well before this dust-up or even the arrest of Warren Jeffs, the disdain for the FLDS when it came up was palpable and primarily on grounds of the polygamy rather than the incest/rape that they could easily hang their hat on if they simply wanted to distance themselves from the Creeps.

I am as skeptical as anyone else about the divine revelation that suddenly overturned their polygamist traditions at precisely the point where it was most politically necessary to do so, but I am convinced that they believe that God has declared it wrong and thus it is about as wrong as wrong can be.

Of course, the real scandal in Eldorado is not the polygamy. We try to be accommodating to religious sects so long as they mostly keep to themselves and don’t present a clear danger to its own members (think Amish). The real issues are the plural marriages involving minors, the scent of incest, and the expulsion of young men into a world that they are unprepared for. I don’t personally think polygamy should be legal, but without these things I would be inclined to let the FLDS be the same way we leave the Amish be.

That brings me to the second article in the Deseret Morning News, which concerns a judge’s inquiry as to whether or not the LDS Church might come in and monitor the FLDS prayer services:

SAN ANGELO, Texas — A judge wants to see if local LDS Church members would be willing to help supervise prayer services at the makeshift shelter where Fundamentalist LDS women and children are being housed.

In response, a local official of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said he was baffled by the judge’s suggestion. {…}

The president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ stake in Abilene, Texas, which oversees San Angelo, was surprised by the judge’s request.

“They think we’re the same ones because we use the Book of Mormon,” Charles L. Webb told the Deseret News. “I’m dumbfounded they would suggest that.”

Webb said he plans to contact LDS Church headquarters in Salt Lake City for guidance before responding to the court’s request. The judge did say in court that if that fails, she would consider other options.

I imagine that the bafflement and whiff of frustration is akin to asking a Vietnamese-American if he can translate for someone that speaks Chinese. “We all look alike to you?”

Be that as it may, I would think that there would be a tremendous opportunity here for the LDS to be a great help for this terrible situation. Though the doctrinal differences between the LDS and FLDS are no doubt legion, the LDS is the closest thing that we have to their faith in the community of reputable religions in the United States. The children of the FLDS are in for some serious theological detoxification that isn’t going to be easy (or likely successful) no matter how we go about it. I can’t help but think that it would be a lot more successful if it started with representatives of a religion whose doctrine that might be at least a little bit familiar.

I may not be theologically in sync with the Mormons, but if teaching these young people that God is good, Jesus saved mankind, and Joseph Smith resurrected the one true church of God will help acclimate these young people to the broader world around them, I think that could be a very, very good thing. Bringing back the lost sheep, as it were.

Of course, that’s easy for me to say because I’m not a Mormon and it’s not my job (or my interest) to protect the church’s interests. And reaching out to the FLDS is quite likely not in the church’s best interest. It could be a PR nightmare that would do their reputation a lot more harm than good. They’re already fighting to differentiate themselves from the Creeps. By inserting themselves into the situation (even at a judge’s request), they’d be sabotaging that differentiation. They’d be further melding into the minds the connection between the two churches that too many people believe anyway.

It sounds crass and cynical to say it, but it’s the church’s leadership that has the responsibility of protecting its image. Whatever church you may belong to, don’t pretend that your church leaders are any different. For a church to be able to reach out and do good work, it must be positively received by the community. Reaching out to lost children of the FLDS would not help in that regard.

So as such, I guess I can understand this passage from the first article:

Webb said he has discouraged members from helping out in the name of the LDS Church to avoid confusion between the two faiths, but said they should offer their services as individuals. The local Baptist congregations have contracts to provide relief services in disaster situations.

San Angelo 2nd Ward Bishop Jeffrey Bushman was contacted by a chaplain helping the FLDS women when they were being housed at Fort Concho. The women had requested copies of the Book of Mormon.

He sent them some copies.

“They didn’t have anything or bring anything with them, I guess, and they wanted some scriptures and they asked for the Book of Mormon,” Bushman said. “I didn’t mind. We don’t ever mind giving out (copies of the) Book of Mormon to people.”

Category: Church, Newsroom

God: It was good to see you last Sunday.

trumwill: Was it?

God: Sure. Like any father I love it when my children come to visit. Even if they do mess up the confessional.

trumwill: Yeah. They didn’t do the usual one. I didn’t know the words to the one that they were doing and by the time I realized that I was lost, I knew that it was more than half way through and that there wasn’t any point to finding the prayer book.

God: If you didn’t know the words, how did you know that it was almost finished?

trumwill: The words change, but the spirit is usually the same. There’s sort of a rhyme and rhythm to the way it works. That’s one of the things that I love about being an Episcopalian. It’s all rhythmic and sure. Even if I get lost, I sort of know where I am. Maybe You prefer the services where people are jumping up and down yelling their devotion to You. I like the rhythm. It took me so long to find it. Remember when I was a kid and I thought that we should say the words more forcefully? For thine is the KINGDOM, the POWER, and the GLORY…

God: You were young and impatient.

trumwill: I’m old and impatient. Back then I was just young and bored. I didn’t know how to join the rhythm of the service. Say the participatory prayers, listen to the Gospels, contemplate the Gospel. I spent so much time thinking that there ought to be ways that it could be done quicker and more interesting. If I could have just taken a step back and go with the flow that was given, slow my mind down and contemplate the reason for the moment, it would have probably given me the speed and interest I could have used.

God: That’s true of a lot of things in your life.

trumwill: It’s the story of my life. I can be so insistent on finding my own way that I overlook the path placed in front of me. I’m so worried about finding that optimal place between effort and result that I ignore the experiences of those around me. I keep thinking that maybe I can get by with doing less or that I will do more and have no more to show for it. That I’ll do my job, to go church, diet, exercise, quit smoking… and it won’t do any good. Wasted effort. I ignore that people that do certain things turn out better than people that do other things. No matter how much life proves otherwise, I never stop thinking that the rules of cause and effect and social rewards and punishments just won’t work for me.

God: That’s quite the dilemma. Moreso because you can see it right in front of you and feel that there isn’t anything that you can do about it.

trumwill: If I do something about it, that might just be wasted effort. In case I am right and what I see all around me is wrong, I mean.

God: I’m not sure what to say to that.

trumwill: Score one for the Willmeister. I just stumped God!

God: People stump me all the time. By not doing what they oughtn’t be doing. By giving you free will, I’ve sacrificed the power to be unstumpable. Stumping me is a dubious achievement. It’s one that comes with something opposite of a reward.

trumwill: So… yeah… what were we talking about?

God: Church. I’m pleased that you chose to sing today.

trumwill: Well yeah. My father… I mean, you know… my other father… and I used to always say that our gift to You in Your house was not singing. If You’d intended me to sing, I figured that you’d have given me a pleasant voice.

God: Your voice is as pleasant as it is sincere.

trumwill: Is it sincere? I mean half of the hymnals don’t mean a whole lot to me personally. They’re just what was chosen by some committee in New York or the Southfield Archdiocese. I never cared enough to even find out.

God: Regardless of the meaning the songs may have to you personally, perhaps it is that you are singing it together that gives it meaning to you. That allows it to become part of the rhythm that you appreciate.

trumwill: Perhaps.

God: Did you enjoy the service?

trumwill: Is the service something to be enjoyed?

God: I’d prefer it bring enjoyment than misery, though I suppose that there is more to consider than enjoyment.

trumwill: Then why do You ask the question?

God: Because you haven’t been to church since Christmas. You even missed Easter this year.

trumwill: Yeah, sorry about that. I was up too late the night before.

God: You intended to go the next week, though, didn’t you? Or the week after? The week before, the week before that…

trumwill: I intend to do a lot of things that I don’t get around to doing.

God: True enough. I just find it interesting that you would place more value on sleeping in than taking the simple steps it would take to visit my house on Sunday mornings.

trumwill: Sorry again. Boy, I’ve apologized twice now. Maybe I’m making up for goofing up the confessional.

God: Or maybe you’re gearing up to tell me why you haven’t stopped by.

trumwill: You know why. You’re omniscient.

God: I know what I know, but sometimes you need to tell somebody something to know it.

trumwill: It’s like Dad when I first moved to Deseret. How I avoided calling him and talking to him. I came up with all sorts of good reasons. Just like with church. I’ll do it later, tomorrow, the next day, next week. In reality, I guess, I didn’t want to talk to him because I didn’t want to face up to my failures.

God: Your failures?

trumwill: Yeah. I didn’t have a job yet. I didn’t have my Deseretian license plate or driver’s license. I didn’t know how long it would take for me to find a job and get settled in. I didn’t want to talk to him and tell him about all the things that I hadn’t yet done.

God: Would you have had nothing else to talk about?

trumwill: I’m sure I would have found things to talk about. But I would have feared that he would have been thinking the whole time of all the ways I’ve disappointed him. He’s rarely tried to make me feel that way, but his patience only makes me more impatient. His belief that I would make right made me feel all the worse for not doing so. My fear of his belief that I am a failure made me not want to call and validate his disappointment in me.

God: I am certain that he would have loved to hear from you. Regardless of what good news you may not have had to share with him.

trumwill: Wait… you know in the omniscient way that you know everything, or you know because you’re empathetic to my cutting him off and sympathetic to how I feel about it?

God: I know because I don’t ask that you have all good news before coming to visit me. Or to talk to me. Or to think about me. Some people come to me precisely because they are incomplete in some fashion or another. They come for help.

trumwill: Sort of like “Dear God, please find me a job?”

God: No. Sort of like the prayer you would sometimes say before taking an important test at school or before embarking on some other test of importance to you. You wouldn’t ask that I got you A’s. You asked that I give you the composure to stand up to the challenge.

trumwill: I left it deliberately vague, but I wanted that A. I just knew that I hadn’t worked enough to earn it.

God: You often got it.

trumwill: Yeah. Thanks for that. I don’t know. I just feel like maybe once I’ve got my crap together and had something to show You that maybe… I don’t know… I’d have something to show you rather than being all empty-handed and embarassed. Maybe once I’m already headed in the right direction, maybe then I can show you what I’ve got instead of standing before You as the sum of everything that I haven’t.

God: Do you remember what eventually happened when you cut your father off?

trumwill: Yeah. He got impatient and found my blog, where I’d written about my guilt about not talking to him. He started calling more often so that I couldn’t keep brushing him off.

God: And what happened?

trumwill: Things got better. My mind cleared from something that had been bothering me a great deal. I don’t know that it helped me find work any faster, but it made the meantime more bearable.

God: Right.

trumwill: Right.

God: Well?

trumwill: Well, right now I’ve fallen behind in so many ways and until I can get right on some of them it’s hard to get right on all of them. Sort of like it’s hard to stop smoking as long as I eat crappy food, but it’s hard to stop eating crappy food as long as I’m drinking crappy drinks because they go together. Crappy drinks go with cigarettes.

God: And once you’re a disgusting sinner, you can just stay there with the idle dream that you can suddenly give it all up at once and become a respectable citizen that can call your father and go to church and face the world.

trumwill: All or nothing, that’s me.

God: How’s that working out for you?

trumwill: One of these days, Lord. One of these days.

God: And nothing scares you more.

trumwill: Not that I can think of.

God: Except that maybe it won’t.

trumwill: Except that.

Category: Church

Piss Christ, by Andres Seranno

In a previous post about a friend I had when I was younger, I wrote :

Once upon a time he had smart, witty, and ambitious young ladies swooning over him and girls of modelesque beauty competing for him and the last two girlfriends of his that I met were mediocre-looking art school dropouts crafting the lowest form of amateur adolescent/post-adolescent art… poetry.

My friend Kyle and I went to hang out at a mutual friend’s house last week. The mutual friend’s wife is a professional graphic designer and a visual artist of many stripes. While I feel a bit self-conscious about the bare 12 year old anime character hanging on the wall of our bedroom, our apartment has nothing on their house. Hanging on their wall is some abstract piece with an unclothed woman on all fours. The front half of her is on the bottom left of the piece and the back half is on the upper right. That’s about all their is to the painting.

Kyle’s wife commented that she was unimpressed. They’d also apparently been to an art showing a while back where he was similarly unimpressed. Kyle’s a pretty culturally liberal guy, but there’s only so much art with genitalia placed against a backdrop of this or that before it gets sort of boring.

I responded:

You don’t UNDERSTAND! They’re SPEAKING OUT against our SEXUALLY REPRESSIVE CULTURE. They’re expressing their SEXUAL FREEDOM by exposing our PURITANICAL SOCIETY and all its taboos. If you fail to appreciate their artwork, you’ve been BRAINWASHED by the religious zealotry of our culture that seeks to control us by making us ASHAMED OF OUR BODIES!!!!

Or… alternately…

They’re EXPOSING THE POINTLESSNESS OF LIFE AND MORALITY by taking our most private parts and putting it out there for all the world to see! They are taking that which we see as SACRED and DEFILING IT as a grand tribute to the NIHILISM that is our culture, every culture, and LIFE ITSELF!!!!

I don’t know if that’s what the guy with the painting of the penis in the wine glass was aiming for, and it’s almost certainly not the terminology that he would use, but I’d be surprised it wasn’t along the lines of one of the above options or something else equally inane.

But it’s not the point that they’re making that bothers me. Yeah, sure, exploring what we do believe (sexual freedom or opposition to it) or don’t believe (nihilism) has been done, but there are few areas of art that haven’t. It’s not even the repetitiveness of it within the anti-commercial art world, necessarily. What irritates me a little bit about it is that they do something simple, assign the more complicated task of interpretation to the viewer, dismiss criticism of it as a failure on the part of the viewer, and take credit for the viewer’s ability to see the patterns in the static and find some grand meaning in the image of a penis wrapped around a can of aerosol or a Jesus dumped in a jar of urine or whatever.

The problem with a lot of abstract art, of freestyle poetry, or of any sort of extremely abstract art, is two-fold:

  1. Bad art is incredibly easy to make.
  2. Good art and bad art are not easily compared or differentiated from one another.

Take the absolute worst action film you’ve ever seen. The worse, the better for our purposes. For me it was a movie called Terminal Impact, about a cop trying to bust an organization that’s taking college students (that look way too old to be college students) and turning them into cyborg warriors. The movie was so bad and so destined for obvious failure that the only hope they had of selling it was to name it similar to a Charlie Sheen movie called Terminal Velocity that came out a couple years earlier, replicate the font of the movie’s title, and cross their fingers and hope that people get confused in the video store and say “Hey, Terminal Impact. That’s the one with Charlie Sheen, right? Let’s not even look on the back and rent it anyway!” Notably, after the Terminal Velocity is forgotten, Terminal Impact was renamed Cyborg Cop III so that they could sell it as a trilogy with two completely unrelated movies with the guy who played the American Ninja in the third and fourth American Ninja movies.

Despite all this, Terminal Impact is in some ways more impressive to me than Piss Christ. Say what I will about the movie, but TI took quite of big of effort to make. Sure, they didn’t have the special effects of the Terminator, but their were motorcycle chases and some explosions. More than that, though, there were sound people and lighting people and people that played their parts (I hesitate to call them “actors”). Production costs I’m sure ran somewhere into the thousands. Money was raised, allocated, and spent. Piss Christ required a crucifix, urine, a jar, and some great lighting.

Further, Terminal Impact can rather easily be judged on its own merits. I judged it and found it lacking. Compare Terminal Impact with its namesake or any Jean Claude Van Damme movie or even American Ninja IV (which coincidentally was the worst action movie I’d seen prior to TI). You not only have something to compare it to, you but you have technical merits in addition to artistic ones that you can judge it with. With the aerosol can, all you can say technically is “Yep, that looks like a weewee. Yep, that’s a spray can that says ‘aerosol’ on it.”

I’m not saying that abstract art isn’t art and that it cannot be really, really good. It really can. The problem is the “e. e. cummings Effect”, wherein the comparatively few good artists are swamped by the lazy ones that don’t want to put any effort into adhering to any guidelines or doing any of the work that less abstract art work requires.

When I was in junior high I used to write comic books. The original ones weren’t very good, but I did put some effort into them and the thought and effort I put into them became the building blocks with which I started producing works that were good (in my opinion, at least). But for a while after the original ones, I got lazy. I found a formula to use to used it over and over and over again (though, to my credit, I was able to use the established pattern to make later deviations more interesting and humorous than they otherwise would have been). By virtue of the comic book medium, it wasn’t hard to tell that they sucked. With abstract art, there’s no way to tell, and thus for people that don’t want to make the effort, it’s an extremely easy way out. Just let the audience to the heavy lifting.

When it comes to the creation of something — most things — there is a mixture of artistry and craftsmanship. Even utilitarian things things such as cars that are meant to drive us places have artistry impressed upon it to make it look like something we want to be seen in. Carpentry is making something useful but also making it aesthetically pleasing. Movies are meant to entertain us, but pre-production requires a lot of thought and the production requires a lot of work. Novels are a mixture of ideas (artistry) and presentation (craftsmanship). Art without craft leads to the proliferation of crap.

And so it is with poetry. I was a bad poet once. I wrote poetry because I didn’t know how to write prose well. A poem is much easier to write than a book and if you go all “freestyle” you remove any effort at all. Maddox nailed it when he offered the following tips on writing (bad) poetry:

Writing bad poetry is easy when you disregard meter, pace, and rhyming scheme. Just make sure to follow a few simple guidelines:
1. Never write about anything cheerful. Remember, you are a tortured artist. Be one.
2. Be sure to use the following words at least once per sentence, no fewer than 50 times per poem: lament, loathe, soul, darkness, bitter, agony, despair, misery, anguish, pain, suffer, woe, hate, death, love, sultry, angel, rose, acrid and nihilism. Nihilism is a good one because it comes up all the time in normal conversations.

It’s easy, here’s a sample to get you started:

fire… burning… agony…
sultry shivers of a dark essence
why am i tortured with this nihilistic existence?
bitter… darkness… despair.

notice the constant lower case? i added that touch to be unique. unique people type in lower case.

That is the tragedy which e. e. cummings has wrought. Generations of young people that can just string together some sentences with some basic idea in mind and allow themselves to think that they’ve created something worthwhile.

Category: Coffeehouse, Theater

I meant to thank Brandon Berg for helping me out with the site. Up until recently, the site did not appear correctly on Internet Explorer. Brandon discovered that the problem, which was over-extended margins. Rather than being something that IE was doing wrong, it turned out that it was something that Firefox was compensating for. I noticed the same thing on a web site of my father’s. He was missing a </td> in there somewhere and Firefox was somehow able to correct for it. Unfortunately, such corrections have made me continually forget that there was something wrong and thus fail to correct it.

Category: Server Room