Saturday, December 29, 2012

Vacation and Les Mis

Well, it's been a whirlwind Christmas tour of the Midwest, which I think was pretty successful. I'm currently sitting in Chicago at Matt and Elsa's after eating a breakfast of bacon and cinnamon rolls. I'm glad I'm finishing my trip with the same balanced breakfast that has typified my diet throughout the vacation. When I go for a run on Monday, my body will either protest loudly or just spontaneously combust from the shear shock of it all. Either way it will be a sight to see. However, the one thing that might make it bearable is being up at Pilgrim Pines! I'm heading up on Monday for New Year's Eve and staying for the better part of a week to do some writing with the likes of Stefan and Kiera Fritz, Britta and Dan King, Hannah Anderson, Maria Cathcart, Taryn Johnson, etc. It should be a good time had by all.

Also, my sister is still pregnant. It's like she kept the baby inside just to spite Stephen and me. Although seeing her walking on the boardwalk in sorels and Peter's union jacket (the only things that fit) was somewhat of a consolation.

So, I saw Les Mis on Thursday, and I know you are dying to hear my thoughts (SPOILER ALERT). So, here they are in no particular order:

1. Anne Hathaway stole the show. Her "I Dreamed a Dream" was heartbreakingly beautiful. That scene alone deserves an Oscar.

2. Russell Crowe just can't sing. It sounds like he is singing through vocal chords in his nasal cavities. "Stars" was painful. I kept wondering what the outtakes must have been like if these were his best takes.

3. Eddie Redmayne as Marius was for the most part good, but he does have some vocal similarities to one Kermit the Frog. I was hoping for a Rainbow Connection/Empty Chairs at Empty Tables mash-up.

4. Hugh Jackman played a pretty mean Jean Valjean, even if I didn't always love some of the songs (i.e. "Bring Him Home.")

5. Most unnecessary shot - Javert's body hitting the concrete after jumping off the bridge.

6. I thought the way they juxtaposed "Lovely Ladies" with Cosette's own descent changed the entire song for the better.

7. The entire finale was a sob fest. It made me want to either join a revolution or convert to Catholicism or both.

Anyway, it's about lunch time, so I am going to sign off. Merry Christmas (until Jan. 6th!) to you and yours!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Minnesota, Hail to Thee!

Well, I've made it to God's country, even if I had to drive through Wisconsin to get there! You know you're in Wisconsin when they're still renting out movies at the gas station (I was actually surprised they weren't VHS).

First, my time in Chicago was great! It was definitely a reunion with many cherished friends, capped off by singing at the Grafton. I mean, at what other pub could you sing "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence" with a group of 40-50 of your favorite people in the whole world (along with some who were missing)? Special thanks goes out to Matt, Elsa, and Lucia (9 months old and only initially freaked out by the strange man staying with them) who housed me and remain some of my favorites.

Then, yesterday morning my brother and I headed out in his rickety Ford Focus for the Promised Land. Now, if you don't know, a road trip with my brother can be a somewhat tenuous proposition. We get along great, but we're not always the best in close quarters over long durations. As I've said, we're good city brothers but not great apartment brothers (e.g. when he came and stayed with me for three weeks in Chicago, by the time we drove home for Christmas, we bickered the entire 8 hours between Chicago and Duluth). So, our trips are usually one part sing-along, one part fighting, one part laughing, one part making jokes about being ready to kill the other, and one part complaining about the musical choice of the other.

For instance, on today's leg from the Twin Cities to the middle of nowh...I mean, my parents' beautiful home in Breckenridge, we travelled during the peak time of 5-7 p.m. on a Saturday evening. It probably goes without saying, but this is during Prairie Home Companion, which is mandatory listening, especially if you happen to be driving in Minnesota. Here are just a few of the comments made my brother during the course of the show (obviously accompanied with requisite eye rolls and head in hands).

- "Who does this guy think he is singing with his guests? He can't sing!" (as Keillor sang harmony)

- "We get it! You're Norwegian, Lutheran, and Minnesotan! Get on with it!"

- "Did they even practice this?!"

- "Well, we haven't heard a lutefisk joke in thirty seconds, so it's about time."

So, it was obviously a relaxing trip for both of us. Now, to be fair, there may have been some comments about the lyrical quality of some of his musical choices, but why cry over spilled milk?

Uh, my niece is great! Here's a picture of our first meeting, me looking like a dirty hippie/hipster:

So, that's pretty great. Now if my other sister would quit being lazy around the holidays and have this other one, we would all have a Merry Christmas! (Looking in the general direction of 4125 Emerson Road, Duluth).

Well, I need to go because I'm about to kill my brother as we try to pick out special music for tomorrow's church service (just kidding...I mean, about killing him, we are having a rather difficult time picking out a song, which is par for the course).

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Facing Our Violence

Things like the Connecticut shooting shouldn't happen. Elementary children should be safe at school. Teachers should not have to worry about protecting their students from a mad man. Our first response to this tragedy should be a mixture of prayer and lament. Why does God allow such things? Where is justice and compassion and peace in this world? Lord, have mercy!

Yet, if we do not ask what we can do as a nation to end such tragedies, I fear our prayers (mine included) are hallow. It is not politicizing a tragedy to ask how we can keep tragedies like this from happening again. Do you know what is politicizing a tragedy? To disingenuously say that the days preceding a tragedy is not the time for a conversation on the U.S. love affair with guns, to attempt to wait out the grief and pain so that we can yet again do nothing and ask after the next tragedy why nothing has been done. We must have an honest and open debate on gun control in this country.

From a purely civic perspective, is the unfettered right to bear arms worth this? Let's be honest: the framers of the Constitution could not have dreamed of these semi-automatic monstrosities that shoot hundreds of bullets in a matter of minutes, whose only seeming purpose is to kill as many people as possible in a short period of time. They also thought there should be well-regulated militias in conjunction with the right to bear these weapons, but that doesn't seem to matter to most. In the end, no one (or almost no one) is looking to take away hunting rifles and shotguns. The question is not whether one has the right to bear arms, but what type. So, you're a staunch supporter of the second amendment. Does a person have the right to own a handgun? semi-automatic weapon? automatic weapon? grenades? missiles? nuclear weapons? These are all arms of one sort or another, but we have decided as a society that no individual needs to own an intercontinental ballistic missile, for example. There is a line of destructive capability past which no individual should be able to go. Most advocates of gun control are not friends of Big Brother looking to rid the world of hunting rifles, but people who think individuals do not need guns capable of firing 50 rounds a minute. They simply draw the line at a different place because the destructive capability of such weapons are too great when weighed against the potential for terrible destruction.

Also, in an age where mental health funding continues to be on the chopping block, shouldn't we at least question why it is easier for most americans to purchase a gun than to get the help they need for mental illness? According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1.6 billion dollars have been cut from mental health agency budgets since 2009. People in need of help simply aren't getting it, especially low income patients. People who need help in a just and peaceable society should be able to get it.

Since Thursday, I've had a snippet of the second stanza of Fred Kaan's "For the Healing of the Nations" (#724 in the Blue Hymnal) in my head: "All that kills abundant living, let it from the earth be banned." Maybe it's not realistic; maybe it wouldn't stop the violence, but how can we not at least think of a world without all these implements of war and violence? How do we not wish and work and hope and pray for it?

During Advent, we pray for the coming of God's kingdom, and we are told what that kingdom looks like: no more sorrow, crying, or pain; the lion shall lie down with the lamb; the swords shall be beaten into plowshares and the spears into pruning hooks. As a Christian, I believe this is the vision that we try desperately and imperfectly to enact, here and now. I just don't believe the Christian response to tragedy   like this is to make sure guns are more readily available, to give into fear and arm ourselves to the teeth. We serve a Prince of Peace; how does this change the way Christians deal with terror and destruction and violence in our world? Does it? Come, Lord Jesus.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

First Semester in the Books!

So, as of today (well, actually yesterday evening at 5!), I am officially done with my first semester! Yesterday I took a German final from 10-12, had class from 12:30-5, and then skipped out of that building singing, "Schooooools out for December" (obviously to the tune of Alice Cooper's "School's Out"). Now I can turn in the library books (anyone have a forklift I can borrow?), recycle a ream of paper, and start singing Christmas songs in earnest! I am still struggling with PASD (post-academic stress disorder) and feel like I'm being really lazy by blogging and watching Two Towers right now, but these side effects pass with time. Plus, there is something deeply satisfying about getting to remind yourself that you in fact don't have anything you need to do. It's kind of like a programmed cell phone alarm going off in the morning and then realizing it's Saturday, and you don't actually have to get up.

So, I just finished Erik Larson's Devil in the White City, which is a book about Chicago during the Columbian Exhibition (world's fair) in 1893. The book has two main story lines: one looks at the architectural wonder that was the exhibition (following Burnham, Olmsted, et al) and the other following a serial killer whose murders took place in Chicago during this same time. Honestly, I could have gone without all of the serial killing (I listened to it on audiobook and made liberal use of the fast-forward button, which I'm pretty sure is not actually what you call that button on an iPod), but I found the story of the fair's building fascinating. I mean, can you picture this in Chicago near the Museum of Science and Industry (one of the only buildings from the fair still standing):

Also, it made me really excited to head to Chicago on Monday!!! I'm going to eat a Lou Malnati's hot dog pizza with giardiniera and Garrett's popcorn on top with a Half Acre while riding the el to the top of the Hancock building to watch the Bulls Sox battle against the Cub Hawks. And THEN I get to go to God's country to see my family and meet my niece(s) (it will be nieces if Anna would quit being lazy and start pushing already).

Also, where has Freaks and Geeks been all my life, and how did I not know that every post-2000 TV/movie star seems to be in it? It's like an edgier Wonder Years without the Daniel Stern voiceovers, young Marilyn Manson [sic], and 60s-early 70s social commentary.

Here's my Christmas recipe for the holiday season:
-Go to Trader Joes
-Buy the Astounding Multi-Flavor Joe-Joe's
-Drive Home
-Take out of cellophane
-Pour one glass of low-fat milk
-Try not to eat all of them in one sitting

You're welcome.

I wish the Pope's first tweet had been something like, "Cardinal George was totz crazy last night, LOLZ." That would be worth following.

One thing I've noticed in New England (at least in the Boston area) is that gas pumps do not have the hold open latch that allows you to pump without actually holding the pump handle the whole time. What's next? Are you going to make me refine the crude oil too? I've started using my wallet as a makeshift lock, which I'm sure is both safe and sanitary.

Anyway, I'm going to finish watching Two Towers and maybe take a nap. Ahhh...livin' the dream. Later.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Advent/Christmas Music

So, as you know, Advent/Christmas music is one of the reasons I can tolerate summer without crying myself to sleep every night. Through out the years, I've come to realize that my favorite Christmas songs are those that both sing about the joy of the incarnation but also speak truthfully of the human condition - that don't just jump right to light and hope without acknowledging that there is also real darkness and despair in the world. So, here are four Advent/Christmas hymns that do that particularly well.

4. O Come, O Come Emmanuel - I mean, how can you not love this song? It's an ancient poem to an ancient tune with a solid liturgical history speaking of a nation in exile waiting for the coming of their Savior and Redeemer. And the way the minor key breaks into a major chord right on "Rejoice!": Perfect. One of my professors spoke of the song as rejoicing in a minor key; I like that idea because I think we all at one time or another have to figure out how to rejoice in minor keys.

O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer
our spirits by Thine advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death's dark shadows put to flight.

O come, Desire of Nations, bind
all peoples in one heart and mind;
bid thou are sad divisions cease
and be thyself our King of peace.

Here's the now-split The Civil Wars singing their version:

3. O Holy Night - Not only is "a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices" one of the greatest lines of all time, but the final verse is stunning:

Truly he taught us to love one another,
his law is love and his gospel is peace.
Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother,
and in his name all oppression shall cease.

I'll stand by Mariah Carey's "O Holy Night" until the end, but I thought this version was wonderful, even he only sings the first verse.

I mean, Nat King Cole could sing the phonebook and I'd tear up.

2. I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day - This was written by poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow during the Civil War. In quick succession his wife died and his son was gravely injured in battle, and it was in the midst of this that he wrote the poem. Placed on the backdrop, the last two verses are especially poignant:

And in despair I bowed my head,
"There is no peace on earth," I said,
for hate is strong and mocks the song
of peace on earth, goodwill to men. [sic]

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep,
God is not dead nor doth he sleep.
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
with peace on earth, goodwill to men.

Goosebumps. Some of the more specific verses got left out of the hymn:

Then from each black, accursed mouth
the cannon thundered in the South,
and with the sound the carols drowned,
of peace on earth, good will to men.

Here's the Carpenters singing it out.

1. It Came upon a Midnight Clear - My biggest gripe with most recordings and even versions in hymnals is the cutting out of the middle verses, which to me are probably the best verses in Christmas hymnody.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
the world has suffered long;
beneath the angel strain have rolled
two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
the love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife
and hear the angels sing.

And ye, beneath life's crushing load,
whose forms are bending low,
who toil along the climbing way
with painful steps and slow.
Look now! for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
and hear the angels sing!

That last verse always reminds me of an old crone (like the person carrying a bundle of sticks on the cover of Led Zeppelin IV) as the person walking painfully down the road when she sees the light and sound of this choir of angels and is lost in wonder and joy.

Here's the one and only Mahalia Jackson singing it, albeit with missing verses:

In other news, I have drafts of all my work for the semester done! Now, a bit of editing, a German final (thanks be to God for pass/fail grading), a sermon on Sunday, a bit of worship planning, and you've got yourself a completed semester! See you all in Chi-town/H-town!

I'll say it again: undergrad migration patterns can be primarly tracked from their initial gathering in the fitness center in the first week of each semester to their final gathering in the library the last week of the semester. In between, one has to watch out for tumbleweeds in each of the buildings.

Okay, time to get ready for a presentation this afternoon. Later!