Thursday, August 28, 2008

FILM: Brideshead Revisited

We're glad we caught Brideshead Revisited, as it was fast disappearing only a few weeks after opening. Not sure why, as it delivers everything you could want from an epic English period piece -- star-crossed love, class conflict, 1930s period costumes, an eye-popping baroque stately manor house, and Emma Thompson. We hadn't read the Evelyn Waugh novel nor seen the much-acclaimed TV mini-series, so we had no prejudicial expectations going in. What we got was an engaging character-driven story unfolding an unconventional love triangle, complicated by both class and religious differences. The apex of the triangle, Charles Ryder (subtly played by Matthew Goode), is a commoner and an atheist, but becomes romantically entangled with both the son and daughter of the wealthy noble Flyte family. Charles was an enigmatic character, and it's hard to say, even at the end of his story, what he genuinely felt. One of our friends thought he was a total player (along the lines of Michael York in Something for Everyone), but I thought he was less guileful than just swept away by an overwhelming combination of influences -- true passion for Lady Julia Flyte and genuine affection for Lord Sebastian (who felt true passion for him), alloyed by his awestruck fascination with the noble family and their palacial estate. The character himself, looking back, says he doesn't know which of his feelings were truly his own. Matthew Goode did a convincing job conveying such a subtle proposition. Hayley Atwell plays Julia alternating mercurially between genuineness and aristocratic sarcasm, suiting the internal conflicts in her character. ("Do you always do that, say one thing and mean another?" asks Charles. "Yes..." she replies, "and no.") Ben Whishaw is charming as Sebastian, a young Oscar Wilde, passionate and fun-loving but ultimately sad and self-destructing as all gay characters of that era were required to be. And Emma Thompson is flawless as the formidable matriarch of the family, who could freeze water with a word. Also some great contributions in minor roles from Michael Gambon as the estranged Lord Marchmain and Patrick Malahide as the acerbicly funny father of Charles. Even though the story was related from a double flash-back, beginning at the end, it wasn't obvious at all how it would unfold, and the telling of it kept me engrossed in these intriguing characters.

A personal side note: the TV mini-series aired about the time I was a junior at Princeton, living in a ground floor suite with a beautiful leaded-glass bay window looking out on the quad (Princeton's stone dorms are arranged in quads and entryways patterned after Oxford). When my mother visited, she was much amused by that window, having recently seen Brideshead Revisited, and remarking how much it was like a room in the story. I'd always remembered her remark, and now 27 years later, I appreciate what she was talking about.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Lawfully Wedded Husbands

Yesterday morning, my husband and I drove down to the Los Angeles Metropolitan Courthouse where Judge Terry A. Bork, a friend of ours from church, legally married us. We had done the big wedding seven years ago, so we just wanted this to be a small dignified ceremony. (My parents were married in a judge's chambers, with just two couples as witness, so we were reflecting my family history.) It turned out perfectly. Terry put a lot of thought into the ceremony, to set it in the appropriate context with respect to our previous ceremony, and also to honor our well-loved late pastor Mitch Henson and his role in that. I also appreciated his comments on the responsibilities of marriage being not only to each other, but connecting us to those around us. As we gathered in the judge's chambers with our witnesses, Terry began the ceremony:

Seven years ago Tom and George made a commitment to each other. Although they have lived and honored that commitment, and although their friends and loved ones recognized and celebrated that commitment, it was made at a time when neither their church nor their state would recognize or sanction it.

A courageous pastor, Dr. Mitchell Henson, attended that ceremony that day, despite having received criticism for agreeing to do so, and at risk to his standing within his denomination. He did not perform a marriage that day, but he spoke movingly about--as he called it--"a radical gospel of acceptance of all." Quoting Jesus Christ from the Gospel of Matthew he read, "I saw to you whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven. Whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven…. For where two or more are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst of them."

He went on to state: "Christianity has traditionally lagged behind secular society in accepting. It's a sad fact that those who call themselves followers of the radical Christ often are self-serving and judgmental."

In actuality, it may be more accurate to say that many churches and the laws of the State of California have lagged behind forward-thinking Pastors, such as Mitch Henson.

The California Supreme Court this year, in an opinion authored by Chief Justice Ronald George, interpreted our State's Constitution to include a personal, fundamental right to marry the person of one's choice. The Court determined that this decision is a fundamental aspect of personal autonomy and individual identity.

I am proud, as a Judge of the Superior Court of California -- sworn to uphold the California Constitution -- to perform this marriage ceremony for you today.
He continued with a thoughtful traditional ceremony:

The purpose of our gathering together this morning, in the presence of these witnesses, is to join Thomas Rodrick Chatt and George Donald Scheideman III in matrimony. The act of uniting in matrimony is one of the oldest, most sacred and dearest ceremonies known to man.

Marriage is an honorable estate, therefore is not to be entered into lightly or unadvisedly, but discreetly, soberly, reverently, and with true love.

Remember that love and loyalty are the foundation on which a relationship and a home are built. If the solemn vows which you are about to accept are kept, and if you steadfastly endeavor to lead honorable and worthwhile lives, the home that you have established will abide in peace, and the marriage will be lasting.

Marriage symbolizes the intimate sharing of two lives, yet this sharing should enhance -- not diminish, the individuality of each partner.

As you enter into this marriage you have all the right to demand and expact all of the happiness that any two people can find in this life. But allof your days will not be filled with sunshine and all of your paths will not be smooth, for that is not the way of life. You must also remember that in marriage you carry important responsibilities to each other, and to the world around you. Happiness includes demonstrating your love and commitment by meeting obligations to those whose lives are touched by yours.

No other human ties are more tender, nor vows more sacred that those which you are now about to assume.

Please join hands and face one another.

Will you George Donald Scheideman, III take Thomas Rodrick Chatt to be your husband, to love, honor, and cherish him, in sickness and in health, in prosperity and in adversity, and forsaking all others, be faithful to him so long as you both shall live? [I do.]

Will you Thomas Rodrick Chatt take George Donald Scheideman, III to be your spouse, to love, honor, and cherish him, in sickness and in health, in prosperity and in adversity, and forsaking all others, be faithful to him so long as you both shall live? [I do.]

May these two people keep this covenant which they have made. May they be a blessing and a comfort to each other, sharers of each other's joys, consolers in each other's sorrows, helpers to each other in all the vicissitudes of life. May they encourage each other in whatever they set out to achieve. May they, trusting each other, trust life and not be afraid. Yet may they not only accept and give affection between themselves, but also together have affection and consideration for others.

For as much as George Donald Scheideman, III and Thomas Rodrick Chatt have consented together in wedlock and have witnessed the same before these witnesses, and thereto have pledged their troth each to the other and have declared the same by joining hands, and by the authority vested in me as a Judge of the Superior Court of the State of California, I now pronounce you lawfully wedded husbands.

You have now entered upon life's most rewarding endeavor. May the blessings of Almighty God be with you. I am pleased to pronounce the commencement of your marriage.
My lawfully wedded husband and I then kissed.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

What Accent Do You Have? And How Do You Say Friday?

What American accent do you have?
Your Result: The Midland

"You have a Midland accent" is just another way of saying "you don't have an accent." You probably are from the Midland (Pennsylvania, southern Ohio, southern Indiana, southern Illinois, and Missouri) but then for all we know you could be from Florida or Charleston or one of those big southern cities like Atlanta or Dallas. You have a good voice for TV and radio.

The Inland North
The West
The Northeast
The South
Philadelphia
Boston
North Central
What American accent do you have?
Quiz Created on GoToQuiz

Apparently, I have a nice, neutral, broadcast TV "Midland" accent, at least according to this fun quiz. I was curious as, even though I'm a southern California native, I have many times been asked where I'm from, or occasionally if I'm British. I'm a bit of an accent chameleon, actually, tending to pick up things I hear around me. It works well when trying to speak a foreign language, though when we were in Ireland, my husband kept hitting me and saying "you're not Irish, you know".

A friend at work sent me this quiz when we got on the topic after another colleague pointed out that "Fry-dee" is the preferred pronunciation for the day of the week in most dictionaries. To our amazement, this seems to be true. Merriam-Webster, AH, OED, all admit this heresy. And Wikipedia backs it up. Jeannie pointed out that the only place she's ever heard this "-dee" business (it's not just Friday, but all the days) was in the Rogers and Hammerstein song "Everything's Up To Date in Kansas City", where it's done intentionally to portray the character singing as a hick. I can't recall ever hearing anyone say "-dee" in my whole life. Every public instance I can think of (TGI Friday ads, the Mamas and the Papas singing about "Monday, Monday", the Stones singing about "Ruby Tuesday", anyone talking about Good Friday or Easter Sunday), it's always been "-day". As I might say when I've been around my Irish friends, I'm gobsmacked.

(UPDATE: Here's an updated version of the same accent quiz. I came out "neutral" on that one. Retaking it and varying my answers, I realized the reason I don't have a Western accent is that I do make slight differences between don/dawn, hock/hawk, stock/stalk. Though not nearly the difference my New-York-to-the-core aunt would like to hear.)

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

FOOD: Okra Succotash

Every week, we enjoy listening to Evan Kleiman's show Good Food on KCRW, which always starts off with Laura Avery giving us the weekly scoop of what's fresh at the farmer's market, and chatting with chefs about what they're cooking with the farm-fresh produce. This week, she chatted with chef Chris Harbrant of Axe, who was buying okra. Like most people, I've never been a big fan of okra. I'd noticed it in the last few weeks at one of my regular stands at the Hollywood farmer's market, but passed it up. When I heard what Chris was doing with it, though, I thought I should give it a try. He was making a succotash with it. He blanches the okra for a few minutes, and then adds it to sauteed onions, then tosses in fresh sweet corn and diced tomatoes, some chopped basil leaves, and sautees a few minutes longer. It sounded intriguing, and I've been getting some really fleshy and flavorful heirloom tomatoes lately, as well as sweet corn, and a friend in the office has been bringing me onions from her garden, so it seemed a perfect expression of the season. It was quite simple to prepare it while I had the chicken in the oven this evening. My husband eyed me suspiciously when he saw the okra, but he admitted liking the finished product, as did I. Yeah, the okra is a little slimy, but it has a nice crunch if not overcooked, and complimented nicely in flavor and texture with the corn, tomatoes, and onions. We'll definitely do that one again.

FILM: Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Woody Allen is channeling Pedro Almodovar in his latest film Vicky Cristina Barcelona, not only because it is set in Spain and featuring some great Spanish actors, but because while some of his characters are classic Woody Allen neurotic New Yorkers (like the expatriates Judy and Mark), while others (like the fiery Spanish painter Maria Elena) could have walked right out of an Almodovar film. (I mean that figuratively, of course, not literally in the Purple Rose of Cairo sense.) And what better way to animate this amusing exploration of the relationship between life and artists, or more pointedly, the relationships between artists and the people who are romantically drawn to the idea of being an artist, or making love to one, or at least being the sort of person who could. Thankfully, Allen's channeling Almodovar includes making his characters spend more time actually engaged in romantic relationships versus talking about them, endlessly analyzing themselves out loud (though there's some amount of that too). It's so much more fun to watch his characters interact. The title protagonists are Vicky, a conventional girl who knows what she wants (or so she thinks), and Cristina, a hipster artistic wannabe who knows only what she doesn't want. Rebecca Hall brings Vicky to life, with her confident conventional path undermined by an undertow of artistic longings belied by her totally impractical major in Catalan Identity. Scarlet Johansson is perfectly cast as the restless artistic soul struggling to find her art and her ideal relationship, impatiently bored with everything conventional. Javier Bardem is outstanding as Juan Antonio, the paradigmatic artist, who seeks beauty and follows his impulses unapologetically in all aspects of his life. And Penelope Cruz is a pistol as Maria Elena, the artist's tempestuous ex-wife who is in and out of his life. Patricia Clarkson does a fine job as Judy, the wife of the expatriate couple, who has some secrets of her own. Barcelona also plays a beautiful role in this film, not in wide-eyed tourist shots (except for a few video "postcards" establishing Vicky and Cristina as tourists) but in intimate backgrounds (in the same style Woody Allen once used intimate but adoring scenes in Manhattan). And who couldn't fall in love in Barcelona?

There are other men in this film, but they're not in focus. Aside from the artist (and his father, who has a small role), the other men are just vague foils. At one point, Cristina is complaining about all of the cardboard cut-out conventional men who bore her, and Vicky bristles "so you think Doug [her fiance] is a cardboard cut-out?". But of course it turns out that Doug is a cardboard cut-out. While he seems like the conventional ideal of a husband -- handsome, very successful, communicative, solicitous -- Allen does a brilliant job of making us see him as Cristina does and as Vicky comes to. Ironically, the same skewering gaze that Allen turned on Californians in his Annie Hall days, here he turns on New York City bourgeoisie. (I would have said Manhattanites, but the cool rich young New Yorkers are moving to Brooklyn.) Doug works for some generically named firm (Global Enterprises? something like that), and whenever he talks with Mark or the other New Yorkers they run into, Allen makes us perceive them the way Charlie Brown perceives his teachers. In contrast, the vibrant characters of the artists approach life and love with unconventional impetuousness and immediacy, and yet ultimately, they are the ones who look the most sensible and level-headed about things. At least when she's not trying to kill him. ("That." says Maria Elena dismissively.) Yet even they know their relationship doesn't work. There's just something missing, as Maria Elena says, that perfect tint that when added to the picture transforms everything. Fortunately, Woody Allen seems to have found that perfect transformative tint for his heady study of conventional versus artistic views of love by setting it as a delightful comedy of summer love in that most romantic city of Barcelona. And unlike Juan Antonio's father, who writes exquisite poetry but never publishes it to punish the world for not having figured out how to love, Woody Allen has shared with us his amusing musings on the same complaint.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

BOOKS: Island at the Center of the World

This last week my commute has been filled with fascinating stories of life on Manhattan in the early-mid 1600s, when the island was a Dutch colony on the frontier of a new world. I've been listening to Russell Shorto's book The Island at the Center of the World, and enjoying every bit. Shorto's account begins with the discovery of the Delaware and Hudson Rivers by the explorer Henry Hudson in 1609, who though himself British, was sailing under charter of the Dutch East India Company. He provides a colorful sketch of Hudson, a man doggedly determined to find the shortcut to India by trying in various directions, including through the Arctic (his theory being that the ice must melt in the summer because the sun shines all day and all night). The bulk of the book is a vivid account of the Dutch settlement of the New Netherland colony in the 1620s through 1660s, from the famed purchase of Manhattan for $24 (for which Shorto provides some useful context) to the loss of the colony to the British. In between is rich description of life in the colony, from dealing with the native Americans to the politics of the early colony, seasoned with stories of colorful characters including pioneers, prostitutes, and privateers. The thesis of the book is the intriguing assertion that the Dutch planted not only their people, but ideas, which made seminal contributions to the character of Manhattan and America. Shorto maintains that the history we traditionally hear is Anglo-centric (naturally, since the English were the winners of control of the American colonies) and tends to give all credit to the pilgrims and Puritans for creating the character of America, while the earlier Dutch colony is dismissed as inconsequential. Part of what made it easy to dismiss was the fact that the surviving records were largely neglected and untranslated out of 17th century Dutch (which even a modern Dutchman wouldn't understand) until quite recently. He makes a compelling case, showing the unique religious and cultural tolerance of the emerging Dutch nation in the 17th century, and how the early rational precursors of the Enlightenment (Descartes, Grotius, Spinoza all enjoyed the freedom of living in Leiden, in the Netherlands) were transplanted to Manhattan. Thus, the Dutch colony in Manhattan had a mix of nationalities and religions from the get-go, while the English colonies to the north were striving for a theocratic monoculture. The Dutch colony even included English residents, such as Quakers, who were outcast from the English colonies for their religious non-conformity. The thesis is brought to light as Shorto develops in depth two historical characters: Peter Stuyvesant, who was the governor of the colony on behalf of the Dutch West India Company, and a young lawyer named Adriaen van der Donck who actively politicked to secure a representative government for the town. While being careful not to overstep the actual sources, and being forthright about where he is filling in gaps, Shorto brings these two men to life, making both an engaging and persuasive account of how the Dutch in general, and those two men in particular, imbued Manhattan with its identity as a business and trading center and a multicultural melting pot, valuing religious tolerance as well as representative government and the right to petition the government for redress of grievances. (Those ideas were certainly not in evidence in 17th century Boston or Richmond.) I enjoyed this history of people and ideas, and I also enjoyed, by way of backdrop, learning about the formation of the modern Dutch nation, as well as the English political history of the period. It was especially interesting to read this book of 17th century Dutch early enlightenment after having recently read Ayaan Hirsi Ali's book Infidel, in which the tolerance and multiculturalism of the present-day Netherlands was a major theme. Makes me proud to have Dutch New York ancestors.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

But To Be Frank, And Give It Thee Again

JULIET: What satisfaction canst thou have to-night?
ROMEO: The exchange of thy love's faithful vow for mine.
JULIET: I gave thee mine before thou didst request it: And yet I would it were to give again.
ROMEO: Wouldst thou withdraw it? for what purpose, love?
JULIET: But to be frank, and give it thee again.
For the most part, marriage is like death or pregnancy, a status with no gray areas. Either you are married or you aren't. But when you really look into the technicalities, it turns out that marriage isn't quite so simple. Because it is a conglomeration of a social status, a religious rite, and a legal status, there are exceptional cases where people are married legally but not religiously, or religiously but not legally. One case where church and state diverge is with religions that prohibit divorce. Thus someone married in the Catholic church might get a legal divorce, making them single legally, but still married as far as the church is concerned. Those divorcees may even marry again, creating marriages that are recognized by the state, but not by their church. Less well known, some people choose to get married religiously but not legally. In his remarks at our wedding seven years ago, our pastor commented on vows before God versus vows before man, and observed that several times a year he would be approached by seniors in his congregation who had lost previous spouses and found a new partner to share the rest of their lives. Because of legal ramifications of wills, trusts, children and inheritances, they did not want legal marriage, but they did wish to be married before God.

For same-sex couples, we get the complexities of the legal vs religious vs social aspects of marriage, compounded by the complexities of legal recognition being afforded by degrees and in different times and places. If a same-sex couple marries in Canada or Massachusetts but then moves to another state, are they no longer married? (For that matter, if they even visit another state, does their marriage legally go on hiatus for the length of their vacation?) Then there are the same-sex couples who married in San Francisco in 2004, whose marriages were ultimately annulled. And those of us who are marrying in California now, whose status will be quite murky if Proposition 8 passes in November. So it's not always clear who may obtain a marriage license now, since you can't get a marriage license if you already are married. I think the official position is that if a same-sex couple were married in Canada or Massachusetts, they can't get married in California because they already are married. However, those who married in San Francisco, since those were officially voided, can now marry. In fact, we attended a marriage ceremony in June for some friends who had married in San Francisco. Legally speaking, they were marrying for the first time. Again.

In the famous balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet, she teases him that she can't give him a vow that she has already given. My husband and I now face that puzzlement for real. Seven years ago, we were married in a wonderful wedding ceremony, exchanging vows of lifelong loving commitment before God, family, and friends, but not the state. This has left us in one of those gray areas I spoke of. Whenever I am asked if I am married, I do my best to assess the context of the question, and give my best honest answer, which may be "yes", "no", or "it depends why you're asking". Socially, the answer is an unequivocal "yes". Legally, the answer is pretty clearly "no". Although even then, in the interest of full disclosure, I sometimes put an asterisk, since if the concern is e.g., mutual responsibility for debts, we have that as legally registered domestic partners. But the complexity of our status makes it feel strange to be marrying again. In our hearts and minds, we'll be simply renewing our vows. But for our upcoming legal ceremony, we need to exchange new vows, entering lawful wedlock for the first time.

The way I make sense of this is to realize that marriage is more than an agreement between two people. An essential aspect of marriage has always been that the vows are public (if not openly public, always attestable by a witness), because the agreement also involves a larger third party: God, family, society, and/or the state. In our original wedding ceremony, we explicitly incorporated the role of the assembled family and friends, asking them to give a "we do" in a vow to uphold and support us as a married couple. They agreed to do that essentially in exchange for our vows to each other. Those who love us give their support and recognition not simply because they love us, but because they are counting on us to uphold our vows, to take care of one another in sickness, to support one another in hardship. And those are the same sort of reasons that a state is legitimately involved in marriage. The state is the "safety net of last resort" for those who become unemployed, indigent, or too sick to care for themselves. In our society, families are the safety net of first resort, and the state counts on the formation of families by marriage to weave those safety nets. The state accords married couples certain "rights" because we promise to be there for one another in the face of hardships, one another's "first responders", rather than just being disconnected individuals depending on the state.

Our original vows were made before God, family and society, but not the state. Thus, we need to make new vows, similar in content, but with legal recognition and ramifications that make them distinct from the previous vows, and more importantly, for a different third party -- the state. To take up the terminology of the revised marriage licenses, you could say that our two marriages will involve the same "party A" and "party B", but a different "party C". When not being so philosophically analytical about it, I simply say this: we will be renewing our vows for the benefit of the State, who wasn't able to attend the first time.

We can suffer the giving and re-giving of vows, puzzling whether we can re-give a vow already given, because I trust my husband knows that the love that gives breath and life to the vows knows no such obstacles. As Juliet continued:
But to be frank, and give it thee again.
And yet I wish but for the thing I have:
My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Traditional Biblical Marriage

I'm still thinking about that appalling passage in 1 Corinthians where Paul advocates the community to "disfellowship" one of its members, and one part has me curious. The heinous crime that incurred this severe penalty? The guy married his widowed step-mother. Okay, it's weird. But it's not incest, at least not in the way I'd always understood it. I thought incest was about not marrying your own blood relatives, not only because it's weird, but because you get into bad genetic mojo pretty quickly when you mix with close blood relations. But that guy wasn't marrying his own blood. And we aren't given the circumstances. Maybe there was a big age difference between her and the old man, and she didn't even come on the scene until the son was grown up, and when the father died, he felt obligated to take her in. If he was single and she was closer to his age, would it have been so horrible for them to get together? I haven't known anyone who married their step-mother, but I did know someone who married her non-blood uncle when she was a widow and he a widower. Yeah, it caused some tongues to wag at first, but by the accounts I've heard from those who were close to them, it was a very positive relationship that brought joy to them and those around them.

I was curious what the Old Testament laws said about incest, which brought me to the same Leviticus chapters that condemn homosexuality. And interestingly enough, they spell out variations of incest in exhaustive detail, and do include "non-blood" cases:
6 No one is to approach any close relative to have sexual relations. I am the LORD.
7 Do not dishonor your father by having sexual relations with your mother. She is your mother; do not have relations with her.
8 Do not have sexual relations with your father's wife; that would dishonor your father.
9 Do not have sexual relations with your sister, either your father's daughter or your mother's daughter, whether she was born in the same home or elsewhere.
10 Do not have sexual relations with your son's daughter or your daughter's daughter; that would dishonor you.
11 Do not have sexual relations with the daughter of your father's wife, born to your father; she is your sister.
12 Do not have sexual relations with your father's sister; she is your father's close relative.
13 Do not have sexual relations with your mother's sister, because she is your mother's close relative.
14 Do not dishonor your father's brother by approaching his wife to have sexual relations; she is your aunt.
15 Do not have sexual relations with your daughter-in-law. She is your son's wife; do not have relations with her.
16 Do not have sexual relations with your brother's wife; that would dishonor your brother.
17 Do not have sexual relations with both a woman and her daughter. Do not have sexual relations with either her son's daughter or her daughter's daughter; they are her close relatives. That is wickedness.
18 Do not take your wife's sister as a rival wife and have sexual relations with her while your wife is living.
19 Do not approach a woman to have sexual relations during the uncleanness of her monthly period.
20 Do not have sexual relations with your neighbor's wife and defile yourself with her.
So it seems that some non-blood relations are put in the same category as blood incest. But what's puzzling to me is that even though these cases are enumerated in lawyerly detail typical of the Old Testament, it still leaves a number of questions unanswered. One crucial unanswered detail, in verse 8, for example: are we talking about your father's wife or your father's widow? Having sexual relations with your father's wife while your father is still alive and they are still married would most definitely dishonor your father. It doesn't help here that the phrasing is talking about "having sexual relations", as opposed to marrying and taking as your own wife. If it had said "do not marry your father's wife", it would have been fairly clear that your father was presumed to be out of the picture at the time. But here it's not so clear. And the context is not helpful. In verse 7, having sex with your mother is prohibited, which based on tradition we may presume the prohibition extends even after your father is dead. But down in verse 20, the same language is used to say "do not have sex with your neighbor's wife", which unless it means to prohibit widows from ever remarrying, must mean that they're talking about adultery, that is, the prohibition refers to a living neighbor's wife, not a dead neighbor's wife. Similarly, verse 16 prohibits having sex with your brother's wife, yet if your brother dies childless, you are required (see Deuteronomy 25:5-10) to have sex with his wife, so obviously verse 16 applies only to living brothers. Thus, I don't see how you can tell from this whether step-mothers and non-blood aunts are meant to be off limits even when they are widowed. (Leviticus 20 reiterates most but not all of the chapter 18 prohibitions, along with punishments. The punishments vary, and it uses more varied language -- "has sexual relations with", "lies with", "sleeps with", and "marries". It doesn't give a much clearer picture.)

Ironically, we find a fair amount of incest in the early biblical patriarchs. Abraham's wife Sarah was his half-sister (see Gen 20:12), in clear contravention of verse 9 above (although they predated it). Jacob married two sisters who were most definitely rival wives (see Gen 29 vs. verse 18 above), not to mention his first cousins (which many modern states consider incestuous, but was not incest per Leviticus). Judah impregnated his daughter-in-law Tamar (see Gen 38), though he didn't know it was her. Even so, Lev 20:12 seems pretty clear that both of them should have been put to death. When Boaz marries Ruth, he's some kind of close relation of her late husband, as it is a levirate marriage. All of these variations of incestuous marriage were direct ancestors of King David, who along with his neighbor's wife, and King Solomon and one of his numerous wives, were ancestors of Christ. Keep that in mind next time somebody starts advocating a return to traditional marriage along biblical lines.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Your Federal Tax Dollars At Work

If Congress is looking (as they should be) for budgets to trim, they can start with the DEA, who has been busting medical marijuana dispensaries in California. We're not talking street gangs and drug cartels here, we're talking legitimate tax-paying businesses operating completely above board within California state law. Just last week, the DEA "raided" a dispensary in Culver City, during its regular open business hours:
"We heard some noise outside, and then the door literally burst in, and the DEA came in in full combat gear, told everybody to get on the floor and put their hands behind their heads," Carey said. "It was like, literally, an episode of "24," when they bust in on a terrorist cell."
The DEA agents searched and handcuffed 25 people who were present on the premises, while they literally ransacked the place, dumping containers, overturning furniture, and using a steel cylinder battering ram to get into upstairs rooms. Those who were handcuffed and detained for four hours during the raid were employees of the business, and customers who come with legitimate prescriptions from doctors for conditions such as cancer and multiple sclerosis. This is just ridiculous. The DEA obviously has too much time and money on its hands if it has time for this nonsense.

Similarly, the US Attorneys who are prosecuting these cases also need their budget cut. Have they not heard of prosecutorial discretion? Do they not have better things to prosecute? In another case, just the other day, a jury convicted the owner of a Morro Bay medical marijuana dispensary.
Prosecutors David Kowal and Rasha Gerges sought to portray Lynch as a common drug dealer who flouted federal law by selling about $2 million worth of marijuana from the time he opened his dispensary in spring 2006 until it was raided last year.

They told jurors he sold drugs to young people "not yet old enough to legally drink" and carried around his proceeds in a backpack stuffed with cash.

"We're pleased with the fact that the jury followed the law," Gerges said. "And they came to the right result."
Turns out the "young people not old enough to legally drink" was actually one high school student diagnosed with bone cancer, who had a prescription for the marijuana from a Stanford University oncologist, and which marijuana was obtained from the dispensary by his parents. Unfortunately, the jury was not allowed to hear that. What a miscarriage of justice. If these smug self-satisfied attorneys think they're doing the people of the United States any good service, I think I see some potential staffing cuts.

And then of course there's this (courtesy hilzoy):
So: after seven years, we have convicted Osama bin Laden's driver of, well, being his driver and bodyguard. That was totally worth setting up a brand new court system that throws out what have always been basic American legal standards.

Moreover, all that stripping away of rights got us nothing, since Hamdan had always admitted being bin Laden's driver and bodyguard. However, creating a whole new court system not only ensures a whole raft of appeals that would have been unnecessary had we used standard civilian or military courts, but also left open one huge problem: it's not clear that any of the things Hamdan was convicted of were actually crimes at the time he committed them.
Brilliant. To sum up:
  • cost of high-security detention complex and "expeditionary legal complex": about $65 million
  • annual cost of operating Guantanamo: $90 to 118 million
  • cost of trashing the Constitution in order to get bin Laden's driver put away for four years: priceless

What Does Your Browser Tell About Your Gender?

This guy who blogs on advertising created a clever piece of JavaScript that analyzes your browser history against the Quantcast Top 10K websites demographic information, and calculates an estimate as to your gender based on the websites you visit. Several of my favorite bloggers have been trying it out, so I had to give a spin. The theory being that if you visit sites more frequented by men than women, you're more likely to be male. The JavaScript is clever (it can't directly access your browser history, but it creates a virtual webpage with links to all the top 10k sites, runs it by your browser, and observes which links get colored the "visited" color), and the statistical calculation is sound enough, but the results can vary. While my husband was pretty evenly split (52% male / 48% female), I'm apparently a much more girly browser. I was pegged as:
Likelihood of you being FEMALE is 65%
Likelihood of you being MALE is 35%
What went into the result was a bit surprising. While Google is close to neutral, AOL is female (0.82 male/female ratio). On my male side, Blogger is slightly male (1.06), Flickr a bit more so (1.15), the LA Times is quite male (1.3), and Fry's is a manly 1.6. What pulled me to the female was LinkedIn -- at 0.94, I guess women network more -- and with Southwest.com and hotwire.com at 0.77, I guess women do more travel planning. And with ancestry.com at 0.67, it seems genealogy is very girly. (Fortunately, Mike hasn't done the age demographic calculations yet, as I expect the genealogy puts me in older company too.)

Try it out yourself here.

BOOKS: Christianity and Homosexuality: Some Seventh-Day Adventist Perspectives

We were excited when Christianity and Homosexuality: Some Seventh Day Adventist Perspectives was released earlier this year, as the editor is a friend of ours. We've eagerly followed the development of the book from when it began as a convocation of Adventist academics and luminaries presenting papers on this issue, an issue of some controversy within the SDA church, as it is with many religious denominations. While the book was particularly targeted at an Adventist audience, it should prove a very useful resource to parents, parishioners, and gay people of any Christian denomination. The collection of essays is grouped into five thematic areas: autobiography, medical science, social science, theology, and social policy. In each section, echoing the structure of the conference, several viewpoints are presented followed by an independent closing response to the preceding views. The choice of thematic areas was wisely considered, as they address the breadth of common concerns -- is homosexuality biologically caused? is it a pathology? what does the Bible say about it? -- and reflect a distinctly Adventist way of thinking which puts weight on medical as well as biblical views. It was also very wise to begin with personal stories -- those of a lesbian church member, the mother of a gay son, and a gay ex-pastor -- which powerfully ground the academic discussion in the realization that we are talking about real people's lives. The contributors are varied in their background -- university professors, pastors, doctors, lawyers, psychologists, all with strong Adventist credentials -- and they are varied in their viewpoints, some themselves gay or lesbian, some straight but sympathetic, and one or two less than gay-positive views. The book (and the conference) did not set out to contrive an arbitrary balance of views, with an equal weight to a "pro" and "con" point of view, nor should it have. To paraphrase Rush Limbaugh, this book is the balance, as the arguments against homosexuality are well-known and pervasive in the church, and need no additional rehearsals. But it does present a thoughtful range of views.

The essays are all respectably argued and respectfully voiced, although in a few passages one can sense justifiable anger simmering below the surface. Adventism, like Judaism, is more than "just" a religion, it is a culture and a way of life, part of which is strong tradition and familial loyalty. Thus, it is especially traumatic for gay Adventists to be estranged or ostracized from their church family, not unlike being kicked out of one's own family. One's family has a special ingrained demand on the love of its members, even when they are angry at having been hurt by it. That poignant tension is a palpable undercurrent in some of the essays. I am hopeful that those passionate expressions might inspire the appropriate righteous indignation in others rather than defensiveness. I am also impressed that some of the essays, rather than the usual arguing for (or even begging for) acceptance, are prophetic cries against hypocrisy and injustice, and open challenges to the church to stop falling short of its own ideals. I think those are called for, and well answered.

As an avid student of religion, I jumped to the theology section first. John R. Jones, of La Sierra University, presented an intriguing and thorough exegesis of the typical Bible passages used to condemn homosexuality, illuminating many of them by historical context, and ending with a positive vision of biblical hermeneutics as a continuation of Paul's efforts to evolve the church beyond its original Judeo-centric views. This was countered by Roy Gane of Andrews University, who brought to my attention one of the most appalling New Testament texts I have ever read. But there were interesting theological insights to be found outside the theology section too. Mitchell Tyner, an attorney (formerly counsel for the General Conference), grounds his policy recommendations in insightful readings of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son stories. And Catherine Taylor, a clinical social worker, writing the response to the behavioral science section, has clearly given much thought to theology. I am thankful to her for her thoughts on creation: the implication of stewardship in dominion, the injunction to care for the weaker among us embedded in the Sabbath commandment, and most of all, the reminder that God said it was not good that man should be alone. And of course it was bittersweet to read the essay written by our late pastor Mitch Henson.

As a "member of the choir being preached to", I found the book intriguing, thought-provoking, and full of new insights. I hope that it will be as useful and as well-received by those who really need to read it.

The Most Appalling Passage in the New Testament

In reading the new book Christianity and Homosexuality: Some Seventh-Day Adventist Perspectives, one of the essays in the theology section was written by Roy Gane of Andrews University, who was responding to a gay-positive exegesis of the Pauline "condemnations" of homosexuality. In it, Gane put forward a story in 1 Corinthians 5 that I had never noticed before. And while it did support Gane's point, I have to say that I was flabbergasted at the passage, as I don't think I've read a more appalling passage in the whole New Testament. Here it is:
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father's wife. And you are proud! Shouldn't you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. And I have already passed judgment on the one who did this, just as if I were present. When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.

Your boasting is not good. Don't you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth.

I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat.

What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. "Expel the wicked man from among you."
I have long been appalled at the notion of disfellowship. I cannot conceive of any act more un-Christian than disfellowship, the moral equivalent of throwing somebody out of a lifeboat. There is absolutely nothing in the life or words of Christ to suggest such a thing, and much to commend against it. And yet here is Paul, unequivocably advocating for disfellowship. How can such a fundamentally selfish act be considered Christian? That's the same misguided thinking that drove the Puritans to witch hunts, and inspired some yahoos in North Carolina to boot out fellow church members who didn't vote for President Bush. I can't deny that the passage is there in the Bible, but I also can't accept that it's not a mistake. Sometimes the only moral response to texts like that is to make like Thomas Jefferson and get out the scissors.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

BOOKS: The Hound of the Baskervilles

For some time now, I've been enjoying a podcast called The Classic Tales, featuring short stories by classic authors read by actor B.J. Harrison. He does a great job reading various stories from Poe, Hawthorne, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and more. He's often inclined to the macabre, but he does others as well (like Twain's "Million Pound Bank Note", which is a fun funny story, or O. Henry's ironic classics). He's done a few of the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and lately, he's been occasionally doing some longer works in multipart installments.

Recently, I enjoyed his presentation of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Even though I'd read all the Sherlock Holmes books when I was young, I've forgotten the details, and it was quite enjoyable to "read" it again (or listen, actually). Full of Victorian charm and characters, and vivid description of the desolate moors. There are a fantastic story surrounding a suspicious death, a handful of suspicious characters all round, an escaped convict on the loose, and a mysterious stalker. Holmes wraps it up with his amazing deductive powers in classic style. Good fun.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Fry's Geeks Are Smarter Than Geek Squad Geeks

They say things come in threes, and I hope I'm done with my computer glitches for a good while cause I've had three in one week. (My home PC is also almost exactly three years old, which unfortunately is the average life expectancy for computers.) First, my monitor died, then my computer fan went into permanent overdrive, and then when I tried cleaning out my computer with that canned air, it wouldn't come back on because my power supply was fried. So I just unplugged everything and took the PC up to Best Buy. The guys at Geek Squad at Best Buy were good about confirming my dead power supply and replacing it for me. They confirmed the diagnosis right away by just plugging in a spare power supply right there on the counter, and said they could put a new one in for me in about a half hour. So that was all good, and the computer was ready as promised when I returned from Starbuck's. However, when I got it home, it came up and ran fine, except that the fan was still in overdrive. After Googling around for info, I found a handy freeware utility called SpeedFan that lets you monitor and control your fans and your PC temperature. It was then I discovered that while the ambient temp in my case was okay, but CPU was running at 70C when idle, and up to 85C when taxed. That is way too hot, so I immediately shut down the computer and headed right back to the Geek Squad. The guy opened it up, saw that all the fans were running okay, and said that if it wasn't giving any evidence of slowing down and it wasn't seizing up, I should just run it, and not worry about the loud fan, and it should be fine. (Apparently, the newer Pentium chips are designed to slow themselves down when they get too hot.) At that point, I was wondering whether my CPU was truly as hot as the motherboard sensor was reporting, or whether the fan was just needlessly cranked because the sensor had gone awry. I tried searching in the HP support website (I have an HP Pavilion PC), but did not find any useful info there about thermal issues (beyond advice to clean out your dust bunnies, which I'd already done). I did, however, find very good information on the Intel site (my PC has "Intel inside"), which suggested that one possible problem was the thermal conductor material that transfers heat from the CPU to the heat sink can go bad. That seemed plausible, so I shut the PC down again and planned to take it in to Fry's (which is near my office) first thing in the morning. So when I took it in to Fry's, just by the questions the guy at the service counter was asking me, I could already tell that here were more knowledgeable geeks than the guys at Geek Squad. He suggested tying some cables back that may have been impeding the airflow, as well as reseating the CPU fan when they reapplied the thermal conductor. He started taking it apart while I was there at the counter, and discovered that two of the four screws that held the CPU fan in place had stripped, and that the fan, though apparently working fine, had lost solid contact between the CPU and the heat sink, and *that* was the real source of trouble. He helped me pick out a new fan, and had it fixed up in about a half hour. And it was only $15 for the fan, $4 for the thermal goo, and $30 for the service. Money well spent to save my CPU, which really was overheating after all. So, lessons learned:
  • if your fan goes into overdrive, there's a reason
  • Intel's support site is much more useful than HP's
  • Fry's geeks are smarter than Geek Squad geeks