Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Electoral College

Here's an opinion piece I wrote for my American Heritage class:

I am against the Electoral College. I understand the reasoning behind its creation—that the people need a filter for their voice in who will hold the executive power in this country. But I will argue that an imposed filter is not only unnecessary, but destructive.

The framers of the Constitution wisely put filters on public opinion for those who would serve in the federal government. The most genius of these is a filter surrounding the Supreme Court. The judicial branch must, by definition, be the most disinterested party in the government. The moment they fear their judgments will enflame public opinion and therefore remove them from office is the moment they have failed the people of this nation. They must be as firm and steady as the Constitution itself in their rulings, and just as the framers drafted the Constitution beyond the reach of lobbyists, so must the Supreme Court sit behind several protective barriers from the fickle flame of public opinion.

That said, the role of the President of the United States is substantially different. He himself is to be the voice of the people. He is a living, breathing filter. Of any of the governmental branches, he needs most to represent the people at large, and it’s as safe as it is necessary for him to do so. He cannot declare war. He cannot create laws. He cannot, by himself, fill the Supreme Court. Congress holds the ultimate power in all of these actions.

Furthermore, there is already a natural filter “for the people, by the people, of the people.” Here it is: less than two thirds of eligible Americans vote in presidential elections.[1] The least informed, the least interested and the least qualified citizens don’t make a difference in presidential elections, because they simply don’t vote. What better filter could we possibly devise? Adam Smith’s laissez-faire sentiments could and should be liberally applied to the economy of election.

Now, some may think that I am too consumed with rhetoric and idealism. I think most people believe that the Electoral College is a non-issue. I would invite those critics to cast their view back to what has become the crux of contemporary history—September 11th, 2001. Just a scant year before that cataclysmic event the American people raised their voice to choose their Commander in Chief.

As we are all aware, the man who won the popular votes of the people was denied entrance to the White House by the Electoral College. Without going into a discussion of the past president’s administration, I would just like to ask, at what point in modern memory would we have wanted more to be heard? When would we have wanted our vote to matter most? A discussion of what would have been different is impossible. But the point is, after the bulk of informed, interested Americans exercised their right to democratic action, an archaic institution denied them their voice. That should never happen again.

[1] This is according to a study by Penn State:

Thursday, May 21, 2009

I wish for a more perfect More Perfect Union

This is not the worst movie I have ever seen. That said, it was awful. Rarely do I find myself laughing at a drama, but I can point out at least six times when I erupted into cackles. This film is about as subtle as a billboard.First of all, the acting is SO forced and overdone (with the one grand exception of Ben Franklin, who has no idea what he's doing). James Madison is such an unstable cry-baby that one solid "Yo' Mamma is so fat" joke from Roger Sherman would have had him weeping all the way back to Virginia. In the music scene in the garden, I wanted so desperately for General Washington to say, "You know Jimmy, most men have been weened by your age...."

A huge problem with the film is that the main drama swirls around if the Senate should be represented based on the population of the state or if each state should have an equal voice. Call me crazy, but I never had a problem with the way congress is set up. I remember being a fourth grader in Ms. Pinder's class and thinking it was fantastically brilliant. So unfortunately, lines like "History will never forgive us for this" ("this" meaning equal representation in the senate) uttered by the protagonist seem WAY over the top and ridiculous.

As a connoisseur of Mormon movies, I got a huge kick out of the casting. There were so many times when I was like, "Who IS that guy? Oh..... He's Pilate, from the 'Lamb of God.'" My personal favorite was how Doubting Thomas from "Finding Faith in Christ" plays a doubting Thomas. In fact there were so many actors from "The Lamb of God" and "Finding Faith in Christ" that I half expected the titular character of both films to walk on at any moment and hand them the Constitution.

Now let's talk about accents. The one pro-slavery southerner was the laziest accent actor I have ever seen. His idea of a drawl was clipping is -ing's into -in's. And he left it at that. Or how about the dude at the end who reads the constitution? He had a HORRIBLE Utah valley accent. (The fortunate thing about Utah-valley-dwellers is that they are totally unaware that they speak a variant form of English, so most of the people watching the film will be clueless on this point.) Also, a personal note to Kurt Bestor: I expected much, MUCH more from you, sir. That score was like being hit with an ironing board. We know 15 seconds in advance before anyone says anything important because there's always an oh-so-subtle orchestra crash.

But I have to admit, as heavy handed as the script is on civic and theological points, it really has its moments. The tragedy is that each of those moments meets a massacre from the director and cast. Ben Franklin was SOOOOOO bad. I got the feeling he didn't really understand his lines--like he was ESL or something. I hated him before he was even on camera in the scene where Washington knocks on his gate and he fumbles on an otherwise funny line about women.

Or how about the concluding American Agrarian Montage? Look at us in our cute little montage! We're so American and agrarian! Heck, we're even equestrian!

So in conclusion, I loved the heck out of this movie in none of the ways it intended. It's horrible, and for that reason I would buy it in an instant if I could. BYU is capable of producing a great historical film, by the way. I recommend watching "Truth and Conviction" as soon as you're done with "A More Perfect Union" for a potent reminder as to why the institution is still accredited after producing such a piece of doo-doo.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Roger Ebert Quote du Jour

I took this from Roger Ebert's Blog:

Heidegger: If Ebert could think creatively and analytically (properly) he wouldn't be an unproductive clod or a critic for that matter. Putting a French saying in your emotionally stunted critique of an obviously unpleasant, uncompromising film doesn't prove Ebert's "artsy-critic" cred. Ebert seems to despise art. He's a glut for pop-culture, which by definition rules out anything that is intellectually/emotionally challenging with the slightest bit of depth. That's his job. He speaks for the common man who watches films simply for the escapism and to see "cool stuff" on a big screen.

He makes smart-ass remarks about films like Wild At Heart while saccharine fluff like Transformers is just "goofy fun" ya'll!

If you like to be challenged and enriched by art (on film or any other medium) stop paying attention to this shill for the lowest common denominator, he writes reviews for the same folks that love monster truck shows and actually pay to see Larry the Cable guy live (and not to throw rocks at his hollowed out melon head).

Ebert: I hope you enjoy my reviews when you begin reading them.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Chow Yun-Fat and the Art of the Cello

My relationship with the cello began with a Kung Fu movie. I was about 14, and a new martial arts epic had just been released in the US with a score by Tan Dun. I went to go see it with my grandmother, of all people. I don’t remember the opening shot, but I will never be able to forget the opening three notes. Tonic, dominant, submediant. Do, Sol, La.

In those days, I didn’t know much about music. I knew the instrument I was hearing was too low to be a violin, but I didn’t think it was a bass. It wasn’t until the end of the film that the revealing “Cello Solos performed by Yo-Yo Ma” hit the screen. I now knew the name of my new-found love, as well as a new icon to follow. As my grandmother and I walked out of the theater, she said, “Wow.”

Wow was right. I had gone to the cinema that day to see entertaining trash and was fully unprepared for what followed. The film set a new standard for “action scenes” in a Kung Fu movie in that there really weren’t any—at least nothing that looked remotely realistic. Instead, the actors chased each other up stalks of towering bamboo. They literally flew from roof to roof in a nocturnal foot chase. It was a seamless synthesis of battle and ballet.

That lens of exaltation is at the core of art. No one goes to an opera to see how people on the streets really walk, dress, speak or sing. We go to operas and to ballets and to galleries to witness extracted beauty—to hear words spoken outside the realm of speech. Even photography is hopelessly unrealistic. Eternal moments do not exist in the natural universe.

After I got home from the movie, I announced to my parents that I wanted to learn to play the cello. They told me that in order to play a bowed instrument, like the cello or violin, I had to have perfect pitch. Perfect pitch is the almost super-human ability to name a pitch when hearing it, or to produce a certain pitch on command. It is a rare gift, even among professional musicians. I was irritated. I did not have perfect pitch, but I wouldn’t let that stop me. I resolved to train myself by sitting at the piano, closing my eyes and randomly striking a note. Then I would open my eyes and check my hypothesis.

Day after day for over a year I sat at the piano and hammered out miniscule success. Like most life lessons, I didn’t appreciate it as it happened. But rarely do we know we’ve enrolled in the school of hard knocks. Mostly we just feel the pain of tuition. I will admit that training your ear is not the most grievous of burdens, but it was a serious obstacle to certain bliss.

At length, I mastered all the white keys. I doubt my dad remembers the day I called him into the front room to test my accuracy. I stood with my back to the piano while he sat down facing it. He banged out a note. “C. Come on! Give me a hard one. E. B. G….” I have housed that day in my temple of personal accomplishments, and sure enough, it was sufficient evidence for my parents to see that I was serious about the cello.

I was 16 by the time I started renting my first cello. My parents had picked it out from Mississippi Music, and it was propped against the piano when I got back from school that day. I opened up the nylon case to see for the first time the cello I would later purchase and name Guastus. Guastus had a glossy dark stain and black finger board. His endpin had a hard rubber stop at the end that wound up being worthless at keeping the instrument stable on hard floors. I sat with Guastus for about an hour, having no clue how to hold a cello or the bow.

It was like a first kiss—I had only a vague idea of what I was supposed to be doing, but I just gloried in the basics. I scraped the bow across the strings and wrapped myself in those low, magnanimous tones. My favorite string was the second lowest. I think it was Bach’s too, because he starts his legendary cello suites with that open G pulsing at the beginning of the introductory measures. I think it’s fitting that my first experiments with the cello and the instrument’s most famous piece started out the same way. But of course, I wasn’t aware of any of that. I was only conscious of the resonance between the strings and my chest cavity. In those first moments, ignorance really was bliss.

But that was resolved by Sue Yoo. Sue Yoo was an Asian woman half the size of her cello with the soft voice and sharp glance of an assassin. She was cello teacher #1. Upon meeting her I told her that I had been working on acquiring perfect pitch, but hadn’t quite reached it. “I know it’s required to play the cello,” I said, happy that I could demonstrate some knowledge of the instrument. She quickly told me I was wrong, and it was unnecessary. Never again will rage and relief find so perfect a union.

Once I forgot to bring my bow with me to a lesson, so we did drills plucking the strings for half an hour. Subsequently, the fingers on my right hand were covered in blisters. Sue Yoo terrified me. She always wore massive stilettos with her black jeans. One night she broke into my room through the window while I was lying in bed and kicked me in the neck with those spikes. I was coughing and spattering blood everywhere right before I woke up and realized there was no escape from Sue Yoo, even in dreams.

But eventually I got a job at McDonald’s, which disrupted my cello lessons. I said goodbye to Ms. Yoo, but not to Guastus. We stuck with it, and I attempted to teach myself for the next year and a half, despite working 30-35 hour weeks my senior year of high school.

After my McDonald’s experience, I lost my tolerance for people who are too busy. When someone tells me they don’t have time for something, I stop listening. We all have 24 hours every day to spend on whatever we want. What you actually mean when you say, “I’m too busy for _____,” is “I don’t want to do _____.” The things we want to do most become our priorities, and we do them. When I got home from school, I practiced with Guastus because I wanted to master the cello more than I wanted to read a book or watch TV or play a video game or relax. Now, that’s not to say I didn’t occasionally indulge in something else, but I always made time for the cello.

When I’m in the midst of indulgent trash-TV and watching a talk show, I see something similar. “Baby, I love you more than anything in the world, but I just can’t stop _____.” The moment the “but” enters the sentence, I know the person is deceiving himself. No. You love smoking pot or sleeping around or eating to the point of morbid obesity more than you love your girlfriend or mom or wife. How do I know? Because you consistently obtain the one at the risk of losing the other. It’s a matter of priorities.

One of my priorities was to get a new bow. Mine was artificial, and it made Guastus sound more like an ecstatic Rosanne Barr than the typical James Earl Jones timbre for which cellos are famous. I ordered the new bow online. It was made from brasilwood and genuine horse hair. It turned out to be a good investment. I was playing at church a few weeks later when a woman approached me with the proposal to play at a relative’s wedding, which then covered the cost of the bow.

After I actually made money with the cello, I had a new confidence. I started by chasing after Bach’s second solo suite. To this day I’m overcome by that first movement. What Oscar Wilde’s character said of playing Chopin applied to me and Bach, “I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were not my own.”

Hamlet was in that same dimension when he puzzled over a staged lament for the mythological Queen Hecuba, and perhaps, had he not broken the trance, he could have found either the peace or the determination to resolve his inner conflict. We need art for reflective moments like those. The sublime makes us want to be better. It’s true of the best music, drama and art.

Towards the end of my last year of High School, I had a moment when I witnessed something truly sublime. I saw—in the flesh—Yo-Yo Ma perform the Dvorak cello concerto. It was in Alabama, of all places, and the Saenger Theatre was packed. My friends and I were clear in the back balcony, but I could hear every note with unmatched clarity. At the climax of the first movement, I was astonished to find myself weeping. I wasn’t just “getting misty.” Tears were streaming down my cheeks. Yo-Yo Ma had surpassed my understanding of perfection, and I didn’t know what to do with myself besides be better.

By the time I reached college, I was much better than when I first strolled into Sue Yoo’s studio. Now that I wasn’t working and had a university at my disposal, I figured it was a great time to renew a more structured approach to the cello. To start off my first lesson with Megan, she asked me to play something. I started playing a Bach piece. She stopped me and said she had never heard anything played so well with such awful technique. In the following semesters I unlearned everything I had taught myself, and began anew.

That can happen with people, too. On a few occasions I have been abroad for several months or years and had only limited contact with my friends and family. Every time I’ve come back I’ve been shocked at how different they are from how I thought they were. Each time I embarrass myself. Each time I have to start from the beginning. I’ve wondered about Odysseus in that regard. What did he think of Penelope in the weeks following his return? Did he ever stumble on his words and say the wrong thing? Did he ever feel like he was staring at a stranger?

In addition to re-learning the technique, I met a new instrument. I can’t remember why I went to a music store that day, but I decided to walk into the cello room. The sales clerk indulged me in letting me play a few of the new instruments. They were nice, but they just didn’t feel like they’d been broken-in.

Then in the back corner, I saw Eudora. Eudora is a blonde Italian, and she’s about 90 years old. I sat down with her and started to play. She was totally unique, and I say that without hyperbole. For one, the people who sculpted and repaired her had completely unorthodox approaches, leading to a ridge in the fingerboard and pegs connecting the neck to the back. I found out quickly that she had a capacity totally beyond Guastus. She could roar and shriek or hum and sing. But most amazing was her ability to play low notes so gently, and resonate so profoundly that my heart melted. I knew then that she was my cello. Guastus had been a good friend, and I haven’t sold him, but he needed to make way for my true love.

Eudora and I are still going steady. We’ve played for hundreds of people in various settings. One of my favorite and most recent venues was the local elementary school. I volunteered to do a lesson to several classes about the instrument and to play a Gabriel Fauré piece for them. I was hoping to surprise them. I was hoping to dazzle them with beauty the way the Kung Fu movie had me, and change a life. In some cases, I succeeded. I saw their little eyes widen and their jaws hang low as Eudora began to sing the soul-crushing strains of Fauré’s “Elegie.” I watched their conception of “pretty music” collapse.

That’s key in life—revelations and roadblocks unexpectedly shattering our expectations. What we have to do is use those opportunities to assess what’s really most dear to us, and then cling to that. And that’s why every society needs great art, because we use art to educate our yearning and our love. If we choose wisely, invariably, those cherished things will shock us again and again with their beauty, and we will find ourselves becoming more like the ideals we cherish.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

O Fortuna

In my world today, the global economy is on life support and we are under a flu attack from the swine. I’m not apathetic; I’m just ignorant. I want to help people have jobs and money, and I want to subdue the swine, but I don’t know how. Economists say that spending more will stimulate the economy. But I don’t trust economists. Didn’t over-spending cause this recession? From what I can see, economists get in their offices, sit down at their desks, open their drawers and pull out their Ouija boards. Perhaps if Avian Flu is the order of the day, they’ll sprinkle some chicken blood, but if not, I’m sure some other voodoo will do.

My distrust for them is perhaps the only tangible product of their sooth saying. What other professionals with equally rigorous education consistently produce such catastrophic results? When was the last time all the patients of the nation’s hospitals spontaneously combusted because the doctors had been pumping kerosene instead of blood through their veins? But I guess they're just human.

O Fortuna,
Velut luna
Statu veriabilis!

So begins the opening lament of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana—that fortune, like the moon, is in a state of constant change. It’s true. I believe it. I’ve never known anyone whose life was all tiramisu and no SPAM, or vice versa. I concede that that principle must also inevitably apply to economists. Certainly they benefit us at times. Like the old cliché goes, even a broken clock is right twice a day.

But a problem with the anonymous monk who penned Orff’s lyrics and with almost everyone is that we focus too much not only on the downward swing, but on Lady Fortuna and her wheel in general. This idea of shifting fortune is essentially a law of nature. Do we also need cantatas for all the laws of thermodynamics? Yes, the economy is bad, but it will get better. Why? Because that’s what economies do.

Much more important than noting the obvious turns of fortune’s wheel is to maintain our balance and dignity throughout all phases of its cycle. A critical thought to cherish while at the bottom of the wheel, for instance, is that we’re human. I like humans, and I’ve found that very few species outside of our own will tolerate me. The Norse said correctly that “man is the joy of man.” We are a race of divine fetuses rolling on our big blue orb. Granted, some will grow to be as irresponsible and promiscuous as Zeus, or as destructive as Shiva, but we also have the potential of Loki’s wit and even Jesus’ grace.

Likewise, while riding the crest of prosperity’s wave we need also remember that we are humans. Unfortunately, we have a terrible capacity for greed and poor form. Others will find us easy to forgive if, in the depths of deprivation, we forget to mind or manners. They will not be so forgiving, if, however, with belching sensuality, we flaunt our advantages in the faces of the poor, and with outrageous self-indulgence, rob our children of economic stability.

So. Stay balanced. Stay temperate. And remember, “What a piece of work is man!”

Monday, May 4, 2009


My university's campus is immaculate. Anyone who's been there knows that. The scattered cigarette butts and gums wrappers which plague most other campuses are totally absent. Tulips and pansies sit proudly in their well tended beds, and the trees themselves offer a friendly palate of colors ranging from the deepest greens to the most somber of reds. Every day after classes, I begin my hike down from campus. Usually I'm leaving from the proximity of the Humanities building. It's a magnificent glass and stone structure, rising like a titan of scholarship, complete with a stunning rocky fountain. As I continue walking, the Maeser building is not far off, the home to the Honors Program. There, a bronze Karl G. Maeser stands watching over the university, reminding us that the institution is not just one of mind, but of soul--that a graduate from this university is not expected to develop only a rigorous passion for learning, but a character fit to match the mountains which surround it.

And then I leave Karl and start my descent down the hill. Happy co-eds sit on their balconies smiling, conversing and strumming guitars. I smile and walk on. I come to a cross walk with bright orange safety flags for crossing. You're supposed to pick one up and signal with it as you walk, depositing it on the other side. I have never seen anyone use them. If I could do a cartwheel or juggle, that is how I would cross the street every time, and the only conditions under which I would use those flags.

But then as I move even further south, I see something that relentlessly irritates me. Dandelions. Entire rainforests of dandelions cover the many shabby yards of the many shabby houses. It's a long walk back from campus, and I encounter the dandelions in the very last leg of the journey. It puts me in such a foul mood that when I see my apartment, I can think of nothing more than how much I want to go inside. It is a tragedy that just a few blocks south of such a well kept campus are so many weeds.

Today as I was coming back from a film on campus, I saw a portly woman about my age cutting her lawn right by my home. She was one of the worst dandelion offenders, and I was glad to see her striking the fiends down, despite my knowledge that simply cutting them down will not get rid of them, but will only help them spread there seeds. I thought about offering to help her cut her yard, seeing as how she was a lady and I a gentleman, but then I saw that she was almost done, and might feel embarrassed by the offer, or worse yet, think that I might be judging her and her work. So I smiled and walked on.

And then I noticed something in my lawn that I never had before. Like a writhing den of diabolical serpents lay hundreds of twisting, turning, disgusting dandelions.