Sunday, September 30, 2012

Mitt back on the White Horse

The cover of the October 1, 2012 issue of The New Yorker is interesting, because it appears to be satirizing the Mormon White Horse Prophecy, which I've mentioned before. Simply put, the White Horse Prophecy, which some Mormons believe and others don't, says that there will come a time in the United States when the Constitution is “hanging by a thread” and a Mormon will rush in to save it.

I have no idea if cartoonist Barry Blitt is making reference to that, or if it’s a reference to Ann Romney’s equestrian interests. But it’s a funny cartoon, anyway. Romney on the back of a horse, checking the financial pages, with a chauffer to “drive.”

An article about Romney in the same issue tells of his past, how he idolized his father, his business dealings (and what Bain Capital really does), and even touches on the story I told of Romney's car crash in France that killed his LDS mission president's wife. (The article doesn't mention Romney's claim that he was in a coma and a French cop wrote “il est mort” on his passport. You can see more about that here).

Finally, a funny cartoon with a topical punchline by Paul Noth, makes this a very Romney issue of The New Yorker.

Cartoonist Pat Bagley, in an historical essay in today's Salt Lake Tribune, tells the story of other Mormons who have run for president. So far none have been successful, and Mitt is the first to get this far. You can read the article here.

You might also be interested to find out in Bagley's article that Eldredge Cleaver ran for president, and then became a right-wing Mormon. I don't know how Cleaver is holding up, now, whether he still believes in his adopted religion or not.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Happy birthday, Mike Post

Composer Mike Post is 68 today.

His themes for popular television programs are played continually worldwide. I'd argue that his themes have actually helped programs become popular. I've listed my four favorites, all of which reflect the mood of the show: Law and Order dramatic, Rockford Files and Magnum playful, and Hill Street Blues, a haunting piece of music with a bluesy touch.

Here is my disclaimer: If you are looking at this blog and any of these themes have dead links it's because YouTube pulled them out of circulation. Blame YouTube, not MeTube.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Get along, Kid Charlemagne

Will J. Cuppy was an American humorist, born in 1884, who, as humorists are sometimes prone to be, was also a depressed person. He took his own life in 1949.

Cuppy was an avid researcher, who wrote copious notes on 3” x 5” cards. His literary executor, Fred Feldkamp, is quoted as saying that Cuppy “sometimes read 25 books on a subject before writing a word about it.”1 Cuppy had, for me, a dream job, reviewing mystery books and stories, and by the end had reviewed over 4,000. He also wrote books, of which The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody was one of his most famous, even though, technically, he did not write it. His friend, Fred Feldkamp, finished it from the notecards Cuppy had left after sixteen years of work.2

One of his chapters, on Charlemagne, is about one of my earliest known ancestors. Charlemagne (or Charles the Great, as he was also known)3 shows up on my family tree, right below his father, Pippin the Short, who is the end, there aren’t any more relatives left after Pippin the Short (like the other Pippins, who preceded Pippin the Short, inexplicably missing from my family tree). Anyway, since Charlemagne was a king over 1000 years ago I assume he had a lot of groupies and probably fathered many children, of whom I am almost the tail-end of a very long line. (My son counts, too, as do his children.)

The illustrations are by Wlliam Steig. This short chapter was originally published by Henry Holt.4 If you notice the footnotes, they aren’t like the footnotes you may be used to.5

1. Sounds like an exaggeration to me by at least 24 books.
2. Anyone who can do that with index cards deserves to put his name above the author’s.
3. The book doesn’t indicate whether he called himself “the Great” or whether that was conferred upon him by his “greatful” subjects.
4. I found my copy in a thrift store, and was happy at my cheap thrifty discovery.
5.That’s where the description of Cuppy as a humorist comes in.

Steely Dan did a song about Charlemagne, most likely not knowing that one of Charlemagne's descendants (me) heard it and loved it.6

6. Okay, I know it's not really about Charlemagne (some say it's a song about a kid selling LSD), but I like it, anyway.

The dime — and half-dime — novels of yesteryear

I like finding covers of old dime novels during my internet travels. I don't own the novels pictured, just digital scans of the covers. I clean up the scans because the illustrations are usually outstanding. Dime novels, the predecessors of pulp magazines, paperback books and comics from the last half of the nineteenth century through the first years of the twentieth, were written quickly and aimed at an audience of young readers who were more into action and thrills and less discriminating about literary quality.

The heroes were noble. You could tell a hero was pure of heart when his name was “Fred Fearnot.”

The covers I've seen aren't signed by the artists, although there were some excellent draftsmen doing them. I don't know how anyone could resist a cover like Secret Service, with the giant finger pushing the hero out a window. If I ever see the actual novel I might have to read it just to find out what that's all about.

I also have a before-and-after cover so you can see what I've done with it.

Isn’t “The Steam Man of the Prairies” what would now be called steampunk?


When football was a lot rougher than it is now. No pads, no helmets.


Mitt Romney would have probably loved novels about young capitalists getting rich. 

The article below is from a 1956 issue of American Heritage magazine. AH was a very deluxe magazine, printed with hard covers and sewn binding. It was more of a book than a magazine; expensive, so people usually saved them. The dime novels, unfortunately, didn't fare as well. Being cheap, throwaway items printed on pulp paper, not too many of them survived. There are major collections of dime novels in university and college collections. One of the collections is of Wild West dime novels, collected by Senator Barry Goldwater. The people who collected them may have donated them in order to preserve them. I have no idea how many major collectors of dime novels there are now, and whether private collections of them are still being built.

Copyright © 1956, 2012 American Heritage

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Does Mitt Romney believe black people were cursed? Or are they cursing him?

An NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll in late August, 2012, showed Mitt Romney was trailing President Obama with black voters, an incredible 94 percent to zero percent. Yes, zero. Unless there was a minus-zero a candidate could not do worse with any group of American voters than Mitt Romney polled with African-Americans.

Even allowing for statistical anomalies and the inevitable four-and-one-half percent up or down variations of polls, it’s a pretty sorry number. I haven’t seen a similar poll conducted after the political conventions, but since the Republican convention didn’t give Mitt any real bounce in any other polls we can probably safely surmise Mitt is still doing poorly with that segment of the population.

A few days ago I told you of Mitt in France as a Mormon missionary in 1968. Until 1978 black men were excluded from holding the priesthood in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I wonder if at least some of that Church’s former stance on people of African heritage — a prejudice not extended to any other ethnic group — could have something to do with Romney’s poor showing amongst them.

Years ago I found a small chapbook, Mormonism and the Negro, which was published in 1960, and is an attempt by a faithful member to explain the Church’s position on its official discrimination policy. The author wrote it for fellow Church members. At that time, just before the decade when the Civil Rights Era really got into full swing, it probably wasn’t necessary to preach its theology of discrimination to anyone outside the LDS Church.

After all, at the time several states had Jim Crow laws, and those that didn’t have laws specifically discriminating against black people had unwritten policies that added up to the same thing. A church discriminating probably wasn’t all that big a deal. Most churches in America had black and white separation. The difference was that other churches didn’t write the discrimination specifically into their theology, and base it on prophets and prophecies of our modern era.

Mormonism and the Negro author John J. Stewart was at that time the editor of publications and a professor of journalism at Utah State University in Logan, Utah. He used quotes from Mormon writings and The Book of Mormon to back the policy. His argument would mean nothing to a non-Mormon who didn’t accept Mormon holy writ, or know their belief that black people were cursed by “sitting on the fence” during a so-called War in Heaven during a pre-existence, when all humans were in a spirit form before having their turn on earth. According to their stories the spirits that didn’t take sides ended up being born into bodies with black skins. So, those born as Negroes were “cursed.”

If presented with that story nowadays I doubt that African-Americans, who have had to fight for every right that white Americans have had as their birthright* since Year Zero of the history of the United States, would take kindly to such an attitude from a church which was, even in 1960, attempting to build itself into a world religion.

By 1978 with the winds of change blowing, official discrimination against African-Americans was impeding the Church’s message. In a move that surprised everyone, especially Mormons, the First Presidency of the LDS Church, led by President Spencer W. Kimball, changed its position. African-Americans, who had always been allowed to hold membership in the Church, could now also hold the priesthood. (Not surprisingly the revelation didn’t apply to women, who have never held any priesthood positions in the LDS Church. It hasn’t sat well with some women who are not content to be second class citizens in their own religion, but it’s a topic for another day, separate from this.)

Evangelical Christians have their own theological problems with the Mormons, apart from the now-defunct racial policy, but it would not surprise me a bit that it wouldn’t be mentioned or discussed amongst African-Americans that Mitt belonged to a religion that discriminated. They might not know the fine points of that discrimination, but they would know that while African-Americans were fighting for even the most basic civil rights, LDS Church members and missionaries — including Mitt, had he been asked about it, or challenged — were teaching an official policy of discrimination.

This is an opinion from author Stewart on page 49 of Mormonism and the Negro, who twisted that discrimination into being some sort of advantage for black people:
Is it not possible to see an act of mercy on the part of God in not having the Negro bear the Priesthood in this world, in view of his living under the curse of a black skin and other Negroid features? [Emphasis mine.] When a man has the Priesthood conferred upon him, Satan redoubles his effort to destroy that man. Just think of the weapons, the tools that Satan would have at his command . . . Who is to say that, in view of these factors, the Negro is not — so far as his temporal well-being — better off not to have the Priesthood? God has said that where much is given much is required . . . imagine the obstacles that the Negro would encounter in attempting to honor and magnify his Priesthood. [Emphasis mine].
I’m sure most thinking Mormons of today would repudiate such a statement as condescending at best and racist at worst, but Mormons of Mitt’s generation and before grew up with that official racism. Some LDS people, when the 1978 “revelation” was published, believed it was political, that the Church was changing God’s law to change its secular public relations nightmare. That attitude prevailed for years, including amongst those Mormon Republicans who steadfastly refused to honor the national Martin Luther King Day holiday. In Utah for many years it was called “Human Rights Day,” and although MLK Day was a national holiday, it was not observed in Utah as a local holiday. The legislature opened their sessions on that day every year, as a sort of raised middle-finger to the whole idea of honoring Martin Luther King.

Nowadays the holiday has gotten its rightful name back in Utah, but the generation of Mormons who grew up defending the Church’s right to discriminate against blacks by claiming them under a curse are still around, and still have political power. That includes Mitt, although he’d be smart not to mention it. He has enough problems.

*The word, “entitlement,” sneered at by Mitt Romney, is in this case the one he has enjoyed the most as a prosperous, white American male.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Bad week for Mitt

Mitt Romney is having a very bad week. A secret tape that surfaced, him talking at a private fundraising event in Florida in May, is damning. Everything said on that tape, all that comes out of his mouth, everything that comes out of the mouths of the rich people in the room asking questions, is bad. Conspiracy theorists, take note! You have proof from Mitt Romney himself that he doesn’t care about 47% of the American people; that he thinks the economy will turn around just by him being elected, without having to do anything…and on, and on. It’s quite a stunning event in a campaign with one stunningly bad event after another. In fact, all the noise from that tape is drowning out another story about Romney.

The Daily Kos published a post telling of an investigation into what they believe is a Mitt Romney lie. Romney claimed he had survived a car crash in France in 1968, one that killed a passenger, and which had left him in a coma for two days. He said he had to be pried out of the car, and that a French policeman had written on his passport “il est mort” (he is dead)..

But the photographer who took pictures of the accident and notified the media of the death of the passenger, Mrs. Leola S. Anderson, 57, reported Mitt had sustained minor head injuries and some torn ligaments in his arm, and was expected “to leave the hospital in two days.” Mitt was a Mormon missionary in France then, Mrs. Anderson was the wife of the president of the mission where he was serving. Since Mitt was a son of the governor of Michigan, who in 1968 was running for the presidential bid on the Republican ticket, it was news back home. The site has a scan of a 1968 newspaper clipping about the accident. The clipping came from the family of Mrs. Anderson. (The clipping is real, but I wish it had a notation of what newspaper it came from, and on what date.)

There's also a picture of Mitt in the hospital. He appears to be reacting to the photographer, not hooked up to any monitors or life-support equipment, as you'd expect of someone in a coma.

Mitt not looking at all comatose, from the Daily Kos.

You can read the whole story here, but be warned, the writer of the piece accuses Romney of having a form of mental illness, that he is a narcissist, or delusional  If he is a narcissist, lots of other people are, also. I think narcissism may even be helpful for people who do what he does. If we put every narcissist in a mental hospital there would have to be a whole lot more hospitals. Delusional, I don't think so. I lived with my mother's delusions for years, and know what delusional behavior is.

When Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan, juiced up a tale and was called on his veracity — he claimed to have run a marathon in less than three hours when it was really more than four —  Ryan tried to mitigate the damage. He had also been called on several lies during his RNC convention speech, so for the marathon story he offered a sort of half-assed admission that it “. . . was 22 years ago. You forget sorta these things.”

These guys are telling tales in an era of fact-checking, and if they are going to tell a story from their lives they'd better make sure no one can go back and check to see if they’re telling the truth.

I think we can chalk up both stories and the attendant exaggerations as bullshit lies. People tell such lies for various reasons. Mostly to make themselves look good. I have my doubts about Romney's version of the 1968 car crash. If he was in a coma then evidence provided by the photographer seems to indicate otherwise. I have a strong suspicion it's a lie.

A few months ago we heard that while in prep school Romney and his friends held down a gay classmate, then cut the boy's bangs. Romney apologized, but said he didn't remember the incident. I believe he did remember it, and decided to lie and say he didn't. Mitt has trouble owning up to his own bad self, especially when he's made errors in judgment. If he apologizes he usually gives an excuse. There could also be an attention-getting side to Romney (the narcissism), where he thinks that embellishing a car crash from 45 years ago involving a death, makes the event even more dramatic. Instead of Mrs. Anderson being the tragic figure, it's him. That sounds like the Mitt Romney we are more and more getting to know.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Mitt Romney's cash cow, Utah

Mitt's in town. I saw on the local news his plane had landed. He descended the staircase where a line of Boy Scouts awaited his arrival. There were hearty handshakes for all the boys, who were all white, toothsome, wholesome and Mormonsome. What else can I say? This is Utah.*

Mitt enjoys a fan base here in Utah unlike any other place in America. It's where Mitt's Mormons live, and some very big donors, just dying to plunk down thousands of dollars for the honor of sitting with the Great Man himself. Mitt has been in a little bit of a public relations quagmire lately, starting about the time of the summer Olympics, and needs to be amongst those who adore him.

And why not adore him? Some Mormons believe Mitt is the answer to a prophecy. Some other Mormons claim there is no such prophecy. It's called the White Horse Prophecy (not White House, but Horse.) The simplest explanation I can give is that it is another bit of Mormon mythology, which claims Joseph Smith or Brigham Young said there would come a time when the U.S. Constitution “would be hanging by a thread,” and a Mormon would come along to save the country.

Hooray for Mitt, savior of our Constitution!

Except Mitt apparently dismisses the idea. In the Wikipedia entry, “White Horse Prophecy”, Mitt is quoted as saying, “That's not official church doctrine....I don't put that at the heart of my religious belief.” But I'll bet at night when he says his prayers he says to God, “If the White Horse prophecy is real, then I'm your man!” Right about now it looks as if it will take an act of God to get Mitt elected, but that's right now. I'm not na├»ve enough to believe nothing can change by election day to turn the whole election around, with or without an act of God.

It really doesn't matter to Mitt's minions, his faithful followers, whether a prophecy is true, or whether he's even the best candidate for president. He's their guy! He's one of them! He's Brother Mitt!

I'm not comparing Mitt's origins or status to Barack Obama's personal story, but there is something groundbreaking in his candidacy: Barack Obama was the first black man to be a major party presidential candidate, and Mitt Romney is the first Mormon. And now they're running against each other. None of that is in the “prophecy,” but not that many years ago this presidential election scenario would have been improbable, if not impossible for anyone to have imagined.

*As an aside, as I was writing this post my phone rang. I let it ring because when I looked on the Caller ID it said “Brigham Young.” I assume that means Brigham Young University, and not a call from Brigham Young in the afterlife. It's just another of my many daily reminders of where I live, and the folks I live among. If Brigham, or his university, wants to talk to me they can leave a message and maybe I'll get back to them.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Go to sleep, find your lost objects

 If you’re like me then you may find times that you’re obsessing over something you have misplaced. It can be infuriating to look for car keys, a checkbook, wallet or TV remote, knowing you put it down…but where?

I have been reading the 1907 book, Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death by F. W. H. Myers. In a chapter called “Sleep” Myers prints affidavits from people who have used sleep as a psychic tool, including this man who found a lost item after dreaming about it:
In September, 1880, I lost the landing order of a large steamer containing a cargo of iron ore . . . she had to commence discharging at six o’clock the next morning. I received the landing order at four o’clock in the afternoon, and when I arrived at the office at six I found that I had lost it.

That night I dreamed that I saw the lost landing order lying in a crack in the wall under a desk . . . in the Custom House.

At five the next morning I went down to the Custom House and got the keeper to get up and open it. I went to the spot of which I had dreamed,, and found the paper in the very place.

Herbert J. Lewis
That affidavit reminded me of my own experience with finding something in a dream. In the early ‘70s my wife gave me a Christmas present, a new Rapidograph (technical) pen. It cost about $8.00 at the time, which was a lot of money for us. I promptly lost the pen.

I searched the house for two days and couldn’t find it. I was very upset. I’d asked her to give me the pen for Christmas and I had a specific use for it, so I went into obsessive overdrive, looking again and again in the same places, as if it would mysteriously appear somewhere I’d already looked.

That second night I dreamed that I woke to the sound of a signal, a high-pitched “eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee” sound, coming from under the refrigerator. I woke up from the dream, went to the refrigerator with a yardstick, put it under the appliance and out popped my Rapidograph pen. We had cats, and I assume one of them had knocked the pen off a countertop where I’d set it down, and doing its cat-thing, had been playing, batting the pen around until it rolled under the refrigerator.

Unlike Mr. Myers of the 1907 book, far from thinking of it in psychic terms, I thought of it as a way the brain solves problems, even while sleeping. In retrospect I think of it as being like the search feature of my computer. I type in a file name and the computer goes through every file on my computer looking for the file. I believe my brain had done much the same thing, just a lot slower than my computer.

Wonderful thing, the brain. Wonderful thing, sleep. I’ve used the technique of “sleeping on it” many times to solve similar problems. I've also learned to keep things out of the reach of my cats.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Four marriages: two dead husbands, one widow, one new/old husband, still living

I saw an obituary today with a familiar name. Michael Cee (not his real name) had died. I looked down at the list of survivors to see if Mr. Cee was related to a man I knew years ago, Roger Cee. Sure enough, Michael Cee is Roger Cee’s father. Listed in parentheses next to Roger Cee's name was his wife's name, Donna.

I got to know Donna after she hired me in August, 1972, for an artist job at a campground franchising company. Donna was my boss, a recent college grad, more recently married to Roger Cee. She was my age, very thin, with red hair and glasses. She had a caustic sense of humor, sometimes directed at her office mates, including me. I thought her sarcasm was a defense mechanism. She needed it. The company we worked for was basically a scam set up by its psychopathic CEO to separate people from their money for campground franchises. The franchises were real, but there were a lot of shenanigans that went into the process, and the boss was more interested in money than getting people started in business. Donna told me all this my first week on the job.

Donna and Roger got along just fine. He was young like her, but already making great money working for his dad in an oil distributing business. After I’d been working for Donna for a couple of months we got a new general manager, whose name was Don. I was in the room when Don and Donna were introduced and I could feel the electricity in the air. I believe if ever I saw love at first sight, that was it. Don and Donna started an affair which tore our office up. It was terrible for morale. Roger was in and out of the building pleading with Donna, Don was hiding out from Roger, Don's wife was in despair, calling him and crying over the phone. It was an ugly mess. On Thanksgiving weekend, 1972, Don and Donna walked out, leaving a note. They took off for Chicago.

A couple of years later I got a call from them, trying to catch up on what had happened subsequently to their departure. I didn't tell them how their affair had been the start of my own downfall, and I lasted just a few months more at the company. A few years after that I heard from Donna when she and Don, who had moved to Portland, Oregon, from Chicago, moved back to Salt Lake City. She wanted to renew acquaintances but I was lukewarm in my response and she didn't call again. In late 2000, after the presidential election I wrote a scathing letter to the local newspaper about the hijacking of the presidency by the Republicans. She wrote me a note telling me she liked my letter. We began a short e-mail correspondence. By then Donna told me that Don, for whom she had left Roger, had died in 1997 of cancer. She had been a widow for a year or so when she met Richard G. She described Richard G. as a “six foot four beanpole who is so skinny his pants are always falling off.” Donna told me she had been publishing a local horticulture newsletter, but Richard, who had taken an early retirement, demanded she quit. So they were together all the time, “joined at the hip,” as she further explained it.

(Donna also gave me a phrase I used over and over, when she described retirement as “every day is Saturday.”)

What started out as a friendly series of e-mails turned fast into a series of Donna's sarcastic comments about me. What I had thought was Donna's response to our working conditions in 1972 was now plain to me to be a manifestation of a vicious personality type. We didn't meet in person. I had no interest, nor did Donna. Our e-mails lasted for about six months and then I shut it off. I realized at the time that I just didn't like Donna, not even enough to trade notes over e-mail. (And before you get any ideas, there was nothing sexy going on. I wasn't interested in any kind of internet hanky-panky, even if she hadn't described her husband as hovering over her shoulder when she read my notes or wrote to me.)

In about 2004 or 2005 I saw an obituary for that husband of Donna’s. He had died of cancer. When I saw his obit I yelled from the living room to my wife, in the kitchen, “Sally! Donna Cee just killed another husband!”

At some point during our e-mail correspondence Donna told me she had dated her ex-husband, Roger, briefly before meeting her six-four skinny hubby, Richard. Remembering how traumatic all of that 1972 drama was for Roger I wondered what had happened with him. Had he remarried after Donna ran off with Don? Had he been divorced again? Had he stayed single, just holding a torch for Donna? I never asked, and she never told me.

So today I saw the obituary for Roger Cee's dad, and realized Roger and Donna are remarried. Unless she slipped in a husband between Richard’s death and remarriage to Roger, that’s a box score of four marriages, two dead husbands, and one husband rerun.

Even though it was a long time ago I wonder how it was working out? Has Donna mellowed, or is she still a sarcastic person with a tongue that cuts like a scalpel? I'll be watching the obituaries to see if Roger Cee dies. If so, perhaps Donna is not just a widow, but a black widow. Stay tuned. I don't think this story is near its end just yet.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

September 11, 2012: 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attack

Selected pages from a special issue of Time, published immediately after the 9/11 attacks.

Copyright © 2001, 2012 Time, Inc.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Satan's plan is to force us to be good!

One of the fascinating things about living in Utah is dealing with some strange Mormon beliefs which surface occasionally, and give us pause. Devout LDS members have some very interesting things to say about doctrinal matters mostly unknown to the world at large. Mr. James C. Green of Heber City, Utah, had a real delight for us today in the local newspaper letter column.

Mormon beliefs regarding the devil differ from mainstream Christianity. According to James, it's Satan's plan to force us to be good! Therefore, the plans the Democrats put forth, public welfare programs and other security nets for the poor and aged, among others, are “evil through and through.”

Salt Lake Tribune “Public Forum,” September 10, 2012

Copyright © 2012 The Salt Lake Tribune
LDS liberals

I find it curious that Latter-day Saints who are Democrats sincerely feel they are taking the high road on social issues, when actually the opposite is true.
What these misinformed Mormon Democrats fail to realize is that we are obligated as individuals to help the needy through voluntary donation of our time and resources, but it should never be done through the forced process of involuntary, confiscatory taxation!

There is a huge difference between these two philosophies. One way is very good; the other way is evil through and through.

This is apparently not understood by these well-meaning members. If they stopped to think about it, they would realize that it was Satan’s plan to force us all to be good (Democratic strategy), but Christ taught us to do good of our own free choice (Republican plan). If everyone understood this simple correct principle, there would be no more liberals.

James C. Green

Heber City
My response in the online comments section (one of over 100 when I responded, all of them negative toward Mr. Green):
Romney should look to Mr. Green for a campaign slogan, "Satan's plan is to force all of us to be good Democrats."  Since the world at large looks at this kind of arcane LDS doctrine like they look at something on the bottom of their shoe I'm sure it would go over bigtime. Thanks, Mr. your own way you could assure the president of his re-election!
James made my day today. His letter gave me a good laugh, besides reminding me of why I'm no longer a Mormon and why I am a Democrat — it's the devil who made me do it.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Cowboys & Aliens: When a good idea goes wrong

Cowboys & Aliens* isn’t a bad movie, but it isn’t a particularly good movie, either. I watched it the other night on Cinemax and what struck me was how the filmmakers had taken high priced movie stars, Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, and millions and millions of dollars** for special effects and blown their opportunities with what should have been gold.

[SPOILER ALERT]: Gold is what the aliens in the movie are after, so my use of the term is a joke. Ha-ha. [END OF SPOILER]

I can only imagine the high concept pitch the filmmakers made to the studio: “It’s about cowboys, you see, an outlaw gunfighter and a ruthless cattle baron, and they team up to fight some aliens from outer space. There are scenes of spaceships buzzing the town, raygun blasts like Independence Day and War of the Worlds!” I can just visualize said studio execs salivating at the box office possibilities of such a blend of genres.

Except it seems a little late. When’s the last time you saw a Western movie that had a big box office impact? Tombstone, Silverado, Wyatt Earp, Dances with Wolves were all hits a couple of decades ago. Western movies are something that can always come back depending on the story and the whims of the public nostalgia for horses and six guns, but this was a hybrid movie. It doesn’t count. And haven't movies about alien invasions played themselves out by now? There’s always a demand for science fiction if done well, but there again is that hybrid thing. Will science fiction fans buy an invasion story if it involves cowboys? Will cowboy fans buy a story about a ruthless cattle baron and a gunfighter if it involves aliens from outer space?

Considering the finished product, apparently not.

There’s another consideration, also: too many elements in the story. There’s a long scene at first of the cattle baron’s son acting spoiled and sadistic in a confrontation with a town person. It really adds nothing to the story. It should have been cut altogether or drastically edited. There’s a tavern owner (an unrecognizable — to me, anyway — Sam Rockwell), who has to learn to be a man and how to shoot a gun. There’s race prejudice against Indians, there’s…oh well. You catch my drift. There’s just too much going on that has nothing to do with the core story, which is a posse chasing after the aliens who have kidnapped several town folks.

The credits show several writers. Three writers are listed for story, and five for screenplay. My guess is that this movie had a tough gestation, was written and re-written, with different elements being juggled as the filmmakers tried to make a story that comes off as more important than it really is.

One comment on the movie I saw online said it “takes itself too seriously,” and on that I agree.

But that’s not all that’s wrong with Cowboys & Aliens, and that’s the aliens, themselves. They are computer generated images that look computer generated. They also look like monsters incapable of the technology required to get to earth [ANOTHER SPOILER ALERT!] and mine earth’s gold. [END OF SPOILER]

I’ve got nothing against computer generated images, and on occasion they mesh well with the live action. I’m thinking of Jurassic Park, which in special effects terms, is a dinosaur — another ha-ha from me — but the movie still looks good. But in Cowboys & Aliens I was aware the whole time I was watching the aliens that they came from a computer monitor. They look like they were designed by comic book artists who like tall monsters with big bulky muscled torsos and arms.

Cowboys & Aliens wanted to be more than it needed to be, and by trying to do too much ruined the movie’s effect.

*That’s the title as listed on the Internet Movie Database, using an ampersand instead of the word “and.” I hate ampersands because they cause confusion. Just use the word “and,” folks.

**According to the Internet Movie Database the estimated cost of the movie was $163,000,000, and it is estimated to have earned $174,000,000 worldwide by November, 2011.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Breaking Bad, badder and baddest

If you’re a devoted follower of AMC’s Breaking Bad like me, then you’ve noticed how the body count has gone up during this current half-season, just concluded Sunday, September 2, 2012.

Not only have bodies piled up, the main character, Walter White, has been either directly or indirectly responsible. In the penultimate episode, White killed Mike Ehrmantraut, who wouldn’t provide him with a list of names of people in prison who could finger him. White is, as you may know, the meth-cooker for a distribution network. At the end of last season he killed cartel leader Gustavo Fring, and created his own operation. I wrote about Fring’s killing here. (Warning. Graphic gory pictures.) The men whose names Walt needed were Fring’s cartel members in prison. They were being paid by Ehrmantraut to be silent, but when Walt killed him, he then needed to go after them.

Perhaps my description makes it sound a bit Shakespearean. It is.

As the series has progressed we have seen Walt go from high school chemistry teacher to cancer patient to meth-cooker to ruthless gangster. (Vince Gilligan, who created the show said his goal with Walter White “is to turn him from Mr. Chips into Scarface.”) Walt went into the crystal meth business using the street name, “Heisenberg,” enlisting the aid of his stoner student, Jesse Pinkman. At the time Walt was more or less honorable. Or at least as honorable as someone who uses his talent to provide a dangerous and illegal drug like methamphetamine. Walt and Jesse have been through several encounters with killers where they managed to escape death. When the series opened Jesse was the more dangerous of the two men, and now it is all on Walt. He even scares Jesse, who has opted out of the business.

This portrait of Cranston and Paul, done by Ben Kirchner for the August 27, 2012 New Yorker, captures the intensity of the actors in character.
Copyright © 2012 The New Yorker

Ah, but when crime organizations get to that level is anyone ever truly “out”? Ehrmantraut wanted out, and he ended up dead, his car turned into a metal cube at a salvage yard, and his body cut into pieces and put into barrels of acid. The nine men who Walt needed dead were killed by a racist prison gang Walt paid to do the job. The scene where the planning was done is telling. Leaders of the gang (who are not currently in prison, but can direct gang members inside) met with Walt in a motel room. As they discussed how to kill nine men in different prisons simultaneously Walt stared absently at a painting on the wall. When approached by the gang leader Walt gave an opinion that the motel chain must have a big warehouse full of those paintings. The gang leader pulls him back into the subject at hand. Walt has become detached from his actions, from murder.

Subsequent scenes of prisoners being shanked reminded me of the coordinated assassination scenes of other Mafia dons in The Godfather. So in the last two episodes season Walt is responsible for ten deaths. There were more, including a tragic shooting of a 14-year-old who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and whose death caused Jesse Pinkman a serious crisis of conscience. It didn't bother Walt much, if at all, I might add.

Add characters like Walt’s wife, Skyler, who launders Walt’s drug money in a car wash business, and stockpiles what she can’t launder into a pallet of cash in a storage unit. There is Walt’s brother-in-law, Hank, who works for the DEA, who was after Gus Fring. Despite the agency’s admonition to quit wasting time on Fring’s operation now that he’s dead, Hank still doggedly pursues the drug gang, not realizing it’s his own brother-in-law who is now the mastermind. Then we have the crooked lawyer, Saul Goodman, and until the climax of episode seven, one of the best characters on TV, Mike Ehrmantraut, ex-New York cop who was Goodman’s bagman. The characters in this series are doozies, every one of them a separate spoke in the wheel of the intrigue and calamities surrounding them. Sometimes those events are even unrecognized except by Walt, who is the hub of the wheel.

I have nothing but praise for the actors in this show. The genius who cast Bryan Cranston as Walt should be singled out as deserving special accolades. Here was an actor best known to American TV audiences as the doofus dad, Hal, in Malcolm In the Middle, a sitcom from a few seasons back. This is a star turn for Cranston, who is now turning up in movie roles. Nothing as juicy as Walt White, but his talents as a dramatic actor have been noticed.

Aaron Paul as Jesse is a terrific young actor. His eyes burn; they practically shoot flames when the scene calls for anger.

Skyler, who is actress Anna Gunn, also has a very expressive face. She’s caught up in a situation far beyond her control. Her worry is that she and her family will be killed by the dangerous people Walt is working with. He is constantly trying to reassure her, which makes no difference in her paranoia and fear. It shows in her face.

Dean Norris as Hank Schrader is kind of a good ol' boy, a guy who drinks beer, tells dumb jokes, but who is also dogged in his job. In the final scene of the season’s last episode he has picked up a clue from a book (while sitting on the toilet, no less!) that startles him. He is putting Walt into the total picture.

The character I will miss the most is Mike Ehrmantraut. Jonathan Banks, who played him, is a familiar character actor. We’ve all seen him in movies and television for years. When he first appeared in Breaking Bad I didn’t buy him as the coldblooded killer we grew to know. But that changed when I came to appreciate his unflappably calm, yet dangerous demeanor.

Banks, Gunn and Norris. A great cast makes a great show.

Ehrmantraut, Jesse, Skyler, Walt, are portrayed by actors who act with their eyes. Bryan Cranston singled out Giancarlo Esposito, who played Gus Fring, as being an actor who could “make his eyes go dead.” But all of them have that ability. Walt is more and more looking like Gus Fring, with a stony look that reflects not just eyes that have gone dead, but a soul that has died.

Now that we know Walter White will kill those who could identify him, how long before he goes after those who know him best, Jesse and Skyler? Will he try to kill Hank before Hank gets the goods on him? Stay tuned for next summer's final episodes of this incredible series.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012


Yesterday Sally and I went to a Labor Day sale at a local store. While poking around the racks I saw a group of teenage girls discussing a potential purchase. One of the girls was wearing a black t-shirt that said this:

While I wasn't offended — it was kind of funny — I thought of how other people might react. I know it’s a joke, but that kind of toilet humor is lowbrow, you know? I think of fart, pee-pee and poo-poo jokes as being about the intellectual level of a first grader. My grandkids think things like that are funny, and that’s a good indicator for me.

So I thought, wish I had an answer t-shirt. What if I could design a shirt that would change its message. Maybe I could send a text from my phone to a receptor in my shirt that would put a message on it. If I’d had that ability — and what the hell, if I could figure out how to make it I’d probably try to patent it — I might have answered her with this shirt:

I admit it’s no snappy comeback.  I’ll have to work on that part of my idea.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

God works in mysterious ways: Mormons okayed to drink Coca-Cola

A couple of days ago a headline in the Salt Lake Tribune claimed “Cola drinks are OK for Mormons.”

Cola drinks, you ask? Yes, for some reason many Mormons (not all) believe that their Word of Wisdom, which prohibits alcohol, tobacco, tea and coffee, also pertains to sodas that contain caffeine. (That includes Mountain Dew, y’all.) But, we all know that many things contain caffeine, including hot chocolate, which is a local Mormon favorite. The Tribune article by Peggy Fletcher Stack says, “On Wednesday, the LDS Church posted a statement on its website saying that ‘the church does not prohibit the use of caffeine’ and that the faith’s health-code references to ‘hot drinks’ ‘does not go beyond [tea and coffee].’”

I first came up against the no-Cokes belief in the mid-‘70s when I heard some Mormon coworkers arguing about it. One guy was angry because the recently installed pop machine in the building had Coca-Cola. He proclaimed loudly that Coke was “against the Word of Wisdom.” An active LDS coworker told him there was nothing in the Word of Wisdom about Coca-Cola and the two of them had a heated exchange. “Extraordinary,” I thought.

In 2008 word that Mitt Romney liked Diet Coke sent shock waves through the local community. Cartoonist Pat Bagley published a drawing in his book, Fist Bump Heard ‘Round the World, the 2008 Election in Cartoons.

This recent clarification was made by the church because of erroneous information on the recent NBC Rock Center program about the LDS Church, that the church prohibits caffeine. One of the Mormon wives interviewed on the program said she’d never had alcohol, coffee or tea, but she “had a Coke once.” The church leadership decided it was time to make it clear what is and isn’t allowed.

I don’t know where the belief about cola drinks came from. Someone interpreted something someone once said and it got around. The Mormons have a terrific grapevine, but sometimes what comes through that grapevine isn’t true, even if widely accepted by the faithful. (It didn’t help that LDS president Gordon B. Hinckley told CBS News in the ‘90s that church members avoided caffeine. That remark, factual or not, came right from the mouth of the prophet, which gave it the official stamp of doctrine.)

But with this new “revelation” from Temple Square, to those faithful I say to ye, next time you pass a red pop machine with the logo “Coca-Cola” emblazoned upon it, do not turn your head and shudder with religious fervor, but pull out a dollar bill and have a Coke without guilt.

In my personal, non-LDS opinion, I’ve never understood the Mormon ban on coffee or tea unless it was for caffeine. Why else ban them? For those of us who have had the Starbucks staggers, overdosing on too big a jolt of caffeine, we know the dangers. But besides that, coffee, as has been reported within the past year or so, has a lot of health benefits. People who drink coffee are less likely to have diabetes, for one. You can read about coffee as a health food here. I wonder, since the Word of Wisdom was written a long time ago, like 170 years, maybe the ban had more to do with how those hot beverages were prepared in those days, than the actual drinks themselves.

As far as Coca-Cola is concerned, it wasn't even in existence in the 1830s when the Word of Wisdom was written. And, oh yeah, no big surprise: soft drinks can contribute to obesity.

I think the church would advise its members to go easy on soft drinks with sugar. Use moderation. Some church members can do that, some can't. Maybe the only reason some Mormons weren’t lying in alleys belching, with empty cans of Coke littering the ground around them is because their belief was once that they could not be a Latter-day Saint and have all of those benefits of devotion if they drank cola drinks. But now that their belief has been shattered who knows to what depths they might sink? “Honey, I’m headin’ to the 7-Eleven to pick up another case!” (Not of beer, but of Coke!*)

By making a pronouncement that they’re not against caffeine, but coffee and tea, they want to help change a perception that the Latter-day Saints Church has peculiar beliefs. But it works against the church. By calling it to the attention of the world it makes them look even more peculiar. They probably would have been better off just leaving the subject alone. So some members believe a false doctrine? Unlike some religious cranks who believe it’s all right for old men to have harems of underage “wives,” the no-cola belief is relatively harmless and might actually be healthier to believe than not.

*I’m sure it extends to other cola labels, also, like Pepsi, Royal Crown, etc.