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(I was originally going to make this a long diatribe about life and stuff, but I figured the title and picture above sum it up pretty well. Draw your own conclusions.)

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Poison Ivy Mysteries: Low art?

calvinandhobbeslowart

Recently a few reviewers posted some reviews of the most recent Poison Ivy Mysteries show (the second run of Justice at the Gold Dust). The reviews were all over the map, but one of the reviewers in particular was criticizing the show for being simply a bunch of stereotypes strung together; in her words, “[the script] seems to be constructed over a thin veneer of tired wild west tropes – the lusty barmaid, the crooked mayor, the ingénue, the tomboy, the leading man, and the town drunk are all present.” Annelise’s rebuttal to this sentiment – that the characters were flat and boring simply because they were easily recognized – states, in essence, that the types of murder mystery shows she writes can’t get too complicated or the audience will get lost. Annelise has also said elsewhere that PIM has actually attempted to do a show where the characters were a lot more complicated and three-dimensional, with the end result being that most members of the audience had no idea what was going on (I believe the show she was referring to was Club Mystique, our 1940’s detective show). I’m not going to rehash her arguments here, but one of her points was that murder mystery dinner theater shows put on by Poison Ivy Mysteries are meant for pure entertainment, and should not be compared to works that strive to do anything more. This has been true so far. But it got me thinking: could we?

Would it be possible to produce a fun, entertaining murder mystery that also speaks to the human condition, or whatever else this particular reviewer was looking for? Can we write a show that is also considered “art”?

What is art, anyway? The broad definition is basically any work expressing the imagination of the creator, which could be almost anything, ranging from the illegible crayon drawing a six-year-old made that he says is a car, to Cristo putting up fabric in Central Park just because it looks cool, to Stanley Kubrick telling a story about human evolution that takes as much effort on the part of the viewer to understand as it does the filmmaker, to a story about an overweight plumber rescuing a princess from a fire-breathing turtle king. However, I believe that when people ask the question “what is art?” they are more likely referring to what makes “high art” or “true art.” Or, in other words, what defines a work that people can say have had a significant influence? What rises above the 90% of everything else that is crap (it’s a law, look it up) to stand out as highlights of their respective mediums? What separates Citizen Kane from Transformers? The answer to this question is multi-layered and complicated (and changes radically depending on the medium being discussed), but for my purposes I will say that true art will make the audience think. And not simply think in terms of comprehension or analysis of plot elements (or following the bits and pieces of a murder mystery), but challenge an audience member’s conception of the world around them and make some sort of connection.

Take the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip I posted above. This strip was published in the Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book, along with this comment by Bill Watterson: “I would suggest that it’s not the medium, but the quality of perception and expression, that determines the significance of art. But what would a cartoonist know?” The great irony in this statement coming from that source is that I think most people today would consider that Calvin and Hobbes demonstrates some of the very best qualities of newspaper comics, and even now, nearly twenty years after its last strip, is still hailed as a standout among its peers. It’s not just good, it’s art. Bill Watterson and a few others, such as Gary Larson and Charles Schultz, took a medium that most people considered to be nothing more than pure entertainment and elevated it as a form of expression.

What defines the quality of perception and expression of a theatrical piece? Some may say it’s novelty. Others may say it’s tackling important issues. But I believe it has to do with one important concept: how well can I connect to these characters? For Poison Ivy Mysteries in particular, it comes down to avoiding the Eight Deadly Words:

“I don’t care what happens to these people.”

We are lucky that, because of our chosen murder mystery format, most people want to pay close attention to the plot and characters simply because they actively want to solve the crime. Video games have been getting away with this for years because the level of audience participation means that less care can be given to fleshing out characters, plots, and settings than in a typical passive medium such as a movie, play, or TV show, while still leaving the participant satisfied at the end. Most people care what happens to our characters because they want to figure out the mystery at the end, not necessarily because they care about them as characters. But that doesn’t mean we can’t pull a Portal 2 and make a fun game with great audience participation that also happens to have engaging characters in it. (Portal and Portal 2, by the way, I would consider “high art,” though I know plenty of people who would dismiss them due to the medium.) I would say that the more we can get the audience to care about these people, the better the shows will be.

Poison Ivy Mysteries scripts have been fun, witty, well-plotted affairs with clever interactions and wordplay, with interesting mysteries to solve. They are good, if not excellent, shows. However, it is true that most of our shows have been pretty shallow in order to facilitate understanding for the audience. And I’m not going to pretend that Justice at the Gold Dust is an exception to that rule. It’s not. The characters and setting are old wild west tropes and little else. (Which is not a condemnation; Tropes Are Not Bad. A relevant quote from that page: “Indeed, a trope, however unrealistic, can be a convenient shorthand when played straight; setting up aversions or subversions for it can be more wordy than is needed to get on with story.”) It’s gotten to the point that internally we’ve begun referring to each show by a truncated name, based on what stereotypes it embodies, Friends-style. The Sci-Fi show. The Western. The Hollywood Show. The Medieval Show. The Wedding Show. I like all of these shows (some more than others), but I don’t know if anyone would consider them art. However, there is one show we’ve done, and two characters in particular in that show, that demonstrate that it is possible to do more complex characterization that challenges the audience to face some of their preconceptions and maybe even think a little, thus turning this show into my favorite out of all the Poison Ivy Mysteries shows so far (yes, even more than the sci-fi show).

Curse of the Scarab, on the surface, seems to be simply another show filled with stereotypes, this time from the 1920’s, and in particular the Egyptology craze that was going on at the time. The characters seem to be your basic stock characters: the eager cub reporter, the stuffy curator, the wealthy dowager, the “legitimate businessman” (aka mob boss), the adventurous tomb raider, and the somewhat nerdy researcher/assistant to the curator. The gimmick of the show, however, is that partly through the evening, an ancient Egyptian curse starts striking members of the group at random, causing strange and often debilitating effects upon them. Most of them are just plain silly and a lot of fun to see. The mob boss suddenly becomes scared of everything, the curator has to walk backwards, the dowager regains her youth, and (my personal favorite) the researcher suddenly has an unseen barbershop quartet repeating everything he says. These are all fun to watch, but by the end these characters are all pretty much the same going out as they were coming in. Not so for the final remaining two characters.

The adventurous tomb raider is a woman who has been trying to make it in a man’s profession in a man’s world (especially considering the time period in which this show is set). She’s also involved in a love triangle with the reporter and the researcher (she likes the researcher, the researcher ends up liking the reporter, and the reporter just wants the scoop!). However, her curse ends up turning her into a man (in a very fun song). This, of course, complicates the love triangle to no end (represented in another fun song), but more importantly, suddenly she/he has fulfilled one of his/her wishes: being treated like an equal by men. In fact, the curator, who up to this point had been belittling her to no end, suddenly has great respect for the man she has become. This is interesting for two main reasons: first, usually the gender-swap plot goes male-to-female, not the other way around, so it’s already got a bit of a twist to it. Second, while some of the typical gender-swap tropes are present (up to a point; it’s a family show!), such as complaining about how she’s now balding, her focus is more on “will being a man *actually* help me gain the respect I wanted from my peers? Or did I already have that respect from those that matter? Is there truly anything worth doing as a man that I can’t as a woman?” An intriguing question for the 1920’s, but even more relevant in modern times (especially since the character was written by a successful female businessperson).

It’s a question to think about.

How does her character arc end? More importantly, how will she change as a person through this experience? I can’t answer these questions without spoiling the ending of this particular show, but rest assured that even though her time as a man is temporary, she comes out a changed person.

The cub reporter, for much of the show, is still pretty one-note. She’s looking for the scoop, trying to write a great story that will land her a career as an actual successful journalist (currently she works for Vanity Fair), oblivious to the flirting that the researcher is throwing her way. However, her curse (which is the last one of the evening) is to be unable to think anything without saying it out loud. In other words, she begins repeating her inner monologue. And this inner monologue, while still concerned with landing that big story, also begins rambling about her mixed feelings toward the researcher, her doubts in her own talents as a reporter, and her fear of what the evening is turning into and the danger they’re all in. In other words, the opposite of everything the character had been portraying so far. And with these revelations, suddenly she becomes so much more interesting, not just as a piece in the mystery, but as a character. She’s not a stereotype anymore; she’s a person, and while her personal plotline never really gets resolved by the end and it’s not clear whether she’s been changed by the experience like the tomb raider was, the audience can feel like they’ve gotten to know a person and all that comes with her, instead of just writing her off as another stereotype.

Does this make Curse of the Scarab “art”? Maybe, maybe not, but it certainly takes some steps in the right direction. These two characters illustrate some pointers that I think will help PIM murder mystery characters become more than stereotypical tropes put together.

1) Introduce interesting issues that the characters need to grapple with. These needn’t (and probably shouldn’t) be the focus of the show, as that may quickly complicate the murder mystery part to the point of hopeless confusion (a la Club Mystique). The tomb raider’s core issue had nothing to do with the main plot of the Egyptian curse and the later murder (though the love triangle part may have been either a clue or a red herring; I won’t reveal which), so the audience members who didn’t really pick up on it didn’t have to in order to get the main point of the evening. But raising some of these issues on the side will make certain members of the audience sit up and take notice, and have something to think about on the ride home apart from “whodunnit?”

2) Make at least some of the characters dynamic. The tomb raider had quite a different outlook by the end of the show than she did at the beginning, even though she was still fundamentally the adventurous Indiana Jones-type. Static characters (i.e. those who are basically the same at the end of the show as they were at the beginning) are not bad, but making all the characters static is. And making one character fall in love with another character (with all the associated tropes) isn’t enough to make an interesting dynamic character. Some of the more fascinating onstage relationships to watch are how dynamic characters are changed by the static characters that come into their lives and mess it up. How Oscar is changed by Felix, or how Valjean is changed by the bishop, and in turn becomes the static character effecting changes in others. (Incidentally, Javert is my favorite character in Les Miserables (Russell Crowe notwithstanding), mostly because during the entire show he is a completely static character, but subtly Valjean has been turning him into a dynamic one by the end, and that entire character arc I find fascinating. But I digress.) Other than falling in love, most of the murder mystery characters stay the same throughout most of the shows that we’ve done. This is partly a writing problem, but also partly an acting one, as some of the changes to the characters as written in the script do nothing to change the actor’s performance of said character throughout the night. (Possibly this was better with the tomb raider character because she was played by two different people.) This brings me to my third point:

3) Subtext, subtext, subtext! This is not a writing problem, this is an acting and directing one. The cub reporter in Curse of the Scarab ends up speaking her subtext as regular dialogue, and therefore it fleshes her out as a character. However, it’s entirely possible to give a performance depth by adding subtext to it without the script spelling anything out. Take, for example, the two runs we have done of Death: The Final Frontier (aka the sci-fi show). (Spoiler alert, by the way!) There is a redshirt ensign who, on the surface, seems to be just this goofy guy who’s always trying to impress people but failing miserably; kind of a cross between Guy from Galaxy Quest and Roger Wilco from Space Quest. However, by the end it turns out that he committed the murder and also blew up a planet, simply because he is sick of not getting noticed, and indeed he seems satisfied at the end that, no matter what happens to him, nobody will forget his name. In other words, he turns out to be a John Hinckley-esque psychopath, willing to go to drastic measures just to get noticed. Underneath, he is not a pleasant character. He is not the cross between Guy and Roger Wilco that everyone thought he was the whole time (yet another good example of bucking the stereotype). I won’t name any names here, but both actors who have played this role so far did a great job of being the goofy, lovable ensign. But only one of them had imbued him with a sort of dark and sinister edge during the earlier parts of the show that made the reveal believable. In both runs the reveal made sense in terms of the plot and the facts about the character. But only during one run did the reveal remain true to how the character was portrayed. And that’s what strikes audiences on a deeper level.

Let’s take another example. Hope Hartman is playing Calamity Janet in the current show. At one point in the show, her beau, Jesse Joe James, ends up falling for another woman, leaving her as the scorned lover. The scene and song that ensue (where she tries coming on to him again and, when that fails, seduces the town drunk, mostly to get Jesse to notice her again, who is pointedly ignoring her the entire time) could easily be played just for comedy, with that “crazy tomboy singin’ a toe-tappin’ western tune to a goofy drunk guy”, were it not for the subtext that’s obviously going on. You can see in her performance that she has thought out her reasons for why her character acts the way she does. Once again, there is a dark edge to her that shows her vulnerability and desperation upon losing Jesse that, in the hands of a lesser actress, could simply come across as petulance. This brings her character to life and rounds her out a little bit, enough so that even in that negative review I quoted from earlier, Hope is commended for a strong performance.

Now, a lot of this is up to each individual actor’s abilities and talents. However, there is no talent that cannot be matched by adequate preparation (what I shall call the Batman rule). That is why I also say that the director can solve these problems. As long as the actor is willing to work as hard as they can to compensate for their weaknesses, and the director knows how to train and bring out those qualities (or maybe gets a good acting coach to teach them said techniques if there isn’t time), then the performances of even the most inexperienced actors can be improved dramatically. I was in Fiddler on the Roof at BYU-Idaho back in 2005, which had some top-notch actors and a very good director. I was given the role of the Russian constable, and I did my best to imbue him with subtext, turning him from a transparent bad guy who kicked all the Jews out to a man who did what he had to, regardless of his personal feelings. However, due to both a lack of acting talent/experience on my part and a lack of direction from the director (since he was busy directing all the people who had more than five lines), I don’t think I did as well in the role as I had the potential to. One of the other professors at the university basically said as much, adding that the blame for that was placed mostly on the director’s shoulders. Now, I’m not trying to absolve or condemn anyone with that anecdote, but I was simply pointing out that focus from a director who knows how to get what they want from an actor, coupled with an actor who is willing to put in the time and effort required, can turn any boring performance into something stand-out and memorable, and can change a stereotype into a person. (The problem also comes from actors who aren’t willing to put in the effort, but that’s a whole different topic.)

These ideas may help shows become more memorable and enjoyable, and lift them above Transformers-level entertainment. Now don’t get me wrong; if we’re satisfied with our current level of performance, then we don’t necessarily need to change anything at all just to try to make this more sophisticated. After all, Transformers made a lot of money, and did exactly what it set out to do: provide a few hours of entertainment and a bit of escapism. But we can do more to create characters that will connect with the audience and make them think. Some of our scripts already do this, even if it’s mostly in the subtext. And, with proper attention, time, and care, I believe this can be done without losing the entertaining and fun aspects of our shows. We don’t have to go dark to make good characters. Indeed, we can’t go too dark, since there already is murder involved. However, keeping things lighthearted doesn’t mean keeping them one-dimensional. Even if we are low art, just like newspaper comics, are we content with being Garfield, or do we want to become Calvin and Hobbes?

Will these things help Poison Ivy Mysteries become “art”? Probably not. Then again, perhaps it’s not the medium of murder mystery theater, but the quality of perception and expression of the shows and characters that determines their significance.

But what would a hack songwriter know?

Travels Memoirs

HHS Drama Club Awards 2000

(Note: I originally wrote this nearly thirteen years ago, several months after the performance Hunter High School did of Travels. It was originally saved on my old Angelfire site, but I don’t know how long Angelfire will still be a thing, so I’m transferring this over to my current blog before it randomly gets deleted. If you don’t know what Travels is, this may help. This might too, if you have time. This probably won’t, though. Also, you may find this more interesting if you skip straight to the “Overview” section.)

Jeff Parkes’s Travels Memoirs

Written Fall 2000

Before I start, I must point out that there are basically three versions of the orchestrated Travels: the CD, the videotape, and the MIDI files. Technically there are more than one versions of the videotape, but they are very similar, so I will count them as one. The version that the orchestra can be heard the best is my mother’s tape of the Mar. 13 Monday performance because she was filming directly in front of the strings.

1. Prologue/Overture

This was the first attempt at orchestration for the show. It was started mid-December of 1999 at Nate’s house when we were still trying to figure out how to work the whole process. This was even before it was decided that I do the orchestrations. It was mostly finished in December but touch-ups and other work were applied later before I printed it.

2. Day After Day

This was the second song attempted, but it was not completed as quickly as #1. I also wrote this song with a simplistic guitar part, and it and #1 were the only ones in which a guitar part were attempted. Frankly, it worked much better in #1. Although I never printed these parts, I left them in the MIDI files, so if you want to hear them you can.

3. Venice To Stay

This wasn’t the third song attempted. In fact, I put it off for a while because I didn’t want to deal with swing rhythms in Finale. Nate’s idea was to have the parts in Venice and traveling more like an old-fashioned Broadway big band sound, while the China scenes to have more of a rock opera feel. To recreate the old-fashioned sound, this song is heavy on the brass oom-chucks common in the style. To heighten the effect, I didn’t write a string part until the second-to-last measure of the song. This song was a monster, and when I finished it I was happy. In the MIDI file I added applause because I was relieved it was done.

4. You Will Go Far

A song that wasn’t too tough. I did write a rather neat woodwind section in the middle, but unfortunately it is hard to hear on both the tape and the CD. Listen for the countermelodies. This is also the first time the “regal” elder Polo theme appears; so keep your ears open for it.

5. Celebration/Our Journey Goes On

I avoided Celebration for a while for the same reason I avoided Venice To Stay. I think the big band sound worked much better in Celebration however. In Our Journey Goes On, the “regal” Polo theme makes up basically the entire song. When Nate sent this one to me there were some time signature problems, i.e. the downbeat actually fell on beat three sometimes. Some of these I tried to fix, but others I didn’t catch and that made it that much harder for the orchestra to play it. I apologize for that. This is just foreshadowing for the mess that comes later in song 17:Hunting. Otherwise, I think I caught the old-fashioned sound well, especially with the French horn, which is Niccolo and Maffeo’s main instrument. A good choice, considering Dan Omer (Maffeo) is a French horn player.

6. Travels

This is one of my more favorite songs. The reprise of Day After Day is a bit heavy at the beginning, but once the main theme gets going, you can feel the energy. Although many people like different songs better for different reasons, it is this one that really sums up the adventurous spirit I know Nate was striving for. After all, the song and the musical have the same name. The simplicity and intervals (fourths and fifths) of the section where they are saying goodbye doesn’t make the occasion happy or sad but leaves it wide open. In fact, the piece shifts from major to minor and back many times, heightening the adventurous spirit. This theme recurs many times.

7. As You Can See

This song is a good one in all three versions, but for different reasons. The CD version is the weakest of the three, but is still good. The tape has the rockin’ stylings of Rob Slater/Kody Burgess on the drums and you can feel the energy. The MIDI file has a great trumpet line during Maffeo’s speech that unfortunately can barely be heard on the other two. There is also some great clarinet work during the monks’ speeches that also can barely be heard on the CD and tape. At the beginning I added a bit of a “Super Mario Bros.” reference, right before the rock section begins. I made it very subtle in case Nate ever caught it, but you can hear it on the MIDI file. Overall, one of the funner songs.

8. Don’t Turn Your Back On Us Now

It’s basically an extension of #7. The same clarinet line for the monks. An interesting tidbit: On the CD when Maffeo (Dan) is singing, it is also him playing the horn in the background. He’s accompanying himself on the horn! Quite wacky.

9. Pages of White

This is the first of the “slow” songs I completed and one of my favorites. There is some more woodwind and French horn interplay during the second verse that begins, “Tomorrow will come and then go out when it’s done . . .” that is hard to hear on the tape and CD. There is also a bit of good glockenspiel work, but for some reason that part never got printed with the rest of the parts for this song, so you can only hear it on the MIDI file. A poignant addition to the musical and a personal favorite.

10. Town to Town

The second-to-last song I did during the first act. This song I put off for a very long time because I was nervous about turning out a good old-fashioned heavy sound. Turns out this song is the most “theatrical” of the whole show. The heavy brass oom-chucks are highly emphasized in this song, as are some great string lines. We didn’t obtain any concert cymbals for the show or the recording, so those cymbals you hear is the drummer crashing the hi-hat together. It’s not exactly the same, but it works. Of all of the songs, this one probably suffered the most from a lack of concert drums. My favorite part is the high-energy Pages of White reprise.

11. Walk Upon the Sky

Obviously a pivotal song in the plot, this song was done shortly after Pages of White, and the similarities are easy to spot. The musical color in this song is mostly controlled by the strings. Listen for the switches from the tremolo to melodic lines throughout on the CD and tape. This song also includes a homage to another song I wrote, “Lightning.” It’s easier to hear with the MIDI file. Just listen to the trumpet fanfare followed by the flute & clarinet. If you’ve heard “Lightning,” you’ll recognize it easily.

12. In These Mountain Tops

This was the last song I completed in Act One because it had a Town to Town reprise in it. This song is a bit weaker in the area of matching the song to the words. The lyrics have some disappointment in them, with Marco resenting his being alone even with his father and uncle. However, the music doesn’t reflect that very well, if at all, which is my fault. Only when you get to the Town to Town reprise can you hear any of that resentment in the music. Also, the ending was supposed to lead right into #13, which was impossible to do on stage, so it confused the audience.

13. Lonely, Lost, and Losing

This song accomplished its goal, which was to portray despair. However, I love the transition near the end when the escorts find them. Most of the song is minor, but when the escorts find them it jumps to major for an instant because they found relief. It then reprises the uncertain, pensive theme also found at the beginning of #7 and speeds into an embellishment on that theme, building to a climax, until. . .

14. Who Is This Stranger?

. . .they enter China, and with a vengeance. This is where the musical style of the show shifts from an old-fashioned musical to a rock opera. The energy level is high as the show gets rockin’. This is heightened in the MIDI file by the Square sound (the techno video-game sound) and on the tape by the slap bass line. Easily one of the songs that lost a bit on the CD, it still is a great entrance into China.

15. Stately Pleasure

Now we get to the real meat of the story as the group meets the Khan. First is a short reprise of As You Can See, and then it turns into the Khan’s excellent “official” theme. This song is aptly named as the brass and string lines add a definite stately feel. Notice the texture & color get lighter when Marco speaks. Then they go off into glory, as. . .

16. A Dangerous Sign

. . .our good friends the evil astrologers enter. This song was the first one I completed totally and my favorite MIDI. It also lost a large amount of energy in the translation from MIDI to real life. Some of the heavy rock sounds were impossible to duplicate without a guitar, and the singing covered up the saxophone solo. If you listen to this MIDI, you may never want to hear the live version again. Another personal favorite.

17. Hunting

Now we come to the biggest mess of the show. This song never ever worked the way it should have. Conceptually it was just a plot-advancing song and therefore destined not to be a hit. The MIDI version was an OK rendition, but nothing special. However, this was another song on which Nate messed up the time signatures and I didn’t catch ‘em, so this song was utter hell for the pit orchestra. It also heralds the beginning of perhaps the dullest portion of the plot, which lets up around song #22, What’s Going On? Add to this the awkward vamps when the Khan outlines Marco’s job and the clumsy A Dangerous Sign reprise, and you have probably the worst song in the show. But then again, it never exactly had high aspirations. The only plus side is that it introduced the Khan’s “informal” theme, the acoustic guitar line.

18. Go Where You Go

A mediocre song, this one was another plot-moving device. It also started probably the most grating theme in the show, which was to be used way too many times over the next few songs, then thankfully dropped from existence. I think all of you know exactly what theme I’m talking about. If you don’t, it’s the one half of this song is made of. The part where Maffeo and Niccolo say their goodbyes and the reprises of Who Is This Stranger? are probably the highlights of this song.

19. Journey Of A Lifetime

I think this song lost a huge amount of energy in the transition from MIDI to real life. Nobody remembers this song, yet it was one of my earliest and favorite works. It probably would have worked better had there been more strings and a more consistent bass sound. The CD especially slaughters this song. This is where I introduce the clarinet for Marco and the Oboe for Mei Hwa when they are happy and together, an idea which I tried to keep consistent throughout the show. It’s up to you to decide whether I did or not.

20. When It All Comes Down To Love

This is Kjersti (my sister)’s favorite song, but that’s probably because #34: Anywhere wasn’t done before she left on her mission in February. Nate said this was one of the songs that I could leave unorchestrated due to lack of time, but I insisted, saying this song was made for strings. Unfortunately I carried that concept a bit too far, and the strings overpower the entire piece, especially near the end when they are raised into an octave usually reserved for dog whistles. This song probably would have been one of my favorites had it had a bit more variety, both on Nate’s and my parts.

21. In This Mystic Land

I love the deep bass at the beginning of the MIDI file for this piece, which unfortunately gets lost on the tape and CD. The reprise of In These Mountain Tops in this song was actually done before #12, leaving it as the last song to be done in the first act. I’ve had a few compliments about the end of this song. Most people thought it was definitely a romantic swell, or as one put it, “kissing music.” It doesn’t quite work in the MIDI, but the mood comes across very well on the CD.

22. What’s Going On?

Another personal favorite. This one dispenses the washed-out feeling we’ve had since A Dangerous Sign and sinks its teeth right back into the meat of the story. Accompanied by a rock organ instead of a distortion guitar, this one has a much more low-key feel than A Dangerous Sign. The beginning of this song is the happiest time for Marco during the entire show, and it’s a bit jarring to hear the beautiful string lines turn minor and sour right before the rock section. The oboe there also adds a bit of emotion. The MIDI file is a rockin’ one, as is the tape, but the CD loses a lot of the heavy bass that I love on this song.

23. When It All Comes Down To Love (reprise)

In my opinion, this was a bit too soon for a reprise of this song, but that’s OK, because I didn’t write this musical. This song is musically almost the same as #20 and I don’t have much to say about it. However, this song does introduce the Marco/Mei strife theme heard most prominently in #27: Time For Me To Go. Listen to the oboe line right before the electric piano.

24. The Battle

Arguably the most rockin’ song in the show, this is another personal favorite. In my opinion the best version of this song is the tape version. The energy radiating from the stage is audible in the music, especially during the What’s Going On? reprise. This song was great fun to write and I think I only spent one day on it, because I enjoyed it so much. After all, who doesn’t love a good stage battle?

25. To Come Forth

Possibly the most pivotal song in the whole show, although some of the second act songs could claim that honor. The low cello part adds a lot of atmosphere to this song. This ends the first act on an uneasy, but determined note as Marco vows to tell the Khan of his observances of mayhem. As the dead townspeople rise and sing, the song crescendos until it breaks once again into the unifying theme of the show, that of song #6:Travels.

 

25a.Entr’acte

A reprise of #14:Who Is This Stranger? See above.

 

(Note: 26-29 I never orchestrated, because I ran out of time and energy. So there.)

 

(Also Note: Unlike Act One, in which I did the songs in no particular order, I basically did Act Two in reverse: starting from #40 and working backward, with a few exceptions.)

 

26. The Parade

The song that Nate never wrote down. I have nothing to do with this one, except I sang, “Here they come, let’s cheer!” on the CD. There is no MIDI of this song.

27. Time For Me To Go

Basically the Marco/Mei strife theme, ascending until Marco kicks Mei out.

28. You Are the One

Another example of the Khan’s “informal” theme, used to good effect. Also reprises #16:A Dangerous Sign. This one would have been a good one if I had had time to finish it. I did the first few measures, but it’s nothing spectacular. It’s on the MIDI version.

29. No Better Timing

Both this song and the previous one start with a short reprise of #25:To Come Forth, as will #34:Anywhere. This song is basically the pentatonic scale over and over again. Not one of my favorites.

30. Who Do You Think You Are?

Two words describe this song: pep band. I could easily hear this song blasting out across a football field at the end of 1st quarter. Once again I used the rock organ instead of a distortion guitar to create a bit more of a sinister and less openly evil effect. This song has a lot of low instruments, and is the best song for the baritone sax. The MIDI is pretty good for this one, but it really rocks on the tape. This is the song that somehow mutated into “Hey Baby” during a rehearsal.

31. Still On My Own

A big tone and energy change from the previous song. The audience got pumped up, then suddenly was left a bit dry. That feeling hopefully evaporates as this song continues. The reprise of Day After Day is well placed, and the rest of the song builds to a climax in which the Kinsayians and the governors have a heated verbal dispute to a short rendition of #29 and #30. We are let down much easier this time as a flute note lingers into the distance. This song, along with #34 and #35, was not done in time for the actual show in March, so the tape versions of these three are not orchestrated.

32. Got to Go

It opens with the “regal” theme we haven’t heard since their first appearance, and you know which two characters are next to appear even before the servant finishes the line, “Two gentlemen are waiting to see you.” As Maffeo and Niccolo discuss things with the Khan, the main Got to Go theme is played. This is a theme I could have run with much more than I did, and the result is fairly repetitious. However, besides the songs I did after the show ran, this and its reprise were the last songs I did when I was on the brink of doom and exhaustion. On the good side, when Maffeo and Niccolo leave, there is a great two-measure theme that repeats that I think is one of my more successful translations from MIDI to real life. In fact, I think it sound much better in real life than on the MIDI. Check it out on the CD.

33. The Ballad of Kublai Khan

This song is one of my biggest regrets. There was plenty of powerful material for me to work with here, but by the time I got around to this song I was sick of the whole thing and therefore only added drums and bass. In retrospect, this is a song I would have done a lot more with if I had had the time and energy, As for how it stands now; it’s still not a bad little tune. The lyrics are better than most of the songs, and it introduces one of the two main morals of the show: You can make a wrong, you can make a right, it’s not always black and white.

34. Anywhere

I learned my lesson from #20 and decided to leave this one up to the piano. I only orchestrated the short reprise of #25: To Come Forth at the beginning, and I think I did a good job of it too. I still enjoy this song, as it’s the only romance part of the show that hits a bit close to home, at least until their “duet” at the end. (I put duet in quotes because they’re singing the same melody line.)

35. Venice Some Day

I didn’t touch this one much either. This is partly because of time and energy, partly because it was a bit of continuation of the previous song, and partly because I didn’t want to deal with the bad pun Nate inserted into the middle (heard only on the tape version, thank goodness). This one, besides reprising #3:Venice To Stay, also shows a bit of the Marco/Mei strife theme. Only near the end when the lovers leave their own little world and enter back into reality does the orchestra rejoin the show with another pensive clarinet and string line. This quickly turns into yet another #30 reprise as the governor seizes Mei Hwa and kicks Marco out of his house.

36. Got to Go (reprise)

It starts with a suspenseful glockenspiel line at the beginning, then goes back into the repetitious Got to Go theme. This is mercifully shorter than the previous incarnation, as the show leads into another rendition of the Khan’s “informal” theme, which is transformed into a haunting French horn line. It soon reprises #33:The Ballad of Kublai Khan, and this time I did something to the song, which increases the power of the Khan’s argument.

37. The Time Is Right

I love this short tune because it combines the two evil themes in a great way. Listen for when the governor mentions Mei Hwa and you’ll hear a three-note oboe motif (also heard in #35:Venice Some Day). The #30 theme crescendos at the end, leading straight into the end of #16 in a very powerful way. You know these guys mean business with this short but powerful song.

38. The Escape

First, a bit of explanation about these last three songs. Originally in the score, #38 ended right before Marco sang, “From China we crossed the great Indian Sea. . .” and #39 ended right before the final “Travels” motif. #39 was called “Walk Upon the Sky (reprise)” and #40 was called “Travels and Finale,” However, on the CD, it was necessary to change the places where one song ended and the next began. Therefore, #38 ended right before the “regal” Maffeo and Niccolo theme, and #39 ended right before the “Walk Upon The Sky” reprise. #39 was renamed “Epilogue,” and #40 was renamed “Walk Upon The Sky/Travels.” For the sake of ease for me, I will refer to them by the names on the score, not the names from the CD, because that’s how I wrote them.

With that said, The Escape was one of my favorites to work on because of the dramatic musical possibilities. After the short string intro where Marco talks to Niccolo, the entire piece builds to the climax at which point Mei Hwa gets stabbed. Most of this building-up section was part of a project Nate wrote for his AP Music Theory project in 10th grade. He had actually orchestrated it himself. However, the instruments and registers he used to orchestrate it made it impossible to use, and it also didn’t build to this particular climax. Anyway, when I wrote it I thought that the short section after Mei’s last words with the church bells should have been accompanied by a low thunder growl and a light fall of rain. It seems that it always rains after battles, when the survivors mourn the dead, and I thought it would fit there. Think “Les Miserables.” Also note how I try to keep a bit of a rock feel throughout this piece until the last part, when the “regal” theme of Niccolo and Maffeo plays. This is when Marco finally begins his journey home, back to the realm of Italy, Venice, and the old-fashioned orchestration once again. This once again leads into the playing of the main theme of the show, #6:Travels.

39. Walk Upon the Sky (reprise)

This song beats even The Battle for most people’s favorite song. Why? Although the plot climax was in the last song, the character development climax occurs when the young and old Marcos are singing their duet. Note the usage of high woodwinds such as the flute and clarinet underscoring the young Marco and the lower woodwinds such as the bassoon and bass clarinet underscoring the old. I’ve never really understood why the old Marco suddenly regains his zest for life, but then again, I’m a musician, not a scriptwriter. I also think the use of the #13:Lonely, Lost, and Losing reprise was interesting. While the usage in both #13 and this song is to outline Marco’s despair, in #13 it was to show his physical situation, while here it was to show his much deeper, more hurtful emotional situation. Finally, the song climaxes into:

40. Travels and Finale

The main theme of the show yet again, in the most spirited rendition yet. Once again, it sums up the adventurous spirit of the show quite well. More importantly, it drives home the second moral of the tale: you don’t have to discover a new country or walk four thousand miles to live an adventure. Life is an adventure itself, and it’s how you live that determines how much you love life. It all ends with a great gong crash that, while missing from the MIDI version, leaves the audience with a great deal of satisfaction for a job well done.

Overview

First, a note to the many critics of this show. Yes, it was quite amateur. Considering it was written by an 18-year-old and orchestrated by a 17-year-old, that’s not surprising. However, Nate, I, the cast, the crew, the orchestra, and various family members and friends have been working on this very intensely, and thus have a unique perspective. I believe it was one of the original creators of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that said that while critics and the public welcomed the show with open arms and loved it, all the people who worked on it could think of when they saw it was where there needed to be more color, where the plot ran a bit slow, which character should’ve had a smaller nose, etc. Yes, there are many criticisms one could place on Travels, most of which I’ve probably thought of myself. All in all, however, it was an astoundng piece of work, and when it was performed in March of 2000, it was something magical. True, there were many flaws, and almost every one of them either Nate or I noticed. That doesn’t make this a bad show; on the contrary, this show was quite extraordinary. So what if the clarinet couldn’t be heard in measure 32 of song 4? So what if Old Marco Polo was a little nasal, or the set creaked, or the percussionist made up half of his part, or that the trumpets were waaay too soft, or that the astrologers couldn’t quite walk in rhythm? That stuff happens in every high school show, not just this one. As a production treated like any other, it was mediocre. However, judging us by the same criteria as judging a regular, well-established high school musical such as Crazy For You is unfair, because they are two different animals. This show wasn’t only original, but very experimental. The show wasn’t even close to completion when the casting was made. Suggestions were made to Nate and I. Some we took, some we didn’t. As I was orchestrating the show during the rehearsals, the orchestra had to learn a new song almost every morning, instead of having the luxury of taking the whole show home and practicing it. Most of the songs the soloists had to learn off a tape made by Nate, not sheet music. “The Parade” wasn’t even written until about a week before the show. Add to this normal complications, such as people ditching rehearsals, blocking, prima donnas, quarrels between cast & directors, costumes, set design, and the fact that nobody really knew how we were really going to pull this thing off, and you have Travels. So please give us a break.

Travels was an ordeal for me. It was an ordeal for everybody in the show. When I first really started helping Nate in December of 1999 during my senior year of high school it was because I knew a lot more about Finale than he did. It had been decided for a while that I was to direct the pit orchestra, but the decision of who was doing the orchestrations wasn’t made until near the end of December. We had finally finished the first piano reduction for 1. Prologue/Overture at Nate’s house when I started playing with the orchestra parts to it. I asked Nate if I could also orchestrate the rest of the show, and he said something like, “Sure, whatever.” Little did I know what I was getting myself into.

As the weeks went on into January I began the orchestrations. Nate was working on getting the piano reductions into Finale, which was a large chore in itself. While not as spur-of-the-moment creative, it still was a slow and methodical process, especially if you weren’t an expert at Finale, as Nate wasn’t. We considered having Dan Omer help out with cleaning up the piano reductions before sending them to me so Nate would have less to do, but we decided that’d be too complicated of a process. With just the two of us working on the show, Nate on the reductions and me on the orchestrations, it was a slow and painful process.

Near the end of the second term, I knew that we couldn’t finish the whole thing in time for it to sound good in March, so I got permission to stay home on odd days to work on the show. My classes on odd days were AP Music Theory, Independent Study, AP Physics, and Concert Choir. I could easily miss Music Theory, Concert Choir, and Independent Study, but my AP Physics knowledge suffered greatly. I passed that term, but due to my utter lack of knowledge I failed the fourth term and didn’t take the AP test for the class. Just one sacrifice that went into the making of this show.

The first song I finished (besides 1. Prologue/Overture, which I revamped later) was 16. A Dangerous Sign. I liked it so much that I had everyone in the house listen to it several times. The next few songs I completed were some of my favorite orchestrations, such as 9. Pages of White, 19. Journey of a Lifetime, and 22. What’s Going On?. This was before the daily grind really set in.

At the very end of January pit rehearsals started. Dan had put together the pit for me because he knew the orchestra members much better than I did, so I thought I’d have many faces unfamiliar to me when I showed up that first afternoon. It turns out I hardly had any faces at all. Arrangements were quickly made to put rehearsals before school so less people would have conflicts, but it was always a struggle to get the entire orchestra at a rehearsal together. In fact, I don’t think we had the whole orchestra together ever until the Wednesday night performance.

February: the month of doom. It was early in this month that the novelty of orchestrating wore off and the mountain of work I had got myself into became clear. I had printed myself a list of the song names provided by Nate that I hung on the wall by the computer. Whenever a song was started I put a check by it; when a song was completed, I crossed it off. The harder songs slowly began getting crossed off, while the songs that were incredibly hard such as 3. Venice and 10. Town to Town remained unchecked for a very long time. Every time I started or completed a song I would tally up the percentage of the show I had finished and the percentage of songs I had started, just to log my progress. I cannot adequately describe here how taxing and exhausting it is to stare at a steadily growing file list of songs(Nate was still sending me the reductions as he finished them), each from two to five minutes long, and, one by one, add twenty-four orchestra parts that not only made sense logically, but sounded musical as well. Not only this, but get up very early in the morning, drive a half an hour to get to the high school at 6:00 AM for pit rehearsals at which the whole pit was never there, direct the pit with no prior experience of even being in a pit orchestra, much less conducting one, then still do my homework for my AP English and other classes. Add to this the fact that I had no training in this area and hardly any experience orchestrating(the only song I had orchestrated before this was a song I wrote entitled “Lightning,” which was performed at graduation later that June) and the things I kept hearing about fights between Nate, Carina, Eric, Katie, and the rest of the cast, and you will be getting close to what I had facing me this 29-day month.

February was also the month of my great percussionist search. Our original drummer was Kody Burgess; auxiliary percussionist was Matt Blunt. After the first rehearsal I scared Matt off and he never came back, so I needed to find another auxiliary percussionist. Kody came to a few rehearsals but was promptly kicked out by Mr. Lewis, the temporary band teacher, who had a personal vendetta against Kody and wasn’t too fond of me either. So I got two other percussionists: Rob Slater and Aaron Allgrunn, both of which had graduated the previous year. Then Kody told me he really wanted to do it, and we tried to work around Mr. Lewis, so I told Rob that we didn’t really need him after all. Then Kody told me that he couldn’t come to the last two performances, so once again I came to Rob for help. Luckily he was a good sport about it and agreed to play for the last two shows.

At the beginning of February my sister Kjersti left for her mission to Dallas, Texas. This deflated most of the directors, as they had all been close friends with her. Looking back I see this as both detrimental and beneficial. While she probably could have helped solve some of the show’s problems, it would have subtracted from the experience that Nate, I, and the cast, crew, and orchestra gained. It’s like a young child helping the butterfly out of the cocoon; the child means no harm, but the butterfly doesn’t have enough strength to live and dies not long after emerging. This is, of course, my opinion.

As the weeks dragged on so did the songs. I grew more tired and unsure of my abilities as an orchestrator. As a result, I started making mistakes. The missed meter change in 5. Celebration/Our Journey Goes On, the thin musical texture of most of the second act, and the entire song 17. Hunting are examples. I kept setting deadlines for when I would finally finish the show and missed every single one of them. On the short news piece that KSL Channel 5 did on the show in March I mentioned that I had put my heart and soul into this show. I truly meant that, because for these months and a large part of the time afterward it felt like I had indeed lost my soul to this show. The only real records I kept during this time period were my daily AP English “Writing for Fluency” exercises, which mostly show signs of a very tired, weak guy.

Finally, March began. As the performances neared I realized that at the rate I was going I would never finish the show in time, so I left a few songs unorchestrated and crossed my fingers in hopes that the audience wouldn’t notice and/or care. More of the pit was showing up to rehearsals, but one tragic fact was revealed: Chris Roy, the excellent pianist, could not make it to Thursday’s performance. Nate would have to fill in for him. After all, Nate wrote the songs, so he should know the piano parts hands-down, right?

I brought the Finale CD to school and finished some of the songs during Drama 7-8 8th period in the Drama room. Nate wrote 26.The Parade with Eric in the choir room, so I had nothing to do with it. He didn’t have music for it(and still doesn’t) so in the performances it is a recording of himself playing the song on a disk for the Roland KR-375 keyboard he brought in for the show. At this time I was incredibly close to the breaking point. Exhausted, overwhelmed, and emotionless, I just wanted it to be over. Once during those final few days before the show Mrs. Fields had asked me if, given the chance, I would do the whole thing over again, and I almost said no. The only reason I didn’t is because that wasn’t what she wanted to hear, but that was how I felt. Every time I directed the orchestra all I could hear were the mistakes, the missing parts, the wrong dynamics, the list goes on and on. If “hell” was a state of soul that you could be in during your life, I was there. But the show must go on, and the directors have to be brave, so I put on my best face and bore through. I cracked a few times, such as whenever the outrageously bad pun in 35. Venice Some Day came up, but overall I hope I did OK.

March 8th, 2000. The night of the first performance. Some news stations had advertised the show thanks to Amy Winder’s PR skills, so we got a modest audience of 200, which is more than Pygmalion got my junior year. I got some cards and stuff from different people thanking me for doing the show, but at that point I was too weary to care, as I think Nate was too. I could’ve shown more gratitude than I did, so those of you reading this who supported me, I’m thanking you now. The show itself this night wasn’t bad. There were several trouble spots, but overall it was the most mediocre of the performances, relatively speaking. Somebody had baked a cake with a frosting version of the Travels poster on it, but I didn’t get any.

March 9th, 2000. This night I almost lost it. Chris was missing this night, so Nate had to fill in. While Nate had written the show, he knew his version-which was never really the same twice. He kept leaving measures out because he didn’t remember exactly how long the fills were, and he played songs with so much rubato that the beat was lost. Since I had centered most of the songs around the piano(because that was the source material), this spelled trouble for the orchestra and consequently for the cast. Nate noted later that it was one of the hardest things he had ever done. At intermission it was all I had just to sit in the pit and concentrate on pulling together again. Luckily the second act went a bit better because most of it was piano, but it was still definitely the worst performance of the show. It’s interesting to note how, if even one person screws up, the entire show suffers as a result. Take this to heart, chorus members: even if you’re always the guy in the back that has no lines you are still very important and the show would not be the same without you, so give it all you got. That’s my inspirational message for today.

March 10th, 2000. Undeniably the best performance. There was a minimum of mistakes in the orchestra, the energy was high, and my mom was sitting in a great video camera spot in the audience. Best of all, Chris Roy was back for the piano part. It almost made up for the previous night.

March 13th, 2000. A tradition in the Hunter High School Drama Department was for the leads in the cast to give the directors gifts on closing night. I received numerous cards and a bouquet of flowers. I also received a large Chinese calendar and a framed Chinese kanji for “love,” with the message “An open heart sings a wondrous melody, bringing great blessing to whomever may hear it.” Then the leads gave some words of gratitude to all the directors and Mrs. Fields gave a speech about the spirit of the show that offended Dan Burk, the red governor and also the star of the official high school musical that year Crazy For You. After all these profound speeches I took the pit orchestra in the band room and said something to the effect of, “Well, I’m not much of a motivational speaker. I think you got enough of that in the other room. Just do good.”

The article for the show was published in the Deseret News that Saturday on the front page of the Metro section. Several news stations had also done short spots about the show at the end of their broadcasts. Even knowing that didn’t prepare me for how huge the audience was that night. When I stepped through the curtain a brief second before the spotlight was turned on, all I could see were rows upon rows of black heads, fuller than I had ever seen the Hunter High auditorium before. Then the spotlight fell on me and I was nearly blown away by the force of the applause because the house was so full. I couldn’t think about this much, however, because I had to concentrate on making my way past the front row, which was a mass of legs and handshakes-to-be. Finally, I jumped into the pit and tuned the orchestra, and Nate came out to an even larger response from the audience. He gave his pre-show spiel, thanking people left and right, and then the show started.

The show went fine, albeit with more mistakes than Friday night. Most of the time I was paying attention to the pros and cons of the performance, much as I had done since pit rehearsals started and the daily grind set in. However, during the final song 40. Travels and Finale, I remember suddenly thinking, “This is the end. It’s over. My life, my work, the project for which I gave my soul is about to conclude.” And for the briefest second, as I was conducting Eric singing the words, “Living to take a new experience, Living, adventures, being free. What is out there? Now I’ll see! Living and loving life, wondrously,” I felt a twinge of regret.

The moment quickly passed, though, as Rob got the beat wrong for a snare drum fill and my mind went back into its analytical mode. The show ended, bows were taken, the audience clapped and cheered, the curtain call music(just song #40 again without singing) ended, and the curtain closed.

I remember thinking later that night(or maybe it was earlier) that if the whole project were turned into a movie or a mini-series or something, the instant those curtains closed the camera would freeze and the “Executive Producer” credit would appear, the applause sound would slowly fade into a pop version of one of the songs(probably “Walk Upon the Sky” or “Anywhere”), and the story would be over. Real Life isn’t like that. Real Life goes on, and as much as you want to pause Real Life at a particular spot, you have no choice but to move on with Real Life.

And so it was. Travels was the talk for a while afterward at the school, but soon people started focusing their energies on other projects. This was, unfortunately enough, when Sherri Winder, Nate’s mom and a big helper on the PR work, called a meeting and announced that we were going to produce a CD. So once again I sat down at the computer, fired up Finale, and orchestrated song #31. I also did a bit of songs #34 and #35, but I was still entirely worn out and didn’t finish ‘em.

I also pulled the old pit orchestra out of retirement and had a few rehearsals. Unfortunately for the CD, some members of the pit had to miss the Saturday recording date, such as the excellent clarinetist Travis Cooper and the crazy tuba player John Huizingh, so we had to find some last-minute replacements to sight-read the parts. The French horn player we had used for the show, Tyler Holt, was from Bountiful and didn’t really want to drive down to Hunter for the recording, but luckily Dan Omer filled his place well. The result of these replacements? Well, listen to the CD and then the tape(if you have one).

The CD was mainly inferior to the live performances for several reasons. First, the above replacements had little to no experience with the music. Second, we recorded in April, and it had been almost a month since any of the members had played the music. Third, our recording engineer Marilee Webb told John Hawley the bass player to play very softly and as a result almost all of the bass on the recording was lost. Fourth, when it was mixed with the voices the singing ended up completely overpowering the orchestra and you could barely hear the music. There are many more reasons, but I won’t go into them.

Nobody ever really heard the show I wrote. The live versions were done well considering the circumstances, but the stuff I wrote was the MIDI version, and that is the version most dear to me. Whenever I play it for other people they think it sounds like video game music, at least until I play them 16. A Dangerous Sign, at which point they like the MIDI files, but they still don’t appreciate what they mean to me. Each one of those songs has a piece of myself embedded within them. For all of those songs I contributed not only notes, articulations, and markings, but a bit of my own being as well. While I criticize Travels as much as the next guy I can only dislike Travels as a whole if I dislike myself.

As for the experience? I’m amazed I made it through alive. Weakened and a bit empty, yes, but alive. As with all of life, I learned several lessons throughout Travels that I will take with me for the rest of my life. Reach for the unreachable. Stand up for yourself. Don’t just discuss your dreams, make them happen. At the same time, know your limits. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. These philosophies are extremely hard to keep in balance, but if you do you will become the most fulfilled person on the face of the planet.

In conclusion, I would like to say that Travels was amazing. An ordeal, but amazing. I’m still recovering from the emotional side-effects, but to accomplish something so grand and impossible is still a dream come true. I was “living to find the place I’d never been. Living to explore all the things yet to see. Living to take a new experience. Living adventures, being free. What is out there?” Now I’ve seen. And I’ll continue to see.

Humor and Arthur: Things Looked Fuzzy Before I Got Glasses!

(note: the title of this post is from what an Arthur talking doll I had says when you squeeze him. He says some other things too, but that one’s by far the best.)

arthur laser vision

I’ve started watching old episodes of Arthur recently. I used to watch this show all the time, as recently as 2010 or so, but lately I hadn’t seen it for a while. So when I started watching the first season again I ended up rediscovering some things that I had loved but mostly forgotten about, and some things that probably had more of an impact on my own sense of humor than I realized at the time.

I discovered Arthur when I was fourteen years old and in ninth grade, and though I was still in junior high I had mostly moved on from kids’ programming (it was still two years before I could claim “nostalgia” as the reason I looked up old Disney Afternoon shows online). For about two and a half weeks I was at home and basically bedridden after having my gall bladder removed, not with laser surgery as they do nowadays, but with the old-fashioned “cut him open like a ripe melon” style of surgery. During that time is when I first watched Arthur, and since I was on a lot of painkillers at the time I still have some strange memories of the first season of that show. It was also around this time that my sense of humor started to mature from juvenile “knock-knock joke”-type stuff to more sophisticated comedy, and while Arthur certainly wasn’t my only influence in that regard (90’s-era The Simpsons was a big part of that too), and it may just had been coincidence due to the life stage I was in at the time, I think I owe a lot of my certain brand of humor to the style found in Arthur, especially in the early seasons.

You see, while I think Arthur is one of the funniest shows on TV, Arthur isn’t a comedy, or at least it’s not touted as such. It’s primarily a PBS kids’ show, where normal kids learn valuable life lessons about sharing and teamwork, etc. etc. It was one of the more subtle PBS shows in regards to its educational value (most other PBS shows were a little more upfront about exactly what they’re trying to teach), but it wouldn’t quite have fit on any network at the time either, not being a glorified toy commercial or hyper joke factory like most Saturday Morning fare (is the Saturday Morning cartoon block even a thing anymore? Has the whole paradigm of kids’ shows shifted to DVD’s and Netflix and whatever? Strangely, as a 30-year-old single childless man who doesn’t watch My Little Pony, it’s not something I’ve investigated in a while.). And since neither comedy, educational value, nor commercialism are explicitly its focus, the humor that does exist isn’t shoved in your face like a bad Spy Kids movie, but is simply allowed to exist on its own terms.

Most of the stories in early Arthur episodes are as slice-of-life as it’s possible to get. Arthur gets glasses. Arthur gets a puppy. Arthur’s family goes on vacation. Francine gets a lead in the school play, with predictable results (it goes to her head until she realizes that other people worked hard too, so they all work together at the end, etc. etc.). Nothing terribly groundbreaking. But the humor rarely, if ever, comes from the actual premise of any particular episode. The jokes are little side bits that appear and deliver, and almost immediately the episode moves on. There’s no laugh track, there’s no awkward pause or reaction a la The Office, and many jokes probably go over kids’ heads to the point where they may not even realize that a joke happened. One example of that occurs in an episode where Arthur’s family hosts a family reunion at their house. The focus of the episode is that Arthur’s mean cousin Mo will be there, and Arthur spends most of the time avoiding her, only to find at the end that she’s actually pretty cool, and Arthur’s the only reason she goes to these reunions, and they become friends, etc. etc. But every so often we get little glimpses of what some of the other relatives are like, and my own personal favorite is a certain uncle who’s trying to make it as a writer, but is clearly single, somewhat pretentious, and a total failure. He tries to impress everyone by summarizing an original story he’s writing, only to have Arthur’s great-grandmother point out that it’s just like The Fugitive, or Les Miserables, or The 39 Steps, to which the uncle stammers, “Well, yes, it’s like those, but, uh, completely different.” This would be a fun scene on its own, but what I think makes it great, and just up my alley, is that it’s not the focus of the scene (it’s just going on in the background as Arthur’s sneaking around trying to avoid his cousin). In this way the scene is allowed to be real. It’s not a standard comedy setup scene, it’s just something funny that happens in the background of life, and that makes it genuine. In a way, it’s the opposite of certain shows like Family Guy and South Park where the humor and events of the show are so completely divorced from reality that sincerity is lost, and the proscenium is revealed, so to speak. (The same uncle later on tries to get everyone in a game of charades to guess some obscure 14-century book about the bridges of Paris, and gets all huffy when nobody knows what it is. Another reason I love Arthur is because it has great adult characters; where in most kids’ shows the adults are either completely ineffectual, sadistically evil, simple authority figures, or generic stereotypes, the adults in Arthur all have their own personalities and quirks without pulling the focus off the core group of kids, and this uncle and the family’s reaction to him is a great example of that.)

On the other end of the spectrum, yet somewhat related, are when little reality-breaking surreal moments occur, but nobody pays them much mind. These are some of my favorite kind of jokes, not because they’re necessarily all that funny on their own, but many just come out of nowhere and quickly disappear again. Some gags like this include a toy that Arthur finds at a toy shop that’s based on a Transformer, except instead of turning into a robot it turns into a likeness of his principal. It doesn’t really make any sense no matter how you slice it, but it’s a tiny bit in an otherwise unrelated scene that adds to the quirkiness of the Arthur universe. Another such scene happens when Arthur is reading a story he’s writing to all his friends one by one, and they keep making him change it until it’s a confusing mess. When he reads it to the Brain they’re on the bank of a river or pond or something, and when Arthur asks the Brain what he thinks, he picks up a frog who croaks, “Rrrrrrotten,” and hops away. Nobody pays any attention to the fact that the Brain just had a frog answer the question; the scene just moves on with the Brain giving Arthur some more writing tips.

One of my all-time favorite gags like this comes in an episode where Arthur is teaching D.W. how to ride a bicycle and they’re working on various hand signals (holding your hand up means right turn, to the side means left turn, etc.). D.W. makes a silly face and waves her arms around, and asks Arthur what that hand signal means. But before Arthur can get too annoyed, suddenly a guy (who is apparently their next-door-neighbor Mr. Sipple, though I don’t recall seeing him in any other episode except maybe the one, years later, where he moves away and gets replaced with a family from Ecuador whose members become semi-reoccurring characters) wearing nothing but a towel appears out of nowhere and hands D.W. a cabbage, who explains that, where he comes from, when somebody makes that goofy face while sitting on a bike, it means, “bring me a cabbage, fast!” He then says, “I left the tub running! Bye!” and runs away, and the scene continues like nothing happened. Not only is it a wonderfully surreal moment, but it occurs in the middle of something as mundane as teaching a kid how to ride a bicycle, giving something utterly forgettable a delightful twist.

Probably the most memorable gag like this (although not the best, in my opinion, though it is pretty good) is an episode where Art Garfunkel (yes, really) is following the kids around the whole time inserting musical stings every so often, and nobody even really pays attention to him until the very end, when Arthur asks Buster where the singing guy came from and Buster has no idea. There’s even a bit where Garfunkel plays a happy, upbeat ditty about how sad Buster is until Buster gets mad that he’s not playing sad music, at which point Garfunkel plays something slower and sadder to oblige. All this in an otherwise rooted-in-reality episode about Buster coming home after a long trip around the world with his dad and having to readjust to being back home.

There are lots of other kinds of humor present in Arthur (such as the usually wonderful imagination spots), but those are my two favorite types: humor that exists on its own terms without having to draw attention to it, and humor that’s wonderfully surreal in the midst of the mundane. This, in turn, drives a lot of things I think are funny in the real world, too. For example, a shirt that I really want to get is this one: a T-shirt that simply says, in a boring font, “More information about licorice can be found on the internet.” Now, technically, it’s a quote from a random Mark Trail comic, but that’s not the point. I just love how nonchalant it is about advertising a piece of completely pointless and unnecessary advice that’s not sponsored by any licorice company or search engine. It’s a strange enough thing that you don’t have to know the reference in order to find the shirt funny (unlike a lot of nerdy humor shirts which I will not purchase), but at the same time it’s not screaming, “I’m a funny shirt! Laugh at me!” It just is what it is, and if you don’t find it funny, then who cares? At least you get good Internet searching advice in case you need to know more about licorice. The humor more comes from the fact that this factoid has now been immortalized on a T-shirt and somebody is out there displaying it like any other T-shirt. Also note: this shirt wouldn’t be funny if the wearer went around drawing attention to it. It would be annoying. But if you saw somebody wearing this at, say, the grocery store, just picking out lettuce or something as though their shirt was completely normal, even though it’s kind of surreal? That’s my kind of humor. And that’s something I could easily see happen in an episode of Arthur.

Life is full of the surreal mundane. And I like to make everyone’s day a little more surreal if I can, without drawing attention to it. I had a friend in college who told me how she really likes how I tell jokes. Normally my brand of humor is just to insert some sort of wry observation into an otherwise normal conversation, but then act as if what I said was perfectly normal. Some people say something they think is funny, but then they go around elbowing people and saying, “Eh? Eh? Get it? Get it?” or the equivalent. I just try to let the joke stand or fall on its own, and if you think it’s funny, great; if not, no biggie. A lot of the people that make me laugh deliver their humor in the same way.

I think that the things in life that make us laugh are much closer to the jokes you find in Arthur than in a lot of other comedies. People watch The Office and laugh because the situations are awkward, but you certainly wouldn’t want to actually work there (and personally, I can’t stand the brand of awkward humor in that show or others like it, but that’s just me). People watch Seinfeld and laugh at the crazy characters, but nobody would want to actually be friends with any of those people. (Invite them to parties, maybe, but not be friends with them.) That’s not to say that you’d want to be friends with everyone in Arthur (the Tibble twins come to mind, as does D.W. depending on the writer), but the characters are more based in reality than a lot of live-action comedies are (let alone other cartoons), so therefore the humor seems more genuine and sincere.

I guess that this could all be summed up thusly: The things I find funny (and that abound in many Arthur episodes) are strange, but low-key. Surreal, but rooted in the mundane. Because while some comedies stop for a laugh track, or a documentary-style interview, or have the perfect comedic setup or cutaway gag, life doesn’t. If you don’t have to point out your humor or have others point it out for you, you can start to find things to laugh about anywhere. And, for me, that’s what makes life grand.

themoreyouknow

The Third Date Dump

We interrupt your previously scheduled philosophical musings about religion and its place in the universe and life to bring you…another post about being single. Yay.

So I have probably done a lot more dating in the past year than I’ve done in any year previous. And while that doesn’t mean I’ve actually done a ton of dating, I have dated quite a few different people, and different types of people. I’ve dated people near my age, and people a lot younger than me. I’ve dated people I’ve known for years, people I’ve only recently met, and people I met online through dating services. I’ve dated fat girls, skinny girls, girls who climb on rocks. Tough girls, sissy girls, but no girls with chicken pox. And even though I’ve gone through a rather large range, there have been some striking similarities with every single one of these “relationships”, and one common trait in particular, which I shall dub the “Third Date Dump.”

What is the Third Date Dump? Well, contrary to what it sounds like, it’s not where I consistently got dumped on the third date. At least, not exactly. Rather, it refers to the moment, usually during the third date, where I know that the relationship wasn’t going to go anywhere. And on almost every occasion (save maybe one), it was due to the girl making it clear that she was just kind of being polite, usually something like sitting stiff as a board with her arms crossed while we’re watching the movie/watching the DVD/taking a walk/whatever, coupled with That Look. This normally coincides with a complete lack of contact after the date other than replying to me asking what their schedule is so we can go on the inevitable next date (which is especially telling with the girls I meet online, where we normally have several long and meaningful conversations in text before we even meet each other). Sometimes (OK, once) we do end up talking about it, where the girl confirms my suspicions that yes, she’s not interested and was just interested in putting me in the friend zone. Other times she just gracefully disappears from the radar (this works great with the dates found through online services). Often we go on a fourth or even fifth date, but it’s apparent to both of us that the relationship is over and we’re just humoring each other, and things just peter out after that. This, I have found, is the way that most girls will dump you: not by sitting down and saying, “I think we should see other people” or whatever, but by the little signs until you get the hint. Therefore, the “Third Date Dump.”

This has happened with every single relationship I’ve been in over the past year. Heck, I shouldn’t even call them relationships, since three dates doesn’t really constitute any sort of meaningful relationship. This is similar to something I’ve complained about several times in this blog (see that “That Look” post I linked to earlier), but with one important distinction: the first date is almost always great. We normally hit it off pretty well, have a lot to talk about, and we enjoy each other’s company, with both of us eager for a second date. And the second date normally goes pretty well, too; sure, some of the excitement of the first date may have worn off, but we still normally have a good time and get to know each other better. But always by the third date we hit that wall of “sudden disinterest”, and I just don’t understand it. A few times this wall had been hit prior to the third date, but all of those were cases where the person had known me for a while, which makes me think, “At what percentage of knowing about me does the typical girl get turned off?” or “What precise trait do I possess that always comes out at the same point in dating someone that is such a deal-breaker?”

It’s really starting to get repetitive. And that’s what caught my attention. Normally I’d be prone to think, “Well, this particular girl isn’t interested, and that’s fine,” if this had happened once or twice. But every single one? What are the odds? In fact, if we extend this back to all the relationships I’ve had/dates I’ve been on, only once has something like this not happened. And of all the times it did happen, only once did it not take place until past the third date, that I can recall. It’s seriously sapping my will to date at all. Why put so much effort into getting to know a person if we’re just going to break it off two weeks down the line?

I’m turning 30 in a little over two weeks. And the problem with being single for so long is that you get set in your ways. Your life is so self-focused that, even though you want a relationship, you really have no idea how to get one to work, or even start. I know I have this problem, and all of the girls I’ve dated around my age have the exact same problem (and anyone who doesn’t…is probably already married). They have constructed their life already, and adding a partner to that doesn’t jive with everything else that’s already been set up. And while that carries with it a certain amount of loneliness, it also carries with it a certain amount of control and comfort. While I was searching for an image to put at the top of this blog post, I came across this article (yeah, I just linked to the Oprah magazine; make of it what you will) that describes this phenomenon much better than I can. And while the analysis is spot-on, the conclusion (that people who feel this way should learn to accept and embrace being single instead of chasing unobtainable dreams) is something that I can’t accept. Is there another option to break out of this? Is this the thing that breaks up every relationship I’ve attempted? I don’t know! How come everyone who has a successful relationship is always like, “Well, I met the right person, and the rest is history?” How is that supposed to help? I didn’t make it this far alone because that “special someone” is still out there, gazing at the stars outside her tower window. I don’t believe in the “one true soulmate” story. So it’s gotta be something else! Angry rant! Frustration at everything! Inability to figure out what to do differently! Resignation that nothing’s gonna change unless I change it, coupled with the ignorance of what to change! Awareness that I keep using the word “couple” as a verb, because I guess it’s on my mind! Exclamation points!!!!

Here’s the thing. My most recent relationship is currently right at this phase. It’s a girl I met online. We’ve had the third date. The 3DD (you know what this stands for) signs were there, coming from her. At the same time, she wants to go see the current Poison Ivy Mysteries show with me. There’s always the chance that she’s just not sure how she feels and maybe this relationship will work with some effort. Or there’s the chance that she’s done with me but wants to go see the show anyway because it sounds fun and hey, free dinner. I want to actually discuss the topic with her, but I don’t know how to bring it up without the dreaded “DTR” talk somehow pushing things too fast and killing off an otherwise salvageable relationship (which has also happened in my past).  I like her. I want to like her more. Everything that implies. But I feel like a fourth date at this point will be the same as the previous fourth dates I’ve had recently: we’re just kind of humoring each other, and it will peter out after that. So there’s the impasse.

Thanks for reading this rant. I promise next time we’ll go back to questioning the foundations of my faith, which garners a much larger response from people.

…the hell is Mormonism, anyway? Part 2: Reasons

Part One

Note: I’ve received a lot of comments on part one so far, and while I will eventually address them specifically and individually, first I’d like to continue with this series and see if any points pop up that I can then refer to in any specific answers. Please bear with me!

So in part one I brought up a few questions: How does one believe in a true church when it is full of flaws? And how does an intellectual believe in something so dependent on feelings? I’ll address these more later, but first I’d like to examine the root causes of why people leave the church. I am not here referring to people who have never joined the church for whatever reason, but those who were members, either through conversion or through being raised in the church, but have now decided to leave it. Like I said in my last post, everyone has different reasons for ceasing their activity and/or belief in what the gospel and the church have to offer. But after a lot of thought and consideration, I believe it boils down to two main reasons:

1) It’s easier

Do you guys know what’s easy? Not being a member of the Church! Aw snap! You can do whatever you want on Sunday, you get to keep that 10% of your income instead of giving it up to build more chapels or whatever, you don’t have to worry about that whole dumb Word of Wisdom thing telling you what you can and can’t eat and/or drink, that one guy down the street who thinks Obama is a secret Muslim out to burn the country to the ground can’t tell you how to improve your relationship with God just because some other guy called him to be your bishop, and if you want to watch porn while drinking cheap scotch and swearing loudly, nobody’s gonna care! You arrive at your own morality based on your own experiences! You’re an adult, not some little five-year-old! You can figure this stuff out!

I’m (half-)kidding with those extremes, but a lot of people do leave the Church because it’s simply easier not to have to deal with a lot of crap that gets thrown at active members, whether it be requirements of active membership, outside criticism of the faith, inside judgement from nosy ward members, or personal disagreements with church leaders and/or doctrine. It’s a lot easier to say, for example, that homosexuality is just as valid a lifestyle as heterosexuality (please do not discuss this topic in the comments; I’m not opening that argument here, this is just an example) and therefore the Church’s teachings are false, than it is to do the research to figure out where the leaders are coming from in an eternal perspective. And even if one has done that research and still disagrees, it’s a lot easier to say that the Church leaders are wrong, or misguided, or have a different belief system (and good for them), but in my life I’ll believe what I feel is right, than it is to say that maybe I’m wrong, even though I don’t understand why yet and possibly never will until I die. It’s easier, more rational, and from a purely intellectual standpoint, probably the correct thing to do.

Am I saying that everyone who leaves the Church because it’s hard is somehow a lazy bum or a hedonist? Of course not! Being a Latter-Day Saint is hard work, and I don’t just mean the physical things like going to Church, or tithing, or obeying commandments, praying, scripture study, service projects, home/visiting teaching, fulfilling callings, etc. etc. but a lot of the mental, social, and emotional wringers that people are put through in a lot of Church environments. I mean, where would you rather be: a place where people either look down upon you or (even worse) make you into a project to save the “one lost sheep” just because you happened to wear a slightly shorter skirt, or admit that you like video games, or once said that Ewan McGregor is damn smoking hot (and you’re also a guy)? Or a place where you’ve got a bunch of friends who couldn’t care less what your lifestyle is and accept you for whatever you are? I can tell you this: one of those scenarios is certainly much easier than the other one. But does picking the easier scenario mean that you’re somehow weak, or does it just mean that you’ve got a measure of sanity? Am I a lazy good-for-nothing because I didn’t join the Marines? I don’t think so.

With that said, however, I also think that a lot of people who do leave the church would be willing to put up with all that adversity if they felt it was worthwhile in the end. This leads me to my second reason why I think people leave the Church:

2) Lack of spiritual experiences

Now don’t get me wrong with this: I’m not saying that spiritual experiences are only for Church members, and that everyone who has left the Church has obviously never had one. People outside the Church have spiritual experiences all the time, while a lot of people in the Church never really have. But I think that’s part of the issue here. There have been a lot of people I’ve talked to who said that they’ve done all they can think of to receive that spiritual witness that the Church is true. They’ve read the Book of Mormon. They’ve prayed about it. They’ve been as faithful and obedient as they can: paying their tithes, attending their meetings, serving others, etc. They’ve taken Moroni’s challenge, followed Alma’s counsel to plant the seed, and even pulled an Enos or two. And still, after all is said and done, they never received that strong spiritual witness that most active members point to when they are asked what the basis of their testimony is. Or perhaps they thought they had received a witness but later find out or decide that it was just an emotional response: that their reaction to the Book of Mormon felt the same as their reaction to watching WALL-E or something. Or maybe they’ve received a witness of Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ but haven’t received that witness regarding anything specifically related to Mormonism.

Some people, at this point, look to justify why they haven’t received that witness. Perhaps it’s because the Church is for/against something they do or don’t believe in; therefore, it’s not true. Perhaps they find some bit of evidence suggesting that Martin Harris rewrote some weird manuscript and published it as the Book of Mormon; therefore the Church isn’t true. Maybe Apostle X or Bishop Y or Sister Z did something pretty boneheaded and uninspired; therefore, the Church isn’t true. Or maybe the Church isn’t able to answer their question to problem X to their full satisfaction; therefore, it isn’t true. But all of these nitpicks usually don’t bother most strong, active members. For, when you get right to the heart of it, the main difference between those who stay faithful and those who fall away, between those with a strong, unbreakable testimony and those whose testimony gets blown apart given enough adversity, is that the latter group does not have that foundation of the Spirit upon which to build everything else.

Why?

Why is it that some people can kneel down and pray about the Book of Mormon, and receive that witness, while others work for years on it with nothing to show for it? How is it that one person can do everything in their power to be the best and most faithful person they can be in the gospel and not receive that witness, especially when they see that gossipy Relief Society president with little to no regard for the people she’s supposed to serve, go up to the pulpit with tears streaming down her cheeks and proclaiming that she has received a strong spiritual prompting that her now-deceased pet dog is in Heaven and therefore she knows the Church is true with every fiber of her being?

That example may seem a bit extreme (though probably not as much as it should be, sadly), but let me share a personal experience that I’ve struggled with for quite some time. One day on my mission I was on an exchange with another young elder and Elder Proctor, a 70-year-old former vacuum salesman who was…let’s say…eccentric. He had a lot of crazy theories about the gospel and missionary work, and one of those was that “God bunches up the elect,” meaning that, in any particular city, God takes all the people that will accept the gospel and puts them all in the same neighborhood, and all the missionaries have to do is figure out wherever that neighborhood is and then they could baptize everyone all in one fell swoop. Most of the other missionaries (including the mission president) were somewhat skeptical of this approach, but whatever gets the work done, right? So in the city where he served he had divided the city into a grid and had one day spent hours on his knees figuring out where the elect had been bunched in the city, and had come up with map squares 8B, 14B, and the street Tío de Romero, and refused to tract anywhere else in the city since it would be a waste of time not working where the elect had been bunched.

Anyway, on this particular day, before we went out in the afternoon, he had us get down on our knees and pray for a minute to ask the Lord whether we should tract in 8B, 14B, or Tío de Romero. As the prayer went on I didn’t feel any super-strong prompting for any of those three places, but toward the end I thought, 14B? Maybe? Is that my prompting? It’s the best I have! So after the prayer, we all stood up, and Elder Proctor asked me, “So, Elder Parkes, where does the Lord want us to go?”

“14B?”

BZZZZT! Wrong!” Yes, he actually said this. He then asked the other elder, “What about you?”

“8B!”

DING DING DING! Correct! Let’s go!” And we went.

I was a bit nonplussed by this, but I normally would have chalked it up to just another silly thing that Elder Proctor did (he really was quite a character), except for what happened next. The second door we knocked on contained a bunch of out-of-work Bulgarians who didn’t know anybody and were truly humble souls. To make a long story short, all six of them had been baptized within a month and it ended up being Elder Proctor’s biggest success story of his mission. Every testimony meeting since then, Elder Proctor would get up, tears in his eyes, and tell the wonderful story about how the Lord knew they had been waiting to receive the gospel, and how they were going to head back to Bulgaria and spread the word of Christ in a country that didn’t have an LDS presence, and how it was truly a great miracle, and how strong the Spirit was in that room when “the three of us knelt to ask the Lord where to find His sheep, and we all got up and all of us knew where to go — well, two of us did, anyway — and then, with His guidance, we found these wonderful souls…”

I had been doing my best as a missionary. I was praying eight times a day or so (at least), studying my scriptures, doing my best to learn the language, preach the gospel, and serve those around me. True, I was far from perfect, but I was doing the best I could. How is it that I felt absolutely nothing and came up with the wrong answer, when the other two had such a strong witness and it ended up being such a success? Was I really that apostate, even though I had been doing my best? This experience, while such a wonderful spiritual witness for everyone else involved, probably tested my faith more than anything else I had experienced up to that point, including a pretty crappy childhood and teenage years, because it hit at the very core of my testimony: my ability to recognize and follow the Spirit.

So once again, I ask: why? Why is it so hard for some people to receive that spiritual witness despite their best earnest, sincere efforts? How can a person believe “Knock and it shall be opened unto you” when they feel like they’ve been banging on that door forever and nobody’s answered? What’s the missing puzzle piece?

Once again, I have my own thoughts on this which I will eventually share, but I’d first like to hear what you guys think.

Part One

…the hell is Mormonism, anyway? Part 1:Questions

Part two

Recently, I’ve been noticing a disturbing trend. A lot of people I look up to —  smart, intelligent, capable people whose opinions I put in high regard and with whom I usually identify in regard to most subjects — have, one by one, started falling away from the LDS Church (the most recent example being someone who was my first counselor when I was Elders’ Quorum President a few years back). While some (not all) of the most stalwart members I know are also the most ignorant and naive in other areas of life. And with the recent spotlight of Mormonism in pop culture, what with Mitt Romney and the Book of Mormon musical and even things like Prop. 8 from a few years ago, even Internet personalities and/or famous people whose opinion I also respect have begun to weigh in on the topic of what Mormonism is and how it works. And with all this scrutiny, I’ve come to realize one important thing: I have to figure out where I stand on the issue. Gone are the days when I could just say, “I know the Church is true,” because I was standing at a pulpit during a testimony meeting. Gone are the days when I could just sorta believe, ’cause, you know, the Church does a lot of good charity work and teaches uplifting life lessons and hey, everyone else around is doing it. As I’ve made fairly clear on a few occasions, there is a lot of LDS culture that I am not a big fan of, so I don’t have the culture to tether me into the faith.

So how will I, a self-proclaimed intellectual, find the fortitude to stay within the LDS fold, when so many others of my ilk are falling away?

To begin, let’s look at the reasons people give for leaving the church. One thing I’ve found interesting is that most of the people I know who’ve left the church have fairly disparate reasons for doing so. For example, this popped up on my Facebook feed recently. It is basically a list of grievances brought forth by some members of the Church who are unsatisfied with the way it is run now and want to bring about some changes, mostly in regard to the role of women. Some of the grievances are more sins of the culture rather than the church (such as the equality in the budget and focuses of the Young Men/Young Women programs, which I’m fairly certain is more up to local leaders), others are basically never going to happen (most of the “women should have the priesthood too”-related ones), and still others are legitimate grievances that should be addressed (and in fact, one already has: one of the points is that sisters should be able to serve at age 19, which, thanks to last week’s General Conference, they now can!). Some of the points I feel are a little naive themselves. I’d argue that there are a lot of things in the Church that are way more women-friendly, and if you compare, say, the mainstream LDS view of single women to single men, you’ll find that single women come out on top, especially in recent years, where the view for women seems to be “It’s OK; do your best and you’ll be blessed anyway,” but for men it’s “Find a wife, you sinful moron!”

My point in bringing this up, though, isn’t to discuss its finer points, but to say that a lot of these ideas and similar ones are what some people seem to fixate upon. Once someone has a persecution complex, it’s easy to put on blinders and focus on only those issues in the Church, to the point that as long as that one thing isn’t addressed, then the Church isn’t worth it. I could very easily point out the disparity between the way the Church treats its single men and its single women, or between singles and married people, or between childless couples and families. I could use that as an excuse to say, “Until single men have the opportunity to serve in bishoprics, I don’t believe in the Church anymore! I can do just as well as any other married guy! With the added bonus that I wouldn’t have to leave a family home while I go to all these meetings!” This argument applies to nearly any “persecuted” minority in the church: women, gays, people who like to swear, intellectuals — the list goes on.

But is it valid? Is it right to say that, since we claim that God created the Church, and it is the only true and living Church on the face of the earth, any flaw in its policies disproves that claim? Or any part of the doctrine that doesn’t make sense with our worldview? Is the excuse that “the people in the church aren’t perfect, even though the church is,” a valid defense, or just a cop-out designed to deflect criticism?

Let’s take another angle. Matt, the author of the blog post I brought up at the beginning of this one (if I understand him correctly), grew up believing in the Mormonism of ideas. That is to say, putting Alma’s and Moroni’s promise to the test: faith was good to start, but it was possible to come to a knowledge of the precepts of the gospel; not just of the simple things like “serve your fellow man and you will be blessed” but complex things about intelligences and how spiritual matter is organized and other things hinted at by Joseph Smith that forms some of the deeper doctrine of the Church. In addition, there are a lot of differing accounts of how some things happened in Church history, many painting a different picture than the common one accepted in Sunday School classes. And while it’s easy to say that, “oh, the deeper doctrine isn’t necessary for salvation,” or “oh, some of those accounts are either fraudulent or biased or influenced by Satan or whatever” (I honestly haven’t done the research myself or I would cite examples), at some point the suspension of disbelief may begin to crack. One can debate the validity of using spiritual experiences to prove objective truth, but the point is, for him, there were too many discrepancies and/or too much vagueness on these points that it was impossible for him to form that solid foundation upon which to build a concrete belief system. (I suggest you actually go read that post, as it is quite well-written and obviously he puts forth his argument better than I have.)

Must one have blind faith to overcome these seemingly small obstacles that build up? Is it enough to say, “I believe in the Church because I’ve felt good about it, which has gotta be the Spirit,” even if it’s hard to get the objective evidence to line up? How can a serious, analytical thinker, whose core being thirsts for knowledge and understanding, weave together a perfect gospel and/or Church from so much vagueness and uncertainty? Is it enough to apply Bellisario’s Maxim (“Don’t examine this too closely”) and go around thinking that all the stuff that doesn’t quite make sense will be explained in the afterlife or something, or is that too much to swallow for a rational person? Must we go around all 1984 and employ doublethink just to keep our lives simple?

I do have my own responses to many of these claims, and with a lot of them I’ll try to go somewhat deeper, somewhat more intellectual. But first I’d like to hear what people think, especially from both those who have left the Church and those who consider themselves intellectuals and/or don’t really fit in the Mormon culture, but still stay active in the Church.

Part two

Eight Virtues: The Ultima Facebook Experiment

Recently I’ve been sucked into playing the Ultima series. I’d seen some fun and glowing reviews for most of the series online and it was on sale at GOG.com at the beginning of June, so I figured I’d pick the games up and see for myself if they were as good as people say. And they really have been good, especially considering that the first one came out before I was even born and nearly the entire series of fourteen games (including spin-offs) was concluded before the mid-90’s. But what surprised me more than anything else wasn’t the gameplay or the story, but the interesting ethical and moral issues these games brought up, especially the second trilogy (Ultima IVUltima VI).

Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (which, if you pick up the series, I’d recommend starting with, since the first three are kind of weird and you don’t have to play them to understand the rest of the series) is for the most part a standard western RPG; however, it doesn’t actually have a big bad guy to defeat. Nobody’s trying to take over the world; there isn’t any cosmic force slowly dismantling reality — there aren’t even really any bullies or small-time baddies (well, there are some pirates, but they’re all pretty generic). About the worst you get are some orcs and trolls roaming the countryside and some dungeons with monsters in them, but that’s it for the forces of evil. You see, Richard Garriott, creator of the Ultima games, had seen complaints made by concerned groups and parents about bad moral choices that seemed to be prevalent in video games and tabletop RPGs (like Dungeons & Dragons) and decided to craft a game devoted to morality (without tying it to any specific theology, though some of its inspiration comes from Buddhism) to prove that, yes, games can be used to inspire people to be good and virtuous instead of violent psychos or antisocial jerks. To that end, he created the system of the Eight Virtues and crafted an entire game based around living by these virtues. The virtues are Honesty, Compassion, Valor, Justice, Sacrifice, Honor, Spirituality, and Humility, all of which are based around three principles of truth, love, and courage.

I won’t go into much detail about how all this works in the game (you should go play it to find out), but basically it boils down to you actually following these virtues in-game to win. While a lot of modern RPGs have some sort of morality meter, often it’s pretty black and white: i.e. you’re either the paragon of goodness and purity, or you’re a puppy-strangling murderer. This game muddies the water a bit: you can do well in one virtue while being horrible in another (like robbing gold from people’s houses, which lowers your Honesty and Honor, but then giving it to the poor, raising your Compassion and Sacrifice). Some virtues even seem contradictory on the surface. For example, to have a good score in Valor you must never run from a fight or avoid confrontation, but to be Honorable you should never kill a defenseless/weaker opponent (unless it’s something evil like a demon), which leads to some creative solutions to accomplish both goals; in this case, beating on weak opponents until they start running away, then letting them go.

What I found especially intriguing were the events of the introduction, where you picked your starting class and stats. Instead of just choosing from a list and dividing out skill points, however, it took the form of an old gypsy woman presenting you with moral questions, having to choose between one virtue and another, until the last one you picked corresponded to your starting class, with each class represented by one of the virtues (a fighter held Valor as most important, a mage prized Honesty, a paladin followed Honor, etc.) But each question wasn’t a choice between good and evil, or good and lukewarm, or even better and best. In most cases, each question had you pick between two perfectly moral choices, depending on what you hold most important, and a lot of them were pretty tough choices (assuming you were answering them honestly, and not just picking the virtue that corresponded to whatever class you wanted to use).

So I decided to run a little experiment on Facebook and ask the general public (or at least my Facebook friends) the same questions, to see what virtue people really held most dear. And the responses were fairly telling and somewhat surprising in their own right, and I think a lot of lessons can be learned from the result. I may later post the actual answers people gave, but I want to get permission from people before I start quoting them, so for now I’ll summarize. First, let me break it down question by question:

1. Entrusted to deliver an uncounted purse of gold, thou dost meet a poor beggar. Dost thou:
A) deliver the gold knowing the Trust in thee was well-placed; or
B) show Compassion, giving the Beggar a coin, knowing it won’t be missed?

Honesty vs. Compassion. This first question had a lot of people trying to take a third option, e.g. give the beggar some of their own money, come back later afterward and help the beggar out, pray about it, etc. Of course, taking a third option was kind of a cop-out answer, and sometimes praying about it isn’t always the final answer (a point which I’ll come back to later). Although a few people noted that leaving the beggar unsuccored would be a greater sin than using money that nobody would miss anyway (though both would be bad), the majority went with option A. Being trustworthy was more important than being charitable, especially if it’s not your own money (even if it wouldn’t be missed).

Winner: Honesty.

2. Although a teacher of music, thou art a skillful wrestler. Thou hast been asked to fight in a local championship against those with much lesser skill. Dost thou:
A) accept the invitation and Valiantly fight to win; or
B) Humbly decline knowing thou wouldst probably have won, thus giving others a better chance?

Valor vs. Humility. I reworded this one slightly from the actual question to try to make it more balanced, but apparently it didn’t work, as not a single person picked B. Everyone chose to enter and win the tournament. I found this one the most surprising, because personally, I would have picked B. Not that I’m necessarily all that humble (in fact, I don’t think the answer here really demonstrates humility, which is one reason I tried to reword it: the original reads “Humbly decline knowing thou art sure to win”), but beating people who are obviously way worse than I am isn’t fun for the other people, nor is it really fun for me, especially in a tournament setting. I pictured it like Stephen Hawking entering a third-grade science fair: assuming the judges are completely unbiased and don’t care about anyone’s feelings, it’s obvious who’s going to win. It just seems like a petty ego-booster more than anything else. Striving to beat those on your own level, however, is a different story, as would be training those weaker than you. But that’s just my opinion.

Winner: Valor.

3. Thou dost believe that virtue resides in all people. Thou dost see a rogue steal from thy Lord. Dost thou:
A) call him to Justice; or
B) personally try to sway him back to the Spiritual path of good?

Justice vs. Spirituality. This one was completely split down the middle, and I ended up having to choose a winner based on how many “likes” each comment got. The obvious Les Miz parallel was drawn (“You must use this precious silver to become an honest man…”), and some said it depended on why the rogue was stealing, which, oddly enough, is a moral dilemma presented in some other Ultima IV questions (more about those later), just not in the ones I asked. Others brought up the fact that, whatever his reasoning behind the theft, he was guilty regardless and needed to face the consequences. Nevertheless, in the end B won, though that was probably more due to people liking the Les Miz quote than anything else.

Winner: Spirituality.

4. Thou art a bounty hunter sworn to return an alleged murderer. After his capture, thou believest him to be innocent. Dost thou:
A) Sacrifice thy sizeable bounty for thy belief; or
B) Honor thy oath to return him as thou hast promised?

Sacrifice vs. Honor. Randomly, this is the basis for a Quantum Leap episode, where in the end Sam goes with A (and it’s not like it’s his bounty anyway). Anyway, this was was also nearly 50/50. Those arguing for A noted that just because someone has a bounty after them doesn’t mean they’re guilty. You weren’t sure if he would get a fair trial, especially since the simple matter of having a bounty on one’s head tends to bias people against a person. However, those who argued for B noted that it would hurt your own reputation and honor to not fulfill your job. You could testify of your belief at the trial and put your faith in the system. Both excellent arguments, but in the end more people chose A, barely.

Winner: Sacrifice.

5. Thou has been prohibited by thy absent Lord from joining thy friends in a close pitched battle. Dost thou:
A) refrain, so thou may Honestly claim obedience; or
B) show Valor, and aid thy comrades, knowing thou may deny it later?

Honesty vs. Valor. This is the winner of the first question vs. the winner of the second question, which is how it works in the game (the whole thing is a sort of bracket system). The answers were, once again, pretty split down the middle. Some said it was more important to remain obedient, no matter what the situation (though in this case “Lord” refers to a human, fallible medieval lord, not the religious, divine kind), some chose not to fight because the war itself was most likely political, and some just chose to pray for their friends instead. Others chose to put “bros before lords” and quoted valiant poetry, in essence showing that, when it comes down to it, it’s most important to protect your fellow soldiers. Still, in the end, more people chose to follow their lord than aid their comrades, so A was the winner!

Winner: Honesty.

6. Thou hast spent thy life in charitable and righteous work. Thine uncle the innkeeper lies ill and asks you to take over his tavern. Dost thou:
A) Sacrifice thy life of purity to aid thy kin; or
B) decline & follow thy Spirit’s call?

Sacrifice vs. Spirituality. I think this question hit closer to home for most people than many of the earlier questions, as this type of dilemma is something faced all the time within the LDS community. I know specifically of one case where the girl involved had literally nearly this exact decision (minus the tavern): take care of her sick father, or serve a mission. She put off serving a mission for years, but finally decided that it was too important to put off any longer, and she’s currently out serving right now. On a smaller scale this struggle happens in the Church all the time. What’s more important for a bishop: raising his family, or fulfilling his duties? It’s up to each bishop and his family to decide where that line lies, but it’s not an easy decision. The same can be said of many callings in the Church.

A lot of people picked A, reasoning that helping your family is a form of charitable and righteous work anyway, and as an innkeeper you may have opportunities to be charitable and kind to others. Most of those who picked B brought up their mission experiences specifically, saying that whatever good they may have accomplished at home was not even comparable to the good they accomplished  in their missionary years. Still, for the majority, family comes first.

Winner: Sacrifice.

7. Thou and thy friend are valiant but penniless warriors. Ye both go out to slay a mighty dragon. Thy friend thinks he slew it, but thou didst. When asked, dost thou:
A) Truthfully claim the gold; or
B) Allow thy friend the large reward?

Honesty vs. Sacrifice. I edited this question a little too, but it was mostly to fix grammatical errors (the original said “thee did” instead of “thou didst”, which makes about as much sense as saying “Him do” instead of “He does”).

Wow. So many people wanted to take a third option here, it was ridiculous. Almost everyone wanted to just split the money, though in my opinion this was more about the prestige of being a dragon-slayer than it was about the reward, but I suppose that can be split too, so the arguments presented still work. In the end I think A edged it out, but that must be qualified by the fact that more people tried to take a third option than answer the question.

Grand Winner: Honesty.

There are actually a lot more questions possible (one for every combination of virtues; you can find the full list here), but I wanted to present them how the game might do so. Incidentally, picking Honesty as your virtue in Ultima IV makes you a mage, which is a really good class for the player character, so well done there, I suppose.

So what can be gleaned from all this? I think there are a multitude of good lessons here, and I leave it to each individual to take their own to heart, but here are at least a few things I’ve observed and learned.

I think the main lessons I’ve gleaned revolve around the fact that life isn’t filled with black and white choices. There are a lot of definite wrong choices, sure, but oftentimes, especially in the Church, we get the idea that in many situations there is one best choice and everything else is wrong. While that can be sometimes true, I think that often we’re asked to choose between two good things. Prayer can help guide one’s thoughts, sure, but the Lord can’t decide everything for us. D&C 58 teaches that men are “agents unto themselves”, and countless scriptures (such as Ether 2-3) and examples in Church history teach that we need to come up with our own solutions to problems we face. It’s what we personally prize as most important that gives us the ability to choose, even if both choices are acceptable to the Lord.

That’s not to say that all choices must be between one virtue and another. As was proved by the third options people kept trying to take, often goodness results from trying to apply as many virtues to a situation as possible. Often choices can seem black and white, or at the very least between two extremes, but perhaps a third road could be sought to resolve things well for all involved, even if it’s not the best possible outcome for any specific party. (Insert political commentary here.) Of course, that’s just common sense, or at least it should be.

Probably the other thing I found the most interesting about this experiment was that, since there weren’t really any wrong answers, usually the answers people gave revealed much more about the person than it did about morality or virtue. For example, for question #5 (wilt thou join thy friends in battle), the people who picked to help their friends are fighters in real life; perhaps not physically (although in one case I know for a fact that, yes, physically he is a fighter), but in attitude and life outlook. While out of those who picked A, only one or two of them actually cited obedience as the main reason (the comment about “I wouldn’t fight in a political war” is especially telling). And there’s nothing wrong with avoiding a fight, especially one that you have a legitimate reason for avoiding, but it does say a lot about the personalities of the people involved.

Another good example of this is found in question #6 (taking your uncle’s inn vs. living a life of spirituality). Almost everyone who picked to live the life of spirituality attributed their decision to their mission experiences, and how much more powerful of an impact that can have on people’s life than just simply living well. Not that there’s anything wrong with just living well; especially if you’re helping family. It’s just where your priorities lie: helping your family and some number of strangers (maybe), or helping a large number of strangers (definitely) who then become like your family? Not black and white. But our priorities and perceptions of virtue are shaped as much by our own experiences and decisions as they are by any doctrine or principles learned at church or other authorities on the subject.

I guess the best lesson that can be taken from this is perspective. It’s so easy to see others with a different perception or priorities when it comes to morality and judge them based on our own priorities. For example, it would be easy to look at the person who gave up their life of charity to run their uncle’s inn and think of what a waste it is. Someone else could take over the inn; but people all over the world need help! Why in the world would you give up the chance to influence so many? It would also be easy to look at the person who continued in their charitable work and judge how callous they are toward their own family. Don’t they know that their uncle needs them? Besides, they could still do good things as an innkeeper! But it’s important to keep in mind that what one may perceive as a weakness in a virtue could just as easily be seen as a strength in another one.

There are absolute truths. But not all truth is absolute. And it’s important to remember that for the world to make sense without believing everyone else is wrong who doesn’t agree with you.

Not bad for a computer game from 1985 that fits on three 5 1/4″ floppy disks, eh?

——

In order to win Ultima IV you must actually master all eight virtues, pray at their respective shrines, and collect a bunch of other plot doodads and assemble a party of eight team members, each corresponding to a virtue, to enter the Stygian Abyss. At the bottom of the Abyss lies the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom, which is basically the holy book of the virtues, and after it quizzes on you about how you’ve learned to lead a virtuous life you become the Avatar, champion of good and right, and the knowledge of the Codex becomes available to everyone in the land. Once that happens, you return home (to Earth; did I mention that you were also an interdimensional traveler?), secure in the knowledge that you’ve exemplified and codified an ethos that will help people live better for years to come.

The series doesn’t let up with its interesting moral and ethical questions there, however. Without spoiling too much, Ultima V sees all of the virtues become actual laws, punishable by fines, imprisonment, and execution, and the horrible dystopia that occurs when goodness becomes mandatory. And Ultima VI ends up being a story about racism, although for the first two-thirds of the game you don’t actually know that, which actually makes the last third even more poignant, since it’s very possible that you were guilty of the same racism for the first part of the game as everyone else.

The best part? Despite these games being over twenty years old, you can still play them on modern machines if you get them from GOG.com (see links below). And if you just want to play Ultima IV, it’s completely free! And this isn’t just “you can find it as abandonware because it’s old and therefore in a legal gray area” kind of free, it’s legitimately offered by its parent company as a free download! Though I would recommend downloading and installing xu4, which is a program that updates the graphics and music; otherwise, you’ve got a 16-color game played in virtual silence. And since this is an old game and therefore doesn’t have a tutorial to speak of (one literally couldn’t fit on the disk), I would also recommend using the “Getting Started” guide I provide a link to below.

Have fun! And may you also one day become the Avatar!

Links:

Well, Color Me Unaccepted!

So I took another one of those online personality quizzes that I take from time to time (this one just had me pick some colors), with some interesting results:

Your Existing Situation

“Is stubborn and strong-willed, once his mind is made up it is impossible to change it. He does not ask for much, so he feels when he does ask his needs should be met.”

Your Stress Sources

“Always trying to make a good impression on others, but doubtful he is succeeding. Feels he has the right to everything he hopes and dreams of and becomes annoyed and helpless when things don’t go his way. Is troubled by the very thought of failure which leaves him feeling miserable. Always sees himself as the victim as if everyone treats him poorly and he never is given his fair share. Feels his failures are no fault of his own, but due to the shortcomings of others.”

Your Restrained Characteristics

Open and emotionally involved in relationships and easily finds satisfaction through sexual activity.

“Feels trapped in a helpless situation and is desperately seeking relief. He is able to find pleasure and happiness in sexual activity, as long as there is not a lot of conflict or emotional difficulty.”

Your Desired Objective

“Longs for tenderness and for a feeling of acceptance from a partner. Appreciates things that are beautiful, pleasing to the eye, and stylish.”

Your Actual Problem

Lack of energy leaves him unnoticed to pursue further activities or demands placed on him. He feels powerless which leaves him agitated and depressed. Tries to escape from his struggles by searching for peaceful and restful conditions in which to relax and recover in an atmosphere full of security.

Your Actual Problem #2

Disappointed because his hopes have not come to pass and he fears coming up with new goals will only lead to further disappointment. These conflicting emotions lead to a feeling of anxiety and depression. He tries to escape into a peaceful and calm relationship which offers encouragement and protection from further disappointment.

—–

I say this is interesting because, despite just picking random colors from a lineup, this pegged a lot of things quite accurately. It’s not 100% there (for instance, I usually don’t blame others for my failures, and if I see myself as the victim it’s often of my own previous decisions, not from what others do to me, and since when do I know anything about what’s stylish?), and the sexual activity part is, well, impossible to put to the test at this point, but for the most part it’s fairly accurate. It is certainly, absolutely, 110% true that my actual problem is due to a lack of energy; not necessarily physical energy (though that does play into it), but just a general sense of apathy about pretty much everything. The Actual Problem #2 is slightly less accurate, but I can still see some of my deal in there.

Speaking of the “Longs for tenderness and for a feeling of acceptance from a partner” part, I can say that that is true, but with a few caveats. I recently had another brush with dating someone, and, as always, I’ve learned a few more valuable life lessons. This time, she was into it way more than I was, but at the same time, she wasn’t really into me at all. We ended up going out about five times, and she texted me every day for about a month and a half (which added about $20 to my phone bill), but she never actually got to know me on anything other than a superficial level. I just think she wanted a boyfriend and I seemed nice, so she projected on to me all the attributes she wanted in a boyfriend without really getting to know me well enough to see if I actually fit those attributes. To that end, she ended up telling me all her personal details and deep dark secrets without ever being interested in my opinions on them, or even any personal traits of my own, and I’m not one to volunteer such information unless there’s a certain level of trust first. And I never felt like she knew me well enough as a person to earn that trust. So in the end I let her know that I needed some space, and I haven’t heard from her since.

Looking back on my past relationships, both failed and aborted, I can see that this problem is somewhat of a common one. At least one other girl besides this most recent one has ascribed to me characteristics that they want in a boyfriend that I don’t actually possess. And I know I’ve ascribed characteristics to girls I’ve liked in the past, several times (one example would be Katie Hewitt from my high school days, who I had a major crush on until I actually got to know her well. Not that I was suddenly disgusted or horrified by her or anything, but I realized that we just wouldn’t work out). This is one reason why I’m not a huge fan of the traditional dating scene, at least without becoming friends first (and I mean friends friends, not Facebook friends). It seems like you’re somersaulting over a lot of essential steps, leaving uneven expectations on both sides. If you don’t know each other, how in the world are you supposed to accept each other? That’s my caveat for “longs for acceptance from a partner”: that that acceptance comes from actually knowing me and still accepting me, not just accepting me without actually getting to know who I am. Getting to know the giant chicken, as it were, instead of just ignoring it. In other words, I’d like a girlfriend of mine to be able to say, “I think Jeff’s a great guy, who happens to be my boyfriend” instead of “I’ve got a great boyfriend, who happens to be Jeff”, and I’d like to be able to say, “I think X is a great girl, who happens to be my girlfriend” instead of “I’ve got a great girlfriend, and I think her name is X? Well, she listens to me ramble on about professional Starcraft, anyway.”

Problem is, I have never, ever, ever been good at making new friends, from the day I was born. Ever. Ever. To put it into a nerdy analogy, when I rolled up my character sheet before I was born, I put a lot of points into random obscure skills like “perfect pitch” or “good spelling” which didn’t leave any points for more essential skills like “proper social behavior” or “ability to talk to new people without immediately running out of things to say or sounding pretentious”. Also, the points I put into my “making the nerdiest analogy possible” skill haven’t helped things either. So where does that leave me on the dating front, where I can’t have a successful relationship without being friends first, yet am horrible at making friends? It leaves me spending my time reviewing old Atari games in an attempt to make some sort of contribution to society, even if it’s an obscure nerdy contribution. And that’s just sad.

New URL name for my Atari reviews.

For those who weren’t aware, I occasionally review old Atari 8-bit (not the 2600, but the 5200, 400/800, 1200, etc.) games on a different blog (they used to be on this one, actually, until they were all I ever posted here, so I ended up moving them). I recently updated the URL to http://atarieviewer.com/, so go check it out. I’ve recently done some video reviews, which you can see either at that website or on my Atari Youtube page too. Even if you’re not an Atari fan or know nothing about the old system and/or games, you still may find the reviews fun to read and/or watch, so check ’em out!

Header Gallery

A fun new part of this new blog theme is the option to have rotating header images! Here are all the ones I’ve cooked up so far in one easy-to-view place. Can you recognize all of their origins?

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

(Note: the 3D one probably won’t work if you look at it in the slideshow, since it’s automatically resized, so to see that one properly you’ll just have to get lucky and see it as an actual header. Keep refreshing!)

The Moral of the Story

football-tv

Here’s a story I heard from our bishop today, who is sadly getting released next week. He wanted to teach one last Sunday School lesson, and as part of it he told the tale of his son’s first wife, who was ultra-conservative in the faith, to the point that if the TV got turned on on Sunday, she’d go and play hymns loudly in the other room to drown out the sound. At one point they went to eat at my bishop’s father’s house (meaning the husband’s grandfather), and there was the grandfather, watching the Superbowl. This made her so angry that she went upstairs for three hours and didn’t speak to anyone, though the sound of hymns came through the ceiling every so often.

So what’s the moral of this story? And before you answer that, keep in mind that the name of my bishop is Thomas L. Monson. Which means the name of the grandfather watching the Superbowl was Thomas S. Monson. (Yes, that Thomas S. Monson.)

I won’t give a moral to this tale myself. My bishop’s point was that you shouldn’t marry a spiritual fanatic (unless you’re also a spiritual fanatic) because it will just make both of you unhappy; instead, marry somebody on roughly the same spiritual level as you (you know, as long as both of you are at least active members), but I leave it up to you to draw your own conclusions.

Red

There is a certain word going around nowadays. A word that I’d previously never heard in this context outside of obscure British slang (by obscure, I mean obscure in the States) but at some point within the past two or three years became a common term. A word that a lot of people throw around, perhaps without thinking exactly what it implies, or what the connotations associated with it may be. A word that, personally, rubs me quite the wrong way. And that word is:

Ginger.

Admit it, when you think of the word “ginger”, the image that most likely pops into your mind is similar to the one above. Nearly gone are the days when people use the term “redhead” or “carrot-top” (thankfully) or, heaven forbid, “people with red hair”. No, for whatever reason, the term du jour to refer to this particular segment of the population has become “ginger”. And let me tell you, it’s become a little bee in my bonnet. Every time I hear the phrase used to refer to a person with auburn-y hair, it gets my hackles up. But why should a simple descriptive term cause me any stress at all? The answer is simple: the problem with the word is that it’s got a certain connotation associated with it that has never been a positive one. It’s a slur, pure and simple. And I think that most people who use it fall into two categories: those that don’t think it’s a slur, and those who don’t think slurs are offensive. (I guess there’s a third group: those who really are deliberately trying to offend, but I’m not even going to make the effort to address them, for obvious reasons.)

To the first group, those who don’t think it’s a slur, I’m here to say: yes, it is. Every time I’ve heard it used it has been in a negatively discriminatory way, even if it’s been used in a joking way, like the Christmas card with a redhead kid on Santa’s lap that says, “Santa loves all kids. Even ginger ones.” Ha ha ha bite me. The word conjures up the image of some poor schmuck who bursts into flame at the first ray of sun and is generally doomed to be either a goofball, a hick, a sassy firebrand who is never satisfied with anything, or extremely angry, but always, always somebody who stands out for all the wrong reasons. And the strange thing about what being a “ginger” means is that it runs the gamut of personality traits, even if they are all negative ones. This sets it apart from other similar stereotypes like blondes being dumb or Asians being good at math or black dudes being scary rappers or whatever in the sense that there’s not really anything else unifying the group other than hair color. When somebody tells a dumb blonde joke, the punchline is that the person does something stupid. When somebody tells a ginger joke, the punchline is that they’re a ginger! Like that is inherently hilarious! Ha ha! Redheaded kids get beaten more often! For some reason! Why? Who knows? They have red hair! Isn’t that funny?

I guess when somebody’s called a ginger, it also means they look funny. The odd thing is, that’s almost always a double-standard. Sure, there are a lot of frumpy redheaded girls out there, but when most guys think of a redheaded woman it’s usually someone who’s quite attractive; a Kirsten Dunst, or an Amy Adams, or a Julianne Moore, or maybe a Felicia Day for all the nerds. But when you ask girls to think of a redheaded guy, some may think of Conan O’Brien (whose attractiveness is debatable), or perhaps Ron Howard (whose unattractiveness is not debatable), but most nowadays think of, well…

At a recent FHE activity in my singles’ ward, the subject of “attractive redheaded men in the media” came up, and out of all the girls there only one could think of anyone at all (Conan), while a few liked Rupert Grint despite his looks and another few went for Neil Patrick Harris (but come on, he doesn’t really count; that hair is waay too light to be truly red). And even all those examples are more attractive due to their goofy charm than their actual physical attractiveness. None have been viewed generally on the same level as your Brad Pitts or Matthew McConaugheys.

But even taking the double standard into account there are certain redheaded girls who’d probably be more secure with themselves if they had been born a brunette or whatever. Like a girl in my singles’ ward whose looks I would describe as “nice”, but insists on the “ginger” moniker, to the point that she’s bringing up the fact that she’s a ginger in the most irrelevant of situations: “You like my sweater? It matches my hair, ’cause I’m a ginger” or “Yeah, I’m in college now, but I used to be in high school, where my nickname was ‘The Ginger'”, or “These are good cookies. Hey, that makes me think of gingersnaps! Like me! A ginger!” (ok, that last one was fudged a bit, but it wasn’t far from the truth.) The point is, it seemed to me like she was trying a little too hard, like she was pre-emptively bringing up the word to show that, “Hey, I’m just like you guys! I call redheads gingers too! I can make fun of myself too! I’m just like everyone else! Self-deprecation makes everything better!” Methinks she doth protest her gingerosity too much. But you see, that’s the point! That need wouldn’t exist if “ginger” were just a descriptive term. But it’s not. It’s a slur.

As for the second group of people, those who don’t think that slurs should be offensive, it’s a little trickier, as this problem goes far beyond the “ginger” label. There is a certain trope on TV Tropes called Acceptable Targets that describes this phenomenon pretty well. Basically, an acceptable target is a person or group of people that society thinks it’s still OK to make fun of and hold prejudices about. Obviously the particulars vary based on the society and time period involved, but basically it means that you can perpetuate whatever stereotypes you want about a certain group of people, usually in the name of comedy, and it’s considered OK to laugh at it, no matter how offensive it may have been otherwise. And while it can be argued that certain groups may have it coming to them or are deliberate lifestyle choices (such as becoming a lawyer, or watching Star Trek) that can be easily left behind, others are ethnically-based or otherwise based on some aspect that is difficult or impossible to change. This has especially become prevalent lately as a backlash to political correctness, and perpetuated by TV shows where nothing is sacred (your South Parks and your Family Guys, for example), to the point where, if somebody cracks a joke about an Acceptable Target, and you don’t laugh or you find it offensive, it’s you that has the problem and needs to lighten up, not the creator or the comedian.

This is where the self-deprecation comes in, as with the girl in my ward I described earlier. Lately it’s been applied more and more to members of the Church as well, such as Mormons who liked the Book of Mormon musical. Sure, there are bits that are funny (like the missionary who keeps confusing details of the Book of Mormon story with The Lord of the Rings), but there is so much offensive material that I believe it’s impossible for an active member of the Church to see it and not come away feeling at least a little offended. And while some may express that sentiment, there are plenty who laugh right along with it, because “Ha ha! See? Mormons are cool! We laugh at the same things as everyone else! We’re totally into the self-deprecation thing, because we’re just like you! There’s nothing wrong at all with associating the Church with baby rape jokes!” Not to mention the comedians that still make the polygamy jokes. “Oh that’s not us, that’s the Fundamentalist splinter groups! And it’s a good thing it’s not us, ’cause that means I can laugh at the joke too! Ha ha! What a bunch of weirdos!” And that’s sad.

The funny thing about the Acceptable Targets thing is that people don’t even think about it most of the time. Most people just accept the jokes without a second thought, unless that joke is either unacceptable by society’s standards (like making fun of veterans), or applies to them personally, or possibly a close friend, and even then there might be an excuse of, “No, it’s OK. My friend makes fun of himself more than I do,” to which I reply, see the example about the girl in my ward again. There’s probably a segment of people who read this post who, when going through the ginger parts, thought, “Oh, come on, Jeff. You just need to lighten up. Life’s too short to be offended by something as dumb as the word ‘ginger’.” who then felt a little more uncomfortable when I brought up the same idea with regards to Mormons (assuming said reader is a member of the Church). It’s never a big deal unless it applies to you. And then you can either let it pass without comment, indulge in some self-deprecation so people think you’re cool with it, or actually get up in arms about it and get the additional label of someone who just needs to “lighten up.” But whatever the reaction on your part, the term is still offensive, and it still hurts.

In conclusion, be careful of what you say and who you’re saying it about. Don’t call people with red hair “gingers”. No matter what you or anyone else says, ginger still means this:

And that’s sad.

To end this post on a completely unrelated note: here’s a comic that I found that describes about a third of the posts on this blog (but ironically not this one). I don’t know why it’s transparent, but I’m too lazy to fix it:

Nerd Marriages

I recently had an open discussion on Facebook about nerds and marriage, and I wish to post it here, to save for posterity (and future reflection). However, since I didn’t get anyone’s permission to post their comments, I am assigning everyone an avatar to protect their identities.

Serious question for people: if you’re a nerd, is it better to date/marry: 1)a nerd with similar interests, so you have very specific things in common, 2)a nerd with different interests, so you don’t have conflicts over weird things like Kirk v. Picard but can at least appreciate nerdiness in general, or 3)a non-nerd, to provide a counterbalance?

 

I think “nerd with different interests” for me, but I think it depends on the general level of nerdiness and the tolerance of your partner for said nerdiness. I wouldn’t mind a non-nerd as long as he is willing to put up with my fondness for Rescue Rangers and the occasional fanfiction……

 

Oh, but they do need to enjoy Harry Potter!!!

 

 

 

Any of the above can work.

 

 

 

You need a combo of all three: She needs enough nerdy things in common with you that you can talk to them about it without driving each other crazy. She needs enough opposing nerdy interests to expand your interests and also put you in your place and point out reasons why you’re wrong. You also need her to be non-nerdy enough to tell you when you’re going WAY overboard, driving away friends, sounding like a freak and you need to come back down to earth.
(I of course would have no personal knowledge of these occurrences)

Honestly, if you’re a nerd, take what you can get. I once had a “list” of things I’m looking for. Over the years I have become nerdier and my list has shortened to, well…nothing.

 

 

I was going to suggest the nerd label might not be the strongest characteristic on which to base marriage; but after reading [Snoopy], well, he does have a good point.

 

 

You definitely both need to be nerds, at least to some extent. What you like won’t matter too much, since there will inevitably be some crossover that will let you have things in common.

 

 

My wife doesn’t consider herself a nerd but has enough of a solid appreciation for some essential nerdly things (E.G. Star Trek, Harry Potter) that we can talk about such things. I guess, though, if you’re going to marry a non-nerd, the essential characteristic you should look for is patience so she can listen to you ramble about something without getting frustrated with you.

 

My wife is a definite non-nerd and it works for us

 

 

 

I think that it’s important, when you’re dating, to introduce her to the things you like (e.g. Star Trek) and see how she likes them – both for compatibility’s sake and to see if she’s down-to-earth enough to appreciate good things like that despite the stereotypes. She doesn’t have to convert to total nerdiness to appreciate or even love those things. I believe it’s equally important to understand that the pseudo-obsessive dedication to nerdy things is incompatible with marriage.
You have to relax your nerdiness and let go of those things to some extent. And as your love grows for her it’ll be easier to do that, and you’ll find joy in doing it =)

 

 

Marry whomever you love. You’ll realize your differences later in the marriage no matter how much you look for similarities.

 

 

(But that doesn’t mean the marriage will be more difficult. Just different.)

 

 

 

This question could be posed with equal validity having other substitutions for “nerd,” and IMHO, the eventual answer has to be that the quest is for someone who will value who we are, irrespective of their own packaging.
I’ve been thinking about [Snoopy]’s response, and I do wonder whether we might get “nerdier” as years go by and we don’t have certain “counterbalance.” On the other hand, as one who still feels nasty side effects years after having once settled, I always urge people to stick with their standards. There are unfair expectations, and then there are vital ones. (For instance, we get into trouble if we contemplate finding a non-respectful person or a non-responsible person, etc.)
In your early dating, once someone has come up to a minimal, reasonable bar, perhaps just be sure that, even if they’re not what you might have initially thought you wanted, you’re going out with them because you’re considerate, but never do so because you’re desperate.

I’m with [John Lennon]. WAY too much analytics here… This is a question for after you get married, not before. In other words, don’t purposely limit yourself…
And level of nerdiness is as solid a basis for marriage as favorite football team. It will affect conversation, but isn’t a matter of any real consequence.

 

Look for someone with similar interests AND different interests; and if Kirk vs. Picard is going to be a deal-breaker in a relationship, then I’d say there are bigger issues at hand here. I’m not trying to be mean, I’m just sayin’. I never liked country music, yet developed a fondness for it after dating two different guys because THEY liked it and I liked them.

 

But [Abdul Alhazred], overanalyzing is what nerds DO!
Also, I find the rainbow of responses from different backgrounds quite interesting. If I may conglomerate them somewhat, it seems that you’ll eventually find things in common if you love them enough, but mutual nerdiness is usually a plus. But it can be a minus unless there’s patience involved.
I guess I ask because I’m unsure of a few things. Like how would you even start dating someone if your interests aren’t similar? There’s nothing to talk about! On the other hand, I’ve found if your interests are too similar, then break-ups can happen over stupid things, like the girl who stopped doing stuff with me because she thought the movie Sucker Punch was a deep, emotional, female-empowering piece, where I thought it was mindless action-schlock that didn’t know what its point was and was actually a bit misogynist to boot. We weren’t actually dating, and otherwise we had a bit in common, but everything sure dropped off after that. I also had a girl dump me because I didn’t like horror movies, and I wasn’t into doing the wacky art projects she loved doing (although I liked her work and told her so). So I thought I’d at least solicit a few opinions to help me understand it better, but…
It just seems like happy dating/a happy marriage is like having faith. If you don’t have it, you can’t understand it, and if you do have it, no explanation is necessary. And that’s frustrating.

Also, Kirk vs. Picard wouldn’t be a problem, because Sisko wins anyway.

 

 

 

Ah, but you didn’t say similar interests, you said nerdiness. Could be two different things. I think the point is that you start pursuing someone because you are attracted to them… But the reason why you are attracted to them may be completely different every time. And sometimes something that attracts you to one person may repulse you in another, so it is hard to qualify.

 

That’s true. I guess I said “nerdiness” instead of “similar interests” because most (if not all) of my interests are pretty nerdy. Plus nerdiness not only implies a certain type of interest, but also a certain level of devotion to whatever interest that may be, to the (extreme) point that someone ends up dumping you based on your taste in movies or something similar. (Though, who knows? That may just have been a convenient excuse.)

 

The other problem with dating is that, as this thread illustrates, EVERYONE has different ideals and standards and things they’re willing to overlook and things they’re going to break up with someone about. All this would be a lot more relevant if everyone thought the same way. Then you would just have to be “enlightened” as to how things work. But there’s not one single way that “things work.” Except for kindness and sacrifice and patience. Everything else is secondary, and there are no rules.

This is obviously a very deep question that I shall need time to ponder.

 

 

 

Easy! Every person should marry who they love simple as that. And if you love two people marry the person you fell for second because if the first person was THE ONE you wouldn’t have fallen for the second. (Johnny Depp said that and he’s right)

 

There is no such thing as “the one.”

 

 

 

What does that mean? How many other people are you in love with besides your wife?

 

 

 

Just Date/marry whom ever you enjoy spending time with. Appreciate/respect differences. My wife Michelle enjoys sports and I could care less, but I enjoy it with her.

New Name for da blog!

After exactly one month of pondering and consideration (and pretty much no input from anyone else), I have decided on a new name for the blog! It won out over three other finalist names, which fit my vague criteria of “fitting this blog best”, those three names being:

  • What the foo?!?
  • Does Billy Like Green Eggs and Ham?
  • I am Abuk, Master of Locks

All of these have relatively obscure origin stories. “What the foo?!?” is, of course, Pimp Lando’s catchphrase, “Does Billy Like Green Eggs and Ham?” is a quote from Josh Reese that has been my Windows “Question” sound for many years now, and “I am Abuk, Master of Locks” is actually a quote from Betrayal at Krondor but made it into Pimp Lando 5 and has been a random catchphrase for me ever since. Both of these latter quotes, by the way, made it into a random song that I made using Fruity Loops a while back. However, all of these didn’t make the final cut for the reason that they’re a little too specific. “What the foo?!?” is a little too closely tied with Pimp Lando to work for this blog, the Billy one would have people who know us both wonder what Billy has to do with this blog (or, conversely, Dr. Seuss fans might accidentally come here looking for something totally unrelated to this blog), and the Abuk one, though it probably won’t attract a bunch of people looking for Betrayal at Krondor stuff (the character is a pretty obscure one in the game itself, being a random guy that teaches lockpicking and does some shady business deals), it might give some websurfers the idea that this blog is somehow about lockpicking, lock construction, locksmiths, etc. Or maybe people would think I’m named Abuk.

Nobody wants to be named Abuk.

In any case, in the end, “Boom Chicka Wiggy Wagga” wins out for a few reasons. It’s still an obscure reference (specifically, to a movie that Nate Winder and I made with 3D Movie Maker back in high school where some guys are rapping about who turned off their background music, which is where the post picture above comes from), but it’s generic enough so that people won’t get the wrong idea about what this blog is about. It’s just a fun, random phrase that could describe many things but actually describes nothing in particular. And this blog is a fun, random blog that describes many things about me but focuses on nothing in particular (despite similar themes cropping up in many posts). It works, and I’m sticking with it! Update your links!

I will hopefully post the actual “Boom Chicka Wiggy Wagga” movie online at some point, and edit this post to include it when I do.

EDIT: It’s uploaded! Enjoy the wackiness!

New Name for da blog?

So here’s the thing. This blog has been called ¿Le gusta leer? since its inception over six years ago. However, I think it needs a name change. Not because the non-sequitur is absurd (it’s not even really a complete non-sequitur, since it’s Spanish for “Do you like to read?” and has an obscure origin story), but because I want an English name, you know, in case people are looking in search engines or whatever. If you see a site called “¿Le gusta leer?” are you going to assume it’s some guy blogging in English about being single, music, and alphabet monsters? I sure wouldn’t. Maybe a blog about estar sólo, la música, y los monstruos del alfabeto. So I turn to you, faithful readers, for some ideas for a new blog name. What do you think would fit this blog the best, even if it is a non-sequitur (which it may end up being, although there’s gotta be at least some sort of origin story for it)? I may not use any suggestions offered, but then, I might! It’s your chance to be a part of history! A very small part of history, but still!

Names that I will not consider:

  • Jeff’s Blog Where He Whines About Being Single
  • Anything with the word “jerk” in it (I’m looking at you, Johnathan!)
  • Firebert

Also note: the blog name may change, but the “staring down Josh Reese” picture will definitely remain.

Wordle Cloud

(click on that image to get a slightly bigger and hopefully more legible version)

Wordle.net is a website that takes an amount of text and shows you the most commonly used words in a fun collage. The bigger the word in the collage, the more times it was used in the text (after filtering out super-common words like the, a, of, etc.). So I thought I’d put in my blog and see what’s most often on my mind. After a few false starts (apparently just putting in the blog URL nets you the most five or six recent posts; basically whatever shows up on your RSS feed), I ended up copying the text of all the entries, of which there are currently 281 (282 when I post this) into Word, then pasting that into Wordle, and the result is what you see above. I was hoping that it would provide some sort of insight or subconscious message I was putting into things, but I can’t readily see anything groundbreaking. Most of the bigger words are just common English parts of speech. I think I can conclude at least the following, though:

  1. I do a lot of comparisons; specifically, similes (using “like”).
  2. I apparently write about people and time a lot.
  3. I use the word “just” as filler more than perhaps I need to.
  4. Um, that’s probably about all I can see, unless you, faithful blogketeer, can see something else.

I think the most amusing words are the ones that are somewhat smaller, but still made the collage because they are at least somewhat common. Words I expected like “married,” “girls,” and “family,” as well as words that made me scratch my head a bit, like “Marco” and “Ben”: things (Travels and my brother, respectively) that I wrote about on occasion but didn’t think were common enough subjects to make it into the collage. Not really a lot of insight here, but at least it was fun to look at.

I also found out, in the process, that if I were to print out my blog in a single-spaced 10pt Arial font from the beginning to the previous post, it would be 214 pages (not counting pictures, titles, or dates). That’s, uh, quite a bit of writing. The last year and a half alone (the front page as of this writing, from Fifths to the Disclaimer and Star Trek post) totaled about 32 pages. For someone who loathed writing stuff for school, I sure do write a lot.

Disclaimer and Self Analysis (and, yes, Star Trek)

Some of the responses I’ve received to my most recent post, both in person and in the comments, have prompted me to repeat something that I already touch on in my “About” page. That is to say, this blog is not nearly a complete picture of who I am or what my motivations are. It is, laconically, a place where I post whatever I feel like. And it’s a personality trait of mine that when I feel angsty, I grow verbose, but usually when I feel fine I have no need to record it. When I feel good about life, I’m usually busy being actively engaged in things that I don’t think about posting a giant blog post about why life is grand. So please don’t think I’m suicidal or somewhat mentally unstable because I take a long time and use a Shakespearean allegory to say, in essence, that talking to women (in a romantic sense, anyway) is often scary (which I don’t think is an uncommon opinion). If I seem depressed, keep in mind that it’s usually not long-term and always situational, not clinical. Oftentimes months go by without me posting anything of consequence, and usually during those times I’m fine. I don’t need to go see another therapist.

However, I do believe, as usual, that there’s a deeper issue at work here. Just saying, “I write more when I’m angsty,” is true, but there’s a reason behind it. You see, when I was a kid I didn’t have any friends. Not really. I can think of one person that I can truly call a friend who I met in elementary school, and even he ended up getting leukemia and missing a lot of school. (He’s OK now, and is married with children, by the way, though I haven’t had contact with him in years other than being Facebook friends.) It was probably not until eighth grade and several school-changes later that I finally became, while not popular, at least a normal person who had some friends and fit in somewhere. This change, however, didn’t come about arbitrarily, or because somehow I moved to a school where all the jerks had been purged. It changed because I did a lot of self-analysis. I grew up in a time when there was a lot of “Be Yourself!” and “Don’t Give in to Peer Pressure!” buzzwords being thrown around. Being oneself, however, especially as a young kid who hasn’t necessarily been taught by his parents how to behave himself (probably not from a lack of trying, though, especially from my poor mom), means being someone really different and weird. It didn’t help that I had skipped kindergarten and consequently was not only always the youngest and smallest person in the class, but also a target of jealousy and resentment, even from some teachers. But it was easy to play the blame game and put all of my trials squarely on the shoulders of the mean kids (which was pretty much every kid, even if some of them were at least passive about it). I didn’t give in to peer pressure to do what other kids did, and consequently became that weird kid who picked his nose and corrected the teacher on occasion, who couldn’t sit still and finished his math quizzes five minutes before everyone else so just wandered around the room because he couldn’t stand the ticking clock, who then got kicked down the hill at recess because his favorite activity was to hide in his sweatshirt in the fetal position. “Be Yourself,” indeed. If I were another kid, I’d probably have made fun of myself, too.

It was that last thought that actually began my transformation in the middle of the eighth grade. After being transferred to my sixth school since starting first grade, I finally realized that I was the problem. That may seem silly now, but up until that point I was just acting like the world couldn’t understand me and it wasn’t my fault for being “me”. But I finally got sick of it all and began analyzing my own behavior from an objective standpoint. Nearly everything I did or was about to do, I stood back and asked myself, “If I saw someone else doing this, what would I think of that person?” And if the answer was something negative, I would refrain from doing said activity. This took an enormous amount of effort and mental energy, and of course I wasn’t perfect at it, but it truly did make a difference. Instead of just “being me” and getting mad at the world for not being able to deal with it, I started slowly changing what “being me” meant, and as a result, people were better able to deal with me on a personal level and I became at least somewhat normal and gained friends, some of which I stay in contact with today.

So what does that have to do with this blog? Well, as a side effect of this eighth-grade experience, I learned the important value of self-examination. From that point on I usually tried to keep an objective eye on some of my stranger behaviors and eccentricities, to avoid falling back into the old trap of “It’s not me that has the problem, it’s the world!” that gave me so much heartache growing up. And almost all of the more angsty posts on this blog are a continuation of this very same principle. A lot of my “wah wah I’m still single waaaahh” posts aren’t just venting or complaining, but genuine efforts to understand exactly the problems that I need to personally overcome in order to enter into a successful relationship. Keep in mind that my main audience for this blog is myself and this may make more sense.

Perhaps an example is in order. Let’s take the most recent post. I’d been feeling more and more down and lonely recently, but without any real specifics as to why, as I hadn’t sat down and hammered out the causes to why I’m feeling this way. Then I see that Star Trek review and note some similarities between the philosophies pointed out in that video and these struggles I’d been having. So, to properly focus and delineate exactly what these parallels are, I write that blog post. Yes, at that point I’m still feeling extremely depressed directly afterwards and not ready to change anything, but that’s OK. After some time passes, I reread the post in a more neutral frame of mind. Now I can clearly identify the root causes of the recent depression (I’ve been isolated, I haven’t figured out how to talk to girls without being a jerk, etc.) and I now have a baseline for self-improvement. So I take some steps to begin to remedy the problem (I start going to more ward activities, even if I still don’t really enjoy them, etc.), and while significant improvement may not happen overnight, at least the process can begin.

When I began this blog I described it as a journal I was keeping because I had trouble keeping a pen-and-paper journal. But for me, what I’m doing has never been as important as why I do it. Therefore this blog (or at least the lengthier posts) has been more self-analytical than descriptive. Heck, that’s always been my focus when keeping a journal (for example, this was written in a pen-and-paper journal when I was ten years old, showing that even before eighth grade I always had a bent toward self-examination). Without anyone else willing (or able) to give outside commentary on who I am, this is the best chance I have for self-improvement. This is why I don’t need to see a therapist: this is my therapy! (Plus, the few times I have seen a therapist they almost immediately pegged me in some category or another that I don’t think really fit the bill, then assigned me to write down and fulfill all these goals that I had no motivation or intention to keep, like they believe that the only way to live a happy life is to religiously follow Stephen Covey or something.) This is also one reason why I often have a negative view of myself: improvement isn’t possible if you view yourself through rose-colored glasses. I’m not depressed because I don’t think I’m worth anything, I’m down on myself  because I want to become a better person! These analytical posts also help me identify those cases where the problem really isn’t me, but I still need to do something about it (like, say, move out of Provo) to improve my life.

So why make this blog public? Why risk exposing some of my inner thoughts and feelings out to the world at large, where anybody can come across it and see inside to the various issues I privately struggle with? This is something I’ve often wondered myself and gone back and forth on an answer. But I think one important reason is that self-examination is, by nature, somewhat myopic. I can’t get a clear picture of myself from inside myself. So I put my thoughts out here in the hopes that others will help me see answers that I can’t find on my own. (And granted, all those things are good reasons to go see a therapist, but I’m still not willing to follow Mr. Covey. I’m just not wired that way.) I read and appreciate every single comment I get, even if I don’t respond to them all. And maybe, by seeing what makes me tick, some of you may recognize common elements in your own life, and even if neither of us do anything about it, at least we can empathize together.

In conclusion, please don’t worry about my mental health. For the most part, I am doing fine, and for those times when I’m not, I’m usually not just wallowing in it, but trying to identify root causes and solutions. (I don’t always act on those solutions very well, but that’s a whole different blog post.)

And now for an added bonus: Star Trek VI is one of my favorite Star Trek films. The Cold War allegories are all well and good, but I think a big part of why I really enjoy it (and Star Trek II), and why many people hold the original series over NextGen is the relationships between the main characters themselves and how that defines them, especially the Big Three (Kirk, Spock, and McCoy). All of these three would be very different people without the others. Without Spock and McCoy, Kirk would mostly be a self-obsessed captain without anyone to lean on. Without Kirk and McCoy to humanize him, Spock would just be another cold Vulcan like those that populate Star Trek: Enterprise. And without Kirk and Spock, McCoy would probably just be passed out in an alley somewhere. Even the rest of the main crew draws their strength from their relationships with these three. Sulu, in particular, would be completely unbelievable in this film if Kirk weren’t the type of man to inspire such great devotion that he (Sulu) is willing to disobey orders to serve a greater good.

Contrast this with the TNG crew. TNG is filled with interesting characters, but none of them are defined by their relationships to each other. Picard would be Picard no matter who his crew is. Riker would be Riker no matter who he served under. The only lasting relationships between the characters is this sort of vague “we’re all good friends” thing, with an occasional romantic overtone shoehorned in by the final season. Don’t get me wrong: most of the TNG characters are great, but they would be the same in a vacuum. Kirk would not be Kirk, or at least recognizable as the Kirk we know, without Spock and Bones. That makes their interactions so much more strong and compelling than anything the TNG crew does for each other.

Consider this: in Star Trek VI (and, for that matter, Star Trek III), most of the crew disobeys orders and even logical sense in order to save one or two of their crew (in III it’s Spock, in VI it’s Kirk and McCoy). The gratitude and heartfelt appreciation the rescuees have for the rescuers is genuine, palpable, and touching. A good example is in VI when Sulu greets Kirk with his bridge crew behind him after the Enterprise and the Excelsior have destroyed General Chang’s bird-of-prey. The looks on their faces say it all: Sulu is glad and proud that he had the courage to put his friends in front of the state, and Kirk is touched, knowing that as long as he has good friends like these, he will be able to make a difference in the universe for the better.

Now take a parallel scene in Star Trek: Insurrection. Picard is ready to beam down to the planet, disobeying orders in order to save a bunch of Ba’ku natives that the Son’a want to move (for legitimate reasons, I might add, though I’m not going to go into that discussion here). Suddenly the rest of the bridge crew show up, and they’re all like, “We’re going to help you!” Picard’s all like “No, you’re not!” and they’re all “Yes we are!” and Picard’s like, “Fine, whatever: Riker and Geordi go do this and this and everyone else come with me and blah blah blah” and everyone goes and, uh follows their orders to disobey orders. The scene falls flat because Picard, while a good leader and a good captain, has always seemed so independent. He doesn’t need his crew to suddenly back his disobedience 100% without question, especially for a cause as dubious as the one they’re defending in the film. Indeed, Picard probably could’ve beamed down with five random ensigns who were sworn to blindly follow him for some reason, and gotten the exact same results. None of the crew seem especially invested in this except for “well, we’re all friends, and I guess good friends help each other out!” It’s the difference between truly devoted, genuine friends, and the kids from Barney and Friends. Sure, they’re all friends on that show, but there’s no substance to it! When Spock died, it hurt, and the scene became one of the most iconic scenes in movie history. When Data died, everyone was all, “Whatever,” and I doubt most casual fans even know he died, let alone how or why.

This is why the original series is so much more fondly remembered than even TNG, which kind of petered out in its film entries. TOS was defined not only by its plots and science fiction, but by its crew and their relationships. TNG was defined by its good plots and interesting characters, but not by their relationships. (As a side note, my favorite Trek series, DS9, was also defined largely by its relationships between characters, though the show itself wasn’t as accessible as TNG or TOS and never quite broke into the mainstream consciousness.) Even in the 2009 Star Trek film (the film that some Trekkies refer to as the New Coke Star Trek), the main part of the plot that doesn’t have to do with insane Romulans is the relationship between Kirk and Spock, and how old Spock knows that the two will never achieve nearly the same level of greatness without each other as they would together. The writers of that film knew that the real heart of the series was found right there, and even if you stripped away almost all of the other trappings of the Star Trek franchise, that core would still resonate.

There you go, Johnathan. Can I keep your money now?

The Undiscovered Country

(Note: while this post is called “The Undiscovered Country” and is inspired somewhat by the Star Trek movie of the same name, it is not a review or even really a discussion of said movie. You can either stop reading now or breathe a sigh of relief and continue on, based on your reason for being here.)

Recently I watched an online review of Star Trek VI (yeah, I know I said this wasn’t going to be about Star Trek, but I have to start somewhere) done by Internet reviewer Chuck Sonnenberg, also known as SFDebris. His reviews of both Star Trek and other sci-fi franchises, such as Babylon 5, Farscape, Doctor Who, and even Red Dwarf are excellent and highly recommended. Anyway, he discusses the title “The Undiscovered Country” and what that means in the context of the film. The title originates from the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy from Hamlet, where Hamlet is discussing whether he should kill himself or not, but decides against it because whatever awaits after death might be worse. To quote that specific part:

The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment,
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

In the film, which is basically a big “end of the Cold War” allegory, Chancellor Gorkon (pictured above), who is a transparent Gorbachev stand-in, comments on this speech, but uses it to refer to the future, rather than death. This explains a lot about the other events of the movie: how perfectly rational people on both sides ended up working together to preserve the war; that is, working together for a chance to work against each other. Not only that, it explains why otherwise moral people (such as the Vulcan Valeris) were willing to go to extremes by assassinating several people, getting Kirk and Bones arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment on an ice planet, and other heinous acts. They would rather live with the reality they were used to, however flawed, than face something new and entirely unknown (in this case, a galaxy where the Federation and Klingons were at peace). This completed the Cold War allegory and the uncertainty of the early 90’s after the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed. Heck, there were even comedies made on the subject, such as Bill Murray’s The Man Who Knew Too Little, which featured some Brits and Russians working together to try to restart the Cold War to restore their lives to something they were used to.

But let me go back a bit and repeat a line I said: They would rather live with the reality they were used to, however flawed, than face something new and entirely unknown. One more time: They would rather live with the reality they were used to, however flawed, than face something new and entirely unknown.

Using the allegory that an unknown future was as frightening as what lies beyond death (you know, without a religious context) gave me a whole new perspective on several issues I’ve been struggling with, both recent and long-term. As pretty much anyone who reads this blog would know, I am single. Extremely single. And it’s been getting worse, if that’s even a possibility. I’ve been living at home, where I’m lucky if I have a conversation with my parents once a week. I’m fairly isolated in my ward, where most people don’t even know who I am beyond “the redheaded guy I don’t talk to.” And now I’ve been working a job at the Little America hotel doing audio/visual work. This basically means setting up and taking down microphones, lights, projection screens, etc. whenever groups come in to use the hotel’s conference rooms. It’s a solitary job, especially since my only A/V co-worker works a schedule opposite mine, and even in the hour we overlap he doesn’t talk much. About the only friend I have left who lives within a 40-mile radius and hasn’t passed through the social wall of being married is Josh Reese, and while I do hang out with him on occasion (probably about once a month or so), it isn’t exactly socially stimulating, considering what kind of person he is. Other than that, the only social things I do mostly revolve around Annelise and her family, and even then we’re usually talking shop about murder mystery stuff.

In other words, I’m not just single in the married or dating sense. I’m single in a social sense. I’m single in an emotional connection sense. For the vast majority of my time, I’m single in a physical sense (i.e. not in the presence of other people, or at least interacting with them other than a nod as we pass in the hallway). If it wasn’t for this job, I could go for nearly a week at a time without seeing another soul (which did happen several times before I got hired back in June). There may be others in my type of situation, but even so they’re all isolated from each other by nature.

I stand alone.

It’s a sad story, you may be thinking, but what has that got to do with the Hamlet thing? Or you may be thinking, “Well then, go out and make some friends! Nobody’s forcing you to stay by yourself!” I suppose that’s true, though I could justify it by saying that I don’t have the opportunities due to my schedule, or that my ward keeps scheduling activities I have no interest in, or living in my parents’ basement hardly provides opportunities for me to meet people my own age. However, I think that, while these may be obstacles, the root cause runs much deeper.

A couple of weeks ago in a sacrament meeting I did try to jump-start my social life. I sat next to a girl with whom I’d had a short, small-talk conversation the previous week. However, the entire time I was extremely uncomfortable and when the meeting was over I politely excused myself and left (the room, not the church). She didn’t do anything wrong or particularly cold but putting myself in those kind of situations activates a “fight or flight” response in me for some reason. (It also didn’t help that she was nearly a decade younger than me, but I think her being closer to my age wouldn’t have made a big difference.) Why the fear? I’m obviously not happy with my life. Getting to know people leads toward a potentially brighter future, one with marriage, kids, or at least something to do on Friday nights other than play Heroes of Might and Magic III by myself or watch Internet reviews of Star Trek again. What kind of future would be in store? A world of possibilities! An “undiscovered country,” if you will! Ah, you may now see where I’m going with this.

The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of

Fear of an uncertain future is such a driving force that it drove otherwise rational people to kill in order to preserve the status quo (in the movie, anyway). I have no idea what dating will do to my life. I’ve never had a successful relationship before, and even the unsuccessful ones I’ve had either never got off the ground or didn’t last longer than a month. And that’s only been with two girls ever, one of which got into the relationship because of a “what the hell, I’ll give it a shot” attitude. How do I conduct myself? What’s the difference between the way you treat a girlfriend and the way you treat, say, a sister (besides the obvious physical things, I mean)? Will I still be able to play Heroes? Will that even matter? Where’s the line when it comes to how much of my own life, habits, and customs will I need to change to keep a woman? Do I even need emotional support? I’ve gone a long time without it, and I’m still alive, right? Wouldn’t it be better off for the ladies in the world to end up with someone who doesn’t have these issues? There are probably about a thousand questions I haven’t even thought of on this topic! This puzzles my will! I’d rather bear those ills I have than fly to these others I know not of! At least I know how to set up a 16-channel mixer with several lavalier and handheld Shure mics, along with an SM-58 or two for the lectern, combine them through a Kramer VGA switcher to output on three separate screens, while hanging some parnells to provide a nice podium wash, etc. etc.! Or failing that, write a rock song about cooking! I have no idea how to sit next to a girl in church without it becoming so awkward that I consider fleeing after the sacrament has been passed and spending the rest of the hour in the bathroom! It seems my native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought!

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.

Fear of the future can drive some to do things they otherwise wouldn’t do. It also can paralyze those who should do something. I could go on more dates. I could talk to more people. Heck, even Josh goes on more dates than I do. Looking back on my life, it seems every time I’ve been successful socially it has been due to others taking an interest in doing it for me (usually relatives, or Steve Porter). And when that person leaves my life, or at least leaves my daily life, then all the sociality seems to disappear as well. Back at BYU I used to host a game night every week, and we had quite a nice bunch of people show up every week, at least until Steve got engaged. Then it dropped to the five guys who were just into gaming. I moved to a different apartment and set it up again, and once again we had a pretty good turnout until two of my roommates got engaged, at which point it dropped off. But the main reason I held game nights was because that was where I was comfortable socially!! I don’t know how to approach girls at a dance, or at some social dinner, or whatever. But when I’ve got a set of Bang! cards or whatever in front of me I know exactly what my job is. I’m playing this game. I’m making sure everyone else knows how to play. I’m making sure that everyone gets a fair chance to play. I’m trying to make sure everyone’s enjoying themselves. I honestly don’t really care if I win or lose, as long as everyone played fairly. (This behavior, by the way, is somehow wrong? I guess? A lot of people seem to resent it, though for the life of me I can’t figure out why. When playing with family, I’ve noticed Mickey is just as much of a stickler for rules yet seems to catch a lot less flak for it. Maybe I’m just an ass.) My point is there are very few situations in which I am socially comfortable, and they are often ones in which others do not thrive socially. So it’s obvious that I need to step out of my comfort zone in order to progress in life, especially socially. And it’s obvious I’ve got to do it, because there’s nobody left to do it for me, and no girl is going to suddenly call up and ask me out.

I believe I am capable of learning. I believe that if I put my mind to it, I could learn to like dancing, or basketball, or small talk, or whatever, if it served the greater good of meeting people, social support, and dating. But it frightens me. What kind of person would I turn into? Would I be recognizable as me? Would I be betraying everything that currently makes up who I am? Does that really matter? How can one really betray one’s past self, anyway? He’s not going to know. Continuing as I have been has been producing diminishing returns, to the point where, as I said before, I stand alone. But being alone is an ill I know how to bear. Thus conscience makes a coward of me, and I sit alone in the back of the chapel, or at home on weekends.

Marriage, dating, life: all enterprises of great pith and moment. But paralyzed by the fear of the future: with that regard their currents turn awry, and lose the name of action. Thus this weekend I will be playing computer games.